What’s Wrong With Being Popular? – The Motion Picture Academy’s Problem with Recognizing Popular Movies

It’s been a consistent struggle ever since the dawning of the film industry.  No matter what era we live in, you will see a broad disconnect between the kinds of movies that general audiences like, what professional critics like, and what people in the industry like.  And for the most part, these differences are inconsequential and really just come down to a difference in personal taste.  But, Hollywood is also an industry that rewards itself every year, and wishes to either rank or crown certain movies as more honorable than the rest.  And it’s only then that these rifts in personal taste extend into more heated arguments.  Beginning in 1927, the Beverly Hills based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began the tradition of honoring the top achievements within their industry each year, creating one of the most coveted awards in the world in the process; the Oscar.  Though it started humbly enough as a banquet at the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, the Academy Awards have since evolved into the biggest prize within the industry, as well as the focus of much of the studios’ efforts and resources.  Oscar campaigning has become an industry within itself, and has only grown to have more influence over both how the industry operates, but also with how the movie-going public responds to all of it.  Movie critics suddenly have more sway now because their consensus over the quality of each new film gives the industry a better sense of what is worthy of nominating and which films will better find an audience.  But there is one problem with that; critics are audience members too, and not one unanimous voice, and some of their personal tastes often clash with what the average audiences want to enjoy, and what the industry itself wants the public to enjoy.

One thing that has become abundantly clear in recent years is that the industry has become less concerned with overall box office when it comes to selecting the best films of the year, and for the most part, the big winners at each year’s Oscars are small, independent dramas that most often earned their way up to the podium due to critical approval.  In general, most of the movies that do win Best Picture at the Oscars, as well as many of the other top accolades, are often deserving of the honor.  But, too often now, they are films that become quickly forgotten as the industry itself moves in different directions.  Can many of you out there say off the top of your head which movie won Best Picture five years ago?  If you’re someone like me who watches the industry closely each year, you probably can, but the average moviegoer likely does not nor do they care (the answer was 2013’s 12 Years a Slave by the way).  In the end, most audiences go to the movies to be entertained, and not to witness a future awards winner.  And more than likely, what ends up being entertaining might not be awards quality material.  Look at some of the biggest franchises in recent years like Fast and the FuriousTransformers, and Jurassic World; all international juggernauts that are perfectly capable of grossing a billion worldwide easily, and yet if you asked for critical opinion on each, you’ll get nothing but disdain.  Despite what ends up being good for the industry’s bottom line, these critically panned franchises can easily be dismissed by the Academy, but then comes the problem when a studio movie is a box office hit, and is a critical darling.  At this point, the Academy is forced into the awkward position of rethinking their brand, which they have so intently cultivated around the aura of prestige.  It raises the question to them whether or not something commercial should be in contention with lesser seen films that may benefit more from what is commonly called the “Oscar boost.”

In order to not be seen as giving an unfair advantage to big studios over smaller production companies, the Academy has largely chosen to distance itself from the commercial side of Hollywood and focus on the more prestiege side of the industry, which is their perogative to do so.  But, the Academy is also faced with the unfortunate aspect that their choice to reward smaller, lesser seen films has resulted in a smaller audience for their own televised broadcast.  The ratings for this year’s Oscars telecast was the lowest of this decade, and this has put the Academy into a position of reevaluating their strategy as an institution.  The Academy has made several smart choices in recent years, like expanding their membership to include more diverse representation both in age and cultural make-up.  But, the lower ratings have also forced the academy to face the reality of popular entertainment being deserving of their top honors and this has led them to making some not so wise choices.  Just this week, the Academy announced that they were making big sweeping changes to their future Oscar ceremonies.  The first change was that below the line categories were no longer going to be televised, and were instead going to be handed out during the commercial breaks and announced later in the show in an edited compilation, all in an effort to reduce the show to a quick 3 hour run-time.  Below the line film industry professionals rightly called foul, as they saw this as a move to focus more on the celebrities being honored rather than the hard working behind the scenes people who never usually get the same spotlight.  The other controversial move was to announce a new category for Best Popular Film, which the Academy sees as a way of recognizing movies that they often ignore, as a means of bringing back the movie going public who will be more familiar with the movies in this category.  Again, this new category was immediately scrutinized for it’s lack of clarity and it’s in many ways dubious dismissal of popular movies in general.

The Motion Picture Academy has had to face the unfortunate reality in recent years that they are slow to evolve with the rest of the industry.  While it is noble to shine the spotlight on movies that often go unseen by honoring it with a prestigious award, the Academy has done so by stacking the odds more in the favor of what they deem worthy rather than what is more deserving.  A large part of the Academy’s problems has been an aging roster of voters, whose personal tastes have tended to clash more often with the average movie going public, which to their credit, the Academy has made strides towards changing.  But, even still, for a commercially popular film to break through and appeal to the Academy’s higher tastes, it has had to be so good that it couldn’t be ignored.  This has managed to happen before, with box office behemoths like Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) winning Best Picture in their respective years, but it often rarely happens.  Sometimes the Academy’s stringent adherence to prestige has resulted in a backlash, as was the case when Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) was denied a nomination for both Best Picture and Best Director for it’s year, categories that it might have had a solid chance of competing in.   But, because it was both a Super Hero film and a sequel, it didn’t fit within the Academy’s typical mold, and was left out; though Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker couldn’t be ignored, and was honored with an Oscar.  Audiences expressed their displeasure at the exclusion of the Dark Knight and that added pressure did lead the towards changing their rules, extending the Best Picture race from a field of five nominees to a maximum of ten; ensuring that blockbusters like Dark Knight would have a better shot in the future.  But even despite this capitulation, the Academy still has struggled with having an answer for addressing this popularity problem that is driving down their television ratings and plaguing their relevancy within the industry.

One thing that I see is that the issue is not with too few nominations being made available, but perhaps there being too many awards.  One thing that the Academy has done over the years is create specialized categories that doesn’t particularly honor a specialized trade within the industry, but rather honors a specific type of movie.  These categories spotlight films that fall under the classification of Foreign, Documentary, and Animated.  As is often the case, some of the best movies of the year often are representative of these three categories, and in many ways are deserving of being labeled the Best Picture of the year.  And yet, these categories at the Academy Awards end up being the only place that these movies are recognized in.  Only rarely do we see a film from any of these categories rise above and earn a Best Picture nomination; in fact, within the entire history of the Academy Awards, not one documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture.  For a lack of a better term, these categories have become “ghettos” within the Oscars, as a way of honoring a specific movie while also keeping it out of contention for the top award so that the more typical films get a better shot.  And with a new “Popular” category, the Academy is again creating a sub category to “honor” movies that otherwise it would completely ignore while at the same time stacking the odds better in favor of the prestige flick.  It’s quickly been described as a millennial’s “participation” award, to show that they are spreading the wealth around by giving even popular movies an award.  But spreading the wealth would only apply if each award held the same value, which they don’t.  While each film that wins in the Foreign, Animation, and Documentary categories are usually deserving of the honor, they absolutely should also be contenders for Best Picture as well, and their often sure bet wins in these categories often makes the Academy believe that they’ve given them enough already.  Doing this with a category specifically meant for “Popular” movies would only make the disconnect between the Academy and the movie-going public even greater than it already is.

The term “popular” is also too broad, and can be used to lump all sorts of different types of movies into one category, mainly if they don’t fall under the guise of a prestige flick.  Which leads to another problem with the Academy’s disconnect with popularity, which is their very specific idea of what makes a film fall into the category of “prestige.”  A prestigious film is often a finely crafted drama, often historical, focused very intently on the quality of it’s own writing and performance, and most often has a statement to make; political or otherwise.  These movies often have been dubbed “Oscar Bait,” and far too often you’ll find Hollywood easily taking the bait every year, no matter how manipulative it may be.  There are those years where an outsider voice does pierce through and receives the Oscar recognition without resorting to baiting the Academy, but more often the case will be that in order to get that coveted Award, you’ll have to compromise your vision and appeal to the Academy’s very narrow tastes.  That’s why Steven Spielberg has had better luck at the Oscars with movies like Schindler’s List (1993) instead of with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), because one is a historical drama and the others are seen as “popcorn” genre flicks.  Spielberg certainly deserved his win for Schindler’s List, but his style of film-making had to change dramatically from what we were used to seeing from him before in order for him to win the award.  And he’s not the only filmmaker whose had to change in order to play the Academy’s game.  Historical epic Titanic was a wild departure for director James Cameron, who had cut his teeth with action flicks like The Terminator (1984).  The David Fincher who directed with flashy style with Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999) was easily dismissed by the Academy for years, but the more subdued approach he gave to movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and The Social Network (2010) brought him into their good graces.  There are also the countless times where comedic actors try to go serious in order to get their recognition (Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, Steve Carell in Foxcatcher).  While none of these moves translates into sub-par work, it still shows that artists are less free to make the movies they want to do and still get the Academy’s seal of approval.  And thus that line between popular entertainment and prestigious entertainment becomes more apparent.

Even though I’m piling onto the already notorious reputation of an already disgraced man, but this is yet another way that I feel mega-producer Harvey Weinstein has ruined the film industry.  On top of all his sexual misdeeds, Weinstein was also a bully when it came to campaigning for the industry’s top honors.  His aggressive campaigning on behalf of the movies from his Miramax and Weinsetin Company labels often crossed into borderline illegal territory.  The Academy has even had to combat his influence over their voters by changing many of their rules regarding awards campaigns.  This was especially the case after the surprise upset where his period dramedy Shakespeare in Love (1998) won over the heavily favored Saving Private Ryan (1998) that year.  It was later revealed that many of the voters were swayed by the aggressive marketing push that Weinstein had orchestrated, and not by the fact that they liked it more than Private Ryan.  But even despite the Academy’s attempts to make the field fairer for all nominees, Weinstein’s influence never the less took hold; most effectively so in redefining the idea of the prestige film.  You look at the difference between awards winners before Weinstein came to prominence and those after; particularly in the 90’s.  In that decade, there was a fair mix of popular blockbusters winning Best Picture (The Silence of the Lambs in ’91, Forrest Gump in ’94, and of course Titanic in ’97) alongside smaller films (Unforgiven in ’92, The English Patient in ’96).  But since the turn of the millennium, it’s been prestige ever since, with Shakespeare in Love’s upset marking that turning point.  Weinstein’s goal was to not so much help prestigious movies have a better shot at the Oscars, but to make his own style of prestigious Oscar bait the ideal for Academy voters, and sadly far too many bought into that.  Not all of them were bad or undeserving, but too often these types of movies pushed out more deserving flicks; like when Weinstein’s The Reader (2008) took the slot that should have belonged to The Dark Knight.  Though Weinstein has gratefully been exposed as a monster, and has been shut out of the Hollywood altogether, his legacy continues and the Academy’s latest move feels like a holdover from an era that made it easier for people like him to win over others.

The Academy has to wake up and realize that the answer to making their broadcasts more popular with audiences is to not create a separate category for just “popular” films, but rather embrace the idea that popular movies can be prestigious too.   One thing they should do is to change their notions of what constitutes prestige and what doesn’t, as the Weinstein influence has clearly made that term too specific to be fair to all.  If you look at the industry as a whole, you can see that movies that have lasting power in our culture tend to come from a more commercial beginning and that as often is the case become the ones that influence the next generation of filmmakers and film-goers the most.  Just because a movie is “popular” doesn’t make it not important.  You look at this year in particular, where the most socially groundbreaking film to be released in theaters was not a indie drama, but instead was a Super Hero movie from Marvel Studios; the blockbuster phenomenon Black Panther (2018).  Black Panther hit the culture with such an impact early this year, appealing to an often overlooked demographic that has felt underrepresented by Hollywood and even brought timely issues of social justice and racial inequality to American cinemas in a bigger way than most independent dramas could ever do.  It’s that kind of impact that the Academy would be foolish to ignore when the next round of Oscar voting starts, but by creating this Popular Film Oscar that it is mostly likely going to be a shoe-in for, the Academy will mistakenly believe that they’ve given it just enough.  It’s these movies that make a difference in society, and if the Academy wants to be seen as being in touch with the culture today, they shouldn’t try to marginalize a movie like Black Panther into a “separate, but equal” category.  Popular and prestige are not exclusive, they can be the same thing.  Think about previous years where the Academy got it wrong; we forget about American Beauty from 1999, but we still remember The Matrix, Fight Club, and The Iron Giant from that same year, because of their cultural impacts.  The Academy’s move to boost diversity in membership is a good start, and has shown itself in a more open attitude towards genre flicks lately, with The Shape of Water (2017) becoming the first Sci-Fi Best Picture winner in history.  But the “Popular” Oscar would be a foolish step backward that I hope doesn’t become a new tradition for the Awards, because it’s exactly the kind of “behind closed doors” move that closed off the organization from the regular movie audience in the first place, and put them in the current state of irrelevancy that they now find themselves in.

Collecting Criterion – The Thin Red Line (1998)

Apart from the many collections of classics both from different eras of Hollywood history and the best from the international market, the Criterion library also has plenty of titles to choose from cinemas most esteemed artists.  In some cases, Criterion is the only source for the complete works of some of the most notable film directors of all time, especially in the North American market.  It’s the only place you’ll find the complete filmographies of international icons like Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Jean-Luc Godard.  The Collection also gives special treatment to renowned homegrown American filmmakers who work outside the Hollywood system and are rewarded with a special spotlight in a Criterion home video release.  These include independent cinema icons like Richard Linklater who has films like Dazed and Confused (1993, Spine #336) Boyhood (2014, #839), and the Entire Before trilogy are part of the collection.  Also there is Jim Jarmausch, whose Stranger than Paradise (1984, #400) and Dead Man (1995, #919) are also a part of the collection.  And then there are the directors whose filmography are more, shall we say, dense by comparison.  Some would even say impenetrable due to the filmmakers very aware and self-indulgent style.  The most likely candidate for this would be David Lynch, whose trippy and noteworthy work like Eraserhead (1977, #725) and Mullholland Drive (2001, #779) have made it into the Criterion library.  David Cronenberg’s likewise grotesque style has also made it into the collection with Videodrome (1983, #248) and Scanners (1981, #712).  And on the other end of the spectrum, the whimsical but very stylized movies of Wes Anderson, like Moonrise Kingdom  (2012, #776) and Rushmore (1998, #65).  But there is an even more enigmatic director out there whose films are beginning to find their home completely within the Criterion Collection; the very mysterious Terrence Malick.

Thus far, Malick’s films up to the early 2010’s have all made it into the Collection, and with them, you see one of the most peculiar progressions a film director’s career has ever taken.  One thing that Terrence Malick is probably most known for is the 19 year gap that he had between his second and third features.  He started off strong in his career right out of film school, directing the critically acclaimed Badlands (1973, #651) and following that up with the equally beloved Days of Heaven (1978, #409), which won the Academy Award that year for it’s stunning cinematography (much of which was captured at “magic hour”, which has since become a popular visual technique for filmmakers).  And then surprising after that, Malick’s career went completely silent.  There were many rumors of Terrence being a recluse and hermit during those 19 years out of the business, only fueled by Malick’s insistence on privacy throughout most of his life.  But, in reality, he took those years out of film-making to teach philosophy at a university in France.  In time, the lure of cinema would call him back, and it would surprisingly be a war film that wound up doing it.  The Thin Red Line (1998, #536) was a risk for someone so out of practice, and also because Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) was in direct competition during that same year.  Though the movie wasn’t a big box office draw, it did receive an overwhelmingly positive critical reception and even was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, both a first for Malick.  But what amazed people the most is how well Malick maintained his unique cinematic voice even through the long absence.  If there is one thing that defines his movies it’s that they are less story driven and more like visual poetry.   And The Thin Red Line would show that Malick could take that definitive style and put it into different genres, which would explore further in his next couple features, The New World (2005, #826) and the Palm d’Or winning The Tree of Life (2011, #942).  But, it’s through The Thin Red Line that we see his style put through the most grueling test and it’s easy to see why it made an ideal choice for Criterion.

The movie is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by James Jones.  The Thin Red Line was the second in a trilogy of novels based on Jones’ wartime experience in WWII, the first of which was From Here to Eternity, which was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1953.  The novel chronicles many different conflicts, but focuses primarily on the Battle of Guadalcanal during the Pacific campaign of the War.  Malick’s adaptation is not the first even done from the novel itself, as there was one other made in 1964, starring Keir Duella.  However, there are very few similarities between both features, and also between Malick’s film and the source novel.  Terrence Malick is renowned for his ruthless way of editing his movies, often shifting things around at the last minute, sometimes even completely changing the intention of the footage from what he had planned from the day they were shot.  Whole subplots and even characters are given the axe in his movies, and Thin Red Line is no exception.  Perhaps the most notorious change he made during the editing of this film was to completely change the main character of the movie, without ever making a rewrite to the script.  The way he shot the movie was closer to Jones’ original text, with the author’s surrogate, Corporal Fife, acting as the audience’s eyes and ears to the first hand experience of combat.  In the movie he is played by Adrian Brody, in what would have been his first lead role in a movie.  But, shockingly, Brody’s performance was nearly excised completely in the final cut, with the focus shifted to a different character instead; Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt.  How you can make a movie in which the intended protagonist is turned into a minor character is mystery, but somehow Terrence Malick managed to do it, and this has commonly become a theme of his work ever since.  It’s often said that Malick finds his movie in the editing room, picking and choosing footage in a way that doesn’t so much move the story but rather follows rhythm and feeling more than anything else.

It’s safe to say that Terrence Malick’s films are not for everyone.  The fact that he doesn’t follow basic story-telling rules when it comes to cinema is enough to put many people off, but it’s also the thing that sets him apart as an artist as well.  Truth be told, his movies in recent years have turned more self-indulgent and their lack of coherence is making them fall under more scrutiny by critics as a result, but when he began his career Renaissance with the release of Thin Red Line and through the making of The Tree of Life, he was definitely leaving his mark strongly on the world of film-making.  And while his film strays wildly from the source novel in terms of character development, Malick’s style does in a way honor the spirit of the novel.  One theme that defines the book Thin Red Line is that it emphasizes war as a very personal and isolating experience for every soldier, in that they suffer the horrors of war by themselves, all different from each other.  One Terrence Malick trademark that the movie uses extensively is internal monologues played over montages of random visuals.  In the film, the monologues are given to several different characters, Cavizel’s Witt, Sean Penn’s Sgt. Welch, Brody’s Fife,  Nick Nolte’s Lt. Col. Tall, and a variety of others.  And their monologues again feed into Malick’s style by emphasizing the character’s emotional state rather than spelling out exactly what they are going through.  This keeps in spirit with Jones’ novel because it’s emphasizing the emotional toll that’s being taken on these different soldiers as they experience the carnage around them, and how it’s making them further isolated from each other and the world.  Indulgent, yes, and it often makes the movie hard to follow at certain times.  But, it does something that few other war movies have done, which is show the emotional grind that such an experience has on the human soul.

Whether the deliberate pacing and the loosely tied narrative leaves you infuriated or not, there is one thing about The Thin Red Line that is undeniable and that’s just how gorgeous it looks.  The movie was shot by John Toll, who had previously won back to back cinematography Oscars for Legends of the Fall (1994) and Braveheart (1995).  He would turn out to be the right DP for this production because Thin Red Line is an epic scale production, far bigger in scale than anything Malick has made before or since, which is kind of a gutsy move for a filmmaker who hadn’t made anything in almost 20 years.  One thing that is also emblematic of Malick’s work is the lyrical way he observes nature in his movies.  The jungles of Guadalcanal are visually stunning in this movie, especially when combined with another favorite of the director’s; the “magic hour” lighting.  Malick also uses his canvas to project a wide picture of the war, with his soldiers often swallowed up by the environments they exist within.  This in particular helps to separate the movie from the documentary style of Saving Private Ryan, which was shot with tight close-ups and shaky hand-held photography.  Malick was less concerned with authenticity of the “you are there” experience, though he does put emphasis on the historical details, especially when it comes to the production design and costuming.  But the movie deals with the horrors of war through a more poetic way, with nature metaphorically placing the turmoils that these soldiers are enduring into a metaphysical context.  Malick style, particularly with his visuals, have influenced many other filmmakers.  Christopher Nolan has stated that the work of Terrence Malick is a constant inspiration for him, and you can clearly see some of that in his own films.  Dunkirk (2017), in particuar, feels very heavily influenced by The Thin Red Line, especially in the beachfront scenes of the former, which strongly reflect the groundlevel view of Malick’s battle scenes.  It shows that even 20 years later, this war film still has left a mark on a whole new generation of filmmakers.

Criterion naturally wanted to give this beloved film the best home video presentation possible, and once again they have delivered.   A new high definition digital transfer was made from the original 35 mm negative, and a restoration was conducted by Criterion under the supervision of Terrence Malick and John Toll.  Special attention was put into retaining the color and lighting palettes true to the director’s vision.  One thing that does set The Thin Red Line apart the most from other war flicks of it’s type is it’s abundance of lush colors, spotlighting the sun-drenched settings of it’s story.  It’s also something of a trademark of the director, as his films often use color contrast as a significant narrative tool.  Compare this with the de-saturation of color from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which more closely match that film’s grittier, documentary style.  The vibrancy of The Thin Red Line’s color palette is served well by this new high definition transfer, as is the increased level of detail in the textures.  The film’s attention to detail when it comes to the production design is also benefited by the restoration.  One other restoration that has been benefited from the Criterion touch is the restored soundtrack.  A certified  DTS-Master mix has been cleaned up of all pops, hisses, and scratches to retain the best aural experience possible, close enough to how the film would have sounded in the theater upon it’s original release.  While not as dynamic as Private Ryan’s complex soundscape, the movie still features very realistic sounding effects that make the war scenes feel true to life.  However, it’s Hans Zimmer’s moody and hypnotic musical score that benefits the most from this restoration, and it’s the part of this home video presentation that will really pop out to you the most while watching the film again, even on the simplest of home sound systems.  As an visual and aural experience, this Criterion presentation is the best that this movie has received in many years.

Likewise, the edition also features the Criterion Collection’s usual high quality bonus material as well.  Unfortunately, because of Terrence Malick’s strict privacy rules, he is all but absent from every bonus material on this set.  There isn’t even any video footage of him in the making of material, nor any recording of his voice.  We do get insight from many others involved with the film though, especially from the enormous cast.  First of all, there is an informative feature commentary track with John Toll, producer Grant Hill, and production designer Jack Fisk.  Their conversations really help to the best insight into how the film came together, and what it is like to work under the direction of Malick.  Several interviews with cast members are included, including Jim Caviezel, Kirk Acevedo, Thomas Jane, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, and Sean Penn.  There is also an interview with Hans Zimmer about his approach to scoring the film.  The film’s editors Billy Weber, Leslie Jones, and Saar Klein also are interviewed, and provide an interesting perspective the way Malick creates his vision in the editing process.  We also get a very interesting interview with Kaylie Jones, the daughter of James Jones, who provides us with interesting insight into the man who crafted the original book from his own recollections of combat.  Another brand new interview is conducted with casting director Dianne Crittenden, who shares rare audition material of the actors in the film, including many more stars who didn’t make the final cut.  There are also fourteen minutes of cut footage from the film, which honestly is only a fraction of what really exists out there.  There are also some fascinating newreels collected from the war era documenting the actual battles on the Guadalcanal and Solomon Islands.  Also included are some neat, extended footage of the Melanesian tribal chants that were featured as part of the score, as well as an original theatrical trailer.  All in all, another solid collection of extras, even despite the lack of input from the director himself, and further exploration into the massive production that this film was.

Terrence Malick is something of an enigma in the world of film-making, and his movies often reflect that.  You’ll find just as many people who hate his self-indulgent style as you would find those who will absorb it all in happily.  His work has become more divisive in recent years, as he has gone from a filmmaker of very few credits to one of many.  Some would say that his continued returns are diminishing the once mythical status that his name once held.  Even so, I think most will find that The Thin Red Line, his first film after a long absence and also his most ambitious in terms of scale, is the least divisive film he has made overall.  While there will be some that will scoff at his proclivity towards poetics in the movie, there will be no one that will deny that the movie is exquisitely constructed and quite a harrowing experience overall.  It particularly amazes me that someone like Terrence Malick could put a film of this scale and complexity together after being out of practice for so long.  That in itself is a marvel of film-making, and a real testament to his skills as a director.  If there is one flaw that I would give the Criterion Collection treatment of this film is that it doesn’t go far enough into exploring the real story behind the film’s making.  Apparently, Malick shot enough footage to make close to three or more movies of the same length, and most of it never made it into the final cut.  Full performances from other famous actors like Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, Bill Pullman, Martin Sheen, and Mickey Rourke were all shot, but completely left out of the movie.  I would have liked to have learned more about the movie that could have been in addition to the one that we ultimately got.  But, I blame that more on the secretive director and less on Criterion’s part.  They gave us the best look into the film’s making that we could get, and I’m thankful for that.  If anyone is looking for an entry point into the work of Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line would be the best place to start, and Criterion offers the best possible presentation the movie has ever received.  Though filmmakers like Malick may rub some people the wrong way, at least Criterion gives those who do love their work presentations that will please overall.

Mission Impossible: Fallout – Review

The movie career of Tom Cruise has been an interesting one to witness over the last 30 plus years.  Going from heartthrob, to matinee idol, to action movie star, he has carved out an unusual trajectory as he’s evolved as an actor.  Recent years has seen him grow more comfortable in the action movie genre, showcasing his physicality more than anything else.  Sometimes his choices in action roles range from the excellent like Edge of Tomorrow (2014), to the just okay like Jack Reacher (2012), to the just plain awful like The Mummy (2017).  While many of these films are varied in both style and success, there is clearly one series over the years that has turned into his proudest effort: the Mission Impossible series.  The Brian DePalma directed original in fact began this new phase of Cruise’s career, and it has been clear ever since then that Cruise has had an appetite for the genre ever since.  It’s almost like every movie he makes now in between new installments in the series are merely just warm-ups for what he has next for us in this series.  It’s interesting to see the Mission Impossible movies also evolve along with his career as well.  After the original, the series struggled to find it’s footing, shifting styles dramatically with new directors behind the scenes.  John Woo brought a lot of style but little substance to Mission Impossible 2 (2000), and J.J. Abrams couldn’t find either style nor substance in what was his first feature film with Mission Impossible III (2006).  But then after a long break, Cruise and company found new direction for the series by focusing on the things that made the movies fun in the first place, the insanely over-the-top stunts.  The first three movies in a way undermined the stunt work by adding too much visual flair to them, either through unnecessary CGI, or through indulgent directorial touches (especially with Woo’s film direction).

Strangely enough, it was a director from the world of animation that helped to bring more of a reality into these movies.  Director Brad Bird of Incredibles fame appealed to Tom Cruise’s appetite for more authenticity in the action scenes, and with the fourth film in the series, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), we finally got an idea of what these movies could actually deliver.  Instead of making the central mystery the focus of the film, the Mission Impossible series was now all about pushing the envelope when it comes to the death defying acts that the main hero (Cruise’s Ethan Hunt) must go through in order to save the day.  This was especially proven through the now iconic sequence where Cruise scales the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai; the world’s tallest building.  Instead of relying on the safety of movie magic to recreate the needed location for the sequence, Cruise and Bird insisted on shooting at the actual tower, with the film’s star literally hanging off the outside of the building.  Sure, safety lines prevented him from falling to his death, but he was still doing an extremely dangerous stunt that even seasoned professionals would have balked at.  Cruise’s insurance even refused to let it happen, and he responded by dropping their account and finding a new one.  Despite all that, the sequence made it to the screen and looked incredible (especially in IMAX) and has since become the high water mark for the series since; and for all action films for that matter.  Every Mission Impossible since has been in a “how do we top that” mode ever since and it’s finally given the series the identity it’s always needed.  This is now a series defined by big moments, often involving Cruise doing his own death defying stunts, some of which could potentially kill him for real.  The follow-up, Rogue Nation (2015), put Cruise on the outside of a real plane taking off into the air.  And now, we have the sixth film in the series, Mission Impossible: Fallout, which aims to set the bar even higher.  But, does Cruise and company still have anything more left to prove with this series?

The movie picks up not long after the events of Rogue Nation.  Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is briefed about a new mission to eradicate what’s left of the terrorist organization, The Syndicate, after the capture of their leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris).  The most radical of these remnants have renamed themselves the Apostles, and are being directed by a new leader named John Lark.  Though little is known about Lark, it is believed that he and the Apostles are intent on acquiring stolen plutonium in order to create a bomb that will kill millions and as they put it, “with a great suffering create a lasting peace.”  An attempt by Ethan and his closest associates, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) to extract the plutonium from some black market sellers goes array, and the cargo ends up in the wrong hands.  The failed mission leads to an intervention by the CIA to take over the more secretive IMF agencies actions, with whom Ethan gets his marching orders from.  CIA director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) assigns her own agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), to accompany Hunt on the next leg of his mission in order to assure that no further mistakes are made.  Arriving in Paris, via a harrowing Halo Jump, the pair of agents find the plutonium again in the possession of another black market seller, the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) who needs their help in a secret extraction mission as a sign of good faith in their deal.  That mission it turns out involves breaking Solomon Lane out of prison.  Though not keen on seeing his enemy freed from captivity, Hunt plays along in the hope that it will get him closer to finding the plutonium.  Things are made even more complicated once an old acquaintance, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) has orders from MI-6 to take Lane out first.  As dangers keep building up, and alliances begin to be questioned and true motives are revealed, it soon becomes apparent to Ethan Hunt just how Impossible this Mission is, and that it might be the one that he ultimately can’t win in the end.

Like I said before, the series has gone through a stunning transformation over the years, and in many ways has really been hitting it’s stride much better now than it did when it first began.  The bar was set pretty high by Ghost Protocol, and while Rogue Nation was pretty entertaining overall, it still lacked the overall WOW factor of it’s predecessor.  Thankfully, Fallout is an even better effort, coming pretty close to being the best we’ve seen from the series so far.  I still consider Ghost Protocol the best in the series, but Fallout is a very close second.  The reason why I enjoyed this new entry so much is largely due to the fact that it retains much of the best things about this series so far, and executes them to their best potential.  What I love about these last couple Mission Impossible movies is that they have grown to embrace the silliness of the plots and gimmicks of the series and have found fun ways of using them in some often exciting and hilarious ways.  The gimmick with the masks returns (something carried over from the original TV series) and the way it’s used in this movie leads to some of the film’s best surprises.  I won’t spoil what happens, but there are some especially enjoyable reveals with those masks in this movie, including one hilarious cameo appearance.  I also love the fact that while the action set pieces are incredibly complex in their execution, they also allow for there to be some vulnerability in the characters as well.  Cruise’s Ethan Hunt isn’t bulletproof in this film, and the action scenes even allow him to get beat up once and a while, sometimes in a way that gets a laugh out of the audience.  That endearing aspect has been what has helped the series find it’s character since Ghost Protocol and up to Fallout; that ability to not take itself too seriously and having a main hero who doesn’t always succeed in the cleanest of ways.

I will say that the one thing that keeps the movie from rising to the top of the franchise is it’s unfortunately bloated running time.  The movie is nearly 2 1/2 hours long; the longest Mission Impossible film made so far.   For the most part, the movie keeps our attention through all that running time, but there are points where it does lag, particularly at the beginning.  Ghost Protocol still stands on top because it was better paced than any of the other films in the series.  It was also the movie that laid out it’s plot better than any other movie; never once getting caught up in the minutia and confusing the audience with it’s twists and turns.  Fallout mostly steers clear of that too, but by devoting more time to clear out the plot details, it also makes the spaces in between the action set pieces feel too long.  It helps that the action scenes are so well done that you don’t mind too much overall as you watch the movie, but the pacing issues are still noticeable.   The movie also makes the mistake of not exactly having a complex mystery at it’s center.  It’s pretty obvious from the beginning who the real villain of the movie is, and when the big reveal happens, it lacks the surprise that the filmmakers seemed to think that the moment was going to have.  You can also predictably figure out how the plot will wrap itself up, even down to the final climatic moment.  But, the movie kind of pokes fun at these moments too, which is also refreshing.  There is a moment during a climatic countdown where the characters actually do make you aware of the common cliche you’ll find in scenes like it, and in a way sort of subvert the moment and make it feel like a fresh spin as a result.  Despite these flaws, the movies still manages to keep you on the edge of your seat through most of it’s run time, and though the plot can be predictable, the small variations are not and they genuinely lead to some worthwhile surprises.

Now let’s talk about what really makes these Mission Impossible movies special, and that’s the incredible stunts.  The series has recently garnered the reputation of having the most insane on location stunts that we’ve ever seen executed on the big screen, and even more amazing, with it’s headlining star doing much of the work himself.  Like the aforementioned Burj Khalifa sequence and the plane takeoff from Rogue NationFallout has “Wow” factor moments as well, some of which come very close to being among the best we’ve ever seen.  Much of the entertainment value of this movie is just in watching how far Ethan Hunt (and by extension, Tom Cruise) pushes himself to win the day and save the world, and some of it really gets into mind-boggling territory.  Perhaps the most notable sequence of this movie will be the helicopter chase sequence, which Tom Cruise actually prepared himself for by learning how to pilot a chopper solo, just so he could get those authentic shots of him from the point of view of the cockpit as he’s flying it.   And that’s not even the most insane part of that stunt.  There’s a point where Cruise is actually climbing up to the bottom of the chopper via a cargo lift cable and attempts to climb aboard while it’s in midair.  The close-ups of this scene show you without a doubt that it’s as authentic as possible and Tom Cruise is genuinely underneath a flying helicopter, with only the support wires removed digitally in post-production.  It was so intense that I nearly felt a pit in my stomach watching this sequence, knowing just how death-defying it must have been in order to get that shot.  It’s insane, but it does put you right in the middle of the action, which makes it all the more enjoyable, and lengths ahead of most other action sequences found in the genre.  I honestly think that this movie makes a solid argument for there to be an Academy Award category for stunt-work, because the ones in this movie are deserving of some recognition.

One other thing that I love about this film, as well as the two that has preceded it, is the way it has rounded out the cast.  The series has become less of a one man show, and has managed to fit in wide variety of supporting players who help to balance out the series.  Simon Pegg has especially become a welcome comedic relief, working very well off of Tom Cruise’s intensity as Ethan Hunt, and even finding ways to help Cruise find the humor in his own character as well.  I especially love the banter between the two of them, especially when Ethan vents his frustration when Pegg’s Benji’s advice doesn’t end up being that helpful.  Ving Rhames, the only other actor besides Cruise who has appeared in all 6 films, is given much more screen-time this time around, and it’s a great to see him far more involved in this plot.  His longtime partnership with the character also brings out some of the movie’s most tender moments, and it becomes especially apparent in this film that Ving’s Luther is the one who brings the heart and soul into this adventure.  I also like that Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa makes a return to the series, as she proved to be quite the resourceful ally to Ethan in Rogue Nation, and very much his equal in both intelligence and skill.  While Henry Cavill’s Walker is a bit on the underdeveloped side as a character, the actor still makes the most of his time in this role.  I like the physicality he brings to the character, carrying a whole different swagger to the profession than what Ethan has, and watching it play off between the two characters is a lot of fun.  And it has to be said that Tom Cruise keeps returning to the character of Ethan Hunt for a reason.  Not only does playing him allow for Cruise to fulfill his adrenaline junkie appetite, but Hunt is also just a fun character to be in general.  Intelligent, persistent, but also clumsy and vulnerable at times, Ethan Hunt is just an ideal action hero.  He can wow you with his physicality, but can also make you laugh when he takes an unfortunate knock to the head.  I suspect that Cruise likes this character so much, because he allows him to have the most fun while performing; even when it’s during one of those crazy stunts.  And when the lead star looks like he’s having a good time, as well as the rest of the cast, that will in turn make the audience feel like they’re having a good time.

I honestly don’t know how much mojo this series has left, especially with regards to it’s leading man.  Tom Cruise is inching closer to 60 years in age, and though he has held up better than many others in his age range,time will eventually take it’s toll.  The fact that this series has gone on for over twenty years on the big screen and is only getting better is something kind of miraculous in today’s age in Hollywood.  A large part of it’s success is clearly in embracing it’s wilder aspects and choosing to focus more on taking the series to new heights (both literally and figuratively) with regards to the action set pieces.  This one in particular really was trying to push the envelope and show us things we’ve never seen before.  I’m still amazed by that helicopter sequence in this movie, and I hope that the eventual home video release gives us plenty of behind the scenes footage to show off just how exactly they were able to make it happen.  I will say that if there was ever a movie worth watching on the biggest screen possible, this is the one.  I was fortunate to have seen this on a very large IMAX screen, which featured select scenes shot with IMAX film stock specifically for this kind of presentation; the helicopter sequence being one.  If you are lucky enough to be near an IMAX theater too, I would recommend paying the little extra for the ticket price, because that impressiveness that IMAX brings is well worth it.    You’ve got to give producer and star Tom Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie a lot of credit for turning this action franchise into an event level experience that rivals most others within it’s genre.  The fact that their goal is to top each previous film that came before with even more mind-blowing set pieces is really worth celebrating.  And the passion that Cruise puts into these movies, even to the point of literally breaking bone, is something you’ll rarely see any movie star do nowadays, which is both worrying and admirable at the same time.  Though not the best in the series, Mission Impossible: Fallout is still one of this summer’s best films and near the top of it’s already esteemed franchise.  It’s a mission worth taking, should you choose to accept it.

Rating: 8.75/10

Top Ten Favorite Comedies

There are several genres of film that leave a great impact on my own experiences.  I will say that I am partial to the historical drama more than any other, as my favorite film is Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and I include many other epics as among my favorites as well; like Braveheart (1995), Ben-Hur (1959), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and so on.  But, if there were a genre that I can point out that has given me the most consistent entertainment over the years, it would be the Comedy genre.  The best feeling to have in a movie theater is the ability to laugh, and it’s the one and only genre where people actually enjoy the communal experience of watching a film with an audience of complete strangers.  Laughter is infectious and the more people laughing together translates into a better experience overall.  Not every comedy is good though, and sometimes the worst films out there are the comedies that fail to make us laugh in any way.  They are extremely hard to make, as comedy is subjective to every individual audience member.  But, when a comedy can hit all the right notes and appeal to a huge audience overall, then it can become an instant classic.  And for many people, they can easily point out the comedies that have left the best impact on them and have informed their own sense of humor.  As a movie fan, I certainly have my own favorites as well.  Some are movies that left an impact on my own development as a person and a movie fan, and others are just the ones that make me laugh the hardest.  Here, I have listed the comedies that are my absolute favorites.

Before I begin, I do want to list off some comedies that I do love, but just narrowly missed my list; This Is Spinal Tap (1984), The Jerk (1979), The Producers (1968), Caddyshack (1980), Coming to America (1988), Home Alone (1990), Dumb & Dumber (1993), Airplane (1980), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Some Like It Hot (1959), His Girl Friday (1940), Wayne’s World (1992), and Deadpool (2016).  And with all that out of the way, let us begin the countdown.

10.

THE SANDLOT (1993)

Directed by David Mickey Evans

There are comedies that make you laugh, and comedies that make you think.  And then there are comedies that take you back to a bygone time.  When The Sandlot was first released, I was 10 years old, not that far off in age from the characters in this movie.  And this comedy was one that really struck home for the pre-adolescent me.  Here was a movie that celebrated the simple pleasures of boyhood, and mined it perfectly for all the comedic potential that it could bring.  Its about the friendship building experiences of summertime baseball games, getting sick on carnival rides, telling scary stories during tree-house sleepovers, and even faking your own drowning so that you can sneak in a kiss on your first crush.  In many ways, it’s a movie that you can identify strongly with as a child, and still look back fondly with as an adult.  And it still makes me laugh 25 years later.  I love the fact that nearly all of the second half of the movie is devoted to a string of comedic set ups as the boys try to retrieve a Babe Ruth autographed ball from a back yard Wile E. Coyote style, trying desperately to outsmart the fearsome guard dog that patrols it.  There’s also a lot of hilarious adult humor snuck in, like Ham’s trash talking behind the plate trying to psyche out the opposing batter.  But, also like a lot of other family oriented comedies made at the time, it’s also a sentimental film, mostly touching upon the coming of age of all the boys in the story.  Most films like this end up turning sappy by the end, but Sandlot manages to balance it all out and it remains a comedy that I can still reflect back on very well and still laugh at the same way that I did when I was younger.

9.

ANIMAL HOUSE (1978)

Directed by John Landis

This is definitely a movie that could never get made today.  Given the #MeToo movement’s widespread influence on the film industry today, a movie like Animal House would have died on the vine long before a single frame of film would have been shot.  So, the fact that the movie exists at all, and is still regarded as a masterpiece of comedy today is something of a miracle.  Is it racist, misogynist, and nihilistic.  Sure, but the entire movie is such a cartoon that it’s hard to make any claim that the filmmakers were at all serious about any of that stuff while they were making it.  The clear goal of director John Landis and writers Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller was to provoke humor through shattering conventional tastes and adding a rebellious sense of fun.  The whole movie is anti-authoritarian, and that’s helps to make the movie feel so fresh all these years later.  A big part of the movie’s success was largely due to the incredibly funny cast, and most especially to the breakout performance of John Belushi.  Belushi had that special ability to get a laugh out of people with just a simple look, something showed off brilliantly like the memorable smile at the camera during the peeping tom scene or the annoyed look he gives right before smashing a guitar on the staircase.  Other moments like the Toga party, the horse in the office prank, and the climatic parade debacle are all still just as funny today as ever.  I’ll say that another reason why I love this movie so much is because it was shot in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, so it always feels like a homecoming for me when I re-watch it.  We Oregonians still hold this comedy up proud (the “Shout” sequence even plays on the jumbo screen during football games) and even if it’s values may not have aged well with the times, it still makes up for it by remaining relentless in it’ s humor.

8.

THE GENERAL (1927)

Directed by Buster Keaton

The silent era was a golden age for slapstick comedy.  Since synchronized sound made it impossible to tell jokes in movies, humor had to be communicated through movement, and this in turn led to some of the greatest visual comedies of all time.  The era sparked the legendary film careers of famous vaudeville comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, as well as of course, Buster Keaton.  Each comic left a profound impact on film in general, sometimes pushing the medium to new heights as they each tried to out do each other with their incredibly complex routines.  And while Chaplin is often considered to be the greatest artist among this class of comedy, I actually find myself more partial to the works of Buster Keaton.  Chaplin had some amazing set pieces to be sure, but Keaton’s films have comedic bits that still boggle the mind over 90 years later.  It can be seen in films like Sherlock Jr. (1924) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), where you wonder how in the world he didn’t kill himself performing the stunts in these movies.  There are so many amazing stunts in his movies, and they help to make his films still incredible to watch today.  But, it’s The General that remains his masterpiece.  This Civil War set comedy finds Keaton working with the most dangerous of moving props, real locamotive trains, and using them for some of his biggest stunts yet.  There is an especially harrowing moment when he sits on the grill of a train and uses a piece of lumber to knock off another piece of lumber off the rail tracks with only seconds to spare.  Had he mistimed that by a second, he would have been dead.  It just shows how far some would go to get a laugh and Keaton went further than most, always putting hmself in harms way to do it.  And it results in comedy that still grabs our attention nearly a century later.  The fact that he also does all this with an unwavering deadpan expression is just another reason why Buster Keaton is one of the greatest comedic minds in history.

7.

HOT FUZZ (2007)

Directed by Edgar Wright

One of the most misused forms of comedy over the years has been the parody.  Though pioneered by the likes of Mel Brooks and the team of Zuckers/Abrahams during the 70’s and 80’s, the subgenre has sadly slid off in recent years and has often been associated with the characterization of lazy comedy.  But one filmmaker has managed to take the parody film and reinvent it into something new that’s all his own.  British filmmaker Edgar Wright doesn’t specifically reference certain movies, but instead pokes fun at the genres themselves.  He spotlights the cliches, and spins them around into hilarious bits that drive some of the biggest laughs in the movie.  Much in the same vein as Mel Brooks, Wright is clearly affectionate towards the things that he mocks, and his movies often work just as well as any of the other movies from the genres that they are poking fun at.  His parody films have formed what has become known as the Cornetto Trilogy, and it includes the Zombie film Shaun of the Dead, the cop thriller Hot Fuzz, and the sci-fi extravaganza The World’s End (2013).  While all of them are comedy classics, I would choose Hot Fuzz as my favorite.  It’s the most consistently funny of the movies, with the most pointed of genre send-ups.  Wright clearly takes inspiration from the hyper-kinetic style of Michael Bay for this film, and using it in the setting of a quaint town in the English countryside just makes it all the funnier.  Comedic partners Simon Pegg and Nick Frost also relish the humor here, acting perfectly in tune with all the crazy antics that unfold in the movie.  The bullet-flying finale is an especially strong highlight as the duo take on many beloved English character actors playing the townsfolk, including a devilish turn by former Bond, Timothy Dalton.  Along with Wright’s flashy editing style, this is modern comedy classic that we desperately needed.

6.

GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)

Directed by Ivan Reitman

High concept comedies are also especially hard to pull of consistently.  Mixing humor into other genres usually doesn’t translate all that well, but when it does, it can create some of the most unique comedies out there.  Fresh out of Saturday Night Live, actor and writer Dan Aykroyd had the idea to create a comedy centered around a pair of ghost hunters as a new vehicle for him and his Blues Brothers partner John Belushi.  But, Belushi’s untimely death in 1982 put the project on hold, until Aykroyd reworked the script with Harold Ramis and expanded the team to include Ramis, Ernie Hudson, and fellow SNL alum Bill Murray into the mix, and what resulted was a monster comedy hit.  What makes the movie work as well as it does is because it manages to blend the comedic styling of it’s cast perfectly with the genuinely scary images produced through some groundbreaking visual effects, making it a perfect genre mash-up.  It is interesting watching the movie and jumping back and forth between riotous laughter and uneasy tension from the scary imagery.  Honestly, it’s that tension that helps to sell the jokes, because of the stark contrast.  One moment that sticks out is the possession scene where Sigourney Weaver’s Dana starts speaking in the guttural voice of the demon Zuul (which is unsettling), and then it is undercut with Bill Murray jokingly complimenting her on a “lovely singing voice.”  You also don’t get much zanier once a destructive god appears in the form of a fluffy marshmallow man.  There was an attempt to repeat the success of this movie with an all-female remake in 2016, which was well-intentioned but poorly executed.  The able cast was undermined by a terrible script that had none of the punchiness of the original.  And that’s really because Ghostbusters was a one of a kind phenomenon that couldn’t be replicated, and it still remains so 30-plus years later.  Even still, these are the one’s who we are going to call.

5.

DR. STRANGELOVE or HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

When comedies come to mind, the last person one would think of as an icon of the genre is Stanley Kubrick.  The 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980) auteur worked mostly in darker territories of cinema, with humor coming through as a rarity in his movies rather than the norm.  And yet, Kubrick is also responsible for a movie that is not only considered one of the funniest movies ever made, but also one of the most important too.  The subject of Kubrick’s one and only comedy could not be more unlikely either; nuclear war and Armageddon.  And yet, he managed to find the inherent comedy within the same situations that could drive humanity towards annihilation, and mines it for some incredibly funny moments.  Mostly it comes down to grown men acting out their frustrations in a child like matter once they feel inadequate or threatened that becomes the catalysts for war in this movie.  A general orders a nuclear strike on Russia after he believes that fluoridation of water has contributed to his impotency in bed; a Russian premier puts his wife on the phone because he feels that the U.S. President hurt his feelings; another general believes nuclear strikes are better than looking weak in front of the enemy, etc.  Some filmmakers would believe that such things are no laughing matter, but Kubrick manages to make it hilarious, mainly through the exceptional cast.  Peter Sellers commands the film with a triple headed performance as the President, a put-upon lieutenant who might save the day, and as the titular Dr. Strangelove, in a truly demented comedic turn.  However, it’s George C. Scott that actually steals the movie in a hilarious over-the-top performance as General Turgidson.  And there has been no better image for the absurdity of war than Slim Pickens riding a nuclear warhead like a bucking bronco, waving his cowboy hat all the way down.  Kubrick may not have been a purely funny guy, but he told one hell of a good joke here; one that still resonates today.

4.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen Brothers are likewise not known as humorists, even though they have produced their fair share of comedies.  Some of their most noteworthy comedies like O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) and Raising Arizona (1987) often include a sense of melancholy underneath the surface, and some of their darker films surprisingly have an unexpected absurdity to them as well, like Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007).  It’s probably just a result of their unique style as filmmakers.  But there is one all out comedy in their filmography and it is easily one of the single funniest movies ever made.  The Big Lebowski was seen as a disappointing follow-up to the critical success of Fargo when it was first released, but over the years it has built a devoted fan base that has made it cult classic.  I for one believe that it is the greatest character driven comedy of all time.  Every single funny bit in this movie is derived from the ridiculous personalities of the main characters and how each of them interact with each other.  It’s a movie of extreme personalities, led most effectively by Jeff Bridges “The Dude”.  Bridges created a true original with this character, and it’s just a delight to watch him stumble his way through an increasingly absurd series of events as the movie unfolds.  Add into the mix John Goodman’s unhinged and hilariously vulgar role as Walter Sobchak and you’ve got one of comedy’s most hilarious duos ever.  I also get a kick out of John Tuturro’s shamelessly zany performance as Jesus (“Eight year olds, Dude.”)  A lot of the humor is also enhanced by the beautiful flourishes brought in by cinematographer Roger Deakins; especially in the iconic dream sequences.  Some of the hardest laughs I’ve ever had in my life watching a movie have been when I watched this, and that’s why it remains one of my favorites.  The Dude abides indeed.

3.

BLAZING SADDLES (1974)

Directed by Mel Brooks

One can’t talk about movie comedies without mentioning the work of Mel Brooks.  The legendary humorist all but invented the parody film and is responsible for many of the most acclaimed comedies of all times.  Though his Oscar-winning work in The Producers is rightly celebrated, as are other classics like Young Frankenstein (1974), High Anxiety (1977), and Spaceballs (1986), I believe the most consistently funny movie in his whole oeuvre is Blazing Saddles.  Much like Kubrick’s Dr. StrangleloveBlazing Saddles stands out so much more as a comedy due to the fact that it’s punches aim so much higher.  In it, Brooks pays ode to the Western classics of Old Hollywood, but he does so with an eye to the racial divisions that those movies would have never even dreamed of addressing.  It was a risky move to make, but Brooks manages to make the presentation work due to the fact that no group is spared; White, Black, Gay, Straight, Man, Woman, everyone is targeted for ridicule in this movie.  And it is hilarious in it’s relentlessness.  It helped that Brooks got assistance from another provocative comedic entertainer, Richard Pryor, who helped give the racial commentary the bite that it needed.  The cast is also uniformly amazing in the film including Cleavon Little as the hot rod sheriff who stirs up the racial division in the quaint town of Rock Ridge.  We also see Gene Wilder at his most restrained playing the Waco Kid, Jim.  Harvey Korman is also perfect as the villainous Hedley Lamarr, as is Madeline Kahn in the Marlene Dietrich spoofing role that earned her an Oscar nod.  Satire, especially when it touches on a subject like race, can be a tricky one to pull off, and Blazing Saddles is one of the greatest examples of it.  It turns Hollywood on it’s head, addresses harsh realities about race in America, and still manages to remain funny as hell all the way through.  That’s why Mel Brooks still stands among the best in his league when it comes to comedy.  It’s also the only issue film you’ll ever see where a horse gets punched in the face.

2.

MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)

Directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam

While I often find myself quoting one or two phrases from many of these comedies in casual conversation on a daily basis (“You’re killing me Smalls.” “That rug really tied the room together.” “Ray’s gone bye-bye Egon”), I would say that the comedy that has gotten the most mileage for me as the most quotable is Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  The legendary group of British comedians perfectly translated their sketch style comedy to the big screen with this off-kilter take on Arthurian legends.  And the one liners are too numerous to list.  How many times have any of us gotten a cut on our body and jokingly quipped “Tis but a scratch,” in response?  Or have had the absolute urge to shout the word “Ni” for no reason.  Some of us have even gone further and have memorized the full passage from the Book or Armaments describing in prayer how to use the Holy Hand Grenade.  But apart from it’s endlessly quotable script, Holy Grail is just a rollicking hilarious film to watch.  It is Silly with a capital “S”, and perfect utilizes the nonsensical sense of humor that Monty Python was notable for.  Whether it’s smashing coconut shells together in place of riding on horseback, John Cleese’s Sir Lancelot slaughtering his way through a wedding party, a Black Knight refusing to loose a battle even as his limbs are chopped off, or King Arthur’s troop getting defeated by a bloodthirsty bunny rabbit, this is one endlessly hilarious ride of movie.  No matter how many times I’ve watched this movie, it has never failed to get a strong laugh out of me.  Even when I watch it with an audience, I can’t help but repeat some of the lines back at the movie, which doesn’t become a problem, because most of the audiences I’ve seen it with were doing just the same.  Both as a comedy and as an experience, there is hardly anything else like Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

1.

GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)

Directed by Harold Ramis

This may not be the most consistently funny movie on this list, nor the one that I quote the most or laugh at the most.  But, Groundhog Day is my favorite comedy of all time simply because of the fact that it’s also one of my favorite movies of all time, period.  Groundhog Day appeals to the part of me that wants to experience a movie that works on so many more levels than just by how funny it is.  It is a very layered movie, delivering a dizzyingly cerebral concept of a man living the same day over and over again.  This is the kind of thing that you would find in an episode of the Twilight Zone (which I think it might have been at some point), but here it becomes a hilarious set up for the comedic talents of Bill Murray.  Murray gives the best performance of his career as a man who evolves through his desperate attempt to escape the same repeating 24 hours of his life.  It’s an existential experience that makes the viewer also take consideration as to how they live their own lives, and that’s something that you rarely seen coming through in a comedy.  Like many of the other films on this list, this movie was guided by the irreplaceable comedic genius of Harold Ramis, who was never better behind the directors chair, as well as showing off his range as a comedic writer.  The movie evokes a bygone era of Capra-esque comedies from the 30’s and 40’s and transposes it perfectly into the modern day without loosing a bit of the charm.  It’s a very non-cynical film, which is something rare in comedies today, and I wish that more movies were like this one.  I went further into length about this movie in my retrospective here, but I just want to point out how brilliantly Ramis executed the concept of this comedy into the film-making, making every repeated action work to the advantage of the comedy and never once letting it grow weary and stale.  I love this movie deeply, and it easily earns it’s place as my favorite comedy ever.

So, most likely my list of comedies will probably differ greatly from everyone else’s.  Comedy is subjective and people have their own tastes, which often ranges to varying degrees.  But, more than likely, the top names in comedy will be similar on most people’s lists.  The names of Mel Brooks, Harold Ramis, Edgar Wright, and the Coen Brothers probably show up very frequently when discussing the Kings of Comedy when it comes to the movies.  And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in calling The Big Lebowski and Monty Python and the Holy Grail as one of the greatest comedies ever made, as both have their rabid fan-bases that have grown into the millions over the years.  Mostly, when I consider what stands out as the comedies that left the biggest impact on me, I look at more than just how much they made me laugh.  I grew up with movies like Ghostbusters and The Sandlot, which went a long way towards informing my tastes in comedy.  And as I became more literate in the art of cinema, I discovered more about the amazing work that went into creating comedies like Dr. Strangelove and The General; comedies made well before my time.  Times and attitudes may change, and stuff that may have been hilarious 10 years ago might seem quaint or inappropriate today.  But, if your comedy can withstand the rigors of time and still make people laugh the same way so many years later, that’s when you know that you’ve made not just a great comedy but also a great film.  I hope that spotlighting some of these has helped a few of you see how important it is to have a good laugh at the movies.  Especially in trying times like the ones we live in now, humor is not only needed, but essential.  Humor is the best medicine after all.

The Price of Admission – The Boom and Bust of MoviePass and Bringing People Back to the Cinema

Ever since the first roll of celluloid ran through the mechanisms of the first projector, the medium of film has always been for the purpose of drawing an audience.  And with the advent of cinema, a new industry built up to serve the needs of accommodating those audiences.  Concert Halls and Opera Houses gave way to the movie palaces of early Hollywood, and then later expanded into the local neighborhood multiplex capable of screening multiple movies to thousands of people per day.  The movie theater is almost as synonymous with the identity of Hollywood as the studio lot itself.  It’s no mistake that Hollywood’s most visited landmarks are both the Hollywood sign and the Chinese Theater.  And yet, movie theaters have always had to struggle to compete with newer ways to consume media.  First it was television, which brought the experience of watching a movie into the living room.  Then came home video, which gave the viewer the choice of watching a movie on their own time.  Now, streaming services have become the biggest threat to the well being of the movie theater industry, as on demand media allows the viewer to take movies on the go and watch from pretty much everywhere.  Not only that, but streaming channels like Netflix and Amazon are actively trying to compete with major studios for exclusive content, taking even blockbuster level entertainment away from cinemas and puting them on their platforms.  But, if there is one constant with the movie theater industry over the years, it’s their continued efforts to adapt to new challenges as they compete for audience attention.  Some theaters adapt better than others, but the ones that do make the most effort to change are also the most innovative and create some of the most long-lasting changes in the way we watch the movies.

Having worked in the movie theater business myself for 4 1/2 years while I was attending college, I witnessed some of those changes take hold and become the new standards in the industry.  Probably the biggest one I witnessed was the conversion to digital projection.  When I started, all our movies still ran on celluloid on every screen, until one day we received our first digital projector.  This allowed us to screen movies for the first time in 3D, which became a big draw for our little theater for a while.  Around the time that Avatar (2009) roared into theaters, the necessity for digital projection became paramount and eventually every projector in the theater was replaced with the digital model.  The 3D craze died down in the decade since, but digital projection was here to stay, and this is an evolution that wouldn’t have happened had the market not shifted so quickly.  3D and digital projection are only some of the many innovations that have come out of competition with other media platforms; others include Widescreen, Drive-In, surround sound, IMAX, and even reclining chairs.  Some chains of theaters even draw inspiration from their competitors, like how the Alamo Drafthouse chain in Texas has brought the concept of Dine-In theaters to public attention, something that you see available in other places now through some of the larger theater chains.  While all these innovations help to make the movie going experience more special, they also come at a higher price, and sometimes they aren’t enough to pull their audience away from the comforts of their own home for very long.  The sad truth is that movie theaters are constantly in an uphill battle to prove their worth in a time where convenience dictates peoples attention.  So, after trying so many ways to make the experience of watching a movie more worthy of the price of a ticket, theaters are looking for a different kind of innovation today; one that affects the way we buy tickets in the first place.

Drawing inspiration from it’s current competitors (Netflix and Amazon), the movie theater business is trying a new tactic to bring people back to the cinema; a subscription plan.  Just like how Netflix allows for unlimited streaming of their content for a low monthly fee, movie theaters are now considering doing the same, which would greatly alter the way ticket pricing is done within the industry.  Enter the innovators behind this concept; the MoviePass subscription service.  Launched in 2011, MoviePass gave subscribers the opportunity to select one movie a week to watch for the low fee of $10 a month.  Now the average movie goer usually watches one or two movies a month, so for anyone (like me) who watches more than that each month, this was an incredible deal.  Each member would get their own debit card which would be pre-loaded with the value of the ticket once it was selected through the online app, and then that member would use the card to pick up their ticket at the box office, basically seeing the movie on the MoviePass company’s dime just as long as they kept paying their fee each month.  For the cinephiles, this was a dream come true, because now they could watch as much as they wanted without breaking the bank.  There was resistance from major chains like AMC and Regal, who believed that the business model for this was unsustainable and reckless; and yet they themselves are now trying their own subscription based services in response.  Regardless of the skepticism that MoviePass has faced over it’s business model, there is no question that they are having an effect.  2018’s box office is already the highest in history, and that includes a significant boost in ticket sales as well; not just with prices.  People are going to the movie theaters again, and this may be due to the MoviePass influence.  In just a short amount of time, this service has already moved the industry in a new direction.  There is only one problem, though; they might live long enough to see the lasting effect of their influence.

As of this writing, MoviePass is in dire economic straits as their business model is starting to prove to be unsustainable as many people feared.  According to Deadline Hollywood in May 2018, the company only had enough funds to remain solvent for the next three months, which means a moment of reckoning is coming in the next couple weeks as the deadline nears.  Primary among all the concerns is the fact that MoviePass’ low subscription fee didn’t justify the amount of money spent on the access the membership allowed.  People who used the service were watching more, but they weren’t spending more.  Theater chains and movie studios have always taken a percentage off of the price of a ticket, with studios collecting the majority share and theaters balancing their take with profits off of concession purchases.  MoviePass would get an even smaller percentage off of those numbers, and yet their profits remained low or non-existent because they were giving such a bargain out to their subscribers.  Now, it’s not unusual that a company builds itself up through accruing debt in it’s early days.  Netflix is still running up high debt as they cobble up expensive content for their service, and that has made their brand more valuable over time as their service becomes more desired for newer subscribers who wants to see their many exclusives.  MoviePass, despite an astounding rise in subscribers over the last couple years, still isn’t seeing enough growth to justify the spending that they are putting into their service, and as a result, they are now hemorrhaging funds.  Their parent company, Helios & Matheson Analytics was hit with a massive trade-off in March of this year, which saw their stock freefall and the value of MoviePass dwindle down to cents on the dollar.  As a result, MoviePass was forced to change their subscription plans, which irked long time members, especially when they attempted to make the changes stealthily.  Now, MoviePass not only has lost confidence with investors, but also with it’s once faithful member base, and this has left it in the most dire of straits.

MoviePass may not survive to the end of this year, but it’s impact will still leave a mark on the industry as a whole.  As stated earlier, AMC and Regal are already trying out their own services based on the MoviePass model, with payment plans that probably will be more sustainable in the long run.  MoviePass, for all it’s faults, did address something very important that was affecting the industry as a whole, which was the often out of control movie ticket prices.  This is an industry wide issue that extends beyond the movie theaters and goes all the way to Hollywood itself.  One thing that has become a problem for the industry over the years has been the ballooning costs of movie productions.  Whether it’s to finance the enormous salaries of the all star casts, or to pay for costly visual effects, or to “fix” problems found in post-production with re-shoots, movies have become far more expensive to make, and that cost translates into more premium ticket prices as they studios try to offset the damage to their bottom line.  As a result, we’ve significant decline over the years in the number of tickets sold.  Sure, box office numbers remain high, but when adjusted to inflation, you’ll see that movies today are attracting fewer viewers today than films released decades ago.  The types of movies that make money today are also representing a narrower field, typically falling into the action adventure or horror genres.  And that’s because people today will only go out to the movie theater if the film looks worthy enough of the high ticket price.  This changed very much with MoviePass’ help, as more people were willing to go to the movie theater to see any type of movie; something that was especially beneficial to the alternative independent film market.  It still hasn’t addressed the bigger problem of out of control movie production costs, but the fact that the less typical films are bringing people to the movie theaters as the ticket price factor has been eliminated  is something that is becoming a good overall change in the industry.

The industry as a whole needs to reevaluate the way it produces media for mass consumption.  Typically the bigger the movie is, the more likely it’s supposed to draw an audience, but this has not always been the case.  Huge box office flops like Speed Racer (2008), The Lone Ranger (2013), and last year’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) prove that no amount of money you throw at a film is going to save it from failure.  But, the industry has been slow to follow trends, and many movies often come out too late to leave an impact as a result.  You only get a tiny sliver of time to become a hit at the box office.  Many classics that we revere today in fact found their audience afterwards on home video, like The Big Lebowski (1998) and The Iron Giant (1999), which shows that trying too hard to push a movie into success in the movie theaters is also not a cost-effective measure either.  The often less factored in aspect of the industry that also bleeds studios dry is the marketing of these movies.  Marketing budgets often can exceed the cost of the movie itself, especially when the studio knows that it has a bomb on their hands, and this makes it even more damaging when the marketing fails to bring the audience to the movie theater.  With a different pricing structure in place, like what MoviePass brought, people’s decisions on what they want to see can in effect change the way these movies are marketed too; perhaps in a way that may help the studio save some money.  One thing that would help is to consider balancing out what ends up in the theater with more modestly budgeted movies.  The kind of movies that wouldn’t have been cost effective before could see new life with a subscription based planso that the viewer doesn’t feel bad about wasting money on catching a movie first in the theater, instead of waiting for it to show up on TV.  Instead of trying to convince people that every movie is a “must see,” it might work better in the long run to present a “check this out” method of selling their movies.

What works so well for services like Netflix is the fact that they’ve made their service itself a must see destination.  Upon the viewing of every movie their audience wishes to see, they also offer up a dozen suggestions for something else, based on an algorithm designed into their database that analyzes our viewing patterns.  This kind of servicing could be valuable to a movie theater service like the one MoviePass runs, because it goes much further than what the regular trailer or teaser poster in the lobby can do to generate hype for each movie.  When a person uses a subscription service that takes the pain out of buying multiple tickets each week, they are more inclined to learn about what else is available to see.  That’s when suggestions similar to Netflix’s can be helpful in attracting people’s attentions to movies they otherwise would have skipped.  Movie theaters in general can target more directly to each viewer, and this isn’t just limited to other movies available.  Loyalty programs can allow them to save a little on concession snack that they otherwise would have skipped out on, which would greatly help the theaters make up the extra cost of running the subscription plan.  Netflix’s success comes out of the fact that they’ve figured out the best way to bring in new subscribers, and that has enabled them to spend so much on exclusive content, without spending too much extra on costly promotion.  In a market where theaters are competing with a service that is proving more cost effective in reaching an audience without the need of heavy marketing, this is absolutely the desired direction that they must go in order to remain relevant.  It may be too much of a bargain to make sense right away, but as membership increases and loyalty programs become more generous and effective, you’ll see a whole new life brought into this aging industry.

If anything, MoviePass could stand out through history as a trendsetter rather than an industry standard.  Most likely it will remain a cautionary tale of how not to grow a business, but even still, it’s legacy will be felt for years to come.  Already, it is beginning to create an effect on out-of-control ticket pricing and making Hollywood reevaluate how much they should spend on each film.  Is it something that is going to become an industry standard?  That we don’t know yet, but it will become an alternative that will in some way change how we go to the movies.  And in the end, this is something that reflects the long standing tradition of the movie theater industry working against the current with regards to appealing to audiences taste.  For a lot of people, it seems undesirable to leave their homes and fork over $15 to watch a mediocre movie in a room full of strangers; even worse if those strangers are also loud and obnoxious.  If a low monthly fee is all that it takes to get that same person to consider seeing one movie or more a month despite all that, then this is a service that will greatly help the movie theater survive in the long run.  MoviePass tried their best to make it work independently, but this will ultimately be something that the theater chains themselves will carry through into the future.  Sure, a lot of MoviePass’ problems arose from a poorly planned out business structure, and also the way it alienated itself from movie theaters who did business with them and subscribers who were unhappy with the unannounced price hikes, but the concept behind their service is something that movies need right now.  We needed something to balance the out of control costs that were starting to damage both the movie studios and the film industry, and while MoviePass was not a fix all solution, it nevertheless made the industry as a whole take note and begin to reevaluate.  So, in a couple of weeks, we will know if MoviePass subscribers will still be able to enjoy the same benefits as before, or if they’ll have to sign up for something new, or go back to watching movies at home like they used to do more often.  In any respect, I would love to see MoviePass or something like it become more of a standard within the industry, because it’s bringing people back to cinemas as a whole, and as a fan of the movie-going experience, I see this as a great thing for the future of movies.

Ant-Man and the Wasp – Review

Expectations are running high for Marvel Studios right now.  Even after ten years in the game, they have remarkably hit a new level of success just this year, with Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War both breaking every conceivable record in the books at the box office.  And with that box office success comes the added pressure to follow up each film with something even bigger than the last.  This hasn’t always panned out completely, with many of the Phase 2 films in the MCU struggling to match expectations, but in Phase 3, it has certainly been the case.  And this has been partly due to a different strategy on Marvel’s part, which is to try out different flavors with each new film they make.  The result has been a wonderful mix of movies that take place within the same universe, but feel uniquely characterized by the stories they tell and the heroes they focus on.  They also have helped Marvel branch out into different genres that are perfectly matched for each character, and help to add to the different flavors that characterize the MCU.  Captain America’s movies have taken on the flavor of political conspiracy thrillers; Thor’s have fully embraced their campiness and are now fully in tune with 80’s era fantasy epics; Doctor Strange has brought in a Matrix –like cerebral flavor to the universe; and Spider-Man even managed to fit in a bright high school comedy in the style of John Hughes into the mix.  Overall, every character gets their own distinct style of movie to tell their story, and it helps their own separate franchises breathe on their own, un-tethered to each other.  Even the big crossovers like the Avengers movies feel like their own series apart from the rest, taking on a colossal epic feel on their own.  But in this particular year, after Black Panther delivered some sobering political messages to it’s audience and Infinity War left us with a bleak cliffhanger that shook our senses, the one thing Marvel needs to give us now is a light, silly comedy.  Enter Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Ant-Man as a movie perhaps has had the most interesting backstory of all the films Marvel has made.  It was in development for years under the direction of Edgar Wright, who was an avowed fan of the comic book character.  But, Wright’s distinctive style clashed too heavily with the very stringent standards that Marvel Studios was imposing on their filmmakers as they were building up their universe, and Marvel’s Creative Director Kevin Feige had to make the difficult choice to take Edgar off his dream project.  Ironically, Edgar Wright’s style might have gone through better in Phase 3, where Marvel has been more welcoming to unique voices.  So, after Wright’s departure, the remainder of the film had to be completed with Peyton Reed in the director’s chair, with Ant-Man himself, Paul Rudd, and his writing partner Adam McKay making further adjustments to Wright’s script.  With all this compromising and sudden shift in vision behind the movie, it was thought at the time that this was going to be Marvel’s first stumbling block as well as their first flop.  But surprisingly, that not what happened at all.  Though the movie did feel disjointed due to it’s troubled production, it nevertheless managed to stick the landing and work as a passable entry in the MCU.  It also found an audience and continued Marvel’s winning streak.  The main reason the film succeeded was largely due to the ideal casting of Paul Rudd as the titular character.  His charming performance captured the humor and charisma needed for the part, and it made him an instant favorite in the MCU, which was a blessing for Marvel since needed him to be a worthy addition to their world before he made another appearance in Captain America: Civil War (2016).  The other positive of the movie’s success was that it granted Ant-Man a sequel, one that this time could be unburdened by production woes.  The only question is, did fewer problems translate into a better movie overall?

Ant-Man and the Wasp takes place in the months after the events of Civil War, where Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is confined to house arrest due to his illegal partnership with Team Captain America in violation of the Sakovia Accords.  Because of their affiliation with Scott, both Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are on the lamb, conducting their experiments in secrecy.  But, during one of Scott’s uneventful days at home, he receives a strange vision, where he imagines himself in the body of Hope’s long lost mother, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was known herself as another size-changing superhero known as the Wasp.  Scott reaches out to his estranged colleagues, who manage to sneak him out of his house arrest in order to learn more about his vision.  They believe that Janet is sending a message to them through Scott because he managed to escape from the sub-atomic quantum realm, where Janet has been stuck for the last 30 years.  They have been attempting to build a bridge into the quantum realm within their secret lab, but still lack the necessary parts needed to complete the project, so they enlist Scott’s help to get what they need.  They encounter a local mob boss named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who has the equipment they need, and Hope manages to subdue his henchmen thanks to her new abilities as the new Wasp.  However, their success is short-lived as the equipment is stolen by a mysterious assailant with molecular-phasing powers known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen).  To get back what she stole from them, the team must seek help from another estranged former colleague of Hank’s, Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne).  But even with all the help they can get, including from Scott’s loyal friend and associate Luis (Michael Pena), Ghost proves to be a tougher adversary than they thought.  Is it possible for them to finish their bridge, or is the original Wasp forever left to be a prisoner within the Quantum Realm.

The one thing that will be apparent when watching this film is that it is far more tightly scripted this time around.  After the production woes of the original Ant-Man, Marvel this time had the benefit of being able to know where they are going with this franchise and commit to one style of story-telling.  You definitely don’t get the feeling that it’s two movies smashed together into one this time around.  But, the question remains is it a better movie than the original?  Sort of.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the original Ant-Man, but I didn’t hate it either.  It was a perfectly competent film on it’s own.  But, because this is Marvel, the bar has been set pretty high and Ant-Man just clearing that bar sadly makes it one of the lesser movies in the MCU overall.  With the help of a better focused production, Ant-Man and the Wasp does work a bit better, but it’s not without it’s faults too.  The unfortunate thing is that it follows in the footsteps of Infinity War, which makes this lighter comedic film feel, for lack a better term, small by comparison.  It’s not a huge step backward, but I feel that Ant-Man just pales in comparison coming so soon after Infinity War has shaken the world.  Even when put up against Black Panther, it kind of lacks something, because it feels like a retreat back to the safe and predictable that characterized much of Marvel’s Phase 2, and not the game-changer that Panther proved to be.  That being said, I was not left unfulfilled watching this movie either.  Set apart from it’s place in the MCU, this would easily be one of the most entertaining super hero movies we’ve seen in recent years.  It’s consistently funny and never boring, and even has some genuine touching moments as well.  From a pure experience point, it’s a mixed bag, but one that doesn’t spoil the entire universe that it an essential part of.

The greatest asset that the movie has is the strength of it’s humor, which is carried a long way by it’s charming cast.  Paul Rudd especially continues to carry much of the weight of this franchise and remains the main reason to watch the film.  He once again proves why he was the perfect choice for the role, with enviable comedic timing and endless charm.  You get a sense that he has fun as this character while playing him on screen, and the movie uses this as a benefit.  His performance is also balanced well with a fine supporting cast.  Michael Douglas continues to be a lovable curmudgeon as Hank Pym, whose sternness is wonderfully balanced off of Rudd’s quirks.  Evangeline Lilly especially benefits from her expanded role in this movie, taking on the Wasp persona effectively and giving her a deserved place among the ever growing roster of Marvel’s big screen superheroes.  What I also enjoy is the wonderful chemistry that each of them have together, helping us to believe that they really are a family unit in addition to being a crime fighting team.  Also, despite a very minor role in the movie as a whole, Michelle Pfeiffer makes the most of her time, imbuing Janet Van Dyne with a fine sense of grace that makes her a welcome addition to this series.  I also love the fact that a year after Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) managed to bring a former Batman into the MCU, this time as the villainous Vulture, we now have a Catwoman crossing over as well.  The one weak point in the movie’s cast is the lack of a strong antagonist, which I fault more with the lack of a strong rogues gallery for the character of Ant-Man in general than the faults of the cast here.  Ghost, while still an interesting character overall, is not enough of a threat to drive the story into epic territory.  And though Walton Goggins’ performance as the mob boss fits within the silliness of the overall experience, his character is also sadly one-dimensional.  Even still, the cast helps to make the movie an overall enjoyable experience.

One thing that I will say is definitely improved upon from the first film is the staging of the action sequences.  The first movie, while still innovative in it’s execution of the size changing gimmick as a part of the action set-pieces, still had an unfortunate lack of overall effectiveness as they usually all felt the same.  Here, much more creativity was put into the uses of the size-changing gimmick, as a whole variety of options are put to use this time.  We have the neat idea of small everyday objects like a salt shaker and Pez dispensers being turned into weapons once grown to immense size utilized throughout the movie, as well as a fun little wild card of Scott having to deal with a malfunctioning suit, which either makes him grow to the size of a room or shrink to the size of a toddler at random moments.  All this helps to make the action sequences feel fresh and unpredictable.  The movie especially hits a high point once it introduces the concept of a size-changing car chase to the mix.  Thanks to the ability to shrink their vehicle and all the passengers within, Team Ant-Man has an incredible mode of transportation that makes this a car chase like nothing you’ve seen before.  I especially love the new spin it puts on flipping a car on it’s side.  Also, thanks to the movie’s San Francisco setting, it draws comparisons to other chase sequences from movies like Bullit (1968) and What’s Up Doc? (1972), honoring the legacy of those scenes.  Hot Wheels fans will also appreciate how well that brand is incorporated into the movie.  This is where the movie really finds it’s character over the first movie and helps to turn it’s unique gimmick into something that can continually surprise and entertain it’s audience.  And in addition, it shows more clearly that this franchise has found an angle that makes it feel unlike anything else in the MCU.

One of the things that was a sticking point for Edgar Wright when he was in the middle of producing his version of the original movie was the way that Marvel was trying to force world-building elements into every one of their films.  The biggest problem with that was how it would sometimes add unnecessary padding into otherwise tightly scripted stories.  This became clear when Wright was forced to add a scene where Ant-Man breaks into the Avengers compound halfway through the movie, leading to an encounter with Anthony Mackie’s Falcon.  This is where the friction started that ultimately led to Wright’s departure, and it’s clear in the original movie that Marvel was perhaps trying too hard to connect the universe together in each film, something that was improved upon in latter movies. The sequel, apart from a brief reference to the events of Civil War, doesn’t attempt to force any other connection to the rest of the MCU in this movie, which in turn helps it to breathe a little easier and carve out it’s own identity.  At the same time, it does work in concepts from the comics that will play a larger role in the MCU later, but does so in a way where you’re not being made aware that it’s setting future events up and in turn feels solely like a it’s a part of this one story.  This is particularly the case with the Quantum Realm which the characters are trying to reach.  In the comics, the subatomic Quantum Realm is a source for many powers in the MCU, and is visited by the likes of Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel, who we have yet to meet but is coming soon.  The movie could have gone into length detailing the true meaning of this realm for the audience, but it wisely instead focuses on it as a destination where they must go, find the original Wasp, and return home safely from; and that’s it.  It’s nice to see that Marvel has learned it’s lesson and focused on what is more essential for the stories rather than what’s essential for their universe.  In time, we will learn the finer details, but in the meantime, we can enjoy the journeys that each character takes, which in the end is far more fun.  Marvel has a rich universe to draw from, but it’s good to see now that they realize we don’t have to be spoiled all at once by seeing every part of it piled up on top of one another.  We have the Avengers movies to do that, and Ant-Man is the fulfilling snack between meals.

Ant-Man and the Wasp, as a sequel to it’s own predecessor, is definitely an improvement, but at the same time, it still falls into the category of the lesser Marvel films.  That’s a downside of Marvel’s unparalleled success, that even charming little diversions won’t come anywhere close to the top of what they’ve accomplished up to now.  Even still, I am happy that the movie still exists within this universe.  This time around, the filmmakers have really figured out what an Ant-Man movie should look and feel like.  I’ve heard this movie be described as a much needed palette cleanser after the shocking cliffhanger ending of Infinity War, and that’s a fair take to have.  These movies are definitely Marvel at it’s silliest, not afraid to wear the dumb aspects of the genre as a whole with a sense of pride and find clever ways to poke fun at it all.  I especially appreciate the fact that we are no longer at a point where Marvel has to keep reminding us that this is a shared universe that these characters exist within.  Ant-Man gets his own story to tell, without having to ride the coattails of Captain America, Iron Man, or the other Avengers.  It’s also creatively more freeing to filmmakers who want to give their own spin on these different story-lines without having to shoehorn in references to other films.  That’s why Marvel’s Phase 3 has been a huge success thanks to unique voices like Taika Watiti and Ryan Coogler being brought into the mix.  Sadly, the timing was just not ideal for Edgar Wright, and my hope is that someday he might find a return to the MCU and be able to bring his voice to the mix.  Even still, despite not feeling like Marvel firing on all cylinders, Ant-Man and the Wasp is still a fine sequel that improves upon a lot of it’s predecessor’s problems.  It still features a charming and funny hero at it’s center and gives a new budding hero her long overdue debut.  Despite feeling small in Marvel’s universe, this is still big entertainment in an already stacked summer of blockbuster movies.

Rating: 7.5/10

What the Hell Was That? – The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

When Hollywood finds a blockbuster that exceeds their wildest expectations, they often try to find ways to extend it’s popularity way beyond it’s intended life span.  This often involves sequelizing the movie, whether it lends itself to a sequel or not, and usually involves a great deal promotional exposure in order to make sure that it continues to stay in the public consciousness.  Sometimes Hollywood does stumble on something that not only lives beyond one film, but can remarkably sustain continued new installments towards a series that lasts for decades.  You look at how Star Wars has evolved from a single film, to a trilogy, to a collection of trilogies, to an entire cinematic universe to see just how well an experiment in franchising can work if the movie in question opens itself up to such a thing.  An even more remarkable example can be found with the Planet of the Apes films, which based off the original 1968 film you would never even think would have had legs strong enough to expand into the new millennium.  Yet, here we have a new set of Apes films in recent years that are not only critically acclaimed, but are also breaking new ground in terms of visual effects, not to mention sharing the original film’s sharp social and political allegories within it’s narrative.  But, the same cannot be true for all franchises, and sometimes it becomes disheartening when you see a beloved film be followed up with a sequel that squanders the potential that the first movie so perfectly laid out for it.  Recent examples of this include Kingsmen: The Golden Circle (2017) and Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), which were both pale imitations of their predecessors.  But, if you are looking for a movie that perfectly personifies the idea of wasting something good in the rush to capitalize on a sequel, then you can look no further than the sequel to Jurassic Park (1993): the horribly mismanaged The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997).  It’s not only a terrible sequel to a beloved classic, but in my own opinion, it’s also one of the worst movies ever made.

That may seem like harsh words for what is essentially a harmless sequel to a blockbuster movie, but for me personally, it was one of the worst cinematic experiences that I have ever had.  Personal influences certainly shape my perception of the movie, I will be honest, but they do point out an element of the movie that I really detest.  And that element is, that it is a movie without a soul.  Now, you’re probably wondering how can a movie have a soul?  It’s a product and not a being.  Of course, when I say something has a soul, what I really mean is that it has a sense of character and identity to it; that it reflects back a sense of life that makes the 2 hours we witness watching it unfold worth the time.  Most good films have this about them.  Even most bad movies have a soul, because there are many cases where bad films stand out because of all their faults.  But The Lost World has nothing.  It’s just pieces of a movie awkwardly stitched together to give the impression of a film, but where nothing feels authentic.  When a film lacks a soul, then it stops being a movie and just becomes a product; something that was made out of obligation and not through genuine love.  I guess you can say that about most bad sequels, but it stun a lot more because this was how Hollywood tried to answer something magical like Jurassic Park.  Even more disheartening was the fact that it involved many of the same people, including writer Michael Crichton and director Steven Spielberg; two enormously creative people who should’ve taken the opportunity to build upon their past achievements to make something even more amazing.  If they didn’t have their heart in it, then why should they have even bothered trying.

One has to understand the absolute importance that Jurassic Park has as a part of cinematic history.  While mostly a typical Hollywood action thriller, the movie was still ground-breaking in it’s use of CGI technology to bring dinosaurs to life on the big screen.  Those early computer models remarkably hold up 25 years later, but that’s not the thing that makes the movie as beloved as it still is today.  Jurassic Park is also a perfect example of a movie with a definitive soul to it.  We remember the characters, the moments, the sense of thrill that we had watching it for the first time.  We quote the movie constantly, from Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm delivering sly quips, to Wayne Knight’s Nedry’s sarcastic put downs.  It’s a movie where even minor characters stand out and are remembered with fondness, like Samuel L. Jackson’s briefly seen technician, Arnold.  But, what really defines the soul of the movie is the way that it pulls us in as a viewer.  For instance, how does Steven Spielberg encapsulate the sheer magnificence of viewing a living dinosaur on screen.  He plays it off of the reactions of his actors first, then does a sweeping upward shot to capture the scale of the dinosaur that the characters are looking at.  Then, with an assist from John Williams’ brilliant musical score, we have a perfect introduction of the core concept of the film; dinosaurs live among us.  That is how a movie finds it’s soul; with cinematic language driving the glory of the moment, without words or character motives driving the scene.  From that moment on, the audience is on board for every plot point from then on, and are even intrigued by the philosophical discussions that this moment inspires thereafter. Jurassic Park plays by the Hollywood rules of plot and character for typical blockbusters, but Spielberg knew that all of this had to mean something as well, so he made his best effort to not only make the movie look good, but to have it resonate as well.  And thus, with his keen sense of cinematic story-telling, we get a blockbuster that is more than just a product; it also has a beating heart.

So, where did that all go when The Lost World came around?  Obviously not into the sequel.  When looking at what’s wrong with The Lost World, you have to take into consideration that Hollywood likes to break down each film it makes and tries to perform an autopsy on each to see what individually made it work or made it fail.  From this, they create what they essentially see as a blueprint on how to make a good movie.  If this particular moment worked so well in this movie, then we should do even more of it in this new movie, and so on.  So, essentially, you have a film that is assembled to mimic everything that was good about the original movie in order to repeat it’s success.  There’s only one problem; it almost never works out that way.  The Lost World feels so lifeless for one main reason; it’s too polished.  One has to remember, Jurassic Park is not a flawless movie.  It can be a tad cheesy at times, it falls prey to a lot of plot conveniences, and there are plot holes wide enough to drive a truck through (how exactly did the T-Rex get into the building without anybody noticing, or hearing?)  But, the movie almost embraces those things as a part of the whole experience, whether intentional or not, and it’s become part of the whole mystique of the movie itself years later.  By analyzing the flaws of the movie and trying to remove those imperfections, the filmmakers made something that was more refined, but lacked all character.  Maybe when Spielberg was developing this sequel, he thought that it was going to be easier now that he knew what he was doing this second time around, but as this movie shows, maybe it’s better when he doesn’t work with a strong sense of confidence.  One particular example I would point out is the way it uses familiar call backs to the first film.  Like the first Jurassic Park, there’s your epic introduction to the dinosaurs peacefully existing, as well as another scene involving a vehicle dangling off a ledge after an encounter with a Tyrannosaurus.  The Lost World seems to think that each moment needs to one up the original, so one scene involves a pack of Stegosauruses crossing a stream, while the other involves an even bigger truck attacked by not one but two T-Rex’s.  In each case, they both pale in comparison to the original, because they lack the intimacy and the novelty of what came before.  In other words, the less is more approach of Jurassic Park was more effective.

One of the most glaring things to note about what makes The Lost World so much worse as a movie sequel, is the fact that it completely tosses aside the logic that the original film established for itself.  Like any other science fiction, Jurassic Park is given some leeway to bend reality for the sake of narrative purposes.  But, for the most part, it is a scientifically grounded film, mainly due to the long history of writer Michael Crichton’s own work in the field of science.  Sure, science hasn’t been able to create dinosaurs out of genetic cloning yet, but the movie does a fine enough job laying out the real science behind the research in order to make it feel at least plausible.  And one thing that it does get right most of the time is how the dinosaurs would’ve actually behaved.  You have characters like Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant, Bob Peck’s Muldoon, and young Joseph Mazzello’s Tim to tell you all the real facts about dinosaurs you need along the way so that when we actually see it happen in the movie, it makes perfect logical sense.  The tidbit about how fast a Tyrannosaurus can run makes the scene where it chases down a Jeep at night all the more intense.  But, The Lost World seems more concerned about dramatic tension than giving us context, and changing the rules just to make a scene look better does not do the movie any favors.  For example, there is a point in the movie where a campsite is attacked suddenly by a T-Rex and the campers flee and somehow most of them make it out alive running on foot.  It’s like Spielberg completely forgot that this same creature was able to keep up with a Jeep driving at full speed, and now is barely able to catch up to the foot-speed of human beings.  If there was an explanation that the dinosaur was hobbled then maybe this discrepancy would have made sense, but there isn’t.  The movie just flips the logic for convenience.  And this is only one example.  The first film at least tried to make sense; this one just doesn’t care.  And that lack of care is what plagues the experience of watching it.

The distinct lack of personality this time around is also something baffling about the movie.  I know that it’s a bit unfair to use the original constantly as a reference point, but considering the fact that this movie is trying way to hard to copy it in every way makes it almost unavoidable.  And the one thing you’ll notice as a fault with the sequel is that every character doesn’t work at all in this story.  Like I said before, there original movie had top to bottom memorable characters.  They may not have been original or even always likable, but they stood out.  Here, everyone feels generic, even if they are returning from the first movie.  Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm is a prime example.  In the first movie, he was the wild card character who often was hilariously callous and a little nutty.  He was comic relief in an otherwise ensemble cast that also included dinosaurs as featured characters.  Here, he’s the primary protagonist, which is a role this type of character does not work well in.  And you’ll notice very quickly that the character is way out of his element and nowhere near as entertaining this time around.  The boredom on Goldblum’s face throughout the movie is noticeable.  In addition, the movie makes little effort to create new characters with any personality and instead just tries to fill each role with a generic archetype that’s a retread of what was there before.  Julianne Moore is wasted as Goldblum’s scientifically driven girlfriend, who basically serves that function and nothing more.  Vince Vaughn is your stereotypical hotshot soldier for hire.  And the movie gives Dr. Malcolm a mixed race daughter who is clearly just there to fill some diversity quota that the movie feels it needs to accomplish.  Diversity is admirable, but only when the character has a personality and a purpose in the story, which this character does not.  And she stops a Raptor attack in the most ridiculous way possible; through her training in gymnastics (What!?).  I imagine either Spielberg or some other producer had a child also going through gymnastics at the time and felt compelled to include it in the movie, even if it makes no sense.  Only the late Pete Postlewaithe’s character, the hard-edged dino hunter, feels anything close to original for this film.  The film’s lack of any character development, good or bad, only solidifies just how much it lacks in general.

But, there’s something else that makes me despise the movie more than most sequels and other bad movies.  It comes back to that lacking of a soul excuse that I mentioned earlier.  And it makes more sense when you consider how this movie stacks up against the other films that came after it.  Sure, it’s worse than the original, but how can it be worse than Jurassic Park III (2001), or Jurassic World (2015), or the recently released Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018).  It’s because some bad movies manage to stand out better than others by becoming so memorably bad.  That’s how some bad movies can have a soul too.  I see that especially after having seen the newest film Fallen Kingdom.  Believe me, sparing you a lengthy review, this new film is bad, and yet I still think The Lost World is worse.  And that’s because it’s so stupid at times that I almost found it’s stupidity entertaining.  Almost.  The two films are remarkably similar; they both involve extracting dinosaurs that remain in the island based parks and bringing them to the mainland, and two opposing ideals about what to do with them when they get there which inevitably leads to dinosaurs breaking loose and running a rampage in the open world.  In The Lost World it involved a Tyrannosaurus rampaging through San Diego; in Fallen Kingdom, it’s dinosaurs wrecking havoc in a mansion before inevitably branching out across the world.  But, Fallen Kingdom is significantly cheesier and aggressively more stupid, which kind of prevents it from being boring in the process.  The Lost World is bland the whole way through on top of being boring and stupid, and that is why it is so much harder to sit through.  The fault comes in the assumption on the filmmakers part that they were making something more profound with The Lost World, which a Jurassic Park movie should never be.  It can have profound moments, but it works best when it embraces a more cartoonish sensibility.  Fallen Kingdom, despite being so mind-numbingly stupid at times, at least remembers that.  The Lost World was made in between Schindler’s List (1993) and Amistad (1997), which probably didn’t put Spielberg in the right mindset to direct a movie like this, and it painfully clear in the movie’s severe lack of fun all around.  And that’s saying something for a movie that has a Raptor taken out with a gymnastic kick.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park is not the worst made sequel, nor is it the worst made movie in this franchise.  But it is the most insulting sequel that I’ve ever seen made in response to a classic movie.  For the longest time, this stood right up there with Space Jam (1996) as one of my least favorite movies ever, and it still is high up there even today as other bad movies have joined them.  And the reason for the scorn that I hold for this movie is because it’s the most blatant example of a movie that just doesn’t even try to be a movie.  It is a manufactured beast, devoid of any love put into it by people who are among the greatest artists of all time.  This is far and away the worst movie that Spielberg has made in my opinion, and that’s because it even lacks the things that made Spielberg’s other failures at least memorable; it doesn’t have the nonsensical absurdity of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), the dullness of Always (1989), nor the awkward tonal shifts of Hook (1991).  Art, even bad art, by the greatest of masters can illicit some emotional response from it’s audience.  The Lost World: Jurassic Park is a blank canvas of bland whiteness being passed off as artwork.  Every decision made with the movie is there to repeat something that worked before, and it accomplishes absolutely nothing.  Maybe it was a rushed job, and like I pointed out before, maybe Spielberg’s heart wasn’t in it because he had already moved on to more serious, worthwhile projects.  It’s just a shame that he had to burn through something as purely entertaining as Jurassic Park in order to get there.  The worst that a movie can be is to show the inner workings of it’s creation bare in front of us and reveal it to be nothing more than an empty vessel made solely to fill another’s place for one shallow reason; to make more money, and nothing else.  The Lost World is that kind of movie, and that’s why it hurt so much after seeing Jurassic Park.  You can’t make the same film twice, as this movie so painfully shows.  And Lost World holds a special plays of scorn for me, because it’s the movie that first opened my eyes to the fact that film-making could sometimes turn into a soulless venture, where greed can sometimes trump art.  It broke my once pure ideal of how Hollywood works, and showed that sometimes even the best of filmmakers can create something that lacks a soul.

Queer and Super – Will Hollywood Ever Embrace Gay Superheroes on the Big Screen?

With Pride Month upon us once again, It’s time to reflect on the many contributions that the LGBT community has made to society over the years, historically, culturally, politically, as well as cinematically.  The positive thing to note is that we are currently in the middle of a Renaissance of Queer Cinema, as the once niche market is finally hitting the mainstream.  We’ve witnessed this through two Oscar-winning projects like the historic Best Picture winner Moonlight (2016) and the critically acclaimed Call Me by Your Name (2017), and earlier this year we were given the teen romance film Love, Simon (2018) which is the most mainstream film yet to feature a gay protagonist.  Though these films are modest in terms of box office, their exposure is still an excellent sign that Hollywood is indeed ready to treat the queer community with the dignity and respect that it has long been waiting for.  And another positive from these recent films is that it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of queer themed stories yet to be told on the big screen.  The door that Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name have cracked open are about to be busted down in the years ahead.  But, there has to be something to be said about where queer films actually go in this new, more permissive environment.  For the most part, queer themed movies have stuck mostly within the romantic or coming of age genres, tettering in between tragic or life-affirming narratives.  But, if it’s not careful, queer movies could sadly marginalize themselves again if they only stick to one type of genre.  For this Renaissance of Queer Cinema to really make a difference in both Hollywood and in the culture at large, it needs to branch out into many other different genres.  There are many types of movies that could be centered on queer characters that could really put a spin on all sorts of genres, but to really make a significant mark, the most ideal place that a gay character could make a difference in is the one that is currently dominating cinemas right now; the Super Hero genre.

Perhaps hoping for a movie centered around an out and proud super hero may be a little too much to wish for right now, but this is a period in time when we’ve seen diversity in this genre take a giant leap forward.  It can’t be underestimated how big an impact Marvel Studio’s Black Panther (2018) left on both it’s genre and the culture at large.  Regardless of how good the movie is (and it is excellent), the way that it inspired African American audiences and gave them an icon to look up to and celebrate as one of their own is one, and see that same movie become one of the highest grossing movies of all time, is one of the best developments to have happened at the movies in a long time.  And this comes on the heels of the success of Wonder Woman (2017) which gave us the first super hero film centered on a female super hero.  Though there were plenty of comic book and movie fans before that were black and/or female long before these two films came out, the fact that these fans now had representations of themselves taking center stage in this genre made a big difference and it’s now invited many of the studios behind these movies to rethink what kind of demographics they should be targeting today.  These films also opened the door to what kind of voices can be added to the super hero genre as well, as Wonder Woman and Black Panther were helmed by representatives of the same communities that the central hero was meant to represent, and their input made all the difference.  Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins fought with a studio who seemed to undervalue the iconic hero and view her as more of a spoke in their Justice League wheel, and pushed for scenes that showed off more of Wonder Woman’s true heroism, like the outstanding No Man’s Land scene.  And Ryan Coogler of Black Panther put emphasis on the African identity of his characters and setting, giving them attention on a scale unseen on film before.  In each case, we see what happens when filmmakers bring new life into a genre by celebrating what makes their heroes unique and showing just how valuable they are to the genre they represent.

But, the challenge is a bit trickier at the moment for the LGBT community.  Up until this point, queer cinema has been largely marginalized in a way that most others haven’t.  Though every minority group has had in one way or another been forced to break through barriers in Hollywood and proclaim a sense of identity that’s all their own, LGBT representation has faced the harshest of barriers.  Often labeled as obscene or perverse in the public eye, even by other minority groups, queer cinema largely had to survive mostly in secret circles, and often hidden underground.  Even after the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s allowed for more tolerant attitudes, queer identity remained largely unseen on the big screen, at least in a dignified way.  Gay characters often were presented as campy and were the target of ridicule by many film’s so-called “heroes.”  And this was the norm for many decades after.  Then, when the AIDS crisis hit in the 80’s, gay representation shifted into a different kind of state; the tragic figure.  While this period did at least turn some people around towards sympathizing with gay characters in movies, it still didn’t allow for LGBT characters to stand out on their own.  Really, until the new millennium approached, all the only definitive depictions we got out of Hollywood of gay characters were comic reliefs or dying best friends.  There was no shortage of queer talent within Hollywood, both in front and behind camera, but for the most part they had to conform to the standards that the industry had set when it came to representing queer characters, and that was one that was unfairly skewed over many decades to marginalize the same community.  Thankfully, those days appear to be ending, as gay filmmakers and performers are finally telling their stories their way and the public is finally ready to accept that with open arms.  But, as the lack of diversity in many genres has shown, there is a lot of work still to do.

Though the world of cinema has been slow to move in this direction, it has been a different story in print.  There have been well-received books centered on queer characters for decades, and are often today the source for many of the ground-breaking movies getting the green-light now.  Surprisingly, the same has also been the case with comic books.  Comics have always tackled social issues head on in a way that movies largely haven’t, even in it’s earliest days.  And indeed, queer representation has even been addressed in many comic books, with a surprisingly robust gallery of heroes who openly identify as gay.  On the DC side, you’ve got heroes like Batwoman, Midnighter and Apollo, while on the Marvel side you have Iceman, Northstar, and Hulkling, and that’s just the one’s who are fully out of the closet as there are a ton of other characters whose fluid sexualities are only hinted at (like Harley Quinn and Deadpool).  But, what’s most important about the queer representation of the characters in the comics is that it is addressed directly and in a serious way, much unlike what cinema had done for so many years.  As a result, there has been a steady fan base of LGBT readers for comic books for decades, largely because they finally found a medium where their identities were treated in a dignified way and saw representations of themselves as part of the larger community of super heroes, making a difference in the world.  Comic books gave queer people a place in the world at a time when most other parts of society tried to shut them out.  So, you would think that Hollywood would take notice and recognize that a large portion of comic book readers are also a part of the LGBT community, and that maybe it might be time to carry that representation over onto the big screen.

There certainly isn’t a shortage of gay super heroes to choose from in the comic books.  But, Hollywood again has been slow to evolve when it comes to representing a marginalized class accurately on screen.  The industry has been fair to openly gay workers for a while now, but it’s also been responsible for perpetuating the same stereotypes and pre-conceived notions about the community that has kept the community from breaking free of it’s own narrow niche of the market.  That’s why it’s hard for many queer characters to break out and be recognized in other genres like super hero films or action movies.  Because of the influence of Hollywood, the large pre-conceived image of queer characters are often colored by stereotypes; a gay man has to be ultra-feminine and often cowardly, while lesbians are often in your face and aggressive, bi-sexuals are portrayed as slutty, and trans characters are just straight-up cartoons, if present at all.  Movies have programmed the culture into thinking one way about queer people, when in truth, LGBT people are as diverse in character as any other group.  As strange as it may seem, a gay character can be as gritty as any action hero and a lesbian can be nurturing and even-keel in any movie.  We are only now seeing these stereotypes of the past starting to go away, but it has yet to take hold in avenues of Hollywood unexplored with gay themes in mind.  For one thing, having an openly gay action hero would be a huge leap forward, especially with regards to putting to rest out-dated stereotypes, and what better place to try that out than in the super-hero genre, where such a gesture is guaranteed the maximum exposure.  It’s wishful thinking, but not outside the realm of possibility.  It all depends on how Hollywood wishes to market itself; do they wish to play it safe, or do they want to make history by taking a chance.

That’s why the examples of Black Panther and Wonder Woman are so key in this equation, because they have shown that taking a chance on something different results in huge success.  Whether or not a gay super hero can hit as well as Black Panther did is up for question, but I’m sure the same doubts followed that movie into the box office as well, and now we have our answer.  Hollywood has known for years that there is a strong presence of LGBT fans when it comes to comic books; but this is also an international business that has to sell their movies into places that aren’t quite as tolerant.  Sexual Orientation is still a touchy subject in much of the world, and movies are expensive to make, so for the longest time, Hollywood has maintained the play it safe route when it comes to queer representation in their movies.  There have been some that have tried to work around those barriers in clever ways.  Take for example the X-Men movies made in the early 2000’s.  Director Bryan Singer takes the narrative of super powered mutants coming together to overcome prejudice in society and frames it specifically to mirror the struggle for gay rights in America.  The X-Men comics have always had a subtext centered around fighting institutional prejudice, as the comic was first published amidst the Civil Rights struggle of the 60’s, but Singer’s modern take clearly links the struggles of the mutants in his movies to those of LGBT community.  There’s a pointed line in X2: X-Men United (2002) where Iceman’s own mother asks him, “Did you ever try not being a mutant?” which is a turn on a phrase many LGBT people will no doubt have heard at one point in their lives.  Bryan Singer himself is openly gay as well, so I’m sure the subtext in his X-Men movies is intentional.  Even still, his movies still had to adhere to some Hollywood standards (Iceman is portrayed as heterosexual in the movies, for example), so it’s not the full breakthrough that the community would have liked to have seen.  But, even still, it’s at least an acknowledgment on the director’s part that queer identity is something that can and should be a part of this Super Hero genre on the big screen.

While the push for a queer super hero is growing stronger, I do believe that there is the danger of an over-correction in this situation as well.  One thing that happened in recent years with regards to the success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe was a call from many fans to make Captain America gay in the movies.  The hashtag #GiveCapaBoyfriend trended for a while, which made many people wonder if Marvel was considering the option.  But, I think this is the wrong way to approach the issue of queer representation in super hero movies, or any film in general.  Speaking as a gay man myself, I take issue with the practice of retroactively turning an already established character gay instead of allowing a new queer character to develop naturally.  This seems to be an unfortunate growing trend recently, and I only view it as a desperate attempt on the parts of writers and filmmakers to make themselves look more progressive in retrospect.  This has been the case with J.K. Rowling outing Dumbledore long after her last book was published in the Harry Potter series, as well the more recent case of screenwriter Jake Kasdan stating that Lando Calrissian is pansexual during his promotion of the movie Solo.  It becomes problematic because with each case, they are making these revelations outside of the text of their stories, so it makes it clear that their character’s sexual orientations were an afterthought and thus never important.  Then why make it an issue at all, other than to win some praise for showing diversity.  That’s why I don’t think making Captain America gay is the way to go towards bringing LGBT representation into the super hero genre.  For one thing, in all previous incarnations, Captain has always been portrayed as heterosexual, so such a move would only be seen as an intentional gimmick and disingenuous as a result.  Also, I think it’s much better to have super heroes whose queer identity is a major part of their character be the ones to take the center stage.  Sure, it’s a longer road than the shortcut of changing Captain America, but it works better for the community that a super hero should leave his or her mark in addition to being born this way.

Hollywood is certainly at a point where they are closer to embracing the idea of making a movie about a gay super hero.  The only question remains  is whether or not it is worth the risk financially.  Black Panther has certainly opened the door to that possibility, and it may be something that becomes a reality in only a few short years.  I just hope that Hollywood doesn’t treat the move as a gimmick and resort to cliched old tricks or misappropriate established characters in order to make that happen.  There are a lot of worthy openly queer characters that have been embraced in the comic books for years that could translate well to the big screen.  Hollywood could even build one up from scratch and allow him or her to represent the movement as a whole in a way that’s unique to that character.  There are many options available, but at this point it’s a whole different frontier to be explored by the film industry.  I for one am optimistic, considering the way that audiences have embraced queer themed movies recently, both critically and financially.  Even the characters are showing a better sense of diversity recently, as previously ingrained stereotypes are becoming a thing of the past when it comes to portraying a real gay person on screen.  I was especially impressed recently with how well this was handled in movies like Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon, where each gay protagonist is merely a boy next door type of character, with not an ounce of camp to them.  That’s how I want to see a gay character be portrayed in other genres, and especially when it comes to portraying them as a superhero.  One has to remember, Super Heroes are role models, and to many young people who are beginning to form an identity of their own, they need heroes to look up to, especially if they share the same traits they do.  What Black Panther managed to do for young black children all over the world, and what Wonder Woman did for young girls as well, is something that I also hope happens soon for young boys and girls too who are struggling with their sexual orientation, after they see an out and proud hero saving the day on the big screen.  For them, especially in times like this, these are the heroes that they need as well as deserve.

Incredibles 2 – Review

Pixar Studios has come a long way from it’s infancy.  Beginning 30 years ago in a small little office in Silicon Valley, with a team that included just a handful of engineers and one out of work animator let go by Disney, the company has steadily grown to become a leading brand in the field of animation.  And they have done so not just by being innovative and groundbreaking, but also by putting emphasis on the stories that they tell.  The mantra at Pixar is that story comes first with every project they make, and that extends from the feature films, to the short subjects, to even the brief little teaser trailers that they use to announce their films.  It’s a formula that has helped them to stay on top for so many years, and that emphasis on story has been a big part of that, because every movie shows the care they take in the developing something that is more than just a short 2 hour diversion.  But that same care with story also means that the development period for each film takes much longer.  Pixar has gotten to a point where they can now support a work flow that produces a new film every year, but each movie still takes 4-5 years to complete regardless.  And this has made one thing less frequent at Pixar than most other animation studios; sequels.  Sure, Pixar has gotten around to sequelizing their most beloved films, but it’s a process that takes an extraordinary long time for them.  In the 11 years in between Toy Story 2 and 3, we got 4 Shreks.  I’ve lost count of how many Ice Ages we are up to now, and it also seems like every year brings us another Minion movie, whether we want it or not.  Usually, these other studios like to strike while the iron is hot and capitalize on their properties before audiences loose interest, but Pixar doesn’t play by those rules.  They put a lot of faith in their audiences to return after long hiatuses whenever they decide the time is right for a sequel, and it has surprising proven to be a winning strategy for them.

Most recently, Pixar has gotten around to producing sequels to their early 2000’s hits, with the gap between movies growing bigger with each one.  Monsters University (2013) followed up Monsters Inc. (2001) after 12 years.  We waited 13 years between Finding Nemo (2003) and Finding Dory (2016).  And now the biggest gap yet has been closed between their 2004 hit, The Incredibles, and it’s new sequel Incredibles 2.  It’s been a 14 year wait, and that presents Pixar with an interesting challenge.  When the original Incredibles first debuted, the Super Hero genre was in a much different state than it is today.  This was long before Christopher Nolan would elevate the genre with his Dark Knight trilogy and before Marvel would assemble all their forces into a cohesive cinematic universe.  Before then, The Incredibles was viewed as the pinnacle of story-telling within the genre, which is ironic since it was also a movie that deconstructed the genre tropes and gave them new meanings.  The Super Hero genre more or less has been influenced by Incredibles’ unique narrative, especially with regards to the way it connected super teams with a family unit, and also by how it balances humor with emotional pathos.  So, Incredibles 2 now arrives into theaters in a different era where the Super Hero genre that it’s predecessor had a hand in influencing is now the dominant force in the film industry.  And the question arises now if Pixar can return to that same level again, even after everything has changed.  The big plus is that they have everyone back on board, including director Brad Bird, who returns to animation after a mixed adventure into the world of live action film-making (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland).  One would think that the ever redefining talent that is Brad Bird would stay away from returning to a property that he got so perfect the first time around, but like the mission statement of Pixar says, if it’s a story worth telling than it’s a movie worth making, and Bird must’ve obviously believed that there was more to explore with The Incredibles.  But, the question remains, is it one story worth such a long wait?

The movie picks up literally seconds after the close of the original Incredibles.  The super villain Underminer (John Ratzenberg) begins to wreck havoc on the city and the undercover super hero Parr family steps into action as their alter egos, The Incredibles.  They manage to reduce the damage caused by Underminer’s drilling machine, but it also exposes them to scrutiny from a legal system that unfairly marginalizes people with super powers.  Unfortunately, the agency that has been protecting the Parr’s is shutting down, and their friend and ally with it, Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) is retiring.  With few options left, Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson) and his wife Helen (Holly Hunter) take up an offer delivered to them by their fellow super hero friend Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson) aka Frozone.  They agree to accompany him to a meeting with a billionaire investor named Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who is eager to help improve the public image of supers all over the world and get them back into legal status once again.  Though Bob would like to flex his muscle again as the super strong Mr. Incredible, Winston believes that Helen’s Elastigirl is the better poster super for their movement, which leaves Bob on the sidelines for the moment.  While Elastigirl goes off to fight crime and promote her cause, takes on a different role as a stay at home dad to their children; Violet (Sarah Vowell), who’s issues with getting attention from a boy she likes is producing some wild mood swings, and Dash (Huck Milner) whose super speed makes him difficult to tame.  And then of course their is the baby, Jack-Jack, whose random powers are just now manifesting themselves.  Alongside the help of Frozone, fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird), and Winston’s tech savvy sister Evelyn Deavor (Cathrine Keener), the Parr family tries their best to adapt to their new lives both privately and publicly, made all the more difficult when faced with am ominous new supervillain named the Screenslaver.

I think the clever trick that Brad Bird plays with this movie is that he deals with the 14 year gap between movies by showing no gap at all in the narrative of this story.  Incredibles 2 really is like a second part to an on-going adventure for this clan of Super Heroes, and thematically it sticks very closely to the same issues that were dealt with in the first movie.  Those thing in particular are what makes this a very entertaining movie overall.  Incredibles 2, much like the original, does an exceptional job of capturing family drama and framing it within the context of a world with super heroes.  At the same time, it does flip around the structure by having Mr. Incredible be the one staying home and watching the kids, which helps to keep it fresh and distinguishable.  Much of the movie’s heart rests in what I would call “Mr. Incredible’s Adventures in Parenting” and how he both finds himself way in over his head sometimes, while also still devoted.  You can tell that Brad Bird and much of his production team drew from their own experiences of parenting for these scenes, and they are both heartwarming and hilarious due to their complete honesty.  Some of the biggest laughs especially come from how he deals with Jack-Jack’s completely random super powers, which often result from the impulsiveness you’d expect from an infant.  A disheveled, sleepless Bob Parr coaxing Jack-Jack out of a different dimension with a cookie is easily one of the best character moments overall.  At the same time, Bird never forgets that he is also making a genre flick as well, and even after 14 years, he still finds clever ways to stage and execute some stand out action sequences, and make great use of the different character’s powers.  Even as the Super Hero genre has upped it’s game, Incrediblesstill delivers surprises that help to turn this type of story on it’s head.

But, I also have to say that it does fall slightly short of it’s predecessor as an overall experience.  For one thing, it does lack the novelty that the original film enjoyed.  This is mostly forgivable since most sequels usually suffer from this aspect.  It’s not terribly re-inventive of the series, because it doesn’t have to be.  It’s a perfectly, well-executed plateau, keeping the story on solid ground but not hitting new heights either, except for maybe one or two stand out scenes.  The movie’s one big failing, however, is the lack of any meaningful threat.  The new villain, Screenslaver, is pretty weak both in concept and execution, and once it’s revealed who is behind the bug-eyed mask, it’s about as cliched a choice as you’d expect.  This is unfortunate after the excellent threat that the Incredible family faced in the first film; the maniacal Syndrome (voiced by Jason Lee).  Sure, Syndrome was a bit corny, but he perfectly matched the story of the first film, and his plot made sense in the context of what Mr. Incredible and his family were trying to fight for.  He was also darkly sinister in a vivid way, going as far to invade the Parr family home and attempt to kidnap Baby Jack-Jack.  Once it’s revealed who Screenslaver is, all the menace leaves the character all at once, and in the process, the momentum to the story slows as well.  The third act of the movie sadly feels rushed and unsatisfactory as a result, which is in stark contrast to the thrilling final battle in the original where they battled Syndrome’s giant robot. Instead, the movie ends with the Incredibles trying to stop a boat from crashing, which is kind of a step down in terms of stakes that matter.  It’s not a terrible ending, and by no means ruins the movie as a whole, but you kind of wish the film had kept the energy up all the way to the end, instead of just taking the good enough route.

But there is one thing that really elevates the movie from beginning to end, and that’s the quality of the animation.  The original Incredibles was a tour de force for it’s time, and groundbreaking especially when it came to the animation of human characters (something which at that point had been a struggle for computer animation).  Fourteen years of innovation later and you can instantly see the improvements made to the medium during all that time in the smallest of details.  I for one marveled at the subtlety that the animators put into the performances of these digital characters.  Their movements feel so natural and like real life, which helps to make Incredibles stand out amongst so many other less-subtle animated features out there, including ones made by Pixar.  Skin detail is also greatly improved.  While the original skin structure on the character models were passable in the original, they do make the characters look more plastic-y compared to what’s capable with computer textures now.  Here we get realistic face tones to each character, with tiny details like stubble on Mr. Incredible’s chin or freckles on Dash’s cheeks added in a very realistic way.  In addition to the improved textures on the character models, the movie also expands on the visual motifs of the original film, and makes them even grander.  The original’s early 60’s pastiche is continued here, and brought out magnificently in the set designs.  The new family home is especially eye catching, especially when it becomes the staging area for some standout action sequences.  There is battle between Jack-Jack and a raccoon in the family’s back yard which is way more epic that you would ever dream, and it’s probably the best example yet of Brad Bird playing to maximum level with the toys that he’s created.  Without a doubt, Incredibles 2 holds up visually to the high standards of the original, and in many ways surpasses them.

I also loved the fact that they brought back most of the original cast for this sequel.  It gives the movie a strong sense of continuity that helps to sell the fact that no time has passed for these characters between films.  Of course they had to recast Dash with a new actor, as the original voice Spencer Fox is probably in college now, and newcomer Huck Milner does a great job of picking up where he left off.  Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter once again shine in their respective roles, and it’s incredible how well their chemistry works in this movie, noting the fact that neither actor recorded their lines together.  I especially love the way Craig T. Nelson builds up the frustration in the character over the course of the movie, and Bob Parr’s rant after he’s reached his wits end is a definite highlight of the movie.  Samuel L. Jackson also lends his usual smooth gravitas to his brief moments as Frozone, a character who is still just as cool as his name sounds, and though she makes only the briefest of appearances, Edna Mode once again steals the movie, with director Brad Bird delivering a wonderfully hammy performance.  Newcomers are also very welcome in this movie.  Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks does a wonderful job stepping in to fill the shoes of the late Bud Luckey as Rick Dicker.  And speaking of Breaking Bad alum, Bob Odenkirk also steps into this world quite effectively as the smooth talking Winston Deavor, and is balanced very well by the very nuanced voice work of Cathrine Keener as Evelyn Deavor.  I also do love the fact that no character feels short-changed either in this movie.  There is enough time devoted to each character’s development, even the new ones.  And no story-lines are repeated from the first movie, nor are any gags, which shows that Brad Bird clearly put in the work to make a sequel that didn’t feel like it needed to be held up by what came before it.  This is why a movie like this benefits from a decade-plus long gap, because it makes it less reliant on repeating the past, and instead able to establish it’s own identity while still working with familiar parts.

On the whole, this is easily one of the best sequels to ever come out of Pixar Studios.  I would grade it above Finding Dory and Monsters Unviersity, as well as light-years above any of the Cars sequels.  But, it falls a little short of say the Toy Story sequels, which are still Pixar at it’s absolute best.  Incredibles 2 does a lot of things right, and certainly wins many points for not relying on typical sequel tropes like repeated gags and sideways plot development.  Unfortunately it suffers from a third act that loses a lot of steam towards the end, and also from the lack of a serious villain.  That’s what keeps it slightly below the original too, even despite the very clear upgrade that it enjoys in the visual department.  But, those misgivings are still not enough to derail the film entirely.  It’s still a great movie experience, and if you loved the original, you will not be disappointed by this movie at all.  It’s great to see Brad Bird return to form in the medium of film-making that turned him into a household name.  I hope that he continues to bring more creativity to realm of animation, but if this is just a brief exercise before he dives back into live action, my hope is that he uses this a worthwhile recharge.  One thing that I would recommend to any of you planning to see this soon is to find the biggest screen possible.  I watched this in IMAX (a first for me with a Pixar film) and it’s a movie definitely deserving of the big screen treatment.  There are action sequences here that among the most epic that Pixar has ever staged, and it’s well worth seeking out the right theater for the maximum experience.  So while not a perfect sequel, it is nevertheless a more than passable one, and one that compliments the original and does it justice.  For lack of a better word, it is simply “incredible” how well Pixar manages to keep their momentum going with their many franchise, even after nearly a generation between movies.  It shows that they take story development seriously, and they put a lot of trust in us the audience to keep waiting.  As long as the end results don’t disappoint, they can take as long as they want to make these movies, and with Pixar, we at least know that all their efforts are going to be nothing short of “Super.”

Rating: 8.5/10

What One Man is Worth – How Saving Private Ryan Opened Up the War Flick and Brought it Home

War is Hell, as most people who have lived through it will tell you.  And through every conflict that mankind has fought, the legends and the tales of heroism grow out of it too.  Many authors, painters, historians, and of course filmmakers have tried in their best own way to encapsulate the war experience through their selective artform, and though many of them are engrossing in their own way, few rarely capture the actual feeling of combat in a personal way.  As a result, over time the way we look at some of these wartime stories begins to change.  Many times, the lessons learned from a war begin to dilute and the image taken from these relics of the past come across as less cautionary and more glorifying of the war experience.  We look at Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, and the first feeling that we might elicit from them is that war creates glorious legends like Achilles and Odysseus, but upon a closer reading, we read a more melancholy side to the legend where heroes are undone by their arrogance and that war makes it impossible to return home the same way that you left it.  And yet, more than likely, you see wartime stories legends often held up as one of the positives of conflict, and this in turn helps to perpetuate a glorification of war itself as a means for creating order in the world.  War itself is spectacle, and that sadly makes it alluring to audiences who are unattached to it.  This is largely why anti-war narratives tend to struggle in defining themselves, because the very nature of war makes the stories being told much larger than life, and as a result, more thematically exciting.  That usually runs deep in the heart of the cultural divide when it comes to accurately depicting war in any form of art, especially in film.  Usually, filmmakers who’ve never seen combat never internalize the actual human toll that war brings, and they feel disconnected from it as faceless pawns are just there to fall prey to visually resplendent mayhem.  But, some films do dig deeper and try to find the truth behind the gunfire, and most importantly, the humanity.

This was the goal of Steven Spielberg when he set out to create his own war flick, Saving Private Ryan (1998).  His depiction of a brief but pivotal moment in time during the Normandy invasion on D-Day during  World War II was going to do something that most war films up until that time had never even attempted and that was to show the actual experience of war unfiltered.  The story itself in the movie is standard for the genre; a small troop of soldiers are tasked with searching a war zone to find a lone soldier whose brothers have all been killed in combat, making him the last survivor.  The story was actually inspired by the real life incident of the Niland family, whose youngest member was sent back home after it was learned that his three brothers all died in short succession of each other, though one was later found alive in a POW camp.  It’s a captivating story to be sure, but one that merely serves as the framing for what Spielberg wanted to bring to the screen.  The war film up until that time usually followed along the lines of epic film-making, with the directors often emphasizing scope over intimacy.  Though those movies often didn’t shy away from the brutality of war, such as masterpieces like The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Platoon (1986), they nevertheless made you always remember that you were still watching a movie.  Spielberg believed that he needed to rethink the way a battle needed to be shot and that led him to not looking at the grander picture and instead focusing his camera right into the heart of battle.  In doing so, whether he intended to or not, he revolutionized the way conflict is depicted on screen, and as a result the war flick would never be the same.

When someone thinks of the movie Saving Private Ryan, the first thing that will come to mind is the harrowing opening scene that recreates the Normandy invasion and landing on Omaha Beach in stunning and often grisly detail.  I, in fact, picked this as the greatest opening to a movie ever in my list here.  In a bold cinematic move, Spielberg devotes a good 30 minute chunk of his movie towards this battle scene, played out in real time, and even more surprisingly, it doesn’t have anything to do with the narrative itself.  It is merely what sets the stage and introduces the characters who we will be following for the rest of the movie.  The story doesn’t actually start until we cut dramatically to a military office where condolence letters are being typed up for the families of the fallen, and where one lady notices the names of the three brothers of the titular Private Ryan.  By this time, Spielberg has already plunged us into the hell of war and the remainder of the movie leaves us guarded for what will come next; sort of in the same way that the real soldiers might have been.  Putting us in the mindset of the soldiers of this movie by showing us the combat through their eyes is the movie’s greatest masterstroke.  Spielberg dispensed with high angle photography and stylized lighting and instead incorporated a documentary style handheld camera point of view for the Omaha Beach scene.  When the soldiers run, we run with them; when they take cover, we do too; and the camera will pan away from a live soldier for a moment, and that same soldier will be blown to pieces when we pan back a second layer.  It’s chaos the likes of which we’ve never seen in a film before, and that in turn makes it closer to a true combat experience.  Remarkably, though, it’s not unwatchable either.  Spielberg still manages to frame every second in the battle with an unflinching amount of attention; mainly due to the effect that he himself was the camera operator for most of the shooting of this scene.  Every glimpse we get is carefully chosen, from the one-armed soldier staggering around the field looking for his missing limb, to the soldiers sinking in the water under the weight of their own equipment, to the heartbreaking glimpse of a soldier screaming for his Mama while his guts are spilling out.  No other depiction of war has ever captured this amount of intimacy.

And this is what made Saving Private Ryan so groundbreaking as both an experience and as a narrative.  Spielberg had managed to do what few other filmmakers had ever done before; he captured the heartbreaking savagery of war unfiltered and presented bare.  It can be argued by that alone that this is an anti-war film at it’s core, because it does not glamorize the experience of war one bit.  At the same time, while Spielberg himself shares many anti-war sentiments in general, I don’t believe that he intended for his film to push any type of agenda either.  Indeed, the movie is about the cost of war, but also about the individual heroism displayed by each soldier.  The central question the movie asks is what one man is worth in the grand picture of a war?  The soldiers in the movie keep asking that question the whole way through, and even Ryan himself can’t comprehend why it’s got to be him that so many are going to risk their lives for.  Essentially it comes down to the way each one rationalizes the mission, and as Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller puts it in his monologue, “You tell yourself that this life taken was in the service of saving three or more other lives.”  Whether it’s true or not, it shows that on the individual level, heroism in war is about saving the life next to you rather than racking up the most kills along the way.  That’s how Spielberg crafts his heroes within the movie, by showing how much they will risk in order to spare a life, even at the cost of their own.  And Spielberg never tries to make these characters martyrs for some message nor instantly larger than life.  They are all flawed in some way, but never in a way that characterizes them as unsympathetic either.  Even the often unseen German soldiers are not so easily defined.  There really is no villainous presence in this movie other than the conflict itself.  This is perfectly illustrated in a moment where the troop faces the ethical quandary of executing a German soldier in retaliation while he is begging for his life.  It’s through tough choices like this that Saving Private Ryan becomes a much deeper war film than we first realize.

In one way or another, Steven Spielberg managed to walk that fine line between condemning war and honoring the soldiers who fought within it.  As such, it has since become one of the most influential movies we’ve seen in the 20 years since it’s been released.  For one thing, the visual aesthetic of Spielberg’s “you are there” combat sequences has been often imitated in most war films since then, though rarely matched.  Some movies have used the aesthetic well, like Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001), Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009), and David Ayer’s Fury (2014).  The hand held approach even seems to have found it’s way into war depictions of all kinds, regardless of time period or genre, as evidenced by similar battle scenes found in Ridley Scott’s Roman Empire epic Gladiator and even in fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings (such as in the Two Towers’ famous Helm’s Deep battle scene).  Even still, while the Private Ryan model is effective in creating a visceral feeling of battle on screen, fewer films have ever managed to capture the sense of overwhelming dread that permeates the entire movie.  I’d say that the only one that comes close is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), as that movie did an exceptional job of ratcheting up the tension as the specter of death hangs over the characters throughout the film.  But there are plenty of other films that merely imitated Private Ryan, but only used it’s aesthetic in a shallow way to reinforce their own spectacle.  The worst offender of these was Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), a disastrous attempt to mash the thematic elements of Saving Private Ryan and Titanic (1997) into one cynical movie.  Bay uses the same shaky cam photography and muted colors of Private Ryan, and even tried to imitate the gruesome slaughter depicted in the latter, at least in the R-Rated director’s cut.  But, what Bay failed to do was to make us care abiut the people caught up in the battle, and as a result it almost feels like the director takes delight in presenting the destruction on screen, which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t based on a real disaster, with many real life victims seemingly considered to inconsequential.  Spielberg knew that for this kind of depiction to work, the humanity needed to be paramount, and sadly few other war films seem to understand that.

Perhaps the greatest legacy that the movie left behind though, other than the groundbreaking visuals, is the effect that it left on the public afterwards.  In particular, the way it affected the veterans who fought in the war.  By the time that Saving Private Ryan was released into theaters, the WWII generation had reached retirement age and were beginning to either die off or loose their memories of their time in the service.  There were many soldiers that had documented their tales during the war for years, but there were a significant many others who simply didn’t want to talk about the war for the longest time.  This was mainly due to their experiences being too painful to relive, or because they were too ashamed of some of the acts they committed during the war.  Thus, for the longest time, veterans were content with Hollywood sort of taking the lead in presenting what the war was like for most audiences for years.  You see this in previous war flicks like The Longest Day (1962),  Battle of the Bulge (1965), and Patton (1970), all well crafted war films, but ones that were still withdrawn enough from the reality of the war to make it easier to digest for a larger audience that was perhaps too weary of war.  But, Steven Spielberg’s unfiltered look at the way combat felt to the actual boots on the ground soldiers stirred up a much different reaction, and one that was long overdue.  The images of the movie brought back much of the heartache that many of the veterans had tired to forget about over the years, and many were traumatized once again after seeing the flick.  But surprisingly, this caused many of these soldiers to open up and start telling their own stories about the war, some of which they’ve kept secret for decades, even to their loved ones.  Much like he did five years prior with Schindler’s List (1993) regarding the Holocaust, Spielberg had managed to open the floodgates and start a conversation again about the experiences that shaped this event in our history as a people.

World War II was one of the costliest wars ever in terms of a human toll, and every generation that has come after has in some way been touched by the legacy of the war.  The same is true with my own family.  I am the grandson of two World War II veterans, both of whom served honorably in the United States Navy during the war.  Their names were Lieutenant James Edwin Spencer and Private Bill Vaughn Humphreys.  They served in different theaters of the war, my Grandpa Humphreys mostly in the South Pacific, while Grandpa Spencer served in both the Pacific and in Europe.  I’m grateful that both made it home alive, because I wouldn’t be here otherwise, as both my parents were born after the war.  But, for the most part, they never talked too much about their experiences in the war.  Spencer remained in active service until retiring in the 70’s, and became an eye doctor in sunny Long Beach, California after the war ended.  Humphreys left the Navy behind and became a successful bank manager on the Oregon Coast.  My Grandpa Humphreys died in 1993, so he never lived to see Saving Private Ryan, but my Grandpa Spencer did, living up to the year 2000.  Though he was a naval officer and not a soldier like those in the movie, he still said that the movie did a remarkable job of capturing the real thing that he and his fellow veterans remember experiencing.  What’s more, he even shared things about his time in the war that I never knew before as we were discussing the movie with him.  I learned that he was actually on one of those ships that ferried soldiers across the English Channel on D-Day, and that he actually had to lie to my Grandmother about where he actually was at that time in order to keep the mission secretive.  He also said that he set foot on the beach afterwards when it was safe.  The bodies had been cleared, but the craters and bloodstains remained, in his words.  I’m sure that if my Grandpa Humphreys were alive at that time too, he would have shared even more stories as well.  This is the great effect that Saving Private Ryan had on our culture, because it opened up the narrative of what the War was actually like on a personal level, and that every family (including my own) had their own stories to tell, and were finally being told.

More than anything, this is the greatest single thing that Saving Private Ryan leaves behind; the simple basic sense that every individual life lived through the war matters, and that every experience is worth remembering, even despite the pain.  Old men who were afraid to weep for their fallen brothers in arms because it was thought that it showed weakness were now able to express the pain that this conflict left behind, because this movie gave us our best sense yet of what it was actually like.  It was not a sugar-coated or sanitized view of war; it was the truth, presented plainly for the world.  And it’s one that takes in the full complexities of the subject itself.  Much like the war it depicts, it’s a movie that addresses the moral dilemmas of combat without ever dismissing the fact that good things can come out of it.  World War II is one of history’s most complicated and bittersweet conflicts.  It does have one of the highest death tolls of any war fought in human history, but it’s outcome did leave the world in a much better place, stopping the rise of Fascism and stopping the systematic genocide committed during the Holocaust.  But, without a personal examination of the cost of war on every family, the lessons learned seem to be forgotten over time and new conflicts arise as a result.  So, the fact that this movie brought out a reckoning for most veterans who lived through the war helps to give us a better perspective on the long ranging after effects that define most conflicts in history.  At the very least, it helps to make it clear to all the WWII veterans out there that they are not forgotten or insignificant.  It can be said that Private Ryan did a great deal to raise awareness of the average war vet; including helping them to gain much needed gestures of gratitude like the long overdue monument on the National Mall, as well as countless other film depictions that tell more of their stories, including the Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced miniseries Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010).  In any sense, Saving Private Ryan answers it’s own question of what a single man is worth in the end, and that’s to say if they are able to return home, start a family of their own, and share their own experiences to teach us more about what war is actually like, then their worth is beyond measure.

This is….