A Streaming Report Card – HBO Max’s Performance and Other Lessons from 2021’s Big Gambles

So, the year of 2021 gave us a few answers about the direction that a post pandemic world would take in the world of cinema, but it also ignited a few new questions as well.  We do know for a fact that the movie theater industry, though heavily bruised, will endure for at least the foreseeable future.  They may not be near where they were at pre-pandemic levels, but they have at least rebounded a bit enough from the lockdowns to keep their doors open.  And I’m sure that many experts didn’t expect that the year of 2021 would close out with a billion dollar grosser with Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), a movie that is defying all expectations in the face of a pandemic surge.  But, even though the darkest days for the theater industry may be over with the regards to the pandemic, they still have an existential threat that has persisted from even before the pandemic to now.  That is the growing streaming market, which had a major period of growth over the months of the pandemic.  Not only do movie theaters have to contend with one streaming giant like Netflix; now they have to deal with about 5 more, many of whom have recently launched amidst a lot of advance hype.  Disney+ and Apple TV+ both launched mere months before the pandemic turned into a global catastrophe, while Universal’s Peacock and Warner Brothers’ HBO Max took off right in the middle of the lockdown period.  And then last year, CBS All Access rebranded into Paramount+, making it the fourth of the 5 major to launch it’s own streaming service. In all their own ways, each streamer wanted to leave an impression that would define them in the marketplace, which became even more interesting after the theater industry went into lockdown.  While each of them pushed for a variety of different exclusive perks to boost their subscriber base, it was HBO Max that perhaps made the boldest move in response to the pandemic effected market.  And it’s their gamble that in many ways clues us into the state of where the movie industry might be headed.

Like all the other studios, Warner Brothers had their film calendar shaken up by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The closure of theaters worldwide forced many movies to delay their releases, most of them into the next year.  But, by doing so, it created a backlog of movies that if not released soon would cause productions to be delayed for other films down the pipeline, and that would endanger the careers of those who work within the industry who depend on a steady work flow to earn a living off of.  So, in order to not disrupt the movie production pipeline any more, many of the studios had to consider whether it served them well to release their film on streaming instead.  It’s certainly not an easy decision to make, especially when some of the movies in the pipeline cost anywhere from 50, to 100, to even 200 million dollars to produce.  A lot of those more expensive movies are especially dependent of a robust theatrical market to help them earn back their production and marketing costs, and that becomes a major problem when there is no box office revenue.  So, many within the accounting firms at the major studios had to take a look at if it was possible for studios to offset box office dollars with the money that would be generated through new monthly subscriptions.  It seems from the outside that this is not a 1:1 equivalent benefit, but to many of the studios had the success of Netflix to look at as an example of the gamble paying off.  Netflix has put billions of dollars into exclusive content for their platform, including some films that do cost in the same range as other Hollywood blockbusters. And as a result, the industry has seen Netflix grow to almost half a billion subscribers worldwide, which generates for them many more billions in revenue off of their monthly subscriptions.  In the end, that’s what mattered to the movie studios; that there was a model that guaranteed billions in revenue each month, something that especially appeals to stockholders.  For the movie theater industry, box office sales are an uneven generator of profit, because every film performs differently.  Thus it became a more logical prospect to release movies on streaming during the pandemic, as long as it boosted subscriber growth.  And that became the big threat to the theatrical industry in the face of the pandemic.  How would they bounce back when there was a proven alternative.

As much as many of the streaming platforms made a big deal about their arrivals in the marketplace; the outcome was not as evenly spread out amongst the other studios. Disney+ certainly made the biggest splash right off the bat thanks to their catalog of popular IP like Star Wars and Marvel.  Apple TV+ and Peacock struggled a bit at first, but managed to find their way with critically acclaimed titles that were available exclusive to their platforms.  And then there was HBO Max, which had probably the roughest of starts.  The big anchor around their waist was their questionable starting subscription price of $14.99 per month, which is nearly double what their competitors charge.  Not only that, but their exclusive content seemed a little thin at the start and their user interface was heavily criticized for being hard to navigate.  The only appeal it had was being a place to watch back catalog material from the Warner Brothers library as well as having content curated by HBO and TCM, both of which are part of the Warner Media entertainment portfolio.  There was interesting stuff to watch on there to be sure, but nothing that demanded the eyes of a broad audience, and certainly not worth the exorbitant high price tag.  So, with a pandemic affected backlog of movies affecting their release schedule and a struggling streaming platform affecting their bottom line, the WarnerMedia executives made a bold but also controversial decision at the end of 2020.  Starting with the release of Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), all of their movies in the next year would be available both theatrically wherever possible as well as on HBO Max at no extra cost on the same day.  This was a move that enabled them to relieve the pressure on their movie backlog as well as generate a renewed interest in their streaming platform, which certainly grabbed the attention of the industry as a whole.  Now, with 2021 behind us, and the entire Warner Brothers release calendar more or less back to normal, we have some answers as to if this gamble paid off.

Initially the move was met with mixed to negative reception from the film community.  One longtime Warner Brothers staple, Christopher Nolan, saw it as a betrayal of the theatrical experience and he left the studio that had been his home for the last 20 years, choosing to take his next film, Oppenheimer, to rival Universal instead.  He also famously labeled HBO Max as the “worst streaming platform” as well.  The movie theater industry was also not very happy with the news, but they were also in a sticky situation at the time.  None of them wanted to refuse to play a Warner Bros. movie, so they had to begrudgingly agree to the plan.  No one would argue that it was the necessary venue to take for Wonder Woman 1984, because it was coming out on Christmas Day 2020, when most of the theaters across the country were still closed due to the pandemic.  But, as situations changed going into 2021, this one size fits all approach to releasing all these movies would be tested to varying degrees.  In total, Warner Brothers had 17 films slated to be released under this 2021 plan, including a few that were pushed back from the year before in addition to those already planned originally for that year.  It’s a lot for one studio to put out in one year, and the backlog created is probably why Warner Bros. made the choice that they did.  Overall, the collection of movies spanned a wide range, from small dramas to big tentpoles, and some of the movies made far better sense as a small screen release than a big screen premiere.  But, it was the outcome of all the films in total that mattered to the WarnerMedia bottom line.  Would the subscription boost make the difference, or were they better off relying on the box office numbers, inconsistent as they may be.

A few things became pretty clear over the course of 2021 for the HBO Max gamble.  The big one overall is that despite having everything available theatrically, the measure of success could not determined by box office alone.  For a year filled with 17 individual releases, Warner Brothers only managed to crack the $100 million threshold twice, and even then just barely.  The highly anticipated Dune (2021) grossed a little over $106 million while Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) just barely managed to eek out past the 100 million mark.  Any other year beforehand, both of these movies might have managed to gross maybe twice as much.  In the case of Godzilla vs. Kong, it could be argued that the box office was still being hampered by the pandemic, as vaccines were only just being rolled out wide at that point, and getting to the $100 million mark in that environment is in itself a sign of huge success.  Dune is a different story, as it came out later in the year with the theatrical industry more or less in rebound mode.  At this point, it could be said that it had it’s box office depressed not by the pandemic, but by the availability on HBO Max.  With that being the case, we’d have to look at the numbers of viewers on streaming to determine if it was more of a hit on HBO Max, which unfortunately remains a closely guarded secret at the WarnerMedia corporate office.  We can only assume how it performed there based on subscriber growth, which is a publicly discussed metric, and while HBO Max did see some growth, it was not at the pace of it’s competitors.  Even old timer Netflix saw bigger growth in the last year.  It doesn’t initially appear that movies like Dune mattered that much at all, and may have had it’s box office potentially cannibalized for not much gain.  Even still,  Warner Brothers determined by what they saw from Dune’s performance based on their internal numbers, did greenlight a sequel, so maybe the private data proved more encouraging than what we’ve seen publicly.

But the overall question remains inconclusive with regards to how all the other films from Warner Brothers performed over the last year under this release plan.  For a lot of the smaller films, not much of a difference would’ve mattered.  Something minor like The Little Things (2021) or Cry Macho (2021) would have underperformed at the box office anyway, and it’s impact on streaming may have been very inconsequential to the overall subscriber growth.  But there was some noticeable issue with the box office performance with some of Warner Bros. more high profile films.  Case in point, the performances of In the HeightsThe Suicide Squad, and The Matrix Resurrections.  Each of these movies were highly anticipated and in any other year could have been big hits for the studios.  But, they all fell flat upon their releases, not even gaining much more than a fraction of box office that movies of their ilk usually do.  In the Heights, a big screen adaptation of a popular Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway hit had a prime summer release date, but disappeared within a matter of weeks, barely making a splash.  The Suicide Squad couldn’t muster any box office excitement despite critical acclaim, the prestige of director James Gunn’s name, and the popular DC brand.  And The Matrix Resurrections  put an extra nail in the coffin of a long dormant franchise.  While Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong defied the odds with their box office performance, these films indicated a sign that the best hopes for the HBO Max plan to be the best for all camps turned out to not be the case.  In all, out of the 17 films, getting only 2 to be a box office hit is not an ideal track record, especially when your streaming numbers don’t indicate a phenomenal amount of growth.  The only conclusion we can draw looking from the outside is that Warner Brothers left a lot of money on the table by splitting their release schedule across two markets, and not ensuring that they would get the maximum out of both alternatives.

Here’s where the problem lies with the HBO plan as opposed to all the other ones offered by their competitors; the danger of piracy.  People who stream content have the ability to also download that content for viewing later, whether offline or on the go.  HBO Max has that as a feature too.  Unfortunately for them, it makes it easier for their content to be downloaded and dubbed much easier to be exchanged person to person, or even worse, sold on the black market without Warner Brothers benefiting from that circulation.  When everyone can share their log in password to multiple people, it depresses subscriber growth, and yet the same number of people who would’ve bought individual tickets to a movie in a theater can just rely on that one generous subscriber to give them access to the same film at home.  The big problem is that HBO Max only relied on that upfront subscriber cost, and didn’t charge any extra on top of that.  It may seem like a generous trade off, having first run films at no extra cost, but it financially puts Warner Brothers at a disadvantage.  Their only hope was put into the overall subscriber growth, and nothing else.  Compare this with Disney, which also put their movies out on streaming during the summer in addition to theaters, but with an additional paywall for access.  The Premiere Access option had a steep price tag of an extra $30, but that equals about what a family usually pays to go to the movies.  Yes, the piracy problem becomes an issue, but for Disney at least, they still receive that $30 revenue no matter what.  And in the end, even Disney saw that this was an unreliable generator of money for their films, and they went for theatrical exclusive premieres for the rest of the year.  Warner Brothers unfortunately were stuck with their highly publicized plans, and couldn’t course correct midway, because it would reveal their plan to be an overall failure.  Their consequence is probably the most clear example of there being no conclusive answer to the state of film releases in the future.  Warner Brothers did manage to keep it’s word and put every movie they planned for 2021 into theaters and onto streaming concurrently, but in doing so, it probably hurt their bottom line for the full year, with all their movies making less then they should’ve, even in the face of problems caused by the pandemic.

Essentially, the state of film releases going into this year is determined mainly on the desire of what audiences are willing to risk seeing on a big screen.  That’s why movies from studios like Marvel still potent in a pandemic market.  You feel like you’re missing out if you don’t see a big movie shown the way it was meant to be shown.  That’s largely why of all the Warner Brothers movies released in 2021, the only strong performers on the silver screen were the ones made for the big screen; Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong.  From my own experience, I will tell you that I saw the majority of the Warner Brothers releases in theaters, just because that’s the person I am.  The only ones I chose to see on HBO instead were The Little Things (because theaters were still closed in my area at the time) and Reminiscence  (because I wasn’t going to waste my time going out to the theater for a movie that I knew would just be disappointing.  There were quite a few movies in that bunch that I wish had been theatrically exclusive like In the Heights and The Suicide Squad, because those films should have been given the chance to prove themselves in exclusive theatrical windows.  For now, it looks like Warner Brothers saw that the plan did not work for them, and their 2022 outlook appears to favor theatrical over streaming.  We’ll see if that works better for them, with the highly anticipated The Batman coming out in March.  In the end, was it worth the risk for Warner Brothers.  It certainly drew some attention to HBO Max, and the streamer did see a bit of growth.  But, with the year over, it looks like it was a gamble that didn’t pay off the way the studio wanted it to.  Warner Brothers is still a big enough studio to where it won’t hurt them too much in the long run, and the executives that greenlit the decision have already left the studio completely, as AT&T have given up their stewardship in the last year and WarnerMedia is imminently about to merge with Discovery Studios, which is going to create a whole different outlook for the future of Warner Brothers.  For some, having the availability at home for first run pictures at no extra cost was very generous, but it’s better in the long run for movies to have a robust theatrical option to generate the most return on their investment.  That’s not to say that there’s no value in going straight to streaming either.  It really depends on the individual title.  Overall, HBO Max’s 2021 plan was an ultimately unsuccessful from a revenue standpoint, but still noteworthy in it’s way, as it did put the struggling streamer into the headlines and garnered the attention of the audience.  It’s own topsy-turvy results more than anything reveals to us that the state of Hollywood is still one with a undetermined outcome even post-pandemic; one in which the years hereafter will tell us more conclusively how the industry will look in the future.

Top Ten Movies of 2021

From where the year 2021 started to where we are now is in many ways more of the same, but in other ways it was also a big change.  This is certainly something that has been felt at the movies.  When the year began for me, I was continuing the same pattern of film going that I had spent most of 2020 doing; mainly finding open theaters where I could.  Here in Los Angeles, movie theaters remained closed for the first two months, and it was also the case statewide, so even driving to a movie theater on a day trip was impossible.  All I had were the local drive-ins, which is where I went on almost a weekly basis to catch the last minute Oscar films that were slowly being rolled out, even in the wake of the pandemic.  Then, finally, after a full year of closure, my local area movie theaters reopened in early March 2021.  And since then, I’ve been making up for lost time like crazy.  Thankfully my AMC A-List membership is still valid, and I made good use of it all year long.  It took a while for things to actually look like normal again at the movie theaters, as many of the bigger films were holding off until the Summer, but once they did start coming, it was a deluge.  2021 was in fact a record breaking year for me as a movie-goer, as I saw more movies in a theater this year than I have in any year prior; which is quite remarkable when you consider this is coming right after a year long pandemic lockdown.  I think it’s probably due to my enthusiasm for being back in a theater setting, and also the fact that the theatrical schedule was very jam packed this year.  Not only were we getting the movies planned originally for 2021, but we were also getting all the exiles from 2020 that had found a new home on the schedule this year.  Suffice to say, I had a lot of movies to go through in order to make my end of the year list here.  It’s quite a year when filmmakers that I adore like Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, James Gunn, Guillermo Del Toro and Edgar Wright all had excellent movies this year and still didn’t make my list.  It’s just shows that this was a year full of riches, but in many ways, it was the experience of being back in movie theaters that made 2021 feel so rewarding.

Here are a few of the movies that I found noteworthy, but fell just outside my top ten: Annette, Benedetta, The Card Counter, Drive My Car, Don’t Look Up, The Father, The French Dispatch, The Green Knight, In the Heights, Judas and the Black Messiah, Last Night in Soho, Nightmare Alley, No Time to Die, Nomadland, One Night in Miami, Raya and the Last Dragon, The Suicide Squad, Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Tragedy of Macbeth, and West Side Story (2021).  And with that, let’s take a look at the movies that I believe were the Top Ten of 2021:

10.

RED ROCKET

Directed by Sean Baker

The films of Sean Baker thus far have carried a consistent theme up to now.  He seems to be attracted to characters that live on the fringes of paradise, showing the underbelly of American society while also at the same time finding the beauty in those small stories that the rest of us often look the other way from.  In Tangerine (2015), we follow the story of Transgender hookers making it through a hard night on the outskirts of Hollywood.  In The Florida Project (2017), we follow the story of a little girl and her messed up mom living in a slum just beyond the boundaries of Walt Disney World in Florida.  With Red Rocket (2021), Baker turns his sights to the misfit denizens of Texas City, Texas; a tiny oil-refinery town that most people would drive right past and not stay a second longer.  Like those two other films, Sean Baker brilliantly brings you into this often ignored world with his authentic American neo-realism, making you forget that you are watching a movie and instead makes you feel like you’re ease-dropping.  And that at times can become uncomfortable, but still entirely fascinating.  What really carries this movie through is an unforgettable performance from a revelatory Simon Rex, playing a washed up porn actor trying to worm his way back into his past life.  Rex manages to walk that tight rope between making his huckster character thoroughly repulsive while at the fascinating to watch.  The movie also works a subtle political allegory into the story of Rex’s Mikey Saber, having the film take place during the rise of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, and drawing parallels between the dual sleazy con men; obviously one at a much smaller scale.  At the same time, Baker creates this remarkably charming pastoral of Americana on the fringes, casting his film with bright colorful sunshine and vibrant colors.  And it also makes surprising thematic use of N’Sync’s “Bye, Bye, Bye,” as a through line in the story.  Another strong American parable from one of our quietly subtle master directors.

9.

THE LAST DUEL

Directed by Ridley Scott

2021 proved to be a surprisingly strong year for films about medieval times.  Some of that had to do with movies that were holdovers from 2020, but it was still a year of riches for the sub-genre.  We got the surreal The Green Knight (2021) from director David Lowry, which turned the classic poem into a surreal work of art.  Paul Verhoeven tapped back into his sensationalist provocative style with his film Benedetta (2021), which was about lesbian nuns in a medieval French convent, one of whom also lusts for Jesus.  And then the year closed out with Joel Coen (flying solo this time without his brother and longtime filmmaking partner Ethan) reimagining The Tragedy of Macbeth in an abstract, monochromatic art film.  All were interesting in their own way, but I feel like the one that stood out the most was the extravagant drama put together by the always bigger than life Ridley Scott.  The Last Duel has all the pagentry and epic scope you’d expect from the man who made Gladiator (2000), but there is surprisingly a lot more to this movie than production design.  It is also a provocative examination of justice with regards to the aftermath of a sexual assault.  Scott breaks from a conventional narrative structure and tells the story of a French noblewoman who broke her silence to accuse her rapist publicly and hold him accountable through three different points of view.  Borrowing from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), The Last Duel shows us the same story three time, but each one from a different perspective (the lady, the man who raped her, and the lady’s husband).  Each story offers up an interesting examination of what the truth really means, and it’s interesting how each character is viewed differently in each version.  Each of the film’s stars (Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and especially Jodie Comer) magnificently capture the different subtleties of character, while still keeping the through line interesting.  The movie also marks the first screenwriting collaboration between Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who also has a juicy supporting role) since Good Will Hunting (1997), with contribution from Nicole Holofcener as well.  It’s a remarkably strong statement of a film for the #MeToo moment in our society, and it shows that even into his eighties, Ridley Scott can still deliver a film that is both epic and provocative at the same time.

8.

NINE DAYS

Directed by Edson Oda

Going from a big movie to a very small one, but still one with very big ideas.  I was probably one of only a handful of people who saw this movie during it’s brief run in theaters last summer, but I’m absolutely glad I did, because it became this unexpected discovery.  This small indie, which was picked up at Sundance in 2020 right before the advent of Covid, had probably the most original story premise that I saw all year.  It’s about a bureaucrat (played by Winston Duke) living in a stage of pre-life, and his job is to select from a group of a dozen candidates a person who will get to live.  All the others he doesn’t chose will cease to exist entirely.  And he must do so in the titular nine days.  It kind of treads the same ground as Pixar’s Soul (2020), but does so in a very stripped down and even more emotionally weighty way.  The focus is not on the potential souls waiting to be chosen for life.  It’s on the person who has to carefully make that decision.  It’s a real introspective film in the best possible way.  The movie asks us what the purpose of living is meant to be; are we using the time given to us to it’s fullest potential.  The movie’s most heartwarming moments come when our main character has to let each of the unselected souls go, but not before granting them one wish before they disappear.  The way he and his assistant (played by Benedict Wong) put together these wishes are especially imaginative and touching.  The movie also features some strong performances from the various and different candidates, including Bill Skarsgard, Tony Hale, and Zazie Beetz.  Beetz’s character is an especially interesting wild card who definitely makes the most of her nine days and even makes Duke’s bureaucrat reconsider his own outlook on life.  I love the little world-building that this movie undertakes, making this fantastical concept feel believable while at the same time feeling intimate in that kind of indie film way.  It’s a movie that really has a character all it’s own, and manages to grasp big concepts in a way that feels natural to it’s small scope.  Trust me, it’s a movie well worth seeking out and getting lost in.  It might even make you look at the world and your own place in it a very different way, and hopefully show you how much life and the time we spend should be valued.

7.

LICORICE PIZZA

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

The forever daring P.T. Anderson returns to his San Fernando Valley roots with this new, personal ode to the Los Angeles of his youth.  It’s definitely a welcome departure from Anderson’s recent slate of heavier themed films like There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012), and Phantom Thread (2017), and is more akin to his earlier work like Boogie Nights (1997) and especially Punch-Drunk Love (2002).  It also sees him returning to an episodic narrative as well like Magnolia (1999), except with a through line following an unconventional love story.  At the center is our destined couple, one a brash young child actor named Gary (played by Cooper Hoffman) whose hustling his way to his next big idea, and the other a dazed and confused young woman whose almost 10 years his senior named Alana (played by Alana Haim) who he has somehow has managed to coax into tagging along on his adventures.  And from there, Anderson takes us on an often comical journey through a bygone era in the Southland.  The different ups and downs of their relationship helps to fuel the film’s most memorable moments, and the movie offers a very comical look at youth in a community driven by opportunity.  Like most of Anderson’s movies, he puts an incredible amount of work into crafting a look and feel of the period in which his movies are set, and Licorice Pizza feels especially authentic.  From the use of time capsule locations, to the period costuming, to the perfectly chosen needle drops, this is a movie that really transports you back to 1970’s Los Angeles.  And being a San Fernando Valley resident, it’s especially rewarding to see places I’m familiar with show up in this movie.  Both Hoffman (taking over from his late father Phillip Seymour Hoffman as an Anderson leading man) and Alana Haim play their respective roles to perfection, especially the firecracker performance that Ms. Haim puts in.  The supporting cast of notable names are also on point as well, especially a scene-stealing Bradley Cooper as notorious Hollywood producer Jon Peters.  It’s definitely a movie personally connected to Anderson based on his own life, and it’s a joy seeing this loving tribute to the other side of Hollywood so lovingly brought to life.

6.

MINARI

Directed by Lee Isaac Chung

As a consequence of the chaotic year that was 2020, most of the movies that ended up being the front-runners for that year’s Oscars were not widely available to view until later in the awards season, spilling over into Winter of 2021.  Because the Oscars were delayed until late April, it extended the qualifying runs up to the end of February last year, and that’s when I was able to see most of the 2020 Best Picture contenders.  And it was a few: The Father, One Night in Miami, Promising Young Woman, and the eventual victor, Nomadland.  And while many of them were excellent films, the one that stuck with me all through the rest of the year was this delightful little drama about a Korean immigrant family trying to start a farm in rural Arkansas.  Though I didn’t mind the Chloe Zhao directed juggernaut of Nomadland winning the top award at the Oscars, this was without a doubt my favorite pick of the bunch, and I feel it’s worth spotlighting again as this was technically a movie that was released widely this year and should be on a best of the year list.  I just adored this family drama, and it’s mainly due to the wonderful characters that are a part of it.  Steven Yeun is fantastic in his Oscar-nominated role as the downtrodden patriarch of the family, trying his best to set roots for his family in a part of the country where they definitely stick out.  But the real stand outs in the film are the little boy and his mischievous grandma.  Alan S. Kim perfectly captures this precocious young kid stuck in between two worlds as a first generation Korean American.  And Yuh-Jung Youn absolutely shines in the role that won her an Oscar as the often vulgar old dowager of the family.  Lee Isaac Chung, who based the movie largely on his own upbringing, injects this beautiful humanity into the film, and manages to avoid sensationalizing the underlying politics of the film.  It could’ve been so easy to mishandle this kind of immigrant story and inject too much of a broader worldview into it.  Instead, Chung keeps the story earthbound, and that helps the themes resonate all the more.  It’s a real testament that even with all the many films that I saw this year, this contender from last year’s Oscars that I saw all the way back in February managed to still make my best of the year list after so many months.  That’s a mark of a really good film.

5.

SPENCER

Directed by Pablo Larrain

Both a true life drama, and also a sort of anti-biopic, this interesting new film from the director of Jackie (2016) takes another historically fated iconic woman from recent history and creates an imagined look what a day in her life might have been like.  Showing a fateful Christmas weekend for the one time Princess of Wales, the movie creates this unforgettable and oftentimes harrowing examination into the personal life of Princess Diana.  While the movie is extraordinary in it’s lavish and yet earthbound visuals, what sets this film apart is the unconventional and outside the box casting of Kristen Stewart as Diana.  Going into this movie, Stewart would seem to be among the least likely choices to play such an iconic historic figure, and yet, she absolutely nails it in the end.  There are even some points where the resemblance is uncanny.  She get the voice right, the walk, and even the upward glance stare.  It’s without a doubt one of the best performances of the year (if not the best) and will almost assuredly net Kristen at least her first Oscar nomination.  But, even without that performance, the movie would have still been an excellent production overall.  I love the way that director Pablo Larrain uses very wide angle lenses to make the hallways of Sandringham Palace feel even more isolating for Diana.  There’s also this very interesting subtext throughout the movie, with Diana constantly being haunted by the spectral memory of Anne Boleyn, whose ultimate fate feels like an omen for Diana’s future, an idea which drives the current princess to some deep despair.  And yet, even through the sometimes oppressive gloom, the movie manages to surprise with moments of true joy, especially when Diana is with her two sons, William and Harry.  Even though we all know Diana’s full story, and almost every facet of her life has been examined throughout the media, this movie still manages to craft a story that shows a side of her as a character that we haven’t seen before, or at the very least never considered.  It also, despite all the gloom, manages to find a happy ending for this ultimately doomed figure, and even more surprisingly it involves KFC chicken.  One of the most surprisingly emotional character studies of the year.

4.

LUCA 

Directed by Enrico Casarosa

Tragically, because of the on-going effects of the pandemic, most people were unable to watch this movie the way it was intended; on a big screen (a practice that sadly is still affecting Pixar films).  But, whether on a big or small screen, this was one of the most entertaining and delightful films of the year.  Pixar again delivers with this charming coming-of-age tale of two young sea monsters hoping to make their dreams come true in the human world.  The movie of course makes the most of it’s “what if?” scenario, which has been a thing that the master filmmakers at Pixar have always excelled at.  But even by their own high standards, Luca is especially effecting and inspiring in it’s narrative.  The friendship at the heart of the story, between Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and his more adventurous companion Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Glazer), is what really drives the story to delightful ends.  The movie’s montages of them trying to emulate human activity, like riding a Vespa, and failing badly, are some of the film’s most charming moments.  At the same time, the movie also becomes surprisingly inspirational.  Whether it was intended this way or not, the movie works very well as an allegory for queer youth coming to terms with their identity and wanting to motivate the world around them to accept them for who they are.  Pixar may not have set out to make a movie like that to begin with, but they’re not opposed to that interpretation either and have in retrospect quietly given the idea their approval.  It is already being heralded within the LGBTQ community, so I think it’s only a matter of time before this becomes a future officially acknowledge queer themed movie.  Regardless, it’s another triumph for Pixar, with a genuinely charming story and imaginative visuals, which owe a bit of inspiration to the films of Hayao Miyazaki.  Hopefully, one day, this movie gets a big screen revival, but until then, for this year it’s another definite winner for Pixar Animation.

3.

PIG

Directed by Michael Sarnoski

I may be a bit biased on this one, because this is a film that both takes place and was shot in my home state of Oregon.  But even if it wasn’t, I still would’ve loved everything about this surprisingly emotional and unconventional film.  It’s also surprising that I’m finding myself putting a film starring Nicolas Cage into my top 3 for the year, but that’s where we’re at.  This is a remarkably well crafted and unpredictable movie that manages to balance humor, genuine pathos, and even a little bit of suspense into a brilliantly observed character study.  It’s also a bit of an art-house John Wick (2014) in that Nicolas Cage’s character is a man with a past whose layers are peeled back as the plot progresses.  It doesn’t turn violent like the Wick movies do, but it does do the same interesting trick of introducing it’s main character as one thing and over the course of the movie reveal him to have had a whole different kind of life before hand.  The movie even throws some wild card, subculture surprises at us, including an underground fight club made up of waiters and dishwashers.  Nicolas Cage delivers what may be his most nuanced performance ever, and certainly his best in a very long time.  I love the fact that even as he ends up getting more beat up and bloody as the movie goes on, he still commands respect and authority from the culinary world that he once inhabited.  It’s a movie that also finds the absurdity of the high end culinary world to be a especially potent target, but at the same time, it also gives us an appetizing look at the art of cuisine.  The film could have easily been derailed by a less subtle approach to it’s world-building, and thankfully the filmmakers keep this movie grounded and maintain it’s humanity.  Like the character that Nicolas Cage plays in the movie, there are so many layers of this film to unravel, and I’m sure many are going to end up finding a movie they didn’t expect to see going into this film.  Who knew a movie about a feral wild man of the forest trying to find his stolen truffle pig would garner up one of the year’s most rewarding cinematic experiences.

2.

DUNE

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

A thankful return to the kind of provocative, big screen spectacle that we were sorely missing throughout the pandemic.  Denis Villeneuve had long wanted to adapt Frank Herbert’s seminal Science Fiction epic novel to the big screen, and boy did he not waste his opportunity.  Surely, the David Lynch directed 1984 adaptation has it’s fans, but this is the movie that really does the writing of Frank Herbert justice.  Denis Villeneuve does for Dune what Peter Jackson did for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which is bring it to it’s fullest cinematic potential.  You can tell that Denis had been planning the shots in his head for years, maybe even decades prior.  There is an ambition of vision here that really helps to make the story leap off the page like never before.  Once thought to be an un-filmable book, as evidenced by the messy Lynch film, Villeneuve has managed to make all the bizarre and surreal elements of Herbert’s novel work on screen here.  Or at least half of the novel, as Warner Brothers made the short sighted decision to let Villeneuve break the story into two films, but did not plan to shot both back to back; a foolish decision in light of the movie opening in a challenging pandemic marketplace.  Thankfully, it did well enough to greenlight Part Two, but it seemed uncertain for a time.  The movie has some of the most amazing visuals seen all year; perfectly capturing the awe inspiring sights of the world of Arrakis.  The all star cast likewise lives up to the hype; with Timothee Chalamet leading the film perfectly in the difficult role of Paul Atredes.  Josh Brolin, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac and Jason Mamoa are also stand outs.  More than anything, it’s seeing an ambitious cinematic treatment of an often mishandled source material done right that makes this film one of the years best.  And it makes me hopeful that studios will continue to treat these kinds of properties with respect instead of focusing on the marketability of these properties.  Hopefully, Dune does for science fiction what The Lord of the Rings did for fantasy on the silver screen.  More importantly, it showed that indeed there are some movies best savored on the biggest screen possible and that’s hopefully something that we’ll see more of, which will hopefully bring audiences back to the cinemas.

And now, my choice for the best movie of 2021 is…

1.

THE POWER OF THE DOG

Directed by Jane Campion

Jane Campion has not directed a feature film in over 12 years, but you wouldn’t know that after seeing this movie.  She steps back into feature filmmaking effortlessly with what is probably her most refined film yet, and certainly her best since her Oscar-winning The Piano (1993).  In this revisionist Western, she gives us an interesting examination into the nature of toxic masculinity.  Perfectly embodied through an incredible performance by Benedict Cumberbatch (probably his best work yet), we see a cowboy whose crafted this harsh masculine shell around himself to hide his own insecurities about his own identity, and this in turn make him a tyrannical presence in the lives of those around him, especially his put upon little brother (played by Jesse Plemons) and his new sister-in-law (played by Kirsten Dunst).  It’s only when he meets his new nephew-in-law (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who displays more feminine traits, that we seen the hard veneer start to crack around this character, which lead to some shocking confrontations along the way.  Of all the movies that I saw this year, none were as finely crafted from beginning to end as this was. Campion remarkably manages to substitute her native New Zealand for rural Montana, and you would never know the difference.  The movie is also perfectly edited, without an ounce of fat on the story at all.  It also features some truly memorable moments, like one of the most unnerving musical duets you will see in any movie.  The musical score by Johnny Greenwood is also one of the best of the year.  It’s just the movie that hit all the right notes for me this year, and even still offered up surprises that I wasn’t expecting at all.  It’s good to see Jane Campion continuing to mesh her provocative voice with these often sanctified genres.  Seeing her especially breaking down the mythic representation of a rugged cowboy and showing the dangers of masculinity without balance is a lesson that we especially need explored through cinema.  The film is a gorgeous, extremely well acted and shot ode to the Western genre that is not afraid to explain that the myths that were borne out of it are not something we should continue to idolize in modern society today.  A thorough and undisputed triumph.

So there you have my choices for the top ten films of 2021.  Of course, any examination of the best of the year is not complete without the counterpoint.  So, of course, I have my choices for the Bottom 5 of 2021 below.  Here’s a brief rundown of my least favorite movies of the year:

5. WAREWOLVES WITHIN – This uninteresting Edgar Wight-wannabe film from video game producer Ubisoft believes itself to be more clever than it really is.  Like I mentioned beforehand, the movies of Edgar Wright are far more witty and balanced as a mixture of comedy and horror.  This one just regurgitates a lot of obvious, low hanging fruit puns and sadly even descends into stereotypes of gay people and middle American rednecks.  You would think the bar would already be low for a movie based on a little known video game, but this one managed to find a way to sink even lower.

4. THE NIGHT HOUSE – Probably the single dullest movie that I saw all year.  What could have been an interesting twist on a haunted house storyline instead turns into a mediocre waste of talent.  I get the feeling that even the filmmakers didn’t know what the ultimate mystery was going to be either.  Is the house haunted by ghosts? Demons?  Is it all an elaborate hoax or just in the heroine’s head.  The movie’s frustratingly vague ending just seems to say that all the above are true, which shows that indeed nobody knew what this movie was supposed to be about.  It’s just spooky for spooky sake, and that in no way is scary.  Consider more effective scary movies from this year like A Quiet Place Part II or Malignant, and make a hard pass on this unsatisfying failure of a horror movie.

3. EARWIG & THE WITCH – This one is especially painful, because it comes from one of the greatest animation studios in the world; Japan based Studio Ghibli.  After becoming legends in the anime industry, this film marked their first ever foray into full computer animation.  And boy did it not work out.  There’s just something about the Studio Ghibli style that does not translate to 3D animation.  Couple this with a painfully mediocre and unimaginative story and one of the most insufferably annoying main characters ever as well.  The good news is that Studio Ghibli founder, the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, is once again breaking his retirement and making another film, and it will thankfully be hand drawn, traditional animation.  Maybe Studio Ghibli can one day make 3D animation compatible with their house style, but man oh man was this experiment an absolute failure.

2. SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS – Another failed attempt to launch this franchise off the ground.  Instead of going for a full G.I. Joe team-up, this one decides to focus solely on one of the most iconic characters from the brand.  And yet, they found nothing interesting at all with the character to justify a full length movie.  It especially seems like a wasted opportunity for actor Henry Golding, whose headlining a film for the first time here.  The usually charismatic Crazy Rich Asians star just seems lost and unmotivated here.  Not to mention that for the majority of the movie, his character is selfish and narrowminded.  Why should we be rooting for him?  Some shoehorned G.I. Joe lore thrown into the mix can’t do much to elevate this movie beyond genre clichés.  If the G.I. Joe franchise was on life support before, this was the flatline that almost assuredly doomed it forever.

And the worst movie of 2021 is…

1. DEAR EVAN HANSEN – The past year gave us some great examples of how to adapt a musical for the big screen right.  From Warner Brother’s In the Heights, to Spielberg’s West Side Story, to the double whammy of Lin-Manuel Miranda productions Tick, Tick, Boom, and Encanto.  This misguided adaptation of an award winning stage musical is a text book example of how not to adapt a musical.  For one thing, the movie made the wrong choice in casting the original Broadway Evan Hansen, Ben Platt, to reprise his role.  Platt is now way too old to play the part of a teenager and his presence here acting alongside more age appropriate actors just gives this movie an overall creepy feeling.  And then there’s director Stephen Chbosky’s matter of fact style of filmmaking, which removes any and all spectacle that a movie musical should have.  And then there’s the inherent problem with the musical itself in that Evan Hansen is just a very hatable character to begin with.  What he does over the course of the story is pretty much emotional terrorism, injecting himself into the loving arms of a grieving family based on a lie, just to make himself feel better.  Maybe the earnestness plays better on a stage, but in this film adaptation, it just feels creepy and infuriating.  An absolute disaster of a musical adaptation, and pretty much the most overall worst experience I had at the movies this year; and that’s saying a lot given that a pandemic is still making movie-going a hassle.  Bye, Evan Hansen.

So, there you have my choices for the best and worst of 2021 at the movies.  It was honestly a harder list to put together this year, just because of the quantity of movies that I managed to see this year, as well as the fact that my viewing habits changed dramatically as movie theaters were finally starting to reopen after a year of closure. In some ways, I feel like this is going to be one of those years where I’ll be reassessing some of these movies again as the year go bye, as some films probably left a different impression on me just because of the times we are living in.  My hope is that going into 2022 that we see continued stability in the theater going experience, which already is being challenged as new variants are keeping the end of this pandemic from being in sight.  Already we are seeing movies being pushed back again, or being sent to streaming, all because uncertainty is on the rise again.  Thankfully, with vaccinations and masking becoming mandatory in most places, I think we’ll avoid another theater shut down like we saw in 2020.  It’s just going to take a while to get audiences back to feeling comfortable again for all types of movies; not just the super hero ones which seem to be doing alright.  I think by the summer we’ll see more normal box office again, and hopefully the pandemic will have seen it’s final massive wave by that point.  In any case, it’s good to have a contentious year like 2021 behind us now, and more importantly, it’s nice to see a calendar that no longer is packed with the remnants of all the pandemic exiles that were clogging up the system.  This will likely be one of the most normal looking years at the movies that we’ve seen in a long while, and my hope is that it offers up plenty of worthwhile entertainment, as well as a few surprises along the way.  Anyway, thank you for reading and have a great 2022 at the movies.

The Movies of Early 2022

You couldn’t have asked for a more topsy-turvy year than 2021 for the world of cinema.  Still reeling from the effects of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the movie theater industry was pretty much on the ropes even as venues were beginning to reopen after a full year closure.   But, through some good fortune, and even some unexpected support from meme stock traders,  movie theaters managed to avoid the Armageddon that many experts feared would befall the industry.  Things slowly began to return to business as usual, but there were still roadblocks in the way towards normalcy.  Hollywood still hedged their bets for most of the year, choosing to release their movies simultaneously across multiple platforms in order to off-set depressed box office numbers.  But, as the year went on, movie theaters stayed resilient and managed to show their overall worth.  Disney, the studio with the most high profile stakes in the market having their streaming platform also performing very well, gained a surprise hit with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), which prompted them to abandon their hybrid release model in favor of the theatrical market for the rest of the year.  Warner Brothers, which made the boldest move of the year by releasing their entire 2021 slate on a similar release model on both streaming and theaters day and date, saw mixed results, with many of their film either underperforming or flat out bombing at the box office likely due to their availability on streaming.  And then the theatrical market ended the year on a triumphant note with Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) smashing records in a way that would be impressive even outside of a pandemic market.  There is a lot that the theater industry can feel happy about at the end of 2021, though business as normal hasn’t quite been achieved just yet.  It will be interesting to see what happens next in 2022, and which way the wind will blow after the previous year we’ve had.

It helps to take a look at what to expect in the months ahead in 2022.  For the first time in two years, the theatrical release schedule looks like it has settled in to a more stable outlook.  There’s no more uncertainty about if movies can make their release dates, even in the face of more Covid variants.  Like years before, I will be taking a look at the most anticipated movies of the early season of the year and give you my thoughts on which are the must sees, the ones that have me worried, and the ones that I believe are worth skipping.  Keep in mind, these are my first impressions based on the level of marketing these films have presented thus far.  I might be wrong about a few of these choices, and that has very often happened before.  Still, I’m confident about my choices here, and I hope they give you a good sense about what to expect in the upcoming months.  So, with all that, let’s take a look at the Movies of Early 2022.

MUST SEES:

THE BATMAN (MARCH 4)

Let’s start off with the usual super hero flick that always ends up on my must see lists.  With Marvel choosing to hold onto their next theatrical project for the summer, that leaves the Spring entirely for DC to launch their film free of competition.  What they have planned is yet another big screen reboot of their marquee comic book icon, Batman, marking the seventh big screen iteration we’ve seen to date (not counting the 60’s Adam West TV version).  Filling the cape and cowl this time is Robert Pattinson, a choice for the part that has received some mixed feelings thus far.  I have a bit more confidence in Mr. Pattinson, give his more risk-taking choices in roles as of late.  And the choice of him as the character seems pretty in line with the tone they are setting with this new version of the Batman story.  It’s clear that director Matt Reeves is channeling a sort of David Fincher aesthetic with this Batman, with the film looking very much like it’s pulled out of the same world as Se7ven (1995) or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).  The supporting cast looks really interesting as well, with actors like Zoe Kravitz, Paul Dano and Colin Farrell portraying very grounded versions of Batman’s rogues gallery as Catwoman, The Riddler and The Penguin respectively.  The big question will be if the movie can offer anything different with regards to the Batman character that we haven’t yet seen before.  The movie especially has to distinguish itself in comparison to the Christopher Nolan trilogy, which had it’s own grounded take on the Batman mythos.  Given how well Matt Reeves was able to revitalize and legitimize the Planet of the Apes series a few years back, he should be able to make a new version of Batman that can stand well enough on it’s own, and in many ways could end up surprising us.  Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for two long for this one, and given that Warner Brothers has ended their streaming experiment of 2021, this will definitely be the kind of blockbuster entertainment that will help their studio make a splash again at the box office in a big way.

TURNING RED (MARCH 11)

Another sadly missing fixture in movie theaters over the last couple years has been Pixar Animation.  They unfortunately were saddled with having one of their movies open right at the beginning of the pandemic (2020’s Onward) and that ended up cascading into a whole shake-up for the studio as a whole.  The other planned 2020 release, Soul, skipped theaters entirely, receiving a streaming only premiere on Disney+.  And despite the fact that theaters were re-opened last summer in all the big markets, Disney still side-lined their next Pixar film Luca (2021) to streaming on Disney+, much to the chagrin of the people at Pixar.  Now, with the theatrical market stabilizing, Disney is allowing Pixar’s next film to play on the big screen finally, almost two years to the day since Pixar’s last big screen appearance.  The film they are making their return with looks like a nice light romp that will appeal to a broad audience.  Centering on a Chinese-Canadian pre-teen girl who succumbs to an ancient family curse that transforms her into a giant red panda seems to be in line with the kind of atypical storylines that Pixar is always attracted to.  It’s also interesting to see them take on a much more stylized, cartoonish style with this one, as opposed to some of their other films like Soul and Onward, which both opted for more grounded animation.  Turning red feels much more comic strip like in it’s style, and that feels like a nice change of pace for the studio.  Instead of focusing everything on the hyper details of the environment, this movie looks like it’s keeping things simplistic and focusing more on the complexities of the characters instead, which has always been a strong point for Pixar.  I feel like this is one of those movies that will probably offer up a lot more emotional depth than what we see in the hyperactive trailer, and in many ways, it’s something that we have sorely missed in a theater setting.  It’s been a long pandemic break for Pixar, but I’m hopeful that Turning Red brings them roaring back in a big way, and naturally with a big, red, roaring Panda.

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (MARCH 25)

Taking a break from the big studio entertainment, here we have a little indie film that is no less exciting as an upcoming attraction.  From the same team behind the equally bizarre movie Swiss Army Man (2016), we have this new film that centers around a Chinese immigrant in contemporary America that has some strange connection to a multiverse.  Swiss Army Man was a refreshingly original movie that managed to make it’s bizarre premise work for a full length feature, and I am very excited to see what the same twisted minds behind that movie can do for a follow-up.  I’m especially excited by what I see here, because this looks like a showcase for the amazing talent that is Michelle Yeoh.  The veteran Chinese actress has certainly been around for decades and always given stellar work on screen with everything from James Bond thrillers to Marvel comic book movies.  Here, she is front in center in a starring role that she far too often hasn’t been able to take advantage of.  This looks like a movie that is tailor-made for her, allowing her to play all sorts of different versions of the same character across multiple realities.  It even gives her a chance to show off some of her talents as a martial arts fighter, as she has shown before in movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).  I also find it interesting who she gets to act opposite with in this movie, with veteran actors like Jamie Lee Curtis and James Hong by her side.  But, even more surprising is the actor playing her husband, Ke Huy Quan.  It may surprise audiences to know that he’s Short Round from the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), as well as Data from The Goonies (1985), all grown up.  He hasn’t had a big screen role in years, so to see him here in a grown up role is quite a surprise.  But, this is certainly a movie designed to let Michelle Yeoh shine and I’m really excited to see what kind of weird and strange things this movie is going to give us.

THE NORTHMAN (APRIL 22)

Here’s another wild, bizarre cinematic offering from another celebrated outsider filmmaker.  Robert Eggers has made a splash in recent years with his very dark and cinematically daring horror films The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019).  Now, he is looking to take his unique voice into the realm of ancient world epics.  Here he is creating his own take on Viking sagas, with all the same bloody violent details and otherworldly connections to the spirit realm that you would hope to see in such a film.  Centered around a young Viking warrior seeking vengeance for his slain father, this looks on the surface to be a more conventional looking film from the guy who gave us something as unconventional as The Lighthouse.  And yet, the trailer still shows us that there will be indeed some wild, fantastical elements here as well, and that’s exactly what makes this movie so highly anticipated.  My hope is that Eggers manages to balance style with substance here, because it could prove to be a difficult tight rope to walk.  You definitely want it to be a rousing adventure film, but at the same time, you also want it to be a wild head trip as well, which Eggers has thus far excelled at.  It definitely helps that the cast is an interesting blend of unconventional players as well.  I’m going to be very intrigued to see how well Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman work as Viking royalty in this film.  The inclusion of Anya Tayor-Joy and Willem Dafoe are also exciting inclusions.  The success of the film will probably hinge on how well Alexander Skasrsgard   works in the lead role.  He certainly looks the part, thanks to his own Scandinavian roots, but it will be interesting to see if he can pull off the weirder Robert Egger elements of the story as well too in his performance.  My hope is that this movie fearlessly breaks out of conventionality and becomes the demented, ethereal Viking epic that we all hope it is.

DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA (MARCH 18)

Yeah, I know this movie is not for everyone’s tastes.  The second movie based on the long running TV series is very much a film made solely for those who were die hard fans of the show, and not much else.  But, I am one of those fans of the show and I am very excited for another big screen outing with this collection of characters.  Part of my excitement for this film is because of how well I thought the first Downton Abbey (2019) movie worked.  It didn’t try to break the formula too much to translate from the small to the big screen, and overall it did exactly what you would want a movie based on a show to do; extend the already storyline even more.  I’m glad to see that nothing has been wasted so far, with the same opulence of the show carried over, but with the added benefit of a widescreen canvas.  And the show’s creator Julian Fellowes has not lost sight of his ongoing narrative, justifying the continuing adventures of the wealthy Crawley family beyond what we saw in the show, without making the Series finale feel superfluous in the long run.  The always delightful ensemble cast has made their return, including some of the best character actors that have graced the big and small screens of Britain for decades, including Hugh Bonneville, Penelope Wilton, and Jim Carter among them.  And any reason to put Dame Maggie Smith back on the big screen is an opportunity that should never be wasted, ever.  My only hope is that this movie doesn’t waste the goodwill that was earned from the first successful big screen adaptation.  Sometimes a movie based on a TV show has maybe one good translation that it can possibly get away with; any more might seem desperate and unnecessary.  Still, enough was left open from the last film to justify more time with these characters, and a change of scenery as the family makes a trip to the French countryside could offer some nice new story opportunities.  As an unashamed fan of the show, I’m very much looking forward to yet another couple of hours in this world of Downton Abbey.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

DEATH ON THE NILE (FEBRUARY 11)

It’s been a rocky road for this film in wake of the pandemic.  Originally slated for a Fall 2019 release, it was pushed back due to the merger between it’s production studio Fox and Disney.  Then of course the Covid affected closures of the theater pushed the movie out of 2020, and then scandal plagued the film when one of it’s stars (Armie Hammer) was accused of sexual abuse, prompting a career backlash that has seen him lose numerous roles as well as his representation team.  Now, nearly three years after it wrapped filming, the movie is surprisingly going to make it’s way to theaters.  Some speculated whether it would see the light of day at all.  It would have been a shame if none of us had the chance to see it, as it is a star-studded follow-up to director Kenneth Branagh’s hit adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (2017).  Just to give a sense of how long this movie has had to sit on the shelf, Branagh has made and released two more films since wrapping photography on Death on the Nile; the Disney+ fantasy Artemis Fowl (2020) and the Oscar-hopeful Belfast (2021).  This is a troubled production all around, and my worry is that audiences won’t be able to judge the movie properly on it’s own merits.  It’s really a sad unfortunate series of events that shouldn’t have to weigh on the movie, and yet I feel like it’s going to suffer as a result.  My hope is that the movie is good enough to shake off the bad mojo that has fallen it’s way.  The stellar cast, Armie Hammer not with-standing, should be a benefit.  At the same time, Branagh’s track record as director is hit or miss, and he this is honestly his first ever attempt at a sequel.  This movie could end up being a pleasant surprise, or a forgotten troubled film best swept under the rug.  My hope is for the former.

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2 (APRIL 22)

Two years ago, I placed the original on my movies to skip list.  It looked like a movie just pre-destined to fail, especially after a highly talked about last minute re-working of Sonic’s design due to a fan backlash.  Surprisingly, the movie not only didn’t fail, it managed to succeed at the box office, just narrowly making a profit before the Covid shutdown.  One thing that really helped was the better than expected input of Jim Carrey as the villainous Dr. Robotnik, who really stole the movie away and elevated the film to make it better than it had any right to be.  So, for a movie that was doomed to be a laughing stock, it is now getting a sequel and people are excited for it.  I was a little more lukewarm on the movie, because it still was a formulaic waste of time, but I do acknowledge that it managed to avoid many of the pitfalls that should have tanked it entirely and I was pleasantly surprised by Jim Carrey’s hilariously demented turn as Robotnik.  It’s not out of the question for this series to have fans, and for them to be excited for a sequel.  I just am not entirely on board myself.  It is cool to see Jim Carrey returning, and leaning even more into the zaniness of the character.  It’s also nice to see the movie adding more elements from the video games into it’s story, including the introduction of Sonic’s rival Knuckles (voiced here by Idris Elba).  Maybe this movie can turn around my opinion entirely, and make me a fan of the series finally.  I’m far more intrigued by how the original managed to escape disaster and become a success given all the circumstances thrown it’s way more than I’m interested in the story itself.  Judging by the way the movie has been marketed so far, my opinion will probably remain the same afterwards.  Still, it is a step up from being on the Movies to Skip list, so that’s an improvement at least.

MORBIUS (JANUARY 28)

The only Marvel related property we are getting on the big screen this early movie season, and it’s not even from Marvel Studios proper.  Morbius is an off-shoot of what people have dubbed the Sony Spider-verse, which is all the Marvel characters that Sony Pictures maintains the rights to that are tied around the character of Spider-Man.  They are very loosely connected with the canon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and in many ways might not be in the same universal canon at all.  This includes the Venom movies starring Tom Hardy as well as this film based on the vampiric super anti-hero known as Morbius.  The movie Morbius has likewise suffered an uncertain future thanks to the pandemic, moving around multiple times until landing on this unceremonious late January release date.  That alone may seal the fate of this movie, but I hope it ends up being more than that.  The problem with the film is that it may get crushed under the expectations that people now have with Marvel films, especially in the wake of the huge success of Spider-Man: No Way Home.  It also doesn’t help that the character is much lesser known outside of comic book fans, and that he is being played by Jared Leto, whose become a bit of a polarizing actor as of late. Hopefully, Leto brings more balance to this role than he did with his unhinged version of the Joker in DC’s Suicide Squad (2016).  And my hope is that this movie makes the best effort to justify Morbius as a stand alone character worth devoting a stand alone movie to; something that the Venom movies have yet to achieve despite Tom Hardy’s best efforts.  Still, this one is going to be a hard sell, and my worry is that Sony does not have the same kind of focus and care with these characters that Marvel Studios proper does.  We’ll see if they can buck the trend and make a surprisingly effective film on it’s own merits that doesn’t have to rely on it’s connection to Spider-Man to work.

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE SECRETS OF DUMBLEDORE (APRIL 15)

Another film that has succumbed to unfortunate off-screen turmoil.  Though not affected badly by the pandemic, this movie unfortunately has had to overcome scandals that have diminished some of it’s key players.  For one thing, Wizarding World creator J.K. Rowling has come under fire for comments she has made that many have deemed transphobic, which has alienated the author from many of the fan base of her previous work.  And then there is the cloud of scandal that has surrounded actor Johnny Depp, who played the villainous role of Grindelwald in the previous Fantastic Beast movies.  It became so troublesome for the makers of this movie that they decided to make the drastic decision to recast the part of Grindelwald with Mads Mikkelsen instead.  But there’s an even bigger problem working against this movie; that nobody really cares for this Fantastic Beast series.  There are some fans to be sure, but Fantastic Beasts has failed to take off in the same way that the Harry Potter series that shares the same universe had before.  This, the third film in this series, carries on the continuing  story, but it seems like it’s carrying itself forward on the crutch of the Potter series much more now.  With Dumbledore (played as his younger self here by Jude Law) becoming even more of factor in the story, as well as the characters making their way to the Hogwarts school, it just seems like the Fantastic Beasts team is going out of it’s way to try to appeal to all of those Harry Potter fans out there instead of working harder to define it’s own identity.  Maybe this movie can turn around it’s bad fortune thus far.  I honestly think the recasting of Grindelwald is an improvement; Mikkelsen should have been playing the character from the outset.  But, given Rowling’s dogmatic hold on the narrative drive of this story, and little to indicate a deviation from it’s set course, we are likely just going to see more of a downward slide for this unfortunate wannabe series.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

MOONFALL (FBRUARY 4)

If you’ve been reading my blog consistently, you’ll probably know of my disdain for the movies of Roland Emmerich.  He has very much emerged as my least favorite filmmaker as of late, and Moonfall looks like his dumbest movie yet.  The ludicrous premise involves the moon being pulled out of it’s orbit and headed towards a collision with the Earth, and it’s up to a rag tag bunch of scientists and hot shot astronauts to avert the disaster and save the planet.  What really grinds my gears about Emmerich’s movies is just his disdain for common sense explanations in his plots.  He is constantly known for pushing pseudo-science, conspiracy theories and the like in his movies, and often throws basic physics out the window as well.  Not only that, his characters often fall into wooden archetypes and even worse, sometime ugly stereotypes.  All of that seems to be right in place again with Moonfall, a ludicrous sci-fi film that seems to have every bad instinct Emmerich is known for in full display.  The way he treats science in his movies has been laughable, and has often undermined the attempts to educate about real scientific principles.  God help us if he ever decides to do a pandemic movie.  I’m not holding out for a lot of hope with this one.  It just looks like Emmerich desperately trying to find his next Independence Day (1996) and once again failing miserably at it.  A definite hard pass.

UNCHARTED (FEBRUARY 18)

Movies based on popular video games are absolutely tricky to pull off.  Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) has been one of the rare exceptions of a hit movie that overcame the trend of terrible video game adaptions.  But, Sonic was a movie unburdened with having to adapt a deep, detailed storyline.  Sonic the Hedgehog the game is as simplistic as they come, so all they had to do was make a story that was just slightly more involved than a side-scrolling adventure.  It’s much harder to adapt a video game to the big screen that originally felt cinematic to begin with.  That’s the case with Uncharted.  The Uncharted video game series are very highly celebrated for their almost movie like quality of immersive storytelling.  They are often considered to be the Indiana Jones of video games.  Which is why it seems like a bad idea to make these films leap onto the silver screen.  A two hour movie can in no way compete with the 20-40 hours of gameplay that people devote to the narratives of these games.  And yet Sony (who conveniently also makes the PlayStation consoles that the Uncharted games play exclusively on) is banking on making that jump a reality.  They of course are utilizing their golden boy of the moment, Tom Holland (aka Spider-Man), to lead the film as the iconic hero Nathan Drake.  Though Holland is an impressively athletic and capable action star, he still comes off as a tad too young for the role, as the video game Nathan Drake has a few more years under his belt by the time we first meet him.  It also doesn’t help that Nathan’s beloved sidekick Sully is played here by Mark Wahlberg without the beloved character’s trademark mustache.  Sadly, what we are likely to see happen is a extraordinary, ground-breaking video game adventure be reduced to just an ordinary, run of the mill action movie.

MARRY ME (FEBRUARY 11)

Normally this kind of movie would just be ignored by me.  But for me, this one feels especially disappointing because of the inclusion of Owen Wilson here.  Last year, I saw Owen branching out as an actor and taking on more outside the norm roles.  He was especially effective in the Loki series on Disney+ and he also made a welcome return to working with his old friend Wes Anderson in The French Dispatch (2021).  Unfortunately, Marry Me finds him slinking back into the Rom Com trap that kept him from taking on good roles for many years.  It’s something that I think is really beneath him at this point in his career, and it’s sad to see him returning to that well once again.  The same can be said about Jennifer Lopez as well, whose coming off her best role in years with 2019’s Hustlers.  I don’t know why they want to go back to rom coms, when it’s clear that there’s a lot of still untapped potential for them as actors.  Hopefully, once they get this movie out of their systems, they’ll go back to more outside the box kind of roles, but for now, this is a movie that feels more like a step backward after a lot of forward momentum in both of their respective careers.

So, there you have my outlook of the early part of 2022.  For one thing, it’s nice to know that movie theaters are no longer on the brink of closure like they were this time last year.  A few movie theaters didn’t survive, but the vast majority managed to stick it out, and now there is no longer any uncertainty for at least the foreseeable future.  The theatrical industry still has a bit more rebuilding to do if it’s going to get back to it’s pre-pandemic levels, but the success of Spider-Man: No Way Home is still a positive sign that leaves us hopeful.  It definitely shows that the super hero genre is still a potent one for audiences, which is good news for something like The Batman.  Hopefully, in 2022, we see audiences gain a lot more confidence to venture out to see other genre films, especially with animated movies, musicals, historical epics, and the like which have all had a harder time regaining traction at the box office over the course of the last year.  2021 certainly brought some more life into the ailing theater industry, but it’s still not 100% back yet.  My hope is that we see movie theaters roaring back in 2022, as the pandemic continues to wane and become less deadly.  Movie theaters certainly need to up their commitment towards appealing to audiences.  The Netflix’s and Disney+’s of the world are not going away anytime soon, and they’re going to continue competing with movie theaters for years to come.  Hopefully, the adage of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger applies to the theatrical market as well, and that movie theaters will hopefully come out of this pandemic better than they were before.  In any case, this is where we are at the beginning of a new year at the movies.  Happy New Year and let’s make 2022 a prosperous and safe one at the movies.

Naughty and Nice – Christmas Vacation and the Memorable Delights of a Holiday Gone Wrong

It’s Christmas Day.  We’ve all had a pretty hectic year, but if you are making it to this festive time with your mind set in the right place, then you’ll no doubt be feeling the warmth that the season brings.  We all celebrate the holidays in our own way, depending on our background, cultural upbringing, and station in life, but there is no doubt a lot that many of us still have in common when we reach the Holiday season.  No matter what holiday it is that we celebrate, this end of the year season is about coming together and expressing how much we are grateful for having the loved ones in our life to share these moments.  That and giving each other lots of presents.  That in itself can be both something wonderful this time of year, as well as a headache.  We also have that in common, scrambling through all the days and weeks trying to prepare for the big day.  Whether we are decorating, shopping, or preparing the big Holiday meal, many of us are putting in a lot of work to make the season bright.  And all for a brief moment on Christmas morning where we open our gifts together.  It’s a time of joy, but also frustration.  But even these hectic moments have come to define the season itself, and in many ways, the perseverance to make the the holidays perfect become memorable moments themselves.  In some ways, they turn into war stories that we tell each other, sort of a way of bragging to show just how much Christmas spirit we have.  I have some of those two, with my years spent working in retail during the holiday season.  This goes for the shopping experiences as well as all the headaches at home with making everyone happy during the holidays.  Oftentimes, there are just as many tears to be had over the holiday season as smiles.  We all recognize the trials of a holiday season because many of us have gone through it ourselves.  No Christmas is 100% perfect, and the ones that we remember as being perfect may be just rose colored glasses over a foggy memory.  But, that strive for perfection is a universal feeling, and the best we can do is to laugh it off in the end and just enjoy the holiday mood.  Though many movies show the ideal types of Christmases we’d like to have, there is one movie that perfectly encapsulates all the things that could go wrong during the holidays: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).

Christmas Vacation is an all time classic holiday film, but one that I think goes against the grain of what a typical Christmas movie should be.  It’s a movie about everything going wrong during Christmas time, despite the best efforts of it’s central family, The Griswolds, to make everything perfect.  And by the Griswold’s, I mean the father, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) who takes holiday festivities to a cult like obsession.  And every mishap that befalls Clark and his family is played up for laughs.  The movie overall is a farce in the very classic sense of the word.  There really is no driving plot to speak of, other than a couple of loose threads like Clark’s ambition for a perfect holiday and his anticipation for a Christmas bonus check from his greedy boss.  It’s merely just a collection of moments with hilarious punchlines at the end of each scene.  We see the family going pick out their Christmas tree, Clark decorating the house, the extended family members making their arrivals, and the family sitting down for a Christmas Eve dinner.  Things we all have our own experiences with during the holidays.  But, as the movie unfolds, every possible thing that could go wrong does.  The tree is too big, and Clark forgot to bring an axe; Clark nearly falls of the roof many times while putting up the lights; the grandparents all hate each other; and the Christmas Turkey is cooked too dry to be edible.  All these mishaps are filmed with the same kind of manic zaniness of a Marx Brothers or Charlie Chaplin comedy, which is typical of the National Lampoon brand.  And yet, there is still an underlying truth beneath all the farce.  None of the scenarios that Clark Griswold finds himself in are too far fetched; we all can identify with all the mishaps that befalls him, because many of them have often happened to us too, though maybe not to the same extreme extant.  It’s that combination of relatable mayhem and the unrelenting farcical tone of the movie that really helps to keep the film a perennial favorite.

It might surprise many that National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is the third in a series of comedies, because it stands pretty well on it’s own as a stand alone movie.  The series began with the celebrated National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983).  Written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, Vacation followed the Griswold family through a similar series of unfortunate events, only it’s during a Summer vacation trip that takes them to a fictional theme park named Walley World.  That film likewise is renowned for it’s manic farcical tone and often mean-spirited humor.  It also marked Chevy Chase’s first post Saturday Night Live hit as a headlining star.  And it was a role that he played to a “T”; a highly strung out dad trying his best to make everything perfect even though nothing goes right, and it only makes him sink deeper into his own mania.  Where I think a lot of people forget that Christmas Vacation is the third film in the series is because of the often forgotten sequel, National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985).  Made right on the heels of the original, and retaining John Hughes as screenwriter, the sequel obviously did not have the same magic of the original film.  Something just felt off taking the Griswolds abroad and placing them in Europe rather than the American Midwest.  And I think that’s where the problem lies with European Vacation; it’s just trying to be the first movie all over again, and it can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice.  The change of scenery doesn’t hide the fact that it’s all the same farcical situations all over again, and all it does is spotlight the flaws all that much more.  So, when the opportunity came to make a third film, Hughes and company decided to do something different, which ultimately helped to bring fresh new life into the series; they brought the Griswolds home for the holidays.

The at home Christmas seemed like a natural progression for the series to take, but it also opened up the series to a fresh set of mishaps that could befall Clark and the family.  In essence the dynamics are still the same.  Clark is the driven to perfection man that we are all familiar with from the last two films, and his mania is perfectly countered off of his long suffering wife Ellen (played again perfectly by Beverly D’Angelo).  What is especially funny is that the movie keeps the tradition going of recasting the Griswold children in every new film.  This time around Rusty and Audrey Griswold are played by a very young Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis respectively, and of course the recasting is never brought up at all.  The same progression of cascading problems also happens to the Griswolds, but here it’s all set at home.  The gimmick of them driving across the country is out of the story, and that allowed John Hughes to craft his comedy around the characters’ home life.  And that offers a whole different set of comical situations to mine from.  This is especially hilarious to see with Clark’s manic personality coming through.  He not only decorates the house, he decorates to a point where he uses so many lights that it literally drains all the power from the community.  The tree he picks out is so big that it destroys half the living room once it’s branches are unbound.   Everything is not a minor thing with him; he has to take it to the nth degree.  It’s all over the top, but John Hughes grounds it in a very real place.  Every situation feels like something that naturally would happen, and probably comes from real place.  John Hughes was a midwestern kid from Michigan who probably experienced his fair share of crazy Christmases.  Whether he wrote himself into the character of Clark, or based him on members of his own family, you really get a sense of Hughes finding a universal story within the mishaps of the Griswolds and their striving for not just a perfect Christmas, but also a sane one.

What is interesting about the movie is how Clark Griswold comes across to us the audience.  We are meant to sympathize with his ordeals, but it’s often hard when Clark is not the best person in the world.  Carrying over some of the character traits from the previous films, we see Clark as a very flawed man.  He insults his co-workers, constantly puts his family in harms way in order to achieve his often impossible goals, and at one point even flirts with a girl at a department store while his wife is somewhere else.  Clark, in many ways is a self-obsessed jerk underneath that suburban dad exterior.  But, that’s one of the most fascinating aspects of Clark as a character.  As flawed as he is, he is very much an everyman whose problems are all too recognizable.  It’s through his striving for a perfect Christmas that we see his attempt to be a better man, and it makes all the funnier when he fails horribly at it.  I think if he was a purer soul, the farcical situations he would find himself in wouldn’t feel as funny as they do.  Because he is sometimes a jerk to others, it makes it funnier when we see misfortune fall his way.  But, it’s not to the point where he is too unlikable or the misfortune too stacked against him.  The movie is all about that balance between hilarious hubris and triumphant comical resolution.  It helps that the Griswolds live next door to an uptight Yuppie couple, played by Nicholas Guest and a pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  Clark’s mean-spirited self-obsession feels much more earned and celebrated when the misfortune falls the neighbors’ way.  He may not be the antithesis of a George Bailey, but Clark Griswold is a Christmas character worth celebrating this time of year, because he honestly is the one who represents how we all feel during the holidays.

There is one moment in particular in the movie where I think the movie reveals exactly what drives Clark Griswold, and in many ways shows us what we see of ourselves in him.  At one point, Clark goes up into the attic to hide Christmas presents from the rest of the family.  However, his mother-in-law ends up closing the roof access door, not knowing that he is still up there.  Now, Clark is stuck in the cold attic in his pajamas, with no way out.  While going through some old boxes to find extra layers of clothing he can put on in order to not freeze, he finds some old 8mm film reels.  Not knowing how long he’ll stay up in the attic, he finds the family projector and begins to run these old films strips through it, using a white shirt as the screen.  On the film, we see Clark as a young boy celebrating Christmas with his family.  It’s in this scene where it finally dawns on the audience what is driving Clark Griswold to making this a perfect Christmas for his family; Nostalgia.  While watching the movie projected in front of him, we see Clark at his most content, even shedding a tear while he has a beaming smile on his face.  Though the film is grainy, worn out, and not ideally projected, it brings Clark back home to the days when Christmas was ideal for him.  Naturally, we all look back on the Christmases of our youth with fond remembrance, but that’s because the burden of the holidays were not on our shoulders yet.  As kids, we were the main recipients of holiday cheer.  We didn’t have to spend hours at the mall looking for the right presents, or work for days to put up the decorations in the cold of winter.  The holidays change for us as we get older, and many of us can easily adapt to the new dynamic.  But, Clark is still trying to hold onto when Christmas was just as self-fulfilling as it was when he was a child.  It’s really interesting that the movie takes a pause from the farcical situations from before and gives us this moment of reflection that tells us more about Clark than we’ve ever known before.  Of course, the movie punctuates it with Clark falling through the ceiling access door once Ellen reopens it, bringing us right back to the comedy.  Still, it’s a moment in the movie that probably captures the holiday spirit the most, as it personalizes what Christmas means for Clark Griswold, and that it’s a whole lot more than just the superficial traditions; it’s a quest to feel inspired by the holidays again.

It’s really interesting to see where Christmas Vacation falls within the John Hughes filmography.  He was only the screenwriter on this one, with Jeremiah Chechik capably handling the direction, but it really shows a certain mode that he was finding himself in as a story-teller.  This movie came in between two other Christmas themed comedies that Hughes also wrote, 1989’s Uncle Buck and 1990’s Home Alone.  They are all very different films that use the Christmas aesthetic, and yet all three perfectly illustrate the way that John Hughes mined American holiday traditions for comedic effect; including Thanksgiving as well with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987).  Christmas Vacation clearly is the movie that mines the foibles of the holidays the most, but there is a characteristic sense of comedic precision found throughout all of them.  Hughes liked to turn the holidays on it’s head and slyly insert the kind of slapsticky, mean-spiritedness of the comedies he grew up with into this thing that is supposed to be so pure.  At the same time, there is a genuine love he displays for the spirit of Christmas in his movies, and I’m struck by how much of Hughes own creative trademarks have themselves becomes part of our own holiday nostalgia.  I think that his series of holiday themed movies were instrumental in helping to create the Christmas playlist of holiday standards that we hear every year on soft rock radio stations.  That’s true for Christmas Vacation as well, which has something as enriching as Ray Charles “The Spirit of Christmas” to something as bouncy as Bing Crosby’s “Mele Kalikimaka.”  In many ways, John Hughes contributed more to the nostalgia for the holidays that we continue to have thanks to his choices of needle drops.  There’s a cynical edge in the movie, but one that never belittles the idea of the holidays itself.  Like all great comedies, it asks us to find the humor in the things we hold sacred and in that sense, John Hughes achieved what he wanted; to create a farce in the same comedic spirit of those that came before him, like Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and even the likes of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.  And it’s definitely a flavor of comedy that the holiday season definitely needs.

There are countless moments in Christmas Vacation that stand among the funniest ever put on film.  The climatic Christmas Eve series of events are especially hilarious, in just how much it cascades into pure chaos.  From a cat that’s fried to death by faulty Christmas light wiring, to Clark’s elderly aunt (played by original Betty Boop actress Mae Questel)  mistaking the Pledge of Allegiance for a prayer, to Clark’s Cousin Eddie (a perfectly demented Randy Quaid) kidnapping his boss after Clark did not receive his Christmas bonus in the mail.  It’s just the right balance of mayhem and genuine Christmas spirt that I want to see in a movie like this.  It’s both naughty and nice, cynical but uplifting.  Naturally myself and many like me return to this movie every year and enjoy it over and over again.  For some, the holidays don’t feel complete without it playing at least once.  It’s not an unexpected holiday classic; how could it be when the holidays are ingrained into every frame of the movie.   But, it’s one that’s not afraid to buck a few traditions and reveal some of the misfortunes of the holidays in a hilarious manner.  Perhaps the highlight of the movie is it’s most profane moment, when Clark reaches his breaking point and delivers his manic, single breath, vitriolic rant against his cheapskate boss who cut his holiday bonus out of his yearly salary.  That’s something you won’t find in a wholesome Christmas movie.  At the same time, the movie celebrates the idea of trying to make the holidays better for others.  Clark Griswold may be a maniacal sociopath, but his heart is in the right place when it comes to making the holidays work out for his family.  It’s just that the problems fall out of his control and build towards a chaotic end.  Even still, he pushes ahead and declares, “We are going to have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny f***ing Kaye.”  The Griswold family Christmas is course, crude, and chaotic, but it’s not unlike the kinds of Christmases we have had ourselves.  The only thing is that we shouldn’t let the drive for perfection cloud our own enjoyment of the holidays.  Even as everything has cascaded into insanity by the end, Clark Griswold finds that special sense ultimately too, and that helps to make Christmas Vacation in the end feel like a hopeful tribute to the holidays.  So, to all of you, Merry Christmas and thank you for reading.  Now where’s the Tylenol.

Spider-Man: No Way Home – Review

With the roller coaster year that 2021 has been, leave it to Marvel to be the ones commanding the box office through all the turbulence.  If the mighty studio hadn’t already been on top of the world before with their record breaking success with the Avengers, 2021 would be a banner year for them regardless.  They started off with their big launch of their Disney+ programming all the way back in January with Wandavision, a highly acclaimed mini-series focused on the characters Scarlett Witch and The Vision.  Then came even more successful series like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki to tide us over into the summer season.  As big a deal as these shows were, the industry was far more interested in seeing how Marvel would fare at the box office.  Movie theaters were slowly coming back to life after a year long pandemic forced closure in 2020.  Though Marvel’s parent studio Disney started by hedging their bets going back into the theater market with a hybrid theatrical/streaming release, they nevertheless set out to bring their big screen pictures back to the big screen.  The pandemic delayed Black Widow (2021) was first, and even with the hybrid release it still managed to scrounge up an $80 million opening weekend.  It also saw the biggest second weekend drop of any Marvel movie, and it’s final gross end up on the low end of the MCU, but it still showed that the Marvel brand still had enough mojo to liven up the decimated pandemic box office.  This led to their next film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) getting a theatrical only release to see if that led to a better result.  And even while the Delta variant of Covid was flaring up, Shang-Chi managed to not only succeed, but also flourish beyond opening weekend; leading to it’s current status as the box office champ of the year.  However, that didn’t help Eternals (2021), their third film, which to many underperformed.  But, it should be noted that Eternals didn’t fade quickly as many expected, and has actually accumulated a healthy box office that while low for Marvel it’s still impressive for a film in the pandemic era.  Now, at the end of a busy year for Marvel, which has included all the properties from last year as well as this one, they are bringing us the next installment of one of their marquee franchises, Spider-Man, in the hopes that it not only ends the year on a strong note for them, but also hopefully brings the box office back even more strong than before.

While Spider-Man has always been a hot property for Marvel, it’s interesting that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) hasn’t rested all their success solely on his shoulders.  If anything, in the grand narrative of the shared universe that the MCU has been, Spider-Man has thus far been a fairly secondary character.  That would’ve been unheard of before the launch of the MCU, but Marvel chose to Avengers be the driving force of their connective thread, and Spider-Man was not an original part of that team.  Since then, he has come into his own, taking more of a central role, but in the grand scheme of things, he’s still second tier to the likes of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man.  But, after the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019), several new possibilities have opened up for the character.  The best part thus far of Spider-Man’s development in the MCU is seeing how this hero we are all familiar with interacts within a world where what he does is not as extraordinary as we’ve seen before.  He exists in a world full of super heroes, so the dynamic is very different.  As a result, the MCU has been able to focus on their Spider-Man being a naïve but eager kid, much like he is in the comics.  One of the best character dynamics of the MCU that has resulted from that was the mentor/apprentice relationship that he had built up with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man.  This became a central part of the story going into the final chapter of the Infinity Saga with Infinity War and Endgame, and with Iron Man’s departure, it has taken the Spider-Man character into a whole different path than we’ve seen before.  Of course, a Spider-Man movie where the hero has suffered a heart-breaking loss is nothing new, but when he is now expected to fill in a vacancy within that same dynamic, it has opened up a new layer of character that we haven’t really explored with Spider-Man just yet.  In fact, everything with this MCU iteration has felt fresh, especially in his own franchise of films.  In what has been dubbed the Spider-Man “Home” trilogy, we have seen the character grow on his own, through the trials of high school life in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) to the dilemmas of a post-Endgame world in Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019).  Now, the trilogy comes to a climax of it’s own with Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and the question is, does it bring Spider-Man’s story together in a satisfying way, or is it caught in a web of it’s own problems?

One thing I definitely have to say before hand is that so much of this movie is filled with plot elements that I don’t want to spoil.  So, before I go into a plot summery, let me just state that what I’m going to write forward in this paragraph and review after is solely in line with what’s already been revealed in the movie trailers thus far.  So, spoiler free, let’s talk about what happens.  Picking up literally right where Far From Home left off, Spider-Man’s secret identity has been leaked to the public thanks to internet provocateur J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons).  Now, everyone in the world knows that Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is really Spider-Man.  This suddenly thrusts him and those close to him into the spotlight, including his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his girlfriend M.J. Watson (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon).  Life is no longer the same for them, and it comes to a brutal head when the revelation about Spider-Man’s identity excludes him from college admittance to his desired school, which also happens to M.J. and Ned.  After this crushing disappointment, Peter seeks out help from another Avenger ally, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who he believes can turn back time in order to help erase his identity being revealed.  Since Strange no longer has the Time Stone, he can’t help Peter by reversing time, but he believes he knows another way to help him instead.  Strange begins a Forgetting Spell to erase Peter Parker’s identity from everyone’s memory, but Peter realizes that doing so will make even those close to him forget.  Unfortunately, this botches the spell, so Peter is out of luck again.  He tries to think of his next move, but that is interrupted when new enemies begin to emerge.  They are powerful foes who have faced Spider-Man before, but not the Spider-Man of this universe.  They include Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church), and Norman Osborne, aka the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe).  Doctor Strange reveals that the broken spell opened up a rip in the multiverse, and if they don’t return these multiversal tresspassers back to their own universes, it could lead to a collapse of reality as we know it.  So, Spider-Man must set things right, but he soon encounters a different dilemma; is it right to send these villains back to their fate where their destiny is to die fighting Spider-Man?

There’s definitely a lot to unpack with Spider-Man: No Way Home.  Not only is it continuing the story that’s already been told thus far in the MCU Spider-Man films, but it’s also incorporating elements from previously existing Spider-Man franchises.  We are seeing pretty much every major villain Spider-Man has faced on the big screen over the last 20 years.  Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, and Thomas Hayden Church return to play Green Goblin, Doc Ock, and Sandman respectively from the Sam Raimi directed / Tobey Maguire starring Spider-Man films of the 2000’s.  And then there are Jamie Foxx and Rhys Ifans also playing Electro and The Lizard from the short-lived Amazing Spider-Man reboot directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield.  That’s a lot to pack into a single film, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg without going into spoilers.  Which makes me all the more amazed by how well this movie manages to bring everything together in the end.  This movie is just a remarkable achievement in logistics alone.  How they managed to pull all these multiversal things together and not loose sight of the central narrative thread is truly amazing.  There are some big revelations in this movie that I’m sure are going to be the stuff of movie legend in the years to come, but I think where the movie excels the most is in how well it stays focused on Spider-Man’s story.  This is still a movie that falls in line with the plot thread spread across the rest of the “Home” trilogy as well as with all the MCU movies that Spider-Man has been a part of, and it helps to give this movie a surprising amount of emotional weight.  In particular, I think this movie does an especially great job of fleshing out what it means to be Spider-Man.  What we’ve seen throughout the MCU movies is that the universe is far more complex than the black and white morality of good vs. evil.  We’ve seen villains like Killmonger from Black Panther and Thanos portrayed with layers of character that show they aren’t just evil for the sake of being evil.  And we’ve also seen heroes in the MCU commit some very evil acts like Iron Man creating Ultron, or Scarlet Witch holding a town captive within her fantasy world in Wandavision.  That same depth of examination is also brought beautifully into No Way Home, and it helps to re-contextualize all the Spider-Man films as a whole in a surprising way.

One of the things that is going to easily blow people away is seeing all the different characters from all the different Spider-Man films together.  But, to the movie’s credit, it doesn’t just plop these characters in for the sake of nostalgia alone.  Each and every one of them has a purpose in the story, and none are wasted.  I actually want to say, without going too much into spoilers, that the most refreshing thing about this movie is that it holds back and doesn’t try to do too much.  It would have been very tempting to just throw all the doors open of the Multiverse and bring in a whole lot more into this movie.  But, director Jon Watts and producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal wisely decided not to.  They give us just enough multiverse treats to satisfy what we’d hope be in this movie and don’t go overboard.  Had they done too much, it might have overwhelmed the story to a point of breaking.  There are some points where that is the case, and it’s the only flaw that the movie has.  The movie is the longest of any Spider-Man film at 2 1/2 hours, but it doesn’t feel like that at all except for a select number of scenes.  And those scenes are where the characters basically stop the movie to go through a “previously on” recap of their backstory, so that the audience that hasn’t been up to speed can be caught up.  It’s the most awkward part of the script, and I see why the filmmakers felt that they needed to include it, but I also felt like they were the only parts of the movie that started to take me out of the film.  Credit to the actors for selling that clumsy exposition as well as they can.  There’s an especially funny exchange where Electro and Sandman compare their origins like they are casually trading battle scar stories.  Apart from that nitpick, the movie surprisingly has a sound flow to it and manages the tone perfectly.  And given all the building blocks they had to work with, that’s really something remarkable.

It’s suffice to say that the movie’s biggest asset is the stellar cast, both with the central players as well as all the legacy characters carried over from other franchises.  Most importantly, it continues to put Tom Holland’s Spider-Man front and center, and helps to build upon the character development that we’ve seen with him up to now.  In many ways, this is Holland’s best performance thus far as Spider-Man.  He goes through the gamut of emotions in this movie, managing to perfectly balance the goofy playfulness of Spider-Man’s lighter moments with the hard pathos of the movie’s more tragic scenes.  And seeing him interact with all these legacy characters is also quite an interesting new avenue to take this character.  Of course, the big deal with this movie is all of these legendary characters returning to the big screen, and with all the original actors making the return as well.  Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock hasn’t appeared on screen since Spider-Man 2 (2004), which was 17 years ago.  That film is considered by many to be one of the greatest super hero films of all time, and Molina’s iconic performance was one of the reasons for that.  So not only is it a pleasure to see him in the role again, but he doesn’t waste the opportunity either, slipping right back in effortlessly.  Jamie Foxx, who was kind of shortchanged in the disastrous The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) gets to redeem himself here with a version of Electro that feels truer to the comic book and gives Foxx more to chew on as an actor.  Naturally, he’s the character most improved upon in this film.  Thomas Hayden Church and Rhys Ifans have less to do than the rest of the cast, but are no less a welcome presence in the movie as their respective characters  But if anyone steals the movie the most, it’s Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin.  Somehow, he managed to find a way to make the character even more menacing since his debut almost 20 years ago.  His performance here is really remarkable and probably the highlight of a movie already full of iconic moments.  The fights he has with Spider-Man are especially brutal and carry a lot more weight than we’ve seen from other films in the series.  In addition to the great return of the iconic villains, I’m especially happy to see that characters like M.J., Aunt May, and Ned don’t get lost in all the shuffle, and their respective actors all contribute something special to the movie as a whole.  If anyone is short-changed, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, since he actually has less screen time than the trailers would have you believe.  He’s not terribly used, but if you’re looking for a Spider-Man/Doctor Strange team-up in this movie, it ain’t there in the way you’d expect.  Still, overall, audiences are going to go wild for the cast of charcters I described here, and of course, there might be surprises as well.

Given the enormity of what the movie has to accomplish, even in an expansive 2 1/2 runtime, it’s amazing that the film flows as well as it does.  Director Jon Watts certainly deserves that credit.  His work on the Spider-Man franchise has really been the most consistent that we’ve ever seen for the character.  It probably helps that he had the guidance and support of a producer like Kevin Feige whose expertise has been to manage multiple franchise on a scale unseen before.  For the Raimi and Webb films, they often fell victim to studio interference negating the vision of the director, and resulted in films like Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that were unfocused messes.  No Way Home feels so certain about what it is and it’s in line with the story that has been told over not just Spider-Man’s own films, but also those in the MCU as a whole.  At the same time, Watts certainly knows that this is the movie that has to go bigger than anything we’ve seen before.  Many are comparing this to Avengers: Endgame in many ways, and some of that comparison is warranted.  This movie feels like the culmination of so much of the Spider-Man mythos built up not just within the MCU but also with all Spider-Man media.  At the same time, like what I previously stated before, this movie knows when to hold back as well, giving us enough to digest while not spoiling the whole meal.  I think that’s why the movie holds together in the end when it could’ve easily fallen apart.  That’s evident in the final confrontation that takes place at the Statue of Liberty (not a spoiler because part of it is shown in the trailer).  Director Webb manages to keep the action in that scene focused and consistent, so no one in the audience is likely to be confused by what’s happening.  I also want to note the incredible themes set forth by the movie, especially that one about the gray areas of morality that have been present in the MCU.  What I like most about this movie is that it brings to the forefront what drives Spider-Man to be a hero.  And that moral is that a hero strives to help save everyone, even the worst among us.  In this movie, that will to do the right thing gets tested and I love how the movies centers it’s story around that theme.  Those immortal words written by the late great Stan Lee all those years ago, “With great power comes great responsibility,” takes on a more important meaning in this film, and that in essence, helps to elevate this movie to a far more lofty place than I think most of us would’ve ever expected.

It’s hard to say just yet where I would rank this movie among all the Spider-Man films.  I definitely think it’s the best of the “Home” trilogy of Spider-Man movies, but the bar is still high that has been set by Spider-Man 2 and the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018).  It may take a few more viewings to properly place this film in the pantheon of all the Spider-Man movies.  Honestly, the thing that impresses me the most is just how they managed to pull off what they did.  I’ve been very careful to not spoil some of the movie’s biggest surprises, but let me just say that the packed house IMAX showing that I saw this movie in had some of the loudest audience cheering that I have ever witnessed.  And this was the same IMAX theater I saw Avengers: Endgame in, so that really is saying something.  All that said, there are still something flaws in the plot and mostly in the dialogue that holds this movie slightly back from that level of greatness, and I hope they become less noticeable the more times I see this movie.  This movie really had an almost impossible task, and I felt that this was the best case result we could’ve hoped for.  For one thing, I think it does a great service to the legacy of all the Spider-Man films of the past, especially with regards to the much maligned Amazing Spider-Man films.  It’s great to see the actors who played these iconic roles from the past slip right back into character and not only deliver the good once again, but also find new avenues to explore.  And I’m also really impressed with the fact that the movie isn’t afraid to take some risks as well and doesn’t just wrap up Spider-Man’s story in a nice happy resolution.  Like many of the MCU films to date, the characters carry on the scars of their ordeal, and this especially is true with the MCU’s Spider-Man, who I am definitely intrigued to see where they take him next.  Without saying what happens, I’ll tell you that I especially found the ending of this movie to be a surprise and quite a ballsy move on Marvel’s part.  It shows that they recognize the significance of Spider-Man as a character not just on his own but as a part of a larger world, and they are determined to give him a story that carries a lot of weight with it.  Suffice to say, this is going to be another blockbuster for Marvel.  I know the lingering effects of the pandemic are still making things weary for some movie-goers, but if there is any film that you’ve been willing to take the chance on, this would be the one.  It’s a movie that demands to be seen with a large audience.  It’s certainly the best in theater experience that I’ve had all year, and it’s something that I though I’d never see again after the pandemic decimated the theatrical market all of last year.  Leave it to the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to bring some much needed life back to the box office again.  This is definitely one of the webslinger’s finest hours, and a movie whose very existence is likely going to stand as a ground-breaking moment in the super hero genre as a whole.

Rating: 8.75/10

Collecting Criterion – Andrei Rublev (1966)

Of all the different types of world cinema that has made it into the Criterion Collection’s library, the ones with  some of the most interesting historical context behind them are those from Soviet era Russia.  To say that Russian cinematic history is a bit complicated would be an understatement.  Initially, post-Revolution Russia burst onto the scene as one of the most influential schools of film-making in the entire world.  With the likes of it’s founding fathers including Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian film industry pretty much invented the thematic montage as a means of telling a story through editing.  That groundbreaking element alone helped to put Russian cinema on the map, and their revolutionary films like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Man with a Movie Camera (1929) are still celebrated as masterworks that pushed the artform forward.  But, the creative output began to change during the repressive Stalin regime, which saw the flourishing Russian cinematic machine turned to a purely glorifying the new hard-lined leader of the Communist Party.  As a result, many of Russia’s great directors either found themselves heavily censored or those who would not submit could face death or exile.  Many chose the later, including Eisenstein.  Soviet cinema suddenly went from one of the most dynamic schools of cinema to one of the most restrictive.  However, after the death of Joseph Stalin, the propaganda machine of the Soviet film industry evolved once again.  They were still making propaganda, but the focus was instead on glorifying the Soviet people rather than one man.  With the liberalization happening under the reforms of the Khrushchev regime, it became an era known as the Cultural Thaw.  With it, there became a renewed desire to use the power of cinema as a means of breaking past the iron curtain of the Stalin years and showing to the world that Mother Russia could indeed hold it’s own in world cinema once again.  This included a new push to bring forth fresh new talent in the Soviet schools of film, and one such talent to emerge was a burgeoning and ambitious new filmmaker named Andrei Tarkovsky.

Tarkovsky, to many in the world of cinema, is considered to be the greatest filmmaker to have emerged out of post-Stalinist Russia.  Even during his time, he was hailed as the best filmmaker to have come from the Soviet Union since Sergei Eisenstein, though the comparisons between the two directors couldn’t be more distant.  Eisenstein’s films were intense, fast-paced dramatic pieces intended to inspire fury within the viewer.  Tarkovsky was more contemplative, methodical and visually poetic as a filmmaker.  Tarkovsky’s films are often ethereal and dreamlike, and he was a major influence on like-minded filmmakers such as Terrence Malick.  Though very much a different kind of filmmaker than those of the post-Revolution era, Tarkovsky nevertheless helped to give a very Russian sensibility to what many saw as the New Wave movement of cinema that swept across Europe and over the world.  Like other movies of that era, Tarkovsky’s films were both grandiose in concept and intimate in scale.  Big ideas were at play in his films, but they always had that personal connection to them.  He was a valuable voice for Soviet cinema, and he immediately emerged on the international scene winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival with his first ever film, Ivan’s Childhood (1962, Spine #397).  However, though he was lauded by his peers outside of Russia, he almost always faced resistance from his native country.  Some in the Russian government found his films decadent and bourgeois and contrary to idealized values of the Soviet regime.  Because of this, his filmography is very limited, limited to only a handful of movies made under heavy scrutiny in the Soviet Union, and only a few more made in Western Europe after his defection in the 1980’s, and cut short by his untimely death in 1986 after a brief battle with cancer.  Still, as few as they were, his films are viewed as some of the greatest works of cinema ever created.  Criterion has included a few in their collection, including the sci-fi epic Solaris (1972, #164) which some have called Russia’s answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  There are also the previously mentioned Ivan’s Childhood, and the late Russian films Mirror (1975, #1084) and Stalker (1979, #888).  But probably the most interesting Tarkovsky film in their collection is that of what many consider to be Tarkovsky’s most ambitious film overall; the historical epic, Andrei Rublev (1966, #34).

Andrei Rublev as a historical biopic is not the kind of movie that you’d expect it to be.  On the surface it is meant to tell the story of the life of a legendary artist from medieval Russia.  Andrei Rublev was a painter and monk best known for creating religious icons and frescos for the interiors of Orthodox churches throughout Russia.  His work is largely considered to be among the greatest art created during the medieval period.  A handful of his paintings still survive to this day, including what many consider to be his masterpiece, the Trinity.  But, the interesting thing about Tarkovsky’s movie is that Andrei Rublev the man is not the focus of the film at all.  Instead, the movie is more about the world that he lived in.  The film Andrei Rublev finds the man himself (played by frequent Tarkovsky collaborator Anatoly Solonitsyn) passing through a series of vignettes of medieval life in rural Russia.  Accompanied by his fellow monk companions Kirill (Ivan Lapikov) and Danil (Nikolai Grinko), heads to the workshop of Theophanes the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev), who intends to have Rublev assist him on a commission to paint the new Cathedral of the Holy Ascension in Moscow.  Along their journey they encounter a small village that is entertained by a jester (Rolan Boykov) who later is captured by the authorities for mocking their leader.  Later, they find a group of pagans partaking in a clothing optional ritual, who also later are captured by puritanical authorities.  Once at the cathedral, Andrei finds it hard to express his art effectively, seeing how medieval Russia has become so hostile to the acts of free expression.  Later, a raid by invading Tartar barbarians lays waste to Moscow, and the ruling prince is deposed by his traitorous cousin, who then usurps the crown.  In the chaos that ensues, Theophanes is slaughtered, the cathedral is in ruins, and Andrei was force to kill in order to save the life of another.  Because of the trauma, Rublev stops painting and takes a vow of silence, retreating from the harsh new world.  However, his lack of passion for life changes when he witnesses the creation of a massive bell being forged by a craftsman named Boriska (Nikolai Burlyayev), who is just a teenage boy.  Upon seeing such a beautiful creation come from such a young person of humble beginnings, it reawakens Rublev’s desire to create, and the film ends with a prologue showing us all the iconic artwork that has immortalized his name ever since.

Andrei Rublev indeed is a very different kind of epic.  For one thing, it does have all the expected scale and scope of a traditional historical biopic, especially from the same era that gave us the likes of Spartacus (1960) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).  But, narratively it is completely different.  Like I mentioned before, it’s a movie about multiple stories depicting life of medieval Russia, with only Andrei Rublev himself being the connecting thread.  It is also very much a movie built around imagined history and not actual history.  All the film gets right about it’s subject is that he was a painter of religious icons and that he lived in medieval Russia.  The rest is all fiction.  For the most part, it seems like Andrei Tarkovsky wanted to make a movie that was a meditation on the connection between art and the artist rather than historical recreation.  Andrei Rublev is not so much a driving force on the story as he is a cypher; observing the world around him and having that influence the person he will eventually be.  Though the main character remains an enigma as a result, it surprisingly actually works in the movie’s favor.  It’s a movie about exploring the nature of art; why it’s important for the individual and for society as a whole.  You can see this as a definite statement that Tarkovsky wanted to make to his fellow Russians in the middle of the Cultural Thaw, as so many of them were reawakening to the idea of using their cultural works as a means of defining what it meant to be Russian.  The paintings of Andrei Rublev themselves gained a renewed sense of importance in those post-Stalin years, as Russians wanted a better sense of their cultural history to define who they were, rather than just the Revolution.  For Tarkovsky, art was an essential part of cultural awakening.  It’s most clearly stated in the climax of the movie, where the forging of the bell becomes the thing that renews Rublev’s faith.  Great art inspires other great art, and Tarkovsky believed that this was something important to pass down through generations.  The Stalin years stifled the artistic growth of Russian society in Tarkovsky’s eyes, and he saw a connection between the art of the past and the present as key to defining what it meant to be Russian.  Of course, the artistic fervor he shared wasn’t always welcomed by the power of the state.  With a movie that especially questioned authority and even entertained a very positive religious outlook, it was unsurprisingly heavily scrutinized by the Soviet government.  The film’s original 205 minute cut was trimmed down with the supervision of Tarkovsky after it’s premiere, but further edits were made by the government, and it would be many years before Tarkovsky’s true vision would be fully seen by the public.

But, despite the headaches that the Soviet censors were giving him, Tarkovsky nevertheless was lauded from cinephiles all over the world, and Andrei Rublev is largely seen as his masterwork.  Narratively, it is probably his most accessible film, given that most of his later films turned more cerebral and elusive.  But, given that, it’s an interesting film to watch because it does turn the historical epic genre on it’s head a bit.  The episodic nature of the story underlines for the audience that this is less a dramatization and more of parable of art, society, and humankind that just so happens to be based on real history.  Every segment of the film feels like it’s own short story, revealing a variety of different characters that make up the defining attributes of Andrei Rublev’s world.  It’s interesting that Tarkovsky opens his film with a cartoonish prologue of a man taking flight after getting caught in the ropes of a hot air balloon.  It’s silly to begin with, but ultimately it’s implied that the man meet a tragic end as he plummets back down to Earth, perhaps giving us an indication of what to expect through the rest of the film.  The moment otherwise feels unconnected to everything else.  The whole movie is filled with these little asides that reflect little on Andrei Rublev the character other than helping us to see how the world with all of it’s absurdities ends up shaping the man and his art.  The one scene that overall does reveal some character growth in Andrei is the climatic formation of the massive bell.  In that scene, where Rublev witnesses a young boy inspiring a whole community to create something grand and beautiful, we see his reawakening come to full fruition.  But, where Tarkovsky really sells home the point of the film is when Rublev finds the boy Boriska weeping after the completion of his master work.  He hold Boriska in his arms and learns that the boy learned nothing from his master, and that he was just winging it the whole time, making him feel like a fraud.  In that moment, Rublev realizes that he must reaffirm this boy’s faith in his ability to create, and in turn, it reaffirms his own faith as well.  For Tarkovsky, the cycle of creative inspiration was essential for making great things happen.  It’s what he wanted for all cinema in general, that he would inspire other filmmakers to create at the same level as well, both at home and abroad and that it in turn would help inspire him to do more as well.  Tarkovsky was an artistic optimist, believing that the desire for creation transcended national identity and politics, and it’s something that certainly made him stand out in the Soviet film industry.  Though the higher ups did not concur with Tarkovsky’s global view of the artform, he nevertheless made a point that this art is the thing that truly leads to immortality, as evidenced by the lasting impact of Rublev’s centuries old paintings.

For the Criterion Collection, adding Andrei Rublev was key to their drive to preserve the history of cinema all over the world.  It was the earliest film of Andrei Tarkovsky’s to enter the collection, dating all the way back to the days of laser disc.  An earlier DVD edition featured a rather rough looking transfer of the original 3 1/2 hour cut of the movie known as The Passion According to Andre, which they managed to source from a print found in the Mosfilm archives.  This long version itself was a revelation for film fans here in the United States, because all we had for years was a heavily edited down version released by Columbia Pictures.  Here, we were seeing the controversial original version that was especially hated by the censors of the Soviet cultural ministry.  It was a popular title for Criterion for many years, helping to establish Tarkovsky’s reputation as one of the great masters.  But, when Criterion started publishing blu-ray discs, many wanted to not only see Andrei Rublev get an upgraded presentation, but also one that fully brought the film back to a glory that most people never got to see before, other than Tarkovsky himself.  In collaboration with Mosfilm, the Moscow based studio that originally produced the film, a new high definition digital master was created from a restoration of a 35mm internegative struck from the original film.  The results are pretty remarkable, bringing the black and white film back to near flawless clarity, while still maintaining the grainy texture that helps to give it a cinematic texture.  Keep in mind, the Russians didn’t have quite the same quality of film stock that the West did, so there is far more signs of age still found in the picture, but for a film made under those kinds of elements, it still holds up for a movie of it’s era.  The same is true for the film’s soundtrack.  Soviet films do indeed sound very different from most Western film, as most of the dialogue, sound effect and music sound detached from the picture; maybe a side effect of using different equipment.  The sound restoration does the best job it can to help everything sound as natural as it can, with the dialogue benefitting the most from a crisper, clearer refinement.   What is especially impressive is that both Mosfilm and Criterion completed restorations for two different cuts of the movie; the previously mentioned long version, and the shorter, 183 minute post-premiere version that was actually the one Tarkovsky preferred the most.  Both are included on the blu-ray and it’s interesting seeing how different the two versions play.

Also included on the disc are plenty of interesting bonuses, which delve deeper into both the making of the movie, as well as the legacy it has left behind over the years.  One of the most interesting features is a documentary made during the development of the screenplay called The Three Andreis.  Made by a classmate of Tarkovsky’s from the film school VGIK named Dina Musatova, the documentary is about the prep work put into the making of the movie, focusing on screenplay written by two Andreis named Tarkovsky and Konchalovsky, and the actor who would play Andrei Rublev, Anatoly Solonitsyn, getting into character.  It’s a fascinating first hand look at the film in it’s early stages.  There is also another vintage documentary included that actually shows Tarkovsky and his crew on the set, made by Mosfilm itself as promotional piece to spotlight the film during it’s making.  The set also features a newly created documentary that features retrospective interviews from film scholars Louis Milne and Sean Martin, as well as the film’s cinematographer Vadim Yusov and actor Nikolai Burlyaev who played the bell maker Boriska.  One interesting insight revealed by Burlyaev in his interview is that he based much of his performance as a tortured artist on director Tarkovsky himself.  The legacy of the film is also further examined with new interviews featuring film scholar Robert Bird and filmmaker Daniel Raim.  In lieu of a full length commentary track, this edition includes a select scene audio commentary by film scholar Vlada Petric from the original 1998 laser disc.  And for those curious, the blu-ray edition also includes the thesis film that Tarkovsky made in film school back in 1961, titled The Steamroller and the Violin, showing the filmmakers humble beginnings before he was thrust onto the world stage.  Given that Tarkovsky’s body of work was so truncated compared to many of his contemporaries, having his earliest film presented here is important in giving us a more fuller understanding of how he became the cinematic artist that we all know.  In a way, Criterion is doing the same here, showing an the awakening of an artist in his early years before his grander work, that Tarkovsky himself did for the memory of Andrei Rublev.  This in general helps to really make this a very special blu-ray set to own.

Andrei Rublev really is a unique film in the history of Russian and world cinema.  It had all the trappings of a grand historical epic on the level of something out of Hollywood, and yet narratively it was subversive and antithetical to the genre itself.  Andrei Tarkovsky certainly had the vision grandiose enough to stage an epic on the level of some of the greats of that period, with a keen eye for staging big shots and giving his movie an authentic period look.  But, at the same time, he uses his cinematic eye to tell a story different from the one we expect, and tell it in a way that’s more about feeling one’s way through the narrative rather than following it in a linear way.  Rest assured, Tarkovsky’s style is definitely not for everyone.  Most of the movie features long, meandering shots of nature with almost no dialogue at all.  And lots of random shots of horses too (a Tarkovsky tradmark).  Don’t go in expecting to learn a lot about who Andrei Rublev was.  In a way, it’s not really important to the story that Tarkovsky wanted to tell.  It’s a movie less about the artist and more about the world he inhabits.  Tarkovsky said that we learn our history from the artists that observed it, and indeed some of our only insight into what life was like for medieval Russians is through the surviving artwork of Andrei Rublev.  That’s why he closes the film with a montage of close-up views of the master’s paintings, presented in full color (the only part of the movie presented that way).  The art endures long after the man and the society that inspired him has passed away.  Tarkovsky believed too that this was an essential lesson to learn in a society that he believed was loosing it’s connection to the past and how important it was to connect with the rest of the world through the art we create.  Indeed, his work has long outlived him and we continue to talk highly of him as a filmmaker because of how celebrated movies like Andrei Rublev are even half a century later.  It’s truly remarkable to note that Andrei Rublev was only his second feature as a director.  Though he would continue to make more films after, none have the same massive scope as this one does.  Though it breaks many rules of the historical epic genre, it nevertheless still feels big with it’s widescreen presentation and ambitious story.  The less ethereal second half, which includes the Tartar sacking of Moscow and the forging of the bell chapters, do liven up the movie and show the director at his most dynamic, but the contemplative first half with dream like moments feel far more personal to the director’s own sensibilities.  It’s a beautifully complex and rule-breaking film to include in the Criterion collection and one that firmly places Tarkovsky as one of the most interesting voices spotlighted within the Collection.

https://www.criterion.com/films/300-andrei-rublev

When an Elephant Flies – Disney’s Unlikely Champion in Dumbo and His Unexpected Brush With History

For a lot of people, when they think of a Disney film, they first thing that will pop into their mind will be a fairy tale.  Make no mistake, whenever we look at a point in their long legacy of films, the ones that prove to be the most pivotal in the course of Disney’s success have almost always been centered around princesses and shiny castles.  Of course there are exceptions among their biggest hits being separate from the formula, like 101 Dalmatians (1961), The Lion King (1994) and Zootopia (2016), but you look at all the biggest eras of Disney’s history and there’s almost always a fairy tale attached to it.  They of course started off with a classic fairy tale with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), but the the other eras would end up getting their own movies to help shape the direction of the company; the post-War golden era had Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), the Renaissance Era had The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), and the Digital Era has had Tangled (2010) and Frozen (2013).  But, it could be argued that the most crucial film to the history of Disney Animation was nothing that you would have expected.  It was neither a safe bet fairy tale, nor a bold experimental picture that redefined the artform.  Instead it was a little side project that slipped under the radar only to become an unexpected phenomenon.  That movie was a fable about a little baby elephant named Dumbo.  Dumbo (1941) the movie may not immediately pop out as something special in the Disney canon.  At a scant 64 minutes it is one of the shortest films Disney has ever made, barely cracking the hour mark.  It also doesn’t feature the same kind of groundbreaking animation that it’s loftier predecessors (Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia) had.  So, why is Dumbo so crucial to the history of Disney Animation, and to animation in general.  Because, it turned out to be the movie that saved Disney from economic collapse which could have led the animation giant to bankruptcy.  Without Dumbo, Disney Animation would have died on the vine after one of the most meteoric rises in Hollywood history.

For a little historical perspective, here is how Dumbo came to be Disney’s unlikely savior.  After Walt Disney broke all box office records with his huge gamble of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first ever feature length animated film, he not only was able to pay off all of his outstanding debts, but he now had a large sum of profit to cash in on.  With the money made from Snow White, Walt and Co. moved from their Los Feliz based studio to a brand new and much larger studio lot in the San Fernando Valley.  Situated a stone’s throw away from other major studio lots like Warner Bothers and Universal Studios in a burgeoning little community called Burbank, Walt Disney had a base of operations that now gave him the space to grow his company further and give his employees the most state of the art amenities.  Of course, once the move was made, Disney quickly put his men to work on what would be the ambitious follow-ups to Snow White.  And by ambitious, I also mean expensive.  When Snow White was completed, it had a then staggering $1.7 million dollar budget, and that’s in Depression Era dollars.  Today that number would easily clear the 9 digit mark.  Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) combined were nearly five times Snow White’s budget, and that’s not counting the amount of money spent on building the new studio.  Now, for Walt at the time, the expensive investments were worth it, because he had the wind in his sails from the success of Snow WhitePinocchio would be an artistic achievement on par with Snow White, and Fantasia was anticipated to redefine the definition of cinema all together.  But, something would end up dashing Walt’s dreams; one which was entirely out of his control.  The outbreak of war in Europe after Hitler’s invasion of Poland almost immediately shut off the much needed European box office grosses that Hollywood studios depended on, including Disney.  With Pinocchio and Fantasia still in the pipeline and facing that brick wall of a war torn international market, the Walt Disney company that was once flush with cash was now suddenly thrust back into deep debt.  Half a year into the war in Europe, Walt quietly released Pinocchio into domestic theaters in February 1940, and while it performed well in America, the grosses were still well short of the film’s budget costs.  Fantasia performed even more poorly, having been hampered by it’s limited roadshow release, where it could only play in theaters equipped for it’s revolutionary surround sound.  Just as quickly as Walt Disney’s star rose, it had quickly fallen back to Earth.

So, what was Walt going to do?  He began to assess what he still had in the pipeline and wonder what he was capable of moving forward with.  The other expensive project that had already been put into production, Bambi (1943), was put on pause, and Walt also made the crucial decision to axe projects altogether like his first attempt at The Little Mermaid and a feature project that would end up becoming the short, Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947).  To make matters worse, the Disney studio also found itself embroiled in an animators strike, one in which Walt’s fiercely anti-Communist stances inflamed the situation to a boiling point.  With no money coming in and seeing himself loosing control over the staff at his studio, Walt was in a dire situation that he honestly had no way out of.  All the studio could afford during this time of contraction were safe bet short cartoons.  That was until a couple of members of Walt’s story department team came forward with a modest sized feature idea.  Dick Huemer and Joe Grant were two story veterans at the Disney studio, and had just come off their work of crafting the concert format for Fantasia.  They brought to Walt’s attention a children’s book from authors Helen Aberson-Mayer and Harold Pearl.  In it was a story about a baby elephant born with giant ears.  The baby elephant gets teased and humiliated for his abnormality, until one day he begins to flap his enormous ears and suddenly takes flight.  After this extraordinary event, the little baby elephant is treated like a star after he has shown that his oddity is really a gift.  The heartwarming story of overcoming adversity and showing one’s true worth appealed immediately to Walt and he agreed to have the story of Dumbo the Flying Elephant launched into production.  However, due to the budget constraints at the time, Dumbo would not have the luxury of the same kinds of lavish budgets that Pinocchio and Fantasia had. Huemer and Grant had to do what they could with the miniscule budget that was allowed to them.  And this constraint in some ways proved to be an unexpected blessing of it’s own.

Walt, unlike with his other movies, was very hands off in the making of Dumbo, obviously because he was dealing with financial troubles and the strike at the time.  So, Dick Huemer and Joe Grant were granted an unprecedented amount of creative freedom.  Dumbo was very much a change of pace for the studio, focusing more on story than showing off the possibilities of it’s animation.  Most of the movie’s brief run time involves Dumbo moving from one ordel to another in a very sparse story of learning to survive in the harsh environment of a Circus.  Where the filmmakers found the heart of the story is in Dumbo’s relationship with his mother, who is taken away from him early on.  With that as the central focus of the film, they were able to craft Dumbo’s story around a motivation that would encompass why he sets out to do what he needs to do.  And that includes being humiliated by the clowns, suffering the rejection of his fellow elephants, and eventually his drunken descent into self realization.  Huemer and Grant needed to keep everything tightly controlled on their film in order to meet the budget demands.  One way they accomplished this was by simplifying the art style.  Prior to Dumbo, Disney films were lavishly detailed, with background art especially showing un-paralleled intricacy.  Dumbo would be far more simplistic, but that was actually to it’s advantage.  Instead of having backgrounds painted like grand masterpieces, Dumbo had backgrounds that were painted in watercolors, with detail limited to sometimes mere abstraction.  In some scenes, the characters aren’t even animated against a fully painted background, but instead are simply shown in front of a single toned splash of color, including all black.  Character models were also simplified, with most of the characters in the movie being the easier to draw animals and the harder to draw humans often shown partially out of frame or silhouetted with shadows.  For a children’s storybook narrative like Dumbo, this art style actually feels in character with story, because the movie looks like a storybook illustration come to life.

But, the creative freedom also allowed for Huemer and Grant to do things that were never allowed before in a Disney movie.  The movie has some wild, abstract ideas brought to life that help to make the story feel more epic than it really is.  A spectacular sequence involving circus elephants forming an acrobatic living pyramid is such a bizarre idea in concept that it allows for the animators to truly go wild in bringing it to life.  It especially becomes a highlight in the final movie once everything goes wrong afterwards.  But, that sequence is nothing compared to the film’s most famous sequence; the Pink Elephants on Parade.  This is where the Disney animators completely throw every rule out and just go wild in ways they would never have been allowed to before.  It’s interesting to note that at the time of Dumbo’s making, Walt was beginning a collaboration with none other than famed artist Salvador Dali.  Dali was brought to Disney with the intention of creating a surreal animated short called Destino, which Walt intended as an addition for Fantasia in it’s original revolving program concept.  Despite some promising early development, including original artwork by Dali that still survives to this day, the project was shelved after Fantasia’s failure at the box office, after which Dali returned home to Spain.  But, while Destino didn’t get made, it still had an influence on those still working on Dumbo, and you can definitely see the Salvador Dali affect in the Pink Elephants sequence, including the artist’s famous obsession with eyeballs.  The sequence is so out of left field for Disney, and yet it works for the film.  It’s one of the first historically interesting brushes that Dumbo had with history, as one of the 20th century’s most famous artists directly influenced it.  What’s even better is that the abstraction of the sequence also helped the animators create something artistically daring without blowing up the budget.  Most of the Pink Elephant sequence is cast against all black backgrounds, making the sequence surprisingly cheap to produce.  All of this helped to make Dumbo a movie that felt in line with Disney’s most ambitious films, while at the same time costing only a fraction to make.

That careful planning as well as an appealing story at it’s center made Dumbo a perfect reset to help Disney right the ship in troubled waters.  Even with the animator’s strike slowing things down, Dumbo managed to be completed in less than a year, which is unheard of for an animated feature.  Walt’s lack of involvement may have also sped things up, as the filmmakers were less tied down by Walt’s numerous notes during the making.  The film completed in a hurry as Walt embarked on a goodwill tour of Latin America on behalf of the U.S. State Department, who were hoping to cut down on the influence of Axis powers in their neighboring countries.  While Walt was away, his brother Roy brokered an agreement with the animators union and the strike came to a quick end.  With the turmoil behind them, Disney Animation was set to give Dumbo a proper premiere.  Though still dependent on the domestic market to gain a profit, hopes were still high that Dumbo could help the struggling company out.  The film released finally in late October 1941, and became an instant smash hit.  Audiences really resonated with the lovable little elephant who learned to fly.  Though the movie left audiences spellbound with it’s more dynamic moments like Pink Elephants, it was it’s heart wrenching story that truly helped it receive high marks.  The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that the movie was “the most genial, the most endearing, the most completely precious cartoon feature film ever to emerge from the magical brushes of Walt Disney’s wonder-working artists.”  Most other critics also praised the movie with likeminded flourish.  The movie itself also opened strong at the box office, nearly making up it’s minimal production budget solely through the domestic box office receipts.  What this showed was that Disney could indeed survive without having to break the bank with each feature and still maintain their artistic integrity.  Certainly Walt preferred to be more lavish with his films, but the success of Dumbo couldn’t be denied.  Dumbo was more than just a hit, it became a phenomenon.  Everyone was suddenly talking about this little elephant who could fly and even the media elite began to take notice.  Dumbo was selected by Time Magazine to be featured on their cover as Mammal of the Year for their December 1941 issue; a high honor at the time, and unprecedented for a cartoon character.  However, that promise of a cover on Time Magazine never came to be and that is because of Dumbo’s other significant brush with history.

On December 7, 1941 a moment that would live in infamy occurred.  The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and America in response was put on a war footing.  After sitting out the conflict that was going on in Europe and Asia over the last two years, the United States could no longer ignore the spread of fascism across the world, and officially entered World War II.  Naturally, this pushed Dumbo off the front cover of Time Magazine, as the proclamation of war took precedent.  The publication did eventually run their profile of Dumbo in a later issue, but the front cover was scrapped before it was ever drawn up.  Naturally, there was worry that the war at home would cut into Dumbo’s future grosses, but the opposite proved true.  Americans needed an escape from the worries of the oncoming war, and Dumbo was the exact pick-me-up kind of entertainment that they desired.  The movie continued to play very well into the next year.   Even as Disney’s next feature Bambi was released and quickly underperformed, the grosses from Dumbo helped to keep the studio from loosing more ground.  Knowing the effectiveness of Disney’s studio being able to connect with a wide ranging audience thanks to a movie like Dumbo, the U.S. war department contacted Walt to propose using his studio to make propaganda films and artwork to help promote the war effort.  Though Walt was not reticent to hand over his studio to a higher power, he nevertheless agreed because he too believed in the wartime cause.  Though it limited what Disney was allowed to make, the propaganda machine run by the Government nevertheless helped to keep Disney solvent all the way through the War years, and helped him recoup quicker from the financial burdens of the past without having to loose the profit gains from Dumbo.  During those war years, Disney managed to keep his studio running, with his artists churning out adverts, insignias, and short cartoons all with their famous characters promoting the war effort.  Dumbo in fact became a favorite of the air force, as some pilots even painted Dumbo on the sides of their aircrafts, making him a sort of unofficial mascot.  When the war ended, Walt took back control of his studio and began to plan for his post-war future.  Eventually, when the 1950’s rolled around, Walt saw a new opportunity emerge to present his film, which was television.  In 1954, he premiered his prime time TV series Disneyland, which he himself hosted personally.  In addition to original programming on the show, Walt also used Disneyland to run some of his classic films, albeit shortened for commercial time.  And what was the first film to be given the honor of a television premiere?  Dumbo of course.  From the beginning of World War II to the prosperous days after, Disney could always rely on Dumbo for an extra boost when it needed it.

Now 80 years later, Dumbo’s legacy is still going strong.  He’s an evergreen presence in the parks, with a famous spinning ride made in his honor.  Upon a visit to Disneyland, Democratic candidate for president Adlai Stevenson famously refused to go on the Dumbo ride because the elephant is a symbol of the Republican party.  Despite that benign little political anecdote, Dumbo has not been without controversy over the years.  Most famously, the movie has come under fire for it’s racial controversies.  Dumbo befriends a group of crows in the film, all of whom help to convince him that he can fly.  Sadly, it’s unmistakable that the crows are caricatures of black people, and not necessarily in a flattering way.  Many civil rights groups have called out Disney for this depiction, and their complaints are not unwarranted either, especially when you learn that one of the crows has the name Jim Crow; a very bad pun in retrospect.  Like most of old Hollywood depictions of minority characters, the extant of the offense is really up to discussion of intentional malice, which I don’t think the Disney artists were intending, as it was just how most movies at that time often portrayed black characters.  Indeed, the message at the center of Dumbo is tolerance, as Dumbo overcomes his abnormality to prove his worth.  It’s illustrated especially well in how his best friend turns out to be a mouse named Timothy, a reversal of the normally adversarial relationship between the species shown in media.  Also, Dumbo is accepted as part of the crow’s group, themselves socially outcast, and like them Dumbo achieves his true self by learning to fly.  Still, the controversy around the film should not be dismissed as the hurtful depictions of black people in film needs to be discussed.  There was worry that the offensive part of the film might have been excised from the movie altogether for Disney+, which thankfully didn’t happen, especially when it has one of the best songs in the movie.  It’s better for American society to have the ugly parts of history exists alongside the good so that we can learn from it, instead of burying the parts we don’t like.  Something Disney should consider with Song of the South (1946).  Dumbo‘s place in the Disney canon is truly unique, because had it not salvaged Disney when it did, who knows if Disney would’ve made it through the war years unscathed like it did.  Would Disney have still been deep in debt had Dumbo not given them a boost?  Would they have failed to recover in order to gain their second wind that guided them into their Golden Age?  Would Disney have had the confidence to take on more costly chances like Disneyland?  There’s no denying that things were precarious before Dumbo, and it became an unlikely champion that helped to set things back in order.  That’s largely due to a rock solid story crafted by Dick Huemer and Joe Grant, as well as an unburdened team of animators who were granted more creative freedom.  Even to this day, it’s hard to find another animated movie that so effortlessly tugs at the heartstrings like it does.  Dumbo is a jewel is a worthy jewel in Disney’s animation crown, and like the tiny elephant at it’s center, it sours much higher than anyone would’ve expected it to.

Encanto – Review

Going all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Disney has built a long canonical line of feature films that have been the backbone of their company.  Even to today, the animated film canon is central to Disney’s identity, and they have been keeping track of their total number of features for the sake of celebrating every milestone.  Here, in 2021, they have reached yet another of those, with their 60th overall animated feature.  This particular milestone is special in how it represents the amount of success that Disney has had in recent decades.  It took Disney 54 years to reach their 30th feature film (1991’s Beauty and the Beast) and only 30 years to reach their 60th; the newly released Encanto.  That accelerated pace shows just how prolific Disney has been in recent years, being propelled by the Disney Renaissance and extending now through the Digital Era.  It has been a very transitional time period for Disney animation, but of course, there is plenty more planned for the future.  Though Encanto has been planned for some time to hold up the mantle of the 60th Disney feature, it became speculative for a time if it may indeed be a theatrical release.  The 59th feature (Raya and the Last Dragon) had to settle with a hybrid theatrical and digital release last Spring, which in some ways took the wind out of it’s sales and diminished it’s ultimate box office take.  Of course, it’s the best they could do for audiences at the time because of the lingering effects of the pandemic, and Disney not wanting to stall the release any longer.  Still, depending on how things panned out, the hybrid model could have ended up becoming the new norm, or even more dire for the theatrical loving community, it would show that digital only was the preferable choice.  As the pandemic lingered on through the summer, Disney wasn’t really confident either way.  And then the unlikely blockbuster success of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings resurrected the sleepy theatrical market and helped to confirm for Disney that theatrical first was the way to go.  Thus all of Disney’s remaining 2021 releases would be premiere first in theaters.

Unfortunately, through this era of pandemic related experimentation, Disney revealed itself to be playing favorites a bit with their catalog of titles.  Of the movies that did get a theatrical release instead of only digital, the Disney Animation department seemed to benefit the most, while Pixar was left off the movie screens altogether.  Pixar’s last two animated features, 2020’s Soul and 2021’s Luca both were dropped onto Disney+ instead of theaters.  It’s understandable for the movie Soul as it was premiering during the pandemic’s peak, but Luca premiered in the summer, long after movie theaters across the country had reopened and Disney had successfully implemented their hybrid release on films like Raya and the Last Dragon and Cruella (2021).  Why Luca was chosen just for digital doesn’t make much sense out of that.  Pixar is still a valuable and profitable brand, and the movie had a lot of broad appeal across all ages.  From the outside, it appears that Disney was playing favorites with their own in-house animation studio, hoping to use them to drive the return to theatrical.  Then again, Disney may have been more guarded with regards to their Pixar titles, believing that a digital release would help them avoid disappointing box office in a still unsettled market and possibly believing that the movie would find more eyes on Disney+.  What ever went on behind the scenes, it’s unfortunate that Pixar got the worst situation out of the lingering effects of the pandemic, while Disney Animation got both of their 2021 releases the theatrical releases they deserved.  Personally, I am biased, and I wanted all movies to make it to the big screen in any way they could.  Disney made their choice based on how they saw things, and sadly that meant that most audiences couldn’t see Luca the way it was intended to be seen.  2022 will be different, as Pixar has two films set for theatrical first releases (Turning Red and Lightyear), and Disney has no doubt has sided with theatrical for the long run, though any further economic disruptions could change things.  For now, we are given the new theatrical film, Encanto, Disney’s milestone 60th feature.  The question is, does it have the same kind of Disney magic as all of it’s predecessors, or did it waste it’s good fortune of a milestone release?

Encanto is set in an unnamed fictional land based largely on Columbian culture.  After escaping vicious marauders who have driven them from their homes, a family makes their way into the unknown terrains of the South American jungles.  After loosing her husband who sacrifices his life to buy them time to escape, Alma Madrigal (Maria Cecilia Botero) and her newborn triplets are left alone in the wild.  Miraculously, the candle that had lit their way through the dark becomes enchanted.  The candle creates a home around them to give them shelter, which itself comes alive.  Several years later, the Madrigal home has become a paradise and safe haven, with many other peaceful settlers creating a village around the house.  The triplets have grown up and as we learn, have all been given special gifts from the house that involve supernatural powers.  The eldest daughter Julieta (Angie Cepeda) has the ability to heal people with the food she cooks.  Pepa (Carolina  Gaitan), the younger sister, can control the weather.  Pepa’s older children Dolores (Adassa) and Camillo (Rhenzy Feliz) have the gift of enhanced hearing and shape shifting respectively.  Julieta’s three daughters, Luisa (Jessica Darrow), Isabela (Dianne Guerrero) and Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) also live in the home with the rest of the family.  Luisa and Isabela have their gifts, which are super strength and conjuring flowers in her wake respectively, but Mirabel stands out because unlike the others, she was not given a gift.  When the family gathers the town to celebrate the gift giving to Pepa’s youngest son, Antonio (Ravi-Cabot Conyers), who ends up talking to animals, Mirabel discovers something wrong with the house.  She believes that the house is beginning to crumble and the magic begins disappearing with it.  She intends to discover for herself what is happening.  The clue to the house’s fate lies in what remains of her Uncle Bruno’s room.  Uncle Bruno (John Leguizamo) left the house long ago after he discovered through his power of seeing the future that the thing Mirabel is fearing will come true, and the family has since never spoken of it.  But, Mirabel is set in finding out the truth behind Uncle Bruno’s prophecy and discover why she is at the center of it.

Encanto marks the second collaboration between Disney Animation and famed songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda.  His first project with them was the hit film Moana (2016).  Encanto hits a little closer to home for Miranda who gets to tap more into his Latino roots for the music in this film.  This also finds him a lot more involved in the production, because he’s also credited as part of the story team on this film.  This movie does indeed feel more crafted around Miranda’s contributions than anything else he has done with Disney, with the songs definitely showing his distinctive writing style.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  For one thing, the songs are definitely well crafted and catchy.  On the other hand, it almost feels like more focus was given to the songs than anything else in the movie.  Encanto is unfortunately a very unfocused movie that feels too lightweight to leave an impact.  I was hoping for a more rousing adventure from the likes of Disney, but the movie keeps things very low stakes throughout.  The Madrigal home is central to pretty much every aspect of this movie, and the film doesn’t even venture outside of it that much.  As a result, the movie just comes across as being very small, which is a little bit disappointing.  For a studio that once had climaxes that involved fighting dragons, or battling on the highest points of a mighty palace, or chasing after one’s true love and possibly laying their life on the line to save them, this movie’s climax hinges on a simple generational disagreement.  I see how it fits within the story thematically, but it’s still kind of anti-climatic.  The movie, as I mentioned before is best served by Lin-Manuel’s involvement, as his songs are where the movie comes alive the most.  But, in between the songs, there isn’t much story to speak of.  It’s just a simple series of events between a single family, dealing with their own internal dramas, with the only twist being that they mostly all have special powers.  And those powers are really explored as much as they should be.  It just feels like the powers are there to liven up the story and give the animators something to have fun with.

Moving from that, the movie is not an absolute failure in story.  It certainly is a lot better than Frozen II (2019).  The Lin-Manuel Miranda songs are definitely what salvages the movie for the most part.  If you are familiar with Miranda’s style, which extends from his movie contributions like this and Moana, as well as his most iconic work, the Broadway show Hamilton, then these songs will feel very familiar as well.  Miranda’s hip hop infused lyrics manage to work seamlessly with the Latin beats of the main score.  I often found myself marveling how the singers in the film manage to string together so many words in a single breath.  The songs are their own special achievement in this movie, and I’m sure that many people will find themselves humming these tunes afterwards, and replaying them on Spotify when they get home.  They may not have the sing-a-long re-playability as some of Disney’s most long lasting hit tunes like “Be Our Guests,” “Under the Sea” or “Hakuna Matata,” but no one is going to come away feeling disappointed by these songs, even if they like me find the story itself to be disappointed.  The animation in the movie also comes alive and rises to the challenge of these songs.  Directors Jared Bush and Byron Howard (Zootopia) certainly bring a playfulness to the songs, whether it’s through the creative staging or the wild character animation.  I think one of the highlights is a catchy number called “We Don’t Talk about Bruno,” a song going into the backstory of the character, which definitely felt like all the departments working to their fullest, from the vocal performances, to Lin-Manuel’s manic songwriting, to the clever creative animation, all put into this tango like showstopper.  Most of the other songs do their job well enough too.  I think that the reason why the movie may have faltered a bit in the story department is because the songs probably came first and then the story was crafted to surround them, which wasn’t as assembled with quite the same amount of care or energy.

The movie does benefit from an effective main character as well.  I like the fact that out of this family of super human beings, the movie’s plot does hinge on the two characters who don’t have any gifts; Mirabel and her Abuela Alma.  The fact that the main character has to work at a disadvantage that her extended family does not have helps to make her role in the story more interesting.  She was denied something that everyone else that she loves managed to gain, and she doesn’t understand why.  It makes her character motivations clear.  I like the fact that she is neither portrayed as purely good or distantly resentful.  She bounces back and forth between wanting to know why she was left out and having it not be the worst thing in the world for her.  It makes her more dynamic as a result, as you see the internal conflict in her guiding her through the mystery that she must unfold.  The rest of the family are a colorful bunch of characters as well, though I feel like some of them could have done with a bit more personality other than the powers that they show off.  The supporting characters that stand out the most are those in her immediate family.  Her sisters, Isabela and Luisa, in fact are the only other characters in the movie who get their own songs.  Luisa’s song “Surface Pressure” is another highlight, especially in the way it stages the song around her super strength ability.  It might have served the movie better if it trimmed the more extended family members and just focused on a more tightly knit family unit.  Not that the other characters are bad in any way, it’s just that the movie has a hard time giving all of them any amount of spotlight.  One really welcome character is Uncle Bruno, who comes into the story fairly late.  Though he has limited screen time, he does make the most of it, with John Leguizamo delivering a delightfully eccentric vocal performance.  Stephanie Beatriz also is strong as Mirabel, making her both funny but not obnoxiously quirky.  Given her already long working history with Lin-Manuel Miranda in projects like In the Heights (2021), she is clearly skilled enough as an actress and singer to take on a character like Mirabel.

Where the movie also delivers up to the high Disney standards is in the animation.  This is a visually impressive film, with animation up to the same quality of some of Disney’s most classic titles as of late.  One thing that I especially was impressed with was the visualization of the Madrigal house itself.  The house is a world in of itself, quite literally in fact, as the individual rooms for the family members open up into large spaces, like the Tardis from Doctor Who.  One of the nicest touches is that the movie turns the Madrigal house into a character itself.  The house comes alive with the floors, drawers, doors, shutters and tile roofs all moving independently and giving assistance to the characters.  It’s a home with a personality, and some of the biggest laughs in the movie comes from the clever ways that the animators found to communicate gestures through the architecture of the house.  The movie also has a colorful palette to it.  The colors pop on screen and dazzle with a wide kaleidoscope of visual splendor.  You also really get the sense of the Columbian influence of this movie, where the multicolor house stands out from the deep greens of the dense jungle that surrounds it.  I’m sure the team of animators on this film looked at how small Columbian villages come to life through their choices of color in contrast with the tropical surroundings.  It wouldn’t surprise me if they had come across quite a few buildings that looked like the Madrigal home in their research.  The movie benefits a lot from the work put it in it’s setting, but it also makes the magical gifts given to the family interesting as well.  I especially like the ideas of Pepa’s weather control being limited to a cloud flying over her head and raining entirely around her depending on her mood.  Isabela’s flower power is also beautifully realized.  Overall, while the story may be lacking, the animation is undoubtedly on par with Disney at it’s best, and in many ways also offers up a few worthwhile surprises that helps to set this movie apart within the canon.

Encanto is by no means a bad film and in many ways I think it will prove to be a hit with audiences.  It might just be my sometimes impossibly high standards with regards to Disney animation, but Encanto just felt like it lacked that special thing to put it higher on the list of great Disney film.  I want a Disney movie that has a lot more to say like Zootopia, or comes to a much more exciting climax like Aladdin (1992).  Encanto just feels like an exercise for the animators and less like a bold statement for the future of animation.  Perhaps where some of my disappointment comes from is the fact that this is a milestone film and that it generally feels a bit too small for that distinction.  All that said, there is still a lot to like with this movie.  The characters are likeable, the Lin-Manuel Miranda songs are catchy, and the animation is definitely top notch.  It’s just all put together in a way that felt like it wasn’t reaching it’s full potential.  For a milestone movie, I really think something more ambitious like Raya and the Last Dragon should have been given the pivotal milestone.  But, that’s just my opinion.  I’m sure Disney believed in this movie more and were happy to spotlight it.  It certainly shows that they are eager to continue working closely with Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Whether or not he continues to work with Disney more is uncertain, but this movie will likely be a good collaboration that both sides will be proud of.  Regardless of what I personally thought of Encanto, it is great to see Disney Animation reach this amazing milestone, and even more importantly, do so in the theatrical market.  I can definitely say that this is a movie that benefits from being shown on a big screen, and I’m sure that audiences will appreciate having that option available to them.  It is not an all time great, but Encanto is a perfectly fine piece of entertainment that will no doubt leave audiences happy and feeling as magical as the enchanted world they have been welcomed into.

Rating: 7/10

Off the Page – The Grapes of Wrath

It’s hard to contemplate how harsh the Great Depression was on working class Americans so many years and generations after it happened.  Today, we worry about pandemic related mass unemployment and supply chain disruptions resulting from a year of lockdowns, but the Great Depression was a whole different kind of monster.   With an unemployment rate that reached a staggering 24% of the population which persisted for several years due to stagnant growth in the economy, it still remains unchallenged as the greatest economic downturn in US history.  With the stock market crash came the collapsing of the banks, which could no longer provide loans to boost business or help average citizens hold onto their homes.  Eventually, foreclosures drove many people out of their homes and into tenement camps that later became known as “Hoovervilles,” named after then President Herbert Hoover, whose botched handling of the economic crises was largely blamed for the prolonged Depression.  It was a harsh time in America, as people were desperate to find any work they could, and that often led to many people falling victim to scam artists and greedy opportunists who would prey upon the desperate for cheap labor.  This in turn led to a rise of push back from the workers, and they started organizing and demanding better may and living conditions.  Sadly, the workers faced resistance by being labeled communist agitators, and wealthy business owners used their powerful influence to manipulate the legal system to deny workers the rights that they were seeking.  Still, the rise of unionization and the clear devastation brought on by the poor handling of the economy led to a change in the American political system, which eventually led to the election of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency, who ran on a promise of a “New Deal” overhaul of the Social Welfare system in America.  Though it would take many years of tough battles in the halls of congress, Roosevelt eventually got his New Deal programs passed, which brought about pivotal new safety net measures, like Social Security and a Federal Minimum Wage.  Probably no other era in 20th century had as much of a profound effect on the future of America as those Depression years.

And yet, as time has pressed forward, the lessons taken from the Depression seem to have faded as well.  Today, we take Social Security for granted, and unionization is at the lowest level it has ever been, which in turn has led to another era of wealth inequality and corporate exploitation of labor.  What we have left to remind us of the horrible legacy of the Great Depression are the stories told by our elders and the documentation of that time period that survives to this day.  The Dorthea Lange photographs of migrant workers living in Hoovervilles still vividly capture the horrific reality that ordinary American citizens endured over those years.  Several news articles and news reels that have survived also have given us an idea of what it was like, though they feel more and more detached so many years later.  For many, the most enduring portrait of the horrors of the Great Depression comes from the pages of what many consider to be among the “Great American Novels;”  John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, as well as the famous 1940 movie that it inspired.  Born and raised in Salinas, California, Steinbeck saw the effects of the Great Depression all too clearly, as he witnessed the mass migration of poor farmers from the Prairie states making their way to the fertile lands of his home state, only to see them being either threatened, mistreated or generally exploited by his fellow Californians once they got there.  In his writing, he expressed sympathy for the working man, and sought to tell their story.  He wrote articles for the San Francisco News about the plights of the migrant workers in a series that came to be known as The Harvest Gypsies, which told the story in the workers’ own words.  He would also write many short stories and novels that offered many different windows into the lives of poor working farmers, such as Of Mice and Men and of course The Grapes of Wrath.  His writing has often been described as Dust Bowl Fiction, relating to the simultaneous catastrophe of the Dust Bowl famine of 1935-36, which exacerbated the Depression even further.  Though a lot of his writing gave a much needed compassionate voice to the too often overlooked migrant worker, it was not always met with favorable reception.

“Takes no nerve to do something, ain’t nothin’ else you can do.”

John Steinbeck wore his New Deal progressive politics proudly on his sleeves, which often opened him up to accusations of being a communist sympathizer or just an outright card carrying member.  The Grapes of Wrath was his most pivotal work to date, detailing through the eyes of one family all of the harsh realities of Depression Era exploitation.  In his novel, he makes no illusions of where he stands, with every authority figure and capitalist portrayed as corrupt, and the only compassionate party in the story other than the migrants are the supervisors of a Government run camp that helps keep the law enforcement at bay.  For it’s perceived anti-capitalist viewpoint, The Grapes of Wrath was banned in many corners of the country, with censors fearing it would inspire communist infiltration of the workforce.  Even in Steinbeck’s home state his novel met resistance, with the Kern County Board of Supervisors out right banning the sale of the book.  But one other part of the state that responded well to Steinbeck’s novel was Hollywood, and in particular, a very unlikely champion named Daryl F. Zanuck.  Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox, was a lifelong Republican, but he was sympathetic to the struggles of the working class during the Great Depression and the movies from his studio often reflected a progressive attitude towards social issues.  Naturally, he found the appeal in Steinbeck’s vivid portrait of Depression era suffering. and optioned the novel right away, long before it even went into wide publication.  Still, Zanuck had to get around the censorship issues that plagued The Grapes of Wrath.  He sent investigators to tenement camps up and down the state of California to see how accurate Steinbeck’s accounts of the horrific conditions the migrant workers lived in were.  Not only did their findings back up Steinbeck’s accounts, but they proved to be even worse than expected.  With that knowledge, Zanuck knew that it was not only worthwhile to adapt The Grapes of Wrath for the big screen, but also essential.  He tapped one of the most celebrated filmmakers of that period, John Ford, to bring the novel to life, and it would prove to be one of the most ideal matches of filmmaker and author Hollywood would ever see.

“I never had my house pushed over before.  Never had my family stuck out on the road.  Never had to lose everything I had in my life.”

John Ford’s film largely sticks pretty close to the book for the first part, but diverts significantly in the later half.  Those second half differences in particular reveal a lot about what it took to get the movie made in the midst of the threat of censorship.  It also reveals a lot about the different world views of the author and the director.  Even with the limitations, the movie still manages to paint a vivid portrait of the Great Depression and the horrifying affect it had on the people who lived through it.  Like the book, we are introduced to the Joad Family, a tightly knit unit of Oklahoma farmers, known as Okies, who have no other choice than to hit the road and head off to a hopefully better life in California.  After the bank forecloses their farm, with the Dust Bowl rendering their soil useless, the Joad family straps everything in their possession to the back of a beat up old truck and leaves the land that has sustained them for generations behind.  The book and movie detail the sights and events that follow them along the way as they drive down Route 66 to their destination.  The movie removes a couple of the different vignettes on the road trip out, but still keeps the important ones in the film, including the losses of loved ones.  Where John Ford really proves he’s the perfect director to tackle this kind of subject matter is in his no nonsense approach to his visual story-telling.  His film feels completely devoid of the usual Hollywood glitz and you would almost believe that he’s shooting a documentary at times.  One of the most remarkable moments in the movie is when the Joad Family arrives at their first Hooverville in California, and Ford shows their arrival through an incredible POV shot from the front of their truck.  The camera pans across the view they see of the camp, with poor and destitute people staring back as the truck passes through.  You really see the influence of Dorthea Lange’s heartbreaking photographs in this memorable POV shot, with the camp appearing to be the real deal.  This must have been a shocking thing for audiences in 1940, which was only a couple short years removed from the worst years of the depression.  People who avoided seeing the conditions within these camps were now suddenly witnessing it first-hand on the big screen, and the Ford style was very instrumental in making that happen.

But what mattered the most in making the story resonate within the film was how well audiences connected with the characters.  In many ways, this is where we see some of the big differences between the novel and the film.  In Steinbeck’s novel, all the members of the Joad family are spotlighted with their own different struggles during the journey.  In the film, it’s really only three principle characters that are focused on.  One of course is the protagonist eldest son of the family, Tom Joad.  Tom Joad was very much a coveted part to play, as he embodied the idealized American working man identity, fighting for justice in a world that has treated the helpless poorly.  Daryl Zanuck would end up giving the role to one of the rising stars in Fox’s stable of talent; a young man named Henry Fonda.  Fonda had already been under contract at Fox for many years, but had never been the central lead in a film until now.  With Tom Joad, Fonda’s folksy Nebraska background came in handy, because he could believably portray a destitute migrant farmer while still maintaining his movie star, golden boy profile.  In many ways, straddling both of those two worlds enabled Fonda to create Tom Joad into this more mythic figure as a result; becoming the epitome of the righteous crusader for the rights of workers.  Something I’m sure Fonda welcomed as he shared much of Steinbeck’s progressive political views.  Apart from Tom Joad, the other crucial characterization that’s central to the story is that of Ma Joad.  Ma’s part in the story is more or less exactly as Steinbeck wrote, with her being the crucial glue that keeps the family together through all the hardship.  But, as the movie elevates Tom Joad to a more central role in relation to everything else, her maternal relationship to him likewise also gets elevated.  Veteran actress Jane Darwell, in the role that won her a supporting actress Oscar, is absolute perfection as Ma Joad.  Her resilience and practical outlook on life is both inspiring as well as heartbreaking.  She has got to be the pillar of strength that keeps hopes up even as the seems to be none left.  And Ms. Darwell perfectly conveys that in her performance.  A particularly memorable scene comes early as she burns the last of her remaining possessions before they leave their Oklahoma homestead.  When she looks at herself in the mirror while dangling a pair of old earings next to her head, she conveys without words the warming nostalgic memories of her past and how the dread of the future cast a cloud on her now.  They are both two mighty performances that bring these pivotal characters to life.

“Tom, you gotta learn like I’m learnin’.  I don’t know if right yet myself.  That’s why I can’t ever be a preacher again.  Preachers gotta know.  I don’t know.  I gotta ask.”

The remaining members of the Joad family are all still present, but Ford’s film chooses to relegate them to very minor roles in comparison to Tom and Ma.  Instead, the other character given focus in the story is an unrelated tag along on the Joad’s journey named Jim Casy.  Casy is a one time preacher who lost his faith and believes like the Joad family that a better life may await him in California.  He’s pretty much exactly the same kind of character as he is in the books, played memorably in the movie by Western film stalwart John Carradine.  Casy, in many ways, is where Steinbeck brings in his own voice to the story, as the character begins to become the voice of righteous indignation to the mistreatment of the migrant farmers.  Though he’s a man who lost his faith before the beginning of the story, he becomes enlightened again after seeing the injustice committed all around him.  He radicalizes and begins to assemble other workers to join him in unionizing.  It’s largely because of the character of Jim Casy that the book found so much resistance from the censors.  One, the character was a sympathetic and in many ways inspirational view of a labor organizer, someone that the capitalist establishment was desperate to vilify.  Secondly, it’s pretty clear that Steinbeck also wrote the character as something of a Christ allegory, one of many allusions to religious symbolism in the book as a whole.  His initials are JC after all.  And in the same spirit as the symbol he represents, Casy also meets his end not long after his enlightenment, leading Tom to pick up his mantle after being shaken by Jim’s murder.  For a lot of establishment figures, the use of this Christian allegory was especially seditious in their eyes, particularly those in the Religious Right.  That, as well as a lot of the frank depictions of violence and sexuality in Steinbeck’s novel led to to it being so widely banned across the country.  For Zanuck and Ford, they needed to find a way to make the message of Steinbeck’s writing work without running into those same censorship hurdles.  Carradine’s performance greatly helps to make Jim Casy a believable character.  He’s not overtly Christ-like in the way the character in the book is, but he still comes across as an inspiring voice that brings to the front all the righteous rage his character should have.  Carradine’s mellow voice and wide hopeful eyes also help to imbue the character with the same kind of spirit that Steinbeck’s words bring to the character.  To make this character work and appeal to a broad audience, the filmmakers managed to walk that fine line perfectly.

Essentially, the movie tempers the more radical nature of Steinbeck’s prose while still retaining it’s essential spirit.  But where Steinbeck and Ford diverge is in their ultimate outlook on the fate of the Joad family, which in many ways reveals how both men viewed humanity as a whole.  The endings of the books and the movie are very different, which in some ways make sense considering what a book can get away with more than movie.  Both stories do eventually lead to Tom Joad’s departure from the family, as he is being pursued by the law for killing the man who slayed Jim Casy.  But what happens after that is where the split happens.  John Ford follows up Tom’s heartbreaking exit with a beacon of hope for the Joad family.  A good job opportunity has presented itself, and the Joads hit the road for Northern California with hope that something good waits on the other side.  In these final moments, Ma Joad reflects on how, after everything that has happened, the family has the ability to press on and be hopeful.  In her words, “we’re the people,” she basically underscores the idea that by sticking together, they’ve managed to make themselves stronger, and that is what will get them to an eventual better life.  It’s basically a statement to reinforce the idea of change through solidarity, reinforcing the call for unionizing that the book promote.  Steinbeck on the other hand leaves the story on a bit more bleak note.  Things don’t go well for the Joad family up to the final page.  The eldest daughter of the family, Rose of Sharon, has been with child for the entirety of the story.  In the final chapters, she gives birth to a stillborn baby.  After this tragedy, the Joad family are also forced to take shelter from a storm during their travels.  When they find an abandoned barn to hide in, they also find another migrant farmer dying of starvation.  Realizing the man’s need for nourishment, both Ma Joad and Rose realize what they must do.  So, in a rather bleak final note to end the book on, Rose let’s the starving man drink the breast milk that she’s been lactating post-pregnancy.  You can probably see why John Ford opted for his ending.  It does offer an interesting contrast, though, as Steinbeck seems to express a more pessimistic outlook on the state of humanity.  Ford clearly wanted to inspire his audience with a glimmer of hope, but Steinbeck clearly wanted us to see just how bad it had gotten in America, and that hope was very much fleeting.  Steinbeck’s ending overall feels far more like an indictment of the system that he viewed as broken.  I imagine this must have been an image that he probably witnessed while investigating the camps, and it’s one that he wanted the reader to clearly understand as well.  Both Ford and Steinbeck clearly wanted to instill sympathy for their subjects, but Steinbeck’s approach feels far less like a Hollywood ending, and more of a wake-up call to his readers to see the world for how it really is.

“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.  Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.  I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad.  I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there too.”

With nearly a century gone by since the deepest depths of the Depression, we have less of a comprehension of how bad it got.  My one connection to that time comes from the lessons I learned from my Grandparents.  My Grandpa and Grandma on my mothers side in particular were very familiar with the kinds of narratives found in John Steinbeck’s novels, because they themselves grew up in the same California farming communities that these migrant farmers flocked to during the Depression.  They didn’t tell me much about the horrific kinds of exploitation that was going on during that time, partially because they weren’t near any of those farms and they were probably too young to realize what was going on.  They did tell me about how their families often had to ration goods in those days, and that something as commonplace today as an orange was seen as a luxury to them during the Depression.  As a tradition every Christmas in the years since, my grandparents would place an Orange in our stockings, done as a way to remind all of us of what their families went through to endure the hardship of the Depression.  It’s certainly the thing that introduced me to the reality of the Great Depression.  Though my grandparents were as heavily effected, they nevertheless remembered how hard it was, and they didn’t want us to forget too.  That’s why John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer winning The Grapes of Wrath is not only an important story to remember, but an essential one as well.  It shows the depths that humanity can fall to when pushed to it’s limits, and that all that we have left after we’ve lost everything else is our own compassion to each other and the willingness to do good in spite of such bad odds.  John Ford managed to bring the essence of Steinbeck’s to the big screen, albeit to the extent he could given the censorship limitations at the time.  With his down to earth sense of humanity, remarkably naturalistic photography courtesy of the legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland (who also won an Oscar), and incredible lived in performances from his cast, Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is every much just as masterful as the book that inspired it.  Today, both the book and the movie’s messages feel more relevant than ever as we are seeing yet another reckoning between capital and labor erupt in America, and the same old Red Scare tactics being revived to push back against it.  It’s a time like this that a movie like The Grapes of Wrath becomes essential viewing, to remind us that this kind of story happened in America, and not that long ago, and it could very well happen again if we are not careful.  The pandemic certainly made that a possibility.  The Grapes of Wrath, both as a work of literature and a cinematic masterpiece, are undisputedly among the great American fables, and whether their outlooks are hopeful or pessimistic, it is crucial that all of us pay attention to it for our own good as a nation.

“Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out.  But we keep a’comin’.  We’re the people that live.  They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us.  We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.”

Tale As Old As Time – The Groundbreaking Legacy of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Animation historians will note that one of the most pivotal periods ever for the artistic medium was in the late 80’s and early 90’s, at a point where animation made a great leap forward that would help carry it into the new millennium as not just something for the kids, but as a respectable artform respected by Hollywood at large.  Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, animation was trying to define itself in new ways.  This included experimental animation from the likes of Richard Williams and Ralph Bakshi, to darker toned animation from the likes of Don Bluth, to acclaimed imports from the likes of Japanese anime.  In many ways, they were there to fill a vacuum left over after the biggest names in animation, Disney and Warner Brothers, had diminished in popularity.  Warner Brothers had already retired it’s animation division and were solely using their beloved Looney Tunes characters mainly for television purposes.  Disney fell into a funk in what was known as the post-Walt years, or otherwise known as the Disney Dark Ages.  There were still animated films being made like Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977), but they were fewer and far between and a far cry from the movies of Walt Disney’s time.  Going into the 80’s, fear began to spread that Disney was going to fold their entire animation department altogether, which became especially possible after the colossal box office failure of The Black Cauldron (1985).  But, a new regime at the studio led by Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to give Animation one final shot to save it’s future.  In order to do that, Disney Animation decided to return to the foundation on which it began and take on a another beloved fairy tale, that being The Little Mermaid (1989).  The experiment worked, and Mermaid ended up becoming a huge hit and saved Disney Animation from annihilation.  But, it wasn’t over as Disney decided to strike while the iron was hot and pursue yet another beloved fairy tale as their next animated hit.  That of course would be the immortal tale of Beauty and the Beast.

The tale of Beauty and the Beast is one that has it’s origins in many different places and cultures, spanning across the globe and the centuries.  A tale as old as time, as it were.  Though you can find it’s influences in many different cultures, the story that we are familiar with the most is from the 1756 French interpretation from writer Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.  This version is the most noteworthy because it centered on the identity of the central heroine of the story; the country girl known as Belle, which naturally means Beauty in French.  The Beaumont interpretation also defined other elements crucial to the story like the Enchanted castle that the Beast calls home as well as the significance of a Rose as a plot element in the story.  In the original story, it is a Rose that sparks the series of events that leads Belle to meeting the Beast, as the Beast threatens retribution against Belle’s father for stealing a Rose from his garden, and Belle elects to take her father’s place as his prisoner.  Over time, Belle begins to see the humanity in the Beast and the two grow closer, eventually leading to Belle being able to break the curse that has turned the Beast from man to animal.  It’s a story that has captivated the imaginations of many over the years, both as a pivotal work of fantasy but also as quintessential love story as well.  Of course, it became a favorite filmmakers as well.  Renowned French auteur Jean Cocteau created his own magical version of the story with what many consider to be among one of the greatest works of cinematic art ever made.  Cocteau’s version was almost so beloved that few other filmmakers dared to touch the story afterwards, because they felt that they would fall short of Cocteau’s masterpiece.  But, if there was ever someone to try, it was Disney.  Given that the Cocteau version itself features many incredible flights of fantasy, it only makes sense that animation could take on something similar.  However, bringing new life to an age old story carries it’s own set of problems.  Walt Disney himself ended up shelving a version of Beauty and the Beast, because he could never resolve the challenges of the story, mainly that the whole second half of the story is just two characters alone in a castle.  He ended up opting to make Sleeping Beauty (1959) instead, which gave Walt a more satisfying artistic pursuit.  But, for his successors in the years after, it became an especially daunting challenge to undertake; could they end up doing something that Walt himself found too difficult.

With Michael Eisner taking over as the new CEO of Disney in 1984, and Jeffrey Katzenberg left in charge of the Animation department (something he admittedly knew nothing about going in), the culture began to immediately change at the studio.  After years of wondering “What would Walt do?” the question shifted to what were the people now in charge going to do.  What Katzenberg did bring was a renewed sense of trying harder and going bigger with their new projects.  The new culture at the studio did in the end work out, as The Little Mermaid‘s success would attest.  And like Beauty and the Beast, Mermaid was another property that Walt Disney had attempted but later abandoned.  If they could make Mermaid work, why not Beauty.  Around 1987, while Mermaid was still in it’s final phases of production, Beauty and the Beast was given the greenlight for development.  The same songwriting team behind Mermaid, composer Alan Menken and Lyricist Howard Ashman, were commissioned to write the score for the new film.  A longtime story department member at Disney named Don Hahn was also given the opportunity to produce his first feature.  Initially, the film was going to be produced at a satellite studio in London, with animation legend Richard Williams directing, as he was just finishing up his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) for the studio.  However, unresolvable story issues came up and Williams ended up leaving the project after the first pass at the story, opting instead to return to his pet project The Thief and the Cobbler (1992) instead.  With Williams departure, producer Don Hahn  and the story team scrambled to save the project from cancellation.  They decided to bring the production home to Burbank and assemble a new team to guide the production.  Directing duties fell on two newcomers named Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, whose only work previously at Disney was creating a pre-show segment for a theme park attraction called Cranium Command, which was found at the Wonders of Life pavilion at Epcot.  These were not the usual suspects you would expect for a prestigious project like Beauty and the Beast, but like the moral of the story itself, looks can be deceiving.

With a looming deadline of Thanksgiving weekend 1991, the animation team had to scramble quickly.  Principle animation didn’t even begin until early 1990, giving the team little over a year to complete the film; an unheard of short window in the medium known for it’s long production cycles.  Still, once things began to roll, the film began to come together without interruption.  One of the big successes of Beauty of the Beast was the fact that they managed to resolve the story problems that confounded even Walt Disney.  What helped the most was that they filled out the cast of the story with a colorful collection of characters who populated the Beast’s castle.  In the classic Cocteau version, the Beast’s chateau is populated with enchanted appliances and decorations that have human like appearance and even come to life at times.  Disney includes these enchanted objects as well in their version, but unlike the ones in Cocteau’s film, they have personalities of their own.  For Disney’s Beauty, we learn that the curse that turned a handsome prince into the beast also affect his household staff as well, making them into enchanted objects that are scattered throughout.  As a result, the empty desolate castle no longer feels empty, and the stories of these enchanted objects help to support the main story between Belle and the Beast.  Though the enchanted objects number in the hundreds, it’s three primary ones that are central to the story, and they are a debonair candelabra maître’ d named Lumiere, a stuffy table clock majordomo named Cogworth, and a sweet matronly teapot maid named Mrs. Potts.  It also helped that several veteran character actors were brought in to give these enchanted objects their personalities, with Broadway veteran Jerry Orbach channeling Maurice Chevalier in the role of Lumiere, David Ogden Stiers doing his best wound up British butler as Cogsworth, and the incredible Angela Lansbury absolutely warming our hearts as Mrs. Potts.  But their contributions wouldn’t have worked as well enough if the movie hadn’t effectively perfected it’s two leads.  Broadway star Paige O’Hara landed the coveted role of Belle and as a result with her forceful but dignified performance, she set a new high standard for a Disney princess.  Most surprisingly however was the choice of one time teen heartthrob Robby Benson in the role of the Beast.  Certainly not the voice you would first think of for a Beast, and Benson had to really stand out in a large crowd of potential actors, including Regis Philbin according to director Kirk Wise in the film’s audio commentary (can you imagine).  What probably won Robby Benson the role ultimately was that he managed to find the soul of the character.  And indeed, one of the remarkable strengths of the final film is how well it makes us the audience fall in love with the Beast.

But apart from the stellar cast that was assembled for the movie, the film also remarkably pushed the animation medium to new heights.  A few of the animators from the now shuttered London studio did manage to make the trip back to Burbank, California and pick up right where they left off, and because of their work on Beauty and the Beast, they have gone on to become some of the most celebrated animators of all time.  Of special note was the animator of the Beast, named Glen Keane.  Keane, who also animated Ariel in The Little Mermaid, was instrumental in not only animating the Beast, but also designing his look as well.  His work is really a masterclass in animation, because he perfectly constructed a character that can be equal parts fearsome and loveable, and as a result he found the beauty with a monster that was instrumental to the morale of the story.  Working in unison with Keane’s animation of the Beast was James Baxter’s incredible animation of Belle.  The subtlety of his animation helps to give Belle this graceful presence in the story; stern, independent, but not afraid to express her emotions openly.  Again, Belle set a new high standard for Disney princesses, and it was largely due to the marriage of James Baxter’s animation and Paige O’Hara’s soulful performance.  Another animator, Andreas Deja, also stood out with his animation of the movie’s villain Gaston.  With Gaston, Deja set out to create the exact opposite of the Beast, a character beautiful on the outside but ugly within, and for inspiration he modeled Gaston on the muscled beefcakes that frequently populated the gyms around the Los Angeles area; something I can attest to being real as I’ve been to gyms in the LA region.  Gaston would mark the beginning of a solid run of memorable villain assignments for Andreas, as he would go on to animate Jafar in Aladdin (1992) and Scar in The Lion King (1994).  Also of note was animator Will Finn, who worked on Cogsworth.  He developed the concept that would help guide the animation of the enchanted objects, developing the idea that the characters were made of a material he called Disneyite.  As he described it, Disneyite to the touch would feel like brass or wood, but it would be as flexible and moldable as rubber, and that’s what he said the enchanted objects were made of.  This helped to give the other animators the idea to be more flexible with their animation and not portray the enchanted objects as too stiff.  One other thing that Beauty and the Beast broke new ground on was the incredible use of a new tool called computer animation.  Still in it’s infancy, and years away from Toy Story (1995), applications of computer animation were still untested in animation, and many didn’t know if it would work in conjunction with traditional hand drawn animation.  But, a devoted team of artists attempted to apply this new technology to Disney animation, and Beauty and the Beast provided the most unexpected result of all.  For a pivotal scene in the movie, hand drawn Belle and the Beast enter a completely CGI environment made to look like an ornate ballroom.  Remarkably the two elements matched up perfectly, creating a breathtaking result as the camera swoops around the environment like nothing seen in animation before.  It’s still to this day one of the most enthralling moments ever in animation.

While the movie managed to cross the finish line under such a tight schedule, there was an unfortunate drama also taking place behind the scenes.  Unbeknownst to much of the crew at the time, lyricist Howard Ashman was in the final stages of his battle with AIDS while working on Beauty and the Beast.  Ashman had only told a handful of people in his inner circle that he was ill, and he only broke the news to his collaborator Alan Menken the night they won their Oscars for the music of The Little Mermaid.  But, even as he was in and out of the hospital in those final years, Ashman continued to work adamantly on this score that meant so much to him.  Both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were deeply personal stories to him, given their messages of tolerance, compassion, and understanding.  As an out and proud gay man working in a medium that wasn’t always accepting of outsiders, Ashman gravitated towards stories that spoke to the oddballs and so-called “freaks” in our society and asked the audience to see the good inside and not just go along with what society considers to be normal and beautiful.  That’s certainly true with the portrayal of the Beast and his antithesis Gaston, but it was also important for Ashman that Belle was also a bit of an outsider in the story; looked down upon by the rest of her “poor provincial town” because she is such a bookworm.  That’s where Ashman found the heart of the story and he reflected that into the many memorable songs that have since gone on to become all time classics.  Of course the song “Be Our Guest” is a show-stopping hit, as are the character defining ones of “Belle” and “Gaston,” but it’s the Oscar-winning title song “Beauty and the Beast” that many point out as Ashman and Menken’s finest work.  Even more remarkable is the story behind the song’s recording.   Angela Lansbury believed initially that she couldn’t perform it, because she listed to Alan Menken’s more pop sounding demo tape.  When she gave a listen to Howard Ashman’s more subtle, spoken word demo, then it clicked for her, and she went into the booth and nailed it in one take.  I’m sure a couple more recordings were done for safety, but it’s that first take that we hear in the final film, which just shows how well the brilliance of Ashman’s writing, the music of Menken, and the voice Lansbury can be captured in one beautiful moment.  Sadly, Ashman didn’t live to see the finished film.  He succumbed to his fight with AIDS in March of 1991; seven months before the premiere.  And even while he was on his death bed, he continued to dictate notes for the crew of Beauty and the Beast, devoting his final days to his last great work.  To memorialize Ashman’s memory, an epitaph was added to the credits of Beauty and the Beast, honoring the man as it says “gave a Mermaid her voice and a Beast his soul.”

Releasing Beauty and the Beast in theaters not long after The Little Mermaid still was not without some risk.  But, with a forceful marketing push behind it thanks to Jeffrey Katzenberg, Beauty was set to carry on the momentum that Mermaid had started.  What was especially surprising was that Katzenberg was wanted to push the film beyond it’s acceptability as family entertainment.  He wanted this movie to be taken seriously by the whole Hollywood establishment.  One way he did this was by having the film premiere at the prestigious New York Film Festival.  There was only one problem; the movie wasn’t complete yet.  So, Katzenberg and Co., in order to generate some extra buzz for the movie, decided to still premiere the film as a special “Work in Progress” state, displaying an animated film for the first time publicly in a version that only those at the studio would’ve seen, completely with rough, incomplete animation.  It was rolling back the curtain in a way and showing an audience what goes into making an animated film.  The only question was would the usually elitist New York film crowd go for it.  Not only did it work, but the Work in Progress version of Beauty and the Beast received a standing ovation and immense praise at it’s premiere.  That good fortune would extend further once the movie made it’s wide debut Thanksgiving weekend.  It received almost universal praise from critics and audiences alike, and even surpassed the lofty box office of The Little Mermaid, becoming the first ever animated film to cross the $100 million mark in it’s first run.  And it didn’t stop there.  Beauty and the Beast would go on to become the first ever animated nominee for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  It ultimately would lose to The Silence of the Lambs, but Beauty still managed to break through that barrier and help to legitimize the animated film as a force to be taken seriously in Hollywood.  The movie of course did pick up awards for it’s music and Best Song, with Howard Ashman’s posthumous win shedding a much needed spotlight on recognizing the victims of HIV and AIDS in both the industry and society at large.  And after Beauty and the Beast’s success, Disney Animation was not only safe from annihilation, but was in fact thriving, cementing an era that would come to be known as the Disney Renaissance, which would also help elevate the medium of animation across the world as well.  That in itself is the greatest impact that it left behind; it made animation respectable, and not just stuff for the kids.

I can’t tell you how crucial this movie was for me as a kid.  I was 9 years old when Beauty and the Beast was released in theaters and it was such an interesting period of time that in some ways broadened my perspective of cinema.  For the first time, I remember taking note of what the film community was saying about this movie that I myself became fascinated with.  I think the year that Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture was the first time I ever watched the Academy Awards, because it was the first time something that I had seen was up for the top award.  I think I expressed disappointment when Silence of the Lambs won instead, but of course as an adult I’ve learned to appreciate that masterpiece as well, and overall generally agree with that pick in the long run.  Still, after Beauty and the Beast‘s trip to the Oscars, I began taking more interest in the critical reception of animated movies from then out, including following critics like Siskel and Ebert and Leonard Maltin, as they often opened up discussion of animated movies that I found fascinating.  Probably without movies like Beauty and the Beast hitting at the right time, who knows if I would’ve become the movie buff that I am today.  Strangely enough, of the Disney movies of the Renaissance era, Beauty and the Beast is the one that I return to the least.  I find The Little Mermaid to be the more revolutionary launching point, and Aladdin and The Lion King to be more generally exciting.  That’s not to say that I have grown to dislike Beauty and the Beast; far from it.  It’s just a movie that is more noteworthy to me because of what it accomplished over the years more than how it captivates me as a viewer.  It’s still a fantastic movie overall and still holds up 30 years later.  Even today, it’s still celebrated as a high water mark in the history of animation.  A live action remake of it even made Disney over a billion dollars globally, though of course I made my thoughts pretty clear here how I thoroughly disliked that version.  What made the original special is the way it perfectly encapsulated the best work of the artists involved working tirelessly on a short schedule, and capturing lightning in a bottle that has since gone on legitimize the artform as a part of cinema as a whole.  That is the beauty behind Beauty and the Beast, a movie that transcends the limitations of of it’s medium and demands to be seen for the true work of art that it represents.  The tale as old as time became the foundation on which the art of animation would enjoy a prosperous future well into the new millennium.  And for Disney, the animators, writers and executives who worked tirelessly on it, and the audiences that have embraced it over the years, the long legacy of Beauty and the Beast is a time old tale that has gone on to live happily ever after.

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