The Director’s Chair – Alfred Hitchcock

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

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

1.

THE WRONG MAN

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

2.

AMERICANA

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

3.

THE ELUSIVE BLONDE

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

4.

BERNARD HERRMANN

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

5.

THE MCGUFFIN

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joker – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.5/10

The Gathering Storm – What a Streaming Content War Might Look Like

As we stand now, 3 months away from the end of another decade, it’s interesting to see how far the last ten years have advanced the way that we consume content.  Looking back at the year 2010, when you heard of somebody watching a video online, most likely they would have been referring to short 10 minute clips that had been posted on YouTube.  The fact that the internet would soon be the primary source of our daily media intake was almost an inconceivable idea back in those days.  Back then, online videos were short little diversions, movies were still primarily destined for the big screen, and Netflix was still operating completely through their by mail servicing.  But, as the decade moved ahead and newer advances in communication made it more possible to download and process large files of content faster and cheaper than before, it suddenly changed what was possible in the realm of entertainment.  Now, people are able to watch what they want wherever they want, whether at home or on the go.  And through these advances, a new market in entertainment has opened up that has not only grabbed the attention of all the major studios in the business, but has become their primary in recent years.  This is the beginning of the Streaming Era in Hollywood, where the new cache is having a platform where people will pay a monthly fee to watch movies and shows that can only be seen on the specific channel.  This is a new frontier for the industry, as it enables them to bring content direct to the consumer in ways that have been impossible up to now.  Before, movie studios needed to work with the movie theater chains or the cable providers in order to have their catalog of content presented to the public.  But with streaming, the power is put into the studios hands, as they are now allowed a platform where they can bypass all other channels and bring the content directly into the home through an internet connection.

Netflix was the first to dip their toes into this new form of distribution.  First off, they added their streaming option to their monthly subscription plan as an alternative for people who thought the through the mail servicing was not fast enough.  As the streaming option became more popular over time, Netflix added more and more content to their streaming package.  What particularly became popular on their streaming platform was the television shows, as people were watching shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and many other classic shows that they had missed out on in their initial runs.  This created a new behavior for audiences which we know now as “binge watching,” as it was discovered that most people were watching multiple episodes all at once; sometimes even entire seasons in one sitting.  As Netflix saw their subscriptions rise because of this new streaming option, they suddenly came up with a bold idea; why not make our own shows, exclusive to our platform.  It a short amount of time, they put together a plan to stream original programming on their platform, which in turn would change the industry in a dramatic way.  Their first show, the short lived Lilyhammer (starring Steven Van Zandt) was not much to talk about, but their second exclusive series, the critically acclaimed House of Cards, became the talk of the town.  Suddenly, people took notice and Netflix emerged as a real contender in Hollywood.  With several more shows like Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things having an almost perennial presence in the Awards races, not to mention garnering devoted fan-bases,  it was only a matter of time before Netflix would look to conquer the original film market as well.  This is where the platform has seen the most push back from the industry, as movie theater chains have aggressively fought Netflix’s day and date release model, barring them from screening their movies in most chains across the country.  But, as Netflix has welcomed in more and more prestigious talent to their burgeoning studio, the pressure has risen on the industry to consider what place streaming should take as a part of the legacy of the business.

Though Netflix was the first to put their assets into the streaming market, they certainly weren’t the last.  In the years since, online retailer Amazon would launch their own platform through their Prime membership, giving exclusive content to their customers as well.  Though they have been competitive with Netflix on the television series end, with their own award winning shows like Transparent and The Marvelous Ms. Maisel, they have not followed their rival in the original film race as much, instead opting to form an Amazon Studios division to produce movies for theatrical distribution.  Hulu, which had already been streaming broadcast television shows before Netflix, decided to follow their lead and make exclusive content as well, both for television and film.  In an interesting confluence of events, both Netflix and Hulu even had competing films covering the same subject released days apart, namely the Fyre Festival documentaries, which I covered here.   Though all these channels have done a lot to innovate and move the industry towards creating a streaming market, we still refer to the format itself as the “Netflix” model.  And this is because out of all the competition there is in the streaming world, Netflix has positioned themselves as being the industry leader.  Amazon and Hulu are massive platforms in themselves, but Netflix has become a part of the culture in a way that the others quite haven’t reached.  As of right now, much of the maneuvering going on within the industry is in direct response to what Netflix has been doing.  Netflix has already conquered the video rental business, and even put Blockbuster out of business as a result.  They are dominant in the television market, which has forced cable companies to change their way of doing business as many people have opted out of their cable plans in favor of the more affordable Netflix.  What’s to stop them from taking on the movie studios as well.

That is why this year is a big turning point for the streaming era.  In one month, two new streaming platforms from two of the most formidable media companies in the world are going to be launching; Disney+ and AppleTV+.  For the first time ever, Netflix will be seeing competition that may actually affect their dominance in the streaming market.  Disney+ for one takes advantage of their extensive library of always popular content, and they are also bring a lot of exclusive stuff to the table with new shows based on their Marvel and Star Wars properties.  And then you have AppleTV+, which is going to benefit from the world’s largest corporations seemingly bottomless supply of funds for exclusive content.  They are also launching with subscription plans significantly less costly than Netflix currently is.  Netflix has certainly been planning for stiffer competition, as they’ve been signing exclusive contracts with some of the industry’s hottest producers right now, like American Horror Story’s Ryan Murphy, Game of Thrones‘ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and many more.  Not to mention, they’ve been pushing to get due recognition from the film community by campaigning hard for year end awards.  They made their best case yet with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma last year which took home several Oscars and nearly won the top award as well (and probably should’ve).  They are again making their run for Awards season this year, with movies like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman being heavily pushed, stating once and for all that Netflix, and by turn streaming itself, is an essential part of this industry and should be recognized as such.  Despite how this year will turn out, the streaming market is only going to keep expanding, with platforms like HBO Max, Peacock, and the short form channel Quibi all premiering in the next few years, so indeed, Netflix’s drive to change the industry is actually happening.

But what is that going to mean for the industry itself.  We have already seen a big shift happen with theatrical distribution as a result.  There has been a noticeable decline in recent years with regards to mid range productions making it to the big screen.  By mid-range, I mean movies that aren’t tent-poles but at the same time are not indies either.  These are typically comedies, romantic dramas, and the modest budgeted action flick.  They are disappearing from the multiplexes, where only a decade ago they once dominated.  This is mainly due to the fact that most of them have moved over to streaming, where these kinds of movies are much less of a financial risk if they don’t perform well.  What we’re left with at the local box office is big tent-pole films on one end and small budget indies on the other; mainly the only movies that the industry deems worthy of the big screen because they are the only ones that can turn a profit in the end.  In order to compete, movie theater chains have in a way adopted a model not unlike their streaming competitors, with many chains now adding their own subscription service to their patrons.  But even still, the options at the local multiplex are not as diverse as they once were, because streaming has soaked up so many of the mid-range films that used to drive a wider variety of people to the box office.  With more and more studios beginning to set up their own exclusive platforms, you may see even more of those types of movies taken out of the theatrical market and made available exclusively online.  It’s all going to depend on whether movie theaters are able to retain their appeal as an alternative to the home viewing experience.  The subscription model, first brought to the industry by the now defunct MoviePass, may be the key, but up until now, it was only Netflix they had to contend with, and not a whole industry of streaming studios.

Another thing that may drastically change in the years ahead is the value that is put on available content.  For one thing, Netflix has recently been on a shopping spree in order to lock up exclusive streaming rights to content that they know is going to drive people to their platform.  Seinfeld, the now 20-plus year old, just sold it’s streaming rights to Netflix from parent company Sony for a mind-boggling $500 million.  This was in direct response to Warner Brothers opting to take their shows Friends and The Office off of Netflix so that they could stream it exclusively on their platform, HBO Max.  Decade prior, you could probably expect studios to sell broadcasting privileges to cable outlets for a few million here and there.  But now, to have exclusive streaming rights, a single show now carries a half billion dollar price tag, and that’s only because it’s a big part of the way audiences consume content now.  Whoever has the sturdiest library will be the ones who make the most money, and though Netflix has a respectable collection of content to their name already, they don’t have the decades worth of movies and TV shows that the big studios do.  So, before Sony gets an idea to start their own exclusive streaming channel, Netflix is making sure that their prized properties find a home with them beforehand.  With Disney set to launch their platform in November, they carry an already built in library of not one, but two major studios (themselves and Fox), so the need for exclusive content with name recognition is pretty much the most valuable thing to have right now in the industry, and it’s only going to get fiercer in the years ahead; especially if some of these studios have to spend a lot more in order to compete.

One thing though that hasn’t really factored into the discussion of the upcoming streaming wars is how much of an impact will it put on the customer themselves.  For right now, there is a lot of excitement for what’s coming down the line, especially when it comes to all the properties that have been announced in the past few months.  But, as more and more channels are being announced as being in the works, people are going to start wondering if they are going to be able to afford all of it or not.  Right now, cable TV packages can cost in the range from $100 a month to $500, depending on how many channels they offer.  Streaming platforms are not part of those packages, and operate in a separate way; unless they make a deal with cable companies for a tie in promotion, like Amazon and Netflix sometimes do.  Some people have opted to leave their cable subscriptions behind and just do streaming instead, which has hurt cable providers a little bit, but not much as streaming still needs broadband internet to function.  But, when you look at all the streaming channels that are coming over the horizon, the cost of leaving cable for streaming may not look like the bargain it once was.  Netflix has already raised their basic streaming package over time, from a modest $8 a month to a now $12 fee, with possibly more increases down the road.  Disney and Apple are starting out with a relatively low $7 and $4 a month respectively, but again, the price might change over time.  And with HBO Max, Universal’s Peacock, and multiple other platforms having yet to announce their introductory monthly rates, you may in the end having a streaming bill in the $100 a month range all by itself, in addition to your internet fee.  Thankfully, cancelling a streaming subscription is easier than exiting a cable package, but as content becomes more and more exclusive over time, people are going to be hard pressed to make tough choices about which platforms they choose, and that might mean that some of these platforms may not survive as well as hoped over time.  Even Netflix may lose part of their subscriber base, if they are unable to compete.

What is fundamentally interesting about this point in time in the entertainment industry is all the uncertainty.  We don’t know how this upcoming streaming war will play out.  We just know that it’s about to get a whole lot bigger in the years ahead.  Already we are witnessing a change in the industry that may or may not benefit the quality of the content we watch.  I for one think that competition is a good thing for the industry, as it allows for more  creative risks to be taken, but even this comes at a price.  I certainly want the movie theater experience to survive the competition from streaming, and hopefully their own subscription based system might be the key to that survival.  Also, the added cost that it’ll put on the consumer might have a negative effect over time, as exclusive content might remain out of reach for those who can’t afford to add on that one extra channel.  We may end up living in a world where people only watch their movies and shows from one studio and nowhere else, which is kind of already happening at the worldwide box office, with Disney taking an almost 40% share of total theatrical ticket sales.  But, even with all that, we are also witnessing a flourishing of creativity in Hollywood now that we haven’t seen in a long time.  This Golden Age of television that people have been proclaiming recently has been largely fueled by the risk-taking new shows that have come from streaming, and that same flourishing is beginning to extend into films as well.  I love the fact that Netflix has invested in prestigious talent and given them free reign to do whatever they want.  It’s a refreshing change from the more budget-conscious, focus group driven model of the last few decades.  Despite what it may do to my wallet over time, I have already signed up for Disney+ and am considering adding more streaming platforms into my daily options instead of less.  There’s a reason why so many film studios are jumping on board, because streaming allows them a direct connection to the audience that they’ve never had before, and with a solid stream of revenue coming from monthly payments, many of them can return to making movies and shows the way they want to make them; with renewed confidence.

Collecting Criterion – The Rules of the Game (1939)

It’s strange when you see something thought to be old fashioned and classical all of a sudden become the rage once again.  I often think about that when I look at the series Downton Abbey.  The English made television series is a relatively simple show about relations between members of the British aristocracy and the working class staff that labor in their opulent manor house.  Period dramas such as these tend to be a niche genre with a limited audience pull, but to many people’s surprise, Downton Abbey became a phenomenon; not just in it’s native country but across the world too.  I myself got caught up in the hype too and became an ardent viewer of the show over it’s six season run.  There was just something so perfectly fine tuned about the show that made it incredibly appealing, which probably is attributed to the excellent ensemble cast as well as the razor sharp wittiness of show creator and head writer Julian Fellowes.  But Downton Abbey is by no means a fluke either.  It follows in a long tradition of period dramas that focus on the class differences that manifest within the walls of stately manors.  You see it quite a lot in the films of Merchant Ivory, as well as in a series that served as the precursor to Downton Abbey called Upstairs Downtairs, which aired on the BBC (and on PBS here in the States) in the late 1970’s.  Upstairs Downstairs even gave this particular sub genre it’s commonly used nickname.  Julian Fellowes also won an Oscar for writing a movie that many consider now his Downton trial run, called Gosford Park (2001), directed by Robert Altman.  But what may surprise many people is that this film tradition didn’t begin in “Merry old England,” like you would assume, but rather in pre-War France.  The Upstairs/Downstairs genre of film can arguably be traced back to the Jean Renoir classic, The Rules of the Game (1939, Spine #216) which also has been graced with a special edition via the Criterion Collection.  Many of the standards of the genre that we still see used today were written in this original satirical dramedy, and surprisingly, for it’s time, these weren’t a stroll back into a bygone era, but in fact a product of it’s time.

Jean Renoir, the son of famed impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, holds a very special place in the Criterion library.  Not only did they choose to spotlight his work early on in their home video releases, but they even launched their line with a Renoir flick.  Renoir’s legendary anti-war drama, Grand Illusion (1937, #1) was the very first ever film released under the criterion label on DVD.  It’s understandable that this was the movie that Criterion chose to launch themselves onto the DVD format with, because it’s often cited by many as the greatest film ever made; at least in art house circle.  Orson Welles even cited it as the highest achievement in film-making, and this is coming from the guy who made Citizen Kane (1941), which itself is held up as the greatest film ever made by many.  Whether people today still share that sentiment is unclear, but Criterion has certainly help it to maintain exposure.  Because of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, Renoir is often referred to as the father of French Cinema, helping to give it notoriety throughout the world.  Renoir was indeed a bit of a Renaissance man in cinema, as he wrote, directed, and produced all of his own movies, and even acted in a few as well.  He was also not afraid to inject his own points of view into his movies, as many of them are often social critiques.  The Rules of the Game in particular became something of a scandal in it’s time with it’s frank social commentary attacking the upper social class.  Eventually, his politics led to his exile from France due to the occupation of Nazi forces within the country, who made his films strictly “verboten” to the public.  Renoir eventually settled in Hollywood where he would make a string of artistic but still compromised films.  Still, he held a special place in his heart for his early French films and their journey towards cinematic redemption in the years after World War II are a fascinating story in themselves.  The Criterion edition of The Rules of the Game in particular does a great job in helping to shed a light on a film that in retrospect stands as an important cultural marker for both French and world cinema.

The Rules of the Game as a title refers to the societal rules that both of the classes must adhere to within a strictly stratified society.  The story centers on a collection of French aristocrats and the servants who wait upon over the course of a night within a palatial countryside chateau.  Over the course of the night, tangled relationships begin to start boiling to the top and threaten to break apart the fragile facade of the “game” that all of them are playing a part in to maintain appearances.  The primary thrust of the story comes from the love triangle between Andre Juieux (Roland Toutain), a beloved celebrity pilot: Christine de la Cheyniest (Nora Gregor), the woman he’s been having an affair with; and the Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), Christine’s husband, who also has his own side affair going on with a mistress named Genevieve (Mila Parely).  With the help of Andre’s friend Octave (Renoir himself), an acquaintance of the Marquis, Andre is able to gain an invite to a lavish ball being held at the Marquis’ chateau, with the intent of getting close to Christine in order to share his true feelings for her.  Meanwhile, Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost) is being pursued by a newly hired servant named Marceau (Julien Carette), whom she has a playful little flirtation with, which draws the ire of Lisette’s husband, Schumacher (Gaston Modot), the estate’s groundskeeper.  As the night’s festivities go on, the various love triangles begin to cross paths, and mayhem ensues.  The Marquis’ scandalous marriage turmoil begins to undermine his rich aristocratic veneer, while the staff’s inability to keep their professionalism on course throughout the night with jealousy running rampant threatens to strip away any amount of dignity they might have had in the eyes of the ones they served.  And thus, the rules end up getting consistently broken by people desperate to keep the game going, despite not seeing the apparent truth right in front of them; that they are all flawed human beings with the same desires and bad judgments regardless of their position in life.  And in the end, misunderstandings and unchecked jealousy inevitably leads down to the road of bloodshed.

Perhaps even more fascinating than the movie itself is it’s road to redemption in the years since it’s release.  Even though the movie has gone on to influence so many other films and shows, it may surprise you to know that it was a financial disaster when it first premiered.  At the time, it was the most expensive movie ever made in France, costing around 5,000,000 francs, which would be north of $100,000,000 in today’s money.  This was largely due to the lavish interior sets that Renoir had constructed, some of which were so spacious that you could only capture the full breadth of them in wide shots.  Renoir needed a strong showing not just at the French box office but also in the international market to break even, and considering the incendiary nature of the film’s overall message, that was going to be a steep uphill climb.  The film was almost immediately suppressed by influential people in the French upper class, who objected to being portrayed in such a foolish light in the film.  Renoir would continue to tinker with the film in order to attract more of an audience, cutting nearly a third of the film down over time.  And then, the war reached the French borders, and Renoir and his many collaborators had to suddenly flee in order to escape Nazi persecution.  Like I mentioned before, many resettled in Hollywood and even had prosperous careers there.  You may even recognize actor Marcel Dalio who played the Marquis, because he turned up in Casablanca (1943) as the croupier at Rick’s Cafe.  Sadly, Renoir had to leave his original films behind, and as the war went on, many of the original camera negatives to his movies were destroyed, including the original cut of Rules of the Game.  After the end of the war, Renoir sought out whatever he could to reconstruct his nearly lost masterpiece.  Thankfully, copies had been held in vaults across Europe and, in time, he managed to assemble a nearly full reconstruction of the film.  To this date, only one scene remains missing, but Renoir was satisfied with what he had and deemed the missing scene inconsequential.  The film enjoyed a celebrated re-release in the 1960’s and since then has become the beloved cinematic classic that it remains to this day.

There are a lot of factors that have helped to keep Rules of the Game a relevant film throughout the years, and I think primary among them is the humanity that Renoir puts into the characters.  No matter what the person’s social standing was, he treated each person’s story with the same amount of importance.  This was unique at the time, as domestics often were relegated to the background of the story, merely there to be window dressing as the movies spotlighted the glamorous lifestyles of their principle characters.  But here, the characters downstairs are fully fleshed out people as well, with intriguing dramas of their own, which sometimes even mingles in with the upper class itself.  Renoir was interested in the human condition, and found the environment of a palatial countryside estate to be a perfect setting to explore the follies of separating the classes.  It should be noted that Renoir’s film is a critique of the people and not a condemnation.  None of his characters are truly bad, but the system they prop up is indeed the thing that he intends to scorn.  One of the film’s most famous scenes is the Rabbit Hunt halfway through the movie, which is also it’s most controversial.  The movie shows real animals (rabbits, pheasants, ducks) being gunned down by the hunting party in a shockingly frank depiction.  The scene is a not so subtle metaphor to the horrors of war, which Renoir himself experienced during World War I, with the animals being stand ins for soldiers dying in the field.  In this scene, Renoir is pointing the finger at the upper classes of Europe who seem to treated war itself as a bit of sport without ever taking into consideration the consequences it leaves behind on both the lower classes and the country itself.  In many ways, he used this metaphor as a stark warning to the people of France to become more aware of dangerous recklessness of their game of social manners, as it brings danger even closer to their door, which no doubt was on Renoir’s mind as Fascism and Communism were on the rise in Europe.  The movie’s ability to make compelling human drama across the entire social spectrum, both rich and poor, made the film more fascinating in the years beyond it’s release and has been the thing that has remained influential to other films today.

Criterion has given the movie another stellar restoration in order to preserve it for future generations.  As stated before, the original camera negative was a casualty of World War II, and for a time, people were worried that it would remain a lost film, much like Orson Welles’ severely compromised Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  The restoration of the film was a painstaking effort and the condition of each film stock was mixed.  Eventually, enough work was done in order to make it feel like a whole piece once again.  Criterion has gone even further, taking the 1960 restoration as their blueprint and conducting even further clean-up using the digital tools of today.  With enhanced color timing and a thorough washing off of all scratches and warps made to the film over 80 years, Criterion now has a new pristine digital master that helps to bring the movie as close to it’s original look as it possibly can.  Because the original negative is lost forever, we can never have an exact duplication of the film’s original clarity, so the picture can be a little soft at times, but the blu-ray transfer does it’s best to retain the fine detail within each frame.  The contrast in the blacks, whites and grays all look incredible, and help to showcase the lavish sets that Renoir had constructed for the film better than we’ve seen in years.  The movie’s soundtrack has also been given a polish to help it sound up to date.  The famous hunting scene in particular sounds very good, with each gunshot carrying the intended jarring effect.  For a movie this old, and one that has had a troubled history up to now, this is a stellar restoration that is likely to be the best we can ever expect.  And given Renoir’s artistic background, holding visuals up to a high standard, he would’ve probably approved of this restoration himself.

The supplemental features are up to the usual high standard that you’d expect of the Criterion Collection.  First of note is a film introduction by Renoir himself, which he filmed specifically to show in front of the movie before it’s 1960 re-release.  He explains why it’s such an important film to him, especially with regards to the themes.  He also shares a fascinating anecdote about how one angry viewer even tried to burn the theater down that the movie was screening in.  There are a couple excerpts from two television documentaries about Renoir, one from French television and another from the BBC.  They both specifically center on the period in which he was making Rules of the Game, helping to shed context of the movie’s place within his overall career.  A video essay also spotlights the film’s initial, problematic release, as well as the year’s long restoration that helped to resurrect it for a new generation.  A vintage interview with the film’s restoration team on a French television series called Les ecrans de la ville also gives more background to the reconstruction of the film.  Renoir historian Chris Faulkner also recorded scene-specific analyses just for Criterion, where he discusses more about the film’s underlying themes, it’s controversies, it’s history, and even a bit more about Renoir himself.  There’s also a commentary track written by film scholar Alexander Sesonske and read on the track by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich.  A comparison of the film’s two alternative endings is also featured, as are interviews both new and archive from people like film critic Olivier Curchod, set designer Max Douy, Renoir’s son Alain, and actress Mila Parely.  As usual, Criterion treats all their titles to a wealthy collection of bonus features that are there to please the film buff in all of us and give us the most in depth look into these beloved classics.

It’s hard to watch The Rules of the Game now and not see it’s DNA found in every period drama today that portrays the day to day lives of the fabulously wealthy, and the hard working people behind the scenes there to help keep up appearances.  It’s even more surprising that the genre continues to remain strong even today, with a surprising juggernaut like Downton Abbey continuing to remain popular, even as it makes it’s way to the big screen.  But the remarkable thing is that The Rules of the Game feels even more relevant now than ever.  As the world has again spiraled into political unrest, a story like Rules of the Game once again feels like a dire warning.  Social inequality doesn’t present an ideal society, despite the allure of decadence.  Trying to maintain your place within the “game” eventually blinds you to what’s going on, and eventually the struggles of the lower classes boil up and will eventually break the game apart in total.  For Europe in the 1930’s, it was the rise of Fascism, which the French elite paid no mind towards, until the Third Reich were marching their way down the Champs Elysee.  Today, we are seeing inequality become a factor again, and it in turn is leading to a rise in populist sentiments, which is disrupting political order and is literally splitting nations apart, all the while our entertainment seems to remain distracted by celebrity culture.  Renoir wanted to spotlight the human condition within a decadent world, and pull back the facade to show how little difference there was between the classes, and how corrupt the system was in trying to maintain that lie.  Shows like Downton Abbey and Upstairs/ Downstairs aren’t quite as incendiary as Rules, but they do share Renoir’s passion for treating all the characters with the same amount of importance.  Because of that, we find relatable people that we can identify with in each story and imagine where our place might be in this kind of society, which helps us to contemplate where we stand in our own world.  It’s legacy lives on many years later, but The Rules of the Game more than anything represents a fine cinematic representation of art and storytelling coming together in a deceptively simple yet compelling way, with Criterion’s excellent presentation and package, it will continue to inspire more like it in the years to come.

Rule Number One – Talking About 20 Years of Fight Club

When people discuss the years that are considered among the best ever for movies, probably the most recent one to come into that conversation would be the year 1999.  Closing out the 20th century as well as the last millennium with quite a bang, we saw a year that banged out one classic after another, many of which have gone on to be highly influential 20 years later.  But the interesting thing about 1999 is the fact that so many of the best loved movies from that year were ones that at the time were not major hits upon release.  I already spotlighted one of those movies a couple weeks ago with my retrospective on Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant here.  I myself in particular have really found the legacy of these rising classics particularly interesting, because they go all the way back to when I started paying closer attention to the movie industry in general.  In 1999, I was a sophomore in high school who had just seen Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen and knew that my life’s path was going to be in the pursuit of film-making.  Because of this renewed interest, I began expanding my range of films to look out for, trying to open my perspective to include a wider spectrum of what the industry had to offer.  And in the early fall of 1999, I managed to catch a movie that not only hit the right spot, but would go on to become the first movie that I ever proclaimed to be the best movie of the year, since this was also the first year ever that I began to keep track of that distinction.  That movie would be the shocking, “in-your-face” spectacle that was David Fincher’s Fight Club.  Fight Club knocked me off my feet the first time I ever watched it, and even 20 years later it still packs a punch.   But the interesting I discovered while revisiting it was how different it plays today than it did back then.  The movie still holds up, don’t get me wrong, but the message takes on a whole different meaning in today’s cultural climate.

Much like The Iron Giant had in the weeks prior to the release, Fight Club was not financially successful right away.  It didn’t bomb as heavily as Giant did, since it was not a terribly expensive movie to make, but it still underwhelmed, given that it had an A-list star like Brad Pitt on the marquee, as well as two rising, Oscar-nominated names like Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter involved as well.  Critics were even divided at first.  Roger Ebert notably gave the movie a thumbs down review, stating that he found the movie an unfocused mess.   But, as with most movies that become classics long after their initial theatrical release, Fight Club found it’s audience on home video.  Fight Club came out at just the right time to take advantage of this new technology called DVD, and it was the first cult hit to rise on this new format.  In time, the movie became a best-seller and critics were starting to change their tune.  For a lot of people, the movie was a revelation, as well as a breath of fresh air after a decade of polished, studio fare.  Like it’s fellow 1999 alum, The MatrixFight Club brought a notably punk style to the medium of film; changing the way movies looked, sounded, and even edited.  But while The Matrix had a sleek cyber-punk aesthetic to it, Fight Club was grungy, dank, and even rotting at the edges at some points.  It was a movie that was held nothing back and presented a decidedly anti-Hollywood aesthetic to the big screen.  And a lot of people started to ask themselves; is this movie the future of film-making?  Is this the start of an American New Wave?  Did Meat Loaf actually give an awards worthy performance in a movie?  No matter what anybody said then or in the years after, Fight Club had left a mark on the film industry.

Perhaps one of the things that really started pulling in new people to the movie was the unexpected way it played a trick on it’s audience.  Again, the year 1999 had many noteworthy things that left an impact on audiences, but one that really stood out was the renewed popularity of the plot twist.  M. Night Shayamalan had earlier that same year stunned people across the world with his now infamous twist ending to The Sixth Sense, helping to propel that film to record breaking success.  But, at the same time, Fight Club had it’s own shocking plot twist that in some ways is even better executed than Shayamalan’s.  Had The Sixth Sense not taken so much of the thunder away in the weeks prior to Fight Club’s release, I wonder if the revelation in Club may have hit harder than it initially did.  For those of you who haven’t seen the film and don’t know what I’m talking about, well fair warning, but there are SPOILERS ahead.  The plot centers around a nameless protagonist known only in the credits as the Narrator (played by Edward Norton).  After a rough couple of weeks of working a thankless job and going to therapy, he runs into a quirky gentleman on a plane ride home named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).  After the Narrator’s apartment burns down, he crashes at Durden’s run down home in the bad part of town, and the two come up with a crazy way of letting out some of their aggression; they begin to fight each other.  In time, other people want to join in and both the Narrator and Tyler start what ends up becoming known as the “Fight Club.”  Over time, the Club becomes bigger with Durden making more demands of it’s members to declare their loyalty to the group, creating in away a cult like organization.  This troubles the Narrator who desperately tries to reverse the zealot like direction this club is going in.  But, in his efforts, he finds that he can no longer reach Tyler and the Club has transformed into a full on terrorist organization, all of whom look to him as their leader.  And then we get the bombshell.   The Narrator cannot locate Tyler Durden, because he is Tyler Durden.  The Tyler we’ve seen is just an imaginary friend that has manifested through the Narrator’s paranoid schizophrenia, and with that, the movie reaches it’s legendary peak.

The plot twist stems from the original novel of the same name from author (and fellow Oregonian) Chuck Palahniuk, but it’s execution is so well handled by director David Fincher and screenwriter Jim Uhls.  For nearly two-thirds of the movie, you have to buy into the belief that Tyler Durden and the Narrator are two different people, and not two personalities in one body.  The excellent chemistry between Edward Norton and Brad Pitt sells that dynamic perfectly, and you just have to admire the fact that the movie expertly keeps you in the dark until the bombshell drops.  But that’s not the only thing that makes the movie a classic.  This movie, probably more than any other, cemented the Fincher style.  David Fincher had won acclaim four years prior with the unforgettable thriller Seven (1995), and was able to deliver a compelling drama with The Game (1997).  But with Fight Club, we saw Fincher really begin to play around with the camera, utilizing CGI for the first time, which he pushed to the limit with what was possible in 1999.  This was the first movie where Fincher started using his high speed pans, which would take the camera across the plain of view at such incredible speeds and through impossible barriers that could never be done with a standard camera (like through concrete walls or even something as tiny as the ring of a coffee mug).  Such a technique has since become David Fincher’s signature, and it put him on the map as a filmmaker.   The movie also defies many cinematic conventions, like several points where it breaks the fourth wall, and reminds you that you are indeed watching a movie.  There’s a great moment where we see Pitt’s Tyler working as a movie projectionist, and while he is working with the Narrator speaking directly to the audience about what a projectionist does, Tyler points to the point of the screen to the reel marker appears just as it flashes on screen, referring to it as a “cigarette burn.”  When I became a projectionist myself in college, you can bet that I called those markers cigarette burns as well.  And it’s that free-wheeling sense of anything goes that made Fight Club so appealing to a young, blossoming film buff like me back in 1999.  Indeed, watching it only gain in popularity over the years has been very satisfying as someone who took to it so strongly from the very beginning.

But, after 20 years since it’s initial release, it’s interesting to see how differently it plays now than it did then.  In 1999, the world was a much different place than it is today, and it’s amazing to re-watch the movie in 2019 and see how far ahead of it’s time it was.  There are some things that both the novel and the movie couldn’t have foreseen, like the rise of social media and the radicalization of fringe political movements, but given how so many elements of the story feel so relevant today, it’s really amazing to see how prophetic Fight Club actually is.  Some would argue that Fight Club is actually partially to blame for some of the discord that we see in the world today.  The movie has been described as a textbook for how to start a radical terrorist organization, showing step by step how groups such as those form; preying on angered, disenfranchised civilians to join their ranks in order to spread chaos as a means of pushing forward a demented agenda.  While the movie never intends to endorse this kind of behavior, it nevertheless shows a detailed look into the formation of a powerful political movement formed around a dangerous ideology.  And some have argued that Fight Club glamorizes it as well.  It’s hard to not notice that some of the tactics that the followers of Tyler Durden enact within the movie bear many resemblances to actions taken by fringe groups today.  The mayhem of the Fight Club cult are in many ways akin to the pranks pulled by Internet trolls today, though many are much more malicious than anything that Tyler Durden came up with.  There’s also the unfortunate way that elements of Fight Club has been co-oped into some hate groups’ talking points.  You know the term “snowflake” that the Alt-right likes to use dismissively against their political rivals; that came from Fight ClubFight Club certainly, as a movie, wanted to stir the pot a bit to shake conformities within society, but it’s unfortunate that the movie has in some ways emboldened some of the worst in our society, who have taken the absolute wrong message out of the movie as a whole.

The thing that gets gets ignored the most with regards to Fight Club as a narrative is that it is first and foremost a satire.  In particular, it’s a scathing indictment on the societal definition of masculinity.  One thing that gets forgotten about the movie is how the character of the Narrator is defined.  The movie is about him trying to discover for himself what it means to be a man.  First the story attacks how corporations define masculinity, as the Narrator spends his money on things that society says should define his worth as a man, but it all instead makes him feel empty.  He only finds true happiness after he does the least masculine thing that society has defined; weeping openly in the arms of another man, or in this case the voluptuous “bitch tits” of his friend Robert ‘Bob’ Paulson (an unforgettable Meat Loaf).  Later, he creates the persona of Tyler Durden through a need to have an ideal, masculine friend to rely upon, and that relationship in turn leads the Narrator down the road to promoting an ideology where the ideal of masculinity is defined by how hard you can hit the man that you consider your friend.  This later evolves into the desire to destroy beautiful things, because they are a threat to a masculine ideal because they come from a decadent, corporatized place.  This leads him to nearly killing pretty boy Angel Face (a young Jared Leto), because of that desire to destroy something he found beautiful, which gets to another deep psychological underpinning of the story.  It should be noted, this movie called by many as a Fascist, testosterone fueled pro-male fantasy, was authored by a politically progressive, openly gay novelist who lives in the hipster capital of America; Portland, Oregon.  This story was never intended to celebrate the ideal of the Heterosexual, Macho, hyper-masculine American male; it was meant to be a scathing indictment of that kind of person, and for some reason or another, that seems to have been ignored by both some of the movie’s fans as well as it’s critics.

Much like other misunderstood satires such as Blazing Saddles (1974) and Tropic Thunder (2008), the message seems to get lost in all the noise so that it appears to some that it’s participating in the very practice that it’s trying to mock.  The way that I look at the movie Fight Club today is not as a step by step breakdown of how terrorist groups are formed like some have described it, but as an extremely effective dissection of the root causes of toxic masculinity.  The brilliance of Chuck Palahniuk’s story is in the characterization of his Narrator.  The fact that he is never named in  the novel just illustrates the blank canvas that he is supposed to be in the narrative, and how that emptiness leads him down more dangerous roads in order to fill that empty void.  Tyler Durden is a fiction made reality through the Narrator’s deranged desire to find a better version of himself, and as the story shows us, the desire to be more manly in a way drives one to become a little more monstrous each day.  Palahniuk spotlights a very interesting point here, in how a pursuit towards a perceived ideal in masculinity sometimes drives men, even rational thinking men, into acting against their own self interest.  This sometimes manifests in some ways towards actions like men taking unnecessary risks in order to prove their manhood (such as the car wreck test halfway through the movie), or threatening violence against those who threaten their masculinity.  For the narrator, he’s on a dangerous journey of self-discovery, which ultimately leads him towards reconciling his perceived inadequacies with what he ultimately wants to be as a man; which is closer to being more compassionate.  In order to get there, he literally has to destroy a part of himself in order to excise Tyler Durden completely from his mind; bringing the self-harm metaphor right to the forefront.  You can see the same kind of toxic masculinity represented in those who same politically extreme groups that tout Fight Club as an inspiration, despite missing the whole point of the movie.  How many men have unnecessarily harmed themselves trying to prove their masculine worth.  How many of those men also attack other for not being masculine enough to their liking.  The same hatred can be found in all those closeted males who take their frustration over their own sexuality and channel it into persecution of openly queer people as a result.  Palahniuk, as a queer person himself, must have wanted to examine where that line of thinking might be coming from, and the narrative he found in the process did a brilliant job of helping to shed light on this issue in a meaningful way.

That’s why Fight Club feels just as relevant today, because we are currently in a climate where definitions of toxic and ideal masculinity are again beginning to stir heated debate.  In my opinion, Fight Club subverts what you might expect of it.  It presents this hyper-masculine pastiche on it’s surface, but underneath, it’s a biting satire of the destructive paths men take in order to reach an unrealistic ideal.  It’s just too bad that much of it’s message has been lost over the last 20 years, and in some ways has been unfairly misinterpreted by both some toxic fans and also by ill-informed critics.  It’s critique of toxic masculinity may be the most profound we have ever seen put on film.  It’s a shame that in the same year, the Academy Awards celebrated a different kind of examination of masculinity with the very overrated American Beauty (1999).  American Beauty also examines the psychological journey of a disgruntled American male, but instead of critiquing this kind of character, it almost lionizes his sudden transformation into a self-absorbed rebel, even making his lust over a teenage girl as a part of his awakening enlightenment.  It doesn’t help that he’s also played by an equally toxic human being named Kevin Spacey.  Suffice to say, American Beauty has aged terribly over the years and feels very much like a relic of it’s era, while Fight Club has become more relevant than ever.  No other movie really digs this deep into the root causes of toxic masculinity and shows it reaching such dire extremes.  What Fight Club shows is that much of the discord that arises from toxic masculinity comes from a dangerous sense of fear; fear of not being seen as manly enough by society and how that leads to destructive ends in order to compensate for those perceived weaknesses.  Tyler Durden is not a poster boy for the best of masculinity; he is a villain bent on destructive ends.  And the scary thing is, there’s a little Tyler Durden in every man, young or old, who feels like they are lacking something in their life.  Fight Club, even with the veneer of it’s revolutionary punk aesthetic, ultimately wants us the viewer to choose compassion over destruction, and that is why it continues to remain a beloved classic to this day.  Even 20 years later, I am still confident in my choice to have it top my list for the year 1999.  And by examining how it’s message resonates today, I am not just confident it’s the best movie of 1999, I think it stands as one of my favorite movies, period.  I am James’ complete lack of surprise.

It: Chapter Two – Review

If there was ever a shared cinematic universe that has yet to be properly exploited, it’s the one from the mind of author Stephen King.  King, the modern master of horror, has churned out novel after novel over nearly 50 years of writing and with all that has created one of the most prolific canons ever in literature.  What’s even more surprising about all of his novels is the fact that many contain a shared mythology.  Sure it’s a convoluted and bizarre mythology that loosely ties his stories together, but it’s there and it’s very much a product of his imagination.  But those ties have never really been explored too deeply on the big screen, because as much as Stephen King has a devoted fan base and a body of work worth a dozen or so franchises, King’s relationship with Hollywood has been a sometimes contentious one.  Very protective of his own work, King often oversees the adaptations of his books into film himself, ensuring that everything he values from his own writing makes it onto the screen in tact.  Because so many of his novels run on the long side, he often forgoes taking his books to the big screen in favor of creating television mini-series instead, because the longer format gives him the time he needs to include everything from the books.  This often has come with it’s own downside, as King has had to compromise the more graphic elements of his stories in order to meet television standards, but it’s a compromise he has been willing to make in order to retain his control over the adaptation.  This probably stemmed from the 1980 adaptation of The Shining by Stanley Kubrick, which King famously hated because of all the changes Kubrick had made to make it more “theatrical.”  The receptions of his television adaptations have been fairly mixed over the years, from positive (Under the Dome) to very negative (The Langoliers).  But if the was one that proved to be a standout, it was probably his 1990 miniseries of his most famous novel; IT.

For a novel with a title as simple as IT, it is remarkably monstrous in size.  Running the length of a Bible, IT is peak Stephen King, in both the best and worst ways.  For one thing, it has some of the most surreal and frightening imagery that he has ever committed to the page.  One the other hand, it is also bloated and meandering, and just plain weird for weird’s sake, showing the author at his most indulgent.  The novel is famous for a lot of things, but perhaps it’s most famous creation is the titular monster at it’s center; the demon clown who also goes by the name Pennywise.  Even the novel’s most ardent critics will admit that Pennywise is one of King’s most enduring creations.  Anyone who’s already afraid of clowns will no doubt be traumatized by the mere thought of this character, which makes the novel all the more famous, because of the often provocative covers of the novel, which continue to display the demented smile of the monster, even to this day.  Stephen King’s TV mini-series adaptation ran for two nights shortly before Thanksgiving in 1990, and it very much was a TV event.  In retrospect, it hasn’t aged very well, and does feel like a neutered version of the original novel (with good reason considering some portions).  But again, it was Pennywise that was the standout, with actor Tim Curry giving a now lauded performance.  While satisfying to Stephen King, a lot of fans of the novel felt that the mini-series left a lot to be desired and that a movie version was needed to do the book justice for real.  But how do you take the immensity of the novel IT and do it justice on the big screen.  The answer came 25 years later when director Andy Muschietti came up with the idea of taking the two time periods of the novel (when the main characters are children and adults) and splitting them into two separate movies.  The novel intertwines the time periods, and the mini-series more or less stuck with that structure too.  But Muschietti’s approach worked very well and the first film, IT (2017), which focused on the characters as children, broke box office records.  Now, this week, we are presented with the final, It: Chapter Two, and the question now is was the cinematic approach taken effective enough?

IT: Chapter Two begins right after the close of the first chapter, with a rag tag band of pre-teens who call themselves “The Losers Club,” recovering from their near death encounter with the demonic Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard).  The all swear to each other that if Pennywise ever returned to their hometown of Derry, Maine, they would as well in order to destroy “it” once and for all; no matter what.  27 years later, after a mysterious murder is committed in Derry, with all the tell-tale signs of the Clown’s handiwork, a grown up Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) begins to call up the friends that he hasn’t seen in years, delivering them news of the day they hoped never would come.  Among them include prolific writer Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), comedian Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), successful entrepreneur Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), insurance risk analyst and hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransome), and deeply scarred Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain).  They meet in a Chinese restaurant back in Derry, and fondly reminisce, until they realize that one of their friends, Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) is not there with them.  They soon learn that Stanley had that same day taken his own life, and the painful memories that they had surprisingly forgotten all start flooding back.  And then, Pennywise’s mind tricks begin to manifest.  Some of them want to flee as quickly as possible, but Mike claims he has found a way to entrap Pennywise and seal him away for good.  It involves them making a sacrifice a token of their past in a ritual, so each of them sets out to find something in town they had left behind.  However, the longer they stay in Derry, the easier it becomes for Pennywise to begin playing with their minds again.  On top of that, the former bully who tormented the Losers Club as children named Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) has been broken out of an insane asylum with Pennywise’s help, tasked with killing each one of the Losers.  Whether hunted by evil living, dead, or otherwise, the Losers Club are determined to put an end to Pennywise once and for all, which becomes all the more difficult as the Clown only grows more powerful the more fear he spreads across town.

The first IT from 2017 was a surprise hit that year, breaking every conceivable record for a horror movie during it’s run, as well as setting new high water marks for the month of September and the fall movie season in general.  It benefited greatly from the book’s long standing reputation, and also from a strongly emphasized theme of nostalgia at the heart of the film.  Since the first movie depicted the story of the main characters in the past, it made sense to have it set in the past (the 1980’s to be exact) so that Chapter Two could have a contemporary setting.  Because of this, there was a lot of 80’s flavor added to the movie that gave it some extra character, not unlike the Stranger Things TV series that owes a lot of it’s inspiration to the works of Stephen King itself.  Given how well the first movie resonated with audiences, the pressure was on to follow it up strong with the inevitable Chapter Two.  And I have to say, director Andy Muschietti met the challenge and then some.  When comparing the two, I have to say that I found Chapter Two to be even better than the original.  Though I liked the first IT well enough, I thought that it was a bit uneven in tone, fluctuating wildly between moments of sincerity and moments of absurd over-the-top insanity.  IT: Chapter Two follows much more the unhinged weirdness of the latter, and it benefits greatly from that.  I think that in the time between films, Andy Muschietti realized the best way to approach the story was to really embrace the zanier aspects of King’s novel, and avoid the melodrama altogether.  The first film at times felt like a mash-up of Stand By Me (1986) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which often made it feel distractingly sporadic in tone.  Here, the movie sticks with the creepiness and keeps the sentimentality to a minimum.  And it’s a formula that for the most part works.

One thing that I actually found myself really impressed with about this movie was how well paced it is.  IT: Chapter Two  remarkably has a run-time of nearly three hours, which is unheard of for a horror movie.  The first IT also ran at a bulky 2 1/2 hours, and when you combine the two, that makes for nearly 5 hours total devoted to this story.  But, given the length of King’s novel, it’s understandable.  Even so, Muschitetti manages to never make this movie feel it’s length, and he does so by constantly delivering new set pieces to drive the story along.  Every character is given their own standout segment of the movie, some more frightening than the others.  I haven’t read the novel myself to compare how much of what ended up in the movie came from the book itself, but each encounter with Pennywise in the movie is thankfully diverse and keeps revving up the tension up until the end.  I especially like a scene with James McAvoy’s Bill attempting to save a child trapped in a Hall of Mirrors maze while Pennywise is on the other side of the glass.  It’s an especially creepy scene with incredible atmosphere, which is owed a lot to the movie’s exceptional production design.  There’s very little of the movie that feels rehashed, even from the original movie, and that helps to give it an identity all it’s own.  In some ways, the movie owes just as much inspiration to the work of director Sam Raimi as it does Stephen King, as it balances the juxtaposing tones of humor and horror with a great amount of skill, something Raimi excelled at with his Evil Dead films. It works much better than the Spielbergian overtones that director Muschietti tried to incorporate into the first IT.  You’ll definitely be finding yourself laughing at this movie just as much as you’ll be clutching the armrest of your seat in anticipated terror.  Few movies can strike that balance, and I felt that Chapter Two did better than most.

The other thing that I also found really remarkable about the movie was just how well cast it was.  For one thing, this is a very strong ensemble of adult actors, with impressive bodies of work of their own.  For one thing, Jessica Chastain is one of my favorite actresses working today, and it is nice to see her here in the very crucial role of Beverly, elevating the part beyond just being the token girl of the Losers Club.  James McAvoy always delivers solid work no matter the role, and it’s especially pleasing to see comedic actor Bill Hader given such a meaty role in a big movie like this, helping to boost his stock as a film actor.  But, what is especially impressive about this cast is just how close they all look like their younger counterparts from the original IT.  You put these actors side by side with the young actors who played the same characters in the other film, and you could definitely believe that they are the same person 27 years apart.  There’s even one incredible moment in the movie when the picture dissolves from the face of James Ransone playing Eddie in the present day to the face of young Jack Dylan Grazer playing Eddie in the past, and the similarity is uncanny.  Andy Muschietti probably intended to cast for lookalikes, but you rarely see it done this well in movies.  There are moments where the movie does have to remind you that we are seeing different time periods at play, and surprisingly we revisit the past quite a bit in this movie.  You can tell at some points that some of the young actors had short window to film their scenes before their bodies changed too much; such as Finn Wolfhard (Young Richie) and Wyatt Oleff (Young Stanley) who both grew several inches between movies.  But the effect still works for the most part and the movie goes between different time periods with ease.  It also has to be said that the one constant for both films, Pennywise, still remains strong.  Bill Skarsgard looks like he’s having a blast playing this character, which is something he has in common with Tim Curry’s iconic take on the character.  It’s always hard to portray terror with the guise and personality of a clown, but he nails it and becomes both terrifying and hilarious at the same time throughout his performance.

All this being said, the movie is not without it’s faults either, which keeps it from becoming an all time great as well.  The interesting thing is that the problems with this movie come less from the crafting of the movie and instead comes from the story itself.  Even with an expanded budget and more time to devote to the material, I still think that no amount of time and money could make everything from Stephen King’s novel work on the big screen, and there are moments in Chapter Two that I still feel could have been changed or excised completely.  One is the completely unnecessary Henry Bowers plot cul-de-sac which is as pointless here as it was in the original mini-series, and I assume in the book as well.  It even culminates in an underwhelming resolution, which just made me wonder why it was even deserving of being here in the first place other than just as a way of remaining true to King’s novel.  You know, there was a reason why Kubrick took the living hedge monsters out of The Shining, because he rightly knew that it wouldn’t have worked on film, and that it would have been an unnecessary addition.  King should understand that while his books are amazing creations, not every single idea in them is golden, and that definitely becomes apparent by the film’s end.  There’s a running joke in the movie where people’s common complaint about the books that Bill writes, saying that he’s terrible at writing endings, which is a self aware nod to the often universal complaint about IT‘s almost universally hated ending.  But, even despite making a self-aware joke, even this version still can’t overcome the silliness of it’s climax, which is another example of the filmmakers perhaps adhering too closely to the source material.  At least this time around, they try a little harder to make the ending work; they do it better than the mini-series anyway.  But, yeah, it’s still the weakest part of the movie, but not enough to undermine what had come before.  And the novel is even weirder than what we see in the movie (no giant cosmic turtle in this one I’m afraid) so I commend them for trying to fix as much of the original story’s problems as they could, but even still, Stephen King’s novels unfortunately have just as many problems as they do their strengths, and that even extends into the best adaptations of his work.

For the most part, as a horror film and an adaptation of Stephen King’s writing, IT: Chapter Two is a success, hindered solely by shortcomings of the original story itself.  I thought that this movie did fix a lot of the uneven tone that undermined the first movie in the series, and I was especially impressed by how well it utilized it’s nearly three hours of run-time.  You really don’t feel those three hours at all, which is a triumph in itself.  The cast is uniformly excellent and I was impressed with how well each matched their younger counterparts from the first movie.  Bill Skarsgard definitely deserves a lot of praise for creating a memorable version of Pennywise for the big screen.  Filling Tim Curry’s big clown shoes is not easy, but I feel that Skarsgard’s Pennywise is on par with the original.  The only thing I would say Curry’s version has over his is the voice, with Tim’s natural baritone coming off a lot more sinister than Skarsgard’s squeakier tenor.  I also appreciated that the movie embraced it’s sillier tone at times, never taking itself too seriously, which allows for the zanier Stephen King elements to land more effectively as the movie goes along.  Again, the faults in the film have more to do with the fact that King wrote too much into the original story to begin with and also, in a way, had no idea how to wrap it all up in the end.  King is much better at crafting ideas than a full, perfectly constructed narrative, and that often has been something that has been a blessing and a curse for him as a novelist.  At least now, thanks to Andy Muschietti’s valiant efforts, we do have a cinematic version of it spread over two films that probably be the closest we’ll ever get to a perfect adaptation of this monumental novel.  I for one am happy to see an earnest attempt like this of bringing Stephen King’s writing to the big screen and my hope is that we see more like this in the future.  There have been many King adaptations over the years, but few actually do the books justice, or even elevate beyond what King envisioned, so with IT Chapters 1 & 2, it is pleasing to see someone take the biggest and most complicated book of them all and actually deliver something worthwhile with it.  And that’s no laughing matter.

Rating: 8/10

The Movies of Fall 2019

As the summer season comes to a close, a diagnosis of the state of the industry becomes more understood.  And what we’ve learned from the past three months is that one singular studio is dominating all the others; Disney.  With 4 of the top 5 box office grosses this year coming from The Walt Disney Company, they are clearly the undeniable champ of the summer movie season.  Though part of their continued dominance may be due to the fact that they are the only studio with the properties that are capable of bringing people out to the theaters.  Otherwise, most people are opting to stay home and stream their movies on their TV.  Other studios have been struggling to find the next big property that can compete against the Disney juggernaut, and they are coming few and far between these days.  Universal saw healthy results with their Fast & Furious spin-off Hobbs and Shaw, but their Illumination Animation release, The Secret Life of Pets 2, disappointed.  Warner Brothers barely got any traction with Detective Pikachu.    And Sony had to share a piece of the pie with Disney over their big hit, Spider-Man: Far From Home, which probably led to the un-amicable split that both companies made to their contract last week.  The change has been dramatic to the industry when it comes to what we can see at our local cinema, and it either comes down to huge tent-pole productions that only make a profit if they have the backing of a noteworthy brand (which is increasingly becoming monopolized by a single studio), or if it’s a small indie film that costs little and manages to find a modest profit after finding an audience.  Everything that used to fall into the middle is heading to streaming instead, and this could very much change the power dynamics in Hollywood for years to come.

But, with Summer behind us, it’s now time to look in the months ahead, which is Awards season. There are plenty of movies that we already know will be strong contenders for year end awards, but the fall festival, which includes Venice and Toronto, could offer up even more surprises that haven’t even been put on the radar yet.  In addition, we also have those holiday tent-poles to look forward to as well.  Like I’ve done in years past, I’ll be taking a look at some of the most noteworthy upcoming releases for the Fall movie season.  They’re broken up into the must sees, the ones that have me worried, and the ones that I insist are worth skipping.  It’s all based on my own response to the early buzz these movies are receiving in addition to how well the marketing is doing it’s job in promoting these films.  I could be wrong about a few of these, but I feel pretty confident about my choices here, and I welcome any surprises that might prove my first impressions wrong.  So, let’s take a look at the movies of Fall 2019.

MUST SEES:

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (DECEMBER 20)

This one is a no-brainer.  Perhaps the most anticipated movie of the year (excluding those from Marvel Studios) this is a movie that you could say is 40 years in the making.  Albeit, there have been several gaps in between, some as long as a decade or more, but Rise of Skywalker, the ninth mainline film in the entire Star Wars franchise, purports to be the final chapter in this ongoing story that began all the way back with A New Hope in 1977.  This “Skywalker Saga” includes the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy, and after The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, this will be the end of this sequel trilogy that began after the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm.  One of the things that I have loved the most from these current films is that they’ve given one final go-around for the original cast that started it all, and this upcoming is no exception either.  Not only are we getting the final screen performance from Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa (taken from unused footage from Force Awakens) but we also get the return of Billy Dee Williams in the role of Lando Calrissian.  Apart from that, there seems to be a concerted effort on director J.J. Abrams’ part to bring everything full circle before the final chapter closes.  The nostalgia heavy trailer from last week’s D23 Expo seen above showcases moments from across the entirety of the series, and I believe that it’s setting us up for a film that both wraps up it’s own story-line, while also paying tribute to all the mythology that has come before it.  It’s going to be difficult to bring a franchise this important to cinema to a satisfying close, but from what I’ve seen so far, it appears that both J.J. and his cast and crew have definitely got their hearts in it.  And considering the implications as seen from the trailer, showing the revelation of “Dark Rey,” this is series that still has a few surprises left to reveal.

THE IRISHMAN (NOVEMBER 27)

I know that this is breaking my tradition of spotlighting movies coming soon to theaters, but considering how much bigger of a chunk Netflix is contributing to the industry these days, and also because a Netflix movie topped my best of the year list for 2018 (Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma), I figure that it’s about time to include the streaming giant on this preview as well.  This is also due to the fact that a Netflix original just so happens to be directed by Martin Scorsese, whose new film The Irishman looks so promising.  Here we find the legendary filmmaker in familiar territory, telling the story of a cross-section between politics and the criminal underworld, which seems like a natural for the man behind Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995).  In fact, the movie even includes many Scorsese regulars in the cast, including Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, with Al Pacino acting for Scorsese for surprisingly the first time ever.  Scorsese may not have created the mafia film, but he certainly matured it and made it his own, so it’ll be interesting to see him return once again to this kind of movie.  It’s also an interesting story of speculative history; showing us the death and disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) from the point of view of the man who allegedly pulled the trigger on him (DeNiro).  Hopefully, the Netflix connection doesn’t cloud the reception of this movie like it did for Roma last year.  Netflix is almost daring the Academy to ignore them this time, given how much pull the Scorsese name carries.  I always love to see what Scorsese has in store with every new movie, and whether it’s in theaters or streaming on Netflix, it will absolutely be a must see.

JOKER (OCTOBER 4)

Speaking of Scorsese, here we have a movie that owes a fair amount of it’s inspiration to the legendary director.  The movie looks to tell the backstory of the iconic villain from the pages of the DC comics, and it’s tone, look and even plot are all very Scorsesian.  It even has Robert DeNiro in a key supporting role, making the connection all the more apparent.  But, it all feels like a good fit for the clown prince of crime.  This is another in a smart, upward trend for the once struggling DCEU, where they are focusing instead on individual movies rather than building towards a cross-over event.  After the delightful Shazam, DC goes dark once again, which is really the only way to capture the menace of the Joker.  From the excellently constructed trailers, we get a real good sense of how much actor Joaquin Phoenix is pouring himself into this role.  He is already standing on the shoulders of great performances that have filled this role before (Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) but Phoenix seems to bringing something even different to the role, which is this underlying sadness to the character.  Here we see a man driven to the edge by a steady stream of hardships and heartache, and through all that, we see the monster underneath boil up to the surface.  Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) comes very much to mind in this regard, but there’s also a fair amount of The King of Comedy (1983) at play here too.  How much this all plays into the DC mythos is unsure, and director Todd Phillips assured that this was going to be a very different Joker story than we’ve ever seen.  But, regardless, I think it will be worth seeing just for how unnerving and powerful Joaquin Phoenix’s performance might be.

KNIVES OUT (NOVEMBER 27)

After spending time in the Star Wars universe, director Rian Johnson returns to familiar ground with an earthbound murder mystery, with a sly sense of humor thrown in.  While the story itself may seem pretty basic for it’s genre, the cast assembled is something to behold.  Even in just the central family you have heavy hitters like Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Christopher Plummer just to name a few.  Plus, we get an investigative detective played by none other than James Bond himself, Daniel Craig.  These are the kind of ensemble casts in movies that garner their own attention, and it’ll be interesting to see how Rian Johnson utilizes them in his film.  This kind of movie seems more in line with the films he made in his early career like Brick (2005) and The Brothers Bloom (2008), so it’ll be interesting to see how much of an impact the work he did on Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) left on his directorial style.  Is he no longer in touch with his old techniques, or is he still capable of delivering on something less grand in scale but still distinctly his own creation.  My guess is that the plot of this movie is less consequential to the overall appeal of the film than the interactions between the actors.  And it will be interesting to see Johnson also work is a broader comedic style, since his films have tended to be a bit more on the grittier side up to now.  This is where the Star Wars influence may have been helpful to him as a director, because it’s allowed him to play around in different genres that he otherwise would have had a more difficult time transitioning into.  Regardless, this film still looks like a fun romp that uses it’s impressive cast well.

JOJO RABBIT (OCTOBER 18)

If there is one type of movie that I especially enjoy seeing it’s a satirical comedy, especially one that takes a very politically incorrect spin on a subject.  This one, from the demented mind of Taika Waititi, tells the story of a young boy in the Hitler’s Youth army during the height of Nazi Germany whose imaginary friend just so happens to be a happy-go-lucky version of the Fuhrer himself (played by Waititi).  Given the touchy subject of fascism and nazis, I applaud Taika for not holding any punches.  I’m of the belief that figures like Hitler and all his Nazi followers should be mocked rather than feared, because it robs them of their power.  I think people tend to be drawn to things that are not politically correct and that has been what has allured many people towards embracing more fascist ways of thinking in recent years, because it’s seen as more rebellious towards a politically correct society.  With this film, which shows the absurdity behind the Nazis and their ilk, Taika is in a way reclaiming politically incorrect humor for the anti-fascist side, and I think that is something absolutely worth celebrating.  This movie has all the sly, unforgiving humor of a Mel Brooks comedy, and like Brooks, Waititi seems very determined to put Nazis and fascists in their rightful, diminished place.  After all, the movie’s tagline is that it’s a satire that “goes to war on Hate.”  And just seeing Waititi in his Hitler costume alone is enough to put a smile on my face.  My hope is that Taika delivers the kind of comedy we need right now to effectively bring politically incorrect humor back to where it should be; in the service of combating hatred and injustice in the world.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

FROZEN II (NOVEMBER 22)

Let’s face it, one of the main reasons why Disney is a dominant force right now in entertainment is because of the surprise successes of movies like Frozen (2013).  The original was almost unstoppable at the holiday box office when it first released, and you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing the show-stopping number, “Let it Go”, someplace around you for months on end.  So, why am I worried about this one.  Well, it has to do with the expectations of having to recapture something that big for a second time, which sequels rarely do.  I had mixed feelings when it came to the original (admired the artistry, but was disappointed with the narrative), so my expectations are not astronomical.  But, I do admire the fact that this movie helped bring confidence back to Disney animation, which has led them to making more daring and ultimately satisfying animated films like Zootopia and Moana (both 2016).  An underwhelming sequel could unfortunately shoo people away from Disney animation, or even worse, make Disney become complacent again by retreating back to safe and predictable.  There are some positives to note about what I’m seeing in the trailer.  First of all, there seems to be more focus on telling Elsa’s side of the story, which is a good change of pace because I felt that she was the best character in the first Frozen, and was underutilized in favor of her more obnoxious sister; sorry Anna fans, but I could’ve used less of her in the movie.  Also, there seems to be more peril and adventure at the heart of this movie, which could help make it an exhilarating sit.  I just hope that they don’t rely too heavily on Olaf related slapstick.  Disney Animation needs to keep being daring, and it would help to see that in what is now their most bankable franchise.

AD ASTRA (SEPTEMBER 20)

On the surface, this should be a must see film.  A space-based adventure film with an intriguing premise, an all star cast, and an impressive looking production; all this seems like a movie that I would get easily excited for.  So, why am I not.  I think one thing that might be affecting my reception of this movie is the space film fatigue that we seem to be recently experiencing.  These types of movies started off strong with Alfonso Cuaron’s epic Gravity (2013), and continued on with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) and Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015).  But with the underwhelming reception given to Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018), it almost feels like the genre has crested and is beginning to wane again.  I feel like I’ve seen this movie before, and yet it’s completely different than any other one that’s been made.  I hope there’s more to it than just a ticking time clock towards stopping annihilation.  At least the trailer does leave some room for unknown secrets to be revealed.  But, the movie has to overcome the fact that it’s on the back end of a cinematic trend and it’s not really distinguishing itself right out of the gate.  Brad Pitt has recently been giving us some good leading man roles, and I certainly feel like he’s coming off some of his best work yet in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  Hopefully we see the best of him in this role too.  And hopefully the movie gives us more in a visual sense than just another Space Odyssey wannabe.  We’re hungry for originals, and this could be that promising new thing, or it could just be more of the same.

DOCTOR SLEEP (NOVEMBER 8)

It’s always daunting to make a sequel to a beloved film, especially one that comes nearly 40 years after the original.  Working in Doctor Sleeps favor is the fact that author Stephen King himself wrote a book sequel to The Shining first, before there was even talk of a movie sequel.  With Doctor Sleep being a best seller, Warner Brothers now had the licence to revisit the property, but even with that, there are still risks with regard to how well that may play with The Shining’s die hard fans.  For many, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is an untouchable masterpiece.  Now, I feel that a sequel is possible if given the right approach, and Stephen King himself obviously found a story that satisfied him.  However, what worries me is just how much this movie adaptation of the book seems to be reliant on Kubrick’s version of The Shining.  For one thing, Kubrick’s film deviates wildly from the book, which caused a now famous rift between the director and the author.  This could lead to some narrative issues with Doctor Sleep, and I worry that referencing another film too heavily will only reflect badly on this new one as a result.  I will say that the casting of Ewan MacGregor as a grown up Danny Torrence seems pretty right.  And the director, Mike Flanagan has been responsible for some of the best recent horror films as of late, including some King adaptations as well.  But, he has rarely treaded on sacred ground like this, and it’ll take a lot of careful film-making to make this movie a worthy companion piece to the original Kubrick classic.  This movie must stand well enough on it’s own, otherwise all work and no play makes Doctor Sleep a dull movie.

GEMINI MAN (OCTOBER 11)

Director Ang Lee is one of this generation’s greatest filmmakers, and a remarkably versatile talent who seems to effortlessly jump from genre to genre.  But, if there is one area that he seems to struggle with, it has tended to be action movies.  He created a great artistic spectacle with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), but his adaptation of the Hulk (2002) was a muddled mess.  Now he finds himself working in the genre again, on a film that languished in development hell for over a decade.  Based on the marketing so far, this movie looks to be far from Ang’s artistic comfort zone.  It sadly comes across as another generic action flick, but relying very heavily on it’s hook; the de-aging effect on star Will Smith.  A few years ago, this might have been a breakthrough special effect, especially when the movie was in it’s earlier stages of development, but given that Marvel has already been using this technique for several years now (to sometimes impressive effect), it just no longer has the same impact.  Considering that the movie is hinging so much on this one gimmick, that Will Smith is facing off against a younger version of himself, makes me worried that it’ll ultimately be a let down.  I hope that Ang Lee’s skills as a filmmaker helps to elevate the material and makes this a movie that transcends it’s genre.  But, thus far, all we’ve got to go on is that somewhat uncanny valley image of a de-aged Will Smith, and for many, it’s either off-putting or not impressive anymore.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (NOVEMBER 1)

You know we’ve been down this road before.  Every time they reboot the tired Terminator franchise, it ends up leading to a movie that further sinks the series into irrelevance.  This time, series creator James Cameron is said to be more involved, and that this one is truly the authentic sequel to the last great film of this series, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992).  However, we were also told that Cameron gave his approval to the last film in the series, Terminator: Genysis (2015), and that film was a convoluted mess that completely wrecked havoc on the franchise’s already complicated timeline.  I highly doubt this will be the movie that rights the ship.  Sure, it is nice that Linda Hamilton is returning to the role of Sarah Connor, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence also helps to bring a sense of continuity (he’s also the only consistently good thing in this series).  But, the dour and uninspiring trailers don’t fill me with a lot of confidence.  It just seems like the franchise is regurgitating the same old cat and mouse chase element from all the other movies, with the heroes being hunted down once again by the same shape-shifting robots.  It was a novelty back in the late 80’s and early 90’s; now it just feels generic.  As much as James Cameron wants to keep this franchise going, I feel like it’s better to give it a rest and not try so hard to fix continuity that no one really cares about anymore.

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL (OCTOBER 18)

If you weren’t sick of the Disney remakes already, here’s a sequel to their live action adaptation of Sleeping Beauty.  The first Maleficent (2014) was seen by many as the movie that started off this recent trend of remaking Disney’s animated classics, and it was also the one that started the trend of making them inferior to the original.  Despite a strong performance from Angelina Jolie as the titular dark fairy, the movie took the absolute wrong angle with the story by turning the iconic villain into something of an anti-hero.  Maleficent’s appeal as a villain is her almost operatic sense of maliciousness, and the fact that her villainy knows no bounds.  But by turning her into a sympathetic character in the first Maleficent, especially with making her the reluctant guardian of Princess Aurora, the movie undermines everything that made her iconic in the first place.  And now, Disney believes there is more to this story to tell, and it almost feels like they are completely disregarding their own character development between films.  Apparently, Maleficent breaks bad again here, really for no other purpose other than it’s what we associate her most with.  If you’re going to change a character like this all of a sudden, Disney, at least be consistent.  There’s a reason why people love Maleficent so much as a character, and it’s not just because of her iconic look.  She is “Mistress of all evil” for a reason.  There are times when a revisionist spin on a tale is appropriate, and then other times it spoils the appeal of what made the story so magical in the first place.  And I don’t like seeing the menace of Maleficent become so diluted in these movies.

MIDWAY (NOVEMBER 8)

Usually I look forward to a epic scale war picture, but it also depends on who the film is coming from.  Unfortunately, this one is from one of my most disliked filmmakers; Roland Emmerich.  The action film director has been on a downward slop over the last decade, and the fact that he wants to tackle a subject like the Battle of Midway makes me especially worried.  The World War II battle is an important turning point moment in the Pacific theater of the conflict, and it’s very much worthy of an epic scale production to bring it to life for modern audiences to witness.  However, it appears that Emmerich is just falling back on his impulses for spectacle rather than emotional involvement.  There are a lot of Pearl Harbor (2001) vibes going on with this movie based on the trailer.  The over-reliance on CGI, the unnecessary melodrama, and also the fact that it looks so uninspired.  Spielberg revolutionized the genre by putting the audience right in the middle of the action with Saving Private Ryan (1998) and more recently Christopher Nolan showed how to create scale without reliance on visual effects which helped to convey authenticity in Dunkirk (2017).  Emmerich’s track record with historical epics is not exactly encouraging.  He did make The Patriot (2000) nearly 20 years ago, which was cliched but effective, but since then 10,000 B.C. (2008), Anonymous (2011) and Stonewall (2015) have shown just how irresponsible he can be when working with history in his films.  What worries me the most is that the movie will end up dishonoring the memory of those who fought in the battle just so that he can indulge his unsubtle and bombastic tastes as a filmmaker.

So, there you have my outlook on the closing months of the year 2019.  Most likely, we are going to see the Disney company finish out strong like they have all year, riding on the sure bets of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Frozen II.  But there is still plenty of room for surprises.  I certainly don’t know what to expect from the awards race just yet, as many of the films that should emerge as front-runners at year’s end haven’t even been given set release dates yet.  Also, the emerging influence of Netflix will play a major factor, as they are about to debut an ambitious release schedule in the next few months, with The Irishman standing out as the premier attention getter.  Netflix will also see their first real challenge to their supremacy in the streaming market once Disney+ launches in November.  It will be interesting to see how streaming content will evolve once these two media giants begin to go up against each other, and how that may affect things at Awards time as well as at cinemas across the world.  Even so, there is still no shortage of exciting new releases coming in the months ahead.  I especially can’t wait to see how Star Wars wraps things up with their epic conclusion to the series.  Also, considering that I live in Los Angeles, where films are legally bound to screen for eligibility in Academy Awards consideration, I’ll still have the opportunity to watch all the Netflix movies on the big screen, which will give me the chance to judge effectively how they stack up with theatrical release films.  In the end it shouldn’t matter, but if it came between watching a movie in a theater or on my TV for the first time, I will always choose a theater first.  So, I hope that my preview has been helpful in spotlighting some noteworthy films that might interest all of you in the coming months.  Let’s hope that our holidays are full of fun times at the movies, no matter which way we end up watching them.

D23 Expo 2019 – Film Exhibition Report

The magic of Disney returns once again to the Anaheim Convention Center, and it only continues to get bigger with every passing year.  Since the last Expo in 2017, Disney has broken new records at the box office, opened up their largest theme park expansion ever, and has acquired an entire movie studio as part of the largest media merger in history.  The addition of 21st Century Fox as a part of the Walt Disney Company in particular has been the most monumental change in the last 2 years, and it should make for an interesting  showcase over the next few days as Disney lays out what lies in the near future for the company.  In years past, the focus has largely been on giving the Disney fans a chance to fully explore all the many facets of the Disney company in a fun and informational environment.  Every time, more and more of the expansive Anaheim Convention Center gets utilized and Disney has even more to show off this time around.  I have tried my best to get in all the major sights of the Expo, with a particular emphasis on catching the major announcements made throughout the 3 Day event.  This year, Disney introduced the somewhat controversial addition of advanced online reservations for this year’s Expo.  Naturally, like buying tickets for a midnight showing of Avengers: Endgame, the online registry was flooded with passholders hoping to get one of those coveted seats, and many people unfortunately were left out.  I myself ended up missing out on reservations for the shows I really wanted, but there’s still the standby queues available, so much of my upcoming Expo experience will probably involve waiting in long lines.  At least I’m not as focused on waiting in line for merchandise or talent signings; it’s all panels and booths for me, so hopefully I can plan it all well enough to enjoy my time there.

This will be my 4th overall D23 Expo.  Again, like the last two, I will be spending all 3 days there.  I hope to have daily updates loaded onto this site for all of you to read, hopefully with plenty of pictures as well.  It’s going to be a hectic couple of days, but I will spend any moment I can to write down my thoughts about all the experiences I will have during the Expo.  After having gone through this 4 times now, my hope is that I’ve become an expert navigator through the convention experience, but who knows how much the online reservations added this year will have an effect.  In any case, as a lifelong Disney fan, I am extremely excited to see what awaits all of us behind those convention floor doors.  Please enjoy my following day by day chronicle and let’s all take a look at this wonderful world of Disney on display at D23 Expo 2019.

DAY #1 (AUGUST 23, 2019)

If there is one thing that the last three Expos has taught me, it’s to be prepared, and very much so.  Given how I didn’t know what effect the online reservations might have, I prepared myself to be extra ready for all the stuff I wanted to see and possibly even guard myself for some disappointment.  As such, I left my hotel room extra early, at around 3:30 in the morning to be exact, and made my way to the Convention Center.  This was already a smart decision as there was no wait at the security checkpoint.  Once through the metal detectors, me and the other guests were directed down to the Convention Center’s entry.  Out front, we were greeted by the first major photo spot for attendees to pose in front of; the expo logo spelled out in giant 3D letters, which looked really great with the Convention Center facade in the background.  Those of us who came this early were taken down to the Center’s Hall E, which is located in the basement.  I’ve already had many hours spent in this spacious hall from past Expos, and once down there, we were all split into groups; those of us who wanted to attend the first show of the Expo (the Disney Legends induction ceremony) or those who wanted to be the first ones through the doors into the Expo show floor.  Because my goal was to attend the second big show of Day 1 (the Disney+ presentation) I opted to go to the show floor queue instead of Legends.  Already, I could tell that 10 years of Expos has improved Disney’s crowd control performance, as the many swaths of people were expertly escorted upstairs and formed into nicely organized rows once it came time to open the doors.  So, for the first time ever, I managed to walk into the show floor right at the stroke of 9am, already making me feel happy that I planned well ahead.

And first impressions of the show floor were very positive.  Disney has thankfully found the best ways to lay out all their many different booths to fill up all the available space within the show floor.  One thing that really stuck out right away was the enormous push that Disney was going to put on their streaming platform that launches in November; Disney+.  Located very near the center of the entire open show floor was the massive Disney+ booth.  The Disney+ set-up included a stage at it’s center with kiosks lined up at it’s front, flanked by costume displays for two of the platform’s most anticipated launching programs (the Star Wars series The Mandalorian and the Lady and the Tramp remake) and demo rooms on either side of the stage.  This booth was clearly built to be the star attraction of the show floor.  The stage was there to host both demonstrations as well as interviews with special guests.  There was even a special press balcony located over one of the demo rooms for even more space to conduct special press coverage and interviews throughout the day.  The kiosks out front were there for guests to take advantage of a special offer.  Just for guests at the Expo, they would be able to sign up for 3 years of Disney+ for a 30% discount (roughly $4 a month) and in turn they would be made part of what Disney calls the Founders Circle, which got them an exclusive pin as a reward.  Just around the corner and on the backside of the Disney+ booth, were two other streaming platforms already available through Disney and are going to be available as part of a bundle with Disney+ in November; Hulu and ESPN+.  Hulu’s booth featured artifacts from some of their exclusive programming on display (The Handmaid’s Tale and Castle Rock), while ESPN had sports memorabilia, including an entire wall devoted to the history of sneakers.

Being one of the first on the floor, I decided to take advantage of the short lines that would no doubt fill to capacity in an hours time.  Just so I could get it out of the way, I went over to this year’s Walt Disney Archives exhibit.  In past years, the Archives have displayed incredible artifacts from their vaults, like a collection of ride pieces from Disneyland attractions of the past, or the last Expo’s incredible exhibit devoted to Pirates.  This year, the exhibit was devoted to costuming, and in particular, they had it focused on Disney heroes and villains.  Dubbed Heros & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume, this sprawling gallery contained original film used costumes from across the entire history of live action Disney films.  The first room, which worked as a bit of an introduction, was devoted to spotlighting some of the designers who have contributed to the Disney films that were going to be represented in this gallery.  Theses included Oscar winners like Sandy Powell and Coleen Atwood, who’s dresses for movies like 2015’s Cinderella and 2010’s Alice in Wonderland.  This space also replicates what their offices probably look like, with the results of their work (the costumes themselves) sitting within the center of the rooms.  After the introduction, the exhibit opens up into a wide open floor with the costumes lined up all along the walls.  From here, you will find costumes ranging from the witches dresses worn by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy in Hocus Pocus (1993); Tim Allen’s Santa outfit from The Santa Clause (1994); a dress worn by the legendary Bette Davis in Return to Witch Mountain (1978); and most prominently, many of the costumes from the several recent Disney remakes like Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Aladdin (2019).  Some of the most interesting sections of the gallery include a corner devoted to Mary Poppins, with the famous grey coat and flower hat worn by Julie Andrews in the original, flanked by two new dresses worn by Emily Blunt in the recent sequel.   There was also a large section devoted to the character of Cruella De Vil, with several dresses worn by Glenn Close in the 1996 remake of 101 Dalmatians on display.  In addition to the costumes, there was also the Cruella De Vil limousine from the movie sitting in the corner, which was one of the largest props put on display here, along with the golden pumpkin coach from the Cinderella remake.

After visiting the exhibit and getting my first look at this year’s show floor, I made my way back to the lobby to get ready for my top priority for this first day; seeing the Disney+ presentation in the expansive Hall D23.  Interesting enough, this afternoon slot on the Expo schedule used to go to the Animation Studios presentation, which this year got lumped together with the live action studios for the Disney Studios presentation on Saturday.  This once again shows how much Disney wants this Expo to spotlight their upcoming streaming platform.  The last of Hall D23’s standby for the Disney Legends were just getting seated around 10:30am, a half hour into the show, and then they finally opened up the line for those of us who were waiting for Disney+.  We were escorted down to Hall E in the basement, where the line was again split up into separate queues.  Being a D23 Gold Member, I was able to line up in a priority queue just for Gold Members, and since I was early enough, I was nearly at the front of the line.  I still didn’t know if it was a guarantee of having a seat, but to my incredible delight, Gold Members were seated even before those with online reservations.  As a result, once they started letting us in after a couple hours of waiting, I was able to get a fairly good seat.  Albeit, I was in a line for Section A, which is off-center from the main stage, but my seat put me fairly close to the screens that would be displaying all the exclusive footage.  Surprisingly, we were allowed to have our phones out for this show to capture the moments on stage as they happened, though security were around to stop people from video taping the exclusive footage.

So, to start of the show, we were treated to a live stage performance by the cast of the upcoming series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.  This hard to describe series takes place in a school that provided the shooting location of the original made for Disney Channel movie, and now the students there are putting on a staging of their own and that’s the plot of the series.  Hope you got all that.  Even still, the musical performance got the show off rolling and we were introduced to the MC of the presentation, Community star Yvette Nicole Brown.  Wearing a sparkling Disney+ shirt, she preceded to enthusiastically introduce all the many Disney executives and talent who were there to show off what we were expecting to find on the platform when it launches November 12.  After the High School Musical segment was complete, we moved right into Marvel’s slate of programming.  Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige walked out on stage to kick things off.  First off, we were given more detail about the exciting new animated series What If…?, which will be an anthology of multiverse variant stories with characters from across the Marvel Universe.  Many of the characters will be voiced by their original actors, with Jeffrey Wright debuting as a narrator character known as the Watcher.  Surprisingly they had finished animation to show us in a debut trailer.  Some of what we saw looked amazing, especially the hybrid CG/hand drawn style that is reminiscent of a comic feel.  The footage really spotlighted a story line where Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and not Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) gets injected with super serum and becomes Captain Carter instead.  After showing the clip, Feige welcomed Haley Atwell on stage, who seemed very excited to be returning to the role.  But Feige was not done.  He continued to talk about the shows already announced at Comic Con in July, including Loki, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and WandaVision.  Each time, he introduced cast members like Anthony Mackie, Sabastian Stan, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, and a video greeting from Tom Hiddleston.  But after that, Feige surprised everyone by making three previously unknown show announcements that will be part of Marvel’s Phase 4.  They included Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight, and She Hulk.  It’s nice to know that even with the huge comic con Marvel presentation that they still save some surprises for us at D23, and the Marvel presence on Disney+ is something to definitely be excited for.

So, after Marvel’s big showcase, the show moved on to non fiction programming.  First off was a new reality series starring everyone’s favorite celebrity weirdo, Jeff Goldblum.  His new show basically follows the Jurassic Park actor around as he tries new things and activities, all with his oddball personality providing much of the entertainment.  Goldblum of course was there to introduce the trailer, and as I was watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one though of a show like this before, because it looks like a lot of fun.  Afterwards, actress Kristen Bell arrived on stage to talk about a reality series that she’s producing called Encore.  In the show, people who had stage performing backgrounds from high school are given a chance to return to the stage and put on a musical after many years having not performed.  After this, we saw a first look at a special secret project that Disney had been working on which is a documentary series called One Day at Disney, which follows around several employees of the Walt Disney Company, from animators to theme park cast members and chronicles a day in their life.  After this, the presentation moved on to feature films, where we saw sneak peaks of young adult and children films called Star Girl and Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made.  Primary among the feature films however was the premiere of the trailer for Disney’s Lady and the Tramp live action remake.  And, as we learned after, MC Yvette Nicole Brown has a role in the film as Aunt Sarah, and she walked on stage with the real life dogs who portray the characters Lady and the Tramp in the movie, one of which she has adopted herself

However, Disney knew what to close out this presentation with in a strong way, and we segwayed into the platform’s lineup of Star Wars programming.  Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy walk out on stage to deliver all the announcements.  She started off by saying that all previous and future Star Wars films would be available to watch on Disney+, and then she talked a little about the upcoming revival of the beloved Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series.  After this, she then told us that they are currently working on a brand new series spun off of Rogue One, specifically centered on the characters of Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) and imperial droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk).  Both actors came out on stage and within seconds just started riffing off one another, showing their strong chemistry that they hope to continue in the show.  After that we arrived at the most anticipated new show on Disney+, and perhaps the most anticipated program to launch on the platform period; The Mandalorian.  This new show, created by director Jon Favreau, explores the years after the fall of the empire in Return of the Jedi (1983), and shows the lawlessness that comes in it’s wake; in particular, focusing on bounty hunters that roam the galaxy.  The show focuses on a Mandalorian, the same race that Boba Fett is derived from, and shows him navigating his way through this new world order within the Star War’s galaxy.  Favreau appeared on stage and welcomed the cast which included Pedro Pascal as the Mandalorian himself, Gina Carano, Carl Weathers, Giancarlo Esposito, and Taika Waititi.  They all talked about how excited they are to be in this show, with Favreau also expressing how much he wanted to make this into a series, going as far back as when he was working on Iron Man (2008).  They then showed us a first look trailer, and I can tell you that it looks really good and is something that I can’t wait to see.  This was the last part of the show, but Kathleen Kennedy remained on stage to deliver one last surprise.  She then welcomed actor Ewan MacGregor on stage.  Despite many a rumor, this was the big confirmation that MacGregor will indeed be returning to the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in his own Disney+ series, which he seemed very excited about.  And with plus sign confetti raining down from the ceiling, Yvette Nicole Brown brought the show to a close.  So, with Day 1 complete, I managed to successfully attend at least one of the must see presentations.  But, as I’ve learned in years past, it’s the Saturday morning show that would become the biggest challenge to attend.

DAY #2 (AUGUST 24, 2019)

Showing just how much bigger this Expo has become over the year, just as I exited the Convention Center there was already a lengthy line going from the security gates all the way down Katella Avenue to the very next intersection half a mile away.  You can bet that I got right back in that line.  After a few hours, they started letting us reenter past the security gates and back to the Convention Center itself.  I got back into Hall E at about 11:00pm, four hours later, and was about to spend the next 10 hours waiting for the hotly anticipated Disney Studios presentation.  It was hard getting a little shut-eye while laying on the cold concrete floor, but I was ready for what was next.  I had my Gold Member place saved in line and that gave me the peace of mind that I was going to get in.  At around 9:00am, we finally started seating and I can tell you that it filled up to capacity very quickly.  My seat was not as close as it was for Disney+, but it was at a distance that I could still see enough.  After a short sizzle reel, the show began and Studio chairman Alan Horn walked on stage to begin the presentation.  Surprisingly, one thing that they have saved for Expos in the past was used as their opener this time around; Star Wars.  The finale to the 40-plus year Skywalker Saga as it is known now comes out this December with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and it was the primary thing that was going to be talked about with regards to Star Wars.  Kathleen Kennedy once again took the stage and she welcomed director J.J. Abrams on to talk a little about the film.  He spoke about the incredible pressure he now has to close out this long ongoing story, and how excited he was to be working on it.  He also spoke about the important impact that the late great Carrie Fisher had on his experience making Star Wars.  Later, cast members Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, and Billy Dee Williams came out on stage to talk about the movie.  After that, the very anticipated premiere of the new trailer came on screen, and we got a major surprise at the very end that quite literally stunned the entire 7,000 strong crowd of Hall D23.

After that, we launched right into Marvel’s section of the show, again surprising given that they were the closer of the last Expo’s presentation.  This year, there wasn’t much for Marvel to present.  We are past Infinity War and Endgame, and much of the upcoming stuff is either too far down the line or is coming to Disney+.  Kevin Feige did come on stage with one major announcement, and to help him with it, he welcomed director Ryan Coogler.  Coogler was there to announce that Black Panther II is in the works, and though he couldn’t detail anything (not even the official title) he still was able to tell us the premiere date; May 6, 2022.  Afterwards, Feige began to talk about the very next Marvel film currently in production; Black Widow.  Star Scarlett Johannsen, and co-stars David Harbour and Florence Pugh were unable to attend but they did send us a video greeting from the set.  Afterwards, we got to see the first available trailer footage of the movie, which looked quite good.  It had a nice Jason Bourne feel to it, which does make it feel different as a Marvel film.  There’s also a cool and brutal fight scene between Black Widow and her sister (Pugh).  After that, Kevin Feige talked about the next film in their calendar, Eternals.  No footage was shown, but he did welcome the cast on stage, which included Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Dong-seok Ma, Lauren Ridloff, Selma Hayek, Lia McHugh, Barry Keoghan, and Angelina Jolie.  Feige also confirmed that Game of Thrones star Kit Harrington was joining the cast, though he himself was not at the Expo.  And, just as the cast members were about to leave, the screen above revealed the first official image of them in costume.

After Marvel, the focus shifted to Disney Studios proper, and we were about to learn more regarding the upcoming live action remakes in the Disney pipeline.  One was for the upcoming origin film called Cruella, which of course follows the early years of the beloved fur coat obsessed baddie, Cruella De Vil.  The film’s star, Emma Stone, couldn’t be there but she recorded a greeting for us, which included a bit where she bickers with one of her Dalmatian co-stars.  We were then shown the first ever image of what Emma Stone will look like as the character.  Following that, we were treated to a more in depth look at the upcoming remake of Mulan.  The film’s director, Niki Caro, came on stage to talk a little about the movie, including what drew her to the story and why she felt it was important to tell it in this certain way, which is closer to the original legend.  We were then treated to an extended scene from the movie itself, which shows Mulan’s encounter with a Matchmaker.  The movie looks visually impressive and my hope is that it reverses the downward trend that these remakes have been taking.  The next project discussed was the movie adaptation of the Disneyland ride, Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt.  Both came on stage in spectacular fashion, Johnson riding on a replica of a Jungle Cruise boat and Blunt in a fancy old fashion convertible.  They clearly wanted to show off their on screen chemistry, and it was fun to see them share playful jabs at each other.  They even debuted competing trailers as well.  After this, we moved into the animation side of the presentation.  First up was Pixar, with new Studio chief Pete Doctor taking the stage.  He was excited to show the two new films coming in 2020 from the studio.  First up was the less known about film called Soul.  We learned that the movie is set in a world where a person’s soul first forms a personality before a person is born; an interesting Inside Out-like concept.  The movie centers around a wannabe jazz musician who finds himself body-less at the worst time.  We were then introduced to the voice cast, led by Jaime Foxx and Tina Fey.  Given how nothing was known about this movie beforehand, it was nice to finally have the exciting revelations about this movie come to light.

Afterwards, the focus shifted to Pixar’s very next film, Onward.  the film’s director Dan Scanlon arrived to talk a little more about the plot, which uses the premise of fantasy creatures in a modern, suburban setting to tell the story of two elf brothers.  He then welcomed the voices of the characters on stage; Tom Holland and Chris Pratt.  These two probably got the biggest rock star ovation out of the entire show, especially for Holland who has had to go through this week with his future in the Spider-Man franchise going through a huge upheaval, which is currently now over between Sony and Marvel as of this writing.  They showed us a few extended clips from the movie, which shows quite a bit of plot details, and so far it looks like yet another Pixar flick with a lot of laughter and tenderness attached to it.  Before they left the stage, Holland addressed the audience saying how grateful he was to the fans through such a “strange week,” and he concluded by using a line from Iron Man himself in Endgame; “I love you 3000.”  After that genuine moment, we moved on to Disney Animation to finish the show.  Here they were able to announce for the first time their next film after this year’s Frozen II, titled Raya and the Last Dragon.  This film takes place in a world inspired by the culture and folklore of Southeast Asia.  The showed us a beautifully animated clip, which gave us a glimpse of what we were going to see.  After this, they welcomed on stage the voice actors of the film, Cassie Steele (Raya) and Awkwafina (the Last Dragon), both of whom were excited to be a part of the movie.  Finally, the film closed out with a look at this year’s upcoming Frozen II.  Director Jennifer Lee, whose also now the head of Disney Animation, welcomed two new cast members to the stage, Sterling K. Brown and Evan Rachel Wood.  We were then treated to an extended sequence which premiered a brand new song that will be in the movie.  As a finale for the entire show, we were then treated to a live performance by original cast members Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad, who sang another brand new song for us.

This would be the biggest show of the entire Expo, and no doubt, what we saw was going to be the talk throughout the rest of the day on the show floor.  As we exited, they handed out a pack of three exclusive mini posters, including a very exciting one for Rise of Skywalker.  Because I now had the biggest must see of the Expo out of the way, I was able to relax and enjoy the show floor for the rest of the day.  One thing that I was able to try out that was new was the Gold Member lounge in the north end of the hall.  There, I could line up to spin a prize wheel, which utilizes the new RFID technology that they programmed into our pass badges.  In addition, there were refreshments and seating available for us members who just wanted to have a relaxing place to rest.   I also got to spin a prize wheel at the nearby Marvel booth, which I have to say was laid out much better this year than at the last Expo.  Two years ago, Marvel had this tiny corner booth that caused major traffic jams throughout the day.  This year, they had a huge booth that could accommodate large crowds, which was a major improvement.  Speaking of Marvel, I finished out the day by attending a panel in the smaller venue of Stage 28, located on the third floor, that was centered on the full 80 history of Marvel Comics.  The panel was hosted by Marvel editor-in-chief C.B. Cebulski and executive editor Tom Brevoort, and they gave a fascinating overview of the history of Marvel, from it’s early years, to the Stan Lee years, to it’s current time alongside the massive cinematic MCU.  One hilarious moment occurred when Brevoort mentioned their partnership with Sony, which illicited boos from the very pro-Disney crowd.  The two made this a great and informative panel and they informed us that as we all leave, we’d be receiving a copy of the upcoming Marvel Comics #1000, with an exclusive variant cover showing Mickey Mouse appearing with the iconic characters of Marvel; a first in the comic’s history.  After this tiring day, I thankfully had a hotel room to go back to and get myself prepared for the final day ahead.

DAY #3 (AUGUST 25, 2019)

Even with the busiest stuff behind me, I still got myself over to the Convention Center fairly early.  Arriving well before sun up, I headed to Hall E to get in line for the morning presentation of the Disney Parks presentation; the last of my must sees of this Expo.  And just like the last two days, my over-preparedness got me in a good position to have a guaranteed seat at the show.  We were brought in around 9:30am and the room still filled up to capacity.  The show began with Disney Parks and Resorts chairman Bob Chapek taking the stage.  He first discussed the successful debut of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland over the summer and was eager to see the debut in Disney World in the days ahead.  We were treated to an exciting sneak peak of the next big addition to Galaxy’s Edge which opens early next year; the E-Ticket ride known as Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.  After that, he welcomed different team leaders working on projects across the globe at all their different resorts.  One of the most intriguing was a new Star Wars themed resort coming to Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  The exciting aspect of this resort is how it’s themed.  Apparently it’s going to create the experience of travelling on a cruise vessel in Space, themed to the Star Wars universe.  The ship itself is dubbed the Halcyon, at it will be home to a two day experience where your stay will be very much like a cruise itinerary, complete with Star Wars themed experiences.  After this, the presentation then began to talk about the exciting new Marvel themed land coming to Disney’s California Adventure.  Currently under construction, the land will have the name Avengers Campus, and will feature new attractions and experiences featuring the likes of Spider-Man (yes, the movie deal dilemma does not affect the theme parks), Ant Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther and others.  Placed right next to the already open Guardians of the Galaxy ride, this land will give visitors the immersion into Marvel story-lines that they’ve long wanted to have in the parks.  To conclude the segment, they revealed that this place would also be home to another E-Ticket attraction themed to the Avengers movies themselves.

After those announcements, the presentation moved on to the thing that was going to take up the biggest chunk of the show, which was the vast re-structuring of the Epcot park at Disney World.  We learned that the section of Future World was going to be re-branded into three new sections:  World Celebration, World Discovery and World Nature, which all fits with the branding of the northern section of the park known as World Showcase.  Celebration will see the biggest change to the park’s map, as half of the Innoventions buildings will be removed to be replaced with new gardens and fountains themed around the movie Moana (2016), and it’s connection to the life of water.  Spaceship Earth will remain the park’s central icon, but the ride it houses will see significant improvements.  At the northern end will be a three story structure that will house a garden on it’s roof, which will provide a breathtaking view of the park surrounding it.  The currently vacant Wonders of Life building in the World Discovery section will finally see something installed, which will be themed into a Play pavilion, boasting games and other activities.  Next door, currently under construction, there will be a Guardian of the Galaxy themed ride inside the former Universe of Energy pavilion, which will feature a new roller coaster technology that pivots the vehicles towards show scenes, and will feature a reverse launch.  It will be called Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.  Finally, they talked about the World Showcase, where the pavilions celebrate countries all over the world.  The previously talked about Ratatouille ride coming to the French pavilion was detailed a bit more, but what they spotlighted next became one of the show’s highlights.  Suddenly chimney sweeps rushed onto stage to perform the song “Step in Time” from Mary Poppins (1964), and at the very end, legendary Poppins star Dick Van Dyke appeared on stage.  The 93 year old actor was all smiles at the standing ovation he received and he happily announced that a Mary Poppins attraction was coming to the United Kingdom pavilion at Epcot.  A lot of stuff they showed was exciting, but it makes it even better when you’ve got an icon on stage to deliver it.

It should also be noted that they also announced a new partnership with Target, as Disney is now going to introduce special Disney Store sections to the big box store giant.  As a special gift to those of us in the audience in recognition of this partnership, we were given $10 Target gift cards as we left the show, with one special guest luckily gifted with a $2300 card for a Target shopping spree.  It wasn’t me unfortunately, but I’ll happily take a $10 gift card.  With the third and final big show now complete, nothing was left but to enjoy the rest of the show floor.  I made my way through all the remaining booths that I had yet to experience.  There was a neat little one dedicated to Disney on Broadway, which gave guests a VR experience.  After this, I also went to the Team of Heroes booth, which allowed you to create a Marvel themed gift bag that would go to a sick child in hospitals across the country, with a Disney Volunteer sticker given out to show Disney’s appreciation.  I also took in the Disney animation booth, which feature life sized figures of characters from Frozen, Toy Story 4, as well as a life size recreation of the van featured in the movie Onward, which was a very popular photo spot.  I did get in one final panel inside the spacious D23 Expo Arena.  There we were treated to a panel about The Art of Disney Storytelling.  Hosted by John Stamos and his wife Caitlin McHugh, the panel talked about the approach all the different departments of the Disney company takes to tell stories that connect with people.  Panelists included long time Disney story artist Floyd Norman (one of the first African-American animators who worked for Disney), producer Don Hahn, Imagineer Tony Baxter, and story artist Paul Briggs, who directorial debut, Raya and the Last Dragon was announced the morning before.  It was an informative panel, and gave us an interesting look into the working process that all these icons of their craft go through in order to deliver something that will appeal to everyone.  After that panel, nothing was left but to walk the floor and take in one last trip around the floor before the final minutes struck down.

And so there you have my experience at this year’s D23 Expo.  I’m overall pleased with my experience and especially happy that my years of experience have helped me become an expert in preparedness for this whole thing now.  There were some things that would have liked to have seen that I sadly missed out on.  One was a Haunted Mansion 50th Anniversary celebration in the D23 Expo Arena, which sadly filled up before I could make my way over to it, due to the Saturday Morning Disney Studios presentation going 30 minutes over schedule.  I also didn’t get to see a panel devoted to The Simpsons, a rare presence at this Expo for Fox related properties.  Perhaps it’s too soon after the completion of the Fox/Disney merger, but there was very little of the Fox Studio present at this Expo.  Perhaps, and hopefully, that will change in future Expos, but as for now, The Simpson were the ones carrying that Fox banner into this new era at Disney as part of this Expo.  In general, I was pleased with how well organized this Expo turned out to be.  The online reservations in no way ruined the experience, and in fact resulted in not much change overall.  Hopefully they can revise the reservation process in the future, but it wasn’t the cumbersome disaster that I was worried that it was going to be.   And just like past Expos, it’s still hard to fit in everything even over 3 days.  There’s just so much to occupy yourself with.  Maybe it’s because priority one for me is to get into the big Hall D23 shows, which involves me waiting for significant amounts of time in line.  If I focused on other things like shopping, I might have spent more time on the show floor, but shopping at the stores, which were quite busy throughout the Expo, was never high on my list.  So, I can say unequivocally that I had an excellent time at this year’s D23 Expo.  I hope that Disney continues to give make this celebration a special thank you to all the fans out there.  As the company grows even bigger, the more elaborate this Expo has gotten, and it will be interesting to see what it will look like at the next one in 2021, or even the 2023 Expo, which will mark the Disney Company’s 100th anniversary.  In any case, 2019’s D23 Expo was enormously satisfying and I’m glad I went once again.  Keep making the magic happen Disney.

A Giant’s Journey – The Triumphant 20 Year Rise of The Iron Giant

The art-form of animation has many different faces, but it’s evolution over the years has heralded many different eras with the medium as well.  For the longest time, when people thought of animation, the thing that would pop into their mind was the traditional hand drawn, painted cel form of animation.  This was mainly because the people responsible for bringing animation into mainstream popularity were the people at the Walt Disney Company as well as those at Warner Brothers with their line of Looney Tunes shorts.  And for many years, they set the standard for what the public would accept as the look of hand drawn animation.  While the medium was pushed forward by leaps and bounds made by the artists at both studios, the success they saw also in a way stifled any artistic deviation within animation.  Disney stuck mostly with making safe, family-friendly fare while Warner Brothers stuck with cartoonish slapstick, and since they saw continued success because of this, other up and coming studios never strayed too far from the formula.  To really take the medium further into more daring territory and do something completely different in animation, you usually had to work independently like animators Richard Williams and Ralph Bakshi did, and those guys were lucky to see even one of their movies turn a profit.  After a tough time for animation in the 70’s and 80’s, the Disney studio came roaring back with an era now known as the Disney Renaissance.  Again, with one studio dictating the popularity of the art-form, there was less enthusiasm for deviating from the formula in animation, and the business of animation became less about finding one’s own voice and instead more like seeing what Disney was doing right and trying to copy it.  That unfortunately led to many competitors creating what you could call Disney-lite animated films, which were movies trying way to hard to be like a Disney movie but lacking that one thing that made Disney stand apart.  In turn, this only drove down the different brands of these animation studios, as audiences lost their trust in them.  Sadly this happened at the worst possible time for that one movie that indeed stood out from the rest and was destined to become a classic on it’s own; The Iron Giant (1999).

If you could point to an animated movie that came from outside the Disney Studios that can be considered among the best of all time, Iron Giant would be that movie.  In fact, when I compiled my own list of the best non-Disney or Pixar animated films as seen here, this was the one that I put at the very top.  This movie is an absolute masterpiece of animation, and the thing that is great about it is that it can stand perfectly on it’s own without ever having to be compared to another film in the Disney canon.  It is stylistically very different, taking more of it’s inspiration from Cold War era character designs as well as using a Norman Rockwell style grounded approach to the environments.  In terms of narrative, it also deviates heavily from Disney.  It’s not a fairy tale, but rather science fiction.  There are no talking animals, no songs, no magical happy ever after.  It’s about real people in a real town who are suddenly introduced to a very massive visitor from outer space.  And it even deals with some very heavy subjects like death, social paranoia, war, and being ostracized for being different in small town America.  But at the same time, the movie is not the anti-Disney movie.  Classic Disney from the Golden Age of the 1950’s also gives the movie some inspiration, particularly in the color palette.  And it’s message of friendship between the unlikeliest of companions is something that feels like it could have appealed to even Uncle Walt himself.  The movie is rightly seen as a masterpiece today, but believe it or not, The Iron Giant was in it’s time one of the biggest box office flops of it’s day.  It performed so badly in fact that the animation studio responsible for it, Warner Brothers Feature Animation, closed it’s doors soon after.  Apart from it’s unusual road to becoming reality, the really fascinating story about The Iron Giant is how it managed to stay in people’s consciousness and eventually find it’s audience, sometimes even many years later.  It’s all a testament to the fact that great movies never die; they just get reborn.

The beginnings of The Iron Giant stem all the way back to the very Cold War era setting that is seen in the film.  The original children’s book on which the movie is based called “The Iron Man,” was written by author and poet Ted Hughes.  His book is a simple tale of friendship that is built around the bond between a boy and the living war machine that he befriends.  Within the tale, Hughes delivers a powerful yet subtle anti-war message, essentially exploring the idea of what would happen if a “gun” decided it didn’t want to be a “gun.”  It’s in choosing the path of refusing one’s destructive programming in favor of a pacifist life that defines the Giant’s story and it’s that message that became so appealing to filmmakers interested in adapting the story.  You can see echos of the tale in movies like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992), but it wasn’t until a rising star in the field of animation named Brad Bird came across it that the book was finally going to see it’s jump to the big screen.  Bird, a contemporary of many now legendary Disney animators, managed to find his footing in animation outside the “house of mouse,” working on shows like The Simpsons and Amazing Stories instead.  Despite calls from Disney to come over and join their team, Bird instead set up home in the newly formed Feature Animation unit of Warner Brothers.  Warners was renowned for their Looney Tunes shorts, but until the 90’s they had largely stayed away from making feature films like Disney.  But, with the Disney Renaissance becoming a monumental success, Warners quickly cobbled together their own studio to take advantage of this new trend that was making a mint for their competitor.  Their first feature would be the very Disney-esque Quest For Camelot (1998), with Bird’s directorial debut coming up second right after it.  Though someone of Bird’s talent was capable of tackling any project, it’s still logical that The Iron Giant would be the thing that he would tackle first as a director.

For one thing, the Cold War era setting is something of a favorite for the director.  If you look through all of Brad Bird’s filmography, there is a clear heavy influence of the retro graphic style of the 1950’s throughout his films.  It’s there in The Incredibles movies as well as the movie Tomorrowland (2015), which practically is a time capsule of a different era in itself.  No doubt he wanted to explore that era graphically, but the movie’s powerful story of friendship no doubt played a big part in bringing him to the project.  Working with a script adaptation from Tim McCanlies, Bird’s approach to Ted Hughes original book is remarkably faithful, albeit it changes the original English setting to a distinctly American one, and it also removes the giant alien bat that appears in the original book’s climax.  No doubt the focus was put on getting the relationship right between the Giant and the young boy, and that’s where the movie really soars as a narrative.  There is nothing forced or schmaltzy about the bond that they form.  When we meet the young boy named Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) he already has an interest in strange and out there ideas, so he would respond to meeting a 50 foot tall robot differently than a more closed minded individual.  The Giant himself is also wonderfully naive about his true nature, and the movie has a lot of fun showing him forgetting just how big and powerful he really is; acting like a giant, metal puppy dog.  There’s no dobut that the animated medium was the only way to effectively tell this kind of story, because through animation, you could best convey the wide range of emotions seen in the Giant’s transformation from monster, to playmate, to ultimately savior.  But, it’s also a testament to Brad Bird as a director that he grounds the movie in a sense of authenticity as well.  Even while the extraordinary is happening throughout the story, it never feels cartoonish nor fanciful.  And in that sense, Bird made an animated feature that indeed felt unlike anything else at the time.

Unfortunately, the foundation on which the film was going into theaters standing upon was far from solid.  The Disney Renaissance was already beginning to wane in it’s later years, with modest successes like Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999) being overshadowed by the disappointing receptions of Pocahontas (1995) and Hercules (1997).  Plus, all the copycat films trying to follow the Disney formula like Fox’s The Swan Princess (1995) and Don Bluth’s Anastasia (1997) all under-performed and made audiences grow weary of the animation medium as a whole.  At the same time, computer animation was growing into a bigger threat with every new release, with Pixar’s Toy Story (1995) and A Bug’s Life (1998) both becoming huge box office hits.  Naturally the timing was terrible for Warner Brothers who came too late into the came.  Quest for Camelot was panned by critics, being labeled as a cheap Disney knock off, which did not put the new studio on solid footing.  A lot of pressure was resting on The Iron Giant to pick up the ball after Camelot had dropped it.  The movie did, thankfully, receive widespread praise from critics, but that didn’t help it enough.  The movie was unfortunately released the same mid-August weekend as M. Night Shyamalan’s  The Sixth Sense (1999), which of course became a box office phenomenon.  After being buried in theaters, the movie only made a quarter of it’s original budget back, which only accelerated the downfall of Warner’s animation studio.  The studio cut it’s staff after The Iron Giant’s initial release and left only a handful to finish their next and last feature, the animation/ live action hybrid Osmosis Jones (2001).  Brad Bird left Warners soon after and made his way over to Pixar, where he was able to get a little pet project off the ground called The Incredibles (2004), which would of course help turn him into a household name thereafter.  It’s just unfortunate that once a studio finally had something special to set it apart in a Disney driven world, it was far too late to undo all the bad mistakes of the past.

But, like all great movies, the film didn’t fade into obscurity.  Those film critics who heralded the film in it’s initial release continued to sign it’s praises long after.  Eventually, word of mouth carried the movie along, and once it reached home video, it sold far better than Warner Brothers had expected.  After that, the Cartoon Network licensed the movie for airing on their channel, and again, it enjoyed solid viewership every time it played. With solid home entertainment numbers coming in, the movie no longer appeared to be the embarrassment that Warner Brothers had thought they had before.  Now, it was a modest success, albeit now at a time when Warner Brothers no longer had the infrastructure in place to follow up this success with.  It didn’t matter at the time that they no longer were making animated movies, since Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings were already making them plenty of money.  But, The Iron Giant did become a clear sign that they could make an animated movie that could rival those made by Disney in terms of quality, if not box office success.  The fact that of all the animated movies released in the year 1999, including Tarzan, South Park, and Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant is the one that celebrated the most 20 years later is really a testament to it’s lasting staying power.  Eventually, Warner Brothers would reopen their animation studios, albeit for computer animation instead of hand drawn, and make celebrated films like Happy Feet (2006) and The Lego Movie (2014) out of it.  The Iron Giant may not have directly re-convinced the studio to invest in the medium once again, but it probably helped convince Warners that they had a place in the history of animation worth preserving.

It is pretty remarkable to see how widespread the legacy of The Iron Giant has gone beyond the film’s place at Warner Brothers animation itself.  It’s been referenced in many different films, most prominently in Steven Spielberg’s recent big budget extravaganza Ready Player One (2018).  The Iron Giant himself gets an extended cameo within the movie, even participating in the movie’s climatic battle scene.  It’s also interesting how it’s managed to influence the career of the actor who got to bring voice to the Giant himself.  Vin Diesel won the part over some long established veterans in voice acting, including legendary Transformers alum like Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, and it was now doubt due to Diesel’s natural low bass voice.  Diesel, a relative newcomer at the time, brings so much humanity into the role, and remarkably does so with a limited vocabulary.  When your character says only a handful of lines, it takes talent to find the personality underneath those few words, and Diesel somehow managed to do it.  Much like how Karloff found the humanity in Frankenstein’s simple way of speaking, Diesel managed to create an endearing character with a few grunts and growls.  But where his performance really shines is in the closing moments of the movie, which is the film’s most famous scene.  When the film’s villain recklessly launches a nuclear weapon at the town where Hogarth and the Giant live, the Iron Giant consciously self-sacrifices himself to save everyone.  Before this, Hogarth has introduced the Giant to comic book icons, and in particular Superman, which the Giant takes a liking to.  As the Giant nears his fateful impact with the warhead, Hogarth’s words ring in his ear, “You can choose to be whatever you want to be,” meaning he didn’t need to be the weapon he was built as, and in a perfectly delivered line reading from Vin Diesel, the Giant realizes who he desires to be in that moment; “Superman.”  That moment still gives people goosebumps to this day in it’s absolutely perfect execution of uplifting pathos.  It wouldn’t surprise me that this role would one day lead to Vin Diesel delivering such an endearing presence through a simple reading of the words “I am Groot.”

There’s no doubt about it; The Iron Giant is an all time classic and one that thankfully has matured well over these last 20 years since it’s original premiere.  It’s a shame that it’s blundered original release only accelerated the further downfall of traditional animation as a fixture within the industry, but it’s not a reflection of the quality of the film itself, obviously.  Traditional animation sadly had no answer to the groundswell that was computer animation, which more or less took everything over in the new century.  It’s only thanks to the fond memories that we have for The Iron Giant and the Disney Renaissance that traditional animation still has a presence in our culture today.  The Iron Giant even shows that there is a place for films made outside of Disney that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of their canon.  The Iron Giant has so much to offer for those who are looking for something different, or just for something that honors the medium of traditional animation with every lovingly crafted frame.  Brad Bird clearly put a lot of heart into the film, both as a fan of the story and of animation itself.  It’s no mistake that Hogarth’s surname is a nod to the original author of the book, and there is a wonderful little Easter egg for animation buffs when we meet the two elderly train conductors, based on real life Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (who also provided their own voices too).  But what’s probably most important about The Iron Giant’s 20 year legacy is that it’s universal themes feel even more relevant today.  It’s all about a character built to be destructive choosing to reject those instincts and learning to be a good person.  The Giant chooses not to be a gun, which is the fundamental message of Ted Hughes original narrative.  In a world we live in now, when it’s become so easy to act out in destructive ways as weapons of division and destruction are more widely available to us, it’s all the more inspiring to see a literal weapon of war making the conscious decision to reject his programming and choose to be better than all that.  He chooses to be a hero; he chooses to be Superman.  And that’s what makes The Iron Giant more than just a great cartoon; it’s a great and profound movie in general, and one that will remain a Giant in cinema for all time.

This is….