John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – Review

The action movie genre goes through peaks and valleys quite constantly every few years.  Often times, audiences are treated to a whole bunch of movies that are standard generic fare that grows tiresome after a while.  And then you have those new fresh take features that act like a breath of fresh air and completely change the game, and sometimes end up changing the genre as a whole as a result.  Think of something like Die Hard (1988), which completely revolutionized the action movie genre, which up to that time in the 80’s had been dominated by muscle-bound types like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.  In their place we got Bruce Willis, who looks more like the average man and was also portrayed as vulnerable as less bulletproof as his predecessors.  Audiences gravitated to this new type of action hero, because he was more grounded, funny, and relatable, and this example helped to set the standard for years to come.  Of course, as tastes have changed among audiences, so have the ideal of the action movie hero.  Today, we have in a way returned to the larger than life trope of heroes, with Super Heroes of course now dominating worldwide box office.   But, not every hero wears a cape, and some of the most successful action movie stars have been the ones who have shown an incredible ability to transition perfectly based on the changing ideals of the time.  Strangely, whenever the action movie suddenly shifts gears, actor Keanu Reeves always seems to be there at the right time when it does.  He made his own debut into the action genre with his own take on the Die Hard formula with Speed (1995), and then a few short years later, he made a huge impact by appearing in the groundbreaking sci-fi action flick, The Matrix (1999).  Keanu, to everyone’s surprise, has found his niche in the action movie genre, and continues to remain a popular fixture there, which he has further solidified with his recent involvement in the John Wick series.

Up until the first John Wick in 2014, Keanu Reeves was in a bit of a box office slump, struggling to find that follow up after the end of the Matrix trilogy.  His salvation, however, didn’t come from a golden opportunity that fell into his lap, but rather it came from a collaborative venture from two of his friends from the Matrix set who had a daring movie idea they wanted to pitch as a possible starring vehicle for Mr. Reeves.  That movie would of course be John Wick, which is a story about the world’s greatest assassin, with a legendary history, who tries to get out of the business only to be forced back in once a few thug do the unthinkable; they kill the puppy that his deceased wife gifted to him.  The movie was the brainchild of David Leitch (who was a stunt coordinator on The Matrix films) and Chad Stahelski (who was Keanu’s stunt double for many years, including on The Matrix), and their idea was to do an action thriller with the complex fight choreography of The Matrix, but with only minimal CGI manipulation.  It was essentially supposed to be a showcase for pure, physical stunt work on a level we haven’t seen before, and they clearly had no one else in mind for the role other than Keanu Reeves.  It should be noted that Keanu is 54 years old as of this writing, and even though he’s in good physical shape for someone of that age, it’s still a risky thing to ask someone in those advanced years to do the heavy stunt work required without a double that a movie like John Wick requires.  But, remarkably enough, Keanu managed to pull it off and Wick became his first breakthrough hit in years.  It proved so effective that it’s since spawned two sequels, and has introduced something that you would have never expected in a movie series like this; world building.  Chapter 2 (2017) revealed to audiences a whole underworld that Mr. Wick is a part of, and the layers go even deeper in the recent Chapter 3.  The only question is, have the filmmakers strayed too far away from the formula that the series is starting to fall apart, or did they manage to build an even more fascinating mythos that further illuminates the legend of John Wick; the boogeyman you call to kill the boogeyman.

The subtitle of John Wick: Chapter 3 is Parabellum, which is Latin for “Prepare for War.”  And that’s exactly where the movie picks up in it’s opening minutes.  The film picks up immediately after the events of Chapter 2, with John Wick on the run, trying to beat the clock before all hell breaks loose.  At the end of the last movie, John Wick (Keanu Reeve) broke a cardinal law in the underworld society that he serves; he shed blood within the walls of the Continental Hotel of New York City, which is a protected neutral safe haven where absolutely no killing must take place.  Because he committed this taboo, by shooting the film’s villain in cold blood while he was under the protection of the Continental, Wick must be labeled Excommunicado by the governing body of this assassin society known only as the High Table.  Now, John Wick is fair game for all the undercover assassins all over the world, with an enormous bounty placed on his head.  The Continental’s manager, Winston (Ian McShane), who considers John a friend, gives him a one hour head start before dropping the hammer, and then John is on his own.  He does, however, have a couple cards still to play.  One is to call upon the help of a figure from his past, a person known as The Director (Angelica Huston) who can grant him passage, and the other is to call in his one final favor with a former colleague named Sofia (Halle Berry) who runs the Continental in Casablanca, Morocco.  With Sofia’s help, John gets his audience with someone connected with the High Table, who he hopes can lift his Excommunicado, for a price of course.  Meanwhile, the High Table has sent an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to clean up the mess John Wick has left behind, and that includes removing Winston from his position of power at the Continental, as well as punishing the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), the leader of an army of underworld spies dressed as homeless transients, who also sold the bullets to John Wick that he used to kill his target at the Continental.  And so, John and his associates prepare for an inevitable confrontation with the ultimate power in their world, and because this is John Wick we’re talking about, a lot of bodies are about to hit the floor.

The first two John Wick movies are prime examples of how to perfectly balance action with dark comedy as well as an incredible eye for style and precision for the stunt work.  It’s clear that the filmmakers put effort into making every set piece in their movies feel fresh and free from repetition.  But, it’s also interesting how over the course of three movies that they’ve managed to add new layers to this narrative; almost creating a world that exists on it’s own, tied by it’s own set of rules.  The first John Wick gave no indication of what was to come next, as it was just a straightforward action flick where John goes to war with a Russian mafia boss (played by the late Michael Nyqvist).  Chapter 2 is where the world building really started to manifest, showing a whole network that operates behind the scenes, governing the world in which John Wick lives and operates.  It really helps to have seen the first two movies before watching Chapter 3, because they all blend together, and if like me you already have done the homework beforehand, this will be an enormously enjoyable sit.  The movie wastes no time in ramping up the mayhem, as it goes from one action set piece right into another.  The first 20 minutes or so of this movie, where the Excommunicado goes into effect, are some of the most insane and hilariously violent action scenes that I have ever seen.  Remember, John Wick killed a man in Chapter 2 with nothing but a pencil, just showing how lethal he could be.  There’s no pencil deaths in this movie, but John makes use of weapons just as ridiculous.  And by continuing the momentum carried over from the other movies, Chapter 3 manages to retain the sense of character that the movie clearly knows it has.  The filmmakers know exactly what the audience wants and it sees no reason not to deliver on that promise.  In a sense, the answer that the film gives you is that more is better, and with this film, we get everything we’ve seen before, just more so.

I do have to say that the opening act of this movie is almost too good, in a way that it kind of takes away from the rest of the movie.  By immediately plunging the audience right in the middle of the mayhem, you’ve primed them for an expectation of all the crazy things that might happen next.  However, once the movie gets into it’s second act, when John makes his way to Morocco, the movie begins to deflate a little bit, slowing down in order to progress the plot ahead.  None of it is bad per-say, it’s just that the opening came on so strong that it’s hard to come back from that and not have the movie feel uneven.  Chapter 2 had a similar problem where things also dipped a little in the second act, but in both cases, they never ruin the experience as a whole.  But, given that this is the longest John Wick movie to date, you do feel the run-time a bit more due to this lull in the middle.  Thankfully, things ramp up again towards the end, with more satisfying action providing a satisfying climax for this movie.  The only other nitpick that I have with this movie is that by expanding the world building over the course of these movies, it almost kind of takes away from John Wick’s own personal story.  We don’t see much character building for John this time around, as he remains the same all the way throughout.  It’s something that’s been steadily lost over time in these movies, as the first film gave us the best window so far into the psyche of the character.  The first John Wick showed a whole lot more of the cloud of pain and anquish that defined his character, which manifested because of the loss of his wife and his puppy.  As he states constantly, it was more than just about the puppy, but we see less of that understanding as this series goes along.  Even still, everything else has been uniformly consistent in this series, including it’s sense of humor and it’s focus on trying to one-up itself at every turn.

It cannot be understated how crucial Keanu Reeves is to the success of these movies.  John Wick is, in my opinion, the greatest character that he’s ever played, and that’s largely because it’s the only character that has best played to his strengths.  Keanu is an actor of extremes, meaning that he only works best when taken to the opposite ends of performance.  His best work is found in him playing the part either very broadly (like Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) or very stoically (like with John Wick or Neo from The Matrix).  He never works well in between, which is probably why he never worked out well in other genres like romance or historical drama.  With John Wick, you get the combination of all his talents; stoicism and humor, all rolled into one.  He’s a man of few words, but even still those few words can be hilariously delivered and oftentimes pretty badass.  It’s also astounding how much he throws himself physically into the roll too.  Of course the movie gives him stunt doubles for the most dangerous moments, but for most of the movie’s run time, you can see that it is clearly him on screen, since most of the fights have to done in camera and with little editing in between.  It’s almost like Keanu is trying to compete with Tom Cruise in the category of 50-plus year old actors still doing the majority of their own stunts on screen, and he’s doing an admirable job of it.  The stunt team as well should be commended.  Just like with the Mission Impossible series, John Wick is turning stunts into an art-form, and it really reinforces the case that there should be an Oscar category for stunts.  The casting for these movies is also getting more and more impressive, with heavy hitters like Angelica Huston and Halle Berry joining the fray.  Returning cast like Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne (who also followed him here from the Matrix series) are also great to see again, especially with the latter really chewing the scenery in his brief scenes.  But the real scene-stealer is an actor named Mark Dacascos, who plays a ninja named Zero, sent to kill John Wick by the Adjudicator.  His character is not only an interesting foil for John Wick, but it’s later revealed that he’s also a fan, which makes for a real interesting character interaction.  A great movie character is only as strong as the ones he shares the screen with, and this film gives you plenty to enjoy.

The one thing that I will say this movie improves over it’s predecessors is it’s visuals.  This is a gorgeous looking movie, with some often stunning cinematography.  The opening scenes of this movie, which take place at night and in the rain feels especially inspired by the look of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), with this beautiful neon glow casting itself over the action.  The movie also makes incredible use of it’s locations as well.  It’s clear that over the years, the filmmakers have been given more substantial budgets to work with, and that is apparent on screen.  When John Wick goes to Morocco, the movie actually shoots on location in Morocco.  We see him walking on the sand dunes like he’s Lawrence of Arabia, and it’s clear that there was no green screen involved.  I also have to praise the production design of this movie as well.  We see a lot more of the Continental Hotel this time around, and the architecture of the place has it’s own character that really stands out.  It’s here where we see the underground society start to take shape fully, as it seems to retain an old-fashioned aesthetic that exists alongside our modern amenities.  The Continental also has it’s modern touch too, with a stunning room made of glass becoming a central setting for the film’s climax.  It’s amazing to see the filmmakers refining and improving on their craft over the course of these movies, as the visuals are becoming bolder and more ambitious.  The first John Wick, though still visually inventive, was constrained by it’s smaller budget.  Thankfully, these guys do not waste the extra resources they’ve been allowed to use, as Chapter 3 represents their boldest artistic statement yet.  It’ll be interesting to see how much more refined they continue to get in the future, because with this movie, they have set the bar even higher.

It’s pretty amazing that we are here celebrating an action movie series with the name of John Wick.  It’s such a bland sounding name that you would think it’d be impossible to find anyone with that name intimidating.  But, as these movies have shown, it’s not the name itself that makes the man a legend, but rather the man and what he does that brings legend to a name.  That’s true in all things really; we’ve managed to make a movie star out of someone named Benedict Cumberbatch after all.  John Wick is a action hero that stands shoulder to shoulder with the John McLanes and Rambos of the world, and maybe even puts them to shame.  It’s also just incredible how resilient Keanu Reeves is as an action movie star.  Just when you thought he was done, he managed find a way back to the top, and with John Wick, he may have just found his peak as a performer.  The one thing I will say is that you must watch this movie with an audience.  Just like with Avengers: Endgame, part of the entertainment is just in experiencing the audience reactions while watching this movie.  The audience I saw it with were wincing, laughing and cheering all throughout the movie, and it felt very good to join along with them.  I had a smile on my face throughout most of the movie, and I laughed out loud more than once.  John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is not an absolutely perfect film, but it is an enormously satisfying bit of escapist entertainment.  Anyone who has been eagerly anticipating the next chapter of this series will not be disappointed.  The only question is how many more foolish assassins will have to die before the message becomes clear; don’t mess with John Wick, or his dog.

Rating: 8/10

Tinseltown Throwdown – Iron Man vs. Man of Steel

Of all the things that Marvel has changed over the last decade in Hollywood, perhaps it’s most influential would be the concept and execution of a shared cinematic universe.  There have been serialization in movies before, but never to this magnitude, and with this many seperate franchises involved.  And the experiment has become on of the most astounding success stories in cinema history, with Avengers: Endgame currently on it’s way to the all time box office crown.  Because of Marvel’s success with it’s shared universe, the last decade saw many more studios try to build up cinematic universes of their own; all to varying degrees.  Some proved surprisingly successful (The Conjuring universe), while many others fell flat (GhostbustersThe Amazing Spider-Man), and some failed in the most spectacular of fashion (Universal’s Dark Universe).  While Marvel’s example was largely the blueprint for many of these wannabe cinematic universes, few of them could ever figure out exactly how to harness it and make it work for them.  What most didn’t realize is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe succeeded both by it’s superb organization, but also by sheer luck.  It came at the right time, when audiences were willing to follow along with a large arcing narrative that’s pieced together through multiple films.  And because they came at the right time, they created a foundation that has helped to support everything that has followed after, and with seemingly no competition.  It’s that foundation that more than anything has become responsible for it’s success, and to see how it stacks up with another like minded cinematic universe, it helps to take a look at where things started to determine what makes and breaks such an endeavor.

If there was any cinematic universe that could compete with the likes of Marvel for cinematic dominance, it would be it’s own competitor on the comic book shelves; DC comics.  Before Marvel began it’s rise to box office dominance, it was DC who had long been the standard bearer when it came to comic book adaptations.  Richard Donner’s classic Superman (1978) was for the longest time the quintessential super hero movie, showing for the first time how stories and characters from the comic book page could be translated faithfully to the big screen.  A decade later, Tim Burton introduced Batman to the big screen with his 1989 film, which further increased the box office appeal of comic book characters.  It wouldn’t be until the turn of the millennium that Marvel finally jumped in with their first entry into the genre, naturally focused on their most popular character from the comics, Spider-Man.  Sam Raimi’s 2002 broke all sorts of box office records at the time, and ushered in an era of box office dominance that continues to this day.  For much of the 2000’s, DC and Marvel were equally competitive at the box office, with Raimi’s Spider-Man films and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy trading places constantly atop the box office charts.  But, one thing that Marvel didn’t have was the organizational support that DC had with their parent company Warner Brothers.  So, in comes producer Kevin Feige who established Marvel Studios, with the intention of not only giving the publisher more creative control over it’s characters, but also to create a shared cinematic universe where all of them could coexist on the big screen.  An idea like this seemed natural, since it’s largely what goes on in the comic books themselves, but what shocked most people was the fact that Marvel planned to launch this with the most unlikely of characters; Tony Stark aka Iron Man.  Iron Man is an icon now, but a decade ago, he was largely viewed as second tier compared to the likes of Spider-Man.  But, it was a gamble that paid off and in many ways it was the key to the success of everything that followed after.  Iron Man was the pivotal foundation and it becomes all the more apparent when you stack up where his place at the start of a cinematic universe compares to another, with DC beginning it’s own universe on the back of it’s most iconic character; Superman.

“They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire.  I respectfully disagree.  I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once.”

Iron Man had long been in development for years, with few people ever seriously interested in making the film, or playing the character.  For a while, Tom Cruise expressed interest in playing Tony Stark, but the movie never materialized, and ironically Tom ended up being the foundational face of one of the most embarrassing launches for a failed cinematic universe ever, with his remake of The Mummy (2017) which was supposed to begin the Dark Universe.  The newly formed Marvel Studios finally took the character seriously, and knew right away that to make the character work, it needed people who were the right match.  Luckily they struck upon the likes of Jon Favreau, who as a director brought a unique sense of mixing action and humor that in many ways perfectly suited the wise-cracking character from the comics. But Favreau’s greatest decision would end up proving to be his casting choice for Iron Man.  You would think that the original inclination would be to go with a movie star of Tom Cruise’s caliber, but instead Favreau sought out Robert Downey Jr. for the role.  It’s true that Downey does bear a natural resemblance to Tony Stark as he’s been envisioned on the the comic page, but at the time, casting him in the role was seen as a huge risk.  After years of struggling through a crippling drug addiction and spending time in prison for multiple violations, Downey’s career as an actor was pretty much dead, so casting him in anything was a huge risk.  But, Marvel saw it Favreau’s way and took the chance, and it proved to be the beast choice they could ever make.  The reason for this is simple; Robert Downey Jr. was the only choice to play Tony Stark, because he is Tony Stark.  Stark himself is a self-destructive, arrogant character who seeks redemption and a chance to better himself, and that turn for the character closely mirrored Downey’s own spiral and climb back out of the abyss.  Both him and Favreau knew that it wasn’t the iron suit that made the hero, it was the person inside, and for the movie to work, you needed to faithfully capture that aspect of the character.  Downey’s contribution became the example that all future casting choices had to follow, and from the Marvel side, their continued success comes from knowing that you cast based on the person and not on how well they’ll look in the costume.

“Born on Krypton and raised on Earth, you had the best of both and were meant to be the bridge between two worlds.”

That has in many ways been where most other cinematic universes have fallen apart.  For DC, they have had a mixed result from their casting choices.  Some have worked out really well, like Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman or Jason Momoa as Aguaman, while others failed miserably, like Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.  But where DC found itself at a disadvantage was not merely in how they cast the character, but in the lack of insight into knowing who these characters really are.  This was apparent in the movie that was meant to launch their own cinematic universe, titled Man of Steel (2013).  Steel was their relaunch of the Superman mythos, using their most iconic hero as a the foundation on which they would build the universe.  But one thing that we’ve come to learn from building a cinematic universe with already established characters is that if you are going to start from scratch, you need to find a way to make the character feel fresh again.  Marvel managed to do that successfully with both the Hulk and Spider-Man, largely by ignoring all past character development and just having the characters already established with their powers.  Man of Steel, however, opted to go right back to the beginning and show us Superman’s origin story again, which only made the movie feel superfluous, because it’s a story-line we already know and are not surprised by.  Not only that, but the movie lacks any real insight into Superman as a character, instead putting every development in his life up as a mark of destiny; that he was always meant to be this hero, and none of it feels earned in the end.  Actor Henry Cavill is fine in the role, and does indeed look the part, but his Superman doesn’t inspire us as well as past Supers like Christopher Reeve.  There never is that moment where he makes the choice to be Superman; to be that crusader for good in the world.  Iron Man devotes half it’s movie to watching Stark build and refine his super suit, showing how he’s devoting himself to becoming an ideal, using his skill set towards a greater purpose.  Man of Steel’s Superman just exists because the universe needs him to.

There truthfully is no comparison between characters, since Tony Stark is a mere mortal man who builds himself into a hero, while the other is a god among men who must learn the best way to use his gifts in life.  One starts as a hero, while the other grows into a hero.  But there is plenty of similarities that both movies share, and it mainly has to do with how they establish themselves as the bedrock of their cinematic universes.  Again, Marvel establishes it’s cinematic universe much better, but one can almost argue that they do it a bit too much in the movie.  For instance, there are Easter eggs thrown about all over the movie, that for some eagle eye viewers hints at movies that would be coming in the future, like seeing Captain America’s shield subtly placed on Tony Stark’s workbench in his underground lab.  The introduction of S.H.I.E.L.D. is also executed well as a part of the movie, with Samuel L. Jackson’s end credits appearance as Nick Fury now becoming the stuff of legend.  But the movie also sets up threads that never followed through in the MCU, like the introduction of the Ten Rings terrorist group, which was meant to allude to Iron Man nemesis The Mandarin, and we all saw how disappointing that thread turned out to be.  Marvel sometimes falls into the trap of planting too many seeds that never fully take root, and that’s apparent in Iron Man, where it seemed they got too carried away sometimes with their fan service.  Man of Steel by comparison plays it a little closer to the chest with their hints at a larger universe.  For the most part it sticks closely with Superman’s story-line, and only throws in the barest sampling of Easter eggs, like a brief glimpse of corporate logos for LexCorp and Wayne Enterprises.  With those, they could easily tease the things that we knew were coming next in the pipeline, namely Lex Luthor and Batman, and not have us distracted with universe wide elements known only to those who had read the comics.  Of course, they would blow it with the Easter Egg heavy Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but at least Man of Steel knew to remain focused solely on Superman for the time being.

“Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe.  You just don’t know it yet.”

The other advantage that Man of Steel carried with it is the fact that Superman has a far more legendary rogues gallery.  Because of this, the stakes feel a little higher in Man of Steel than it does in Iron Man.  For someone as over-powered as Superman to feel vulnerable, you need to have him face a threat on an equal level, and Man of Steel does that with the character of General Zod, played by Michael Shannon.  A surviving Kryptonian like Superman, Zod matches the same power level, but combines this with a merciless, genocidal ambition for conquest.  General Zod seeks to make Earth the new home for his people, and that means wiping out the native human population in the process, which Superman has lived among and been raised by since he was sent there as a child.  For Superman, the fight with Zod is a confirmation of his duty to be Earth’s protector, and the movie does go out of it’s way to show that the confrontation with Zod is going to be the test of his full potential.  Even the much maligned death blow that Superman uses to stop Zod has a purposefulness in the story, because it places doubt in Superman’s mind if he did the right thing or not; which despite being out of character compared with the comics, does show a crucial development in his character that shows that he still is capable of being vulnerable.  Sadly, it didn’t help that director Zack Snyder made the baffling defense of this choice by saying that he believed Superman had to kill in order to learn that killing is wrong (???).  By contrast, Iron Man’s first nemesis is just a rival seeking to outshine his accomplishments out of pure pettiness, personified in the character of Obediah Stein.  Sure, they got an acting legend like Jeff Bridges to play the part, who does have a menacing presence in the film, but Stein’s whole plan is just to build another Iron Man suit, only bigger, becoming the Iron Monger.  Overall, he’s a weak villain that keeps the stakes pretty small in the original Iron Man.  And that has been the case with most of the Iron Man films, where the hero far outshines the villains, despite having excellent actors filling the roles like Mickey Rourke and Ben Kingsley.  In the end, Man of Steel benefited from a stronger villain, who almost made up for the lack of personality found in the hero himself.

For the most part, I did find more to like in the movie Man of Steel than dislike, but at the same time, it’s hard to ignore that it’s many flaws put the DCEU on such a rocky footing to begin with.  A lot of that falls on the clearly miscast choice of director with Zack Snyder.  Snyder was never a good fit with the character of Superman, because his style is so morose and devoid of light.  He makes a fine choice for stylistic and gritty comic adaptations like 300 (2007) and Watchmen (2009), but not for a character as inspirational and good-natured as Superman.  The biggest complaint about Man of Steel usually falls on the film’s muted color palette, which drains the joy out of the movie.  It’s a far cry from the lush, bright colors of Donner’s original, and for comic book fans especially, it probably felt like a betrayal to see the blue and red of Superman’s costume be so de-emphasized.  Man of Steel almost feels like a holdover from another era, where filmmakers almost felt ashamed of presenting a superhero dressed in brightly colored tights and a cape, and instead chose to make the costumes a little more modern and edgy.  Marvel on the other hand, not only has chosen to faithfully translate their comic character’s looks to the big screen, but they seem to celebrate it as well.  In Iron Man, during the process of building his final prototype for his suit, he decides to add a little “hot rod red” to the color scheme, matching the gold and red colors that the character model is famous for in the comics.  This example has follow through with every Marvel character since, with Spider-Man returning back to his tights and Captain America proudly donning the red white and blue across his armor.  More than anything, this brought the super hero genre out of it’s misguided tilt toward gritty make-overs and instead showed that it indeed was worthwhile to embrace everything fun about the characters, even their campy looks.  Only now are we seeing DC finally adopt that ideal as well, with the light-hearted Shazam being the most recent example.  Unfortunately, the Snyder style stuck to DC for far too long and hampered any chance of it striking the same chord with an audience that Marvel managed to achieve.

“I was bred to be a warrior, Kal.  Trained my entire life to master my senses.  Where did you train? ON A FARM?”

It’s hard to think what Marvel’s Cinematic Universe might have been like had Iron Man had not been it’s starting off point.  Jon Favreau’s deft and well-intentioned approach is what Marvel needed for the launch of their ambitious plans, and it is remarkable that it was all built around an actor who once was considered to be un-hirable in Hollywood.  The tables have certainly turned, and not only is Iron Man now an A-List super hero in the same league as Superman and Batman, but he’s even carried Spider-Man under his wing.  Robert Downey Jr.’s on-screen charisma no doubt endeared the character to fans around the world, and it’s clear why he gave it his all over so many years.  You could say that the life that Iron Man saved above all was that of the actor playing him.  The movie saved his reputation, has kept him clean and sober for over a decade now, and has made him fans all over the world, something he certainly indulges as he promotes the movies worldwide in a fashion not all that dissimilar from the persona of Tony Stark.  Hollywood loves a redemption story, and the real life one involving Robert Downey Jr. has been just that.  Sadly, Superman’s most recent big screen outing hasn’t carried that inspiring story along with it.  Henry Cavill, a talented actor in his own right, felt burdened by the lack of direction with his character and after a while, he felt that it just wasn’t worth continuing, so as of right now, Superman’s future on the big screen is once again in limbo.  If DC had put more effort into the character, and given him a story arc as inspiring as that of Iron Man, they may have been able to hold onto their actors as long as Marvel has managed to hold onto theirs.  The saddest part is that Cavill’s Superman doesn’t get the closure that he deserves, which is especially unfortunate considering how satisfying the departures in Avengers: Endgame turned out.  It all shows that when you plan to build a major cinematic universe, it helps to make sure that you are getting it right the first time, and that involves a little bit of risk, a whole lot of luck, as well as embracing what made these characters beloved in the first place.  That’s why Marvel are the kings of Hollywood right now, because they gambled and won, whereas DC tried to put their best horse forward and had him stumble out of the gate in a race he shouldn’t have started in the first place.  All the more remarkable is that all of this, the MCU and this era of cinematic universes, was all started by a once disgraced actor playing man who built a suit of iron in a cave with a box of scraps.

“I…AM…IRON MAN.”

Enjoy the Show – The Audience Experience and the Impact of Appointment Viewing

It’s difficult to quantify just how enormous last weekend was in pop culture.  Within the span of just a couple days, we saw two of the most highly anticipated culminations in two of the most popular franchises in media finally premiere; one on the movie screen and the other on television.  For the big screen, we saw Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame not only break box office records, but crush them, grossing $357 million domestic in three days, as well as an astounding $1.2 billion worldwide.  And then, a short two days later, the popular series Game of Thrones premiered it’s much anticipated climatic episode titled “The Long Night,” which presented a much hyped showdown that has been teased ever since the very first episode back in 2011.  Though one was wrapping up it’s story-line while the other was hitting it’s apex, the thing that they had in common was that these were moments that had been building up among their fan bases for nearly a decade, and it’s just by coincidence that they coincided on the same, late April weekend.  And the reactions to both were intense, becoming the most talked about points of discussion for the entire week that followed, and will most likely continue for months after.  But the other thing they have in common is that they show the power of communal viewership in helping to drive up the success of each film or show.  People came to the movie theater and tuned in to HBO because they wanted to be there right at the beginning to experience this moment in time with others who share their fandom.  Most likely, the biggest driving force is that people watched so that they wouldn’t be exposed to spoilers, but there’s also the fact that watching something together as part of a crowd experience has it’s own kind of appeal.  And that fan experience is something that Hollywood has tried hard to manage as the habits of movie goers and the demand for content has changed dramatically over the years.

The industry has given a term to the kinds of movies and shows that generate the kind of fan anticipation that we saw from this last weekend; that term being the “water cooler shows”.   This refers to the expected interactions that people have at their workplaces talking to their friends or colleagues about what they watched the night before on television or at the movies, usually taking place around the office water coolers.  They are just casual discussions between everyday people, but those water cooler talks do impact the hype built around event movies and TV episodes, with “word of mouth” becoming it’s own valuable tool.  The industry surprising relies heavily on these kinds of interactions to help get their products the right amount of exposure, but because they can’t influence every single viewer out there to say the right thing, it’s also can be an unreliable resource for building hype as well.  Social Media has helped give studios a better inlet into helping guide the fan to fan interactions; as evidenced by Marvel’s “Don’t Spoil the Endgame” hashtag that went around the internet prior to the film’s release.  And remarkably, fans responded in unison to the demands from the filmmakers to not spoil the details of the movie; even to the extreme extent like what happened to a poor fan in Hong Kong.  But, even with the tools that better allows for coordination within fan communities, Hollywood is still finding itself having to work at a disadvantage when it comes to bringing new eyes to their products.  Audience viewing habits, as they have always done, have changed from generation to generation, and right now we are witnessing yet another shift in that flow, and it’s one that is starting to entirely change the way we watch media in general.  This is the beginning of the streaming era in entertainment, and on demand entertainment is starting to bring an end to things like appointment viewing, which has been a staple of the industry for most of it’s history.  And now, the movie industry is beginning to wonder if it’s even worth putting so much money behind these kind of big events anymore.  The sad truth is that in order to make these colossal fan experiences happen, whatever production company behind it has to pour in a lot of money, and fewer of them are able to take that risk anymore.  But, by understating the appeal of sharing a moment of fandom with other people and stating that this kind of appointment viewing is the only way to experience it, it may be the only way to save the traditional movie-going and television viewing experience from going away in a world dominated by streaming content.

It helps to look back and see how Hollywood has developed it’s interaction with audiences over the years.  In the early years of the industry, studios not only produced the means of creating movies, but also the means of presenting them to the public.  Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, RKO, and other major studios all owned movie theaters across the country, and through this they were able to manage exactly what was going to be available to see in every market across the country.  It didn’t matter what was being shown, just as long as people were buying a ticket every day at one of their theaters.  Because of this, audiences would never stay and watch an entire program at the theater.  It was a more casual come and go as you please place to escape for people, and audiences were there more to see the movie stars and less for the stories, though this era did produce it’s fair share of great movies.  The advent of television and the breaking up of the studio system ended the monopoly of studio owned theaters caused the studios to rethink their strategies dramatically for the first time, and that led to the addition of gimmicks to bring audiences out of their homes for something that could only be experienced on the big screen.  Some of those gimmicks took hold, like widescreen, while others didn’t, like 3D and Smell-o-vision.  But, even though they helped bring viewers back into the theaters, audiences still behaved the same way as they did before, coming and going as they pleased.  It wasn’t until Alfred Hitchcock made his ground-breaking thriller Psycho (1960) that this audience behavior began to change.  Hitchcock demanded that every theater showing Psycho had to put up a warning for audiences stating that if they didn’t watch the movie from beginning to end, then they wouldn’t have gotten the authentic experience; referring of course to the movie’s famous mid-film  twist where the main character played by Janet Leigh is killed in the shower.  Word got around and audiences took Hitchcock at his word, and it turned Psycho not just into a box office hit, but a culturally significant moment.  And, because of it’s example, audiences began to change their viewing habits at the movie theater, making sure to arrive before a movie begins in order to experience the whole thing in one sitting, just in case it had a mid-film twist like Psycho.  Over time, this became the norm, and audiences have never returned to that original casual viewing in theaters ever again.

Though Psycho changed the way we watch the movies in the theater, it was really the era of the blockbuster that cemented the theater going experience as something paramount to the fan experience.  There were movies released over the next couple decades that demanded to be seen in the theaters, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) for it’s visuals and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) for it’s ability to scare audiences to death.  But it would be George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) that would change the movie going experience completely that still has it’s ripples felt throughout the industry today.  Borrowing inspiration strangely enough from the serials of Hollywood’s early years (you know, those years when audiences came and went as they pleased) Star Wars built it’s narrative over multiple films, leading to the formation of a fanbase that not only kept returning to the theaters to watch movies over and over again, but also could be relied upon to return whenever they had something new.  Star Wars became the template for all future franchise building in the decades that followed, and you can see it’s influence in everything from The Lord of the Rings, to Harry Potter, to even the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones.  All these monster franchises succeed on their own merits, but the one thing that they all took from Star Wars is the notion of treating the audience as an integral part of it’s existence.  These franchises don’t just create movies or shows, they create communities, allowing fans to discover one another and bring them together.  And most importantly, they know how to satisfy and prepare it’s fan base for what’s coming next.  Star Wars in particular has accomplished this to remarkable effect, as evidenced back in 1998, when people bought tickets to a movie just so they could view a teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999).  Couple this the fact that people would camp over several nights outside a movie theater just to get the best possible seats just shows how pivotal fan bases have become to building a franchise’s power within the industry.

But, there is something in the industry that has changed the way we watch movies and television, and part of this has stemmed from the many drawbacks that going to a movie theater has.  When we go to the movies, we have to accept the fact that we are going to be in a dark windowless room with a bunch of strangers, and not all of them are going to have the same kind of movie theater etiquette that you do.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my viewing experience spoiled because the people behind me decided it was appropriate to carry on a conversation while the movie is playing.  Not only that, but there are all the other pet peeves like noisy kids, people kicking the back of your chair, a cell phone ringing during a quiet scene in a movie or worse somebody turning their phone on and the bright glare flashing right back in your eyes.  Also, not every theater has the best level of upkeep, and you often might find yourself walking through aisles with sticky floors and stray pieces of trash all around.  I myself had to work as an usher in a movie theater, and though I tried my best to be thorough, there’s only a short window of time to get the job done between showings, so some things would often fall through the cracks during clean-up.  Over time, the movie going experience has more or less become commonplace in our culture, and it no longer has the allure of being something special in our lives, especially in an era when multiplexes have put the old ornate movie houses out of business.  Because of this, more people are just content to stay at home and watch a movie from the comforts of their living room, with theaters reserved only for special occasions.  For a time, Hollywood could manage with this decline in audience satisfaction, because the movie theaters were still the only place that first run movies could be seen.  But with the recent increase in original content coming from the likes of Netflix and Hulu, with Disney and Apple about to take the plunge as well later this year, multiplexes are finally being confronted with the possibility that they may lose their audiences for good.

Here’s the conundrum for audiences going into this new era of film-making.  Streaming content has opened up a wealth of new things to be excited about, as platforms like Netflix are putting their money behind bolder and more risk-taking projects, the kind that movie theaters tend to shy away from because it brings uncertainty of box office returns.  At the same time, there is something that gets lost when people have all their content available whenever they want.  Appointment viewing is something we’ve taken for granted over the years, not really realizing just how instrumental a part it played in making someone a fan.  The water cooler talks that we would have at work, school, or wherever were all about sharing experiences and shaping a bond with others through a shared fandom.  But, that fandom usually built over time through anticipation for what was going to come next.  In the case of TV shows, you could have a week’s worth of hyping yourself and others up for what was going to come next, all of which was creating the result that more and more people had to watch the next episode all at the same time, or they would be missing out.  That’s why so many of these fan bases are so devoted, because for many of them, this has been a shared experience that becomes so much of their life.  But that’s starting to change now that we’ve moved from an appointment viewing culture to a binge watching culture.  Now people are watching all their shows and movies in big chunks, which while it still allows the person to appreciate the quality of the film or show, it takes away the feeling of anticipation that would usually come between episodes, when audiences were left to wonder over several days about what’s going to happen next.  It’s that down time to process the story that helps to give an extra amount of appreciation that we’ve seemed to take for granted.  Sure, Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things have their fan bases to be sure, but you wonder if Netflix had mandated a longer roll-out of their programming like you see on traditional TV for their shows that they may have grown even more audiences over time.  The Netflix model has also taken away some of the shared audience experience as well, as binge watching has become a far more solitary experience for people since they are doing it all on their own time, and not when the platform says they should see it.

For some, this is an acceptable change, because they were never happy to watch a movie in a theater nor a show at a time that was inconvenient to them.  And those audiences have finally found their ideal form of content consumption with streaming entertainment.  But, there are many fans who prefer the in theater experience more than anything else, and that has many people concerned that streaming platforms are causing the industry to abandon the traditional forms of presentation that have been so crucial in bringing fan communities together.  This is more so a problem with television than with movies, because TV shows are definitely skewing more in the direction towards satisfying binge watchers rather than appointment watchers.  It almost makes Game of Thrones feel like the last big hurrah for appointment viewership, because there really isn’t another TV series on any network or cable channel that has continually grown it audience to this kind of level.  In time, we may see an end to the idea of the water cooler show, as more and more people watch their television at different speeds, either all at once or over the course of a long period.  And that could result in no show ever reaching that same Game of Thrones level ever again, which could change the fan making communities that Hollywood relies on into something very different.  In order for the industry to retain a little bit of that traditional sense of fan appreciation, they should look at the things that Game of Thrones did right for so many years, which is build an anticipation of unpredictability over time.  When the infamous “Red Wedding” episode premiered, it shook the industry like never before, but what really worked in the show’s favor was that it let the moment simmer over a week before the next episode, allowing audiences to absorb the shock.  Now, Thrones fans know to not take anything for granted and to watch every episode from here out just in case something even more shocking happens.  That’s what each show should really understand, that every episode matters, and each one should have just enough time down time in between to let the story sink in.  With binge watching, you really appreciate the narrative, but with appointment viewing , you appreciate the moments in between even more.

The last thing I think that the industry should consider when reaching it’s audience is to make them excited that they are all discovering a thing together.  What really stuck out to me when watching Avengers: Endgame at the movie theater last week was just how intense the audiences reactions were.  It becomes even more than just about getting ahead of spoilers; it’s about feeling the excitement in the room with your fellow fans.  I know that there are some out there that hate it when people cheer in a movie theater, but when the film earns it and is specially formatted to allow for cheering audiences like Avengers is, then it works to enhance the experience overall.  There’s one part in Endgame that I won’t spoil, but it led to an almost continuous two and a half minutes of cheering from an enthusiastic audience, and it felt good to join in with them.  That’s something that I wish was spotlighted more when it comes to promoting these kinds of movies, because the level energy from an audience creates it’s own kind of entertainment.  Game of Thrones likewise is able to do that.  If you watch reaction videos on YouTube, you can see a wide variety of live responses to what happened in each episode.  Last week’s episode in particular, “The Long Night” has a moment at it’s conclusion where a character makes their big move, and some of the reactions online to this moment are just as dramatic.  There were some videos taken from bars and even theaters reacting to this episode, and people reacted to this character moment like the person had just scored the winning goal in the World Cup.  If HBO, or any producer for that manner, wants to find a way to create another show or movie that has the same impact, just look at what these large gatherings of people respond to.  Fan communities are a powerful force in generating the direction of entertainment, and finding exactly what makes them all stand up and cheer at once is the key to finding your biggest successes.  The past weekend showed us why it’s important to understand the role an audience plays and that appointment viewing is a necessary part in letting appreciation for an art-form grow over time.  Movies and shows are there to make us laugh, cry and cheer and it’s better to do it together than by ourselves.  Sometimes an audience just needs to let go and  trust that the wait will be worth it in the end.

Avengers: Endgame – Review

If there is ever going to be something that the 2010’s will be known for, it’ll be the years that the Avengers ruled Hollywood.  The super hero team from Marvel Comics took the industry by storm over the last decade, breaking everything from box office records to previous held conventions and boundaries.  Marvel showed us, among other things, that Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America were indeed bankable characters; that a comic book movie could touch upon sensitive cultural issues like racism, gender equality, and corruption in government, and still be fun along the way; that a movie with a strong and proud black identity could break box office records; and it also showed that a movie of this genre could be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.  But, the even more impressive feat that Marvel has pulled through it all is that they’ve connected all of it together into one single narrative.  The cornerstones of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Avengers series, has been where all the hard work in building worlds and characters culminates together and gives us, without question, the most ambitious movies ever put together for the cinema.  Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige has stated that while every movie is given it’s due attention, there has always been this ultimate goal in mind to get to; an end game if you will.  Every film adds a piece of the puzzle to a narrative that runs through nearly every one, even though each one stands on it’s own separated from the rest.  Essentially, whether we’ve been aware of it or not, we’ve been following along with the greatest serial drama that has ever been created; bigger than any Star Trek, or Sopranos, or Game of Thrones.  But, just like any of those TV series, all narrative threads have to be resolved eventually, either by the end of the season or or the end of a series.  And Marvel is now in the position of delivering a finale of some kind for it’s audience, and for some it will be only the closing of a chapter while for others it will be the end of the book for good.

A lot of things had to go right for Marvel to be in this position.  First off, they had to enact their ambitious plan in a time when audiences were ready to take the journey along with these characters.  Thankfully, the MCU was launched during a Renaissance period for comic book movies and serialized story telling in general.  Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) brought respectability back to the genre after it’s near death in the late 90’s following Batman and Robin (1997).  Likewise, serial narratives on television saw a comeback in the mid 2000’s, with shows like Lost gaining devoted cult followings, with fans eager to see complex stories unfold over entire seasons.  In that same, Marvel Studios formed and plans were put into motion to create a similar serialized narrative for their own cinematic universe.  The only thing is that though crossovers and linked narratives were commonplace before on the comic book page and on television, it had never been achieved before on film; at least not to this kind of level.  For this to work, there needed to be cooperation across all production levels the likes of which have never been seen before.  This meant, they needed to find actors willing to appear across multiple films, even if it meant a reduced salary; they needed filmmakers who were willing to compromise their instincts in order to follow the playbook; and they needed to put the trust in the audience to keep up with all the various plot threads across all the movies.  And then there was the crucial aspect of getting it started on the right footing.  This fell upon director Jon Favreau, who was given the reigns of Iron Man (2008), and he took the risky (but in the end brilliant) move of casting long disgraced actor Robert Downey Jr. in the role, more than anything because he was the perfect man for the job.  Iron Man of course was a hit and the rest we say is history.  And given the incredible track record that we’ve seen in the 21 films since Iron Man, the closing of this third phase of the MCU takes on a whole new significance.  At this point we are now reaching the goal that Kevin Feige and his team had hoped to reach when they launched this universe.  The only question now is, with 22 movies under their belt, an unimaginably complex narrative having been built up, and fan anticipation at an all time high, can Marvel stick the landing with Avengers: Endgame.

This is usually the point in the review that I provide a condensed plot summary for you.  However, given the enormous cliffhanger that the previous movie, Avengers: Infinity War, left us on, even providing the smallest plot detail would spoil something major; and I’m going to try my hardest not to make this a spoiler heavy review.  So, instead, I’m going to sum up where each character arc was left off with the ending of Infinity War.  The mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeded in collecting the Infinity Stones, the single most powerful artifacts in the universe.  In the final stages of his plan, he had already secured the purple Power Stone, the blue Space Stone, the red Reality Stone, and the orange Soul Stone, which he had to sacrifice the life of his daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) for.  Lured to his home planet by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the guardian of the green Time Stone,  Thanos is ambushed by an alliance of Strange, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and half of the Guardians of the Galaxy.  They nearly subdue the powerful foe, but Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) loses his cool when he learns that Thanos has already killed Gamora, whom he was in love with, and his careless rage cause Thanos to be free.  After another skirmish, Thanos nearly slays Iron Man, which causes Dr. Strange to relent and hand over the stone.  With one left to go, Thanos heads to Earth to claim the last stone, the yellow Mind Stone, which is housed in the forehead of fellow Avenger Vision (Paul Bettany).  The Avengers make one last stand in Wakanda, kingdom of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), but are unsuccessful.  Thanos slays Vision, claims the Mind stone, and adds it to his Infinity Gauntlet.  Though Thor (Chris Hemsworth) make one last attempt to stop Thanos, he misses the kill shot and Thanos snaps his fingers, using the combined power of the stones to wipe out half of all life in the universe.  The Avengers watch in horror as friends and loved ones suddenly fade away, and the only survivors left standing are Iron Man, Thor, Captain America (Chris Evans), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Wakanda general Okoje (Danai Guira), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).  Despite being wounded by the immense power he unleashed, Thanos retreats to a secluded farm where he sits relieved that his plan was fulfilled.  But two other survivors remain who could change all that; the immensely powerful Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) who’s been trapped in the microscopic Quantum Realm.

There’s no doubt that Infinity War set the table for Endgame with one of the most shocking cliffhangers in movie history.  It’s a testament to how well Marvel pulled off their ambitious plan to build a cinematic universe that the finale of Infinity War hit so many fans hard.  Especially considering how many of the victims of “The Snap” included beloved favorites like Black Panther and Spider-Man, the reaction to the event almost felt like a loss in the family.  When I saw the movie in the theater last year, there were people openly weeping around me.  Now, I knew that this kind of thing wasn’t going to stay finite for long, because one, characters always come back in the comics, and two, sequels for some of the lost characters had already been put into development; so I knew that they would all be coming back.  The only question is how, and could Marvel pull it off without it feeling like a cheat.  Well, ten years and 22 movies of planning clearly got Marvel to the narrative conclusion that they needed because I’m happy to say that Avengers: Endgame sticks the landing and delivers a beautiful conclusion to this epic story.  Without going into plot details, I can safely say that the movie doesn’t spoil the emotional impact of it’s predecessor and in fact compliments the story very well, helping to resolve the story in a way that is ultimately satisfying.  It’s clear that Kevin Feige and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely spent years working this story out before they got it right, and thank god they did.  I don’t know if in any other circumstances this movie would have come together as well as it did, but Endgame benefited from the all the dominoes falling exactly as they should.  What’s especially impressive about Endgame is that it both succeeds as the conclusion of this two film story arc with Infinity War, as well as a culmination of all the Marvel movies up to now.  It took a decade to get to this point, but it was all worth it by the end, even if it’s not the end completely.

To separate the film from it’s place in the MCU for a moment, how does it function as a film on it’s own.  For the most part, it stands very well by itself, with minor nitpicks here or there.  Is it the best movie in the MCU; I’ll have to contemplate that for a while.  If the movie has a flaw it’s that the narrative flow is a bit shakier than some of the best Marvel movies; even compared to Infinity WarInfinity War had the benefit of the race against the clock battle against Thanos, with much of the tension being built around whether he was going to get all the stones or not, with all threads leading to the terrifying conclusion.  That tension is replaced with something else in Endgame, that while still engaging, doesn’t quite have the narrative focus of it’s predecessor.  Endgame is also far more dependent on previously built narrative elements than past Marvel movies.  To be as vague and spoiler free as I possibly can, I’ll just say that if you haven’t seen most of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies beforehand, you might be a little lost.  This is a very lore dependent movie, and it does become distracting at times when it calls on the audience to remember things in order for the plot to make sense.  Even still, there are some beautifully constructed payoffs that do make it worth it, but it also makes Endgame also feel a tad less structurally sound as a result.  Also, the movie does have a couple tonal issues that undermine a moment here and there, especially when humor is injected.  Now, there are a lot of hilarious moments strung throughout, but I found that some gags perhaps didn’t land as well as in previous Marvel films.  Even still, despite these nitpicks, it’s without a doubt one of the most satisfying movies ever to come from Marvel Studios, with a finale that is likely going to stand as one of the talked about in movie history.

I for one need to single out the incredible job accomplished by the Russo Brothers; Joe and Anthony.  This duo of filmmakers refined their craft for years working on television shows like Arrested Development and Community before they landed over at Marvel.  Since their debut with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), they proved very quickly that they were indeed the ones who would carry the MCU to to the “promised land.”  With Captain America: Civil War, they showed that they could balance a movie with multiple characters and their continuing story-lines with great care, and with Avengers: Infinity War, they proved that they could accomplish the epic sweep that the story required.  Endgame had to wrap everything that the MCU had built up to in a satisfying package that could please everybody, and they were the only ones capable of doing that.  The witty banter of Joss Whedon wouldn’t have fit here, nor the goofiness of Taika Watiti or the pop culture savvy of James Gunn.  It had to be the Russo Brothers with their unassuming, laser focus on set up and pay off in storytelling that came from their years in television that made them the best possible choice to see this film to completion.  And that’s where Endgame excels so well, in paying off all those narrative threads that have been building for years.  With Kevin Feige keeping the gears churning and Markus and McFeely giving a spirited voice to the script, the Russos applied their vast in scope but never distracting vision to this story and made all the pieces fall into place in the best possible way.  Their command over fan service moments is especially impressive, because never once do they feel forced on the audience.  Every moment of fan service is woven into the narrative perfectly and never feels out of place.  A lesser approach, like some we’ve seen from other non-MCU super hero movies, merely shoe-horns these moments in without the proper build up, making the result feel cheap.  Endgame, like the best super hero films, makes those moments feel earned, and with the workman like approach of the Russos, fans are given treats that never feel like they don’t belong in the movie.

It’s also incredible just how well Marvel has put together their cast for this movie.  This is, without a doubt, the most incredible ensemble ever assembled for a single film.  The main cast of course are uniformly excellent, showing just how perfect each of their castings have been over the years.  Some actors were discovered through their participation in the MCU, while others got the career boost that they desperately needed, and others saw their careers transform into something else than what it had been before.  And in the case of Robert Downey Jr., he experienced a complete career resurrection.  This movie is especially a celebration of the original team of Avengers, some of whom have already made it clear that they are retiring from the MCU following this movie.  Without revealing individual fates, Endgame is both a transition for many of these characters, but also the final swan song for some.  Some story lines come to an end in Endgame, and one of the movie’s greatest triumphs is in how well it brings closure to some of these characters.  One moment in particular is going to go down as one of the most triumphant singular acts of heroism that we’ll every see in a movie, and I am so happy to see a film like this nail that moment perfectly.  There are plenty of excellent stand out performances in this movie, some of which probably stand among the best we’ve seen so far from any Marvel movie.  Jeremy Renner, in particular, deserves special mention for his performance as a deeply damaged Hawkeye, bringing more depth to this often unfairly maligned character.  Chris Hemsworth also brings a new layer to Thor that you would’ve never expected and it provides the movie with some of it’s most hilarious moments.  And then there are surprise appearances that will be especially rewarding for long time fans, and seeing these faces made the movie even more special.  Also, the movie marks the final cameo from the late Stan Lee, which is fitting given that this is a movie marking the end of an era. Over 11 years and 22 movies, it’s been the remarkable cast bringing these characters to life that has been the key to Marvel’s success, and in Endgame, their effect is taken to even bigger heights.

There is no doubt that Avengers: Endgame is going to be a monumental moment in movie history.  In addition to breaking every possible box office record, the film also provides a prime example of a studio building something through complete and mind-boggling complex cooperation and having it all build to a satisfying end.  A movie like this shouldn’t work; an all-star cast having to share equal screen-time, a complex narrative juggling plot threads from multiple stand alone franchises, and putting so much faith in the audience to have the head space to follow it all.  Oh, and did I mention that the movie clocks in at a record shattering 3 hour and 2 minute run time.  Marvel has defied everything we used to know about comic book movies in the past, and they’ve reaped all the rewards because of it.  Endgame is a triumph not because it managed to pull all this together, but because it does so with heart and respect for it’s subject.  These have been movies made by fans, and that love of comic book heroes and their stories permeates every moment of the movie.  You do not feel those 3 hours at all, because there is so much going on and enough great payoff that those minutes just breeze right by.  Sure, Endgame has some minor flaws, and some plot holes might be picked apart in the future, but when the end result is this satisfying, those issues feel so insignificant.  I especially loved the way it resolves the things that needed to be resolved and some of the characters that see their stories come to a close are given the most beautiful of departures.  In the end, Marvel did what they set out to do, and everything hereafter is just the icing on the cake.  There will be more Marvel films to be sure, and Endgame even gives us some tantalizing hints about what’s to come.  But even if this was the end of the road for Marvel in general, and there was nothing left on the horizon, this would have been a satisfactory finish.  Avengers: Endgame delivers exactly what we wanted from MCU, and in turn it will set a new high bar for super hero movies for years to come.  Given that Marvel now has all their toys back to play with, the future still holds a lot of promise for the genre, but Endgame has earned it’s place as a very crucial corner stone.  AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!!!

Rating: 9/10

The Movies of Summer 2019

The summer is once again just around the corner and once again it begins a little early this year.  Marvel, no doubt not wanting any spoilers to spill out onto social media ahead of time, have pushed ahead their release of Avengers: Endgame, just like Infinity War did last year with it’s worldwide release.  This has risen a debate as to whether it constitutes being called a summer blockbuster or not.  I put it on my Early 2019 preview because it does technically fall in the spring, but at the same time, it no doubt is going to be the movie that sets the bar high for the summer season ahead, just like it predecessor had last year.  The rest of the summer season looks to be the same general mix of hotly anticipated tent-poles that we’ve come to expect, both in a good and bad way.  Sure, some of our franchises are going strong, but at the same time, there is little variety left in the Summer season.  It’s pretty much just dominated by action movies and animated films, and that’s it.  The comedy genre has strangely disappeared from the box office over the last decade, with once big names like Judd Apatow, Will Farrell, and Adam Sandler no longer producing movies meant to become big box office hits.  This may be an indication of the waning draw of movie theaters in general, and that is slightly backed up by the fact that more medium sized movies, such as comedies, are moving into streaming instead.  That leaves just the tent-poles and the independents to make up the platter of choices at the summer box office.  So, for the most part, this is a summer season of mostly sequels, apart from one notable entry that I’ll get to.  Most of this summer’s box office winners are pretty easy to pick out, but there could still be a fair share of surprises in the months ahead.

Like year’s past, I will be spotlighting several films from the months of May, June, July, and August that I believe will be stand outs for the season, and tell you which ones are the must sees, the ones that have me worried, and the ones that should be skipped.  I judge my picks based on my feeling of the effectiveness of it’s marketing, the potential it has based on it’s elements, and also just through my own personal enthusiasm (or lack thereof) for the film.  I am not always 100% accurate in choosing these things, but I try the best I can to make an educated guess as to how well these movies will perform.  So with that all said, let’s take a look at the movies of Summer 2019.

MUST SEES:

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (JULY 26)

Now if there was ever a movie to stand out from the crowd this summer, it would be this movie.  Quentin Tarantino has a knack for making movies that exist entirely within their own category, essentially just being classified as a Tarantino flick in the end.  In the past decade, Quentin has moved out of his comfort zone of slick, urban crime stories, and dabbled in a bit of historical fiction, starting with his first stab at a war film with Inglorious Basterds (2009) and then he followed it up with a couple of westerns (Django Unchanged and The Hateful Eight).  With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino returns a little closer to the present, but still presents a pastiche of a time gone by.  In this case, it is Hollywood circa late 60’s, with the Manson Family Murders as a backdrop.  It’s unclear whether or not the murders themselves are going to be a focal point of the plot, though Sharon Tate and Charlie Manson are characters in this particular story.  Then again, Tarantino has been know to play loose with real history for the sake of entertainment, so there’s no way of knowing what he’s up to here.  And that is kind of what makes this movie so fascinating.  Tarantino has a wild imagination, and I’m very excited to see how it will be used in this time period.  We do know for sure that it centers around the two character played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt (as a jaded actor and his body double), and that they run into a variety of characters who populated Hollywood during this period of time.  Given how well Tarantino used these two leading men in films past, it’ll be really interesting how well they work together this time around.  Also, Taratino took the impressive step of actually recreating the look of 1960’s Hollywood Boulevard on the actual street itself, going so far as to change entire storefronts.  I even saw one of these live myself, when they were shooting a scene in front of the Cinerama Dome on Sunset.  Given my own appreciation for classic cinema and Hollywood history, this is a movie I am very eager to see.

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (JULY 3)

It’s a very good time to be Spider-Man right now.  Coming off of his critically acclaimed reboot with Spider-Man: Homecoming, he contributed a key ingredient to the success of Avenger: Infinity War, including giving the movie it’s most heart-breaking moment.  After that, two spin-off ventures enjoyed their own level of success.  Venom managed to surprise many critics by surviving lukewarm reviews to become a box office hit, and the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse wound up winning an Academy Award.  So, it’s safe to say that there is excitement for this main franchise film.  Tom Holland, who has won universal acclaim for his take on the webslinger, returns, along with much of the supporting players, and the movie takes the interesting angle of having leave the comforts of his New York home for what he believes will be a relaxing vacation, until things naturally go awry.  The plot itself is pretty straightforwardly laid out in the trailer, but there’s one that it conveniently leaves out.  This movie has the prime position of being the first Marvel Universe film after Endgame, but as most people know by now, Infinity War left Spider-Man’s ultimate fate in question.  We know that he lives again in Far From Home, but exactly how remains to be seen, as goes for Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury who’s also in the movie.  And how does Jake Gyllenhall’s Mysterio fit into all of this?  No doubt Endgame will clear up a lot of questions, but It’s a good thing that the marketing for this movie has been very careful to not spoil anything major.  Everyone’s ready for another Spider-Man, and no doubt after Avengers, the excitement will be even more dramatic.

TOY STORY 4 (JUNE 21)

Pixar may have the most enviable library of films imaginable in the history of animation, but their crown jewels have always been the franchise that put them on the map first.  Toy Story is one of the most important movies ever in the history of animation, sparking a revolution of computer animation into the medium.  And since then, it has followed up that success with two equally beloved sequels.  Now, nearly 25 years after the original’s premiere (with gaps in between movies equaling near a decade in length) a fourth entry into the Toy Story franchise is arriving this summer.  At first, I was hesitant to see any more of this series, especially after the near perfect note that Toy Story 3 (2010) left on, but the more I’ve seen of this movie in the subsequent trailers these past months, I feel a little more encouraged by what Pixar has in store for us.  For one thing, I am happy to see the return Bo Peep to the cast, complete with her original voice actress (Annie Potts) returning as well.  Also, having Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and all the other regulars returning is a good sign (including what is likely Don Rickles last performance).  Another pleasing sign is the animators taking full advantage of the advances they’ve made with animation since the original films.  For the first time, Toy Story is widescreen, and the scope feels much bigger as a result.  I can already tell this is going to be a very visually pleasing movie to look at.  The only question remaining is if Toy Story 4 can still reach the lofty emotional heights of it’s predecessors.  The nostalgia heavy feel of the trailer suggests that Pixar is attempting to reach that, so it will remain to be seen if that actually holds true in the final movie.  Given Pixar’s track record, it seems reliable to think so.

JOHN WICK CHAPTER 3: PARABELLUM (MAY 17)

Keanu Reeves career is something of a miracle when you think about it.  Every time you think that you’ve think he’s about finished, most likely after a string of embarrassing failures, he somehow manages to find that project that immediately revitalizes him.  And he keeps doing it over and over again.  No one has shifted gears in Hollywood better than him in the last 30 or so years.  And though Speed and The Matrix are iconic films in of themselves, I feel that the movies that have best displayed Mr. Reeves talent has been the John Wick movies.  Perhaps it’s how his deadpan delivery mixes so perfectly with the almost cartoonishly over the top violence in these movies that just makes these movies so fun to watch.  The first two John Wick’s are some of the most cleverly constructed and well choreographed action films in recent memory.  There’s just something about how well they mix the graphic with the absurd that just hits the right spot.  Now, the franchise has a chance to do something that no other Keanu Reeves film has; make a complete and satisfying trilogy.  Parabellum picks up right where the others left off, and it shows from the trailer that there’s no need to stray too far from a working formula.  My hope is that the movie continues to stay well paced as the other two films, and that it keeps coming up with fresh spins on the various action set pieces.  It could run the risk of becoming repetitive, but that was the same worry that followed Chapter 2, and that movie ended up defying expectations.  It is interesting to see Halle Berry joining in this time, and the movie could certainly earn her some helpful cred in the action film arena, much in the same way it did for Keanu.  It’s hard to tell if this marks the end of the road for John Wick as a character (probably not), but if it is, let’s hope he goes out with a bang louder than any of the million gunshots he fires in all these movies.

THE LION KING (JULY 19)

Disney is not one to shy away from a trend in the market, and this time, the trend is one of their own making.  The studio has seen unprecedented success with the live action adaptations of their animated classics.  But, though the movies are financial success, critically they have received a lukewarm response, especially when compared to those of their predecessors.  The biggest complaint usually levied at these films is that they add nothing of value and usually replace what worked in the original with something dramatically inferior.  But, since they still make a lot of money, Disney is in no position to slow down assembly line.  This year alone has three such remakes; one, the already disappointing Dumbo from Tim Burton, and the other the worrisome Aladdin coming in May (more on that later).  However, the one that does have the most potential is also the one that just so happens to be based on Disney’s biggest animated hit ever.  And a big reason to be hopeful is because this one is in the hands of Jon Favreau, who already brought The Jungle Book successfully to the big screen.  Though I had a mellow opinion to the adaptation of Jungle Book, I felt it was a shortcoming more attributed to the story and not the visuals, which were stunning.  Now, Favreau is taking the groundbreaking digital technology used on that film and is applying it to The Lion King.  I hesitate to say that it’s a live action remake, because everything in this film, from characters to setting is rendered in a computer, but it’s as close to life like as the medium will get.  Also, the cast for this movie is insanely impressive, and I’m especially happy to see the return of Jame Earl Jones to the role of Mufasa.  My hope is that they’ve fleshed out the story in the best way and made it deserving of the legacy of the animate classic.  With all the ingredients we’ve seen so far, it seems very likely that this lion will roar.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (MAY 31)

A couple years back, one of the most exciting new movies that was coming to theaters was the brand new re-imaginging of Godzilla in 2014.  After the train-wreck that was the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla, here we had a remake that took it’s cue from the original Japanese monster movies, and had a sense of it’s importance to cinema history.  Unfortunately, the Gareth Edwards film was a little on the boring side, focusing too much on it’s bland human characters and not enough on Godzilla himself.  Even still, the updated Godzilla was well-received and was begging for a better film to take full advantage of him.  The shared universe film Kong: Skull Island (2017) did a much better job of balancing character and monster fights, which gave more hope for what we’d see next for the King of Monsters himself.  The first glimpses we’ve seen so far from this follow-up seem intriguing; the heavier focus on the monsters is a good sign.  The only nagging question is, are there too many monsters in this movie.    Godzilla: King of the Monsters has an all-star cast of all cinema’s most famous kaiju, including the big lizard himself as well as Rohdan, King Ghidorah, and even Mothra.  Each of these monsters are deserving of a solo film of their own, as they’ve had in the past.  Putting them all in one movie might be overkill, and not enough time will be devoted to each one as a result.  I hope that everything will balance out, and hopefully the human characters won’t be as bland this time around as well.  I like the addition of Stranger Thing’s Millie Bobby Brown to the cast, and seeing Ken Watanabe return as well is a pleasing sign, since he was one of the best things about the 2014 Godzilla.  More monsters probably means more action, but we may learn that we should be careful what we wish for.

ALADDIN (MAY 24)

Speaking of wishes, leave it to Disney to also give us a remake of Aladdin.  Strangely enough, I was hopeful for this remake, given that the story does lend itself well enough to the live action medium; especially with the many adaptations of The Thief of Baghdad in the past.  And then we got that first glimpse of Will Smith as the Genie, in all his creepy CGI enhanced, blue-skinned glory.  Now, thankfully, we’ve seen that he doesn’t stay that way throughout the entire movie, but it was enough to turn many people off and make people start to dread what’s coming.  For me, it just signified my worst fear, that this movie is trying too hard to match the original, meaning that it’s going to lean heavily on CGI enhancements that will look very out of place and unnecessary.  The best of these live action remakes from Disney are the ones that stray furthest from the originals and try to be their own thing; and also are more visually subtle.  In this trailer, there are some interesting visuals, but they are limited to the impressive sets and costuming.  Everything computer enhanced so far has this element of detachment from the rest of the film, and that could be a problem.  My hope is that the finished product looks better within the context of the movie itself.  Truth be told, I do think that the casting of Will Smith as the Genie is a good one for the movie.  It’s close to what the Broadway show has done with the character, changing the Genie into a Cab Calloway-style jazzy showman.  Will Smith fits that mold easy, and considering there is no way you could replicate what Robin Williams did in the original, portraying the character this way is the best they can do.  It’s also interesting that Disney gave this project to Guy Richie (of all people) which is thinking a bit outside of the box, but hopefully not too far.  I’m wishing this movie turns out alright in the end, but it has all the warning signs of another remake that carelessly undermines the quality of the original.

POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU (MAY 10)

This movie could go all sorts of ways.  For one thing, it could bring the Pokemon characters into the mainstream like never before, or it could end up disappointing legions of fans that span several generations.  The casting of Ryan Reynolds in the title role is a positive sign, given the goodwill that he’s earned through the Deadpool movies, but at the same time I feel that he’s putting his reputation on the line here as well.  This movie could very well not be as funny as the trailers make it out to be, and Reynolds input could reflect badly on him if fans are not pleased with the results.  The Pokemon fan community is a fairly devoted one, so they are going to be taking this movie fairly seriously, seeing as this is the first foray for the characters into the realm of live action.  And most movies that have been based on either Japanese anime or video games of any kind have not fared well at the box office, so this movie has a lot of bad history to overcome.  That being said, the animation is fairly solid on both Pikachu and all the other Pokemon.  It hits the right balance between looking true to the original designs, while also fitting in well with the live action setting.  And the animation does match Ryan Reynolds voice pretty well so far; we’ll just have to wait and see if it still remains funny throughout.  As of now, this movie could end up being a mixed bag, and likely someone will not approve of this movie whether it’s the loyalists who say it’s not faithful enough or the causal view who might come out of the movie not understanding it at all.

ROCKETMAN (MAY 31)

The showbiz biopic is a tough shell to crack sometimes, and that is becoming all the more apparent nowadays.  Last year, we were treated to Bohemian Rhapsody, the Queen biopic, which is a textbook example of how not to make a movie about a famous rock band.  Despite winning it’s 4 undeserved Oscars (except maybe Best Actor), Rhapsody was a cliche ridden mess that trivialized the real drama behind the story of the band and instead just ended up glorifying them instead, making the film feel false as a result.  A movie suffers when you let the subjects depicted micro-manage how they want to be portrayed, because the movie runs the risk of being too sanitized.  This upcoming biopic of the life of Elton John comes right on the heels of Rhapsody, and it even shares a director in Dexter Fletcher (who was brought on to salvage Rhapsody after it’s scandal ridden and unprofessional original director was fired).  John is involved as a producer, but he’s a little less guarded about his personal turmoils than the surviving members of Queen are.  Also the spot on casting of Taron Egerton is a good sign.  My hope is that this translates into a more interesting movie as a result, but it also looks like the movie doesn’t have a dramatic focal point to hang onto either.  One of the biggest problems with a lot of biopic is that they try to tell too much of a person’s life story, from childhood all the way up the present, when in reality it should pick out a single crucial moment in a person’s life that defined who they were.  From the look of the trailer, it seems like they are sticking to the former.  Hopefully, they can mine enough from this formula to make a worthwhile biopic, and not just another Bohemian Rhapsody.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

DARK PHOENIX (JUNE 7)

Back in 2000, X-Men was a breakthrough film for the fledgling genre.  Here was a super hero movie that took it’s characters and their stories seriously, and helped to ground it in a way that made those concepts work cinematicly.  Cut to nearly 20 years later, the super hero genre has gone on to conquer Hollywood, but for the X-Men, things have been not so fortunate.  Series’ icon Hugh Jackman has already hung up his claws as Wolverine, and the last entry in this inconsistent franchise, X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) left audiences cold and unsatisfied.  Now, the series itself is obsolete, as the Disney/Fox merger brings the entire Marvel cast of characters under one tent, and Marvel chief Kevin Feige has already stated that a complete overhaul is coming.  So what happens with this final entry in the series.  Well, nothing good from what I hear.  News has spread about terrible test screenings leading to expensive eleventh hour re-shoots, and the evidence shows in the trailer.  The cast looks like they’ve already checked out, especially Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique.  It’s just sad to see this once influential come to an end with a film that looks so fatigued.  Sure, the X-Men films have weathered through some bad movies in the past, but this is the definitive end.  There is no way to salvage this with a better follow-up, so if this is the end of the road, too bad it’s one plagued with so many problems.  One can only hope that it’s better than the trailers make it out to be, but unfortunately it looks like this Phoenix has no chance of rising.

UGLY DOLLS (MAY 3)

You know of those movies that are clearly designed to sell you on something else, with the actual movie plot treated as an afterthought?  Ugly Dolls seems like a quintessential example of that.  The thing in question it’s trying to pawn on us the audience of course is the pop infused soundtrack, which includes many chart-topping names, who also conveniently make up the voice cast.  It’s clear that the focus is put more into the songs and not so much in what is going on in the story.  This is sadly an all too common occurrence today, especially with animated movies.  Dreamworks even fell into that trap when they made their movie Trolls (2016), which was a soulless, cliche ridden movie with a great sounding soundtrack featuring Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick.  And like Trolls, it’s clear that the movie is also trying desperately hard to push a toy line on younger audiences as well.  The only difference is that Ugly Dolls doesn’t have the same level of high quality animation that Dreamworks has built itself up with.  Instead we get animation that barely looks passable and has this off-putting featureless quality to it.  This will not have the same cross over appeal that other toy based animated movies have enjoyed, like The Lego Movie for example, an I’m hard pressed to think that this album that it’s trying to push on audiences is even going to take off itself.

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL (JUNE 14)

The original Men in Black was a breath of fresh air when it first came out back in 1997.  Twenty years later it’s still fondly regarded, but most everything that has come after is not so much.  The sequel is widely regarded as one of the worst ever made, especially considering that it ret-conned the original’s beautifully poetic ending out of existence just so they could bring Tommy Lee Jones back, and the second sequel, made over a decade later, only muddled things up more, only not to as extreme an extent.  Now, Men in Black is trying to reboot things entirely by shifting focus on a brand new team.  Bringing in Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson is a good move, since they had incredible chemistry together in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), but I don’t think that’s going to be a saving grace for this franchise.  This movie looks like it’s falling into the same pitfalls as the other failed films, which began to favor CGI enhanced eye candy over practical effects, and goofy humor over character driven comedy.  Also, there’s just no replication for the on screen chemistry between Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith; it was just a perfect match because they balanced each other out.  Hemsworth and Thompson seem almost too similar in these roles, with the one defining difference being their gender.  That’s not enough to bring new life into this franchise that has long seen it’s star dim into darkness.

So, there you have my outlook for the upcoming Summer season.  For the most part, it’s what you would expect.  Of course Marvel is going to dominate, no matter what the ripple effect from Avengers: Endgame will be across it’s cinematic universe.  Pixar is gearing up it’s brightest star for another go around with Toy Story 4.  And I’m especially excited to see what Quentin Tarantino has up his sleeve with his ode to the groovy years of Hollywood.  But, one thing that will be interesting about this summer is whether or not audiences are going to express any fatigued with regards to franchise film-making, which is growing ever more prevalent in theatrical releases.  Is it a sign that streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are starting to affect the theater business as a whole.  Streaming is starting to corner the market on those mid-range movies that usually sprouted up once and a while and surprised at the box office from time to time.  Now, those movies are a rarity.  Now, the only movies making profits today are super hero movies and horror flicks, and the former usually has to reach the billion dollar mark now to be considered profitable.  It’s only a matter of time before we start to see audiences either grow tired of these large scale tent poles, or if they continue to embrace them.  I wish there was more variety in the market, and that movies of all sizes were available for viewing on the big screen, but if the market is moving one way, then it’s likely to change the industry in general for a long time.  But then again, that’s just my tastes as a film-goer.  If streaming is the only way to get a mid-range movie made nowadays, it’s probably a good thing, just so that those movies can exist at all.  Anyway, I hope this preview is helpful for those wanting to know what’s on the horizon.  At the very least, my hope is that everyone finds something new to love at the movies this summer and in the months thereafter.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2019 – Film Exhibition Report

Every mid to late Spring here in sunny Los Angeles the film industry usually takes a breather before it kicks into high gear for the Summer, but I have managed to find a special yearly event that hits the right sweet spot for cinephiles from all over here in town.  Turner Classic Movies has put on this annual Film Festival right in the heart of Hollywood, and I have been fortunate enough to not only be able to watch one movie there, but several, even in a single weekend.  It’s a great event for both industry insiders and casual fans alike to gather together and see all our favorite classic films in the way they were intended to be seen, on the big screen.  Every year, I watch a collection of movies that I’ve seen before but never on a big screen, and sometimes I manage to catch a movie that is completely new to me in the hopes of finding that new discovery.  In addition, TCM goes out of their way to bring the actual people involved with the making of these movies to appear and introduce the film we are about to see, making the experience all the more magical and worth the price of admission.  This is, however, a special year as the TCM Film Festival celebrates it’s 10th anniversary.  Playing within the same venues throughout it’s decade of operation (the theaters along historic Hollywood Boulevard), the TCM has grown steadily in popularity every year, and has also managed to get even better over time.  I’ve been fortunate to have caught the last 7 festivals, with this year being my 8th.  And each year, I’ve been topping my total number of films attended.  Even with the unexpected schedule conflict of Avengers: Infinity War keeping me from going on the first day, I still topped my record by seeing 9 films last year.  It’s quite the bump since my first year, when I only saw the one.  Thankfully, Avengers: Endgame is still two weeks off, so I have a pretty good chance of hitting the double digits for the first time this year.

This year, to keep my thoughts and reactions fresh for all of you reading, I will be covering this year’s festival again live as I’m attending.  With updates on each previous day’s experiences throughout the weekend, my hope is to give you an accurate first hand experience of this festival, hopefully encouraging those reading this live in the Los Angeles area to at least give it a look while it’s still going on.  I’ll be sharing all the sights and sounds of my festival experience, telling you what I saw, who I saw, and just anything interesting that I end up seeing throughout the festival.  I’ll even try my best to include pictures along the way, depending on how well my phone’s camera processes them.  One of the most interesting new things about this year’s festival is the addition of a new venue.  This year, films will be screened for the first time at the nearby landmark Hollywood American Legion Post 43 facility.  This art deco styled structure has served the Hollywood Veteran community for many years, and it’s great to see them open their doors to festival goers to watch movies in their well furnished auditorium.  Hopefully, if things turn out well, I’ll be able to include a screening here as part of this year’s festival.  It’s neat to see yet another historic landmark celebrated alongside the Egyptian, the Chinese, the Cinerama Dome, and all these other monuments to cinema, which is another thing that sets this festival apart.  So, with intros out of the way, let’s enjoy this 10th TCM Classic Film Festival.

APRIL 11TH, 2019 (DAY 1)

The afternoon launch of the festival thankfully coincided well with my work schedule, so I arrived just as things were getting started. As they’ve done the past few years, the Festival is launched with a special red carpet screening in the primary venue of the TCL Chinese Theater. This one is limited only to special guests and the highest level pass-holders. Because of that exclusivity, every red carpet screening have to be a special one. Last year marked an even more special event for guests, because it marked the first presentation of the Robert Osborne Award. This newly christened honor is going to be given out each year to a recipient whose work toward preserving and promoting classic movies deserves special distinction. Named after the late TCM host, the first year’s honorees was director Martin Scorsese, who was introduced by actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Of course, this is the special kind of exclusive event deserving of the red carpet treatment, and I’m sure that anyone who attends these certainly gets their money’s worth. I haven’t quite reached that level yet, but there’s still plenty left to see at this Festival.

This year, the red carpet was rolled out for the 30th Anniversary screening of the classic romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally. In attendance for this special screening was not only the director, Rob Reiner, but also the film’s stars Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. From what I’ve read, this is the first time all three have appeared together since the film’s release, so for any long time fan of the film, this had to be a real once in a lifetime experience if they managed to get in to this screening. When, I arrived, the red carpet was still rolled out, and attendees were still walking up to The Chinese. As close as I could get was to the outer wings, where many other bystanders were looking over the barriers to see who was there. I was amazed to see how many people had dressed up for this. This is very likely the only screening at this Festival where this level of class was necessary. Inside, before the screening, the special guests sat down for an interview with TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, whose schedule for the next few days is likely going to be full of these introductions. In addition to participating in this opening night show, the Festival also has a hand-print ceremony the following morning in front of the Chinese, where one of the night’s special guests gets to add their own mark to the other prints left in the famous theater’s front court. In this case, it’s Billy Crystal who has the honor. But, this is another event that I unfortunately cannot attend, so let’s begin talking about what I did see.

Running almost at the same time as When Harry Met Sally there were other screenings in the Chinese Multiplex next door. These smaller theaters have their own set of classic movies for the Festival, and usually they are of the hard to find kind. For instance, the first movie I ended up watching was a movie called Dark Passage (1947) which was a Bogart and Bacall movie that I’d never even heard of before. After their breakthrough films like To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), Warner Brothers sought to capitalize on this dynamic film partnership that turned into a real life romance, and this film was one of those results. The movie was introduced by Eddie Muller, who is the host and curator of TCM’s bloc of film noir centered programming called appropriately enough, “Noir Alley”. Muller is ideally suited to introduce a film like Dark Passage because it is quintessential noir. He told us a lot of interesting behind the scenes tidbits, such as the fight that producer Jerry Wald has with Jack Warner over the plan to hide Humphrey Bogart’s face for a third of the movie. It’s an unusual storytelling device, especially given Bogart’s star power, but it makes sense in the context of the film. Muller also talked about the author, the music and all the other things that made this movie stand out in it’s time. As noir films go, it’s a really unusual one, and that’s saying something. This is the kind of movie I especially love to find at these festivals, because they are what you’d call the discoveries. So, with one movie down, it was off to the next.

Since I missed out on one of the special nitrate screenings last year at the Egyptian Theater, I figured it was best to not waste any time this year. With a short two block walk down Hollywood Boulevard, I made it to my next show with plenty time to spare. The Egyptian, operated by American Cinemateque and soon to be under the ownership of Netflix, specializes in screenings of all film formats, and especially with the very rare screenings of the extremely volatile nitrate film stock. For this particular showing, we were being treated to a presentation of the classic Cary Grant screwball comedy The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1948), co-starring Myrna Loy and a teenage Shirley Temple. This was yet another movie I had yet to see, so watching it both on the big screen and with a rare nitrate print was especially fortunate. Even more remarkable, as we the audience learned from the brief introduction, this print not only came from the Academy archive, it was also donated to them by Shirley Temple herself. The movie is lighthearted fluff, but it’s a great showcase for both Cary Grant and Shirley Temple’s incredible on screen charisma. With that, my first night comes to a close, and after working my morning shift in my day job, I’ll be back and ready for day 2.

APRIL 12, 2019 (Day 2)

While cutting it close coming here directly from work, I still managed to get into my first movie of the night. Making my way to the Chinese Multiplex in the Hollywood and Highland Center I got in line for the early evening screening of Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973). The French New Wave classic is Truffaut’s ode to the process of film-making, pulling back the curtain to show the behind the scenes dramas that take place around a film set. For this screening, the film was proceeded by a special pre-show interview with the film’s star Jacqueline Bisset. Talking with Noir Alley’s Eddie Muller once again, the interview was a nostalgic journey through Ms. Bisset’s long career, and in particular, her experiences working on Day for Night. She described what it was like working with Truffaut, with the cast members, and how making films in France was so different from how they are made in Hollywood. One of her most amusing anecdotes was about the confusion they had on set because of the way it was a movie about making a movie. Because Truffaut played the part of the director himself, the cast sometimes were confused about whether he had called “cut” for real, not knowing if the scene was in fact finished. Jacqueline was very gracious in her recollections, and it was a treat to hear her stories before the movie began, especially with the context that her own behind the stories offered. And after this, it was time to head over to the Chinese for the night’s premiere screening.

Over in the Chinese, this second night was reserved for a special 30th Anniversary screening of Spike Lee’s now legendary Do the Right Thing. Introduced by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, it was especially pointed out that this movie was a product of it’s time, but also just as timely today as it was then.  Ben’s introduction was followed up with an interview with three ladies who were very important to the making of the movie.  One was casting director Robi Reed, costume designer (and recent Oscar winner for Black Panther) Ruth E. Carter, and actress Joie Lee who played the part of Jade in the film, and who is also Spike Lee’s real life sister.  All three had many wonderful insights about their experiences working on this film, as well as taking a moment to reflect on the movie’s important impact in both cinema and society.  Joie had the most interesting reflections about what it was like working with her brother, who she acknowledged could be a handful at some points, but always respectful of those who worked on his films.  Ruth discussed the very crucial aspects of the film’s making, including the steps they took to make the feel of a scorching hot day come through in the wardrobes of all the characters.  And Robi Reed discussed how the amazing ensemble cast was formed, which included legendary performers like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, some of Lee’s favorite frequent cast members like Samuel L. Jackson and John Tuturro, as well as fresh newcomers whose careers were going to take off in the years ahead like Rosie Perez and Giancarlo Esposito.  The interview concluded with their thoughts about the recent Oscar win for Green Book, which none of the ladies were particularly happy about, especially given the fact that Spike Lee’s own film BlackkKlansman lost out to it.  Given that I share their same frustrations, this made me very happy to hear from them, because it needed to be said.  The movie was given a new 4K restoration in anticipation of a just announce Criterion release, and the film looks incredible, especially with the colors which really pop off the screen.  This concluded my second, short day of the festival, but starting tomorrow, it’s nothing but movies morning to night, with hopefully my first glimpse of the American Legion Post.

APRIL 13, 2019 (DAY 3)

If everything went off without a hitch, this would be a day where I could see as much as 5 films in a single day.  To start off this marathon, I arrived extra early to the Chinese Multiplex to see the the first film of the day.  This movie would end up being the 50’s technicolor Sci-Fi epic When Worlds Collide (1951), produced by special effects extraordinaire George Pal.  It fit with my goal this year to watch more newer movies than I have before, plus it was also short, which allowed me more downtime to breath between films.  The extra treat of this show was that it also included a brief interview with one of the film’s stars; the graceful Barbara Rush.  For someone who’s just turned 92 years old, she looked absolutely fabulous and is still in wonderful shape and spirits for her age.  She was interviewed by comedian and guest TCM programmer Dennis Miller, who you can tell is a fan of these classic Sci-Fi films from that era.  Both Miller and Rush had a fun, spirited discussion about the film, with Barbara remembering what it was like to work with her co-stars, as well as the many other projects she worked on before and since making this particular film, talking fondly about how her work has withstood the test of time pretty well.  She even talked about getting to work with giants like Marlon Brando and Paul Newman in other films later on.  After the interview, we were presented with a beautifully restored digital presentation of the film, which really brings the colorful cinematography to full brightness.  The film is what you’d expect, a cheesy relic of it’s time, but the audience was certainly appreciating it.  After that early morning start, it was off to one of my most anticipated moments of this festival; my first movie in the brand new venue.

In a two block walk up hill along the always busy Highland Avenue, the newest theater added to the festival’s venues is found.  The Hollywood Legion Post 43 is a stunning, but often overlooked landmark in this neighborhood of iconic structures.  The outside is this beautiful art deco facade, with plagues dedicated to all the servicemen who have been in charge of operating it over the years. Standing since 1929, the Post has served war vets of the Hollywood community for decades, and it’s members have included the likes of Clark Gable, Charlton Heston, and even Stan Lee.  Though the outside of the Post is impressive enough, it’s the inside that really inspires admiration.  After walking through the subtle but lofty atrium, two wooden doors open up to the structure’s most impressive feature, the auditorium.  Though not as lavishly ornate as the Chinese, the Legion Post’s expansive auditorium has this wonderful cathedral like elegance to it, with arched buttresses descending from the ceiling.  You honestly would never have expected this auditorium to have been this big based on the front facade.  I can see now why TCM wanted to add this to their list of venues, and I’m very glad that the Legion decided to open it’s doors to festival goers.  For a first time visitor like me, see this place in all it’s glory was definitely one of the highlights of this year’s festival.  The venue has always had a projection room, but has not screened films on a regular basis.  I’ve heard that this is about to change as the Legion is planning to have more film events in the future.

Interesting enough, my first experience in the Legion Post was not for a film, but rather a multimedia presentation, which is also part of the usual programming at each festival.  This one in particular was called Fox: An Appreciation.  Of course, the subject was the 20th Century Fox studio and it’s history, which was interesting to watch, notably after the finalization of Fox’s merger with Disney last month.  The presentation was put together and hosted by Fox archivist Schawn Belston, who not only gave us a very fascinating and broad in scope overview of the history of Fox, but he also told us a great deal about the incredible hard work it has taken to preserve all of these cinematic treasures over the years.  Between each point of his presentation, he would present a clip from each of the respective films in his discussion, and by showing all of them, you really get a great sense of the overall impact that Fox left on Hollywood throughout the whole history of cinema.  You sometimes forget how many great and important movies have come out of one studio, and from all different eras as well.  In the course of the 90 minute presentation, we saw the likes of Sunrise (1927), How Green Was My Valley (1941), All About Eve (1950), Cleopatra (1963), Planet of the Apes (1968), M*A*S*H (1971), Big (1988), Die Hard (1988) and Titanic (1997).  He also made special mention of the stars that put Fox on the map, like Henry Fonda, Marilyn Monroe and, of course, Shirley Temple.  It was a great presentation that really renews your appreciation for this once mighty studio.  It also made my first time at this new venue a pleasant one.

Heading back to Hollywood Boulevard, and after getting in a quick lunch, I arrived for my next movie at the Chinese Theater.  It was a screening of Mike Nichols’ 1988 film Working Girl, starring Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford.  The special guest for this screening is also spotlighted as one of the main honorees of this entire festival; veteran casting director Juliet Taylor.  A giant within the industry, Ms. Taylor has cast numerous films that have gone on to become classics, including numerous Woody Allen flicks, The Exorcist (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), Terms of Endearment (1983) and Schindler’s List (1993).  For the screening of Working Girl, she was interviewed by actress Ileana Douglas, who asked her about the assembly of the film’s all-star cast.  She talked quite a bit about how she had to make the tough decision to change the casting of the male lead in order to meet the studio’s demands.  Originally, Alec Baldwin was cast opposite Melanie Griffith, but the studio wanted someone more established so they got Harrison Ford.  Baldwin graciously bowed out and took the smaller role of Griffith’s ex boyfriend, and she Taylor was told that her handling of the situation helped to make the transition smooth.  She also talked about how the movie helped launched both Griffith and Baldwin (who were still fairly green) into stardom, and helped establish Harrison Ford in a romantic comedy role, which he was not very well known for.  It made for a fascinating interview and it’s nice to see someone of Ms. Taylor’s significance getting the recognition that she has at this festival.

After that, I made my way back up to the Legion Post where my next film was. It was a screening of the classic William Wyler adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939) starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.  I’ve actually never seen this movie before in it’s entirety, so this was a perfect opportunity to do so.  Also, what also drew me to see this movie on this day was the fact that it was being presented by long time Jeopardy host, Alex Trebek.  Trebek recently announced that he is currently in treatment for very advanced cancer, so the fact that he’s made the time to attend this festival and participate in it as well is a really courageous thing to do on his part.  From what I saw, he seemed to be doing alright at this time, not showing any signs of his illness outwardly.  His introduction to the film was an excellent one, discussing his own personal connection to the film such as his first time watching it at a Drive-in theater in his native Canada, to visiting the English countryside that inspired the original book and the home of it’s author, Emily Bronte, with his wife many years back.  It remains one of his favorite movies, and you could tell that talking about this movie meant a lot to him.  As he finished and left the stage, the audience gave him a spirited ovation, showing that they both appreciated his presence at this Festival, and that they are all wishing him the best of luck in the days ahead.

With four down, I had one more shot to make it a 5 for 5 day.  The only question was what was it going to be.  The choice was tough, because this night had two solid options; a screening of the original Star Wars (1977) in the Chinese Theater or a screening of Escape From New York (1981) in the multiplex, with director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell in attendance.  I initially decided on Escape from New York, because it’s yet another movie I haven’t fully seen plus, it had the bonus of the two main people responsible for it there, including the reclusive Carpenter.  Unfortunately, the film sold out very early; even pass-holders were turned away, because the demand was so high.  So, I tried my back-up option of Star Wars, which was thankfully still seating.  Though I came halfway through the opening discussion, I was still able to get a glimpse of the special guests at the screening.  In attendance were sound designer Ben Burtt, Visual Effects Artist Dennis Muren, and Special Photographic Cinematographer Richard Edlund.  They of course were talking about the ground-breaking visual effects used in the movie, and how much they have gone on to shape the way movies are made today.  Right before the end of the discussion, Ben Mankiewicz asked each one to list how many Oscars each of them have won, and the tally goes Burtt: 4, Murren: 8, and Edlund: 4.  That’s an incredible 16 Oscars between all of them, and Star Wars is what initially propelled their rise in the industry.  Though I have seen Star Wars many times before, I’ve never seen it projected on a big screen.  And let me tell you, it’s an incredible experience.  Also, seeing it in the same theater that it had it’s premiere over 40 years ago gave me a real sense of what that first night must have been like.  Though it was my back-up, I have to say this was one of the highlights of my festival so far, and with one day left, it was a great way to finish my most robust day ever at the TCM Film Fest.

APRIL 14, 2019 (DAY 4)

Three days into the festival, and I’ve already tied my best number to date, so everything today is icing on the cake.  I got up again for an early start (with only about 5 hours of sleep after Star Wars ran past midnight) and made my way to the Chinese for film number one.  This was a 50th anniversary screening of the lavish Gene Kelley directed musical Hello, Dolly (1969).  The film was a financial disaster when it was first released, mainly because of cost overruns and the fact that it came out too late to capitalize on the brief rise of widescreen epic musicals of the 1960’s.  In the years since, it has found a following and has turned a modest profit for it’s studio, 20th Century Fox.  One of those who’s deeply devoted to the movie is super fan Christopher Radko (the guy behind the Christmas Ornaments), who was the special guest at this screening.  He talked about how much the movie has left a big impression on him, to the point where he now lives in the town of Garrison, NY, where much of the on location shooting was done.  He also talked about the special anniversary festival in Garrison to mark the start of the film’s production in their town that he got to plan himself.  Like Star Wars the night before, this is another movie that benefits from showing on the biggest screen possible.  Though the movie does have many flaws, it’s lavishness is impressive to look on on a screen that can contain it’s full majesty.  It makes you long again for a time when movie musicals had this much ambition behind them, but then again it’s that same ambition that made these kinds of movies too expensive to produce after a while.

After Hello, Dolly, I got right back in line for the next showing in the Chinese theater.  This next film is one that I’m perhaps the most ashamed to confess that I haven’t watch the whole way through before.  That film is the now universally beloved The Shawshank Redemption (1994).  This Oscar nominated film has eluded me, purely because I was looking for an opportunity like this one to finally watch; namely seeing it on a movie theater screen.  Shawshank has garnered this nearly unfathomable reputation as this absolute masterpiece, and I was worried that if I watched it the wrong way that it wasn’t going to live up to the hype.  So, thankfully, I now had the opportunity to see it for the first time all the way through in the right manner, and in the Chinese Theater no less.    To make the experience even better, director Frank Darabont was there to introduce the film beforehand.  Interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz, Darabont revealed many interesting details about the making of this movie, like how he turned down a huge sum of money for the script so that he’d be able to direct it himself, and also how the producer came up with the novel idea of casting Morgan Freeman in the part of Red, even though he was originally written as a Irish-American white guy.  He also talked about the challenges he had in adapting the original Stephen King novella, and how he was hesitant to include the film’s very upbeat ending at first.  It was very cool to hear the director’s own take before seeing the movie itself.  Though it’s not going to be anywhere near my all time favorite movies, I can definitely say that this is a movie deserving of it’s lofty reputation and I’m happy to have finally checked this one off my list.

Taking a longer lunch than usual, I was looking to close out my festival experience with just one more film.  I made my way over to Egyptian for their next showing, which was going to be a special type of program that occasionally is presented at the TCM Fest.  They were going to screen the Greta Garbo silent classic A Woman of Affairs, only instead of a pre-recorded soundtrack, it was going to be accompanied with a live, small orchestra.  The introduction was going to be made by critic Leonard Maltin and this year’s Osborne Award recipient, film Preservationist and Filmmaker Kevin Brownlow.  The orchestra would then perform under the direction of Conductor Carl Davis, who himself has composed new scores and orchestrations for many classic silent movies.  Unfortunately, this special presentation was in high demand, and it ended up selling out before the standby line where I was queued up in could be let inside.  So, I was left with two options, leave the festival early disappointed that I couldn’t get into my last show, or try to rush to another venue quick to watch one of the other film starting at the same time.  Strangely, I not only chose the latter, but I chose to rush over to the venue furthest away from the Egyptian; that being the Legion Post.  Even though I ran as fast as I could go, the movie had already started, and I missed out on the introduction done with comedian Mario Cantone and Jennifer Grant, daughter of Cary Grant.  Here, they introduced one of Cary Grant’s popular early screwball comedies, My Favorite Wife (1940).  Since I started my festival with another Cary Grant comedy, I guess it was fitting to end it with one too, and in the venue that was my favorite discovery of this entire festival.  An added plus, the movie was shown on 35mm film, which I know for sure because the projector has a malfunction during the showing.  As a past projectionist myself, I found this amusing since it’s the first time I’ve ever seen this happen at the festival, helping to reinforce the authenticity that we are given a true cinematic experience.  And thankfully, the malfunction was nothing serious.  So, after that, it was time to head home.  I could have fit in one more movie if I wanted to, but having already brought my number up to 12, I felt it was time to head home finally, feeling very satisfied.

With the long weekend finally behind me, I now have a full year to be ready for the next festival.  This was an extra special festival, because of the milestones it was hitting.  TCM as a broadcast channel is marking it’s 25th year of existence, with it’s founder Ted Turner being celebrated throughout the fest, especially for his long history of seeking to preserve and promote classic films.  And, of course this was the 10th year of the festival itself, which some of the TCM personal proclaimed excitement for in each of their presentations.  Some thought it might not last past the first year, so the fact that it’s still going ten years strong is something quite miraculous to many of them.  For me, I feel fortunate to have been living in Los Angeles long enough to have attended 8 out of the 10 festivals.  Though I started off slow, with maybe one movie a year the first couple times, I have continually become more and more determined to experience the full extent of the festival, and this year I managed to hit my best number yet.  I watch a whopping 12 movies in 4 days, and if I didn’t have to work Friday morning, I probably could have seen more.  What is especially great about these festivals is meeting complete strangers in line or sitting next to you in the theater and striking up a conversation out of a mutual love for the movie we were about to watch or for classic movies in general.  It’s a wonderful place for movie lovers of all kind to socialize and appreciate the true bonding experience that watching a film in a theater with an audience can be.  Not only that, but we get to watch these classics in living monuments to film history like the Chinese and the Egyptian.  I especially love that this year they added the Legion Post to the number of venues, because it’s a buried treasure that you didn’t know was hiding in Hollywood this whole time, unless you were already a member of the American Legion of Hollywood.  I’ve covered these festivals 6 times now for this blog, and this was indeed one of my favorites.  I hope that next year’s offers plenty more excitement.  I hope eventually I’ll get the point where I’m earning enough money to have a pass to some of the more exclusive events, but I’ve done alright with the standby lines to feel like I haven’t missed out too much.  Anyway, thank you for reading through my extensive coverage of this year’s festival and hopefully you’ll be back to read next year’s as well.

 

Shazam – Review

The 2010’s has more than anything been defined as the decade of super hero movies, and it produced a renewed rivalry between the two titans of the industry, DC Comics and Marvel, as they plowed through their decades worth of stories to take advantage of this new golden era for the genre.  However, most of the narrative of the last decade has largely been about Marvel clearly out-pacing DC.  DC started late, after Marvel had already laid the groundwork for their Avengers cross-over, and for years the game plan for DC has been to play catch up with their rival.  This resulted in a not so well planned out scheme to bring all of their own characters for a Justice League crossover, which was built upon shaky ground with the poorly received Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), and culminated in the underwhelming Justice League (2017), which had none of the same entertainment value as Marvel’s equivalent event films.  A large part of the problem was hiring ill-fitting director Zack Snyder to command the whole project, but the blame also extends to DC seeing what Marvel was doing and deciding to play copycat.  DC’s bad fortune teaches us that formula isn’t the answer to success, but rather the confidence to make something the best that it can be that really ends up connecting in the end.  Marvel, more than anything, has put their trust in the characters, which is what DC should’ve done all along too.  They have a gallery of gods and monsters nearly equal to Marvel, so why shouldn’t they believe in their potential.  And to DC’s credit, they seem to have finally figured it out.  Snyder is no longer around, and instead the focus has shifted towards establishing characters rather than building a franchise.  The DC Extended Universe (DCEU) 2.0 retains some of the elements from version 1.0, but the flavor of what they are constructing now is entirely different than what we’ve seen before.  It started with the harrowing Wonder Woman (2017), and though I wasn’t much of a fan, the epic Aquaman (2018) also proved to be a massive success.  But, the real test for this new DCEU has yet to come as they attempt to dig deeper into their catalog with one of their more fantastical heroes; the colorful Shazam.

Shazam’s history outside of the comics is just as fascinating as anything that they’ve put on the page.  For one thing, he didn’t start out as a DC super hero in the first place.  Shazam made his debut in 1939 as a premiere character for now long defunct Fawcett Comics.  And in those days, he carried the moniker of Captain Marvel.  Captain Marvel was a unique creation, namely because his true identity was a pre-pubescent boy named Billy Batson who would transform whenever he said the magic word “SHAZAM,” an acronym of six “immortal elders” of legend: Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury.  This made the character especially popular with young children, because the idea that a child could transform into a super hero was such a wish fulfillment fantasy for many young comic readers.  However, things came to a head when DC sued Fawcett for what they saw as copyright infringement.  They argued that Captain Marvel was too similar to their own Superman, since he had a similar design and set of super powers.  DC eventually got Fawcett to cease publication of their most popular character and the financial cost eventually took it’s toll.  Eventually, Fawcett comics was bought out by DC, and with it came the license for the character that they once saw as a threat to the popularity of Superman.  They were eager to relaunch the long dormant character fully into their own comic universe, but there was one problem.  In the intervening time between the lawsuit and the acquisition of the character, Marvel had launched a new hero called Captain Marvel, and because of Fawcett’s cancellation of the old one, Marvel was in the legal right to own that name.  So now DC had a popular character who they could no longer legally call by his original name, so they ended up giving him a new one; Shazam.  That’s the complicated reason why this particular character goes by two different names, and in an ironic twist, Shazam’s big screen debut comes mere weeks after Marvel has brought their Captain Marvel (2019) to theaters.  Even with a long and complicated history, there is no other character like Shazam in the pantheon of super heroes, and with the renewed energy at work at DC, it’s going to be interesting to see if Shazam breaks out as a champion for the studio or as a forgotten relic.

The movie finds young Billy Batson (Asher Angel) on a frantic search to find his long lost mother, who abandoned him when he was very young.  Billy has survived off and on within the system, but after his latest run in with the law, he is forced to live in a new foster home run by the very welcoming Victor and Rosa Vazquez (Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans).  Billy meets his new foster siblings Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand), Darla (Faithe Herman) and Freddy (Jack Dylan Fraser), but also doesn’t intend to stay long.  At school, handicapped Freddy is picked on by a couple bullies, and Billy stands up to them, only to have them chase him instead.  He alludes them by getting on a subway train just in time, but the train is magically swept away with Billy on board.  He arrives at a mysterious cavern where he finds a wizard by the name of Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) waiting for him.  The wizard tells him that he’s been seeking someone of a pure heart to carry his powers and protect the world after his life is ended.  He tells Billy to say his name while holding his magic staff, which Billy reluctantly does.  After saying the name, a bolt of lightning magically transforms Billy into a muscular, older super hero also called Shazam (Zachary Levi), though mentally he remains the same.  Unfamiliar with his new form, Shazam/Billy seeks out Freddy, who’s obsessed and knowledgeable about super heroes.  After convincing him that he’s still Billy underneath, the two embark on discovering all the different powers he has, which apparently are limitless.  However, as they fool around with Shazam’s powers, a threat begins to grow.  Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong), a past candidate for Shazam’s powers in his youth, has gained the powers of the evil force that the Wizard had fought against, the demon-like Seven Deadly Sins, and is setting out to destroy Shazam in order to gain ultimate power.  Though Shazam is all-powerful, Billy Batson’s inexperience leaves him vulnerable.  The question remains, can Billy use his powers responsibly in time to stop an evil force that’s shows no mercy, even to a child.

One of the things that has benefited DC as of late is the returned focus on the characters.  No more planning ahead to future franchise films; every movie now concerns itself with what each character is up to in their own story, which is a welcome shift for the once aimless company.  Wonder Woman got to be a war hero in her movie, and it fit her development perfectly.  And though I felt his movie was bloated and unfocused, Aquaman still shined through as he found himself finding the mantle of kingship in his own story.  Shazam offers it’s own challenges, especially given the magical elements that up to now have been absent in the DCEU.  And surprisingly, the movie Shazam not only finds it’s footing, it has done so far better than anything we’ve seen before from DC.  This is without a doubt one of the best DC Super Hero movies we’ve seen yet, comparable with the rousing Wonder Woman and is light years better than the dreary Batman v Superman.  And it all boils down to one simple thing; this is a movie that knows what it wants to be.  Too much of the early DCEU movies lacked identity; mainly because they were trying to copy what Marvel was doing, instead of establishing any worth in itself to begin with.  With Shazam, they have their most assured standalone feature yet.  While it certainly follows your standard super hero formula, the movie banks much of it’s energy into ingratiating the characters onto the audience.  These are characters that feel authentic and genuinely likable, which is what the movie needed us to feel since many of them are obscure in comparison to say a Batman or Superman.  At the same time, it never takes itself too seriously, as the characters experience their fantastic narrative with a clear sense of the absurd.  One of the best sequences in the movie involves Shazam testing the limits of his powers in a fun montage, done in a way that young kids would do if they were making a video showing off their skateboarding skills.  The movie never lets you forget that this is a story about an awkward teen stumbling his way through super herodom, and that helps to make it all the more entertaining.

The movie Big (1988) was an obvious inspiration for this version of Shazam’s origin story, as evidenced by a blatant and frankly on the nose reference halfway through the movie.  And just like believing that grown up Tom Hanks is really a teenage boy inside an adult body within that movie, the casting of Shazam likewise had to be spot on in order to make the movie work.  And thankfully, DC landed on the exact right actor.  Zachary Levi, of TV’s Chuck fame, has that special ability to balance humor with sincerity, and that especially works well with his portrayal of Shazam.  You completely buy that he and the actor who plays Billy Batson, Asher Angel, are the same person before and after the transformation.  And the movie miraculously maintains the continuity between different forms multiple time in the movie.  We see both frequently in the film, as Billy can transform at will, and the movie never makes it confusing.  I imagine that both actors probably spent a lot of time off set together in order to work on capturing each other’s personality, working towards the medium that would be their character.  Levi’s especially over the top exuberance also makes the character hilariously colorful as well.  What also helps is the chemistry that they both actors have with Jack Dylan Fraser, who plays Freddy.  He’s the clue that makes the duality of the character work, because he has to view them as the same person from scene to scene, and Fraser’s hilarious and spirited performance really carries a lot of charm.  The same goes for all the foster kids that they share a home with, as they also lend a great deal of warmth to the movie.  And though the villain is nothing special within the full rogues gallery of DC Comics, actor Mark Strong does make Dr. Sivana effectively menacing.  The downside though is that he no longer is able to play Green Lantern heavy Sinestro, as he was the only bright spot in that disastrous 2011 film, and perfectly cast to boot.

If there is a flaw to the movie, it’s that it runs a little too long.  The movie’s finale especially has a bloated feel to it, and it could have been better served with a tighter edit.  Though not terrible by any means, I was checking out at points during the final battle, especially when it was making needless use of slow-motion in parts.  It was that point in the movie where I felt that it was betraying the solid identity it had been building up to that point.  By the end, it was just serving up the same darkened skies brawl that we’ve seen in countless other super hero movies.  But, at the same time, it would throw in a clever little twist on the cliches that would win me back, especially a hilarious bit involving the “bad guy speech” trope.  When the movie was kicked into high gear, it usually involved Shazam discovering new levels of his powers, and that’s where the movie sets itself apart from others.  In most other super hero movies, the super hero usually is already aware of the extent of their powers, or have it easily spelled out for them.  Shazam is completely in the dark for most of the movie about what he’s supposed to be and do, and that sense of playfulness combines with the growing maturity that he must develop is what sets him apart from other like-minded heroes and their movies.  The film thankfully devotes most of the movie towards this aspect, but occasionally, it will miss it’s mark and get perhaps a little too comfortable in it’s genre trappings.  Also, any time when the DC Universe elements entered the picture, it would get a little distracting, although one artifact of the DCEU actually does serve as an effective plot tool at one point.   They are minor gripes in an otherwise effective narrative that always remains entertaining, and that really is all that the movie needs to be in the end.

Another wonderful aspect of the new direction of the DCEU is their embrace of brighter color.  One of the worst parts of the Snyder directed films was their significant lack of brightness and color; relying far too heavily on muted shades and grays, which just gave them this grim texture.  Both Wonder Woman and Aquaman improved the color schemes, but Shazam takes it’s too the fullest spectrum yet.  The vibrancy of Shazam’s costume especially pleasing to see.  I love the fact that his design remains in tact from the early Fawcett Comics days.  He still has those red tights, golden boots, and white cape, and the filmmakers did a good job of not straying away from that in the slightest.  I also love the fact that Zachary Levi’s suit also includes some enhanced padding to make his muscles look almost comically big and sculpted.  The fact that his body looks like that and he has the mind of a pre-teen just makes the juxtaposition all the more hilarious.  The movie also doesn’t shy away from some darker designs.  The Deadly Sins in their demon forms are especially creepy and might be too much for younger audiences.  But at the same time, they are well designed and animated, and you can see the level of detail put into their creation.  The clash between these two styles, the frightening Sins and the comical Shazam could have derailed the movie, and yet it works well together.  It reminded me of a lot of 80’s fantasy comedies that likewise went back and forth between the light-hearted and the profane, like Ghostbusters or Beetlejuice.  And since the movie was already borrowing heavily from another 80’s classic like Big, it seems fitting that it also took some inspiration from other movies of that era as well.  Not to say that this is trying to be an 80’s throwback on the level of say Stranger Things.  It just has that same feel, but in a contemporary sense, and it works perfectly in helping this movie finds it’s character, which makes it distinct among other super hero movies.

Shazam, in most of the ways that matter, is an absolute delight to watch.  I would say that it’s probably the most thoroughly entertaining movie from DC’s Universe to date, and could arguably be their best as well.  I even dare say I liked it better than Marvel’s own Captain Marvel, and that was a good movie in itself.  The old bearer of the name just had a more vibrant film, while the other was just good enough.  I still would personally put it a hair shy under Wonder Woman, because although Shazam is more consistently entertaining, it doesn’t exactly have a stand out scene like the “No Man’s Land” sequence from Wonder Woman, and is not quite as ground-breaking as that movie either.  Still, Shazam is another move in the right direction for DC and more than anything proves that they are able to compete with Marvel on a story level, and do it in a way that’s all their own.  There really is no equivalent for a movie like this in the MCU, except maybe Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and even that has a wildly different plot compared to this one.  The best thing is that even without the DCEU behind it, Shazam could exist as a franchise all to itself.  It’s got an engaging cast of characters whose adventures are just beginning, with a very charming and engaging hero at it’s center.  What’s especially exciting about this movie is that it opens up the DCEU to the existence of magic, which will likely be the source for countless new adventures to come.  Just like the Marvel Universe has different flavors to their narratives based on what their heroes bring to their stories, so do these new movies from DC.  And with Shazam, we can see that they can be magical, comical, and even genuinely heart-warming.  DC had a rough start, but things are starting to look better now, and Shazam is the best confirmation of that so far.  Though his road to the big screen has been rough, and at times completely abandoned, Shazam has proven himself worthy of his place among his super heroic peers, across the entire comic book spectrum.  When both DC and Marvel are putting out their best, everyone wins, and Shazam reminds us all why good characters always find their way, no matter the obstacles put in their way.

Rating: 8.5/10

The Director’s Chair – Tim Burton

A lot of filmmakers come into the business knowing exactly the path they want to take to become a success.  For many, they get their training, build their network, develop that killer concept that will gain attention from the industry, and then get that directorial gig that they always wanted.  For some, the road to success can fall into place like they expected but for many more others, it doesn’t work out that way.  The last thing that an aspiring filmmaker should do is enter the business with rigid expectations, because that’s not how the industry works.  Oh sure, Hollywood expects much when it comes to results, but the who and how of getting there is much more random.  The sad reality is that many people who come to Hollywood never make it in the business, and for some of them, it’s because the road to success never worked out the way that they expected.  What’s best for most aspiring filmmakers is to take the opportunities that come your way, even if they aren’t the ideal ones that you wanted in the first place.  Because the interesting thing about how Hollywood finds it’s talent is that they usually come out of the most unexpected of places.  Take the career of Tim Burton for example.  Burton certainly had ambition to work within the film industry, but when he started out, he believed that it would be in the world of visual development and animation. I don’t think he ever saw a prosperous career as a live action film director as his final destination, let alone as one who’s unique visual style has managed to be his greatest asset.  But, that’s exactly what happened to Mr. Burton, and even more shockingly, it happened very rapidly and early on in his career.  Tim Burton is the quintessential example of taking the opportunities that open up to you and never second guessing yourself along the way.

What makes Tim Burton so unique as a filmmaker is the uncompromising visual style that has become his trademark.  Before working in live action, Burton was cutting his teeth as an illustrator and animator.  He was trained at the prestigious CalArts Institute where his classmates included future titans of animation like John  Lasseter and Brad Bird.  He would follow with them into a post graduate career as an animation trainee at Walt Disney Animation.  Though Burton was praised for his talents as an illustrator, it was clear early on that he was an outsider at Disney, since his style was often seen as too bizarre or graphically grotesque.  After spending years being forced to assist on cutesy animal characters for films like The Fox and the Hound (1981), Burton tried to demonstrate for the Disney company areas in which his unique style could work.  He spent his free time working on a stop motion animated short called Vincent (1982), a black and white piece that was a homage to classic horror and the iconic personage of one of his idols, actor Vincent Price.  In addition, he also did designs for the monsters in Disney’s upcoming adaptation of The Black Cauldron (1985) as well as pitched his own original idea for a holiday special, which would later form the basis for The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).  Suffice to say, none of his attempts won Disney over, and he soon left the studio completely.  Soon after, he directed a short live action film called Frankenweenie (1984), which got the attention of comedic actor Paul Ruebens, who was looking for a director with a unique vision to bring his Pee Wee Herman character to the big screen.  With this opportunity, Burton suddenly went from failed animator to film director in quick succession.  Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) became an instant cult hit, which got the attention of Warner Brothers who gave Tim Burton another opportunity to showcase his unique vision with the macabre comedy Beetlejuice (1988).  That film also became an instant hit, which then convinced Warners to hand Burton their most plum jewel of all; Batman.  And with that, Burton suddenly was a household name, and it was all about taking the opportunities once they fell into his lap.  In this article, I’ll be looking at the essential elements that make Tim Burton’s films what they are, and how they’ve defined his work as a filmmaker over so many years.

1.

GOTHIC, GRAND GUIGNOL, AND B-MOVIE

More than anything, it’s Tim Burton’s visual style that defines him as a filmmaker, and it’s the thing that you can find traces of in pretty much every movie he makes.  And the thing that most people would label his style as would be Gothic.  While there are certainly Gothic inspirations to be found in his movies, Burton doesn’t always limit himself to just that.  His illustrative style, particularly found in the pre-production drawings that he makes himself for every movie, can be described as twisted and macabre, and for many, what they see in his illustrations reminds them a lot of Gothic architecture.  But, where Tim Burton really draws his inspiration from is how the Gothic is diffused through cinema and theater.  The burlesque tradition of Grand Guignol theater certainly can be found in Tim Burton’s work, because of it’s embrace of the macabre and the carnival-esque.  That’s something you see working together a lot in Burton’s films, visuals and story elements that appear sinister and foreboding, but are dealt with in a cartoonish fashion.  Which also stems from another inspiration for Tim Burton, which is B-Movie Hollywood.  In particular, Tim Burton’s movie’s celebrate the way in which Gothic visuals were presented through the cheap and often ridiculous production design and visual effects of the B-Movies of the 50’s and 60’s.  To Burton, these movies had their own charm, which is why he often pays homage to them.  You can see the pull between the grotesque and the cartoonish in many of his films like Beetlejuice, Alice in Wonderland (2010), but he also manages to find the right balance when he heads towards any of the extremes, especially when he makes something fully Gothic (1999’s Sleepy Hollow), Grand Guignol (2007’s Sweeny Todd), or B-Movie (1996’s Mars Attacks).  He even devoted an entire movie to honoring one of the sources of his inspiration with 1994’s biopic of the worst B-Movie director ever, Ed Wood.  Despite having an uncompromising visual style, Burton has somehow managed to focus it through these multiple inspirations and that’s made him surprisingly versatile.

2.

SUBURBAN ANGST

Apart from his visual inspiration, Tim Burton is also attracted to stories that appeal to his own sensibilities, particularly ones that speaks to him as an individual.  One of the most common themes found in his movies is the anxiety of living in a homogenized, featureless world, specifically funneled through the lens of suburban encroachment.  When you see someone of Tim Burton’s ilk, or watch any of his movies, you might imagine that he came from some cold, dark and old-World community.  But that’s the case at all.  He was born and raised in bright, sunny Burbank, California, which is not macabre or Gothic in any way.  And yet, his childhood years in Burbank is reflected in his movies, particularly when Burton focuses on the clash between the past and present.  He may not state it clearly in his films, but I think that the urban sprawl of Los Angeles into the San Fernando Valley during Burton’s childhood left a strong impact on him.  In the late postwar years of the 50’s and 60’s in which Burton grew up, many of the Victorian style homes and buildings found throughout Los Angeles were being torn down and replaced with rows and rows of identical single level house in a widening urban sprawl.  In a way, Burton witnessed the final days of a Gothic Los Angeles that no longer exists, and his movies often feel like a lamentation on that.  In many of his films, the monsters are found in suburbia and not in the spooky old houses.  This is best represented in the movie Edward Scissorhands, where a modern suburban community engulfs an old manor house, and where a lonely “freak” hides from a neighborhood that doesn’t understand him.  You see varying interpretations of that in other films like with Beetlejuice (1988) where the bourgeois suburban family takes over an old Victorian country house and “modernizes” it, or in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) where the hero leaves suburban Florida to live in an old house that literally exists in a nostalgic time loop.  But the narrative of Edward Scissorhands in particular illustrates this special aspect of Tim Burton’s work, because it offers an interesting insight into the kind of world that he values.

3.

THE OUTSIDER

The other major theme found in most of Tim Burton’s films is the focus on the “outsider.”  Being a pale kid interested in the Gothic and the grotesque while growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs probably made Burton feel like an outsider himself, and that’s why he finds so much sympathy in stories that spotlight those who are shunned or isolated in society.  In particular, Burton’s movies often spotlight the ones we often label as the “weirdos” or “freaks.”  Oftentimes these kinds of characters are heroes in his movies, but he also devotes a lot of attention to villainous oddballs as well.  This is probably what made him such a strong fit for the Batman franchise.  In both Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), you can see his fascination with “freaks” that exist within a society and how their peculiar identities spark the clashes that they get involved in.  Tim Burton’s Batman villains, Joker (Jack Nicholson), Penquin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), are just as damaged and corrupted by society as the hero Batman (Michael Keaton), only he has managed to use his freakish identity to elevate his community, rather than sink it lower.  And with Batman, Tim Burton explores another interesting aspect of the idea of the outsider, which is the persona of the isolated genius.  Bruce Wayne becomes a symbol of good in his community, yet still cuts himself off so that he can never be truly at peace as well.  You see this same dynamic played out with Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and with Margaret Keane in Big Eyes (2014), where the characters have created magnificent works of creation, and yet their social anxiety keeps them from ever feeling the joy of what their work has done in the world.  It’s that fascination with those who are kept isolated from society, whether self-imposed or by some kind of prejudice, that makes the characterizations in Tim Burton’s films so vivid.  Much like in how his own peculiarities have made him stand out in Hollywood, Tim Burton values the outsiders of his stories, good or bad, because they are the ones that we remember the most in the end.

4.

DANNY ELFMAN

Like many directors with a unique style, Tim Burton has kept a close knit group of collaborators through most of his movies, like production designer Rick Heinreichs and costume designer Colleen Atwood, as well as actors like Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Christopher Lee and Michael Keaton who have appeared in multiple films of his.  But, if there was ever a collaborator that had the most influence on making Tim Burton films feel distinctly their own thing, it would be composer Danny Elfman.  Elfman, the once frontman of progressive rock band Oingo Boingo, has written the musical scores for all but two of Tim Burton’s films, the exceptions being Ed Wood, which was written by Howard Shore, and Sweeny Todd, which used the original Broadway score written by Stephen Sondheim.  It was actually Burton in the first place that pushed Elfman into a career of scoring films, giving him his first big break with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.  The combination of Elfman’s sound and Tim Burton’s visuals couldn’t be more perfectly matched, because Elfman likewise has a taste for the edgy, carnival-esque style.  His music can go from whimsical to unhinged in a heartbeat, and the music often is just as memorable as the movies themselves.  He also has shown incredible range from the sweet, nostalgia driven melodies of Big Fish (2003), to the terrifyingly chilly Sleepy Hollow, to epic grandeur of Alice in Wonderland.  He even managed to encapsulate the iconic status of Batman in brooding piece that is now synonymous with the character.  Naturally, when Disney finally accepted Burton’s dream to bring Nightmare Before Christmas to a reality, Danny Elfman was given the opportunity to score the film, but to write original songs as well.  And that he did, with a musical that not only stands as one of Disney’s best, but also one that retains the unique Burton/Elfman character.  Danny Elfman even provided the singing voice for the protagonist Jack Skellington, so you see his mark in Nightmare more than in any other film he’s worked on with Tim Burton.  It’s one of the most special collaborations in all of film-making, because it’s one where both artists bring out the best in one another and gives each other’s work the magical element that helps it to stand out.

5.

BLACK AND WHITE AND COLOR

Tim Burton has his inspirations in aesthetics and themes, but there is definitely something about his sense of visuals that really sets him apart as well.  In particular, Tim Burton is a director who likes to experiment with the use of color in his movies, and it’s a tool that he often utilizes to emphasize those same themes discussed earlier.  In particular, Burton is especially drawn to the visual clash between stark black and white.  Characters with striped clothing are especially common in his movies; most notably with Michael Keaton’s Betelgeuse and his trademark striped suit.  It’s not particularly a visual trademark to emphasize a bad character, as good-natured Jack Skellington is also known for his striped outfit.  The same can also be found with a character caught in between good and evil, like Johnny Depp’s Sweeny Todd.  Burton also displays an interesting take on clashing colors with the duality of Batman and the Joker, with the justice seeking Batman cast completely in black, shadowy tones, whereas the Joker is white-faced and wears flashy colors.  The use of color, and even the absence of it, are both important visual factors in Tim Burton’s style, no doubt taken from the sensibilities he formed as an illustrator.  He surprising manages to maintain his style between the those extremes, with his style shining through even in black and white photography, which he showed in Ed Wood and his animated Frankenweenie remake from 2012.  At the same time, he can also splash a lot of color into a scene, sometimes with the intent of emphasizing the grotesque nature of something.  This can be found in scenes of gore from Sleepy Hollow, where the especially red blood stands out amongst the gray landscapes, or in the garish plastic world of the suburbs in Edward Scissorhands with the pastels and neons almost aggressively applied.  Tim Burton makes deliberate choices when it comes to colors, whether it be applied to characters, a setting, or the movie entire, and it’s often deliberately done to cast his stories in clear black and white terms with the actual clash of black and white, or bold color.

Tim Burton, whether his style appeals to you or not, is no doubt a one of a kind in film-making.  Few other directors have been fortunate to have their visual style brought to the screen un-compromised, and even less have succeeded with a style as weirdly refreshing as Tim Burton’s.  It’s also amazing how Burton almost kind of stumbled into the business, not really realizing how quickly it would take off.  I’m sure that he always dreamed of making his own films, but I don’t think that he ever saw himself becoming the icon that he is so quickly.  He probably imagined he’s be some kind of underground artist, rather than the man tasked with bringing Batman to the big screen.  But, he saw that door open before him and he walked through without ever looking back.  Today, Tim Burton has one of the most unique filmmographies of any filmmaker, even if it’s not the most consistent.  He’s had his fair share of disappointments too, with his 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes being probably the least effective representation of his talents as an artist.  He has had a shaky track record as of late, with the good (Frankenweenie, Big Eyes) often overshadowed by the bad (Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows).  But even still, Hollywood still trusts him with high profile projects, some of which seem to be almost tailor-made for his unique style.  It’s funny how the company that once shunned his art, Disney, are the ones who’ve since fully embraced it.  The current slate of live action remakes to animated classics feel very much inspired by the Tim Burton aesthetic, which easy to see because it was launched primarily with his Alice in Wonderland adaptation, and continues now with his newest version of Dumbo, out this very week.  His films still have that unique Burton feel, but it was never stronger than in his earlier years when he first was starting out.  Those first five features of Pee-Wee, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns are what really made Tim Burton a legend.  Quite simply, there was no one else who was making movies like him, nor had the kind of creative ideas that could make it to the big screen in tact like he had.  Since then, he’s grown more mainstream, and his legacy is becoming more and more harder to live up to, but there’s no doubt that he left an indelible mark on the industry.  And it’s a mark that’s made it more acceptable in Hollywood to be an “outsider” and a “freak,” because in many ways they are the ones with the best stories to tell.

The Fox and the Mouse – The Twilight of a Once Legendary Studio and it’s Future With Disney

It’s been a long, brutal process to get here, but something monumental has gone down in Hollywood.  As of last  Wednesday, March 20, 2019, one of the most legendary film studios ceased to exist as an independent entity.  20th Century Fox, once one of the “Big Six” of Hollywood powerhouses, is now a part of The Walt Disney Company in a record breaking merger that has created the single largest media company that has ever existed.  It’s hard to believe, given the long and storied history that Fox has had in Hollywood that is suddenly no longer independent, and this has both created much excitement within the industry as well as a whole lot of anxiety.  The ripples of this merger will be far and wide, and will no doubt change the face of not just the Fox brand, but also that of Disney as well.  But what is most interesting about this news of the Disney/Fox merger is how it’s sparked speculation about what’s coming next.  For one thing, it brings all of the remaining Marvel characters under the same roof, as Fox was the last holdout refusing to play along with the Cinematic Universe that Marvel Studios had been putting together.  There is also the speculation as to how this will affect the lineup of content on the upcoming Disney+ streaming service that launches later this year.  Now Disney has two studios worth of films to put on their channel, which could easily put them in better standing when competing with Netflix.  There is also a lot of people out there who are mourning the loss of another studio that was in charge of it’s own destiny and some see this as a severe blow to creative experimentation as fewer competition exists within the market now.  No doubt this is a major deal in the entertainment industry, but it more than anything allows us to contemplate 20th Century Fox’s place in the history of Hollywood as a whole.  The conclusion of this merger opens up discussion about what this means for the industry today, allows us to think nostalgically about what led this studio to become what it became, and think deeply about what the future will hold for Fox, Disney, and Hollywood in general.

To begin with, it helps to understand exactly how this merger came about.  Since 1985, Fox has been a part of the News Corporation conglomerate owned by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch.  Murdoch oversaw the studio during it’s largest expansion as it launched the Fox Television Network, as well as numerous cable TV stations like FX and NatGeo, plus news outlets like Fox News and Fox Sports, which were closer to Murdoch’s own long term interests.  In time, Murdoch turned what was once valued at $700 million into a company now worth north of $50 billion.  But, his time as head of the company was not without controversies.  Murdoch’s tactics of expanding his media empire have run into numerous federal roadblocks, both in America and in his holdings around the world, with some saying they are borderline illegal.  Plus there are the complaints that he’s responsible for inflaming tabloid journalism which many say has disgraced the integrity of the news.  And then you have the complaint that Murdoch has used his media empire as a propaganda machine to promote his own right wing politics.  It’s safe to say that this in particular has made the alliance between Fox and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. a tumultuous one, especially when 20th Century Fox has always considered itself a fairly progressive studio, even back in it’s early days.  But, in December of 2017, things were about to significantly change.  Murdoch, who now is in his late 80’s, believed that it was time to sell off his holdings in the studio that he had run for the last 30 years, and thus began one of the most contentious bidding wars in media history.  Five years prior, Murdoch had already split his company into two halves, one focused on the news side which included the Fox News and Sports networks bundled in with Murdoch’s numerous publications, and the other focused on entertainment which included the Fox Studio, the network and all the subsidiary production companies.  This was the big piece put up for sale, as Murdoch and his family would maintain the other division, which is honestly closer to his own interests, and for Hollywood, it immediately became the hottest property perhaps ever put up for sale they’ve ever seen.

But, the question became, was Fox too big for anyone to invest in; at least in the state it was.  Some worried that the studio as a whole would be stripped apart into smaller bits to be sold out to various buyers, in effect spelling the end for the studio completely.  But, two interested parties stepped forward to put up the money for the entire thing, all in one package; Comcast and Disney.  Disney, which has been on a shopping spree for the last decade, acquiring high profile assets like Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars, put in the first bid of $50 billion to buy Fox, which was well-received by many fans of Disney’s properties.  Fox retained film rights to several Marvel characters like the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Deadpool, all based on decades old contracts that predate Disney’s purchase of Marvel.  Not only that, but Fox also held onto the original, un-altered cuts of the Star Wars movies.  So, by buying Fox, Disney would have the means to finally give the fans what they wanted, though that of course is not entirely the reason behind Disney’s move.  Comcast, likewise, wanted Fox as a means of expanding their own media influence, as the cable giant wanted more exclusive properties under their own tent as more and more people are leaving cable in favor of streaming content.  The bidding grew more competitive as Comcast upped their offer to $60 billion (in cash), which seemed to be more favorable to the Murdoch family as it would close the deal quicker.  Then Disney made the risky choice of counter-bidding a combined cash and stock $73 billion offer, which eventually made Comcast buckle and withdraw.  To many Disney fans, the choice seemed obvious, because of Disney’s holdings of Marvel and Star Wars, both of which had deep ties with Fox in the past, but for Fox it was never a simple choice.  From the moment Murdoch made his choice to sell, the options for the studio remained between tolerable to outright destructive.  No matter who ended up owning them, they were never going to be they way they were ever again.

And I think that’s where a lot of the worry about Fox’s future lies for people now that the purchase has been set in stone.  Fox had no other choice but to lose it’s independence as a studio in order to survive in the years ahead.  In the end, aligning with Disney was probably the least awful out of all the options, but it’s not without it’s consequences either.  In the months ahead, as many as 5,000 or more jobs will be cut in the transition as Disney works to clear the redundancy that will inevitably occur with the purchase of a competing studio.  Because Fox and Disney have pretty much identical units operating within their company, like their own marketing and distribution wings, you can see how much of the company will have to downsize in order to form a cohesive solitary branch within the new studio.  And that means layoffs at both Fox and Disney, as the top brass are going to be picking out the best from the litter in order to maintain the quality of their corporate body.  Other casualties will be movies that were in the pipeline at Fox that no longer make sense in the calendar that Disney has prepared over the next few years, which includes several planned X-Men films that will be scrapped so they can reboot the entire franchise.  Still, the options wouldn’t have been much better for Fox under Comcast.  Comcast already owns Universal Pictures, and it’s safe to say that the same corporate restructuring would’ve occurred there too to reduce redundancy.  And the other option of selling off many pieces of the company to various buyers would’ve destroyed the Fox brand as a whole, so there were no positive options where Fox would have come out better than it went in.  Perhaps they believed it was better to be bought out by another studio who understood the entertainment business as well as they did than to be owned by another media conglomerate like they had previously been a part of, intent only on gaining a brand rather than helping them continue to function as a studio.  For years, Fox had tried to set itself a part as a trusted name in entertainment, and perhaps under Disney, they see their best avenue towards maintaining some of that trust.

Looking at how Fox got to this point seems to make a lot of sense when you look at their history as a whole.  20th Century Fox’s has lived a tumultuous life of ups and downs, booms and busts, and in spite of many troubles along the way had still managed to maintain it’s status as one of Hollywood’s grandest institutions.  The name 20th Century Fox today seems fortuitous, because it was formed out of a merger itself, way back in the 1930’s.  Fox Pictures was a small, financially struggling independent producer and it was saved by combining it’s forces with Twentieth Century Pictures, which was just started up by two former United Artist executives, Joseph Schenck and Daryl F. Zanuck.  So, if you’re wondering why the company had that peculiar, nonsensical name, it’s because of this deal over 80 years ago.  Under the guidance of creative executive Zanuck, 20th Century Fox steadily rose in influence in Hollywood, garnering a stable of contracted movie stars like Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power, Carmen Miranda, Don Ameche, and Shirley Temple.  And though Zanuck was a life-long Republican, his studio championed progressive, left-leaning movies that pushed the envelope, spotlighted the underdog and challenged the establishment, more than any of the other studios at the time, with films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and Pinky (1949).  Zanuck was often seen as a transitional movie mogul for the film industry, as he modernized his studio in ways that many of the older studio founders had not done and eventually did end up falling in suit.  But, as Zanuck passed on his duties as the head of the studio to others in order to focus on more personal projects, that’s when the consistency of Fox’s output began to fluctuate.

Under the new regime of president Spyros Skouras, Fox entered Hollywood’s golden age with bold plans, but also bigger financial risks.  One of Fox’s most lasting legacies for Hollywood in general was it’s implementation of the widescreen Cinemascope process, which helped to standardize widescreen across the entire industry.  Cinemascope helped major studios compete against the rise of television and they put it to good use with their Rogers and Hammerstein musical productions.  Unfortunately, widescreen spectacles were becoming more expensive, and one production in particular nearly brought Fox to the brink of bankruptcy.  1963’s Cleopatra was a nightmarishly over-budgeted production that didn’t nearly recoup any of it’s costs, and many wondered if Fox’s big gamble had led to it’s own ruin.  Only a few short years later, they bounced back with the phenomena that was The Sound of Music (1965).  But, even with Music’s success, big flops like Star! (1968) and Hello, Dolly (1969) put them right back in the red.  Throughout the 70’s, it was a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, as every hit was followed with a flop.  And then, in 1977, a little science fantasy film from an ambitious young filmmaker named George Lucas put them right back on top; that film of course being Star Wars.  With Star Wars, Fox managed to stay afloat, though never quite at the top like they were during the Zanuck years.  Even if they remained afloat, their output still reflected their spend big in the hopes of winning big mentality, something that continued in the Murdoch years.  One famous gamble included the $200 million behemoth known as Titanic, which Fox regrettably had to sell off domestic rights to Paramount, believing that the film was likely to flop.  It didn’t, and Fox had to share the profits as a result for a movie they once fully owned at one point.  The same mistake was not repeated when James Cameron came to them again with Avatar (2009).

It’s that history of aiming high and taking chances that many people are worried will disappear once Disney takes full control of the company.  Creative risks in general are on the decline across the industry and removing one of the major Hollywood players from the equation is leading many people to believe that things are going to be further homogenized.  That is of course contingent on what Disney plans to do in the years ahead.  Disney CEO Bob Iger has assured several people that some things will remain the same after the merger.  He has stated that the Fox brand itself will not be dissolved and it will still exist as the 21st Century Fox moniker that it adopted a few years ago, retaining the same IP’s that it has built up over so many years across film and television.  The studio lot in Century City, California itself will remain open and functioning, and shows like The Simpsons, Empire, American Horror Story, and Fargo will all still run on Fox’s broadcast networks like they have for years.  And, to relieve anxious fans everywhere, Iger also stated that Deadpool will be the one character returning to Marvel that will not rebooted, retaining fan favorite Ryan Reynolds in the role.  But, in the short hours following the closing of the merger, Disney made swift changes that left a severe blow already in the industry.  One of the more surprising casualties turned out to be Fox 2000, a mid-tier division of 21st Century Fox that produced movies like Fight Club, The Devil Wears Prada, Life of Pi, and more recently Hidden Figures, Love, Simon and The Hate You Give.  Considering that Fox 2000’s slate of movies were often ones that were meant to stand on their own, independent of franchise building, and usually have something important to say, this loss seems especially hurtful because they made the types of movies that few others do in Hollywood.  It’s speculated that Disney found the necessity of Fox 2000 redundant and that the more prestigious Fox Searchlight was more deserving of preservation.  Regardless of what the reason is, this sudden closure will no doubt leave a lasting affect on the Fox brand, which has used their Fox 2000 label to beef up their catalog with some beloved classics.  Fox 2000 may be the biggest casualty of the entire merger, but it’s also a symbol of the cost that spreads through every department of the studio and the industry when deals like this are made.

Does all this make Fox a failed studio in the end?  Far from it.  20th Century Fox has one of the most storied histories in Hollywood, and it’s name will still live on through the movies that it has made over the years.  If Fox had never existed, we would have never had the introduction of Cinemascope, nor the wild conviction it took to make Star Wars a reality, or to create a hit movie about a planet run by “damn dirty apes.”  Their legacy is as integral to the growth of the medium of film as any other, and it would be foolish of Disney to not honor that long history.  And though Fox has had it’s many ups and downs, they’ve always managed to pick themselves up and continue to prosper.  It must be noted; financial problems are not what’s led Fox to this point.  Fox was put on the market by a billionaire ready to cash in a business that he’s helped grow for over 30 years.  At the end of Murdoch’s reign, Fox’s value has increased 700%, making it one of the richest studios in Hollywood.  It’s just unfortunate that, like Fox, most of the studios in Hollywood are owned by larger corporations and that they are often put up for sale whether they are profitable or not.  It’s only this time that we are seeing one of those “big six” buy up the other.  Fox has done well, but Disney’s growth is unprecedented, and that’s what’s put them in the position to have the capital needed to make a deal like this happen.  Fox shouldn’t worry about disappearing into the background.  MGM famously bought out once mighty United Artists after it went under, and for years they were both known as MGM/UA, until of course MGM hit it’s own slide.  Columbia purchased struggling Tri-Star as well and incorporated it into it’s own brand, ultimately before their own purchase by Sony.  Hollywood sees these kinds of mergers all the time; it’s just that Disney and Fox have taken it to a whole new level.  Fox will change, but perhaps their future is better guarded in the hands of Disney than it would have been under Comcast.  After all, Disney’s first and foremost a movie studio, so they know the value of what a studio is supposed to be.  One hopes that the good that Fox represented in the film industry rubs off on Disney, and that it’s influence may help the media giant take more creative risks that preserve the ideal that Fox strived for.  In the end, we can hopefully hear that triumphant Alfred Newman fanfare ring out just as strong as we “wish upon a star” as a part of our continued cinematic experiences.

Top Ten Movie Musical Themes of the 2010’s

As I have been writing this blog for nearly the last six years, I’ve observed many different changes going on in and around the film industry that have certainly made the last decade a largely transitional one for film as a whole.  The rise of streaming content, the growing international film market, the Me Too movement, and so on.  As we make our way through the year 2019, we are now coming to a point of looking back at the decade that was the 2010’s and seeing how it shaped our world and what is likely to come in the decade ahead.  With regards to cinema, I think that it’s time to look back at the last 10 years to see what left the most impact on the films we watch today.  Starting with this article, all my top ten lists this year will be ones related to the 2010’s, all culminating in a list early in 2020 when I list the Top 10 movies of the decade.  Each one will cover a different subject that I think helped mark the 2010’s as a defining decade in the history of cinema.  To start off, I decided to look at my personal picks for the best musical themes from movies of the last 10 years.  The list, like the others will span the years between 2010-2019, and will cover a wide variety of genres.  But one thing that will stand out about this list is the way that I’ve observed some trends in music having a more defining impact as one movie’s soundtrack becomes so influential that it spawns many more like it.  There are music tracks on this list that do indeed fall within the same soundscape, while there are also others that really do feel outside of their time.  In any case, apart from personal tastes, I do feel that these were the music tracks that left the most impact on the decade and are the ones that will continue to have a rippling effect on the music of the future.

Like many of my other music centric lists, I have provided embedded video of each theme found on YouTube, so that you can have clear context of what each musical piece sounds like.  Every composer will be listed, and hopefully I don’t stack the list with too many familiar names, because some of these composers stand amongst the greatest of all time, while some may be unknown to some of you and only got their fresh start more recently.  Also, this is a list of purely orchestral music, and no songs are included (sorry Frozen and A Star is Born).  Anyway, let’s take a look at my picks for the best musical themes from movies of the 2010’s.

10.

GEORGE VALENTIN THEME from THE ARTIST (2011)

Composed by Ludovic Bource

Here we start off with one of the common themes you’ll see about the music of the 2010’s, which is new music that draws heavy inspiration from the past.  In this case, we get a throwback to the distant past; one that goes all the way back to Hollywood’s infancy.  French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius sought out to do the unthinkable in the 21st century, which was to make a non-cynical, highly detailed replication of the kind of silent film made before the advent of synchronized sound; relying entire on the things we take for granted in cinema to drive the emotion of the story: the visuals, the actor’s gestures, and of course, the music.  And what he ended up with was a surprise Oscar winner, taking home the coveted Best Picture for that year.  The musical score in particular is quite extraordinary, because not only does it feel like a product of the period the film dramatizes, but it also captures the imagination of the modern listener, being both catchy and powerfully evocative at times.  Of course, composer Ludovic Bource (who also won an Oscar) benefits from the greatly improved technology of our times.  The score never sounds like it was recorded on warped and decaying magnetic tape like other music of that era.  It’s clear as a bell and invokes how the movie would sound if it were played with a live orchestra in front of the screen, which is I’m sure how some lucky viewer might have seen the movie during it’s early roll-out in film festivals before it hit cinemas worldwide.  The entire score has many lovely original melodies, like the “Peppy Waltz” or the “Grande Finale.”  But the main theme, devoted to the main protagonist, dashing movie star George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin), is the one that leaves the best impression, and displays the all the best elements of the score; playful, nostalgic, and just pleasent to listen to.  It’s a score that tries it’s best to invoke a time when music was central to a movie’s character, and it succeeds in every way.

9.

REY’S THEME from STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

Composed by John Williams

Arguably the greatest film composer who’s ever lived, John Williams is not entering his twilight years quietly.  In his mid 80’s, he is continuing to compose new original music for a variety of films, including those for his longtime collaborator Steven Spielberg as well as for the film series that put him on the map to begin with; Star Wars.  After it was announced following the purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney that a new trilogy of Star Wars films were going to be made, many had hoped that John Williams would return to compose the scores as he had for all 6 previous films in the series.  And to many fans delight, he did.  Though no longer under the guidance of George Lucas, John Williams set out to create a musical score that would feel in line with all the past films in the series, while at the same time allowing him to branch out and try new things.  It’s hard to think of how he could add anything new to the Star Wars musical soundscape.  His Oscar-winning Star Wars (1977) score is considered by many to be the greatest ever written, and since then he’s added numerous icon pieces to this long running franchise.  So, nearly 40 years later, could he still match what had come before.  The answer was yes, but not in the way you’d expect.  The power of The Force Awakens score is that it combines the bombastic themes we all know and love with new themes that return the series to what it was best at before; building character.  Admidst powerful pieces like “The Resistance Theme” and “The Jedi Steps,” there are subtler pieces like “Rey’s Theme” that really show of his talent as a composer.  In Rey’s Theme, we get a wonderful underscore to the film’s main heroine, sounding like a small flame caught in the wind before it bellows into a bright inferno.  It’s here that Williams found something new to add to the music of Star Wars and show that he indeed could still leave his mark so many years into an already legendary career.  Rey’s Theme, more than anything, shows that even the familiar can evolve and show us new things that will only continue to grow over time.

8.

MAIN THEME from PACIFIC RIM (2013)

Composed by Ramin Djawadi

Now we come to a theme that feels more at home in the present.  One of the rising stars in the world of film composing from the last decade was undoubtedly Iranian-German composer Ramin Djawadi.  A protegee of Hans Zimmer, Djawadi cut his teeth by providing original music for numerous TV shows as well as many action films.  Carrying a talent for bombastic sound in his scores, he was very much sought after to give many projects a more epic feel.  He’s probably best known today for creating the Game of Thrones theme, which is just as recognizable to audiences as any epic movie score of the last half century.  But, he was also responsible for some incredible movie scores as well, the best of which being the one that he wrote for Guillermo Del Toro’s blockbuster Pacific Rim.  Collaborating with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, who provided the guitar riffs for much of the score’s most incredible bits, Djwadi created a wonderfully energized score that fits very well with Del Toro’s earnest but also cheeky homage to the monster movie genre.  The main theme in particular evokes the larger than life clash between monsters and men that the movie presents, but also presents the same never taking itself too seriously attitude that permeates the rest of the movie.  It’s meant to be evocative and triumphant, but also at the same time a lot of fun to listen to.  The Morello riffs in particular sell that point, counterbalancing the bigger orchestral sweeps with a little rock and roll.  It’s a multifaceted showcase that works as a great pick me up (especially for those who like something to pump them up for a workout) and it helps to present Ramin Djwadi as a talent who is likely going to continue growing as an artist in the decades ahead.

7.

PLANETARIUM from LA LA LAND (2016)

Composed by Justin Hurwitz

Much like The ArtistLa La Land’s score draws heavy inspiration from the past, only this time a little closer to the present.  The movie is a wonderfully constructed send-up of musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time when pageantry ruled.  And though it’s ambitious in it’s score, it’s centered around a story that’s intimately centered around two people in a very contemporary fashion.  What is remarkable is that a score of this type came from a composer as young as Justin Hurwitz, whose career in Hollywood is still relatively young.  Having come up in the business with his former classmate and best friend Damien Chazelle, who directed La La Land, Hurwitz is still fairly new to Hollywood, and yet has this incredible ear for the way movie musicals used to sound like.  Though the film has standout song and dance numbers, it’s the completely orchestral piece called “Planetarium” that really shows Hurwitz’s talents as a composer and it’s also the movie’s most incredible use of music in general.  Orchestrating to a a scene where the characters played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone go on a date to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles seems simple enough, and it does indeed start with simple piano and woodwinds in the early moments.  But once the scene takes off into flights of fantasy, then the full might of the orchestra comes to life, creating a wonderfully out of this world rendition of the love theme.  No words are sung, only music, and it invokes some of the great ballet sequences of movie musicals like An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) which also relied on completely orchestral movements.  In a movie that I don’t think gets enough credit for it’s purely musical moments, and one that shows an incredible showcase for an enormously talented newcomer, Planetarium is one of the decades most incredible single pieces of music composition.

6.

RECOGNIZER from TRON LEGACY (2010)

Composed by Daft Punk

If you’re looking for a musical score that left a heavy influence on the decade after it’s premiere, the last one you would expect would be the one from a sequel to a cult sci-fi action film from Disney.  Disney really went outside of the box to come up with the music for it’s follow up to the movie Tron (1982).  The original itself was a oddity for the company, utilizing the synth melodies of pioneer composer Wendy Carlos, who also scored A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining for Stanley Kubrick.  In order to match that kind of soundscape, Disney looked into the EDM field of modern music, which uses the electronic synth as a major part of it’s character, and recruited two of the biggest names from that genre to put together this new score; those being the groundbreaking French DJ’s known as Daft Punk.  A Daft Punk scored Disney film seems like a weird congruence of events on the surface, but it is exactly the ideal combination that made the incredible score for Tron Legacy work.  Regarded more highly than the film it was made for, the Tron Legacy is epic in all the right ways, while never straying too far from the Daft Punk style.   And it blends perfectly into the cyber world that provides the movie’s setting.  The whole score is full of incredible tracks, but the best one would probably be the theme “Recognizer” because it’s the introduction to the World of The Grid that provides the movie’s setting.  Dark, foreboding, and sweeping, it sets the perfect tone for the rest of the movie, and shows that Daft Punk has more up their sleeves than just club music.  The Tron Legacy soundtrack itself went on to influence a electronic enhanced sound that permeated into the scores of many films from the last decade, and that is a real testament to it’s actual “legacy.”  So many movies have tried to sound just like it, mostly in the action adventure genre, so you have to respect the ones who pioneered it here first and showed just how well this kind of music could be used in film.

5.

EDEN from IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (2018)

Composed by Nicholas Britell

The most recent film score to make this list is also one that draws heavily from the past.  The inspiration however comes less from Hollywood, and more from the cultural movements that sprung out of the African American community, particularly in the Harlem Renaissance that this Barry Jenkin’s film celebrates.  Nicholas Britell’s deeply emotional score, which is brimming with nods to classic jazz and afro-centric melodies that flourished during the period of the movie’s setting, is one of the most beautiful scores that I can recall in recent memory.  The love theme in particular called “Eden” is the beating heart of the movie.  It’s a beautiful composition that embodies a strong sense of the feeling of bonding love, which is what the movie is all about as we follow a young couple growing deeply in love even while society keeps pulling them apart.  It’s melancholy to be sure, but with an undercurrent of hopefulness to it.  The movie lost out in the Oscar race for best score to Ludwig Goransson’s Black Panther (2018) soundtrack, which itself was quite good, but If Beale Streets score is so much more transcendent and in my opinion will probably be remembered long after.  Britell, who also scored the music for Barry Jenkin’s Oscar winner Moonlight (2016), went above and beyond with his work in this film.  The music is just as much a character itself, being the pillar of support for a community that often has so much taken away from it.  It’s a celebration of a people and a place, and illustrates that the music of Harlem is just as important to the character of America as any other.  As a way of giving music to an adaptation of legendary writer James Baldwin’s work, the music here just sounds so perfectly matched.  And it also shows that amongst all the heavy handed bombastic music of Hollywood, it’s something small and poetic that delights the soul in the end.

4.

THE BEAST from SICARIO (2015)

Composed by Johann Johannsson

From something heartwarming to something utterly terrifying.  This piece of music is really unlike any other from the decade, and is perfectly in character with the movie that it comes from.  Composer Johann Johannsson, whose life was tragically cut short last year, was given the special task of scoring a movie about the Drug Wars on the Mexican/ American border that completely subverted what you’d expect.  Never bombastic, the score he wrote instead reinforces this continuing sense of dread that will never let up, much like the conflict that the movie dramatizes.  That is reflected most effectively in the centerpiece composition called “The Beast.”  When given the assignment by director Denis Villeneuve, he was told to write something akin to John Williams “shark” theme from the movie Jaws (1975).  And indeed, much like how the Jaws theme captured this perfect sense of a growing threat, Johannsson’s “The Beast” has this unsettling growing tension that builds as the music continues to swell, very much conveying the feeling of entering the belly of the so-called Beast.  Only the Beast in Sicario is no monster, nor a villainous presence.  It’s a city; Juarez, Mexico to be exact.  When we hear this theme in the film, it underscores a raid by joint American and Mexican forces who enter the city under heavy guard in order to extract an informant involved in the drug cartel.  Juarez is known throughout the world as one of it’s most dangerous cities in real life, and this musical theme really emphasizes the descent into hell on earth that this moment in the movie represents.  Quite literally, it begins with a flyover of the heavily fortified border between Juarez and El Paso and the music continues to build as the convoy of armored vehicles heads across the border crossing and deeper into the city.  It’s an unforgettable sequence made even more memorable by Johannsson’s music.  It’s too bad that his career ended so abruptly because pieces of music like “The Beast” show that Johann had enormous talent in finding the operatic within the contemporary.

3.

THE AVENGERS THEME from THE AVENGERS (2012)

Composed by Alan Silvestri

Now if there was anything that defined the 2010’s cinematically, it would probably be the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The incredible achievement by Marvel Studios to create a multi-franchise, serialized narrative across all their films will no doubt stand as the biggest thing to ever come out of this last decade.  But if there is one thing that has been Marvel’s Achilles Heel, it’s been their lack of memorable music.  Their musical scores are serviceable, but don’t have the iconic status that John Williams Superman theme does, nor Danny Elfman’s Batman theme.  You couldn’t pull any single track from one of their movies and have anyone instantly say “oh that’s Captain America’s theme.”  But, the clear exception no doubt is conveniently the main theme for the entire team itself; that of the Avengers.  The Avengers theme, first used in the original 2012 film has in a way become the main theme for the MCU as a whole, and it fits perfectly.  Who better to create this triumphant, unifying piece of music to symbolize all of Marvel’s heroes as a whole than the man who created one of the most triumphant musical scores ever for Back to the Future (1985).  Alan Silvestri, a longtime veteran within the industry, seemed to find the essence of what makes Marvel what it is, which is super heroism infused with personality.  The Avengers theme certainly takes center stage within the film franchise itself, but can be heard subtly in every other Marvel film as well, acting as a connective tissue for the whole thing.  It’s also versatile as well, carrying moments of levity, as well as triumph, but also can be used to underscore solemn moments as well, which was especially evident in the final moments of Avengers: Infinity War (2018).  It’s fitting that the central theme for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole is one that feels so exhilarating and like it’s contemporaries from DC movies of the past, it creates immediate excitement every time you hear it.  And given how important the MCU has been to cinema in the last decade, it’s only fitting that it’s main musical theme has left a similar impact on audiences as well.

2.

BROTHERS IN ARMS from MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

Composed by Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL

Tron Legacy may have opened the door for “rave” style electronic music to become part of cinematic scores, but Mad Max: Fury Road kicked that door right off of it’s hinges. To create the soundscape for his long awaited new chapter into the Mad Max franchise, director George Miller called upon famed dutch progressive artist and DJ Junkie XL to compose the score for his post-apocalyptic vision.  And boy did he deliver an assault on the senses.  Junkie XL, or Tom Holkenborg as he’s credited, throws everything into the mix; electronic synth, heavy percussion, and even a little opera into the blender and creates on of the most original scores of not just this decade, but probably ever.  And you couldn’t expect any less from a movie where a manic rocker is shown strapped to the top of a truck playing a flame-throwing guitar.  The entire score is an insane piece of work, but probably the standout would be this particular tune called “Brothers in Arms.”  Inspired by the vehicle obsessed cult that chases after Mad Max throughout the film, the music underscores the insane road chase that comes to a climax at the end of the film.  It’s here that Holkenborg really lets loose and throws caution to the wind, allowing the score to hit it’s epic highs.  It’s unmistakably modern in sound, but has this strangely appropriate infusion of classical music as well, taking cues from Wagnerian operas.  It’s an appropriately used, as there is something almost “viking” and barbarian-like about the villainous gang in pursuit of the film’s heroes.  It wouldn’t be that shocking if the music of a post-apocalyptic world did sound this way.  By being so original, and unafraid of what it could be, “Brothers in Arms” stands as the single most epic piece of music from the 2010’s.  Holkenborg has gone on to score many more like-minded action films, no doubt because he garnered so much attention for his work here, but his score for Mad Max is still his best to date and “Brothers in Arms” his masterpiece.

1.

TIME from INCEPTION (2010)

Composed by Hans Zimmer

All of the musical pieces on this list represent different trends that have left an impact on cinematic scores throughout the decade, but the single very best piece of music comes from a composer who delivered something so otherworldly of it’s own kind that it stands on another level entirely.  Hans Zimmer is a composer at the peak of his craft, and has delivered some of the most memorable pieces of music for the last 30 years.  Though reliably inventive and impactful on countless films, he always seems to save his “A” material for only a certain handful of directors, and one of those happens to be Christopher Nolan.  The scores to Nolan’s movies are among the most ambitious and epic you’ll ever hear, and Hans Zimmer is responsible for the majority of them.  Whether it’s the agressive character themes for the Dark Knight trilogy, or the 2001: A Space Odyssey inspired organ-enhanced tunes of Interstellar (2014), or the ticking clock motif of Dunkirk (2017), Zimmer seems to be continually pushing the bar higher every time he collaborates on Nolan’s films.  But, it’s with Inception that Hans Zimmer delivered probably his most incredible score yet, and probably the single best piece of music from the 2010’s.  The entire score has incredible themes, but it’s the one called “Time” that stays with you long after seeing the movie.  Carrying over the motif of living in between dreams and reality, “Time” embodies the ethereal sense of waking into a new life, where time literally changes before you.  It’s used periodically throughout the film, but hits it’s high point at the finale of the movie.  And I dare anyone to listen to the final part of this piece of music and not visualize that spinning top that gives the movie it’s perfectly ambiguous ending.  For a musical score that for the most part includes some pretty aggressive elements, like the now notorious low note (“BWAAAMMMHH”) sound that became especially copycatted throughout the decade, “Time” is a beautifully noble piece to close the movie on, and it encapsulates the incredible journey that leads up to it.  It’s Hans Zimmer’s greatest work in a career that already includes some of the greatest pieces of music ever composed.

And there you have my choices for the best pieces of music from the 2010’s in cinema.  Sure, there are 9 months left to go in this decade, and one more could end up surprising and take it’s place among the movies that I picked here, but as it stands, I’m pretty sure that these will still be the best pieces of music from the last decade.  I found it fascinating how the musical scores of this decade split between looking back into the past and those looking into the future.  There were some amazing throwbacks like La La Land, If Beale Street Could Talk, and The Artist that held their own throughout the decade, but we also saw the infusion of electronic dance music come into the mix in Tron Legacy and Fury Road which gave their movies a decidedly ahead of their time sound.  Even with all that, stalwarts like Hans Zimmer, John Williams and Alan Silvestri continued to deliver musical compositions that stood up strongly with anything else they have written in their storied careers.  If there was anything that really defined the music of the movies from the 2010’s, it was the common theme of experimentation.  There was no real standard to how movies should sound during this time; composers were free to deliver music that were really meant to set their movies apart, and sound like nothing heard before.  That wasn’t always true across the board (case in point, the Marvel film’s lack of diversity) but the movies that did make an impact had scores that really challenged their audiences and made them reconsider what they like to hear when they go to the movies.  Who would have thought that the most popular movie musicals of the decade sounded closer to musicals of the past and less like the pop music of the present.  With this, I started my look back at the decade that was, and I hope many of you who read through this will continue to follow the other lists I put forward in the future.  It was a wild decade in Hollywood, and I’m interested in seeing how the closing of the 2010’s will leave it’s mark on the next ten years that follow.  At least when it comes to the music, the ones that stood out the most provided the most ideal of playlists.

This is….