The Director’s Chair – Christopher Nolan

There are many film directors out there that have, in one form of another, a following.  Whether it’s a full on fandom or just a casual ongoing interest, many film directors benefit from these followings as a way of generating interest for whatever project they have coming up in the pipeline.  Sometimes a filmmaker struggles to live up to those expectations, while others are able to build upon every success, eventually leading to a filmography that not only stands well alone in it’s parts, but also begins to be appreciated and studied as a complete body of work.  Often times, the most unique directorial careers exist outside the Hollywood system, working within more modest budgetary constraints which may limit their ambitions but will in turn retain their artistic integrity.  These usually are your auteurs like Terrence Malick or David Lynch, whose artistic expression is very much outside of the mainstream.  Though their movies have ambition and are true to their artistic senses, you can also see in many of their movies a very outsider imprint that’s telling of their limited budgets.  But, on the rare occasion, you’ll see a filmmaker with ambition and artistic integrity not only hit the mainstream, but somehow thrive within delivering movies that both succeed financially and are able to challenge their audiences.  It’s in that rarefied air that you find directors who not only have a following, but whose every new project carries an air of importance that instantly makes them an event in the eyes of audiences.  And one of those who has managed to get to that place recently is a director whose goal is to constantly push the limits of film-making with every new movie he undertakes.

British-American director Christopher Nolan has built up a reputation in Hollywood for making colossal, mind-bending epics.  His rise within the industry is nothing out of the ordinary.   Raised in the shadow of Hollywood while his father was a professor at UCLA, Nolan was well positioned to learn the tricks of the trade from an early age.  After attending film school back in his native London, he immediately went to work on his first feature, Following, a micro-budget thriller that would reveal much of the style and themes that he would further explore in future films; mainly those of obsession and overcoming demons, both internal and external.  Collaborating with his younger brother Jonathan, himself a burgeoning writer and filmmaker, his follow-up film, Memento (2000) would immediately gain him notoriety from the film industry, earning both him and Jonathan their first Oscar nominations.  That’s not bad for a second feature.  The non-linear story-telling of Memento itself would become one of the most influential inspirations to a whole new crop of filmmakers coming up in the early 2000’s, many of whom have held Nolan up as one of their icons.  But, to Christopher’s credit, he never got complacent based on that early success and it helped him to recognize great opportunities once they came his way.  Once Warner Brothers handed him the reigns of their Batman franchise, he proved to the world that it was not him selling out, but instead an opportunity to rewrite the superhero genre forever.  With every new movie, Nolan has wowed us making each film grander than the last, and has achieved a rarefied air of ambition mixed with artistic integrity that we haven’t seen the likes of since possibly that of Stanley Kubrick.  Like other profiles in this series, I’ll be looking at the different themes and continuing features that have made Christopher Nolan’s directorial career so distinct, and how they have manifested so impact-fully in his most noteworthy movies.

1.

BROKEN MEN

One of the most consistent tropes of Christopher Nolan’s filmography is that of stories centered around men who in some way or another are damaged or lost.  Sometimes it’s out of a dilemma of their own making, or it’s because of some deficiency that makes living a struggle.  But no matter what that obstacle is, it becomes the central driving force within the protagonist’s story in one of Nolan’s films.  His breakthrough feature, Memento, features one of the clearest examples of one of these broken characters.  Guy Pearce plays Leonard, a man who suffers from short term memory loss who literally has to mark up his own body in order to remember key information in order to solve a mystery.  In one of Nolan’s most ingenious narrative devices, he tells Leonard’s story in reverse, starting at the end and finishing at the beginning, putting us the audience in the same disoriented mindscape that the character is in.  Over the course of the film, we identify with that struggle, and how infuriating it is to come to terms with not only one’s place in the world, but also with ones self.  It’s a similar trope that Nolan would also explore through Bruce Wayne’s entire arc in the Dark Knight trilogy.  Through the three films, Christian Bale’s Wayne believes that by becoming the symbol of justice through Batman that he can inspire a reawakening in his beloved city of Gotham.  But, once he is morally tested by the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) and physically beaten down by Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) we see a further internal awakening in the character to confront the demons that he’s been trying to run away from his whole life.   In Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb from Inception (2010), we see his literal inner demons manifest as a murderous nightmare in the form of his departed wife.  It’s a theme that Nolan constantly mines to lesser and greater extents in all his movies and it’s probably the thing that sticks out the most as his defining signature trait as a storyteller.

2.

TIME

The other common trope of Christopher Nolan’s filmography apart from his troubled main characters is the way that he likes to play around with the concept of time.  Certainly the formatting of Memento showed Nolan’s interest in telling a story out of order, but even in his more linear films do we see the idea of time holding a special significance in his character’s stories.  The movie Inception introduced a very novel concept of how different levels of dreaming can stretch out the perception of time on the dreamer.  The deeper you go, the more time stretches out.  So for his characters, who are infiltrating a shared dreamscape, each new layer takes on a different timescale, and special measures are undertaken to ensure that everything can still line up on time at the different levels.  Creating these rules for his fictional world of dream heists in Inception are all fascinating enough, but Nolan has also shown interest in the way time works on a truly infinite, scientific scale as well.   With Interstellar (2014), Nolan explores the way that relative time acceleration can cause Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut to pass by decades worth of time on Earth after coming too close to the orbit of a black hole.  By the end, what ended up being a couple days for him was 75 years back on Earth, and he reunites with his daughter who has gone from a child to an old woman in the blink of an eye.  Nolan even explores the very limits of time, by having McConaughey’s Cooper enter a tesseract found in the singularity of a black hole, where time is irrelevant.  It’s in those two features where Nolan makes time an important factor as a part of the story, but even in some of his more grounded movies he uses time as an important story-telling tool.  Whether it’s the inter-cutting found in Dunkirk (2017) or the flashbacks in Batman Begins (2005), Nolan always seems to find interesting ways to use the passage of time as an element of his story.  It’s something that he’s also not through with exploring, as his next feature Tenet (2020) looks to put the concept front and center.

3.

ARCHITECTURE

One does have to wonder if Christopher Nolan hadn’t applied his intelligence to a career in film-making, he might have become an architect instead.  What you’ll notice very commonly in many of his movies is that Nolan loves to photograph buildings in his movies.  You can pull up so many stills of just the flyover shots of cityscapes in his movies, and those alone could fill up a spread in Architectural Digest.   But his interest in architecture doesn’t just stop at exteriors.  He puts just as much work into crafting unique looking interiors for his films as well.  There is something about his use of eye-catching architecture in his movies that relates to Nolan’s desire to ground his movies in a certain reality.  He’s always concerned about the authenticity of his worlds, and making the audience feel like they are a part of the scene, paying as close attention to the smallest details as possible.  And this can range from anything as spectacular as the Bat Cave in The Dark Knight, to something as intimate as Mark Rylance’s fishing boat in Dunkirk, to something as otherworldly as the spaceships of Interstellar.  At the same time, Nolan is also just as interested in manipulating architecture in unexpected ways.  Inception in particular shows Nolan pushing the limits of exterior and interior spaces to places that can never exist in the real world.  One of the most spectacular scenes in the movie involves just a simple hotel hallway, but through the manipulation of the dream world, it is literally flipped upside down.  And of course in true Nolan fashion, no CGI enhancement was used.  Taking a cue from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) rigged a fully furnished hallway to a gimble cylinder and spun the whole thing around with a camera locked into place.  Nolan did use CG to create a different spectacular moment of a city folding in on itself, but even this was done with an eye towards retaining an architectural integrity.  No matter how grounded or beyond the realm of physics Christopher Nolan’s architectural sights may be, they nevertheless make an impact in defining his visual style.

4.

IMAX

One thing that has certainly defined Christopher Nolan within the industry beyond the films that he makes is his passionate advocacy for both the theatrical experience and for the use of physical media in the film-making process.  Deeply opposed to even the thought of shooting with digital cameras, Nolan has committed himself to shooting all his movies on film stock.  For him it’s not just holding onto a sense of tradition in film-making; he genuinely believes that shooting on film brings out the best fidelity within the image, and there is plenty of evidence for that.  The kind of cinematography found in Nolan’s films would certainly not carry the same kind of atmosphere if they were shot digitally.  It also helps that Nolan always uses larger formats for his films.  One of the main reasons Christopher Nolan’s movies have become big events upon release is because his film stock of choice is 70 mm IMAX, the largest format in the whole market.  And he constructs every one of his movies around the use of this massive and expensive film stock.  It’s really remarkable how Nolan is able to construct his movies using IMAX cameras, because they are not easy to move around.  Collaborating with the greatest IMAX photographers in the business, Wally Pfister and Hoyte Van Hoytema, Nolan has managed to put the no-room-for-error IMAX lens in some of the most remarkable places.  And what he’s managed to shoot in the format has been some of cinema’s most spectacular moments ever; the flipping of Joker’s truck in The Dark Knight, the flyby of a black hole in Interstellar, Bane’s midair hijacking in The Dark Knight Rises‘ prologue, and the sinking ships of Dunkirk.  None of those scenes would have had the same impact on anything less than the IMAX frame.  And a brand new Nolan film demands to be seen on a big screen.  One hopes that the director’s reputation for showmanship on this level will be enough to bring audiences back to the theaters this summer with Tenet.  Regardless, I don’t think you’ll see Nolan abandon the IMAX format anytime soon.

5.

FAMILIAR FACES

One last thing you’ll easily notice about Nolan’s movies is that he does like to use actors more than once in his projects.  He’s managed to work with actors like Tom Hardy three times, Cillian Murphy five times, and Sir Michael Caine has been in everything he’s made since 2005’s Batman Begins (those wondering where the noticeably absent on screen actor was in Dunkirk need to listen for that familiar cockney accent coming from the comm-link radios directing the fighter pilots in the movie).  It’s not uncommon for a director to have a stable of go to actors for his movies, like Martin Scorsese and Alfred Hitchcock, but what I think makes Nolan’s use of his actors so unique is the versatility in which he uses them.  Just look at the different roles that Tom Hardy has played in his movies; from a suave dream forger in Inception, to the formidable supervillain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, to a RAF fighter pilot in Dunkirk.  The only thing those performances have in common is that in two of them, Hardy is required to wear a breather mask for most of the movie.  It is interesting that for the roles of his film’s protagonists, Nolan usually just works with that actor once; apart from Christian Bale’s three-peat as Batman.  Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Guy Pearce, Hugh Jackman and Al Pacino all delivered some of the best work of their career in a Nolan film, but they were also one and done with the director.  And it wasn’t because of any friction between Nolan and the actors; they all have nothing but great things to say about their experience.  It’s just that this is the way Nolan likes to work; he likes to return to familiar faces to fill out his supporting roles, but he prefers to have a clean slate when it comes to his main characters.  And I think that this has helped to make every new film of his feel so refreshing each time.  A new face among all the familiar ones means a chance for a bold new adventure.

There’s no doubt that Christopher Nolan has earned his spot near the top of the best working directors today.  The fact that he has made it his goal in life to push the medium of film further with every movie he makes has endeared him to cinephiles all over the world, including myself.  It’s so rare to see a filmmaker these days deliver such uncompromising vision on the big screen with the full backing of a major studio.  You can definitely see the influence of Kubrick on Christopher Nolan, himself being a unique voice who managed to maintain his artistic integrity within the studio system.  So many auteurs try to work on the outside the same way, but Nolan has managed to bend the studios towards his way of thinking, which is unheard of today in Hollywood.  Who else could’ve gotten a studio to invest in something as out-of-this-world as Inception and still see that movie not only click with audiences, but also generate a huge profit in the end.  One of the reasons why Nolan has gotten to the position that he’s in is because he recognized opportunities when they came his way and made the most of them.  When a studio offers you the reigns to a franchise, it may seem like a compromise that could threaten your artistic integrity in return for a bigger pay day.  But Christopher Nolan did not see it as a compromise, but rather an opportunity to make his own kind of super hero movie, and in turn he set the bar higher for the genre as a whole.  Had he said no to Batman, who knows if he would’ve ever gained the trust of any other studio and been able to create the spectacular films that he’s excelled at ever since.  Nolan’s career can be summed up by his good instincts and his drive to always keep moving forward with what the medium can do.  And the fact that his movies are absolute must sees in a movie theater could also make him the possible savior for a struggling industry in this current crisis that we are in right now. For me personally, I will never see a Nolan film on anything but the biggest screen possible for the first time, and my hope is that theaters will survive long enough to make that possible; for as long as Christopher Nolan continues to make more movies.

Scoob! – Review

It’s interesting how much change has been going on in Hollywood during a pandemic with regards to the way it’s able to roll out it’s new content.  With movie theaters remaining shuttered, at least up to now, Hollywood has had a revenue stream completely cut off, and it’s been leading them towards finding a different mode of distribution.  The streaming channels have provided one avenue, but it’s a area that hasn’t branched into the full market just yet as a sub-plant for the hole left behind by the closed theaters.  In the wake of the pandemic, some studios are trying out something different, which is Video On Demand rentals, where customers on video rental platforms like Amazon and Itunes can pay a full upfront price to rent or purchase the movie digitally.  Thus far, the studios have chosen to bypass the theaters altogether and opt for this VOD service instead to premiere a handful of new movies on.  This has caused great concern from the theater market, who see the move as a threat to their hopes of recovery after this pandemic.  AMC, the largest theater chain in the world and one of the hardest hit by the shutdown, even took action against Universal Studios for breaking from their distribution agreement by premiering Trolls World Tour (2020) on digital VOD without negotiating with them.  In retaliation, AMC is now banning all future Universal films from their theaters, with the Regal chain joining them in solidarity.  This spat between AMC and Universal however is not indicative of the industry as a whole.  Warner Brothers is likewise setting some of their movies for VOD distribution, but they took the extra measure of notifying the theater chains that this would be the case, and it’s helped to maintain their ongoing agreement in tact, which Warner will definitely need because they are the first ones up once the theaters reopen later this summer, with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Wonder Woman 84 still scheduled for theatrical premieres.  But for now, they are in need of a boost on the VOD side, and they’re most hopeful bet this month is the animated film, Scoob!

The new movie is another in a long line of modern reboots of long-standing IP; in this case, the characters from Hanna Barbera’s Scooby Doo franchise.  Created by animation veterans William Hanna and Joseph Barbera during their successful run as producers of Saturday morning cartoons in the 60’s and 70’s, Scooby Doo, Where are You? was an instant hit with the “flower power” generation, and it’s success would continue to propel a further blossoming of new shows from the Hanna Barbera studios for decades.  The only thing is, how do you make a product of it’s time resonate so many years later.  For Hanna Barbera, the key to success was always in maintaining a connection to the audience through the characters.  Thought the times would change, Scoody and his gang would remain true to their cores.  Scooby the lovable, mischievous talking dog, Shaggy his ever devoted clumsy friend, Fred the headstrong leader of their mystery solving gang, Daphne the empathetic optimist who would always lift everyone’s spirits, and Velma, who let’s face it, was honestly always too smart to be running around with all these goofballs, and solved most of the mysteries almost single-handedly.  The formula would remain the same throughout most of Scooby’s history, with the rag tag group discovering a super natural mystery involving ghost, monsters, or extra-terrestrials, and eventually uncovering the hoax behind them, usually with an unmasking on the real perpetrator.  The Scooby Doo cartoons have often been imitated and parodied, but the franchise itself has nevertheless maintained it’s popularity and has seen many updates throughout the years.  This year, they have made the jump to computer animation with Warner Brothers new film titled Scoob!  The only question remains is whether it’s a Scooby do or a Scooby don’t.

The story shows us the Scooby gang at it’s very beginnings, with Scooby (voiced by Frank Welker) meeting a young Shaggy (Iain Armitage) on the sandy shores of Venice Beach.  The two become instantly inseparable.   On the following Halloween, they meet three other children, Fred (Pierce Gagnon), Daphne (McKenna Grace) and Velma (Ariana Greenblatt), and venture into a supposed haunted house where they solve their first real mystery.  When they grow older, they decide to make their mystery solving business legit, but their investor has reservations about where Scooby and Shaggy (Will Forte) fit in, seeing them as a liability.  With Scooby and Shaggy sidelined, the gang of Fred Jones (Zac Efron), Daphne Blake (Amanda Seyfried), and Velma Dinkley (Gina Rodriguez) must continue their work on their own.  Shaggy and Scooby meanwhile are attacked by a mysterious horde of killer robots.  The duo are almost captured until a mysterious ship intercepts them.  They soon learn that it’s the Falcon Fury, the home base of Shaggy’s favorite super hero, the Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg) and his robotic canine companion Dynomutt (Ken Jeong).  They inform Shaggy and Scooby that the robot army had been sent by a villain named Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs), who is hunting down giant skulls belonging to the hell hound Cerberus in hopes of opening the gates to the Underworld, and Scooby it turns out is the key.  Scooby agrees to help out Blue Falcon and his crew, but his growing partnership with Falcon begins to put a strain on his friendship with Shaggy, who begins to feel unwanted and forgotten.  With Dick Dastardly’s sinister plan quickly taking form, and Scooby’s gang becoming increasingly splintered apart, the question remains if Scooby alone can be the hero everyone is telling him he should be.

Like I said earlier, this is not the first time Scooby has gone through an update to the present day.  A couple of live action films were made in the early 2000’s, written by James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, of all people.  And there have been numerous new series revivals and direct to video movies made over the years as well.  This new version does the same as a lot of other recent animated adaptations of long dormant franchises have done, like Illumination’s Dr. Suess films and the upcoming Spongebob Squarepants CGI movie.  In the hopes of remaining relevant to an audience raised on the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks Animation, Scooby inevitably was going to make the jump to 3D eventually, and that kind of transition certainly had the potential to work out.  Computer animation has certainly advanced to the point where you can create models of these characters that remain true to their original hand-drawn designs, and also still retain the Hanna Barbera style of simple, limited animation that made the original show so distinct.  There was never any doubt that a new Scooby Doo movie would look good in Computer Animation.  It’s just that, there needed to be care taken with the story in order to make it worth that effort.   Unfortunately, the movie falls well short in the story department.  There could have been two different directions that the filmmakers could have gone in updating Scooby Doo to the modern day; either making the story more sophisticated and reflective of our present day, or just throw in a lot of topical reference that will date the film horribly in a few years.  Unfortunately, Warner Brothers went with the latter and it really drags the movie down and in many ways kind of insults the legacy of the characters.

The thing that really stings is that the movie actually starts off strong, with the prologue showing the characters in their early years.  I actually thought the opening of this movie did a fine job of establishing the characters in a charming, heartfelt and quite funny way.  However, the movie quickly looses its footing once the characters grow into adults, and I think you can easily pinpoint the exact moment when the movie goes downhill, and that’s the moment an awkwardly shoehorned Simon Cowell cameo is thrown in.  From that moment on, the movie just becomes a steady stream of tired pop culture puns and break-neck pacing that gives the audience no time to settle.  I really wish that the remainder of the movie had maintained the easy-going pacing of the first 10 minutes or so.  I also think that the other big problem with the movie is that it completely abandons the Scooby Doo formula that has proven effective for over 50 years in favor of something that is more akin to a Marvel or DC superhero film.  And that just doesn’t fit with Scooby Doo.  There’s no mystery to uncover; we know who the bad guy is from the very beginning and there is no attempt at all to leave our heroes in the shadows.  We’ve honestly seen this story done a million times before and adding Scooby Doo to the mix gives us nothing new.  In fact, Scooby an the gang feel very out of place in this kind of story.  The lack of originality in the story is compounded even further by the tired use of pop culture references, which is basically animation’s emergency solution for covering-up the shortcomings of a lackluster script.  There are so many references thrown around to Netflix, Tinder, Hashtags, Harry Potter, and even dabbing.  And it doesn’t come off as funny; it just cries of desperation.  This is especially insulting for a movie adapting one of the more cleverly plotted series of it’s era.  It doesn’t help that one of the most notable marketing ploys used for the film was a cross promotion with the Tik Tok app, showing that the filmmakers was more interested in making this movie more pop culture savvy than narratively engaging.  Even the hip sounding abbreviated title Scoob! reeks of desperation.  Warner Brothers honestly shouldn’t have tried to reinvent the wheel on this one, because there is a reason why the formula for the show has been used for so many years; because it works, and abandoning it just takes away all the charm that it could have had.

The characters in the story particularly suffer because of this lack of identity.  I hate the fact that the filmmakers thought it would be a good idea to split up the Scooby gang, because breaking them apart just robs the movie of all the character dynamics that could have been used to drive the humor in the movie.  I’m sorry, but Fred, Daphne and Velma on their own is not a terribly exciting bunch.  For some reason, they made Fred dumber than he ever was on the show as a way to fill in some of that missing comic relief that would have normally come from Shaggy and Scooby.  The voice acting from Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried and Gina Rodriguez is passable, but the movie always drags a bit more when it returns to their story-line.  Shaggy and Scooby do work out a bit better in their characterizations.  Veteran voice actor takes on the role of Scooby fairly well, filling in for the late Don Messick, and it’s kind of special that he is a part of this film, given that his career actually started on the original animated series.  Welker was the original voice of Fred Jones on the series, and that gig has since blossomed into a 50 year career in voice acting.  He even occasionally returns to the role of Fred for various projects, but more recently he has been the go to guy for Scooby Doo, and it’s good that Warner Brothers still honors that.  Will Forte, while not quite hitting that Casey Kasem tenor in the role of Shaggy, still manages to do an adequate job.  I did also get a couple chuckles out of Mark Wahlberg’s “aw shucks” performance as the dim witted Blue Falcon.  But, I definitely have to say that the movie is stolen by Jason Isaac’s over-the-top performance as Dick Dastardly.  He breathes much needed life into this film every time he is on screen, and is by far the best part of the movie.  It’s almost like Jason Isaacs was the only actor aware that he was making a cartoon and he gives a full camp performance worthy of the medium.  It’s just too bad that nothing else within the movie rises to that level.

The animation itself is also a mixed bag.  While the characters of Scooby and Shaggy do look on model compared to their original designs, the same does not hold up for most of the other characters.  The movie gives this strange plastic feel to the human characters that makes their models feel a little off.  This is especially noticeable in a character like Fred, who is the most visually different of all the original series characters in this movie.  It’s in that weird, uncanny valley area where the characters are slightly exaggerated to fit within the colorful cartoony world, but also grounded in a more life-like physicality that just doesn’t mix well together.  The worst example of this occurs when we meet Blue Falcon’s forgettable assistant Dee Dee (voiced by Kiersey Clemons), with her life like physicality clashing with her plastic-like skin.  It’s like she’s a living action figure, and I have no doubt that there is a toy line model that bears the same striking resemblance to this character.  It’s only when the movie exaggerates the character models that they come to life.  Dick Dastardly, again, represents the best of this, as his distinctive look does leave an impression.  I do recognize that the movie does still retain a high quality look throughout.  It’s not animated poorly at all; it just suffer from some poor choices in character modeling.  I like that the animators did include some nods to the slapstick bits done in the Hanna Barbera style that we all remember from the shows.  And also, credit to the sound effects team for throwing in the original Hanna Barbera sound clips in certain moments as well, like the famous twinkle toes bit used in everything from Scooby Doo to The Flintstones.  It’s something to help please the long time Hanna Barbera fans who are looking for something that does honor the legacy of these characters, which sadly is not in abundance in this movie.

So, is Scoob! worth the $20 rental for home viewing.  Honestly, if you just want something to distract your kids for an hour and a half, you may find some use out of the movie, but for those who were hoping for a satisfying reboot of a beloved old franchise, I’d say save your money.  Scoob! is little more than a cash grab, hoping to revitalize a known intellectual property and cynically mine it for some easy cash based in it’s nostalgia value.  The biggest problem with the movie is that it seems to forget exactly what made Scooby Doo work so well as a franchise for so many years, and that’s the simple but effective formula that it’s maintained for 50 years.  It’s trying to be less of a Scooby Doo movie and more of a super hero movie, and it’s just dragging the Scooby gang along for the cliched, predictable ride.  Apart from an emotionally effective prologue and a entertaining villain, there really is nothing to make this movie stand out as a work of animation.  The only reason we are really talking about this movie at all is because of it’s unorthodox way of reaching audiences in the middle of this ongoing pandemic.  Trolls World Tour made headlines with it’s successful roll-out online, and Warner Brothers is hoping the same will happen with Scoob!  Releasing with this kind of notoriety will certainly garner more headlines for Scoob! than it otherwise might have had in a Summer season where it would’ve had to contend with another Pixar film.  But, believe me when I say that Scoob! is a forgettable waste of time that doesn’t nearly do justice to the long standing legacy of it’s characters.  It’s not going to be a game changer that will bring the theatrical market to it’s knees.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Warner Brothers never releases a movie this way again.  If you want a satisfying Scooby snack, just re-watch the original series again, or any of it’s adequate spin-offs.  Scoob! is nothing to wag a dog’s tail at.

Rating: 5/10

Quiet on the Set – How Much a Halt In Production Will Affect the Future of Hollywood

Right now, as stay at home orders extend deep into the late spring and likely further into the summer, we are finding ourselves relying more heavily on home viewing as our one and only avenue of entertainment.  The fate of movie theaters are in limbo, Broadway is facing a massive crisis, and sports have gone dark for the foreseeable future, possibly continuing on without live audiences.  But, there’s still television to tide us over, and the seemingly endless abundance of streaming material available.  But, for many viewers believing that Hollywood will ride this pandemic wave out unscathed thanks to on demand entertainment revenue, there is another lingering factor that may spell a much darker future for the industry.  While new entertainment options are continuing to premiere as planned on platforms like Netflix, it’s only because they had been worked on and completed before the outbreak occurred.  When the world economy shut down all non-essential activity, it also put all film production to a halt.  Everything from sound-stages on studio lots to on location production went completely dark in the hopes of slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus.  And these productions continue to remain on hold, which does come at a cost.  Time lost in production usually leads to productions losing the favorable weather conditions that they needed for their shoot, or the brief window they could have had with a certain actor before they commit to another project.  And those are just the minimal problems related to a shut down.  There’s a whole human factor about all the crew members out of work right now that is especially going to hurt the industry going forward.  The question now is whether Hollywood can return back to normal after this shutdown, how  much longer they can withstand not being able to produce anything, and what options we may have to face in the aftermath of this pandemic.

You take away all the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood mystique and underneath you’ll find that it is an industry just like any other in the global economy.  All those names you see scroll by in the closing credits of a movie or television series belongs to a person who has a valuable purpose in creating the thing that you just watched.  Whether it’s constructing the set, setting up the lights, fabricating the costumes, building the props, filing the paperwork, running errands, loading the camera, supervising the script, catering the meals, or even in some cases putting out fires or causing them for the sake of the scene.  To the general public, these names in the credits are considered nobodies, but in reality, they are the lifeblood of the industry, and they are sadly the ones affected most by the shutdown.  They don’t earn the kind of money that movie stars or directors do, but they take pride in their work and can often benefit from more steady employment as their talents can be applied to a far higher variety of productions.  But with the shutdown happening right now, many of these same people have seen that market of available projects dry up.  The unions and guilds that work within Hollywood can only help so much in assisting out of work crew members, and the freelancers are left to fend for themselves even more.  They don’t have the cushy mansions and stockpiles of spendable cash that the Hollywood elite can live comfortably off of during these many weeks of isolation.  Many of them have been living paycheck to paycheck, and with the cost of living still high in Hollywood, many of them won’t be able to maintain their residency there.  So, as a result, the longer this shutdown continues, the more likely we’ll see many of the skilled labors leaving the business altogether, leading to a shortfall of available staff once production picks up again.

What will that mean for Hollywood?  Sure, productions can fill the same positions with newer faces once things begin to ramp up; but you’ll lose the experience and knowledge that seasoned professionals would’ve had.  There are a lot of crew members with specialty skills that only they are able to perform, particularly on the physical production side of things.  You put these skilled laborers out of work for an extended period of time, it may lead them to abandon their trade in favor of more stable work that doesn’t utilize the same creative aspect.  Like any other industry, there is an element of ageism in Hollywood that unfortunately causes many careers to end abruptly.  For many skilled laborers in Hollywood, a halt in production means a loss of that stability of allowing their work to speak for itself, and for many of them, it means an end to their value in the ever changing landscape in Hollywood.  Sure, the film industry needs to roll over their pool of talent in order to keep up with the changing advances in technology and standards within the workplace, but people who have spent decades refining their talents develop a skill set that can’t be easily replaced.  And when this pandemic does blow over, we will likely see many careers come to an end because the employees couldn’t withstand the storm and had to compromise in order to feed their families, or were sadly seen as expendable in order to preserve the bottom line of the studio.  It’s unfortunate, but sadly also can’t be helped either.  The studios can’t just bring production back to where it was before the pandemic, because that exposes their worker to a potential new outbreak, which itself would have even more economic consequences.  What we’ll likely see out of Hollywood in the aftermath of this is a much different character, of the new guard having to quickly take up the tools of the old guard.

While this is a devastating circumstance for the industry and the people who work within it, it is at the same time nothing new.   Hollywood has faced crises before that has significantly dwindled their resources and available staff.  And somehow, they always find a way to work around it.  During World War II, with a significant portion of our population enlisted and fighting oversees, Hollywood managed to press on by joining the war effort itself, making propaganda films funded by the War Department and promoting the sale of War Bonds in their theaters.  They also employed many women for the first time in roles typically filled by men as an effort to keep their staff  levels up to normal, a move that itself would have a profound effect on a female presence in Hollywood thereafter.  Subsequent conflicts oversees, and social unrest at home also didn’t deter the Hollywood machine either.  The only major disruptions that they faced came from strikes within their own industry.  The Screen Actors Guild, Writer’s Guild of America, and many other labor unions have all led to work stoppages within the industry as new market changes lead to more contentious negotiations between them and the studios.  The most disruptive such strike came in 2007, initiated by the Writer’s Guild and supported by all the other Unions in solidarity.  The strike lasted a full four months, which sounds like not that much time, but for a perpetually moving machine like Hollywood, it was a very costly disruption, costing billions of dollars and putting all those previously mentioned crew members in dire financial straits.  Even through this, the industry still found a way to keep moving, and that was through reality television, which began to dominate airtime because it allowed them studios to put people to work without the two biggest guilds involved, the SAG and the WGA.  Even still, movies were heavily affected, and many productions ended up being delayed or cancelled.  Until now, this has been the closest that Hollywood has come to a full shutdown.  The current climate in many ways dwarfs that of the 2007 strike, because at least that had a clear end point that could be worked towards.  How do we work around a contagion that we still don’t fully understand yet?

The uncertainty of this pandemic is the main concern of Hollywood right now.  We really don’t know when things are going to be back to normal again.  All we have to go on are charts that tell us how pandemics play out to give us a rough estimate about when infection rates will slow.  And so far, every study tells us that this is going to be a long process.  Major studios like Disney are already feeling the crunch of a deep recession affecting their future recovery.  The only thing the industry can do right now is to support each other in the midst of an uncertain future.  A lot of charitable funds have opened up in order to keep out of work technicians and staff financially afloat while the studios remain dark, but again, how long could this last?  For a lot of the industry, the need to return to work as soon as possible is becoming the only option they have left, even if it puts their own health at risk.   Like joining the war effort during WWII and relying on reality television to stay afloat during hard times, Hollywood is finding itself improvising once again, with many television shows filming from home, utilizing the video meeting app Zoom to keep people connected.  But, while this helps to fill airtime with new content, it doesn’t exactly replace what has come before either.  And it only works for weekly, non-scripted shows.  As we learned in the aftermath of the 2007 strike, there is a desire for scripted entertainment and that aspect of the industry will need to pick up immediately following the end of this shutdown.  And the clock is ticking for Hollywood to be able to do that without significant financial cost.  There is a lot about the business that is dependent upon new content releasing into the market over the course of the year, from marketing to merchandise to broadcasting rights and the subsequent ad revenue attached.  You slow all that down, it will affect more industries than just Hollywood alone.

So what options does Hollywood have right now?  While physical production is impossible during the pandemic, it is possible to have movies still work through development in order to be camera ready once the shutdown is lifted.  Writers for one thing see no difference to the way they normally work during this pandemic since they are able to work from home anyway, and the Zoom Meeting feature allows them to continue their writer’s room collaborations on a normal schedule.  In some instances, the shutdown has been a blessing in disguise for some troubled productions, as it buys them more time to fix underlying issues with their movies.  That has been the case over at Marvel, which saw the departure of their director for the Doctor Strange sequel and the assignment of a whole new one to take his place.  The shutdown now gives the new director, Sam Raimi in this case, much needed extra time to resolve issues in the production that would’ve been rushed had he had to deliver the film on it’s original May 2021 release date.  But, a lot of other film productions don’t have the luxury that Marvel has where they can just move their releases one step backwards.  For them, continuing to work still costs money and delays are costly.  Because of this, the need to make changes to their projects in development must be worth the effort.  The post production side can also function out of the home, as more and more people have available editing and visual effects programs installed on their home computers.  But, as productions continue to process their way through safe, isolated home environments, there comes another problem; the empty gaps in between when a movie will be ready to complete and when it will actually be ready to premiere.

The process of making a movie sometimes takes years, but we don’t notice that process so much, because there seems to be something new coming out every week.   But when every movie is put on hold all at once, it will create a ripple effect that will eventually catch up with the public.  Right now, there are still plenty of new shows and movies making their way to streaming channels, and that’s because they were all shot and edited many months earlier.  Eventually, Netflix and the like are going to run into the situation that they’ll have exhausted all their new content unless the shutdown ends pretty soon and they can ramp up production once again.  The 2007 strike shut things down for 4 months and it caused a noticeable disruption in the years that followed.  Imagine what would happen if this pandemic induced shutdown went on for possibly a year.  We wouldn’t start noticing it for a couple years, but eventually that lack of new content could not only affect the bottom line of the streaming channels, it could change the face of Hollywood forever as a result.  I believe that this is why the movie studios made the choice that they did to delay every theatrical release until the late summer and fall season, so that the industry can play a bit of catch-up once it’s able to.  It’s a costly choice, particularly for the theatrical market, but in the end it may be the only way for Hollywood to be able to survive what comes after.  If they don’t delay things now, they’ll either run out of new movies sooner, or rush everything into production which will hurt the quality of the output.  Strangely enough, the one aspect of the industry that won’t be affected by this is animation, which in every aspect of production can be worked on safely from home.  We may end up with a glut of animated movies in the long run because of this shutdown, depending on how long it lasts, because they are the only types of movies that can go on unencumbered.

There are some promising signs that tell us that things won’t turn out to be the worst case scenario.  Countries like New Zealand and the Czech Republic are already making the moves necessary to re-open their film-making industries, and may be ready to welcome back film crews from around the world in as little as a month from now.    Also, heavy hit areas, including New York and California (major epicenters of the film industry) are already seeing a decline in new cases and are making plans for a return to business under the guidance of the safety guidelines given by the CDC.   But it will still be a long process that will no doubt leave the industry changed for a long time.  The loss of skilled crew members who will see their careers in Hollywood come to an end itself will be a tragic outcome.  One would hope that there is enough goodwill extended out to them in order to keep them afloat and able to continue in the film business, but that’s dependent on the needs of the studios in the long run and by how long this shutdown may stretch out.  The ability for Hollywood to prolong their production schedules may also be a factor, as many promised upcoming projects may have to be sacrificed in order to either save capital or be dissolved in favor of something different.  There may be even the societal changes that could leave a lasting effect on the industry.  How comfortable will actors be with performing more intimate moments on screen in a era of social distancing.  A lot of new normals are going to be the case over the next few years, and it may change us as a culture permanently.  That in turn will extend down into the entertainment we consume, and Hollywood will be a different industry because of it.  For right now, the empty film sets that sit silently all across the world wait for a different kind of storm to blow through once this current deadly one forces us into isolation.  Hollywood is going to face a long road back to business as normal, and it may result in a Hollywood we no longer recognize.

Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater – A First Ever Experience in One of the Last of It’s Kind Movie Venues

It’s a weird time for movies right now.  This would have been the first weekend of the 2020 Summer movie season, and the launch of a new blockbuster film (originally in this case was Marvel’s Black Widow) would have kicked things off into high gear.  But, as of right now, movie theaters across the nation remain closed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  This has thrown the state of cinema into unprecedented territory, as there is no other place to go for entertainment other than what is available on streaming services.  This has caused a lot of friction between studios who impatiently want to generate income for the movies they’ve already spent millions of dollars producing and the movie theater chains who are on the brink of collapse.  This led to a squabble between Universal and the theater chains AMC and Regal, as Universal was trying to back out of a distribution deal so that they could release more of their movies online, due to the success of Trolls World Tour (2020) in digital rentals.   It’s a dispute that I hope resolves itself, because once the crisis is over, both sides are going to need to work together in  order to bring things back to normal.  And that normal may not even be what it once was.  Movie theaters may take years to recover from this, if at all.  And that is an unfortunate thing for those of us who are huge fans of the theatrical experience.  I for one don’t see the VOD option as the future of cinema, because there is always going to be that desire for the communal experience of a movie theater.  Until things get better, that option is unfortunately unavailable to us, except if you are lucky enough to find it.  Yes, there is still one big screen option left in the country, and it’s one that many people thought was long gone into yesteryear.

The Drive-In Movie Theater was believed to be a relic of a bygone era, when car culture dominated the landscape.  Now, in the era of social distancing, it’s something of a godsend because it’s the only option left for watching a movie on a big screen.  The only problem is, because of it’s decline over the last few decades due to the rise of the multiplex, drive-in’s began to disappear across the country, with only a handful left in operation.  The Drive-in Theater first started in Camden, New Jersey in 1932, but it didn’t hit it’s zenith until the post-War years.  As people began moving out to the suburbs, the rise in car sales skyrocketed, and this in turn led to a rise in businesses accommodating to the automobile.  Fast food began to be delivered through Drive-Thru pickup, and of course, a rise in the Drive-In theater.  Families, couples, and even just a casual single attendee could pick the best spot in front of a massive white screen with the sky as it’s backdrop, and never have to leave the comfort of their own car.  The experience would be improved even more as convertibles became more fashionable, which would open up the outdoor feeling even more.  The Drive-In Theater has become an iconic part of that romanticized post-war American ideal, and it’s still seen as an important part of cinematic history.  At it’s peak, 4,000 Drive-In theaters operated across just the United States alone.  However, with the rise of multiplexes, and the beginning of home entertainment, not to substantial cost of operational and property expenses, the Drive-In theater declined sharply in the decades ahead.  Most sold off their substantial properties off to developers, or in many cases converted themselves to full time swap-meets.  Today, only 300 Drive-In’s remain, and even fewer are operating normally under the stay at home orders given during this pandemic.  Fortunately, one of those last remaining theaters is within an hour’s drive of my apartment here in the Los Angeles area.  It’s the Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater in the sleepy little town of Montclair, CA and it holds the distinction of being the first Drive-In movie theater I have ever been to.

Opened in 1956, “The Mission” as it was originally called featured only a single screen to begin with.  In 1975, the theater was expanded to four, making it one of the largest operating Drive-In venues in all of Southern California, which itself was one of the hubs of the Drive-in Theater craze due to it’s ideal climate.  Though never closed like so many of it’s contemporaries throughout the years, the Mission did fall into disrepair due to neglect from past operators.  A restoration effort began in earnest in 2006 to save the aging venue, and it brought the property up to speed with the times.  The booths was retrofitted with spiffy new, top of the line digital projectors, the concession kitchen was spruced up and renovated, the screens were given clean new metal boarding, and the entire lot was repaved.  The new operators also gave the venue it’s new Tiki theme, with the front gates re-themed to Polynesian style huts and the addition of a rock garden with Easter Island style statues.  And though the re-theme is new, it does fit within the character of the retro cinematic experience.  Great care was taken to make this not only a functioning Drive-In theater, but also a prosperous one as well.  Delivering a generous $10 entry fee for adults ($1 for kids 9 and under) this is a perfectly suitable alternative to the rising entry fees at other chain theaters.  Also, during it’s daytime hours, it operates as a swap meet, like most other Drive-In’s do, even the ones no longer playing movies.  Up to this year, Mission Tiki was one of only 3 Drive-In’s still in regular operation within the Los Angeles area.  But, because of the pandemic, not only is it the only Drive-In Theater still operating, it is the one and only movie theater in all of Los Angeles County still playing movies at all.  The other two, Vineland Drive-In in the City of Industry and the Paramount Drive in in Paramount closed all operations due to the pandemic, but for some reason, Mission Tiki still found a way to stay open.

One of the reasons for this I believe is because of the sheer size of the property.  Driving into the grounds of the theater you get a sense of the expanse the venue maintains.  The actual screens themselves are so dwarfed within the open space of the property.  The Mission Tiki also benefits from something that the other drive-in theaters in the Los Angeles region don’t have, which is a sense of enclosure.  A tall grove of trees encircle the property, helping to close off the world from view.  This was especially for a newcomer like me, who was worried that I would have my eyes too distracted by traffic passing by on the bordering roads, but the owners of this theater have made sure to maintain a satisfying enclosure from the natural treeline border.  I imagine that the original theater itself benefited from the fact that they had so much room to work with and establish such an enclosure, due to the wide open land that likely existed here long before urban sprawl crept up to it thanks to suburban sprawl.  As the city itself grew, the likewise growing trees helped keep it hidden from sight, leaving only the screen and the sky above to catch your eye.  But, if you are there early enough, you might be able to take in a spectacular sight from the north side of the property right before sunset.  The peaks of Mt. Baldy and Mt. San Antonio of the San Gabriel Mountain Range are easily visible above the treeline and create a magnificent pre-show backdrop for those arriving before the first screenings of the night.  Even within a short drive outside of a mega city like Los Angeles, the backdrop of the mountains helps you to feel transported while you’re settling down to watch a movie.

The set-up to get to the screens themselves was thankfully easy to follow.  Specially marked lanes direct you to the central hub where the concessions and projection booth structure are located and from there you are branched off to your selected screen.  Once in your lot, you cannot turn around and move to another screen between movies.  Though once you are in your spot, you can stay for as long as you like.  Each screen plays a double feature throughout the night, including new releases, which makes the $10 value extra worth it.  Considering the fact that most of the movies that were supposed to have played in the last few months have been moved to later this year, what’s left over are what remains of the Spring releases that just barely made it to screens before the shut down happened.  That, and a couple movies that are receiving concurrent VOD releases.  Trolls World Tour just so happened to be one of those movies the night that I was there; the only big screen that the movie will likely ever be seen on this year.  It played on a double bill with last year’s The Secret Life of Pets 2 (2019).  Another new release playing on demand as well as solely in Drive In Theaters is Justin Kurzel’s new film True History of the Kelly Gang, starring George MacKay and Russell Crowe; a smaller film following Troll’s release example.  My night however was devoted to watching two movies that I had missed during their original run in the multiplex theaters.  Those were the new Vin Diesel action film Bloodshot and the new Blumhouse re-imagining of the horror icon, The Invisible Man, starring Elizabeth Moss.  Sparing you from a through review of both, I’ll say the better of the two was obviously the Invisible Man, which was the second feature of my double bill.  But of course it’s not the movies themselves that I was interested in watching; it was the experience itself that had me far more interested.

Growing up in Oregon, I was never exposed to the Drive-In experience.  The collapse of the Drive-In theater happened right before I was born, and the concept always felt like a relic of the past that would always escape me my entire life.  The closest I had ever gotten to a Drive-In theater up to now was in seeing a long abandoned screen propped up on the side of a freeway way out in the boondocks of rural Oregon; just sitting there in an open field unused and forgotten, rotting away more and more each year.  Still, the image of that movie screen in the open outdoors always captured my imagination because I always thought it would be cool to watch a movie outside.  Once I became an adult and learned more about the history of film, and the long decline of the Drive-In experience, it made me long even more to know what that experience was like.  I’m very surprised at myself for taking this long to actually seek one out.  It’s probably because I had become too used to watching movies in the traditional theater setting, especially since moving here to Los Angeles, which has some of the most storied theaters in the world.  But with all of them shut down because of the pandemic, I no longer had an excuse.  And upon discovering that one of them, Mission Tiki, was still operating in the middle of the shutdown, and was not terribly far from where I lived, I figured that this was the moment to finally do it.  So many years after seeing that first dilapidated screen off the I-5 corridor in Douglas County, Oregon was I now finally going to experience the Drive-In experience for real, and in many ways, it both exceeded my expectations but also left me with a sense of sadness for a pastime that I will never know fully.

As a Drive-In Theater goes, Mission Tiki is as best as you could ask for.  State of the art, spacious and yet still intimate, and with a professional staff that kept everything running well, I have nothing negative to say about the experience itself.  There were many things that took me by surprise as well.  The pavement of the lot features humps that allow you to park at an incline.  I don’t know how old this feature is, but it’s a great idea because it points the nose of your car directly at the screen and it helps to keep the cars in front of you from blocking your view.  I also liked the way they provide the sound for the movie, which is pumped to you vehicle directly through an FM transmitter.  This took a little figuring out at first, because I up to now didn’t know how to run my radio without running my car engine.  Eventually I figured it out, and was surprised to learn that it didn’t drain my car battery all that much.  My hybrid vehicle still had enough juice to drive myself home, even after 4 hours of use.  This is a great example of how advanced technology has improved the Drive-In experience, because before the Drive-In’s operated small radios for ever space that were not always reliable and were probably a maintenance nightmare that probably sped up the decline of the business.  Now, with FM transmission, the sound gets picked up by the cars themselves for playback, and depending on how new your car is, it’ll sound as good as any home theater.  But even with all this, I feel like technology has both improved the experience, but also subtracted from it as well.  In order to prevent a cacophony of sound all around you, the movie plays best in confinement of your car, which kind of robs you of the outdoors element of being at a drive-in.  How I long for the old days of convertibles and hatchbacks that allowed one to watch a movie beneath the stars.  Mission Tiki gives the best we can ask for, but our modern day world has left some of that original appeal behind, with social distancing from this pandemic only compounding the isolation.

So, for a first timer, I was very happy with my experience at the Mission Tiki Drive-In.  As the only operating movie theater in the Los Angeles metro area it is an essential experience for anyone longing to see any movie on a big screen right now.  It may not quite capture the exact feeling of what it was like to watch a movie there during it’s heyday, but it’s still great to see that a lot of effort was put into preserving this place for future generations and keeping it up to date with the times.  We may not see movies play on the big screen in the traditional sense for a long time, and the total number of screens may even dwindle overall, so it’s important to support it where you can, and Mission Tiki is very deserving of your support.  Hopefully, it will continue to serve the community of Montclair for many more years and, who knows, it might even be an example of what’s to come in the future.  If social distancing does make screening movies in a confined theatrical setting impossible over the next couple years, we might even see the Drive-In resurrected as an alternative in the next few years, with maybe even completely new Drive-In’s popping up across the country.  It’s wishful thinking, but one thing did give me hope from my experience there.  Throughout the night, I was surprised to see how many people were actually parking all around me.  And not just at my screen, but all across the lot.  All four screens were playing to possibly hundreds of people each, which gives me hope that there is still a desire to watch movies on a big screen as opposed to seeing it at home.  No doubt the low ticket price helps, which the big chains should maybe consider as a way of bringing the crowds back in large numbers again.   For anyone who lives in Los Angeles and wants to see movies the way they were meant to be seen, on a big, bright screen, then driving all the way out to Montclair is well worth the money.  And even when things do return to normal, consider extending your patronage there.  The fact that they are still providing this service at a time when everything else has shutdown gives me a glimmer of hope in this devastating time.  If you are lucky to have a Drive-In theater near you, Angelenos or otherwise, do yourself a favor and take a nostalgic drive over to these long overlooked but nevertheless important monuments to cinema.