Dune (2021) – Review

Arrakis.  Dune. Desert Planet.  Ever since it’s original publication in 1965, Frank Herbert’s seminal Sci-Fi epic Dune has been a siren call to filmmakers wanting to bring the author’s vision to full cinematic life.  Despite having all the grandeur in scope of a great biblical sized adventure, Herbert’s novel was also a dense and detailed tome, where worldbuilding is intricately to the story itself, something that would take a lot more time to adapt than what’s allowed for the average film.  This led the book Dune to develop a reputation over time as being “un-filmable.”  That’s not to say that there weren’t people who tried.  One of the most famous failed attempts was from advant garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain) whose early development of his vision of the movie was so wild and fascinating that a documentary was made about it called Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013).  In that documentary, you see what may have been the greatest movie never made, as Jodorowsky details his bold vision for a space opera based on the novel that would rival the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Of course, it was a dream un-fulfilled, and that’s a narrative that has long followed the history of Dune on film.  Dune did eventually get a big screen adaptation by, of all people, David Lynch, who definitely leaned far more into the weirder aspects of Herbert’s novel.  I talked about that adaptation more at length here, but to sum up, it’s a movie that leaves much to be deserved, especially if you’ve read the book.  Lynch’s Dune (1984) for one thing rushes through most of the novel, and never allows for the worldbuilding to take hold.  In the end it feels more like a Lynch movie than anything else, with only the bullet points of Herbert’s story.  When Universal tried to add more backstory to make it more understandable to casual audiences, it angered David so much that he refused to attach his name to the longer cut, making it the most expensive Alan Smithee movie ever made.  For decades afterwards, Lynch’s bizarre and compromised adaptation did garner a cult following, but long time fans of the novel continued to hope for a big screen adaptation that finally lived up to what was on the page.

After being passed around from studio to studio, the rights to Frank Herbert’s Dune eventually landed at Legendary Pictures, under their partnership with Warner Brothers.  After securing the rights, the search went out for a director who was not only capable of delivering on the promise of Frank Herbert’s vision, but one who was also passionate about the project as well.  The duty of such a daunting challenge eventually went to French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve.  Villeneuve had already made a name for himself with critically acclaimed dramas like Prisoners (2013) and Sicario (2015), but more recently he’s been known for his celebrated work in Science Fiction, with movies like Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017).  The match was ideal for the up and coming director, as this has long been a dream project of his, ever since he read the novel back when he was a teenager.  Once Villeneuve was given the greenlight, work began on bringing his long gestating vision to full life.  Warner Brothers granted him a sizable amount to work with, including having an all-star cast playing all the iconic characters.  Warner Brothers were hoping this would be the start of a new lucrative franchise for them, and the film was set up with a prime Holiday 2020 release.  Then, unfortunately, the bad fortunes that seem to follow this story around, came to disrupt those plans.  The Covid-19 pandemic made it impossible for Dune to make it’s original release date like all the other films that year, and Warner Brothers made the tough decision to push the movie back to 2021.  As the pandemic waned, Dune settled into it’s new October release date, but another controversial decision followed with it.  Warner Brothers decided they were going to release their entire 2021 slate of movies day and date in theaters and on streaming through HBO Max, including Dune.  This led to friction with Denis Villeneuve who intended his film to be seen on the big screen.  With this release pattern, many like Villeneuve worry that it will minimize box office and hurt any chances of a continuation of the series in case the movie appears to be a flop.  Regardless, Warner Brothers stuck by their plan, and Dune is indeed receiving a hybrid release this week.  The only question is, does it finally live up to the promise of the novel and demand a big screen viewing, or was Warner right to hedge their bets.

Dune (2021) pretty much follows the novel down to the letter with it’s overall plot.  It is many millennia into the future.  The galaxy is ruled by the Imperium, a multi-planet galactic federation that is ruled by the Great Houses, overseen by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV.  Two of the Great Houses, the Harkonnens and the Atreides, are sworn enemies of each other, but still swear the same allegiance to the Imperium.  Upon the decree of the Emperor, House Atreides has been granted stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, where the Spice Mélange is harvested.  The spice is the most valuable substance in the galaxy, granting those who consume it enhanced mental and physical capabilities, as well as enabling the process of interstellar flight.  The one who holds control over the production of the spice wields great power within the Imperium, which leads many to wonder why the Emperor is suddenly changing the stewardship of the planet from one house to another.  Until now, the Harkonnen’s, led by the fearsome Baron (Stellan Skarsgard) and his nephew Rabban (Dave Bautista), had been ruling the planet and it’s native people, the Fremen, with a tyrannical iron grip.  Now, the Atreides, a benevolent and well-loved Great House, are making the move to Arrakis.  Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) brings along with him is beloved Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) and their son Paul (Timothee Chalamet).  Paul Atreides has garnered a lot of interest from a powerful collective of witches known as the Bene Gesserit, of whom Jessica has also belonged.  She is teaching Paul some of her special abilities, which are forbidden for men to learn, which the Bene Gesserit leader, Reverend Mother Mohiam (Charlotte Rampling), believes could prove problematic for the Emporer.  It is thought that Paul may be the prophesized Kwisatz Haderach, an all powerful Messiah like being that can transcend time and space.  Indeed, Paul’s dreams reveal a bit of his possible future, as he continues to see a mystery girl named Chani (Zendaya) within them.  Once at Arrakis, Duke Leto’s trusted men, Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin), Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa) and Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) do their best to train young Paul for a harsh new world.  But as Paul will see, Arrakis is a perilous place full of assassins acting on the Harkonnen’s orders, as well as home to the mighty Shai-hulud, the massive, mountain sized sand worms that scour across the planet.

What I just described is basically just the set-up to the story of Dune and not the actual plot itself, which shows you just how dense of a story Frank Herbert’s narrative really is.  It’s a daunting task to fit that kind of epic story into just one film, as David Lynch learned the hard way.  With Denis Villeneuve, the task was to convince Warner Brothers that one movie alone was not possible to capture the full breadth of the story.  His plan was to divide Dune into separate halves over the span of two movies.  It’s not an unusual feat; several studios have split books up into two movies before, but they had the benefit of built in franchises like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games to allow for that.  Denis was gambling with the studio here, but it’s what was necessary to carry out his full vision.  Warner Brothers granted him his wish, but with a caveat; that he could only start off with the first half.  Instead of filming back to back like other franchises have with multi-part movies before, Villeneuve had to do with filming only Part 1 of his adaptation of Dune, with the prospect of a Part 2 dependent on the performance of the first.  That seemed like a fair compromise in a time of stable box office a couple years ago, but now seems short sighted in the wake of a global pandemic.  Now, Denis Villeneuve’s chances of completing his vision are not so certain, as Warner Brother’s HBO Max gamble almost ensures that the movie is not going to perform up to it’s potential at the box office.  And that overall is a real tragedy, because this is a movie that demands to be seen on the biggest possible screen.  It has honestly been too long since I’ve seen a movie aim this high as a visual experience on the big screen, reaching for the heights of both the natural splendor of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and the surreal head trip of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  This is the kind of epic movie that I absolutely love, one that pushes cinema to the limit, and Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is a masterful demonstration of that.  I was blown away seeing this on a massive IMAX screen for the first time.  Villeneuve, whose style is growing more and more ambitious with every new film, really holds nothing back in this movie.  But, David Lynch also attempted an audacious cinematic experience with his version of Dune.  What makes Villeneuve’s version vastly better is that he manages to solidify the tone throughout the movie, and treats it with the seriousness it deserves.  And more importantly, he devotes more time to pacing the story out and letting it flow naturally.

Even when it’s only the first half of the book, Villeneuve’s Dune still runs at a meaty 2 1/2 hours.  And a lot of that extra time gives us something that the David Lynch version never allowed before, a chance to immerse ourselves in this world that Frank Herbert envisioned.  With the help of Cinematographer Greig Fraser, whose work includes films like Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Rogue One (2016), Villeneuve creates an Arrakis that feels alive and tangible.  I found myself in awe of the way that movie captures the vistas of it’s locations.  Everything in this movie feels big, from the locations to even the machinery used by the characters.  The ships that the Atreides use to transport themselves and their forces from planet to planet are colossal structures in of themselves, towering hundreds of feet and reducing the human beings among them to mere specks within the wide shots.  And then there are the Sand Worms, which are probably the greatest creation of all from the mind of Frank Herbert.  They are not seen much in this movie, but their presence is felt throughout, much like the shark from Jaws (1975).  One of the most jaw-dropping visuals that I love from this movie is the way that we see the seas of sand dunes undulate as the Sand Worms move underneath.  And then a massive sand pit begins to start sinking and entrapping anything or anyone unfortunate to be caught up within it.  Around the center, hundreds of massive razor sharp teeth begin to rise up and engulf it’s prey, and then the gaping mouth of the beast closes in around it’s meal.  It’s a terrifying sight taken right out off the page, and is a clear example of how well Villeneuve’s own vision perfectly matches Herbert’s.  But apart from scale, I also admire how Denis also deals with simple, unspoken storytelling.  There is a scene early on where Paul walks along a lake shoreline on his home planet of Caladan and places his hand in a puddle of water.  Without words, he perfectly conveys the feeling of what is going through Paul’s mind at that moment.  He’s doing something that is mundane on his planet that will become almost impossible on Arrakis, where water is so scarce that people have created suits designed to recycle the body’s own water.  That’s a big, and valued change of approach for retelling this story.  David Lynch was forced to cram in a lot of underlying backstory through awkward internal monologues.  Here, Villeneuve says a lot more through visual storytelling, conveying emotion in his story rather than rigid adherence to a plot.

The movie also gets a lot out of it’s stellar cast, all of whom surprisingly fit well within this hyper-realized world.  For one thing, Denis Villeneuve was wise to cast a youngish actor this time in the role of Paul Atreides.  David Lynch’s Dune had Kyle McLauchlan in the pivotal role, but he was already in his mid-twenties when playing the part of the teenage protagonist, and he unfortunately looked it too.  Timothee Chalamet is also on the latter side of 20, but he looks far more believably younger and you buy him as the character Paul much more.  It’s a daunting part, no matter which way you look at it, because the role of Paul requires the actor to be in the mindset of being the so-called “Super” of the story; a sometimes overused cliché that has been used in many Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories, including many that Dune influenced.  What I like about what Timothee brings to the part is the quiet pain that he feels as the character.  You feel the world-weariness of the character, as he struggles with being at the center of all these political and supernatural machinations, all the while trying his best to be a normal, level-headed young kid.  And thankfully, Timothee also accomplishes this without turning Paul into an angsty, whiny privileged teen, which could’ve happened in the wrong hands of a different actor.  He’s also matched with an incredible performance by Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica.  She delivers so much emotion through her role, and it’s nice to see a maternal character treated like a powerful force within this adaptation.  Oscar Isaac makes his Duke Leto a man worthy of admiration, and the supporting roles Gurney and Duncan are filled perfectly by the always reliable and charming Josh Brolin and Jason Momoa respectively.  There’s one underwhelming part of the cast in the movie and that’s the villainous Harkonnens themselves.  Stellan Skarsgard and Dave Bautista are still excellent in their performances, but the movie doesn’t really utilize them to the fullest.  They are just there, and fulfill their part in the story, with no real insight into their character motivations.  It makes me wonder if Denis was saving that more for Part II, instead.  In any sense, even with all the extra time, it seems like the villains were treated like an afterthought in this film, but they are still well acted and creepily designed.  I do hope we are going to get more characterizations fleshed out in the future, but even still, the cast really delivers in their roles.  Like all the best films with a stacked cast of knowable faces, the best sign of the movie’s effectiveness is in seeing how the actors start to disappear throughout the movie, and we instead only see the character they are playing.  That’s the great trick that the Lord of the Rings movies pulled, and I’m glad to see that it works just as well here too.

There’s also a lot to say about the incredible aural experience that you’ll have watching this movie, especially in a theater retrofitted with a spectacular sound system.  For one thing, Hans Zimmer’s score is up there with the legendary composer’s best work.  With worldwide influences, Zimmer’s score gives an identity to the world of Arrakis, and captures through music the incredible wildness of that world.  Equally adept at capturing the big action moments with the quieter reflective ones, Zimmer’s score has a beautiful fluidity to it that perfectly matches the visual splendor that Denis Villeneuve puts on display.  The sound editing really utilizes the dynamic sound field very well.  It’s this specifically this that you will only get to hear at it’s fullest potential within a movie theater.  Home theater set-ups won’t rattle the ribcage and get the heart pumping like the sound systems of a multi-channel theater set-up can, especially one at an IMAX theater.  The rolling thunder of the oncoming Sand Worms especially have a foreboding sound to them.  There’s also a lot of brilliant work put into the art design of the movie and the special effects.  The David Lynch movie had it’s weirdness to be sure, but there are a few places and sights in this movie that also delve into the strange and bizarre.  I especially like the H.R. Geiger inspired look of the Harkonnen home world, which I think is a deliberate nod to Jodoworsky’s unfulfilled vision, as Alejandro did in fact commission Geiger to design the Baron’s palace for his movie, years before Geiger went on to famously design the iconic creature in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1978).  If this was the case, I applaud Denis for acknowledging the legacy of Jodoworsky’s imaginative but never made version, which only lives on as a collection of development art.  Another thing that I love about this movie is that it mixes practical and digital effects really well.  Since Denis Villeneuve is like Christopher Nolan in that he tries to do as much as he can in camera before adding digital enhancement, I’m happy to see so much in this movie that looks authentic and real.  The digital effects are subtly laid in, and there is quite a lot of use of physical miniature models to help make the mighty fortresses in this story feel real.  In a Marvel and DC world that has become too accustomed to blue screen and CGI enhancement, it’s great to see a movie fall back on some tried and true old tricks to help make Arrakis and all the other worlds of Dune feel as real as possible.

Of all the movies to have released in this re-building year at the box office, this is the one that makes the most passionate case yet for returning to the movie theater.  There really is no better way to appreciate the film and it’s massive scale.  Unfortunately, because of Warner Brothers not backing down from their year long gamble on HBO Max, there is a chance that too many people will end up staying home and not get the full experience of this movie.  I understand that it’s still too unsafe for some people to venture out as the pandemic still continues to exist and that streaming the movie at the same time it’s in theaters grants people who are not ready yet the chance to not miss out.  But, Warner Brothers is putting too much on the line with this one.  It’s foolish on their part to not consider having Denis Villeneuve shoot two movies back to back, so that even if the first movie underperforms, he’ll still have the second part to complete the story.  Here, the movie ends on an abrupt note, making it far more dependent on a continuation to follow.  If Warner Brothers doesn’t invest in a sequel right after this, it’s definitely going to come across as an incomplete vision.  I guess that it would put the movie in line with other past Dune projects, like Jodoworsky’s unmade film or David Lynch’s compromise, as they both reached far and came up short.  Frank Herbert’s masterpiece is a daunting challenge, but Denis Villeneuve’s visual feast is the best attempt yet at finally bringing the story to it’s full cinematic potential.  Sadly, I think Warner Brothers is going to leave a lot of money on the table with regards to this one, all in the pursuit of pushing for more subscribers to their streaming channel.  I hope that word of mouth helps this movie find it’s audience, and helps convince the WB team that they need to complete the full vision.  It’s all going to come down to dollars and cents at this point, and it only makes it more complicated when you know that, like Arrakis,  Warner is currently going through a leadership change of it’s own (from AT&T to Discovery) which could dampen Dune’s chances even more.  All I can say is this was absolutely the best theatrical experience I have had thus far this year, and after the last year that we’ve had, it’s a feeling that I have long wished would return.  Denis Villeneuve has done a masterful job of taming Frank Herbert’s “un-filmable” novel and giving us a movie worthy of it’s legacy.  if you can, I cannot recommend more highly enough that you should see it in a theater on the biggest possible screen.  It is the kind of movie that reminds us the power that cinema can have, and it does so with a world we have yet to fully see realized in a way that captures it’s true epic potential.  The grandfather of all modern science fiction now finally has a movie worthy of it’s legacy.  Now it’s up to us to help it become a hit so that it won’t remain an unfinished masterpiece.  The spice must flow.

Rating: 9/10

Evolution of Character – The Wolf Man

Extending from folklore, to literature, to cinema, there are many iconic monsters that make up the menagerie of Halloween time.  And while some of the icons of Halloween come from very distinctive literary origins like Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, there are others whose presence in the culture extend much further back and have no real true origin.  Witches and zombies for example have haunted the imagination of generations through folklore, with many different cultures having their own unique take.  And one particular creature that especially carries a long history with it is the werewolf.  With a particularly strong folkloric history in Western Europe, tales of werewolves have been present for over the last millennia.  There is something particularly captivating about the idea of transforming between species to go from man to beast.  It’s not always a story about malevolence and savagery.   Celtic folklore talks about spirits that inhabit the both the bodies of men and wolves and are protectors of nature.  The tale of Beauty and the Beast likewise draws inspiration from old Gaelic folk tales.  But when the rise of Gothic horror became popularized in the 18th and 19th centuries, the tales of werewolves went through their own transformation into something more foreboding and scary.  Over time, canonical things began to be associated with werewolf beings, such as the transmissible nature of it’s curse through the act of attacking and infecting, as well as having a silver bullet being the one thing to end it’s life.  Over time, the werewolf became an amalgamation of many different creature legends from across Europe and eventually turned into the being that we know today.  Naturally, because of it’s popularity in pulp horror literature, the creature would make it’s way to the silver screen as well.  Dating back to the early days of cinema, the Werewolf of Wolf Man would often be depicted through a quick dissolve between a human being and a live wolf, due to the limitations of the medium at that time.  It wasn’t until cinema had developed more advanced visual effects during it’s Golden Age that we finally began to see the character fully realized on screen.  What follows are some of the more noteworthy examples in cinematic history, all stemming from the basic canonical interpretation of the Western European concept of the Wolf Man creature.

HENRY HULL in WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935)

Here in this early British horror film do we find the first big cinematic representation of the werewolf legend.  In particular, it’s the movie that establishes the character within a late Victorian pastiche, which has helped to link it with other Victorian era monsters like Dracula, the Invisible Man, and so on.  One thing that helps to reinforce that era defining element in the character is that his origins here come from another literary inspiration, that of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The titular Werewolf is a London based doctor named Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) and he finds London haunted by an unexplained creature that turns out to be him after he transforms into the creature at night.  Like Jekyll and Hyde, Dr. Glendon has no memory of his altered self, but slowly the clues lead back to him, and he has to find a way to remove this curse before he ends up killing the things he loves.  For an early talky horror film, the movie does alright in conveying the atmosphere of a gloomy old London where creature stalk the shadows at night.  And for it’s time, the make-up effects on actor Henry Hull look pretty good; subtle, but still appropriately grotesque.  The unfortunate thing that plagues the movie though is presence of Charlie Chan actor Warner Oland once again playing another character in yellow face; an unfortunate practice that was sadly all too common in that time.  Here, he is werewolf hunter named Dr. Yogami, and Henry Hull ultimately makes a more convincing Wolf Man than Oland does an Asian.  Otherwise, the movie does a fair enough job in bringing the image of a half man/half wolf to the big screen in a mostly terrifying way.  That in the end ultimately helped to establish the standard on which most future interpretations would follow.

LON CHENEY JR. in THE WOLF MAN (1941)

Picking up the legacy that his father left behind, Lon Cheney Jr. would make a career that likewise left him recognized as a man with a thousand faces.  Cheney Jr., like his father, did much of the make-up work himself for the many roles he took over the years, including some noteworthy appearances as monsters within the iconic Universal Pictures stable.  Of all the characters he played, however, none were as more intricately tied to Lon Cheney Jr.’s legacy than the Wolf Man.  And that distinction is well earned.  Cheney’s Wolf Man is undeniably the gold standard of the character, and it’s in large part due not just to the incredible make-up work that he did to himself for the film, but also the physicality that he brought to it as well.  In the movie, you can see subtle ways that Cheney tried to mimic the characteristics of a wolf into his performance, including the hunching of his back as well as walking around on the balls of his feet rather than the heel, which gives him a hind-leg look.  The make-up is also pretty incredible as well, with Cheney just outright disappearing underneath it all.  Though he still looks more man than beast, you can still see the effort Cheney put into creating a terrifying look for the character.  His film also did a few noteworthy things that changed the character’s overall story.  For one, it contemporized the tale, bringing it out of Victorian times and into the present day.  It also made the Wolf Man American, though the setting is still English bound, with the unfortunate traveler succumbing to the curse while on his trip to inherit an estate.  Cheney Jr.  would go on to star in many future sequels to this popular original, and he even played the role again in some Abbot and Costello comedies alongside some other iconic monsters.  Even though make-up effects and computer animation have advanced to a point where werewolves can look even more monstrous today, the original image that Lon Cheney Jr. presented here is still the one that defines the prototypical Hollywood werewolf.

DAVID NAUGHTON in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981)

Nearly 40 years would pass before we would get another Hollywood werewolf that stood up to Lon Cheney Jr.’s classic.  In between were a lot of low rent attempts at creating a captivating wolf man creature, often with unconvincing make-up and visual effects.  Then came along a make-up virtuoso that would revolutionize the artform on film.  His name is Rick Baker, and he would become one of the most prolific and groundbreaking effects artists of his generation.  In an over 50 year career, Baker has won 7 Academy Awards for his work in Make-up effects, and naturally, his first win came for creating one of the most incredible cinematic werewolves in movie history.  In John Landis’ horror/comedy, we find actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne playing a pair of American tourist on a walking tour of England.  Of course, things go awry when they are both attacked by a ravenous wolf.  Dunne’s Jack is savagely killed, but Naughton’s David survives and ends up succumbing to the after effects of the attack.  It what has to be one of the most iconic horror moments ever captured on screen, we see the full breadth of a werewolf transformation as David witnesses all of parts of his body warp and stretch into wolf form.  With some amazing prosthetic and animatronic work, the full transformation is shockingly lifelike, and to this day remains a benchmark in practical visual effects.  Even after the transformation, the Rick Baker make-up and mechanically enhanced final werewolf is still pretty impressive.  But it’s that unforgettable transformation scene that really set this movie apart at the time, and made it into a classic.  I think that it’s the fact that we are finally seeing the full breadth of a transformation between man and beast shown on screen that really captured the attention of the audience.  No more using dissolves or other editing tricks.  Here we see the whole grotesque procedure, which the looser Hollywood standards would finally allow after so many years.  For Rick Baker, it would launch him into a legendary career afterwards, and as we would see, it wouldn’t be the last time he would play around in the realm of werewolves either.

THE COLONY in THE HOWLING (1981)

Released in the same year as An American Werewolf in London, The Howling again uses make-up and effects by Rick Baker, who had quite the year.  Though not as iconic as the Oscar-winning effects in the other film, The Howling’s own visual effects to bring it’s werewolves to life are still pretty impressive.  One of the things that makes these werewolves stand out is how the look much less like real wolves and more like the creations of nightmares.  With exaggerated, fang-filled jaws, extremely large pointy ears, and razor claw hands, these are monsters of a very different kind than what we’ve seen before with regards to werewolves.  Made by director Joe Dante from a John Sayles screenplay, the movie ups the ante from other Werewolf movies by establishing not one Werewolf within it’s story, but a whole community of them.  In the film, Dee Wallace plays an investigative reporter who finds herself in a secluded mountain resort after escaping a near death experience with a serial killer.  Unfortunately, she soon learns that the simple town is not what it seems to be, and the quiet residents within it are in fact werewolves.  The Colony, as they become known, defy many traits associated with the Werewolf myth, including being able to transform without the aid of a full moon.  And in the movie, we also get our first cinematic example of Wolf Women on the big screen, including Dee Wallace’s character as she falls victim to the curse, even after escaping the colony.  Considering the amount of work that it took to not just create a single werewolf for the movie but a whole town of them helps to make this an equally impressive feat for Rick Baker in addition to his work on London.  But, as we would see again, Mr. Baker was not done yet with Werewolves in his prolific career.

MICHAEL J. FOX in TEEN WOLF (1985)

Taking the iconography of werewolves in a decidedly different direction than we’ve seen, we have this film which puts the wolf man curse into a 1980’s teen comedy.  What is interesting about this version of the werewolf story is that our main protagonist doesn’t gain his wolf form through the passing on of a curse through a wolf bite, but rather through genetics.  Michael J. Fox’s Scott begins to suddenly transform one day while at school, which leads to some awkward situations, and later finds out from his father that he inherited the curse from him, as they descend from a long line of werewolves.  Basically, the werewolf curse is equivalent to diabetes or other generationally inherited disease, and in some ways is shown here to be a metaphor for puberty, as Scott is growing up into his true adult form.  It’s a movie that more or less sticks with it’s 80’s teen comedy clichés and only stands out because of this gimmick.  The look of Michael J. Fox as a werewolf unfortunately is a far cry from the more transformational work done by Rick Baker in the previously mentioned movies, and looks more Sasquatch than Wolf Man as a result.  At the same time, this isn’t trying to be a scary version of a Wolf Man, and instead it’s trying to fit within the confines of a silly comedy.  Michael J. Fox’s natural charisma still shines through in the role, even when he looks ridiculous under all that hair.  What is interesting is that this silly comedy would inspire a darker reimagining many years later for television with the CW series of the same name.  That show followed the more idealized version of what a werewolf should look and act like, so in a way, this movie did eventually contribute to the continued legacy of Werewolves as a horror icon.  It’s far from what you’d expect for a cinematic werewolf movie, but it’s uniqueness within the genre and popularity has helped to keep the Wolf Man a relevant character within cinema as a whole.

JACK NICHOLSON in WOLF (1994)

Rick Baker strikes once again, but here we find him accomplishing something a little more subtle.  In this movie, the transformation never goes full wolf, and instead we see the actors more or less remain visible even after transitioning into their altered form.  Rick Baker accomplishes the look by focusing on the actor’s eyes, hair, and teeth to convey the transformation, rather than relying on complex prosthetics and animatronics like he utilized for An American Werewolf in London.  This was probably due to director Mike Nichols’ insistence on keeping things simple so that the actors performances could convey the transformation a lot more.  Now, of all the actors called upon to portray a man turning into a werewolf, it’s just natural that the job would fall on Jack Nicholson, who’s already wolf-like to begin with.  The movie is also a quite different re-telling of the classic story, putting the setting in modern day New England high society.  Despite that, it otherwise sticks pretty close to classic werewolf movies we’ve seen before; especially the Lon Cheney version.  Unfortunately, and maybe due to the lack of experience within the horror genre of all involved, the movie is a bit on the boring side.  It’s hard to believe that a Mike Nichols movie starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Plummer, and James Spader along with music by Ennio Morricone and make-up by the previously mentioned Baker would turn into something so dull.  Where the problem lies is that, despite the best efforts of the actors, you never fully buy them as werewolves because of the lack of the lack of heavy-duty make-up work that we’re accustomed to.  You bring in Rick Baker and just end up wasting his talent here.  The only entertainment value comes from how over the top Jack Nicholson goes with his performance at times, as well as with how poorly executed the visual effects can be.  Otherwise as Werewolf movies go, it falls flat.  What it shouldn’t have done was try to bring prestige into a genre that was designed for pulp.

BENICIO DEL TORO in THE WOLFMAN (2010)

Riding that fine line between prestige and pulp better than Wolf did, this Joe Johnston directed film makes a valiant attempt to bring the werewolf back it’s Victorian set origins, and do so with all the advances in visual effects that are at our disposal now.  Naturally, Rick Baker was called upon once again to bring this creature to imaginative life, and this time he was given much more reign to work his magic.  It helps that he has an actor of intensity like Benicio Del Toro to work with as a canvas.  Del Toro’s already rugged looks work well with what he ultimately will turn into.  Director Joe Johnston, who had to step in last minute after original director Mark Romanek left the project, expertly uses his experience with visual effects to make the transformations between Benicio’s human and wolf forms look believable on screen.  CGI is used effectively here, making the transitions far smoother than in years past, but once the transformation is complete, it’s all Rick Baker’s incredible prosthetic work and Del Toro’s ferocious performance from there.  Though the movie is perhaps too bombastic at times, it nevertheless showcases incredible visual effects work that once again reinvents the way werewolves are presented on the big screen.  The transformation moments in particular really reach for the grotesque in this film, with the character’s limbs and feature’s twisting and contorting in disturbing ways.  Bringing the story back to it’s period setting also really helps to give the character more of a classical identity, which helps to solidify it’s place in the pantheon of great cinematic monsters.  The one downside of the movie is that it never gets as scary as it seems to strive to be.  It probably has to do with the fact that the movie is trying to hit a more general audience, and therefore the movie pulls a few punches.  Del Toro still is intense enough to make for a good werewolf, but the movie around his performance feels more conventional than it needs to be.  Despite that, it does give us some R-Rated gore, and it helps that Rick Baker’s effects work do not disappoint.  It’s a fair example of an ideal werewolf in a not so ideal werewolf movie.

There have honestly been more werewolves in movies and television than any other classic movie monster.  Even more than vampires, since through some convenient cinematic cross-pollination, Werewolves and Vampires have canonically become mortal enemies of one another.  It’s probably because of it’s long legacy in folklore that the concept of werewolves has endured for as long as it has.  The connection between man and nature is a compelling one in storytelling, and the idea of a transformation between species like we see with werewolves is one that still grabs at the imagination.  Werewolves still are present in many forms of media today, including playing a big part in non horror franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight.  Even media directed at younger audiences feature werewolves prominently in them, like the animated Hotel Transylvania franchise.  For the most stand-out cinematic versions that I spotlighted here in this article, what they’ve often represented are benchmark achievements in movie visual effects.  It takes a lot of work to make a believable transformation between man and wolf come to life on the silver screen, and thanks to two wizards in particular named Lon Cheney Jr. and Rick Baker, we’ve had some amazing cinematic werewolves in our history.  You can still see the imprint of Lon Cheney’s Wolf Man in most modern day versions of werewolves, particularly in the body language that today’s actors try to incorporate into their performance.  And Rick Baker’s other-worldly prosthetics really help to make the actors disappear while at the same time giving them the ability to still perform underneath all those layers of make-up.  Even with all the advances made in digital effects, there’s still something satisfying in seeing a genuine effort to create a realistic cinematic werewolf with simple old make-up effects.  That ultimately has helped the Wolf Man and other werewolves of cinema stand out so well over time.  It’s a true expression of performance and effects working together that helps to bring this iconic creature to full life, making it a true cinematic original.

No Time to Die – Review

In the long, 50-plus year run of the James Bond franchise, there are few figures that will stand as tall within the pantheon of the series as Daniel Craig.  Sean Connery no doubt still remains the gold standard, but Craig’s tenure as 007 may be the best collection of films out of the whole franchise.  His time in James Bond’s fine leather shoes is unique in the franchise because it’s the only instance where there’s been a story arc that carried over from film to film.  Before now, James Bond movies were loosely connected adventures, all adhering to a formula rather than continuity.  It worked perfectly for decades to build a series like this, because it made it easier for different actors to step into the role once their predecessor’s time was done, without having to do too much rebooting.  After Sean Connery defined the character and turned him into an icon. actors such as George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan all had their turn as James Bond.  But, after the declining quality of the movies during the final years of Brosnan’s tenure, the team at Bond’s home studio, EON Productions, decided to take things in a different direction.  They decided to redefine the character once again, delving deeper into his psyche and opting for a grittier, less campy Bond.  And this required finding a different kind of actor to play him as well.  Initially, people were unsure of Daniel Craig as the iconic spy with a license to kill.  He was shorter than previous Bonds (the first under 6 feet at 5’10”), had more rugged good looks, and he was blonde.  He didn’t exactly fit what people thought James Bond should be.  But, when he made his debut in Casino Royale (a fitting start as it was a long overdue adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel) people soon realized that he was not only a perfect choice to play James Bond, but he was also the Bond that we sorely needed.

Daniel Craig was a 21st century spy; one whose skills in hand to hand combat were just as valuable as his ability to look dashing in a finely tailored suit.  With competition coming from the likes of Mission: Impossible and the Bourne series, James Bond needed to stand on his own and Daniel Craig fulfilled that role perfectly.  He was an accomplished fighter on screen, but could also display the same kind of charisma that we expect from 007.  And over the course of 5 films, Craig not only lived up to the role; he may have even set a new standard for the character.  Craig himself will still tell you that he is merely standing on the shoulders of those who came before him, with Connery being the especially strong foundation; but whoever takes on the role after Daniel Craig will have some very big shoes to fill.  Craig’s time in particular delved deeper into the character than ever before, and that is thanks to the fact that all his movies are connected to the same narrative thread.  Each movie builds on the one before, and for the first time, we saw Bond grow as a character.  In many ways, that makes Craig’s Bond the truest iteration of Ian Fleming’s original concept that we have ever seen.  And it’s remarkable that Craig played the character for the longest period of time of any actor: a staggering 15 years.  Following Casino Royale (2006) we got Quantum of Solace (2008), Skyfall (2012), and Spectre (2015).  Spectre in particular was a difficult film for Craig, and he began to voice his displeasure at the direction of the series; saying in one interview that he’s sooner cut his own wrists than make another Bond movie.  However, the team behind the Bond franchise managed to convince Craig to do one more film and that involved the choice of granting Daniel something that no actor in the series has been given before; a chance to say goodbye on his own terms.  With No Time to Die (2021) we get a swan song to Bond that feels more personal to the man playing the role, as Daniel Craig was more involved here on both a performance and story level.  The question is, across the 5 movies over 15 years, did Daniel Craig leave James Bond on a high note?

The movie picks up immediately after the events of Spectre.  James Bond (Daniel Craig) has retired from his position at MI-6, running away with the new love of his life Madeleine Snowe (Lea Seydoux) after putting his nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) behind bars.  However, while on their romantic honeymoon getaway, James and Madeleine are attacked by Spectre agents, who are somehow still being orchestrated by Blofeld from his prison cell.  This forces Bond to make the drastic choice to abandon Madeleine so that she won’t get hurt, because he knows that as long as Spectre is out there, they will keep hunting him, and she will always be in danger.  Five years later, Bond is contacted in Jamaica by his old CIA friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) to help out on a new mission.  A chemist from the MI-6 run bio-weapons laboratory in London has gone missing, and the CIA needs help from the now freelance Bond to find him before a top secret carcinogen named Heracles falls into the wrong hands.  However, as Bond is on the trail of his target, he soon discovers that someone else is on the chemist’s trail as well; a MI-6 agent named Nomi (Lashana Lynch), the new 007 that has taken Bond’s place.  Things go awry for both parties as Bond and Nomi witness the effects of the Heracles poison, as it ravages it’s way through an entire party of Spectre operatives.  As the stakes have been raised, Bond returns to London and seeks the help of MI-6 once again, including his old boss M (Ralph Fiennes), and co-workers Tanner (Rory Kinnear), Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw).  Despite some early tension with the crew that he left behind, Team Bond does work together again to decipher what Heracles is and what it’s capable of, soon realizing that it has the ability to systematically wipe out large segments of the population.  A key factor of getting to the bottom of things falls on a mystery that shrouds Bond’s old flame Madeleine, who has been visited by a mysterious figure named Lyusifer Safin (Rami Malek); the one currently pulling all the strings.  The deeper the mystery goes, the more Bond begins to realize that this mission could very well be the one that decides his fate forever.

The road to get No Time to Die released was plagued by many problems during it’s development.  Craig’s reluctance initially did cause a bit of disruption, as EON Productions were already starting to look for a possible replacement.  Once Craig was set, the movie still stalled, as there were irreconcilable creative differences that couldn’t be resolved with the film’s original director, Danny Boyle.  After Boyle’s departure, the Bond team did something they’ve never done before and hired an American filmmaker for the first time; Beasts of No Nation’s Cary Joji Fukunaga.  After all these production troubles and delays, the movie finally got rolling, and had an April 2020 release date was set.  Unfortunately, that’s when the COVID-19 pandemic started to boom and ravage the theatrical market.  No Time to Die made headlines as the first high profile film to move off the calendar to avoid the loss of the box office, becoming something of a canary in the coal mine with regards to how bad the pandemic would be.  After moving to November 2020, and then again to April 2021, the movie moved once more to October 2021 where it finally found solid ground, more than 500 days after it was originally supposed to hit theaters.  Even in all that time, parent studio MGM sought a buy out with Amazon, which is still an ongoing deal in the making.  Thankfully, after all the production woes and pandemic delays, we finally have No Time to Die playing in theaters.  The question is did the movie stick the landing and was it worth all the wait?  I can gratefully say that it is indeed.  This is the kind of era defining franchise closure that both audience and filmmakers wish for; delivering on everything that was promised from previous installments while at the same time delivering some welcome surprises along the way that makes the road to the end worth it.  It’s certainly not the end of James Bond as a character, but it’s the end of this James Bond; one whose story we have grown close to for 15 years.  And it sends Daniel Craig off on the high note he deserves as one of the all time great 007’s.

The main reason this movie works as well as it does is Daniel Craig himself.  I found his performance in this movie in particular to be the best of the series in fact.  Skyfall may have had the best story, but No Time to Die has the best development of character here with regards to James Bond.  For the first time, you really see the vulnerability of the character on display, as Bond lets his guard down a bit more here than we’ve ever seen before.  He’s still the same old Bond, but you see how the years of fighting have taken their toll on him, and how this version of the character really is striving to find something meaningful in his life other than work.  Craig plays up this aspect perfectly throughout the movie.  It’s really interesting to see how he’s evolved the character from where he started in Casino Royale (2006), which showed him as a stone-cold killer.  Here, he has come to value the relationships he’s made along the way; with those who he shares his life with.  This is something that has carried over in the larger narrative since Skyfall, as we saw in that movie the cherished relationship he had with his first M (played magnificently by Dame Judi Dench), who was a bit of a mother figure in his life.  Since her departure, we’ve watched Bond grow closer to Moneypenny and Q than we’ve ever seen before in the movies, and Bond even found a place in his life to pursue meaningful love with Madeleine.  I can only think of one other Bond movie where we saw this vulnerable side of 007 come through at that was On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969); the one and only Lazenby Bond, and the only movie where James ties the knot.  It’s fitting that No Time to Die focuses a lot more on Bond’s relationships with those around him, because this essentially is a movie where Bond has to reflect back on the lives he’s touched because it really is the end of his story.  I get the feeling that this is one of the important aspects that drew Daniel Craig back into the role for one final time.  In no other iteration of the character have we been able to see a character arc grow from one that was archetypal to one that is fully-dimensional in this series, and most importantly, it allows for the actor to give the character a proper ending.

Everything related to Bond in this movie has an air of magnitude because of that effect.  Other than that, it’s another standard Bond flick.  All the essential pieces are still there in place, from the stylish opening credits (which feel like a deliberate nod to the classic Maurice Binder designed titles of the early Bonds), to the globe-trotting set-pieces, to the white-knuckle action scenes.  But, even as the movie does a great job utilizing all these elements that we expect from the franchise, it also feels a bit too overwhelming as well.  At 2 hours and 44 minutes, this is far and away the longest movie in the franchise and it does at times feel it’s length.  It probably is due to the fact that this movie is a final chapter to an ongoing narrative, and the film tries really hard to tie up all the multiple plot threads.  But you get the feeling that the movie probably could have benefited from a bit more streamlining.  What particularly becomes troublesome is that the movie has far too many characters in it.  None of the characters are bad by any means, it’s just that the fact that they have to share so much screen time, even with the extra length, none of them really leave much of an impact.  This is especially true of Moneypenny, M, and Q.  What I appreciated in Skyfall and Spectre was that these characters didn’t just stand on the sidelines, but were actively helping Bond out along the way, even getting their own moments of glory.  Sadly, they spend most of No Time to Die returning back to their old ways; mainly sitting behind desks.  The movie’s villain is also a bit on a let down.  Safin is too much of a stock villain to leave much of an impact, and that’s especially disappointing given the magnitude of this movie as Craig’s final Bond.  A more iconic villain with a deep personal connection to James Bond like Javier Bardem’s Silva from Skyfall would have been better for this finale, but instead Safin here is treated more as an afterthought.  Rami Malek still gives it his all in the part, but he can’t overcome the villain’s innate blandness as written.  It doesn’t help that the movie also has Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld returning, who steals a bit of the thunder in his brief but memorable scene.

Apart from those flaws, the movie delivers on everything else we expect from a Bond movie.  The action scenes are once again shining examples of how to film action correctly for the movies.  One thing that I love most from the Daniel Craig Bonds is that it brought back the importance of practical, in camera stunt work and effects.  After the ridiculousness of the CGI heavy final Pierce Brosnan Bond films like The World is Not Enough (1999) and Die Another Day (2002), the Craig Bonds helped to bring the series back to it’s earthbound roots, and that was because it dispensed with all the gimmickry and just made things simple again.  Sure there are moments in the series that still border-lined on the ridiculous during Craig’s time, but it was all done in a way that felt real and like it could actually happen in the real world.  In particular, the series turned James Bond into a more hands on secret agent, not afraid to get down and dirty with his adversaries.  His Q-made gadgets make a lot more sense here; no more invisible cars or exploding pens.  This carries all the way through the series and it’s great to see Cary Joji Fukunaga hold his own in directing the action sequences.  He’s following in the footsteps of some heavyweights, including series veteran Martin Campbell (who also launched Pierce Brosnan’s tenure with Goldeneye) and Oscar winner Sam Mendes.  Being the first American behind the camera in this long running series does carry some weight, and thankfully he delivers and makes this a worthy entry in the franchise.  In particular, he shows some great mastery over the big set pieces, including a spectacular opening sequence involving Bond’s iconic Aston Martin, as well as a beautifully shot chase scene in a mist shrouded Norwegian forest.  Above all, it’s great to see Daniel Craig still involve himself as much as he can given his age.  I’m certain that 15 years playing James Bond has taken it’s toll on his body and he was indeed sidelined for a brief moment while shooting this movie with an on set injury.  But, the personal involvement still shines through with the close-up fight scenes.  A great hand-held, one shot late in the movie shows you just how much Craig still threw himself into the roll, and it is inspiring to see.  As much as we’ve seen from the action scenes of this series throughout the years, No Time to  Die still proves that this is a franchise that still has many more tricks up it’s finely tailored sleeves.

It was a long treacherous road to this moment, but No Time to Die is finally here, and thankfully it’s on the big screen.  Surprisingly, the long haul wait might have actually been worth it in the end, because this last year has helped us to reflect on this era of James Bond and Daniel Craig’s place within it.  Looking at all the Daniel Craig Bonds together, where would I put No Time to Die you ask?  Pretty much right in the middle.  Skyfall is still the pinnacle in my opinion, with the best story, the best villain and the beautiful Roger Deakins cinematography defining it.  Casino Royale is also ahead, thanks to it’s absolutely pitch perfect tone setting for this era.  It is however much better than Spectre, which had amazing scenes (including the best opening) but a jumbled plot that couldn’t sustain itself, and better than Quantum of Solace, which was basically James Bond on auto-pilot.  Despite it’s flaws, No Time to Die performs it’s central role to perfection, and that’s to end the Daniel Craig era on a high note.  Not many James Bond actors can say that they had that; not even Sean Connery.  Here, with No Time to Die, Daniel Craig is able to say goodbye with grace and a sense of prideful accomplishment.  Here he knows that he gave his best right up to the end, and that he securely left the franchise on solid ground for the next guy once he takes over.  Whoever plays James Bond next is going to have enormous shoes to fill.  What I believe is the best new direction for the series to take with James Bond as a character is to do what I believe EON Productions has hinted at, which is have Bond played by an actor of color.  Daniel Craig’s era will definitely be defined by the five movie arc that helped to probe James Bond as a person.  A new era where James Bond is non-white could provide some very interesting new possibilities for plot-lines in the future, especially regarding having an agent of color on her majesty’s secret service given the United Kingdom’s ratter complicated history with race.  But, that’s up to the stewards of the franchise to figure out.  For now, we have an end to a magnificent era to celebrate, with Daniel Craig and company bringing things to a spectacular conclusion.  The best thing is that it helped to revitalize this franchise and modernize it for a new generation.  James Bond once again represents a high standard for action film-making, and hopefully the franchise will continue to push forward and take chances in the future.  Thank you for your service Daniel Craig; you have earned your retirement.  And if you can see No Time to Die in a theater (on the biggest possible screen) do so.  It’s good that you finally made it and we look forward to meeting again Mr. Bond… James Bond.

Rating: 8.5/10

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures – Film Exhibition Report

In it’s 90-plus years of existence, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has established the literal gold standard for preserving the arts and advancement of the cinematic medium.  They are the caretakers of so much of film history, as well as the makers of movie history themselves, being the creators of the Academy Awards.  But apart from the Oscars, what they have also done over the years is use their clout to advance the art and technology of film within the industry through Fellowships, Libraries and Venues for special Screenings and Presentations.  They have also amassed a varied collection of artifacts throughout the years related to the history of film ranging from documents, to props and costumes, to set pieces, and promotional pieces like posters and lobby cards.  However, despite having a robust collection at their disposal, the Academy hasn’t had a place to show it all off publicly.  There have been Academy run exhibitions throughout the years in various places, but there has never been a permanent home for the Academy to present it’s history to the world.  That is until now.  After sitting abandoned for several years on the corner of Fairfax and Wilshire in Los Angeles, the iconic art deco May Co. Building was purchased by the Academy with the intent on turning it into the Academy’s first ever museum devoted entirely to the art of film.  The position of the new museum is an ideal one, right at the heart of Los Angeles’ famed Museum Row; across the street from the Petersen Automobile Museum and next door to the sprawling Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) complex, as well as a short distance from the famous La Brea Tar Pits.  With the ideal location set, the work was ready to begin on this expansive new remodel of the nearly 80 year old building.

Taking place over the course of several years, the Academy Museum slowly but surely began to take shape.  While much of the exterior of the iconic building remained unchanged, inside saw the whole structure gutted and rebuilt to fit the needs of the new museum as well as retrofit the building up to modern, earthquake ready standards.  But that’s not all that was planned for the project.  Taking up much of the projects time, money and effort was an add-on to the existing building that in itself became a new icon for the neighborhood.  Knowing that a movie museum would need a movie theater of it’s own, the construction plans included a massive theater complex unlike any other.  Free-standing behind the May Co. Building and connected via two glass enclosed bridges is the David Geffen Theater, a nearly 2,000 seat facility that is a structural wonder in of itself.  Inside is a state of the art theater with wall to wall opulence, but on the outside, the building is remarkably elevated off the ground via only a couple of sturdy columns.  Visitors to the museum can literally walk underneath the massive structure suspended above them, and a walkway on the top floor also allows for guests to walk on top of it, with a massive glass dome encasing the open air terrace.  Here guests are treated to an enviable view of the Hollywood Hills, that spans across from Beverly Hills all the way to the Griffith Observatory in a stunning panorama.  And this wonder is just the first thing you will see once you arrive at the museum.  After several delays, the project finally was set to open for the Holidays in 2020, but then the Covid pandemic hit, and the long wait continued.  Despite being practically done for over a year, the Academy Museum had to wait longer to welcome it’s first guests in, and that moment finally arrived last week on September 30.

Without hesitation, I got my tickets for the earliest possible opportunity to visit this new museum and see if all the hype was worth it, especially after waiting even longer through the pandemic.  I have visited the LACMA museum before for special movie related exhibits, specifically those dedicated to Stanley Kubrick and Guillermo Del Toro, but they were short term exhibitions in a wing of the sprawling museum.  This new museum is a permanent home for exhibitions related solely to the art of film, and it’s long overdue to find such a museum in the shadow of Hollywood itself; especially one run by the Academy itself.  I was lucky enough to get a place reserved for the opening weekend, which thankfully saw perfect So Cal weather for such a trip out into the city.  The museum of course was still operating under local Covid protocols and everyone was required to wear a mask indoors at all times and show proof of vaccination upon entry.  The entryway was on the backside of the main building, making everyone arrive in the courtyard that the massive David Geffen Theater looms over.  Here you get a real sense of the scale of this complex.  The Geffen Theater looms over the courtyard like a massive spaceship that has descended to the ground.  Some have jokingly referred to it as the Death Star, given it’s similar curvy shape and futuristic look.  Given the often common California heat, the museum also wisely set up benches underneath the Theater, where people can relax in the cool shade of the massive shadow the theater leaves on the ground.  Once pass the health and security checkpoints, it was into the main building’s first level that we enter.  The lobby is modest, bearing some of the characteristics of what had been there before, including the exposed concrete columns that support the building.  A gift shop is naturally found there, but there is also a full service restaurant found on this level.  Named Fanny’s, this eatery offers a full dining experience as well as cafe and lounge for casual diners, which includes an outdoor patio.  I was not hungry during my visit, so I passed on eating there at the museum.  Instead, I began my journey through the musueum by making my way to the first gallery there in the lobby.

Housed in the Spielberg Family Gallery on the first floor is the first room in what is meant to be the core exhibit of the entire complex.  In this room, there were large flat screen TVs playing a loop of great moments from movies throughout the history of film.  Here, we see the first part of the core Stories of Cinema exhibit.  It’s a simple but elegant introduction to give guests a reminder of the incredible art of film in it’s final form.  What I liked here is that the various clips shown are assembled in no particular fashion.  They are just images without context or theme.  Some are moments that are among the most iconic that have ever been put on film, while others are just random bits pulled from a variety of movies.  They also span across genre, nationality, and social level, showing how cinema in general is a singular art that affects everyone in the world and collectively is it’s own work of art.  The people in my vicinity took a lot of extra time to stick around and watch the different clips play out on the screens in front of them, having a little fun guessing which clip belongs to which movie, which was sometimes harder than many of us thought.  A lot of the clips play in silence but every now and then a clip would include audible sound or dialogue, which created it’s own kind of symphonic experience there in the room.  The dimly lit space gave a nice sense of visual stimuli to help remind us what film is in the simplest sense.  From this point onward, the remainder of the museum was going to show just why those moving images are so important and why they have become works of art on their own.

Ascending to the second level aboard a row of escalators, we arrive at the second part of the Stories of Cinema experience, which is also the single largest gallery of the museum.  One thing that I did notice on the way there is that to get to the next level of the gallery, you bypass an in-between level which is actually the entryway to the Geffen Theater; lined with a red carpet of course, which extends even across the glass walkway.  Past the front doors of the Stories of Cinema exhibit, guests are greeted by a massive projection wall.  Here we see a bigger version of the gallery downstairs, with projected images from various films creating a mural effect in front of you.  Unlike downstairs, however, the mural’s images follow a theme throughout the different montages.  Past this wall of movie images we finally arrive at the first true gallery of artifacts.  Here, the gallery separates into different aspects of the filmmaking profession, with different movies and individuals highlighted.  For screenwriting, the movie focused in the first section is Citizen Kane (1941).  Immediately, you eye will be drawn to the centerpiece item in this area, and that’s the famed Rosebud sled.  This actual movie used prop is the only surviving Rosebud from the film, and it’s great to see it preserved as well as it is.  From there, a section devoted to editing spotlights Thelma Schoonmaker, and it includes a model of an editing bay that she likely worked with in her early days piecing together movies like Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980).  Another section devoted to cinematography spotlights Emmanuel Lubezki, with many of his on set photographs displayed throughout.  A room devoted to movie stars next to it spotlights Bruce Lee, and contains both the outfit he wore in Enter the Dragon (1973) and his pair of num-chuks.

Beyond this section we arrive at an area that I’m sure was going to be especially important to the Academy when planning out the museum.  It’s a section devoted to the history of the Academy Awards.  You enter this section with a beautiful circular room draped in gold with display cases all along the wall each containing an Oscar from many different eras.  The Oscars span pretty much every decade that the Oscars have been held, going from the very first Oscars in 1927 to one from 2016.  The winners vary from legends like Clark Gable, Billy Wilder, and Sidney Poitier to more recent winners like Alfonso Cuaron and Barry Jenkins, who surprisingly lent out their Awards to be displayed here.  What struck me upon seeing all these real awards up close is how little the award has changed over the years.  The pedestals that the awards sit on has changed the most over the years, but it appears that the golden statue itself has used the same mold since the beginning.  I also thought it was neat that an empty case was left to acknowledge the award given to Hattie McDaniel, the first person of color to ever win the Award.  The whereabouts of Hattie’s award are unknown, hence the absence here, but it is nice that the Academy chose to spotlight the significance of it here, hoping that one day it might reappear and find it’s way into this very gallery.  In the room next to this, we get a large table-like structure that displays a full year-by-year timeline of the Oscars.  On top on this table are also a few artifacts, including Rita Moreno’s Oscar dress from the 1962 ceremony, and Cher’s infamous black showgirl outfit that she wore to the 1986 Oscars.  There’s also a menu from the first Oscar banquet, as well as the infamous envelope from the La La Land/Moonlight mix-up.  And along the walls, acceptance speeches throughout the years are presented.  Anyone, like me, who is fascinated by the history of the Academy Awards will definitely see this area as a highlight.

The next room spotlights the Director, and in particular, the one given focus here is Spike Lee.  The room is full of numerous artifacts from the director’s movies, as well as noteworthy memorabilia of the director’s own flamboyant persona.  It includes the tribute purple suit that he wore to the Oscars to honor both Prince one year and Kobe Bryant a couple years after.  There’s also Spike’s two Oscars on display.  But what I found most interesting was the fact that throughout the room were memorabilia and posters from Spike’s own collection that he’s had signed by many of his own creative idols.  This includes directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, movie stars like Kirk Douglas and Sidney Poitier, as well as sports icons like Michael Jordan and Muhammed Ali.  It’s just an interesting insight into the man to see that he’s an autograph collector.  Beyond that is a room devoted to production design and spotlighted here is an all-time classic; The Wizard of Oz.  There are interesting artifacts to be found all over this area, including the Witches hat, some of Dorothy’s dresses, and the Tin Man’s oil can.  But what is clearly the centerpiece of this gallery, and what I am sure is going to be one of the most visited and photographed artifacts in the entire museum, is the Ruby Slippers; specifically the ones used in the film for close-ups.  They are still in remarkable condition over 80 years later, and I’m sure the museum knew just how valuable an addition to the gallery these shoes are.  Beyond that room we arrive at costuming and make-up, and this is another impressive collection that spans all eras.  In here, guests will find one of Shirley Temple’s dresses, as well as famous costumes that include Marilyn Monroe’s red dress from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1952), Jeff Bridges Big Lebowski (1998) bathrobe, Russell Crowe’s battle armor from Gladiator (2000) and the flower dress from Midsommar (2019).  The make-up display includes interesting artifacts as well like a fake chest of scars that Leonardo DiCaprio wore in The Revenant (2015) and facial prosthetics that Charlize Theron wore to look like Meghan Kelly in Bombshell (2019).  After this, it was on to part three of the museum.

On the third level, we arrive at the final part of the Stories of Cinema exhibit.  In the first room of this section, we are presented with a showcase of a particular director’s body of work.  In particular, this room was spotlighting the works of famed Spanish auteur Pedro Almadovar.  Throughout the room are projection walls that display select moment from his movies.  It’s an interesting experience walking across the room and seeing all the movies this man has made displayed in front of you.  It might even be a bit confusing if you’re not familiar with his work, but it could inspire to seek his movies out.  Along the outer walls are posters from all of his movies throughout the years, some from his native Spain as well as many international ones as well, and a few domestic American ones.  It’s a little different from the flow of the rest of the exhibit, and I feel like this is the section that is likely going to change very frequently over the years, probably spotlighting many more filmmakers along the way.  In the next room we are presented with an overview of animation history.  Along the walls you’ll see artwork from all the different areas of animation, from studios of all kinds.  There are early pioneers spotlighted here like Windsor McKay, independents, and big names like Disney, Warner Brothers, and Pixar too.  One of the most interesting artifacts here is a fully equipped animators desk; this one specifically belonging to one of Walt Disney’s treasured Nine Old Men, the legendary Frank Thomas.  Displayed in the middle of the room is a section devoted to stop motion animation.  Here they displayed the puppets from some of the most noteworthy stop-motion animated productions, including Jack Skellington head models from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Mr. and Mrs. Fox from Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), a couple of Wallace and Gromit puppets from the famous Aardman shorts, and a puppet of Kubo from Laika Animation’s Kubo and the Two Strings (2016).  For animation fans, this is a great all-encompassing look at the history of the medium, and one that contains a lot of interesting items.

Up next is a room devoted to special effects.  And here is where you’ll find probably the most stunning collection of artifacts gathered in a single room.  Right away your eye will be drawn to R2-D2 and C-3PO, both the actual costumes worn in the movie by Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker.  But throughout you’ll also find a Xenomorph skull from Aliens (1986), the creature costume worn by Doug Jones in The Shape of Water (2017), an animatronic of E.T., some of the Jim Henson studio puppets used in The Dark Crystal (1982), an animatronic head of the T-800 used in The Terminator (1984), and many more interesting artifacts.  There also seemed to be a section devoted primarily to the effects from Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992).  This includes large models used for the gothic mansions in the film; matte paintings on large panes of glass, and there’s even the prosthetic nose that Danny DeVito wore to become The Penguin in the movie.  It really shows you the incredible work that went into making a movie like that, as stylized as it is, feel real on screen.  Next to this expansive room is one of the most interesting experiences I found in the whole exhibit.  It’s a room devoted to music in film.  Instead of showing the guest something, the exhibit instead crafted an experience related to music.  You enter through a doorway and enter a pitch black room, illuminated solely with a faint red light bulb.  Visibility in this room is so faint that you can even see the walls.  In the center is a small bench underneath the red light and there you sit.  Unseen around you are Dolby certified speakers that create a haunting soundscape.  Oscar winning composer Hildur Guonadottir (Joker) composed a new piece just for this experience, and it is chilling but also a fascinating experiment.  It’s allowing the guest to experience the music free of visual distraction.  And after that, the Stories of Cinema experience comes to an end.  I should also note that in addition to the exhibits in the last two levels, there is a two level exhibit in between devoted to an artifact so big that it needed to span across two floors.  In this one, called Backdrop: An Invisible Art, it spotlights the long used filmmaking tool of creating a painted backdrop to create the illusion of the outdoors on an indoor soundstage.  For this exhibit in particular, the museum put on display an impressive two story tall backdrop of Mount Rushmore used in Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959).  It’s a neat addition, and I almost worry that many people may actually miss it as it’s located in between the main galleries,

Up one floor more, we arrive at the section of the museum devoted primarily to temporary exhibitions.  For this opening season, and continuing on to June of next year, this floor is going to be home to a celebration of the works of Hayao Miyazaki, the legendary Japanese animator.  The Miyazaki exhibit showcases artwork from throughout his illustrious career, and the exhibit itself takes on the aesthetic that is characteristic of his films as well as those of his home production company, Studio Ghibli.  The lighting and staging of this gallery is especially beautiful to look at, particularly if you are a Studio Ghibli fan.  Sadly, photography in this section of the museum was strictly prohibited, probably as a condition of displaying the artwork on loan to the museum.  So, I can only give you a glimpse of the outside signage of this gallery.  I can tell you that the outside only gives a mere hint as to what you’ll see inside.  And it includes numerous hand drawn artwork from Miyazaki and his team, spanning across all his film, including the ones he made in his early years for Japanese television.  Also shown throughout the exhibit are clips from the various movies, which gives a lot of nice context to the artwork that we are seeing displayed throughout.  It’s not as expansive as the other galleries, but still a treat for animation fans.  One nice treat immediately next door to this gallery is a contraption celebrating a studio that was heavily influenced by Miyazaki; Pixar.  Here, you’ll find a small, dark room housing the Toy Story Zoetrope.  The Zoetrope is a 3D sculpture featuring the characters from the Toy Story movies all displayed on a circular roundtable.  The sculpture will begin to spin rapidly and then a strobe light effect will recreate the effect of a film shutter.  As a result of the sculpture spinning and the strobe lighting effect, it makes the many sculptures appear to move just like they are animated, with all the little differences in each sculpture creating an almost stop-motion effect.  I’ve seen this Zoetrope on display before, at the California Adventure park next to Disneyland.  It was removed years ago, and I’m happy to see it has found a new home here at the Academy Museum.

Another small gallery found here also takes a look at the grandfathers of cinema.  Here we see the many inventions over the years that led to the invention of motion pictures.  This gallery called The Path to Cinema: Highlights from the Richard Balzer Collection, has several neat artifacts that show the many different influences that preceded film, like shadowplay, peepshows, dioramas, magic lanterns, zoetropes, and praxinoscopes.  Eventually this little exhibit ends with the very beginnings of cinema itself, with a model of the original Lumiere Brothers camera that created some of the first moving pictures in history.  A screen also displays many of the first short pieces that both the Lumiere’s and their American contemporary Thomas Edison were making in those early days at the turn of the 20th Century; including so remarkable early film images of Paris, London, and New York that have survived a century later.  For a really good understanding of what led to art of film becoming a reality in the first place, this section is really worth checking out.  Also located in these upper levels is a separately ticketed section called The Oscar Experience.  I chose to not include this as a part of my trip, as I was more focused on the exhibits themselves, but from what I understand, this is a immersive experience that recreates for the guest the experience of accepting an Oscar on stage in front of the audience at the Dolby Theater.  I’m sure that this is a fun little experience for some people to enjoy, but for the $15 price, it might be a little too much for too little.  I’d rather not spend my money on living a fantasy, but that’s just me.  Still, I did see a fair amount of people lining up for this, so I guess it was a smart addition for the museum to add.  I just wonder how it’s done in there.  Is it accomplished with VR, or with projection effects?  How effective is the immersion?  Maybe curiosity might lead me to check it out, but I was fine with skipping it on this day.

After that, the tour of the museum is pretty much over with.  All that is left is ascending to the top level where you’ll find the final glass bridge across to the terrace atop the Geffen Theater.  If this is where your tour comes to a close, it is certainly a worthy finale.  The view from this terrace will really take your breath away.  At a height of over 100 feet, you get a pretty good, unobstructed view of the surroundings.  Immediately in front of you is the famous Farmers’ Market and adjoining Grove mall.  Behind that is CBS Television City, where many shows like The Price is Right are filmed.  To the left is West Hollywood, the Sunset Strip, and the eastern edge of Beverly Hills.  You’ll also see the Beverly Center mall in your view and the famous Cedar Sinai Hospital.  To the right, the heart of Hollywood itself.  Unfortunately, landmarks like the Chinese Theater and the Cinerama Dome can’t be viewed past the high rises in the area, but you do get a good look at the all important Hollywood sign, with which no view of Hollywood is complete without.  And your panoramic view can extend as far as the sight of the Griffith Observatory, made famous in movies like Rebel Without a Cause (1954) and La La Land (2016).  Outside of the terrace view, looking to the side of the building, you’ll see a large construction site currently going on, as LACMA is replacing it’s long standing structures with a new facility in it’s place; which includes a section that will span across Wilshire Boulevard itself.  After a long day on your feet within the galleries, there are benches set up on top here just like there are underneath the theater.  I imagine this terrace will host many events in the future such as parties and even concerts, and I’m sure that it was designed with that in mind.  Across from it in the main building, there is even more indoor event space, so I’m sure the Academy hopes to use this top level for special private events.  But when they aren’t, the terrace is open to the public and it gives every guest a nice place to relax and enjoy the majesty of Hollywood before them.

And that in a nutshell is what I saw on my first trip to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.  As a passionate cinephile living in Los Angeles, I have long wanted to see a large scale museum devoted entirely to the art of cinema, and thanks to the Academy, we finally have one.  It will be interesting to see how the exhibits change over the years.  For a start, this collection of exhibits did a fantastic job of launching this new museum onto the cultural stage of this city.  And even with the 5 1/2 hours that I spent in there, I still didn’t cover the whole thing.  For one thing, I still haven’t been inside either of the two theaters there; the large scale Geffen Theater that I’ve previously discussed, and the smaller 300 seat Ted Mann theater that is found in the main building’s basement.  I would love to come back soon just to watch a movie in wither one of those theaters, and thankfully I learned upon leaving that the Academy is going to have a continuous program of screenings throughout the year.  For this month, they are spotlighting horror movies for the Halloween season, and on the night I was there, The Bride of Frankenstein was the movie being shown.  Unfortunately, I didn’t plan ahead and the screening was already sold out.  So, one more reason to make a return there again.  Even if I’m not going to a screening, I can think of a dozen reasons to make a return visit.  It was really cool seeing all these different artifacts on display, the Oscars room, the Back Drop room, and the Animation room being particular highlights for me.  And after the Miyazaki exhibit has come to an end, I am really interested in seeing what the Academy Museum will replace it with in their rotation.  I’m sure that movie lovers from all over the world will definitely want to check this new museum out, and I strongly recommend that everyone does.  Even the most casual of movie fans will find something that will peak their interest in there.  It’s open every day of the week and each day of the year.  Admission for Adults is $25, $19 for senior, $15 for students, and free for guests under 17.  The Oscar experience is an extra $15 if that interests you.  Overall, it was worth the extra weight and I’m glad that it did live up to the hype.  It’s especially nice to see that they managed to repurpose an already iconic building and breathe new life into it; in a way reflecting the mission of the museum itself.  It’s there to honor the past while also getting us excited for the future of cinema.  Whether you already live in Los Angeles or are just passing through, definitely give the Academy Museum a visit, as it is a marvelous shrine to the glory that is the Art of Cinema.

Focus on a Franchise – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

There have been some works of literature that have proved to be too daunting for filmmakers to adapt for the big screen.  The works of J.R.R. Tolkien for many years proved to be one of the most notoriously un-filmable projects in the history of film.  Tolkien himself let the film rights go almost for nothing during his lifetime, because he was confident that an adaptation could never be done.  His immensely detailed fantasy saga, complete with it’s own unique cultures, languages, and deep rooted history that spans over five published novels, just could not be contained within a mainstream Hollywood film.  That’s not to say there weren’t many tries.  One of the most interesting “what if?” scenarios in movie history was an attempt by the Beatles to adapt Tolkien’s magnum opus, the three volume Lord of the Rings, starring the Fab Four and directed by none other than Stanley Kubrick.  The still living at the time Tolkien dashed those hopes unfortunately.  After Tolkien’s passing in 1973, the animation duo of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass took it upon themselves to adapt the first book in Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga, The Hobbit (1977), and it became a beloved classic for both long time fans and young audiences getting their first exposure to Tolkien’s imaginative world.  A year later, another independent animator, the provocative Ralph Bakshi, made his attempt at adapting The Lord of the Rings into a film, adapting all of the first book and half of the second into one ambitious film.  Unfortunately, this version had a mixed reception and Bakshi was never able to complete his second part.  Rankin/Bass instead closed out the saga with their adaptation of The Return of the King (1980), picking up more or less where Bakshi had left off.  Though the animated medium managed to bring Middle Earth off the page in a beautiful way, there were many people who still wanted to see Tolkien’s masterpiece fully brought to life in a live action fantasy epic.  Eventually, a bold group of filmmakers did finally pick up the torch for that dream and ran with it, finally giving us that grand big screen epic that we always wanted.  But, what shocked many people was the person who ended up being the one to deliver on that promise.

New Zealand director Peter Jackson was probably not on anyone’s radar as the man who would bring The Lord of the Rings to the big screen in a big way.  Jackson was up until that time known as a schlock horror filmmaker, with titles like Bad Taste (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989) and Dead Alive (1992) to his name.  A sudden shift to drama with the critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures (1994) helped to give him some attention outside his native country, including earning a Oscar nomination for his screenplay, which he co-wrote with his wife Fran Walsh.  It was after the warm reception to Heavenly Creatures that Jackson decided to pitch his dream project of adapting The Lord of the Rings to all the Hollywood studios.  Eventually, he was granted a development greenlight with Miramax Studios, under the tyrannical eye of future disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein.  At the time, knowing that it would take several years to refine the final script and get all the effects up to the level that he needed, Peter Jackson worked on another film called The Frighteners (1996), using it as a test run of sorts for the CGI and practical effects that he would need for The Lord of the Rings.  Afterwards, it was full steam ahead.  But before the movie could enter it’s final stages of development, namely casting and location prep, Miramax decided to abandon their involvement in the film.  Though disheartened, Jackson nevertheless didn’t give up and he was allowed to shop the project somewhere else.  Eventually, it found a home at New Line Cinema, the studio behind Freddy Kruger and Austin Powers.  Initially, the movie was planned as a two picture deal, but New Line had a different idea.  The simply told Peter Jackson this: there are three books that make up The Lord of the Rings; why not make three movies?  It was music to Peter Jackson’s ears, and his dream project was now becoming a reality, with the creative freedom to devote an entire film to each of Tolkien’s books.  Three films filmed together over an 18 month period was unprecedented, and a huge gamble for both New Line and Peter Jackson.  But, as we would soon see, it would be a movie series that would change cinema forever, and is still regarded as a landmark 20 years later.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001)

Looking over the trilogy as a whole, it’s important to examine how crucial the first chapter in the series was to everything that followed.  It should be noted that The Lord of the Rings is in fact a sequel to Tolkien’s The Hobbit; a sequel that is 5 times the length of it’s predecessor and took Tolkien 19 years to complete.  It’s a mammoth story, and one that needs the proper context.  Remarkably, Peter Jackson created his Lord of the Rings without the context of a Hobbit to support it (at least initially).  This was going to be our first foray into Middle Earth and for Peter Jackson, the crucial thing that he had to get right from the very first start was the world-building in his film.  One of the brilliant choices on Jackson’s part was to rethink the whole idea of how to film a fantasy narrative for the big screen.  Fantasy films were nothing new to cinema, but many of them were too cheesy and/or obtuse to ever be considered serious cinema.  Jackson on the other hand decided to do away with the camp that defined the genre and instead took inspiration from historical epics like Spartacus (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Zulu (1964).  In his vision, they were filming The Lord of the Rings like they were recreating history, treating their fabricated sets and props like they were on real locations with real swords and armor.  That was the approach that he set out to uphold through all three films, and nowhere was it more important that with the first film in the series, The Fellowship of the Ring.  From the pivotal opening prologue that sets the stage and onward Peter Jackson takes the audience on a journey, putting them in the middle of a living, breathing Middle Earth.  Utilizing the amazing craftsmanship of his crew at the in-house Weta Workshop, Jackson was able to create everything he needed to give his Middle Earth a lived in feel.  And to capture the grandiose expanse of Tolkien’s world, he didn’t have to look any further than his own native soil, with New Zealand providing every picturesque location he needed.  The Lord of the RIngs would set a new high bar for world-building that would define the next 20 years of cinema.

But, on top of establishing it’s world in such a remarkable way, The Fellowship of the Ring also put the series on solid footing with it’s introduction to the cast of characters.  Just as crucial to the series as the work put into creating a believable Middle Earth was finding the right people to play these iconic characters from the novel.  And in this regard, the movie managed to aim high and still get the perfect choices for each role.  In particular, getting the titular Fellowship was pivotal for the movie’s overall success.  Former child actors Elijah Wood and Sean Astin, now in their twenties, landed the highly coveted parts of Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, the trilogy’s most pivotal set of companions.  Iconic Shakespearean actor Ian McKellan was a natural choice for Gandalf the Wizard.  Fresh faced character actors Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd were cast as the affable duo of hobbits, Merry and Pippin.  Soon to be heartthrob Orlando Bloom became the elf warrior Legolas.  Renowned character actors John Rhys-Davies and Sean Bean stepped into the parts of Gimli the Dwarf and Boromir the Gondorian knight.  Unfortunately, due to creative struggles, the crucial part of Aragorn, the exiled heir to the throne of Gondor, had to be recast at the last minute.  To the relief of everyone, actor Viggo Mortensen not only stepped in on short notice, but hit the ground running once he was there.  Couple this with a supporting cast that included heavyweights like Ian Holm, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, and Cate Blanchett, and you have one of the most astonishing casts ever assembled.  Even with big names like these, the movie still puts the world of Middle Earth front and center, taking us from the simple beauty of the Shire, through the majesty of Rivendell, down the perilous passages of the mines of Moria, and onward to the dark realm of Mordor.  And at no point does the movie take you out of it’s firmly established world.  Peter Jackson succeeded immensely at his goal of making the audience believe that Middle Earth was real and that the characters that inhabit it were worthy enough to follow along on this journey.  And with the foundation firmly established in this first chapter, Jackson had to confidence to continue building more with the remainder of the story.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (2002)

The Fellowship of the Ring became an overwhelming success, even in the face of direct competition from another high profile fantasy series released only a few weeks earlier; Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001).  It even earned an unexpected Best Picture nomination from the Oscars, while at the same time snagging a few technical award wins in the process.  But, it was only the first part of a three movie arc.  In some ways, the second film, The Two Towers, was going to always be the trickiest movie in the trilogy to get right.  Like most middle chapters, it’s a story without a beginning or an end.  It’s sole purpose is to keep the story moving while at the same time raising the stakes.  So, how does Peter Jackson make this middle chapter stand on it’s own?  For one thing, he had to find the core of what the story needed to be for this section overall narrative.  And not only that, he had to find it while cutting back and forth between two different parallel plot threads.  In one, we continue with Frodo and Sam, after they have broken away from the Fellowship to continue onto the realm of Mordor alone in order to destroy the “One Ring,” the ultimate evil weapon in all of Middle Earth.  The other, we follow Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas as they search for the kidnapped Merry and Pippin, and find themselves in the Kingdom of Rohan, a horse based society that roams vast open fields of prairie.  Within Rohan, we are introduced to a new set of pivotal characters, including the noble King Theoden (Bernard Hill), and his niece and nephew, Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and Eomer (Karl Urban), and a re-awakened purpose begins to bloom in Aragorn as he realizes that Rohan needs help to defend itself.  Saraman the White Wizard (Christopher Lee) is acting on the orders of the Dark Lord Sauron, the true owner of the One Ring, and is amassing an army of specially bred monsters known as Urak-hai.  With eyes set on Rohan, Saraman’s army pits our heroes in an almost unwinnable situation.

Here, Peter Jackson finds the conflict that defines the narrative of The Two Towers  and helps to set it apart.  The movie culminates in a grand, epic battle scene at the fortress of Helm’s Deep.  It’s here that we find the influence that Peter Jackson drew from historical epics of the past come to full fruition.  The Battle of Helm’s Deep is a master class of build-up and payoff in staging a cinematic battle scene.  It’s huge in scale, and yet we never feel lost or overwhelmed, as the human conflict remains primarily in focus.  And all the tricks of the trade that Jackson and his team refined over the years with practical and visual effects are fully utilized throughout the more than 40 minute battle sequence.  Creating the setting of Helm’s Deep itself, which was accomplished through a combination of full sized sets and scale models, is particularly impressive.  But, if the movie had an even more groundbreaking accomplishment than Helm’s Deep, it’s something (or someone) introduced in the Frodo and Sam story thread.  After being lost in the mountains, the two hobbits encounter another character out to capture the ring for himself; the miserable creature Gollum (played by Andy Serkis).  Gollum, an entirely CGI animated character, is a remarkable creation, and became a groundbreaking advancement in computer animation.  Never before had it been possible for an entirely computer animated character to coexist alongside live action actors and feel genuinely authentic and capable of delivering a dramatic performance.  But with Gollum, the team at Weta Digital managed to do the impossible and turn Gollum into a character that felt shockingly real.  It helped that Andy Serkis, who was initially just hired to do the voice, provided motion capture reference for the animators to work with, including several scenes where he was on set interacting directly with the other actors.  It’s a tour de force performance that carries through right into the final digital model.  One scene in particular, where the dual identities of Gollum and Smeagol carry on a back and forth conversation is an especially memorable highlight.  With the groundbreaking work on Gollum and the raised stakes established in the Battle of Helm’s Deep, Peter Jackson not only made The Two Towers stand on it’s own as a movie, but he possibly maybe even made the most impressive film in the entire trilogy, from an execution standpoint.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2003)

Of course, the only reason why you make The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers is so you can get to The Return of the King; the climatic finale to Tolkien’s monumental work.  And if you look at cinematic inspiration manifested through the trilogy so far, with Peter Jackson channeling David Lean a bit with Fellowship and John Ford a bit with Two Towers, it’s obvious that with Return of the King that he’s going full blown Cecil B. DeMille.  The Return of the King is biblical in it’s epic grandeur.  Here, Jackson knew that he had to bring everything to the table in his epic final chapter, and that meant utilizing every he and his crew learned up to this point.  Leaving the wildness of the Kingdom of Rohan behind, our characters journey forth into the mighty Kingdom of Gondor, and it’s great white seat of power, Minas Tirith, the city of Kings.  Minas Tirith was no doubt designed to be the grandest location in the entire trilogy, and most of the final film is set there, with an epic battle taking place outside it’s mighty walls.  The Battle of Helm’s Deep was a brutal intimate affair in comparison to the immensity of the Battle of Pelannor Fields.  And again, Peter Jackson masterfully never loses sight of the human story taking place amongst the mayhem of the battle.  In particular, like all great epic movies that have been building up to something, this movie has bucket loads of moments that make audiences stand up and cheer.  There’s the Riders of Rohan charging the battlefield; there’s Aragorn arriving with the army of the dead; there’s Legolas taking down a giant elephant (or Mumakil as they are known in Middle Earth) by himself; and of course Eowyn, who entered discreetly into the Rohan army, slaying the Witch King, who legends say “no man could kill.”  More than anything, this is what drove so many epic filmmakers to want to bring this story to the screen for so long; to create a scene of this scale and magnitude come to life.  Really, only the biggest possible screens available can do this segment of the movie justice.

But, the Battle of the Pelannor Fields sequence only matters if everything else around it still manages to be engaging.  And Peter Jackson manages to stick the landing for the most part.  The emotional core of Frodo and Sam’s journey into darkness as they head deep into Mordor and up the slopes of Mount Doom where the ring was originally forged.  Even though it’s a simple story thread in comparison to what’s happening on the outskirts, it probably packs the biggest emotional wallop of any part of the trilogy.  Elijah Wood in particular perfectly encapsulates the deteriorating state of Frodo both physically and mentally, as being the Ringbearer takes it’s toll on him.  Likewise, Sean Astin does a remarkable job of conveying the limitless sense of loyalty that Sam devotes to Frodo.  The scene where Sam lifts Frodo onto his back after they’ve reached a breaking point, declaring “I can’t carry the ring for you Mister Frodo, but I can carry you,” is one of those cinematic moments that’ll make grown men cry in a theater, along with most everyone else.  And it leads to the climatic end that we’ve waited two and a half films for; the destruction of the ring and the triumph over evil.  Even here, Peter Jackson keeps upping the ante of epic grandeur, with the destruction of Sauron and Mordor taking on Biblical proportions.  Beyond that, a protracted denouement concludes the trilogy.  Some have complained that it’s too many endings, but when you see it as finale to a three film narrative arc, the lengthy epilogue makes a lot more sense.  It is particularly refreshing to see Peter Jackson stick closely to Tolkien’s final chapters, including the very final words spoken, “Well, I’m home.”  It’s a simple, innocuous statement given the story that preceded it, but it’s a sentiment that mattered a lot to Tolkien himself.  J.R.R. Tolkien went through hell when he fought in the trenches of the First World War, losing friends along the way.  For him, the feeling of returning home through all that trauma was a very profound thing for him, and it’s something he carried throughout his life.  For him, home was life, and recognizing the value of what it meant to go back home is what propelled him to fight harder for the things he loves.  That, in essence is what the story of The Lord of the Rings is all about; finding the will to live, and fighting to make your way home.  For all of us, we must make our own ventures into Mordor if we are ever to come home to the Shire.  And that’s why Jackson knew it was the perfect note to close out his epic trilogy on.

There really is no other way to look at the entirety of The Lord of the Rings trilogy than to see it as one of the greatest cinematic success stories of all time.  Not since Star Wars had a movie franchise captured the imagination of audiences so immensely and changed the face of cinema as a result.  It removed the stigma that surrounded the fantasy genre in Hollywood; so much so that The Return of the King made history as the first fantasy film to ever win the Best Picture Academy Award, along with tying Ben-Hur (1959) and Titanic (1997) for the most awards won in a single night, with 11 in total.  Even twenty years after it first launched, The Lord of the Rings is still the high water mark for fantasy in Hollywood, and even a highly influential benchmark in epic filmmaking in general.  You can see it’s footprints even in something like Avengers: Endgame (2019), particularly with the staging of it’s battle scene.  There was even a brief proliferation of new fantasy franchises that sprung up in the wake of The Lord of the Rings, though few managed to make it past a single film.  Tolkien’s contemporary C.S. Lewis and his Narnia series almost came close to capturing the same success, but it unfortunately ran out of steam after three films in a planned seven story arc.  Though The Lord of the Rings stood spectacularly on it’s own, there was demand for many years for Peter Jackson to return to Middle Earth with an adaptation of The Hobbit, which did eventually happen, but that’s a story worthy of it’s own article.  Looking back on The Lord of the Rings trilogy as it marks 20 years since it’s beginning, I can tell you personally that this trilogy had a profound effect on me.  I had already begun to get interested in filmmaking at that point, as I was entering my college years at the time, and the trilogy became a flash point moment in re-affirming my dream to be a part of the movies.  The movies themselves were glorious experiences, but what I loved the most was the fact that Peter Jackson went out of his way to document the process with which he made these movies.  The Collectors Editions of the trilogy that were released on DVD are remarkable for the breadth of their behind the scenes supplements.  Many have commented that they are essentially a film school in a box, and it’s easy to see why.  From concept, to script, to principle photography, to final edit, every step of the films’ making are chronicled in these DVD box sets.  It makes you wonder how many filmmakers of this generation were inspired just by pouring through all the features on those sets.  Peter Jackson changed cinema forever by breaking down the conventions of genre, sparing no expense, and also by providing a compelling window into the process itself after we see the final films.  The Lord of the Rings not only does justice to Tolkien’s monumental work, but it also stands as a shining example of filmmaking at it’s absolute peak.  It’s a trilogy that really is worth going “there and back again.”

Cinematic Resurrection – The Remarkable Resilience of the Theater Experience in the Era of Covid

You rarely see it in a period of time where new advances in technology are rapidly having an affect on how we live our lives.  In the same way that streaming brought about an abrupt end to the video rental market, many entertainment analysts believed that the theatrical experience itself would also see a decline over time, as on demand entertainment would soon become the norm.  It sure looked like that was a possibility.  With Netflix and Amazon’s rapid rise over the last decade, and the soon to happen launch of streaming services by some of Hollywood’s top studios, the turn of the last decade seemed to mark a turning point for entertainment, where movie theaters no longer stood out as the primary place to premiere a new film.  And then of course came the perfect storm that nearly brought the theatrical industry to the brink of extinction.  The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 forced the closures of movie theaters across the world, leading to an unprecedented halt on film exhibition.  Movies, including ones that were months away from their planned release, were moved off the calendar with no sign of when they might be able to finally be seen.  In the meantime, movie studios with their newly launched streaming platforms were finding it crucial to unload the burden onto these new services to provide entertainment for audiences who were now stuck at home.  With theaters unable to operate, and streaming now able to grow without competition, it looked as if this might be the nail in the coffin for a century old industry that had long faced competition only to see themselves evolve into something better and stronger.  But, as the shadow of Covid is beginning to finally fade, we are seeing something truly remarkable happening, and that’s a surprisingly resilient theater industry crawling ever so carefully out of it’s hole.  And it makes everyone wonder, are movie theaters really destined for irrelevance or are they a much stronger part of the culture than we ever thought.

The story of movie theaters enduring through it’s most trying challenge during this pandemic has taken a surprising turn in the last couple weeks.  Disney, with their popular brand Marvel, undertook what they considered an “experiment” to see if one of their movies could perform well enough without the help of a streaming option.  With the Delta Covid variant causing problems across the country, this seemed like a tricky gamble.  Also, the movie they were testing the waters on was based on a lesser known comic book character named Shang-Chi; not exactly a household name.  Sure, he’s part of the extensive Marvel family, but Shang-Chi has no where near the following that an Iron Man or Captain America has.  Essentially, he was going to have to perform solely based on the strength of the Marvel brand itself.  But, it’s a gamble that remarkably paid off in the end.  Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings not only broke records for it’s Labor Day weekend premiere, it shattered them.  The movie pulled in $95 million over the four day weekend, and it’s three day total was only slightly behind that of Black Widow for the highest opening of the year; a movie that featured a pre-established Marvel icon with a strong following.  Surely, the Marvel branding helped to carry Shang-Chi to a strong opening, but at the same time, it also proved something else, especially in the weeks that followed.  After it’s strong opening, Shang-Chi continued to hold onto it’s audience, dropping only 50% in it’s second week, and is on track to out gross Black Widow by the end of it’s run.  This, more than anything, proves the inefficacy of the hybrid release model, as a pure exclusive theatrical window allows for a stronger audience hold over time.  This is also something that Disney observed with it’s 20th Century Studios release, Free Guy starring Ryan Reynolds.  Before Shang-Chi, Free Guy had been the box office champ 3 weeks running, and it managed to also cross the $100 million mark which is especially good for a movie made on a more modest budget than what Marvel is putting out.  As a result of both Shang-Chi’s and Free Guy’s remarkable success, Disney made the crucial choice of sticking with exclusive theatrical windows for the remainder of the year.

This news was a dream come true for the beleaguered theater industry.  The largest studio in Hollywood was abandoning the bet hedging practice of releasing day and date on streaming and in theaters, and was committing to an exclusive, albeit shortened, theatrical first strategy.  One can speculate that Disney’s premium Premiere Access was not performing as well as they had hoped, but as outsiders, there’s nothing we can prove with that being the case.  Disney’s keeping their internal numbers regarding streaming a very closely guarded secret, and they’ve only released total grosses from their $30 access fee publicly on opening weekends, with the hopes that it might help with the overall positive press with the movie.  But, after that, we don’t know exactly what the movie makes.  My educated guess is that even though the movie might do well on opening weekend, it’s following weekend grosses probably see a huge drop off.  And that’s probably because once someone buys the access to watch a movie like Black Widow, they basically own that movie after that point, so Disney no longer is making any more money on that single customer.  Movie theaters on the other hand has something that works well to their advantage and that’s repeat business.  Because people are paying for the experience of watching a movie in a theater and not just to own the movie outright, it opens the door for people to return again if they desire to view the movie again.  That repeat business helps to keep movies performing strong week after week.  What I imagine is that Disney saw that they weren’t making the same kind of long term money on their Premiere Access as they were keeping the movie in the theaters.  And a big sign of that is in how Black Widow lost 70% of it’s audience from week one to week two, while Shang-Chi managed to lose only 50%.  Yes, they do keep 100% of the profit from streaming, but they lose out on future gains that can accumulate through word of mouth.  That’s what they’ve observed over the last week, and it’s why Disney made the monumental choice to move away from that hybrid model.

With Disney committing to theatrical, it suddenly puts pressure on other studios to do the same, and some studios perhaps jumped the gun a little in response to the ongoing uncertainty in the theatrical market.  Only a couple weeks prior, Paramount made a bunch of drastic moves.  They took their family friendly comedy Clifford the Big Red Dog off it’s September release date and has not found a replacement date yet.  And after that, they moved two high profile Tom Cruise vehicles, Top Gun: Maverick and the next Mission: Impossible sequel and moved them months away from their intended dates; a big blow for Top Gun: Maverick as it already saw a year long delay from 2020.  Universal likewise changed it’s release strategy for the upcoming Halloween Kills release in October, choosing to put it on both it’s streaming service Peacock and in theaters at the same time.  And Warner Brothers, like they have all year, are continuing to release their entire 2021 slate of movies in theaters and on their streaming service HBO Max for no extra charge; a move that has irked many of their stable of filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Denis Villenueve.  The only other major studio to follow Disney’s theatrical only lead has been Sony (the only major studio without a streaming platform).  In fact, they doubled down on theatrical after the other studios began to hedge their bets.  Both of their big upcoming franchise films, Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Ghostbusters: Afterlife moved up their release instead of delaying them, and most tellingly, they did so after the successful launch of Shang-Chi.  Clearly Sony saw the same promising numbers that Disney saw, and they decided that it was better to give theaters the exclusive window for the first month, instead of selling off their titles to Netflix like they have been doing.  So at this point, the movie studios are suddenly seeing their worst fears about the theatrical market not coming to fruition, and it’s leading to some second guessing.  This in particular is leading to some flare up confrontations between studios and talent, as these drastic, panicky moves have negatively affected already pre-standing contracts.  Christopher Nolan in fact has parted ways with Warner Brothers after a 20 year relationship, as he’s now setting up his next film at Universal instead.  It’s really interesting to see the dynamic flip so much on the industry in such a short amount of time, with movie theaters now back in a more dynamic power position, while the studios are struggling to figure out their next moves.

That being said, movie theaters themselves are not entirely out of the woods yet.  The pandemic is still going on, with some parts of the United States seeing the worst flare up they’ve experienced so far.  What’s helping keep the movie theaters from reaching the point of worry now is the fact that the two biggest markets (New York and Los Angeles) are experiencing a relative low rate of spread of the virus compared to other parts of the country, and that’s due to higher vaccination rates in those areas.  Certainly, there is still a lot of worry in those large cities, and they are taking drastic measures like mask mandates and proof of vaccine requirements, but overall it’s allowing businesses to function as close to normal as they possibly can.  Movie theaters in particular are following the guidelines set, and they have been able to operate throughout the summer without leading to any significant outbreaks.  I can say from first hand, even the packed out screenings of big films has all of the audiences members respecting the mandates here in the Los Angeles area where I live, and that has been a big contributor in seeing the confidence build back up for the theatrical industry.  If Los Angeles and New York manage to keep another disastrous spike happen again, the threat of another shutdown is almost assuredly behind us.  Even still, closures anywhere are still a lingering threat, especially in the parts of the country that are really hurting right now.  There’s also concerns about what effect vaccine mandates might have on future theater attendance.  In the coming weeks, Los Angeles County will soon be requiring proof of vaccination upon entry into many indoor establishments, including theaters.  Some see this as a bad thing because of how it might turn away audiences who refuse to be vaccinated.  On the other hand, some argue that requiring proof of vaccination may help bring more people back to the theater who have been hesitant before, because it will make them feel safe knowing that everyone around them has also been vaccinated.  So, even though movie theaters have seen promising developments over the last few weeks, the storm hasn’t cleared out of the way just yet.

Even still, with movie theaters doing the kind of business they’ve seen at all this summer is something pretty miraculous.  Going into the new year, it seemed like Armageddon was on the horizon for the theatrical industry.  Many chains, including the biggest of them all (AMC) was too far into debt to recoup, and in many cases, a few of them closed for good.  AMC still operates today solely due to the intervention of meme stocks forced higher through Reddit.  But even in the face of that, it took a lot of hope to believe that audiences would come back after having to rely on streaming for their entertainment over the last year.  Did streaming claim a foothold too strong for theaters to overcome in order to return to normal?  As evidenced by what we’ve seen in the last month, streaming in fact did not kill the theatrical market for good.  As some of us already know, and what more are probably realizing more and more each day, there really is no substitute for the theater experience.  No matter how big and impressive your home theater set up is, it can not replicate the experience of watching a movie in an actual movie theater.  What I’ve really noticed in the difference is the way a movie sounds in a theater.  A home theater 7.1 system just does not have the same oomph that a nearly 25 speaker set up in a cinema has.  It’s the immersion that makes all the difference.  Movie theater sound just puts you in the middle of the movie better than it does at home.  And of course, the bigger the screen the better.  I’m sure there is not a single home theater that captures the immensity of an IMAX image.  Big movies need to be seen in a big way.  I for one have always known that and during the past year I went to great lengths to enjoy movies the way they were meant to be enjoyed.  I sought out the only operating Drive-In theaters in the Los Angeles area and drove back and forth almost weekly to these venues that were well outside of town.  I even drove 120 miles to San Diego just so I could see Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in a theater, because it was the closest one open that was playing it in IMAX.  These are the lengths one will go to for that theater experience, and I know my case is on the exceptional side.  But, what I am pleased to see is that more and more people who don’t typically go to the theaters are also realizing that special connection too.

What people are beginning to realize now is just how much they took the theater experience for granted.  For a lot of people, returning to the movies has in some way become an almost healing experience.  The psychological effect of the past year has created an appetite for many people to have something in their lives that helps remind them of life before things began falling apart.  In a way, movie theaters are the beneficiaries of that effect.  After being holed up in their homes for months and in some cases over a year, people want to be outdoors again, as well as return to activities that require them to leave their homes.  With the vaccines and mask mandates helping to slow the spread, and making the weary feel more safe as they exit their homes, we are seeing more vigorous enthusiasm for wanting to get back to the things that we’ve missed out on in the last year.  This is why movie theaters might have a bright future, at least for a while.  It reminds audiences of better times, when it didn’t seem like the world was falling apart.  The act of going out to a movie theater, or any establishment outside the home, has a therapeutic effect now; like it’s a reward for having to endure the hardships that it took to get to this moment.  One thing I wonder is how streaming will be viewed in the years to come post-pandemic.  I’m sure that it will still be robust, but the rapid growth they saw during the pandemic will likely never be seen again, and in some ways, people might turn away from streaming viewership because it will remind them of the worst days of their life as they endured the uncertainty of the year 2020.  It’s probably going to be a small effect, but I think the psychological impact of how we endured through the pandemic year will in some ways be reflected in the way we chose to experience film in the years ahead.  One thing that I do believe is driving the renewed love of going back to the theaters is the realization for many people that a shared communal experience with an audience is an indispensable part of watching a movie.  The joys of cinema are in being able to laugh, cry, and cheer together with other people, including strangers, because we are a social species, and going out to the movies is one of the best ways we can experience that joy together.  This pandemic forced us apart; it’s cinema that is helping us to come back together and in turn, helping us to heal.

A lot of these positive signs are, of course, just an immediate observation.  It’s hard to say what lasting effect it will have on the long term future of cinema.  We certainly are no where near where we were pre-pandemic, as 2019 was a record breaking year for the box office.  We’ll probably never in our lifetimes see something like the fall off that box office took in the year 2020; going from an all time high in the year before to a near flatline thereafter.  2021’s box office is still stunted, but it is heading in the right direction, with Shang-Chi becoming the first movie in over a year in a half being able to perform like a movie without roadblocks, even in the face of a lingering pandemic.  One thing that the pandemic gave us in the meantime was perspective.  We began to realize just how valuable the theatrical experience was to us in our culture.  We don’t just watch the movies, we experience them, and that experience shouldn’t be done alone.  I think that after a hundred years of the silver screen, the need to go out to the movies is just embedded in our DNA now.  Sure, it’s going to take time for many people to feel safe and confident in a theater again, and streaming will undoubtedly be an ever present force in entertainment from here out.  But, movie theaters, through all the hardship, are still open and they are still seeing healthy amounts of business.  In time, we may actually see a theatrical market that looks almost normal and back to it’s pre-pandemic levels again.  Movie theaters have had to face many calamities over time; the Depression, the War, civil unrest, the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, not to mention the existential threat television, home video and ultimately streaming.  And yet, despite all these obstacles thrown their way, they’ve managed to survive and thrive.  Covid was it’s greatest challenge yet; a force so destructive  it that prevented any business from happening, and nearly forced the complete disintegration of the industry as a whole.  So, if it could survive that, it might be able to survive any calamity.  Like I said before, people are a social species, and our desire is to share a collective experience as a group.  Movie theaters, with their abundance in neighborhoods across the globe and relatively economical entry fee compared to other forms of entertainment, are the best places for communities to gather together and enjoy the bonds of joy that entertainment brings to us.  And after an experience like the Covid-19 pandemic, it something that we need more than ever to help heal the wounded world that was broken apart over the last year.

Never Forget – Processing the Legacy of 9/11 Through 20 Years of Cinema

There are points in history where the world looks back and recalls where they were exactly when it happened.  As time goes on, the memory of those days recede into legend as past generations begin to leave us, and the only connection that we have left are the stories left behind.  Even still, the one thing that these moments in time have in common is the suddenness in which they occurred and the scars that result from the aftermath.  One such day was September 11, 2001.  It’s a day that still is etched deeply in the collective trauma of those who experienced it, either first hand or through the nationwide shock of what occurred.  Like many other days like it, it seemed like a normal, everyday morning.  It was a beautiful, quiet day for most of us.  But in the early morning, that all began to change.  At 8:46am on the southern tip of the island of Manhattan, an American Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles crashed into the upper floors of the North tower of the World Trade Center.  Believed to be a tragic accident at first, the response from first responders was swift but routine.  Then, at 9:03am, the unthinkable happened.  Another plane bound for Los Angeles flew right into the middle of the neighboring South tower.  A mere 34 minutes later, another jet crashed into the south end of the Pentagon.  And at this point, the world knew this was no accident.  America was under attack.  Only a few minutes later, New Yorkers witnessed the unthinkable as the South Tower buckled and collapsed, bringing all 110 floors crashing to the streets below.  The North Tower followed soon after, only 100 minutes after the plane hit.  News also broke that a fourth hijacked plane, United 93, had plummeted out of the sky in rural Pennsylvania, with it’s intended target (the US Capitol) never being reached.  And as many Americans began waking up that morning, they would soon learn that the world they knew would never be the same.

That was the reality of September 11, 2001.  An efficiently coordinated act of terrorism conducted by the terror group Al-Qaeda and it’s mastermind Osama Bin Laden.  And as we would learn, it was only the beginning of massive changes for not just the United States but also for the entire world.  For New Yorkers, they were left with unimaginable trauma after witnessing the iconic Twin Towers be erased from the Manhattan skyline forever.  As the smoke cloud receded, the true scope of the damage was revealed.  A gaping hole where the towers once stood mightily over the Financial District of Lower Manhattan now was a mangled pile of debris.  It would take many months for all of the debris to be cleared in what effectively became the largest crime scene in world history.  After the shock of the event, the question soon became what do we do now.  Mourning soon gave way to retribution, as our leaders promised to bring down those who committed this terrible act.  Sadly, the sense of unity that the tragedy brought in it’s immediate aftermath soon gave way to division, as the run-up to war soon became a political hot button issue.  This likewise led to a widespread rise in Islamophobia across the country and the world, as everyday Muslim Americans, who have no connection whatsoever to the terrorist groups that actually committed the attack, were suddenly viewed as suspect.  And that is a scar that still lives with us today, even as we are now almost a generation removed from the events.  People with their own agendas likewise began spreading disinformation about what they believe really happened on 9/11, and this led to a rise in a conspiracy theory culture, which in turn has evolved into a monster of it’s own that caused a bungled response to a global pandemic.  The mantra after the events of 9/11 would soon become “Never Forget,” and though we still honor the lives that were lost on that sad day, 20 years out we must look back and wonder what lessons we exactly took from 9/11, and whether or not we lost a part of ourselves in the process of coping with the tragedy, as political division, distrust in institutions, diminished global presence after costly wars, and a rise in nationalism and bigotry have come as a result of the tragedy.

Like many other earth-shattering events that have marked to progression of human history, a large part of how we process the impact of those events is through storytelling.  Because 9/11 is still so fresh in people’s minds, and was so widely covered by the media as it happened, we have an endless supply of first hand accounts of what that day was like for everyone.  And as we move further away in time, these artifacts of first hand accounts will tell the story of 9/11 for future generations.  But the interesting thing that will likely define the decades ahead is what stories are we going to be telling about that day as more and more of us who remember it are no longer around.  Specifically, what will it be like as we dramatize 9/11 in future media.  Because so many Americans still live with the memory of living through that day, it becomes hard to distill 9/11 into a narrative that effectively puts it into perspective.  That’s why we have so few movies that address the events head on.  It’s hard to put people in the middle of the events again because for many, it’s a wound that still hurts.  That’s not to say that there haven’t been attempts at it.  The range of media related to 9/11 in the last twenty years have included documentaries (lots of those), narrative films, stage plays and even a Broadway musical (Come From Away), and the way that they address the events either falls into direct confrontation or periphery side stories.  Overall, it’s interesting to see just how different we have processed the trauma of 9/11 in different forms of media, and how that has been contrary to other earth-shattering events like it.  In particular, the movies of the 9/11 era have been an interesting assemblage over these last 20 years, and depending on who is making them and for what reason, you begin to see just how complicated the lasting discussion over the events of 9/11 has been.

For perspective, 9/11 is not the first tragedy to have been dramatized by Hollywood over the years.  If it’s a headlines grabbing tragedy, there will almost certainly be a movie in it’s future.  Two tragedies in particular over the last century of film have been especially impactful.  First, there is the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.  Even with cinema in it’s infancy, the trauma of that colossal tragedy was encapsulated on film, with filmmakers using the tools of their trade at the time (including early animation and models) to recreate what happened that fateful night.  In the years that followed, movies began to look at the events of the Titanic’s sinking as a backdrop for their own original stories.  This included a fateful reveal in the Oscar-winning Cavalcade (1933), as well as an epic scale recreations in A Night to Remember (1947) and Titanic (1953).  As the generations that followed began to grow more distant from the sinking of the Titanic, the connection to that trauma also disappeared.  Upon the discovery of the wreckage of the Titanic as the bottom of the ocean, the tragedy took on a new phase, as legend etched in our collective history.  This inevitably led to James Cameron’s behemoth Titanic (1997) which redefined cinema itself.  And within it, we saw the interesting transformation of a tragedy turned into a backdrop for a epic romance.  There’s nothing wrong with that angle in storytelling, but it’s something that probably would only have been acceptable after so much time has passed in-between.  The same progression also has followed the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Unlike the Titanic, there were plenty of cameras rolling on that day, capturing the horrors of that day for everyone to see.  But, it too also saw many film dramatizations in the decades that followed.  It inspired it’s own epic romance with From Here to Eternity (1953), though the attack is used mostly as a starting point for the story.  There were other interesting film adaptations that tried to put the attack on Pearl Harbor into perspective, like In Harm’s Way (1963) and Tora, Tora, Tora (1970) which took a both side dramatization of the events from both the American perspective and the Japanese.  But, as Hollywood would learn, not all tragedies can be mined for entertainment so easily.  Made in response to the success of Titanic, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) tried and failed to inject the events of that fateful day into an epic romance narrative.  It’s interesting to see how the passage of time changes the way that we observe these tragic events and how real life trauma eventually molds into popular entertainment the further away we are from the immediate impact.

The same thing may hold true for the events of 9/11, but even 20 years out, we have yet to actually reach that point.  Most movies made over the last two decades in relation to 9/11 have been more geared to the fallout of the tragedy and less towards actually recreating the day itself.  There were a couple attempts though to do so, which surprisingly happened very early on.  Upon marking the 5th anniversary of the events in 2006, two major movie studios had 9/11 themed films that centered around the actual events that took place.  From Universal Studios, we got the movie United 93 (2006), directed by Paul Greengrass, and from Paramount we got World Trade Center (2006), directed by Oliver Stone.  Both films attempted to tell the story of two different occurrences that happened that day.  United 93 of course tells the story of the fateful flight that didn’t reach it’s ultimate target.  Through his cinema verite style, Greengrass puts the viewer there inside the plane itself as the events unfold.  We watch as the terrorists take over the plane and we see the way that the heroic passengers took it upon themselves to fight back and ultimately sacrifice themselves to thwart the terrorists from reaching their goal.  In addition, Greengrass also details the goings-on from ground control, with some FAA officials even cast as themselves, recreating their own experiences from that day.  It’s actually a really interesting dramatization of the event that does the best it can to put the viewer into the mindset of those who lived through the tragedy.  Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, by contrast, is a bit more conventional Hollywood with a more substantial budget for visual effects and movie stars.  Even still, the story it does tell is a fascinating one of survival, as it’s about two first responder firefighters (played by Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena) who managed to survive the collapse of the towers and were pulled out of the rubble days later, broken but still living.  It’s interesting that Stone chose to tell this kind of story, given his proclivity for conspiracy theories, but my guess is that it was more about honoring those heroes on that day and less about defining one’s own agenda in the narrative.  To date, apart from multiple TV movies (including ones that lionize then President Bush and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani that have not aged well in retrospect) these are the only films from Hollywood that actually puts the viewer into the middle of the events of that day.  Apart from that, 9/11 has largely been addressed through indirect reflection.

Perhaps it’s because the trauma of that day is still too raw for some people that we haven’t seen too many movies recreating the events of 9/11.  One interesting outcome that came about in the aftermath of 9/11 was how Hollywood quickly had to adjust in the aftermath.  A movie trailer for the then upcoming Spider-Man (2002) had to be pulled from theaters because it included a moment where a helicopter was dangling in a web strung in between the Twin Towers; which of course was no where to be seen in the final film as well.  Other movies released during that time, like Ben Stiller’s Zoolander (2001), had to quickly scrub out any image of the World Trade Center in the background, in some cases digitally.  The events also created a disruption in the world of entertainment that saw a halt in production for weeks across the industry, and even the shut down of theaters on Broadway for a few months.  But, as time went on, the healing began and before we knew it, life was mostly back to normal.  But, as we processed the way that the world changed in the days after 9/11, it began to manifest itself in the stories that we were telling about society in general.  Spike Lee for instance addressed the impact of the terror attack on his beloved New York City in a protracted rant delivered by Edward Norton in the movie 25th Hour (2002), which really spells out the indignant rage that many people in the city felt about the senselessness of what happened.  The war on terror that followed the attacks also have contributed a cinematic documentation of a post-9/11 world.  In particular, the films of Kathryn Bigelow really delved into the effect of a world changed by terrorism in the last 20 years, with her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2009) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) which dramatized the long in the making manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, with his eventual execution at the hands of Seal Team Six, ten years after the attacks.  While these movies don’t tackle the events head-on, they nevertheless tell us how the country and the world began to cope with the pain of those events in the years that followed.  You can honestly find many other movies that address the trauma directly or indirectly with regards to 9/11, because it’s a moment in time that changed the world forever.  It’s in our collective societal identity now, whether thorough culture, politics, or how we live our lives.  9/11 changed everything, so most movies made within the 20 years since that speak to our contemporary society is in some way or another influenced by those events.

What I find really fascinating about movies made in the wake of the tragedy of 9/11 is how they are evolving with every new passive generation.  We are now approaching a point where those who were born during or after September 11, 2001 are now reaching adulthood.  For them, 9/11 has just always been a part of their history.  They have no concept of what life was like before, and so their response to the events is taken from a second degree perspective.  In many ways, they are the audience that is going to be more influenced by the way we portray the events of 9/11 through the prism of film.  And it’s in that regard that we’ll see a very different view of the events unfold over time as we get further and further away from the actual day, much like what happened to the Titanic and Pearl Harbor.  There are no more survivors of the Titanic left to differentiate fact from fiction, and there are only a handful left who remember the events of Pearl Harbor with clarity.  So will be the case with 9/11 as well.  The best we can do as a society is to remind ourselves of the magnitude of what happened and treat the tragedy with a sense of dignified solace.  We lose that, we lose perspective on what matters as a direct result of that tragedy.  That’s why we remind ourselves, “Never Forget,” because the memory of 9/11 can be so easily manipulated to suit some external agenda that in turn can lead to many other tragedies.  Hollywood itself is not above beyond using the tragedy of 9/11 for it’s own benefit.  Take the case of the movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) which was a shameless attempt to use 9/11 trauma as a means of Oscar baiting.  In the years ahead, we need to make sure that those indirectly impacted by 9/11 aren’t misinformed by sensationalized accounts of the tragedy that are more fiction than fact.  One of the most interesting explorations of the legacy of 9/11 in cinema that I’ve recently seen on film is stories of those who have grown up in the shadow of the events.  Last year, Judd Apatow brought to the screen the movie The King of Staten Island (2020), which is a semi-autobiographical story based on the life of the film’s star, comedian Pete Davidson.  In the movie, an aimless 20-something slacker deals with coming into adulthood after living most of his life without his father, who died tragically when he was young while heroically fighting a fire.  Though 9/11 is never mentioned, the story does reflect the real life story of Davidson, whose father was one of the first responders lost at the World Trade Center that day.  It’s a perspective, the generation raised in the aftermath of 9/11, that we have yet to see and with many more young Americans like Pete Davidson coming of age in the next few years, and being able to express themselves through film too, it’s going to take the conversation about the impact of 9/11 into a whole different direction.

For those of us who were old enough to be aware of what was going on, and to remember where we were on that day, each one of us has our own story to tell in remembrance of 9/11 on that day.  Strangely enough, my own is even movie related.  I was at home watching The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939) on Turner Classic Movies that morning when I changed the channel after finishing the movie to find the South tower already collapsed and the North tower still smoking before it’s eventual demise.  In retrospect, I can remember both the shock and the disbelief.  For me, it immediately called to mind the larger than life disaster movies of the past that so casually depicted the destruction of national icons like the Empire State building or the White House.  Now, after seeing the real Twin Towers utterly destroyed before our eyes, those kinds of movies in retrospect appear trivial and even reckless.  This kind of destruction made us rethink the value of human life that succumbs to such a tragedy and helped us reconsider how we approach mass destruction as an element in our storytelling.  At least that was the hope at the time, as many films since, particularly those of directors like Roland Emmerich and Zack Snyder have gone right back to creating mass destruction as a back drop for popcorn entertainment.  The worry over time is that the lessons of 9/11, particularly the humanitarian side, will be pushed aside in favor of spectacle.  With so many voices out there who still remember sharing their personal stories, that human perspective still remains, but as successive generations begin to add their own narratives to the mix, more becoming further attached from the events of the day, who knows how we as a society may reflect on the importance of 9/11.  One thing that makes this 20th anniversary so impactful is that it is occurring in the middle of another worldwide tragedy, the Covid-19 pandemic, which is helping to remind everyone of what shared trauma really feels like.  The pandemic itself is likely going to see it’s own evolution in media over the years, especially as future generations learn from our first hand accounts of these tragic days.  There are plenty perspectives to take away from the way cinema has dramatized the post-9/11 era, but as we have learned thus far, the most potent stories are the ones that come from those who actually lived through those events, and the best thing we can do is to preserve those memories as best we can.  On this day, if you aren’t anywhere near a memorial where you can pay your respects, look up an documentary that includes the harrowing recollections of first responders, victims, and people who were there that day, and listen to the grief, anger, hope that they feel and live with everyday since.  That is the real story of 9/11 and the reason that even 20 years on we must never forget.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – Review

If you can count on one studio to push forward on it’s plans even in the midst of a global pandemic affecting worldwide box office, it would definitely be Marvel.  After a year off due to the pandemic related shutdowns, Marvel returned with a vengeance in 2021.  In addition to their big screen releases, Marvel was also making a statement in the streaming wars, with shows like WandavisionThe Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki making a statement on Disney+, with their own narratives tied in with those of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.  But, even with that offshoot on streaming, Marvel and Disney still had big plans for their mega-franchise on the big screen, which unfortunately was dealt with increased challenges due to an ongoing pandemic.  Theaters having finally reaching a point where they could operate again at near full capacity still was not enough assurance for studios to gamble on releasing their movies over the course of the last summer.  Some still did, and the result was mixed.  Some movies prospered while others floundered, and the overall numbers are still underwater from where they had been pre-pandemic.  One of the movies that did manage to do better than others was Marvel’s Black Widow, which Disney put out in theaters in a hybrid release with Disney+ Premiere Access.  Overall, Black Widow did win the Summer of 2021 with the highest domestic box office, but even still, it was on the low end for the MCU as a whole.  Some wonder if the hybrid theatrical/ streaming release may have in some way undercut Black Widow‘s long term box office grosses.  For Disney, Marvel’s parent studio, that seems to be a theory taking hold, as they decided to take a different route with their next film in the line-up by granting it a theatrical only window of 45 days.   And that film is the bold “experiment” known as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Shang-Chi is certainly not one of the more well known heroes from the Marvel comics, though he has enjoyed his fair share of devoted fans.  First introduced in 1975 by creators Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin of Marvel Comics, Shang-Chi was heavily inspired by the popularity of martial arts legend Bruce Lee.  Utilizing mastery of Wushu style martial arts, he developed into one of the more noteworthy heroes within the Marvel canon who did not rely upon any supernatural power.  That’s not to say that he hasn’t at times has had to rely on help from the supernatural world within Marvel Comics, but for the most part he is a self-made, self-reliant hero.  Though his presence in the Marvel universe is noteworthy for it’s Asian representation, it hasn’t been without controversy either.  For one thing, part of Shng-Chi’s backstory is that he is the song of supervillain Fu Manchu, a character (not originally created by Marvel) who has been used in movies and comic books often as a racist trope to slander Asian people in various media.  Over time, Marvel lost the rights to use Fu Manchu as a character in their comics, and Shang-Chi’s backstory has been altered to separate itself from the racism of it’s past.  Even still, the same backstory remains of Shang-Chi having this dark past of being the son of a criminal overlord; first in the comics with a newly created character named Zheng Zu, and in this movie, it’s changed again to reintroduce an already established villain from a different franchise, namely Wenwu: The Mandarin.  It’s interesting that not only has Marvel seen Shang-Chi as a worthy addition to their MCU family, but they are even betting on his movie to perform solely on it’s own theatrically.  The question remains, is Shang-Chi a character strong enough to warrant a risky challenge at the box office at this time, or is he a sacrificial experiment to reinforce a studio’s push towards more streaming options.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings wastes no time in getting the adventures started.  We are introduced to a young Asian man living in San Francisco named Shaun (Simu Liu) who when not working Valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) is out late partying  and singing karaoke.  But on one day when they are taking the bus to work, the duo of Shaun and Katy are accosted by sinister looking thugs intent of grabbing a pendant that Shaun wears everywhere he goes.  To the amazement of all those on the bus, including Katy, Shaun not only holds his own in the fight against the thugs, but he also displays almost inhuman martial arts skills.  Even still, one of the thugs named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) manages to steal the pendant away.  This prompts Shaun to leave town in search of the pendant.  He of course now comes clean to his friend Katy about his past and reveals that his real name is Shang-Chi.  He tells her that the men were a part of the Ten Rings terrorist organization, which is run by the Wenwu (Tony Leung) his father.  Wenwu, aka The Mandarin, is a centuries old war lord who wields the power of the mystical Ten Rings, which gives him super powers as well as eternal life.  He created the Ten Rings as a multinational ring of anarchic terrorists who among other things have toppled governments and kidnapped high profile targets (such as Tony Stark in the original Iron Man) for ransom, with Wenwu becoming increasingly powerful and wealthy along the way, as well as more ruthless.  Upon her insistence, Katy accompanies Shang-Chi to China, where he seeks out his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who keeps a similar pendant to his.  Both were gifts from their deceased mother Li (Fala Chen), who Wenwu believes left them keys to finding the mystical land of her origin known as Ta Lo, where Wenwu still mistakenly believes she still lives.  Upon learning of their father’s dangerous plans, Shang-Chi and Xialing set out to find Ta Lo before their father can, with Katy and her expert driving skills helping along the way.  And as we soon learn, there is more at the end of the road in Ta Lo than they initially realize, including an even more sinister force that could be unleashed by their father if he is not stopped.

The premiere of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings comes at an interesting crossroads for Marvel.  After the mixed results of Black Widow’s premiere in the Summer, Disney is now seeing Shang-Chi as testing ground for the strength of the theatrical market in the face of an ongoing pandemic crisis.  This led to a bit of controversy as current Disney CEO Bob Chapek referred Shang-Chi to an “experiment,” which is wording that the movie’s star Simu Liu took issue with.  It’s unfortunate that the studio is treating this less like an exciting  new chapter in their mega-franchise, and more like a guinea pig in their test of the current state of the theatrical market.  It’s unfortunate that this movie is releasing under these circumstances, because had it not, this would have likely been a real game-changing movie for Marvel.  For one thing, it marks a significant moment for the MCU as it introduces an Asian superhero into the Avengers line-up for the first time.  There have been Asian characters in the MCU before, but none have been the headliner like Shang-Chi, and for Marvel, they are hoping that this movie does for the Asian community what Black Panther did for black audiences.  This is reflected by the fact that the movie is top to bottom representative of the Asian community, both in front and behind the camera.  Director Destin Daniel Cretton tapped into his own Asian heritage, particularly when it comes to cinematic influences, when making this movie and it shows.  People who are familiar with Wushu martial arts films such as those by filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) will see a lot of that same style present in Shang-Chi.  And while that style does set it apart from other Marvel movies, it’s still distinctively an MCU film, with several notable Easter eggs throughout.  I also like that the movie takes time to make a pseudo-apology for the Mandarin fake-out in Iron Man 3 (2013) which is still one of the low points of the MCU.  As a stand alone feature in the MCU, it works well enough to establish our hero and where he will fit in this world, while at the same time doing some incredible world building along the way.

Unfortunately, there are some glaring flaws with the movie as well.  For one thing, it falls into the unfortunate trap of following the Marvel formula a little too stringently.  In particular, the movie loses focus as it heads towards it’s end, a “third act”-itis that is sadly becoming more and more of a problem for more Marvel properties.  Seen likewise in other properties that succumbed to underwhelming climaxes as of late in the MCU, like Black Widow and Wandavision, Shang-Chi unfortunately breaks away from the more interesting character building that happens earlier in the film to raise the stakes higher as it enters the home stretch.  And this unfortunately drowns out what made the movie interesting in the first place with a lot of CGI-enhances mayhem thrown at us on screen.  Though this movie still remains more visually interesting than say Black Widow, which really turned generic in it’s final climax, Shang-Chi still feels a bit hollow in it’s closing minutes.  The movie works a lot better when it departs from formula rather than steering into it.  I especially found the earlier fight scenes, like the one on the bus, to be far more engaging than what essentially turns into a kaiju fight in the film’s climax.  And one of the biggest victims of the movie loosing it’s focus as it adheres to formula is Shang-Chi himself.  We really don’t get much character development from him throughout the movie as he remains so of a passive traveler through all the different points in the plot.  The only thing that saves him as a character is the natural charisma of Simu Liu, who really has to do some heavy lifting here to bring out more character than what is on the page.  Still, overall his development into a hero feels more generic than say what we’ve seen from Spider-Man, or Black Panther, and even the early Avengers.  It’s overall a problem of the movie trying to do way too many different things instead of focusing on where the real intrigue of the story lies, which is Shang-Chi’s relationship with his father.

Though the story is a bit on the weak side, the same can’t be said about the cast.  They are definitely the highlight of this movie.  Chinese-Canadian Simu Liu, who was introduced to the world on the Comic Con stage in 2019 only days after being officially cast, is immediately magnetic on screen, and though he’s let down a bit by the screenplay he’s given, he nevertheless shines through with infectious charisma that absolutely certifies him as a perfect choice for this role.  And being already proficient in martial arts before hand also lends some authenticity to the fight scenes in this movie, which requires Simu to do some incredible moves in front of the camera without the aid of visual effects.  He also has incredible chemistry with Awkwafina as Katy.  Her presence in the film is primarily to provide comic relief, but she also works well as that connection to a normal life that Shang-Chi values so much.  I really appreciate the fact that the movie does break a bit from formula and doesn’t immediately turn their relationship in the movie into a romantic one.  Shang-Chi and Katy pretty much remain platonic friends right up to the end, though it’s a relationship that is certainly stronger than just casual.  A lot of the movie’s best moments belong to the two of them together, and you really get the sense that it’s a friendship that drives Shang-Chi to be a better person overall.  Though they both make strong leads, it’s almost certainly going to be the case that the most talked about performance in this movie is Tony Leung as Wenwu.  In a very interesting reimagining of the famed Marvel supervillain, Leung commands the screen, portraying Wenwu in this quiet intensity like an Asian Michael Corleone.  Long considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, both in his native China and worldwide, Leung’s presence here is a real blessing for Marvel.  He brings a gravitas to the role that really affirms Wenwu as a top tier Marvel villain; and really helps to make up for the disappointing Mandarin fake-out in Iron Man 3.  It’s also significant that pretty much the entire cast (with only a couple exceptions) is made up of Asian actors.  Even a previously established Asian character in the MCU, Wong (played by Benedict Wong) from Doctor Strange (2016) gets to participate briefly in this movie; which is not a spoiler because he appears in the trailer.  That thorough Asian representation throughout the movie alone is pretty significant, not just for a Marvel movie, but for any studio movie.

And while I do nitpick Destin Daniel Cretton’s handling of the story itself, I do commend his staging of the fight scenes in this movie.  Working for the first time on a large scale film like this, Cretton is not a director you would first think of to take on a Wushu style martial arts epic.  Up until now, he’s been more known for small, intimate dramas like Short Term 12 (2013) or Just Mercy (2019).  But, Marvel certainly sees potential in rising talents and believed Cretton was up to the task of bringing Shang-Chi to the big screen.  In particular, Cretton shows quite a bit of creativity in staging the fight scenes in this movie.  The previously mentioned bus fight in particular is a noteworthy standout, because of it’s combination of close quarters fighting and the fact that it’s also on a moving vehicle in the middle of San Francisco traffic.  Another fight on bamboo scaffolding also presents another stand-out moment, with specific nods to the crazy stunt work of Jackie Chan being spotlighted in that scene.  And while the CGI fest that makes for a messy climax in the movie’s final act loses some of the movie’s more intimate charm, it still makes the finale showdown between Shang-Chi and Wenwu worthy of what’s come before.  Considering that both actors, Liu and Leung, are experienced in martial arts, it makes it all the more satisfying watching them fight each other on screen, especially knowing that one of them came from the John Woo school of action movies.  I especially like the way that the Ten Rings themselves come into play as part of the fight, both as a superweapon and as something more integral to the story that brings these characters together.  It’s also interesting how Destin Daniel Cretton mixes his Asian cinema influences, bringing in the grittiness of a John  Woo action film and mixing it with the ethereal fantasy of a Zhang Yimou epic, and even injecting a bit of the intimate personal drama of Wong Kar-Wai.  It’s a movie deeply entrenched in the cinematic traditions of past Asian masters, but brings a great amount of it’s own voice to the mix and likewise also manages to fit perfectly within the grander Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I have no doubt that the one thing this movie will undoubtedly accomplish is bringing more eyes to past Asian cinema, which would be an especially good outcome because many of those classics from these great Asian auteurs are due for rediscovery.

So, on it’s own, it’s a perfectly suitable introduction for a character that has really yet to emerge as an important player in the Marvel canon.  If anything, this movie will do a lot to raise Shang-Chi‘s stock as a comic book character, and more importantly, raise up an Asian presence in the ongoing narrative that is the MCU.  Already, the movie is being proclaimed as an Asian Black Panther, but I think that it’s unfair to have to stack this film up against another groundbreaking film in the Marvel universe.  Shang-Chi is piece of a grander puzzle, but it has to stand on it’s own as it’s own story.  There are quite a few things that I wish were a bit better about the movie, namely it’s unfocused screenplay, but overall it does the job of making us like it’s central hero.  Shang-Chi really had a lot of hurdles to clear, especially with the fact that he is a mostly unknown character in comparison to say Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man and Black Panther.  In some respects, a better comparison for Shang-Chi would be what Marvel accomplished with Guardians of the Galaxy.  Guardians also started off as a very obscure title that was elevated to new heights thanks to it’s placement in the MCU.  Now the whole world knows the team of the Guardians of the Galaxy and speaks of them in the same breath as the Avengers.  All it took was a well crafted movie that appealed to a broad audience, and the hope is that Shang-Chi can achieve the same outcome and move beyond just his own small but devoted fanbase.  It’s too early to tell if it will work, but if it does, a lot of good things will come of it.  Not only will it give Asian representation in Hollywood a big boost, but it will also help turn Shang-Chi into more than just a novelty character and instead put him in the same league as Marvel’s A-team.  Not only that, but it will also likely boost Simu Liu into another level of stardom, which he already seems to have deftly accomplished since being cast in the first place.  In addition, it will hopefully bring new eyes to a long history of Asian cinema, especially if it helps people rediscover the spectacular body of work that Tony Leung has amassed over the years.  So, even though I have some misgivings about the movie as a whole, I will certainly be extremely happy if this movie becomes a big hit for Marvel, not just for the sake of survival of the theatrical industry, but for all the good things it will do for Asian cinema in general, past and present.  In the end, that will be Shang-Chi’s most heroic accomplishment, and it’s something we should certainly be rooting for.

Rating: 7.75/10

The Movies of Fall 2021

So, it wasn’t pretty, but we managed to get through a full Summer movie season after a year long pause due to the pandemic.  Over the course of the last four months, we saw a lot of hurdles thrown in the way of the theatrical market, but we also managed to see it persevere in surprising ways.  The rise of Covid cases due to Delta variant has been an unfortunate roadblock in the recovery of our world post-pandemic, and movie theaters are another sector of the economy feeling the pressure of this unfortunate situation.  Couple this with so many movies remaining in a state of limbo, with studios not sure whether they are going to risk putting them on screens in packed theaters, or playing it safe and releasing them on streaming.  Some movies, like Paramount’s Clifford the Big Red Dog and Sony’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage decided to just abandon the calendar completely, and try for next year instead.  Despite this, there were positive signs.  Universal’s Fast and the Furious sequel did deliver a solid box office opening after it’s year long delay, as did Marvel’s Black Widow, though both were near franchise lows for total box office.  And there was also the unexpected success of A Quiet Place Part II, which not only turned a massive profit for studio Paramount, but it also marked the first film to gross north of $100 million since the pandemic began, a major achievement that gave relief to a beleaguered theatrical industry.  Along with signs of strong box office hold even for movies available at the same time on streaming like Disney’s Cruella and Jungle Cruise, and there is plenty of good news coming out of this summer that gives cinema lovers hope for the coming months ahead.  Despite some lingering, persistent obstacles, the movie theater industry is slowly but surely starting to rebuild, and hopefully with the next round of movies, we’ll finally see something that resembles something close to normal.

Like my previous articles, I am going to be looking at the movies of the upcoming fall season through the prism of three separate categories: the must see movies, the movies that have me worried, and the ones I believe are worth skipping.  And like previous years, I could be completely wrong about a few of these.  I am largely basing my choices on how I am feeling about each movie based on the effectiveness of it’s marketing and the general buzz that has surrounded the film during it’s development.  You will also see a few familiar films spotlighted again here, since they were displaced holdovers from the pandemic affected delays of 2020.  Like this Summer, my hope is that all these movies manage to finally hit their release dates, Delta variant not withstanding.  So, without further ado, let’s look at the movies of Fall 2021.

MUST SEES:

DUNE (OCTOBER 22)

Perhaps no other movie coming out this Fall has more eyes on it than this highly anticipated new adaptation of the monumental Sci-Fi novel from Frank Herbert.  After a notably mixed movie version made by David Lynch back in the 80’s, a lot of people were hoping for a more faithful and ambitious cinematic retelling that would honor the epic scope of Herbert’s original text.  When beloved auteur Denis Villenueve decided to undertake the venture, people were very excited that Dune was finally going to get the movie it deserved.  And with an all-star cast involved, headlined by rising star Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atrades, it looked very much like Dune was going to do for the Science Fiction genre what Lord of the Rings had done for fantasy.  But, the pandemic put a giant sand worm sized roadblock in the movie’s way.  Originally slated for a Christmas release last year, Warner Brothers decided to put their big tent pole on hold for a full 10 months, instead giving Christmas Day to Wonder Woman 1984 in a limited theatrical and streaming debut.  Then, based on their Wonder Woman gamble, Warner Brothers decided to make their entire 2021 release schedule day and date releases in order to drive more traffic to their struggling HBO Max platform, including Dune.  This angered many filmmakers with films slated for release this year, including Villeneuve, whose grievance is entirely justified.  Just by looking at the visuals from the trailer, you can tell that this movie was designed from the ground up to be shown on a big screen.  Warner Brothers decision has looked increasingly short-sighted, especially in the wake of disappointing box office for In the Heights and The Suicide Squad, and many worry that the same fate may happen to Dune as well, which would hurt the long term goals for building a franchise around the movie, which would be especially devastating when you learn that this first film is only half of Herbert’s original story.  Please, see this one in a theater and show Warner Brothers that the future of cinema still belongs on the big screen.

ETERNALS (NOVEMBER 5)

Another 2020 outcast, the obstacles for this new Marvel film are not quite as severe as they are for Dune.  For one, Disney appears to be increasingly moving away from their day and date release options, due to strong holds of their titles at the box office and the threat of piracy that a simultaneous streaming release poses to repeat business for them.  They are already seeing good results from allowing 20th Century’s Free Guy play exclusively in theaters, and they are hoping to see the same happen with another Marvel release, Shang-Chi: Legend of the Ten Rings.  Depending on how well Shang-Chi performs, there is a good chance that this highly anticipated Marvel film will make it exclusively to theaters, which would be ideal as it looks like this was a movie meant for the big screen.  Having been delayed for a full year may have also had an upside for Eternals, as within the last year, it’s director Chloe Zhao went on to win a historic Oscar for Best Director for the movie Nomadland.  With a reigning Oscar winning director behind the movie, parent studio has an extra bit of prestige that it can sell this movie on, along with a staggering all-star cast that includes people as varied as Angelina Jolie and comedian Kumail Nanjiani.  What will be interesting to see is just how Chloe Zhao’s film-making style works with a more substantial budget.  Thus far, there has been strong buzz surrounding this one, with Marvel head Kevin Feige being especially impressed with what Zhao has done so far, particularly with her insistence on shooting with little to no visual effects and with real locations instead of sound stages.  Marvel already has had a good representation of allowing bold filmmakers to bring their own style to the Marvel Universe.  It will be interesting to see what they get from someone with some Gold already on her shelf.

SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (DECEMBER 17)

Speaking of Marvel, they have another film lined up this Fall, made through a partnership with Sony.  Made remarkably in the middle of last year’s pandemic, this new entry in the Spider-Man franchise continues the current run with actor Tom Holland.  The film appears to pick up right where the last film, Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) left off, with an unmasked Peter Parker now having to live in a world where everyone knows he is indeed Spider-Man.  Because the attention is overwhelming, he seeks help from another Avenger ally, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who believes he can help Peter make everyone forget his secret identity.  Of course, plans go array and chaos ensues.  What is exciting about this new film is that it is the clearest sign yet of Marvel playing one of their most exciting cards in play; the Multiverse.  Already brought to imaginative life in the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018), and hinted at in the Disney+ shows Wandavision and Loki, the Multiverse opens up so many possibilities for the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward.  Not only can it allow for many different variations of things we have already seen happen in the MCU so far, but it can even bring all the periphery Marvel films made before the formation of the MCU into canon.  This is very definitely the plan being set up in this film, as Holland’s Spider-Man is being confronted by the villain Doc Ock, who is the same Doc Ock from the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man trilogy of the 2000’s, with Alfred Molina returning to the role after 17 years.  With hints of other returning  villains as well, like Jamie Foxx’s Electro and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, this could turn out to be an insane adventure, and even more excitingly though unconfirmed, Tom Holland may even be able to share the screen with his predecessors, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield.  If that doesn’t happen, it will still be interesting to see how Spider-Man and Doctor Strange work together, creating a whole different character dynamic we have yet to explore.  No matter what, it’s sure to be a movie that most people will want to see play out, and especially on a big screen.

NO TIME TO DIE (OCTOBER 8)

Suffering perhaps the longest delay of the entire pandemic, the last Daniel Craig headlined James Bond film is finally coming to theaters.  This movie’s incredibly long gestation included multiple delays before the pandemic, with original director Danny Boyle leaving the project over creative differences, and also Daniel Craig taking an extra long time to decide if he wanted to return or not.  But, No Time to Die eventually ended up in the can and was ready for a spring 2020 release.  And then, you know what happened.  No Time to Die was in fact the canary in the coal mine that indicated just how bad things were going to be, as it was the first studio film to move off it’s release date, even after advance tickets had already been sold ( I got one reserved myself).  It further saw two more movies, going off it’s new November 2020 release date, and moving to April 2021 and then eventually October 2021.  For now, it appears that this release date will stick, even in the face of the Delta variant, and we’ll finally be able to see Daniel Craig’s swan song to 007.  Hopefully, the delay hasn’t tampered down anticipation.  It really does look like they’ve pulled out all the stops for this film, with the series seeing it’s first American director at the helm (Beasts of No Nation‘s Cary Joji Fukunaga).  The cast includes a lot of returning faces from across Craig’s tenure as Bond, including Christoph Waltz as 007 nemesis Blofeld.  It will also be interesting to see what new addition to the cast, Oscar winner Rami Malek, brings to the film as a mysterious villain.  Even with all the changes, the movie will surely deliver on all the globe-trotting high octane action that the franchise has been known for.  For one thing, I’m sure audiences will be thrilled to see this on a big screen, because it will be the last go around for an actor that has probably left the strongest mark on the character since maybe the late Sean Connery.  And after having to wait so long for this new movie, through all the delays, this final hurrah will hopefully be worth the long wait.

HOUSE OF GUCCI (NOVEMBER 24)

You really got to hand it to the ageless Ridley Scott.  At the time of this new film’s release, the legendary director will turn 84 years old, and not only does he have one movie coming out this Fall, he has two.  True, one of them is a delayed holdover from 2020, but even still, at a time when most of his contemporaries are entering retirement, he’s still churning out a movie a year.  This year in particular sees two of his most highly anticipated movies in years coming out a mere month apart.  The Last Duel certainly has a lot of exciting things about it, including the first script co-written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who also co-star in the film) since Good Will Hunting (1997), and it’s a medieval set epic that is certainly familiar ground for the director.  However, it looks like the latter film, House of Gucci, that looks like it has the most promise, especially when it comes to Awards season.  Scott still has yet to take home a Directing award from the Oscars, despite several nominations, and with two heavy hitters in play this season, it might finally be his year.  The cast for this film is especially impressive.  Taking place in the cross section of the fashion world and the Italian mafia in the hedonistic 70’s and 80’s, the movie includes Adam Driver (who also appears in Last Duel) as the legendary designer as well as Lady Gaga as his ruthless wife Patrizia, a role that is already garnering a lot of Oscar buzz.  Though Jared Leto’s presence under layers of make-up is a little weird, it will still be interesting to see what he does with his own role.  In addition, we get plenty of hard hitters like Salma Hayek, Jeremy Irons, and Al Pacino in the mix, and it overall looks like a winning recipe for an awards season favorite.  Hopefully it allows for the legendary Ridley Scott to finally get his due recognition as one of the great filmmakers of all time, which I think he’s earned regardless of whether he has an Oscar or not.  Regardless, we get two exciting new films from the master this fall, and that in itself is a strong reason to get excited to return to movies again this season.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (NOVEMBER 11)

Yet another exile from 2020, we have the latest attempt to revive the Ghostbusters franchise for a new generation.  After the disastrous premiere of the 2016 reboot, Sony decided to look in a different direction with this new film.  In a surprising choice, they tapped Jason Reitman to direct, the son of the original film’s director Ivan Reitman.  And in difference to the 2016 version, Reitman decided to not reboot the story as a whole from the beginning, but instead continue on from what had been there before.  This new film takes place 30 years after the events of Ghostbusters II (1989), and follows the new adventures of the grandchildren of original Ghostbuster Egon Spangler (who was played by the late Harold Ramis).  When they find their grandads old gadgets in his middle of nowhere barn, they unexpectedly bring out the spectral chaos that he had spent years trying to combat.  What is interesting from the trailers we’ve received so far is that this film is tonally much different from it’s predecessors.  While the other Ghostbusters were often slapstick comedies with scary elements, this new film appears to be taking the mythos far more seriously and instead turns the series into more of an action adventure.  This could be both a good thing and a bad thing.  It at least is a nice change of pace from the horribly botched 2016 reboot, where the comedy was too broad and overwhelming (and just not funny) to work within this kind of premise, but at the same time, taking things too seriously could also be antithetical to the spirit of the original as well.  At the very least, with Jason Reitman carrying on the work that his father started, he has a credible case to take something like this with a more serious tone.  And it is nice to see so many of the original cast return to these characters that we love in more than just a glorified cameo.  But, the question remains; is it still Ghostbusters?  I a hoping for the best, but also dreading the worst.  Hopefully we get the former.

TOP GUN: MAVERICK (NOVEMBER 19)

It just seems like the time when Hollywood seems intent on reviving old franchises.  But unlike Ghostbusters, Top Gun hasn’t continued it’s story since the original in 1986.  Nearly 35 years later, Paramount and the original’s star Tom Cruise are bringing back the legendary daredevil pilot Maverick to the big screen.  This time Tom Cruise is bringing some of the tricks he learned from the Mission Impossible franchise to help up the ante in this long in the making sequel.  Instead of utilizing a mix of edited stock footage and character close-ups that helped to sell the illusion back in the original, Tom Cruise is instead shooting real actors in real planes, giving the movie a level of authenticity that we haven’t see yet in this franchise, nor in most other movies of it’s kind; except maybe Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017).  That should almost certainly make the movie a must see, just to check out what I’m sure will be some remarkable flying scenes in the movie, including with Cruise himself right there in the cockpit.  That being said, is Top Gun really a movie worth sequelizing, especially after this many years.  I know that the original has a dedicated fan base and a lot of staying power in the pop culture.  But, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone that would consider the movie an all time classic either.  The original movie is extremely cliched in it’s non-combat scenes, and the movie often is just as heavily mocked as it is celebrated.  It’s hard to say so far if this movie is likely to improve on the original, or fall into the same pitfalls.  At least we know that Tom Cruise is such a showman these days that the movie at the very least will be a spectacle on the big screen.  Here’s hoping that what he’s managed to refine over in his Mission Impossible franchise translates into something special for Top Gun.

THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS (DECEMBER 22)

Yet another franchise trying to regain it’s mojo after a long period of dormancy.  Unfortunately, where this franchise left off was not on the best of circumstances.  The then conclusion of the Matrix trilogy in late 2003, The Matrix Revolutions, divided audiences and critics, and fell well short of it’s box office goals.  It unfortunately has not shaken it’s reputation as a disappointing conclusion to a once promising franchise.  But, Warner Brothers and the creative team behind the trilogy are now attempting to try and shake off the sour taste of that disappointing third film with a brand new entry 18 years later.  This time, original creator Lana Wachowski is going solo on this film, with her sibling Lily sitting this one out.  It will be interesting to see if a single Wachowski can pull off the same kind of magic that made the original movie such a game-changer with a new generation.  On the plus side, she has two of the original stars, Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss returning to reprise their roles as Neo and Trinity; which is strange considering that both characters (spoilers) died in Revolutions.  Given how his career has been going as of late, with a surprising Renaissance to his names thanks to the John Wick franchise, Keanu isn’t really in need of a new Matrix movie, so coming back to it really is more of a sign of Mr. Reeve’s devotion to the series and his love of working with the Wachowskis.  The one question that lingers is if they will be able to translate the appeal of The Matrix to a new generation.  The original Matrix was such a product of it’s time, with so movies since copying it’s aesthetic and formula, and I don’t know if that Punk Noir style is going to carry over after nearly two decades out of the picture.  It helps that most of the people involved have decided to return, and we already know that Keanu Reeves still hasn’t outgrown these kinds of movies (in fact he may be even better prepped for them now).  One hopes that this movie can end the series on a more satisfying note, and maybe even open it up to a brighter future, but it will all depend on if some of that mojo is still there after so many years.

ENCANTO (NOVEMBER 24)

Usually I have nothing but high hopes for what’s coming next in the Disney Animation pipeline, but their next film Encanto (which marks their milestone 60th feature) has thus far left me unimpressed.  I hope that it’s just a case of tepid marketing thus far, because all we have to judge this movie by is this trailer, which gives only a vague sense of what this movie is about.  At the same time, I feel like Disney has been unfortunately unfair to the animation world during the course of the pandemic.  They appear to be playing favoritism on their end, by giving this and their last animated film Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) theatrical releases (albeit a hybrid one with Disney+ premiere access) and at the same time denying that honor for it’s last two Pixar films, Soul (2020) and Luca (2021), both of which went straight to Disney+.  Pixar is going to see a return to the big screen in 2022 with their dual releases of Turning Red and Lightyear, but even still it’s very suspect that Pixar’s parent company would deny them a chance to perform on the big screen while still granting their own in house films that honor.  For this long time Disney fan it leaves a sour taste in my mouth and unfortunately hangs a dark cloud over this movie, which I might have otherwise been looking forward to under different circumstances.  I hope more revealing marketing in the future helps to generate more enthusiasm for this movie from me.  It is certainly marketing itself on having new music from their current golden boy Lin-Manuel Miranda, which I can’t complain about.  And I’m sure that it will be lovely to look at with all of the usual high quality animation that Disney is known for.  I just wish that the corporate shenanigans behind the scenes wasn’t reflecting negatively on this film.  In truth, Disney should not be playing favorites with their different animation studios, because all of them have been putting out some of their best work ever in the last few years, and we should all have the chance to see the animators’ work on a big screen.  Hopefully next year, the playing field has been made level once again.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

WEST SIDE STORY (DECEMBER 10)

Never thought I’d be putting a movie directed by a legend like Steven Spielberg on this section, but it’s a sign of just how much I think this movie is a mistake.  I don’t know if the original West Side Story (1961) is in the class of “untouchable” movies that can never be remade, but it’s close.  There certainly can be a way to re-adapt the musical; Broadway has been doing that for years.  But from what I can see so far from this first trailer is that Spielberg is unfortunately just remaking the original movie over again with very little in the way of changes.  It is nice to see racially appropriate casting this time around, and the return of Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance in the original 60 years ago, is also very welcome.  But, what I don’t like is the fact that Spielberg has staged and shot this movie almost exactly like the original film directed by Robert Wise.  It’s never a good sign when a remake is too afraid to venture away from the original it’s deriving from.  All it does is remind you how great the movie was done the first time around and how unnecessary this remake is as a result.  We don’t even get any signing in this trailer, except for a melancholy rendition of “Somewhere” by Rita Moreno off camera, which does not bode well for what we’ll expect to see from the rest of the cast.  I know that Spielberg has been itching to do a musical for a long time.  I just wish he had chosen something new or um-adapted for the screen that he could really have given his own personal stamp on.  Instead, here he’s playing around with something that already feels like it belongs to someone else, and it looks like he’s playing it too safe by doing so much to remind us of a more classic movie.  It’s unthinkable that I am recommending skipping a Spielberg movie, but that just might be what happens with this potentially disastrous movie.  I hope I am wrong.

KING RICHARD (NOVEMBER 19)

It wouldn’t be a Fall movie season without a little Oscar bait.  And once again we are seeing Will Smith vying for the gold that he really seems to gunning for.  He has done some commendable dramatic work in the past, most notably as Muhammad Ali in the Michael Mann biopic Ali (2001), but a lot of his dramatic roles have also fallen flat over the years.  Here, he’s trying once again with a dramatic turn as Richard Williams, the father of pro tennis phenoms Venus and Serena.  Unfortunately, it looks like another case of Will Smith trying too hard.  One of the things that has made Will a movie star over the years has been his infectious charisma on screen, but one thing that has also gotten in his way has been his own ego.  That’s been reflected in his more dramatic roles where Will tends to want to show off a bit more instead of playing things more straight.  Try as he might, he can’t disappear into a role as well as other actors, and it can be distracting because all audiences can see most of the time is just Will Smith in a costume and make-up.  It’s also a problem that this movie is not particularly interesting as a sports biopic either.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense telling the story of the Williams sisters by focusing on their father instead.  The movie also faces another hurdle falling under the controversial choice by Warner Brothers to make their movies available in theaters and streaming at the same time, which as we have seen has made it harder for movies like this to find an audience.  We’ll see what affect Will Smith’s star power has on this film’s performance, but I would imagine it’s not going to be much in the long run.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN (SEPTEMBER 24)

This one I feel may put me in the minority, but I honestly don’t feel any good vibes about this one.  Set aside the fact that star Ben Platt (reprising his role from Broadway) appears too old to play a teenager in this movie, this movie also seems primed for release at the worst possible time.  Musicals in general are really beginning to fall into a slump, as evidenced by In the Heights face-plant this Summer.  Dear Evan Hansen was a massive Broadway hit, but what worked on the stage doesn’t always translate into film.  And I feel that’s what is in this movie’s future.  Director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) doesn’t have previous experience with musicals, and it appears that he is making this film look like his other past movies.  That in turn may put off some of the musical’s biggest fans because a straight laced film adaptation will likely end up taking something that felt huge and grand on the stage and reducing it to something that feels small on the screen.  Very few musicals can effectively make the transition from stage to screen and it’s usually only a certain breed of grandiose productions that can pull it off.  Dear Evan Hansen is likely going to miss that mark and it will reflect poorly on the musical’s reputation.  Hopefully there’s an earnestness that can pull it through, but I highly doubt that this movie is going to effectively carry over the acclaim that the musical achieved on the Broadway stage.

So, there you have my thoughts on the upcoming movies of the Fall movie season.  And that’s only a handful of what to expect.  We are actually seeing an unprecedented year at the movies, as we’re getting movies made for this year as well as holdovers from last year hitting the theaters.  In addition to the movies I already spotlighted, there are new films coming from acclaimed directors like Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, and Wes Anderson in the coming months.  There’s also all the upcoming movies making it through the early Fall film festival circuit that may help us get more of a sense what to look out for as Awards season heats up.  And given that movies are more or less being firmly planted in the ground these days, it’s very likely that all the movies I spotlighted will indeed be fully shown to audiences this year, and on the big screen.  It’s especially gratifying to have a seasonal preview again where I’m not talking about something that is coming to Netflix or any other streaming channel in the coming months, although there will be those out there too.  But, if we keep doing what we can to stem the tide of this pandemic and finally put it to rest, these uncertain days about the fate of the theatrical market and it’s calendar of releases will become a thing of the past.  I’m hopeful that it can be done and that 2022 will find the domestic North American box office right back to where it stood per-pandemic.  2021 thus far has been tough going, but it’s one where we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.  And thankfully, as we’ve seen in the unlikeliest of places, people are eager to return to the movie theaters, and the studios are becoming increasingly convinced that cinema is an essential part of their long term success.  Hopefully that becomes increasingly clear this upcoming fall, and that we no longer need to judge these movies based on how they perform in spite of the pandemic.  So, overall, I hope all of you have an enjoyable, and safe, time at the movies, because there is no better time to go back than now considering what we have on our plate this Fall.

Tinseltown Throwdown – Mary Poppins vs. My Fair Lady

Whenever I spotlight movies with similar plots and thematic elements in this series, it’s usually a competition between movies that are indirect competition, whose standing as a movie doesn’t necessarily need to be defined with it’s comparison to another.  But there are instances in Hollywood history where movies were indeed made to compete against one another, and in some cases, the behind the scenes story of these competitions becomes just as intriguing as the movies themselves.  Such was the case with the year 1964, when the big budget movie musical saw a brief revival in the early part of that decade and hit a high point when two studios actively jumped in and took shots at placing itself atop with their own additions to the genre.  Surprising to many is that this cutthroat competition at the box office involves two musicals with the unlikeliest of settings to appeal to a broad American audience; that being turn of the century Edwardian England.  The two movies in question were of course the Broadway to Hollywood transplant that was Warner Brothers’ My Fair Lady (1964) and the cinematic original Mary Poppins (1964) from Walt Disney Productions.  Today, these two movies are quaint, audience pleasing relics of a bygone era in old Hollywood, but it may surprise many that behind the scenes, these movies involved a back and forth war between two studio giants that saw the making and breaking of creative partnerships between the executives and the talent involved.  Despite the turmoil behind the scenes, the movies still became huge successes for both parties, and both remain perennial favorites for cinephiles everywhere.  But based on their weaknesses and strengths, it is interesting looking at how they stack up together, especially considering their shared history.  So, let’s take that jolly holiday back to Golden Age Hollywood and see which lady remains the fairer.

First off it is interesting looking how these two movies came into being in the first place.  My Fair Lady had previously started on the Broadway stage in 1958, with music and lyrics by the team of Lerner & Lowe, the same people who turned Camelot into a massive hit on the stage a couple years prior.  The musical itself was based on the famous play Pygmalion by English playwright George Bernard Shaw, which itself was inspired by the Greek myth of the same name.  The musical added songs, but still retained the core plot, characters and whit of Shaw’s original piece.  Lady of course was a smash hit and Hollywood took notice immediately.   Warner Brothers won out in a bidding war with other studios and began development immediately on a screen adaptation.  Unfortunately for them, the movie languished for a while as it became harder and harder to fill the different roles with actors that would fit.  In the end, it was decided that the original Broadway cast would be carried over, except for one notable exclusion; the original Eliza Doolittle, Julie Andrews.  According to historians, Andrews was passed over because Warner Brothers’ head Jack Warner didn’t view her as a big enough name to carry a movie this size.  Rex Harrison, the other lead in the musical playing Professor Henry Higgins, was just coming off a major role as Julius Ceaser in Fox’s Cleopatra (1963), which shielded him from the same scrutiny, so unfortunately for Ms. Andrews, who had yet to make the jump from stage to screen was denied her shot, despite the rave reviews she had earned before in the role.  Jack Warner instead turned to Oscar-winning screen legend Audrey Hepburn for the role of Eliza, which turned a few heads in the industry because Hepburn did not have a musical background.  She had sung on screen before, including the song “Moonriver” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), but that was a far cry from what she was going to undertake as Eliza Doolittle, which is not an easy role.  And indeed, even Jack Warner began to have second thoughts, even after passing over Julie for Audrey.  He made the controversial decision to dub over all of Audrey’s singing tracks with an uncredited vocalist named Marni Nixon, who had previously done dub work for Deborah Kerr in The King and I (1956).  Unfortunately, the news of this replacement broke through and became a scandal of it’s own, which sadly reflected back on Audrey Hepburn and damaged her reputation as a vocalist on screen for some time after.

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.  You find the fun, and snap…the job’s a game.”

Meanwhile, Disney was in the midst of it’s own tumultuous development of a big screen musical.  Instead of taking a known property from the stage, Walt Disney and company set out to create one from scratch, adapting a well known children’s book series to screen.  This two languished on for years, as Walt Disney had to contend with Mary Poppins’ notoriously stubborn original author P. L. Travers in order to secure the rights.  The back and forth with Ms. Travers itself inspired it’s own movie called Saving Mr. Banks (2013), starring Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Disney.  Walt did eventually get Travers on board, though just barely, and set out to make Mary Poppins the culmination of all his cinematic prowess that he had gained up to this point.  With a collection of catchy songs by the Sherman Brothers and top notch talent assembled from across the studio, Disney had the movie ready to roll.  There was only one issue left; who would play Mary?  As it turned out, Walt had a gift land right into his lap as Warner Brothers discarded one of the top tier Broadway talents off of their My Fair Lady adaptation, and she was suddenly available.  Walt, who was also a fan of Broadway, had been trying to sway Julie Andrews over to his studio ever since her introduction in Camelot, and not one to miss an opportunity, he took full advantage of Jack Warner’s misstep.  Julie Andrews was offered the role of Mary Poppins without ever auditioning, and she gladly accepted the part on the spot.  With their Mary in place, Disney’s production went into full swing, just as Warner Brothers was deep into production with their Andrews-less My Fair Lady.  With high expectations for both, they entered cinemas months apart, Poppins first in the summer and then Lady in the late fall, and were both immediate smash hits.  Indeed, their competition lasted long into the next year and gave a huge boost to the then flailing movie musical genre.  This extended well into Oscar Season, where My Fair Lady came out on top with the Best Picture honor, but Julie Andrews (the one Jack Warner thought was not ready for the movies) earning Best Actress, in a race where Audrey Hepburn had been completely shut out of.

“The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.”

It might be easy to view this as a case of Audrey Hepburn being horribly miscast in the role of Eliza Doolittle, but that entirely not true at all.  Audrey’s performance in My Fair Lady is actually quite strong and divorced from all the controversy surrounding her casting in this film, one could look at this movie and believe rightly that Audrey Hepburn is actually perfectly cast in the part.  It’s Warner Brothers, and Jack Warner in particular, who are responsible for shaping the controversial reputation of her role in the film with their terrible mismanagement of the back stage drama that unfolded.  When she’s onscreen, Audrey is magnetic.  She brings an infectious energy to the role, does surprisingly well with Eliza’s cockney accent in the early part of the movie, and just looks flat out amazing in the lavish dresses.  In many ways, the reason why her performance falters in the overall movie is not her fault at all.  It’s an incomplete performance, made all the more noticeable by the fact that Marni Nixon’s melodic voice is so different than her own.  Nixon has a thoroughly stage trained voice meant to invoke power, whereas Hepburn’s singing voice comes from a more earthbound place.  That’s not to say they couldn’t make Hepburn’s more natural tones work for the role.  Over the years snippets of Hepburn’s real vocal tracks have emerged and they prove that she indeed had the vocal range to deliver in this role, but sadly we get the mismatch that occurs in the final film, and it is a negative reflection on the film.  No inconsistencies exist in Mary Poppins on the other side.  Walt knew fully well of the gift he was granted with the angelic voice of Julie Andrews it is used to the fullest in Poppins.  From “Spoon Full of Sugar” to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to “Feed the Birds”, Julie’s Mary imbues the movie with unimaginable grace, and her Mary remains to this day one of the most beloved movie heroines of all time.  Not only that, but Julie also shows a maturity in front of the camera that you wouldn’t expect from a Hollywood novice, and it immediately brought her fully off the stage and onto the screen.  And yes, Jack Warner realized this as well, only after it was too late.

But, My Fair Lady does have many elements that make it stand out strong in comparison to it’s competitor, and in some ways is even superior in comparison.  One is the story itself.  Mary Poppins is a thoroughly entertaining piece of cinema on the whole, but one nitpick that someone might make about it is that it’s light on story.  Mary Poppins, a magical nanny, swoops into the lives of the Banks family and through a series of extraordinary events, manages to repair their fractured relationship before leaving to return to wherever she came from.  It’s the nature of adapting a narrative from a episodic series like the original Poppins books that the movie itself would take on an episodic structure.  That’s essentially what we get in Mary Poppins.  It’s a movie with interconnected adventures loosely tied together, and as great as those individual adventures are, they really don’t have much bearing on the overall story.  Much of the narrative drive of Mary Poppins is not focused her, nor the Banks children but instead on George Banks, the father (played superbly by David Tomlinson) who’s the only character with an arc in the movie.  Mary Poppins, throughout the entire movie, remains mostly an enigma, providing instigation to the plot rather than any active participation.  By comparison, the character arcs in My Fair Lady are far more layered and intriguing.  Taking it’s cue from George Bernard Shaw, Lady has much more bite to it than Mary Poppins.  It takes the risk of introducing it’s characters in a not so flattering light upfront, with Eliza Doolittle introduced being a brash, unsophisticated street vendor and Henry Higgins introduced as a misogynistic high class jerk who looks down on the poor.  It’s a story about transformation, as Eliza goes from Cockney to classy, and in turn she forces a change in Higgins where he begins to learn the error of his ways and softens his brash façade.  A tried old tale of a selfish man believing that he can craft the perfect woman, only to find that a perfect woman is one that doesn’t need him in order to feel complete, and him in turn forced to change his ways to prove his own worth.  Shaw reinvisioned it for his own time in Pygmalion, and the musical perfectly carries that forward through song, and you can see the same story play out in more a modern reimagining like Pretty Woman (1990) and She’s All That (1999).  Overall, it’s what gives My Fair Lady extra cinematic weight over the more airy Mary Poppins.

“Winds in the east, mist coming in.  Like somethin’ is brewin’ and ’bout to begin.  Can’t put my finger on what lies in store, but I feel what’s to happen all happened before.”

Another thing that My Fair Lady has over Poppins is a more commanding second lead.  Much has been said about the controversial choice of casting Dick Van Dyke as a cockney voiced chimney sweep in Edwardian London.  True, Dick Van Dyke is a national treasure and a still living legend as of this writing, and his presence in Mary Poppins is a welcome one, especially in the musical numbers where he excels.  However, the accent is notoriously bad, as the all-American star of stage and screen finds it well out of his range to convince us he’s a Cockney.  Compared to his co-star whose Englishness is gracefully on display through the whole movie, he definitely looks a bit out of place, though his chemistry with Julie is strong.  In My Fair Lady, we get Rex Harrison at the height of his power as a performer.  In a sense, this was a difficult role to undertake, as Henry Higgins is not an easy character to like.  With such a backwards, toxic view of the opposite sex, how are we ever to believe that Henry Higgins can be a worthwhile romantic foil for Eliza Doolittle by the end of the movie.  Somehow, Rex Harrison manages to balance all that perfectly in his performance.  His delightfully salty insults carry this edge of ridiculousness that helps to soften the blow and make the character intriguing to the audience.  Only an actor with the kind of presence as Rex Harrison could believably pull this off, because if you were to say the things that Henry Higgins says to Eliza in the movie outside of context in the real world, you’re probably opening yourself up for a workplace harassment suit.  An interesting side note about Harrison’s performance in the film is that he refused to do a dub track for himself.  As a veteran stage actor, he was used to delivering a different level of performance with every show, and he wanted to maintain that even in the movie.  If they pre-recorded his voice, it wouldn’t match what he was giving them in front of the camera.  So, unlike his fellow actors, he had his vocal tracks recorded live on the set instead of in a separate booth later.  If you look closely in the movie, there are hidden mics sewn into his costumes, such as a tie or a corsage pinned to his suit, just so they could capture his singing in the moment.

One of the things that both movies actually illustrate brilliantly together is the level of production design that went into making them.  Despite the fact that both movies are set in Edwardian London during the early part of the 20th century, it will amaze many to know that both movies were actually shot entirely in sunny Burbank, California and completely indoors on soundstages at their respective studio lots.  In fact, it’s quite possible that both movies were shooting simultaneously within only a mile distance from one another; I know, I’ve walked that actual distance between the studios, it can be done in less than 15 minutes (depending on the timing of the crosswalks).  It’s amazing how both films are still able to convey an authentic sense of time and place even under these conditions.  You never question the fact that you’re looking at studio built sets that invoke the feeling of the outdoors.  In some cases, they really pulled out all stops to convey authenticity, like the Ascot Gavotte sequence in My Fair Lady, where the crew actually had real race horses gallop at full speed across the different ends of the stage to make it feel like the characters were at a real track.  Still, there are several moments in My Fair Lady where it’s hard to shake off the stage bound origins it derives from.  It’s a very interior heavy film, and a lot of the movie is set within people’s homes and far fewer set out in the open streets.  Mary Poppins on the other hand expands far beyond the limits of the soundstage.  Spends much more of it’s time outside, which feels authentic and detailed even though it’s all still in a soundstage.  With a combination of brilliant set design, plus exquisitely detailed matte paintings done by the legendary Peter Ellenshaw, Mary Poppins gives you a more fully enriched and alive London, which feels remarkably real to the viewer.  The movie even broke ground by placing it’s actors in an animated world (Disney’s strong suit) in a still impressive to this day visual effect.  Though My Fair Lady has top notch production values, Mary Poppins on the whole is the movie that takes the most advantage of it’s cinematic options and in general feels the most alive.  When you can convince an audience that they are indeed in cold, damp London, England and not in a scorching hot soundstage in Burbank, California, you know you’ve done right.

“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”

In the end, audiences were blessed with two classics that have indeed withstood the test of time to remain cinematic favorites to this day.  Indeed, for some it’s hard to choose one over the other, because they are both so brilliantly crafted and offer different experiences.  The one thing that binds them together is the fact that one movie benefitted from the callous oversight of the other and created this fascinating “what if” scenario that cinephiles have speculated over.  How different would things have been had Jack Warner not shunned Julie Andrews and allowed her to play the role she had created for the stage originally?  Would Mary Poppins have been the masterpiece that it is had someone else filled Andrews place in the role?  Would Audrey Hepburn have escaped that unfortunate cloud of controversy that would leave a mark on her otherwise flawless career?  Certainly in the end Julie Andrews got the last laugh.  Upon receiving a Golden Globe win before her inevitable Oscar, she thanked in her speech the man responsible for making it happen, Mr. Jack Warner, in a not so subtle dig at the man who thought she was not ready for the big screen.  It is indeed unthinkable to imagine anyone else in the original role of Mary Poppins than Julie Andrews, and it was a stroke of great timing on Walt Disney’s part to bring her on board the moment she was available.  And of course she would carry that on into an even bigger role as Maria von Trapp in the juggernaut that was The Sound of Music (1965) a year later.  One thing that I hope no one overlooks is that Audrey Hepburn was not an inferior replacement; she was a great Eliza Doolittle in her own right.  I think taken on that alone most audiences today will recognize that she is indeed one of the things that makes My Fair Lady a continuing classic to this day.  Mary Poppins is indeed the more ambitious of the two, but My Fair Lady holds it’s own with impressive production values and great performances to it’s credit as well.  It’s a close call competition that leaves a stellar legacy for both productions that are both “loverly” and “practically perfect in every way.”

“It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary.  No wonder that it’s Mary that we love.”

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