The Director’s Chair – Steven Spielberg

Every era of film-making certainly has it’s trendsetters and generational voices who rise up and define the movies of their time.  But most of the time, some filmmakers either diminish as their styles conflict with changing times, or they reinvent themselves by adopting a new style altogether.  Very few filmmakers ever retain success all the way through their careers without compromising some aspect of how they make movies.  Those that do change over time do run the risk of alienating some of their original fan base, but if the filmmaker is able to maintain the same amount of quality in their work throughout their careers no matter what film they are making, then they are able to illustrate their versatility and maintain their popularity.  No director in the last half century has managed to navigate the highs and lows of a career in film-making better than Steven Spielberg.  Without a doubt the most successful filmmaker of his time, and arguably the greatest one as well, Spielberg has managed to become a household name over his nearly fifty year career in Hollywood.  And what is remarkable about his body of work in that time is not just the quality of his film-making, but also how well most everything he has made has connected with audiences.  Both as a director and a producer, he is responsible for many of the most iconic films of the last 30 years.  He’s brought characters like Indiana Jones to everyone’s attention; he made dinosaurs walk the Earth again in Jurassic Park (1993); he made everyone afraid to go back in the water again after Jaws (1975); and he made music with extraterrestrials in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  But, after creating so many imaginative moments that no doubt shaped the childhood memories of many a film-goer for years, he suddenly shifted his talents away from the realms of fantasy and towards a more grounded reality, all the while still always remaining true to his craft.

The story of Spielberg the filmmaker is one of two different eras, which could be summed up as before Schindler and after Schindler.  While there is overlap between the two eras, with Spielberg experimenting in more grounded dramas in his early career (1985’s The Color Purple and 1987’s Empire of the Sun) and returning to more fanciful films from time to time in his later years (2002’s Minority Report, 2005’s War of the Worlds, 2016’s The BFG), it is clear that his directorial style made a dramatic shift with the release of Schindler’s List in 1993.  The brutal, black and white portrayal of the horrors of the Holocaust was the most dramatic cinematic stepping stone that the once whimsical filmmaker had ever made, and since it’s release, Spielberg has focused his efforts as a storyteller towards true life stories with an often moral center at it’s heart.  That’s not to say that he became a different director altogether.  In fact, many of the techniques that he honed over so many years are still present in all his movies; only the subjects have changed.  Stylistically he is just as innovative and creative behind the camera as he’s always been; it’s just now he’s more concerned with more serious subject matters.  Essentially, his vision matured just as his audience did.  Apart from the shift in his directorial tone, his style can also be defined by the gracefulness of his ability to visualize a story.  For someone who had no formal film school education, it is amazing how well Spielberg understands the language of film, in some ways far better than most of his contemporaries.  Spielberg doesn’t show off behind the camera; instead he immerses you into the scene, never directing your eye but instead allowing moments to play out in front of you.  Like other directors I’ve spotlighted here, I’ll be taking a look at the techniques and themes that define most of Spielberg’s work, and illustrate just how much they have contributed to his unparalleled success in the industry.

1.

INSTINCTUAL DIRECTION

Unlike many of his peers at the time, Spielberg did not attend film school (though he had applied very hard to get into USC’s esteemed film program, where his good friend George Lucas attended).  Instead, he had managed to secure an apprenticeship at Universal Studios which in turn led to him becoming the youngest director ever signed to a contract at the studio, at the age of 20.  From this, he developed his skills working on episodes for many of the shows filmed on the Universal lot, which would go on to influence the way he would direct for the rest of his life.  Spielberg, though responsible for some of the most lavish films ever made, is in essence an economical director, working within confines that allow him to retain full control of his work while at the same time grounding him with a sense of restraint.  It’s clear that working on television budgets allowed Spielberg to innovate in order to work around those constraints and figure things out on the fly.  It’s also to his benefit that he is a bit of a film buff himself, and carries a wealth of knowledge about the language of film purely from all the movies he’s scene.  It’s because of this that even to this day, Spielberg is a director that is guided by his instincts on set more than anything else.  He rarely does pre-visualiztion on his movies and instead chooses to block his shots on the day of filming, believing that his best ideas (and they often are) come to him in the moment while he’s observing the environment around him.  This spontaneity is often what makes his movies feel more alive than most others.  A prime example of Spielberg’s instincts manifesting in an unforgettable experience is the Omaha Beach opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998).  According to Tom Hanks and other actors in the scene, they were basically directed to run up the beach without any warning about what they were going up against, with Spielberg following behind with a handheld camera.  That chaotic situation is exactly what leads to the unforgettable mayhem that we see on screen, but even in less bombastic moments, Spielberg still finds his a way to let the camera absorb a scene in rather than force it through.

2.

THE SPIELBERG ONER

Which leads to the most interesting single technique in Spielberg’s arsenal; the oner.  This is a shot that normally would be broken up into several different shots, but instead is allowed to play out with simple pans from one subject to another, alternating between stationary framing and moving framing.  This is different from the more famous long tracking shots, which often call more attention to themselves.  Spielberg’s oners often last no longer than a minute or so, but still represent a careful construction of visual storytelling that manages to relay all information to an audience without ever cutting away.  There are many amazing examples of Spielberg using this technique in all sorts of movies; whether it’s in having his actors move across the setting while delivering dry expositional dialogue, or having one action play out in the background while another is being framed in the foreground.  Most of the time, Spielberg uses these short little scenes to establish his settings and immerse the viewer into the moment, like Oskar Schindler’s introduction at a night club in Schindler’s List, or allow his actors to comfortably perform a scene without it having to be interrupted by a cut, like Daniel Day-Lewis’ lengthy monologues in Lincoln (2012) or Richard Dreyfus finding himself immersed in sculpting his mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  And this is a technique that stems back to his television days, because it allows him to work with less set ups for shots, which ultimately makes the shoot less expensive and less time consuming.  Oddly enough, his most complicated and prolonged production, Jaws, features some of the best examples of this type.  When production issues regarding the mechanical shark plagued the shoot, Spielberg worked around it with using simple “in one” shots.  There’s a remarkable one where the camera remains stationary in front of the actors, but is positioned on a moving ferry, allowing the background to change while the camera remains still.  The famous reveal of the shark is also a wonderful example of getting everything in one shot for maximum impact, with Roy Scheider focused in the foreground and the shark appearing without warning behind him.  They are short, but effective, and almost unnoticeable most of the time, which is a testament to Spielberg’s skill with how he uses his camera’s eye.

3.

WILLIAMS, KAHN, AND KAMINSKI

Most directors usually have their common collaborator who more than others have contributed to forming the characteristics of their signature style.  Most often it’s an editor or a cinematographer or a go to actor that helps define a director’s body of work.  Spielberg has uniquely kept his core group of collaborators intact for pretty much most of his career, pretty much through all departments.  He often refers to his crew as a second family, and indeed his whole filmography is filled with the same names filling the final credits, showing his comfort with people he can trust on every project.  Three collaborators in fact stand out as the ones who have done the most to define what makes Spielberg’s film what they are.   The often least heralded but still fundamentally crucial part of Team Spielberg is his editor, Michael Kahn.  Kahn has edited all but one of Spielberg’s films since Close Encounters, and is the one that most closely works with Spielberg through the storytelling process.  Spielberg has often referred to him as the twin he never had, because of how like minded they are when it comes to finding the story through all the shots that they’ve assembled.  Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski partnered up with Spielberg much later, first joining the team on Schindler’s List.  Since then he has cemented what you could say as being the look of a Spielberg film, which often has a silvery glow to it with bright lighting, stark contrasts, and cool saturation of the colors.  This style has been very helpful lately with Spielberg’s shift towards grounded historical features, because of the more naturalistic texture it brings.  But, of course Spielberg’s whole body of work would have felt a whole lot different had it not been for the magnificent musical scores provided by the legendary John Williams.  Arguably the greatest film composer of all time, Williams is responsible for majestic, iconic epic melodies, and many of his best work has been saved for Spielberg.  I still get goosebumps when I listen to the Jurassic Park theme, and “Slave Children’s Crusade” from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) is probably my favorite piece of music from any movie ever.  Spielberg’s talents as a director are great enough, but it makes it even better when you’ve got the best help in the biz by your side.

4.

SENTIMENTALISM

Spielberg can cover a wide range of emotion in his movies, and can make anything from childlike wonder to harsh, gritty terror a part of his narratives.  But, at the end of the day, he is an optimist who wants to leave his audience with a sense of hope for the human condition and a level of comfort as they leave the theater.  Some have argued that Spielberg’s films stray too much into a sentimental tone, sometimes making them a bit too saccharine and diminishing the power they could have had if Spielberg had been a little more cynical with his stories.  It can be argued that Spielberg sometimes reaches a bit too far by indulging in some sentiment.  This is very true in some of his lesser films, which often feel burdened by some of Spielberg’s indulgences, like the tonally confused Hook (1991) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001).  Most of the time it shows the director trying extra hard to create what many refer to as the “Spielberg moments” which often are emotional moments punctuated with a small touch of whimsy.  They are often Disney-like in their execution, and can at times feel out of place.  But, when a “Spielberg moment” lands, it is quite often magical.  You can’t help but love the wonder he brings to the first moment you see the dinosaurs close-up in Jurassic Park, or gaze in amazement as the mother-ship flies over Devils Tower in Close Encounters.  He even brings needed sentiment into darker moments, like the girl with the red coat in Schindler’s List.  But perhaps his most powerful use of sentimentalism can be found in E. T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982).  From beginning to end, it is a story of a boy bonding with an alien creature and creating a deep friendship that ultimately must end.  Telling this story through the point of view of a child, Spielberg had to make it as sentimental as possible, because of the childhood innocence involved.  And because of that, the sentimentalism is very potent and elevates the story, making it almost fairy tale like in it’s execution.  It also connects the audience so deeply with the characters, and by the end, the movie has earned it’s sentimental payoff, with one of cinema’s most emotional finales ever.  It may be a weakness sometimes for Spielberg, but at the same time, no one does sentimental on film better than he can.

5.

FANTASY AND HISTORY

Spielberg may have written much of film history himself with the movies he has either directed or produced over the years, but he himself is informed by an appreciation of what cinema has been able to accomplish in all the years prior.  He has said that the things that influenced him the most have always been cartoons and historical epics, and those are certainly apparent in the movies he has made over his career.  He loves fantasy and humor, which he attributes to the magical beauty of Disney animation and the zany mayhem of Looney Tunes shorts.  And many of his more fantastical films often carry with them a cinematic language that feels akin to animation.  At the same time, he also felt inspired by Hollywood historical epics like Lawrence of Arabia, which illustrated how cinematic wonder could be derived from even grounded, true life stories.  It’s these two areas of inspiration that have defined Spielberg’s interests as a filmmaker.  He’s either Spielberg the dreamer or Spielberg the historian, and oftentimes, they feel like two different roads running parallel with each other.  He goes back and forth, but each one represents two very different directions for Spielberg, while at the same time feeling like they are from the same mind.  You do get some movies that overlap, like the gritty science fantasies of Minority Report  and War of the Worlds, as well as whimsical grounded dramas like The Terminal (2004) and Catch Me If You Can (2002).  But, often, the director is at his best when he sticks to one direction at a time.  It’s especially interesting when he maneuvers effortlessly from one to another, sometimes in the same year, like 1993 with both Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List.  Lately, he favors the dramatic over the fanciful, with some of his movies like Munich (2005) hitting some shockingly gritty depths that you never would have imagined from the sometimes playful director.  But, it’s a testament to a filmmaker who is committed to making his choices of film more than just satisfying towards his indulgences, but also thoroughly honest to what they need to be, whether they transportative or informative.

I for one cannot imagine a life without a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg.  The man is just a machine that keeps churning out one cinematic milestone after another.  Imagine where cinema would be without movies like JawsE.T., or Jurassic Park and all the innovations they made along the way.  He also sparked conversations worth having with his insightful historical dramas.  A much needed spotlight was cast on the memories of Holocaust survivors after the release of Schindler’s List, and since then so many more of them have shared their own stories, making an essential document of one of history’s darkest moments all the more detailed.  World War II veterans were also finally able to have their true, horrific experiences finally realized on film with Saving Private Ryan, and allow for many of them to finally open up about the true costs of war that they had seen for themselves.  And even beyond the movies, Spielberg is a tireless champion of cinematic innovation and expression.  Indeed, most other filmmakers my age can attribute much of our own inspirations to one or more films that Spielberg has had his hands in.  He is not one for flashiness, but his impact on all cinema is undeniable.  We all have that one “Spielberg moment” that is forever ingrained into our psyche, whether it’s the bicycle crossing the face of the moon in E.T., or the ripple in the glass of water from Jurassic Park.  And the while he is a director that has matured over time and gotten a bit more serious, he’s still one who embraces the innocence of the past and finds ways to liven up his movies with a sense of wonder, no matter what story he is telling.  Even in these next couple months, with his new film The Post opening wide this week and Ready Player One only a short couple of months away, he is continuing to fulfill both aspects of his style in ways that are both satisfying to him and his base of fans.  We are likely to see that continue for many years to come, and it’s great that our generation has had a voice like his so linked to the concept of film as being both art and entertainment, which in turn has become the driving method of our modern cinematic world.

 

Top Ten Movies of 2017

We come to the close of a pretty turbulent and unpredictable year when it comes to the movies and Hollywood.  If you’ve read anything regarding the industry itself this last year, you will undoubtedly have followed the countless career ending scandals that have rocked Hollywood, and all the fallout that has come after in the wake of such revelations.  This was also a year of highs and lows at the box office, but for the most part pretty low.  Grosses were down from the year before as the summer season failed to hold it’s own like it usually does every year.  We also saw the largest merger to ever take place within the film industry, as Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, creating the largest single media company in the world, but with the worry of many layoffs happening because of the redundancies within the company because of such a deal.  Couple this with a culture that is becoming increasingly polarized and you got the makings of a generally miserable year for many people, both in and outside the industry.  But, there were plenty of positives to come out of 2017 as well, especially with regards to diversity within the industry.  This was a groundbreaking year for female directors in particular.  Patty Jenkins broke every record that a female director has held at the box office with her incredible handling of DC’s Wonder Woman, a smash hit that was deserving of every accolade it received.  Sofia Coppola also became the first American woman to win the directing honor at the Cannes Film Festival (and the first in half a century) with her new film The Beguiled, and we also saw acclaimed films from Kathryn Bigelow (Detroit) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) this year.  Comedian Jordan Peele even managed to turn genre films on it’s head with his politically charged horror flick Get Out, which also has been extensively praised.

Like every year since I started writing this blog, I will be counting down my 10 favorite movies of the year.  My choices are based mostly on how well I responded to these movies while watching them and by how well they left an impression on me afterwards.  Entertainment value is certainly a key ingredient, but there were others here that lingered in a good way that made me appreciate them a lot more after I had time to think about them.  In addition, I will also be sharing my picks for the 5 worst movies of the year.  Before I begin though, I’d like to run down the 10 movies that were close to making my list, but came up short.  My honorable mentions, in no particular order are: Wonder Woman, The Big Sick, Coco, Detroit, I, Tonya, Get Out, The Post, John Wick: Chapter 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Baby Driver. And with that, let’s look at the best movies of 2017.

10.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Directed by Martin McDonagh

The English playwright turned director, McDonagh, has won plenty of raves for his pitch black comedies like In Brudges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012).  But instead of bringing his sardonic wit to a crime thriller set in an ancient European city or on the outskirts of Hollywood, this time he has instead applied his talent to a character study set in the American heartland.  The movie’s at times is a little drier and methodically paced than his previous work, but his ability to deliver some knockout dialogue is still present in this very original comedy.  I imagine that McDonagh’s screenplays are just as fun to read as they are to listen to.  He is a master with character dynamics, and the most thrilling part of the movie is not knowing what each character is going to say next, because oftentimes it’s the last thing you would expect.  I also love the way that he builds this community within the film, showing the town of Ebbing as a character in it’s own right.  But the film’s shining star is definitely Frances McDormand as the grieving mother who takes to extreme means in order to turn up the heat on an inept police department that has yet to solve the murder of her daughter.  Talk about an unpredictable performance, because McDormand is a firecracker of a character in this movie, delivering one of her greatest performances yet.  I could watch her spout out poetic profanities like she does in this movie all day, and she is easily the best possible mouthpiece for Martin McDonagh’s off-kilter wordplay.  Rounded out with an excellent cast including Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, this is yet another strong effort from one of my current favorite writers.

9.

LADY BIRD 

Directed by Greta Gerwig

This is one of those movies that grew on me over time.  At first, I didn’t know how to feel about the movie.  It’s not particularly groundbreaking in any way.  It’s a coming of age story that we’ve all seen done a million times before.  So, what was about this movie that made it linger in my mind so long after?  What ended up making this movie special is the very personal way in which it is told, and surprisingly, I found myself relating very strongly to it.  Actress Greta Gerwig drew heavily from her own life when crafting this story, and the passion she put into it is palpable.  The movie manages to be a love letter to her hometown of Sacramento, California; something I never thought I would see on the big screen.  But the part of the movie that I loved the most was the very detailed way that it showed the experience of being a middle class kid going to a private Catholic school.  I myself went through the exact same thing and what Gerwig does so well in her movie is to show the anxieties of living within these social confines.  Of course, there’s the desire to express oneself freely despite the strict morals of your religious academic setting, as well as the stress of trying to keep up appearances just so you could fit in better with your more affluent and straight-laced fellow classmates.  She captures that so well through her titular main character (played wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan) and makes her a fully rounded character who seeks to break free of her life, and yet comes to learn how valuable that life experience really is.  It made me reflect more on my own Catholic school upbringing, and made me remember the experiences I had during that time and how those have shaped me as well.  I may not have been just like Lady Bird herself, but I certainly knew people like her, and was probably just like some of the people she crosses paths with throughout the movie.  It’s a fantastic debut by Greta Gerwig, and one of the most subtle and tender movies of the year.  It may be a familiar song, but it’s perfectly tuned and sung beautifully.

8.

THE DISASTER ARTIST

Directed by James Franco

It can never be said that actor/writer/director James Franco is one to rest on his laurels.  Hollywood’s modern day Renaissance man has poured himself into numerous passion projects over the years, some of which are too off-the-wall and impenetrable to ever reach a massive audience.  But his latest project is one made with a lot of love for the subject it’s depicting, and as a result, it’s his greatest film to date.  The movie tells the story of Tommy Wiseau, the mysterious oddball amateur director who created what many claim to be the worst movie ever made, The Room (2003).  The Room has over time developed a cult following, of which Franco and his friends are certainly a part of, and this movie tries to explain the what, when , where, how, and most importantly why this movie even exists at all.  More than anything, it is a love letter to process of movie-making, showing how even the most depraved and dysfunctional of films come from a place of passion for the art of cinema.  The movie has a lot in common with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) in how it breaks down the conditions in which such inept film-making can happen while at the same time humanizing the unorthodox mind behind it.  Franco delivers his best performance to date in a near perfect imitation of Wiseau, managing to find the man behind the enigma.  I also give a lot of praise to the way that he acts alongside his real life brother Dave in the movie; both managing to disappear into character and making you forget they’re siblings.  The movie is especially funny to anyone and at times cringe-worthy to anyone who has worked on a film set, as you see the events of The Room’s creation unfold in some wild, absurd moments.  It may be a tad too reverential at times, but Franco does make you appreciate the glorious process of film-making with this fascinating behind the scenes look at the most notorious film of it’s time.  And all fans of the original film should stay during the credits to catch some added surprises.

7.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 

Directed by James Gunn

At the beginning of 2017, there was real concern about the direction that the super hero genre was going.  Many people thought that genre fatique was starting to set in, and that we were more or less getting a repeat of every cliche in the book with every new entry, and that each film was mainly just there to set up the next.  But, then something unexpected happened; the Super Hero genre had a banner year of excellence in 2017.  Marvel continued to roll along, as both Spider-Man and Thor completely reinvented themselves and saw franchise best box office totals in return.  DC even managed to surprise everyone as they finally got the formula right bringing Wonder Woman so perfectly to the big screen.  But, the best movie of the genre had to be the sequel to Marvel’s shiniest jewel in it’s crown, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  Vol. 2 was without a doubt the most fun I had watching a movie this year, and it achieved exactly what I was hoping for with a follow-up to one of the best comic book movies ever made.  It does lack the novelty of the first, but that’s all that was missing, as everything else was on par with it’s predecessor.  Some people felt let down by the movie, because it stuck too close to formula, which I don’t see as such a bad thing because I loved everything about the original formula, and this movie felt like a great second helping.  James Gunn is carving out his own niche in the Marvel universe with these Guardians films, and they stand as incredible popcorn adventure at it’s finest.  I especially love the way this movie delves deeper into the emotional connections with the heroes, really capturing the family dynamic that is at the heart of the franchise.  It even touches upon heavier themes, like how we define our families and how that in turn defines who we are.  The movie manages to balance the emotional moments perfectly with the zany, laugh out loud moments, and continues to make this series the best out of an overloaded genre that needed some fresh life brought into it.  And greatest line of the year, “I’m Mary Poppins ya’ll.”

6.

PHANTOM THREAD

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Director Anderson and star Daniel Day-Lewis are two artists that make us wait an extra long time between projects, but when they finally do make something new, it’s bound to be extraordinary.  Things are even more amazing when the two collaborate together, as they did so memorably in my favorite film of 2007, There Will be Blood.  The two have joined forces again in one of the years most surprisingly subversive films.  Set within the fashion world of 1950’s England, the movie has Daniel Day-Lewis playing a temperamental designer looking for a new muse to inspire him to create a new wave of eye-catching dresses for the social elite.  He finds that person in a German waitress (played by Vicky Krieps) he discovers in the countryside near his estate, and the two begin a working and romantic relationship that proves to be more bombastic than either of them ever realized it would be before they met.  The movie feels like a departure at first for the usually dark-edged Anderson, as it starts of as a straight-forward behind the scenes look at the inner workings of a fashion studio.  But, as the movie goes on, the veil of extravagance begins to lift off, and we soon realize that this movie is just as dark, twisted and unpredictable as anything Anderson has made before.  I won’t spoil for you how the plot unfolds, but let me just say that like a hail of frogs at the finale of Magnolia (1999) and the bowling alley murder in There Will Be Blood, the movie takes a strange left turn that I found both unexpected and brilliant, which is a signature of Anderson’s style.   Again, him and Daniel Day-Lewis make a fantastic team, and though I doubt it will be the case, if this is Lewis’ final performance on screen, it’s certainly a great way to go out.  It’s also a visually stunning movie too, and if you are lucky enough like me to have seen it screened in 70mm, you’ll really appreciate the craft that went into it.  Another masterpiece from one of cinema’s most twisted artists.

5.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

One of the most pleasing things to happen in the last few years in Hollywood is the way that queer cinema has become mainstream.  No longer relegated to a fringe sub genre, now we are seeing a flourishing of films tackling stories of gay characters much in the same way it would be handled if the characters were straight.  Moonlight‘s Best Picture win certainly opened a lot of doors, and that continued progress sees another bright star in the form of the gorgeous romantic drama, Call Me by Your Name.  What I really loved about this movie is the delicate and subtle way it presents it’s story.  Following the growing sexual awakening of an intelligent young teen named Elio (played in a career making performance by Timothee Chalamet) over the course of a summer in the Italian countryside, the movie unfolds with an almost aching amount of intimacy.  As he falls for a visiting graduate student played by hunky Armie Hammer, the movie builds a bond that is believable and without a doubt romantic.  Regardless of one’s sexuality, I believe that everyone who sees this will wish their first love had been or will be this magical.  I know I wish mine had.  The real reason this movie lands as well as it does is because of the incredible chemistry of it’s two leads, who make the most appealing of on screen lovers.  In addition to this, director Luca Guadagnino captures incredibly lush visuals of the Italian setting, making you wish you could be there yourself in the sun dappled splendor of it all.  And a special mention should go to the incredible supporting work of actor Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father, who delivers a knockout of a monologue, encapsulating in one tender scene everything that a gay youth would want to hear their parent say.  The fact that queer cinema has now come to this point where such an intimate story can be treated as mainstream is definitely progress in the right direction.

4.

MOTHER!

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

And now for something completely different.  One thing is for sure, this new movie from auteur director Darren Aronofsky was certainly the year’s most polarizing film.  There was little to no middle ground on this one.  People either loved this movie with a passion, or hated it thoroughly.  I find myself surprisingly in the former category.  Aronofsky is not one to pull any punches, and I found myself watching his new movie with utter fascination, wondering to myself how anyone could have the audacity to pull a movie like this off.  Filled to the brim with heavy themes, the movie does a lot within it’s running time; it’s an environmental allegory, a psychological thriller, a haunted house story, and most surprising of all, a condensed retelling of the Bible and human history with regards to religion.  I think that one thing that put many people off about this movie, among several other things, was the fact that Aronofsky is not very subtle with his intentions here.  You quickly pick up on his blatant messages, and there is little room for deeper meaning.  But, my argument is that Aronofsky isn’t trying to be subtle here.  He explicitly wants to spell out the subtext for us, because these are themes that he seriously wants us to consider while we’re watching the movie.  Jennifer Lawrence gives a powerful performance, with the camera almost uncomfortably close to her face for most of the movie, and she perfectly conveys all the fury and frustration one would feel as the increasingly manic events of the movie unfold.  Few other filmmakers challenge his audience the same way that Darren Aronofsky does, and I for one thoroughly enjoy the challenge.  This will probably be a movie that ends up on a lot of worst of the year lists too, and I don’t blame other critics for their distaste of the movie.  Me, though, I embraced this mother! with a lot of love.

3.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Directed by Sean Baker

This little indie darling has been one of the underdogs of award season so far.  Produced on a minuscule budget with a handful of fresh faced actors, director Sean Baker has made one of the year’s most universally human stories on the big screen.  After making a splash with his last film, Tangerine (2015), which was shot entirely on iPhone cameras, Baker shifts his lens to a different unseen world that proves to be endlessly fascinating.  The movie shows the everyday lives of residents living in a shabby motel on the outskirts of the Disney World property in Orlando, Florida.  You see in this film a light shed on a world you never knew existed, and yet is painfully all too real.  What goes on in the borderlands around the Magic Kingdom are people attempting to soak up some of the business that the park brings to their community, but will sadly never get to experience for themselves in the same way.  They live and work in places pretending to be like Disney World, with bright pastel colors abound, but it all proves to be a false front to what’s really underneath.  And yet, Baker never judges his flawed characters harshly, and in fact he gets us deeply involved in their plight as people, making us feel their pain when everything falls apart by the end.  The mother and daughter at the center of the movie are two of the most captivating characters I’ve seen in a movie this year, and the girl especially (played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince) is heart-wrenchingly good here.  Willem Dafoe is also solid as the put-upon manager of the hotel, putting up with all sorts of problems the best way he can.  The movie is very akin to Italian Neo-realism and becomes a fascinating window into this world.  I found myself completely transported by this movie, and more than any other movie this year, it was the one that felt the most honest about the human condition.

2.

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

At first, I didn’t know what to make of this movie when I first saw it advertised.  I’m a fan of Del Toro’s work, but felt that this Cold War era set fairy tale centered around a sea creature like the one from the Black Lagoon might be a step backward for the edgy filmmaker.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Not only is this movie in line with many of the director’s other works (combining a perfect blend of the whimsical and the grotesque) but it is one of the more sublimely executed films that I’ve seen from him as well, undoubtedly making it one of the most pleasing experiences I’ve had at the cinema this year.  This is a movie that has everything; it’s got tension, it’s got laughs, it has a remarkably well handled romance at it’s core, and it even manages to fit in a delightful music and dance number as well.  It is also shows Guillermo Del Toro’s exceptional command of genre, as all of these different elements come together in a delightfully rich and full experience.  Sally Hawkins is especially good as the mute woman at the heart of the movie who finds a kindred spirit in the form of an aquatic monster snatched away from his home and kept prisoner in a military laboratory.  Frequent Del Toro regular Doug Jones also does incredible work underneath a lot of makeup, managing to express a ton of personality through simple body language.  And one of my favorite actors, Michael Shannon, steals the show once again as the sinister G-Man that means to dominate his will over both the monster and the girl, creating what I think to be the best villainous role of the year.  Del Toro delivers one of his best films to date with The Shape of Water, and proves that he indeed can bring his cinematic sensibilities into any kind of genre.  With this and Call Me By Your Name, this has been a year of Hollywood breaking down barriers when it comes to expressing true love on screen.  Who knew the year’s most romantic movie would be between a woman and a creature from the deep.

And the best movie of 2017 is…

1.

DUNKIRK

Directed by Christopher Nolan

All the other movies that made my list had left some effect on me based on either emotional impact or the effectiveness of it’s execution.  Christopher Nolan’s newest feature did all that too, but it showed me something even more.  With Dunkirk, Nolan is showing us all what the cinematic medium is really capable of, by pushing the limits of what you can capture within the lens of a camera.  Dunkirk is a tour de force of film-making on every level, and it was an experience that was never quite topped by anything else this year.  It helps that I saw this movie not once but twice in it’s intended format (projected in 70mm IMAX) and this made all the difference.  It’s a movie that demands the largest screen possible, and thankfully I just happened to have been living near theaters that screened the film the proper way.  Apart from this, Nolan’s recreation of the events of the Dunkirk evacuation are incredible in it’s detail.  He puts his lens right in the middle of the action, giving us a “you are there” feel unlike anything we’ve ever seen in a war movie before, save for the opening 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (1998).  The fact that he manages to do this through the whole movie is astonishing.  He also takes us to all sides of the event, chronicling the experiences of the hopeless soldiers trapped on the beach, the civilians who bravely sailed their private ships into the heat of battle, and the brave pilots who tried to clear the skies as best they could of the menaces from above.  Nolan has topped my best of the year lists twice before (2005’s Batman Begins and 2010′ Inception) so the fact that he’s once again topping my list this year is a real testament to his unparalleled talents as a director.  Dunkirk is a stand out in Nolan’s already impressive resume, and without a doubt the movie that blew me away the most this year.  One of the best war movies ever made, without question, and possibly one of the best made movies in general, in my opinion.

So, now that I’ve shared the best, it’s time to run down the worst of the year as well.  Keep in mind, I usually have steered clear of movies that I know I’m going to hate at the movie theater, so the films here are either on this list because I found myself incredibly disappointed or had no other option than to watch to see just how bad these could be.  So, let’s take a painful look at 2017’s worst.

5. THE DARK TOWER – Stephen King had a bittersweet 2017.  For one thing, the well crafted remake of IT became a record breaking smash hit.  But it sadly came on the heels of this thoroughly disappointing train-wreck.  The fact that they tried to water down and condense King’s epic multi-part tome into a single 90 minute feature is one of the most insulting things that any studio could have done to such a beloved series, and sadly, we may never get the right cinematic treatment that this book series is due.

4. BRIGHT – Thank God I didn’t have to pay to see this one in a movie theater and instead just stream it on Netflix.  This big budget production from the streaming giant has an intriguing premise, a parallel world where fantasy creatures coexist with humans in a modern day, urban environment, but squanders it with a generic and ironically unimaginative story of inner city cops trying to keep a witness alive.  Sure one is human and one is an orc, but the novelty wears thin quickly and the lack of chemistry between leads Will Smith and Joel Edgerton makes the experience all the more painful.

3. THE MUMMY – To be honest, it was entertaining to see Universal’s planned Dark Universe marketing strategy fall flat on it’s face with the failure of this first entry, but seeing the whole film itself made for a thoroughly unpleasant experience.  The whole movie just feels like a commercial for all the potential shared universe crossovers that Universal was no doubt planning for the future.  Unfortunately, they never came up with a compelling story to make us want to care.  It shows that you can’t just follow the same beats of Marvel’s cinematic universe and expect the same results.  The only funny aspect is that all those Easter egg teases end up meaning nothing in the end.  The normally charismatic Tom Cruise can’t even muster anything out of this lame cash grab.

2. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – It might seem contrarian of me to hate on one of the highest grossing movies of the year, but I clearly when it first came out how much I despised this movie.  It takes everything memorable about the animated original and waters it down, making it a shallow imitation of what’s come before.  The songs are butchered, the character redesigns are ugly, and the new additions to the narrative make absolutely no sense.  And I’m sorry, Emma Watson cannot hold a tune; her acting is still fine, but oh god is her signing painful.  Disney has had mixed results with their live action remakes so far, but Beauty and the Beast is by far the worst one yet.  Thankfully, it just reaffirms my appreciation for the original, which is still a classic today.  Time, I don’t believe, will be as kind to this travesty.

And the worst of 2017 is…

1. THE EMOJI MOVIE – Without a doubt, the most soulless mainstream movie to come out this year.  There’s nothing that is done right with this movie.  The comedy are terrible, the characters are bland, the story is a joke.  But, the thing that is especially hateable about this movie is the seemingly shallow reason why it exists at all.  It is merely there to capitalize on the perceived “Emoji Craze” that the filmmakers believe is a part of pop culture right now.  I don’t know what they were thinking.  Emoji’s aren’t interesting, they are merely just something there to punch up our text messages.  There’s no drama to mine from that.  The makers of this train-wreck obviously thought they could jump on the LEGO Movie bandwagon and turn any marketable item into a popular film, but they failed to see how LEGO managed to work a meaningful story into it’s movie.  Emoji Movie is heartless, meaningless, and more than anything, just unpleasant to sit through.

So, there you have my choices for the best and the worst of 2017.  Overall, despite my bottom five, this was actually a great year for movies all around.  The box office numbers might not reflect it, but I actually found there was a higher quantity of better made films to come out this year than in years prior.  I actually found this Top Ten list harder to make because there were so many good movies that were pushing my limit of ten.  Any other year, these honorable mentions probably would have shown up higher, but this was a competitive year so I had to make some painful cuts.  Still, all the good movies I mentioned before are well worth seeing, and even some mid range movies throughout the year are also worth your time, like Split, Thor: RagnarokBlade Runner 2049, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  More than anything, it was pleasing seeing so many directors bringing their A game this year, including many established players like Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo Del Toro, Steven Spielberg, and Darren Aronofsky, along with bright new directorial debuts from Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig.  I am also pleased with the direction the industry is taking, with female directors holding their own in genres that typically have been male dominated, such as what Patty Jenkins did with Wonder Woman last summer.  And the success of a beautiful love story like Call Me By Your Name makes me hopeful about the future with the stories that Hollywood is ready to tell to the world.  Here’s hoping that 2018 brings us quality entertainment as well as strong box office in the months ahead.  And like always, I will try my best to keep up with it all and look back on the year with a full outlook.  So, have a happy new year and continue to enjoy the world of cinema.

The Movies of Early 2018

With 2017 coming to a close, I find that something interesting has happened over the course of the last year in the film industry.  I’m not talking about the rampant sexual abuse scandals that have come to light, nor the fact that Disney is buying up everything in Hollywood.  No, what fascinated me this year is how we’ve seen a dramatic change in box office patterns from season to season.  The summer, traditionally the biggest box office period of the year, saw it’s worst season in a decade this last year.  But at the same time, we saw record breaking numbers happen in what is traditionally the off season, particularly the spring.  Riding the wave of surprise hits like M. Night Shaymalan’s Split, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and the second chapter of the John Wick franchise, late Winter and early Spring of 2017 gave the year an enormous head start that helped to soften the blow of the disappointing summer.  Couple this with a strong March, which is typically a strong month for early box office, we soon learned that the first quarter of the year no longer is a dumping ground for Hollywood’s leftovers, but instead could be a season that could hold it’s own against the rest of the year.  And looking ahead at the releases coming up at the beginning of 2018, I think that it is worth it to take a look at what’s to come just like I have for the last few years with Summer and Fall releases.  So, this is my first ever look at the movies of Winter and Spring 2018.  Considering that the next four months leading up to Summer covers two seasons, I’m calling this Early 2018, since that covers the entire block of releases into one category.

Like previous previous that I have written, I will be taking a look at the movies that I think are the Must Sees, the ones that have me worried, and the ones that I believe are worth skipping.  I have also included links to trailers above each preview, allowing all of you to get a sense of the movies being discussed.  Keep in mind, these are just my early impressions, based on my level of anticipation for each movie.  I have been known to handicap some movies incorrectly based on first impressions before, so don’t feel like these are absolute infalible opinions.  Pretty much I am basing my thoughts on how well these movies are being marketed, as well as my own personal enthusiasm for what they are bringing to the table in the cinemas this upcoming season.  So, with all that established, let’s now take a look at the films of Early 2018.

MUST SEES:

READY PLAYER ONE (MARCH 30)

No director has shaped pop culture more in the last half century than Steven Spielberg.  The creator of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Jurassic Park (1993) has left so many cultural touchstones behind that have become sacred to film nerds and casual viewers all over the world.  But, the couple decades have found Spielberg working more comfortably in a different field of cinema, that being the historical dramas, which also display his remarkable talent as a filmmaker.  Many of his fans do appreciate his recent work, but many also want to see the Spielberg of old return and deliver a rousing, blockbuster adventure the likes of which they had grown up with.  And while he tried to return to that mode slightly with 2016’s The BFGReady Player One seems to be a far more ambitious return to form for Spielberg.  This inter-textual, nostalgia heavy action thriller is adapted from the novel of the same name by author Ernest Cline (who also co-adapts the screenplay), and it’s no surprise that Cline’s novel pays tribute to all things pop culture; from movies, video games, television, you name it.  So it’s only fitting that this ode to our childhood nostalgia should be brought to the big screen by one of the architects of so much of our childhood.  It’s certainly been a while since we’ve seen something this playful from Spielberg, and my hope is that the legendary director lets loose with this one.  Releasing mere months after his most recent flick The Post (which was remarkably shot, edited and released after he finished shooting Ready Player One) it really shows just how unparalleled he is as a film-making machine.  If anything, One is a movie that not only demonstrates a return to the director’s playful side, but also a thorough acknowledgement of the impact he has left behind on all of cinema, and my hope is that it will be a rousing celebration of both in the end.

BLACK PANTHER (FEBRUARY 16)

Of course, I can’t spotlight an upcoming release calendar without talking about what Marvel Studios has for us next.  After making his memorable debut in Captain America: Civil War (2016), King T’Challa of Wakanda (better known as the superhero Black Panther) finally gets his own movie, and it looks to be yet another jewel in Marvel’s crown.  Marking their first ever Winter release, Marvel has taken great care to make their first film centered on a black super hero as worthwhile as it possibly could be.  One very promising aspect about this movie is that Marvel gave the reigns over to director Ryan Coogler, who delivered an astonishing reboot of the Rocky franchise with his critically acclaimed Creed (2015).  Despite being new to the super hero genre and to big budget film-making as a whole, Coogler looks to have delivered some already impressive results based on what we’ve seen from the trailer.  I’m very interested in seeing how well star Chadwick Boseman does at the center of this movie.  His performance in Civil War was one of that movie’s highlights, so it’ll be interesting to watch him perform now that he’s in his own movie.  He’s also got the support of a stellar supporting cast including Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira, The Hobbit’s Martin Freemanas well as some fierce looking foes played by Coogler’s reliable regular leading man Michael B. Jordan as well as Andy Serkis (appearing on screen in person for once, without motion capture).  Black Panther is also given the coveted position of being the final lead up to Marvel’s long awaited Infinity War, which launches the summer season in May.  Given the stellar year that Marvel had in 2017, Black Panther should continue the hot streak that the studio is currently enjoying, as well as give us a long awaited premiere for a super hero who that is long overdue.

A WRINKLE IN TIME (MARCH 9)

For a long time, fans of the beloved sci-fi YA novel by author Madeleine L’Engle have wanted to see a big screen treatment that did justice to the source material.  After many years of development, Disney is finally making that a reality with their mega-budgeted adaptation.  Directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma), the movie has an ambitious visual look to it, and features an impressively diverse cast.  Of course DuVernay has given a role to her longtime patron Oprah Winfrey, playing an immortal god-like celestial (you think she might be typecast) alongside Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon and sitcom star Mindy Kaling.  Add to this Star Trek’s Chris Pine and newcomer Storm Reid, and you’ve got a talented group adding many colorful characters to this beloved story.  It will be interesting to see how well DuVernay does with the source material, given it’s sometimes very perplexing details about time travel and multiple dimensions.  Some fans of the novel might be put off by the changes made to the story in order to modernize it and bring it into the present day.  Ava DuVernay is still an impressive emerging talent in the field of direction, and I’m sure that she’ll surprise a few people with her work here.  What pleases me about the assignment that she’s been given here is that it’s another sign of a very welcome change in the industry.  Following in the footsteps of last year’s Wonder Woman, A Wrinkle in Time is yet another example of giving a massive budget to a female director and seeing it pay off.  My hope is that many more women are given the reigns of blockbuster features in the future because as Ava DuVernay and Wonder Woman‘s Patty Jenkins have demonstrated, they are just as capable of delivering the goods as any of their male contemporaries.

ISLE OF DOGS (MARCH 23)

Wes Anderson’s style may not be to everyone’s tastes, but their is no doubt that he is one of the most unique filmmakers of this generation.  With a visual style all his own, he has managed to tell a whole variety of stories over his career, including a soap opera about an affluent dysfunctional family (The Royal Tenenbaums), an absurd adventure with an underwater explorer (The Life Aquatic), a love story between two naive preteens (Moonrise Kingdom), and a colorful murder mystery in a luxurious resort (The Grand Budapest Motel).  While most of his films are eccentric and over the top, he has mostly managed to fulfill his visions in the live action medium,  But what is surprising is how well his style translates over into the animated medium.  His 2009 animation debut, Fantastic Mr. Fox, was my pick for the best film of that year, and I am pleased to see him return to animation once again with next year’s Isle of Dogs.  Working with stop motion, Anderson’s style continues to offer plenty of eye-catching treats, and I’m pleased to see his take on Japanese culture.  There are definite reverential calls to the works of Japanese masters like Kurosawa and Ozu in Anderson’s film here, but it still feels distinctly like one of his own movies.  Again, he still fills out the voice cast with an impressive line-up, including some of his returning regulars like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, and Jeff Goldblum, and also debuts his first collaboration with Bryan Cranston, who plays the lead dog here.  My hope is that this becomes yet another classic from Wes Anderson, and at least I hope it stands well alongside Mr. Fox as part of his efforts in animation.  No doubt, this movie will stand out amongst all other movies this Spring given that it’s a Wes Anderson flick, which are unlike anything else you usually see on the big screen anyway.

LOVE, SIMON (MARCH 16)

This one of course interests me because of the subject matter.  Love, Simon gives us the coming of age tale of a closeted gay teenager struggling with finding a way to open up and embrace his sexuality.  While this has been ground treaded upon before in many independent films, here we’re finally seeing a major studio (Fox, and now by extension Disney) actually bringing this story to the mainstream, which is a very positive sign of the times.  While there is only bits of the story we can gather from the trailer, what pleases me about what we’re seeing from this movie is the very realistic depiction of the anxiety that young gay people go through as they try to work out how to live openly.  I myself understand it all too well, as it took me an extra long time to finally come out to my friends and family.  What few films have actually shown is that the hard part of coming out is not the fear of how society will treat you, nor how your family will respond, but the fact that once you make the announcement to the world, everything about your life will change; including how other people will act around you as well as the new expectations that will be laid upon you.  And this is a change that some gay people face more than others.  Not every queer individual is from the same mold, and those who struggle the most are the ones who don’t fit the expected definitions of a typical gay person.  It’s that fear of dramatic change that hung over me the longest time, even though it turned out in the end that I had nothing to fear, as things changed very little.  That’s the kind of narrative that I hope Love, Simon tackles, because it’s an issue that’s worth attention.  The movie already looks to have a clever spin on things, including a funny montage of an alternative reality where straight teens come out to their families.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING (MARCH 23)

On the one hand, I should be pleased that the woefully underrated Pacific Rim is getting a sequel.  And for the most part, the results look good in this trailer.  The visual effects are about on par with the first movie, and the designs of the Jaegers and Kaiju monsters look to be unchanged.  The movie also has returning cast members like Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, and Rinko Kikuchi as their selective characters from the first film, and the addition of Star War’s John Boyega as the son of Idris Elba’s character from the first movie is also inspired casting.  My one worry about this is that the movie is being made without the guiding hand of it’s original creator, Guillermo Del Toro.  The visionary director’s film was such a breath of fresh air in the summer blockbuster field, and helped Hollywood steer away from Michael Bay style mayhem that was sadly starting to clutter and carry the sci-fi action thriller genre down.  But, with Del Toro not behind the directors chair this time, I worry that the movie is going to lack the charm and cleverness that made the original stand out.  Pacific Rim was so distinctly the work of it’s creator, and it will be hard to capture that same kind of balance of action and humor that is so essential to his style of direction.  My hope is that the franchise has strong enough legs to carry on without Del Toro behind the wheel, and that Uprising serves as a welcome companion to the classic original.  Hopefully it does not devolve into a mess of special effects and bland characterizations like so many other summer blockbusters and uninspired sequels fall into.  If it does, it will be a waste of something special that came before it.

ANNIHILATION (FEBRUARY 23)

Speaking of my worry of good things being wasted, here we have the second directorial effort of screenwriter turned director Alex Garland.  Garland has been one of the most heralded Sci-Fi writers of this generation, having written such acclaimed scripts for 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007), and Dredd (2012).  In 2015, he made his directorial debut with the beloved Ex Machina, which showed that he indeed was just as talented behind the camera.  But, the thing that made Ex Machina work so well was it’s restraint, featuring more psychological tension as a motivating factor in the story rather than any bombastic action sequences.  It was thriller more for the mind than the eyes.  With Annihilation, his second feature, he’s exploring a scenario of evolution run amok within a dimensional anomaly.  This unfortunately looks to be more of an action driven movie than Ex Machina was, and my worry is that this is going to make this movie less captivating as a result.  Ex Machina left us chilled through the sheer brilliance of it’s expertly paced tension.  Maybe it’s just the way the trailer is edited, but it looks like the movie is positioning itself to be more of a fast-paced action thriller, which would be quite the dramatic shift for a director like Garland.  Maybe he can pull it off, but I feel like I’m going to miss the subtlety of his previous work.  Also, I worry that this could become one of those style over substance kinds of movies, as the visuals seem to be the highlight of this trailer, with little details given about what exactly this is all about.  Here’s hoping that Alex Garland continues to display his best qualities as a director and doesn’t turn into a one it wonder like so many promising cross over artists before.

THE 15:17 TO PARIS (FEBRUARY 9)

There’s no doubt that Clint Eastwood is one of the finest film directors we’ve ever seen.  His natural, uncluttered style is something that most other filmmakers try to emulate, but few are actually able to accurately copy.  But, Eastwood over time has fallen into periods of complacency as a director, though his skills behind the camera has never wavered.  Recently, he’s become most comfortable with adapting stories ripped straight from the headlines, sometimes with mixed results.  His American Sniper (2014) proved to be a remarkably well crafted war flick, but his recreation of the “Miracle on the Hudson” news story, Sully (2016), was far less captivating and was perhaps a little too soft of a human story to devote a feature length movie to.  Here, Eastwood tells the story of the thwarted terrorist attack on a French commuter train, where three off duty American soldiers risked their lives to stop the attack.  The story itself is not undue for cinematic treatment, but I feel that it’s still too fresh a story to devote a serious retelling without more perspective involved.  Also, here Clint Eastwood makes the risky choice of casting the real life people in the same roles, recreating their traumatic experience, alongside a cast of other actors.  Now, it is undeniable that these men are true heroes, and should be praised as such.  But, they are also not professional actors, and the trailer kind of hints at their somewhat awkward attempts at giving a performance in this film.  Hopefully, Eastwood is a good enough director to get great performances out of anybody, but my worry is that he may have sacrificed the effectiveness of the story by honoring the heroes too much in putting them in their own movie.

RAMPAGE (APRIL 20)

Honestly, there are only two ways for this movie to go; it could end up being really, really stupid or really, really awesome.  History is definitely not on it’s side, because there has been nothing but bad luck that has fallen every movie based on a video game to date.  Based on the classic arcade game of the same name, this movie has a giant gorilla, wolf and alligator battle each other in an urban setting, leaving unimaginable destruction in their path.  It seems like the least likely candidate for a big screen adaptation considering the simplicity of it’s premise, and yet the makers of this movie have somehow found a way to do it.  It still looks like generic monster movie mayhem that leaves little impression, but the movie does have some saving graces in it.  First and foremost, it does feature Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the lead, who as we have seen has managed to bring charm and charisma to even the most thankless of roles.  This movie also re-teams him with the director of the surprisingly non-sucky disaster flick San Andreas (2015), so this new collaboration could prove to be just as unexpectedly effective.  Chances are it won’t, but it may prove to be a movie just silly enough to be entertaining.  And if it succeeds at that, it will be light years better than pretty much every other video game movie that has ever been made.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

FIFTY SHADES FREED (FEBRUARY 9)

It’s unbelievable that we’ve been subjected to three of these movies, let alone one.  What makes me cringe even more than the subject matter is the audacity of the marketing campaign to proclaim that this is the “final chapter of the worldwide phenomenon.”  This is no Hunger Games.  It’s just a smut filled soap opera that treats it’s audience like idiots, while at the same time being brain-numbingly stupid as well.  Not since Twilight (2008) have we seen a studio so shamelessly exploit the popularity of it’s equally dumb source material in the laziest ways possible, just to titillate their target audience in the most blatant way.  There are no redeeming qualities in this series (except maybe in Dakota Johnson’s sometimes self-aware performance) and the only blessing we have now is that it is going to disappear from the cinemas forever after this trilogy caper.   But even still, I pity anyone who chooses this as a Valentine’s Day date movie.  This kind of shallow romanticism between two beautiful but naughty white people is becoming really boring fare at the box office.  Seek out something far more romantic like last year’s The Big Sick, which did such a better job of conveying romance on the big screen.  This one, and the others that came before it, are to romance what Transformers are to action; all gloss, no shine.

PETER RABBIT (FEBRUARY 9)

Don’t you hate that feeling when you see Hollywood take a beloved literary classic and try to jazz it up and make it hip and modern for what they think a contemporary will find more appealing.  That’s the feeling that I believe a lot of fans of Beatrix Potter’s classic tale of a mischievous rabbit are feeling right now as they see what Sony Pictures have done with Peter Rabbit.  This adaptation looks and feels nothing like the original story and instead portrays the classic character as party animal who rises up as the champion of his woodland friends.  The movie clearly misses the point of the original story, which is the hubris of the mischievous, over-confident rabbit, whose bad habits leads him into trouble with the fearsome Mr. McGregor.  Here, the movie puts him and McGregor (played by Domhnall Gleeson) at odds with hi-jinks more at place within a Home Alone movie.  This is clearly a movie aiming solely at younger audiences who obviously have little connection with the original story, and it just makes the whole thing exploitative as a result.  This story is beloved by people from many generations, and to see this film exploit the story for a lame set of pratfalls and sophomoric humor is quite the insult to their childhood memories.  Not to mention that the animation itself is really terrible, sacrificing charm for realistic textures, which add nothing to the appeal of the character.  This is why some stories are better left on the page.

RED SPARROW (MARCH 2)

There are a variety of factors working against this movie.  One, the femme fatale spy thriller genre seems to have fizzled out pretty quickly.  Everything we’ve seen from this short lived cinematic trend has been underwhelming and feeling like desperate The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) wannabes.  And given the disappointment of last year’s Atomic Blonde, it’s a sub-genre on it’s last legs, the like of which Red Sparrow seems little capable of redeeming.  Second of all, Jennifer Lawrence seems to be all wrong for this role.  She’s capable of holding her own in action flicks like The Hunger Games (2012) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), but for her to take on the role of a Russian ballerina turned rogue assassin, it seems like a bit of a stretch even for her.  The movie also looks very uninspired as a spy thriller, seeming far too derivative of visuals from better movies like Dragon Tattoo.  One thing that makes me see this movie as a wasted opportunity is the fact that the plot seems so similar to the comic book origins of Marvel’s Black Widow character.  I wonder if this script might have been served better if it had been re-purposed as an origin film for the popular Avenger, giving fans of the character the stand alone film that they’ve been longing to see.  Regardless, this movie carries little interest for me, and will probably leave the theaters quickly leaving the minimalist of impressions.

So, there you have my outlook on the upcoming months ahead.  It’s clear that the months of January, February, March and April are quickly becoming their own thing within Hollywood’s yearly cycle more than they ever have been before, and are no longer considered just an afterthought by the industry.  2018 is especially giving us a promising start to the year with what I have spotlighted in this article.  I especially want to see what Steven Spielberg has up his sleeve with his ambitious Ready Player One.  Also, Marvel’s Black Panther looks to keep their hot streak alive with it’s very impressive production.  It’s also neat to see so many movies coming from top tier talent like Clint Eastwood, Wes Anderson, and Alex Garland this early in the year, showing that we don’t have to wait until years end to see some prestige film-making.  My only hope is that the early part of the year doesn’t end up carrying the burden of leading into a disappointing summer, like what happened last year.  Let’s hope for the industry’s sake that 2018 marks a positive year for the industry in general, through all seasons.  In any case, I hope my guide has been helpful and that some of you will discover some worthwhile movies to watch in the months ahead.  It’s great to know that we no longer have to wait until the Summer and the Fall to see the best that Hollywood has to offer.

Yippy Ki Holidays – The Die Hard Christmas Question and Alternative Seasonal Classics

We all have our ways of celebrating the holidays.  For many people it centers around the food, the gifts, and the celebrations, but for a lot of people out there, the holidays are also marked by the movies as well.  Quite a few people make it a tradition to watch a specific film every year around Christmas that in many ways reflects the mood of the season.  And most of the time, those movies end up being what you would expect.  You’ve got your Miracle on 34th Street (1947), your Holiday Inn (1942), your The Santa Clause (1994), your Elf (2003) and you Polar Express (2004).  These are all different types of movies from many different eras, but the one thing they all have in common is that the holidays are front and center in the story.  But, among these, there is another film that has somehow worked it’s way into the conversation; 1988’s Die Hard.  But, how is this Bruce Willis action thriller considered a holiday classic?  The first thing you think about when you hear Die Hard is certainly not Santa Claus.  And yet, there is a passionate contingent of people out there who will swear that their holidays are not complete until Hans Gruber falls from the top of Nakatomi Plaza Tower.  It’s an unusual tradition to be sure, but one that’s becoming more frequent this time of year.  Die Hard is part of a growing number of movies that have formed this alternative collection of holiday classics, becoming a sub genre of a sub genre.  They are not all Die Hard-esque style movies, but rather films that don’t quite ring out as Christmas movies, until you dig a little deeper into their themes and find that the holidays are indeed part of their respective plots.  This is also a growing category that does see resistance to more traditional holiday tastes, mainly because these types of movie redefine the definition of what a Christmas movie should be.

One of the things that people take issue with when they hear people classify movies like Die Hard as a Christmas film, is that it’s subverting the values of holiday themed entertainment.  Some would claim that Christmas movies should be uplifting and positive in their themes, and putting an R-rated action movie in the same conversation is merely a rational to weaken the impact of the holiday season altogether.  And while the argument can be made that adding any movie with a loose connection to Christmas to a list of holiday classics only weakens the classifications as a whole, I also think that a stringent guideline for what makes a Christmas movie shouldn’t be so specific either.  Indeed, the most famous Christmas themed movies do have a certain character in common with each other, but as audiences have changed over the years, so have the films, and we find the things that people value about the holidays tend to be reflected within the movies of their time.  That’s why whenever the conversation of what makes a Christmas movie comes up, there is often a generational divide.  There is crossover, but in general, you’ll find that younger generations have a more loose sense of what composes a holiday classic.  And, as time has turned tastes a bit more unconventional, the classification of holiday themes changes as well.  Perhaps in response to the pervasiveness of classics from the past, a whole new generation of subversive Christmas movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), and Bad Santa (2003) have become part of the conversation.  And with these, the idea that old definitions of Christmas favorites start to change, which gives way to the question of Die Hard being a part of the mix.

Now, to actually address the movie in question; is Die Hard a Christmas movie or not?  My answer would be yes; in fact, much more so than you would think.  The Christmas Eve setting of course is unquestionable, but that’s not the only thing.  Honestly, the movie’s plot could have worked at any time of year, because there isn’t anything that says it must absolutely be Christmas time for this story to make sense.   The fact that it incorporates Christmas themed elements into it’s story is an added bonus to everything else.  You can’t help but love the way that Bruce Willis’ John McClane taunts the bad guys with Christmas puns as he dismantles their intricately laid out plan.  The most famous example of this of course is when he sends the body of a slain terrorist down the elevator wearing a Santa hat and a blood inked message saying, “Now I have a machine gun.  Ho Ho Ho.”  But apart from that, the story itself also fits very well within other classic Christmas stories.  McClane has a Scrooge-esque redemption arc throughout the movie, where he manages to reconnect with his estranged wife by means of proving himself through this trial of fire with a group of deadly foes, all while on a holiday trip from work.  Sure, some of the thematic connections are a stretch, but you can see the deep influence that the Christmas setting has on the story.  The movie is aware of it too, as the closing credits even begin with a classic rendition of “Let it Snow;” an ironic choice given the Los Angeles setting, where snow never falls.  While the conversation of what makes an official Christmas movie or not hinges on Die Hard most of the time, you can’t argue too much that it shouldn’t be considered at all.  There’s too many aesthetic and thematic elements that support it’s inclusion, but it certainly is a movie that opens the door to considering alternatives in the conversation.

What Die Hard brought to the genre of Christmas movies more than anything was the idea that a movie didn’t necessarily have to be about Christmas in order to be called a Christmas movie.  In a sense, there could be movies that tackle all sorts of subjects that can be called a Christmas movie purely through the way it uses the setting and the iconography of the holiday.  And in this subset, we find where the degrees of arguments split.  Some people believe that one scene taking place at Christmas time does not a Christmas movie make.  But, there are also Christmas movies that take place with the holiday continuously as a part of the backdrop, but are never the focus of the plot.  Home Alone (1990) is a good example of this, given the near wall to wall Christmas iconography used in the movie.  But, when you get down to it, the setting wasn’t really necessary to tell that story.  You just needed a little kid left to fend off home invaders alone while his family is away.  It could have just as well been set during summer vacation, but the Christmas setting obviously provided more possibilities for the filmmakers.  You find little dispute towards Home Alone being considered a Christmas classic, but it’s justification falls pretty much within the same bounds as Die Hard, because the setting is just there as an added bonus for the plot.  There are also some other Christmas movies that are not necessarily about the holiday, and where it holds little significance towards the overall story as well.  One of the greatest depictions of Christmas festivities that I’ve ever seen on film is in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Fanny and Alexander (1982), but it only makes up the first half hour of a three hour epic and is largely inconsequential to what follows after.  And yet, I fully agree that the movie is just as worthy a Christmas movie as anything else.

Some of these alternative Christmas films tend to fall into the category without intending to be that way.  I’ve heard many arguments out there that Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is a Christmas movie.  That seems at first to be a wild stretch, but the signs are there.  The movie is set at Christmas time, and there are visual representations throughout the movie to remind you that the holiday is on everyone’s mind.  But, at the same time, you can’t say that the movie has in it’s mind to be classified as a holiday classic in the same company as Miracle on 34th Street.  That becomes abundantly clear once you get to the legendary orgy scene.  And yet, people want to classify it as a movie within the same genre.  My belief is that Kubrick never intended to have his movie become associated with the holiday, or any genre that pertains to it.  His movie is an exploration of the desires that drive men and woman and how they push us into some dark and depraved areas.  But, the Christmas setting does add some context to the turmoil of the characters.  The holiday season often is a time of reflection, and of considering the things we value in our lives.  It’s also a time where people become aware of the things that are lacking in their lives, and how that can be sometimes depressing.  That is why I think Kubrick wanted to use Christmas as the backdrop of his movie, because at it’s center is a character (played by Tom Cruise) who loses his way in his relationship with his wife (played by Nicole Kidman) and takes a journey towards the edge to reflect on where his life has gone wrong.  In a strange way, it has a lot in common with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) in this regard, as the main character is driven towards desperation as his life crumbles during the festivities of the season.  But, at the same time, Cruise’s character is no George Bailey, and Kubrick never intended him to be.  The two movies share universal themes and a common Christmas setting, but are otherwise from different worlds.  So, Eyes Wide Shut does have a case to make in the Christmas movie conversation, but it was an argument that I don’t think it’s creator ever thought was going to happen.

There are some filmmakers that work in a variety of genres that do make more overt gestures towards Christmas themes in their movies.  In fact, one filmmaker not only uses Christmas intentionally in his movies, it has become his signature.  That man is Shane Black, a legendary action film writer and director with a body of work spanning several decades and genres.  Starting off as a screenwriter, Shane made a name for himself with the script for Lethal Weapon (1987), an action movie with Christmas elements that actually predates Die Hard.  While his movies tend to use Christmas backdrops, they aren’t necessarily tied to the holiday itself.  And yet, more than any filmmaker, he loves to incorporate it into the plot whenever he can.  The introduction of Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs in Weapon happens in a Christmas tree farm for example.  And whether the story calls for it or not, Shane manages to find a way to work Christmas into it; something that even extends into his directorial efforts like Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2005), Iron Man 3 (2013) and The Nice Guys (2016).  The only other thing his movies have in common with one another other than Christmas is the inclusion of a wise ass little kid tagging along with the often cynical main character, which shows just how much of an intentional cinematic choice the holiday is as a part of his body of work.  One thing that I think Shane Black finds so appealing with this signature element is how it juxtaposes against the larger story he is trying to tell.  One thing you’ll notice in his movies is that his movies aren’t just depicting Christmas time in general, they are depicting Christmas in a California setting.  In many ways, Christmas time in LA has an innate artificiality to it, because it’s a city where there is never snow and Christmas trees have to be imported in, so Shane likes to spotlight the way that the holiday traditions clash with the reality of this Southwestern city, and there he finds a cinematic subtext to the stories he wants to tell, which tend to always have a dark sense of humor to them.  So whether people want to see them as such or not, Shane Black absolutely insists on his movies being synonymous with the holidays.

So, you have to wonder, why is there so many arguments for an alternative class of holiday classics.  I think the reaction to standards of tradition have something to do with that.  People want Christmas tales that reflect how they feel about the holidays, and it often includes feelings of rejecting traditional standards.  It is true that there has been something of a culture clash regarding the holiday of Christmas, and arguments on both sides tend to divide among the different movies that people choose to watch during the holiday season.  Traditionalist tend to favor movies that have spiritual themes and treat the holiday with a sense of reverence, while others tend to value the movies that subvert the traditions of the holiday.  There are movies that fall into common ground, and they are generally among the most beloved.  But there are some movies that do gather a little too much one way or the other, and these are the films that essentially are considered to be the worst of the genre.  The more traditional Christmas movies that are among the worst are the ones that immerse themselves so much in the Holiday spirit that it ends up ringing hollow and manipulative.  You can especially find these kinds of movies playing nonstop around the holidays on the Hallmark Channel.  I would also put Ron Howard’s misguided 2000 Grinch remake in this class as well.  But, when a Christmas movie becomes too subversive, it has the same effect of being off-putting and disingenuous.  Stuff like Surviving Christmas (2004) and Eight Crazy Nights (2002) think they are being clever in mocking or critiquing Christmas traditions, but it only ends up making those movies mean spirited and usually unpleasant to sit through.  If anything, alternative Christmas movies do a great service to the genre of Holiday movies, because it allows for the holiday to be associated with better films.  No one can doubt the enjoyment factor of Die Hard, so why not embrace it as a Christmas movie.  It makes the holiday a whole lot more exciting.

Like all other genres, Holiday films are an evolving genre, and the definitions of it’s characteristics are continually being refined.  But, we do know that many movies intentionally use the symbols, emotions, and aesthetics of the holiday season to add a little flavor to their movies, even to the point of making it essential to the story.  It’s just interesting to see that so many movies of different types now fall under the banner of holiday fare.  I’ve even seen the FreeForm channel play Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) as a part of their holiday marathon of movies.  Yes, Christmas is depicted in that movie, but the plot spans a full year, and there is even a scene specifically tied to Halloween in there too.  But, I guess I can’t argue with their choices either.  There are so many movies that take on the spirit of Christmas, but often fall short, so it makes sense that so many people are embracing quality movies that only have a glancing connection with the holiday.  Like I said before, one of my favorite Christmas scenes in a movie ever was in Fanny and Alexander, a film that in no way is about the holiday at all. I only take issue with there being extremes to the arguments of what makes Christmas movies.  A Christmas movie, of course, must have something to connect it with the holiday in terms of aesthetics and at times themes as well, but it in no way has to be exclusively tied to them either.  I often like how a movie sometimes decides to just use a Christmas setting for whatever reason, because it provides an interesting perspective that sheds a different light on the story otherwise.  Somethings like Die Hard, or Batman Returns (1992), or Lethal Weapon are given a fresher bit of flavor once it uses the holidays as a part of their stories.  So that’s why the question of whether or not Die Hard has earned it’s place as a Christmas classic is an essential one for the future of the genre as a whole.  Christmas is a holiday that embraces more traditions, and if a gun-wielding New York cop is a part of that for that for you, than Merry Christmas and Yippy-ki-yay.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Review

It’s pretty remarkable that we live in a culture where several generations of film-goers can share a common connection with the same film franchise no matter what their age.  When the first Star Wars made it to the big screen in 1977, it was certainly a product of it’s time to be sure, but it resonated so well that it would go on to redefine the cinematic experience as a whole for years afterwards.  The enduring legacy continued through two equally beloved sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) and the Star Wars trilogy as it was known then would go on to influence a generation raised watching it and absorbing it’s wonder.  As a result, Star Wars became more than just a movie, but a cultural touchstone, as fans defined their lives around their love of the movies; in some cases to extreme degrees.  It was also a game-changer for Hollywood, as a generation of future filmmakers took inspiration and built their own majestic adventures in the spirit of Star Wars.  Upon seeing how extensive the impact of the first trilogy was on the culture, the man behind it, George Lucas, believed that he had the opportunity now to expand his universe further.  Thus, we got what is now known as the “prequel trilogy,” telling the story of what led up to the events of the original three films.  The reception to the prequels, however, were mixed, as the maturing fan-base of the original trilogy held the series in sacred regard, and considered George Lucas’ additions to be superfluous and demeaning.  Even still, the movies were still financially successful, and what they did more than anything was to keep the Star Wars franchise still fresh in people’s minds, especially to younger viewers who were coming to the franchise with fresh eyes.  Good or bad, two generations of fans exist for this continuing series, and it continues to fuel the growth of the extended universe that Lucas has created, which leads us now to the current generation of Star Wars fandom.

After the prequels, the future of Star Wars was cast in doubt, because it seemed that George Lucas himself had put it behind him finally and was content to leave the story complete as it was.  But in 2012, a remarkable deal was struck which allowed George Lucas’ production company, Lucasfilm, to be purchased by Disney for a substantial $4 billion.  For the first time ever, the Star Wars brand was freed up from the grasp of it’s creator and was now allowed to flourish on it’s own.  Disney of course wasted no time and immediately put the franchise to work, announcing that work was going to begin on a brand new trilogy, this time looking forward instead of backward by continuing the story-line told in the original trilogy.  The first film in this new era was given to blockbuster filmmaker J.J. Abrams, who had already garnered success for relaunching the dormant Star Trek film franchise.  Though the job would be daunting, given all the expectations put upon it, J.J. managed to deliver a very satisfying addition to the Star Wars series with The Force Awakens.  Not only did it work as a stand alone film, it managed to tie the whole series together in a more complete way, allowing fans of both the grittier original trilogy and the glossier prequels to appreciate it together.  It was nostalgic for the past, but held new promise for the future.  And alongside the successful spinoff hit, Rogue One (2016), Star Wars is once again in a position where they are not just the biggest franchise in Hollywood today, but also one of the most influential.  And that legacy finds itself with a new chapter in this year’s newest entry, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.  Is it a movie worthy of the legacy that it’s built upon, or is it a road block that could minimize the bright future that’s ahead for the series.

The film picks up right after the events of The Force Awakens.  The Rebellion, led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) is still rejoicing it’s spectacular victory over the First Order; an evil military remnant of the Galactic Empire.  Leia’s most trusted Starfleet captain, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), continues to make riskier attacks against what remains of the First Order’s fleet, but the costs are piling up and the Rebellion’s numbers are dwindling.  After learning that the First Order now has developed technology that can track them through light speed, the Rebellion suddenly finds themselves on the run.  At the same time, Poe finds himself at odds with Leia and the new resistance leader, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).  With the help of his friend Finn (John Boyega) as well as a plucky engineer named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), the trio devise a plan to secretly gain access to the First Order’s flagship and dismantle their tracking signal.  Meanwhile, many star systems away, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has finally met up with the long missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  Rey hopes that the Jedi master will help her to focus the powers that are awakening within her and train her in the Jedi arts.  But, Luke has vowed to put an end to his Jedi ways and refuses to become her teacher.  Rey only gains his trust after demonstrating some of the raw strength that she wields, but in doing so, she further terrifies the aging Jedi.  He recognizes her power as being too similar to those of his nephew Ben Solo, who had turned to the dark side and became Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  As Rey gains more skills, she starts to gain a psychic connection with Kylo Ren, who is currently under the influence of the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  Is their bond the key to balance within the force, or is there a darker scheme at work, and is it time for Luke Skywalker to wield the lightsaber for one last battle?

When judging The Last Jedi, you have to take account of where it falls within the series as a whole.  For many people, the high-point of the series is The Empire Strikes Back, the second film ever made and the fifth chronologically.  Since then, everything has been trying to clear that high bar and few if any have ever come close.  The prequels represent to many the low points, as it’s clear that George Lucas lost focus on the story and became too self involved in the world building of it all.  For The Last Jedi, it’s following in the footsteps of a generally beloved reboot for the series in The Force Awakens, which opened the door for many opportunities, while at the same time following safe and familiar ground.  Last Jedi certainly has the benefit of being the second film in a trilogy, something it shares in common with Empire,  but that’s also a negative, as it has more expectations placed upon it because of that aspect.  But, just judging it on it’s own, how does it fare?  I would say that it meets most of it’s expectations, but never really exceeds them.  I did have a good time watching the movie, and it had some truly spectacular moments.  What it also had was an uneven story, that unfortunately falls into meandering subplots and lulls in the pacing.  As a result, I found it to be somewhat of a step backwards after the more briskly paced and pleasantly surprising Force Awakens.  But, that being said, this is by no means a bad movie at all.  It is light years better than the prequels, I can tell you that, and at some point features moments that I would characterize as among the best in the series.  The film was written and directed by Rian Johnson, who has made a name for himself with critically acclaimed thrillers like Brick (2005) and Looper (2012), and he certainly shows great skill here with this material, giving it the right epic feel, along with some of the unexpected twists that takes the universe into uncharted territory.  At the same time, while offering some new ideas into the mix, Johnson unfortunately throws a little too much in, not allowing stuff to stick with the audience quite as well as it should.

Of course, this shouldn’t be compared at all with Empire Strikes Back, and for the most part Last Jedi does manage to steer clear of direct comparative elements that naturally would reflect badly upon it.  But, one thing that I did think it lacked in comparison to Empire is the balance it has with playing out multiple story-lines.  In Empire, you had two solid plot-lines, one with Luke being trained by Yoda and the other focused on Han Solo and Leia’s growing relationship, threaded perfectly together towards an unforgettable finish.  Here, not all the plot-lines thread together as neatly.  There is this lackluster side quest taken by Finn and Rose to a Casino resort planet, which adds nothing to the story and in some ways feels very out of place in a Star Wars movie.  Because of this, I felt that the movie lagged in the middle as I just didn’t care at all what was happening in this sequence.  Essentially, it’s just used as an excuse to bring a new wild card character into the mix, a code-breaker named DJ (played by Benicio Del Toro) who unfortunately is given too little screen time to make an impact.  If you’re going to get someone of Del Toro’s caliber to be a part of the cast, you should use him to the fullest potential, and sadly this movie does not.  And you would think that with a lengthy running time of 2 /12 hours (the longest in the series) that more time would be devoted to giving every new thing it’s due, and sadly it does not.  But, whenever the movie would find it’s focus, particularly in the latter half, it would really grab a hold of the audience and overall, more scenes work than don’t.  I especially loved every moment focused on Luke and Rey.  That’s where the movie finds it’s soul, and some of the most profound moments ever seen in the Star Wars franchise can be found in their story-line.  The movie also does a fantastic job of upending your expectations.  Without giving anything away, there are a few surprises late in the film that not only takes the story in a whole new direction, but even shakes up the future of the universe as a whole.  In many ways, the movie’s greatest strength is the way that it subverts the tropes that you’ve come to know about Star Wars and makes you see that anything is really possible with this franchise.

One thing that the movie does carry over well from The Force Awakens is the renewed emphasis on the characters in the series.  Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and even the little droid BB-8 all continue to grab our attention and keep us invested in their ongoing adventures.  The Last Jedi also thankfully gives more screen time and development to the character of Poe Dameron, as we see him develop more as a player in this whole thing.  We see that he indeed has some flaws, as his brash and impatient attitude has sometimes put the Rebellion in even more danger, and towards the end of the movie, we see him learn more from his mistakes and see that sometimes caution is the better strategy.  Every returning actor is still excellent, with both Daisy Ridley and John Boyega still as charming as ever in their respective roles.  Adam Driver once again demonstrates his acting chops and makes Kylo Ren one of the Star Wars series’ most fascinating villains.  The newer characters sadly leave less of an impression, but the best new addition is Kelly Marie Tran as Rose, who adds a new dimension to the story as one of the rebellion’s most ardent believers.  One thing that will be notable about this movie, however, is that it marks the final screen performance of Carrie Fisher in the role that made her a star.  Her tragic passing after finishing her scenes for this film is something that will cast a somber tone while watching her final performance her, and I can definitely say that it is a fantastic farewell to a great character and an even better actress.  But, the film more than anything belongs to Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.  The veteran actor steps back into the role with remarkable finesse, and it will take you right back to your childhood seeing him wield that lightsaber once again.  Not only that, but he even brings more dimensions to his iconic character and shows us that there is still more to learn about this Jedi Master.  His chemistry with Daisy Ridley’s Rey is also phenomenal and their moments are easily the highlights.  And I have to say, without spoiling anything, the finale features some of the most bad ass Luke Skywalker moments this series has ever seen, and that’s saying something.

Also of note are the visuals in this movie.  This may very well be the most beautifully shot film in the entire series.  The original trilogy’s DP, Gilbert Taylor, was no slouch, but his skills were also limited by the budget, which gave the films a more grounded and grittier look, which actually worked to it’s advantage.  Here, The Last Jedi was shot by frequent Rian Johnson collaborator Steve Yedlin, who brings a remarkable eye for scale and beautiful sense for color and light to the mix.  There are some stunning visual moments that both he and Rian Johnson create, much of which are unique in the franchise to date.  There is a beautiful moment where Rey begins to take her first lesson in feeling the Force around her, and the scene turns into a montage of images, creating a visual representation of Rey’s sensory experience.  It’s something that you haven’t seen before in a Star Wars film, and it’s done really well.  The movie also makes great use of it’s locations as well.  While the aforementioned Casino planet is a little bland, the crystal planet of Crait more than makes up for it.  Serving as the battleground for the climatic finale, this planet features some truly memorable visuals, including the way that the barren white salt flats of the surface gives way to blood red dirt underneath once it’s been turned over or disturbed.  This leads to a mix of color that really captures the eye, and makes this not just look like an epic adventure, but also a work of art as well.  At some points, I feel like Rian Johnson took inspiration from classic Westerns when creating his epic finale, because there are moment near the end that feel like they’ve come right out of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, in a very positive way.  All of this help to make the movie feel satisfying by the end, because while you can find fault in the story, you can’t help but be in awe of the artistry in it’s production, which in many cases represents some of the best we’ve ever seen before in this series.

As a whole, where would I rank this movie as a part of the series.  For me, the original film and Empire Strikes Back are still the pinnacle of the series, as they represent the fullest expression of what George Lucas intended with his grand vision.  Sure, they were compromised by their limitations, but the earnestness with which they were made are still unmatched even to this day.  After them, I would put The Force Awakens as the third best in the series, as I found that film to have the best balance to it’s story that we’ve seen outside of the original series, even if it was overly familiar ground they were retreading.  The prequels of course round out the bottom.  The Last Jedi I would say falls into the flawed but still satisfying category that Return of the Jedi finds itself within.  I can’t overlook the fact that it takes some unnecessary detours in the story that do nothing but pad the running time, but at the same time, I was still pleased with what I saw.  The film has some great moments, especially those with Luke Skywalker, and it finishes very strong by the end.  I even give the movie praise for subverting our expectations with regards to where we thought the movie was going to go.  Some of those fan theories that have been circling the web for years are suddenly going to be stopped cold by this movie, and in a way, I’m kind of happy this movie did that.  You can’t help but admire a film franchise that’s willing to take some chances and not be married to tired tropes that it had helped to make itself.  If there is anything that this movie proves, is that anything is possible in this universe, and that more than anything is a promising aspect for the future of the Star Wars brand.  I honestly have no idea where this trilogy is headed next, because this movie broke so many rules, and left so many things up in the air.  When J.J. Abrams returns to make the trilogy capping Episode IX, it will be interesting to see what he does with the new direction that Rian Johnson has set for this world.  In the end, The Last Jedi needed to set itself apart as an entry in this franchise and that it does.   It’s not as pretty as some of the best we’ve seen in this series, but it is a welcome game-changer that in a way is exactly what this series needed to keep this franchise interesting for this generation and those that will continue to follow.

Rating: 8.25/10

King of the World – Titanic 20 Years Later and the History of the Unsinkable Movie

In the late fall of 1997, we didn’t know what was about to descend upon us in the movie theaters.  For the most part, it had been a largely lackluster year, at least as far as Hollywood was concerned.  The summer had given us some laughably over the top action thrillers like Con Air and Face/Off, as well as some outright embarrassments like Batman & Robin.  And amidst all the talk of Hollywood movies becoming nothing more than overly expensive junk food, there was this fascinating side story bubbling up about this runaway movie production about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.  Directed by action film auteur, James Cameron, the movie Titanic would arrive in theaters in the middle of December 1997 already burdened by negative press about it’s bloated production budget (a then record $200 million) and long delayed development.  Believe it or not, the movie was originally intended to be a summer release, but it was held back for 5 months due to the fact that Cameron was not able to finish it on time.  So, couple those production problems with the fact that it was an action film director trying his hand at an epic, period romance for the first time as well as the fact that it boasted an unthinkable 3 hour and 15 minute run-time, and you can imagine that the executive at 20th Century Fox who bankrolled it were pretty nervous on the date of release.  The studio, no stranger to out of control productions like Cleopatra (1963), even sold off the domestic distribution rights to Paramount, just so they could brace themselves for the inevitable fall.  So, the day of release finally came, and as it turned out for everyone involved, everything turned out more than just okay.  Titanic not only managed to become a success, it became a new high water mark for all of Hollywood, not just at the box office but in terms of acclaim, popularity and influence in the years ahead.  Now, 20 years later, we are once again reminded of just how big an impact this movie left on the industry, and how unexpected that result really has been.

Titanic broke pretty much every record that you could think off for a single Hollywood film.  In an era of blockbuster entertainment, it defied all precedent.  Three hour plus movies just didn’t make money any more, because they reduced the amount of showtimes available throughout the day, and yet here was a movie that managed to continue to pack houses every single day and make more money than movies half it’s length several times over.  Not only that, it had better longevity than any other film Hollywood had seen at the box office.  It remained number one at the box office for a still unbroken record of 14 weeks, eventually adding to a final tally of just over $600 million domestic, and $1.5 billion worldwide.  Those record numbers stood unchallenged for over a decade, but have since been topped twice by James Cameron himself with Avatar (2009) and by Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).  But, it wasn’t just box office numbers that set Titanic  apart.  It ended up sweeping through awards season, eventually picking up a total of 11 Academy Awards out a total of 14 nominations (tying the record on both accounts) including the coveted Best Picture award.  The movie, regardless to say, hit bigger than anybody ever thought it would, and for something that is in essence a disaster movie, the result proved to be anything but.  But what is interesting is how the film stands now far removed from the frenzy that surrounded it’s beginning.  Did James Cameron’s epic really stand the test of time, or was it just a flash in the pan that hit at the exact right time.  There’s a lot to take in about the legacy of Titanic, especially with regards to the legacy it left behind on the industry of Hollywood.  In many ways, it brought much needed success to areas of the industry that really needed it, and at the same time, made some things a tad more difficult as well.  Especially when you look at the way the movie impacted the people involved, the technology behind it’s making and the movie-going public as a whole, we begin to get a sense of just how monumental a movie like Titanic has been over the last 20 years.

The first thing that revisiting the film makes you think about overall is why; why the Titanic?  How did this then nearly century old tragedy inspire this big of a production and why did it become such a huge hit?  It’s interesting looking at the inception of James Cameron’s ideas for the film.  Already, people knew of his passionate obsession with deep sea exploration, something which he had already indulged himself with in the movie The Abyss (1989).  At the same time, the mystique of the Titanic tragedy was already starting to take hold in our culture.  In the mid 80’s, the sunken wreck was finally discovered in the North Atlantic, preserved just enough 2 miles below the ocean surface to give us a look into the distant past and help piece together the events of that fateful night.  From this came numerous publications detailing the storied history of the “unsinkable” Titanic cruise ship, as well as renewed interest in the personal stories of the still surviving people who sailed on it.  There was even a hit, Tony winning musical that brought the story of the ship to life.  And out of this renewed interest, James Cameron made his rather bold pitch to 20th Century Fox.  According to the director himself, his entire pitch was simply showing the executives a picture of the Titanic and saying “Romeo and Juliet on this ship.  That’s my next project,” and miraculously he got the green-light.  Naturally, the love story aspect was what appealed to the studio chiefs, but when you look at the movie as a whole, and the person who James Cameron is, it’s clear that his intention was to recreate the events of the Titanic sinking, putting the viewer right in the thick of it as it happens.  This of course is easier said than done, and as the production went along, it became clear the actual scale to the whole venture that Cameron had in mind, and all of it was very, very expensive.

As the production went into full force, it quickly outgrew what Fox had available.  A whole new facility was constructed in Baja California, Mexico just to construct the massive out door sets that Cameron needed.  The most remarkable of these was a near full-size replica of the port side of the ship itself, as well as a recreation of the Southhampton dock that it would have launched from.  The amount of detail indeed pulls off Cameron’s vision perfectly, putting the viewer on the ship just as it would have been back on it’s maiden voyage in 1912.  Even more impressive than this is the remarkable way that Cameron created sets that not only were detailed and suitable for filming any variety of scenes, but could also be dipped and sunk under water in a massive tank thanks to a colossal set of gimbal lifts.  This not only gave the sets authenticity in their recreation, but it allowed us to see what the actual effect of the ship sinking would have felt like in person.  The amazing thing watching the film is knowing how much of the amazing visual effects are done in camera.  Cameron actually did take his massive outdoor set and tilted it at a 45 degree angle, recreating the final moments of Titanic in frightening detail.  When you see the extras clinging to the railings of the Titanic set for this film, they are doing so much in the same way that the real life passengers would have.  There is no question that Titanic is a triumph of screen direction, showing an unprecedented level of craftsmanship the likes of which may never be topped.  Cameron’s tactics of directing may be shaky, because let’s face it, Titanic has it’s low points too (particularly with the love story) but it’s clear that he triumphs when it comes to drawing drama out of the tragic events of the sinking, and does so with an enviable sense of detail.  That more than anything is what holds up over 20 years later.  James Cameron wanted to bring the Titanic to life, and that he does, in a spectacular way.  You can’t watch the film today and not be awed by the remarkable artistry that went into crafting it; the costumes, the sets, the cinematography.  Even the primitive CGI effects somewhat hold up, especially the sweeping wide shots of the entire ship.  Those are the things that really build the legend of this movie in the long run.

But, the other interesting aspect of Titanic’s history in the long run is in how it’s been affected by it’s own success, particularly with regards to the negative aspects.  Titanic in a way became too big of a movie for a while, which led to an inevitable backlash.  For a time, the movie was mocked for it’s shortcomings, and parodied incessantly for everything from it’s sometimes laughable script, to it’s awkwardly inconsistent performances, to just the obsessive way that fans were reacting to it.  James Cameron himself was often a good sport about it, and would even participate in a comedic bit about the movie too.  I recall a MTV produced skit where Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn try in vain to pitch a sequel to Cameron that’s very funny, as well as one other bit where James Cameron from somewhere else where Cameron lights up a cigar with a burning $100 bill.  At least he’s got a sense of humor.  But, for a while, it became almost the cool thing to put down Titanic for all it’s flaws; even to the point of outright hating it.  Honestly, I was even finding myself falling into that same mindset for a while, almost being ashamed that I enjoyed it in the first place.  In retrospect, that reaction is a little harsh, but some of those critiques have never really gone away.  I hate to say it, but Titanic has a really lackluster script, and is only salvaged by the sheer brilliance of the direction.  Perhaps Cameron, who both wrote and directed, didn’t have quite the necessary tools of basic screenwriting to match the intensity of the moments he’s trying to convey, but at the same time, I’ve come to accept this as a part of his film-making style.  He’s a man more comfortable in the director’s chair, crafting extravagant set pieces that push the boundaries of cinema.  He can’t bring that same focus into his script, however, and that’s why Titanic is saddled with one-dimensional characters and cringe-worthy dialogue.  But, as time has gone on, these same faults also give the movie character.  Yeah it can be predictable and childish, but it comes with a certain level of charm.  It also could have been a lot worse, especially if you look at the scenes that Cameron cut from the film.  It’s clear that Cameron found his right tone in the editing room, as the movie had even more hokey and horribly out of place humor (like a cut gag of Kathy Bates’ Molly Brown asking for more ice for her drink as the giant iceberg passes by in the background).  The movie has had ups and downs, but in the end, the strengths win out.

Another interesting impact this movie has had is on the people who were involved with it.  James Cameron himself has worked through the highs and lows of his career triumphs, and has seen two of his movies break records at the box office, including ones he set himself.  At the same time, he is a man almost burdened with too much expectations because of the success he’s had.  It took him 12 years after Titanic to finally release his follow-up, Avatar, another movie that also suffered a backlash due to it’s inescapable presence.  And like after Titanic, he has struggled to get his next project off the ground, as it’s now been 8 years since Avatar and all we hear about is him continually trying to tinker with that world in further sequels.  But, at the same time, he has taken his passions to very enviable levels of achievement.  He has continued to invest his time in deep sea exploration, including revisiting the wreck of the Titanic multiple times, with it culminating in the remarkable achievement of reaching the bottom of  Challenger’s Deep, the lowest part of the ocean, a feat that only he and two other men have accomplished, and doing so in a submarine vessel that he engineered himself.  The cast of the movie as well has taken interesting routes in the years after Titanic.  The backlash towards the movie probably affected the two leads of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet more than anyone else.  For a while, DiCaprio was the most talked about heartthrob in the world, and it caused him to somewhat retreat a bit from the limelight for a while, just due to the enormous pressure.  Kate Winslet also found it hard to follow up her Oscar nominated role and was for a time unable to match the exposure that Titanic had given her.  But, what I believe ended up being a positive result of the negative backlash that both actors faced was that it motivated them to challenge themselves as actors.  Their careers over the last two decades are marked by one risky and punishing role after another, and today both Leo and Kate are celebrated as two of the best performers of their generation, with Titanic almost taking a backseat in their respective bodies of work.  The one thing that both take away from the film is the friendship they’ve developed, which continues to this day, even leading them to work together again in the less beloved Revolutionary Road (2008), playing husband and wife.  While it’s been tough going for some of those involved, Titanic still has left a positive impact on the careers of many of Hollywood’s top talent, and indeed, helped a few rise to the prominence that they were due.

The one thing that I do admire Titanic for in retrospect is that it marks a turning point for Hollywood.  It was both the start of a new era in Hollywood, as well as the last of it’s kind.  Titanic for one thing revolutionized the use of computer generated effects in movies, something that is still advancing to this day in Hollywood to varying degrees.  It also broke new ground in the industry, with regards to how a movie is marketed.  Not only did we see a shift in how a movie like this is publicized to the public, with the titular ship being pushed to the sideline in favor of showcasing the two leads in much of the marketing material.  In fact, even today, new re-releases show only Leo and Kate on the posters, taken mostly from the iconic “I’m flying” sequence on the ships bow, and with none of the ship itself in view.  The movie is also the first of it’s kind to have a pop song attached to it, which itself became an inescapable phenomenon; the Celine Dion featured “My Heart Will Go On.”  If you think Frozen‘s “Let it Go” was overplayed in 2014, you obviously don’t remember the days when this song was on every radio station for a solid year and more.  So, there was a lot that Titanic changed in the industry, but because of it’s success, I also lament the fact that it also diminished something that had existed for years prior in Hollywood.  The sweeping historical epic had always been a staple in the industry, especially as a means for the industry to earn some awards prestige.  This was evident in iconic films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Patton (1970), Gandhi (1982), and The Last Emporer (1987).  The 1990’s became the last decade to see these types of movies, as productions became more expensive over time, and studios impatient with overlong running times.  Schindler’s List (1993) and Braveheart (1995) managed to achieve critical acclaim with 3 hour run times, but they were making big money.  When Titanic managed to do both, it felt that the industry recognized that this may never happen the same way again, and the historical epic somehow disappeared over the years.  By hitting it’s zenith with Titanic, we saw the last great hurrah of the Hollywood historical epic, as the same kind of scale would later shift to movies in the Renaissance of fantasy and comic movies that are made today.  Sure, Hollywood tried to copycat Titanic unsuccessfully with Pearl Harbor (2001), but it was clear, Titanic brought a culmination to a type of movie that could never be recaptured again.

And so, 20 years later, we see how much of a legacy that Titanic has left behind on Hollywood.  It revolutionized so many things in the industry, but also deconstructed some of the old foundations that led to it’s creation in the process.  I don’t think we’ll see anything remotely like it ever again, and if so, certainly not from the same people.  James Cameron achieved what he wanted to with Titanic and has since returned to the sci-fi world that he feels more at home within.  Regardless, it’s an achievement in direction that stands the test of time, as many of the on set mechanics used to recreate the Titanic and it’s tragic sinking are still mind-boggling impressive.  There are some things about the movie that are weak, and are worthy of lampooning, but the sum of the whole is still noteworthy in the whole of film history.   Watching the film again recently, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe once that iceberg hits and the events that follow unfold.  When it comes to driving up the tension as the great ship sinks slowly into the water, the movie is unmatched.  I can hardly imagine any other movie that feels as authentic to it’s moment in time as the final half of Titanic feels.  You do, in the end, feel like a passenger on the ship with these people, and because they are relatable enough to make us care, we feel the same emotional roller coaster that they do.  It’s those devastating moments of helplessness that Cameron conveys so well, and that, overall is what I believe helped to bring people back to the theater again and again for weeks after it’s premiere.  We all want that kind of a connection to a movie, whether it makes us happy or drives us to tears.  I may not respond to it emotionally the same way over time, but 20 years later, this movie still carries a sense of wonder for me.  The craft on hand is monumental on screen, and it certainly earned every award it was given; yes even Best Picture.  The sad thing is, the movie ended up being so huge that no other movie like it could ever come close to matching it, and it diminished a genre of films that in many ways defined the best that Hollywood could offer.  I for one love a good 3 hour epic, and while Titanic is far from my favorite, it’s one that I can appreciate as something that’s just like the ones they used to make.  If you haven’t revisited Titanic recently, or are one of the few that’s missed it altogether, give it another look.  Twenty year on, and it is still a movie unlike any other before or since, and something that represents the true power of what cinema is capable of.  It’s got a heart that continues to go on.

What the Hell Was That? – Patch Adams (1998)

Robin Williams was a rare talent in our lives.  A master comedian and a genius at improvisation, he also managed to carve out a niche as a well respected actor in both comedy and drama.  Though he could be completely bombastic and off-the-wall, he still had the ability to reign himself in and give a touching subtle performance once in a while; something that indeed helped him win an Oscar for his work in Good Will Hunting (1997).  But while he proved himself time and again to be a master at so many different things, it unfortunately made it difficult to find the right kinds of roles for him.  Oh sure, he had plenty of great films come his way, and many of those movies were no doubt improved by his presence.  But, when you become an extremely popular actor in the public’s eye, Hollywood might over time begin to believe they can harness that popularity and work to control it.  That’s why at certain parts of his career, Robin was finding himself acting in roles that didn’t use his talents effectively.  These were movies that more or less began to follow a formula; one’s that thought they knew what a Robin Williams’ picture was all about, but in actuality had no clue.  These kinds of pictures tended to play off both sides of his persona on screen, the affable clown who works a mile a minute, as well as the warm-hearted every man who stood up for the right things and gave hope to the helpless.  While Robin could excel at both, these two sides often would feel out of place next to each other, and it made some of his films feel particularly disjointed.  And oftentimes, you could see Robin really struggling to define himself as an actor, but sadly was being saddled with movies that Hollywood thought were right for him.  He became a performer restrained by his own successful identity, and that led to some rather disastrous films.

This particularly came to a head in the mid to late 90’s, when Robin’s film career was hitting a repetitive point.  In the earlier part of the decade, Williams had two monster hits with his work as the Genie in Aladdin (1992) and as a cross-dressing nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), but soon after, his film output got a lot shakier.  It became clear over time that Hollywood saw Robin as a finely tuned machine that could bring the right kind of magic to any story, but that was not really the case at all.  Robin Williams, like any other actor, wanted to tackle something challenging, giving him the opportunity to surprise his audience, and if you’ve ever seen Robin perform in front of a crowd, you’ll definitely see that desire within him to be unpredictable.  Restraining him to a formula is not the greatest use of his talent, and that’s something that’s clear in his output from the 90’s.  Some movies of this period did turn out well (1995’s Jumanji and 1996’s The Birdcage), but there were plenty that didn’t (1996’s Jack, 1997’s Flubber, as well as Bicentennial Man and Jakob the Liar, both from 1999).  And when you look at the movies from this era that clearly didn’t work, you can see one thing that they all had in common; schmaltz.  It’s unfortunate to think that for a time that this was all that Hollywood thought that Robin Williams’ movies measured up to, this excessive sentimentality that’s only punctuated with his natural talent for improvisation.   Sure, some of his successes from year past had their sentimental moments, especially in his beloved turn in Dead Poets Society (1989), but that’s not what defined those movies in a nutshell either.  It’s a good thing that Good Will Hunting came along to break that cycle and leader to more serious and often darker roles later on for Robin, like One Hour Photo and Insomnia (both from 2002).  Unfortunately, before that would happen, Robin had to go through what is undoubtedly the worst movie of his entire career, and one that represented the worst of what Hollywood believed a Robin Williams movie could be; the travesty that’s known as Patch Adams (1998).

Patch Adams is the worst kind of schmaltzy movie that you could ever imagine, but that’s not the only thing that’s shameful about it.  It’s a movie that also uses it’s schmaltz in a manipulative way, believing that tugging at the heart strings will compensate for the narrative shortcomings.  But that’s not even the worst aspect of the feature.  No, what makes the movie so despising is the way that it was framed in order to be made more “marketable,” particularly towards favor during awards season.  Movies, particularly ones that are taken from real life stories, take liberties all the time in order to craft a film more towards appealing to the widest possible audience.  People are either excised or combined together and whole passages of a person’s life can also sometimes be completely ignored in order to focus on the most important parts of the narrative of the subject’s life.  But, sometimes, too many liberties are taken in order to broaden the drama of the story and that’s exactly what happened here.  The movie examines the story of Dr. Hunter Doherty “Patch” Adams, a groundbreaking American physician who founded the Gesundheit! Institute, which is a not-for-profit health care facility that specializes in Integrative Medicine.  A long time champion for free health care service not funded by insurance policies, Adams is also renowned for his colorful personality, often dressing up as a clown or wearing a red nose as a way of humorizing his patients as they go through their arduous treatments.  He’s a fascinating figure and continues to set a good example for the medical industry to this day.  Indeed, some of his techniques have since been adopted by hospitals across the world, and many new health care centers have improved the comfortable atmosphere of their facilities thanks to the example of his Institute.  When you look at his story, as a doctor who is also a clown, you can’t help but think of this as an ideal role for Robin Williams.  And yet, this was a match that was doomed to fail.

It wasn’t enough for Hollywood to just approach Dr. Adams story in a straightforward way; they had to make it their own.  First off, there is little of the real life of Patch Adams that makes it to the screen at all.  Robin Williams is nothing like the real Dr. Adams in any way, which can be overcome with a strong, well crafted performance.  But, nope, that’s not what the filmmakers wanted.  They just thought, hey here’s a doctor who cracks jokes all day to make his patients happy; all we need is Robin Williams to go wild and we’ve got our movie.  That seems to be the general result once you watch the movie.  Robin is just put in front of a camera and is told to improvise.  That’s why you see him cracking jokes with props on set like with medical supplies or a skeletal replica model.  Robin Williams can certainly improvise gold out of anything, but you know what you never see him actually do in the movie; actual medical healing.  The movie gives the false notion that all a doctor really needs is positive attitude and a sense of humor to be the best doctor in the world.  And the movie shamelessly injects this underdog aspect to the narrative, where it seems like Patch is breaking against tradition in attempting to empathize with his patients, thus breaking all the rules of his trade.  But, this was never the case at all, and it is merely a lazy attempt to find conflict in an otherwise straightforward story.  The biggest problem with the way that the movie portrays Patch is the fact that it just plays up the comedic aspects of his practice, and not the medical part.  No surprise, Dr. Adams was sharply critical of this movie, and in particular, with regards to the way that it minimized the work that he does.  He is a jokester and someone who believes in the healing power of laughter, but Dr. Adams also knows that humor and actual medicine need to go together, and that there’s a lot of hard work that goes into perfecting that balance; something that the movie definitely misses the mark on.  Robin Williams’ effortlessness with comedy is no substitute for conveying the actual hard work that Dr. Adam’s Institute goes through every single day.

In many ways, I feel that Robin Williams was more or less saddled with the burden of carrying a lazy production.  Not a single moment of this film goes by without it falling into one cliche or another.  You have the whimsical Marc Shaiman musical score, a cast of characters that are in no way realistic but are merely pawns meant to conform to the whims of the story, and it is entirely predictable in every beat of the plot.  Like I stated before, the movie is less informed by the actual work that Dr. Adams has done, and instead crafts a story all on it’s own.  And it’s one that we’ve all seen before a million times.  In particular, there was something about 90’s films that seemed to love the cliche of the court room finale.  Robin Williams was in quite a few of those if I remember, including some good ones like at the end of Mrs. Doubtfire.  The reason that you would see this cliche pop up so much was because it was an easy platform for the screenwriters to craft a monologue for their characters which basically gives them a chance to encapsulate the message of the movie in a nice, easily delivered package.  Because of it’s over-usage, this cliche just ended up turning into a clear sign of lazy writing, and sure enough that’s what you’ll find in Patch Adams.  The movie shows Patch defending his practices in front of a council that seeks to revoke his medical licence, and of course he delivers a long-winded defense of his practice, which just ends up falling into the realm of common sense that no real person would ever disagree with.  And yet, this movie thought it was profound enough to justify the conflict, which by the way is a complete Hollywood fabrication.  It didn’t help that the movie was made by two filmmakers well out of their element; director Tom Shadyac and writer Steve Oedekerk, who had risen up in the industry making Jim Carrey comedies like Ace Ventura (1994) and Liar, Liar (1997).  You can clearly see them trying way too hard to be profound, and it ultimately backfires.  The movie is too silly to be taken seriously, and too restrained to ever become hilarious.  It ends up becoming a failure on both measures as a result.

But the movie’s most egregious aspects come in the way that it tries turn real history into something that you could say Hollywood views as more “marketable.”  Marketability is a tricky thing to figure out for a movie, because it is never really a clear cut thing.  Some executives in Hollywood believe they have a pulse on what can make a movie more marketable, but I highly doubt that someone with a high paying salary and a luxurious office and lifestyle in sunny Southern California really has the best insight into what the actual viewing public wants in every movie.  Oftentimes, you just have to take a chance and hope that an unconventional movie might hit the mark, which it sometimes does.  But, most of the time, you get these compromised films like Patch Adams which clearly shows a lack in faith from studio execs in the actual story of the real person, and they instead decided to inject their own ideas to make the film “better” in their eyes.  This might not be a problem if it at least is done tastefully.  Unfortunately, Patch Adams has one of the most tasteless alterations that’s ever been done to improve the marketability of a film.  In the movie, we are introduced to a fellow physician that helps Patch start up his free clinic in it’s early days named Carin (played by Monica Potter).  She not only becomes a reliable ally for Patch, but also a potential love interest.  You also learn of her history of sexual abuse as a child which haunts her into adulthood.  Halfway through the movie, she ends up being murdered by a deranged patient she is treating, breaking Patch’s heart in the process.  This may seem heartbreaking, until you realize that Carin never existed.  Dr. Adams did in fact have a best friend who was murdered in real life, but that person was in fact a man, who had no romantic relationship at all with Patch, and was never abused as a child.  Learning this fact just makes the fabrication of the character of Carin sickening, because it shows the complete disregard that the filmmakers had to honoring the life of it’s subject.  They wanted their movie to have a conventional love story attached to it, and so they swapped genders with a real life person, gave them an unnecessary and false history of abuse, and killed that person off purely for the dramatic effect.  This aspect, more than anything else, is what makes Patch Adams such a hateable movie.

The reason I wanted to spotlight the movie Patch Adams in this series, and in particular wanted to address this sickening alteration that they injected into the story to add more drama, is because it reveals a larger problem in Hollywood with the way they try too hard to make their films appealing to too wide an audience.  Now sure, movies are expensive and you need to reach as big of audience as you can.  But that should be the marketing team’s job, not the filmmakers.  The people in charge of making the movie should be working towards making the movie the best that it can be, and that should not include any worries about how can we make this scene play more successfully in the Heartland.  This is unfortunately something that you see too much these days as studios try to alter their movies in the middle of their productions, because they feel that the movies are not good enough to stand on their own merits.  So many movies nowadays are becoming susceptible to re-shoots and alterations in post, as a means of changing what was there before into something that is better equipped to reach all flavors of audiences.  You can definitely see this happening with the movies coming from DC Comics, as Suicide Squad (2016) and Justice League (2017) both felt like they suffered from very confused productions that had no idea which direction they were heading towards.  The changing of a movie to become more marketable can even happen as early as pre-production, where the studios make a filmmaker compromise their visions in order to meet the demands of the executives.  This played out recently with the upcoming movie All the Money in the World, directed by Ridley Scott.  In this telling of the kidnapping of billionaire J. Paul Getty’s grandson, Scott wanted his first choice of Christopher Plummer to play the crucial part of the stingy tycoon.  But, the studio forced him to cast Kevin Spacey instead because he was viewed as a bigger name, thus we saw him assume the role under some really bad old age makeup.  With the scandal that erupted around Spacey earlier this year, the studio made the unprecedented decision to erase their “ideal” actor from a near finished movie and Scott was able to do last minute re-shoots with the actor he wanted in the first place.  It goes to show that not every studio makes the right choices in how to make a movie more appealing, and that sometimes it’s better to trust something to stand on it’s own.  Patch Adams represents those bad choices to the very extreme.

The failure of Patch Adams as a movie basically distills down to the fact that you can’t force a movie into being based on thinking you know what the audience wants.  Robin Williams can make anything funny, but not when it’s in service of taking it’s subject seriously.  You can believe that a character’s tortured history makes for compelling drama, but not when it’s tagged onto a real tragedy that disrespects the memory of the actual person, making their existence not even matter.  To add further insult, the real Dr. Adams believed that the movie did nothing but just exploit his name and personal history, and did nothing to further his message of compassionate care-giving and alternative medicine.  Upon release of the film, Adams slammed the movie and Robin’s portrayal of him, saying very bluntly, “He made $21 million for four months pretending to be me, in a very simplistic version, and did not give $10 to my free hospital.”  Adams later clarified that he didn’t dislike Robin Williams at all, and did not fault him for the film; his anger was more directed at how the studio just exploited his story for their own gain and not to help further any cause.  He is right to be dissatisfied with the movie, because all it does is just use Dr. Adams as a premise rather than a person.  Robin Williams unfortunately was the right man at the time to portray a funny doctor, but the movie wrongly seems to believe that this is all that matters.  Adams’ career is defined by so many other things; his ingenuity, his activism, his personality, all of which the movie doesn’t seem to care about.  And what’s worse, it takes certain aspects of Adams’ life, like the death of his friend, and adds unnecessary dramatic touches to it, which in the end is highly disrespectful.  This movie only appeals to the easily manipulated, who eat up schmaltz like it’s candy.  Even Robin Williams grew tired of this stuff, and tried to branch out, but sadly never got to shrug off completely before his untimely death in 2014.  More than anything, Patch Adams is a horrible cinematic travesty because of all the things it wastes; the fascinating story of a trailblazer in the science of medicine, the unparalleled acting abilities of Robin Williams, and the fact that it could have used this movie to affect change for good, rather than fill the wallets of it’s greedy backers with near certain and safe box office returns.

Coco – Review

Pixar Animation Studios has made a name for themselves in Hollywood for a variety of reasons.  They have an incredible track record at the box office; their characters are known the world over; and they are always pushing the envelope in the field of animation, making them an undisputed leader, alongside their partner company Disney.  But, one other thing that usually defines their movies are the ways they put interesting spins on unusual concepts and mine them into universal stories that anyone can enjoy.  From them, we have witnessed stories of what toys do when they’re not being played with, the working lives of monsters, and the suburban dramas of a family of superheros.  They have also given us an innocent romance between two robots, showed us that even a rat could be a gourmet chef, and even told us the story of the emotions within the mind of a twelve year old girl.  Pixar, on top of it’s groundbreaking animation, is also rightly celebrated for it’s creativity, and for it’s devotion towards trying new things.  However, they also work in an industry that demands continuing results, and in some ways, Pixar has fallen victim to it’s own success.  Because their movies do so well, the demand for sequels has been overwhelming for them, and despite their desire to move forward with newer ideas, they are still obliging to those demands and have made a number of sequels, especially in the last few years.  While some of their continuing franchises are still celebrated (Toy Story for example), there are quite a few who aren’t.  And you can tell which sequels are given the least amount of care within the studio.  This past summer’s Cars 3 may be the least inspired Pixar movie to date, and it is disheartening to see a studio that made such a big deal in the past about the importance of story care so little about what narrative they were telling in their own movie.  Still, whenever Pixar does have the opportunity to do something new, they relish it, especially if it’s a concept that’s ripe for the Pixar treatment.  And after seeing stories of toys, bugs, robots, rats, and even emotions, Pixar again shines it’s light on an unexpected subject; the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos.

Coco, the studio’s 19th feature, uses the holiday as the starting off point for it’s new epic adventure.  This isn’t the first time that Pixar has tackled a singular national culture in one of their movies.  Unfortunately their first experience with this ended up with the disappointing Brave (2012), which merely used it’s Scottish setting as window dressing for a rather banal story.  With Coco, the focus is placed much much more heavily on the culture of it’s setting, and the importance that it holds on the lives of everyone within it’s story.  This is a movie that is steeped heavily within Mexican culture; celebrating the art, the music, the traditions, and most importantly the people of this culturally rich nation.  It’s a movie that identifies heavily with the setting of it’s tale, and yet still manages to touch universal themes that will resonate to people of every culture, especially with regards to the importance of family in one’s life.  This is probably why the filmmakers chose Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) as the source of inspiration for this story, because of it’s association with all of the above.  It is a uniquely Mexican holiday, and one that emphasizes the importance of family and personal identity.  But, it’s not just those themes that Pixar was interested.  They also saw the potential in exploring the idea of the world that the “Dead” live within; the one that they visit from on this certain holiday.  They also found inspiration in the iconography of the festivities, including marigold flower petals and candy colored skeletons, all of which is given a very fanciful treatment by the Pixar team.  But, like I’ve said before, it can be tricky basing your entire movie around a certain cultural tradition, and Pixar has managed to fail in that arena before.  So, does Coco show Pixar at their most inspired, or is it another shallow attempt to use colorful cultural inspirations to mask it’s narrative shortcomings.

The story of Coco is centered around a passionate and restless youth named Miguel (voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez).  He is the youngest child in a family of shoemakers who have had their trade passed down through several generations.  His grandmother, Abuelita (Renee Victor) makes the family live by the strict rule of no music, based on the past past history of their family matriarch, Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach), being abandoned by a musician who wanted to pursue his dreams of stardom.  Miguel disobeys his Abuelita by practicing his music in secret, sharing his talent only with his great grandmother, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia).  On the eve of the night of Dia de los Muertos, Miguel hopes to enter the talent contest at the village’s festival, but his guitar is discovered by the family and is smashed by his Abuelita as punishment.  Heartbroken, Miguel ventures to the tomb of his idol, famed musical legend Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), in the hopes that he can use his famous guitar that remains on display there.  After strumming one note, Miguel suddenly finds something amiss.  He is invisible to those around him, except to his dog Dante, and all around him are skeletons walking among the living.  He soon realizes that he’s crossed into the realm of the dead after encountering relatives from his past that have passed on.  They take Miguel with them and enter the Land of the Dead, where Miguel must get the blessing of his great, great grandmother Mama Imelda to return home.  However, when her conditions includes a promise to never play music again, Miguel runs off.  His only chance of returning home must come from the man that he now believes to be his great, great grandfather, the legendary Ernesto, who unfortunately is unreachable.  However, when Miguel meets a wayward outsider named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) who promises he can sneak Miguel into Ernesto’s compound, his adventure heads into new and even riskier territory, in both a race against time and death itself.

Given that this is Pixar, the expectations on Coco are pretty high, especially when they are tackling something original.  Despite it’s place within the whole legacy of Pixar Studios, does the movie stand well enough on it’s own?  I can safely say yes to that.  Coco is an endlessly charming feature that is both heartwarming in it’s narrative, as well a visually stunning piece of animation art.  The movie is especially a welcome palette cleanser to get that sour taste of Cars 3 out of our memories.  This is both a welcome return to form for the studio, as well as a unique change of pace for them.  While you can still see the same traditional Pixar calling cards throughout the movie (stylized worlds, Pizza Planet truck cameo, John  Ratzenberger, etc.), it also feels very different from their other features.  While most other Pixar movies center around their main characters changing the course of their future, Coco is all about healing the scars of the past.  This is a movie that makes family the primary issue, and how knowing where you come from and who has made up your family tree factors into the person that you are and what course you will take in your life.  For the main character Miguel, his journey doesn’t come down to him living out his dream but instead finding out why his life matters in the grander scheme of things.  It’s ultimately a movie about not losing the things that matter, something that is tied integrally to the festivities of the Dia de los Muertos.  In Mexican tradition, the holiday is all about remembrance, and passing memories along through generations, so that those who have left us can never be forgotten.  The movie’s greatest strength is the effectiveness with which it conveys that tradition, to the point where remembering loved ones is a key point to the plot.  And, in the best way that Pixar knows how, they take the simple ideas behind the tradition and elevate it into grandiose spectacle.

One thing that I definitely can say about this movie is that it is probably one of the lushest and most extravagant films ever made by Pixar from a visual standpoint.  The Land of the Dead itself is a wonder to behold, with a sense of scale that raises the bar for Pixar.  There is this beautiful mix of styles that spans across the many years of Mexican cultural history.  You see the influence of Mayan and Aztec art and architecture, combined with post-colonial classicism, and then finally the art deco modernity of the 20th century, all literally stacked on top of one another in the fanciful realm of the afterlife.  Within it, you see the richness of Mexican culture that has spanned centuries and has been influential to so many.  Cultural touchstones are even spotlighted, with even famed artist Frida Kahlo making a memorable appearance at one point.   The movie also does a fine job of portraying a contemporary view of modern day Mexico in the living world scenes as well.  Miguel’s community has a beautiful tranquility to it that I’m sure many real Mexican people will tell you is closer to the real thing than most other images of their country that makes it into the media these days, especially compared to those that mean to misrepresent their country.  Even with the heavy cultural influence, the movie still feels like a Pixar film, especially with their attention to detail.  That extends even into the designs of the characters.  Considering that this movie deals with many characters that are dead, it’s a good thing that Pixar resisted the temptation to venture into any macabre territory, which itself would have been insulting to the tradition itself.  What they do instead is to give the skeletal characters ornamental touches similar to the candy skulls you see made specifically for the holiday.  The colorful touches also add variety to the characters’ designs, with some of the designs accentuating the individual’s personalities in some fashions.   It all adds to a lushness in the film’s design that makes this a feast for the eyes with every frame.

And while the movie stands among the greatest of Pixar’s films in terms of visuals, there is unfortunately one other aspect of the movie that sadly keeps it from reaching the pinnacle of the studio’s best.  While the story is imaginative and leads to some wonderful moments throughout, it is also far too predictable most of the time.  Maybe it’s because I’ve watched pretty much every Pixar film to date, along with hundreds of other animated films, that I am far too familiar with the playbook that these movie draw from for their narratives, and sure enough, Coco follows them to a “t”.  There is a second act plot twist that I sniffed out way in advance, and by the time it was revealed, I felt less surprised by it.  By being predictable to a fault, I felt that the movie undermined the impact of it’s story.  Sure, it plays those moments far better than other movies do, but at the same time for a movie as visually inspired as this one, it should have taken less conventional roots to get there.  I would say that Coco is better in it’s individual moments than it does as a narrative.  It probably doesn’t help that this conventional story follows in the tradition of a studio that continually told stories that nobody else was doing.  This is the same studio that had an old man and a boy scout traveling to South America in a flying, balloon suspended house.  That’s a story that you had no idea which way it was going to play out.  Here, you know how Miguel’s story is going to end, because you’ve seen it done in so many other films.  Traveling to another realm to learn a truth about the kind of person he is.  You could just as well call this land Oz or Phantasia, because the journey is roughly the same.  The movie even trots out overplayed tropes like the betrayal of a friendship and a hidden antagonist revealed late in the story.  Now, Coco doesn’t misuse these tropes horribly, but by being too recognizable, you can’t help but be taken out of the movie by seeing the mechanics behind which this story is built.

At the same time, the movie makes up for these story shortcomings by being so imagnative in all other aspects.  The movie plays familiar notes, but oftentimes they are played so perfectly that you can’t help but love them.  It helps when the movie has a great heart at it’s center in the character Miguel.  He is one of the most endearing main characters you will ever see in a Pixar movie; full of life and passion, he is a character who is instantly worth embracing.  He’s also well-rounded, with a good many flaws that prevent him from being bland as well.  Newcomer Anthony Gonzalez manages to find that fine line between precocious and grounded in his vocal performance, and he easily holds his own against more veteran talents like Benjamin Bratt and Gael Garcia Bernal.  It should also be noted that another way this movie is set apart from it’s predecessors is in it being the first fully fledged musical from Pixar.  While the animation giant has included original songs in their films before (some Oscar-winning), they have never actually been as integral to the story as the ones here.  Here, the music is a part of the story and it’s the characters themselves that carry the tunes.  It may not be a musical in the classic Disney sense, but it certainly falls more in that category than anything Pixar has made up to now.  The songs themselves were written by Robert and Kristen Lopez, the same people you can blame for those inescapable ear worms from the movie Frozen (2013), and their work here is just as strong.  The primary number, “Remember Me” in particular has a special part to play in the movie’s plot, and I’m sure that it will turn into a classic all it’s own.  The song also plays a part in the other thing that Pixar films are famous for, which is the ability to make their audiences cry.  There’s a climatic moment that I won’t spoil for you, but suffice to say, the screening I went to had some people openly weeping.  You can say that Pixar has done it’s job as intended when it makes it’s audience do that, but fear not, it’s a moment of joyful weeping. There’s no traumatic sadness like the openings of Up (2009) and Finding Nemo (2003), nor the somber feelings of Jesse’s story in Toy Story 2 (1999).  It’s the kind of emotional release of unimaginable love that ultimately becomes this movie’s greatest triumph.

So, the movie has narrative shortcomings that keep it from becoming an all time great, but individual moments within stand among the greatest that Pixar has ever committed to film.  Apart from that, I credit directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina for immersing their film so heavily within the culture of Mexico and for not compromising that vision either.  This is movie that embraces everything about the culture and imbues it with a grandeur that grabs your attention through every moment.  The movie also remains truthful and respectful to the traditions and cultural touchstones that it portrays, giving audiences unfamiliar with the intricacies of Mexican cultural traditions a great and entertaining primer towards wanting to learn more.  The movie is already being embraced by audiences in Mexico itself, where it saw it’s premiere first before anywhere else in the world.  It’s already broken box office records south of the border, and that resounding support should extend northward as well.  I myself was still enchanted by the movie, despite not being surprised by the directions it took.  Maybe Pixar’s bar has just been set far too high by past masterpieces for even this very well-crafted feature to clear.  I would still easily put it in the upper half of the Pixar canon.  The characters are delightful, the music is exceptional, and the visuals are awe-inspiring.  And it gives me confidence that Pixar is still trying their hardest to do interesting things with their movies.  The subject of Dia de los Muertos is perfectly explored in this movie, especially with regards to it’s themes about family.  My hope is that this movie inspires many people to look deeper into their own family histories, and discover all the fascinating stories that lie within them.  That’s ultimately where Coco leaves the greatest impact, and it’s one that sets a great standard of it’s own within the legacy of Pixar.

Rating: 8.5/10

Justice League – Review

A decade or more ago, movies such as Justice League would have seemed like an impossible dream.  All the hurdles it takes to make one super hero movie a reality; why would anyone want to undertake a movie with a whole team of superheroes?  But, over at Marvel Studios, they not only have found a way to make it work, they’ve done it multiple time now, with spectacular results.  Spending years of development through standalone franchise for each character, Marvel has managed to work out the formula for making very satisfying films that include all of their best heroes sharing the spotlight together.  And naturally, when one studio has found a gold mine of an idea, the rest all will follow in their footsteps.  The only problem is, Marvel’s formula doesn’t work for all things.  In the past couple years, we’ve seen several studios face-plant themselves after spending and wasting millions of dollars to establish their own “cinematic universes.”  Universal’s “Dark Universe” centered around it’s collection of monsters has been dead on arrival from Day 1, while Fox’s desperate attempts to keep their Marvel licenses in house has resulted in a jumbled mess.  The only real threat to Marvel’s dominance with regards to cinematic universes has been it’s long time competitor in the publishing world; DC Comics.  Like Marvel, they have their own collection of iconic superheroes, all deserving of their own long overdue cinematic treatment.  With the overwhelming success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy under their belts, DC parent company Warner Brothers felt confident that they had the means to create a cinematic universe of their own, and they set out to do just that.  But, again, when playing catch up to someone who’s clearly in the lead, you run the risk of one or many missteps along the way, and DC has not been immune to that.

They first launched their bold new plan with a revamped telling of the origins of one of their most beloved characters, Superman, in Man of Steel (2013).  Right from the beginning, things were off to a rocky start, as this new Superman film was criticized for souring the character and his story with a needlessly somber and dreary tone, as well as going overkill with some of the violence in the action scenes.  Much of the criticism was laid on director Zack Snyder, who many believed didn’t understand the character of Superman, and was just exploiting his story as a means to show off his very flashy style of film-making.  While it did have some fans (I kind of thought it was okay too, as you can read in my review here), Man of Steel was still universally seen as a step backward for DC, and a rocky start for their cinematic universe plans.  Things did not improve with the follow up film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was the first feature intended to show their extended universe.  There was no denying it that time, BvS was an indefensible disaster, and the clearest sign yet that DC’s cinematic plans were close to derailing.  Like I discussed in my review here,  Snyder’s indulgences as a director were undermining the development of the characters, and it turned what should have been an amazing experience into a chore to sit through.  It seemed that things might have been looking up with their next project, Suicide Squad, given that film’s more irreverent and humorous tone, but even that movie ended up being bogged down by terrible editing and incomprehensible story.  But finally, this last summer, we got Wonder Woman, which was a breath of fresh air for DC’s films.  Centered around DC’s iconic heroine, Wonder Woman was focused and engaging, and it managed to finally be faithful to the essence of the character.  It was also an empowerment tale for women at a time when we really needed it, which made it’s success all the more rewarding.  Now, despite the rocky road up to this point, DC is finally letting us see all our favorite heroes together in the long awaited Justice League.  But, has DC finally figured their formula out, or are things still an under-cooked mess.

The film is starts out in the aftermath of the events proceding Batman v. Superman.  Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead and buried, and the world is still mourning his loss.  His allies, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), try to deal with the grief of losing their friend in their own way, while at the same time searching around the globe for other super beings that may be able to help them.  While looking through the notes left behind by the now incarcerated Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), they have learned the identities of three possible individuals that could join their team.  One is the Atlantean warrior known as Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who spend most of his days either drinking or saving stranded fisherman out in stormy waters.  Another is amateur physicist Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) who has managed to harness the power of super speed through his experiments, helping him to take on the identity of the Flash.  Proving to be elusive, though, is a recluse named Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), who has lost most of his body in a lab experiment and has been miraculously been brought back to life through robotic enhancements, making him the Cyborg.  Batman and Wonder Woman manage to track down and persuade them all to help out, thanks to the assistance of their non-powerful friends and associates, including Alfred the Butler (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons).  Meanwhile, danger returns to earth as a super-powerful alien being known as Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds) returns from his exile, seeking to reclaim three powerful weapons kept guarded on Earth known as the Mother Boxes.  When combined together, the Mother Boxes can transform a planet into the same make-up of Steppenwolf’s home planet, which is a hell-scape for the rest of us.  After defeating both the Atlanteans and Amazonians who have safeguarded the boxes for thousands of years, Steppenwolf proves to be quite unstoppable, until the Justice League finally stands in his way.  But, is he too much for them as well, and do they come to the realization that they need just one more element to make their team complete; the still deceased Superman.

In the wake of Wonder Woman’s success and Batman v. Superman’s failure, you would think that DC has learned a few lessons as they’ve continued to push forward with their bold cinematic universe.  And in many ways, they have, but there are still several lingering issues.  Zack Snyder, up to now, has been the caretaker of this franchise, and his indulgences have done the series no favors.  Likewise, there has been a distinct lack of identity to the universe as a whole.  Up to this point, it seems that everything you can say about the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is that they are trailing distantly behind Marvel cinematicly, and all their attempts to catch up make them look like amateurs by comparison.  The problem is that you can see the mechanics behind what DC is doing far more prominently, because up to now, they seemed to have been more driven by the potential for box office riches more than what was right for the characters.  But, again, Wonder Woman finally turned things in the right direction, making us all hope that DC had learned it’s lesson and were giving us the movies we deserve rather than the ones that they needed.  But, how does Justice League size up given the pressure that’s been put on it.  Well, it’s complicated.  I will say that it is light years better than Batman v. Superman, mainly because this movie is not bogged down by an unfocused story.  Justice League actually has a plot-line that makes sense, and the characters are actually portrayed much better here; actually becoming closer to their comic book identities than we’ve seen before.  But at the same time, the movie still feels hollow when compared to what Marvel has been doing this last decade.  Especially when compared to something like Marvel’s first big team-up, The Avengers (2012), Justice League is remarkably small in scope.  It’s a movie that is disappointing when considering the legacy behind it and the expectations we all expect of it, and yet it still shows some signs of improvement over the heap of failures that this studio has been responsible for up to now.    I guess your takeaway from the film will depend on your feelings towards DC’s cinematic universe up to this point, and for me, my feelings were that I was unimpressed but still entertained all at the same time.

Much of the things that keeps this movie buoyant are the characters themselves.  I have to commend the casting department at Warner Brothers for getting the right people for these iconic roles (at least for the ones that matter).  Ben Affleck is, I think, one of the better Batmans we have seen on the big screen, and up to now has been unfortunately saddled with material that doesn’t bring out his full potential in the role.  Still, he makes the most of it, and he’s served better here than he was in BvS.  Gal Gadot once again proves that she absolutely owns the role of Wonder Woman here, and she is easily one of the film’s greatest elements.  I give the writers and the director credit for not making her a token girl in this team as well.  She is an equal partner in the Justice League, given just as much respect as a member of this elite squad as anyone else.  She also has great chemistry with Ben Affleck in their few scenes together, showing a welcome comradry between heroes that has been sorely missing thus far in the DCEU.   The best new edition to the pantheon of heroes is Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, a thrill-seeking macho man who brings an extra bit of lighthearted fun to the mix.  Ezra Miller’s Flash is at times a little obnoxious with his constant “funny” quips, but he’s serviceable enough as the character and brings plenty of personality to the role.  Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is unfortunately the one disappointing addition to the cast.  The character in the comics is a lot more carefree and engaging, but this Cyborg is brooding and emotionally distant.  Still, the cast is solid throughout, and they more than anything, improve upon the material given to them.  The movie is still awkwardly written, but the one thing it does get right is the sense of teamwork between all the characters.  The movie doesn’t exploit their suspicions towards each other and have them but heads for no reason, like past films have done.  Instead, the Justice League comes together seeing the bigger threat in front of them, and use their best qualities to not only win the day, but also to gain each other’s trust, and that is something so refreshing to see in a super hero movie from DC.  If there is something to praise this movie for, it’s for getting the theme of teamwork through adversity right.

Everything else about the movie is a mixed bag.  One thing that you’ll notice while watching the movie is a noticeable hodgepodge of tones and styles of storytelling thrown together.  The film went through a late, eleventh hour re-construction, which saw the departure of Zack Snyder from the directing chair, and replaced with Joss Whedon, the man who brought the Avengers together over at Marvel.  Snyder still gets sole directing credit, but the Whedon additions are still very evident, and in some cases welcome.  The  movie contains far more humorous and light-hearted scenes than anything that we saw in BvS.  That is refreshing, but the movie still suffers from Zack Snyder’s annoyingly self-indulgent directing.  There are several scenes that still showcase his penchant for explosive and loud mayhem on screen, as well as his pretentious use of slow-mo to accentuate the action.  But, there is one thing that Snyder’s direction does service to the movie and that’s a sense of scale, which in a way is kind of undermined by Whedon’s more restrained style.  Snyder has a more operatic mind while Whedon has a more televised serial mind, and those two style don’t mix together well.  Still, I thought that Whedon’s additions brought more value to the film than anything it took away.  Something that Whedon clearly brought over with him from Marvel was the sense of knowing how to make the characters more relatable, and that’s accomplished through some very welcome moments of the heroes socializing and bonding through their shared experience.  If that’s the direction that DC is headed, than it’s a welcome one.  Apart from that, I will say that Snyder’s direction here is not as infuriatingly in your face as it was before.  The only problem is that by holding back a little, the movie unfortunately feels smaller, which is not the feeling you want to have while watching the Justice League movie you been waiting a whole lifetime for.  That’s the unfortunate result of an all too late course correction for the studio.

Where the movie suffers the most though is in the visual effects department.  This movie has, without a doubt, some of the worst CGI I have ever seen in a movie with this sizable a budget.  It’s almost like the movie ran out of time and money and just had to make due with what they had, which is a sad statement for DC’s organizational skills.  I understand the shake-up at the top, with Zack Snyder withdrawing suddenly and Joss Whedon coming in at the last minute, but given the build-up for several years that we’ve had for this movie, Warner Bros. and DC should have not had to cut corners here.  There are elements like Aquaman’s swimming under water and Batman’s wall crawling, tank-like vessel that look like they’ve come out of a video came, and feel very out of place in this live action film.  And then, we come to the film’s weakest point of all; the villain Steppenwolf.  We’ve seen bland antagonists before in both the DC and Marvel cinematic universes, but Steppenwolf may be the weakest of all.  This character leaves the minimalist of impressions on the audience, and is a complete waste of actor Cirian Hinds’ talent.  The talented Irish actor could have done something with the role, but he is relegated to just a vocal performance as the character is needlessly portrayed entirely through CGI.  And it’s some of the weakest, characterless animation that I’ve ever seen.  The animation is Jar Jar Binks level bad, which is unacceptable now in 2017.  Considering that only a few weeks prior we saw stellar work done on the character of the Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok, where so much detail was put into his personality and texture, and it just shows how much further ahead Marvel is by comparison.  Even with her brief screen time, Cate Blanchett left more of an impression as the villain Hela in the same film than Steppenwolf leaves here in Justice League.  It’s with a remarkably pathetic villain and the shoddy visual effects, (not to mention Zack Snyder’s typical washed out color palette) that we see the places that DC definitely needs to improve upon if they ever hope to be competitive in the future.

On the whole, especially compared to where they were a year ago, things are looking up for DC Comics on the big screen.  The best thing I can saw about Justice League is that it does a passable job of bringing the legendary super hero team together on screen for the first time.  But, after the huge leap forward that was Wonder Woman, this movie feels like a step backwards for DC.  But not a big one.  It manages to avoid some of the worst pitfalls that sank it’s predecessors, and offers a lot of welcome changes that hopefully take fruit over there.  The things that hold the movie back are mostly holdovers from the Zack Snyder era of the DCEU, which seems to finally be coming to an end.  He never was a great fit for this, and the cinematic universe will be better served under new guidance, whether it be with Joss Whedon or someone else.  The unfortunate thing is that the whole shake-up that the cinematic universe has suffered in the last year has unfortunately diminished the much anticipated team-up that we were all waiting for with Justice League.  The Justice League is iconic in the world of comic literature, and is even credited as the inspiration for Marvel’s Avengers.  The fact that the first incarnation of the Justice League on the big screen is not one the greatest cinematic experiences of all time and just ends up being barely passable is itself a very disappointing result.  But, my hope is that DC takes this lesson and continues to improve the League in the years ahead, helping it to live up to it’s full potential.  Wonder Woman certainly showed that good things can still come from this, and Justice League is still entertaining enough to rise above the rest.  It’s not a home run, and barely a base hit, but any comic book fan (especially those who love DC comics) will be entertained by this.  The best thing I can say is that it’s great to see the heroes of DC finally assembled together and working as a team.  One hopes that the same kind of teamwork continues to make the DCEU competitive with Marvel again, because friendly competition will only make both universes that much better.

Rating: 7/10

Hollywood Monsters – The Movie Industry’s Deep Rooted and Far Reaching Problem With Abuses of Power

Normally I try to steer clear of breaking headline news about controversies within the Hollywood Industry when writing articles for this site, but the recent activities going on over the past weeks have made me want to express my own thoughts on the issue given how much of an impact that they have on the industry as a whole.  That issue of course is the unprecedented fallout that has come to pass over the revelations of sexual misconduct, harassment, and even abuse that have been perpetrated by some of the most powerful people in the Hollywood community.  In many ways, these stories go far beyond your tabloid scandals of the week, and instead reveal a much more troubling fact which is the sickening way that such behavior has been allowed to flourish for so long.  The two biggest cases (so far) have been tied to two men who were once untouchable in Hollywood: uber-producer Harvey Weinstein and Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey.  Both are facing heavy scrutiny for what seems like years of serial harassment and alleged sexual assault against several victims that were swept under the rug with hush money and legal intimidation as a way to keep their bad behavior out of the headlines.  But, eventually, all those diversions couldn’t stop the truth from coming out, as victims started to stand together and demand for their stories to be heard, no matter what the consequences.  And with their stories, were are beginning to learn more about a side of the film industry that we wish wasn’t true and is sadly far more common than we would’ve thought.  Weinstein and Spacey are just the two of the most high profile names to be exposed and more are going to join them in the weeks ahead.  It’s a problem within the industry that extends beyond just the people involved and the crimes they have committed.  What these cases only demonstrates is the fact that there is a deep rooted problem with power being abused throughout the Hollywood community.

With regards to the accusations leveled at Harvey Weinstein, the revelations are not at all surprising.  Weinstein has been a power player for several decades in Hollywood, making a name for himself in the independent film circuit with the two companies that he co-founded with his brother Bob, called Miramax and The Weinstein Company.  Along with his sharp eye for spotting new talent in film-making, which has included the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, he has also garnered the reputation of being a bully within the industry.  His aggressive Oscar campaigning and strong-arming smaller production outfits in order to put his name on the best movies on the market has always left him with this love-hate relationship within the industry.  No man has been more thanked at awards ceremonies and sweared at more outside of them than Harvey, and it’s a reputation that I get the sense that he probably enjoyed.  But, it’s that same kind of attitude that also made him feel invincible within the business, and made him believe that he was capable of having everything he wanted, including the women he wanted whether they wanted him or not.  Suffice to say, Weinstein’s rise included him trampling over quite a lot of less fortunate people, and his sense of entitled power and need for self-fulfillment led him down the road that turned him into the disgraced monster that he is today.  Kevin Spacey’s problems are different, but no less disturbing.  While maintaining his image as a well regarded, and talented actor, we are now learning about years of inappropriate, and sometimes predatory behavior towards men, and most shockingly, to underage boys as well, according to his first accuser, actor Anthony Rapp.  Spacey’s misconduct has been the more shocking recently, because of how much more it has clashed with his polished image, but it nevertheless shows us that Hollywood’s problems with powerful men taking advantage of the less fortunate is very widespread.

The surprising thing that has occurred with the revelations made against these men and those like them is the swiftness and scope to which they were dealt with.  Harvey Weinstein was exposed by a long-researched article in the New York Times, which detailed years of misconduct that included a large number of accusers, and within a week of these revelations coming to light, Harvey went from Hollywood’s most powerful producer to virtually un-hirable.  He was fired by his own company, booted from the Academy of Motion Pictures membership, and had his name removed from every film he’s produced in the last year.  His company is now on life support with the possibility of going bankrupt in the near future, leaving many in-progress projects up in the air.   And as bad as that was, Kevin Spacey’s was even more dramatic.  He’s been fired from every project he’s been working on with his long standing partnership with Netflix, including his acclaimed series House of Cards, which is now desperately trying to restructure itself without it’s primary star around.  And, just announced this week, director Ridley Scott made the unprecedented and shocking decision to cut Spacey’s role in his new upcoming movie, All the Money in the World, and replacing him with actor Christopher Plummer in a costly re-shoot intended to help the movie still reach it’s December release date, only weeks away.  That is what you call quick and decisive action, but why did it have to get this bad in the first place.  I don’t blame the production companies and filmmakers that have cut their ties with them; they are not guilty of the same actions, and it’s fully within their understanding to protect their own products and reputations.  But a lot of questions need to be asked of an industry that sees behavior like this happen and takes so long to do anything about it.

These cases tell us a lot about the ugliest aspect of Hollywood, which is the way that underprivileged and desperate talent are often taken advantage of within the industry.  It’s the downside of the dream factory that is Hollywood, in where so many people come to sunny Los Angeles with dreams of fame and riches.  But, in order to make it, some people have to go through a long process of proving themselves to those who are already established.  It’s not an always dangerous path.  Many people, myself included, have gone through internships and part-time jobs with the hopes of opening up doors to better things later within the film industry.  It’s competitive, and not everyone makes it through, but you can make it in the film industry if you do show a level of talent and motivation that people on the inside can take notice of.  But there are those out there that offer up the shortcut to stardom by having those desperate enough conduct favors on their behalf, and this is where the predatory aspects begin.  Some people in the industry know how desperate some of us dreamers want to succeed and they prey on that desperation in order to satisfy their own selfish needs.  This becomes most sickening when it involves sexual favors in return for advancement.  And the abuse of this power doesn’t just end with the solicitation, but also throughout the aftermath of such actions.  Sometimes the people in power use a person’s desperation as a means of silencing them, by proclaiming that they hold the power to make or break their careers moving forward.   It’s this level of behavior that is at the heart of what’s the problem within the industry, with so many people using their status to hold power over the less fortunate and forcing them to do things that not only is demeaning, but can significantly damage their lives.  I want Hollywood to be a place where people believe they can go and add to a vibrant artistic community and not demean themselves for a chance at something better that’ll probably never come true.

The one and only positive to come from these scandals is the fact that it’s affecting some change.  People who have abused their power are now finally being held accountable for it.  A large part of this change has been the growing union of voices coming forward to tell their stories of abuse over the years.  And the sad thing we are learning is that Hollywood has not given much credence to the voices of victims, with many in the industry spending millions to keep much of it hushed for years.  It goes beyond the tales of those infamous casting couch sessions that you hear actresses and starlets divulge in interviews.  For a long time, there have been rumors of inexcusable behavior by Hollywood elite that stem all the way to the early days.  You hear about child actors being beaten on the sets of Little Rascal shorts from the 1930’s, or Judy Garland being repeatedly molested by MGM execs, to Charlie Chaplin having sexual intercourse with underage girls, and rape accusations connected to Marlon Brando, and so on.  And yet, none of these have been treated as anything more than tabloid gossip, or a smear campaign by religious organizations as a way to paint Hollywood as this morally depraved place.  But after the outpouring of victims stories that we’ve heard in recent weeks, you can’t help but think that there may truth to all these stories that we’ve heard.  I for one shudder to think that any one of my friends and associates who have tried to pursue a career in film have faced this kind of abuse in their lives or are about to face it without knowing it.  Many people have paid a heavy price for access in this industry, and that’s a practice that absolutely needs to end.  People in power, whether they are beloved or not, should be seriously questioned when they are confronted with these kinds of accusations.  The disturbing thing is, there are a lot of hurting voices out there, and it’s not just limited to those within the industry, and most likely, it’s someone we may all know in our own lives.

What angers me the most about Hollywood with regards to this is the systematic way they have tried to bury so many of these scandals over the years.  As a way of protecting their brand, the industry has set up many networks to keep bad press from leaking out into the public.  We have heard this before with regards to keeping an entertainer’s sexual orientation hidden to the public, as well as details about celebrities sometimes rocky marital problems as well.  But, now we are learning about how accusations of sexual abuse and harassment have been kept from the public as well.  And this withholding of public attention is what is angering most people outside of Hollywood right now because it’s making the industry look like it’s only in the business of protecting it’s own.  As scandals like Watergate and Penn State have proven to show, actively trying to cover up a crime is criminal within itself.  Sure, Hollywood hates being labeled a moral abyss by right wing and religious groups, but suppressing victims stories to perpetuate an image of purity only opens you up even more to such claims.  This was particularly problematic in Kevin Spacey’s case with his desperate attempt to change the narrative by proclaiming his homosexuality to the world.  For one thing, the fact that he’s gay was not the thing that the accusations against him were targeting too, and second, his pitiful excuse to use his sexuality as a shield against being labeled a child molester only gives credence to the argument that is unfairly aimed at homosexuals by right wing hate mongers.  And as a gay man myself, I found Spacey’s actions particularly despicable and it sickens me that he would think that this was his “get out of jail free” card to play to save his own skin.  I wish you nothing but the worst going forward Mr. Spacey; you’re selfishness has caused a lot of pain for those of us in your community.  But if Hollywood is so image conscious, don’t they realize that it would do them a lot better to expose the truth rather than hide it.

Most of the anger leveled at Hollywood these days is because of the fact that many people knew about this abuse and did nothing.  Sure, a lot of people didn’t know the whole truth and act without being sure, but the thing that needed to change in the industry is the realization that it’s not all just rumors.  Victims need to be taken seriously, especially when they come forward the first time.  You’ve got to remember, people in power like Weinstein and Spacey have deep pockets and can have their legal teams pick apart anyone’s stories to make it look like the victims are not being truthful and have ulterior motives.  In some cases, that may be true, but when a victim’s story is concrete enough to withstand the scrutiny, justice will be done.  For Spacey, it took only one convincing accusation to open the door for many others, and it has pieced together a history of obscene behavior that went long unaccounted for.  Hollywood must also understand that people who abuse their positions in this way shouldn’t continue to be rewarded.  If you want to show that you take this issue seriously, than you need to stop making excuses for people you know to have been doing something wrong or illegal, no matter how talented they are.  It’s true, some great art has been made by terrible people; something which I discussed in a previous article.  But appreciation of art should never turn into a defense of a person, and if someone has done something criminal, they should absolutely be shunned by the community.  I think Hollywood would be well served by not rewarding people like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, who seem to have been given a pass despite provable evidence of their awful histories.  It won’t take away from the brilliance of Chinatown (1974) or Annie Hall (1977).  Movies, as well as all art, outlast the mortal lives of their creators, and we can still appreciate them outside of the scandals.  In the end, Hollywood just needs to show some commitment to showing that they indeed are a caring community and not one that only protects those with established power.

You see scandals like these erupt every now and then and it’s clear that a failure to do anything usually comes about from an organization or community’s reluctance to expose it’s dirty laundry for the world to see.  Perhaps many in Hollywood saw these as isolated incidents that were not worth casting too much light on, in fear of characterizing their whole community as being morally depraved.  But what was not being dealt with was the larger problem of bad behavior being overlook and somehow seen as desirable within the community.  Forceful men have often been misread as productive types within the community, and oftentimes they are given advancement based on their ability to bully their way towards success.  That certainly seemed to be the case with a producer like Harvey Weinstein, who despite his skills as a producer has been revealed to be a deceitful and dangerous human being.  The one thing a person in the film industry shouldn’t have is the power to hold a less fortunate person’s career path in their hands and not face any consequences for their abuse.  The good thing about all this is that these types of alpha male bullying and obscene behavior is now being exposed for the ugliness that it really is.  People in Hollywood need to know now, silence is no longer acceptable with regards to the misdeeds within their community.  It doesn’t matter if you respect the person for their work, or admire the art they create; if there is truth to hurtful things they have done to someone else, there has to be consequences.  And exposing misdeed in the community will not shatter the image forever.  The Catholic Church had the most horrific claims of child abuse laid against them, and yet after it coming to light, the church has endured and now has a Pope that’s taken steps towards reconciliation with the victims and is considered one of the most enlightened and compassionate that we’ve ever seen.  Penn State faced the embarrassment of child molestation within it’s organization and saw several years of victories wiped out of the record books, but after the dust has settled, they regrouped and are now an elite team once again.  Hollywood will always be the dream factory that we’ve always believed it to be, and holding terrible men and woman accountable for their years of abuse and intimidation will be the best step towards keeping it that way.  Today we are finally seeing some action taken against the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, and many more will follow.  It’s an ugly reality punch for Hollywood, but one that can start us down the road towards healing.

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