All posts by James Humphreys

Black Panther – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.25/10

Tinseltown Throwdown – The Lego Movie vs. The Emoji Movie

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

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

“Everything is awesome.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nobody leaves the phone. Delete them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collecting Criterion – Barry Lyndon (1975)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.criterion.com/barrylyndon

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Director’s Chair – Steven Spielberg

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

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

1.

INSTINCTUAL DIRECTION

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

2.

THE SPIELBERG ONER

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

3.

WILLIAMS, KAHN, AND KAMINSKI

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

4.

SENTIMENTALISM

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

5.

FANTASY AND HISTORY

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

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

 

Top Ten Movies of 2017

We come to the close of a pretty turbulent and unpredictable year when it comes to the movies and Hollywood.  If you’ve read anything regarding the industry itself this last year, you will undoubtedly have followed the countless career ending scandals that have rocked Hollywood, and all the fallout that has come after in the wake of such revelations.  This was also a year of highs and lows at the box office, but for the most part pretty low.  Grosses were down from the year before as the summer season failed to hold it’s own like it usually does every year.  We also saw the largest merger to ever take place within the film industry, as Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, creating the largest single media company in the world, but with the worry of many layoffs happening because of the redundancies within the company because of such a deal.  Couple this with a culture that is becoming increasingly polarized and you got the makings of a generally miserable year for many people, both in and outside the industry.  But, there were plenty of positives to come out of 2017 as well, especially with regards to diversity within the industry.  This was a groundbreaking year for female directors in particular.  Patty Jenkins broke every record that a female director has held at the box office with her incredible handling of DC’s Wonder Woman, a smash hit that was deserving of every accolade it received.  Sofia Coppola also became the first American woman to win the directing honor at the Cannes Film Festival (and the first in half a century) with her new film The Beguiled, and we also saw acclaimed films from Kathryn Bigelow (Detroit) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) this year.  Comedian Jordan Peele even managed to turn genre films on it’s head with his politically charged horror flick Get Out, which also has been extensively praised.

Like every year since I started writing this blog, I will be counting down my 10 favorite movies of the year.  My choices are based mostly on how well I responded to these movies while watching them and by how well they left an impression on me afterwards.  Entertainment value is certainly a key ingredient, but there were others here that lingered in a good way that made me appreciate them a lot more after I had time to think about them.  In addition, I will also be sharing my picks for the 5 worst movies of the year.  Before I begin though, I’d like to run down the 10 movies that were close to making my list, but came up short.  My honorable mentions, in no particular order are: Wonder Woman, The Big Sick, Coco, Detroit, I, Tonya, Get Out, The Post, John Wick: Chapter 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Baby Driver. And with that, let’s look at the best movies of 2017.

10.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Directed by Martin McDonagh

The English playwright turned director, McDonagh, has won plenty of raves for his pitch black comedies like In Brudges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012).  But instead of bringing his sardonic wit to a crime thriller set in an ancient European city or on the outskirts of Hollywood, this time he has instead applied his talent to a character study set in the American heartland.  The movie’s at times is a little drier and methodically paced than his previous work, but his ability to deliver some knockout dialogue is still present in this very original comedy.  I imagine that McDonagh’s screenplays are just as fun to read as they are to listen to.  He is a master with character dynamics, and the most thrilling part of the movie is not knowing what each character is going to say next, because oftentimes it’s the last thing you would expect.  I also love the way that he builds this community within the film, showing the town of Ebbing as a character in it’s own right.  But the film’s shining star is definitely Frances McDormand as the grieving mother who takes to extreme means in order to turn up the heat on an inept police department that has yet to solve the murder of her daughter.  Talk about an unpredictable performance, because McDormand is a firecracker of a character in this movie, delivering one of her greatest performances yet.  I could watch her spout out poetic profanities like she does in this movie all day, and she is easily the best possible mouthpiece for Martin McDonagh’s off-kilter wordplay.  Rounded out with an excellent cast including Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, this is yet another strong effort from one of my current favorite writers.

9.

LADY BIRD 

Directed by Greta Gerwig

This is one of those movies that grew on me over time.  At first, I didn’t know how to feel about the movie.  It’s not particularly groundbreaking in any way.  It’s a coming of age story that we’ve all seen done a million times before.  So, what was about this movie that made it linger in my mind so long after?  What ended up making this movie special is the very personal way in which it is told, and surprisingly, I found myself relating very strongly to it.  Actress Greta Gerwig drew heavily from her own life when crafting this story, and the passion she put into it is palpable.  The movie manages to be a love letter to her hometown of Sacramento, California; something I never thought I would see on the big screen.  But the part of the movie that I loved the most was the very detailed way that it showed the experience of being a middle class kid going to a private Catholic school.  I myself went through the exact same thing and what Gerwig does so well in her movie is to show the anxieties of living within these social confines.  Of course, there’s the desire to express oneself freely despite the strict morals of your religious academic setting, as well as the stress of trying to keep up appearances just so you could fit in better with your more affluent and straight-laced fellow classmates.  She captures that so well through her titular main character (played wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan) and makes her a fully rounded character who seeks to break free of her life, and yet comes to learn how valuable that life experience really is.  It made me reflect more on my own Catholic school upbringing, and made me remember the experiences I had during that time and how those have shaped me as well.  I may not have been just like Lady Bird herself, but I certainly knew people like her, and was probably just like some of the people she crosses paths with throughout the movie.  It’s a fantastic debut by Greta Gerwig, and one of the most subtle and tender movies of the year.  It may be a familiar song, but it’s perfectly tuned and sung beautifully.

8.

THE DISASTER ARTIST

Directed by James Franco

It can never be said that actor/writer/director James Franco is one to rest on his laurels.  Hollywood’s modern day Renaissance man has poured himself into numerous passion projects over the years, some of which are too off-the-wall and impenetrable to ever reach a massive audience.  But his latest project is one made with a lot of love for the subject it’s depicting, and as a result, it’s his greatest film to date.  The movie tells the story of Tommy Wiseau, the mysterious oddball amateur director who created what many claim to be the worst movie ever made, The Room (2003).  The Room has over time developed a cult following, of which Franco and his friends are certainly a part of, and this movie tries to explain the what, when , where, how, and most importantly why this movie even exists at all.  More than anything, it is a love letter to process of movie-making, showing how even the most depraved and dysfunctional of films come from a place of passion for the art of cinema.  The movie has a lot in common with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) in how it breaks down the conditions in which such inept film-making can happen while at the same time humanizing the unorthodox mind behind it.  Franco delivers his best performance to date in a near perfect imitation of Wiseau, managing to find the man behind the enigma.  I also give a lot of praise to the way that he acts alongside his real life brother Dave in the movie; both managing to disappear into character and making you forget they’re siblings.  The movie is especially funny to anyone and at times cringe-worthy to anyone who has worked on a film set, as you see the events of The Room’s creation unfold in some wild, absurd moments.  It may be a tad too reverential at times, but Franco does make you appreciate the glorious process of film-making with this fascinating behind the scenes look at the most notorious film of it’s time.  And all fans of the original film should stay during the credits to catch some added surprises.

7.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 

Directed by James Gunn

At the beginning of 2017, there was real concern about the direction that the super hero genre was going.  Many people thought that genre fatique was starting to set in, and that we were more or less getting a repeat of every cliche in the book with every new entry, and that each film was mainly just there to set up the next.  But, then something unexpected happened; the Super Hero genre had a banner year of excellence in 2017.  Marvel continued to roll along, as both Spider-Man and Thor completely reinvented themselves and saw franchise best box office totals in return.  DC even managed to surprise everyone as they finally got the formula right bringing Wonder Woman so perfectly to the big screen.  But, the best movie of the genre had to be the sequel to Marvel’s shiniest jewel in it’s crown, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  Vol. 2 was without a doubt the most fun I had watching a movie this year, and it achieved exactly what I was hoping for with a follow-up to one of the best comic book movies ever made.  It does lack the novelty of the first, but that’s all that was missing, as everything else was on par with it’s predecessor.  Some people felt let down by the movie, because it stuck too close to formula, which I don’t see as such a bad thing because I loved everything about the original formula, and this movie felt like a great second helping.  James Gunn is carving out his own niche in the Marvel universe with these Guardians films, and they stand as incredible popcorn adventure at it’s finest.  I especially love the way this movie delves deeper into the emotional connections with the heroes, really capturing the family dynamic that is at the heart of the franchise.  It even touches upon heavier themes, like how we define our families and how that in turn defines who we are.  The movie manages to balance the emotional moments perfectly with the zany, laugh out loud moments, and continues to make this series the best out of an overloaded genre that needed some fresh life brought into it.  And greatest line of the year, “I’m Mary Poppins ya’ll.”

6.

PHANTOM THREAD

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Director Anderson and star Daniel Day-Lewis are two artists that make us wait an extra long time between projects, but when they finally do make something new, it’s bound to be extraordinary.  Things are even more amazing when the two collaborate together, as they did so memorably in my favorite film of 2007, There Will be Blood.  The two have joined forces again in one of the years most surprisingly subversive films.  Set within the fashion world of 1950’s England, the movie has Daniel Day-Lewis playing a temperamental designer looking for a new muse to inspire him to create a new wave of eye-catching dresses for the social elite.  He finds that person in a German waitress (played by Vicky Krieps) he discovers in the countryside near his estate, and the two begin a working and romantic relationship that proves to be more bombastic than either of them ever realized it would be before they met.  The movie feels like a departure at first for the usually dark-edged Anderson, as it starts of as a straight-forward behind the scenes look at the inner workings of a fashion studio.  But, as the movie goes on, the veil of extravagance begins to lift off, and we soon realize that this movie is just as dark, twisted and unpredictable as anything Anderson has made before.  I won’t spoil for you how the plot unfolds, but let me just say that like a hail of frogs at the finale of Magnolia (1999) and the bowling alley murder in There Will Be Blood, the movie takes a strange left turn that I found both unexpected and brilliant, which is a signature of Anderson’s style.   Again, him and Daniel Day-Lewis make a fantastic team, and though I doubt it will be the case, if this is Lewis’ final performance on screen, it’s certainly a great way to go out.  It’s also a visually stunning movie too, and if you are lucky enough like me to have seen it screened in 70mm, you’ll really appreciate the craft that went into it.  Another masterpiece from one of cinema’s most twisted artists.

5.

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

One of the most pleasing things to happen in the last few years in Hollywood is the way that queer cinema has become mainstream.  No longer relegated to a fringe sub genre, now we are seeing a flourishing of films tackling stories of gay characters much in the same way it would be handled if the characters were straight.  Moonlight‘s Best Picture win certainly opened a lot of doors, and that continued progress sees another bright star in the form of the gorgeous romantic drama, Call Me by Your Name.  What I really loved about this movie is the delicate and subtle way it presents it’s story.  Following the growing sexual awakening of an intelligent young teen named Elio (played in a career making performance by Timothee Chalamet) over the course of a summer in the Italian countryside, the movie unfolds with an almost aching amount of intimacy.  As he falls for a visiting graduate student played by hunky Armie Hammer, the movie builds a bond that is believable and without a doubt romantic.  Regardless of one’s sexuality, I believe that everyone who sees this will wish their first love had been or will be this magical.  I know I wish mine had.  The real reason this movie lands as well as it does is because of the incredible chemistry of it’s two leads, who make the most appealing of on screen lovers.  In addition to this, director Luca Guadagnino captures incredibly lush visuals of the Italian setting, making you wish you could be there yourself in the sun dappled splendor of it all.  And a special mention should go to the incredible supporting work of actor Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father, who delivers a knockout of a monologue, encapsulating in one tender scene everything that a gay youth would want to hear their parent say.  The fact that queer cinema has now come to this point where such an intimate story can be treated as mainstream is definitely progress in the right direction.

4.

MOTHER!

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

And now for something completely different.  One thing is for sure, this new movie from auteur director Darren Aronofsky was certainly the year’s most polarizing film.  There was little to no middle ground on this one.  People either loved this movie with a passion, or hated it thoroughly.  I find myself surprisingly in the former category.  Aronofsky is not one to pull any punches, and I found myself watching his new movie with utter fascination, wondering to myself how anyone could have the audacity to pull a movie like this off.  Filled to the brim with heavy themes, the movie does a lot within it’s running time; it’s an environmental allegory, a psychological thriller, a haunted house story, and most surprising of all, a condensed retelling of the Bible and human history with regards to religion.  I think that one thing that put many people off about this movie, among several other things, was the fact that Aronofsky is not very subtle with his intentions here.  You quickly pick up on his blatant messages, and there is little room for deeper meaning.  But, my argument is that Aronofsky isn’t trying to be subtle here.  He explicitly wants to spell out the subtext for us, because these are themes that he seriously wants us to consider while we’re watching the movie.  Jennifer Lawrence gives a powerful performance, with the camera almost uncomfortably close to her face for most of the movie, and she perfectly conveys all the fury and frustration one would feel as the increasingly manic events of the movie unfold.  Few other filmmakers challenge his audience the same way that Darren Aronofsky does, and I for one thoroughly enjoy the challenge.  This will probably be a movie that ends up on a lot of worst of the year lists too, and I don’t blame other critics for their distaste of the movie.  Me, though, I embraced this mother! with a lot of love.

3.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT

Directed by Sean Baker

This little indie darling has been one of the underdogs of award season so far.  Produced on a minuscule budget with a handful of fresh faced actors, director Sean Baker has made one of the year’s most universally human stories on the big screen.  After making a splash with his last film, Tangerine (2015), which was shot entirely on iPhone cameras, Baker shifts his lens to a different unseen world that proves to be endlessly fascinating.  The movie shows the everyday lives of residents living in a shabby motel on the outskirts of the Disney World property in Orlando, Florida.  You see in this film a light shed on a world you never knew existed, and yet is painfully all too real.  What goes on in the borderlands around the Magic Kingdom are people attempting to soak up some of the business that the park brings to their community, but will sadly never get to experience for themselves in the same way.  They live and work in places pretending to be like Disney World, with bright pastel colors abound, but it all proves to be a false front to what’s really underneath.  And yet, Baker never judges his flawed characters harshly, and in fact he gets us deeply involved in their plight as people, making us feel their pain when everything falls apart by the end.  The mother and daughter at the center of the movie are two of the most captivating characters I’ve seen in a movie this year, and the girl especially (played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince) is heart-wrenchingly good here.  Willem Dafoe is also solid as the put-upon manager of the hotel, putting up with all sorts of problems the best way he can.  The movie is very akin to Italian Neo-realism and becomes a fascinating window into this world.  I found myself completely transported by this movie, and more than any other movie this year, it was the one that felt the most honest about the human condition.

2.

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

At first, I didn’t know what to make of this movie when I first saw it advertised.  I’m a fan of Del Toro’s work, but felt that this Cold War era set fairy tale centered around a sea creature like the one from the Black Lagoon might be a step backward for the edgy filmmaker.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Not only is this movie in line with many of the director’s other works (combining a perfect blend of the whimsical and the grotesque) but it is one of the more sublimely executed films that I’ve seen from him as well, undoubtedly making it one of the most pleasing experiences I’ve had at the cinema this year.  This is a movie that has everything; it’s got tension, it’s got laughs, it has a remarkably well handled romance at it’s core, and it even manages to fit in a delightful music and dance number as well.  It is also shows Guillermo Del Toro’s exceptional command of genre, as all of these different elements come together in a delightfully rich and full experience.  Sally Hawkins is especially good as the mute woman at the heart of the movie who finds a kindred spirit in the form of an aquatic monster snatched away from his home and kept prisoner in a military laboratory.  Frequent Del Toro regular Doug Jones also does incredible work underneath a lot of makeup, managing to express a ton of personality through simple body language.  And one of my favorite actors, Michael Shannon, steals the show once again as the sinister G-Man that means to dominate his will over both the monster and the girl, creating what I think to be the best villainous role of the year.  Del Toro delivers one of his best films to date with The Shape of Water, and proves that he indeed can bring his cinematic sensibilities into any kind of genre.  With this and Call Me By Your Name, this has been a year of Hollywood breaking down barriers when it comes to expressing true love on screen.  Who knew the year’s most romantic movie would be between a woman and a creature from the deep.

And the best movie of 2017 is…

1.

DUNKIRK

Directed by Christopher Nolan

All the other movies that made my list had left some effect on me based on either emotional impact or the effectiveness of it’s execution.  Christopher Nolan’s newest feature did all that too, but it showed me something even more.  With Dunkirk, Nolan is showing us all what the cinematic medium is really capable of, by pushing the limits of what you can capture within the lens of a camera.  Dunkirk is a tour de force of film-making on every level, and it was an experience that was never quite topped by anything else this year.  It helps that I saw this movie not once but twice in it’s intended format (projected in 70mm IMAX) and this made all the difference.  It’s a movie that demands the largest screen possible, and thankfully I just happened to have been living near theaters that screened the film the proper way.  Apart from this, Nolan’s recreation of the events of the Dunkirk evacuation are incredible in it’s detail.  He puts his lens right in the middle of the action, giving us a “you are there” feel unlike anything we’ve ever seen in a war movie before, save for the opening 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (1998).  The fact that he manages to do this through the whole movie is astonishing.  He also takes us to all sides of the event, chronicling the experiences of the hopeless soldiers trapped on the beach, the civilians who bravely sailed their private ships into the heat of battle, and the brave pilots who tried to clear the skies as best they could of the menaces from above.  Nolan has topped my best of the year lists twice before (2005’s Batman Begins and 2010′ Inception) so the fact that he’s once again topping my list this year is a real testament to his unparalleled talents as a director.  Dunkirk is a stand out in Nolan’s already impressive resume, and without a doubt the movie that blew me away the most this year.  One of the best war movies ever made, without question, and possibly one of the best made movies in general, in my opinion.

So, now that I’ve shared the best, it’s time to run down the worst of the year as well.  Keep in mind, I usually have steered clear of movies that I know I’m going to hate at the movie theater, so the films here are either on this list because I found myself incredibly disappointed or had no other option than to watch to see just how bad these could be.  So, let’s take a painful look at 2017’s worst.

5. THE DARK TOWER – Stephen King had a bittersweet 2017.  For one thing, the well crafted remake of IT became a record breaking smash hit.  But it sadly came on the heels of this thoroughly disappointing train-wreck.  The fact that they tried to water down and condense King’s epic multi-part tome into a single 90 minute feature is one of the most insulting things that any studio could have done to such a beloved series, and sadly, we may never get the right cinematic treatment that this book series is due.

4. BRIGHT – Thank God I didn’t have to pay to see this one in a movie theater and instead just stream it on Netflix.  This big budget production from the streaming giant has an intriguing premise, a parallel world where fantasy creatures coexist with humans in a modern day, urban environment, but squanders it with a generic and ironically unimaginative story of inner city cops trying to keep a witness alive.  Sure one is human and one is an orc, but the novelty wears thin quickly and the lack of chemistry between leads Will Smith and Joel Edgerton makes the experience all the more painful.

3. THE MUMMY – To be honest, it was entertaining to see Universal’s planned Dark Universe marketing strategy fall flat on it’s face with the failure of this first entry, but seeing the whole film itself made for a thoroughly unpleasant experience.  The whole movie just feels like a commercial for all the potential shared universe crossovers that Universal was no doubt planning for the future.  Unfortunately, they never came up with a compelling story to make us want to care.  It shows that you can’t just follow the same beats of Marvel’s cinematic universe and expect the same results.  The only funny aspect is that all those Easter egg teases end up meaning nothing in the end.  The normally charismatic Tom Cruise can’t even muster anything out of this lame cash grab.

2. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – It might seem contrarian of me to hate on one of the highest grossing movies of the year, but I clearly when it first came out how much I despised this movie.  It takes everything memorable about the animated original and waters it down, making it a shallow imitation of what’s come before.  The songs are butchered, the character redesigns are ugly, and the new additions to the narrative make absolutely no sense.  And I’m sorry, Emma Watson cannot hold a tune; her acting is still fine, but oh god is her signing painful.  Disney has had mixed results with their live action remakes so far, but Beauty and the Beast is by far the worst one yet.  Thankfully, it just reaffirms my appreciation for the original, which is still a classic today.  Time, I don’t believe, will be as kind to this travesty.

And the worst of 2017 is…

1. THE EMOJI MOVIE – Without a doubt, the most soulless mainstream movie to come out this year.  There’s nothing that is done right with this movie.  The comedy are terrible, the characters are bland, the story is a joke.  But, the thing that is especially hateable about this movie is the seemingly shallow reason why it exists at all.  It is merely there to capitalize on the perceived “Emoji Craze” that the filmmakers believe is a part of pop culture right now.  I don’t know what they were thinking.  Emoji’s aren’t interesting, they are merely just something there to punch up our text messages.  There’s no drama to mine from that.  The makers of this train-wreck obviously thought they could jump on the LEGO Movie bandwagon and turn any marketable item into a popular film, but they failed to see how LEGO managed to work a meaningful story into it’s movie.  Emoji Movie is heartless, meaningless, and more than anything, just unpleasant to sit through.

So, there you have my choices for the best and the worst of 2017.  Overall, despite my bottom five, this was actually a great year for movies all around.  The box office numbers might not reflect it, but I actually found there was a higher quantity of better made films to come out this year than in years prior.  I actually found this Top Ten list harder to make because there were so many good movies that were pushing my limit of ten.  Any other year, these honorable mentions probably would have shown up higher, but this was a competitive year so I had to make some painful cuts.  Still, all the good movies I mentioned before are well worth seeing, and even some mid range movies throughout the year are also worth your time, like Split, Thor: RagnarokBlade Runner 2049, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  More than anything, it was pleasing seeing so many directors bringing their A game this year, including many established players like Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo Del Toro, Steven Spielberg, and Darren Aronofsky, along with bright new directorial debuts from Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig.  I am also pleased with the direction the industry is taking, with female directors holding their own in genres that typically have been male dominated, such as what Patty Jenkins did with Wonder Woman last summer.  And the success of a beautiful love story like Call Me By Your Name makes me hopeful about the future with the stories that Hollywood is ready to tell to the world.  Here’s hoping that 2018 brings us quality entertainment as well as strong box office in the months ahead.  And like always, I will try my best to keep up with it all and look back on the year with a full outlook.  So, have a happy new year and continue to enjoy the world of cinema.

The Movies of Early 2018

With 2017 coming to a close, I find that something interesting has happened over the course of the last year in the film industry.  I’m not talking about the rampant sexual abuse scandals that have come to light, nor the fact that Disney is buying up everything in Hollywood.  No, what fascinated me this year is how we’ve seen a dramatic change in box office patterns from season to season.  The summer, traditionally the biggest box office period of the year, saw it’s worst season in a decade this last year.  But at the same time, we saw record breaking numbers happen in what is traditionally the off season, particularly the spring.  Riding the wave of surprise hits like M. Night Shaymalan’s Split, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and the second chapter of the John Wick franchise, late Winter and early Spring of 2017 gave the year an enormous head start that helped to soften the blow of the disappointing summer.  Couple this with a strong March, which is typically a strong month for early box office, we soon learned that the first quarter of the year no longer is a dumping ground for Hollywood’s leftovers, but instead could be a season that could hold it’s own against the rest of the year.  And looking ahead at the releases coming up at the beginning of 2018, I think that it is worth it to take a look at what’s to come just like I have for the last few years with Summer and Fall releases.  So, this is my first ever look at the movies of Winter and Spring 2018.  Considering that the next four months leading up to Summer covers two seasons, I’m calling this Early 2018, since that covers the entire block of releases into one category.

Like previous previous that I have written, I will be taking a look at the movies that I think are the Must Sees, the ones that have me worried, and the ones that I believe are worth skipping.  I have also included links to trailers above each preview, allowing all of you to get a sense of the movies being discussed.  Keep in mind, these are just my early impressions, based on my level of anticipation for each movie.  I have been known to handicap some movies incorrectly based on first impressions before, so don’t feel like these are absolute infalible opinions.  Pretty much I am basing my thoughts on how well these movies are being marketed, as well as my own personal enthusiasm for what they are bringing to the table in the cinemas this upcoming season.  So, with all that established, let’s now take a look at the films of Early 2018.

MUST SEES:

READY PLAYER ONE (MARCH 30)

No director has shaped pop culture more in the last half century than Steven Spielberg.  The creator of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Jurassic Park (1993) has left so many cultural touchstones behind that have become sacred to film nerds and casual viewers all over the world.  But, the couple decades have found Spielberg working more comfortably in a different field of cinema, that being the historical dramas, which also display his remarkable talent as a filmmaker.  Many of his fans do appreciate his recent work, but many also want to see the Spielberg of old return and deliver a rousing, blockbuster adventure the likes of which they had grown up with.  And while he tried to return to that mode slightly with 2016’s The BFGReady Player One seems to be a far more ambitious return to form for Spielberg.  This inter-textual, nostalgia heavy action thriller is adapted from the novel of the same name by author Ernest Cline (who also co-adapts the screenplay), and it’s no surprise that Cline’s novel pays tribute to all things pop culture; from movies, video games, television, you name it.  So it’s only fitting that this ode to our childhood nostalgia should be brought to the big screen by one of the architects of so much of our childhood.  It’s certainly been a while since we’ve seen something this playful from Spielberg, and my hope is that the legendary director lets loose with this one.  Releasing mere months after his most recent flick The Post (which was remarkably shot, edited and released after he finished shooting Ready Player One) it really shows just how unparalleled he is as a film-making machine.  If anything, One is a movie that not only demonstrates a return to the director’s playful side, but also a thorough acknowledgement of the impact he has left behind on all of cinema, and my hope is that it will be a rousing celebration of both in the end.

BLACK PANTHER (FEBRUARY 16)

Of course, I can’t spotlight an upcoming release calendar without talking about what Marvel Studios has for us next.  After making his memorable debut in Captain America: Civil War (2016), King T’Challa of Wakanda (better known as the superhero Black Panther) finally gets his own movie, and it looks to be yet another jewel in Marvel’s crown.  Marking their first ever Winter release, Marvel has taken great care to make their first film centered on a black super hero as worthwhile as it possibly could be.  One very promising aspect about this movie is that Marvel gave the reigns over to director Ryan Coogler, who delivered an astonishing reboot of the Rocky franchise with his critically acclaimed Creed (2015).  Despite being new to the super hero genre and to big budget film-making as a whole, Coogler looks to have delivered some already impressive results based on what we’ve seen from the trailer.  I’m very interested in seeing how well star Chadwick Boseman does at the center of this movie.  His performance in Civil War was one of that movie’s highlights, so it’ll be interesting to watch him perform now that he’s in his own movie.  He’s also got the support of a stellar supporting cast including Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, The Walking Dead’s Danai Gurira, The Hobbit’s Martin Freemanas well as some fierce looking foes played by Coogler’s reliable regular leading man Michael B. Jordan as well as Andy Serkis (appearing on screen in person for once, without motion capture).  Black Panther is also given the coveted position of being the final lead up to Marvel’s long awaited Infinity War, which launches the summer season in May.  Given the stellar year that Marvel had in 2017, Black Panther should continue the hot streak that the studio is currently enjoying, as well as give us a long awaited premiere for a super hero who that is long overdue.

A WRINKLE IN TIME (MARCH 9)

For a long time, fans of the beloved sci-fi YA novel by author Madeleine L’Engle have wanted to see a big screen treatment that did justice to the source material.  After many years of development, Disney is finally making that a reality with their mega-budgeted adaptation.  Directed by Ava DuVernay (Selma), the movie has an ambitious visual look to it, and features an impressively diverse cast.  Of course DuVernay has given a role to her longtime patron Oprah Winfrey, playing an immortal god-like celestial (you think she might be typecast) alongside Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon and sitcom star Mindy Kaling.  Add to this Star Trek’s Chris Pine and newcomer Storm Reid, and you’ve got a talented group adding many colorful characters to this beloved story.  It will be interesting to see how well DuVernay does with the source material, given it’s sometimes very perplexing details about time travel and multiple dimensions.  Some fans of the novel might be put off by the changes made to the story in order to modernize it and bring it into the present day.  Ava DuVernay is still an impressive emerging talent in the field of direction, and I’m sure that she’ll surprise a few people with her work here.  What pleases me about the assignment that she’s been given here is that it’s another sign of a very welcome change in the industry.  Following in the footsteps of last year’s Wonder Woman, A Wrinkle in Time is yet another example of giving a massive budget to a female director and seeing it pay off.  My hope is that many more women are given the reigns of blockbuster features in the future because as Ava DuVernay and Wonder Woman‘s Patty Jenkins have demonstrated, they are just as capable of delivering the goods as any of their male contemporaries.

ISLE OF DOGS (MARCH 23)

Wes Anderson’s style may not be to everyone’s tastes, but their is no doubt that he is one of the most unique filmmakers of this generation.  With a visual style all his own, he has managed to tell a whole variety of stories over his career, including a soap opera about an affluent dysfunctional family (The Royal Tenenbaums), an absurd adventure with an underwater explorer (The Life Aquatic), a love story between two naive preteens (Moonrise Kingdom), and a colorful murder mystery in a luxurious resort (The Grand Budapest Motel).  While most of his films are eccentric and over the top, he has mostly managed to fulfill his visions in the live action medium,  But what is surprising is how well his style translates over into the animated medium.  His 2009 animation debut, Fantastic Mr. Fox, was my pick for the best film of that year, and I am pleased to see him return to animation once again with next year’s Isle of Dogs.  Working with stop motion, Anderson’s style continues to offer plenty of eye-catching treats, and I’m pleased to see his take on Japanese culture.  There are definite reverential calls to the works of Japanese masters like Kurosawa and Ozu in Anderson’s film here, but it still feels distinctly like one of his own movies.  Again, he still fills out the voice cast with an impressive line-up, including some of his returning regulars like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, and Jeff Goldblum, and also debuts his first collaboration with Bryan Cranston, who plays the lead dog here.  My hope is that this becomes yet another classic from Wes Anderson, and at least I hope it stands well alongside Mr. Fox as part of his efforts in animation.  No doubt, this movie will stand out amongst all other movies this Spring given that it’s a Wes Anderson flick, which are unlike anything else you usually see on the big screen anyway.

LOVE, SIMON (MARCH 16)

This one of course interests me because of the subject matter.  Love, Simon gives us the coming of age tale of a closeted gay teenager struggling with finding a way to open up and embrace his sexuality.  While this has been ground treaded upon before in many independent films, here we’re finally seeing a major studio (Fox, and now by extension Disney) actually bringing this story to the mainstream, which is a very positive sign of the times.  While there is only bits of the story we can gather from the trailer, what pleases me about what we’re seeing from this movie is the very realistic depiction of the anxiety that young gay people go through as they try to work out how to live openly.  I myself understand it all too well, as it took me an extra long time to finally come out to my friends and family.  What few films have actually shown is that the hard part of coming out is not the fear of how society will treat you, nor how your family will respond, but the fact that once you make the announcement to the world, everything about your life will change; including how other people will act around you as well as the new expectations that will be laid upon you.  And this is a change that some gay people face more than others.  Not every queer individual is from the same mold, and those who struggle the most are the ones who don’t fit the expected definitions of a typical gay person.  It’s that fear of dramatic change that hung over me the longest time, even though it turned out in the end that I had nothing to fear, as things changed very little.  That’s the kind of narrative that I hope Love, Simon tackles, because it’s an issue that’s worth attention.  The movie already looks to have a clever spin on things, including a funny montage of an alternative reality where straight teens come out to their families.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING (MARCH 23)

On the one hand, I should be pleased that the woefully underrated Pacific Rim is getting a sequel.  And for the most part, the results look good in this trailer.  The visual effects are about on par with the first movie, and the designs of the Jaegers and Kaiju monsters look to be unchanged.  The movie also has returning cast members like Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, and Rinko Kikuchi as their selective characters from the first film, and the addition of Star War’s John Boyega as the son of Idris Elba’s character from the first movie is also inspired casting.  My one worry about this is that the movie is being made without the guiding hand of it’s original creator, Guillermo Del Toro.  The visionary director’s film was such a breath of fresh air in the summer blockbuster field, and helped Hollywood steer away from Michael Bay style mayhem that was sadly starting to clutter and carry the sci-fi action thriller genre down.  But, with Del Toro not behind the directors chair this time, I worry that the movie is going to lack the charm and cleverness that made the original stand out.  Pacific Rim was so distinctly the work of it’s creator, and it will be hard to capture that same kind of balance of action and humor that is so essential to his style of direction.  My hope is that the franchise has strong enough legs to carry on without Del Toro behind the wheel, and that Uprising serves as a welcome companion to the classic original.  Hopefully it does not devolve into a mess of special effects and bland characterizations like so many other summer blockbusters and uninspired sequels fall into.  If it does, it will be a waste of something special that came before it.

ANNIHILATION (FEBRUARY 23)

Speaking of my worry of good things being wasted, here we have the second directorial effort of screenwriter turned director Alex Garland.  Garland has been one of the most heralded Sci-Fi writers of this generation, having written such acclaimed scripts for 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2007), and Dredd (2012).  In 2015, he made his directorial debut with the beloved Ex Machina, which showed that he indeed was just as talented behind the camera.  But, the thing that made Ex Machina work so well was it’s restraint, featuring more psychological tension as a motivating factor in the story rather than any bombastic action sequences.  It was thriller more for the mind than the eyes.  With Annihilation, his second feature, he’s exploring a scenario of evolution run amok within a dimensional anomaly.  This unfortunately looks to be more of an action driven movie than Ex Machina was, and my worry is that this is going to make this movie less captivating as a result.  Ex Machina left us chilled through the sheer brilliance of it’s expertly paced tension.  Maybe it’s just the way the trailer is edited, but it looks like the movie is positioning itself to be more of a fast-paced action thriller, which would be quite the dramatic shift for a director like Garland.  Maybe he can pull it off, but I feel like I’m going to miss the subtlety of his previous work.  Also, I worry that this could become one of those style over substance kinds of movies, as the visuals seem to be the highlight of this trailer, with little details given about what exactly this is all about.  Here’s hoping that Alex Garland continues to display his best qualities as a director and doesn’t turn into a one it wonder like so many promising cross over artists before.

THE 15:17 TO PARIS (FEBRUARY 9)

There’s no doubt that Clint Eastwood is one of the finest film directors we’ve ever seen.  His natural, uncluttered style is something that most other filmmakers try to emulate, but few are actually able to accurately copy.  But, Eastwood over time has fallen into periods of complacency as a director, though his skills behind the camera has never wavered.  Recently, he’s become most comfortable with adapting stories ripped straight from the headlines, sometimes with mixed results.  His American Sniper (2014) proved to be a remarkably well crafted war flick, but his recreation of the “Miracle on the Hudson” news story, Sully (2016), was far less captivating and was perhaps a little too soft of a human story to devote a feature length movie to.  Here, Eastwood tells the story of the thwarted terrorist attack on a French commuter train, where three off duty American soldiers risked their lives to stop the attack.  The story itself is not undue for cinematic treatment, but I feel that it’s still too fresh a story to devote a serious retelling without more perspective involved.  Also, here Clint Eastwood makes the risky choice of casting the real life people in the same roles, recreating their traumatic experience, alongside a cast of other actors.  Now, it is undeniable that these men are true heroes, and should be praised as such.  But, they are also not professional actors, and the trailer kind of hints at their somewhat awkward attempts at giving a performance in this film.  Hopefully, Eastwood is a good enough director to get great performances out of anybody, but my worry is that he may have sacrificed the effectiveness of the story by honoring the heroes too much in putting them in their own movie.

RAMPAGE (APRIL 20)

Honestly, there are only two ways for this movie to go; it could end up being really, really stupid or really, really awesome.  History is definitely not on it’s side, because there has been nothing but bad luck that has fallen every movie based on a video game to date.  Based on the classic arcade game of the same name, this movie has a giant gorilla, wolf and alligator battle each other in an urban setting, leaving unimaginable destruction in their path.  It seems like the least likely candidate for a big screen adaptation considering the simplicity of it’s premise, and yet the makers of this movie have somehow found a way to do it.  It still looks like generic monster movie mayhem that leaves little impression, but the movie does have some saving graces in it.  First and foremost, it does feature Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the lead, who as we have seen has managed to bring charm and charisma to even the most thankless of roles.  This movie also re-teams him with the director of the surprisingly non-sucky disaster flick San Andreas (2015), so this new collaboration could prove to be just as unexpectedly effective.  Chances are it won’t, but it may prove to be a movie just silly enough to be entertaining.  And if it succeeds at that, it will be light years better than pretty much every other video game movie that has ever been made.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

FIFTY SHADES FREED (FEBRUARY 9)

It’s unbelievable that we’ve been subjected to three of these movies, let alone one.  What makes me cringe even more than the subject matter is the audacity of the marketing campaign to proclaim that this is the “final chapter of the worldwide phenomenon.”  This is no Hunger Games.  It’s just a smut filled soap opera that treats it’s audience like idiots, while at the same time being brain-numbingly stupid as well.  Not since Twilight (2008) have we seen a studio so shamelessly exploit the popularity of it’s equally dumb source material in the laziest ways possible, just to titillate their target audience in the most blatant way.  There are no redeeming qualities in this series (except maybe in Dakota Johnson’s sometimes self-aware performance) and the only blessing we have now is that it is going to disappear from the cinemas forever after this trilogy caper.   But even still, I pity anyone who chooses this as a Valentine’s Day date movie.  This kind of shallow romanticism between two beautiful but naughty white people is becoming really boring fare at the box office.  Seek out something far more romantic like last year’s The Big Sick, which did such a better job of conveying romance on the big screen.  This one, and the others that came before it, are to romance what Transformers are to action; all gloss, no shine.

PETER RABBIT (FEBRUARY 9)

Don’t you hate that feeling when you see Hollywood take a beloved literary classic and try to jazz it up and make it hip and modern for what they think a contemporary will find more appealing.  That’s the feeling that I believe a lot of fans of Beatrix Potter’s classic tale of a mischievous rabbit are feeling right now as they see what Sony Pictures have done with Peter Rabbit.  This adaptation looks and feels nothing like the original story and instead portrays the classic character as party animal who rises up as the champion of his woodland friends.  The movie clearly misses the point of the original story, which is the hubris of the mischievous, over-confident rabbit, whose bad habits leads him into trouble with the fearsome Mr. McGregor.  Here, the movie puts him and McGregor (played by Domhnall Gleeson) at odds with hi-jinks more at place within a Home Alone movie.  This is clearly a movie aiming solely at younger audiences who obviously have little connection with the original story, and it just makes the whole thing exploitative as a result.  This story is beloved by people from many generations, and to see this film exploit the story for a lame set of pratfalls and sophomoric humor is quite the insult to their childhood memories.  Not to mention that the animation itself is really terrible, sacrificing charm for realistic textures, which add nothing to the appeal of the character.  This is why some stories are better left on the page.

RED SPARROW (MARCH 2)

There are a variety of factors working against this movie.  One, the femme fatale spy thriller genre seems to have fizzled out pretty quickly.  Everything we’ve seen from this short lived cinematic trend has been underwhelming and feeling like desperate The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) wannabes.  And given the disappointment of last year’s Atomic Blonde, it’s a sub-genre on it’s last legs, the like of which Red Sparrow seems little capable of redeeming.  Second of all, Jennifer Lawrence seems to be all wrong for this role.  She’s capable of holding her own in action flicks like The Hunger Games (2012) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), but for her to take on the role of a Russian ballerina turned rogue assassin, it seems like a bit of a stretch even for her.  The movie also looks very uninspired as a spy thriller, seeming far too derivative of visuals from better movies like Dragon Tattoo.  One thing that makes me see this movie as a wasted opportunity is the fact that the plot seems so similar to the comic book origins of Marvel’s Black Widow character.  I wonder if this script might have been served better if it had been re-purposed as an origin film for the popular Avenger, giving fans of the character the stand alone film that they’ve been longing to see.  Regardless, this movie carries little interest for me, and will probably leave the theaters quickly leaving the minimalist of impressions.

So, there you have my outlook on the upcoming months ahead.  It’s clear that the months of January, February, March and April are quickly becoming their own thing within Hollywood’s yearly cycle more than they ever have been before, and are no longer considered just an afterthought by the industry.  2018 is especially giving us a promising start to the year with what I have spotlighted in this article.  I especially want to see what Steven Spielberg has up his sleeve with his ambitious Ready Player One.  Also, Marvel’s Black Panther looks to keep their hot streak alive with it’s very impressive production.  It’s also neat to see so many movies coming from top tier talent like Clint Eastwood, Wes Anderson, and Alex Garland this early in the year, showing that we don’t have to wait until years end to see some prestige film-making.  My only hope is that the early part of the year doesn’t end up carrying the burden of leading into a disappointing summer, like what happened last year.  Let’s hope for the industry’s sake that 2018 marks a positive year for the industry in general, through all seasons.  In any case, I hope my guide has been helpful and that some of you will discover some worthwhile movies to watch in the months ahead.  It’s great to know that we no longer have to wait until the Summer and the Fall to see the best that Hollywood has to offer.

Yippy Ki Holidays – The Die Hard Christmas Question and Alternative Seasonal Classics

We all have our ways of celebrating the holidays.  For many people it centers around the food, the gifts, and the celebrations, but for a lot of people out there, the holidays are also marked by the movies as well.  Quite a few people make it a tradition to watch a specific film every year around Christmas that in many ways reflects the mood of the season.  And most of the time, those movies end up being what you would expect.  You’ve got your Miracle on 34th Street (1947), your Holiday Inn (1942), your The Santa Clause (1994), your Elf (2003) and you Polar Express (2004).  These are all different types of movies from many different eras, but the one thing they all have in common is that the holidays are front and center in the story.  But, among these, there is another film that has somehow worked it’s way into the conversation; 1988’s Die Hard.  But, how is this Bruce Willis action thriller considered a holiday classic?  The first thing you think about when you hear Die Hard is certainly not Santa Claus.  And yet, there is a passionate contingent of people out there who will swear that their holidays are not complete until Hans Gruber falls from the top of Nakatomi Plaza Tower.  It’s an unusual tradition to be sure, but one that’s becoming more frequent this time of year.  Die Hard is part of a growing number of movies that have formed this alternative collection of holiday classics, becoming a sub genre of a sub genre.  They are not all Die Hard-esque style movies, but rather films that don’t quite ring out as Christmas movies, until you dig a little deeper into their themes and find that the holidays are indeed part of their respective plots.  This is also a growing category that does see resistance to more traditional holiday tastes, mainly because these types of movie redefine the definition of what a Christmas movie should be.

One of the things that people take issue with when they hear people classify movies like Die Hard as a Christmas film, is that it’s subverting the values of holiday themed entertainment.  Some would claim that Christmas movies should be uplifting and positive in their themes, and putting an R-rated action movie in the same conversation is merely a rational to weaken the impact of the holiday season altogether.  And while the argument can be made that adding any movie with a loose connection to Christmas to a list of holiday classics only weakens the classifications as a whole, I also think that a stringent guideline for what makes a Christmas movie shouldn’t be so specific either.  Indeed, the most famous Christmas themed movies do have a certain character in common with each other, but as audiences have changed over the years, so have the films, and we find the things that people value about the holidays tend to be reflected within the movies of their time.  That’s why whenever the conversation of what makes a Christmas movie comes up, there is often a generational divide.  There is crossover, but in general, you’ll find that younger generations have a more loose sense of what composes a holiday classic.  And, as time has turned tastes a bit more unconventional, the classification of holiday themes changes as well.  Perhaps in response to the pervasiveness of classics from the past, a whole new generation of subversive Christmas movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), and Bad Santa (2003) have become part of the conversation.  And with these, the idea that old definitions of Christmas favorites start to change, which gives way to the question of Die Hard being a part of the mix.

Now, to actually address the movie in question; is Die Hard a Christmas movie or not?  My answer would be yes; in fact, much more so than you would think.  The Christmas Eve setting of course is unquestionable, but that’s not the only thing.  Honestly, the movie’s plot could have worked at any time of year, because there isn’t anything that says it must absolutely be Christmas time for this story to make sense.   The fact that it incorporates Christmas themed elements into it’s story is an added bonus to everything else.  You can’t help but love the way that Bruce Willis’ John McClane taunts the bad guys with Christmas puns as he dismantles their intricately laid out plan.  The most famous example of this of course is when he sends the body of a slain terrorist down the elevator wearing a Santa hat and a blood inked message saying, “Now I have a machine gun.  Ho Ho Ho.”  But apart from that, the story itself also fits very well within other classic Christmas stories.  McClane has a Scrooge-esque redemption arc throughout the movie, where he manages to reconnect with his estranged wife by means of proving himself through this trial of fire with a group of deadly foes, all while on a holiday trip from work.  Sure, some of the thematic connections are a stretch, but you can see the deep influence that the Christmas setting has on the story.  The movie is aware of it too, as the closing credits even begin with a classic rendition of “Let it Snow;” an ironic choice given the Los Angeles setting, where snow never falls.  While the conversation of what makes an official Christmas movie or not hinges on Die Hard most of the time, you can’t argue too much that it shouldn’t be considered at all.  There’s too many aesthetic and thematic elements that support it’s inclusion, but it certainly is a movie that opens the door to considering alternatives in the conversation.

What Die Hard brought to the genre of Christmas movies more than anything was the idea that a movie didn’t necessarily have to be about Christmas in order to be called a Christmas movie.  In a sense, there could be movies that tackle all sorts of subjects that can be called a Christmas movie purely through the way it uses the setting and the iconography of the holiday.  And in this subset, we find where the degrees of arguments split.  Some people believe that one scene taking place at Christmas time does not a Christmas movie make.  But, there are also Christmas movies that take place with the holiday continuously as a part of the backdrop, but are never the focus of the plot.  Home Alone (1990) is a good example of this, given the near wall to wall Christmas iconography used in the movie.  But, when you get down to it, the setting wasn’t really necessary to tell that story.  You just needed a little kid left to fend off home invaders alone while his family is away.  It could have just as well been set during summer vacation, but the Christmas setting obviously provided more possibilities for the filmmakers.  You find little dispute towards Home Alone being considered a Christmas classic, but it’s justification falls pretty much within the same bounds as Die Hard, because the setting is just there as an added bonus for the plot.  There are also some other Christmas movies that are not necessarily about the holiday, and where it holds little significance towards the overall story as well.  One of the greatest depictions of Christmas festivities that I’ve ever seen on film is in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Fanny and Alexander (1982), but it only makes up the first half hour of a three hour epic and is largely inconsequential to what follows after.  And yet, I fully agree that the movie is just as worthy a Christmas movie as anything else.

Some of these alternative Christmas films tend to fall into the category without intending to be that way.  I’ve heard many arguments out there that Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is a Christmas movie.  That seems at first to be a wild stretch, but the signs are there.  The movie is set at Christmas time, and there are visual representations throughout the movie to remind you that the holiday is on everyone’s mind.  But, at the same time, you can’t say that the movie has in it’s mind to be classified as a holiday classic in the same company as Miracle on 34th Street.  That becomes abundantly clear once you get to the legendary orgy scene.  And yet, people want to classify it as a movie within the same genre.  My belief is that Kubrick never intended to have his movie become associated with the holiday, or any genre that pertains to it.  His movie is an exploration of the desires that drive men and woman and how they push us into some dark and depraved areas.  But, the Christmas setting does add some context to the turmoil of the characters.  The holiday season often is a time of reflection, and of considering the things we value in our lives.  It’s also a time where people become aware of the things that are lacking in their lives, and how that can be sometimes depressing.  That is why I think Kubrick wanted to use Christmas as the backdrop of his movie, because at it’s center is a character (played by Tom Cruise) who loses his way in his relationship with his wife (played by Nicole Kidman) and takes a journey towards the edge to reflect on where his life has gone wrong.  In a strange way, it has a lot in common with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) in this regard, as the main character is driven towards desperation as his life crumbles during the festivities of the season.  But, at the same time, Cruise’s character is no George Bailey, and Kubrick never intended him to be.  The two movies share universal themes and a common Christmas setting, but are otherwise from different worlds.  So, Eyes Wide Shut does have a case to make in the Christmas movie conversation, but it was an argument that I don’t think it’s creator ever thought was going to happen.

There are some filmmakers that work in a variety of genres that do make more overt gestures towards Christmas themes in their movies.  In fact, one filmmaker not only uses Christmas intentionally in his movies, it has become his signature.  That man is Shane Black, a legendary action film writer and director with a body of work spanning several decades and genres.  Starting off as a screenwriter, Shane made a name for himself with the script for Lethal Weapon (1987), an action movie with Christmas elements that actually predates Die Hard.  While his movies tend to use Christmas backdrops, they aren’t necessarily tied to the holiday itself.  And yet, more than any filmmaker, he loves to incorporate it into the plot whenever he can.  The introduction of Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs in Weapon happens in a Christmas tree farm for example.  And whether the story calls for it or not, Shane manages to find a way to work Christmas into it; something that even extends into his directorial efforts like Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2005), Iron Man 3 (2013) and The Nice Guys (2016).  The only other thing his movies have in common with one another other than Christmas is the inclusion of a wise ass little kid tagging along with the often cynical main character, which shows just how much of an intentional cinematic choice the holiday is as a part of his body of work.  One thing that I think Shane Black finds so appealing with this signature element is how it juxtaposes against the larger story he is trying to tell.  One thing you’ll notice in his movies is that his movies aren’t just depicting Christmas time in general, they are depicting Christmas in a California setting.  In many ways, Christmas time in LA has an innate artificiality to it, because it’s a city where there is never snow and Christmas trees have to be imported in, so Shane likes to spotlight the way that the holiday traditions clash with the reality of this Southwestern city, and there he finds a cinematic subtext to the stories he wants to tell, which tend to always have a dark sense of humor to them.  So whether people want to see them as such or not, Shane Black absolutely insists on his movies being synonymous with the holidays.

So, you have to wonder, why is there so many arguments for an alternative class of holiday classics.  I think the reaction to standards of tradition have something to do with that.  People want Christmas tales that reflect how they feel about the holidays, and it often includes feelings of rejecting traditional standards.  It is true that there has been something of a culture clash regarding the holiday of Christmas, and arguments on both sides tend to divide among the different movies that people choose to watch during the holiday season.  Traditionalist tend to favor movies that have spiritual themes and treat the holiday with a sense of reverence, while others tend to value the movies that subvert the traditions of the holiday.  There are movies that fall into common ground, and they are generally among the most beloved.  But there are some movies that do gather a little too much one way or the other, and these are the films that essentially are considered to be the worst of the genre.  The more traditional Christmas movies that are among the worst are the ones that immerse themselves so much in the Holiday spirit that it ends up ringing hollow and manipulative.  You can especially find these kinds of movies playing nonstop around the holidays on the Hallmark Channel.  I would also put Ron Howard’s misguided 2000 Grinch remake in this class as well.  But, when a Christmas movie becomes too subversive, it has the same effect of being off-putting and disingenuous.  Stuff like Surviving Christmas (2004) and Eight Crazy Nights (2002) think they are being clever in mocking or critiquing Christmas traditions, but it only ends up making those movies mean spirited and usually unpleasant to sit through.  If anything, alternative Christmas movies do a great service to the genre of Holiday movies, because it allows for the holiday to be associated with better films.  No one can doubt the enjoyment factor of Die Hard, so why not embrace it as a Christmas movie.  It makes the holiday a whole lot more exciting.

Like all other genres, Holiday films are an evolving genre, and the definitions of it’s characteristics are continually being refined.  But, we do know that many movies intentionally use the symbols, emotions, and aesthetics of the holiday season to add a little flavor to their movies, even to the point of making it essential to the story.  It’s just interesting to see that so many movies of different types now fall under the banner of holiday fare.  I’ve even seen the FreeForm channel play Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) as a part of their holiday marathon of movies.  Yes, Christmas is depicted in that movie, but the plot spans a full year, and there is even a scene specifically tied to Halloween in there too.  But, I guess I can’t argue with their choices either.  There are so many movies that take on the spirit of Christmas, but often fall short, so it makes sense that so many people are embracing quality movies that only have a glancing connection with the holiday.  Like I said before, one of my favorite Christmas scenes in a movie ever was in Fanny and Alexander, a film that in no way is about the holiday at all. I only take issue with there being extremes to the arguments of what makes Christmas movies.  A Christmas movie, of course, must have something to connect it with the holiday in terms of aesthetics and at times themes as well, but it in no way has to be exclusively tied to them either.  I often like how a movie sometimes decides to just use a Christmas setting for whatever reason, because it provides an interesting perspective that sheds a different light on the story otherwise.  Somethings like Die Hard, or Batman Returns (1992), or Lethal Weapon are given a fresher bit of flavor once it uses the holidays as a part of their stories.  So that’s why the question of whether or not Die Hard has earned it’s place as a Christmas classic is an essential one for the future of the genre as a whole.  Christmas is a holiday that embraces more traditions, and if a gun-wielding New York cop is a part of that for that for you, than Merry Christmas and Yippy-ki-yay.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – Review

It’s pretty remarkable that we live in a culture where several generations of film-goers can share a common connection with the same film franchise no matter what their age.  When the first Star Wars made it to the big screen in 1977, it was certainly a product of it’s time to be sure, but it resonated so well that it would go on to redefine the cinematic experience as a whole for years afterwards.  The enduring legacy continued through two equally beloved sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) and the Star Wars trilogy as it was known then would go on to influence a generation raised watching it and absorbing it’s wonder.  As a result, Star Wars became more than just a movie, but a cultural touchstone, as fans defined their lives around their love of the movies; in some cases to extreme degrees.  It was also a game-changer for Hollywood, as a generation of future filmmakers took inspiration and built their own majestic adventures in the spirit of Star Wars.  Upon seeing how extensive the impact of the first trilogy was on the culture, the man behind it, George Lucas, believed that he had the opportunity now to expand his universe further.  Thus, we got what is now known as the “prequel trilogy,” telling the story of what led up to the events of the original three films.  The reception to the prequels, however, were mixed, as the maturing fan-base of the original trilogy held the series in sacred regard, and considered George Lucas’ additions to be superfluous and demeaning.  Even still, the movies were still financially successful, and what they did more than anything was to keep the Star Wars franchise still fresh in people’s minds, especially to younger viewers who were coming to the franchise with fresh eyes.  Good or bad, two generations of fans exist for this continuing series, and it continues to fuel the growth of the extended universe that Lucas has created, which leads us now to the current generation of Star Wars fandom.

After the prequels, the future of Star Wars was cast in doubt, because it seemed that George Lucas himself had put it behind him finally and was content to leave the story complete as it was.  But in 2012, a remarkable deal was struck which allowed George Lucas’ production company, Lucasfilm, to be purchased by Disney for a substantial $4 billion.  For the first time ever, the Star Wars brand was freed up from the grasp of it’s creator and was now allowed to flourish on it’s own.  Disney of course wasted no time and immediately put the franchise to work, announcing that work was going to begin on a brand new trilogy, this time looking forward instead of backward by continuing the story-line told in the original trilogy.  The first film in this new era was given to blockbuster filmmaker J.J. Abrams, who had already garnered success for relaunching the dormant Star Trek film franchise.  Though the job would be daunting, given all the expectations put upon it, J.J. managed to deliver a very satisfying addition to the Star Wars series with The Force Awakens.  Not only did it work as a stand alone film, it managed to tie the whole series together in a more complete way, allowing fans of both the grittier original trilogy and the glossier prequels to appreciate it together.  It was nostalgic for the past, but held new promise for the future.  And alongside the successful spinoff hit, Rogue One (2016), Star Wars is once again in a position where they are not just the biggest franchise in Hollywood today, but also one of the most influential.  And that legacy finds itself with a new chapter in this year’s newest entry, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.  Is it a movie worthy of the legacy that it’s built upon, or is it a road block that could minimize the bright future that’s ahead for the series.

The film picks up right after the events of The Force Awakens.  The Rebellion, led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) is still rejoicing it’s spectacular victory over the First Order; an evil military remnant of the Galactic Empire.  Leia’s most trusted Starfleet captain, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), continues to make riskier attacks against what remains of the First Order’s fleet, but the costs are piling up and the Rebellion’s numbers are dwindling.  After learning that the First Order now has developed technology that can track them through light speed, the Rebellion suddenly finds themselves on the run.  At the same time, Poe finds himself at odds with Leia and the new resistance leader, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).  With the help of his friend Finn (John Boyega) as well as a plucky engineer named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), the trio devise a plan to secretly gain access to the First Order’s flagship and dismantle their tracking signal.  Meanwhile, many star systems away, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has finally met up with the long missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  Rey hopes that the Jedi master will help her to focus the powers that are awakening within her and train her in the Jedi arts.  But, Luke has vowed to put an end to his Jedi ways and refuses to become her teacher.  Rey only gains his trust after demonstrating some of the raw strength that she wields, but in doing so, she further terrifies the aging Jedi.  He recognizes her power as being too similar to those of his nephew Ben Solo, who had turned to the dark side and became Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  As Rey gains more skills, she starts to gain a psychic connection with Kylo Ren, who is currently under the influence of the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).  Is their bond the key to balance within the force, or is there a darker scheme at work, and is it time for Luke Skywalker to wield the lightsaber for one last battle?

When judging The Last Jedi, you have to take account of where it falls within the series as a whole.  For many people, the high-point of the series is The Empire Strikes Back, the second film ever made and the fifth chronologically.  Since then, everything has been trying to clear that high bar and few if any have ever come close.  The prequels represent to many the low points, as it’s clear that George Lucas lost focus on the story and became too self involved in the world building of it all.  For The Last Jedi, it’s following in the footsteps of a generally beloved reboot for the series in The Force Awakens, which opened the door for many opportunities, while at the same time following safe and familiar ground.  Last Jedi certainly has the benefit of being the second film in a trilogy, something it shares in common with Empire,  but that’s also a negative, as it has more expectations placed upon it because of that aspect.  But, just judging it on it’s own, how does it fare?  I would say that it meets most of it’s expectations, but never really exceeds them.  I did have a good time watching the movie, and it had some truly spectacular moments.  What it also had was an uneven story, that unfortunately falls into meandering subplots and lulls in the pacing.  As a result, I found it to be somewhat of a step backwards after the more briskly paced and pleasantly surprising Force Awakens.  But, that being said, this is by no means a bad movie at all.  It is light years better than the prequels, I can tell you that, and at some point features moments that I would characterize as among the best in the series.  The film was written and directed by Rian Johnson, who has made a name for himself with critically acclaimed thrillers like Brick (2005) and Looper (2012), and he certainly shows great skill here with this material, giving it the right epic feel, along with some of the unexpected twists that takes the universe into uncharted territory.  At the same time, while offering some new ideas into the mix, Johnson unfortunately throws a little too much in, not allowing stuff to stick with the audience quite as well as it should.

Of course, this shouldn’t be compared at all with Empire Strikes Back, and for the most part Last Jedi does manage to steer clear of direct comparative elements that naturally would reflect badly upon it.  But, one thing that I did think it lacked in comparison to Empire is the balance it has with playing out multiple story-lines.  In Empire, you had two solid plot-lines, one with Luke being trained by Yoda and the other focused on Han Solo and Leia’s growing relationship, threaded perfectly together towards an unforgettable finish.  Here, not all the plot-lines thread together as neatly.  There is this lackluster side quest taken by Finn and Rose to a Casino resort planet, which adds nothing to the story and in some ways feels very out of place in a Star Wars movie.  Because of this, I felt that the movie lagged in the middle as I just didn’t care at all what was happening in this sequence.  Essentially, it’s just used as an excuse to bring a new wild card character into the mix, a code-breaker named DJ (played by Benicio Del Toro) who unfortunately is given too little screen time to make an impact.  If you’re going to get someone of Del Toro’s caliber to be a part of the cast, you should use him to the fullest potential, and sadly this movie does not.  And you would think that with a lengthy running time of 2 /12 hours (the longest in the series) that more time would be devoted to giving every new thing it’s due, and sadly it does not.  But, whenever the movie would find it’s focus, particularly in the latter half, it would really grab a hold of the audience and overall, more scenes work than don’t.  I especially loved every moment focused on Luke and Rey.  That’s where the movie finds it’s soul, and some of the most profound moments ever seen in the Star Wars franchise can be found in their story-line.  The movie also does a fantastic job of upending your expectations.  Without giving anything away, there are a few surprises late in the film that not only takes the story in a whole new direction, but even shakes up the future of the universe as a whole.  In many ways, the movie’s greatest strength is the way that it subverts the tropes that you’ve come to know about Star Wars and makes you see that anything is really possible with this franchise.

One thing that the movie does carry over well from The Force Awakens is the renewed emphasis on the characters in the series.  Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and even the little droid BB-8 all continue to grab our attention and keep us invested in their ongoing adventures.  The Last Jedi also thankfully gives more screen time and development to the character of Poe Dameron, as we see him develop more as a player in this whole thing.  We see that he indeed has some flaws, as his brash and impatient attitude has sometimes put the Rebellion in even more danger, and towards the end of the movie, we see him learn more from his mistakes and see that sometimes caution is the better strategy.  Every returning actor is still excellent, with both Daisy Ridley and John Boyega still as charming as ever in their respective roles.  Adam Driver once again demonstrates his acting chops and makes Kylo Ren one of the Star Wars series’ most fascinating villains.  The newer characters sadly leave less of an impression, but the best new addition is Kelly Marie Tran as Rose, who adds a new dimension to the story as one of the rebellion’s most ardent believers.  One thing that will be notable about this movie, however, is that it marks the final screen performance of Carrie Fisher in the role that made her a star.  Her tragic passing after finishing her scenes for this film is something that will cast a somber tone while watching her final performance her, and I can definitely say that it is a fantastic farewell to a great character and an even better actress.  But, the film more than anything belongs to Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.  The veteran actor steps back into the role with remarkable finesse, and it will take you right back to your childhood seeing him wield that lightsaber once again.  Not only that, but he even brings more dimensions to his iconic character and shows us that there is still more to learn about this Jedi Master.  His chemistry with Daisy Ridley’s Rey is also phenomenal and their moments are easily the highlights.  And I have to say, without spoiling anything, the finale features some of the most bad ass Luke Skywalker moments this series has ever seen, and that’s saying something.

Also of note are the visuals in this movie.  This may very well be the most beautifully shot film in the entire series.  The original trilogy’s DP, Gilbert Taylor, was no slouch, but his skills were also limited by the budget, which gave the films a more grounded and grittier look, which actually worked to it’s advantage.  Here, The Last Jedi was shot by frequent Rian Johnson collaborator Steve Yedlin, who brings a remarkable eye for scale and beautiful sense for color and light to the mix.  There are some stunning visual moments that both he and Rian Johnson create, much of which are unique in the franchise to date.  There is a beautiful moment where Rey begins to take her first lesson in feeling the Force around her, and the scene turns into a montage of images, creating a visual representation of Rey’s sensory experience.  It’s something that you haven’t seen before in a Star Wars film, and it’s done really well.  The movie also makes great use of it’s locations as well.  While the aforementioned Casino planet is a little bland, the crystal planet of Crait more than makes up for it.  Serving as the battleground for the climatic finale, this planet features some truly memorable visuals, including the way that the barren white salt flats of the surface gives way to blood red dirt underneath once it’s been turned over or disturbed.  This leads to a mix of color that really captures the eye, and makes this not just look like an epic adventure, but also a work of art as well.  At some points, I feel like Rian Johnson took inspiration from classic Westerns when creating his epic finale, because there are moment near the end that feel like they’ve come right out of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, in a very positive way.  All of this help to make the movie feel satisfying by the end, because while you can find fault in the story, you can’t help but be in awe of the artistry in it’s production, which in many cases represents some of the best we’ve ever seen before in this series.

As a whole, where would I rank this movie as a part of the series.  For me, the original film and Empire Strikes Back are still the pinnacle of the series, as they represent the fullest expression of what George Lucas intended with his grand vision.  Sure, they were compromised by their limitations, but the earnestness with which they were made are still unmatched even to this day.  After them, I would put The Force Awakens as the third best in the series, as I found that film to have the best balance to it’s story that we’ve seen outside of the original series, even if it was overly familiar ground they were retreading.  The prequels of course round out the bottom.  The Last Jedi I would say falls into the flawed but still satisfying category that Return of the Jedi finds itself within.  I can’t overlook the fact that it takes some unnecessary detours in the story that do nothing but pad the running time, but at the same time, I was still pleased with what I saw.  The film has some great moments, especially those with Luke Skywalker, and it finishes very strong by the end.  I even give the movie praise for subverting our expectations with regards to where we thought the movie was going to go.  Some of those fan theories that have been circling the web for years are suddenly going to be stopped cold by this movie, and in a way, I’m kind of happy this movie did that.  You can’t help but admire a film franchise that’s willing to take some chances and not be married to tired tropes that it had helped to make itself.  If there is anything that this movie proves, is that anything is possible in this universe, and that more than anything is a promising aspect for the future of the Star Wars brand.  I honestly have no idea where this trilogy is headed next, because this movie broke so many rules, and left so many things up in the air.  When J.J. Abrams returns to make the trilogy capping Episode IX, it will be interesting to see what he does with the new direction that Rian Johnson has set for this world.  In the end, The Last Jedi needed to set itself apart as an entry in this franchise and that it does.   It’s not as pretty as some of the best we’ve seen in this series, but it is a welcome game-changer that in a way is exactly what this series needed to keep this franchise interesting for this generation and those that will continue to follow.

Rating: 8.25/10