Top Ten Movies About the City of Los Angeles

There’s a lot to say about the “City of Angels” known as Los Angeles, California.  The second largest city in America, after New York, it is one of the world’s most important hubs for finance, productivity, and most importantly, culture.  Often called America’s cultural capital, Los Angeles is home to many artistic ventures that branch out and define the culture at large, but none more so than the industry that was birthed right in it’s own back yard; cinema.  Hollywood is used to define the industry as a whole, but it’s name derives from the district of this city in which it was started, making it eternally linked to LA as a whole.  The whole reason for the population boom that the city has experienced over the last 100 years is because of the exposure that the film industry has brought to the community, and in some ways, it has grown the city too fast in order to be sustained.  Oftentimes, many people immigrate to LA with hopes of making their big break, and soon realize there’s just not enough room for everyone.  Even still, it’s a city rich in culture and history, and it’s connection to Hollywood is vital to it’s identity.  The city has also served as a backdrop to many classic films, some of which are among the most influential ever made.  For this list, I will be looking at the ten movies that best represent the city of Los Angeles, both as a place and as a character within the narrative of it’s story.  I will be excluding movies that take place in LA, but remain secluded to a single area; so no Die Hard (1988), since it only shows the area around a single high-rise.  I’m also excluding movies like Clueless (1995) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984), because while Beverly Hills is part of the LA area, it is it’s own independent city.  They are all fine southland tales, but this is a list about Los Angeles; how unique it is to the rest of the world and how well that is represented by these movies on the big screen.  So, with that, let’s take a look at the movies that best represent the place I currently call home, Los Angeles.


LA LA LAND (2016)

Directed by Damien Chazelle

You just knew that the moment a song and dance number began to break out on a freeway offramp in the middle of a traffic jam that this movie was going to be a love letter to the city.  And in many ways it is.  Apart from the remarkably staged freeway sequence that opens the movie, the film utilizes many LA landmarks as a backbrop for it’s story; from the backlot of Warner Brothers studio in Burbank, to the Angel’s Flight railway in Downtown, to Grittith Park and the Griffith Observatory.  And while the movie does display the majesty of the city in a glorious light, it also at the same time portrays the unfortunate downside to living in LA as well.  Namely the way that many people have to give something up of themselves in order to gain a foothold in this city.  Whether it’s a person’s free time, their dreams, their personality, or worst of all, their dignity, many artists often come out of LA far less hopeful than when they went in, just because of the unforgiving way that the city works.  In the case of the the two main characters played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, what they have to give up is a happy life together in order to pursue the careers they desire and live to their own high standards.  It may seem trite compared to some of the harsher realities about Hollywood, but it speaks a lot to the common experience that many would be artists face when they come to LA.  This city provides the strongest test possible for a person’s creative motivations, and those who persevere are the one’s who likely did so with leaving their past behind.  La La Land provides that medicine amongst the pretty visuals, helping to ground it and feel authentic as a portrait of the city and it’s inhabitants.  Also, it provides a great checklist for things to see and do while in LA, as I have also gone exploring throughout the city.



Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Here we have a different kind of movie that puts the spotlight on another industry that, for better or worse, is also tied to the city of Los Angeles; the porn industry.  Showing the rise of pornography in the San Fernando Valley during the free-loving disco era of the 1970’s, the movie Boogie Nights is a magnificent recreation of what Los Angeles was like at the time.  It was an era of sleaze and decadence, which ultimately transformed the character of the Southland in a way that you can still see traces of today.  Paul Thomas Anderson, who himself was born and raised in the Valley, was no doubt fascinated by the impact that this time period had on the city, and it was something he explored very early on in his movies.  Boogie Nights is the first in what you might call his “LA trilogy,” which also included the films Magnolia (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002).  Though all three share the Los Angeles (and mostly Valley based) setting, it’s Boogie Nights that really feels like it portrays the city itself as a key part of it’s story.  All the different characters we meet, from Mark Wahlberg’s up-and-comer, to Burt Reynold’s domineering auteur, to Heather Graham’s perky Rollergirl, to Julianne Moore’s tortured starlet, all represent some of the kind of people that rose and fell during those turbulent years in the porn industry, and to this day represent some of the characters that you’ll still likely meet in parts of the city; unlucky in some cases.  Anderson’s period details are exceptional in this movie, as is the way that he immerses you into a different time in which Los Angeles was very different.  You can see this in the spectacular long shots he uses, like the opening shot of a neon theater marquee, or another one showing the different goings on at a pool party.  It may not be glamorous, but Anderson certainly makes it fascinating.



Directed by Michael Mann

This may not have been the first Los Angeles based thriller that director Michael Mann had worked on.  His 1996 film Heat is rightfully considered a masterpiece of the crime genre, and it makes effective use of parts of Los Angeles for some of it’s most harrowing, action packed moments.  But, I feel that the movie he made that is tied more closely to the City of Los Angeles is this more intimate, tension filled piece.  Set during a single night in the heart of the city, the story follows a hitman (played by Tom Cruise) who has hijacked a cab driver (played by Jamie Foxx) and is forcing him to drive to every job he needs to complete that night.  It’s a fantastic character study, but even more than that, it captures an often unseen element about the city that’s rarely been shown on film before.  I find that Collateral is the movie that best represents the feeling of Los Angeles at night.  Sure, you have the bright lights of the glitzy neighborhoods that you’ll find in most other cities, but the movie also shows you what nighttime is like outside of those districts.  There is this greenish-brown glow that seems to hang over the city at night, fed through the ever present street lamps and vehicle traffic that never stops no matter what time it is.  Combine this with a starless sky above, and you’ve got a sense of how eerie and oppressive nighttime in Los Angeles can be.  Utilizing digital photography, Mann captured this unique element in his movie and made it an essential part of his narrative.  Nothing underlines the dire situation that Foxx’s cab driver is in than the de-saturated colorscape of Los Angeles at night.  This one of the most unsung masterpieces of the 2000’s and a movie that really captures not just parts of the city, but the feeling of the city.



Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

If you were ever to look for a movie that clearly defined the identity of the quintessential Angelino, it would be The Big Lebowski.  This classic farce from the Coen Brothers gives us a hilarious tale centered around the kind of characters that while are not necessarily representations of the city itself, are nevertheless bi-products of it.  Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (played to perfection by Jeff Bridges) is a remnant of the Southland’s brief flirtation with the “flower power” generation, which didn’t take hold the same way like it did up North in San Francisco, so he is left to be a island unto himself in a culture that has left him well behind.  But the Coen Brothers use their movie to celebrate this kind of aspect of his character and tie it to the identity of Los Angeles in general.  From the iconic view the San Fernando Valley aglow at night, we follow a tumbleweed as it takes us deeper in, until we finally arrive at grocery store where a bearded, bath-robed man is browsing the dairy section for the freshest milk.  In these opening minutes, we see the Coen Brother’s intention which is to go from how Los Angeles would like to view itself (the breathtaking glowing metropolis) to showing it’s true face (an old man buying milk).  From then one, the Dude is our guide through a Los Angeles seldom seen; with the shabby rows of apartment complexes, to the hole in the wall studios where bizarre excuses for art are made, to of course, the bowling alleys untouched by time.  His encounter with the titular Big Lebowski also makes an interesting statement on the wealth gap that also defines much of LA.  As the movie states, “The Dude is a man for his time” and that time still illustrates the divide that continues to define the city itself.



Directed by Ridley Scott

This movie represents a view of Los Angeles that never has existed and probably won’t.  Considering that we are rapidly approaching the furturistic year of this movie’s setting, 2019, and the city doesn’t look all that dissimilar to how it did 35 years ago when this movie first came out, it’s pretty clear that this is far from the truest representation of Los Angeles on screen.  But it does offer another interesting insight into the city’s identity, which is how it once saw it’s trajectory into the future.  Back in the early 80’s, Los Angeles was one of the world’s most polluted cities, with smog being a near constant occurrence in the atmosphere.   In addition, the constant sprawl of the city continued to spread out, making it appear that Los Angeles was going to see urban growth that would spiral out of control in the near future.  That’s why in the movie, Blade Runner, we see this nearly-post-apocalyptic landscape of a city no longer recognizable as it once was.  The movie’s influential visuals give us a look at a city that abandoned all identity in order to build bigger and faster in order to accommodate an unforgiving world.  Thankfully things haven’t turned out as dire as it did in the movie, and we still have a Los Angeles today that still feels the same, only a little cleaner.  But one thing that the movie does portray accurately about the city is it’s melting pot culture.  You see this in the market place scenes where Harrison Ford’s Dekard frequents and finds information.  And Ridley Scott did manage to work genuine Los Angeles landmarks into his movie, like the iconic Bradbury Building in Downtown, where the film’s memorable climax takes place.  While not a representation of reality, Blade Runner still represents a fascinating view of a Los Angeles that could have been as was feared to have eventually become.



Directed by John Singleton

Here we have a movie that shows a very often overlooked community in the City of Los Angeles, which is the inner city known as South Central.  This was the birthplace of rap music and street art, which have since gone on to become touchstones of the city’s cultural footprint, but South Central and nearby Compton were also where some of the city’s most ruthless street gangs emerged.  Movies that depict this part of the city often do so with the wrong intention, or completely miss the point and just end up misrepresenting it.  Fresh out of film school John Singleton took it upon himself to tell the story of his Los Angeles from an authentic inner city point-of-view.  This isn’t a movie that exploits gang warfare for action set pieces, nor glorifies the life of a gangster.  It’s about the struggle of regular people living in this community trying to lead a normal life amongst the threat of gang violence as well as with the oppression of a racially prejudiced police force.  The movie follows three young men, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, and Ice Cube as they all struggle to take command of their lives while the harsh realities of the ghetto would keep pulling them  back and force them to do things against their best interest.  Eventually, some make it out of the cycle, while others fall victim to it, and the movie does a superb job of illuminating the kind of realities that inner city residents must deal with every day.  This movie was a revelation for many, and as we would learn, keenly observant.  The following year would see a massive riot engulf the city because of outrage over the brutality of the bigoted law enforcement system that went unchecked for far too long.  It was shocking to many, but was all too clear to someone like Singleton whose own experience in the city was reflected in the story he told.  For him, it was clear that this was the portrayal of Los Angeles that he wanted to share with the world, and it’s movie that rightfully changed a lot of viewpoints and brought another identity to the city as a whole.



Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Another filmmaker brought up in the City of Angels presenting another unseen side of the city.  Quentin Tarantino used LA as the backdrop for a number of movies, including Reservoir Dogs (1991), Jackie Brown (1997), and his upcoming film centered around the Manson Family murders.  But it’s Pulp Fiction where he really explores the many different shades of the city, and in particular, the parts that were appealing to him.  Tarantino’s style of film-making involves what I would describe as Angelino kitsch.  He takes many of the more garish parts of the city, such as the sun-worn stucco, the cramped strip malls on every block, the deteriorating art deco buildings long past their glory, and off course the sports cars that the city was built for.  You can see that Tarantino has an affection for this side of Los Angeles because it’s a call back to the type of cinema that he himself was brought up on.  During the maverick years of the 70’s, Grindhouse cinema became a lucrative business, and it often involved filmmakers working outside of the luxury of the studios, and instead scrambling out into the city, sometimes into some pretty drab and defunct areas.  Quentin wanted to embody that kind of maverick spirit in his own work, and he shows us this beautiful mosaic of a city that thrives on the edge.  He also plays around with the image that Los Angeles likes to project to the world, especially in the Jack Rabbit Slims restaurant scene, where Hollywood icons are reduced to novelty dining experience.  Tarantino’s portrait of the city may be a bit on the sensational side, but it is reflective of an identity that often hits pretty close to home for Angelinos, which is the rough edges brushing alongside the beautiful sheen of the city, and that’s something that the director is proud to show.



Directed by Nicholas Ray

This widescreen classic from the 1950’s provides a beautiful time capsule of an evolving city that was hitting a turning point.  The movie is about several teenagers who are struggling to define themselves in a post-war America that was somewhat still clinging to the past.  This is personified most dramatically in James Dean’s career defining role as the titular rebel.  He wants to fight against something, but he can’t describe exactly why.  For the most part, it’s a struggle against himself that defines his character and what pushes him into a dangerous world of gang fights and street races.  The movie perfectly captures that angst of a generation that grew up under the prosperity of their parents but were resentful of the structures and expectations that this prosperity laid upon them.  A story like this is perfectly supported by it’s Los Angeles setting, because LA itself was a city going through it’s own growing pains, as sprawl seemed to be engulfing the entire vicinity.  Director Nicholas Ray utilized the widescreen process to exceptional effect, capturing Los Angeles landscapes and landmarks in beautiful compositions.  The Griffith Observatory in particular is eternally tied to the movie as it provided the setting for some of the movie’s most memorable moments, including the emotional finale.  It’s place in Los Angeles history is so profound, that it even received an affectionate homage in La La Land.  The city itself also recognized the esteemed place that the movie has and a monument stands today at the Griffith Observatory on the same spot where James Dean filmed the famous knife fight, honoring the tragically short lived actor.  To see a fine example of what Los Angeles was like back in a relatively simpler time, this is absolutely the kind of movie you should check out.



Directed by Billy Wilder

This movie is not just one of the most searing portraits of Los Angeles in general, but also perhaps the quintessential movie about Hollywood itself.  Billy Wilder’s scathing satire about the dark side of showbiz presents an unnerving narrative about how fleeting fame can be and the many different ways that the industry ends up exploiting those who come into it.  Taking it’s title from the famous road that passes through Hollywood on it’s way towards the mansion filled hills, the movie focuses on Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson in a comeback performance), the most delusional of has-beens.  In her own words, “I am big.  It’s the pictures that got small,” and her belief is that it’s the studios that has kept her away from the world, rather than her own uncompromising, self-interested behavior.  In the film, she ensnares a troubled screenwriter (William Holden) looking for a break of his own, and he only becomes wise to the pit that he has dug into when it becomes too late.  What Billy Wilder does brilliantly with his movie is to dismantle the glamorous side of Hollywood and show the ugly side underneath.  Norma Desmond lives in one of the city’s most extravagant homes (the now demolished Getty Mansion, which was also used in Rebel Without a Cause), but it’s antiquated furnishings and deteriorating state makes it feel almost like a haunted house, and then ultimately a prison.  Essentially, we see what fame costs an individual in the end, which is often their dignity, their sanity, and in the screenwriter’s case, his life.  That’s the lasting impact of Sunset Boulevard because it makes us aware of the truth that underlies the glitzy falsehoods that the city likes to project.



Directed by Roman Polanski

If there was ever a movie that illustrated the character of a city, this would be it.  Chinatown is both a glorious celebration of the visual splendor of the great city of Los Angeles, while also a scathing indictment of the widespread corruption that made it’s expansion possible.  The story is a fictionalized account of how the San Fernando Valley was suddenly incorporated into the Los Angeles City Limits, allowing for corporate interests to exploit the precious water supply that fed most of the farmland out there, and do so at a cost to the farmers who were scrapping by, all uncovered by a fearless private eye played by Jack Nicholson.  This is the backdrop for the story told by director Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne.  To give their story a unique feel, they drew inspiration from classic film noir of the 40’s and 50’s.  It’s actually quite an easy connection to make considering Los Angeles’ surprisingly robust history in film noir.  When you look at most classic noirs like Double Indemnity (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and yes also Sunset Boulevard, they all use LA as their setting, which is unusual because noir is meant to epitomize dark, shadowy subject matter and photography, and LA is quite famous for it’s abundance of sun.  But, that rich history lends itself perfectly over to Chinatown, which uses it’s LA setting to beautiful effect.  The colors in particular are perfectly saturated to give this movie a by gone era look, despite the the fact that it’s subject matter is decidedly modern.  It’s that beauty found in the collision between the glamour and the savagery of Los Angeles that makes Chinatown the quintessential Southland tale.  You’ll never find a better movie that presents the duality of a complex city quite as well as this one does.

So, as you can see from this list, the thing that defines Los Angeles is it’s many contradictions.  It’s a city full of glamour and rich culture, but also one with a dark edge to it too.  Certainly it’s defining feature is the film industry, which continues to fuel the massive wealth that the city enjoys, but the city is also one struggling to deal with the costs of it’s own rapid growth.  That’s what makes the movies on this list so distinguished, because they all capture the essence of this multi-faceted city that has many different sides to it.  You see the colorful but less glamorous side of the city portrayed in The Big LebowskiPulp Fiction, and Boogie Nights, while La La Land and Sunset Boulevard show off the glamour but illustrate the toll that it takes on the people.  And then there’s a valuable movie like Boyz N The Hood, which brought a much needed voice to a segment of the city that had long been marginalized.  I myself see the many different shades of Los Angeles in my own life.  I live outside the heart of Hollywood, making my home in the Valley where it can be comfortable, but far from glamorous.  I don’t go to extravagant parties in opulent mansions or eat in the swankiest of restaurants.  But, I am only a stone’s throw away from some of the world’s most famous and extravagant movie palaces as well as near many of the landmarks seen in these movies.  I have strolled through Griffith Park, walked through the front doors of the Griffith Observatory, and have bowled on the lanes as the Dude.  While Los Angeles can be a tough place, I am still happy to call it home, and these 10 movies all illustrate the many reasons why I love it so much.  It’s only fitting that the industry it helped foster would reflect back and show the character of this one-of-a-kind city to the rest of the world.

A Wrinkle in Time – Review

Every now and then, a movie arrives at a time where it is seen to be a statement for it’s time.  And I don’t mean just in the content of the film itself, but also for what it represents as a milestone of a production.  Sometimes a movie breaks new ground in technology or addresses a taboo social issue that has long been overlooked.  But one thing that especially stands out over time in Hollywood is the advancements made in representation.  Over the years, Hollywood has recognized it’s shortcomings when it comes to representing all groups within society, whether it be based around race, ethnicity, creed, or sexuality, and in several instances you will see the industry try to reach out with movies that address those communities directly.  But, the difference between who makes the movies and who those movies are directed towards have been a sticking point for many, as Hollywood has remained a predominantly white, male-centered industry for the longest time, at least when it comes to the work behind the camera.  That has led to some people making that lack of diversity an issue and worth holding Hollywood accountable for that.  In recent years, we have seen some studios address that issue by not only seeking out talent in all fields that represent a more diverse society, but also in taking a chance by giving them big budget, tent-pole films to work on.  And, the results have proven that diversity is indeed a positive for the industry.  Last year, Wonder Woman became a landmark by becoming the highest grossing movie ever directed by a woman, and about a female superhero no less.  This year, the Afro-centric Black Panther from Ryan Coogler is shattering box office records, left and right, again obliterating the preconceived notions that films by white males are all that make money.  The trend continues now with Disney’s adaptation of the young adult novel, A Wrinkle in Time, with rising African-American director Ava DuVernay getting her first shot at making a statement with a  big Hollywood film.

DuVernay made a name for herself with the critically acclaimed biopic of Martin Luther King Jr., Selma (2014) and then she received an Oscar nomination for her documentary, 13th, a year later.  Some believed that her lack of a directing nomination for Selma was one of the more egregious snubs by the Academy in recent years, which was part of the fuel for the “Oscars So White” campaign that changed both the way the Academy votes and increased the diversity within it’s membership.  She herself became the first black woman ever accepted into the Academy’s director’s branch, which quite the honor in it’s own way.  But, all this helped to keep her a hot new name in the industry, leading some to believe that she was indeed ready to undertake bigger and more prestigious projects.  Eventually, Ava took an offer from Disney to direct an ambitious adaptation of a literary classic that they have long held the rights to.  Written in 1962 by author Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time is the first of a series of science fantasy novels that have ever since become a essential reading for young adult fans for several generations.  Though many have tried, few have ever gotten a film adaptation off the ground, leading many to believe that the trippy, existential tome is un-filmmable.  Disney has held onto the rights for the longest time, and even assembled a small scale TV-movie based on the book, which fell way short of capturing the essence of the novel.  But with a hungry and interested filmmaker like Ava Duvernay ready to give it her own shot, Disney felt confident in not just giving her the reigns, but also attaching a sizable budget to it, which itself is groundbreaking, because that’s never been done before for a woman of color in the director’s chair.  The only question now is, did Ava Duvernay deliver on that potential and make A Wrinkle in Time both work as a milestone and a work of art, or was it perhaps too much wishful thinking?

A Wrinkle in Time follows the story of a young mixed race girl named Meg Murray (Storm Reid) who struggles in school despite her demonstrated intelligence.  The disappearance of her astro-physicist father, Mr. Murray (Chris Pine) has hit her hard, and she has withdrawn from the world as a result, losing friends and alienating herself amongst others.  She receives support from her intelligent but strange little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), as well as her molecular scientist mother Mrs. Murray (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but nothing seems to pull her out of her gloom.  Then, one night, she is visited by a strange, unusually dressed individual named Ms. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) who tells Meg that she has information as to the whereabouts of her missing father.  It turns out that his experiments with molecular manipulation opened up a Tesseract, which is a fold within the space-time continuum.  Now he is lost somewhere in another dimension and it’s up to Meg to use her intelligence to find him.  Assisted by a curious young man from her school named Calvin (Levi Miller),  Meg meets Mrs. Whatsit again along with her two equally powerful fellow mystical beings; the wise words obsessed Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and the all-knowing Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey).  Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace all pass through the time “wrinkle” and end up on another planet where it is believed that Meg’s father has ventured through.  While they take in the glorious and fascinating sights of this new world, the trio become aware of a dark presence that loom on the horizon.  The mystical “witches” tell them that this dark cloud is evil in it’s purest form, known simply as the IT,  and it’s spreading  darkness across the galaxy, infesting minds and turning people against each other.  Though they are advised to stay away, Meg is compelled to face the darkness, believing that her father lies trapped within it’s grasp.  But, does she have enough within herself to face the darkness of the IT and find her father before it’s too late.

It’s very clear that adapting A Wrinkle in Time to the big screen was not going to be an easy undertaking.  It is a very cerebral, high concept story that requires a lot to be drawn from the interpretations of the reader as they image the worlds that author L’Engle describes in her writing.  To bring that to life on the big screen requires an imaginative mind bold enough to do justice to L’Engle’s vision.  Ava DuVernay is nothing but fearless as a director, and she deserves a lot of credit for being bold enough to want to see these visions brought to life.  But, the story has often been called un-filmmable for a good reason, and this movie is evidence of that.  I’m sorry to say but this adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time is a colossal mess as a movie.  To clarify, I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how the movie actually stacks up, but what I saw just based off the film’s plot, I saw it as meandering, uncoordinated, and quite frankly underwhelming given talent involved.  Believe me, I want to see Ava DuVernay succeed as a big, studio filmmaker, but this isn’t the movie that is going to establish her as that type of director just yet.  It’s clear almost from the very beginning of the movie that her grasp on the reigns of this film is not strong enough, and the movie struggles to find an identity as a result.  In particular, the pacing of the movie never gives the movie a chance to define it’s own logic.  It’s clear that they were trying to force through a lot of the content from the book into the movie’s relatively short 105 minute run-time, and it makes the whole thing very exposition heavy.  There’s a rule to film-making where it’s said that it’s better to show, not tell in order to deliver key information to the audience, as film is a visual medium that allows images to carry more power.  This movie seems to break that rule constantly, as characters (particularly the witches) seem to exist solely to explain what is going on and what things are, making it seem like the movie doesn’t trust it’s audience to figure things out on their own.  It goes on like this throughout the movie, and I found myself becoming very frustrated with it as a result.

This is more of a problem with the uninspired screenplay more than anything else.  Written by Frozen (2013) scribe Jennifer Lee, the screenplay seems to be too married to the content of the original novel.  There is a lot of information delivered and it seems like the script wanted to make sure that everything was spelled out for us.  Because of this, scenes merely exist to reveal new information for our characters, rather than allowing us to absorb the atmosphere of the story.  Adapting a novel is tricky, because you don’t want to change too much in fear of angering die hard fans of the original book.  But, if you try to include too much of what’s on the page, then your film feels constrained because it feels like too much is being funneled through a very narrow passage.  That’s what the movie felt like to me, because it was all moving forward without rhyme or reason and nothing was connecting.  The lack of wonder is especially problematic, because the eye-catching worlds visited should leave an impression, both on the characters and on us, but no time is given to set things up, so it’s all sort of just casually presented without a sense of the magical.  There’s a colony of sentient flowers who communicate through colors; that’s an interesting idea.  Are they going to impact the story at all?  Nope, they are just a side-show on the way to the next elaborate visual effect.  Reese Witherspoon’s Mrs. Whatsit can transform into a giant floating leaf of cabbage.  Okay, why?  What’s more, we get a trite love-conquers-all resolution to the story, and it seems like the script forgot to connect the idea of how the fantastical journey opens up a new understanding of the inner working’s of the universe itself.  The story is called A Wrinkle in Time, because it uses the manipulation of the laws of physics and time as a starting off point into the realm of fantasy.  The universe is strange and wonderful, but it is grounded by the fact that science can provide a solution to every unexplained phenomenon.  The movie treats it like an afterthought, minimizing the impact of the fascinating scientific possibilities and merely just uses each sight as a showcase for the film’s lavish production values.  It’s pretty, yes, but hollow, and a better more streamlined screenplay could have helped us appreciate all the scientific questions and imaginative what-if speculations that the original story had.

As a director, Ava DuVernay knows how to find emotion in a story, but she’s also still a filmmaker trying to refine her style.  This is only her third narrative film as a director, and that lack of experience is apparent when watching this movie.  That being said, I do give her a lot of credit for actually trying.  The best thing I can say about this movie is that it’s clear that Ava was invested in making this the best that it could be.  She wasn’t just trying to collect a paycheck, she really was pushing herself as an artist, trying to flex her muscles in areas of storytelling that were completely new to her.  In a way, she triumphs in that department, because the movie is quite visually stunning in some parts.  There are some compositions that I found very effective, and it showed me that in spite of the convoluted way that the story was being told, Ava at least was trying to give it some resonance visually.  The film does feel generic in the first half, with the movie looking more akin to a big budget TV pilot than anything else.  But, it’s at the point when the characters arrive at the home planet of the IT that Ava really begins to get creative, and the sequences in this section of the film show her experimenting more and getting better results.  I especially like the creepy sequence in a suburban setting with children bouncing balls in perfect, eerie unison.  It’s in this sequence where we see what the movie could have been had it been given more leeway to define it’s own identity.  Though Ava DuVernay has the skills to craft an emotionally resonant film, the high demands of such an expensive and elaborate production may have hindered her creative juices, and caused the movie to feel far more generic than it should have been.  I hope that Ava takes some key lessons from this experience and understands what it takes to deliver more emotion out of a larger scale film the next time she’s given this opportunity, which I hope happens.  It may not have come together as well as we all hoped, but I don’t put the blame on her shoulders.

Another mixed bag for this film is the cast itself.  There are some very good performances here, as well as some not so good ones, and some frankly insufferable ones too.  I do have to praise Storm Reid’s performance as Meg Murray.  The role of the problematic protagonist of this story had to be a tricky one for her to pull off, because if she put too much emotion into the character, she would have seemed to be inauthentic and unlikable, and too little emotion would have made her shallow and boring.  She finds the right balance, allowing us to at least find sympathy in the character of Meg and hope for her to find a happy resolution to her story.  Chris Pine is also quite good here as Mr. Murray.  He believably conveys the persona of a man who has long been disconnected from the reality that he has known, as well as the remorse he feels for leaving that normalcy behind, especially when confronted with how it has negatively affected his children.  But these are pretty much the only worthwhile performances in the movie.  The witches, sadly, leave such a minor impression, when they should have really been the movie’s highlight.  Oprah does little more than stand around and appear regal, while Reese Witherspoon tries desperately to act whimsical and fails badly.  Mindy Kailing is the more subtle and effective of the three, but she too leaves little impression.  Part of the problem is the fact that the script just doesn’t give these characters any context.  They appear magically, provide guidance, and then disappear when their job is complete.  We don’t know where they come from nor what their agenda is.  They are just fantastical for the sake of it, and in the end, it makes them less magical.  Levi Miller’s Calvin contributes absolutely nothing to the story other than to provide Meg with companionship and a potential love interest; ironically, becoming a reversal of the trope used in movies of this type where this character was typically a woman alongside a male hero, just there to look pretty and contribute nothing else.  I guess that’s progressive in a way, but it would be better to ditch the trope completely.  The most insufferable character though is Charles Wallace.  This is the worst kind of precocious child character that you’ll find in any movie; speaking lines that are way out the range of a child (intelligent or not) and with little sense of subtlety as well.  I’m sure that the little boy playing him is charming and likable in person, but that doesn’t come across at all in the film, and the movie becomes painful to watch because of this sometimes.  It’s another unfortunate result of a movie that delivers too little in return given what it had the potential for.

I want to see Hollywood take more chances with directors that come from all varieties of backgrounds.  We are already seeing this happen in a big way with Black Panther, and that success is already opening many doors that were once closed before.  Ava DuVernay has the potential to become part of that new movement too, given her passion for directing and telling bold, interesting stories.  Unfortunately, A Wrinkle in Time is just not that movie that makes the best case for her.  Believe me, I wanted to come away from this movie having loved it.  Ava seems like such a fascinating person with and the right kind of mind to take on a story as complex as this.  But, the movie meanders through a half-baked plot that never allows the story to flourish the way it’s supposed to.  I don’t know exactly how readers of the original novel are going to react to this film, but as a novice to this story, I found myself frustrated with the way it never once made me care about what was going on.  A story like A Wrinkle in Time could have been something really special and important for our time; providing a perfect criss-crossing of fantasy and science that could inspire a whole new generation of film-goers who are perhaps a bit deprived of both in movies today.  I could see this as a film that could have lived up to fantastical cinematic journeys like The Wizard of Oz (1939), Labyrinth (1986) and The Neverending Story (1987).  Instead, it became just another over-produced blunder that favors production design and visual effects over a compelling story, which is happening to too many fantasy films these days as studios play things perhaps too safe.  At least Ava DuVernay salvages a bit of the movie by putting some effort and passion into it.  But, at a time when movements like the one she represents needs a bold, statement that’s also successful, A Wrinkle in Time ends up leaving us, to use a phrase from the movie, “frankly underwhelmed.”

Rating: 6/10

The 2018 Oscars – Picks and Thoughts

This year’s Academy Awards follows up what many would consider one of the most tumultuous in the history of the industry.  Forget about the winners and losers at the box office, what really shook the walls of Hollywood was the far reaching scandals that dominated much of the headlines.  Numerous careers, including some high profile power players in Hollywood, were destroyed overnight and for a lot of them, it was for a good reason.  2017 was a year of reckoning for Hollywood after many years of trying to keep things under wraps and just moving on like it’s nothing.  No doubt it has left a deep impact on the entertainment business, and there were plenty of casualties along the way (for good and bad), but the conversation needed to be made and change had to happen.  This Oscar’s, we will hopefully be witnessed to a more aware and responsible Hollywood, and the controversy will certainly be touched upon over the course of the evening, as previous award shows this season have shown.  It remains to be seen if those same feelings manifest in the way that the Academy voters have cast their ballots this year.  There certainly are a number of movies nominated this year that hit on topical social issues, like Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, Steven Spielberg’s The Post, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, and most certainly Jordan Peele’s Get Out.  But what I find fascinating about this line up of Best Picture nominees is how it demonstrates clearly something that  discussed in last week’s article, which is the growing divide between old Hollywood and new Hollywood.  In the 9 nominees, you can see choices that represent the previous held notions of what traditionally makes up an Oscar film (Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, The Post, Phantom Thread) and choices that contradict the traditional notions (Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards).  As a result, we now have one of the least predictable Best Picture lineups in recent history, and as last year has shown, it’s anybody’s race.

As in previous years, I will be taking a look at the top categories of Adapted Screenplay, Orignal Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Actor, Actress, Director and Best Picture.  I will argue my choices for who will likely win and who I would like to see win, which sometimes lines up.  And with that, let’s take a look at this year’s nominees.


Nominees: James Ivory (Call Me by Your Name); Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green (Logan); Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game); Dee Rees and Virgil Williams (Mudbound); and Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Disaster Artist)

This is the perhaps the most interestingly diverse category at this year’s Oscars; at least in terms of the movies represented.  You have a historical, literary adaptation in Mudbound, a memoir adaptation that is loosely tied to it’s source and might have well been an original screenplay if it weren’t based on real life like Molly’s Game, a farcical retelling of the making of the worst movie ever with The Disaster Artist, a tender queer romance with Call Me by Your Name, and even a comic book adaptation with Logan.  While many of these nominees are commendable for a variety of reasons, and I’m especially happy to see a little love sent The Disaster Artist’s way after being snubbed in other categories, this category is leaning very clearly towards a particular favorite.  Call Me by Your Name has emerged as the front runner and it’s hard to argue.  It handles it’s subject matter in such a delicate way and gives it a universal resonance for today that I don’t think it would have had at any other time.  Couple this with the fact that the script was written by a living legend in Hollywood who has yet to win an Oscar.  89 year old James Ivory is best known as one half of the Merchant Ivory team that made a name for itself creating lush period dramas that were particularly popular with Oscar voters in the past, such as A Room with a View (1986), Howard’s End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993).  Though retired from directing, Ivory still managed to craft an exceptional screenplay with a tender love story between two men at it’s center that really feels remarkably in tune for our times.  I still find it subversively delightful that someone close to 90 years of age sat down and wrote out the now notorious “peach scene” into a script.  It’s a long overdue honor for a legendary filmmaker and deserving given how well it hits a cultural nerve for today’s audiences.

Who Will Win: James Ivory, Call Me by Your Name

Who Should Win: James Ivory, Call Me by Your Name


Nominees: Jordon Peele (Get Out); Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird); Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon (The Big Sick); Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water); Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

This category more or less falls into line with the usual suspects as opposed to this year’s adapted nominees.  Though diverse in genre, all the movies here have one thing in common, which is that they are all personal creations from each of their creators.  Whether they are semi-autobiographical like The Big Sick or Lady Bird, or making a bold statement like Get Out or Three Billboards, or is a passion project from an acclaimed auteur like The Shape of Water, each one has a clear personal story attached to it.  This is also the category where the Academy is likely going to make it’s own acknowledgement of the cultural issues of the day.  With that in mind it’s likely that Three Billboards and Get Out are the movies that have the best chance of winning in this field.  But, which issue wins out in the end.  Get Out delivers a daring message about race relations in America that takes left turns that you probably would’ve never expected and is certainly on a structural aspect the most original script in this bunch.  But Three Billboards tackling of sensitive issues like sexual abuse, freedom of expression, and gender discrimination make it a far more timely film in this category.  While Martin McDonagh’s screenplay is delightfully un-PC and thoroughly original in concept, his handling of these touchy issues is somewhat less graceful, and it makes me think that Jordan Peele has the edge here with his more on-point Get Out.  And while I do admire the work that both men put into their writing, my own personal preference goes to Greta Gerwig’s more subtle work with Lady Bird.  With her screenplay, Gerwig delivers one of the most natural feeling character studies in recent memories.  All the other nominees are driven more by their well designed plots, but Gerwig paints a portrait, transporting us into her character’s lives and letting us feel at home with them.  It’s the least “movie” script of the bunch and that’s why I like it the best of the bunch, even if it’s chances are slim.

Who Will Win: Jordan Peele, Get Out

Who Should Win: Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird


Nominees: Allison Janney (I, Tonya); Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird); Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread); Mary J. Blige (Mudbound); and Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water)

The Supporting Actress category is an interesting line-up this year because of the pedigree involved.  Usually this award is distinguished by a collection of up-and-coming talent or by standout performances from seasoned veterans.  This year is interesting, because apart from previous winner Octavia Spencer, the category is filled with first time nominees who have been noteworthy in places other than the big screen.  Lesley Manville, a mainstay in her native England both on stage and in indie dramas, delivered a standout performance in Phantom Thread, managing to even upstage Daniel Day-Lewis at some points remarkably.  And R&B recording artist Mary J. Blige managed to earn an acting nod for her tender work in Mudbound, while also getting a Best Song nod at the same time (an Oscar first).  But, it’s a pair of two acclaimed TV veterans that are leading the pack this year; Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf.  Allison Janney, a multi-Emmy winner for her work on The West Wing series has emerged as a front runner, playing the very rough edged mother of Tonya Harding in I, Tonya.  It’s a showy performance that allows Janney to chew as much scenery as she desires and still feel genuine to the role.  There’s no doubt that Allison makes the best out of the role and she is a delight to watch in the movie; especially when she’s interacting with a pet parakeet on her shoulder.  However, it’s Laurie Metcalf’s more reserved performance as another cinematic mother that won me over more this year.  Her performance as the over-bearing, but dedicated mom to the Saoirse Ronan’s titular character in Lady Bird is a beautiful representation of every nuanced acting ability that Metcalf has honed on television ever since her early Roseanne days and forward.  While it is a close call, I think that Allison Janney’s more bombastic performance probably appealed more to Academy voters and that’s while she’ll win, although Metcalf’s long esteemed body of work might make a good case for her as well.

Who Will Win: Allison Janney, I, Tonya

Who Should Win: Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird


Nominees: Christopher Plummer (All the Money in the World); Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water); Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri); Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project); and Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

The most striking thing about this category was the surprise inclusion of Christopher Plummer for his performance as J. Paul Getty in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World.  For those who followed industry news last year, it was widely publicized that Ridley Scott re-shot multiple sections of his movie in order to remove disgraced actor Kevin Spacey from the role of Getty and replace him with Plummer instead.  Even more amazing was the fact that it was done only a month away from the film’s premiere date.  So, it is quite shocking to see such a late addition to a movie earn recognition from the Academy.  I like to think that Plummer is just that good of an actor, but I think his nomination has more to do with the story behind his casting.  Even still, he is highly unlikely to win this year.  For right now, early predictions put Sam Rockwell at the head of the pack, with his acclaimed but also controversial role as a racist cop seeking redemption in Three Billboards.  Rockwell is a highly respected actor in Hollywood, having worked in a variety of beloved roles over the years, without ever getting recognition from the Academy.  This year seems set to rectify that, but controversy over the movie’s handling of his character has raised questions leading up to the rewards.  The character’s problematic racism is never really addressed in a meaningful way in the film, and that’s making a lot of critics unsettled with honoring it with an Oscar win.  But, I would argue that it’s a fault of the screenplay and not the actor, who still delivers a strong, nuanced performance.  But, as much as I like Rockwell, my personal favorite is Willem Dafoe in the criminally underappreciated The Florida Project.  I want this beautiful, little seen film to have some recognition, and Dafoe’s exceptional performance as a downtrodden hotel manager is the only shot it has.  Rockwell will probably still be victorious, but a surprise win for Dafoe would delight me to no end, and would be very much deserved.

Who Will Win: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Who Should Win: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project


Nominees: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri); Margot Robbie (I, Tonya); Meryl Streep (The Post); Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water); Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird)

One question has undoubtedly arisen ever since the beginning of this year’s Oscar season; can anyone beat Frances McDormand for Best Actress?  Perhaps the biggest lock of this year’s nominees, McDormand looks almost certain to win her second career Academy Award in this category; the first of course for her now iconic performance in the Coen Brothers’ masterpiece, Fargo (1996).  And it is a win that she by all means will have earned.  From the first moment we saw the trailer for Three Billboards, it was clear that this was a role tailor made for Frances to knock it out of the park, and that she did.  She perfectly balances the emotional toil that her infuriated maternal figure goes through along with the laugh out loud “give ’em hell” in-your-face personality.  It’s hard to balance comedy and tragedy in a single role, and Frances McDormand does it so effortlessly.  Among the other nominees, I can’t see any other that quite rises to that same level, despite all of them being very good.  Margot Robbie’s very physical performance as disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding is a definite standout, and any other year, she would be a runaway favorite.  Another strong contender is Sally Hawkins who delivers a passionate and completely wordless performance as the mute female lead of The Shape of Water.  Her character is probably the most nuanced of the group, because there are so many layers of performance that she has to work through, and she makes a tremendous transformation in the process.  But, it’s hard to ignore the force of Frances McDormand’s work this year and I believe that the Academy will feel that same way.  She is a beloved part of the acting community and her performance in Three Billboards is without a doubt one of the greatest of her esteemed career, almost guaranteeing her a second career award.

Who Will Win: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Who Should Win: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


Nominees: Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread); Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out); Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.); Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour); and Timothee Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name)

 On the surface, this would look like another category that appears locked up, but maybe not as much as Frances McDormand for Best Actress.  For right now, the favorite to win is Gary Oldman for his role as legendary British national figure Winston Churchill.  The chameleon like actor has made a name for himself playing a wide variety of roles where he completely disappears into character and can play just about everyone and everything.  His performance as Churchill is no exception, and frankly shows the actor at his very best.  Even through the heavily applied make-up to transform him closer to the famously rotund world leader, he still gives off a commanding presence helping his performance feel authentic and true to the real person.  He chews the scenery in the best way possible and has a magnetic pressence in every scene he is in.  It’s hard to believe that such an esteemed and multi-faceted actor like Oldman is coming into this Awards with only his second nomination ever (the first being for 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).  It feels like this is both an acknowledgement of his whole body of work thus far, as well a honor given to the strength of the performance itself.  The only thing that I can see spoiling Gary Oldman’s win is a possible upset by young, up-and-comer Timothee Chalamet.  The Academy does love honoring a breakthrough performance every now and then, and Chalamet’s heartfelt work in Call Me by Your Name feels like something that appeals to the Academy.  It’s not the first time that the Oscars went with a newcomer over an established veteran who was long overdue (2014’s Best Actor category for example, where Eddie Redmayne won over Michael Keaton).  But, despite how strong and deserving Chalamet may be in this category, it seems unlikely that the Academy will miss this oppurtunity to honor Oldman with a long overdue award.  Chalamet still has a long career ahead of him, and a nomination this year itself is going to lead to a lot of bigger and better things.

Who Will Win: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour

Who Should Win: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour


Nominees: Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk); Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird); Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water); Jordan Peele (Get Out); and Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread)

This is a difficult category for me to make a personal choice for.  The front-runners, Christopher Nolan and Guillermo del Toro, are two of my favorite working directors and they just so happened to direct my top two favorite movies of last year.  It’s also remarkable that it took the Academy this long to finally give them a nomination despite their exceptional bodies of work even before this year.  Nolan in particular was often seen as the poster boy for being criminally overlooked by the Academy after snubs for his acclaimed work on The Dark Knight (2008) and Inception (2010).  The category this year is especially significant for being filled with many first time nominees, with only Paul Thomas Anderson being the one who has been here before.  Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig both received deserved nominations for their first ever films as directors, but this is a year where that still favors more established creators.  Guillermo del Toro seems to have the edge with his previous wins at the Golden Globes and Driectors Guild, both clear bell-weather precursors to an Oscar win.  But, I think that Christopher Nolan’s work in Dunkirk could manage an upset victory in the end, because his film is probably the best showcase of the craft of directing in this category.  Dunkirk is a tour de force of filmmaking from beggining to end, showing off really the pinnacle of what the medium of film can do with so many in camera tricks accomplished without the aide of visual effects.  Given that the category of Directing is voted upon for the most part by other directors, it would seem hard to ignore what Nolan accomplished with Dunkirk.  But, even still, Del Toro has already built up a steady lead with his wins so far, and if he wins, it is not undeserving either.  The Shape of Water is a purely Del Toro film, carrying all the trademark elements that he has refined throughout his celebrated career and it would be very pleasing to see the Academy recognize that as well.  Regardless of who wins, it will be a deserving honor for one of the industry’s best talents working today.

Who Will Win: Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

Who Should Win: Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk


Nominees Call Me by Your Names; Darkest Hour; Dunkirk; Get Out; Lady Bird; Phantom Thread; The Post; The Shape of Water; and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

This is a significantly different year than what we saw at the last Oscars.  It seemed like the Best Picture of 2016 was without a doubt going to be the heavily favored La La Land, until it wasn’t.  That unpredictable result seems to have cast a shadow over this year’s nominees, because everyone now seems weary of picking an outright favorite now that it’s possible that anything can win.  There are some that are certainly rising to the top more than others, but it seems like every week since the nominations were announced there is a new front runner emerging.  To complicate things, people are also trying to make sense of this year’s race by returning to previous established notions of the Academy.  Some say The Shape of Water is the favorite because it has the most nominations, but recent years have shown that not to be a guarantee.  Three Billboards won the SAG ensemble award, and because most Academy members are actors, it must be the favorite, but that’s not always true either.  Then there’s Get Out, which some people might think has a definite chance because it’s message is timely and the Academy likes to make a have something to say about the current political climate.  But, as I wrote in last weeks article, the Academy has a strange way of changing it’s attitude towards previously conceived notions of itself and going in a wildly different direction than we expected.  That’s why there is no clear front-runner this year and this is really an Award up for grabs.  My own choice of course would be the movie that I picked as my favorite of the year, Dunkirk, which could possibly sneak in there and win too, despite the fact that it would appear the safest choice in the group.  It helps to have a lot of other wins in the lower categories too, which could help Dunkirk, but the movie that is in better position to sweep through multiple awards is The Shape of Water.  A win for that too wouldn’t upset me, because it was my second favorite film of the year, and it would be a deserved victory for genre flicks, which the Academy tends to ignore.  But, we at this point have no choice but to guess which way the Academy will go.  My guess is that Del Toro’s certain win for Directing will help carry The Shape of Water past the goal line, but anyone’s guess right now is as good as mine.

Who Will Win: The Shape of Water

Who Should Win: Dunkirk

In addition to looking over the top categories of the year, here is my quick rundown of the remaining categories at this year’s ceremony, with my picks:

Best Animated Film: CocoBest Cinematography: DunkirkBest Costume Design: Phantom ThreadBest Sound Mixing: Dunkirk; Best Film EditingDunkirkBest Sound Editing: DunkirkBest Visual Effects: War for the Planet of the Apes; Best Make-up an Hairstyling: Darkest HourBest Production Design: The Shape of Water; Best Original Song: “Remember Me” from CocoBest Musical Score: The Shape of WaterBest Documentary: Faces PlacesBest Foreign Language Film: The SquareBest Documentary Short: Heroin(e); Best Live Action Short: DeKalb Elementary; Best Animated Short: Dear Basketball

So there are my picks for this year’s Academy Awards.  At the end of a tumultuous year that we witnessed in Hollywood, it seems only fitting that the year end Awards accolades should also reflect that same kind of level of uncertainty.   What pleases me is that the Academy is making an effort to really broaden it’s perspective and favor some not so easy choices for awards consideration now.  I don’t think that movies like Get Out or Lady Bird would’ve ever made the cut in previous years, and the embrace of more genre flicks like The Shape of Water is a good sign of the Academy waking up to broader cinematic voices.  Even with all that said, my personal favorite is unfortunately the most typical “Oscar-friendly” film in the bunch.  Dunkirk certainly falls into the historical epic category that the Oscars have always fawned over, but it’s a changing world and something like it, which would have been a clear front-runner before, now seems to be almost too safe.  Regardless, the Academy is making the right move in bringing in more diverse voices into their membership, and that is helping to make it possible for more daring and groundbreaking movies to get the recognition they deserve.  Whether or not this year is a reflection of change in the Academy, we’ll have to wait and see, but even still, there will be a lot of deserving winners at this year’s Awards. There’s not a single movie in the Best Picture category that I didn’t like, which is a good sign, and 6 of the 9 made my top 10 list for last year.  I hope that my favorite film can pull through and win, but I’m used to seeing that not be the case.  And usually it won’t matter in the end, because great movies live on forever, while Oscar wins usually tend to be forgotten.  The Oscars are more or less a grade card for the industry over the previous year in film, and with that, it acts as a fascinating documentation of where our culture stands at the moment, and provides a fascinating snapshot of Hollywood that we can look back on years from now.  That’s why I love the Oscars so much as a film history buff, and it’ll keep me coming back to it year after year.

Golden Boy – The Pitfalls of Predicting Who Will Win an Oscar

The Oscars are around the corner again, and naturally the vibe around Hollywood is one of excitement leading up to the big night.  For many film enthusiasts, it is also a big night, carrying as much weight for them as say the Super Bowl does for others, only in a televised program with far lower ratings.  And much like the Super Bowl, you’ll find many people who usually make a game out of predicting who will win, whether it be in office betting pools, simple wagers, or even actual gambling within a casino setting.  Everyone has their favorites to be sure when it comes to who they want to see walk away with an Oscar, but there are a growing number out there who are more and more serious about having the edge when it comes to knowing who will win.  And it’s not just for the major categories like Best Picture, Best Actor or Best Actress; it’s all the down list categories as well.  In a way, it’s kind of a good thing for the business because it’s getting people more interested in the often overlooked categories like the Shorts , helping those films to gain exposure that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.  But, when more is at stake for those making those predictions, the need to know how the results will turn out becomes even more of a big deal.  Nowadays, you will see every publication that covers the industry release their own Oscar predictions in these weeks leading up to the awards, making their own best guesses as to how it will all play out; and considering how much insider access that they are usually granted, it’s safe to say that they have a good finger on the pulse.  But, for those who want to put money down on the results of the Oscars, they should take note of the fact that now matter how much of an inside tract many people might have, the Awards have still shown time and again that nothing is certain.

Case in point, the results of last year’s Academy Awards; probably the most unpredictable that we’ve ever seen in recent memory.  And I’m not just talking about the now infamous flub at the end of the night where the wrong card was read for the night’s top award, although I don’t think anyone in a million years could have predicted that to happen.  I’m talking about the unprecedented come from behind victory that took the modest, little seen Moonlight (2016) to beat out the heavily favored La La Land (2016) for Best Picture.  Common wisdom would have told you that La La Land was going to steamroll through the Academy Awards ceremony unchallenged.  It was nominated for a record tying 14 awards, and the other two movies that have achieved that mark before went on to win Best Picture as well (1950’s All About Eve, 1997’s Titanic).  By contrast, Moonlight received 8 nominations, which is a good amount, but pale in comparison to La La Land.  La La Land was also a box office hit, earning more than $100 million domestically, while Moonlight was pretty much seen by only a handful of audiences in small art house cinemas across the country.  By all accounts, this upset should never have happened.  And as the awards ceremony played out last year, it seemed like nothing out of the ordinary was going to happen.  La La Land came to the final award of the night with 6 already in their pocket, including big ones for director Damien Chazelle and star Emma Stone.  Moonlight had picked up it’s expected awards for Screenplay and Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali.  So, when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway opened up the wrong envelope that was handed to them, and mistakenly thought that La La Land had won, it didn’t appear to anyone that anything was out of the ordinary.  Until it was.  What last year’s Awards proved is that a lot of the Awards season is built around compliance and expectations, much of which the actual Academy seems to enjoy working against.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (A.M.P.A.S) has been an integral part of the movie business ever since the early days of the art-form.  Created in 1927 by MGM studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, the organization was founded to honor and promote the various artistic and technical achievements accomplished within the industry, and help to promote those honorees to the rest of the world.  The Academy held it’s first Academy Awards 90 years ago in the famed Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, and it was little more than a banquet with only a handful of awards unceremoniously handed out in a quick 10 minute session.  Since then, both the Awards and the Academy grew in stature and prestige to become the chief authority over quality within the industry.  Despite all the many different awards given out to movies and professionals throughout the year within the industry, it all culminates with the Oscars, and that has mainly been due to the fact that it has set the standard for the longest amount of time.  But to understand the way the Academy Awards are selected, you need to know a bit about who is actually casting the votes.  The Academy is made up of a voting body of 6,000 or more members, all divided up into different branches depending on those members’ selective profession; Producers, Actors, Writers, Directors, and Technicians.  The actual full roster is a closely guarded secret by the Academy, but individual members are allowed to declare themselves as a voting member.  Membership is also granted to an individual by the Academy; no one can buy their way in or demand membership, it can only be given out by the Academy board itself as a recognition of the new member’s merit as a contributor to the industry.  Once a member, the voter casts a ballot for the categories within it’s own branch, and then votes as part of the full body of the Academy for the top prize; Best Picture.  It’s basically an honor given out by an elite group of industry professionals, rewarding the accomplishments of their peers.  But, a lot of the secretive nature behind how the Academy runs their balloting has caused it to face a lot of heat over the years.

The most common complaint leveled at the Academy is that they are often out of touch.  It is true that some of the Academy’s choices for Best Picture have not really stood the test of time that well, and it is often a reflection of the fact that the Academy membership skews more heavily towards a certain demographic.  If you were to judge the make-up of the Academy based on their tastes in movies as well as by who’s declared themselves publicly as members, you would be right in assuming that it’s made up of mostly white males over the age of 50.  One of the perks that has long existed with being a part of the Academy is a lifetime membership.  And as some of those members grow much older, they tend to hold onto their own preferences in movies, instead of say newer trends.  This became a major issue when people were complaining that critically acclaimed and highly successful genre flicks were being ignored in favor of smaller, socially minded dramas instead.  The lack of a Best Picture nod for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) put extra pressure on the Academy to change their dismissive attitude towards genre flicks, and they did so by expanding the nomination field from 5 to as much as 10 Best Picture nominees.  But, an even bigger issue was raised when it became clear that the Academy was suffering from a distinct lack of diverse representation among it’s members.  The “Oscars So White” campaign took the Academy to task for it’s lack of nominations to people of color, and while complaining about who wasn’t nominated was a bit misguided, the movement did raise awareness of the fact that the voting body of the Academy needed to change.  Then Academy President Cheryl Boone Issacs thankfully recognized this and sought to make a change.  In the year after “Oscars So White” the Academy made sweeping reforms to their voting standards, meaning that privileges must be earned through continued work within the industry, and not just left to people long out of touch and just resting on their laurels.  Also, a huge expansion of membership was started, with a focus on bringing in professionals from more diverse backgrounds.  With these sweeping changes, it doesn’t seem all that shocking that the Academy would gravitate towards a riskier choice like Moonlight instead of a safe bet like La La Land.

You can see a lot of these instances where the Academy gives into these push and pull efforts made within the industry.  For the most part, it does leave the organization in a better overall standing by the end, with their authority as the final word for film quality at year’s end remaining in tact.  But, change often has to come from outside, because there are definitely periods of complacency that still cast their shadow over the Academy.  These periods are often the ones that make it easier for the odds makers, because it’s when the Academy becomes predictable.  One of the more recent periods of predictable behavior from the Academy was when they seemed to have an infatuation with movies that celebrated the industry itself.  This was evident with the Best Picture wins of The Artist (2011) and Argo (2012), both of which portray the industry in the most glamorous and heroic light possible.  When you remember that the Academy is made up of industry professionals from several different branches, it doesn’t seem all that unusual that they would fawn over stories that flatter the work that they do.  But, even this trend was short lived and last year proved that a changing industry is more relevant now than before.  La La Land, another movie that celebrates the mystique of Hollywood, seemed almost tailor made to follow in The Artist and Argo’s footsteps, until the indie drama about an inner city black man coming to grips with his own homosexuality proved that notion wrong.   While some things are easy to predict about the Oscars, the thing that is far less predictable is when the Academy itself makes it’s heel turn and completely works against expectations.  We saw that heel turn manifest last year and who knows how it will play out in the years to come.  For one thing, it shows that paying close attention to how the Academy itself is operating is a key factor in trying to predict who will win an Award.

Another factor to take into account is the way that the Academy, and by extension, the industry wants to be perceived.  This is an industry that prides itself on glamour and it often extends out towards those that the industry chooses to best represent them.  Oftentimes the easiest categories to handicap for the Oscars usually are the acting categories, and one common trend that you’ll notice among the recipients of the Awards is the fact that they themselves represent a side of the industry that the Academy wants to push forward.  There are exceptions to be sure, as some performances are just too good to overlook (Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds for example), but oftentimes the award goes to someone merely for who they are and the performance is irrelevant.  Sometimes it’s for a long overdue Award for symbolizing a career achievement (Al Pacino in 1992 for Scent of a Woman), sometimes it’s for being that year’s breakout star (Alicia Vikander in 2015 for The Danish Girl), and sometimes it’s because the Academy loves a good career revival (Matthew McConaughey in 2013 for The Dallas Buyers Club).  But, there are some not so positive aspects about the predictability of the acting Oscar recipients, especially when you consider that the female led category winners skew far younger and prettier than their male counterparts.  The lack of diversity is also an issue, as few winners have ever been people of color; especially problematic when you consider there has still only been one Best Actress winner who is black in the 90 year history of the award.  The categories are more than any other the ones that benefit from the exposure that the performers put out before the ceremonies.  If you play by the Academy’s game, you are more likely to come out a winner.  But, the Academy, to it’s credit, recognizes the shortcomings they have plagued their image before.  Had people not made such a big deal about “Oscars So White,” we probably wouldn’t have seen movies like Moonlight get as much exposure as it otherwise would’ve had, and Mahershala Ali’s Oscar winning work might not have turned up as so.  But, if the nominee fits into the types that the Academy still likes, such as playing a historically significant figure or someone with a disability, then it’s easy to see why those same performances year in and year out always come up on top.

The industry also looks to the Academy Awards as a stamp of prestige that can help drive up their box office even more.  It’s not uncommon to see the awards distinctions plastered all over the marketing material used for a movie.  And the results are proven as well.  Movies do see a post awards box office bump every year, especially those that win the night’s biggest award.  Sometimes, it’s the thing that the movie needs to turn a profit in the end, so the studios and production companies make a big deal about it.  While casual audiences couldn’t care less, industry professionals spend exorbitant amounts of marketing money to make their final case for Award season gold, and for the most part, they more than anything are what drives the Oscar’s importance to the industry as a whole.  In many cases, this has gone too far.  Among Harvey Weinstein’s many dubious crimes, he was also notorious for influencing members of the Academy with many borderline illegal efforts, leading the Academy to crackdown on excessive campaigns like his.  But usually the louder a movie announces itself to the world, the more likely that it will mislead the casual person into thinking that it is the most likely to win.  That’s been the case more recently as the Academy has seemed to lean towards a trend of spreading the wealth around the industry as opposed to gravitating towards one major winner.  The days of dominant players like TitanicThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) seem to be gone, as few top earners win in many down list categories.  2015’s Best Picture winner Spotlight only won a single other award that night, for Original Screenplay, giving it less of a clear distinctive identity from that Awards.  It’s good for the wider breadth of winners, but less so for the odds makers who want a clearer sense of certainty from their awards, making it so the effort put into the hype is not wasted.

While it may not seem all that important from the outside, there are a lot of people who put a lot of stake into having an inside tract with knowing who will win an Oscar.  There are even websites devoted to year round coverage of the Oscar race, like    Everyone who believes they have a pulse on what Hollywood is going to do Oscar night makes as big deal about their predictions, and for the most part, many guesses are easy to make.  But as we saw with the La La Land/ Moonlight debacle last year, nothing is ever certain.  The best we have to go on are perceptions of who we think are making the ultimate decisions on each year’s ballot, which the Academy still keeps under wraps, and also by the aggressive efforts the studio makes to push their movie forward.  Even still, the Academy plays by it’s own rules and those rules change over time.  Even still, it is worth investing in, especially if you see a disconnect between what the Academy prefers and what audiences respond to.  Because of that, the Academy has thankfully become more diverse over time, but it also has made the awards more predictable.  If you are someone who puts a lot at stake with the Academy Awards every year, it’s best to not to put too much weight behind what the critics and industry insiders think; and yes, I understand the irony of that statement as I use my own site for making Oscar predictions, like I will in next week’s article.  For those who want more insight, just look at the history of the Awards.  The Oscars have less rewarded movies based on their own merits than how they stand as a cultural touchstone.  If you look at how each year has gone, the Awards usually act as more of a statement rather an acknowledgement of it as a work of art.  And this is a thing that changes over time, causing common notions of the industry to be turned around without warning sometimes.  We all try our best to be right, but like many other electoral processes, the end result may turn out to be something that even the system didn’t anticipate.  And while uncertainty is a disadvantage to an invested predictor, it nevertheless makes for a more entertaining Academy Awards, and more drama is what makes the Oscars worthwhile when all is said and done.

Black Panther – Review

The road towards a fully integrated Cinematic Universe hasn’t been an easy one for Marvel.  First of all, they began an ambitious plan to bring all their characters together on screen without even their biggest guns at their disposal; those being Spider-Man and the X-Men (at least not right away).  To put the weight of their plan onto the shoulders of the likes of Iron Man, Thor and Captain America was a risky move to take, but it paid off spectacularly.  Now the face of Marvel comics centers around the team known as the Avengers, and it’s a body of characters that is growing bigger with every new turn and also more diverse.  The great thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it has brought attention to characters from the comics that otherwise wouldn’t have been given the spotlight otherwise.  It has brought interest into the deep and varied Marvel catalog from people who for the most part are unfamiliar with the original comics, just because of how integrated they are to the continuing Marvel narrative.  And this has helped to make once obscure characters like The Vision, Hawkeye, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange become household names on their own.  Somehow, Marvel has tapped into something remarkable here and it has helped their brand achieve astronomical success, ensuring that no matter what character they bring to the screen, they will still yield the same results.  Carefully planning to make this all work is also necessary, and Marvel has chosen it’s progression of projects wisely.  As we approach the end of Phase 3 in the MCU, the studio seems now more confident than ever with granting the spotlight to characters who have long been overlooked before, and with a character like Black Panther finally making it to the big screen, the spotlight carries even more importance than before.

Black Panther is poised to be not just another blockbuster added to Marvel’s collection, but also a groundbreaking film in it’s own right.  Here we have a super hero film that features an African superhero, a predominantly black cast, is written and directed by an African American, and is set almost entirely within the African continent.  No other big studio movie has ever given this much of a focus to an Afrocentric perspective and that alone is groundbreaking.  It of course is not the first movie to center around a black super hero (1998’s Blade) nor is it the first super hero movie to be made by a black director (2005’s Fantastic Four, directed by Tim Story).  Black Panther does however place more focus than any super hero movie before on it’s central character’s cultural significance, both as a symbol and as a role model.  Director Ryan Coogler, who has seen a meteoric rise in Hollywood following his success with Fruitvale Station (2013) and Creed (2015), has made a concerted effort with his adaptation here to tie Black Panther’s story together with his place not just in comic book history but within all of black history itself.  This has led to some more ill-informed critics out there to criticize this movie before it’s release, saying that it is merely propaganda for a “black power” movement.  Before I get into the movie, I really need to point out how bogus a critique this is.  When Marvel legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Black Panther in the 1960’s, they didn’t do so to push some kind of “black” agenda; they created him because he an interesting character with a fascinating story.  The same appeal of the character is what drove Disney and Marvel to green-light a movie adaptation as well.  Really the only ones pushing any kind of agenda are the blowhards trying to capitalize on a popular movie to further their own toxic opinions.  Black Panther is a difference making movie to be sure, but does that translate into an excellent movie in general, or one that is not worthy of the frenzy around it?

The movie follows soon after the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016), where Black Panther made his debut into the MCU.  Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) descends from a long line of monarchs who rule the isolated African nation of Wakanda, and is also bestowed the powers of the Black Panther, which gives him superhuman strength and agility, further enhanced by his super high-tech armor.  After the death of his father T’Chaka (John Cani) from Civil War, T’Challa returns to Wakanda, which is a super advanced technological society that hides it’s true nature from the rest of the world.  There he is crowned the new king through an ancient ritual, conducted by the high priest Zuri (Forest Whitaker), which grants him the full mantle of the Black Panther powers.  He is also granted new advanced armor by his gadget making sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). Upon becoming king, he undertakes his first duty by bringing to justice a longtime enemy of his kingdom, the outlaw smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who has been stealing the nation’s most valuable resource, Vibranium, for decades.  Teamed up with his government’s most valuable spy, and a former girlfriend, named Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and his most trusted general Okoye (The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira) they track Klaue down to a casino in South Korea where he is about to make a black market sale.  The buyer it turns out is an old acquaintance of T’Challa from the Civil War events, CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who is seeking to deal with Klaue his own way.  They capture their target, but argue over what to do with him, and Klaue is broken free by his accomplices.  However, one of those accomplices, a mercenary named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) has his own agenda and betrays Klaue as a way of getting passage into Wakanda.  Once there, he proclaims his own royal ancestry, being the son of T’Challa’s murdered uncle N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), giving him a claim to the throne himself.  With the balance of Wakanda’s future in their hands, T’Challa and Erik battle out for the right of kingship and their victories could end up making Wakanda either an isolated but peaceful nation, or an imperialist world power.

It is quite striking when watching the movie to see just much more political it is than the average Marvel film.  That’s not to say that it is agenda driven, like so many critics have proclaimed, but it doesn’t tip toe around many hard-hitting issues like so many other films of this genre usually do.  The movie refreshingly takes into perspective real world issues, like racial inequality and the evils of imperialism and manages to work them into the grander Marvel Cinematic Universe without ever feeling out of place.  I applaud Marvel for allowing such topics to be risen within their narrative, because in many ways it helps to bring a greater importance to Black Panther’s role as a part of this universe and also help to give a much bigger spotlight to these issues than they otherwise would have had.  The movie also manages to avoid being preachy as well, delivering it’s messages in a way that services the story rather than distracts from them.  Director Ryan Coogler knows what genre he is working within, and he still delivers all the expected thrills you would expect from a Marvel film in addition to never ignoring the larger points.  The effectiveness of how well he touches upon the politics within this movie, both with the internal dynamics of Wakandan society and with those of the real world, is where Coogler’s greatest strengths as a filmmaker come out here.  Black Panther is probably the most richly plotted movie in the MCU, because of the fact that so many of the characters’ motivations have real world implications.  This is especially seen in the dynamic between T’Challa, a noble spirit who has lived his whole life in a bubble, and Erik Killmonger, who has seen nothing but prejudice and hardship his whole life.  It not only makes for an intriguing debate, but a captivating story-line as well.  It’s not the first time that politics have found it’s way into a Super Hero movie, and especially not the first with the MCU, as the Captain America movies have already demonstrated.  But, with Black Panther, the politics feel more integrated than ever into the narrative because here we see that the larger issues not only are a matter of a difference in opinion, but are also tied directly into the identity of ever character within the story.

One of the things that especially makes the movie worthwhile is the characters.  This is perhaps one of the greatest ensembles ever assembled for a super hero film ever; on par with the likes of The Avengers (2012) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  Nearly every character is given plenty to do and some are outright scene-stealers as a result.  What especially special about this is the fact that most of the cast are of either African nationality or of African descent.  Despite their places of origin, some African-American like Chadwick Boseman or Danai Guira, or African-British like Letitia Wright and Daniel Kaluuya, or native African like Lupita Nyong’o, they all do an excellent job of portraying the identity of being part of the rich Wakandan heritage, and making the fictional African nation feel so alive with personality.  I love all the different perspectives that they bring to the story as well, and how they bounce off of each other.  Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia and Danai Gurira’s Okoye offer an interesting contrast in views that help to inform T’Challa’s inner struggle, as the former makes the case for a more open society while the other argues for tradition which has kept them safe.  In particular, I probably enjoyed the character of Okoye the most because of how much her stoic personality contrasted with everyone else, making her a very fun character to watch.  Letitia Wright’s Shuri will probably be a fan favorite because of her often hilarious upbeat attitude, which sometimes leads her to making some off-the-wall mischief.  It’s also neat to see Andy Serkis perform for once without of motion capture animation, and he is clearly relishing it with his scenery chewing performance.  He even gets to share a scene with his Hobbit co-star Martin Freeman, which led to some people jokingly referring to the pair as the “Tolkein white guys” of this movie.  The finest performance though goes to Michael B. Jordan who creates one of the most fascinating Marvel villains ever with Killmonger.  More than any film before, we understand the motivations behind his evil intentions, and it underlines the themes of identity even more within the narrative.  Jordan also does an incredible job of balancing the pathos behind the character with the intimidation that he projects, making him a far more rounded character in general.

If the movie does have a weakness though, I sadly have to say it’s the character of T’Challa himself.  This isn’t to say that the character is all together bad, or that Chadwick Boseman gives a bad performance.  Far from it.  It’s just that the narrative spends so much time giving attention to other aspects of the story, including it’s message and all the supporting character’s plot lines, that it leaves little room left for character development for it’s central hero.  There seems to be big chunks of this movie where T’Challa seems either forgotten or inconsequential to what is going on in the plot, and that sadly causes the movie to lag every time it returns attention back to the character.  In a way, T’Challa is the one victim within his own movie because of it’s placement within the Marvel universe.  Had the movie stood on it’s own, things might have been different for the character, but the reason why he remain so uninteresting within the narrative of this film is because he has already gone through his growth as a character in another movie.  T’Challa had a far more substantive character arc in the events of Captain America: Civil War, where he grew from a person driven by vengeance to eventually becoming someone motivated by mercy.  It’s a character progression that defines the person he is and fits very well into the story of his nation as well.  Unfortunately, because that story line has already been mined somewhere else, it leaves nothing left for the movie with him at the center.  Instead, T’Challa more or less stays the same throughout the narrative, changing very little and only moving towards a conclusion that he was already heading in the first place.  At one point in the movie, T’Challa even disappears for a good chunk of time, making it apparent that even Ryan Coogler found little use for him for a period of time.  Still, Chadwick Boseman’s performance is as solid as ever, carrying over the same charisma he displayed for the character in Civil War.  The positive thing is that he now gets to headline his own movie, and his talents as an actor are used well here, making this a movie that will propel him even further into stardom, which is well deserved.

What I do have to say about the film, apart from the characters and the well delivered political subtext, is just how much it triumphs at world building.  Wakanda is an important location within the Marvel comics mythos, and after a couple teases in prior Marvel films, we finally get to see it in all it’s glory.  A lot of praise must go to the imaginative design team behind this film, because they created a truly awe-inspiring place with Wakanda.  As established within the film, Wakanda has been a community that grew out of ancient African culture but was propelled by it’s access to the valuable resource of Vibranium metal (the same material that Captain America’s shield is made out of).  Because of the valuable properties of their metal, Wakandans hid their true nature from the rest of the world in the hopes that it would prevent bloodshed from arising over possession of the resource.  As a result, their culture grew into a super-advanced society while still maintaining it’s traditional African identity.  What results is this beautifully Africanized metropolis that seems out of this world while at the same time earthbound.  I love the way that the movie mixes supernatural elements like electromagnetic hover crafts and laser projected shields and combines them with traditional African iconography.  These include brilliant ideas like Okoye’s super spear which can take out a moving vehicle, or the majesty of T’Challa’s palace which is modeled after West African mud huts but on the scale of a Dubai skyscraper.  And also, armor-plated rhinos; need I say more.  The costumes alone, done by Ruth E. Carter are eye-catchingly beautiful.  Ryan Coogler and his team brilliantly capture the identity of the Wakandan nation and make it as breathtaking as any world we’ve encountered in the Marvel universe so far.  Doing so is crucial, as Wakanda apparently has a major role to play in the Marvel Universe going forward.  In that regard, the movie has done it’s job brilliantly, because I am ever so eager to see more of Wakanda after this film.

With regards to it’s place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Panther certainly stands as a triumph.  I’ll have to think a little longer about where I would place it in my own personal ranking, but it certainly belongs in the upper half, even despite some of it’s shortcomings.  I feel that it kind of unfortunately suffers some road blocks because of how little development it leaves for it’s main character, but it’s nothing that robs too much of the entertainment value for the movie as a whole.  It’s still a very fun movie to watch with all the typical Marvel style action you’ve come to expect.  And like most other Marvel movies, it’s the characters that carry the most weight for the film.  Here we have a whole host of new personalities that’ll add extra flavor to the Marvel cinematic canon, and it makes me extra excited to see where all of them will show up in future Marvel projects.  The movie also has the added benefit of being a super hero movie that’s told from the perspective of the culture that it represents.  It’s true that a super hero movie needn’t have to be exclusively manufactured nor marketed towards a select segment of the population, but for Black Panther, I feel that it was essential that it had to be told from a distinctively black point of view.  I applaud Disney and Marvel for recognizing this and for seeking out someone like Ryan Coogler to do the job.  Coogler was the ideal choice to bring Black Panther’s story to the big screen, because he has the right sensibilities to inject his own point of view into the story-line, while still maintaining the sense that he’s creating a movie intended to be a part of the super hero genre and a part of a larger cinematic universe.  That’s why the movie works as a cultural touchstone for the black community as well as an exciting warm-up for this summer’s Infinity War.  With all that, it may stand as Marvel’s most breakthrough and culturally relevant film to date, which alone is quite an achievement.   And more than anything else, it’s just a rousing fun watch for anyone, regardless of race and culture, and that’s all anyone can want.  All hail the king, and Wakanda forever!

Rating: 8.25/10

Tinseltown Throwdown – The Lego Movie vs. The Emoji Movie

One thing that you’ll notice about the way that the movie industry works is that whenever one brand new idea manages to translate into success, a dozen more just like it will follow in it’s wake.  I’ve written about copycat films before here, but another thing that I’ve noticed about the continuous cycle of like minded films that the industry pushes out regularly is that the quality of each film takes a steep decline almost immediately depending on how big the trend is.  Usually one big success manages to open the doors for a long in development project that finally has it’s moment to shine, but after a while, it becomes apparent that the industry runs out of fresh properties and ends up scrapping the barrel.  And just like that, the craze ends up dying before it’s time should really be up.  We’ve seen that happen a lot in recent decades where trends have risen and fallen with great frequency.  The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series beget a whole slew of new fantasy franchises, some good (The Chronicles of Narnia) but mostly bad (remember Eragon; of course you don’t).  The dystopian YA craze saw a short life span with the success of The Hunger Games  (2012), and it was over pretty much even before the final film in the Games series was released.  Right now, the shared cinematic universe craze is seeing a downward slide, with Ghostbusters, Universal’s monster filled “Dark Universe” and the DCEU all failing to capture even an ounce of what Marvel Studios has built for themselves.  What the ends of these crazes usually have in common is that they all end by sinking to the rock bottom level with the worst movie that can possibly be made to capitalize on another’s success.  That’s certainly the case with the two movies that I am spotlighting in this article; the beloved Lego Movie (2014) and the very maligned Emoji Movie (2017).

For as long as I have been writing this Tinseltown Throwdown series of articles, this one will mark the biggest disparity ever between the actual movies.  There is clearly a victor here and I will say that it is not The Emoji Movie.  To show you just how big of a gap exists between these two movies in my opinion, Lego appeared on my best of the year list for 2014, while Emoji topped the worst films of last.  There couldn’t be any wider a distance between these movies, and yet they are in many ways linked together.  The Emoji Movie’s existence is due to the success of The Lego Movie, as like with a lot of other copycat movies, one studio tries to mimic the other without understanding how they got to that point in the first place.  In particular, Sony (the studio behind Emoji) believed wrongly that product recognition was the key to making The Lego Movie popular, so they latched onto one other pop cultural trend that has widespread recognition and exploited that.  To be honest, something could have been done with the cultural phenomenon of emoji texts if the filmmakers had any sense of story-telling.  They could have made a social comment on the way that texting is creating a shift in human interaction, and a story about Emoji’s could have evoked a deeper meaning of how communication has been broken down into simplistic symbols rather than complex expressions.  But no, the movie doesn’t do that; instead it follows a formula that is almost cut and paste from the Lego Movie but without the subtlety or human connection.  Essentially, both movies are inter-textual celebrations of their selective products, but while one manages to connect with a soul at it’s center, the other is just a shallow and vain attempt to capitalize on our familiarity with what it’s selling.

“Everything is awesome.”

It can be argued that both Lego Movie and Emoji Movie both derive from a long line of inter-textaul movies, which is a class of film where much of the comedy and drama is derived with the combination of different elements from various types of media.  You see this most often in spoof movies, with Mel Brooks and the team of Zucker-Abrams often making fun of many different specific targets like movies, songs, genre cliches, etc.  There have been other movies that have also gone the extra lengths to include many different intellectual properties as a part of their story, even when they are from competing companies.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) took the unprecedented step of having characters like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny on screen together for the first and maybe only time.  A similar cross platform attempt was made in Wreck-It Ralph (2012), this time with video game characters instead, and while it is brief, the one scene where the title character is in a self-help group with Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, and General Bison was a dream come true for many fans of those games.  Steven Spielberg is even mining our sense of nostalgia with his upcoming Ready Player One (2018).  But, to make inter-textual reference work, it must be in the service of a relatable story.  The Lego Movie managed to do this by making it’s world feel cohesive as a whole, where all these different inter-textual elements co-exist and much of the humor and story is mined from their interactivity.  Emoji Movie makes the big mistake of establishing the fact that the characters are aware of their existence and function as part of a phone’s mechanics, and it diminishes their interaction with their own world to just being a showcase for different apps.  It becomes clear very early on that all that the Emoji  Movie is interested in is selling the viewer on the glorious capabilities that a smart phone has, and it zaps away any power that a narrative may have throughout the film.

“My feelings are huge. Maybe I’m meant to have more than just one emotion! I have so much more.”

Where The Emoji Movie fails the most is in justifying what it means in the end.  Essentially, it falls into the standard “be yourself” narrative, where our main character, Gene the “Meh” emoji (voiced by T. J. Miller), learns to accept that being different from everyone else is not so bad.  By itself, this isn’t a bad narrative to go with, but the movie lacks the focus to actually drive that meaning home.  In fact, at times it contradicts the notion of individuality, as much of the chaos left behind in this story is a direct result of Gene not fulfilling the function that he was created for.  As the movie establishes, Gene is one of many citizens of an emoji community, all of whom are personifications of commonly found emoji’s on your standard phone keyboard.  Their daily role is to stand within their select cubicles and be scanned whenever they are selected by their user as part of a text message.  Gene’s inability to control his emotions make it impossible for him to be a functional part of the emoji board, so a more sensible direction for the story to go would be for Gene to venture out into the world and learn where his peculiarity may be more at home.  But instead, the movie has Gene force the status quo of society to make it so that he can be an emoji that has multiple expressions, which the movie seems to view as a triumph.  Isn’t it a little unfair that Gene gets to have a special exception to the rule, which takes attention away from the other emoji’s that have no other expression.  In the end, it’s a story that just serves a surface level hero’s journey, without making their hero worthy of any of it.  By contrast, The Lego Movie dissects the hero’s journey narrative, by having it’s hero be thrust into a series of events he has no control over and having to tackle the mistaken notion that he’s “special”, when in reality, everyone has that ability to be special within them.  In the world of Lego, you could say that everyone is awesome, as long as they show it.  Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) grows up to be special, while we are supposed to accept that Gene is special and worth supporting.  One earns our sympathy, while the other seems forced fed to us.

The brilliance behind The Lego Movie is not just in how funny it can make all the pop culture references work, but in how it manages to tie everything together under one underlying theme; the power of creativity.  In the world of Legos, the highest honor one can have in life is to be a “master builder”.  As the movie establishes, Master Builders can create anything out of the building blocks they find around them and become almost superhero like as a result.  In fact, a few master builders actually are superheros, like Batman (one of the film’s most hilarious characters). But Emmet stands out because he follows the instructions rather than creating freely, and this drives a wedge between him and the master builders, who begin to wonder if he really is worthy to carry the load of wielding the legendary “piece of Resistance” (which as we learn is the cap to a tube of krazy glue). This clash of free reign expression and following the rules manifests itself throughout the movie and culminates in the film’s most brilliant scene, as we discover that Emmet and his entire world are really just a construct of a child’s imagination, who’s playing around with his Dad’s intricately assembled sets.  The father, played by Will Farrell, treats the Legos with a seriousness that has no room for creative expression, and as we learn, his idea of what the Legos are worth is far different than his son’s.  But, the discovery of what his son has built in his playtime opens the father’s eyes to a different understanding, and it establishes what is at the heart of the story; that value of Lego toys is not in the product itself, but in the experience of creating with them, something that bonds different generations together, including a father and son who now have a common love for something fun.   The Emoji Movie never makes the case that it’s saying anything more than “aren’t phone apps cool.”  The user at the center of the story, a teenage boy named Alex, never once has a connection with the characters that exist within his phone.  For the most part, they prove to be an annoyance to him more than anything.  It contrasts deeply with how Emmet is connected to the parallel story-line between the boy and his father, because Emmet was selected out of all the toys around him because of the boy’s personal connection with his perceived good-naturedness.  The stakes exist, because the boy has imagined a special purpose for Emmet because of how it relates to his own relationship with his father.  Emoji Movie never once make us care for the future of it’s characters and that’s where it really falls short.

“I only work in black and sometimes very, very dark grey.”

But, apart from their narrative differences, there is one other thing that drives down the quality of The Emoji Movie, and that’s it’s lack of identity.  Upon watching the movie, you can just tell that this was a movie crafted without passion.  Every story point is calculated by the demands of a studio that seems to have formulated what a movie like this actually needs.  Like I stated before, it’s a movie that wouldn’t exist had The Lego Movie not come before it, and that becomes evident in the way that it just wholesale copies that film in many different ways.  Pop Culture references are abound, as is the many different licences that the movie flaunts as a part of their world.  But, what Lego Movie manages to do better is to make those different references function as a part of it’s world, and also not be afraid to mock them from time to time as well.  Batman doesn’t just make an cameo appearance, he’s one of the central members of the team, and his personality is so exaggerated that he almost becomes a unique personality in his own right, separate from all his previous incarnations.  What does The Emoji Movie do?  It just has the Poop Emoji show up every now and then just so they can throw in a poop joke to make the little kids laugh (made all the more painful that they dragged an esteemed actor like Patrick Stewart into the role).  And even more shameless pull from The Lego Movie comes in the form of how it portrays it’s female lead.  Both movies have heroines that have a rebellious side to them, but one has more layers to her personality than the other.  As seen in Lego Movie, the character of Wyldstyle (voiced by Elizabeth Banks) puts on a punkish exterior to hide insecurities underneath, and part of her arc in the story is to eventually soften herself to the point where she’s not afraid to share another side of herself to others.  The similar character of Jailbreak in Emoji Movie (voiced by Anna Faris) takes a similar character design, with black hair and clothing, but has none of the depth to match the personality.  She’s dressed that way, because she no longer wants to be a princess emoji, and that’s it.  It’s a very surface level form of personality and makes her feel so uninteresting by comparison.  The same can be said about the rest of Emoji Movie, as it becomes clear that there was no attempt to find any depth in the story.  The Lego Movie’s creators, Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, clearly opened up their toy box with the intent to have some fun with it, and the fact that they found deeper meaning in it all was just icing on the cake.  Emoji Movie is just there to be a product.

Which gets us to probably the most infuriating aspect of The Emoji Movie, which is the shameless way that it shills for other products.  Essentially, the movie’s story-line has it’s characters moving from one phone app to another, never once endearing us to their journey and instead just uses the different changes of scenery as a mini commercial for each selective app.  This should be evident right from the moment that the characters stumble into a “Candy Crush” game, and it just gets to be infuriatingly self indulgent once they enter a “Just Dance” sequence.  There is no commentary given to any of the different places they visit; all it essentially says to the audience is “Hey let’s check out YouTube, or let’s find our way to Dropbox, or isn’t it lovely here in Instagram.”  The script for this film might as well have read “place your ad here” over and over again.  And a movie like this needn’t be a feature length commercial, as The Lego Movie has demonstrated.  Lego had to prove a lot of naysayers wrong when it first went into development, as on the surface it too would have appeared to have been nothing but a feature length commercial for a singular product.  But, with it’s heart in the right place, and direction from Lord & Miller that actually utilized the potential of such a premise, The Lego Movie managed to make us forget about the commercialism behind it and instead allowed us to enjoy it as a film in it’s own right.  It became first and foremost a movie, and the fact that it was tied to a product was irrelevant.  The Emoji Movie sadly doesn’t understand that and it instead tries to mask it’s narrative shortcomings with unending reminders of it’s commercial origins.  With that, it can’t hide it’s soulless identity as just a tool for consumerism, delivering the idea that the more vibrant a collection of apps and emojis, the livelier the world will be.  The Lego Movie’s  miraculously manages to honor the appeal of Lego toys, without ever forcing a consumerist intent on it’s audience.  Lego’s popularity speaks for itself, and the movie never tries to assume otherwise, nor force it down our throats.

“Nobody leaves the phone. Delete them.”

The Lego Movie managed to perform a magic trick of escaping the perceived commercialism of it’s premise, and surprise all of us with it’s potent and surprisingly heartfelt story.  The Emoji Movie just ended up being exactly what you thought it would be, and in some ways even worse.  For one thing, the only quality thing about The Emoji Movie is the animation used to bring it to life, which makes it doubly insulting that it’s used on something so crass and soulless.  Emoji is built upon a studio mandate which lacks all vision and is created just to spotlight the different brands that paid to be seen within this movie.  The fact that it is marketed towards kids is even more insulting, because it teaches them no worthwhile lessons, and instead drives younger people to be more attached to their phones.  The idea that the climax of the movie hinges on the teenage boy communicating through the ideal emoji on his phone, instead of you know going up to a person and talking to them in person, is a clear sign of the wrong kinds of values we should be promoting in our culture right now.  The Lego Movie is commercial too, but it does a great job of making us forget that and just enjoying the story it wants to tell.  It’s characters are also more appealing and have worthwhile arcs to their stories.  But, where Lego truly shines is in the fact that it touched upon universal meaning in it’s message.  The story is essentially about people coming together through shared interest, and the fact that it’s through Lego toys is beside the point.  There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a father and son grow closer together as they play with their Legos, and teach each other the value of creativity and unity through that experience.  That’s where Lego Movie found it’s heart, and what Emoji Movie clearly did not understand.  In the long run, Emoji Movie represents the pitfalls of trying to capitalize on a craze, because the choices of how to sell a movie eventually begin to overwhelm the choices in the making of a movie, and Emoji had no intent on ever being it’s own unique thing.  As Lego Movie states, “Everything is Awesome,” but Emoji Movie is far less so.

“You don’t have to be the bad guy.  You are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe.  And you are capable of amazing things.  Because you are the Special.  And so am I.  And so is everyone.”

What if There Is No Tomorrow? – Groundhog Day and Bringing Big Concepts into Comedy

For most of the nation, the date of February 2 means very little and is like pretty much any other day.  But, it is designated as Groundhog Day on our calendars because of a centuries old tradition based around a superstition started by the Pennsylvania Dutch in colonial times.  According to tradition, every year on the second of February, groundhogs will rise from their hibernation and exit their nests, and upon entering the sunlight, if they spot their own shadow, it will mean that there will be six more weeks of winter.  It’s an old fashioned tale with no real bearing on how weather really works, and yet it’s a tradition significant enough to be marked on the calendar.  The rural communities of Pennsylvania where the legend originated still make a big deal out of the tradition, with the famous Punxsutawney Phil festival being the country’s most notable celebration of the holiday.  But for many years, only rural America took this tradition with any real weight.  It’s only been within the last 25 years that Groundhog Day that the holiday has garnered national and even international interest, and this isn’t because of a revival of the traditions itself, but because of a movie.  In 1993, the team of comedy legends Bill Murray and director Harold Ramis released a little movie appropriately called Groundhog Day, which delivered a rather unique story about a man who repeats the same day over and over again and is the only one aware of what’s happening to him.  And that day just so happens to be Groundhog Day, with the Punxsatwaney festival as a backdrop.  On the surface, the movie is not all that unusual a project for wither Murray or Ramis to undertake.  It makes brilliant use of Bill Murray’s dry sense of humor and Harold Ramis’ direction keeps everything low key and restrained.  And yet, when you watch the movie, you can’t help but marvel at how much the theme and ideas behind the story stay with you.  Comedies are often made to give us amusement, but Groundhog Day miraculously made us both laugh and think, and even contemplate things we never expected to think about after seeing a comedy like how the universe works and what role we have to play within it.

Groundhog Day isn’t the first story to ever have tackled the idea of repeating the same day over again in an endless loop.  The concept actually dates back to 1892 with the short story “Christmas Every Day” by American novelist William Dean Howells.  In that story, a selfish young person is forced to relive the holiday of Christmas in a constant repeat, until he realizes the folly of indulging in the shallow festivities and learns the true meaning of how to honor the holiday.  The story is indeed sourced as an inspiration by Groundhog Day  screenwriter Danny Rubin, who developed the original treatment of the film.  Working in collaboration with Ramis, Rubin took the story concept further by incorporating the idea of a person being stuck in a day he absolutely loathes, until it begins to soften his attitude over time.  For Groundhog Day, the story is one about not about breaking out of the cycle of a single day, but about breaking free of the cycle of one’s life.  Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, is introduced to us as a self-centered narcissist who doesn’t give a care to anything in the world other than his own ambition.  He is stuck in his own self-created hole of isolation, where he only is able to get by in life on the merits of his talents as a TV weatherman.  He is only able to pretend to be a man of the people, but in reality, he shuns all those around him, reducing him to one function in life because he has no one else to rely on.  Essentially, he is a metaphorical groundhog, if you will.  And what the story does is to force Phil out of his hole and see what his life is and could be.  Unlike the “Christmas Every Day” story line, the movie is not about growing a renewed appreciation for the holiday itself; Punxsatwaney Phil and the festival are irrelevant in the end.  It’s about a renewed appreciation of life, and understanding that small little happy moments are what make things worth it in the end.  And what makes the movie Groundhog Day so memorable is the fact that they address these ideas in such a thoughtful and hilarious way.

Groundhog Day in many ways owes a lot of it’s style of story-telling to the films of Frank Capra.  Capra in many ways wrote the book on how to bring socially conscious stories into comedy.  Movies like It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) showed that a movie not only could be laugh out loud funny, but also could make you think as well.  Most often, they would reveal lessons in class differences or the roles men and women play in society, but more than any other, Capra would delve into the idea of individual finding their own worth in the world.  In his movies, he defined the American every-man; the person who could shape their own destiny only after they are confronted with and come to terms with their shortcomings in life.  Most of Capra’s films tended to skew closer to reality, but he could also find meaning in his movies through supernatural elements as well.  It’s a Wonderful Life  in particular feels very akin to Groundhog Day, in which the protagonist is shown a different direction in his life only after being confronted with the realization of how life would be different if they did absolutely nothing.  The big difference of course between what Capra created and what Murray, Rubin and Ramis imagined is the personality of the American every-man at it’s center.  George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life is a good man with low self esteem who just needs to have his faith in life renewed.  Phil Connors is a product of a more cynical time, where he sees value in himself and nothing else, and the change for him is to make him see how happiness is not in self worth but in being a value to others.  Basically George Bailey and Phil Connors come to the same conclusion in their respective stories, but from completely different starting points.  The Capra-esque approach helps to cement the story in a very personable way, especially with regards to understanding the person that Phil is and what he’s going to become.  But, the movie also follows the crucial formula of making the audience think about the implications of the story long after they have seen it and helping them understand the lessons within.

For me myself, I am always astonished by how well the movie is constructed.  It is without a doubt one of the finest screenplays ever constructed; never once faulting in the cinematic possibilities offered up by it’s premise.  Harold Ramis’ direction in particular is extraordinary in how subtly in lays out the mechanics of the story.  Every little story bit needs to work multiple times without ever seeming repetitive, which calls for a lot of continuity checking and keeping the actors within the correct mindset throughout the shoot.  And much like a Capra film, we don’t just get to know more about our main character, but really the entire community as well, and it’s all done with the idea that they are all meeting Phil Connors for the first time.  All the different variations that Ramis puts on the same repeating bits throughout the film are so clever and actually build up a natural progression within the story.  And that includes very recognizable common threads, like the clock radio that always begins the day with Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” or Phil stepping into a puddle after running into contact with the obnoxious Ned Ryerson.   I especially like the editing he does with some scenes, where Murray’s Phil realizes he’s made an error and then it cuts to the the same moment on another version of the day where he corrects his mistake, which just makes you realize that Phil has had to repeat all the same steps exactly just to reach this same moment.  It’s a couple seconds for us, but almost an eternity for him.  It’s hilarious, but also kind of mind-boggling at the same.  And that is essentially the genius behind this movie.  It takes the concept, uses it in funny ways, but also causes us to realize the real world implications of it all, and how severe it must actually be.   The movie takes us on a journey into a man’s existential crisis and it is both silly and scary at the same time, making us wonder what we ourselves would do in a similar situation.

But Groundhog Day stands out in a different way than just well it uses it’s gimmick.  It is also the rare intellectual comedy, and I don’t mean that it’s a comedy that plays towards a classier, more well-educated crowd, but one that instead asks all of it’s audiences to contemplate it’s grander concepts.  When Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin were first drafting the script, they thought that a sea of condemnation was going to come their way from both the faith based and scientific communities, believing that their story was going to be nit picked apart for either being too bold or not clever enough.  To their surprise, an outpouring of praise from all corners came their way, and they soon realized that their silly little movie hit everyone on a very human level.  Since it’s premiere, Groundhog Day has since become a high water mark for what can be called the “high concept” comedy.  To be high concept, a movie has to deliver on bold premises that push the limits of what is commonly expected within the genre and this is especially hard to find in the often simplistic realm of comedy.  Comedies usually just touch upon the life’s little quirks, and don’t bring in anything more complex than that such as the mechanics of time and space being warped.  Some films have tried to reach for a grander level of meaning with their comedy, like contemplating the role of God in one’s life like they did in Bruce Almighty (2003), or literally living life in another’s shoes with Being John Malkovich (1999) or even seeing a man cope with his own self-imposed loneliness as he befriends a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man (2016).  All these movies share in common with Groundhog Day is the ability to hit some deep philosophical points while at the same time never loosing the ability to have fun with it as well.  There are movies that managed to fail to capture the same kind of effect, like Adam Sandler’s Click (2006), which squandered an intriguing premise by indulging too much in the cruder potentials of the gimmick, making the tonal shifts as it tries to hit it’s deeper points feel way too clunky.

I’ll admit from experience; bringing high concept to comedy is difficult, and often results in a story that is either tone deaf or just very convoluted.  When I was going through film school, my requirement for graduating was to complete a feature length screenplay as my thesis.  Being pretty novice, my inclination at the time was to write something that I felt appealed to my own tastes.  Because Groundhog Day was one of my favorite movies (and still is), I decided to craft a screenplay in the same vein.  In particular, I drew inspiration from the core mechanic of the story, being the repeating time element.  The difference in my script was that my character had control over his ability to repeat time, but the scenes I wrote where my main character repeats moments multiple times before he gets them right were I have to say directly inspired by the similar moments in Groundhog Day.  Suffice to say, the finished thesis script, while good enough to help me earn my degree, is no where within the same league as Groundhog.  I have nothing but the most profound respect for that screenplay, and my experience with trying to capture some of the same feeling within my own writing just shows me how much further I must go to even reach that kind of level.  And I’m not the only one that is in awe of the incredible story mechanic that the movie uses.  In recent years, we’ve seen the same element used in other genres, like in sci-fi with Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and also horror with Happy Death Day (2017).  While it can be said that all of these stories derive themselves from the original Howells short story (including the Japanese manga that Edge of Tomorrow is based on), their cinematic language is certainly heavily influenced by the foundation left by Groundhog Day.  Each and every one seems to relish the idea of their characters growing smarter as they are going through an endless cycle of the same day, incrementally improving one calculated step at a time.  To this day, all these stories are inevitably compared with Groundhog, and sometimes can be unfairly judged against it.  That shouldn’t have to be the case, as some movies offer interesting variations on the gimmick, but it just goes to show how much of an impact the movie had by being the first.

One lesson to learn from Groundhog Day from a film-making stand point is that for a movie with a unusual concept to work, it has to function first and foremost like a story.  The great thing is that Groundhog Day never tries to be presumptuous with it’s audience.  It entrusts them to follow along as it lets the craziness unfold.  In particular, it makes the very smart choice of never needing to explain itself.  Phil Connors goes through this incredible experience, and we are never explained as to exactly why and how it happens.  It’s left up to the viewer to make up their minds as to why this unusual event is happening, and decide whether it really matters in the end.  I’m sure that people have speculated that it’s an act of God, or that Phil is part of some twisted experiment, or that he has unintentionally fallen into a time anomaly.  Whatever the case, the movie rightly focuses not on what is happening in the story, but instead on how it affects Phil.  It’s a personal journey, and I think that is why audiences respond so well to it.  We are just as in the dark as Phil is with what is going on, and that allows us to absorb the personal turmoil that he faces more fully.  A less subtle approach would have had Phil digging for clues and pulling back the curtain to see who’s pulling the strings, which would have spoiled all the magic of his story.  We instead see a personal transformation take place, and that in turn inspires us the viewer to reexamine our own life.  What would we do if there was no tomorrow; would we lash out at the cruel trick being pulled on us, or would we strive to make those same 24 hours worthwhile every time.  In the end, Phil comes to learn that striving for the perfect day is not a pursuit of self-interest, but instead a pursuit of giving one’s self.  By movie’s end, Phil has reached a point where he knows every detail of the town of Punxatawney, down to the exact second, and he uses that knowledge to not play around but instead to be there at the right moment to help everyone else’s needs.  And after he has managed to touch everyone’s lives around him, he is then released from his prison.  It’s that feeling of watching the cleansing of one’s soul that makes the movie as special as it is.

Groundhog Day is a masterpiece in quite the most unexpected way.  What started as just a silly premise used as a starring vehicle for Bill Murray is now regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever made.  Not only that, it has set a new high bar for comedies seeking to deliver on higher concepts, as well as inspired a whole class of like-minded stories that try to utilize the same time warping gimmick.  I’m sure that Murray, Rubin and Ramis were all taken by surprise by how well this movie resonated when was first released and for years after.  The studio (Columbia) especially didn’t see the potential right away, and mistakenly released the film in mid February to coincide for the holiday that is it’s namesake, instead of releasing as originally intended in the Fall of 1992, so that it could qualify for the Oscars that year.  Bill Murray would have been a shoe-in for a Best Actor nomination that year, but sadly the unfavorable release date caused the movie to be lost in the early winter deadlands, making it all but forgotten by the next Oscars.  Thankfully, the movie has achieved classic status over the last 25 years, and now marks the milestone regarded as the masterpiece that it truly is.  For me, it represents story-telling at it’s finest, utilizing an unusual story mechanic to it’s fullest and finding the right amount of comedy within it’s premise.  It’s as close of a call back to classic, Capra-esque human comedies that we’ve seen in our more cynical time, and still feels as fresh today as ever.  Too few comedies actually use the medium of cinema to it’s fullest extant; giving us stories that need the magic of film-making to come to life.  With it’s clever use of editing and simple staging, Groundhog Day is a movie that continues to reveal new details and layers for the viewer to delightfully uncover with every viewing.  I still hold it in high regard, both as a cinematic experience, and as an example of superb, well thought out screenwriting, and now 25 years later it even has made me appreciate this little February tradition.  Only a comedy could find so much meaning and depth in the celebration of such a silly holiday for a groundhog.

Collecting Criterion – Barry Lyndon (1975)

Within the Criterion Collection, you can find all sorts of movies that can become part of distinct collections on their own.  If you are a fan of movements like the French New Wave or Italian Neo-realism, Criterion has just the movies to fill out your library.  Maybe you love classic Hollywood screwball comedies.  Those are there too.  But for a lot of people (myself included) they fill their shelves with collections devoted to the works of renowned filmmakers.  Indeed, you can actually find most if not all of a singular filmmaker’s entire body of work within Criterion’s catalog.  For international filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman this is already a given, since Criterion is the only distributor here in the States for home video consumption of their movies.  But, Criterion has also made an effort to include many domestic artists in their collection as well.  Wes Anderson in particular has collaborated on a Criterion edition of nearly every movie in his entire career; it’s pretty much the only reason why I haven’t picked up The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) on blu-ray yet, knowing that there is an inevitable Criterion edition coming in the near future.  Other legendary filmmakers are also seeing their bodies of work filling up the Criterion library, including Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Preston Sturges, and Howard Hawkes.  But one of the most pleasing additions to the Criterion Collection has been the films of the legendary Stanley Kubrick.  Out of the 13 films that Kubrick made in his entire career, five are included in the Criterion library; The Killing (1956, Spine #575), Paths of Glory (1957, #538), Spartacus (1960, #105), Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, #821) and the newest inclusion, Barry Lyndon (1975, #897).  And it is perhaps with Barry Lyndon where we see the best that the Collection can do when it comes to preserving great cinematic masterpieces and bring them to their full potential.

It is with Criterion’s new blu-ray edition of Barry Lyndon that we finally have a home video presentation that truly honors this sadly overlooked film.  For many years, Warner Brothers has only put the movie out on bare bones discs, presenting the movie in an unpolished state with no extras included.  Given the lackluster treatment that the movie has received from the studio over the years, you would come to believe that it was one of the lesser films in the Kubrick filmography.  Sure, it was not as profitable as some of his more notable movies, but upon watching the movie you will find that Barry Lyndon still finds Kubrick at his absolute artistic height.  Made in between A Clockwork Orange (1971) and The Shining (1980), Barry Lyndon is perhaps the most opulent film project that Kubrick ever undertook, which is really saying something.  And thanks to the new 4K restoration done by Criterion, we are now able to see the absolute beauty of the film in all it’s glory.  Barry Lyndon may have been a departure for some of Kubrick’s most devoted fans, especially after the manic Clockwork Orange.  This methodically paced, three hour period drama seems almost quaint by comparison.  But, beneath the glossy sheen you’ll find Kubrick not only at his most subversive, but also in his most experimental phase as well.  Lyndon was groundbreaking in it’s cinematography, utilizing photographic techniques never achieved before on film, and some of those same techniques may never be replicated ever again due to the exclusivity of Kubrick’s ingeniously crafted equipment.  Thanks to the new Criterion edition, Barry Lyndon now finally is given a proper presentation that gives it the right context to be considered one of Kubrick’s greatest films.  Now it can no longer be dismissed as a misunderstood forgotten classic, but celebrated as the great achievement in film-making that it truly is.

The movie is of course adapted from the 19th century novel, The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), written by William Makepeace Thackery.  It’s a chronicle of the many life altering events that befall the title character, starting off in the Irish countryside with the young Redmond Barry (played by Ryan O’Neal in the film) believing himself to be more of a gentlemen than his more genteel brethren.  When Barry finds his desired love being courted by an English army captain, he foolishly challenges him to a duel.  The duel later commences, as part of societal tradition, and Barry is victorious, slaying the captain with one shot.  Because killing an English officer is a capital crime in occupied Ireland in this time, Barry is forced to flee from his home.  This eventually leads him to joining the army as a means of escaping execution.  Soon, he finds himself on the front lines of the Seven Year’s War, another unfortunate life turn that he hopes to escape.  He falsely poses as a carrier and crosses the battle lines over into the Prussian army’s territory, hoping to find a means of escape.  He soon is caught by Captain Potzdorf (Hardy Kruger), who sees past Barry’s deception and places him under arrest.  For a while after, Barry is forced to serve in the opposing Prussian army as punishment, but once Captain Potzdorf is wounded in battle, Barry unexpectedly finds himself in the role of his savior, which then puts him in the army’s good graces.  Through Potzdorf’s grateful influence, Barry is assigned to spy on an aristocratic gambler named the Chevalier (Patrick Magee), who they suspect is a double agent working for the English due to his Irish background.  Over time, Barry befriends the Chevalier, who introduces him to European high society, making Barry an admired aristocrat himself.  In time, he returns to England, where his new status brings him into contact with the recently widowed Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson) whom he soon marries and adopts her title as well as her fortune.  Life appears magnificent for the new Lord Barry Lyndon, except for the growing resentment he endures from his spiteful stepson Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali).

Barry Lyndon is certainly a dramatic change for Kubrick, but at the same time, is exactly geared towards his own artistic tastes.  One thing that unites most of Kubrick’s work is his fondness for adaptation.  Indeed, most of his movies, Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and The Shining included, all are taken from a preexisting literary source, and Barry Lyndon is one of the clearest examples of his love of literature.  The movie itself feels very much like a novel, with the different episodes of Barry’s life loosely stitched together through an omniscient narration, done by English character actor Michael Hordern.  And in a way, Barry Lyndon‘s biggest strength is the way that it flows together like moving portraiture of the era it’s depicting.  Kubrick seems less interested in the personality of Barry, and instead concerns himself more with how Barry’s many digressions and social climbing manipulations reveal more layers of the aristocratic society that the director is more fascinated with.  I think that why he was so confident with the somewhat unusual casting of then 1970’s heartthrob Ryan O’Neal as Barry, because O’Neal’s distinctly out of place , Americanized style of acting perfectly suits the outsider and scoundrel attitude of Barry Lyndon.  O’Neal may seem stiff at times in the role, but I think that works to the movie’s advantage because it fits more in line with how Kubrick wants this character to be represented.  Indeed, much of the performances in the movie are intentionally restrained, because Kubrick wants his characters to inhabit the scenery rather than to chew into it.  This is especially true of Marisa Berenson in the role of Lady Lyndon, who is often given the task of remaining still and wordless in some of the director’s trademark zoom out shots.  The one exception would be the exceptional, vitriolic performance by Leon Vitali as Bullingdon.  This would be a life changing gig for the young actor, because he would move on to a different career afterwards, becoming Stanley Kubrick’s personal assistant, which was a role he filled for over 20 years, up until Kubrick’s death in 1999.

But apart from the faithful translation of the novel, and the remarkable production values, Barry Lyndon’s  true brilliance actually lies in the way it was filmed.  Most people won’t notice it right away, but Barry Lyndon is a technological breakthrough in photography; maybe even more so than 2001, remarkably enough.  For the most part, to get the breathtaking images in 2001, Kubrick had to utilize varying numbers of post-production processing to get the images he needed.  But, in Barry Lyndon he managed to capture images on screen that we’ve never seen done before, and he did it all in camera.  The images I’m speaking of are set-ups that look like they were taken directly from 18th Century paintings, only captured on film rather than with paint on canvas.  This was achieved with specially made lenses from the Zeiss Corporation.  These extra sensitive lenses were intended for capturing low light, which is what Kubrick desired for his film, because he wanted to be able to shoot his scenes using only natural candlelight, which was impossible to do on film beforehand without having most of the background cast in dark shadow.  With these special lenses, Kubrick had the sensitivity he desired, but there was one drawback, it made the depth of field extremely shallow.  While this made focusing a nightmare for cinematographer John Alcott, the shallow depth of field actually had the extra benefit of flattening the image, making the foreground and backgrounds appearing on the same plane, which in turn gave the movie that 18th Century painting effect.  Just take a screen grab from any part of the movie and you could swear it must have been painted instead of photographed, because the compositions are extremely similar.  Because of this, Barry Lyndon really stands out as a perfect demonstration of the brilliant artistry that can be captured with a the lens of a film camera.  And just to show how forward thinking Kubrick was as a photographic genius, he managed to snatch up two of these rare lenses, before the only other buyer did.  And that other buyer of this exclusive lens was none other than NASA, who used the same lenses on the Hubble Telescope.  So if you think about it, Barry Lyndon has a closer connection with space exploration than 2001 has ever had.

Of all the works of Stanley Kubrick’s career to make it into the Criterion Collection, Barry Lyndon is the one that has benefited the most.  Not only does the 4K restoration make us appreciate the groundbreaking cinematography that much more, but now we are also treated to a wealth of extras that really give the movie some proper historical and artistic context.  The restoration was conducted with the original camera negative taken directly from the Warner Brothers archive.  This enables us to see the film in the most in it’s most pristine condition possible.  Though Kubrick isn’t around to supervise this new transfer himself, Criterion was able to consult with Leon Vitali, who would’ve had known Kubrick’s desired intentions with how the film was supposed to look.  He helped Warner Brothers and Criterion lock down the color reference for this new master and made sure that Kubrick’s vision would come out intact and uncompromised.  Suffice to say, the results are breathtaking.  You really get an appreciation for the artistry on display here, as well as the extraordinary effect that the ultra-sensitive Zeiss lenses had in creating the one-of-a-kind distortions that made the film look so much like a painting come to life.  Vitali also consulted on the new restoration of the film’s soundtrack, which includes a new 5.1 surround mix.  Though the movie is not a sonicly dynamic one, it does feature some beautiful soundscapes that ring very clearly in this new restoration.  Kubrick always had an appreciation for classical music, which became a trademark in most of his movies like Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube in 2001 and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony in Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon continues that tradition.  George Frideric Hadel’s melancholy Sarabande becomes the primary musical theme of the entire movie, and it’s wonderfully preserved as part of the restored soundtrack.  By presentation alone, Criterion’s new blu-ray is a godsend gift to anyone who appreciates the art of cinema as well as any fan of Kubrick’s genius work displayed on the film here.

The rest of the Criterion set is also worthwhile as well.  Given that Warner Bros. previous releases have been devoid of extras, this edition marks a significant upgrade in every way.  The three hour plus movie makes up the entirety of the first in this two disc set, while all the extras make up the latter.  The most prominent extra is a brand new documentary about the making of the film, made exclusively by Criterion and featuring interviews with cast and crew, including producer Jan Harlan, assistant directors Brian Cook and Michael Stevenson, as well as Leon Vitali and Stanley’s widow Catherine Kubrick.  It gives a great overview of why Kubrick wanted to make this movie and details all the extraordinary efforts it took to make it become a reality.  There’s even some valuable excerpts taken from an audio interview done with Kubrick himself discussing the movie, giving us some insight into the director’s own experience with the movie.  Another documentary interviews focus puller Douglas Milsome and gaffer Lou Bogue, who talk in great length about the logistical hurdles it took to make the specialty lenses work with the film they were shooting with.  One interesting insight here is the clever video display set-up that they engineered, so that they could keep track of where their actors needed to stand in order to stay within the very narrow focus field.  Another documentary talks about the editing of the movie while another discusses the Oscar-winning work of production designer Ken Adam, and another is devoted to the costume design.  Leon Vitali appears in another separate featurette, talking about the surround mix that he supervised for this restoration.  Film critic Michel Ciment also recorded a new interview where he discusses the legacy of the movie as well as it’s central themes about society and corrupt aristocracy.  Finally, the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Adam Eaker is interviewed about the artwork that were inspirations or the look of Barry Lyndon, and he discusses how well the movie recaptures the visual aesthetic of the art from that time period.  Along with a couple original trailers this is a wealth of extra features that finally give this often overlooked movie the appreciation that it deserves.

Even if Barry Lyndon is not what you would expect from the likes of Stanley Kubrick, especially given the two movies that bookend it in his filmography, you can’t help but marvel at the exquisite levels of film-making art that he puts on display for us in this movie.  Foremost, I for one am blown away by the cinematography in this movie.  It may very well be one of the most beautifully shot movies in all of history, and as we have learned, Kubrick pretty much had to invent his own camera equipment just to pull it all off.  In many of the film’s exquisite compositions, you get the feeling that you’re looking at a painting taken out of it’s wooden frame and animated into life.  The way that light is cast in the various scenes is also beautifully captured.  As we learn in the making of documentaries, in order to capture a scene cast in natural candlelight, it meant using the same high tech lenses that made it possible for us to look closer at the stars in our sky.  Sadly, most people won’t even recognize the technological advances made by Barry Lyndon, because technology has in many ways passed it by, and now Barry Lyndon seems to the untrained eye to be a bit old-fashioned.  Hopefully, Criterion’s new edition of the movie helps to give it the spotlight that it truly deserves.  This isn’t an artistic misstep from one of cinema’s greatest voices, but in fact a bold, misunderstood masterpiece that really needs to be re-framed as one of the best works of art of his entire career.  I have really come to appreciate Barry Lyndon for what it is, even in the context of Kubrick’s entire body of work, and am now today really blown away by the levels it took to make it.  For anyone interested in the science of photography, Barry Lyndon probably represents an enormous leap forward.  This Criterion edition is thankfully the long awaited special edition that fans, both old and new, have waited a long time for.  It gives the movie a much needed restoration and collection of extras that help to spotlight the significance that it rightly holds.  Hopefully more of Kubrick’s work will come to Criterion in the future, but for now, Barry Lyndon is the movie that gets the best boost so far from the Collection as a whole.


Appropriate For All Ages – Paddington and the Rarity of Great Family Movies

Something peculiar is happening right now at the movies.  January, the dumping ground for most of Hollywood’s leftovers and embarrassments, is currently experiencing the release of what is now the best reviewed movie ever, since has been keeping track.   And that movie is a sequel no less.  Paddington 2 has in the last two weeks gone without a single bad review, which is just unheard of.  Even some of the movies that are shortlisted for this year’s Oscars have at some point received one or two negative or lukewarm reviews, which drove their Tomatoes score down a percentage or two.  The miracle of this is that no movie has ever gone this long without criticism, and it’s a January release of a G Rated family film.  So, why this movie?  Well, the short answer is that Paddington 2 deserves it.  It is a delightful, non-cynical movie that hits all the right notes, and is entertaining to both adults and children alike.  Watching it myself, I was stunned by how well constructed it was, not just on a technical aspect but in script too.  The humor and drama are perfectly balanced together and simple things set up throughout the film are brilliantly paid off later.  And of course the cast is perfectly rounded, including a delightfully villainous role from Hugh Grant, who chews up the scenery in the best way possible.  In general, it amazed me how well this movie managed to please me as a viewer, despite the fact that I am a grown man with no children of my own, and certainly not the target audience.  But, seeing it got me thinking about what the makers of Paddington 2 really believe their target audience is.  In a way, they have set themselves apart from other family pictures, and have made an effort to show that movies such as it shouldn’t be made for just the youngest of viewers, but should in fact adhere to what the G rating is actually supposed to stand for: suitable for all ages.

The sad thing is that despite Paddington 2 being so beloved by the critical community, it hasn’t translated over into success at the box office.  It is doing gangbusters over in it’s native country of the United Kingdom, but North American audiences have yet to catch on, which is where the movie really needs to do well.  Box office here has yet to push the movie over $20 million in two weeks, which is on the lower end for family films, and sadly this negatively affect the prospects of the future for this series.  I guess the first Paddington (2014) did well enough to warrant a sequel, and the team in charge certainly held up their end by making the sequel so effective, but when nobody goes to see it, the quality of the product ends up not mattering in the end.  And this is a troubling trend in the market of family friendly films today.  For many years, we have been subjected to aggressively marketed but cinematically terrible films passed off as family entertainment that casts a dark shadow over the entire genre, and it ends up numbing viewers to these movies in general.  So, when an actual worthwhile film like Paddington and it’s sequel comes along, audiences treat it with indifference.  One can only hope that the stellar reviewer and strong word of mouth can help save the movie in the long run, but it sadly won’t make much of a difference in the genre that it represents.  We are likely to see more family films in the future that pander to the lowest common denominator because they are cheaper to make and more profitable, and that’s a common trait among all genres.  Bad movies tend to pass through the Hollywood machine with more ease, and it’s a shame that no rewards come towards those like Paddington that actually attempt to aim a little higher.

One other thing that Paddington has to work against is just an all around stigma that hangs over films deemed family friendly.  It’s a stigma that goes back through the whole history of film-making and to an even larger extent, art.  Certain classes of intellectuals have sought to define quality in what they see as a part artistic expression, and for the most part, quality has been defined in most circles as something hard hitting, radical and often gritty.  Anything softer, whether it be fantasy or melodrama, is looked down upon, because it’s not challenging enough.  But, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be art.  You see a lot of films over time grow in esteem after being dismissed early on because they didn’t fit the criteria of meaningful art.  Films like The Wizard of Oz (1939), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) and Back to the Future (1985) are all considered masterpieces now, but in their time were dismissed by some as typical genre fare and nothing more.  Typically the stigma attached to these movies boils down to people dismissing them because they believe it’s all kids stuff, and real art is for grown ups.  But, as illustrated, a movie can be suitable for children and adults and still be considered high art.  It affects any storyteller who wants to take a moment to deliver something less dark and more lighthearted.  How many times do we crassly complain that an actor is selling out by making a kids movie?  Maybe that actor wants to be in something that’s appropriate enough for their own young child to watch, as opposed to their usual adult roles.  Anyone who spends their time solely in this niche of film-making must fight against it all the time.  Walt Disney spent his whole career trying to prove that he was much more than the guy who made cartoons, and even with all his success, he still was unable to shake the stigma that being in the world of family entertainment brings.

Which is why I am pleased to see the critical community heralding Paddington 2 so adamantly.  Though still short of calling it high art, critics are still recognizing the merits of the movie as a work of film craft and are passionately holding it up as a representation of what movies can and should be.  I think a large part of what has made the critical community come around on the idea of there being value in family entertainment is the fact that over time we have seen enough great family films to have set a high standard for them, and when one comes along that meets those expectations, it is worth rejoicing about.  We live in an era now where geek culture has taken over the business of film-making, and much of the people running the business today have in some way or another been driven by the cinematic ideals of their childhood.  It’s no coincidence why we are seeing a resurgence of Star Wars as a force in Hollywood right now, because the generation that came of age during that franchises early hey days are now the ones driving the industry today.  I myself know my own cinematic influences, because I grew up with Disney movies as a big part of my childhood, and those films still define my ideals in what stories I like to experience while watching a movie today.  We of course grow older and begin to indulge in more grown up entertainment over time, but the films of our childhood never leave us and the reason why some movies rise and fall today is because of how well they tap into that longing for something that connects us back to our childhood.  I think for right now, Paddington is connecting very strongly with adult audiences who recognize an innocence within it that brings them right back to their formative years as a child.  It’s not making us feel like a kid again per say, but it is helping us to shrug off our grown up baggage for at least an hour and a half and help us see the world in a less cynical light for once.

Paddington 2 also stands in stark contrast with what the genre of family flicks has turned into over the years.  If there is anything that the movie does right, it’s that it has a personality to it, and not feel that it has to pander itself towards it’s audience in any way.  That’s the mistake that many other so-called “family films” have fallen into.  They are made with the intent to appeal to little kids solely, without consideration for how the grown ups will take to the movie.  In addition to this, the choices made with the making of a family flick are usually done by adults with no insight into what they are actually making.  Often, a studio will collect a popular IP with a nostalgia driven following and put to work a cinematic adaptation of that same property, only without the understanding of what made it appealing in the first place.  That’s why we get so many cringe-worthy movie version of Saturday morning cartoon shows from our childhood that lack any comparison with the shows that inspired them.  We get Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) taking on corporate corruption instead of an evil warlord named Shredder.  We get The Smurfs (2011) cast into the chaos of the streets of Manhattan instead of their woodland realm.  There is clearly something lost in those translations which makes the movies feel like betrayals to their source.  One movie in particular, Jem and the Holograms (2015) angered many fans because of how much it dismissed the original show’s premise in favor of just capitalizing on the name alone, attaching it to a boring backstage drama.  It all comes from studios who decide they know what younger audiences want to see, but have no concept of the reality of what that is.  Paddington thankfully doesn’t try to pander to any perceived target audience.  It sticks to it’s own identity and excels because of this.

Perhaps the most saddening aspect of mass marketing so many family flicks is that they pander to such a low base of their audience.  I wonder where so many of these movie have gotten the idea that crude humor is appealing to children.  There are so many films aimed at children that for some reason use bodily functions as a generator of comedy, most often in the form of flatulence.  Sure, children do find the act of farting funny, but do they really see it as endearing.  That stuff certainly gets old when you are an adult.  But, for some reason, people who make family films seem to think that this is surefire comedy gold, and they overuse it to the point of irritantcy.     Not only that, but some “family” films even take it a step further.  I kid you not, there is a point in the live action Alvin & the Chipmunks (2007) where Alvin ingests the droppings of his brother Theodore, pretending it’s chocolate candy, just to save him the embarrassment when their guardian Dave notices the mess that the nervous chipmunk has made.  This is Alvin and the freaking Chipmunks, not Salo (1975).  But, somewhere in a studio office, people thought that this was appropriate for children.  The movie did get a PG rating, but still, to think that this is what children find funny is sinking pretty low.  I believe that somewhere down the line, people mistook crude humor for slapstick humor.  The same thing happened with adult comedies in the wake of the Farrelly Brothers success with There’s Something About Mary (1998), and somehow seeped down into family entertainment.  Slapstick can be misused too, but it can be better applied to appeal to all audiences.  Parents and children alike can appreciate a well constructed slapstick bit, as long as the end result is funny enough.  Of course, that’s a big part of Paddington’s appeal, because it uses slapstick in an effective, character driven way that helps to make the laughs land and it earns every one of them.

But the sad reality is that these lower grade family pictures are the ones that make the money, and therefore are the ones that get the green-light quicker.  It takes an extra long time for us to finally see something like Paddington in theaters.  The weird thing is, Paddington isn’t exactly a risky investment either.  It’s based on an already established literary source, those being the beloved storybooks from author Michael Bond; it’s low key in it’s execution, using simple but effective set ups and subtle use of special effects, and the story is universal and easy to follow along with.  And yet, simple effective storytelling isn’t enough to bring audiences in.  Most often you’ll see family films spotlight the low bar slapstick bits as a means of marketing the movie to a wide audience; even the first Paddington did this too, with the titular bear pulling earwax out with a toothbrush in the first trailer.  One thing that studios must understand is that while young audiences respond strongly to childish bits of sophomoric humor in the present, that doesn’t mean it will remain that way forever.  Alvin & the Chipmunks made a lot of money several years ago, but does anyone label that movie as an all time classic today?  No.  Audiences grow out of these kinds of movies eventually.  I’ll admit, there were things that I would watch as a kid that I look back on now and wonder why I would ever be entertained by it.  But you know what I still return to today as an adult; stuff like The Goonies (1985), The Neverending Story (1987), The Sandlot (1993), and of course most of Disney animation, because there is enough stuff in those movies to still appeal to the adult in me just as much as they do to my inner child.  For a family film to have a lasting legacy, it needs to understand that it doesn’t have to targeted to one select group.  Appealing to all audiences means just that; having enough common ground in it’s drama and humor to entertain it’s viewer no matter what the age.  That is how movies are remembered many years later, no matter what genre it belongs to.  It’s got to have a universal appeal that can withstand changing attitudes with every generation, especially when their younger audiences start to grow older and more cynical over time.

My hope is that people take notice of the critical response that Paddington 2 is receiving, and recognize that it is better for the industry in general that more films should be made like this.  We really need to stop thinking that a G rating is purely for fluffy kids stuff, and show that indeed adults can have a good time at the movies with these kinds of films too.  By refusing to be cynical and shamelessly marketed to a the lowest base possible, Paddington stands out as a true anomaly these day, which it shouldn’t have to be.  The industry has lost the connection to make movies like it possible on a more consistent basis, so it either steers clear of family movies altogether, choosing to invest more in grittier dramas, or panders to a target audience with a lackluster effort with limited appeal.  What I want to see the industry take away from movies like Paddington is a sense that modesty and a sense of playfulness can indeed carry a movie on it’s own, and not just the nostalgic appeal of a title.  Paddington has a personality all it’s own that transcends it’s genre and makes it work so well as a standalone movie.  The characters are worthy of our sympathy and attention, the humor is restrained while at the same time frequent and suitably ridiculous, and the visual aesthetic is splendid and endearing.  One thing that is remarkable is that I’m hearing so many of my adult friends praising this movie so highly.  These are friends with no children of their own either, and they recommend this as highly as they would for anything up for the Oscars this year.  This is a movie that certainly appeals to our inner child, but also to our desires as an adult, where we just want to see a movie out there that doesn’t make us feel miserable or apathetic.  So, if there was ever a time to listen to the critics, this is it.  Paddington is worthy of the praise it is getting, but it also represents something worthwhile that we should all get behind.  The concept of family entertainment has been so mishandled for a while now, and with this lovable little marmalade-loving bear we many we maybe, just maybe, might be able to see a little love come back into the genre once again.

The Director’s Chair – Steven Spielberg

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

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



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



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



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



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



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

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


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