Home Alone for the Holidays – How a Home Invasion Comedy Became a Holiday Classic

Every generation of seems to have a holiday movie that resonates with them more than others.  For a lot of baby boomers, it was How the Grinch Stole Christmas? (1966), and the generation before that, it was Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  Us Generation X’ers who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s have a whole wealth of holiday specials that meant a lot to our nostalgia for the holidays.  But, if there was one that stood taller than the rest in our collective memories, it was the Chris Columbus directed blockbuster Home Alone (1990).  Now approaching it’s 30th anniversary, Home Alone was a phenomenon upon it’s initial release.  It rode it’s timely holiday season release to record breaking success, and even to this day, it still has the highest box office gross for a comedy when adjusted for inflation.  But it wasn’t just the holidays and the humor that carried the movie, and the real factor was surprising to most.  The key to Home Alone’s success remarkably came in the form of it’s then 8 year old star, Macaulay Culkin.  Culkin, who had only appeared in a handful of films before hand, was suddenly the most famous child star in the world thanks to this movie, achieving a level of fame in Hollywood for a child actor unseen since the days of Shirley Temple.  He represented a new generation of film goers who were going to make a big impact on cinema in the decades ahead, and the fact that many of us who were children at this time saw one of our own commanding the screen as well as he did in Home Alone really solidifies why we hold this movie up so much as a part of our holiday tradition.  But, it is interesting to see how the movie continues to resonate as a holiday film, given the fact that the movie isn’t necessarily about the holiday itself.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie is unmistakably a Christmas movie.  In fact, it is almost drenched in the holidays.  You’d have to look at something like It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) or the fore-mentioned Miracle on 34th Street to find another film with so much of Christmas infused into it’s DNA.  But, that’s an aesthetic part of the movie.  The basic premise of the film itself honestly didn’t need Christmas to work.  The story of a child accidentally left home alone by his family having to fend off home invaders could have easily been set at any time of the year.  A summer vacation setting would have made just as much sense in this case.  But, no doubt director Chris Columbus and writer John Hughes picked the holiday season because it provided a more atmospheric tone to the movie.  It’s one thing for a child to be left home alone; it’s another for it to happen around Christmastime.  Christmas is a holiday all about getting together with one’s family and enjoying the festivities together.  What happens when that’s all taken away.  The isolation of having no one around to enjoy Christmas with weighs heavy over the film, and gives it a poignancy that it might not have otherwise had in any other setting.  That being said, the movie probably could have worked well enough even without the holiday itself.  It’s far more about how Macaulay Culkin’s character, Kevin McCallister deals with the dilemma of keeping his home safe when he has no one else around him to rely upon for safety.  As a result, we see the characters ingenuity and the real reason audiences continue to be entertained by the movie after so many years.  The movie shifts suddenly in it’s final act into a screwball comedy on the level of something we’d see from the Three Stooges, and the results are pretty wild.

But it should be noted that the movie is never meant to invoke a holiday spirit or to solely illicit laughter from it’s audience.  Though on the surface it may seem like a farcical comedy, but underneath, there is something deeper.  Home Alone is in essence a coming of age story, showing the growth and maturity of Kevin McCallister over the course of the few days he’s left by himself.  John Hughes, who had spent much of the 80’s exploring the highs and lows of the average American teenage life in films like The Breakfast Club (1984) and Sixteen Candles (1987), went even further back into pre-adolescence when exploring the character of Kevin McCallister.  It’s interesting to note that when we first meet Kevin in the movie, he’s kind of rotten kid.  He’s disrespectful, bratty, and unsympathetic.  Combine this with the fact that he’s from an upper class household and Kevin represents every spoiled bourgeois American kid who you’ve no doubt seen throwing a tantrum every time they receive even the slightest rejection from their mother or father.    There’s even a point when he calls his mother an idiot to her face, something that I would have been severely reprimanded for if I said that to my mom.  And at first, when he finds that his whole family has left for their Paris bound Christmas vacation without him, he initially finds it liberating; immediately wrecking havoc throughout the house, and as he puts it, “watching trash and eating garbage.”  But as the movie rolls on, Kevin finds that isolation is not exactly as fun as he hoped it would be, and even begins to realize that a part of his loneliness is of his own making.  Through this, John Hughes gives Kevin a redemptive arc that helps to carry the film’s message of compassion.  Kevin, who started off the movie as a selfish brat, by the end has become more self-reliant as well as more considerate of the feelings of other people.

This message really becomes clearer beyond his character arc, as Kevin’s dilemma begins to affect those around him.  In particular, there is a beautifully told parallel story-line being told with Kevin’s mother Kate (played by an unforgettable Cathrine O’Hara).  Kate’s trek back to her son is just as harrowing as what’s going on with Kevin, because we really feel the pain that she is going through not knowing what’s going on with Kevin back home.  I find it funny looking back on this movie now in an era when everybody has a cell phone, and how so much of this would be solved today in an instant with a phone call or text message.  Still, even watching this movie almost 30 years later, Kate’s story-line still resonates, and I honestly think that Cathrine O’Hara doesn’t get enough credit for her performance here.  The normally comedic actress does have her wacky moments here and there (yelling at the incompetent flight desk representatives for one), but her moments of desperation and hopelessness do feel genuine as well.  There’s a wonderful scene late in the movie where she wonders if she is a terrible mother for leaving her child alone, while hitching a ride with a polka band in a U-Haul truck (lead by another comedy legend, John Candy), and it’s a honestly portrayed moment that shows the despair of a character who believes she has failed in her duty as a mother, not realizing that her desperate situation proves exactly the opposite.  Kate indeed becomes the movie’s beating heart, and it’s pleasing to see so much time devoted to her character as well.  Likewise, there is another wonderful arc explored with the character of Old Man Marley (played by Robert Blossom).  Kevin’s fearsome looking next door neighbor turns out to be a decent, caring person by the end, giving Kevin another opportunity to open up to others as a part of his character development.  In Marley, Kevin recognizes some who like him has pushed people away and it has left him isolated as well, and by recognizing this and encouraging the old man to reconnect with his own family, Kevin likewise recognizes what he must do for himself.  So, while there is a lot of shenanigans that go on throughout the course of the movie, it still never forgets that the characters involved are real people who evolve with their story.

Of course, the slapstick is a big part of the movie’s continued entertainment value, and it particularly works because of how on board the actors are to making it as funny as possible.  Working very much against type, we find Joe Pesci cast as one of the cat burglars hoping to rob the McCallister home in which Kevin is still present.  It should be noted that Pesci appeared in the Scorsese flick Goodfellas (1990) in the same year that he appeared in this movie, a role that would ultimately earn him an Academy Award.  To see him go from that to something as screwball as Home Alone really shows how much range he has as an actor.  Daniel Stern’s performance as the other cat burglar, Marv, is more logically placed, and Stern does indeed play up the Stooge like aspect of the character very well.  One of the biggest laughs in the movie comes from the scream that Marv belts out once he has a tarantula placed on his face.  Another reason why the comedy works is because Pesci and Stern have excellent chemistry, and their characters work so well in conflict with Culkin’s smartallecky Kevin.  Indeed, I think why so many fans of the film from my generation love this film so much is because we saw a child like us making buffons out of these adults.  Of course, a real life scenario like this would have a much darker outcome, but the movie never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously.  Indeed, we will always enjoy seeing two incompetent criminals get pelted in the face with paint cans.  Some of the traps that Kevin sets up in particular are so wildly ridiculous that they defy logic, like Pesci’s Harry getting the top of his head blasted with a blow torch.  At the same time, it’s not like this slapstick comes out of nowhere in the final act though.  There are sprinkles of what’s to come throughout the movie, like the family’s mad scramble to get ready for their trip after sleeping in, or Kevin’s ridiculous indoor sledding down a staircase.  My favorite piece of comedy though is the film noir parody that Kevin watches while eating ice cream.  Doing a hilarious send up of James Cagney gangster flicks in the middle of this family oriented Christmas flick is something that I’ve grown to appreciate more as I’ve expanded my knowledge of film history, and it’s something that helps to make this movie a delight to watch still.

It is also interesting how the movie not only acts as a quintessential holiday film, but it has also gone on to leave it’s mark as a part of people’s traditions for the holidays.  For one thing, I think that more than any other movie of it’s generation, it has brought awareness to all these old Christmas standards from generations for younger audiences.  The movie is full of many songs that otherwise might not have resonated with Genration X or millennials beyond their initial years.  These are songs that are now standards like Brenda Lee’s “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” Mel Torme’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” or The Drifter’s rendition of “White Christmas.”  The movie’s soundtrack is basically a greatest hits album of all the Christmas songs that our parents grew up listening to, which is another great way the movie manages to bring multiple generations of audience members together as a part of the experience.  But the movie isn’t just blessed with a varied playlist of holiday standards.  Somehow, Chris Columbus managed to land the legendary John Williams to write an original score.  And for a movie as simple and small in scope as Home Alone is, it is amazing how much bigger it feels with a Williams score behind it.  Infusing more of a Christmas tone than anything else he has ever written, Williams probably is the one most responsible for making this an unmistakable holiday film.  This includes tones of memorable original pieces, like the mad-cap, sleigh bell infused melody that plays during the McCallister family’s rush to the airport, or the quiet grace of the original tune “Somewhere in my Memory,” that plays during the more heartwarming moments.  I don’t think the final shot of the movie with Old Man Marley reunited with his family would have had the same resonance without Williams amazing score in that moment.  Honestly, we have Home Alone to thank for the many different melodies that flood our airwaves during the month of December, both good and bad, and it all does helps to elevate the atmosphere of the movie itself.  As a result you can see why the filmmakers could not choose any other time but Christmas to set their movie in.

Home Alone is one of those movies that so perfectly contains it’s concept within it’s storyline, and it feels like there is no other way to improve upon it. Sadly, the filmmakers were saddled with the responsibility of having to make a sequel to Home Alone only a couple short years later due to how much money it made for studio 20th Century Fox. Long before The Hangover movies set a new standard for uninspired sequelizing of a hit comedy, Home Alone tried desperately to recapture the same lightning in a bottle with another movie but only this time in a new location; New York City in this case. Home Alone 2: Escape from New York (1992) does try, and is not without its moments, but it’s clear that Columbus and Hughes were really stretching the premise thin. And the main reason why the sequel doesn’t work as well is because it’s missing that crucial element that made the original so memorable; Kevin’s character arc. He’s already grown as a character, so by the time we see him again, he’s already gained his maturity. How do you resolve this in order to make a sequel; you regress the character and make him fall back into his bad habits, thereby undoing all the work of the original movie. It’s an unfortunately negative result that removes the emotional heart of the movie, resulting in a half-hearted “here we go again” feel to the movie. The relationship between Kevin and his mom is also unfortunately reduced as well. Even still, the movie has it’s fans, and I do enjoy some of the best parts of the movie, like another film noir parody as well as the addition of Tim Curry to the cast as a diabolical hotel manager. But what the sequel illustrates more than anything else was just how important that underlying heart was to making the original movie work as well as it did.

 The legacy that Home Alone has left behind is one that is inexorably linked now to the holidays. Children who first experienced the movie in its initial release are all adults now with children of their own, and I’m sure that they’ll no doubt be sharing the movie with them this time of year. Disney is even now reviving the property as a possible reboot for their Disney+ service, of which the original films are already available on. It’s easy to see why the movie became an instant hit, but I think the magnitude may have been the most unexpected part of all. It may have been too much for Macaulay Culkin in those hectic few years after Home Alone hit theaters, putting him at the center of Hollywood spotlight for most of his formative years. After being hounded by the industry for some time, Culkin retreated into a quieter life, but has more recently emerged on social media carrying around a sense of humor with the role that made him famous. He even jokingly pondered what a grown up Kevin McCallister would be like in a charming commercial for Google. Sure, time changes perception, and Home Alone is not without it’s quaintness due to the passage of time. But over the years, it has also gained something for its audience that all the best holiday classics have managed to do, which is to present a warm sense of nostalgia. My generation looks fondly back on Home Alone and we have grown to appreciate it more now that we have become grown ups ourselves. Sure, we all like to be a smart ass kid like Kevin McCallister, but over time we find ourselves also wanting to do whatever we can to be there for our loved ones for the holidays. In the end, the movie shows us that Holiday season is all about the importance of family and that being alone for Christmas is not the ideal situation. Togetherness is key, and Home Alone, in its own silly way, delivers that message beautifully. So, Merry Christmas, you filthy animal.

Tinseltown Throwdown – Rocky vs. Raging Bull

Fall is in full swing and the holidays are upon us.  So, let’s talk about sports movies for a bit.  Cinema’s long history has given us a wealth of great sports related films throughout the years.  Football, basketball, and especially baseball, the many great American pastimes have provided plenty of uplifting tales of underdog heroism.  And the same goes for the many international sports, like soccer, rugby, and even cricket.  But if there was one sport in particular that has become something rather poetic for filmmakers and audiences alike, it would be boxing.  There is something about the sport of boxing that has lent itself so passionately to the art of cinema.  Perhaps it’s the grueling nature of the sport that feels so cinematic, especially when captured within the ring itself.  Maybe it’s the psychological and physical tolls taken on the the individual boxers that provides so much drama.  Each boxer depicted in these movies becomes almost mythical in a way, as they’re struggles inside the ring become almost like a echoes of the troubles that have plagued them on the outside, and we the audience see that these fights are more than just trading blows.  It’s probably why boxing movies have won more Oscars than any other sport in film.  It goes all the way back to 1931’s The Champ, where Wallace Berry won Best Actor for his portrayal of a tragic but lovable heavyweight champion.  Since then, every generation seems to have it’s own iconic portrayal of the life of a champion boxer, whether it’s classics like Gentleman Jim (1942), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), to modern hits like Million Dollar Baby (2004) and The Fighter (2010).  But there are two boxing movies in particular that have particularly risen to become the pinnacle of the genre, and both are unsurprisingly major awards winners; 1976’s Rocky and 1980’s Raging Bull.

It should be interesting to note the time period in which both movies were first released.  The late 70’s were a turbulent time in America.  Watergate had risen distrust in the United States government to an all time high, and the country was firmly divided.  At the time, even the newly elected President, Jimmy Carter, couldn’t find a way to mend the broken nation that had been suffering the scars of the Vietnam War and the unthinkable corruption behind Watergate.  At the same time, Hollywood was going through it’s own period of transition and upheaval.  The 1970’s was the decade of the director; a period where maverick filmmakers were given creative license that they had otherwise never had under the old studio system.  This allowed for bolder, grittier artistic expression, with the directors rewriting the rules of film-making as they went.  Films made in this time were decidedly rougher, more documentary like, and audiences were embracing this so-called New Hollywood.  Out of this period emerged many filmmakers who would go on to change the industry forever, like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.  But not everything from this era represented a rejection of establishment; there were crowd-pleasers made as well.  Enter a less renowned, but not to be forgotten filmmaker named John G. Avildsen, who just happened to stumble upon the right kind of movie at the right time, taking a chance on a script written by a struggling actor named Sylvester Stallone.  That movie would be the story of a fictional amateur boxer from Philadelphia named Rocky Balboa who gets his one big shot to prove his worth.  That movie would not only surprise everyone by becoming a big hit, but it even became an inspiration for a country to believe in hopeful once again.  At the same time, Martin Scorsese was closing out a turbulent decade for himself with a very personal and harsh portrayal of real life boxer Jake LaMotta with his new film Raging Bull.  What is interesting when looking at both movies is how they both strongly make their case for being the quintessential boxing movie, but with wildly different tones and stories.  Both are undeniably classics in their own right, but which one does the better job of portraying the mythic life struggle of a boxer.

“You’re going to eat lightning and you’re going to crap thunder!”

It’s interesting to look at the boxers themselves.  Rocky Balboa, a fictional character who no doubt was inspired by many similar boxers of the period and most likely also by the actor portraying him, is a working class stiff with the determination to make something better of himself.  Jake LaMotta, who was a real life professional boxer, starts out at the top of his game and only ends up sliding downward.  These are the obvious differences between the movies; one is a feel good triumph while the other is a tragic portrayal of hubris.  But, they are both highly celebrated, and that’s mainly due to the incredible strength of both characters.  Sylvester Stallone became an overnight success story with the release of Rocky, finally achieving that success in Hollywood that had long alluded him.  And in many ways, it mirrors Rocky’s own story of working hard to prove his worth.  For his portrayal of Jake LaMotta, Robert DeNiro took a decidedly different route.  DeNiro was already firmly established in Hollywood, having already won a Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather Part II (1974) and having already established a great working relationship with director Scorsese in both Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976).  But, with Raging Bull, he chose to not just make the boxing scenes feel authentic, but to also make Jake LaMotta look and feel as nasty as his reputation spoke to.  DeNiro went through a full body transformation during the making of the movie, putting on nearly 50 lbs. in order to play LaMotta in his overweight post-boxing days.  It’s interesting that both movies illustrate the rough life of a boxer, as both have demons that they want to excise, with the ring as their escape.  But while Rocky manages to pull himself up, LaMotta just continues to drag himself down, succumbing to pride, jealousy, and just his own bad judgment.  And yet, even in the closing moments, Scorsese and DeNiro give Jake LaMotta a bit of a bittersweet reexamination, as he literally takes a look at his own reflection and decides to move forward.  In the end, that’s the hardest match he’s ever had to win.

“You didn’t get me down Ray.”

It’s interesting to note how one movie works as a textbook example of the genre, while the other challenges it’s conventions and still represents it perfectly.  It probably has to do with the characters themselves.  Rocky, despite being a little rough around the edges, is quite lovable.  Stallone gives him an undeniable charm, and you see that reflected in the magnetic way that he earns the love and respect for all those around him, as he depends on their support to get to the top.  The movie has some wonderful tender moments between Rocky and his love interest Adrian (Talia Shire).  There’s also a great mentor/ trainee relationship that builds between Rocky and his trainer Mickey (played by an unforgettable Burgess Meredith).  The great thing about these relationships is that they help to build Rocky up for us the audience.  As they grow to like him more, we do too, and that enables us to want to see him succeed by the end.  It’s also fascinating to watch how his determination clashes against the myopic perception that is given to him by the champion he’s about to face, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).  To him, Rocky is just a step towards another fight, but to Rocky it’s so much more.  In Raging Bull, the fights only make up the background of his story.  Martin Socrsese is far more interested in seeing how the fighter exists outside the ring, and he shows how the fight sadly never leaves the fighter, even after the bell has rung.  Jake LaMotta is so wired into the sport that even the slightest provocation is enough to send him into fisticuffs.  We see that reflected in his world, as he’s constantly arguing with his wife Vicki (Cathy Moriarty) as well as his friend and manager Joey (Joe Pesci), who’s prone to violent outbursts himself (as evidenced by that legendary beat down he gives to Frank Vincent’s Salvy in the movie).  In this way, we see where the characters wildly differ, because we see where one uses the ring to be a monster while the other uses it to become a champion.

There’s a lot to be said about the different ways the movies are filmed as well.  Rocky is nothing out of the ordinary for it’s era.  It was shot in the same gritty, documentary style that was typical of the 1970’s.  And really, that’s all you need for this kind of story.  Rocky is a movie for mass audiences, but done economically enough to feel authentic, so that’s why John G. Avildsen’s direction is clean and unobtrusive.  He only saves the more emotional, cinematic stuff for the finale, as the final fight between Balboa and Creed is colorful and bright, elevating it’s almost mythic stature.  Everything else almost feels subdued, as we are almost ease-dropping into the lives of these characters.  Martin Scorsese on the other hand, treats the entirety of Raging Bull as a bold cinematic expression.  He shot the entire movie in black and white, which was oddly enough a reversal of a trend for cinema in that time.  Monochromatic movies had been almost treated as a relic of the past by filmmakers of these maverick days of cinema, so it’s interesting to see it used here.  In a way, Scorsese sort of revived the black and white movie, which has made sporadic returns throughout the years.  It’s also the one and only time that he would ever shoot a movie like that, showing just how important it was to telling of this particular story.  Scorsese’s use of black and white is probably a reflection of how he wanted to portray LaMotta’s story; stripped of all flashiness and laid bare for the viewer.  The boxing matches in particular even take on this otherworldly appearance, with the smoke filled grays of the environment almost make the scenes glow.  There’s something conventional about the way that Rocky appears, and that’s in a good way.  We in a way expect to the final fight in Rocky to look as bright as it does.  But it’s the stark bleakness of Raging Bull‘s colorless hue that unsettles us as a viewer and that helps to create a whole other experience that is no less enriching.

“He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!”

You will also never find more brilliantly edited movies anywhere.  The movie Rocky all but invented the training montage, which has become a staple of both boxing movies and all movies in general.  Underscored by Bill Conti’s now legendary musical theme, the training montage is almost a movie within itself, conveying so much story in such a short amount of time.  It’s often imitated, but rarely matched.  And the reason it works as well as it does is no doubt because of how well it is edited to the rhythm of Conti’s music.  By the time Rocky makes his final run up the steps of the Museum of Art and he does that triumphant dance at the top, you feel absolutely uplifted as a viewer, almost like you’ve trained alongside Rocky yourself.  There is almost a lyrical way to the editing of the movie, with the edits and the music almost working together to tell the story and that extends all the way to the final match.  Which is very much in contrast with how Raging Bull is edited.  Pieced together by the unmatched champion of her profession, Thelma Schoonmaker, Raging Bull treats the fighting matches as an almost wild experience.  She mixes in slow motion as well as sped up footage at almost random points, illustrating just how chaotic a boxing match can be, but it’s not in the service of showing us the fight in a fully realistic sense.  She uses her edits to convey what a boxing match can feel like for the boxers themselves, with each blow almost creating lapses in time for the fighter, which no doubt conveys the brain damage that they go through.  The movie otherwise is relatively calm outside those boxing scenes, with Scorsese holding the camera steady for the most part.  In those chaotic boxing scenes, we find Scorsese and Schoonmaker finding the real window in the mind of a boxer, which fills us in to how the character behaves for the rest of the movie.  In this sense, both movies use their editing to convey the mythical sense of the sport, in ways that only the medium of film can.

But what is most interesting about both films is that they speak to different personal aspects of their creators, and how they both reflect different points of success through their subjects.  For Rocky, it is a movie about dreaming; hoping that you don’t blow your one shot once you’ve got it and then riding that opportunity to a better life.  That’s what was on Sylvester Stallone’s mind as he began writing the screenplay for the movie.  He was a struggling actor who had tried for years to find his big break in the business.  He was not typical leading man, being a little rough around the edges.  In Rocky, he imagined a rise to fame that he himself hoped he could have for himself.  Ever the avid boxing fan, Stallone saw in this amateur boxer a version of himself, taking on an impossible job and proving everyone wrong.  In the end, it’s not about winning the fight, but showing that you are more than just a gimmick.  Rocky was only supposed to stand up against Apollo Creed for ten rounds, knowing that the fight was never going to be in his favor.  But what Rocky proves is that he can not only fulfill his obligation, but he could even give Apollo a worthy challenge as well.  So even when Creed is declared the winner, Rocky still feels like a champion, because he proved he was a worthy fighter.  Stallone may not have gained any awards for his work, but Rocky gave him a lasting career as an actor, and I’m sure that makes him feel like a champ all these years later.  At the same time, Martin Scorsese approached Raging Bull with a different set of eyes.  In the late-70’s, Scorsese was recovering from a drug addiction, something which he feared would ruin his career forever.  Having cleaned up, he wanted to make a movie that almost therapeutically reflected his own struggles, and he found that in the story of Jake LaMotta.  I almost think that’s why Raging Bull is such a harsh narrative with regards to it’s subject, because it was coming at the same time that Scorsese was so hard on himself.  For Rocky, we see someone hoping to show his worth, while Raging Bull shows us what happens after that rise to worthiness has crested.  Indeed, Scorsese almost became a different director after Raging Bull, and for the better, as it enabled him to continue on for the next forty years with a renewed outlook on life.

“If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win.”

It’s hard to say which one comes out on top as the better movie, because they are both masterpieces in their own way.  Rocky would go on to spawn a long running franchise, and even has led to a spin-off series of it’s own, Creed, which has extended the Rocky legacy even further.  Though Stallone’s film career has been through it’s ups and downs, his portrayal of Rocky Balboa is still something that makes him an iconic star in Hollywood.  When accepting his Golden Globe for the movie Creed in 2016, he thanked his “imaginary” friend Rocky Balboa, for as he said, “being the best friend an actor could ever have.”  The city of Philadelphia still celebrates the star and the character as a symbol of their city; including having a statue of Rocky sitting atop those famous steps.  At the same time, Scorsese honors Raging Bull as a pivotal turning point for his career as a filmmaker.  Not only did it allow him to excise some of the demons of his own past, but it allowed him to build his artistic senses even further.  He was able to continue building that meaningful friendship and collaboration with his leading man Robert DeNiro, which has extended many decades, even extending to today with the release of The Irishman this week on Netflix.  DeNiro likewise views Jake LaMotta as an important part of his experience as an actor.  He still claims it as his most important role, and he’s got a nice Best Actor Oscar to back that up.  In the end, how you view the movie in direct competition comes down to personal taste.  If this were a boxing match, I’d say that it’d come down to a draw, but for me I honestly would re-watch the more inspirational Rocky more times than the harsher Raging Bull.  Bull may be more artistically daring, but Rocky has the better story.  Even still, they are true icons of cinema, and without a doubt the best movies made about the sport of boxing to ever grace the silver screen.  Whether triumphant or sour, these movies are true champions.

“Yo Adrian!!!”

 

Frozen II – Review

It’s interesting to think what this era in Disney Animation will be called.  Disney’s Golden Age is often what they called the post-WWII years of the 1950’s, when the Disney company enjoyed a string of hits that included Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953) and Sleeping Beauty (1959).  Then came the Renaissance, which was heralded by release of The Little Mermaid (1989), and continued on with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994).  But what all these key eras for Disney have in common is that they all came after years of both creative and economic downturns.  That’s been Disney’s key characteristic through the years, which is their resiliency, as they seem to always find a way to put themselves back on top no matter what the storm.  Disney Animation during the 2000’s is a period of time that could be described as transitional.  After the heyday of the Renaissance, Disney’s traditional animation style was just not carrying it’s weight like it used to, which was mainly due to the rise of computer animation from their soon to be sister company, Pixar.  As CGI rose, hand drawn animation fell, and Disney’s in house studio was just able to compete.  The box office failure of costly films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Treasure Planet (2002) only hastened the decline, and after the rather mediocre premiere of the last hand drawn film in the pipeline, 2004’s Home on the Range, Disney decided to adjust to the times and end their traditional animation studio for good.  One last attempt was made to bring it back with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, despite decent box office, it still wasn’t enough to move the needle back.  Disney still struggled at first to meet the challenge of this new CGI animated world, with forgettable films like Chicken Little (2005) and Bolt (2008) doing little to boost their stock, but two back to back successes with Tangled (2010) and Wreck-It Ralph (2012) helped to shape things for the better.  And then came the movie that changed everything and pushed Disney back on top.

Frozen (2013) was undoubtedly a phenomenon the likes that Disney hadn’t seen since The Lion King nearly 20 years prior.  Bolstered no doubt by it’s wintery setting coinciding with a holiday season release, Frozen would continue to remain atop the box office all the way into the new year, even against heavy competition like The Hobbit.  In the end, it became the highest grossing animated film of all time worldwide, as well as the first animated film to enter the billion dollar club.  But, it wasn’t the seasonal aspect itself that made the movie a hit.  Loosely based on the Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale, The Snow Queen, Frozen marked a triumphant return for Disney to the genre that had originally put them on the map.  The central characters of Anna and Elsa were immediately catapulted into the pantheon of popular Disney Princesses, and their story of unbroken sisterhood was embraced by audiences of all ages.  The same goes for all the characters as well, with the magical snowman Olaf becoming a particular favorite for small children.  And then of course there was the songs.  Written by the husband and wife duo of Robert and Kristen Lopez of Broadway fame (Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon), the songs from Frozen became instant standards, and were sung by nearly everyone and everywhere.  Even Ryan Reynolds sang a bit of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” in Deadpool 2 (2018).  And of course there was “Let it Go,” which became one of the most omnipresent songs in recent memory.  With the success that Disney enjoyed from the release of Frozen, they managed to bring their studio back to dominance, with subsequent hits like Zootopia (2016) and Moana (2016) standing strong on it’s shoulders.  So, it makes sense that Disney would fast track a sequel to their biggest hit in decades.  Frozen II arrives this week 6 years after the original and the question remains can it recapture the magic that helped to make the original a huge success, or are we starting to see the ice begin to thaw?

Frozen II picks up not long after the events of the first movie.  Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) have reestablished their long dormant kingdom into a open society, and prosperity has flourished once again.  But, Elsa has been disturbed by a siren call that only she can hear and she wishes to find out where it is coming from.  She believes that it has a connection to the lullaby that her mother, Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood), had sung to her and her sister before she was gone.  The lullaby spoke of an Enchanted Forest beyond the borders of their kingdom, Arendelle, and a mysterious ancient river in the far North.  Accompanied by Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his loyal reindeer Sven, and magical snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), the sisters head north to find answers.  Once at the border, they find the Enchanted Forest blocked off by an impenetrable wall of mist.  Elsa’s snow and frost powers enable them entry past the mist wall, but leaves them no way out.  Once inside the forest, they are besieged by elemental spirits of wind, fire, earth and water, which Elsa somehow manages to tame.  This gets the attention of Northuldra tribe people, who have been stuck within the forest since the they fought against the kingdom of Arendelle, along with soldiers of the Arendellian army, led by Captain Mattias (Sterling K. Brown).  Elsa, in an attempt to broker peace between their lands, resolves to find answers and a way to break the curse that has closed of the forest from the world.  Meanwhile, Kristoff hopes to find the right time to pop the question to Anna, who is increasingly distracted with having to keep her sister safe.  But, eventually, they all end up finding that some separation will ultimately be needed in order to restore order to their kingdom.  And as they delve deeper into the mystery of their past, especially with regards to what happened to their parents long ago, they may find that the truth is harsher than fiction.

There is no doubt that Frozen II will become a box office hit right out of the gate.  It’s predecessor broke so many records, and the Disney studio has not faltered in the years since, so right out of the gate this movie is going to make a mint no matter what anyone thinks of it.  But can it sustain that, and will it deserve what it gets.  If you’ve been reading my blog since it’s first year online back in 2013, you’ll know that I reviewed the original Frozen (found here) and had something of a lukewarm response to it.  I didn’t dislike the movie by any means, but I also wasn’t as enthusiastic about it either.  It may have to do with my very high standard by which I judge Disney movies by, but I still stand by my view of Frozen.  It’s serviceable, but nowhere near an all time great.  I’ve honestly found the success it enjoyed more fascinating than the movie itself, and I am happy that it propelled this new era of Disney Animation.  But, did things improve for the sequel?  Well, I’m sad to say that not only did it not improve on the original Frozen, but it even took a step backwards for me.  I was not at all satisfied with this second go around with the world of Frozen, finding myself mostly bored and uninterested in what was going on.  There’s nothing really offensively bad about it; it’s just that the movie feels unnecessary.  I’m always of the belief that a sequel must build upon what had come before it, and that it has to justify it’s existence.  The story has to have somewhere to go, and more importantly raise the stakes.  Frozen II doesn’t do that; it just changes location and tries to fill in the gaps left by the original.  That doesn’t make for an interesting movie.  It also makes the movie feel smaller, which is definitely not what you want your sequel to be.

It all boils down to weakness in the story itself.  The original Frozen had an engaging story about persevering through isolation of one’s own making.  As stated in the film, “love can thaw the coldest heart,” and that was admittedly illustrated well through Elsa’s journey of accepting that she doesn’t have to view her powers as a curse but rather as a gift, which undoes years of heartbreak and fear that she has had to grow up with.  Though the movie was unevenly structured, it nevertheless delivered in making Elsa and Anna’s transformations satisfying throughout the course of the story, which in turn drove the narrative along.  But sadly, Frozen II moves forward with it’s most important conflict already resolved.  The characters have all gone through their major transformations, and sadly don’t grow beyond that.  It would help if there was a more fleshed out cast to give more character development to, or more world building beyond what we’ve seen so far, but no.  Frozen II decides to keep things close to home and without much in the way of external threats.  The movie seems to think that we need to know where Elsa got her powers from and where the sisters’ mother and father were headed originally.  I hate to say it, but the mystery isn’t really that interesting and the ultimate conclusion even less so.  And this is the bulk of the movie.  Also, the subtlety of the original film’s message is muddled here in clunky foreshadowing and on-the-nose symbolism.  Oh, do you think that ominous dam might have some symbolic importance for the story?  Hmmm?  There is so much in the movie that feels like a wasted opportunity.  The Northuldra people are extremely underdeveloped, and could have offered an interesting new angle for the story to take.  A lack of an antagonistic threat is also disappointing.  I know Hans was far from a classic Disney villain, but at least he served a purpose.  Instead, little is risked and even less is earned over the course of the movie.

It seems strange that a sub-par effort comes from the exact same team that made the original.  Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck may not have reinvented the wheel with the original Frozen, but they do deserve credit for hitting the bulls-eye when it comes to delivering for a mass audience, and for reinvigorating the Disney brand.  Jennifer Lee has even ridden the success of Frozen towards earning the top job at Disney Animation, becoming the studio head after the departure of John Lasseter, which she certainly is well qualified for.  But, even people with experience under their belt can misfire.  I will say that even though the movie is lacking story-wise, it is still beautifully animated.  There was nothing within the movie that looked lackluster on the animation side, especially when it comes to the environments.  I was really struck by how good the textures looked in this movie, whether it was the foliage within the Enchanted Forest, or the tiny crystals in Elsa’s dress; it all looked beautiful.  There was also some really neat animation used on the elemental spirits, especially with a horse made entirely out of water.  I’m sure that took some expert programming to do in the software used to animate this movie.  The character animation likewise stands on solid ground, with a wide range of emotion put into the faces of Anna, Elsa, and the others.  I’m sure that the animators also had a lot of fun finding new ways to contort Olaf’s sectional body into many different shapes.  At the same time, a lot of this is also stuff we’ve seen before.  Characters are animated with care, but are ultimately the same.  I’m not seeing anything groundbreaking in this film, except maybe with the elemental characters.  The animation fulfills it’s role here, and little else.

The returning voice cast also doesn’t disappoint, and for the most part are what helps to salvage an otherwise disappointing film.  I’m still impressed with Idina Menzel’s vocal range, and I still find Elsa to be the series’ most shining light.  Kristen Bell’s Anna still grates on me a little bit, but she is thankfully a bit more mature and subdued this time around.  Josh Gad’s Olaf may be the movie’s best asset however, as he gets most of the best lines in this movie, especially with the frankness of some of his observations.  There’s a funny bit where he recounts the plot of the first movie in his own way.  Sadly, none of the new characters leave an impression.  I mentioned earlier the lack of development for the Northuldran people, who could have been a fascinating asset had their culture been explored further.  I also am confused why the character of Captain Mattias exists at all, because he adds so little to the plot, and why cast a big star like Sterling K. Brown in the part.  He does a fine job, but the character is largely inconsequential.  The songs are a mixed bag too.  Unfortunately none are as memorable as those in the previous movie, which may be a blessing to some.  As much as people got sick of “Let it Go,” it’s still undeniably a great song.  Only one song in this movie comes close to rising to that high bar called “Into the Unknown,” and no big surprise, it’s an Elsa song.  But even still, it doesn’t carry the same weight, and I think that’s mostly a byproduct of the story itself being so weightless.  Some of the songs even feel awkwardly shoehorned in, like they were written before the story itself was fully formed, and the filmmakers had to work around them.  There are some cute things about them, like Kristoff getting to do a riff on 80’s rock love ballads, but it’s more a testament to the professionalism of the Lopez’s as songwriters.  A more robust story would have maybe turned these songs into classics, as the original did with tunes like “Love is an Open Door” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, but sadly this is a soundtrack that is likely going to fall way short of it’s award-winning predecessor.

Watching how Frozen II falls short of capturing of the mark set by the original Frozen makes me think very much with how they contrast against a similarly themed film series from a rival studio, and not in a good way.  Dreamworks Animation managed to create one of their most popular and critically acclaimed films with How to Train Your Dragon, which like Frozen, took inspiration from Norse culture and folklore to tell it’s story.  However, what Dragon also did was further expand it’s world in it’s subsequent sequels, with each adding new places, characters, and layers upon which they could further explore.  They also raised the stakes significantly, and dare I say, took very creative risks as well; including killing off a character or two, and maybe even showing more character flaws that deepen their characters’ stories as they go along.  Frozen II follows it’s enormously successful predecessor by playing it safe, and that’s to it’s detriment.  I wanted there to be more to the story of Elsa and Anna than just a journey into the past.  These characters don’t need to find clues toward discovering where they came from, because they already know who they are; the original movie did an effective job of showing us that.  What Frozen II needed was a more powerful test, both with Elsa’s further expanding powers and also with the family bond that ties them all together.  There is no conflict with any of them, and you all know they are going to return safely home by the end, and that’s the problem.  I’m sorry to contrast it with How to Train Your Dragon, but that series shows a much better example of how to grow your story over multiple films.  Even  by Disney sequel standards, Frozen II felt like a whole bunch of unnecessary filler.  If there are any further adventures of Anna and Elsa, which is heavily implied that there might by the end, they better have a more interesting story to tell.  Maybe a story developed by a different team next time might give the series a push in the right direction next time.  In the meanwhile, despite pretty animation and a couple nice songs, Frozen II sadly falls way short and is probably Disney’s weakest film in a long while.  Is it going to break Disney’s win streak? Not a chance, but it will never stand among the all time greats, and even though it pains me as a life long Disney fan, it’s best to forget this one and let it go.

Rating: 6/10

Dawn of Disney+ – First Impressions and What it Means for the Future of Streaming

One day in the whole history of the Walt Disney Company holds very special significance.  It was a day after several years of planning, building, and long arduous hours for all at the company.  And the outcome was far from certain.  Everything was put on the line, and all that was left was to premiere their product before the public and hope that all that hard work was worth it in the end.  And that pivotal day was, December 21, 1937.  That monumental moment in their company was the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first full length animated feature ever made.  It may seem hard to think of it today, but the making of Snow White was the biggest gamble in Hollywood history up to that time.  Walt Disney staked his reputation and the future of his company on the success of this one feature.  Had it not succeeded, Disney as we know it would cease to be.  But, to Walt’s eternal gratitude, Snow White was a runaway hit, and it not only made all it’s money back, but was profitable enough to allow the Disney company to grow.  And you would think that after such an ordeal that the Disney company would back away from such gambles in the future, but no.  Another pivotal day came on July 17, 1955, when Walt Disney risked yet again his reputation and future in Hollywood on a new ambitious project; Disneyland.  Though it took some time after to make up it’s cost, Disneyland too became a smashing success for Disney, and again July 17 became a day of triumph for the media giant that is celebrated annually every year.  The post-Walt years have seen many rises and falls, but despite growing exponentially larger over the years, the Company hasn’t risked so much in a long time.  But this year, after much development and hype, The Walt Disney Company has introduced their first major project in years that could very well determine the direction that the company takes in the same way that Snow White and Disneyland did.  And because of it, we might be looking at November 12, 2019 as another one of those monumental days in Disney history.

That project of course is the new streaming platform known as Disney+.  Disney+ is only the first of several new direct to consumer streaming channels that are hitting the market over the next few years that is intended to challenge the supremacy of Netflix.  After a multi-year partnership with Netflix, Disney decided to strike out on their own with a streaming platform of their own based on the Netflix model.  Taking advantage of their valuable library of hits, Disney believed that this could give them a better chance of broadening their audience base, while at the same time taking bolder risks without having to worry about box office performance.  This is, of course, based on how well they can develop that subscriber base right of the bat, and there is where the risk lies in creating such a platform.  Netflix already has a decade long history of building up it’s subscriber base, to the point where they now reach nearly a billion households worldwide.  And with the capital that they make off of those monthly subscribers, they are able to reinvest into exclusive content that rivals anything shown in theaters.  Disney no doubt can bring on board it’s loyal base of fans, but it’s in expanding their audience in order to compete with the number of subscribers that Netflix has that they need to work on.  And considering the scale and scope of what Netflix is putting on their channel, Disney likewise has to put on exclusives that match and even surpass those of it’s competitor, and that is likely going to be costly.  Needless to say, Disney needs this new streaming channel to do well, right out of the gate in order for it to justify it’s cost.  Let’s not forget that a lot of investment has to go into all the infrastructure and programming costs, that will likely be tested by a large user base.  Streaming platforms don’t just program themselves; it takes a lot of pre-planning and engineering to make it work, and for any studio unused to such a enterprise, it could prove daunting.  But, then again, Disney has been here before.

Even with all their beloved classics, the Disney library wouldn’t have been able to stand up to the sheer magnitude of what Netflix has on their platform.  That’s why I believe Disney pursued that Fox merger so aggressively last year.  As a singular movie studio, it may not have carried enough properties to challenge the Netflix juggernaut on Day 1, but with two studios worth of properties, Disney might have a shot at it.  I’m not saying that it’s solely why Disney purchased 21st Century Fox, but it probably played a major factor in the process.  I’m sure Fox looked at it as a beneficial factor too, because it freed them up from having to invest in their own streaming platform, with Disney doing most of the work for them.  Disney also has the benefit of having all  their acquired properties over the last decade turning into major successes, including the Pixar, Star Wars, and Marvel brands.  It ensures that by making them all exclusive to their platform that they’ll carry those red hot franchises with them and translate those fanbases into a loyal subscriber base.  Even still, there is the risk of what it will cost to keep people subscribing, and that’s where the exclusives come in.  Disney is not resting on the laurels of it’s theatrical hits hitting the platform, and have invested heavily on new properties that will debut only on Disney+ over the next few years, which includes new films and series based on their Star Wars and Marvel properties.  All of this marks a monumental shift in the way that the Disney company operates, and it is proving to be both an exciting and nervous time for the company.  The platform has especially been the labor of love for Disney’s CEO over the last decade, Bob Iger.  Like his legendary predecessor, Uncle Walt, Iger has staked his own legacy and reputation on a project that he strongly believes in.  Whether or not his gamble pays off the same way that it did for Walt will remain to be seen, but it is a testament to Iger’s boldness as the figurehead of the Company that he would put so much personal stake into something that will change the company forever.

With November 12 having already passed us by, we can now judge for ourselves how Disney+ performs and if it is worth the plunge.  The starting cost for a monthly membership is $6.99, or $79.99 annually, almost half of the current cost of a Netflix membership.  For a starting point, this is a fair price to pay to have this much access to the Disney library.  It will likely rise over the next few years, but so will the number of available titles to watch, so Disney is wisely matching their price with the quantity of things to stream on the platform.  I managed to take advantage of an exclusive discount price available only to D23 Expo attendees this year, which gives me three years for the price of two, so I’ve paid through all the way to 2022, which should give plenty of opportunity to venture through everything available on the Disney+.  Like most other people I’m sure, I am coming to this new platform as a long time Netflix subscriber, so I’m definitely looking at this with some preconceived expectations.  So, after a couple days of finally using Disney+, what do I think?  Well, first of all, I have to praise Disney for an A+ effort in it’s presentation.  The look of the platform is incredible.  It shares similarities with the layout of Netflix, but there are subtle little things that really make it shine.  The home page for instance features tabs for the different brands that make up the Disney Company; notably Disney, Pixar, Star Wars, Marvel, and National Geographic.  Interestingly, no Fox tab is available, despite there being Fox Studio films on the platform, which I hope is just due to Fox still being fairly new as a part of the company.  What I like is the fact that every tab you click on leads to a home page for every movie, which feature beautiful background art.  Also, thank you Disney for not having an Auto-Play feature when arriving at these home page screens, which is one of my pet peeves about Netflix.  Disney+ as an interface is thankfully very easy to navigate and select what we want to watch.  It shows that they studied the Netflix model well and learned how to best utilize it for themselves.

What is also interesting is that Diseny+ is the first ever streaming channel to offer bonus features for their films.  These most fall into the range of theatrical trailers and deleted scenes, but on some films and shows, you even get more substantial things like Director’s Commentary and Making-of docs available. That in particular really shows how well Disney is serving it’s audience.  Disney has always delivered very well on home video bonuses with their numerous DVD and Blu-ray special editions, so to see them also available here on DIsney+ is a pleasant surprise.  Even more amazing is the fact that Disney has also made bonus features available here that are found nowhere else.  One noteworthy one comes from Avengers: Endgame (2019), which shows a deleted scene involving Tony Stark meeting a teenage version of his daughter in a spirit realm after he uses the infinity stones, in a scene reminiscent of the one at the end of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) with Thanos and Gamora. That deleted scene was not available in the Blu-ray edition, so it’s surprising that Disney made it available here, even with director commentary from the Russo Brothers.   For cinephiles like me, having exclusive bonus features is another major plus to justify our subscriptions to the service.  Not only that, but the presentations of the movies and shows are also top notch.  Apart from a few problems, which I’ll get to soon, the movies all have been given a polished HD remaster that gives them a beautiful pristine look.  You’d expect the newer films to look amazing, but what really struck me was how good all the older stuff appeared.  Disney not only put out their theatrical films on Disney+, but also a large amount of the many animated shorts from the heyday of the Animation studio.  And they all look the best they ever have.

Though there is a lot to be happy about with the platform, I do have a number of nitpicks to talk about.  First off, there are some bug to work out, which is not really too much of a problem, because those are pretty much expected for a newly launched service like this.  For the most part, I have not encountered any login, or access problems, as some other people have complained about online.  I have been able to login and click on whatever I wanted to watch without incident or experiencing the site crashing on me, which is pretty good for a first week.  I am using a direct Ethernet line connected to my PlayStation 4, so that may have helped out somewhat.  Even still, some of the bugs still manifest.  For one thing, every time I have watched something, the picture will freeze while the audio continues to run, which causes me to rewind a bit to put it back in sync.  I believed this has to do with the buffering capabilities of the video, as the movie plays while it still loads, just like on any platform.  But the thing is, I don’t encounter the same problem on Netflix or any other platform of the same ilk, so it’s got to be something on their end.  Hopefully Disney discovers this issue and patches it over time.  You got to remember this is only week number one; bugs are inevitable.  It’s kind of miraculous that we haven’t heard of a complete service meltdown considering the volume of activity that they had to deal with in the first week.  There are other problems though, and it does have to do with the actual content itself.  Some people have noticed that episodes of The Simpsons, which has made all seasons available on Disney+ day 1, have been cropped to fit widescreen TV’s, as opposed to it’s original 4:3 aspect ratio.  This has upset some fans, as some gags need the full picture to be fully appreciated.  I think it’s a major problem, because artistic intent is crucial for entertainment purposes, and cropping a movie to fit a format does hurt the product as a whole.  Luckily, word got out and Disney has publicly stated that the true aspect ration will be restored.  Another controversy came about with the realization that Disney was withholding problematic shows and movies from the channel as well. One such case is the Michael Jackson episode of The Simpsons, which presumably was pulled because of recent allegations made about the pop star.  Leaving the real world issues aside, it feels self serving on their part to not air the episode, despite the fact that it’s nearly 30 years old.  Withholding it only draws more attention to the controversy, which would have been lessened if they had just let the episode be.  It’s a similar situation that they’ve placed themselves into with Song of the South (1946), which is also notably missing from Disney+.  I’m on the side of hiding nothing from the public, and Disney is doing a disservice to both themselves and the audience by trying to sweep these controversial elements in their library under the rug.

Controversy aside, what do I think about the exclusive content available.  Well, or one thing, Disney made the smart choice of turning to Star Wars to deliver a Day One exclusive.  This comes in the form of the hotly anticipated series, The Mandalorian.  This ambitious new show is from the minds of director Jon Favreau and producer Dave Feloni (who previously created the Clone Wars animated series).  They wanted to create a Western style show within the Star Wars universe centered on a Mandalorian bounty hunter in the same mold as the iconic Boba Fett.  Though Disney+ had a lot of projects that were buzz-worthy leading up to it’s premiere, The Mandalorian was no doubt the one at the top of everyone’s list, and Disney was smart to make this one of it’s figurehead shows.  Having seen the only two episodes available so far, I can say that The Mandalorian is everything you want out of a Star Wars series.  It’s epic in scope, features incredible gritty performances from it’s cast which includes Pedro Pascal, Carl Weathers, Taika Waititi, and Werner Herzog of all people.  And it offers up an intriguing mystery that will likely open up a new chapter of Star Wars lore.  If there was ever a winning horse to bet on in Disney+’s early days, this was the right one to pick.  There are other shows available too, like the Kristen Bell produced Encore as well as a High School Musical series.  One show that I have found to be a delightful surprise is a National Geographic produced docu-series called The World According to Jeff Goldblum, which of course stars it’s titular host.  Goldblum is a delightful oddball and the show is tailor made for him, as he takes his unique perspective and investigates various small industries across the country with infectious fascination.  I have yet to look at the exclusive feature films debuting on Disney+, which includes a live action remake of Lady and the Tramp and the Christmas themed Noelle, starring Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader.  Those films no doubt show what’s in store for the future for Disney, as they begin to make more films that will be made exclusively for the platform and not for theatrical distribution.  And there is still many more on the horizon as well, including the very anticipated Marvel limited series, which are going to play a key role in the MCU Phase 4.  The only question remains is how bold will these exclusives be?

And what does this mean for streaming in the long run?  Will this begin to chip away at Netflix’s dominance in the streaming market?  While I do think Netflix will be affected in the short run, I don’t see Disney+ being a Netflix killer either.  Disney+ is just the competition, and if anything, competition will help to make Netflix even better.  Competition leads studios towards making bolder choices, and that is always a good thing for entertainment.  You are already seeing Netflix investing heavily in new talent and acquiring exclusive streaming rights to various properties, like their recent deal made with Nickelodeon.  And as more platforms hit the market in the coming years, like HBO Max and Peacock, both Netflix and Disney+ will only continue to raise the bar higher, hoping to gain the edge in the ever expanding market.  And that’s good news for creators out there, because now there is more demand for their ideas and talent.  Also, without the pressure of box office performance, these platforms can put together more films and shows based on outside the box concepts and perspectives.  It will give representation a boost as people who normally were not given the chance to put something that spoke to their community on screen before.  Up to this point, Netflix had been the kings of online streaming, and because of that, they were the ones who dictated the direction of the market.  Now, with competition from Disney, they are in the position of trying to find the fresh new thing that will keep them on top, and likewise, Disney will find fresh new ideas of their own to meet that challenge.  Like the past big gambles Disney has made in the past, Disney+ could be one that determines what kind of company they will be in the years and possibly decades ahead.  In my opinion, they are off to a solid start, albeit with just bit room for improvement, which they no doubt will take care of as time goes along.  It’s honestly one of the most exciting moments in Disney history and could indeed stand alongside Snow White and Disneyland as one of their greatest triumphs.  One can only hope that they’ll be able to sustain this outburst of creative fervor for a long time.  As for now, sit back in the comforts of your own home and enjoy all those Disney classics that you grew up loving, now just a simple click away.

The Irishman – Review

Netflix has made huge in roads over the last couple years to not only be the top dog in streaming content straight to the consumer, but to also be recognized as a legitimate production studio of it’s own.  As more and more of the established Hollywood movie studio giants are pulling out of their licensing deals with Netflix in order to launch platforms of their own, Netflix has become more and more reliant on their own exclusive content to help maintain their dominance in the market.  It has been a risky and expensive plan for Netflix, with the streaming giant spending billions of dollars already just on production, but it seems to have been working so far.  Not only did Netflix meet their new subscriber expectations within the last quarter, it actually surpassed them, which is good news for their bottom line as their toughest competitions are about to launch within the next week and months ahead.  A large part of this is the fact that they have put their money behind films and television shows that otherwise would not have found a home in the theatrical market, and in turn it has sparked more interest in the home viewership of Netflix’s audience.  Filmmakers with bolder, less mainstream visions who have had their outside the box projects rejected by the mainstream studio system have found Netflix to be a more welcoming environment, as there is less pressure on this platform to submit to box office appeal.  That’s why you are seeing so many filmmakers flocking to Netflix, which has benefited the streaming giant greatly.  With Netflix benefiting from this influx of top tier talent, their focus lately has been to break through the stigma home entertainment within the industry and be fully acknowledged as a worthy platform for cinema on par with the rest of the business, especially when it comes in awards form.  And after being denied last year with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) losing out in the Best Picture race, Netflix is more determined than ever to push forward again for that elusive prize.

In walks living legend Martin Scorsese, unarguably one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.  Scorsese has been a fixture within the industry for nearly half a century, making some of the greatest movies ever made.  So, when he suddenly announces that his next feature, The Irishman, would be a Netflix exclusive production, people are going to take notice.  Scorsese has been circling Irishman for a long time, working off and on for the better part of more than a decade.  It wasn’t until Netflix stepped in that the project finally found it’s footing, and Scorsese was finally able to see this dream project to completion.  Chronicling the life of Frank Sheeran, the notorious mob hitman and bodyguard/confidant of legendary Teamsters union president Jimmy Hoffa, The Irishman bears many similarities to previous mob movies that Scorsese has had his hands on over the years; particularly Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995).  Given how Scorsese and his longtime collaborators, notably actors Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, are all entering old age, this new film project no doubt feels like a swan song for this particular team, and I’m sure that’s what made it so appealing to Netflix.  The endeavor, however, was not going to be a quick and easy one.  Netflix reportedly spent close to $160 million dollars on this production, which is their most expensive single expenditure to date on a project; and you’ve got to remember, Netflix doesn’t rely on box office profits to earn that money back.  This is a bold risk to take for Netflix, but when the trade off is that you are the exclusive home to the last mafia movie made by the master of that genre, it may be the best possible decision in the long run.  No doubt Scorsese agreed to the deal because he knew that Netflix would allow him to make the movie that he wanted to make, without the interference that he normally would’ve received from a major studio.  The only question is, does The Irishman manage to live up to the incredible legacy of the master director’s previous work and was it worthwhile for Netflix to make a such a move in the first place.

It should be noted that though the movie features true events and real life historical figures, it is at the same time a work of speculative fiction.  The real life Frank Sheeran (played by Robert DeNiro in the film) went to his grave having never spoken out about his true involvement in the death and disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).  The movie is framed through an imagined confession from Sheeran as he addresses the audience directly from the comforts of his retirement home; telling the story his way, which he was never able to do in real life.  The movie does chronicle the things that we do know are true about Sheeran, and uses his point of view as a way of dramatizing the stuff we don’t quite know for sure in a belivable way.  We learn how he got involved with the Mafia in the first place, after a chance encounter with a well connected member named Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) puts him in their good graces.  After helping them with a few scams, Frank is given a new assignment by the local don, Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel), to take advantage of his other set of skills; cold-blooded murder.  Pretty soon, Frank earns the reputation as the most reliable hitman in the mafia.  After a while, Frank’s old friend Russell hooks up another job for him; a gig working as the bodyguard for their associate, Jimmy Hoffa, the most powerful union boss in America.  Sheeran accepts and over time he and Hoffa form a close bond.  Sheeran remains by Hoffa’s side over the course of many historical events and through some very turbulent rivalries as well, including with then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Huston).  But a dispute over union leadership with another mafia connected rival named Anthony “ton Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) suddenly puts Hoffa in conflict with the Mafia dons, who are worried that the temperamental politico will turn “rat” and sell them out to the government.  As a result, Sheeran becomes torn between the two alliances that have meant so much to him and made him who he is.  Does he betray a friend to appease the powers that put him where he is, or does he stand up against the might of the American Mafia?

The Irishman, like all Netflix productions, is intended to be available to stream exclusively on their platform.  However, in order to qualify for the Awards contention, it must screen for a minimum of three weeks in theaters within the crucial media centers of Los Angeles and New York City.  So, Netflix agreed to a limited theatrical run for The Irishman in anticipation of it’s late November release on it’s channel in order to meet that crucial awards criteria, as well as a limited nationwide roll-out.  Even still, major chains have refused to screen the film, objecting to Netflix’s small window before it’s streaming debut, so most markets will not be able to have the movie available on the big screen.  Thankfully, I live in one of those key markets that does have the movie available to watch on the big screen.  In fact, I was able to watch the movie in the first ever theater owned outright by Netflix themselves; the legendary Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in the heart of Hollywood.  Seeing any movie in a theater as legendary, and nearly 100 year old, as the Egyptian is a treat, but seeing one as exclusive as Netflix’s own Scorsese feature is even more appetizing.  And I can tell you that this is a movie that absolutely must be seen on a big screen while you still can; if you can.  Scorsese is a filmmaker at the absolute peak of his craft, and every time he steps behind the camera, you know that you’re going to see something special.  After taking on two wildly different projects in the last decade with The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and Silence (2016), it’s interesting to see him return to familiar ground with The Irishman, which feels like the continuation of his previous work.  In a strange way, The Irishman almost feels like the finale of a trilogy, working as a spiritual successor to both Goodfellas and Casino; probably because of the presence of DeNiro and Pesci.  And as far as trilogy cappers go, this is definitely Scorsese’s Return of the King, because everything we love about those other mafia movies is taken to their absolute zenith with The Irishman.

If you’re a fan of Scorsese’s other mafia movies, you’ll find a lot to love with The Irishman.  The movie carries over the same dark sense of humor, the same shocking bursts of violence, and the same uncompromising portrayals of humanity found in those other films.  Scorsese is definitely in familiar territory here, but at the same time, he’s not just resting on his laurels.  He spends the movie’s very lengthy run time building up a spectacular narrative that takes us deep into this world, with a great amount of care devoted to making us care about these characters.  All the while, Scorsese digs into all the tricks he’s learned over his long career and even surprises us with a few new ones he’s picked up along the way.  One of them includes some of the most beautifully shot slow motion that I’ve ever seen used in a movie; which is a technique that he picked up recently  from Wolf of Wall Street.  I should also note just how beautifully edited this movie is; a testament to the artistry that Socrsese’s longtime collaborator, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, brings to every movie that she works with him on.  Here, she goes above and beyond and each scene movies so gracefully from one shot to the next that it shows just how amazing she is at what she does.  These two legends have made so many classic films together, and The Irishman just brings out the best in both of them.  Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, working with Scorsese for the third straight time, also delivers some beautiful shots in this movie as well, picking up the mantle left by previous Scorsese cameramen like Michael Ballhaus and Robert Richardson perfectly.  It’s his work in particular that I’m worried might lose it’s impact through streaming at home, as it demands a bigger screen to be fully appreciated.

What I’m sure most people are going to respond to the most with this movie is the all star cast, which almost reads like a list of the Martin Scorsese All-Stars.  In particular, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci sharing the screen once again is going to be one of the most talked about stories about this film for a long time.  Though Scorsese had no problem securing the still very active DeNiro into the role of Frank Sheeran, continuing their decades long partnership, he apparently had to do a lot of coaxing in order to get Pesci to say yes.  Joe Pesci has been fully retired for several years, and was very reluctant to step back in front of a camera again.  But, eventually he agreed to the offer, probably after Scorsese promised that this was going to be their final go around together, and it’s a blessing to see Pesci back in form in this movie.  Many of the movie’s best scenes are the ones shared by DeNiro and Pesci, as you can feel their long standing, real life friendship coming through in their performances.  Pesci in particular is a revelation here, as he is far more subdued than his past characters in Scorsese’s flicks.  Some viewers may be startled at first by the movie’s usage of the de-aging CGI effect to make both Pesci and DeNiro look younger in flashback scenes, but after a while you get used to them and the actors’ performances shine through.  The movie also features a stellar ensemble cast as well.  Fans of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire will be happy to note to that many of that show’s cast, including Bobby Canavale and Stephen Graham to name a few, litter the film throughout.  But, if the movie had an MVP, it would be Al Pacino in the role of Jimmy Hoffa.  Surprisingly marking his debut in a Scorsese directed film, Pacino is fully unleashed in this movie, delivering a delightfully scene-chewing performance as the controversial figure.  If anything, Pacino will be this movie’s best shot at securing an Oscar come awards time next year.  Given the movie’s already top tier cast, it’s amazing just how much Pacino commands every scene he has in the film, and it’s any wonder why it took this long for him and Scorsese to finally cross paths.

For the most part, the movie uses it’s run time effectively.  The Irishman is long, even for a Scorsese movie, running at a staggering 209 minutes (or nearly three and a half hours).  But it doesn’t waste it’s epic length, devoting much of it’s run time to a rapid fire pace.  Even still, I would say that the movie’s one and only fault is the fact that when it enters it’s epilogue like final stretch, it does take it’s foot off the gas and slows to a crawl.  I notice that it happens pretty much after (SPOILER) Jimmy Hoffa is taken out of the picture.  While the movie doesn’t crash and burn afterwards, it is a bit disappointing that the final 30 minutes of the movie doesn’t have the same energy as the previous 3 hours.  Indeed the first 3/4 of the movie is some of the best time I have spent watching a movie in the theater this year.  The movie was this beautiful mixture of humor, shocking turns, and edge of your seat tension, so I was a little saddened to see the final stretch feel like such a slog.  It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it also feels like a missed opportunity.  More could have been made of the strained relationship between Frank Sheeran and his daughter Peggy (played by Anna Paquin), but the movie only gives it a passing glance.  Perhaps it’s comparison that I make with Goodfellas and Casino that reflects badly on this film, because those movies ended on more critical notes.  The Irishman instead ends in a more contemplative tone, which may be truer to the character of Frank Sheeran, but it feels in conflict with the rest of the movie we had seen up to that point.  Even still, the movie, for as long as it is, is still a thoroughly engaging cinematic experience that represents everything we love about Scorsese and more.

It will be interesting to see where The Irishman‘s place will fall within the legacy of Martin Scorsese as a filmmaker.  I for one believe that it stands shoulder to shoulder with his now decades old mafia classics, and indeed the trilogy analogy does feel apt.  I can see this working as a the finale of a Scorsese triple feature with Goodfellas and Casino, since they are all very similar in tone and execution.  I for one am just amazed that even into his late 70’s that Scorsese still has a movie like this in him, and that he could execute it so effectively without losing a beat.  No doubt the free reign that Netflix gave him enabled him to make this movie the way he wanted to make it, and it just shows how great a filmmaker he continues to be as he makes good on that trust.  If anything, this movie is worth seeing just as the marking of an end of an era.  We may never see Scorsese create a Mafia movie ever again, and certainly not with all these same actors.  And if this is truly the end for this kind of movie, then it’s a very fitting end.  It’s certainly a treat to see that we got one more out of these guys, and that’s something that we should both cherish and praise Netflix for making it happen.  If anything, this has been the thing that really makes Netflix deserve a place in the pantheon of top Hollywood studios.  They are granting filmmakers the chance to experiment and work on projects that appeal to them personally, and by putting it out on their platform, it gives each of those projects the best chance of finding an audience.  I don’t know how The Irishman might have performed if given a traditional release, but there’s no doubt that it’s place within the legacy of the director is going to be one of high esteem.  If it’s playing on a big screen in your area, please take advantage and see it that way first.  But if not, then please show your support when it starts streaming on Netflix starting on November 27.  Either way you watch it, this will be a movie in the collective conversation for a long time, and proof that the future of film-making will indeed by influenced by the likes of Netflix and other streaming platforms.  It may be a turbulent change, but at least great movies like The Irishman are the result of it.

Rating: 9/10

Part of Our World – How a Little Mermaid Helped a Studio Find it’s Legs 30 Years Ago

When I was seven years old in 1989, I had a surprisingly acute sense of the different styles of animation out there.  That is to say, I could tell when something was a Disney production and when something was made by say Don Bluth or the like.  This was mainly due to the fact that my little film buff mind in the making had seen quite a few films already in the mid to late 80’s, as my mom had taken me and my siblings to the movies often.  And this was also a time when animation was beginning to see a bit of a rebound.  The previously mentioned Don Bluth had struck out on his own as a force in animation and created a string of hits during the decade, including The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), and The Land Before Time (1988).  But curiously enough, the studio that had revolutionized the medium in the first place was notably quiet during the 1980’s.  Disney Animation was still a big deal to me as a kid, but unbeknownst to me at the time, most of what I was seeing during those formative years were movies far older than I realized.  Disney, in the days before home video, kept their library of classics in regular rotation with movie theater re-releases.  I can recall that the first movies I ever saw in a theater when I was about 2 or 3 were 101 Dalmatians (1961) and Sleeping Beauty (1959).  It’s to the strength of how well those movies hold up that I never caught on how old those movies were as a child, but it is interesting how reliant Disney was on their classics to see them through what were surprisingly turbulent times.  As I grew up and became more informed about the history of Hollywood and the medium of animation, I would soon learn that the 1980’s was a transitional time for Walt Disney animation, and one film in particular would change the course of it’s future forever.

That movie of course would be The Little Mermaid (1989).  Mermaid came at a crucial time for Disney, when it seemed like the future of animation at the studio was in serious doubt.  Since the untimely passing of Walt Disney in 1966, the studio was in a constant state of flux.  Walt’s brother Roy would hold the studio together for a while, but his passing in 1971, mere weeks after the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida, left a significant power vacuum at the studio.  Ultimately, Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law, would take up the position of CEO of the company and he oversaw the continuation of the animation division that had been the backbone of the studio since it’s inception.  During the 1970’s, Disney had modest success with films like Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977), but some of the spark that had been present in the animated film’s of Walt’s era felt noticeably absent in these newer films.  The core group of animators, affectionately called the Nine Old Men, were all aging and about to retire, so animation at Disney was facing an uncertain future.  Re-releases of the classic features became much more frequent for the studio as they were trying to milk them for more cash in these cash strapped days, leading Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney to complain that it felt like they were running a museum instead of a studio.  Eventually, Ron Miller ended up greenlighting a new film that would hopefully turn the tide, hoping to capitalize on the fantasy film resurgence of the 1980’s, due to the popularity of movies like The Never-Ending Story (1984).  That movie, The Black Cauldron (1985) was a financial disaster, going way over budget and falling well short at the box office, even losing to The Care Bears Movie (1985).  As a result, Miller’s time as the head of the Disney company came to a disastrous end.

The failure of The Black Cauldron nearly wiped out the credibility of Disney animation forever, and perhaps more than at any other time, it seemed like the house that Mickey Mouse built may actually have turned it’s back on animation forever.  Ron Miller’s exit from the company came out of a shocking turn of events, as Roy E. Disney helped to lead a shareholder revolt which led to his ouster.  In his place, Disney convinced a trio of executives from Paramount to come over to the Burbank studio to help revitalize the company.  These included Michael Eisner, who would become the new CEO, Frank Wells, the new COO, and Jeffrey Katzenberg who would become the new President of the Movie Division, which included the animation department.  Initially, the shake-up of the company put animation in a lower priority, as Eisner and Katzenberg were more intent on turning Disney into a more productive studio for live action films, which was their forte.  But Roy, who was now the Chairman of the company, convinced them to retain the animation department.  However, to appease the new executives wishes, animation was moved out of the Studio Lot offices in Burbank and relocated to a temporary facility in nearby Glendale; another sign of animation’s precarious position at the studio.  Already greenlit features like The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Oliver & Company (1988) were allowed to continue production, but Katzenberg and Eisner needed convincing for what would come after.  In what Disney animators at the time refer to now as their “Gong Show”, members of the animation department were allowed to present pitches for potential new features that would receive the green-light.  One of the teams that made their pitch were young animation directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who came in with two ideas.  One idea was Treasure Island (but in Space) and the other was an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale classic, The Little Mermaid.  Of course one got the go ahead, while the other went on the shelf for another 15 years.

Though The Little Mermaid had been given the okay from Jeffrey Katzenberg, it’s production was still not without it’s risks.  The studio had fewer resources at their disposal, and creating an animated film with an undersea setting was going to require a significant level of ambition.  Musker and Clements also had to deal with the fact that all of their team would have to work off site at the new Glendale offices, which were less than ideal for animation production.  Yet, a couple of factors helped to give them the boost they needed to not only see this production through, but to also go above and beyond what others expected of them.  First of all, the new studio heads saw greater potential in the marketability of animation, as they saw surprising success with a 50th Anniversary re-release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) as well as having a box office hit with the hybrid film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) which combined animation and live action to incredible effect.  Also, Musker and Clements looked to Broadway to give this Mermaid a whole different kind of voice.  Up until this point, Disney films had turned to Tin Pan Alley curated songwriters to fill their ever expanding songbook, with the celebrated Sherman Brothers being among the most influential.  But for the Little Mermaid, it was felt that  a more Broadway sounding score would help to elevate the story even more, so the directors reached out to the pair of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman.  The duo of Menken and Ashman had just come off the success of their musical Little Shop of Horrors, and they were eager to lend their talents to a Disney animated film.  Ashman in particular became very involved, taking on a role as producer and giving significant input into the script as well, particularly when it came to the character development of the mermaid herself, Ariel.  With a confident team now in place, the movie went full steam ahead and what ended up happening after was surprising to a lot of people, and a wake up call for Hollywood in general.

The Little Mermaid took Hollywood by storm.  It outperformed expectations at the box office, and helped to earn Menken and Ashman their very first Oscar wins, both for Original Score and for Original Song (Under the Sea), which was a feat that an animated Disney film hadn’t done since Pinocchio back in 1940.  More importantly, it put Disney back on the map in animation.  After so much doubt in it’s future viability as a part of the Disney Studio during the post Ron Miller years, it became clear, Animation was there to stay.  The Glendale offices were closed and the animators triumphantly returned to their old offices on the Burbank lot.  And with a hit now under their belt, Eisner and Katzenberg were eager to loosen up the purse strings and green-light a whole new batch of animated features, all with the same ambitious scale as The Little Mermaid.  In the years after, Disney kept building on each success, with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994) breaking every box office record thereafter and racking up award after award.   This era would become known as the Disney Renaissance, which The Little Mermaid is often cited as the catalyst point for starting.  As a result, The Little Mermaid holds a special place in the hearts of Disney and Animation fans across the world.  It’s hard to imagine a world where this movie did not exist.  How different would animation be had The Little Mermaid not come out at that pivotal time.  I for one am grateful for it’s existence, because it ushered in a whole new era for Disney animation, rising to the same level as those classics made in Walt’s time.  But it’s also interesting to reflect on exactly why this movie in particular was able to make this significant change in the medium.

I think a large part of why the movie connected was because it fulfilled a need that both the industry and audiences were looking for.  It should be noted that animation is a very costly form of film-making, and a large reason why the medium suffered for a while is because it became too expensive to make movies like them for a while.  Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, while a celebrated masterpiece, was also a financial burden that nearly caused the studio to fall into the red.  That’s why Disney resorted to cheaper methods in the years after, because he couldn’t confidently pull something as ambitious as Sleeping Beauty off again.  Sadly, in the years after Walt’s departure, they became complacent in this cheaper mode of animation, and it made people less interested in the medium for a while.  Don Bluth notably quit Disney to set out on his own because he was tired of the studio taking fewer risks and playing it safe.  By taking on something ambitious like The Little Mermaid, Disney was bucking this trend that they had found themselves in, and were finally embracing the fact that they could do a whole lot better.  It’s clear that Musker and Clements were looking to reach that higher standard that was set during the Walt era, and their team of animators were hungry to prove their worth and show just how great animation could be once again.  From the lush backgrounds, to the vibrant colors, to the expressive animation of the characters, The Little Mermaid just shines with every frame, and it shows that this team of young artists were determined to bring animation back in a big way.  It may not break new ground in the same way as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty had, but the confidence behind it helps to overcome it’s artistic shortcomings in order to earn it’s place alongside those beloved classics.

I believe that a large part of why The Little Mermaid works so well is because the characters are so vividly portrayed.  In particular, Ariel is a real breakthrough of a character that more than anything has helped to make this movie the classic that it is.  Though Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora are iconic Disney princesses in their own right, Ariel was very different.  She was not a damsel in distress waiting for her prince to come; she was very much in charge of her own destiny.  Sure, it still involves falling for a handsome prince, but her strong will made her very different from her predecessors.  She was willing to stand up for herself, speak her own mind, and do whatever it took to find her happiness.  She would lay the groundwork for so many free-thinking Disney heroines in the years ahead, including Belle and Jasmine, and in many ways was the thing that really helped to bring about a Renaissance for Disney animation.  For the first time, a Princess was the driving force of her story, and not a passive player in a grander narrative (though I would argue that Cinderella is often underappreciated in that regard).  A large part of Ariel’s character was no doubt influenced by the casting of a young Broadway ingenue named Jodi Benson, who was brought on board thanks to her close friendship and association with Howard Ashman.  In Ariel, you see the care and attention that Ashman instilled into the character, and it was important to him that her powerful voice would come through, which Benson absolutely delivers on, both in voice and song.  But the strength of a heroine is only measure by how well she reflects against a great villain, and The Little Mermaid has one of the all time greats.  Ursula, the Sea Witch, is an incredibly well designed and performed character, voiced unforgettably by Pat Carroll.  Everything we love about Disney villainesses is found in this character and she stands as one of Disney’s best alongside Maleficent, the Evil Queen, and Lady Tremaine.  Interesting enough, and showing just how risk-taking Disney had become, the visual inspiration for Ursula came from drag queen Divine, who just so happened to be an acquaintance of both Menken and Ashman, who no doubt modeled the character as a tribute.  In both Ariel and Ursula, we see how the Disney animated film came roaring back because these were characters that weren’t just following in other characters’ footsteps, but were instead meant to raise the bar for all those who would come after.

You can imagine how thrilled I was as a seven year old kid to see something like The Little Mermaid.  This movie just had everything I already loved about animation, but was entirely fresh and new.  Only after learning about how much it had to overcome in order to be the classic that it is just makes me appreciate it all the more now as an adult.  There’s a wonderful documentary about the turning point years of the Disney Renaissance called Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009) that I strongly recommend.  It chronicles the years leading up to and after the making of The Little Mermaid and it shows you just how important that movie was in changing the culture at that studio.  Had The Little Mermaid never become the success that it had, Disney may have abandoned it’s animation wing altogether, and animation in general may been lost to the fringes of the industry, relegated to a niche market.  Who knows how much the fortunes of the company may have changed.  Would Disney have continued to grow like it has over the years?  Would it have been bold enough to take critical moves like purchasing Marvel and Star Wars?  Would it have been put on the market and sold to some conglomerate, instead of retaining it’s independence like it always has?  So, many uncertain futures, all of which never happened because one little mermaid helped this struggling company find it’s footing again.  Musker and Clements would go on to become two of the most prolific animation directors of all time, including finally making their Treasure Island in Space project with 2002’s Treasure Planet.  Alan Menken would end up winning so many Academy Awards with Disney, even after the tragic passing of his partner Howard Ashman who succumbed to AIDS related illness in 1991, that the Academy had to change their own rules as a result.  And the animation team, who were once exiled off the studio lot, are now celebrated legends within the industry.  The animation department at Disney continues to be a crucial part of the company, cemented forever because of The Little Mermaid, and they now enjoy their home in the lavish new Roy Disney Animation Building adjacent to the Burbank lot.  If there was ever a movie in the Disney Animation canon that made the most difference, it was The Little Mermaid, because it was the one that ensured it’s survival.  This little mermaid gave Disney back it’s voice, and allowed it to sing strong for my generation in particular, and for all those thereafter.  We got no troubles, life is the bubbles, under the sea.

Top Ten Movie Villains of the 2010’s

Heading into the next decade when it comes to cinema makes one look back on the past 10 and think about what impact has been left behind.  For the most part, we look back at all the most inspiring moments as well as the most fun ones as well.  At the same time, we also take a look back at all the moments that left us chilled to the bone.  The 2010’s was a tumultuous time, so it was often hard for the movies to keep up with all the scary things going on in real life, but even so, there have been plenty of thrills and scares on the big screen that have stuck with us.  But what really makes us remember the darker cinematic moments of the last decade is the incredibly dark characters that are usually at the center of them.  As is often the case with movies of all types, the villains are always the most memorable characters.  The 2010’s were full of villains of all types, but the ones that stuck around in our mind were pretty reflective of the direction that cinema had been heading in throughout the last ten years.  For one thing, thanks to Marvel and DC, comic book villains became the most popular throughout the decade.  Marvel’s rogues gallery in particular enjoyed a major boost, as many once obscure Marvel baddies all of a sudden became household names.  That’s not to say DC’s were left behind though; one of their’s is currently enjoying record breaking box office with his own movie in theaters right now.  But, there were also plenty of other villains that still left their mark outside of the super hero genre, and usually their lasting impression came from the fact that their darkness was all too real and familiar in our daily lives.  What follows is my list of the best movie villains from the last decade.  Some are no-brainers, but there are a few here that are personal favorites of mine, and I hope that spotlighting them here will help to keep their presence fresh in people’s minds as the decade comes to a close.  So, let’s take a look at the best of the worst from the 2010’s.

10.

DAISY DOMERGUE from THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

Played by Jennifer Jason Leigh

Quentin Tarantino’s early films were pretty light on primary villains, mainly due to the fact that he made movies where everyone was a villain of some kind.  But many of his recent films have managed to spotlight a character above all the others that just is evil incarnate, and as a result, ends up being the most memorable character in a film full of great characters.  Chief among them certainly was Colonel Hans Landa from Inglorious Basterds (2009), who stands among the greatest movie villains of all time (and a personal favorite of mine).  Django Unchained (2012) gave us a dastardly duo with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson’s house slave Stephen.  But, for a villainous character that stood out as truly one of the best of the decade from the imagination of Mr. Tarantino, it was Daisy Domergue from The Hateful Eight.  Daisy, when we first meet her, is already a condemned woman on her way to a hanging, and for the first half of the movie, her presence is merely to be there as a vile low life whom we laugh at whenever she gets under the skin of her captor, John “The Hang-Man” Ruth (Kurt Russell).  But, as the plot unfolds within the confines of the isolated log cabin that all the titular 8 characters end up stranded in, we learn that she is far more cunning than we initially perceived.  Daisy becomes something like a spider, delightfully toying with all these flys that have been caught in her web, and through her manipulations, we see Tarantino create one of the most despicable characters he’s ever dreamed up for one of his movies, brought to life so exquisitely through Jennifer Jason Leigh’s fearless, Oscar nominated performance.  In Sam Jackson’s character’s own words, she is a “diabolical bitch” and that makes her all the more memorable.

9.

RICHARD STRICKLAND from THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

Played by Michael Shannon

In the wrong hands, a character like Agent Strickland could have turned very one note.  On paper, he is basically a physical representation of repression that plagues the central characters of Guillermo Del Toro’s sci-fi fairy tale.  He’s a racist, misogynist, and a sadist, and what makes all those different aspects of his personality worse is the fact that he’s a man in a position of power.  But, the character becomes far more than the tropes that defines him, because actor Michael Shannon brings so much presence into his performance.  One of the greatest character actors working today, Shannon has played his fair share of dark, foreboding characters, but with Strickland he goes for broke, creating one of the most heartless characters seen on screen in many years.  Another actor in the role might not have been able to play the character as sinister as Shannon makes him here, or at least with the same sincerity.  Michael Shannon makes Strickland as rotten to the core as the fingers that are literally rotting on his hand throughout the movie.  And I love the fact that the movie never tries to find the silver lining within the character; that soft spot that most other films feel like they need to include in a villain’s backstory in order to bring them “depth.”  The Shape of Water is a movie about monsters who have a heart, and through Strickland, we see that the most human character, with the most human flaws, is the one who acts the most monstrous.  It’s the people that use their power to play by their own rules that Del Toro presents an impressively vivid portrayal of villainy, and given how the world evolved over the last decade, Strickland is one of the most prescient villainous characters in recent memory.  It’s no mistake that Del Toro put all that into an agent of the government.

8.

EDWIN EPPS from 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Played by Michael Fassbender

It’s hard t encapsulate all the horrors of slavery within a single narrative, but one of the most valiant efforts of recent years was this Steve McQueen directed adaptation of 12 Years a Slave, the historical autobiographical account of Solomon Northup.  Not only does Solomon (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) have to endure the daily horrors of a lifestyle that he was trapped into and has no means of escape except to rely upon his intelligence, but he must also do so under the tyrannical eye of the master who has taken ownership of him.  Edwin Epps stands out as one of the most frightening villains of the decade not only because of how he embodies all the evils of this institution, but also because of how chillingly he manipulative he is as well.  The brilliance in Michael Fassbender’s unforgettable performance is in how he doesn’t simply portray Epps as a foaming at the mouth bigot.  It’s the quietness of his terror that makes him especially effective.  The scene where he confronts Solomon after discovering his plot to make an escape is especially tense, as all that Epps does to instill fear into him to make Solomon confess is to wrap his arm over his shoulder and hold a small knife to his gut.  He never utters a word and instead lets Solomon do all the talking, all the while giving Solomon a penetrating stare.  There are other scenes where Edwin grows more outwardly violent, but in this unforgettable scene we see just how effectively foreboding he can be in one of his most restrained moments.  He perfectly represents the institution of slavery in America; false gentility masking the truly horrifying and inhumane practices that lied under the surface.  12 Years a Slave effectively conveyed the absolute terror that it must have been like to live under such oppression and Edwin Epps, with his projection of moral authority guiding his every brutal move, shows us how chillingly real such brutality could exist within our own history.

7.

THE ARMITAGE FAMILY from GET OUT (2017)

Played by Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener, Allison Williams, and Caleb Landry Jones

Sticking within the same theme of black men entrapped into an institution of slavery of some kind, writer and director Jordan Peele put his own modern spin on the concept with his breakthrough horror film.  And he does so with not just one memorable villain at it’s center, but a whole family of them.  The Armitage Family are a wonderfully twisted group of characters, seemingly normal on the surface until you peel back the layers and find out what they are really up to.  What is brilliant about Peele’s reveal within the movie is that he makes the Armitages feel like the family next door, completely comfortable with the idea of accepting a person of color into their family.  Jordan Peele even makes them politically liberal, stating that they would’ve “voted for Obama for a third time.”  But as the movie goes along, and the truth comes out, we learn that their is a sinister side to their comfort level with African Americans, and what their actual deal is becomes both insane and terrifying.  Catherine Keener’s Missy, the matriarch of the Armitage clan, is especially memorable with her chilling use of hypnosis to entrap black men and women within their own minds.  You’ll never see anyone make stirring tea in a cup as frightening as she does in this movie.  Allison Williams also stands out as the one who creates the false sense of security for Daniel Kaluuya’s protagonist, going from the ideal girlfriend to the embodiment of evil literally within a flash, once the truth comes out.  Much like how it probably would have been back in the days of Slavery in America, that projection of civility masks the truly sinister practice underneath, and more importantly, it’s all centered around the dehumanization of a whole race of people for the benefit of the captors.  With the Armitages, Jordan Peele shows that the evils that have plagued America still can be found even with what appears to be the perfect, modern American family.

6.

TERENCE FLETCHER from WHIPLASH (2014)

Played by J.K. Simmons

Of course, not all great villains need to be murderers or monsters.  Some could just be the teacher from Hell.  That’s the case with Terence Fletcher from the movie Whiplash.  In Damien Chazelle’s explosive debut feature, he presented us with one of the most unforgettable antagonists in recent memory, and in one of the most unexpected places as well.  You don’t expect to be confronted with the struggle of your life within a jazz class at a music conservatory, but that’s the situation that Fletcher creates for Miles Teller’s Andrew Nieman.  Fletcher’s style of teaching is, how shall I put this, a little extreme.  One moment he’s calm and collected, the next, he’s throwing a chair across the room right at your head because you’re off the beat.  Simmons’ Oscar winning performance is stunning to watch as he balances both the intensity and the serenity of this perfectionist character.  No other actor could instill so much menace into a phrase as simple as “not my tempo.”  The scary thing is, we’ve all met a Fletcher in our lives; that one person who drove us nearly into insanity with their obsession to mold us into a more ideal person, whether that person was a teacher, a coach, a loved one, or our boss.  We’ve all experienced something like that to certain degrees, but Fletcher is certainly an extreme case that makes this narrative about creating perfection in art such a harrowing ride.  By the end, Andrew and Fletcher do come to a glorious moment when they are on the same page, but you’re left with the feeling of wondering if was worth the struggle in the end.  I just love the fact that the normally mild-mannered Simmons was able to create such an intense portrayal of this character.  There are moments where he’s wound up so tight that it looks like veins will pop right out of his head as he growls his commands sometimes too close for comfort.  As we see with his character, you don’t have to commit evil acts to be an iconic villain; sometimes you just need to be the most glorious of assholes.

5.

SILVA from SKYFALL (2012)

Played by Javier Bardem

The long running James Bond franchise has had it’s fair share of memorable villains throughout the years; Goldfinger, Scaramanga, and of course Bond’s arch-nemisis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who just recently saw a cinematic revival in Spectre (2015).  But, it was with the third film in the Daniel Craig era that the franchise may have created it’s most memorable villain yet.  Silva is a character so vividly imagined that he almost puts all the others to shame, especially those that came from some of Bond’s campier outings.  Having already come out of the previous decade playing one of the best villains of the 2000’s (Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men), Javier Bardem created yet another all time great baddie with Silva; a villain with more layers than a wedding cake.  Silva’s main motivation is revenge, not against Bond, but rather against the woman that trained both of them into the killers that they became, M (played by Judi Dench).  But his villainy extends beyond just vengeance, as he displays some severe psychological trauma that’s driving his sinister actions, delighting in the suffering he’s inflicting like it’s a game.  In many ways, he’s a twisted mirror of James Bond himself.  Where Bond is a cool, level headed agent with a licence to kill with expert precision, Silva is a killer with a flair for the dramatic and a lack of compassion for even the most innocent of person unlucky to be caught in his way.  Combine this with a genius level intellect, and we’ve got a character that probably represents Bond’s greatest threat ever.  When we first meet Silva, he tells us the metaphorical tale of rats trapped in a barrel until there were only two left, after they had resorted to eating the rest.  In his words, “they had changed their nature.”  And that makes Silva so memorable a villain, as being the best challenge that James Bond has ever faced, with the two of them battling it out to be the last rat standing.

4.

BANE from THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

Played by Tom Hardy

Christopher Nolan had an almost impossible task with his follow-up to The Dark Knight (2008).  Heath Ledger’s now iconic performance as The Joker was almost too high a bar to overcome, and given Ledger’s untimely death following the making of the movie, Nolan couldn’t continue on with another actor because of how well Ledger left his mark on the role.  Thankfully, Batman’s rogues gallery is a deep one and there were plenty of iconic characters to choose from as a possible follow-up.  The only question is, could Nolan find one that could rise to that same level.  Surprisingly, Nolan landed on the character of Bane as the villain for this trilogy capper; a character that you wouldn’t have expected for this version of the Batman mythos as imagined by Christopher Nolan, especially following in the wake of the Joker.  But, somehow he made it work, thanks in no small part to an incredible performance by Tom Hardy that, in my opinion, rises up to the high standard set by Heath Ledger.   The smart decision was made to completely transform the character, straying away from the Luchador mask wearing, steroid enhanced muscle man from the comics.  In Dark Knight Rises, Bane is a muscle bound terrorist with a mission, as well as the gravitas to inspire chaos to reign over Gotham City.  He’s more than a physical match for Batman, even incapacitating him after their first fight, and what makes him such an effective villain is that he’s both brains and brawn.  In many ways, I like this Bane better than the comic book version, and he may even be my favorite character in the entire Dark Knight trilogy.  I especially love Hardy’s commitment to that peculiar and often imitated voice, and how much of his acting comes through in the eyes, as his face remains covered by that gnarly looking mask.  Even detractors of The Dark Knight Rises still sing the praises of Hardy’s performance.  The most remarkable thing about the character though is that he rose up from a second tier Batman villain into a more elevated level, and remarkably holding his own in the final chapter of a groundbreaking trilogy, and even became an adequate follow-up to one of the greatest screen villains of all time.

3.

AMY DUNNE from GONE GIRL (2014)

Played by Rosamund Pike

We are now in a time when abuse victims claims are now thankfully taken more seriously, but suspicion still dogs many cases where one party will claim that the other is fabricating their story for whatever reason.  Gone Girl takes that kind of scenario to the extreme, where the character of Amy Dunne, frames her husband (played by Ben Affleck) for her disappearance and possible murder.  Her motive is out of disgust for her married life, which is not unfounded as Affleck’s Nick Dunne is no saint, but what makes Amy such a memorable villain is the lengths that she goes to for her vengeance.  She’s almost a genius when it comes to covering all her tracks and making her husband look like the guiltiest man in the world.  But she doesn’t just stop there.  After misfortune sidelines her well laid out plan, she goes to even more extreme ends to end up on top; even resorting to self-mutilation and murder.  And it’s all in the service of keeping up the appearance that she is completely innocent.  What I love about Rosamund Pike’s performance is the fact that she seems to take some thrill in causing so much chaos.  As her husband continues to be grilled and beaten down by the media that has falsely proclaimed him as a monster, she gleefully sits by and watches her narrative play out exactly as she wanted it to, until Nick learns of her came and comes back with some media manipulation of his own.  In many ways, Amy is a perfect representation of the kind of monstrous way that we let the truth slip away all in the service of a more compelling narrative, and how some sinister people are literally able to get away with murder because of that.  Media manipulation is a very contemporary evil, and Amy Dunne is one of the most compelling villains we’ve seen that embodies that.  In a brilliant bookend to the movie, we see the same shot of Amy staring back at us from the POV of her husband.  Once the full context of the movie comes into focus, the meaning of the shot changes, and becomes a quite frightening final note.

2.

KYLO REN from STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015), THE LAST JEDI (2017) and THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)

Played by Adam Driver

In an iconic saga that has spanned several decades and has included all time great villains like Darth Vader, it was going to be a daunting task to create a new villain that would live up to the high Star Wars standard.  Thankfully, this concluding trilogy brought us probably the most compelling villain yet in this series.  Kylo Ren may not be as menacing a presence as Darth Vader, but he is probably the most fleshed out baddie we’ve seen in the Star Wars universe so far.  Caught in between the pull of the light and dark side, Kylo Ren’s story is a semi-tragic one, where we see how a character who has the ability to do good constantly falls into a spiral of evil actions, all in the pursuit of some empty fulfillment.  It’s all the more tragic given how he is the off-spring of two of Star Wars most beloved heroes; Han Solo and Leia Organa.  His turn towards the dark side could’ve been avoided too, had the pure hearted Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) not succumbed to one moment of weakness in his pursuit of exterminating all forms of the dark side in the world, even if it manifested slightly in his own nephew.  It’s that tragic sense of the character that makes him so compelling, and he’s vividly portrayed throughout the trilogy by Adam Driver.  Driver is able to capture the moodiness of the character without making him an insufferable edge-lord of a character.  A part of us hopes that he can be redeemed, but the sad truth is that he may be far too gone to ever come back to the light.  Given how I picked his counterpart, Rey, as the hero of the decade, it only makes sense for his inclusion here as well.  It will be interesting to see how his character evolves further as the saga comes to an end this December.   No matter what happens, the Star Wars saga has left us with a memorable villain in it’s final chapter that delivers just as much interesting pathos as he does chilling menace.

1.

THANOS from AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) and AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

Played by Josh Brolin

Not really a big shock that Thanos tops this list.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been the most defining cinematic creation of the last decade and Thanos has certainly be set up as it’s primary antagonist.  Ever since he was first teased in the end credits of the original Avengers in 2012, there has been a growing anticipation for his ultimate showdown with the band of super heroes.  Remarkably, Marvel was able to sustain that anticipation through three full phases of their world building over multiple franchises and 21 total films.  Some were worried that Thanos wouldn’t be able to live up to the hype, but thankfully in the hands of a skilled actor like Josh Brolin, not only did Thanos deliver, he left an unforgettable impression that in many ways makes him one of cinemas greatest villains ever.  First of all, the character is a technical marvel (so to speak), setting a new high bar in the motion capture technology utilized to bring him to life.  It really is amazing how much of Josh Brolin’s subtle acting translates into the CGI model of the character.  At the same time, the “Infinity Saga” duo of Infinity War and Endgame do such an amazing job of portraying his character, explaining his motives and even finding the sadness underneath that drives his evil actions.  Thanos is by no means a sympathetic villain, but we feel the anguish that takes a toll on him throughout as he heads toward his evil goals.  As he says in the movie, “I am inevitable,” and it’s that unwavering drive towards his own zealous ideal that makes him truly terrifying.  It also helps that he commits one of the most evil acts ever put on screen by killing half of all life in the universe with the snap of his fingers; including some beloved characters.  Thanos was every bit worth all of the build-up and Marvel did the character justice in the end.  If there was anything that defined on screen villainy in the last decade, it was the long awaited arrival of the tyrannical mad Titan, and the way he left us all shaken to the core by the depths of his evil deeds.

So, there you have my choices for the best movie villains of the 2010’s.  Some are likely choices, but others are ones that I hope are given deeper evaluation in the years to come.  No doubt, the comic book dominance of the last decade made the inclusions of Thanos and Bane expected on here.  And they were just the most noteworthy of a whole ten years of incredible villains taken off the comic page and brought to the big screen.  We all had the likes of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, Cate Blanchett’s Hela, and James Spader’s Ultron in the mix as well.  Other noteworthy villains that didn’t make the list also included Smaug the dragon from Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, President Snow from the Hunger Games franchise, and plenty of other interesting villains that made their cinematic debuts in the last decade.  We also saw some memorable re-imaginings of classic movie villains, like Bill Skarsgard’s new take on Pennywise in IT (2017).  What I hope this list shows is the eclectic mix we witnessed over the last several years; showing that the most profound portrayals of villainy were not just limited to super-villains, but also from dark corners of contemporary society (Amy from Gone Girl) as well as our troubled history (Edwin Epps from 12 Years a Slave, the only character on this list based on a real person).  It will be interesting to see what the next decade has in store for us.  Marvel and DC will continue to expand their universes; although I don’t know what Marvel will do as a follow-up to a character as iconic as Thanos.  Some of the best villains in the next decade could also be complete surprises, so I’m interested in seeing how the 2020’s plays out when it comes to capturing captivating villainy on screen.  Regardless, it was a good decade for the best of the worst on the big screen, and it all leaves us with some worthwhile options to scare us once again as we indulge our dark sides in this upcoming Halloween season.

 

The Director’s Chair – Alfred Hitchcock

There are many filmmakers that people can point to as the ones who molded and shaped the horror genre into what it is today; Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante being among the most noteworthy.  But if there was someone who people consider the grandfather of modern horror, the name of Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind.  Which itself is strange, because Hitchcock was not exactly a horror filmmaker.  Only one of his movies could be considered a horror film, his iconic 1960 thriller Psycho, but it was such a high water mark for the genre that it would change horror film-making, and cinema for that matter, forever.  But, apart from that, Hitchcock’s true title in Hollywood was “the Master of Suspense,” which he had earned over the course of his career having directed some of the most exhilarating and tension filled movies that were ever committed to celluloid.  Murder mysteries were his main foray, as the majority of his filmography was devoted to crime dramas and whodunits.  But it wasn’t just the suspense that made him an icon as a director, it was the way he presented it.  Always an innovator, Hitchcock would find new ways to keep his audience on edge, and that included introducing untried techniques that for their time were cutting edge.  These included gimmicks like the long unbroken takes in the movie Rope (1948), the dolly zoom in Vertigo (1958), or the frantic cutting of the shower scene in Psycho.  He was a director that always played by his own rules and he thankfully found success making the kinds of movies that he wanted to make; which was a rarity in the Hollywood system during his heyday.

What’s also interesting about Hitchcock is that while there is a distinct character to all his films, since he rarely strayed away from the suspense genre, there are also definable phases to his career too.  He started out in his native England making spy thrillers like The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and Foreign Correspondant (1940), which garnered the attention of Hollywood.  He was swayed to cross the pond by mega-producer David O. Selznick to produce a series of dramas for his independent studio.  The first one was the Oscar winning Rebecca (1940), followed by Suspicion (1941) and Spellbound (1945).  While the movies under Selznick Pictures are still expertly crafted and feature some of the director’s best work, you can also tell that Hitchcock was feeling a little handcuffed at the same time, as these movies were more or less his most mainstream and micro-managed films of his career, with Selznick having much oversight over the final products.  After the Selznick partnership, Hitchcock made his way to Universal Pictures, where he would remain for the rest of his career, leading to his most prolific run of movies.  At Universal is where Hitchcock became the director that we know today, with full, unwavering confidence in his abilities as a director.  And the movies are one classic after another; Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946), Rope, Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds to name a few.  He even became the face of suspense thrillers, as Universal also produced an anthology TV series called Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with the director appearing in front of the camera to introduce each episode.  Because of all this, Hitchcock had become a new kind of filmmaker, which was one who had become a household name.  Some directors had become noteworthy in their time, but only the name of Hitchcock could be immediately identifiable in every American home, and that was quite a feat for his time.  Even to this day, Hitchcock is still one of the most celebrated, analyzed and frequently imitated filmmakers in cinematic history.  What follows is a couple of elements that are uniquely a part of the Hitchcockian style, and what helped to define him as a a filmmaker.

1.

THE WRONG MAN

Hitchcock would often return to tropes that had served him well in the past, and he would manage to rehash them again and again without making it seem like he was repeating himself.  One of those tropes that is unmistakably Hitchcockian is that of the “wrong man” scenario.  Hitchcock liked nothing more than to have his protagonists thrown into a situation that they are ill equipped to take on.  Most of the time this would involve the protagonist either by accident or by unfortunate ill judgment ending up in the middle of a larger conspiracy that they had no previous knowledge of.  This trope goes all the way back to his early years, with his main characters in The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps both finding themselves involved in the middle of a plot, which they never expected to be in.  For the former, it happens when the villain (played marvelously by Peter Lorre) kidnaps the child of the hero (Leslie Banks), and the latter is when the hero (Robert Donat) is falsely accused of murder as part of a cover-up.  Hitchcock favored this trope because he found it as a good way to build his protagonist’s character over the course of the story, allowing them to learn as we follow along with them in the story.  It’s a great way to spotlight the charm and wit of the character as well, and he often liked to give some of Hollywood’s top leading men these kinds of roles, including Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart being among his very favorites.  And just to show how aware he was of his own style, Hitchcock even made a movie called The Wrong Man (1956), with Henry Fonda playing the titular role.  Despite being a long standing trope within his full body of work, there is probably no better use of it than the thrilling classic North by Northwest, with Cary Grant literally being the wrong man, at the wrong place at the wrong time.  Of course, it’s not the trope alone that carries the movie, but what Hitchcock does after that makes the movie such a classic, taking Grant on a cross country adventure as he grows from simple business man to death-defying spy by movie’s end.  It’s understandable that he continued to return to the same trope over and over again, because it served him well.

2.

AMERICANA

When Hitchcock came to America to make films for Selznick, I don’t think he initially realized the impact it would have on the rest of his career.  The English-born director not only became a naturalized citizen of the United States, but he would also use his newly adopted homeland as a thematic element in most of his latter films.  There is a strong presence of Americana throughout his movies made in Hollywood; some more overt than others.  For one thing, Hitchcock loved to use distinctive American landmarks in his movies as important settings for moments in his films.  These include the Golden Gate bridge where Kim Novak’s character nearly drowns herself in Vertigo; the climatic confrontation in Saboteur (1942), where Norman Lloyd literally hangs by a sleeve on the outstretched hand of the Statue of Liberty; and of course the epic chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest.  But Hitchcock was not spotlighting American landmarks out of some newly found patriotic fervor.  They were part of his interesting introspection into the underbelly of America.  He put these moments around landmarks just to show how extraordinarily out of place such a moment would be around these icons.  He also distinctively tried to explore American society in the micro as well.  Long before David Lynch would do the same with Blue Velvet (1986), Hitchcock explored how a seemingly peaceful suburban American community could be hiding something sinister underneath with the brilliant Shadow of a Doubt, which Hitchcock considered one of his favorites.  Even Psycho follows in that same vein, with a seemingly unassuming little roadside lodge, typical of contemporary American travel culture, turning into a house of horrors by film’s end.  Hitchcock was both a filmmaker that was fascinated with America and critical of it as well, and it provided him with a careers worth of interesting stories to tell, all of which have appropriately become American classics.

3.

THE ELUSIVE BLONDE

On the flip side of his trope of the “wrong man,” there is another character type that has become a part of the Hitchcockian style.  And that type almost always is portrayed by a blonde haired beauty.  People have often claimed that Hitchcock was playing out a fetish in movies by always having his leading ladies be blonde and impossibly beautiful, but that I think is a misreading of him as a director.  In a way, Hitchcock cast his lead actress by the distinctive hair color because he felt that it represented a more angelic aspect to their character.  It was also something that became more common once he started making movies in color, as his previous leading ladies from the black and white era like Ingrid Bergman and Joan Fontaine had distinctive brown hair.  It started with the casting of Grace Kelly in Rear Window that Hitchcock became enamored with blonde female leads, and we would see a distinct through-line of leading ladies for the next decade, as Doris Day, Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh and Tippi Hedren all followed in Grace’s footsteps.  But, what is also noteworthy about the use of blondes in Hitchcock’s movies is that they are often drivers of the plots themselves; sometimes in tragic ways.  Sometimes they are there as an accomplice to the male lead, like Grace Kelley in To Catch a Thief (1955) or Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, but oftentimes they would also be put into the path of peril.  To Hitchcock, blonde was a sign of purity and having a blonde lady fall victim to violence only made the deed more tragic.  He was probably fully aware of his obsession, since he made Jimmy Stewart’s protagonist in Vertigo so fixated on the blonde beauty that he tragically lost, to the point that he forces another woman to look just like her.  It’s a fascinating aspect to his filmography that is unmistakable once you become aware of it.  Hitchcock had a type in mind, but there is no doubt that the most important blonde lady in his life was his wife of 54 years, Alma Reville, who was his closest collaborator and creative confidant as well.  And she was far from elusive.

4.

BERNARD HERRMANN

Apart from his wife, Alma, Hitchcock never had too many close collaborators over his career.  His crews were often interchangeable depending on which movie he was making; he worked on scripts from a whole variety of screenwriters; and his production teams were often specialists specific for the different new experiments that he was trying to take on with each new film.  But if there was one collaborator that did leave his mark on the work of Alfred Hitchcock, even if it was for a short amount of time, it was film composer Bernard Herrmann.  Hermann was already a well established composer by the time he arrived in Hitchcock’s stable.  He started in the business in a big way, scoring Citizen Kane (1941) for Orson Welles.  For the next decade and a half he had worked up nearly 20 film scores, but once he met Hitchcock, things would take a very dramatic turn.  Starting off with The Trouble With Harry (1955), Herrmann would score 7 total films for Hitchcock, the most of any film composer; and some are often cited as among the best ever written.  His haunting love theme from Vertigo is one that instantly leaves an impression on it’s audience, and the rousing North by Northwest theme is a jaunting adrenaline rush.  But perhaps Herrmann’s most brilliant work was saved for the movie Psycho, which some have proclaimed as his best overall.  The main theme, with it’s off-kilter harshness is itself an already standout piece, and it does probably the best of any Hitchcock movie score to set the tone of a film.  But Herrmann’s most brilliant choice as a composer is the one that seems the most deceptively simple.  Instead of having the legendary shower murder scene play silently with only sound effects, as Hitchcock initially wanted, Herrmann composed an underscore of shrieking violins, which assault the viewer almost like they’re the ones getting stabbed.  It’s a genius choice of music and is probably just as much a part of what has made that scene legendary as Hitchcock’s own direction.  In many ways, it’s also probably the most imitated film music score of all time, which is a testament to Herrmann’s input.  Hitchcock would have still continued to be an influential filmmaker, but who knows how different his career may have been had his movies not included Herrmann’s music in them.

5.

THE MCGUFFIN

All us cinephiles are pretty aware of the term McGuffin by now.  The term is used to describe an object that is central to the plot of a film, but inconsequential to the story.  Famous examples could include the Maltese Falcon from the 1941 film of the same name; the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); the briefcase from Pulp Fiction (1994); you could even point to the six Infinity Stones as the McGuffins of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.  But it might surprise you that the term actually came from Hitchcock himself.  He didn’t coin the term (that was screenwriter Angus MacPhail), but he was the one who defined it.  In Hitchcock’s own words, the McGuffin is “the thing that the characters are after, but the audience doesn’t care.”  In other words, it’s the motivator for the human drama, and carries little significance apart from that.  The McGuffin is just there to passively exist, so that the characters can go through all the highs and lows of the plot in order to find it and obtain it.  The first true example of this plot device appearing in a Hitchcock movie is in The 39 Steps.  What are the 39 Steps; just a list of spies names, a detail you don’t know until the very end of the film, and that’s not what’s important.  It’s the fact that the bad guys are after it and the hero must find it before they do.  Similar McGuffins also factor into the plots of Notorious and North by Northwest as well.  Hitchcock even uses a McGuffin as a brilliant misdirection as well, as he does with the money Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals in Psycho.  Once she is killed off halfway through the movie, the money no longer plays a factor, despite having been a major motivator in the plot so far.  Had Hitchcock never defined and popularized the term, we probably would have coined a different, less distinct term for such a thing in movie plots, so we have him to thank for giving these elements a name that is characteristically unique in the way that only someone like Hitchcock could have done.

Alfred Hitchcock was not a horror film director, but he certainly has become a beloved icon of the genre nonetheless.  Perhaps it’s because there is an aura of danger and mystery that spans throughout all his films.  Apart from Psycho, his intent was never to horrify his audience, but instead to always leave them in suspense.  To him, the threat of death was always underneath the surface and it was always his intent to mine that dark side of human existence as a part of the drama within his films.  All his movies either involve a plot to kill, or the investigation into a killing, but rarely does he ever indulge in blood and gore.  That’s probably why Psycho was so shocking for it’s time, because it was even a stretch for him to take things as far as he did with that film.  But macabre themes aside, what has also made Hitchcock revered even to this day is his bold cinematic vision.  He was a director in full command of his art-form with enviable support from a major studio.  What’s even more remarkable is the fact that he reportedly never put his eye up to the camera itself, trusting he crew completely to capture the image that he had planned for.  Numerous filmmakers today, including the likes of Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and others take inspiration from the unparalleled work of Alfred Hitchcock.  With a filmography spanning nearly 50 years, he is one of the most prolific filmmakers ever, and probably without peers in the whole history of the industry.  And still to this day, the name Hitchcock remains a household name; still carrying weight in the realms of mystery, suspense, and even horror.  His legacy is as well preserved as the Bates Manor House that still sits on the Universal Studios Backlot to this day, nearly 60 years after it was first built.  Whether you know him by name only, or from that familiar portly silhouette that he began every episode of his show with, he is an indispensable part of cinema history, and a true Hollywood icon in every sense of the word.

 

Monsters Among Us – Why Movies Don’t Have to Scare to Be Terrifying

Horror can be easily described as a genre defined by blood and gore and a bastion of monsters and murderers.  But, that’s mostly been a result of more recent entries in the genre that have leaned more heavily in the direction of graphic violence.  In reality, the horror genre has gone through a significant evolution through the whole history of cinema, dating all the way back to the silent era and all the way up to now.  And what you’ll discover about the horror genre by looking back on it’s history is that it didn’t always need to spook it’s audience in order to make them terrified.  For the most part, most horror filmmakers weren’t allowed to go as far as they are now with depicting blood and gore on screen, so they often relied on using cinematic language to suggest terrifying elements within their movies.  Looking back on some of the first horror films ever made, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), it is quite amazing to see how well they are able to convey a feeling of absolute terror with only light and shadow, as well as some truly Gothic imagery.  They still remain some of the most terrifying films today, even almost 100 years later, and that shows just how powerful the visual image is at conveying terror.  Though the filmmakers were certainly working under limitations, it still enabled them to be creative and allow imagination to fill out the gaps.  Movies that give the audience the opportunity to imagine the unseen horror often stand out more as the most terrifying kind of horror movies, because nothing on screen could ever match up to the worst things that we can think of.  Our imagination can go into surprisingly dark territories when put to the test by these kinds of horror movies, and one thing that I’ve noticed in more recent horror films is a return to that kind of interplay between the filmmakers and the audience.

At the same time, we aren’t seeing horror films with graphic violence and supernatural monsters going away either.  IT: Chapter Two is still performing well at the box office, and that movie is what you’d expect as the atypical Hollywood horror flick.  It’s got scary monsters, jump scares, and a whole lot of blood and gore.  At the same time, it’s also apparent to the viewer that it’s not an entirely scary movie.  In fact, I’d say that half of the movie works as a comedy.  Is the film entertaining, yes; but not all that scary.  Sure there are some genuinely terrifying parts, but I don’t think that you’ll fnd anybody who’ll describe it as the most terrifying movie that’s ever been made.  It’s interesting to note how this contrasts with another Stephen King adaptation, The Shining (1980), which is described by far more people as the most terrifying movie ever made.  The Shining, though it works with the same standards of gore and violence as IT, comes through as far more consistently terrifying.  Why is that?  I believe it has to do with more consistency of tone.  IT bounces back and forth between the goofy and horrific, while The Shining builds it’s feeling of dread towards it’s ultimately horrific ending.  Most filmmakers tend to not like that slow burn style of storytelling and prefer to grab a hold of their audience right from the outset.  But what Stanley Kubrick revealed through his own telling of Stephen King’s classic novel is that by allowing the audience to absorb the movie before pulling the rug out from under them, you intensify their sense of terror as the movie goes along.  It’s that slow march towards the horrific that feels all the more rewarding, because as the movie goes along, the audience grows more and more anxious, knowing that something right around the corner will come out to shock them.

There are two schools of thinking that have developed around how you approach a horror movie, and they follow that divide that we’ve seen between the differences in the aforementioned Stephen King adaptations.  There are some filmmakers that choose to withhold moments of terror in favor of building up the atmosphere, while there are others that don’t waste a single moment in showing you every horrific thing it can.  The latter is usually what you’ll find coming from the major Hollywood studios, because they are the safe and predictable choice.  Taking the former approach is not as ideal for studios to invest in, because it requires far more faith that the audience will jump on board and accept the unpredictable.  But, playing it safe when it comes to horror has it’s pitfalls too, because if there is one thing that a horror movie fan hates, it’s complacency.  You scare someone once, they become guarded for what comes next, so if you just repeat the same kind of scares over and over again, they audience just grows numb to it.  You could see this play out very clearly in the decade long glut of slasher flicks that we got during the 2000’s, with movies like Final Destination (2000), Jeepers Creepers (2001), Valentine (2001) and many others trying perhaps way too hard to follow in the footsteps of Scream (1996).  Eventually the box office returns for these kinds of movies dried up and the studios began abandoning them.  It wasn’t until Blumhouse Productions stepped in the 2010’s that we’ve seen a revitalization for the genre, thanks to the indie producer’s more manageable production budgets.  And by setting the genre on more grounded footing, it allows for more filmmakers to experiment with the pacing of their horror, which itself garners up some interesting results.

One of the most interesting things about horror as a genre is how it’s very much driven by cinematic vision.  Indeed, the success rate for a horror film is determined by how well the filmmaker uses the medium to convey terror on screen.  This is where the groundwork of the pioneers of early cinema becomes so important, because they are the ones who wrote the language of visual horror in the first place.  We have visionaries like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, James Whale and Tod Browning to thank for making us afraid of what lurks in the shadows at night.  Even when the genre shifted to more graphic violence thanks to the slasher flicks of the 1970’s and 80’s, the influence of those early films can still be felt.  Just look at how John Carpenter lights Michael Myers in Halloween (1978), almost completely in shadow with his mask being the one illuminated element.  Whether we know it or not, we are conscious of the rules of horror film-making, and adhering to those rules is what can make or break the effectiveness of a horror movie.  It’s especially interesting to see this play out in horror franchises, when the cinematic vision is dramatically shifted between films.  For instance, there is such a dramatic shift in tone between William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and the John Boorman directed sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).  The original Exorcist is deliberately paced, almost procedural drama that smacks it’s audience hard when it arrives at it’s most horrifying moments, while Exorcist II is overblown, showy and decided less terrifying.  One director wanted to take his time building tension while the other wanted to show off, and that difference shows just how important it can be to give you audience the chance to absorb the film before being terrified.  This is one example of where a franchise was derailed by loosing it’s grip on subtlety, but more recently, we’ve seen an example where the opposite was true.  In 2014, Universal and Hasbro made the very cynical move of turning their Ouija board game brand into a horror film franchise.  The result was a standard, cliche ridden mess that did nothing to help promote the game nor make a splash within the genre.  However, when they planned to make a sequel, they turned to an actual horror filmmaker named Michael Flanagan who had previously won raves for his breakout film Oculus (2013) and he crafted a far more subtle, well thought out, and more importantly, scary follow-up with Ouija: Origin of Evil, which was far better received by critics and audiences.

More recently we’ve been seeing movies that have followed that pattern, straying away from fright by the minute tactics and choosing to use atmosphere and tension to terrify their audiences.  One company in particular that seems to be delivering that example is independent outfit A24.  Their catalog of films spans a variety of genres, but what is particularly interesting is how they are delivering in the horror genre.  They seem to favor very artistic horror films, with a very deliberate directorial stamp on them, helping them to stand out among others in the genre.  Indeed, it really is hard to compare an A24 film with anything else in the genre.  They were the ones who put out Kevin Smith’s foray into body horror film-making with Tusk (2014); they released the Robert Eggers period set The Witch (2015); and most recently they made a splash by putting out Ari Aster’s controversial cult movie Midsommar (2019).  Midsommar in particular stands out within the genre, because stylistically it goes against so many horror film-making rules.  Nearly the entire movie is bathed in sunlight, eliminating any use of shadows to hide terrors hiding within view.  It’s also a movie that doesn’t rely on jump scares or significant moments of graphic violence.  It instead plays by the same principle that movies like The Shining and The Exorcist built their moments of horror on, which is to build a sense of growing terror over time, allowing the audience to grow comfortable with the movie before the terror begins to envelop them.  By the end of the movie, the audience has reached a level of unease that may not have shaken them to the core, but nevertheless has left them emotionally drained and petrified.  It’s that kind of horror that really appeals to filmmakers, because it makes the film stick longer in the audiences memory.  Like I said before, audiences grow numb to consistent scares thrown at them, but slowing pulling them into a state of unease is something that leaves a lasting impact, and that’s something that Midsommar relishes in doing.

However, it may surprise you that a movie doesn’t even need to be about something supernatural or horrific to be terrifying.  Sometimes, a real life moment can create a sense of terror that is equal to what we see in any horror movies.  I can tell you that one of the most tense experiences that I had watching a movie this year was in watching the documentary Free Solo on an IMAX screen.  The movie is just about a free solo rock climber named Alex Hannold who tries to be the first person to ever scale the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, without the assistance of safety ropes.  You know already just by the fact that the movie exists that he made it through alive, but even while watching the movie you feel this sense of dread that he could fall to his death at any moment, and that just fills you with this feeling of absolute dread while watching the movie; helped greatly by the you are there with him placements of the cameras.  And that’s just a movie that feels like a horror movie while being something else entirely.  There is another movie I saw this year that on the surface wouldn’t typically be looked at as a horror movie, but to me was absolutely the most terrifying thing I’ve seen all year.  That movie would be Gaspar Noe’s new film Climax.  The French auteur is notorious for breaking cinematic conventions and assaulting his audience will sometimes overwhelming imagery.  With Climax, he presents a very unconventional horror movie by mixing it into the world of dance.  Imagine if Step Up (2006) had a drug trips in it, and that is basically what Climax turns into.  Members of a dance troupe discover that their after party punch has been spiked with LSD, and the remainder of the film becomes something of a bad trip turned into a nightmare, and Noe never holds back.  You feel the overwhelming dread that spreads throughout the movie as the characters are trapped in their inescapable drugged state, and you are right there in the middle of it too.  That to me was more horrifying to watch play out than anything in IT: Chapter Two, and that’s because it’s rooted in a very human horror of a waking nightmare that you can’t escape until it’s run it’s coarse.

Sometimes I’ve found that the most terrifying movies ever made are the ones that are grounded in reality, which is probably why those kinds of movies endure longer than others.  Some of the greatest examples of the genre in fact ignore the cliches of the slasher killer or the supernatural monster, and instead remind us that the worst monsters of all are the ones around us.  To this day, only one movie from the horror genre has won Best Picture at the Oscars, and that’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  Lambs on the surface isn’t exactly a horror movie by traditional standards.  It’s more of a police procedural, with FBI agent Clarice Starling hunting down a serial killer.  Though there are graphic elements in the movie, there are also very few onscreen deaths as well.  Most of the gore is shown after the fact, with only one scene in particular that you would describe as traditionally horrific; Hannibal Lector’s escape scene.  This is a prime example of not playing tricks with the audience, but instead allowing them to absorb the movie and take in the growing tension before it’s released.  When we think of The Silence of the Lambs, the most terrifying moments to us are not the scary moments, but rather the quiet dialogue scenes, where the camera is uncomfortably close to Anthony Hopkins face as he stares directly at us.   Again, it’s using atmosphere to deliver the best effect for the moment.  A similar approach also resonated in David Fincher’s Seven (1995), where much of the terrifying elements are suggested to us and never shown.  We never do see what’s inside the box, but we can paint a terrifying picture in our mind, and that’s just as effective.  It’s all about knowing that right balance to get the audience to feel the dread even when they are not seeing all of it.  And in turn, it shows how we are still using the shadows to deliver the most terrifying of frights on the movie screen.

Horror goes through it’s many different phases over the years, but in the end, several principles still endure to help keep it in line with it’s roots.  That’s the reason why even the silent era movies still manage to scare even all these years later.  The loosening of standards has helped filmmakers get away with a lot more, but as we’ve seen, sometimes it helps to show restraint as well when making a horror movie.  Indeed, one thing that has proven true over the years is that trusting your audience to fill in the gaps has been beneficial to most horror movies, and that by trying to force a scare through too much will end up dulling their senses over time.  That’s why movies like The Shining, The Exorcist, The Silence of the Lambs and Seven are still terrifying today, no matter how many times people have seen them.  They give their audiences a full experience, and reward them for their patience.  I am encouraged to see movies like Midsommar try to follow that example.  Sure, there are the standard Hollywood horror films that serve their purpose, but the real force driving the horror genre into the future are the ones that are being produced on the fringes.  They show that a horror movie can come from any type of style and can be just about anything, like the movie Climax has shown.  Just chasing after scares is not the way to succeed in horror film-making.  It’s finding that right balance between terror and atmosphere, and also just having a story worth telling in the end.  And most of all, it helps to have a genuine human connection, because as real life has shown us, horror is all too real in our lives, and sometimes the worst kinds of nightmares are the ones that we dream up ourselves.

Joker – Review

The last decade has given us a huge variety of movies about superheroes.  But, what we have yet to see is a movie about a supervillain.  Some have argued that Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War (2018) fits that criteria, as it primarily focuses on it’s central antagonist, Thanos, but at the same time it’s also an Avengers movie, meaning that it essentially is an ensemble where the villain gets a huge chunk of the screen time.  What hasn’t been seen yet, however, is a movie that puts the villain front and center, telling their story from their point of view.  It’s a tricky kind of story to pull off because you can run the risk of humanizing the villain too much to where they become sympathetic in the eyes of the audience.  There are plenty of villainous characters out there whose stories are rich enough to delve deeper into, especially in the realm of comic books.  DC Comics perhaps has assembled the most robust rogues gallery that we’ve ever seen in any medium, both cinematic and literary.  It’s no surprise that in their desire to compete with their rival Marvel on the big screen and tell stories that will garner them a bigger audience, they looked to one of their most iconic characters who just also so happens to be their most notorious villain; the clown prince of crime, Joker.  Joker has certainly left his mark on the silver screen, with cinematic iterations that almost try to one up each other in their increasingly dark takes.  Jack Nicholson’s performance in Batman (1989) was a beautiful balance of menace and humor, while Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008) was so iconicly chilling that it won him a posthumous Oscar.  But as much as their versions stood out, they were only section of the grander tapestry of Batman mythos that their respective films were trying to portray.  What kind of movie do we get when a character as unfathomably evil as the Joker is pushed front and center in his own movie.

To do a movie about the Joker, setting the tone the right way has to be the most important factor.  There are so many ways to get this kind of story wrong.  Joker has evolved over time to become the most sinister and disturbing villain in the history of DC Comics; which has no doubt been helped by Nicholson and Ledger’s chilling performances.  If you take the wrong approach to a character like this, you run the risk of creating too much sympathy for the character and this can on occasion lead to an un-healthy self-reflection with the character for some in the audience.  It’s not a bad thing to be a fan of the character.  The Joker has been a popular villain for good reason, and he’s often one of the most widely cos-played characters in the entire DC canon, or for all comic books in general.  Joker fandom for many people is just good old fun, but there are those who unfortunately take things a bit too far.  The powerful imagery and personality of the Joker has sadly also been adopted by fringe segments of society who view the Joker as their patron saint.  These kinds of people can run as varied as anarchists, internet trolls, incels, the alt-right and just flat out terrorist thugs.  These groups in no way are endorsed or promoted by DC or it’s comic writers, but sadly the Joker has been turned into this political lightning rod because of real world villains using him as their inspiration.  The tragic shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 by gunman James Holmes brought nationwide attention to this problem, as Holmes tried to emulate the demented clown in his rampage.  The threat that this might happen again has brought controversy to DC’s recent attempt to dramatize an origin story for the Joker on the big screen.  Some theaters have beefed up security just in case, and the same theater in Aurora where the shooting took place has chosen not to screen it at all (which is understandable).  But, the question remains; is a Joker movie deserving of all this controversy?  Is he really that dangerous of a character, and ultimately, is a telling of his story justified in the end?

It must be noted that this is meant to be just a version of the Joker, and not any definitive take that will become canon for all time.  This is not the same Joker that Nicholson or Ledger played; it’s a Joker that exists solely for this specific kind of story.  The movie is about a down and out street performer named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who tries his hardest to earn a living in the hard neighborhoods of Gotham City.  Arthur suffers from a mental condition that causes him to uncontrollably laugh, which further isolates him from society, as people avoid him believing him to be a nutcase.  He lives with his ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy), who remains emotionally distant even as he dotes on her.  Arthur tries his best to cope with the hardships of life, finding solace in comedy, which leads him to pursuing a life as a comedian, a move that is encouraged by his across the hall neighbor, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), whom he has an attraction for.  Unfortunately, his laughing condition gets the best of him and ruins his first chance at becoming a stand-up.  At the same time, he looses his job and the mental health care he’s been receiving have been eliminated due to budget cuts.  On his way home one day, he is harassed by a group of drunken yuppie businessmen on a subway train.  They push him over the edge and he snaps, pulling a gun on them and murdering all three in cold blood.  The shocking act brings out a feeling inside Arthur, which he initially tries to repress.  At the same time, the poor people of Gotham respond to the crime favorably, because the victims were entitled employees of Wayne Enterprises, and they view Gotham’s favorite son and potential mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) and the reason the city has left them all behind.  Meanwhile, Arthur’s bungled stand-up routine becomes fodder for a late night talk show hosted by a favorite performer of his, Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) and Arthur is given an invite to appear on his show.  With all the turmoil that Arthur goes through in days after, it leads him to shed off the person he was before and adopt the clown that he now views himself as, asking to go by the name Joker instead.

One thing that will be made clear very quickly while watching the movie is that this is not your typical comic book movie.  There really is nothing left of the tropes that we associate with the likes of Batman, Justice League or any other super hero movies found in this film. Instead, this movie takes it’s narrative and visual inspiration from the career of Martin Scorsese.  Two films in particular of Scorsese seemed to have been sourced as inspiration for this flick, which are Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983).  Both movies chronicle the dangerous mental slide of an obsessed individual on the fringes of society, and both were starring vehicles for Robert DeNiro.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that DeNiro also appears in this movie as well, since I’m sure that the filmmakers wanted to draw that parallel.  Using the Scorsese guidebook is a bold choice to go with as a basis for portraying the rise of a comic book supervillain.  And to accurately portray the Scorsese style in this movie, you look have to look no further than the guy who made The Hangover (2008)? Umm, okay.   Actually to Todd Phillip’s credit, it’s clear that he did his homework as a student of the Scorsese style, because this is a fantastic recreation of a movie from this point of time in the legendary director’s career.  The visuals in particular are stunningly close to movies like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets (1973), with soft focus cinematography and a earthy color palette.  It looks unlike any other Super Hero movie we’ve ever seen, because this genre usually doesn’t play around in this kind of style, and it makes for a perfect match with the character himself.  The visual style, from the opening scene on, puts the audience in this feeling of unease, as the movie takes on this stark realistic hue.  And it provides a perfect juxtaposition with the flamboyance that the Joker represents.  On just the technical merits alone, this movie is superb, and a worthy homage to the Scorsese style as well.

But one thing that will be following the film around for some time is it’s controversy.  By giving the Joker such a profound and captivating origin, people are worried that it’ll cause only more people to sympathize and identify with him, which is what some people believe led to that tragic theater shooting in Colorado.  But, that’s in no way what this movie does at all.  It must be made clear; the Joker portrayed in this movie is no hero, nor an anti-hero.  He is a villain, period.  And I think that’s what make the movie so effective as a cinematic experience.  I should tell you this right now; Joker is not a feel good movie in any way.  It’s intended to make you feel disturbed and horrified.  What Todd Phillips does so well with his telling of this story is to hold up a mirror to society and make us feel ashamed for the ways we contribute, whether we know it or not, to the creations of monsters like the Joker.  Arthur’s decent into villainy is in no ways looked at as a triumph, but as a tragedy, as there are so many points where one direction in the right way could have steered him away from his fate.  But, because of our proclivity to ridicule people with strange conditions, ignore the plights of people in poorer classes and with mental illness, and feed into media frenzies that elevate the profile of mass murderers and serial killers, we bear some of the responsibility for making monsters like the Joker more common than they should.  Hell, the media’s obsession with a possible incident that might occur because of this movie kind of proves that point.  And the movie rightly never lets Arthur off the hook either.  The really effective part of the movie comes in the way it increasingly makes us feel uneasy as we continue to focus on Arthur’s story.  So much of the tension in the later half comes from not knowing exactly what he might do next.  It even makes us question whether or not we should be laughing at his antics later, which is honestly something that even previous versions of the Joker never attempted to ask before.  So, for anyone worried that this movie was going to be a rallying cry for all the anti-social pariahs out there, be rest assured that it is not, but rather an indictment of this kind of individual and the society that props him up for no good reason.

At the same time, because of the unforgiving nature of the movie, it is also going to divide a lot of people as well.  The movie has received a bunch of accolades so far, including winning the coveted Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, which is often seen a precursor for an Oscar win.  But, upon it’s release, it has divided the critical community down the middle, and will probably be reflected in the general public as well.  Like I said, this is not an easy movie to watch, and it will probably test your sensibilities.  But, if there is one thing that I think will garner near universal praise from this movie, it’s Joaquin Phoenix’s performance.  Phoenix is absolutely magnetic in this role, and you cannot take your eyes off of him throughout the entire movie.  What’s especially great about his performance is that he never once makes you think of the character as a comic book creation, nor makes you recall any previous version of the Joker.  It’s an entirely original take that is all his own, and is so enormously layered in it’s complexity.  I don’t know exactly where to rank this among the others, because his Joker is not as scary as Heath Ledger’s nor as entertaining as Jack Nicholson’s, but his version is far more disturbing than the others because it’s the most human that we’ve ever seen this character.  Phoenix’s transformation is really amazing, as he lost a ton of weight to create Arthur Fleck as this emaciated, sickly individual. Even his laugh takes on this disturbing quality because Phoenix really sells the point that the laugh is physically hurting him.  As a result, he does a brilliant job of showing you the real reason why Joker is such a frightening creation, because there’s a human being behind that painted smile; a deeply broken human being.  Phoenix has made a career out of playing troubled, broken people like Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005) and Freddie Quell in The Master (2012).  Arthur Fleck brings those same qualities, but adds this tragic element of an un-redeemable spirit behind it.  Even if people end up finding the movie too disturbing, they’ll still come away praising the hard work that Joaquin Phoenix put into his performance.

While there is plenty to praise about the movie, I also have to point out that it isn’t perfect as well.  Strangely enough, the biggest flaw that the movie has is that it interrupts itself in order to remind you that you are indeed watching a movie based in the DC Universe.  That’s probably a testament to how powerfully told the central narrative is that you forget that this is the same Joker that will one day become the arch-nemesis to Batman.  I almost feel like this movie could have been better if it set itself apart from it’s comic book origins and instead just told this story of an ordinary man who evolves into this notorious monster.  But, unfortunately, this movie still will occasionally drop a reminder of other things going on within the Batman mythos.  The caped crusader doesn’t appear fully formed in this movie, which is understandable considering that it’s many years before that happens.  But, there is a scene where Arthur does encounter the boy who will be Batman, Bruce Wayne (played here by young actor Dante Pereira-Olson) and his caretaker Alfred (played by Douglas Hodge).  It’s not a bad scene by any means, and it does have a chilling creep factor to it, but it doesn’t really add anything to the plot and just reads like a studio note demanding that there at least be some connecting thread to Batman in this.  The other negative that I can point to with the movie is that while the allusions to the work of Martin Scorsese are wonderfully crafted and utilized in the narrative here, it kind of works against the film as well.  It follows almost too closely to the narratives of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, which robs the movie of any real surprise.  Sure, the film still shocks us once we get to the ultimate destination, but with those Scorsese movies well ingrained into our cultural memory, you pretty much know what to expect, and that in a way makes the finale feel a little less shocking.  Even still, it’s not a fatal flaw that derails the movie; it just keeps it from reaching it’s absolute maximum impact.  What it mainly comes down to is that the movie is at it’s absolute best when it doesn’t remind you of other movies or other versions of this story, and just let’s itself go as it’s own dark, demented tale.

Considering where DC was just a few short years ago, as they were floundering trying to find their way while also catching up to Marvel, it is great to see now that they are not only confident telling stories on the big screen their way, but also taking some brave chances as well.  This R-rated, bleak and unforgiving Joker is in a class all by itself within the genre of Comic Book movies.  I for one am amazed that DC allowed for this kind of movie to be told with one of their characters.  Sure, it’s the Joker we are talking about, but even still, we’ve never seen a portrayal like this that felt this raw and challenged it’s audience this much.  Joaquin Phoenix’s performance certainly doesn’t feel like it belongs in a Comic Book movie and that’s what makes it so great.  He didn’t go into this movie to bring the character off the page and onto the screen; he wanted to bring to life an image of monster that is all too frighteningly real.  In the end, Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix could’ve told this story without all the comic book mythos behind it, and still made a powerful movie.  But because this is about a character as iconic as the Joker, it’s going to bring a lot more attention to this movie, and that’s something that is really worthwhile in the end.  Joker transcends it’s comic origin to become a cautionary tale for it’s time.  As our world becomes ever more divided and violent, and people are more prone to violent ends to either make a point or grab attention, the Joker becomes even more potent of a symbol, and this movie intends to show just how dangerous that can be.  Joker is not some larger than life monster; he’s one of us, all too human.  The movie puts the onus on us the viewer to understand how we as a society contribute to makings of a monster like the Joker, with either our apathy towards the disenfranchised or our ignorance towards an issue.  There’s not one true reason why a Joker exists, but a whole bunch of factors, and this movie tries to help us understand how those factors manifest into something so horrible.  The movie is definitely not a fun little romp nor a rousing adventure, but it’s perhaps the hard medicine that we need right now to understand this moment in time.  And the fact that we get there with a character like the Joker is probably the most surprising joke of them all.

Rating: 8.5/10

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