They All Float Down Here – IT and the Return of Character in Hollywood Horror

Imagine the scenario.  James Bond, Batman, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Jon Snow, and Marty McFly all find themselves trapped in a cell with no means of escape.  Within the cell, they find a revolver with 5 bullets.  They are told that the only way out is for one person to shoot and kill the others with one bullet each, with the lone survivor set free.  Now, with those six characters, who do you think will be the last one left.  There are a variety of answers given to that scenario, but in truth there is only one real answer.  None of those characters make it out because none of them exist.  And yet, we know these characters and care about them to wonder what might happen.  This is the fundamental rule of storytelling.  For a story to work, we must know who the players are, and want to follow their progression through the narrative.  It sounds easy enough to do, but more often than not, you see a lot of stories fall apart because they forget to make their characters interesting or relatable.  A lot of times, characters are often treated as pieces on a chess board, moved along as part of a grander plan on the part of the storyteller, who merely is concerned with moving from point A to point B.  But, characters shouldn’t function as pawns, they should function as people; and people are complex beings who have their own interests and concerns that run contrary to other people’s plans.  With this in mind, a storyteller can craft a much deeper storyline.  But, as with seen in Hollywood, concerns about character and story often take a back seat to being able to finish a product quickly and on budget.  Oftentimes, in order to capitalize on trends in the market, movies rush through production without devoting enough time to giving characters the development they need.  You see this a lot in genre flicks, and most recently, it was a problem in the Horror genre.

Horror is a genre as old as cinema itself.  Dating back to when German Expressionists revolutionized the use of shadows to convey terror, all the way through Universal’s monster flicks and the 1950’s B-movie craze, it has been a genre that has matured and found all sorts of different avenues to define itself.  But, along with some of the milestones of the genre, like Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), there has been nearly ten times as many copycats who capitalize on the success with diminishing results.  There are a lot of reasons why so many horror flicks fail in the long run, but what you’ll find most of the time is that a good deal of them forget to focus on their characters, and instead let the gimmicks of their plot run wild.  Going back to my opening scenario, we see that identifying who the characters are and what they might do is what ultimately drives the tension of the scene.  But, when you have a genre that’s built more around famous scenes rather than famous characters, which the Horror genre usually is, than you see more a tendency on the part of the filmmakers to forget to give their characters any interesting qualities.  For many years, primarily in the post-Saw (2004), gore-obsessed years of the 2000’s, it became almost commonplace for there to be thinly drawn characters in each film.  But, this was largely a problem of Hollywood’s own making.  Outside of Hollywood, a new type of Horror sub-class began to emerge, one that emphasized the psychological and macabre rather than the bloodied and the mangled.  More importantly, it was horror that returned to the idea that the best way to scare audiences was to make them feel the same thing that the characters are feeling, and this meant making more identifiable and interesting characters.  Steadily, these outsiders have built a quiet bit of success that is now influencing the industry in a positive way, and this has all culminated with the record breaking success of the remake to Stephen King’s IT, currently in theaters.

People expected IT to perform well, but I don’t think people expected these kinds of numbers from the grosses.  As of this writing, IT has grossed 310 million dollars domestic, surpassing The Exorcist (1974) as the highest grossing horror film of all time.  Some will probably point to the popularity of the now 30 year old novel it’s based on as the reason for doing so well, as well as the familiarity that people have with the 1990 made-for-TV miniseries staring Tim Curry.  But, I think that IT’s success comes from it’s embracing of a trend in Horror film-making that has finally gone mainstream.  We are finally moving out of a period where terror is conveyed not through blood but through mood.  We all know the feeling of isolation and the worry that something bad is right around the corner waiting to get us, and the only way to convey that in a film is to through the emotions of the characters.  Recent films made by independent filmmakers on significantly lower budgets have managed to make that work, because the limitations of their films make it so that they can utilize emotion much better in their movies.  Hollywood has more often chosen to force scares on their audience rather than earning them, and as a result, audiences have become less scared by their movies.  Working outside of what studios think is scary is a more freeing way to build genuine new ideas about how to make something scary and that’s what we’ve seen.  By showing less to an audience, it makes the scares have that much more of an impact.  The new IT applies that approach to something with broad commercial appeal, and thus we get the phenomena that is the record breaking box office.  But,  more fundamentally, it is carrying over something into Hollywood that it desperately needs, which is characters worth getting scared for.

One of the trends that IT and it’s peers have in common is it’s fearlessness in showing vulnerable people in peril.  The main characters of IT are children, all with distinctive personalities of their own.  Stephen King’s novel is all about the loss of innocence and that is no better conveyed than through the confrontation between a group of tormented kids in a small town and a blood-thirsty monster clown named Pennywise.  In the novel, every benign symbol of childhood, from balloons to cartoons, are turned on their head and become objects of terror, meant to drive the kids insane.  Adapting that kind of stuff to the big screen can be tricky, but can be done if we believe that the children themselves are scared by it.  That’s what the new IT has done so successfully; it put special emphasis in choosing the right kinds of child actors who could pull off feeling terrified on screen, even when it came to being terrorized by balloons.  For the longest time before, when a young actor made it into a horror movie, they felt out of place, especially in the gore fest films of the 90’s and 2000’s.  One of the more annoying trope of that time was the creepy kid cliche, which rarely came across as scary the more it was used.  You would see this in a lot of forgettable horror flicks like The Unborn (2009), Orphan (2009), Mama (2013), as well as a numerous amount of knockoffs and remakes in that time.  IT breaks from that trend by making the children the victims of the terror, rather than the harbingers of it, and that calls for younger actors who are more confident with this material.  In other words, the filmmakers didn’t cast children because of how well they could be scared, but rather by how well they could feel like real people.  If they are believable as characters, and they are terrified, then we will be too.

This also reverses a trend in horror films where the movie became defined more by the monsters rather than the people.  Sure, the monsters are interesting creations, but when they are only ones that are in their selective films, than it becomes less about the terror they inspire and more about seeing what horror they can do.  That, in a sense, is what made horror films less scary over time.  You would see this play out very distinctively in the post-Scream (1996) era, when it seemed that every horror film was following the same formula of a group of teenagers all falling victim to some shadowing serial killer who picks them off one by one.  Over time, this formula was repeated so much that the killers themselves became much less interesting.  Then, post-The Ring (2001), ghosts became the go to movie monster, and that began to grow stale after a while, especially deep into the Paranormal Activity (2007) era.  In a different era, a remake of IT would have done away with the interesting character dynamics with the child characters and instead just made Pennywise the focus, showing all the creepy and disgusting ways he could terrorize and feast on his victims.  It works far better to use far less of him in the film and only showcase him for the maximum impact.  As far as cinematic movie monsters go, Pennywise is certainly one of the more mysterious, and that’s a part of his appeal as a character.  Stephen King has never been one to really explain why something is evil; he just allows his creations to be evil for the sake of the story.  The hotel is haunted for no other reason than to drive Jack Torrence insane and want to murder his family, and that’s where the horror of The Shining comes from for example.  Combining believable victims of terror with an enigmatic, impulsive force that’s out to kill them, and you’ve got the makings of effective suspense.

IT’s predecessors managed to create the formula to help reverse a lot of the Hollywood cliches that had plagued the horror genre for years.  One place outside of Hollywood where that happened was oversees in Australia, where director Jennifer Kent created a breakthrough horror film called The Babadook (2014).  The movie flipped the monster film on it’s head by making the terror in the film come not from seeing the presence of the titular spirit, but through the psychological toll that fear takes on the mother and child at the center of the story.  In this film, we see that horror can be found in a story as simple as two people alone in a house, growing increasingly desperate and paranoid and what that ultimately leads to, making it irrelevant whether or not a creature like the Babadook even exists at all.  Another groundbreaking horror film, The Witch (2015), made the daring choice of setting it’s story in 17th century colonial America, utilizing the eeriness of the isolation in that time period to develop a sense of dread in the picture.  The way it was shot, with low lighting and soft contrast also elevated the uneasy creepiness of the setting to maximize the terror in the film.  The other most interesting trend setter of this period was the indie horror flick It Follows (2014).  It Follows won widespread praise for the effective way that it built it’s terror through the psychological degradation of it’s main characters.  In the movie, a young woman is continually followed by a supernatural force that haunts her constantly, which began after a sexual encounter early in the film.  Clearly a metaphor for a lot of things (STD’s or Sexual Assault) the specter is never clearly identified, and always appears on screen as a far off human-like figure that is walking towards our main character.  It’s a great execution of having the terror play off the emotions and internal terror of the main character, which is a cue that the new IT has taken to heart.  With renewed emphasis on character dynamics, psychological torture, and an unconventional use of time and place, we see how effectively IT managed to use these independent production’s breakthroughs in a way that helped them reach the mainstream.

But, even with their help, the horror genre is movie in a bolder new direction, and it’s not just on the back of the recent IT remake.  Filmmakers like James Wan, who pioneered the gore-fest trend with his first feature Saw, have also been moving away from Hollywood cliches and have been working to make horror films far more effective at scaring audiences again.  His 2013 film The Conjuring was a critical and financial success, and it managed to work by sticking to effective non flashy scares that never overshadowed the the story that he intended to tell.  Another breakthrough figure to emerge recently in the horror genre is producer Jason Blum.  His Blum House Production company has revolutionized the business by emphasizing novel new ideas in the horror and thriller genres, but also limiting them to tight micro budgets.  This has enabled his company to not go overboard with the productions of their films, while at the same time allowing new voices and ideas to flourish; in other words, keeping all of that Hollywood nonsense out of the way.  As a result, the horror genre not only has new films that are trying to do something different, but also have something to say as well, which few industry driven movies have been able to do in the genre overall.  One Blum House production earlier this year, Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), turned some heads when it not only worked as an effective terror-filled thriller, but also had some sharp satirical statements to make about race relations in the United States, proving that horror films could be political statements too.  Blum also got M. Night Shaymalan’s career back on track with the success of Split (2017) which is an achievement in itself.  It’s by allowing this freedom within a structure that we see a new identity emerging in the horror genre from Blum House and it’s contemporaries, and one that is only going to be emboldened by IT’s massive success.

So, IT by no means got to where it’s at on it’s own, but it nevertheless marks the significant arrival of a new trend in Hollywood horror.  We are finally getting back to having the characters matter in horror movies again, after it seemed like the industry had forgotten how important it was to make them connect with the audience.  IT works as a perfect catalyst to convince the industry as a whole that yes, it does matter to have characters we care about in horror movies.  Sure, there are more holdovers from a less creative time still making it to theaters, like The Bye Bye Man, which seems like it was pitched solely on it’s marketable slogan (“Don’t think it. Don’t Say it.”) or Ouija (2014) which shows that you can’t turn a board game into a scary movie.  But, remaking IT made sense because we are now at a time when we crave horror flicks that take their character’s plight seriously.  The loss of innocence is a universal fear, and nothing scares more than a scary clown hunting young children.  The film would have probably done well on it’s own, but became massive due to the fact that it culminated a larger trend within the industry.  Amazingly, it’s a trend that didn’t come to the horror genre internally, but from the outside, with different independent filmmakers rethinking the genre rules entirely.  A horror movie, as we’ve come to learn, doesn’t need to push jump scares on you every minute, but can instead build terror slowly through mood and emotion.  It can also trust the performers more in conveying that sense of terror to the audience; even when they are children.  We find this in all the most recent horror classics, with IT becoming the first real mainstream blockbuster to emerge from this new field.  It may not be the best example of all of these new horror techniques, but it’s the one that found the best use of them for mass appeal, and for that, it has left a positive mark on the Horror genre going forward.  A strong tide rises all ships, and as Pennywise the Clown continually says, they all float down here.

Blade Runner 2049 – Review

Some movies are instant classics, while others become classics over time; aging like fine wine.  When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner came to theaters 35 years ago, it did not perform well at the box office.  Released in a rather remarkable summer season that also included the likes of John Carpenter’s The Thing, Disney’s Tron, Star Trek’s The Wrath of Khan, and Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-TerrestrialBlade Runner was viewed as too slow-paced and ponderous by critics and audiences at the time.  For a time, it seemed like the movie would remain a relic of it’s time and then something remarkable happened.  It found it’s audience, and turned not just into a cult hit, but became one of the most defining cinematic milestones of late 20th century.  You can see the influence of Blade Runner in everything from anime like Ghost in the Shell (1995), to The Matrix (1999), to even the visual pop of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) with all it’s flashy neon color.  The future that we also live in has somewhat seen an influence from the movie, including how some of it’s imagined future tech like video based communication, synthetic food and artificial intelligence have become a reality in our present day.  Truth be told, the then far off future date of 2019 looks far different than the reality that we see only 2 years out, but there is quite a lot that the movie did predict right. Also of note is the philosophical legacy that the movie has left behind.  Taking it’s cue from the original story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” from futurist Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner asked many questions that still are debated today; much of which centers around the basic idea of what it means to be human.  Several decades after it’s release, Blade Runner continues to be an influential film and it’s esteem only continues to grow; with more and more people claiming it as one of the best every made.  And now, 35 years later, Hollywood has done something thought unthinkable before; they made a sequel to Blade Runner.

Blade Runner 2049 is without a doubt a gamble.  One can see rebooting a franchise after a long absence if it’s got the kind of following that could justify it.  Sometimes it works out well (Mad Max: Fury RoadTron: LegacyStar Wars: The Force Awakens), other times it does not (2016’s Ghostbusters).  But, what these successful reboots have in common was their basis in the action genre.  Blade Runner is considered by many to be a thinking man’s film.  Oh sure, there are action bits in it, but the movie takes it’s cues more from classic film noir, using mood and atmosphere to build the story.  The success of Blade Runner comes from it’s perfect execution of those noir tropes, transplanted into a sci-fi plot-line.  One of the biggest fears that fans of Blade Runner had going into this movie was the worry that it would be given the Hollywood treatment, meaning that the sequel would take out all the noir elements that made the first film great and replace it with a lot more action.  To many of them, the idea of a sequel at all seemed to be an insult, because the first film stood so well on it’s own; anything else would just spoil what was already there.  While some of those worries are justified, there was a lot of good omens leading up to the making of this movie.  Ridley Scott, who’s recent track record with sequels isn’t all that great (Alien: Covenant for example), wisely stepped aside and just assumed the role of producer this time, giving the reins over to rising star Denis Villeneuve.  The French Canadian filmmaker has been on a role recently with Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), and Arrival (2016) all winning critical acclaim, and he couldn’t be better suited to carry the mantle for this daunting project.  Couple that with Harrison Ford making another return to an iconic role, surrounded with a prestige cast and crew, and you’ve got the makings of an A-List production.  But, is it a film worthy to carry on the legacy of such an iconic film, or is it Hollywood once again milking a product and missing the point.

It’s hard to say much about the plot of Blade Runner 2049 without getting into spoilers, so I’ll try to keep the important stuff vague.  It is important to have some knowledge of the original movie in order to understand the intricacies of the plot, but at the same time it does a pretty decent job of laying that stuff out for you while at the same time feeling distinctly it’s own thing.  The movie is set in the year 2049, 30 years after the events of the first Blade Runner.  In that time, the earth’s climate has catastrophically changed, leading to a global shift in weather patterns.  Los Angeles, the setting for this story, is now cold and frigid, and sees frequent snowfalls.  Every part of the city is shrouded in a misty haze, and it is in this urban sprawl that we find a young “blade runner” named simply K (Ryan Gosling).  He is assigned by his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) to track down a rogue replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista).  The replicants (human-like androids with superior strength) have been used for the last several decades to colonize distant planets beyond Earth, but older generations were known to be rebellious against their masters.  The Tyrell Corporation that built them has long been defunct, with a new corporation run by enigmatic founder Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) built upon it’s foundations with a line of even more obedient replicants.  K finds Sapper’s compound and promptly “retires” him as all blade runners are ordered to do.  However, upon investigating the compound, K finds a tree with a mysterious box buried within it’s roots, along with a mysterious date carved into the tree; 6-10-21.  This finding leads him down a road towards learning about the old Tyrell replicants who held a lot more secrets than what was thought before, and K must now search for the man with the answers he needs; former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Blade Runner 2049 could have gone awry in so many different ways, as many sequels to great movies do, and I’m happy to say that this one thankfully accomplishes what it needed to do.  This is a very well crafted and masterful sequel that will please any Blade Runner fan out there.  In many ways, I was stunned just how well they pulled it off.  Watching this movie almost immediately after viewing the original makes this new film feel like the second part of a larger whole, which is exactly what it needed to do.  It expands and deepens the world of the first Blade Runner, while at the same time feeling fully complimentary to it as well.  The filmmakers did a fantastic job matching the aesthetic and thematic elements of the original film.  It is not a cheap retread at all, but a fully realized expansion, and it’s every bit a dream come true for those who worship all the bold cinematic choices that the original is known for.  In many ways, it probably worked to this film’s advantage that it came so long after the original.  It needed for film-making technology to catch up to see the vision fully realized.  The original film was groundbreaking itself, with Ridley Scott firmly making a name for himself as a visual artist, but it was also grounded by the limitations of the period.  Here, visual effects have advanced to the point where the limits are boundless, but at the same time, the filmmakers here have shown great restraint, choosing not to overload on the effects but instead use them to broaden the scope of what was already there.  The movie also needed to wait for a filmmaker of Denis Villaneuve’s ilk to give to take on the project with a degree of seriousness.  The movie also benefits having the original screenwriter Hampton Fancher on board, as it’s clear that he’s been refining this story out for decades, making sure that the next chapter in this story was worth the wait.

Now, while I am awed by the degree of success that this production managed to deliver on it’s promises and the remarkable skill put into it’s creation, there is an element to it that does keep it from being an overall great movie in my eyes.  And it’s something that more or less is tied to my feelings about the original as well.  While I did enjoy this movie quite a bit, it did have one fundamental flaw, and that’s pacing.  The original movie has pacing issues as well, but it managed to balance that out a bit more with a tighter edit (although the movie is notorious for having multiple edits, so it depends on which one you prefer).  Blade Runner 2049 runs at a staggering 165 minutes, which does make it feel more epic, yes, but also more bloated as well.  There are plenty of parts of this movie that do flow very well, and some of the slower paced scenes are welcome, if only for allowing us to soak in some of the incredible atmosphere of this film.  There are, however, plenty of moments in this new movie where the pacing drags out to a crawl which left me with a feeling of impatience at times.  One scene in particular, involving a wooden horse, is so drawn out that it actually left me rolling my eyes at one moment, almost begging for the movie to finally get one with it.  It may not be a big problem to some who are more absorbed into this world, but I just felt that some of these slower paced moments could have used a tighter edit.  In the end, it keeps the movie from really soaring in my opinion.  And again, it’s something that I felt the original had a fault with as well.  Blade Runner, I acknowledge is a great movie, but not among my own personal favorites.  It’s a movie that I find myself respecting more than loving, and that likewise is how I feel about 2049.

But there is a lot about the movie that I did love, and it mainly has to do with it’s exceptional production.  This is an Audible and Visual experience the likes that you’ll never forget.  This is by far the most beautifully shot film of the year, as well as one of the most dynamic sound edits I’ve heard in a long time.  The cinematography manages to evoke the look of the original Blade Runner, keeping it within the same visual realm, but elevates it with a far more dynamic color palette and richness to the textures.  It helps that the man behind the lens is none other than Roger Deakins, who is probably the greatest working cinematographer today and one of the best of all time.  Most famous as a collaborator with Coen Brothers, Deakins has already worked well alongside Denis Villenueve before on equally brilliant work in Sicario.  Here, working with a more substantial budget, Deakins and Villenueve create some of the year’s most staggering imagery on screen, filling every frame with eye-catching wonder.  I just love the way that Deakins captures the hidden shadows of colossal structures appearing out of the hazy smog like great symmetrical monoliths holding up the sky.  He also makes his compositions feel in character with the original, helping to honor it’s legacy while at the same time pushing out it’s boundaries.  One scene in particular in a Vegas nightclub is a tour de force in visuals that represents just how much creativity Deakins and Villeneuve can find in this world they’ve become the caretakers of.  The musical score is also a bold statement onto itself.  Composed by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, the music takes it’s inspiration from the original Vangelis melodies and takes it a whole other aural experience.  This movie has a musical score that will quite literally rattle your bones.  It’s pulsating and overwhelming, but at the same time perfect for this movie.  I could even swear that one of the themes felt inspired by the sound of a revved up Formula 1 engine.  I don’t know why it sounded like that, but it’s indeed unforgettable and worthy addition to the whole experience.  It overall makes this a remarkable cinematic experience, even if the plot itself suffers from slow pacing.

The movie also has a stellar cast, who for the most part do a fine job.  It’s neat to see Harrison Ford once again step into another one of his iconic roles so many years later and not miss a beat.  Only a short time after revisiting Han Solo, we find him returning to Rick Deckard with the same amount of passion and care put into the performance.  Deckard is a much trickier character to pull of, given the complexities that he’s got to encapsulate, but Ford does an incredible job not just returning to what he’s done before, but also finding new shades to his persona that give so many more layers to the character.  He doesn’t show up until very late into the movie, but it works to the benefit of the film because it makes his appearance all the more important when it happens; and plus, it’s not really Deckard’s story this time.  Ryan Gosling instead carries much of the weight of this film, and he does so quite admirably.  Some might find him a little dry, but I liked the restraint in his performance, which feels spiritually in line with what Harrison Ford brought to his role in the original film.  Much of the supporting cast does a great job as well.  My own particular favorite among the newcomers was actress Sylvia Hoeks as one of the Wallace Corporation’s more deadly replicant models, going by the ironic name of Luv.  There is also a nice tender performance from actress Ana de Armas who plays K’s artificial intelligence “girlfriend” Joi, who appears to him as a hologram.  It’s a tricky kind of role, but one that she brings a surprising amount of emotion into.  The only weak link in the cast would be Jared Leto’s Wallace, who while not terrible, is also not really fleshed out that well.  It’s a problem when he needs to act as your film’s antagonist, and I’m sorry he does not hold nearly half the menace nor the presence of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty from the original Blade Runner.  Apart from this, it is a well rounded cast that helps to elevate the movie as a whole.

So, much like the original Blade Runner2049 is a movie that I can recognize as a great cinematic achievement, while at the same time feel a tiny bit underwhelmed.  Don’t get me wrong, it deserve every amount of praise that is going to come it’s way, and fans of the original are absolutely going to be satisfied by this one as well.  In that respect, this movie is an unequivocal triumph, because it took the daunting task of following up a widely regarded masterpiece with a bigger and louder sequel, and did so with in the best possible way.  It honors the original, while at the same time building upon it and expanding it into new horizons.  I can see why this movie is already being proclaimed as one of the year’s best.  The pacing problems were just too hard to forgive for me, and it keeps it from becoming a masterpiece in my eyes. I have the same reservations about the original as well, but feel that it holds up better because there were so much else about it that works.  I feel that Blade Runner 2049 should have been given another edit to tighten things up and remove some of the more bloated, unnecessarily drawn out moments.  Hell, more edits didn’t hurt the original in the long run, as Ridley Scott was better able to refine his masterpiece and find the version that both satisfied him artistically and appealed to audiences.  But, as it stands, the movie is still one of this year’s most impressive cinematic achievements, and one that will be deserving of it’s expected fan-base.  Few sequels, especially ones made so long after the original, ever come close to retaining the same level of quality as their predecessor, so the fact that this one was able to come so close is a bit of a Hollywood miracle in this day and age.  Keep in mind, I was born mere weeks after Blade Runner premiered originally in 1982, so this was a sequel that took my entire lifetime to become a reality and the fact that it turned out this good is a testament to the astounding hard work and seriousness that the filmmakers undertook in it’s making.

Rating: 8/10

Evolution of Character – Oliver Twist

When we think of the work of the great writer Charles Dickens, what usually strikes our memories are the colorful cast of characters that inhabit his stories.  Of these, there are a couple that instantly spring out as the defining Dickensian characters.  Ebeneezer Scrooge of course would be one, but the other character that also stands out as the one that instantly comes to mind when discussing Dickens is Oliver Twist.  The little orphan boy who dared to ask for “more” has become an iconic character in literature, and the quintessential image of a Victorian era outcast scrapping by on his own in an oppressive, unforgiving world.  Naturally, his story is one that has been given attention to by Hollywood, who have continued to mine Dickens’ tale for several generations.  What’s interesting about little Oliver’s journey on the big screen is that it actually delves deeper into the character of Oliver than Charles Dickens ever did in his own book.  The literary Oliver is purely just a catalyst for Charles Dickens to explore larger themes within Victorian society, including class divisions, squalid inner-city conditions, incompetency and cruelty by social services, and the cut throat nature of the criminal underworld.  Oliver is a rather passive character through most of the book; a pawn in a game much larger than himself.  And yet, he has proven to be a powerful symbol, representing the often forgotten outcasts of society who face persecution everyday purely because of their placement on the social strata.  In cinema, Oliver fulfills that symbolic role too, but is also given the grace of a more rounded personality depending on the film.  The interesting about the character and his story is that they can also be reinterpreted in many different ways, like using a different time or place, and still retain it’s primary essence.  In this article, I will be looking at 7 of Oliver Twist’s most notable cinematic versions, and seeing how time has changed the character and story of this iconic character.

JACKIE COOGAN from OLIVER TWIST (1922)

Though not the first cinematic outing for young Oliver, this was certainly the first earnest attempt by Hollywood to adapting Dickens novel.  For the role of Oliver, young Jackie Coogan, the most famous young actor of the time thanks to his star making turn in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), was cast.  Coogan’s involvement was natural given how his part in Chaplin’s classic comedy was in some ways inspired by the character of Oliver.  Here, Oliver is somewhat limited in character mainly due to the constraints of the silent era, but Coogan does a descent job of filling the part.  Bright eyed and broadly mannered, his Oliver is every much the precocious youth that you would imagine him to be for a silent retelling like this one.  His best moments are those he shares with the raggedly dressed and decrepit ringleader of thieves, Fagin, here played by none other than the “man with a thousand faces,” Lon Chaney.  The film, more or less, is purely another showcase for Cheney to disappear into another character with his groundbreaking make-up and physicality, though it is far from Cheney’s most impressive work.  Still, him and Coogan have great chemistry as Fagin and Oliver, and seeing the two play off each other does represent the best subtleties of silent era performances.  Coogan’s young orphan Oliver more or less falls into line with Dickens original, becoming a catalyst for the rest of the plot to revolve around, and his innocence is perfectly conveyed in the film.  Being only 8 years old at the time of the film’s making, Coogan remarkably already hit a high standard for other child actors to match in the years ahead for the role of Oliver Twist.

JOHN HOWARD DAVIES from OLIVER TWIST (1948)

This post-war British production is often considered by many to be the greatest cinematic version of Oliver Twist ever made, and it’s tough to argue.  For one thing, it was directed by the legendary David Lean of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) fame, who in his early career was given the prime opportunity of adapting two classic Dickens novels to the big screen.  One was the critically acclaimed Great Expectations (1946), and the other was this 1948 film.  You can see the sense of scale and scope that Lean was clearly trying to refine on display here, because this is even today an impressively constructed film.  The film also features some standout performances from the cast, all capturing the essence of Dickens’ original visions.  Robert Newton brings special menace to the villainous Bill Sykes, and Alec Guinness is almost unrecognizable as Fagin; though his clearly Semitic interpretation of the character is a somewhat troubling reminder of the anti-Semitic leanings of Dickens’ original text.  The role of Oliver was played by young newcomer John Howard Davies, who especially fits the portrayal of the iconic orphan.  With his puppy dog eyes and sallow face, he looks every bit like what you’d expect an impoverished child in Victorian era London to look like.  He certainly has the look of what Dickens wrote down on the page, and that also carries over into his characterization as well.  The movie is also a very accurate retelling of the book, covering all the political and social intrigue that surrounds Oliver’s story, and again, it limits Oliver as a passive character in the process.  Still, Davies tries his best, and comes away as one of the best versions of the character ever put on screen.

MARK LESTER from OLIVER! (1968)

Apart from the David Lean classic, this is probably the most highly regarded cinematic treatment of Dickens’ story.  This big budget, widescreen musical directed by Carol Reed was one of the last of it’s kind from that era of Hollywood, and was the big winner at the Academy Awards, taking away 8 total including Best Picture.  As far as musical adaptations go, it’s hit or miss.  It’s production values are impressive, and some of the performances are strong, especially Ron Moody as the scene-stealing Fagin.  The role of Oliver likewise is a mixed bag.  Mark Lester, who plays Oliver, certainly looks the part, and at times performs very well in the film’s dialogue driven scenes.  But, because this is a musical and he is the lead, Oliver has to sing and unfortunately that’s beyond young Mark’s range.  Pretty much all of the verses sung by Oliver in the movie are dubbed over by another singer; and strangely not by another similar sounding boy either, but by what seems like a grown woman trying to sound boyish.  It’s a distracting element in the movie and one that unfortunately casts a shadow over Mark Lester’s decent performance.  Since he’s the only dubbed actor too, it also makes him feel out of place, especially compared to the vocally trained Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, who was carried over from the original theatrical cast.  It’s clear that Mark Lester’s innocent doey-eyed look is what won him the role, but it came at a cost to performance overall, because he came ill-equipped to match his co-stars vocally.  Still, for an actor as young as he was at the time, it’s still was impressive of him to carry a huge production like this on his shoulders, and it’s often his visage from the “asking for more” scene that we see attached to most visual references to Dickens’ novel.

JOEY LAWRENCE from OLIVER & COMPANY (1988)

It seemed only natural that Disney themselves would approach Dickens’ classic with a musical adaptation of their own.  But, in order to distance themselves from the classic 1968 musical, they approached the story in an entirely different angle.  Instead of Victorian era London, they set their version in Reagan Era New York City.  And instead of orphan children, this version is centered around dogs and cats.  Oliver is no longer a child stuck in an oppressive orphanage, but is instead an unwanted kitten forced to survive along on the streets of the big city.  Though elements of the story remain the same, it is largely an original tale more inspired by Dickens rather than to the letter faithful.  One thing that it does change in an interesting way is the relationship between Oliver and Dodger.  Here, Dodger is very much older than Oliver, and acts as more of a father figure than in previous versions.  He assumes more of the role that Fagin had in the past, who in this film is relegated to more of a supporting role, being one of the few human characters.  A very young Joey Lawrence voices Oliver here, and in many gives Oliver a sense of character little seen before.  He’s a very Americanized version of the character; vulnerable, impulsive, and with a strong sense of setting out his own path.  He also takes a far more active role in his story, even bearing his claws and fighting back against threats at various points in the movie.  The movie doesn’t delve too deep into the more complicated and darker elements of Dickens’ novel (it is Disney after all), but some of the film’s best elements centers around Oliver finding his identity in literal “dog eat dog” world.  Though far from Disney’s best, it at least does a decent job of bringing Oliver Twist into the 20th century and giving the classic character much more of an active role.

ALEX TRENCH  from OLIVER TWIST (1997)

Disney would once again return to the classic story, only this time without the songs nor the modern setting; and on the small screen no less.  This TV movie adaptation, made for ABC’s “Wonderful World of Disney” program, is a modestly constructed retelling of Dickens’ novel, with a TV friendly budgeted portrayal of Victorian England.  It more or less plays out like a non-musical version of Oliver!, which has it’s benefits.  The film doesn’t get distracted by needless plot points and instead focuses on it’s central characters.  Unfortunately, this leads once again to a passive Oliver.  Here, he is given too little personality to be memorable, and poor young Alex Trench seems out of his element in the role (this would also be his one and only film role to date).  More focus is given to Fagin (played by an over-acting Richard Dreyfus) and to Dodger (played by a pre-Lord of the Rings Elijah Wood), which does provide an interesting character dichotomy to this story that we haven’t seen before.  Here we see both characters act as the two opposing points of view guiding Oliver through his development.  Dodger is the more outgoing and humane, but he attracts Oliver to a world that is far more unforgiving.  Fagin is rigid and suspicious, but putting up more walls helps to shield Oliver from far worse things in the world.  For a TV movie, it does give a richer portrayal to these secondary characters, but Oliver isn’t so lucky.  It does bring the story back to it’s roots with a modern sensibility that sheds new light on the old story in a positive way, which is something that you rarely see in a network made-for-TV movie.

JOSHUA CLOSE from TWIST (2003)

Oliver Twist would once again see a whole other modern “twist” (pardon the pun), only this time far from the family-friendly Disney version seen in Oliver & Company.  Here, we see Dickens story re-imagined with a queer sensibility, with Oliver slipping into the world of street hustling instead of pick-pocketing.  This version of Oliver is considerably older, becoming a wayward youth instead of a lost orphan.  The film delves deeper into the relationship between him and Dodger, played here by Nick Stahl (Sin City), which adds a romantic level to their friendship; one that ultimately turns toxic as Stahl’s Dodger sinks deeper into a drug addiction.  While the new dimension added to the story brings an interesting angle to develop the characters around, the movie sadly doesn’t make it all work in the end.  It’s clear that filmmakers used the blueprint of Dickens’ original story to portray their own window into the seedy underbelly of modern slums and the crime world that festers there, but it doesn’t elevate any higher than the surface level of that to become anything really profound; especially not at the level that Charles Dickens would have gone.  Fresh-faced, handsome Joshua Close does a decent job portraying this grown up Oliver, and his vulnerable performance is one of the film’s highlights.  It’s just too bad a look at a queer themed Oliver Twist had to loose focus and become too indulgent in it’s look at the darker parts of society.    The story is after all about a young child seeking an identity in a world that is constantly acting against him.  It is interesting to see Dickensian social injustice added onto a queer love story, but the film looses the nerve to make it work the way it should.

BARNEY CLARK from OLIVER TWIST (2005)

Here we have one of the more unexpected adaptation of Dickens’ novel.  When you think of all the different filmmakers who would be attracted to the story of Oliver Twist, the last one who would come to mind is Roman Polanski.  The Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974) director is no stranger to darker themed stories, but for him to take a straight-forward approach to Dickens’ tale was somewhat unexpected.  And yet, it makes sense, because if there is a running motif in Polanski’s full body of work, it would be the loss of innocence, which Oliver Twist fits perfectly within.  The movie came and went in theaters pretty quietly in 2005, and few people even know that this movie exists, which is too bad because it is probably the best cinematic version of this story since David Lean’s classic in my opinion.  I will even say that this has what is probably the best cinematic portrayal of Oliver Twist as a character that we’ve ever seen.  Here, Oliver is no longer a passive player in his own story, but rather a fully realized person.  The movie does away with all of the political sub-plotting that surrounds the main story, and instead focuses like a laser beam on Oliver’s journey.  It builds a far more personal relationship between Oliver and Fagin (played wonderfully by Ben Kingsley) for one thing, where you see the strong effect that the old man has had on Oliver’s upbringing, both positive and negative.  Young Barney Clark is also quite good in the role, bringing subtlety and emotion to the character that we’ve rarely seen before.  The fact that he has a lot more to do in the story helps to improve the character greatly, and it’s something that should be celebrated more within the whole history of this character.  Any Dickens’ fans out there should seek this version out because it is worthy of rediscovery.  And for the character of Oliver, it is a milestone, because he finally get the focus that he has long deserved.

So, there you have a look at Oliver Twist’s cinematic journey.  As the years have gone on, we see far more of a focus given to the little boy and his personal journey.  In a way, he has shone more clearly on the big screen than he ever did on the page.  Charles Dickens didn’t exactly treat the young boy as an afterthought in his original book, but it’s clear that Oliver had little impact over his own direction in life.  Cinematic versions, which have streamlined the story over time, have found ways to let Oliver stand out more and give him a personality that makes him distinctive and worth taking interest in.  My feelings is that David Lean’s classic adaptation made the best attempt at capturing the essence of Dickens’ novel while Roman Polanski’s version brought out the best essence of the character.  There are interesting imaginings over the years too, like the two musical version by way of Broadway and Disney, but it’s those two features from wildly different eras that offer the best portrayals of Dickens’ classic.  In many ways, Oliver Twist had to mature as a story with more modern sensibilities in order to fully realize the character himself.  Nowadays, we are better able to find child actors who can carry the weight of a difficult character, as well as filmmakers who can trust their young stars with deeper material.  The story of Oliver Twist is a difficult one to pull off, as it centers around a child in near constant peril and hits hard at the social injustices that have put him in the state that he’s in.  That’s a lot to ask a young performer to undertake on screen, but we have thankfully had a fair helping of capable young actors who have done justice to the character.  In the end, as we still see young people struggle to survive in the modern world, we find that Oliver Twist remains a powerful literary and cinematic icon who continues to remain more and more relevant through every new retelling.

 

Kingsman: The Golden Circle – Review

Hollywood’s love affair with spy thrillers goes back all the way to it’s early days.  Pioneered largely by filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, espionage and undercover mysteries have given the genre fertile ground to mine for many years.  With the onset of World War II, the spy thriller also became an important part of conveying the work being done to gain an intelligence advantage against the enemy to a broad audience.  After the war years, spy movies entered a new phase.  As the Cold War changed the spy game once again, and turned it more covert and mysterious, the idea of the spy took on more mythic qualities and we began to see the emergence of the “super spy” archetype.  No character better exemplified this than James Bond.  In his 50-plus years of existence, Bond has become cinema’s most famous spy; an international man of mystery, who wears the finest clothes, drives the fanciest cars, sleeps with the most beautiful women, and has a licence to kill.  And while most of the Bond films hold up as great escapist entertainment, some of the movies do slip into the absurd once and a while, and that opens the image of the “super spy” up to ridicule.  The genre was most famously lampooned by Mike Myers in his Austin Powers trilogy.  With Austin Powers, we saw the genre reexamined through the eyes of generation raised on the myth of the “super spy,” but living in a post-Cold War era, and recognizing the absurdities within.  But, with the recent resurgence of the Bond franchise and intelligence gathering becoming more of a priority in a “cyber spy world” the genre needed something to reflect the absurd conventions that have built it up, while at the same time standing on it’s own as an action film.

Thus we got Kingsman: The Secret Service.  Based on the comic book series “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar, Kingsman was refreshing departure for the spy genre, mixing the hard edge action of James Bond with the silly, over-the-top absurdness of Austin Powers, with a little John Woo thrown in for good measure.  What resulted was one of the best action films of recent memory.  Kingsman even managed to stand out in a banner year for spy films in 2015, which also saw the big screen debut of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from Guy Ritchie, as well as new entries from genre mainstays like Mission: Impossible (Rogue Nation) and even James Bond (Spectre).  Directed by Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass), the film perfectly mixed all the ingredients of the genre together that stood well on it’s own as both an action thriller and as a comedy.  Not only did it deliver some incredibly well choreographed action set pieces, but managed to be laugh out loud hilarious as well.  There was something just so perfect about seeing Bond-esque fight scenes performed by what essentially look like stereotypes of stuffy upper-class British aristocrats.   They are her majesty’s secret service looking always ready to meet her majesty.  And the very archetypal Britishness of the whole thing helped to make the film feel unique and fresh.  It was also very self aware of audience expectations and managed flip a lot of genre conventions on it’s head.  For one thing, who would have ever expected seeing Oscar-winner Colin Firth in a finely tailored suit slaughtering a whole bunch of redneck thugs in a church with samurai like skills.  There was a whole lot to love about Kingman: The Secret Service and it promised us a whole new world worth delving into in an expanded franchise.  We didn’t have to wait long as Kingsman: The Golden Circle presents the next chapter in the Kingsman saga.  But, is it a mission worth taking or did it self destruct on it’s own?

Kingsman: The Golden Circle picks up not long after the events of The Secret Service.  Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has settled into his new role as one of the elite Kingsman, taking over the designated title of Galahad from his deceased mentor Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who was shot in the head in the previous film.  While maintaining his new career as an expertly trained spy, Eggsy is also engaged in a loving relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) of Norway, who would like to see her boyfriend make an even deeper commitment to their love life.  While Eggsy is away meeting his girlfriend’s parents, the King and Queen, the Kingsman organization falls prey to a coordinated attack which destroys the entire organization and leaves all members dead, except for Eggsy and the Kingsman’s skilled quartermaster and technician, Merlin (Mark Strong).  With nowhere to turn, Eggsy and Merlin seek out their doomsday scenario options, which leads them to a whiskey distillery in Kentucky.  There, they discover a secret organization of spies not unlike their own, made up of cowboy styled super agents known as the Statesman.  The are welcomed in Statesman Tequila (Channing Tatum) who introduces them to their resident technician Ginger (Halle Berry), as well as their superior Champagne (Jeff Bridges), or Champ for short.  Eggsy and Merlin learn from them that their organization was destroyed by a drug syndicate called the Golden Circle, which is run by a nostalgia obsessed kingpin named Poppy (Julianne Moore).  Not only that, but Poppy has concocted a master plan to poison the world’s population by lacing her drug supplies with a lethal disease and demanding a ransom for an antidote.  Eggsy teams up with another Stateman agent, Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) to get to the bottom of Poppy’s organization and find the antidote before it’s not too late.  And to complicate things even more, Eggsy finds another surprise in the Statesman’s lair; an alive but amnesiac Harry Hart.

In many ways, Kingsman: The Golden Circle delivers on everything that a sequel should do.  It stays true to what it’s predecessor has set up and continues to expand on the world that it’s built up.  But, at the same time, The Golden Circle also falls into the same pitfalls that a lot of other sequels do after the success of their beloved predecessor.  The big problem that befalls this film is that it feels more bloated.  The first Kingsman was a swift, fast-paced adventure that managed to balance the action and the laughs perfectly.  Golden Circle runs for nearly two and a half hours, and unfortunately this longer run time leads to a lot of padding, which spoils some of the momentum.  I get the feeling that Matthew Vaughn and his co-writing partner Jane Goldman perhaps had too short a turnaround between features, which led to a script that featured a lot of neat ideas but not enough focus to make them all work.  The first film may have had an absurd premise, but it at least kept it focused and cohesive to a point where you could stay engaged.  Here, plot points meander from scene to scene, seeming to only be there as a way to glue action set pieces together.  That’s not to say that the movie is an unwatchable mess.  Vaughn and Goldman still manage to entertain with a lot of clever bits throughout.  But, when compared to the first feature, the pieces here feel more undercooked.  My take is that the movie could have used a fair bit of editing to smooth out the more unnecessary bloat that hampers the movie; like maybe 20 minutes or so.  That way you have less time wasted on Eggsy awkwardly trying to balance his professional and love life (a plot point that goes nowhere) and more time devoted to learning more about the underdeveloped Statesman.  The common misconception with sequalizing a new popular film is thinking that more is better, and that filling a movie with more stuff makes it feel more epic.  It’s a level of excess that ended up diminishing the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise as well as Transformers, and sadly Kingsman has fallen down that same hole.

What bothered me most about The Golden Circle’s lack of focus is that it doesn’t devote the right amount of time to building up the plot and characters.  It almost seems that Vaughn and Goldman spend way too much time building up to punchlines that are not worth the effort.  The reason why the humor worked so well in the first movie was because it was so punchy and unexpected.  With the sequel, we already know what to expect, but the writers seem too concerned with making things connect that they lost the ability to just let things flow.  The movie does have some laugh out loud moments, but they diminish the longer that the movie hangs onto them.  There is a cameo by a legendary pop star that starts off funny when we first see him, but as the movie goes on, the cameo turns into a full on supporting role, and by then the novelty has worn off.  There’s also the unfortunate aspect of the underwhelming threat that the Kingsman and Statesman face.  Julianne Moore’s Poppy is unfortunately a very disappointing antagonist.  While she is a great actress, she looks lost in this feature and I think that it’s due to the fact that like most things in the film, her character was not very fleshed out.  She’s made up of ideas that could be turned menacing, but end up just being gimmicky.  The first film’s villain, played by Samuel L. Jackson, was a perfect blend of how to make character that was both threatening and absurd.  Here, Julianne Moore only has the one note to play, and try as she might, it still just remains one note.  While I understand that Vaughn and Goldman want to delve deeper into story-lines carried over from the first film, particularly with Eggsy and Harry, it undermines their attempts to expand their world, especially with the Statesman, who sadly are not given the full development that they are due.

One thing that does carry the film, however, is the cast itself.  Taron Egerton remains the heart of the series, and he still is enjoyable to watch as the film’s charismatic lead.  He even more so is in command of his persona here, and it’s a joy watching him go from sincere, to comical, to fiercely intimidating with great ease.  It’s also a pleasure to see Colin Firth brought back into the fold and his resurrection in the film makes some sense (though is a tad convoluted).  Firth in particular was born to play this kind of role; suave and sophisticated, but with lethal killer instincts.  Before Kingsman, Firth was seen as the quintessential British every-man in Hollywood, excelling in roles ranging from Love, Actually (2003), to A Single Man (2009), to The King’s Speech (2010).  Kingsman flipped his already established persona on it’s head, and showed that he was equally adept as an action movie star, without loosing any of his sophisticated appeal.  He’s still endlessly entertaining here, and while his presence is kind of unnecessary, since his “death” scene in the first film was such a pivotal motivating factor (which is sadly now diminished), he still manages to remain a hero worth rooting for.  The Statesman are sadly given too little time to leave an impact, but they still are welcome additions to the franchise.  Jeff Bridges is more or less just playing a version of himself, and that for the most part fits his character well.  Channing Tatum uses his brief screen-time effectively, as does Halle Berry, giving a nice reserved performance here.  The standout of the Statesman, however, is Pedro Pascal as Whiskey.  The former Game of Thrones star steals every scene he is in as the lasso twirling hotshot Statesman, and embodies the fullest aspect of what Matthew Vaughn imagined for the State-side band of super spies.  Even if he is portrayed as a stereotypical cowboy, he still has enough charisma to carry it through and as a result he is certainly the highlight of the film’s newcomers.  My hope is that if there is ever another chapter given to this franchise, that more emphasis will be given to this second team, and not have them relegated to a sideshow of the franchise’s larger plot.

The other good thing that I’ll say about the film is that while the writing suffers from a lack of focus, Matthew Vaughn’s direction still is just as sharp as ever.  Vaughn continues to show his skill behind the camera with well-executed sight gags and kinetically charged action set pieces. In fact, it’s when the movie ends up getting to the action bits that it finally comes alive.  There’s a spectacular car chase with a taxi at the beginning that showcases some flashy camera and stunt-work that immediately plunges us right back into the Kingsman’s world.  There’s another outstanding action scene with a cable suspended sky cabin, which involves one of the most ridiculous and thrilling escape attempts seen in this series to date.  There is unfortunately nothing in this film that quite lives up to the now iconic church massacre from the first movie, where Firth’s Harry takes out an entire congregation of right-wing extremists all by himself.  Still, the movie does remain expertly crafted, with action scenes that still are above the average in the industry.  There are some very clever visual touches thrown into the movie too.  The Statesman’s headquarter’s is a wonderful mix of the rugged and the state-of-the-art mixed together.  The villain’s lair is also a nice reworking of a genre cliche.  The movie takes the idea of a secret fortress built into a remote hollowed out mountain (popularly conceived through James Bond’s arch-nemesis Blofeld) and adds a retro-50’s kitsch to it, complete with a deco-infused diner as it’s centerpiece.  It doesn’t make much sense why it looks like that, but then of course that’s part of the Kingsman’s appeal.  It’s a series built upon flipping genre conventions on it’s head, while still indulging in the things that make the genre work in the first place.  And while a lot of it was done better in the first movie, the series as a whole continues to stand out as a unique blend of the thrilling and the absurd thanks to Matthew Vaughn’s own assured vision.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is still far more clever and thrilling than most other action films today, but I’m sure that most people like myself will come away with a slight bit of disappointment after seeing it.  The plot is too unfocused to ever remain engaging, and most of the clever ideas end up getting diminished in a movie that takes too long to deliver the goods.  Perhaps part of the problem is that the expectations were too high based on the success of it’s beloved predecessor, but I think the problem lies more in the fact that we got this movie before it could be ready.  I think another draft of the script could have smoothed out some of the pacing and helped to make this movie flow a lot better, but Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman weren’t given the time necessary for pulling that off, and instead we find them here quickly trying to scramble together something that could pass for a sequel.  Some good things have come out of it, like the reintroduction of Colin Firth back into the series, and the establishing of the Statesman organization, but I just wish that more time wasn’t wasted on gags and plot threads that go nowhere.  If there is to be any more of these films, they need to have a more menacing threat for one thing, and not a villain that comes across as more gimmicky than anything else.  It’s a disappointing sequel, but not one that crushes the franchise as a whole.  There could be plenty of more worthwhile adventures still waiting for this franchise and hopefully they learn from the mistakes here as they go forward.  Until then, if Kingsman: The Secret Service feels like a loving homage to the best of James Bond, absurdity and all, The Golden Circle feels like one of the lesser Bond movies; works fine as part of the hole and important as a continuation of the franchise, but something you’ll probably never revisit again in the same way.  It’s the Kingsman’s equivalent of Quantum of Solace (2008); fun, but hard to love.

Rating: 7/10

Movie Palaces – A Guide to Finding the Right Theater for Your Movie Experience

For as long as we have had cinema as an art-form, we have had the experience of watching movies.  It’s very existence calls for us the audience to make ourselves comfortable and observe that art for an extended period of time, and most commonly, with other people.  Cinema is a communal experience like few others, and that experience calls for the right kind of amenities to compliment it.  While the mechanics of making movies has evolved over the years, so has the business of presenting film as well.  After production is completed, the business of presentation takes over and within it comes a whole other field of innovations and changes.  The movie theater business has a fascinating history all it’s own, and it’s one that I myself am familiar with personally.  I worked for 4 1/5 years in a movie theater while putting myself through college, and it gave me a great insight into the daily functions of how a movie theater does business.  The theater was Cinemark 17 in Springfield, Oregon and in those several years I worked there, I found myself working in every possible department, apart from management.  I worked concessions, I cleaned up each theater as an usher, sold tickets at the box office, greeted people in the lobby as I tore their tickets, and even ran the projectors in the booth upstairs.  It was a multi-faceted job that opened me up to many different skills, but what I took away most from my experience there was the insight into what made the movie-going experience special.  Our job was to ensure that the audience had the best viewing experience possible and that it would ensure their repeat business in the future; a not uncommon goal for most businesses, but with the industry of film-making and presentation, it is all about ensuring that a day at the movies is the best option available to the audience.

When you look back at the history of the movie theater business, you see an industry that is constantly in change due to the changing forces of the market.  In the early days, movie theaters were as essential to cinema as anything else.  The only way you could watch a movie in the first couple decades was by going to your town’s local movie theater and paying for a ticket.  Movies were celebrated as much as live events back in those days, and the theater business likewise treated it as such.  The first theaters created specifically for film were elaborate auditoriums that mimicked the aesthetic of the great music halls of the era.  These were meant to be monuments to the artistry of film, and that’s why they were often given the name, “movie palaces.”  Even small town theaters aped the majesty of these early theaters, and some of those are what you still find today.  Competition from television forced a change in cinema though, and thus we saw the era of gimmicks in the movie theater business.  This was the era of 3-D, Widescreen, and Smell-O-Vision, as theaters were trying anything to appeal to audiences, reminding them that there were experiences still that they would only find in a movie theater. The era of the blockbuster changed cinema once again, as it became clear that single screen “movie palaces” were not enough to contain the growing business of Hollywood.  So, the multiplex came into existence; one singular building containing multiple screens which could show several movies all at one time.  For a while, multiplexes were able to sustain audience interest in a televised world, but as technology changed, so would the theater business.  Now, in our digital internet driven world, cinema faces a new challenge; streaming services.  The rise of Netfilx, Amazon, and Hulu has changed Hollywood once again, and we find cinema in a new quandary about what they should do next.

It’s not a problem so much for Hollywood, since they have new avenues opened up to show more of their product.  But, for the theater business, it’s becoming a serious issue.  Home entertainment has become more and more sophisticated in recent years, and now poses a serious threat to the survival of the cineplex theater model in the process.  When a movie has a day one release in both theaters and on streaming services simultaneously, which do you think most people would choose?  Movie theaters charge you an arm and a leg for snacks at their concessions, while at home, you are only footsteps away from your fridge.  You can pause the film while you take a break to use the restroom and not miss anything important. High Definition projectors are also becoming more affordable for home theaters, and can give the viewer even more of the cinematic experience right from the comfort of their own living room.  Which raises the question even more now; why go out to the movies at all?  For a long time, movie theaters could deal with that question by emphasizing the grandeur of their amenities, the exclusivity of their presentations, and the value of what you were getting.  But now, the streaming market has put more of the choice into the hands of the viewer and they are backing up their appeal with exclusives of their own.  Some filmmakers are embracing streaming, because it gives them more creative freedom to create the films that they want to make, feeling less pressure to deliver a product that appeals to a broader theater going public.  Netflix and Amazon in particular are trying to outdo one another in their big name exclusives, with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and the Coen Brothers all bringing their next projects exclusively to streaming.  There are purists for the theater experience, like Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, and Quentin Tarantino, but even with their best efforts, they still aren’t able to redirect the tide.

Even still, they do make a good point.  There really is no substitute to the movie theater experience.  Home viewing has it’s benefits, and is understandably the preferred choice for some.  But, I personally feel that watching a movie in a theater with an auditorium full of other viewers is still the optimal way to watch a movie.  There is just something about the communal experience of it that makes going to the movies worth it in the end.  Maybe I’m biased because of my many years working in a movie theater, but even several years removed from that job now, I still prefer going out and watching a movie in a theater over watching it first on television.  There’s just something about experiencing the same movie with a room full of complete strangers and witnessing their own varied emotions as they react to the same thing that I’m watching with them.   In many ways, it does leave a different reaction on me as I leave after watching a movie.  Seeing a crowd laugh hysterically all at once to a hilarious bit, or jump out of their seat at a well timed jump scare has it’s own level of entertainment that can’t be underestimated.  Even overhearing an audience’s opinion of a movie, whether positive or negative, offers an extra level to the experience.  I remember staying through the credits of 2015’s awful Fantastic Four reboot and remembering 20 random people in the audience all booing the screen at once.  That’s something that you won’t get at home, unless you can make yourself yell as loud as 20 people.  For me, the audience experience is what makes going to the movie theater special, but even without an audience, the thrill of seeing a movie projected on the biggest screen possible is still an ideal as well.  But, it’s not enough for some people who just want to relax and have the comforts of home available to them, as well as the ability to have entertainment available at their own convenience.

As a person who understands a little bit about the business of showcasing film and operating a theater, I believe that it is worth sharing some pointers about how to find the theater experience that is right for you.  First, you have to take into account the options within your area.  Growing up in a small Oregon college town, I had more limited options than say a big city would.  During my childhood, there were three medium sized theaters and a classic movie palace in my hometown.  That number has decreased down to the two available today, but both modern theaters are equipped with more screens in total.  There was also a rise in art cinemas over those years, which brought the option of independent, alternative cinema to my hometown.  So with all these choices, my decisions of where to watch a movie were based on location, availability and variety.  The theater in my part of town unfortunately closed in the year 2000, as well as the last remaining movie palace, but the multiplexes made up for the loss with their updated amenities.  Over time, I valued the more advanced amenities than anything else, because I wanted the best possible presentation for my movie-going experience.  The Cinemark 17 theater had the biggest screens, stadium seating, and state-of-the-art sound and projection, making it my preferred theater, and just by chance, it would end up being my workplace as well.  Living in a bigger city, you might have multiple theaters that offer the same amenities, so at that point, your choices might be limited to how close it is to your home.  Some smaller towns might only have one single theater, which limits the choices even further, and makes streaming services a more viable option for those who want more variety.  I was fortunate to live in a place that had variety but also clear cut choices, which made it easier to find my ideal theater; but not all places are going to make that choice easy, so then you have to take other things into consideration.

One thing to look at is what your local theater provides.  For someone who wants to watch a blockbuster on the biggest screen possible, seeking out a large multiplex becomes the ideal option.  Thanks to the recent successes of The Dark Knight (2008) and Avatar (2009), gimmicks like IMAX film and 3D projection have proliferated to reach a much bigger audience in more venues across the country.  Once the market sees the value of such gimmicks as part of the experience, they are more ready to invest more fully in it, and that’s why you see IMAX and 3D in more markets today.  But even with wider availability, there are some elements of these that prove to be more exclusive than others.  While you find IMAX most everywhere nowadays, insiders will tell you that it’s not a true IMAX experience until you find the right theater.  Most multiplexes today just have retrofitted an IMAX projector and screen into their normal size theater, which kind of hampers the experience.  True IMAX is presented on 100 ft. screens in select theaters across the country, and these are the only ones that are specially equipped to run true 70 millimeter IMAX, which is the best quality picture that you’ll find for the format.  This is the film process that directors like Christopher Nolan and the like are fond of, and prefer to have their films presented in.  It does limit the availability however, making it so that some film purists will have to travel out of their area to find the right kind of presentation.  Living now in LA, I can tell you that I don’t have a problem with finding theaters with special gimmicks such as this.  In fact, Los Angeles seems to be the testing ground for all the technological advancements that theaters are trying to make work for a national audience.  Here, in addition to true IMAX, you’ve got the advances of Dolby Atmos sound in theaters, as well as 4DX presentations, where the very seats you are in move and enhance the feeling of immersion into the theater.  Not all of it will cross over, but it’s interesting to see the theater industry try to figure out ways to make the theater experience even more special.

Outside of Los Angeles, there are other innovations that are making the theater-going experience something worthwhile.  In Texas, the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain has revolutionized the concept of Dine-In theaters.  There they do away with the original concession stand element of a movie theater, and replace it with full service dining while watching your film.  The Drafthouse business plan has become a favorite with Gen X and Millennial audiences who want a more of a hip vibe to their movie-going experience, and it is beginning to catch on across the country, including here in LA.  Apart from that, you see small innovations in local art house cinemas across the country.  Art cinemas bring character to the film-going experience, not only giving you a look at first run movies, but also immersing yourself into one of a kind experiences based on where you are seeing the movie.  Sometimes you’ll be watching a movie in a theater that’s been unchanged since the dawn of cinema itself, making it feel like you’ve wandered into a time capsule.  Other theaters are built into unusual places like defunct old schools, churches, factories, or a small little office space.  Despite the peculiarity of some theaters, it nevertheless makes the theater going experience feel unique, and independent theaters often bring that feeling much closer to home.  In many ways, the relics of the past actually gives the viewer much more of a kinship to the cinematic experience because it remind them of a time when going to the movies was a special event.  And if they aren’t a holdover from the past, new age art cinemas can draw in audiences by offering the things that other theaters won’t, like unique cuisine and house brewed beverages that you can only find there in the theater.  If anything, it’s that diversion from the norm that helps to brings repeat business back to these theaters.

The only downside of trying to compete with home entertainment is the the theater industry’s belief that they have to conform to it.  On a recent trip back home to my old theater, Cinemark 17, I noticed that they went through a massive new renovation.  Each theater is now equipped with leather back recliners and has fewer seats than before to accommodate the extra leg room for each customer, with giant walls blocking view of the rows in front of view, leaving only the screen visible.  While it does make the experience more comfortable for the viewer, I was troubled by the walls that closed off each row.  To me, it robs the theater of that unique audience experience that I enjoyed.  Sure, this is more ideal for the viewer who wants more privacy and something closer to their viewing experience at home, and I understand my old theater’s desire to adapt to that audience accommodation.  But it’s not my ideal viewing experience.  This was the point that I realized that my old theater was not my ideal theater anymore.  It changed with the times and became something else.  I still will go to movies there, but it’s just not the same.  Living in Los Angeles now, I do have variety to fill that need, but if I were still living in a small town, this might be a more troubling change overall.  For me, a movie theater is more than just a place to relax while watching a movie.  It’s about sharing that experience with others.  With streaming services competing for exclusive content in the marketplace, I feel that the answer for the theater industry is to not comply and make their theaters more like a home, but more like a palace.  Essentially, I want everyone to experience a movie for the first time in the most spectacular way possible and that’s by getting off the couch and joining hundreds of other in the shared majesty that is cinema.  Bigger screens, elaborate amenities, and even a clever gimmick or special treat to enhance the flavor of the moment.  Going to the movies has always been a special thing in my life, and my hope is that all of you can find that special experience too, no matter where you are.

Off the Page – Treasure Island

Pirate movies have usually seen their highs and lows in Hollywood.  Popular in their heyday of Hollywood’s Golden Age, with stars like Errol Flynn making his mark on the genre, pirates later become outcast as movie budgets for high seas adventures grew higher and higher.  Eventually, pirate movies saw a resurgence in the early 2000’s thanks to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but even there time has shifted the popularity away from swashbucklers once again.  Even still, you can see a long tradition of pirate movies throughout the history of film, and through them, you can find a whole variety of peculiar stories and characters worthy of cinematic treatment.  There are plenty of famous pirate stories that have been adapted over the years, either from true life or from literature, but if one were to pinpoint the most quintessential pirate’s tale from any medium, it would probably be Robert Louis Stevnson’s immortal classic, Treasure Island. First published 1883, in an era not too far removed from when pirates were really roaming the seas, Stevenson’s novel has gone one to become not just a beloved read to many, but also the basis for much of the pirate lore that we are familiar with today.  In Treasure Island, we see the beginnings of many tropes we associate with pirates, like treasure maps marked with an “X,” the Black Spot death mark, peg legs, and even the trope of parrots resting on the shoulders of their pirate masters.  It is, to this day, a widely read book and pretty much the first story that comes to mind when one thinks of pirates.  The tale of young Jim Hawkins and the feared pirate Long John Silver naturally has also found it’s way to the big screen as well.  Surprisingly, or not surprisingly to some, the studio that has been associated with this particular tale the most has been the Disney company, which has been responsible for two screen adaptations; three if you count Muppet Treasure Island (1996).

The second of these adaptations is the one that I want to focus on here, because it represents a very interesting thing that you usually see in Hollywood, and that’s the practice of re-imagining.  A re-imagined movie is one where it takes an already established and familiar story and re-contextualizes through a different setting or style.  You see this a lot when Hollywood imports a movie idea from the international market and remakes it.  Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) was remade into a Western called The Magnificent Seven (1960) for example, and while the setting and time period are very different, both movies still retained the same general plot.  One common re-imagining you see in Hollywood is taking a familiar story and setting it in an alien world, or out into space, which is exactly what Disney did with their animated feature Treasure Planet (2002). What’s interesting about Disney’s re-imagined version of the story is how much they ground it in the original tale, while at the same time taking it way outside our world.  It’s futuristic, and old-fashioned at the same time. Here we see 18th century aesthetic planted onto interplanetary technology from a far distant future and it leads to some quite amazing visuals.  Here, pirates don’t have peg legs but instead become part cyborg, and sailing ships are equipped for venturing through the stars instead of the open seas.  At the same time, the movie runs the risk of having these two styles clashing and causing a distraction from the overall story, but regardlesss of one’s feelings towards the look of the film, there’s no doubting that it is a bold choice.  Disney certainly gambled with this film, and sadly it didn’t click with audiences in the way they hoped.   It’s often cited as the movie that killed the traditional animation market, rather unfairly.  Still, it is interesting to see how much of the movie maintain’s the essence of Stevenson’s classic novel, even with all the sci-fi flourish.  And in many ways, it’s what helps to make the movie work as well as it does.

“The were nights when the winds of the Etherium, so inviting in their promise of flight and freedom, made one’s spirit soar.”

Disney’s development of Treasure Planet has an interesting history of it’s own.  The film was a dream project for longtime directing partners John Musker and Ron Clements.  Working together since the mid-80’s, they are the team responsible for such Disney classics as The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Hercules (1997), and more recently The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Moana (2016).  But, for most of their partnership, they had always held onto Treasure Planet as their ultimate goal.  They pitched it to the top brass at Disney as far back as before The Little Mermaid, and would return back to it between projects over the course of almost 17 years.  At the turn of the century, with technology advancing to the point where it became more feasible to make a concept like Treasure Island in space a reality, Ron & John were finally given the green-light to work on their long waiting dream.  The reason that this project meant so much to them is because they were both big fans of the original novel and of science fiction in general.  It’s probably something that bonded them together as collaborators and what drove their determination to see it through.  Now, they knew that the story appealed to Disney, seeing as how Walt Disney himself had created a live action adaptation back in the 1950’s (a studio first by the way).  Their choice of setting it in space, however, was their way of distinguishing it from all other adaptations that have come before, and make it more visually appealing in the animated medium.  Animation can tell a story in ways that are too limited in live action, so why shouldn’t they take those kinds of liberties with Treasure Island.  It’s clear that Ron Clements and John Musker set out to make the movie with a lot of love and respect for Stevenson’s original, and resetting it in space was not an attempt to exploit the story for the purposes of making it more exciting.  No, once you see the movie, you’ll notice that it’s not the changes to the setting that make the biggest difference; it’s often the changes in the characters that leave the biggest impact.

“The Cyborg!! Beware the Cyborg!!!”

There are alterations to many of the main cast that were done mostly out of expedience.  Jim Hawkins companions, Dr. Livesey and John Trelawney are combined together into one character in the film; Dr. Doppler (voiced by David Hyde Pierce), who is re-imagined to have come from an alien race that appears to be canine based.  The savvy commander of the expedition, Captain Smollett, is completely re-imagined here, not only taking on a feline form, but also shifting genders to be female, in the form of Captain Amelia (voiced with authority by Emma Thompson).  Most other characters from the box are either excised or completely altered; the villainous Blind Pew is no where to be seen for instance.  Minimizing the cast benefits the film greatly though because it puts the focus where it needs to be, which is on the relationship that forms between Jim Hawkins and John Silver.  What Ron & John seemed to care about most from the original novel is how this unlikely friendship between the young boy and the fearsome pirate forms and inevitably shapes their destinies.  It plays out much in the same way as in the book, but whereas the novel allows the relationship to form over the course of a serialized recounting over several chapters, the movie has to build that connection in a rather short amount of time.  The way that the movie makes it work is that they establish very early on that Jim is dealing with the aftermath of his abandonment by his father.  Because of this, he has turned cold and distant to others around him.  Silver, spots this while on their voyage and instantly takes an interest in steering him in the right direction.  Now, of course it probably was Silver’s way of coaxing the truth about the treasure map out of Jim, but the great surprise within the story is that Silver actually proves to be a better father figure to Jim than either of them ever would’ve realized. And that was the appeal that prompted the directors to take the story so seriously, seeing the importance of mentor-ship in forming young minds.

It is interesting comparing Jim Hawkins and John Silver to other like minded characters in the Disney family.  John Silver in particular is very unconventional as a Dinsey villain.  Where most Disney antagonists are un-redeemable rogues who get what’s coming to them, Silver actually stands out for having a redemptive arc.  In fact, it is often hard to call him a villain at all, despite his often awful deeds.  It’s his relationship to Jim that makes him likable to us the audience, because we are witnessing the story from Jim’s point of view.  As he begins to warm up to Silver, so do we, and it’s that bond that drives the emotional heart of the movie.  It is, in many ways, what makes the film work so well, because the movie makes that relationship between the boy and the pirate work so well.  John Silver is one of literature’s most memorable characters, given as he has now become the archetypal pirate for most people, and the version in the film is really something to behold.  Using a combination of both hand drawn animation and CGI, Silver is a beautifully constructed hybrid.  Instead of his signature one leg, Silver is shown to be half man and half cyborg, with computer animated limbs that transform into a variety of tools at his disposal.  His hand drawn parts were done by legendary animator Glen Keane, whose long history at Disney has included animating complex characters like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast (1991) as well as Tarzan in Tarzan (1999), which made him a perfect fit for this character.  While his character animation combined with the CGI parts are impressive on their own, it’s the way that he puts emotion in the model that really drives home the brilliance of the character on film.  Matched perfectly with the voice of stage actor Brian Murray who plays Silver, the animation calls for some rather emotional moments and it delivers.  I was particularly struck by the subtlety of the moment when Jim asks Silver how he lost his limbs, to which he replies solemnly, “You lose a few things chasing a dream.”  It’s a great moment of vocal and animation acting that makes this, in my mind, the best version of Long John Silver we’ve ever seen on the big screen.

“At least you taught me something, “Stick to it,” right?  Well, that’s just what I’m gonna do.  I’m going to make sure that you never see one drubloon of ‘my’ treasure.”

The depiction of Jim Hawkins is somewhat different, especially from the book.  He’s depicted as a bit older than his literary source, and with far more of a chip on his shoulder.  For Jim Hawkins in the novel, his passion is driven by a desire to have an adventure, which literally comes falling into his lap once Billy Bones gives him the treasure map from his death bed.  In the movie, still reeling from the crushing abandonment by his father, Jim wants to set out on this journey to prove to both his mother and himself that he’s not a failure.  The early depiction of Jim at the film’s start might put off some literary purists, because he’s absolutely modeled after a moody, millennial teenager in those scenes.  We first see him recklessly playing some extreme sports on his solar surfer, which gets him in trouble with the law, and he often punctuates his conversations with modern anachronisms like, “cool,” “dude” or “whatever.”  But, as the film illustrates, these character flaws are what motivates the transformation that he goes through by film’s end.  He’s given voice by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the film, who does a good job of bringing a lot of emotion to the character.  As an actor not too far removed from being a teenager himself at the time of this film’s making, Joseph manages to balance the maturing of the character in a believable and balanced way.  We see him grow from being pessimistic and self-involved to one willing to sacrifice his life even for those who have done him wrong.  In the depiction of Jim Hawkins, we see how important the need for a positive role model is in a young person’s life, and the great irony from the story is that that positive direction comes from a bloodthirsty pirate.  It’s a trope that you still see used today, such as the recent Oscar-winner Moonlight (2016), where a young man finds his positive father figure in his neighborhood’s local drug lord.  In Treasure Planet, this part of the story is given it’s full attention and helps it to resound all the more.  Stevenson managed to make the unusual relationship something that stood it apart from it’s peers, but the animated movie drives it home in a much stronger way.

Apart from the characters, the film makes the most profound changes in the visuals.  The blend of old and new in the film is fascinating to see realized.  According to Ron Clements and John  Musker, they took inspiration from the Brandywine School style of artwork, which emphasized fine detail and a mixture of cool and warm hues within their paintings.  You commonly see paintings of this type associated with literary book covers from the turn of the century, and that’s exactly what drew the directors towards adapting it for their film.  In order to make that work with sci-fi elements, Musker and Clements stuck to a 70-30 rule, which meant that their film would incorporate that ratio into every aesthetic element needed.  That’s how you get schooners that operate with solar sails, or grotesque aliens that wear 18th century clothing, and celestial skies that fill the place of open seas.  It’s a ratio that surprising works out very well.  Over time, you actually forget about the anachronistic disparity between the two styles, and just accept it as the world that it is, which helps to absorb you into the story all the more.  I believe that grounding it in this classical style helps to maintain the Stevenson touch, while at the same time modernizing it in an effective way.  Treasure Planet itself is a beautiful iconic image on it’s own, with it’s dual ring system that not surprisingly marks an “X” over the planet.  The visual effects themselves follow that same 70-30 rule, as it shows perhaps the most sophisticated blend of CGI and traditional animation that has ever been achieved.  With that, it brings a scale to the story that I don’t believe has ever been achieved before.  One of the most striking images is the reveal of the crescent shaped space port.  The incredibly complex shot zooms in from far away, showing what we thought was a moon is actually a intricately detailed port.  Coming in closer, we find that much of the detail resembles what early seafaring ports might have looked like in the 18th century, but with dimensions that defy the laws of physics.  It’s that blend that breaths new life in this old story and continues it throughout the film.  Some critics may not have seen the point of this change, and wondered why Disney didn’t just remake Treasure Island in a normal way, but after seeing amazing images like that one, who can argue with such a change.

“Doctor, with the greatest possible respect, zip your howling screamer.”

Disney’s Treasure Planet was a bold departure from the norm in animation, and it was a gamble that in the beginning didn’t do them any good.  The film has some devoted fans (myself included) and is growing a cult following.  But, some arguments still arise as to why Disney would bring sci-fi into Treasure Island.  The answer to this is that there is nothing about Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel that necessarily says it has to take place in a certain place or time.  In fact, Stevenson remains vague about the story’s actual setting, instead focusing on how the plot unfolds and the relationships between the characters.  Disney’s interpretation brings a new perspective on the story, while at the same time maintaining the heart of it.  In the end, it is about a young boy who comes of age, finding his way in life through the mentor-ship of an unlikely role model.  In the end, that’s what John Musker and Ron Clements wanted to explore, and for the most part, they achieved their goal.  You can tell that the whole film was made with a lot of love, and you don’t commit 17 years of your life to an idea just to do a mediocre job at it.  It does offer a great contrast with the original story, of which still serves as much of the backbone of the movie.  The film delves deeper into the personal struggles, but apart from that and the changed setting, it is essentially a faithful adaptation right down the line.  If only this film had come out a year later, with Pirates of the Caribbean revitalizing the genre, then it might have found a more accepting audience.  In the end, it is worthwhile to see both the movie and the novel itself.  Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic still holds up as the quintessential pirate’s tale, and Disney’s animated feature lives up to it’s legacy, while at the same time completely transforming it.  It is, in my opinion, Disney’s most misunderstood film and my hope is that someday it will be fully appreciated as the masterpiece that it is.  Visually, it stands out as one of Disney’s most spectacular achievements and it’s story is one that packs an emotional wallop.  Like Silver says of Jim Hawkins in the film, it’s got the makings of greatness in it.

“Look at you! Glowing like a solar fire.  You’re something special, Jim.  You’re gonna the stars, you are!”

 

Recobbled – The Neverending Story of a Lost Animation Masterpiece

Animation is a remarkable, yet time consuming art-form.  When audiences see a new animated film in their local theater, I’m sure that very few of them ever think about the time and money that was poured into their completion.  With changing technologies, that extensive time frame has shortened somewhat, but even Computer animated features can still take years to be completed.  Back in the Golden Age of animation, you would sometimes be looking at 5 years or more for the production of a full length feature, from concept through production, to locking it in the can.  Towards the end of the heyday of hand drawn animation, 4 or 5 years was commonplace, though it would fluctuate between a very short (2.5 years for Beauty and the Beast) and very long (6.5 years for Sleeping Beauty).  But, what about 31 years of production?  That was the case with a little seen but highly regarded animated feature called The Thief and the Cobbler (1995).  The magnum opus and work of passion for independent Canadian animator Richard Williams, Thief not only carries the longest production span of any animated film ever; it holds the record for the longest film production, period.  And in fact, it could be argued that the movie is still not done, depending on what version of the film you are watching.  I briefly mentioned this movie in a previous article about prolonged film developments and felt that it was deserving of a analysis all it’s own.  The Thief and the Cobbler is a movie that has fascinated me recently as an animation fan, not so much for the movie itself, but for the fascinating history of it’s production.  In Thief, you see not just a fascinating work of pure artistic passion on display, but a document to the history of animation itself.

To know something about this movie, you need to know a little about the mad genius behind it.  Richard Williams is a veteran of the animation medium, and is widely considered within the industry to be one of the great masters.  Though he had for many years been courted by major animation studios like Disney and Warner Brothers to jump on board their teams, Williams has largely preferred to work independently through his small London, England based studio.  From there, he has largely made a name for himself as a highly respected commercial and title sequence producer.  His work can be seen in the opening titles of 60’s and 70’s era classics like What’s New Pussycat? (1965) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), as well as in classic British television commercials from the era.  What made his work stand out was the intricate and fluid detail that he would put into his animation; utilizing complexity that few other studios would ever attempt.  In 1971, legendary animator Chuck Jones commissioned Williams’ studio to create a short adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the result was a critically acclaimed success.  Originally intended for television, Carol was subsequently given a theatrical run, which led to Oscar win for Williams and his team.  From that, he was given an even bigger commissioned assignment to create a film centered around the Raggedy Ann & Andy dolls.  True to Williams style, Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977) is an animated film unlike any other you will ever see; with bizarre and often surreal sequences that defy explanation, and not what you would expect for a movie based of rag dolls.  But, Williams career is most defined by his life’s work, The Thief and the Cobbler, a movie that sadly became too big a dream to hold onto.

The Thief and the Cobbler began in 1964 as a collaboration with Middle Eastern author Idires Shah, who collected and translated many Arabic tales about a character called Mulla Nasrudin, or “the wise fool.”  When the partnership between Williams and Shah broke down, Williams retained the idea for the project and changed the “wise fool” into the character that would eventually be the titular Thief.  Later, Williams began another go at developing the project in earnest with a new treatment by screenwriter Howard Blake.  Blake’s treatment brought many elements that would turn up in the final film, including the titular cobbler named Tack, the evil vizier Zig Zag, the sleepy king, and the plot device of the Three Golden Balls that protect the Golden City.  Though the script helped to bring structure to the story, Williams maintained a free-flowing style to his direction.  Instead of story-boarding out his scenes, he instead opted to let scenes play out based on the imaginations of himself and his artists.  This unfortunately led to a lot of sequences that added little to no momentum to the plot, though they stood out as remarkable on their own.  Williams also insisted on animating the sequences in 24 frames per second, as opposed to the industry standard of 12 frames.  The result gives the animation a remarkably smooth flow, which becomes mesmerizing the longer the sequences run; which sometimes can be several minutes without cutting.  And that in lies why it took 20 years to only complete 20 minutes of the planed 100 minute movie.  And because of this sluggish adherence to free-flowing storytelling and complex animation that Williams was hard pressed to find funding for so long to complete his master work.

Over time, William’s studio managed to stay afloat with projects like Carol and Raggedy Ann & Andy, but Thief was always waiting in the wings for when the opportunity came.  Due to mounting economic pressure, Williams constantly had to simplify his story and cut back on his animation, but he still persisted with his bold vision.  Sometimes, he lucked out with an interested investor.  In the late 70’s, 15 years since the start of production, Williams caught the attention of Saudi prince Mohammed bin Faisal Al Saud, who commissioned an animation test to see if the remainder of the film was worthy investing in.  Williams used this influx of funds to complete what would end up being the film’s most complex scene, the destruction of the colossal War Machine from the villainous barbarian King One-Eye, a sequence that to this day is mind-boggling in it’s complexity.  Though the prince was impressed with the work that Williams had done, the cost overrun and missed deadlines prevented further investment, and Williams was forced yet again to shelve his dream project, although now with perhaps the most elaborate sequence finished.  Though unseen by the public, Willaims was still able to share what he had done to other industry professionals who had nothing but high praise for what they saw.  Eventually, Disney sought Williams assistance with one elaborate project of their own; the Robert Zemekis directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).  What Willaims revolutionized at his studio was multi-perspective animation, where character and environments would constantly change perspective as the camera placement swoops around, giving them an almost three-dimensional look.  Naturally, Disney wanted this style to help their hand-drawn animated characters like Roger and Jessica Rabbit co-exist believably in a live action film, where camera movement is ever-changing.  Williams was named Animation Director for the film, and his work again garnered him an Honorary Oscar.

With the goodwill from Roger Rabbit, Richard Williams finally had the attention of Hollywood, and plenty of interested parties lined up to give Williams the needs to finally finish Thief for good.  Disney and Steven Spielberg, the parties behind Roger Rabbit, expressed interest at first in funding the project, but later backed out.  Warner Brothers stepped in and signed Williams to a contract.  With that, he had the money and the manpower to complete his film, as well a release schedule that he had to adhere to.  He was finally able to have over an hour of completed film, but again, his adherence to perfection caused to project to go over-budget and over-schedule.  Sadly, at the same time, Disney was themselves working on their own Arabian set animated feature, Aladdin (1992), which made Warner Brothers all the more impatient and worried.  Unfortunately, Williams darker and more adult-appealing film was less marketable than Disney’s blockbuster, and Warner became certain that they had a film that was un-releasable.  So, they cut their contract with Williams and ended up selling it to a secondary animation studio run by Fred Calvert in order to complete it, without Williams involved.  Williams tried to salvage what he had with a 1992 workprint screened for studio execs, but it didn’t work.  Thirty one years since the first drawing had been completed, The Thief and the Cobbler was released to little fanfare in 1995 with nearly half of Williams original film either cut or re-animated, with a new Disney-style musical score and celebrity voices cast for his originally mute title characters (Matthew Broaderick as Tack the Cobbler and Jonathan Winters as the Thief).  Vincent Price, who recorded his voice for the villain Zig Zag over the 30 year span, was retained, but because the film released after his 1993 death, his lines ended up getting cut down rather than replaced.  Miramax oversaw the release in North America, and this compromised version has since become known as the “Miramax Cut” even though they had nothing to do with the production.

Thus, the long, troubled production of Richard Williams masterpiece came seemingly to an end, with his vision never being fully realized.  He came close, but studio interference caught up to him in the end.  Regardless, Williams is still regarded as a legend among the animation community and Thief surprisingly has something to do with that.  Because of it’s long production, Thief stands as somewhat of a documentation of the evolution of animation, bridging the Golden Era with the Renaissance of the late 80’s and the early 90’s.  Think about it, in the time it took Thief to be completed, Disney Animation had put out 15 feature films, and had seen their studio both decline and be reborn under new management.  Walt Disney was still breathing when production started on this film, just to give you an idea of how far back this project began.  Animation as a whole changed so much in that time, and you can see that reflected in the movie.  While Williams attention to detail remains fluid throughout, you can spot instances when the quality differs.  The sequences that were animated late in production have a different, more polished look than others that were made decades earlier.  The older scenes, mostly centered around the Thief, have a more classical look to them, not unlike many of the trippy, psychedelic animated films that arose in the 60’s and 70’s.  Couple the sequences where the Thief tries to steal the magical Golden Balls and the climatic War Machine sequence at the end, and it’s clear that they were made in different eras, where different tools were made available to animators.  At the same time, Williams staff of animators also shows a remarkable span of animation history.  He brought onto his team some legendary animators like former Disney animator Art Babbit (who worked on the Queen in  Snow White and Geppetto in Pinocchio) and Grim Natwick (the creator of Betty Boop) to not only contribute their own animation, but also to mentor both him and his young staff.   And among his young staff were newcomers like Andreas Deja and Eric Goldberg, who would go onto prosperous careers at Disney, including working on films like Aladdin (animating Jafar and the Genie respectively).

In addition to it’s legacy of reputation and the quality of it’s talent, The Thief and the Cobbler also is a perfect illustration of how just how difficult it is to get a movie made.  Not every studio has the financial security and resources of Disney.  And Williams never wanted that either.  He knew that he would never see his vision realized in a corporate controlled environment, so he continually sought to keep his production as independent as possible.  He stated very early on that his movie was going to be very non-Disney, both in the animation and in the story-telling.  No songs, no animal sidekicks; just pure visuals transporting the viewer to a world never seen on screen before.  Sadly, when corporate interests did intervene, it turned the movie into exactly what Williams was trying to avoid.  In that regard, the “Miramax” cut stands as a cautionary tale of when studio interference spoils the finished product.  Williams’ workprint has resurfaced over time and has been circulated online in various forms.  Williams himself has managed to put the disappointment behind him and moved onto other projects, though the movie is still a sore point to this day.  Dedicated fans however have done extensive work to try to reconstruct William’s original version.  Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew, even tried to get a restoration off the ground before his untimely death in 2009.  Other fans have shared their own work online in what is now known as the “Recobbled Cut.”  This version shows William’s original intent with unfinished, work-in-progress scenes inter-cut with finished ones from the Workprint.  Though in rough form, it nevertheless shows us what might’ve been.  What’s fascinating is that it shows that animated films are ever completed in sequence, but are often done out of order, with the more complex scenes done first.  In the recobbled cut, we see that many of the unfinished parts are the filler moments in between the more epic scenes.  Thankfully, Williams brilliance shows in the film’s spectacular finished moments, like the War Machine, the chase through the palace, the villain Zig Zag’s grand entrance, and the polo game with the Thief caught in the middle.  We may not have a finished film, but these big moments allows our imagination to fill in the rest.

Richard Williams, now 84 years old as of this writing, is still working on new projects today.  He most recently completed an entirely hand-drawn short called Prologue (2015) which takes many of the techniques he pioneered with Thief like hyper-detailed character animation and three-dimensional perspective changes, and presents them in a stripped back, pencil sketch presentation.  Again, this was another labor of love that he worked on for years, even while he was still making Thief, and his efforts were rewarded with yet another Oscar nomination.  Though, he’s moved on from Thief, he still hopes that someday it will see a new life, and maybe even completed based on his original vision.  A screening of Thief in 2013, based off the Workprint with a new high-def restoration, won wide praise from the animation community, and Williams is once again embracing the film, incomplete as it is, as his most cherished work.  For those of you interested in seeing the movie, avoid the compromised “Miramax Cut” and find one that is closer to Williams vision.  Sadly, the Miramax version is the only one available on home video, but, the makers of the Recobbled version have graciously made it available to view online for free.  In fact, I’m linking it for you all to enjoy below this article, because I want as many people as possible to experience it.  It’s not perfect, nor is it among my favorite animated films, but as a fan of animation, I admire it as a work of un-compromised artistry.  It’s also a fascinating look into the creation of an animated film, with so many sequences in various stages of completion.  Whether or not we see a finished version of this one day is unclear, and it’s highly likely that it may never be complete, but for now, we can appreciate what 30 years of a persistent artistic vision can accomplish.  In this movie, you see the story of the animated medium played out in one place, with artistic styles of several eras all coming together at once and creating something special.  And whether people know it or not, it has influenced a whole generation of artists in the years since.  In the end, it’s the animated equivalent of a Venus de Milo; more powerful broken apart than it would’ve ended up being as a whole.

PART 1

PART 2

PART 3

PART 4

PART 5

PART 6

PART 7

RICHARD WILLIAMS INTERVIEWS

The Movies of Fall 2017

Another summer season for Hollywood is now in the books.  And with it, another indication of the kinds of trends that are defining the industry at this moment.  In general, there is a concern that box office is down across the board, as this was one of the quieter summer seasons on record.  But, at the same time, this was critically one of the most celebrated summer seasons in recent memory.  There were some critically panned turkeys this Summer, but there was a stretch near the middle of the summer where most of the new releases were getting the kind of glowing reviews that are normally reserved for Oscar season.  Certainly, we got that with Christopher Nolan’s new epic scale masterpiece, Dunkirk, but other recent releases like War for the Planet of the ApesBaby Driver, and a host of well received superhero films all managed to deliver both critically and at the box office.   But, what this summer also revealed was the changing tastes of the average movie goer.  Previous stalwarts of the industry like Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers showed serious signs of fatigue this year, as both franchises produced their lowest grossing entries yet.  The same was also true for marquee names like actor Tom Cruise (The Mummy) and Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant).  What’s even more surprising though is the resilience of the Superhero genre.  At a time when serious concerns were being raised about Comic Book adaptations loosing their luster and impact, the genre not only bounced back, they had a banner year.  Marvel continued their hot streak with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, but I think everyone was more surprised by the fact that DC not only finally got one right this year, but also won the summer with their acclaimed cinematic debut of Wonder Woman.

With the summer over, it is now time to look ahead at the very anticipated fall season, with it’s own expected high expectations.  Here we have more tent-pole features, along with many anticipated independent oddities, as well as your usual Oscar-bait fare.  Like I do every year, I will be taking a look at a sampling of this Fall’s upcoming releases and choose among them what I think will be the must sees, the ones that have me worries, as well as the ones to skip.  A few of them are to be expected, but there are a few others that might surprise you.  I also want to stress that this is just my opinions based on my early impressions of these films based on their levels of hype and effectiveness of their marketing.  I have gotten some of these wrong before, but regardless, I try my best at handicapping the months ahead.  So, with all that said, let’s take a look at the Movies of Fall 2017.

MUST SEES:

STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI (DECEMBER 15)

Once again, Star Wars is the year’s most anticipated release.  And with good reason.  The success of both The Force Awakens and Rogue One has propelled the franchise into the stratosphere these last couple years, and in many ways it was all just a warm up for this.  If history has proven anything, especially when it comes to Star Wars, it’s the middle chapter that becomes the most intriguing part of the story.  Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is still widely considered to be the crown jewel for the Star Wars franchise, and many believe that it’s still the high water mark for the series as a whole.  Just like how The Force Awakens took considerable inspiration from the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, many speculate that The Last Jedi will act as the spiritual successor to Empire; helping to raise the stakes and take the ongoing story into darker territory.  Whether or not it does that is the question, but there is still much to be excited about with this upcoming episode.  One, we see the return of Mark Hamill in the role of Luke Skywalker; not just relegated to a last minute cameo like he had in The Force Awakens, but a full integral role in this film.  We also will see the late Carrie Fisher in her final film role, with her scenes completed just shortly before her tragic untimely death last year.  And the further adventures of our new favorite characters like Rey, Finn, BB-8, and Poe will be enough to make us all eager to see this.  Also, the fact that acclaimed director Rian Johnson (Looper) is given charge of this new chapter is also a positive sign, because he seems to be a perfect fit for this franchise.  Let’s just hope that all involved are able to deliver something special, and not be detered by the enormous pressure to live up to what has come before.  As long as the journey is worth it, we will always continue to return to that galaxy far, far away.

THOR: RAGNAROK (NOVEMBER 3)

And just like Star Wars, we have yet another Marvel feature to be excited about for the holidays.  The third entry in the Thor franchise sees the God of Thunder facing a challenge of a different kind, and that’s being stripped of everything that has made him what he is.  As we see in the trailer, he is cast out of his homeland, Asgard, by a powerful new enemy, Hela the Goddess of Death, who manages to destroy Mjolnir, the hammer which gives Thor much of his power.  In ancient Norse, the term Ragnarok literally means “the end of all things” and you would expect a film with that for a title would take on an apocalyptic and somber tone.  But, that’s not Marvel seems to have done.  Instead, Thor: Ragnarok is more colorful and humorous than any film we’ve seen in the series to date.  And this approach exemplifies exactly what has made Marvel so resilient as a film company.  It’s their ability to defy expectations, anticipate changing audience tastes and alter course when needed, all the while still going full steam ahead with their Cinematic Universe plans.  After complaints were made about the more somber second entry in the Thor series, 2013’s The Dark World, Marvel seemed to take that to heart and re-imagined what could have been a darker film into something much lighter.  Not that this film is going to feel out of place in the series.  If anything, it’s the shot in the arm that the series needed.  I like where this series is going with it’s more colorful direction.  Seeing Thor and the Hulk working together also has a lot of potential in the story.  And the addition of Cate Blanchett as the Goddess Hela is also worthy of the price of admission itself.  And if there’s anything clear we can see from this film so far, it’s that it’s far truer to it’s comic book origins than anything we’ve seen before from this series.

COCO (NOVEMBER 22)

Pixar, once the most dominant name in animation for over a decade, has fallen on hard times recently.  Sure, most of their movies still deliver at the box office, but they are not quite the critical darlings that they once were.  Many people have claimed that their abundance of sequels in recent years has ended up diluting the brand and alienated audiences.  It doesn’t help that the recent Cars 3 was one of the summer’s biggest flops.  So, how does it look for Pixar’s future going into their next feature.  The answer, so far, looks pretty good for them.  If there is one thing that Pixar still excels at, it’s the quality of their animation, and their new film Coco is quite a beauty.  Using the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos as their inspiration point, Pixar has crafted a very visually appealing film, both in it’s more subdued moments and in it’s more spectacular moments.  I got to glimpse some more extended scenes from this feature at Disney’s D23 Expo, and what I saw made me confident that Pixar has another winner on their hands.  The visual designs of the Land of the Dead alone are spectacular and I can’t wait to see them fully explored in the finished film.  The coming of age story for the young protagonist, Miguel, also is something that will give the movie a strong heart at it’s center.  My hope is that the failure of Cars 3 doesn’t loom large over this film, because I want Pixar’s brand to carry the same weight that it once did again.  There was a time when every new Pixar release became something to look forward to.  Hopefully, Coco will be the kind of Pixar movie that will make us excited once again to see what they’ll have for us next; even if it is a sequel to The Incredibles (2004).

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (SEPTEMBER 22)

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait too long for this.  The first film in this series, Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), was a fun, irreverent surprise that kinda snuck under the radar and quickly became a cult hit.  This sequel seems to be doing what the best kinds of second chapters do and that’s to broaden the world in which these characters live in.  What I liked so much about the first movie was it’s world building.  Director Matthew Vaughn, taking his cue from Mark Millar’s comic series, presented this interesting look into this secret organization of suave, well-dressed killing machines and did so in a very exhilarating and tongue-in-cheek way.  It plays upon all the spy movie tropes, and manages to hilariously poke fun at them too.  This sequel takes it a step further, and introduces the Kingman to their counterparts across the pond; the American Statesmen.  This opens the door for so many possibilities for this franchise, both in terms of action and humor.  Vaughn, who has yet to make a movie that I didn’t enjoy watching on some level, did such a great job with the first Kingsman, and I’m very happy that he stuck around to create this follow-up.  I especially love his cast choices for the Statesmen; with Channing Tatum, Pedro Pascal, and Jeff Bridges seemingly perfect for these good-ol-boy archetypes.  Returning cast members Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth also look to be a lot of fun here.  And I’m really intrigued to see how Julianne Moore functions as the new big baddy for the Kingmen.  As long as it retains the same level of fun as the first Kingsman, I am definitely on board for this sequel.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (NOVEMBER 10)

This, for anyone wondering, is the little indie film that has me the most excited in the coming months.  There are plenty of other films from independent filmmakers with strong pedigrees that are coming in the months ahead, like Darren Aronofsky (Mother), Alexander Payne (Downsizing), Todd Haynes (Wonderstruck), Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water), and even an untitled one from Paul Thomas Anderson; many of which could end up on my best of the year list.  But this is the one that sticks out to me looking at the upcoming release calendar.  For one, it’s the third feature film from writer/director Martin McDonagh, whose last couple films, In Brudges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012) have been some of my favorite movies in the last decade.  Secondly, McDonagh’s style is so unique, in the way he builds his characters and constructs his plots, that it makes everything he does so unexpected.  I also enjoy the way he uses humor in his movies, often taking it to the extremes in terms of taste and use of graphic imagery.  Lastly, this premise seems so well suited for his sensibilities, and I am intrigued to see where he takes it.  With a grieving mother becoming so dissatisfied with the actions of law enforcement looking into the murder of her daughter that she in turn becomes a menace to society herself seems like a story that is ripe for so much humor and drama combined.  Frances McDormand especially looks to be in her element as the mother in question, and much of the best stuff in the trailer is seeing her be as pushy and offensive as possible.  McDonagh hasn’t let me down yet, and I hope that he has delivered another quirky masterpiece this Fall.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (OCTOBER 6)

Sometimes a movie should just stand on it’s own, instead of sparking an ongoing franchise.  What made Blade Runner (1982) such a beloved film over the years was the fact that it was unlike anything else we had seen before or since.  Ridley Scott’s futuristic neo-Noir is still regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi flicks ever made and has over time been regarded as one of the best films ever as well, to some.  Needless to say, making a sequel 35 years after the fact would seem to be a big risk to take, and yet that’s what we’re getting in little over a month.  Thankfully, the movie has a solid team behind it.  It’s being directed by Denis Villeneuve, who after making Sicario (2015) and Arrival (2016) back to back, is on somewhat of a hot streak and this kind of project seems to be in capable hands with him.  The film also stars heavyweight like Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, and Jared Leto in new roles, while also bringing back original star Harrison Ford to reprise his iconic role as Rick Deckard.  Also, Ridley Scott is helping to guide the project along as producer, giving the whole thing his seal of approval.  And yet, even still, there is a worry that this film may not live up to the lofty expectations that it’s predecessor has set.  It’s hard to make a sequel to what many regard as a masterpiece, especially so many years after.  Blade Runner was also a product of it’s time, and it’s going to be hard to take it’s visual and tonal aesthetic and make it appeal to a whole different generation.  But then again, maybe I underestimate the talent behind this project.  My hope is that this is a long awaited sequel that doesn’t reflect badly on it’s predecessor and ruins 35 years of legacy that it has built up.  At the very least, it does already look very pretty, but then again most copies tend to be.

JUSTICE LEAGUE (NOVEMBER 17)

This should have been the movie that was going to be the most anticipated release of the year.  But, due to a mismanaged launch of the DC Cinematic Universe, there is a lot less certainty surrounding this flick.  Thankfully, Justice League is coming off the the heels of the critically acclaimed box office smash that was Wonder Woman, DC’s first real winner in their Cinematic Universe plan, and people are finally now hopeful that things are turning around for the League.  Unfortunately, this is still a Zack Snyder-directed feature, and his previous flick Batman v. Superman proved to be a low point for DC.  Yeah, I know that Joss Whedon was brought in late to do re-shoots after Snyder dropped out for personal reasons, but for the most part, this will still be the work of one of Hollywood’s most divisive filmmakers.  The pleasing thing to see in this movie is a more humorous tone with the character interactions, coming especially from Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Ezra Miller’s Flash.  I also like the renewed focus on Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, which is not surprising seeing as how she has single-handedly saved the DC Universe this summer at the box office.  But, at the same time, the trailers might be showing us all the humor there is in the film, and the rest will still be the messy Zach Snyder overkill that sunk BvS.  The visual aesthetic still seems too dour for a comic book movie, and there’s still a heavy presence of over-the-top CGI mayhem.  But, Wonder Woman indicated that DC might have learned some lessons and that hopefully extends over into Justice League.  Given that a lot is riding on this new film for everything that is to follow with DC comic adaptations going forward, let’s hope that those lessons took hold, and quick.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (NOVEMBER 10)

On the surface, this looks like a film that seems to have it all.  A prestigious director, a dream all-star cast, lavish production value, and a literary source that is acclaimed as one of the greatest novels of it’s kind.  But, at the same time, I feel like this movie almost seems to be too good to be true.  This may be due to the very awkward way that it is being marketed.  Establishing all the main characters in one long shot is an interesting visual idea, but the use of pop song to underscore the trailer (Imagine Dragon’s Believer) comes off as a little bit pandering.  It’s as if the makers of this film are worried that younger audiences won’t find anything interesting about this Agatha Christie mystery.  The movie also has the disadvantage of being a remake, or at least not the first go around with this material.  Sidney Lumet directed a famous Oscar-winning version back in 1974, with an equally impressive all-star cast as well.  So, Kenneth Branagh’s new version in general has the handicap of being seen as too old-fashioned and too familiar to ever appeal to modern audiences.  And yet, even still, this has some potential to be a worthwhile film in the end.  Branagh is no slouch as a director, and he has assembled a great cast here; including Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, and Penelope Cruz just to name a few.  And the production values do seem top quality from the trailer.  I just wish that the marketing behind it didn’t have to resort to deceptive pandering tricks in order to bring a wider audience.  The mystery is good enough on it’s own to warrant attention.

THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE (SEPTEMBER 22)

Sometimes there is such an issue as too much of a good thing.  In the last couple of years, Warner Brothers Animation and the Lego Company have defied expectations, and have crafted not one but too movies around the plastic toy bricks that have defied expectations.  Both The Lego Movie (2014) and The Lego Batman Movie (2017) have hit their mark, and become instant classics as both comedies and as animated adventures.  Now, we are getting our third Lego feature and it hopes to carry on the goodwill that it’s predecessors have already built up.  But, there lies a problem.  Is this too much too soon for the Lego franchise?  It was only a couple months ago that we got the Lego Batman Movie, which doesn’t give us a lot of time to digest on that before the next course comes in.  The other problem is that unlike Batman, the rest of the world is not as familiar with the Ninjago brand from Lego.  This movie could have an identity problem as some audiences could be confused as to how this film fits in with the other two.  So far, the Lego franchise has benefited from it’s clever sense of humor and exceptional animation style, but unless this new feature adds anything new to the mix, it may end up leaving audiences cold and tired of the franchise as a whole.  And that’s not good for a series that was just beginning to win over a lot of new fans.  My hope is that it lives up to the two previous Lego movies, but if not, it will be a prime example for Hollywood to not count all their chickens before they’re hatched.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (DECEMBER 25)

You just know from looking at a movie that it’s not going to live up to the sum of it’s ambitions.  That seems to be the case with this overblown musical retelling of the life of circus founder P. T. Barnum.  Barnum is a fascinating figure, but I don’t think that this lavish, reverential musical is the way to put the controversial showman into perspective.  Also this musical just feels too overproduced for it’s own good.  This kind of musical is the thing that would have worked a decade ago in the wake of such film musicals as Moulin Rouge (2001) and Chicago (2002), but now seems to be out of style once again after the success of La La Land (2016).  What La La Land did was to modernize the classic musical, and work it into a contemporary story of lost love and broken dreams set against the backdrop of unforgiving life on the outskirts of Hollywood.  It subverted the genre while at the same time reinventing it.  The Greatest Showman seems to be a holdover from a pre-La La Land era that showed up a little too late to be relevant on it’s own.  Ironically, it shares the same songwriters as La La Land, which may be the only thing going for it.  Otherwise, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot here that could turn out to be interesting.  We know that both of it’s stars, Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron can sing, but it might be a musical that wastes their good talent.  Also, given that Circuses are on the outs right now, with Barnum’s own show closing shop after a century, this is not the ideal time for this movie.

FLATLINERS (SEPTEMBER 29)

Here’s a movie with no illusions as to what it will eventually be; it just looks dumb as hell.  And not in a redeeming way.  A remake of a rather forgettable 1990 thriller from Joel Schumacher, this movie seems purely intended to bring in the millennial crowd and throw a bunch of jump scares their way.  Setting aside the ridiculous premise, this movie just seems indistinguishable from many other like minded thrillers, and like so many of them thinks that it is more thrilling than it actually is.  The presence of good actors like Ellen Page and Diego Luna in the cast doesn’t help much either, because they both look disinterested here.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this was just a paycheck role for most of the cast.  It’s the kind of movie that just gets made by Hollywood in order to keep this forgotten title and premise alive (ironically speaking) and out of some cinematic purgatory.  The original may have some cult following, but I doubt any of those fans are clamoring for an update to the original.  It was silly then, it continues to be silly now.

DEATH WISH (NOVEMBER 22)

Speaking of ill-advised Hollywood remakes, we get this new take on a 70’s Charles Bronson action thriller.  The original Death Wish was a product of it’s time, when inner-city crime was viewed as a nationwide epidemic, fermented by unfair economic divisions and widespread corruption on the part of law enforcement.  In that era, the late 1970’s, it was conceivable that a character like Paul Kersey would emerge, taking the law into his own hands when the old law could no longer be trusted.  But, that was then; this is now.  In an era when gun violence and tensions between cops and civilians are dominating the headlines, this kind of premise of an honorable vigilante is not just dated, but discouraged with good reason.   Remaking this movie now is not just a bad idea, it’s kind of reckless.  The last thing we should be doing is romanticizing the idea of this kind of character, because doing so can lead to many other people thinking that they need to enact their own sense of “justice” their own way, and that’s the kind of thing that can lead to some very bad consequences.  For the most part, it just looks like the film was made to exploit an old franchise and give a starring role to Bruce Willis that fits his own patented persona.  But, given how times have changed, this isn’t the kind of story that will play just as well in our current state of affairs.

So, there you have a brief outlook at the months ahead.  What excites me the most is seeing how the Oscar race shapes up by years end.  There are a lot of usual suspects from some of our most acclaimed filmmakers, but the ones I enjoy the best are the little surprises that come out of nowhere.  I’m sure that no one expected a little seen indie that was dumped into theaters in late October last year called Moonlight would walk away as Best Picture the following Spring.  I’m sure the Academy itself didn’t even expect that.  It’s unexpected things like that which makes the Fall movie season so interesting.  It’s where everything comes into focus and indicates to us just how the year will be defined cinematically.  So far, the year has been pretty good, if not record breaking at the box office.  The Spring proved to be surprisingly strong, and despite a sluggish start with duds like Alien: Covenant and The Mummy, the Summer also gave us a lot to be happy about.  I’m sure one thing that will talked about for a long time is how Wonder Woman broke all the rules of Hollywood and set a new high standard for DC in the competitive Super Hero market, but also opened the door for female filmmakers in general, showing that they are just as capable of delivering spectacular results with bigger budgets.  My hope is that the Fall season continues to deliver solid entertainment that’s well in line with what has come before.  2017 may have seen a dip in box office, but that’s not a sign of bad quality.  It’s been a good year in general from an entertainment standpoint, and my hope is that the rest of the year doesn’t let us down.

Tinseltown Throwdown – Independence Day vs. Mars Attacks

There is often a very fine line between the movies that we are meant to take seriously and those that are meant to be farcical in nature.  Sometimes a movie might be so pretentious that it makes us laugh out loud, while other times a comedy’s tone might be set so wrong that it ceases to be funny.  If one or the other falls into the opposite effect, it’s usually the sign of a terribly executed film.  But, that’s not always the case either.  One genre in particular where you see the lines blurred between the profound and the ridiculous is in the realm of sci-fi.  Pretty much every film made in this genre requires a level of suspended belief on the part of the viewer, and it’s up to the one telling the story to decide how far they will go.  There are many cases in the early days of sci-fi where you couldn’t really tell if the film’s creators were sincere or foolish when they made a genre flick.  Many films often felt like they were accidentally hilarious, due to cheap looking effects or awkward performances, or a combination of both.  That’s why sci-fi became known as the “B-Movie” genre.  Still, there were some sci-fi films that did take the genre more seriously like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1954), which helped to elevate the genre with a sense of credibility.  Since then, the Sci-Fi genre has existed with these two different shades that continues to define it.  Most of the time, they are distinct from each other, though there are some films that dare to mix the two together a little.  Star Wars, for example, indulges in plenty of campiness, but does so in a completely earnest way allowing us to take it more seriously.  Sci-Fi movies that follow the earnest or campy route usually avoid direct comparisons with each other, but sometimes a close release schedule and similar plotting provides an interesting contrast, and shows just how important the differences within the genre really are.

That proved to be the case in the summer of 1996, when we saw the releases of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks released just a mere month apart.  When you look at them on the surface, it’s hard to see how either of them could be comparable.  Roland Emmerich’s film is a mega-budget blockbuster that revolutionized visual effects in Hollywood and wowed audiences with it’s unprecedented sense of scale.  Tim Burton’s film is a throwback love letter to B-movies of the 1950’s; intentionally cartoonish and lavished with plenty retro nostalgia and flavor.  One movie takes itself seriously, the other does not.  And yet, there are some striking connections.  Both movies feature an invading alien force, both include the on-screen destruction of landmarks across the world, both center on a beleaguered American president who finds himself increasingly overwhelmed; hell, it even features a crooner in a supporting role (Day’s Harry Conick Jr. and Attack’s Tom Jones).  But even apart from the visual and thematic thing that the movies have in common, it’s also interesting to see how they differ in their execution.  Independence Day is earnest in it’s depiction of widespread destruction, and plays most of the situation with a sense of dread and suspense.  But sometimes the thematic elements are done in such an unsubtle and gun-ho way that it ends up becoming ridiculous by the end.  Mars Attacks is a parody all the way through, and never once intends to raise the tension level.  But in being so self-conscious about it’s intentions to mock it’s particular genre, does Mars Attacks also spoil the joke in the process and stops being funny?  That’s the interesting comparison that comes from analyzing these two sci-fi flicks from the summer of ’96, and by picking through all of their defining features, we can see just how thin that divide in the genre really is.

“Hello Boys!!! I’m BAAAAACK!!!”

First of all, let’s look at where the movies differ the most, which is in the visual department.  Independence Day came out at a time when CGI technology was just coming into it’s own in Hollywood.  Just a few years earlier, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) brought dinosaurs back to life in a strikingly realistic way.  Roland Emmerich and his producer/ co-writer Dean Devlin saw the potential of CGI for a whole different purpose and that was to push the boundaries of scale on the big screen.  They took the premise that we’ve seen a million times before in Sci-fi, which is the arrival of aliens riding around in flying saucers, only they did it in a way that we’ve never seen before.  Here, the alien saucers were not only bigger, but could cover entire cities; and those were just the small ones.  With the tools at their disposal, Devlin and Emmerich revolutionized the genre and showed that this silly, old premise could still present a sense of awe on the big screen.  The sequence where the saucers make their first landfall, coming out of the clouds and descending over New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. is still a chill-inducing moment of cinema.  Mars Attacks, by contrast, feels pretty quaint, but that’s not it’s fault at all.  Tim Burton made it intentionally feel dated, because he wanted to invoke the memory of of the B-movie sci-fi flicks, with all the kitsch that they were famous for.  All in all, Attacks is lovingly designed and appealingly retro.  However, unlike Day, it has the disadvantage of feeling inauthentic at times.  Burton is trying to give his movie a retro look, but with the modern tools of today, which kind of detaches the illusion just a little bit.  It unfortunately feels a little too polished to be a B-movie.  Independence Day may not be as imaginative visually, but it at least feels authentic to what it’s supposed to be, which gives it a slight edge in terms of the visuals.

“Don’t run! We are your friends!”

What also sets these two films apart is the cast of characters, or perhaps the way that the films are cast.  While Independence Day does feature some star power behind it, with Will Smith in particular being propelled to super stardom by his role, the overall cast is perhaps not used to their best abilities.  Some people in the movie do give decent performances (Jeff Goldblum in particular as the nerdy David Levinson), but the rest, I’m sad to say, are reduced to playing what are essentially a collection of stereotypes.  This is actually a problem with a lot of Emmerich movies, where he puts so little effort into creating unique individuality for his characters and instead just ends up defining them by what they are instead of who they are.  In some cases, that can unintentionally turn the characters into borderline offensive stereotypes, such as Harvey Fierstein’s effeminate boss to Goldblum’s character, or Judd Hirsch’s irritated old Jewish man.  What’s even more insulting is that these are actors who should know better than to play up the stereotypes of the communities that they represent.  Mars Attacks plays up some stereotypes as well, but they are namely of the types of characters that would’ve inhabited a B-Movie plot back in the 50’s (your military hotheads and damsel in distresses for example).  But, what is more impressive with Attacks cast is just how star studded it is.  Pretty much anyone that Tim Burton wanted to get is in this movie.  Not only does it feature Burton’s former Joker, Jack Nicholson, leading in a dual role as the President and a Casino Owner (probably as a nod to Peter Sellers multiple roles in Dr. Strangelove), but the remaining cast includes heavy hitters like Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rod Steiger, Martin Short, Jack Black, Natalie Portman, Annette Benning, Michael J. Fox, the afforementioned Tom Jones, and Pam Grier.  They even managed to fit in Hall of Famer Jim Brown as well.  And all for a throwback to old B-Movie Sci-Fi.  Unlike Independence Day, everyone in the film knows to be intentionally silly and not have that be a result of thinly defined characters.  They are archetypes as well, but better suited for their particular story.

Unfortunately, as impressive as the cast of Mars Attacks is, the movie doesn’t actually use them as effectively as you would think.  What ends up happening is that the movie is too overstuffed with characters, allowing the audience very little time to build a connection to any of them.  Nicholson’s President comes the closest to being an identifiable character worthy of investing in, but that’s only because he gets the bulk of the screen-time.  We barely get to know any of the other characters, which becomes especially problematic when they start to get picked off one by one by the Martian invaders.  There is even a shoehorned in romantic subplot involving Pierce Brosnon and Sarah Jessica Parker’s characters that is so not interesting, because we feel nothing for the characters.  I guess it was supposed to be another reference to awkward B-Movie romances, and it is kind of funny that both characters are reduced to disembodied heads by the point that they declare their love for each other, but still it doesn’t work as well as it should.  Independence Day by contrast does a better job of endearing it’s characters to the audience.  Though the characters are lazily written, Emmerich nevertheless devotes more time for us to get invested in their plight.  I think that it helps that he focuses in on three characters in particular; the ones played by Smith, Goldblum, and Bill Pullman as the President.  By centering the film on these three, we are able to get both the grand picture of the entire event, but with easily identifiable plot threads that open up a window to these characters’ own experiences.  Broad as they may be, they have arcs that pay off in the end.  Goldblum’s David gains more courage as he finds purpose in himself once he discovers the aliens’ weak point; Pullman’s President goes from being a timid leader to one that can inspire the whole world to fight back; and Smith’s hotshot pilot finally achieves his dream of reaching outer space.  Even Randy Quaid’s redneck pilot character gets an arch, and one that pays off in the most over-the-top way possible.  Independence Day may have had the less impressive cast, but it used them much more effectively.

“Forget the fat lady. You’re obsessed with fat lady.  Just get us out of here!”

One other big difference between the movies is the aliens themselves.  It could be said the the Martians are the real stars of Mars Attacks since they are the focus for most of the plot and are responsible for most of the gags in the movie.  Taking inspiration from the card game that the movie was based on, the Martians in Mars Attacks are also visually unique.  With the skull like faces and the bulbous, brain protruding heads, they are evocative of B-Movie aliens, but grotesque and off-kilter in a way that makes them unique. Interesting enough, each and every one of them is voiced by the same guy (veteran voice actor Frank Welker) who manages to get so much character out of just repeating the same word over and over again (Ack! Ack! Ack!).  More than anything, the Martians represent the more clear input from director Tim Burton, who clearly wanted to indulge in some of the more silly over-the-top campiness of B-Movie era sci-fi.  The film itself is intentionally a live action cartoon, and the cartoonish-ly evil Martians fit ever so well into that vision, allowing them to take center stage.  The aliens of Independence Day don’t quite get the same kind of love in their movie.  In fact, you could say they are the weakest part.  The movie eventually does have to show the aliens, but once we see them, the illusion of menace is greatly reduced.  We see the creatures as these vacant eyed creatures with translucent skin and giant craniums.  In essence, not all that untypical of most other aliens we’ve seen.  Once we learn that the aliens are just as fragile as we are, and not much bigger, they become less of a threat more quickly.  That’s the unfortunate result that happens in the latter half of the movie.  It was far more effective to have the aliens personified through the massive spaceships they pilot.  At least those were able to scare us.  Overall, the aliens in Mars Attacks works better because they are given the full attention of the story, while it seems that the ones in Independence Day were an afterthought.

The last thing that defines the difference between these two movies, and illustrates that fine line between the serious and the comical in the genre, is the execution of their different styles.  It is interesting that Independence Day attempts to make us take it far more seriously, and yet fills it’s run-time with a number of irreverent comical asides that breaks the tension up.  Make no mistake, the movie does have moments of sheer terror, especially in the harrowing destruction sequence where we see landmarks like the Empire State Building and the White House blown to bits, but then it’ll be followed with a bit of colorful dialogue from Will Smith or Randy Quaid, deflating the tension immediately.  Mars Attacks more or less remains firmly in the realm of comedy, never once crossing into more serious territory.  And that is primarily what become the biggest problem with Mars Attacks; that rigid adherence to tone.  Comedy, especially with parody, is especially hard to pull off without something there to balance it.  Tim Burton keeps things consistently ridiculous, but the tension is lost as we just begin to see the movie as a string of sight gags loosely strung together.  The parody only works when the jokes are able to land, and Burton seems to be too preoccupied with everything else to make it all work together.  Some sequences are funny, like a montage of the Martians destroying landmarks, with one flying saucer changing the trajectory of the Washington Monument’s fall for maximum civilian casualties.  But a lot of other gags fall flat, when they really shouldn’t.  Honestly, I get more laughs from Independence Day, just because of how out of place some of the humor is, making it land far better.  What Independence Day showed is that it works better in your favor to blur that line between the two styles.  Sometimes it makes for a messy, inconsistent tone, but it can be worth it if the result brings a bigger impact.  Mars Attacks, with it’s unwillingness to change tone, ends up being a even keel ride around a colorful carousel, while Independence Day with it’s sometimes unpredictable and awkward tone shifts, becomes a wild roller coaster ride that leaves far more of an impression.

“I want the people to know that they still have 2 out of 3 branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad.”

So, there you have the big differences between these similarly plotted, but wildly opposite toned Sci-Fi features.  One is an awe-inspiring thrill ride that unfortunately undermines it’s own tension with lazy writing.  The other is a well-intentioned and loving parody of old style Sci-Fi, that isn’t quite as funny as it should have been.  Both have value, but in the end, I think that the sum of Independence Day’s parts make it the more rewarding experience.  It may be wildly inconsistent, and just downright laughably bad in other parts, but you have to admire the boldness that Emmerich and Devlin undertook in order to get it made.  In fact, it still stands as career best work for both men, as everything they’ve made since then has failed to connect in the same way.  Mars Attacks on the other hand is one of Tim Burton’s more lackluster efforts.  The fact that Mars Attacks came right on the heels of Burton’s most critically acclaimed and award-winning film, Ed Wood (1994), probably hurt it’s reputation as well.  It’s just too over-stuffed with material that could have produced comedy gold, but just ends up getting drowned out by everything else.  Perhaps working with such broad material worked to Burton’s disadvantage, since his strength is more in the visuals of his movie, of which Mars Attacks still benefits from.  But, it’s narrow vision as a Sci-Fi parody limits it in terms of being a cinematic breakthrough, and that’s why it performed less spectacularly at the box office than the record-shattering Independence Day.  Day may be far from a perfect movie, but it’s ambition helps to make it a far more rewarding experience, and shows that in some cases, a little mixture of the serious and the absurd can create an overall rewarding film.  It’s a beneficiary of the best of both worlds in Sci-Fi.  Attacks has more interesting aliens, but Independence Day is the better invasion movie, giving the experience the right sense of awe that the genre deserves.  It’s a flawed masterwork that earns the points purely by reaching further to the stars.

“And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: ‘We will not go quietly into the night!’ We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

Development Hell – When Does a Movie Take Too Long to Make?

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.  These are the opening words of Stephen King’s epic 8 volume tome, The Dark Tower, considered to be the esteemed author’s crowning achievement in the literary world.  The sentence, taken into the context of the entire series could be read in face value as a statement of plot, or carry a deeper meaning to the themes of the story.  But, more than anything, it establishes for the reader the sense of a journey taking place before our eyes.  Now, who would have thought that the hardest journey that would befall this story would come about in it’s trek through a treacherous land known as Hollywood?  After many years of talk and numerous attempts at production, The Dark Tower finally made it’s way to the big screen just last week, fulfilling a desire that many fans of Stephen King and of the books had longed hoped for.  And the end result of all that waiting was an overwhelming and almost universal feeling of disappointment.  Why did a movie with almost two decades of development result in such a lackluster showing?  A variety of factors certainly contributed; primary among them being the fact that the movie wasn’t very good.  Fans of the books in particular were really sore about the way that the vast, epic story got truncated into a singular 90 minute film.  Other casual fans were left confused because the movie failed to properly establish it’s world and lore, making them wonder why it even was worth getting excited about.  But, what I see with The Dark Tower is a prime example of a project that unfortunately get mismanaged due to the unforgiving forces of time in the Hollywood machine.  This process is also so common in the industry that it’s been given it’s own ominous name; Development Hell.

When The Dark Tower began in the 1980’s, with the publication of the first volume titled The Gunslinger, Stephen King was already a household name and already in good standing within Hollywood.  Two of his books had already become box office hits (1976’s Carrie and 1980’s The Shining), and many more were already in development.  King was also beginning to use his fame to carry a lot more clout within the industry, stressing his displeasure with how some of his stories had been changed for the big screen.  As The Dark Tower continued to be written with each subsequent volume, King remained very protective of his work.  Hollywood remained more interested in King’s more grounded thrillers for the most part, considering that they were cheaper to make than adapting a multi-part fantasy saga.  But, that changed when the success of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter brought fantasy back into the spotlight in a big way.  Suddenly The Dark Tower was in demand and given the opportunity to be brought together as a whole.  However, this was easier said than done.  Initially, it was revealed that director J.J. Abrams was going to be involved, but he quickly dropped out after landing the Star Trek gig.  Then Universal, the rights holders, announced that they were bringing the entire series together through a joint theatrical and television presentation under the supervision of Ron Howard; with a trilogy of films and two seasons of a series giving enough time due to the epic tale.  Howard even got as far as casting before Universal got cold feet.  The project was given over to Warner Bothers, who soon balked at the soaring budget, and they passed, also leading to Ron Howard’s departure.  Sony picked up what was left, managed to cast Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey in the leads to fans approval, and got the film finally completed after many years.  Sadly, all that work and determination doesn’t always translate into a good movie.

So, are the studios to blame for The Dark Tower’s failure.  Are Stephen King’s books just too un-filmmable?  Are audiences just not interested in the story anymore?  There is no simple answer to what happened to The Dark Tower and where things went all wrong.  The simple thing is that time took it’s toll on the project, with more and more complications adding to inevitable disaster.  Being passed around didn’t help the project at all, and it probably would have served the movie better to have been scrapped and restarted somewhere else, where better opportunities could have benefited it.  Unfortunately Hollywood is not a place that likes to admit failure.  A lot of projects that enter “development hell” never get out, because doing so means that money spent just ended up going to waste.  A lot of companies purely use unfinished projects as fodder for trade, protecting the value of the rights for that project while at the same time never doing anything with them.  Eventually a studio gives up their claim when more interested parties come along, and they can make a sale or trade that passes along the cost of the project to another, allowing them to recoup.  And in all this time, no movement on the project ever gains speed.  That’s why it’s called “development hell,” because it’s where projects disappear and live out a tortuous existence out of their control.  And if a project does make it out, it doesn’t turn out for the better, like with The Dark Tower.  With promising ideas behind it’s back, like the TV and Film crossover, The Dark Tower could have been really something, but instead we are left with a lackluster single outing that feels like the bare minimum of what could have been.  It’s a sad result, but The Dark Tower is not alone.

Honestly, the fact that The Dark Tower exists at all is something of miracle, considering how unforgiving the industry can be.  Development Hell not only affects big projects like Tower, but a whole variety of other projects as well, ranging from those still in script phase all the way to films in physical production.  For every movie that makes it to completion, there are maybe twenty more that don’t.  More than anything, it’s an issue affected by dollars and cents.  Some movies gain traction, only to face a brick wall once the industry’s budget crunching sees the red flags appearing on the horizon.  It becomes less of a problem when the film is still in it’s scripting phase, because then all the company needs to do is cut the writer a check, and then just shelve the script, because it cost them nothing to just sit on it indefinitely, unless there is a licensing issue.  Unfortunately, other projects make it past the scripting stage and into physical production, which then contributes to a lot of budget overruns the longer a production is put on hold.  Once a project stops production, it becomes a lot more expensive to either keep it in suspension or to start it up again, which is why so many companies stop production early when things aren’t going well, and if it’s too late, they try their best to pass the cost over to someone else.  Money problems are not a new thing in Hollywood, as a lot of the industry is built upon the foundation of many failed enterprises.  But, some productions go even too far, and take on a life of their own as stories about what could have been.  Tim Burton’s failed attempt at a Superman film resulted in a now legendary aborted production, and Terry Gilliam’s many attempts at adapting Don Quixote  to the big screen ironically echoes the futile journey of it’s literary subject.  Both productions have been spotlighted in documentaries, The Death of Superman Lives (2015) and Lost in La Mancha (2002), which do an exceptional job at showing just how maddening it can be to see a movie start production, only to fall apart and never see the light of day.

Sadly what contributes to the state of these failed productions is something that I already spotlighted in a previous article, and that’s the unfortunate agitator known as hype.  Hype can be a movie’s best friend, but it can also unsteady a delicate situation and make the inevitable fall all that much harder.  One thing that Hollywood seems to love doing often is generate early hype for a production.  It can either appear as an Easter egg in some franchise film, or produced through a word of mouth whisper campaign through press circles, or even made through a very pointed tease.  Regardless, Hollywood runs the risk for making announcements so early in production.  It’s even more risky when the tease is all they have.  Now, they have to live up to the audience expectations that created, and the longer that the film remains in production, the more they leave themselves open to disappointment.  Audience attention spans are far more fleeting these days, with tastes changing on a dime without any warning.  By the time a long awaited movie does finally come out, it’s window may have already passed, and the early hype would prove to be worthless in the end.  Sometimes, if well managed, studios can use early hype as a way of gauging audience interest, and if they see little excitement, then they can quietly let the project die in development.  Unfortunately, some hype campaigns are not well managed, especially when you run into the factor that some involved parties are more excited than others.  Directors and actors in particular love to tout their passion projects, and hype them up even when there is no chance for them to be made.  I remember when Guillermo Del Toro teased his involvement in a new Haunted Mansion movie with the Disney company with an announcement at Comic Con, complete with a teaser poster to go with it.  Sadly, many years later, this is all we’ve gotten related to the project, and in all likelihood, that’s all that will every be.  Early hype is good only if the possibility is there for it to become a reality, and if you are out there only promising dream projects that’ll never happen, sooner or later, audiences will stop believing in what you say.

Development hell is also factored by the moving target that is audience interest.  For a lot of movies, timing is everything.  A film can be well made and have a lot of promise, but if it is not in-sync with the times it ends up being released in, then it loses all of it’s appeal.  A lot of movies that make it past the script phase end up falling into this hole because of that reason.  There is a thing in the film industry known as the “Black List” which is an annual survey of what is regarded as the best un-produced screenplays.  These are the aforementioned scripts that the studios sit on, only they garner heat enough to still grab public attention, thus staying afloat in Development Hell.  For a lot of these, it’s all a matter of timing, which sadly may never come about.  I remember hearing about one script that made it out of the list for a period of time called College Republicans, from screenwriter Wes Jones.  It was a true life inspired story about the early days of future Republican Party strategists Karl Rove and Lee Atwater when they were in college.  The development of the film gained steam in the wake of Rove’s controversial time in the White House as Chief of Staff, and it looked as if we were about to get a fascinating character study about this contemporary figure.  It even got as far as having Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe cast as Atwater, but for some reason this project suddenly went quiet.  My belief is that it’s short window closed up quickly, and whoever was involved lost interest.  I think the changing political climate factored in, as the Republican Party itself has changed, making Rove and Atwater far less fascinating figures.  The script may someday live again, but in a political landscape dominated by Trump, it’s hard to say if this political study may ever find it’s time ever again, because both politics and the Republican Party will be unrecognizable after this.

Getting off politics now, I just find it fascinating how time affects the development of movies in general.  Some films rush through production without any hangups, while others languish for what seems like an eternity.  But, why does it affect some movies more than others.  Sometimes it’s not just worries about the budget that puts movies on hold, but a lot of internal politicking that gets in the way.  Sometimes the studios put the brakes on a film because there is a dispute between the people making it and the people financing it.  Sometimes a studio sees a change in management and that leaves the already in development projects in a sort of limbo, as they are remnants of the old guard’s way of doing things.  This particular factor is what leads to some being released long after they were completed, to little or no fanfare.  A lot of companies, for whatever reason, go under and leave a lot of projects hanging.  Some of these even remain fascinating relics as half complete films that had the potential to become masterpieces.  One interesting example is an animated film called The Thief and the Cobbler (1993).  Worked on by legendary independent animator Richard Williams for over 20 years, his financial support ran out and he was forced to sell his uncompleted work to a major studio, who completed it with inferior animation at another company, completely ruining the director’s original vision.  Like The Dark Tower, too much time and outside interference spoiled what should’ve been a home-run with Cobbler.  Some devoted animation fans have since made an effort to reassemble the original Richard Williams version, which is in various states of completion, in what is called the “Recobbled Cut,” and it’s a fascinating look at what could have been.  For Williams, 20 years of work created something beautiful, but ultimately incomplete because of how complex it became.  Eventually, the desires of the artist and those paying for the art become a sticking point, and the art became compromised and cheapened in the end as a result.  It’s the sad reality of the industry that movies rarely have a pleasant development towards completion, usually ending up a mangled mess by the end.

So, while the end result for The Dark Tower is an unfortunate one, it is not at all surprising.  It was too long of a wait for the film, and too much interference slowed the production down.  As a result, you can see that lesser effort was put into the final product, and more problematic than that, too much was left out because the budget wouldn’t allow for it.  What should have been a Tolkein-esque epic saga that could have stood side by side with the acclaimed films set in Middle Earth is instead an indistinguishable action thriller; no more special than anything else out there.  King’s novels were a game-changer; the movie is sadly not.  And what upsets me more is that this one actually had some ingredients that could have made it amazing.  They certainly made good casting choices with Elba and McConaughey as the Gunslinger and Man in Black respectively.  But, The Dark Tower becomes yet another “what could have been” tale in the history of Hollywood.  I wish that this had become a reality back when they were planning a television and film adaptation.  In fact, if the success of Game of Thrones has proven anything, it’s that The Dark Tower would have been better served being adapted into a series rather than a film.  That way, you can devote enough time to capturing King’s full vision.  It’s not like that hasn’t worked well before; case in point, the made-for-TV adaptation of It (1990).  But, for now, The Dark Tower is another victim of that sadly all too common cinematic wrecking ball known as “development hell.”  It’s unfortunate that money, egos, and changing attitudes end up spoiling the completion of very promising film productions, but considering that this is such a high stakes game, it is also very predictable as well.  It makes you appreciate when a movie does live up to it’s potential even more, considering how miraculous a thing it is to get a movie out of development in the first place.  You always hope that every good story makes it out of hell and into paradise, but in Hollywood, that’s a story that sadly rarely happens.

This is….