What the Hell Was That? – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)

With the past year at a close, the next few weeks present to us the season in which the last year was all leading up to; awards season.  One thing that is commonplace pretty much every year is the scramble to get in last minute consideration before the deadline of the year’s end cuts off prevents any more inclusion.   In these final weeks of December, the goal is very clear from all contenders; get the most attention that you can.  As accolades begin to pile up from various year end awards, this is when the attention from the Film Academy is at it’s highest, and the potential of making their shortlist of nominees becomes even higher.  Some movies have better chances than others because they appeal to the general tastes of the Academy’s voting body, which can be frustratingly predictable at times.  These movies are what we generally know as “Oscar Bait,” which are films that are specifically manufactured to appeal solely to the people within the industry who vote for the Academy Awards.  And given the insular, sometimes out of touch voting body of the Academy, these movies tend to always end up being small dramas that tackle some social issue or features a performance where the actor goes through some body transformation that makes them(how to put this lightly) less glamorous.  Essentially, they are movies that are pandering to a specific group of elitists, and typically because of that, the movies have limited appeal and even smaller box office grosses.  And you wonder why the Academy Awards has a problem with popularity.  Oscar Bait movies are not all bad; some are even great and deserving of their honors.  But, when they are bad, they become infuriatingly so, because their very pandering nature exposes the cynicism behind their creation and the greedy intentions of their producers.  And, depending on the type of story and issue that the movie is tackling, it can become downright offensive.

A couple years back, I made a top ten list of failed Oscar Bait movies, and what ended up topping my list was Micahel Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980).  My criteria for the list called for the top movie to be the one that crashed hardest in it’s attempts to win an Oscar, and Heaven’s Gate is notorious for being an Oscar Bait movie that bankrupted it’s studio (United Artists) and destroyed it’s director’s reputation.  But, here’s the thing, Heaven’s Gate is not a terrible movie.  In fact, it’s gone through a critical reevalution in the last few years thanks to a stellar restoration and a Criterion Collection release, helping to soften it’s notorious reputation.  If you want to look at the worst ever Oscar Bait movie, you only need to look at my #2 on that same list; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  The Stephen Daldry directed feature is pretty much the textbook example of a bad Oscar Bait movie.  It’s pandering, it’s obnoxiously self-indulgent, it’s enormously shallow and insincere, and worst of all, exploitative.  And yet, somehow, it managed to do what Heaven’s Gate could not; get a Best Picture nomination.  I guess that doesn’t make it a failed Oscar Bait movie, because it at least got itself a place at the table, but really, at what cost?  Extremely Loud is personally my most hated of Oscar baiting movies, which are the ones that use it’s very important subject matter to do nothing other than gain the attention of Oscar voters.  And here’s the more insidious thing about it; it doesn’t just stick to one grim subject matter either.  We get the entire buffet in one movie.  We get the Holocaust, mental disorders, racism, and the Twin Tower attacks of 9/11 all in this mess of a movie.  Had they thrown a person dying from AIDS the movie would have hit an Oscar BINGO (thankfully the movie never went that far).  But what we did get presented us with probably the most grossly transparent attempt at baiting the Academy for an Oscar, and sadly the industry took a nibble before rightfully throwing this one out.

To understand why a movie like this came to be in the first place, you have to consider the period in which it was made.  The movie came to theaters just after the ten year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack; a point in time after the tragedy when the industry felt it was appropriate to begin dramatizing the event on film.  Before this, only two other films had tackled the tragedy; Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, both from 2006.  Both tackled the event head on, with true life stories and managed to gain varying degrees of success among critics.  But, Extremely Loud took a different approach to the event; using it as a backdrop to their own fictional story.  Many films do that of course, but there is a purpose most of the time to those that choose to set their story that way.  Titanic (1997) of course used a Romeo and Juliet style love story to place a dramatic connection for the audience in the midst of all the true events of the tragedy.  9/11 is a trickier event to tackle because of the widespread ramifications that the event had on the world at large; including becoming a hot button political issue, even today.  Extremely Loud makes the aftermath of the terror attack part of it’s own narrative, primarily with regards to the trauma that the city of New York went through.  Some movies could tackle that kind of narrative effectively, without ever having to resort to recreating the event itself.  Spike Lee managed to to that effectively in his film 25th Hour (2002), which was made a mere year after the attack, and told the story of the people still feeling the pain of loss.  The way that worked is because the movie was about the longer lasting effects of trauma on people, and how that creates problems down the road itself.  Extremely Loud on the other hand not only wants to use the 9/11 terror attacks as a factor in it’s movie, but it even seems to expose old wounds that many had hoped would be healed with time.

Here’s where we get to the most controversial aspect of the movie, and a prime example of where movies that pander to an a certain kind of audience ends up crossing the line.  In various parts of the movie, the 9/11 attacks are dramatized; not particularly outrageous in itself, except the filmmakers decided to do so with a misguided artistic flair.   The character played by Tom Hanks in the movie, Thomas Schell, is a victim of the terror attack, with the movie focused on the coping with grief that his remaining family goes through afterwards.  At several points, Thomas’ son Oskar (which is in no way another pandering move, I say in a sarcastic tone) has nightmarish flashes of imagination where he sees his father falling from the building like one of the horrifying videos of jumpers captured on that day.  These moments take this tragic aspect of the tragedy and dramatizes it in a way that feels extremely exploitative.  The scenes don’t just recreate the falling, they stylize it.  The opening credits in fact play over a cringe-inducing slow motion shot of Tom Hanks falling in mid air.  This is not the kind of thing that you use visual poetry on.  To make matters worse, there is no need in the narrative whatsoever for these moments to happen.  It just comes at you as a slap to the face reminding you of what a tragedy 9/11 was.  It’s the same kind of exploitative tactic that you see when a documentary or narrative film suddenly splices in footage of the towers collapsing, knowing the power that those terrifying images still have.  The images of 9/11 are profound in their scale of cataclysm, but to take those and offer up an artistic spin like the one in this movie almost feels like it’s intentionally wanting people to feel the pain of the events again.  It’s like the movie doesn’t care what feeling it’s audience has toward the event; it just knows that there is power in the images that we saw from that day, and it wants to use it to elevate it’s own sense of importance.

That’s where the movie especially rubs people the wrong way, with it’s emphasis on it’s own importance.  The movie wants you to follow these characters around and learn about their struggles, but here’s the problem; the struggles carry more importance that the characters themselves.  Every character is a pastiche of your typical tragic backstory individual that usually populates movies that carry some importance.  Most of the time, we accept a character or two that has a personal tragedy that motivates their existence within a narrative; but not when the entire movie is populated with them.  The book on which this movie is based, written by Jonathan Safran Foer, probably addresses each individual problem with all the characters with more nuance, since novels allow more time and introspection to establish each character’s purpose in the story (I can’t judge for certain because I haven’t read it).  The movie adaptation, done by the usually reliable Eric Roth, dispenses with subtlety and just goes for the essential hardship that defines each character; whether it’s loosing a husband on 9/11 like Oskar’s mother (played by Sandra Bullock), or having survived the Holocaust like his grandparents.  All we get out of their character development is how each personal tragedy shaped them, and this carries little resonance as there is nothing else remotely interesting about each character.  To the movie, the personal tragedies are all that matter and that makes the movie feel especially exploitative.  It’s as if the movie doesn’t want anyone to know anything more about the movie other than it touches on these important issues, because it certainly doesn’t have worthwhile characters.  If you look at other movies that tackled serious issues, they always managed to find a way to ground their narrative with a deeply relatable story.  But, when everyone has baggage, then the narrative comes across as false and unrelatable.  Not everyone in New York has a deep connection to the many plights that has befallen society; and yet Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close seems to believe that all of these people are so easily accessible in one neighborhood.

Compare the way the movie deals with something like the Holocaust.  The worst tragedy of the 20th century is merely represented here through the presence of Oskar’s grandparents, who seem so disconnected from their past experience.  The Holocaust is merely just an extra bit of character detail here; never fully explored and yet always reinforced on us the audience.  If the movie really wanted to give more importance to how the Holocaust could fit in their narrative, they could have included a moment when one of the grandparents sits down with Oskar and helps him learn how to move beyond the pain of loss endured through such an ordeal and find positivity again.  But, no, we only get the information that both grandparents are Holocaust survivors and that this is enough to give the movie the extra weight of importance.  It doesn’t help that one of the grandparents is a mute, which is never really given a full explanation as to why.  You would assume the tragedy of the Holocaust would’ve done that, but the movie seems less interested in connecting the dots.  To be fair, Max von Sydow’s performance as Oskar’s mute grandfather is the one redeeming aspect of the movie.  The film doesn’t do a good job of explaining the real truth behind the character, but Sydow is able to communicate so much through his simple gestures and expressions, which helps to give some element of authenticity to this film that severely lacks it.  He received the movie’s only other Oscar nomination, and lost out to fellow octogenarian acting legend Christopher Plummer that year.  But, Max von Sydow’s long and storied career gave him the ability to find the humanity in this character and make him more than just a archetype, which is sadly not the case with everyone else in the movie.   If there was ever an event where the personal story mattered with regards to the characters, it would be the Holocaust where the outpouring of personal accounts in the wake of Schindler’s List (1993) made such an impact in defining that period of time in human history.  Here in this film, it’s just there to get attention, and that makes it feel very wrong and misused.

But, the movie’s biggest problem is with the little, walking talking plot device that is Oskar.  He is where the movie focuses all the Oscar Bait formula into and creates perhaps one of the most insufferable characters to have appeared in a movie perhaps ever.  Oskar, a twelve year old boy with mental abnormalities, must learn to let go of the pain he has felt since the loss of his father on 9/11, and in the meantime, reconnect with the estranged Holocaust-surviving grandfather that he barely knows.  The movie deposits a treasure hunt for him to complete, that his father had set up before his death, and the movie uses this narrative structure to take us through the aforementioned greatest hits of every Oscar baiting subject known to man.  It doesn’t help the fact that Oskar himself is not only not very interesting, but he is also incredibly annoying.  I don’t want to blame this on the young actor, Thomas Horn, who plays Oskar, because it’s not his fault the character is terribly written and poorly conceived.  But the film rests so much on him to carry the film, and it does so by making him talk a whole lot.  The movie also fails in portraying his mental state in any meaningful way, because it never really commits to it either.  The movie heavily implies that he has Aspergers Syndrome, but it never commits to it, and in some instances, portrays his disability as a quirky aspect of his character.  Never once does the movie address the daily hardships that most people with the disorder must overcome to live a normal life, and again like everything else, just merely uses it as another element in the story to inflate it’s own sense of importance.  This is the most often exploited Oscar bait tactic for many movies, and you can fill a whole library with all the movies that failed hard in an attempt to dramatize a persons disorder.  It feels even more egregious here because it’s the mental disorder that fuels the character of Oskar, and makes him feel less genuine as a person.  You never want to tell someone like this to shut up in real life, but this movie really grinds your nerves and it pushes Oskar so heavily to the forefront.  And in doing so, it takes this movie from forgettable Oscar Bait garbage, to irredeemable and notorious Oscar Bait garbage.

I cannot stress enough how infuriating this movie is to sit through.  It’s always clear what the movie’s intentions are, and it’s cynical ploy to grab the Academy Awards attention is frankly offensive when you see the things it’s exploiting to get there.  The movie is not content to take on one issue, it wants to do all of them; perhaps banking on the odds of quantity over quality.  We get our Holocaust backstory, and the mental illness angle, and this movie carries the notorious reputation of adding the tragedy of 9/11 to the checklist of things Hollywood can exploit for awards fare.  The fact that this movie uses them is not the problematic part; it’s the fact that it uses them without care.  The Holocaust and 9/11 are just tools for this movie, completely devoid of any really exploration and just there to remind the audience of how awful the world is.  When a movie addresses an important issue, it must come with a story that transcends it’s placement in that moment and helps to personalize it for all audiences to understand it’s importance.  Schindler’s List brought many harrowing stories to the forefront, but centered it around an interesting character study of a man who saved lives by exploiting a system to his advantage.  Rain Man (1988) brought a portrayal of living with a mental disorder to life, but framed it within a story of two estranged brothers reconnecting on a road trip.  The best way that these elements can work in a movie is if the film never intends to do anything else than shed light on these important issues.  That was clearly Spielberg’s intention with Schindler’s, and he’ll tell you that the proudest outcome of that movie was seeing the floodgates open with numerous survivor’s stories after the movie came out.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close doesn’t care about any of it’s issues; it’s a fabricated gift bag to the Academy hoping to get attention in the most desperate of ways.  The fact that the Academy almost fell for it is a pretty sad statement, and it shows just how easily the body can be manipulated.  Everything you hate about Oscar Bait movies can be found in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and that’s what makes it one of the most insufferable and at times most offensive movies to ever get this close to Oscar glory.

Top Ten Movies of 2018

Now that the year is behind us, we can finally take a look at the state of Hollywood that made up 2018.  It was more than anything a year where the movie industry was in flux.  The old way of doing things had to be reconsidered because this was the year that streaming video came into it’s own.  Already having made big waves in television, Netflix wanted to prove this year that they could compete with the cineplex as well, and they made their statement with several original films from some of the industry’s most respected artists.  Movies like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, The Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Paul Greengrass’ 22 July, and Susanne Bier’s Bird Box all premiered directly on the streaming platform to significant buzz that they might not have otherwise gotten had they started off on the big screen.  The big push by Netflix did not come without push-back from some of the industry.  The Cannes Film Festival made the controversial choice to bar Netflix movies from competition, which might have cost a sure fire contender like Roma from winning the coveted Palm d’Or.  There was also the controversial comment from Steven Spielberg that he believed Netflix originals shouldn’t be counted as equal to a theatrical release, because they premiere on home video, making them what he considers to be a made-for-TV movie.  The primary reason that Netflix is having the pull within the industry that they do now is because they are the ones taking risks and allowing filmmakers to make the movies they want to make, and are not beholden to things like franchises and box office appeal.  That’s why you’re seeing this reshuffling of the old studio alignments, with the Disney/Fox merger being the biggest move yet.  They are witnessing the birth of a new Hollywood, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out in the years ahead.

But for now, it’s time to run down my picks for the Top Ten and Bottom 5 for the year of 2018.  I saw nearly 100 movies this year, but there were some I managed to miss.  Even still, every one on this list is one I watched in a theater or on streaming and within the calendar year, all according to my yearly guidelines.  There were a few that nearly made my list but were left out (in no particular order): Black Panther, A Star is Born, Isle of Dogs, Love Simon, You Were Never Really There, Ready Player One, Deadpool 2, American Animals, Incredibles 2, Teen Titans Go to The Movies, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Alpha, The Sisters Brothers, The Hate U Give, First Man, Boy Erased, Widows, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Poppins Returns, Bumblebee, and Blackkklansman. All fine movies worth checking out on their own, but I had to narrow it down to ten.  So, without further ado, here are my picks for the Top Ten Movies of 2018.

10.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE

Directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman

Who would have thought that the best animated movie of the year didn’t come from either Disney or Pixar, despite two solid efforts from both (Incredibles 2 and Ralph Breaks the Internet)?  And from all people, Sony Animation.  That just happened to be the case with Into the Spider-Verse, a wildly inventive and unexpected treasure to have come to a theater near you this year.  In a growing monotonous industry like animation, where all the films are starting to become indistinguishable from one another, Spider-Verse stood out the most because it felt like something completely new.  Though still animated through a computer, the movie applied this art style that made it look like it was hand drawn, just like a comic book come to life, and it works perfectly for the story being told.  In between all of the typical comic book action moments, there are images of just absolute beauty put on the screen.  One stand out moment is when main protagonist Miles Morales takes his first leap off a building in his Spider Suit, and the point of view flips upside down, making him look like he is soaring upward even though he is falling to the city below.  The movie is also consistently funny, and has some genuine heart to it.  Every iteration of Spider-Man that we come across in the movie gets just enough screen-time to stand out (I especially loved Nicolas Cages Spider-Man Noir), but the movie triumphs most in it’s portrayal of Miles Morales, making him a worthy addition to the Spider-Man pantheon.  This movie easily fits alongside the best Spider-Man films and even sets the bar high for any future animated comic movies that will follow in it’s wake.  I love Disney and Pixar, but it is great to see one of the upstarts finally make a movie that can stand shoulder to shoulder with them, and maybe even surpass them at their own game.

9.

MID 90’S

Directed by Jonah Hill

2018 was also a banner year for entertainers making their debut behind the camera.  Bradley Cooper delivered an awards season favorite with his update of A Star is Born, working as director and co-starring alongside Lady Gaga in a breakout role.  John Krasinski delivered an instant horror classic with his inventive A Quiet Place, which he costarred in with his real life spouse Emily Blunt.  There was also critical darling Eighth Grade, made by comedian Bo Burnham.  But, I felt that the best feature directing debut from an already established performer came from comedic actor Jonah Hill.  His labor of love, Mid 90’s, had a little something more than the other movies I mentioned in that it showed a sense of style.  The other movies, except maybe Quiet Place, rose on the strength of their narratives while not really breaking new ground cinematically.  Jonah Hill on the other hand had an engaging narrative (taken largely from his own experiences growing up in LA) and he mixed it in with a unique cinematic voice that feels different from everything else.  The movie has a well-rounded cast of mostly first time actors, and each one feels genuine to the time period in which they are living in; the titular mid 90’s.  The movie has this overall home movie like quality to it, no doubt inspired by the skateboarding demo tapes that circulated around this time, and it felt like a movie made by someone who really understood that the way he shot the movie really needed to reflect the culture that he was trying to recreate.  It’s just great to see a movie that defines the 90’s without relying on obvious shout outs to the pop culture in general.  If Jonah Hill directs any more films in the future I look forward to them, because this movie proved to me that he has an interesting voice of his own.

8.

THE FAVOURITE

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

What a difference a couple of years makes?  In 2016, I included director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster among my worst movies of the year list; a pick I still stand by because the movie’s dry, pretentious style grated too much on me.  Maybe it was just a matter of the script, because his new film, The Favourite retains the same dry, pretentious film-making style, but it is so much more effectively used here.  The Favourite is not your average costume drama.  It is dark, weird, and shocking in all the best ways.  The movie really shines, however, with it’s three leading ladies, all delivering the movie’s most outlandish moments with complete sincerity and noble refinement.  Playing out like All About Eve (1950) in corsets, the movie has some of the most entertaining battle of wits and savage quips you’ll ever see.  Emma Stone surprisingly masters an English accent in this movie, and it’s a delight to watch her character sneak her way up the ladder; pretending to be the good girl while masking the schemer underneath.  Rachel Weisz also has this special ability in the movie to present so much hatred in her voice without breaking her pleasant demeanor, and it makes her showdowns with Emma Stone some of the most harrowing moments put on screen this year.  Olivia Colman all but steals the movie with her eccentric performance as Queen Anne, a role that in other hands could have dipped too far into the farcical, but feels fully rounded through her.  And to Lanthimos’s credit, it is a beautifully made film too, making great use of the English manor interiors, all while maintaining the director’s twisted sensibilities with wide-angle fish lens shots used to great effect.  I love a good period drama, but it’s always nice to see one that takes a far more bizarre route, and I’m happy to see that it helped me change my mind about one particular filmmaker.

7.

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?

Directed by Morgan Neville

Given the state of the world, where people have become more divided, and even more troubling have grown less empathetic towards one another, we needed a reminder of common human decency more than ever this year.  That’s what this wonderful documentary about the life of Fred Rogers did, and I couldn’t be more grateful for it.  It was easily the best documentary in a year full of excellent ones across the board.  Like many people my age, I grew up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on my local PBS station, and it’s amazing to think of the kind of impact that little, unassuming show had on so many lives.  The documentary delves very deeply into the history of the program, but even more importantly, it paints a portrait of the remarkable person that Mr. Rogers was.  We learn exactly why he made this program and what it reflected about him.  It becomes very clear throughout the film that he became a necessary voice in American culture, not only as a teacher to all the youth throughout the years, but as a key voice of reason during turbulent times.  We see how a simple act of washing his feet in the same pool as his African-American co-star became a profound statement against for civil rights.  We see the remarkable way he makes the youngest person feel special by not talking down to them and treating them like an equal.  And most importantly, we watch the ways in which he could console a wounded nation through a turbulent time.  This movie reminds us that we need more people like Fred Rogers today, and it’s a beautiful document that reminds us that things can be better if we all lived by his example and just show unconditional kindness in our everyday lives.  It was great to be back in his neighborhood once again.

6.

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK

Directed by Barry Jenkins

A couple years after his surprising (and unforgettable) Oscar win for Best Picture with his directorial debut, Moonlight (2016), Barry Jenkins returns with his second feature, based on the acclaimed novel of the same name by James Baldwin.  And the result proves that Jenkins is not a one-hit wonder.  If Beale Street Could Talk is a wonderful, poetic portrait of young love in the African-American community, and through his tender approach to the material, Barry Jenkins manages to tell a tale about so much in our society through his characters own personal story.  The young couple are wonderfully realized by relative newcomers Stephan James and Kiki Layne, and their chemistry fuels much of the movie’s drama.  They are nearly overshadowed, however, by the stellar supporting cast, which includes Colman Domingo and Regina King (in an Oscar worthy performance) as two of the parents of the young woman at the center, as well as quick but worthwhile cameos from the likes of Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Brian Tyree Henry, and even Dave Franco.  But, even more important is the way it beautifully adapts the novel, while at the same time finding the best way to make the moments feel theatrical.  Jenkins’ use of slow-motion, which also played a big part in Moonlight as well, is used to stunning effect here and the movie is overall a beauty to look at.  And then there is the beautiful jazz and soul infused soundtrack, which will stay in your head long after seeing the movie.  It took a long time for this book to get the adaptation it deserved, and it’s great to see someone like Barry Jenkins not rest on his laurels after getting the industry’s top award but instead push himself even more as an artist; one that I hope still has plenty of wonderful films still up his sleeve going forward.

5.

PADDINGTON 2

Directed by Paul King

You know that your movie is good when it can still make an end of the year Top Ten list, even when it was released only a week after I made last year’s Top Ten list back in January 2018.  Proof that a G-Rated movie doesn’t have to be just for children, Paddington 2 has something to please just about everyone.  The first Paddington (2015) was a delightful film in it’s own right, but this sequel goes one step beyond and creates one of the most consistently charming and delightful movies of the entire year.  All the character arcs are fully rounded out, jokes land with laser like precision, and every little moment offers one surprise after another.  It helps that such love and care was put into this movie by the filmmakers, taking the beloved British literary icon and bringing him to life perfectly.  Paddington himself is wonderfully realized in both his animation, and the tenderly delivered vocal performance from Ben Whishaw.  The supporting cast of returning and new characters are also all excellent here, but there are two standouts that really make this a memorable experience.  One is Brendan Gleeson as a hardened criminal named Knuckles McGinty, whose heart is naturally softened by film’s end.  And then there is Hugh Grant as the over the top villain in one of the most delightfully eccentric performances that I’ve seen all year, and a revelation for the actor as well.  His mid-credits song and dance number may be one of the best single moments I’ve seen on the big screen in a long while.  Trust me, this movie is as sweet as a marmalade sandwich and will melt even the most cynical of hearts out there.  That’s what helps to make it one of the year’s best.

4.

ANNIHILATION

Directed by Alex Garland

Alex Garland already made a name for himself with his ground-breaking sic-fi directorial debut Ex Machina (2015).  Now, with a significantly larger scope to work with, he delivers a remarkable sophomore effort that is not just as mind blowing as it’s predecessor, but in many ways surpasses it.  The movie created one of the most original sci-fi concepts to date, the enigmatic entity known as “The Shimmer,” where everything within it’s boundaries evolves at a heightened rate.  This leads to some really strange, and unpredictable perils along the way, including what may be the most frightening, nightmare-inducing bear ever put on screen.  The best thing about the movie was that I never knew exactly where it was going to go, which is refreshing to see in a movie from this genre.  By the time we finally reach the source of the “Shimmer” I was fully intrigued and the movie thankfully does not disappoint once it gets to the final reveal.  Alex Garland shows that he has really mastered the craft of story-telling, and his voice within the science fiction genre is one that is offering up some really intriguing and new ideas.  The movie sadly was thrown into theaters with little publicity, mainly due to a creative dispute with the producers (one of whom apparently wanted to sabotage the movie’s release).  It not only should get more attention as a unique cinematic experience, but also because it’s a perfect example of how to make an action film with a diverse, female driven cast work.  I hope that other filmmakers looking to broaden diversity in their own films look at Annihilation as a template for how to do it right.  Even apart from that, it is a unforgettable experience worth seeing and a shining example of the genre it represents.

3.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

It was a good year to be Marvel.  They managed to deliver the year’s top two highest grossing movies, this and Black Panther, with the latter also generating something that has alluded Marvel up to now; Awards contention.  Though I do admire Black Panther immensely as a cultural touchstone and a breakthrough for African-American film-making, I felt that it didn’t hold up as a cinematic experience as well as Marvel’s other big film; Infinity War.  But, hey, T’Challa and his kingdom of Wakanda had a major role to play in the story-line of Infinity War as well, so they’re still getting some recognition here.  Infinity War makes the list purely because it gave me something that few other films managed to this year; an experience that I will never forget.  It is Marvel firing on all cylinders, taking all the things they have learned and refined over the years and using them to their fullest.  The movie doesn’t let up from beginning to end, and remarkably every single beloved Marvel character gets their moment to shine.  I can point to a dozen or more moments that rank among my very favorites, but it’s the final minutes that lead to the most shocking of cliffhangers that will be something that sticks with me for years to come.  It was surreal sitting in an IMAX theater with hundreds of rabid Marvel fans watching that scene play out; some even brought to tears.  Apart from that, the movie will also be remembered for it’s perfect realization of the villain; Thanos.  After being built up for so many years, he did not disappoint, and it’s largely due to the incredible performance of Josh Brolin in the role.  It’s amazing that a movie can work this well with only half the story told so far, and that’s a testament to how much Marvel has perfected their formula.  Endgame is only months away, but even without it, Infinity War will still stand as a crowning achievement for this Hollywood titan.

2.

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU

Directed by Boots Riley

Not in a million years could you have ever predicted where the plot of this satirical comedy would go by the end.  Marking the directorial debut of hip hop legend Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You tackles everything from corporate greed, to race relations, to labor disputes, to even the way people speak to one another, and it’s all done in this refreshing, take-no-prisoners critique on society.  The movie clearly reflects director Boots Riley’s sometimes controversial communist political beliefs, but even if you don’t agree with every part of his message, you can still appreciate the clever and creative way that he delivers it here.  I especially love the hyper-reality world that he’s created, where weird things can arise out of seemingly normal situations.  There’s a brilliant visual concept where the main character (a terrific Lakeith Stanfield in a breakout role) makes a phone call during his job as a telemarketer, and his work station is literally dropped right into the call recipient’s living room as he’s talking to them.  It’s clever ideas like that that populate the entire film.  The movie will also become notable for defining the idea of the “white voice,” which is made all the more brilliant when those “voices” that the characters channel are played by the likes of Patton Oswalt, David Cross, and Lily James.  There were plenty of strong movies this year that tackled race relations and the African-American struggle in society, including movies as diverse as The Hate U Give and Blackkklansman.  But out of all those, Sorry to Bother You had the most bite, and that’s why it made for one of the year’s most interesting and rewarding film experiences.  And also for just being one of the most original, and weird films this year too.

And the best movie of 2018 is…

1.

ROMA

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Makes sense given the statement that Netflix wanted to make this year that they would also be responsible for the year’s best film.  Sadly, most studios wouldn’t bother putting up the money to make a personal, 2/12 hour semi-autobiographical film shot in black and white, so it’s to Netflix’s credit that they did.  The trade off is that most people are not going to be able to see the movie the way it was intended to be seen, which is on the big screen.  I was fortunate enough to have a theater here in Los Angeles where it was screening, and boy was it worth paying extra to see it in that format.  Alfonso Cuaron, who also made my favorite movie of 2013 (Gravity) has created another masterpiece with Roma.  This is one of the purest, most enchanting cinematic experience I’ve had in years, and it utilizes all the best elements that the director has perfected over the years.  Feeling both intimate and epic at the same time, Cuaron draws from his own upbringing in suburban Mexico City to portray a year in the life of a middle class family and the maid who takes care of them.  The maid named Cleo, played devastatingly well by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, has the most harrowing arc, as we follow the ups and downs of her life, from heartbreak to pregnancy to tragedy to a brighter future.  And the movie has all the typical, boundary pushing cinematic tricks that you’d expect from a Cuaron film, including his trademark long takes (two of which are mind-boggling when you think about how they were staged).  Every shot has some hidden gem worth discovering, like those perfectly time plane flyovers in the background.  But his best act as a filmmaker is in just setting the camera in the center of a room and letting moments play out, creating this incredible sense of intimacy.  Because it’s already on Netflix now, you should easily be able to watch it at any time, but it was even better as a theatrical experience, and far and away the best movie I saw this year.

And now with the best out of the way, it’s time to complain about the worst of the year.  Keep in mind, I usually avoid bad movies in the theater, but even still, these snuck up on me and left a bad taste in my mouth.  So, here are the bottom 5 of 2018.

5. THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX – Netflix may have been responsible for the year’s best movie, but it also had it’s fair share of stinkers too.  The most notable thing about this one was the fact that Netflix released it as a surprise with no advance publicity, with only a trailer during the Super Bowl saying that it would be available that same night to give us warning.  A cool stunt, but sadly the movie was not deserving of it.  A tired retread of cliches from better movies like Alien and Event Horizon, this instantly became the weakest in Bad Robot’s stealth Cloverfield franchise, which had largely up to this point steered clear of convention.  This, it’s most “Hollywood” film to date, casts serious doubt on the franchise’s viability for the future.

4. THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS – It seems like Disney has at least one of these every year; an overproduced, hyper-stylized and narratively weak re-telling of a beloved fairy tale.  At the very least, this one wasn’t as disgracing the memory of a beloved animated classic (unless you count the unnecessary Fantasia reference) like Maleficent or Beauty and the Beast, but it was still a slog to sit through because it offers nothing in the way of interesting characters or an imaginative storyline.  It doesn’t even follow the original story of the nutcracker, instead using it’s characters and setting as a means to tell it’s unoriginal narrative.  Go and watch the ballet instead anywhere you can, because this is one nut not worth cracking.

3. HOLMES & WATSON – Yep, we can’t even escape bad movies at the end of the year either.  Easily the worst thing that both Will Farrell and John C. Reilly have ever acted in, let alone together, Holmes & Watson is one of the laziest comedies that I have seen in recent memory.  The chemistry that they showed together in Talladega Nights and Step Brothers is absent here, and the movie relies too heavily on anachronistic jokes that never work as well as the script thinks they should.  Only a couple mild chuckles come out of the heap of gags that land with a thud, especially the ones that you see coming a mile away.  Reilly did enough good movies this year that lead you to believe he’ll survive this disaster, but now might be the point to start worrying about where Farrell goes from here.

2. JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM – You know how Yorgo Lanthimos went from my bottom 5 in 2016 to my top 10 of 2018 in a surprising turn-around? Well the opposite is true for director J. A. Boyena, who went from directing my favorite film of 2016 (A Monster Calls) to making this steaming pile of garbage.   Although, I put less of the blame on him and more on the studio who decided to franchise build on this long running series with some of the dumbest ideas I have seen in a big budget film in a long time.  Not only do they undercut everything that was great about films past by destroying the island from the first movie, but then they take the plot to this convoluted setting in a mansion which somehow had a network of dinosaur cages built underneath it without the old man who lived above it knowing it was there.  Couple this with some incredibly dumb plot twists involving cloning, and you’ve got the year’s most brain dead movie.  Even the charisma of Chris Pratt couldn’t save this one.

And the worst movie of 2018 is…

1. 15:17 TO PARIS – Far and away the worst thing that Clint Eastwood has ever had his name attached to.  I even hesitate to call this a movie.  It plays out more like someone’s vacation video, with the central thwarted terrorist attack that inspired the movie making up only the last ten minutes or so.  Not to take away from the bravery of the three heroes from that day, but Eastwood made the worst possible choice of casting the real life people as themselves in this movie, and their lack of acting experience really shows.  The amateurish nature of the movie is really uncomfortable to watch, especially knowing that a legend like Eastwood is the one behind the camera.  I know he’s comfortable with these pulled from the headline narratives right now, but this movie is so lightweight that it really is a waste of his talent and also everyone’s time.  Thank god he made another, far superior film called The Mule this year to help get the bitter taste of this one out, but even still, Clint should’ve rethought his film-making instincts and not embarrassed himself with this, the worst movie he has ever made.

So, there you have my picks of the best and worst of the year.  It was a year of ups and downs, both on screen and off, and more than anything, it was a year that challenged norms within the industry.  We are starting to see more diverse voices coming into their own, and as you can see from my list above, they offered up some of the year’s best movies.  Though they missed making it on my list, I was pleased to see the modest success of queer themed films in 2018 like Love, Simon and Boy Erased, showing a growing mainstream acceptance in the public at large.  Also, it’s refreshing to see that in the same year that Black Panther made history at the box office that many other films tackling the African-American experience in America have also been given the spotlight as well.  And, even though this year marked the rise of platforms like Netflix, it’s also a year where many of the awards season favorites are films made directly by major studios; A Star is Born (Warner Brothers), Green Book (Universal), Mary Poppins Returns (Disney) and Black Panther (Marvel), showing that the studios are still doing just fine even with the competition.  I hope that the Academy doesn’t harbor the same kind of resentment towards Netflix movies that Cannes or several other film festivals had, because it would be a shame to overlook a film as transcendent as Roma at this year’s Oscars.  Netflix is doing what it can to meet their standards, including breaking from their own business model by giving some films a limited theatrical release (which I highly recommend if Roma is playing in your local area).  It will remain to be seen if the plan works, and if it leaves a lasting impact on either party.  Personally, I’d rather watch movies for the first time in a theater, but I admire the fact that Netflix is investing in movies that the other studios are two uncertain about making, which I think is good all around for competition.  It’s going to make for an interesting 2019, and my hope is that there will be plenty more great films to choose from for next year’s list.  With all that said, Happy New Year and thanks for reading.

 

The Movies of Early 2019

If there was ever a reason to take the early months of the year seriously as part of the release calendar for Hollywood movies, this last year clearly showed it.  Not only did the winter and spring months of 2018 provide the two highest grossing movies of the year (Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War), but it also was instrumental for spring-boarding the entire box office for the year into record breaking numbers.  Often viewed before as the dumping ground for movies too small or problematic to be considered tent-poles for major studios, the early quarter of the year now yields just as many blockbusters as it’s long-established brothers of Summer and Fall have over the years.  In some ways, it’s now the fall season, once dominated by the likes of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, is now the part of the year that’s struggling to keep up.  What’s most interesting about the early part of the year now is that it’s benefited greatly from strong performances by the horror movie genre.  Last year saw incredible success from critically acclaimed thrillers like Hereditary and A Quiet Place, both of which performed much better than their summer and fall equivalents.  This was also the case the year prior with Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out (2016), which immediately stood out in the month of February where there was no other movie like it to compete.  That’s probably why the early part of the year is being looked at as a great place to take chances and make movies shine in a box office period that is less crowded.  Like last year, I will be looking at the most anticipated movies coming to theaters over the early part of this next year, including the ones that I believe are must sees, the ones that have me worried and the ones that I’m sure are worth skipping.  Keep in mind, these are just my impressions based on my excitement level for each one and what I believe are their strength and weaknesses based on the effectiveness of their marketing.  I’m not always right in this regard, and some of these could turn out to be surprises; good or bad.  So, with that, let’s look at the films of early 2019.

MUST SEES:

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (APRIL 26)

Because of a last minute date change from last year, I couldn’t include Avengers: Infinity War in my early 2018 preview, even though it should have belonged there in the long run.  Thankfully, Marvel opted to schedule it’s followup, Endgame, for the same end of April release which makes this a lot easier this year.  Avengers: Endgame no doubt wants to make sure that it receives the same worldwide roll-out that Infinity War did, and with it, making sure all the plot secrets are revealed across the world at the same time.  This was especially necessary for Infinity War, as it left audiences with the most talked about cliffhanger since The Empire Strikes Back (1980).  Now, Endgame comes out a year later giving us a resolution to that story.  Because of the shocking development at the end of the movie where (SPOILERS) Thanos (Josh Brolin) wipes out half of all life in the universe with the full power of the Infinity Stones, anticipation is high with audiences deeply interested in knowing what comes next.  We know that what happened is likely to be reversed, but the question is the how?  How is it all going to play out?  The trailer leaves us with even more questions that will likely make this a harrowing story by itself.  Why is Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) alone in space?  What happened to Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to make him go rogue?  How did Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) get out of the quantum realm?  Some argued that the movie didn’t need any marketing, because of how effective that cliffhanger was, but it’s a good sign when the trailer shows us just enough without spoiling what happens next.  There is little doubt that this is going to be another gem in the Marvel Studios crown, the only question is how big of a boost will this one get after where Infinity War left us, and can it live up to that moment?

GLASS (JANUARY 18)

Speaking of super heroes, here we have a long awaited follow-up to one of the greatest deconstructions of the genre that’s ever been put on screen.  M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000) was a brilliant look at how the tropes of comic book characters and their stories could play out in a real world setting, and it delivered a plot twist by the end that rivaled even Shyamalan’s famous Sixth Sense finale.  Unfortunately, Unbreakable couldn’t come out of it’s predecessor’s shadow, performing underwhelmingly at the box office, and after making Signs (2002), Shyamalan descended into a creative spiral where he was forced to try to replicate the Sixth Sense success again but failed time and time again, falling into self parody.  Thankfully, he ended up partnering with Blumhouse Productions, and their mutually beneficial collaboration resulted in his first runaway hit in over a decade, with the surprisingly tense and effective Split (2017).  What even amazed people more is that with a end credits cameo from Bruce Willis, we found out that Split was in fact a back door spin-off of Unbreakable and that Shyamalan was intending to do something that I’m sure he has long wanted to do but never could, which is to revisit this narrative once again.  I picked Unbreakable as my favorite film of the year 2000, and it thrills me to not only see a continuation of this story, but to also feel excited for a Shyamalan movie once again.  We are finally seeing him in his element again, with a story that best fits his style of film-making, and even better, he managed to assemble all the same players again.  James McAvoy, who was amazing in Split, is joined by Unbreakable’s Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, whose villainous Mr. Glass gives the movie it’s title.  I really hope that this one lives up to the legacy of both the movie and of Shyamalan’s best work, because Unbreakable is an underrated masterpiece, and I’m glad that it now has the sequel that it’s long deserved.

CAPTAIN MARVEL (MARCH 8)

As if we didn’t have enough super hero movies to be excited about, here is another from the unstoppable force that is Marvel Studios.  Here, we get another groundbreaking effort from the team , which sees their first film ever to headline a female lead; that being the titular super being.  Benefiting greatly from the star power of Oscar winner Brie Larson, Captain Marvel is a major addition to the Marvel roster who is sure to make a huge splash this spring at the box office.  Seeing how well DC’s Wonder Woman performed with it’s own super heroine, this should be another example of the viability of a female driven action film that can compete just as effectively as those starring male super heroes.  Also, given how important Captain Marvel is to the overall Marvel canon, it’s long overdue to see her join the roster and make an impact on the MCU in general.  Especially given the mess that Thanos left the universe in, it’s going to be exciting to see her make her debut in the role of a savior; which is heavily hinted at in Infinity War’s post credits scene.  This movie sets that confrontation up well by showing her backstory, as well as her place in the story overall; setting it in the 1990’s, where she encounters some familiar faces of the past.  Chief among them is a still green SHIELD agent named Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, again), and the movie not only looks to be an origin tale for her, but him as well.  The movie also introduces us to the Skrulls, some of the most legendary bad guys from the comic books, and their shape-shifting powers could offer up some intriguing story possibilities not just for this film, but for all the Marvel movies both past and present.  Captain Marvel on the big screen has been long overdue, and it’s exciting to see Marvel finally give her the spotlight she deserves.

THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART (FEBRUARY 8)

When the first Lego Movie premiered in 2014, it was the surprise of the year.  What could have easily slipped into a cheap cash in and a shameless commercial for the product it’s based on, Lego Movie instead proved to be a remarkably smart, funny, and even heartwarming animated treat.  This was accomplished in no small part to the excellent work of writers and directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, two of the greatest humorists to have emerged in the last decade.  Sadly they are not directing this sequel, but they did contribute to the screenplay, and the last time they contributed to a screenplay that was not their own film, it was the incredible Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse.  Apart from the directorial change, everything else about this movie seems to be in tact.  The cast returns, including Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks as the two leads, as well as Will Arnett in his scene-stealing role as Batman.  Chris Pratt even gets to play two roles this time; his original character Emmitt, and a gritty newcomer named Rex Dangervest, which is an amalgam of all the other characters Pratt has played in other movies, like Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Jurassic World (2015).  My hope is that the movie finds new and clever was to play around in this Lego world than it has before, and not just be a rehash of the original.  There is strong precedent for the movie to work, as the spin-off Lego Batman Movie (2017) was also a delightful romp.  It is hard to make a sequel to a movie that should have never have worked in the first place, because at this point the novelty is gone, and now people expect that it to be good.  Given the people involved, I can see this matching it’s predecessor, and hopefully maybe even surpass it.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD (FEBRUARY 22)

Dreamworks Animation has had a shaky couple of years, with box office numbers considerably lower than their hits of years past.  Not only that, but the shifting around from studio to studio has also led to a downgrade in their once powerful brand.  Now, it seems they have found a home with Universal Studios, and their first collaboration with their new distributor is a third installment from arguably their greatest series to date.  The first How to Train Your Dragon (2010) was an instant classic when it first released, and is widely regarded by many (including myself) to be the high water mark for Dreamworks.  The 2014 sequel even defied expectations, and was widely regarded as just as good as it’s predecessor; something most animated sequels rarely do.  And even with the changing tides of the animation industry, How to Train Your Dragon is still seen as a valuable property.  So, it makes sense that Dreamworks would once again revisit their beloved franchise, hopefully as a way to regain some of their lost mojo.  The addition of a love interest for the film’s mascot dragon, Toothless, seems to be a smart way to add extra narrative spark to this story-line, and the courtship scenes shown in the trailer are wonderfully silly.  Also, a dragon hunting villain voiced by F. Murray Abraham makes another exciting addition.  Even with all the new elements, the touching relationship between Toothless and his human keeper Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) still remains at the heart of this trilogy, and it looks like it’s going to come to a touching and emotional end as this is likely the finale to their story.  Let’s hope that Dreamworks sends this series out strong, as it has been the crown jewel of their studio so far.

MOVIES THE HAVE ME WORRIED:

DUMBO (MARCH 29)

You already know from my reviews that I have mixed feelings about Disney’s recent trend of remaking all their animated classics.  Some are good (CinderellaPete’s Dragon) but most are bad (Beauty and the Beast, Maleficent), and this year we got three more.  This summer will see remakes for Aladdin  and The Lion King, but before them, we are getting a remake of one of the studios most legendary and beloved classics.  Perhaps the trickiest of remakes to get right, the beloved Walt-era masterpiece Dumbo is getting it’s own update, and the one responsible for pulling it off is Tim Burton.  Giving this project to the likes of Burton is a mixed bag.  He is an incredible visual artist, and from the trailer, we can see that this is an exquisitely produced, visually interesting movie; playing well to his strengths.  However, the last time he was tasked with updating a Disney classic, it was the unappealing Alice in Wonderland (2010).  With Alice, Tim Burton made a movie that had all the visual excess that he is known for, but with none of the restraint or focus, and it resulted in a very disappointing experience overall.  Dumbo is a more emotionally driven story, and one hopes that Tim Burton can find a more consistent tone that is faithful to the original, while still making good use of his visual style.  On the plus side, the movie does team Burton up with Michael Keaton, who haven’t worked together since Batman Returns (1992), and I’m excited to see those two collaborating again.  The trailer also gives off a Big Fish (2003) vibe, which is good considering that’s one of Burton’s more subtle and effective features.  Let’s hope that he does the original justice, because if he doesn’t, this could be a movie that faces some severe fan backlash.

SHAZAM! (APRIL 5)

Another series that has a lot to prove is the DC Extended Universe.  After many years of playing catch up to Marvel, DC has found a small bit of success lately with Wonder Woman and Aquaman.  Now while I did enjoy Wonder Woman a great deal, Aquaman left me a bit underwhelmed, despite some moves in the right direction.  But, in trying to catch Marvel, DC also runs the risk of over-correcting, and look like they are just playing copycat.  That could be the downside of their next film, Shazam!, which brings to the screen one of DC’s more lighthearted, comical characters.  After years of being criticized for it’s grim and dark tone, the DCEU is starting to lighten up, favoring a sense of humor and brighter colors that feel much more Marvel like that what they made before.  This is where they run the risk of making too much of a heel turn.  Shazam! looks like a comedy dressed up as a super hero story, with the Tom Hanks movie Big (1988) providing heavy inspiration, which could play well on it’s own.  But remember, Marvel has many more years experience with these kinds of movies.  Shazam! could end up being too silly to be taken seriously as a part of DC’s attempts to salvage their franchise.  And given how Aquaman couldn’t overcome it’s own shortcomings even despite the attempts to change it’s tone as a part of the universe, makes me also doubt that Shazam! can do it too.  The casting of Zachary Levi could work for the character though, since he has the build and the personality to pull the character off.  I also like the chemistry between him and the best friend character, played by IT’s Jack Dylan Grazer.  Hopefully this is more of a step in the right direction for DC, which even after some positive movements is something they still desperately need.

HELLBOY (APRIL 12)

Is it really too soon to reboot this franchise?  I ask because the original duo of features directed by Guillermo del Toro still stand up pretty well even a decade later.  I understand wanting to bring this franchise back, but the sad thing is that this looks like a complete do over with a new cast, director and story-line; throwing away all that the other films had already established.  Couple that with the fact that it seems like only Hellboy himself made the transition over, as beloved sidekicks like Abe Sapian are left out this time.  The movie has Stranger Things alum David Harbour taking on the role after original Hellboy Ron Pearlman.  Harbour is a good choice to play the iconic hero, and this is his first lead role in a major studio film as an actor, which is a great development in his career; one in which the stalwart actor has justly earned.  He has big shoes, or hoves, to fill as Ron Pearlman left such an iconic mark on the character, one in which he seemed destined to play.  I hate to think that this movie is scrapping all the story and continuity of the Del Toro films to begin anew, so whatever they have planned for this franchise, let’s hope that it lives up to what we’ve seen thus far.  It appears from the trailer that the new film maintains the same sense of humor, and I like the addition of Ian McShane in the mentor role that was previously filled by the late great John Hurt.  And there are some interesting visuals on display in the trailer, which take their visual inspiration from Del Toro’s own unique style.  I hope that it’s a revival worth celebrating, and not just a cash grab to capitalize on a property in the middle of this super hero era that we are currently experiencing.

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (FEBRUARY 14)

Some movies just take longer to become a reality than others; but eventually the longer they take, the less likely they are able to work as well as they were supposed to.  Alita: Battle Angel has been a pet project of filmmaker James Cameron for nearly twenty years.  Even while he was completely immersing himself in the world of Avatar (2009), he still had this one developing quietly in the background.  Eventually, with the Avatar sequels taking up most of his time as a director, he was left with the reality of not being able to bring this movie to the screen himself, so the project was passed along to another, with Cameron overseeing as producer.  Robert Rodriquez, an equally ambitious and experimental filmmaker when it comes to visual effects stepped in to finally bring the film to the big screen, but even with his help, the movie still faced numerous delays, and was pushed back several times on the release calendar.  It’s now ready to make it’s way to the theaters this February and the only obstacle that remains in it’s way is; do people still care?  There’s no doubt that this is going to be a visually stimulating movie, with the motion capture technology that James Cameron pioneered with Avatar being used to create a life like version of the titular heroine.  Again, the technology used could be a blessing and a curse, because though the results are impressive, it runs the danger of falling into uncanny valley territory.  The movie does have an impressive cast to help things along, including Oscar winners Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connolly, and Mahershala Ali.  Only time will tell if the wait was worth it for this one.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

CAPTIVE STATE (MARCH 29)

Every now and then we get these heavy handed political allegories that often loose control of the message once the narrative turns more convoluted and unfocused.  Prime example was the disastrous Elysium (2013), which had some of the laziest, socially conscious sermonizing that I’ve ever seen put on film.  It can be done well, like the brilliant Snowpiercer (2014) from Bong Joon-ho, but that one benefited from a grounded in reality concept that made the political subtext more palatable.  Captive State however rehashes the same old alien invasion plot-line that’s become old hat as a commentary on modern society.  The only variation that it offers is that this is a world where Earth has been long colonized by a tyrannical alien invader, which has imposed strict societal control on all earthlings.  That’s the general take that I get from the trailer, and though it may be different in the final film, I can pretty much speculate exactly where the story is going to go.  I have no problem watching a movie with a political allegory; even a movie such as this which goes against my own political beliefs, just as long as the story is still engaging.  Sadly, Captive State looks like just another in a long line of wannabe grand statements that wants to reveal the world for what it really is, and yet still compromises itself to be a standard action thriller just like all the rest.  I’m pretty sure there will be very few surprises with this one.

WONDER PARK (MARCH 15)

One of the things that especially defines an underwhelming animated feature is the way that some stretch a premise to the point of breaking.  A light weight story always spells doom for bad animated films, and Wonder Park looks to fit that bill exactly.  Here we find a young girl who builds model theme parks and rides as a hobby, but looses interest once she is hit with tragedy.  Later she finds that her park has come magically to life and she must rebuild it in a metaphorical journey to also rebuild her own self-esteem.  I can already tell where this story is going to go, and I already don’t like it.  These coming of age stories are already old hat in animation, mainly because pretty much every studio has done it before.  Also, as seen in the trailer, the movie relies too heavily on slapstick and innuendos, which is a clear sign of lazy writing for an animated film.  I’m sure that it may end up looking pretty, but again, this is a medium where Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks have pushed the medium to new heights.  Wonder Park just has this sub-par feel to it, like one of those films you would see from an upstart studio trying way to fit in with the big guys.

A DOG’S WAY HOME (JANUARY 10)

One of the most hilariously inept trailers that I have seen in a very long time, the above advertisement gives away pretty much the entire movie in it’s short 2 1/2 minutes.  That’s not a good sign already that your story only offers little over two minutes to explain every plot point, even the ending.  Basically a poor man’s Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993),  A Dog’s Way Home is another in this strange new shared universe franchise of talking dog movies.  This one comes to us from the same people who made A Dog’s Purpose (2017) an equally lightweight and vacuous dog movie.  This is exactly the kind of movie that you’d expect to be dumped off in the month of January, as it seems to only be marketed to a small segment of people who are avid dog lovers.  And believe me, I love dogs too; it doesn’t change my belief that this is going to be a terrible movie just like it’s predecessor.  At the very least I did get a laugh at the fact that the entire movie’s plot is given away by the trailer, indicating to me that the marketing team behind this film doesn’t care much for it either.

So, there you have my look at the upcoming winter and spring films of 2019.  Just like years past, it looks like Marvel will once again dominate at the box office, and this could especially be a record breaker for them which says a lot.  With the completion of the Avengers story-line with Endgame, plus the premiere of Captain Marvel, the mighty Marvel machine is not even close to slowing down.  I’m also especially excited to see Shyamalan’s return to the genre after such a long hiatus with Glass.  There could be a few surprises in there too, though most likely from movies that I left out of this preview.  Independent movies, which seem to do well no matter what time of the year it is, will almost always be worth watching and the current slate of streaming films that are beginning to make a splash on platforms like Netflix and Amazon, with Disney+ and Apple just about to widen the playing field more in the coming year.  What’s great is that blockbusters are no longer confined to certain parts of the year, but are in fact found in every month now.  That was evident by Black Panther’s record breaking run this year in the month of February.  Perhaps Hollywood is seeing now that these early months no longer need to act as a dumping ground for their trash, but fertile area to really make their movies shine with an uncrowded market.  It’s something that we’ll likely see exploited more in the years to come, and I’m just happy to see movies worth getting excited about coming out sooner rather than later in the year ahead.  So, let’s celebrate the New Year and have a good time at the movies in 2019.

Aquaman – Review

Nothing says Christmas time than a superhero movie starring a guy who can talk to fish.  Sure for my pre-holiday article, it sure is strange reviewing this, but that’s the release window that Warner Brothers and DC decided to give their aquatic hero his big screen debut.  One thing is clear, Warner Brothers needs a blockbuster right now on their DC side of things, and the holiday window seems like their best bet for exposure.  Things have been pretty shaky with DC’s attempts to chase Marvel with the construction of their own cinematic universe.  Since it’s official launch with Man of Steel (2013), the DC universe has been received with mixed results.  Their movies do well enough at the box office, but their reception from fans and critics are another story.  The consensus for most people is that the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), just feels like a studio cashing in their noteworthy characters with movies that don’t quite understand what makes those characters great in the first place; at least not in the same way that Marvel treats their characters.  This was particularly clear with the failure of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), an overly grim, dramatically hollow spectacle that alienated a fanbase that had long wanted to see the two iconic characters sharing the screen finally.  Since then, DC has been soul searching, while at the same time having to fulfill their overly ambitious franchise plans that BvS was supposed to have laid the groundwork for.  Things became even more complicated with the failure of Justice League (2017) last year.  Hoping to replicate the success of Marvel’s Avengers franchise, DC found the weakness of their franchise plan resulting in their big team film making less money than a standalone Thor sequel.  Justice League was supposed to be a game changer and the dream come true for every DC Comics fan who had waited years for it.  Instead, it was just another confused product of a movie studio without a sense of direction.

But, not there were signs of hope for DC.  The same year Justice League underwhelmed, they also found huge success with their stand alone film for Wonder Woman.  Not only did the movie pull in spectacular numbers at the box office (becoming the DCEU’s highest grossing film to date), but it also won critical success as well.  As the Justice League plans have crumbled, further complicated by the fact that actors Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck both dropped out of the roles of Superman and Batman respectively, DC and Warner Brothers decided to refocus their DC Universe in a new direction.  Seeing as how well Wonder Woman performed on it’s own, the new direction of the studio became to focus on stand alone features rather that could franchise themselves, and hopefully maybe stitch together in the future.  Next year, we are getting the first of these stand alone DC films, with the Joker backstory movie from director Todd Phillips with Joaquin Phoenix starring as the Clown Prince.  After that, we will also get a Birds of Prey film, with Margot Robbie reprising her role of Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad (2016).  And then there is Ava DuVernay’s New Gods film that is currently in early development.  It’s different, but all together this could work better for DC in the long run because it allows them to put more focus in the movies themselves rather than concerning themselves with building a shared universe.  However, they still must deal with the remnants of the old DCEU.  Wonder Woman is currently getting a sequel, reuniting star Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins, which is the current best thing they have going.  But without a Superman or Batman, it leaves their franchises in doubt.  The Flash (currently played by Ezra Miller) has unfortunately seen his film stalled in production multiple times, and any mention of Cyborg getting his own movie has been nil up to now as well.  And this is the state that we find the final member of the Justice League, Aquaman, as he makes his debut in a standalone film.  The only question now is does this help rise the tide of DC’s fortunes, or is it another anchor that drags them down into the abyss.

A year after the events of Justice League, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) has returned to his usual work of protecting the seas from criminals and polluters who wish to cause harm to his world.  After saving a submarine crew from a band of pirates, Arthur returns to the home of his father, Tom (Temuera Morrison) to take a break.  However he is met there by an Atlantean princess named Mera (Amber Heard), who tells him that there is trouble brewing in the undersea kingdom that Arthur is heir to.  Arthur refuses to get involved, because he feels more kinship to his home on dry land, and is angry at the people of Atlantis for having executed his mother, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), for desertion.  Arthur changes his mind after a worldwide tidal wave nearly wipes out his hometown community, no doubt caused by the advanced weaponry of the Atlantean people.  He reluctantly joins Mera and arrives at Atlantis, a prosperous megalopolis deep on the ocean floor.  There, he meets with his old trainer, Vulko (Willem Dafoe) who gives him a key to finding the lost Trident of Atlantis, a weapon that only the true king can posses.  However, before Arthur can embark on his journey, he is arrested and brought before the current king of Atlantis, his half brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson).  Orm is in the middle of consolidating his power in the hopes of becoming Oceanmaster, which will enable him to bring his forces to the surface and conquer the people on land as well, and Arthur’s claim to the throne is getting in his way.  Arthur does manage to escape with the aid of Mera, which makes her a fugitive as well, and they must work together in order to find the Trident that can restore order to the Ocean kingdoms.  But, in order to keep them from their goal, Orm makes a deal with an land based assassin with a axe to grind of his own against Arthur; the ruthless Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen).

Even before coming to the big screen, Aquaman already has had a lot of negative baggage to overcome.  Often the most ridiculed of all the DC super heroes, making the character work on the big screen without coming across as silly was certainly a chore for any filmmaker.  Warner Brothers gave the task to Director/ Producer James Wan was given the reigns to do so after he has built his own cinematic universe there at the studio within the horror genre, through his highly successful Conjuring franchise and all of it’s spinoffs.  The upside is that Wan is a fan of the character and was willing to give Aquaman a worthy cinematic treatment and not just cash in a paycheck.   But, even with Wan’s good intentions, there is still a larger issue that plagues this movie version of Aquaman.  For one thing, the movie is a bloated mess with too much CGI mayhem getting in the way of a cohesive narrative.  I was getting fairly annoyed while watching this movie because it could never just settle down and let the story find it’s rhythm.  It’s as if the movie was so concerned that we wouldn’t understand what was going on so it just stops to explain everything to us; the history of the Atlantean people, Arthur’s backstory, the internal politics, why the Atlanteans can speak underwater and have super agility in the ocean depths.  It just piles up so much that I frankly felt exhausted by the end, and this is a 2 1/2 hour movie.  Now, to be clear, this isn’t the worst we’ve seen from DC.  The movie thankfully has none of the grim, dreariness of the Zack Snyder directed features.  It is colorful and appropriately goofy at times.  But, there were points where I just wanted the movie to actually stay still and let the visuals tell the story, rather than having everything spelled out for us, and that would have made the film feel less forced than it does.

Naturally, a movie like this is going to need to be compared with the new high bar of the DCEU; Wonder Woman.  What made Wonder Woman work so well is that it established it’s world effectively within it’s opening act, and then allowed the story to breath and find itself within the second.  That’s why Wonder Woman’s journey was so fulfilling, because we were on that road to discovery alongside her as she learns more about the real state of the world, and the movie hit it’s high point in it’s No Man’s Land sequence which showed her finally making her stand as a super hero; not because it was serviceable for the story nor to get Wonder Woman where she needed to be, but because it allowed us the audience to see her do something heroic for the sake of doing what’s right.  That selflessness is what was missing in so many other DCEU movies, and sadly it is missed yet again here in Aquaman.  Now, thankfully, Arthur Curry is not a selfish jerk in his narrative, but the movie never gives him that super hero moment that Wonder Woman possessed so well in her story.  Instead, DC opted to give him a narrative that fits his namesake in the grand Arthurian tradition, with a man of royal blood finding it in himself to become a king.  This, unfortunately, does not play out in the grandest of ways as the movie hits all the cliched notes that this kind of narrative has already brought to the big screen; from Excalibur (1981) to The Lion King (1994).  Aquaman never has a save the day moment in his movie, it’s all about protecting his own hide while he goes on a treasure hunt.  The movie does have moments that shine, and I’ll give James Wan credit for some well-staged fight scenes, especially a Sicilian encounter with Black Manta, but it’s all sadly drowned out in a movie filled with too many other things going on.

The movie’s best saving grace is Jason Momoa in the lead role.  Even while I began to lose interest in his overall story, I still enjoyed him in role of Aquaman.  What makes Momoa work here is the fact that he feels so comfortable in the role.  He’s never awkward nor monotone in his performance; whenever the movie requires him to be silly, he’s charmingly silly, but when it also calls for him to be serious, he approaches it with a great sense of dignity.  More importantly, he just looks like he’s having a lot of fun playing this character.  Even simple asides, or a perturbed look, bears a great amount of character through his performance and it helps to carry much of the entertainment value of this movie even through the murkiest of moments.  Unfortunately, much of the remaining cast of is a mixed bag.  I for one did not like Amber Heard in the role of Mera.  Her performance lacks all charisma, and she particularly looks out of place throughout the movie.  The biggest problem is that she and Momoa have absolutely zero chemistry, which makes their romantic subplot feel forced and unsatisfactory.  For the most part, they just bicker and push each other along, which I know is supposed to create sparks between the two, but it never quite worked.  What worked for the likes of Bogart and Hepburn or Ford and Fisher does not work at all here.  Patrick Wilson tries his best, and is often saddled with the clunkiest of dialogue that you can really tell he’s trying to deliver with the greatest of effort, but Orm is another in DC’s long line of underwhelming heavy’s.  He’s better than Steppenwolf and Jesse Eisenberg’s lame Lex Luthor, but still pales compared to Marvel’s current rogues gallery.  I did greatly enjoy the presence of Black Manta, played ferociously by Yahya Abdul-Mateen.  He steals every scene he’s in, which were never quite enough, and the movie really comes alive whenever he shows up.  Hopefully Black Manta has a future in the DCEU’s grand scheme, because I still think there is a lot more left to uncover with this iconic villain.  I also thought that Nicole Kidman and Temuera Morrison did quite well in their brief moments of screen time and wish there was more of them as well in this packed narrative.

I will also give credit to the world-building that James Wan put into his movie, even if it kind of overwhelms everything else.  The Kingdom of Atlantis is very creatively realized.  I love the fact that they show how the Atlantean society has evolved with the times the same way that the world above has as well, only with a ocean based twist.  One clever visual is seeing the massive structures of the kingdom built on top of the old ruins that made up the old, destroyed kingdom, much like how our modern earthbound cities have their relics of the past preserved as well.  It’s a world that also experiences traffic jams, contains sporting venues, and community structures that makes the world both foreign and familiar at the same time.  This is where the movie’s visuals do really shine, and it’s good to see DC move away from the dark grays of the Snyder films.  However, there comes a point where I felt the movie became too reliant on CGI, as every scene began to feel artificial, especially towards the end.  Even the encounter with Black Manta in Sicily looked too fake at points.  Some of the best super hero movies know when to balance their visual effects with something real to help make everything feel authentic and cohesive.  The effective first act does just that, with a great action set piece on a crippled submarine, where most of the visual treats are done purely through the excellent stunt work, especially when Momoa goes delightfully over the top.  However, by the final battle, it becomes abundantly clear that these are just actors dangling on wires in front of a green screen, and the magic begins to wear off, as does the ability to care about what is going on.  I can tell that James Wan is still on a learning curve when it comes to directing action, and for the most part he does deliver an imaginative world, but the balance is missing and it does cause one to get weary of what’s being thrown at them, and I for one stopped caring by the end.

I never outright hated what I was watching, but by the end I just didn’t care either.  Aquaman’s never really been one of the superheroes I cared one way or another about, and this movie does very little to make me any more interested.  That being said, Jason Momoa is definitely the best thing this movie and the franchise has going for it.  I do wish that in future Aquaman movies (if there are any, which is likely) that they actually draw back a little bit and not try to force too much into one movie.  A full Aquaman vs. Black Manta movie would be especially welcome, as those were the best parts of this one.  Also, put a lot more work into the character of Mera, because she gave absolutely nothing to this movie at all.  The world-building was adequate enough, but it overwhelmed whatever story they were trying to tell, and my hope is that with all the exposition out of the way, the Aquaman narrative will finally be able to dig into something meatier and more heroic.  It’s hard to tell what might happen next given the way that the DC Universe is in flux right now.  We know that Wonder Woman is going to continue pretty much unchanged, but everything else is up in the air right now, including Aquaman.  To the filmmakers credit, they took a movie that few had any hope for and managed to see it through even as the Universe it was a cog in the machine of began to fall apart.  Aquaman’s main issue is not if they managed to bring the character effectively to the big screen; they did, with a big help from Jason Momoa’s charisma.  The problem is that the movie does too much; it’s bloated, it has too many subplots that go nowhere, and all the best parts are too few and far between.  All in all, the movie is sadly a step backwards after the great leap forward that was Wonder Woman, but thankfully it’s not a step completely off the ledge.  It still improves a lot of things that were broken in the old Zack Snyder DC Universe, which on the whole is a positive.  I just wish that with a little more focus and some more grounded visuals this movie could have helped Aquaman break through the waves and rise above to become a true bright spot in the DC cinematic canon.

Rating: 6.5/10

Evolution of Character – Santa Claus

When I started this series 5 years ago, I spotlighted a popular character associated with Christmas time; the curmudgeonly Ebeneezer Scrooge.  But, he’s of course not the only seasonal icon that has enjoyed a long time presence on the silver screen.  You don’t have to look any further than the symbol of the Holiday himself, Santa Claus, for a wide array of cinematic interpretations.  The interesting thing about the cinematic evolution of Santa Claus is that they have both shaped and reshaped his image across every iteration.  There really is no clear set of rules for portraying the story of Santa Claus; he pretty much is whatever your story needs him to be.  There are of course some universal standards that the portrayal adheres to.  He’s got to be rotund, wears a red suit, live up at the north pole, and drives a sleigh propelled by eight flying reindeer.  A lot of these rules, however, were established through some of the most noteworthy literary and cinematic interpretations over time, and most of the Santa myth cannot be derived from just one source.  That’s been the case throughout history.  The real life Saint Nicholas really bears little resemblance to the character that now carries his name today, and the image of Santa borrows mainly from Western European legends.  It wasn’t until Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” that we received a definitive description of this character named Santa Claus, and this has been what has stuck in most people’s minds ever since.  The Coca-Cola corporation further reinforced the image of “Jolly Old St. Nick” in their advertising, and that has largely been the image that Hollywood has drawn from as well.  But, even with that, it is interesting how the character changes from genre to genre, and also through different actors’ performances.  What follows are some of those unique cinematic versions of Santa that I think really represents the broad spectrum that has surprising followed Santa through his history on film.

EDMUND GWENN from MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947)

Though Miracle on 34th Street may not have introduced the character of Santa Claus onto the big screen, it certainly did leave a significant mark on the character.  If Coca-Cola managed to popularize the definitive image of Santa in pop culture, 34th Street cemented it forever into  the minds of generations to come.  Here he is portrayed by Edmund Gwenn, who looks every much the part.  Apart from capturing the look of Santa Claus, he also brings out a great amount of charm in his performance; maintaining a sense of purity that every child would want to see in their ideal Santa Claus.  There’s an especially sweet moment when he’s confronted by a cynical young girl (played by a very young Natalie Wood), who believes he’s wearing a fake beard.  He offers to let her pull it to prove it’s real, and when she does, he feigns a sneeze to playfully remove her doubt.  But, the other interesting thing about Mr. Gwenn’s performance is that it is also grounded as well.  There is a question left up in the air by the movie whether or not he really is Santa Claus, and the movie does leave the answer open to interpretation.  Gwenn does just enough to make you question it, but never dismiss one side or another either, and that makes his role as the enigmatic Kris Kringle all the more effective and layered.  It’s so effective that to this day, Edmund Gwenn is the only actor who has won an Academy Award for portraying Santa Claus.  There have been two attempts at remaking this classic film, and I feel that both fall short of capturing the mystery of the original, mainly because they fall too heavily for a more whimsical side (although Richard Attenborough’s Kringle in the 1994 remake is still charming).  For the character of Santa in pop culture in general, you can see a lot of groundwork laid here through Edmund Gwenn’s endearing version.

JOHN CALL from SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS (1964)

Quite a dramatic departure from the usual adventures of Santa Claus.  This B-Movie cult classic has Santa abducted by Martians who take him back to their home planet where he can make presents for the Martian children.  Yes, this is a real plot to a real movie.  And it’s just as ridiculous as you would expect.  A favorite of the Mystery Science Theater crowd, this movie has just the right amount of campy charm and the Santa Claus at it’s center is portrayed with the same amount of oddball camp.  Character actor John Call’s Santa is still a jolly old soul, but with a slight bit of surliness to his portrayal.  Some of the movie’s attempts at humor involve Santa clumsily forgetting the names of his reindeer and telling bad jokes that only illicit a laugh from the audience because of the absence of laughter from the other characters.  Even still, his passion for the season is infectious, and it’s easy to see how taken the Martians are by his charm.  The movie more or less tries to see how well a character like Santa Claus could fit into the Sci-Fi genre that was all the craze at the time, and though the result is a bit of a trainwreck, it nevertheless has withstood the test of time.  Call’s performance as Santa Claus is just quirky enough to make the whole weird experiment work, and the movie is worth checking out just for the surreal aspect of it all.  Santa doesn’t quite conquer anything so much as fits in well with any company he finds, and surprisingly that even includes visitors from outer space.  It certainly shows that there is a lot of versatility in when and where you could plant a character like Santa into a story, and still have it work as a subversive take on a holiday icon.  Hooray for Santy Claus.

MICKEY ROONEY from RANKIN/BASS’ SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN (1970)

If there is a name in Hollywood that is synonymous with the holiday season, it would be the team of Rankin & Bass.  The animation duo of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass were responsible for many of the most beloved Christmas specials that aired on television through the 1960’s and 70’s; most of them in stop-motion animation.  Their most famous production, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) did feature a Santa in it (a skinny one), but he filled a more supporting role.  Santa would play much larger parts in future Rankin/Bass specials, including two where he was given voice by legendary character actor Mickey Rooney.  There was 1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus, where Santa decides to take a break from his yearly duties in order to nurse himself out of a sickness.  And then there’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, which tells an imagined backstory for the Christmas icon.  The interesting thing about this version is that for most of the film, we are presented with a much younger, beardless Santa Claus.  Seeing a sprite, youthful Kris Kringle is something of a departure from other versions of the character we’ve seen, and the voice of Mickey Rooney really captures that jovial energy that a pre-Claus Santa would have.  Even still, he does transition into the older Santa that we all know very fluidly by the end, and Rooney is equally up to the task of capturing that part of the character too.  Though it’s all fanciful and a bit corny, it is neat to see a movie imagine exactly how this kind of Santa came to be, separated from all the true historical context.  We see the reason for giving out toys, the reason he’s named Kringle, and why he wears the red coat.  Like most of Rankin/Bass’ work, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town has a rich nostalgia feeling for most people, and it’s still on most people’s holiday must watch lists.

DAVID HUDDLESTON from SANTA CLAUS: THE MOVIE (1987)

Much like Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, this 1987 flick tries to invent an origin story of it’s own for Santa Claus.  Only, this time, the origin has more in common with someone like Superman rather than Rudolph.  Santa Claus: The Movie is a strange but interesting film that treats Santa Claus almost like a super hero.  We find out his mortal beginnings as a simple toymaker who is taken in by a kingdom of elves who grant him special powers like immortality and super speed in order to spread their toys across the world on Christmas Eve.  The Santa in question is not too much different from past Santas, but the way the movie lays out his becoming Mr. Claus almost feels like it owes a bit of inspiration to the likes of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978).  He even has a Lex Luthor-esque antagonist he must deal with in the form of John Lithgow’s corporate weasel out to best Santa at his own game.  The movie has some strange turns, but it’s lifted by a grounded performance by David Huddleston.  In between portraying one of the bigoted residents of Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles (1974) and the wheelchair-bound curmudgeon barking orders at the Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998), Huddleston left his own distinctive mark on the character of Santa here, and quite frankly, this is one of the very best.  The girthy actor with the booming voice just feels like he was born to play the part, so it’s only fitting that he’s given the chance to portray the character at his most epic.  Like most fantasies from the 1980’s, this was a movie that relished in going over the top, and thankfully it had it’s own Santa that could easily be larger than life to match it.  Make no mistake about it; when you call you film Santa Claus:The Movie, you are making your case for cinematic grandeur, and while some of the movie falls short of this, the portrayal of Santa does not.

TIM ALLEN from THE SANTA CLAUSE (1994)

Perhaps even more imaginative than a origin story for Santa is the idea that the role of Santa has been passed down through generations, and not always by choice.  Even weirder, is seeing someone like Tim Allen filling that role.  But, to Tim’s credit, he does a capable enough job of filling Santa’s boots, which is coincidentally the basis for this movie’s unique, and kind of disturbing premise.  After causing the accidental death of Santa Claus, Allen’s character puts on the red suit and finishes the job so that Christmas won’t be ruined on account of his mistake.  Unfortunately for him, by putting on the suit, he inadvertently signed on to become Santa’s replacement, a contract (the titular Santa Clause) that he’s now cosmically linked to, and pretty soon he’s gaining the weight and growing the beard.  The fact that the role of Santa must be carried over, even without the full consent of the person in question, is a little on the extreme side, but the movie benefits a great deal from Tim Allen’s comedic presence here.  Allen smartly avoids going heavily into Santa Claus shtick and plays the role pretty close to his own comedian persona; which is exactly what the movie calls for.  This is about the average man transforming into Santa Claus, so it makes sense that even as he physically changes into Santa, he’s still the same man underneath.  Even the snarky grouchiness remains, although tempered enough to match the sweetness of the movie.  Thanks to that, the movie remains funny and charming, and it still remains Tim Allen’s most memorable screen role (minus his voice work as Buzz Lightyear).  Just don’t think too much about the unforgiving implications that constitutes the initial “Santa Clause” premise.

ED ASNER from ELF (2003)

Here we come to one of my favorite Santas from one of my favorite Christmas movies.  Though he doesn’t feature very prominently in the overall plot, Ed Asner’s Santa is a wonderfully realized version of the character.  I love the fact that he is knowledgeable enough to give Will Farrell’s Buddy the Elf advice about New York City, like avoiding Peep Shows and knowing that the real “original”Ray’s Pizza is on 11th.  But, Asner also brings a warm sense of unconditional love to the character as well.  He recognizes the clumsiness of Buddy within the workshop and the fact that he just doesn’t fit in, but he doesn’t answer this with scorn but with encouragement.  He helps Buddy find his real place, while still treating him like one of the family; essentially making this Santa feel much more like a very open-hearted grandfather.  Ed Asner, who’s made a career out of playing lovable curmudgeons, from Lou Grant to Up’s Carl Fredrickson, brings out a lot of charm in his performance, and the fact that he’s playing the role contrary to all the other character types he’s played fits very well with the movie’s tone.  Elf is a movie that in some ways parodies a lot of Christmas classics, while at the same time attempts to be one itself; poking fun while also embracing it’s identity.  You can easily understand why Buddy shouts like a mad man when hearing Santa’s name, in one of the movie’s most hilarious moments.  Asner channels his curmudgeon personality, but fills it with the pure heart of Santa Claus and it works incredibly well.  In many ways, he’s one of the most well rounded and endearing versions of Santa, and unless you are a member of the Central Park Rangers, you can always find a friend in this Santa Claus.

ALEC BALDWIN from RISE OF THE GUARDIANS (2012)

Dreamworks Animation tried their best to create an Avengers style super team of holiday icons, but the effort mostly fell flat and has not been revisited since.  This is mainly due to a film that lacked cohesion and characters that were never fleshed out fully; the clearest example of trying too hard being the somewhat “sexy” makeover of Jack Frost.  But, if there was anything that the movie got right, it was the portrayal of Santa Claus.  Named North in the movie, Santa is transformed into a double sword wielding, Russian accented warrior, and he is incredibly enjoyable.  He stands out mainly because he’s the character with the most personality in the entire film, and actor Alec Baldwin thankfully is hamming it up with his performance.  The design of the character is also appealing, still maintaining a traditional look for Santa with the white beard and red coat, but re-imagined with a Russian Kosack influence and warrior tattoos all over his arms.  In many ways, I wish the movie had dispensed with all of the other holiday characters and just focused on Santa instead, because he’s deserving of his own story on the big screen.  It’s clear that the animators had the most fun with Santa as well, giving North the wildest expressions and the most erratic of movements throughout the film, no doubt trying to match the energy of Baldwin’s vocal performance.  In many ways, after seeing so many traditional takes on the character of Santa, it’s refreshing to see one that is entirely different, and I just wish that more of the movie was devoted towards exploring that further, instead of focusing on boring Jack Frost.  Still, the attempt is worthwhile and the movie is worth seeing for the most bad ass version of Santa Claus we’ve seen yet.  Santa Claus: The Movie drew inspiration from super hero myths to give Santa an intriguing origin.  Rise of the Guardians just makes him a super hero, and that’s kinda cool in the end.

So, you can see that Santa’s history on the big screen has been a wildly diverse one.  Amazingly he can be planted into any genre, and still maintain his identity throughout.  He’s conquered martians, fought demons, survived wars, fixed marriages, went on killing sprees, been sued, was  kidnapped by the Pumpkin King, and was even saved by Ernest.  While some movies try to twist the image of Santa a little bit, there are several things that remain the same throughout every iteration.  Santa remains the symbol of the holiday season, a kind soul whose only mission is to spread gifts and cheer to all the people of the world.  That’s why he is often presented as this ideal of charity in so many films.  While many movies present the incredible feat of spreading gifts to children across the world, what really makes Santa stand out is his heart.  What movies like Santa Claus: The Movie and Miracle on 34th Street in particular capture is the essence of why Santa does what he does every year; because someone has to.  He doesn’t just bring gifts to everyone; he’s a living reminder of why we give gifts in the first place, as a way of showing someone else that they are loved.  The greatest gift given out during the holidays is from someone who you don’t even know, especially when you are in your lowest place at that moment.  Santa encourages all of us to be a Santa to someone else, and spread charity throughout the world, especially to those who need it most.  That is why he’s an especially valuable character in movies today, because he sets the example for all of us to live by during the holiday season.  Sure, he may be a mythical creation that’s been commercially exploited for decades, but the essence of Santa Claus is still something that is worth presenting generation after generation.  That’s why it’s worthwhile to have our children believe in a Santa Claus, because it might encourage them to want to continue his example in their own life.  So as we hear him exclaim as he drives through the night, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.75/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ralph Breaks the Internet – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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