All posts by James Humphreys

Off the Page – To Kill a Mockingbird

Social justice has long been a theme found throughout literature, with authors giving voice to the concerns of the day and finding the medium of storytelling as an effective way to argue a point directly to the reader.  Oftentimes when a writer tackles a particularly pressing issue in their work, it is a reflection of their state of mind with regards to the issue at the time of writing.  And though some works that tackle a social justice point head on can have the positive effect of stirring the conversation in it’s moment, their stories must also be able to stand on their own outside of that conversation.  Some books that were considered progressive in their time have over the years been reexamined and critiqued as being relics of a era where those same values have either fallen out of favor or chaned completely.  The novels of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Adventures of Huck Finn  by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain respectively were heralded as passionate arguments against slavery in their time, but their less enlightened depictions of black characters in the novels have led them to be heavily criticized based on the values of today.  But if one novel manages to breakthrough the values of it’s day and can still resonate many years later with readers young and old with it’s message of racial equality, it’s that special piece of writing that stands as a true perennial masterpiece.  Such is the case with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a book whose legacy may be one of the most profound in all of American literature.  First published in 1960, Mockingbird made it’s debut right at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America.  Though Civil Rights battles were ongoing throughout the history of America, it hit it’s apex immediately after the slaying of Emmett Till in 1955 and was brought to the mainstream with public figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leading the charge.  And with Mockingbird’s direct and frank depiction of racial tensions in a small Southern town through the eyes of a young, impressionable girl named Scout, Harper Lee was able to connect readers of all races and backgrounds with the the call for Civil Rights in a way that still has the power to call for social justice over 60 years later.

Harper Lee is a unique icon in the world of American literature.  She only ever published two novels in her entire lifetime, the second of which was a first draft of her most famous work that her estate chose to release publicly despite Lee’s own wishes (2015’s Go Set a Watchman).  That’s not to say she wasn’t an active writer.  She wrote hundreds of columns, essays and non-fiction pieces throughout her life, but To Kill a Mockingbird was her one and only fictional novel that she intended to publish.  Most of her writing involved the life she knew growing up in Monroeville, Alabama, particularly with regards to the growing racial tensions she experienced there.  Writing always seemed to be in her blood, and it worked out that her childhood friend in Monroeville also shared her interests.  Living next door to her was a boy named Truman Parsons, who would later become known as Truman Capote, a prolific and influential literary icon in his own right.  Capote made a splash in the literary world first with his successful run of columns in Harper’s Bazaar and the runaway bestseller Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958).  It was believed that in Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) that he based a character named Idabel on Harper Lee.  Harper would return the gesture by basing a character named Dill on Capote in Mockingbird.  Though she said that Mockingbird was not a direct autobiographical work, it is pretty clear that a lot of the canvas on which she draws her narrative is taken from her own childhood.  At the center of the story is a young tomboy girl named Scout Finch who witnesses the trial of a black man falsely accused of rape where her father, Atticus Finch, argues for his defense in court.  Though personal in nature, the story touches upon so many issues that resonated with readers that were themselves coming to terms with racial injustice in America.  As a result, Harper Lee found herself becoming a perhaps unexpected but nevertheless essential contributor to the Civil Rights Movement that helped to end Jim Crow and Segregation laws in America.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”

Naturally, Hollywood took notice of the power of Lee’s novel, and immediately went to work on crafting a big screen adaptation.  The rights to the novel were picked up immediately after publication by Universal Studios, though getting the movie on the screen wouldn’t be easy.  For one thing, most other studios were reluctant to tackle issues regarding race at the time, given that they were afraid of losing the southern audience.  That’s not to say that most of Hollywood was opposed to the Civil Rights Movement; it’s just that they viewed making a movie about racial injustice to be a financial risk that was better thought to be left untapped.  So, many films that tackled racial injustice on the big screen tended to be smaller and low risk ventures, but that was about to change with Mockingbird.  The novel was enormously popular with Hollywood elites, and many of them were campaigning hard to be a part of this upcoming film.  Though Universal had a strong stable of acclaimed directors, the responsibility for adapting Lee’s novel would fall to Robert Mulligan, who up until that time was mostly a TV director.  With his producing partner Alan J. Pakula, Mulligan sought to create a very down to earth adaptation of Lee’s writing, free from the typical melodrama of most socially conscious Hollywood films.  The casting of the roles was also a particularly important part of the development of the film.  The characters of Scout and her brother Jem would go to newcomers Mary Badham and Philip Alford, both authentically from Alabama.  The crucial role Atticus would pass through the hands of many Hollywood leading men at the time, including Universal’s top box office star at the time, Rock Hudson, who campaigned hard for the role.  Ultimately, the role was given to Gregory Peck, who said yes after having read the novel in a single sitting the night before.  In both it’s approach and it’s execution, Universal Pictures’ adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird was intent on bringing to the screen the essence of Harper Lee’s pivotal novel, and for the most part, it was a successful execution.

“Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s knowing you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

Upon both reading the novel and watching the movie, it is pretty astounding how well it translated.  Though some of the flavor of the setting in Harper’s writing gets lost in the translation, the overall narrative is there in tact.  We are told the story, like in the novel, through the eyes of Scout, though the movie adds the factor of it being a recollection several years after the fact by an adult Scout (voiced in narration by an uncredited Kim Stanley).  And with this perspective, the movie is able to tap into a sense of nostalgia that informs the tone of the movie.  Though the novel and the movie indeed are about racial injustice in the South, it is also a story about innocence lost and the effect that moments of distress and trauma have on children.  For much of the story, Scout learns more and more about the struggle of racial justice, and how truly critical it is for justice to be upheld.  She watches as her father puts his own reputation and even safety on the line in their quiet little town for the sole purpose of showing that everyone, regardless of race, should be treated fairly under the law.  A particularly potent moment from the book that made it into the movie involves Atticus holding back a lynch mob from taking his client out of prison and enacting their own warped sense of “Southern Justice.”  Only when Scout and Jem unexpectedly show up to meet Atticus in the middle of this tense situation does the mob disperse.  Knowing the history of lynchings in the South, this scene carries some very ominous overtones, and it becomes a pivotal teaching moment for Scout as well.  Having faced harassments at school because of her father’s case, and how her father remains undeterred in the face of a mob, she learns that social justice is a struggle that requires a strong sense of moral fortitude, and it emboldens her to take the issue more seriously.  Scout’s journey, from being ambivalent towards social issues towards becoming more compassionate and serious with regards to racial injustice is at the core of why Harper Lee’s novel is such a crucial benchmark in the Civil Rights movement.  It’s a call for readers to wake up and see more clearly the struggles that exist within their own neighborhood and not be deterred by the power structures that allow for those barriers to endure.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the film’s production is how well it brings the audience into the world of Harper Lee’s writing.  The fictional town of Mycomb, modeled obviously by Lee’s own hometown of Monroeville, feels so authentic within the movie, that anyone might swear that it was a real place in rural Alabama.  But in fact, the entire movie was shot right on the Universal Studios lot in the heart of Hollywood, California.  Everything from the town square to Finch’s quaint little neighborhood was fabricated from scratch.  To fit the Southern Gothic nature of Lee’s novel, every element of the setting had to feel lived in, and the production design team, led by the legendary Henry Bumstead, put so much effort to recreate a Southern setting right in the middle of Universal Studios.  Most of the sets are gone today, but the town square remains a fixture on the backlot to this day.  It may be familiar to Back to the Future (1985) fans, as the courthouse façade was repurposed many years later to become the iconic Clock Tower from that movie.  The interiors were also intricately detailed to reflect the kind of town that Harper Lee was familiar with.  The pivotal courtroom set, where a big chunk of the movie takes place, was modeled after a real one in Monroeville, which is used to this day as a staging venue for theatrical adaptations of the novel and many other plays as well.  Much of the reason why Universal went so far out of it’s way to build the town within the novel instead of shooting on location mostly had to do with the fact that much of Lee’s childhood home had been modernized over the years, and no longer retained that Depression Era aesthetic that she described in the book.  It’s probably the main reason, but it might have also shielded Universal from any local resistance from the Southerners who objected to the message from the novel.  In any sense, the best aspect of the movie is that it stays true to the novel’s sense of time and place, and it drives home for the audience a sense of authenticity that often was rarely found in most movie depictions of the South.

“Our courts have our faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”

But apart from the setting, what most people remember from the movie is the character of Atticus Finch himself.  Harper modeled the character mostly on her own father Amasa Coleman Lee, an attorney who also was in the business of taking on black clients who were being persecuted by the Jim Crow system of justice in the South.  Though the elder Lee was not quite as progressive as the Atticus depicted in the novel and film, he did become an advocate for racial equality in his later life, and was proud of Harper’s effective advocacy for such issues.  No doubt the stoic, unbending strength of the character appealed greatly to a long time supporter of civil rights like Gregory Peck.  Though Peck had been around for years in Hollywood, the actor had struggled to define his place as a leading man.  Stuck in mostly war films and westerns, with an occasional romantic comedy thrown in (Roman Holiday), Gregory wanted desperately to have that role that really showed off his strengths as a dramatic actor and also embody the progressive politics that he held up so seriously.  In Atticus, he found that role that would indeed define his career and turn him into an icon.  It’s hard to imagine anyone but Peck in the role.  With his towering frame and booming voice, Peck’s Atticus is the very definition of stoic strength.  But Peck uses his acting talents beautifully in the role, especially during those courtroom scenes.  His delivery of the defense for the accused, Tom Robinson (a fantastic Brock Peters), is dignified and with conviction, and is one of the most inspirational arguments for the definition of true justice ever put on screen.  Peck’s incredible performance is also matched by the authenticity of Mary Badham’s Scout, who is honestly the living embodiment of her literary counterpart.  If Atticus is the movie’s moral backbone, than Scout is it’s beating heart, and both are brought to perfect life by the actors portraying them.  The supporting players also feel authentic too, especially considering that some of them are acting outside of their comfort zone portraying some pretty vile racist characters.  But considering the importance of the story’s message, it’s a testament that everyone aimed to be as authentic as possible.

Since it’s debut, both on the page and on the screen, To Kill a Mockingbird has become pretty much an essential piece of media for generations.  It was especially an effective tool in classrooms to teach students about racial history in America.  I myself remember having to read the novel in school and I was introduced to the movie for the first time in the same way.  But, like many other pieces of literature that has been examined and re-examined over the years, the novel and movie have faced criticisms for it’s portrayal with regards to racial issues.  One of the most common criticisms is that it speaks about racial justice from a very white perspective, which some have claimed is patronizing to Black Americans.  In addition, it has been said that Atticus Finch is one of the clearest examples of the “White Savior” trope ever used in literature; where the focus of the story becomes less about the people who are victims of racial bigotry and more about the white people who come to their aid with far less resistance in their way.  It is a problem that Hollywood has had over the years, with well intentioned social justice films being made that unfortunately turn into self-serving vanity projects in the long run.  There are elements in To Kill a Mockingbird that do unfortunately fall into this trope, particularly surrounding the character of Atticus.  Atticus is very much lionized in the novel and the film, and that is reflected in moments that we see with the black citizens in the community showing reverence for the man.  A memorable scene from the movie, where all the black audience members in the courtroom stand up for Atticus when he leaves the floor after the trial has ended could easily fall into that kind of trope.  However, given the context of the scene in the movie, and the inspiration from which Lee drew upon, the moment feels less exploitive and more genuinely loving.  Atticus stood up for one of their own, so they will stand up for him (symbolically at least).  It’s about finding the common ground on which all races can strive to fight for, and that’s where I think To Kill a Mockingbird rises above those tropes.  I honestly am glad that I was exposed to a movie and novel like Mockingbird at such a young age, because it informed me why issues like this matter and why that moment of shared reverence for one another in that courtroom is such an ideal to strive for in our society.

“Miss Jean Louise, stand up.  You’re father’s passing.”

Like the novel it was based on, the movie To Kill a Mockingbird was a sensational success both critically and with audiences.  It was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but didn’t win (which is hard for me to argue against since the movie that won is my all time favorite film, Lawrence of Arabia).  Still, Gregory Peck walked away with the Best Actor award, which is probably one of the most well deserved in the history of the honor.  Atticus Finch, to this day is still celebrated as an idealized crusader for social justice that many activists today aspire to be like.  And like Scout, upon experiencing this story and witnessing it unfold, we have our own eyes upon to what role we must play in making the world a more just place.  It is reflected in Scout ultimately opening her heart out to another outsider in the story, the recluse Boo Radley (Robert Duvall in his screen debut), after he had saved her and her brother Jem from an attack by a vengeful racist thug.  Like Scout, the events of the story make us open our heart to those who fall unfairly outside the justice system today, and it calls upon us to reconsider our own place in the world and what we must do to seek justice for those that don’t usually get it.  That is in essence what Harper Lee wanted us to learn in her novel, and probably more than any other American novel of the 20th century, it shaped the conversation on racial issues across the whole mainstream, and helped push the Civil Rights movement further than ever before.  Harper won a well deserved Pulitzer for her work and in the years since the novel has only grown more in esteem.  Even most Southerners hold it up as a work of literary genius.  Still, the reason why both the book and the movie endure to this day is that it gives a strong human connection to a universal theme of social justice.  Even 60 years after it’s original publication, the themes of the novel still resonate, as racial injustice is a reoccurring problem that we still grapple with; the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers last year, among far too many others, being a perfect example.  Despite some legit criticisms of it’s handling of racial justice in it’s narrative, To Kill a Mockingbird is a story just as potent today as it was when it was first published.  With Harper Lee’s graceful writing, and easily identifiable characters, it’s a story that appeals to our better angels and reminds us that racial justice and equality need help in the world and that we must recognize it and fight for it.

“He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room.  He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.”

Godzilla vs. Kong – Review

As the worldwide box office begins to heal from the effects of a pandemic driven shut down, questions arise as to how movie theaters are going to return to business as normal.  What proved to be a challenge in 2020 was the fact that movie theaters had no way to operate while the pandemic was raging, which proved to be fortuitous for the growing competition of streaming services.  For a full year, most people were shut away in their homes with their only source of entertainment being what they were able to watch on their TV’s or mobile devices.  Coincidently, 2020 was also the year that many new streaming platforms launched, and were finding themselves all of a sudden responsible of carrying the burden of being the only outlet for new films from Hollywood.  Now that movie theaters across America are allowed to open, the problem that they face is trying to convince people to return back to the movies after a year of audiences growing comfortable with streaming their content instead.  There are many people eager to return (myself included, and I already have multiple times), but as of right now Hollywood is still a little unsure of the sea worthy conditions of returning to normal business.  For them, streaming almost looks like the more financially stable release model at the moment, and they are more willing to invest their future in that arena.  Movie theaters are in desperate need of proving that they can compete in this new market, and that requires the right kind of movie to bring people back to the theaters in numbers big enough to garner the studios attention.  That film in particular needs to be something that more than anything else is a crowd pleaser, and one that demands a first viewing on the big screen.  Of course, audiences have varied tastes, so what kind of movies out there are monstrously monumental enough to drive people to leave the home and come back to the movies.

From the partnership of Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers, we are getting the newest film in their Monster Universe franchise titled Godzilla vs. Kong.  The title pretty much tells you what you’re going to get, as the movie brings together two of cinema’s most famous giant monsters for a one on one battle to decide who is the king of the monsters.  Starting with 2014’s reboot of Godzilla, Godzilla vs. Kong is the fourth film in the franchise thus far, which has also included the films Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019).  The characters though go back even further, and are the featured stars of some of cinemas more important and influential films.  King Kong, of course, made his debut in the 1933 film of the same name, which was a landmark in visual effects history with the stop motion used on Kong being a groundbreaking feat for it’s time.  Kong has since been updated and given a bigger screen presence in the decades since, including an epic love letter to the original directed by Oscar winner Peter Jackson in 2005.  Across the Pacific, Japan offered up their own answer to Kong’s cinematic legacy by creating the mighty Godzilla, using the giant lizard terrifying screen presence as a meditation over the very real anxieties of nuclear annihilation that the country faced post-War.  It only seemed natural that both literal screen titans would one day face of against each other, and it has happened very early on in their history as well.  Japan created an epic showdown in 1963 titled King Kong vs. Godzilla, though being a film from the 60’s, it involved two actors in suits wrestling around on a miniature set.  Now, with all of our advances in CGI animation, we can actually get a big screen duel with these cinematic icons that really feels authentic to the characters’ monstrous size and power.  Thus far, the new Monster Universe movies have given us a good taste of just how powerful these monsters are, but can the showdown between these two titans live up to the legacy that both of them have embodied for decades.

Being the fourth film in an ongoing series, Godzilla vs. Kong picks up where the previous ones left off.  In particular, it does feel like the sequel to two of the last movies, carrying over threads from both Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters.  The movie starts with Kong being contained and monitored on Skull Island by the Monarch Corporation; the organization responsible for monitoring and containing the race of Titan beasts that inhabit the Earth.  Within his containment, Kong has managed to befriend a deaf girl named Jia (Kaylee Hottie), who is looked after by the Monarch representative on Skull Island, Dr. Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall).  ON the other side of the world, a facility belonging to the Apex Corporation is suddenly attacked by Godzilla.  Up to this point, it was believed that Godzilla was a protector of humanity, so this attack leads many to worry that Godzilla has turned and that he must be either neutralized or destroyed.  The CEO of Apex, Walter Simmons (Demian Bichir), believes he has the answer and he seeks out a theoretical scientist named Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) who believes in the Hollow Earth theory that is thought to be the place of origin for all these Titan creatures; another world within our own.  Simmons tells Lind that he can get there to find a power source capable of defeating Godzilla, but they need another Titan to lead them through the passage.  So, Kong is enlisted and brought to the closest entry point to the Hollow Earth in Antarctica, but in order to get there, he must survive being tracked down by the mighty king of Monsters.  Meanwhile, a conspiracy nut named Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) has discovered something mysterious that Apex has been hiding and he enlists the help of Godzilla expert Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) and her tag along school friend Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison), a computer hacker.  As they dig deeper into the inner workings of Apex, they discover that there could be even more trouble brewing that could endanger both Godzilla and Kong, something that the already makes the contentious relationship between the monsters even more complicated.  As so much mayhem begins to unfold, we learn more clearly who stands on top as the alpha of all the mightiest monsters on Earth, and who deserves that title in the end.

Thus far, the Monsters Universe has been a mixed bag.  I stated pretty clearly in my review of the original Godzilla in this franchise that it took itself a bit too seriously.  The human characters were wooden, the tone was far too somber, and there was far too little of Godzilla in the movie as a whole.  Godzilla: King of the Monsters was a bit better, but still focused a bit too heavily on the human drama and not enough on Godzilla himself, who was no more than a supporting player in his own film.  I get it that you can’t just have monsters fighting monsters for an entire film; that you need something to break up the film between fights.  But the filler thus far seems to have missed the point of these movies in general.  Before, the filmmakers wanted to treat this as heavy, epic drama, as that was thought to be the answer to making the human characters feel more grounded and believable.  But, this is not Shakespeare; this is Godzilla.  Sure, the original movie from the 50’s had the very serious subtext of nuclear annihilation underneath it, but the filmmakers at Toho Studios also knew that they were making crowd pleasing entertainment.  The tone was much better achieved in Kong: Skull Island, which in a way took it’s inspiration from Vietnam war movies and followed that all the way through.  As a result, it was a perfect mix of monster mayhem and broad action film clichés, which worked together harmoniously.  I’m happy to say that Godzilla vs. Kong fits more within that tone set by Skull Island.  It’s a movie that really does feel like they mastered the formula of what these movies should be, with the monsters’ themselves at the forefront.  It doesn’t waste anytime getting the two titular titans on screen together, with a magnificent sea battle at the end of the first act.  From that first showdown, we get exactly what was promised us, and the movie does an excellent job of establishing just how monumental that battle is.

The movie was directed by established horror film director Adam Wingard, known for breakout thrillers like You’re Next (2011) and The Guest (2014).  Wingard is working with a far more substantial budget than he normally starts with and in a more mainstream venue.  But, his command over the tone of this movie really helps to make it all work.  First thing that he does really well here is to devote so much time to the actual monsters themselves.  The uninteresting human characters are mostly relegated to the sidelines this time and character development for them is minimal.  We are dealing with human characters this time that are archetypal rather than dimensional, and that helps move the story forward much more effectively.  A great example of this is shown with the return of the character of Madison, who was central to the plot of King of the Monsters.  In that movie, too much time was devoted to her family situation, with her mother played by Vera Farmiga taking a villainous turn and being responsible for unleashing the fearsome King Ghidorah on the world.  Here, Madison is just there to connect the two movies together, with Stanger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown returning in the role.  And as a result of not being bogged down with uninteresting human drama, she’s able to define more of a personality for the character.  Like many of the other characters in the movie, she knows her place in the story and she’s there to serve it; no more, no less.  It’s a similar tact that Guillermo Del Toro took in defining the human characters in Pacific Rim (2013); a good model to follow.  Don’t try to overthink your movie’s tone; just embrace the silliness.  And that is what makes Godzilla vs. Kong better than it’s predecessors, with the exception of the equally silly and entertaining Kong: Skull Island.  Even still, the human characters are still the weakest element of the movie, but at least this time they are not the thing that defines the movie as a whole.  The only complaint is that even though the movie is closer to getting the tone right, I just wish that the human side of the story would have embraced the weirdness even more.  The characters are better, but still boring.  At least in Skull Island, you had personalities like Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly to add some flavor just based on who they are.  Apart from a couple of actors like Brown and Brian Tyree Henry, the human characters are good, but mostly bland.  At least this time, their impact is minimal.

On the other side, the development of the monsters is far more superior than what we’ve seen before.  In particular, the movie devotes a lot of emotional investment in Kong himself.  Though the movie is called Godzilla vs. Kong, it should be stated that the film primarily revolves around Kong.  He gets the emotional arc of the story, and it is a satisfying one as well.  Wingard and the writers did a phenomenal job of drawing sympathy for the character, helping us to understand (without words) what are his wants and needs.  And the movie takes him on a journey of self discovery as well.  It’s a portrayal that is respectful to what has come before with the character, through his many cinematic iterations, and at the same time cements him as a central hero within this particular franchise.  At the same time, the movie does a good job of establishing Godzilla’s motivations as well.  This isn’t a battle of titans like in Batman v Superman that makes little sense and exists only pit two popular characters on screen at the same time for the sake of drawing an audience.  It’s more like a battle seen in Marvel’s Civil War where it’s a fight where it’s hard to root for one over the other, because both characters have clear reasons why they want to best the other.  For Godzilla, he doesn’t want to lose his place as the Alpha, knowing that Kong is his biggest challenge to that reign, and Kong has a stake in preserving not just his own livelihood, but those of the humans he has grown to care for.  That’s why when they fight, the stakes are clearly defined for both sides.  The movie does a good job of making it so that either Titan is worth rooting for, and that there is no shame in picking the wrong champion.  Given the history of these two characters, it’s satisfying to see that there is reverence for their presence on screen, and that makes their showdown feel all the more monumental.  And even though it is primarily Kong’s movie as a whole, Godzilla is never missed and is used to great effect as a presence within this story.

Visually, the movie is also a welcome improvement over it’s predecessor.  One of the things that I disliked about Godzilla: King of the Monsters was that it had too many scenes cast in darkness, making it hard to see the battles on screen.  The first showdown in that movie between Godzilla and Ghidorah particularly was hard to watch because it took place in a blizzard, which blurred the field of vision even more.  The first Godzilla had more visibility, and that helped with that movie’s giant set pieces, but that film’s problem was that there were too little of those scenes in general.  Here, the battle scenes are well shot, lit, and easy to follow.  Adam Wingard particularly uses a lot of interesting angles and colors to add some visual splendor to his battle scenes.  A showdown in downtown Hong Kong in particular is cast with the neon glow of the nearby buildings, and that makes the battle far more interesting to watch than it otherwise normally would’ve been.  The movie also embraces a far more fantastical portrayal of the world itself.  The Hollow Earth subterranean world that Kong must find his origins within is a remarkably realized environment that definitely feels like something that we’ve never seen before.  It’s also a reason why this movie certainly demands a big screen presentation.  With homages to the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Alien (1978), this movie is a feast for the eyes and ears, and it just wouldn’t feel right experiencing the movie for the first time on a TV set.  Though the option is out there thanks to a dual premiere on HBO Max, this is the kind of movie that definitely reminds it’s audience why movie theaters exist.  Some movies are just too big to contain on a small screen, and the bigger truly is the better option.  I honestly think that reactions to this movie may vary widely due to how people choose to watch it, at home or at the theater, and my thinking is that the latter will likely be more positive towards the movie overall.  It’s certainly how I felt watching this film and I get the feeling that many of the people in my same screening felt the same.  It will be interesting to see if that’s the case, because it will tell us a lot about where the future of movie theaters will stand over time.

With the pandemic hopefully in the rear view mirror, movie theaters needs films desperately that can only be fully appreciated in a theater setting.  I do think that Godzilla vs. Kong is that kind of crowd pleasing movie that demands a theatrical experience to fully enjoy, but it’s hard to say if it will be the movie that gives theaters the immediate boost that it needs.  Right now, theaters are still at limited capacity, so the ability to jam theaters full of people is still not possible.  But there was something that did please me greatly when I saw the film.  During the big battle scenes, when either Kong or Godzilla demonstrated an amazing move on one another, I heard something in the theater that I never thought I would miss so much over this last year; cheering.  People were delighted by what they were watching in the theater, and to hear even a smaller crowd give out an audible cheer during this screening was a very positive sign.  People want to be able to have that experience again; to be able to cheer with delight in response to what they are watching on the big screen.  It’s the communal experience of enjoying a movie together with strangers that I think many people miss a lot since this pandemic began, and hearing just a little bit of that shared audience excitement just made me so grateful to be there and feeling that again.  We have a long way to go still, but I feel that the desire to come back to the movies is out there still, and I’m so glad that Godzilla vs. Kong helped remind us of what the cinema experience was like before it went away.  Though everyone should do what makes them feel safe, I do strongly recommend watching Godzilla vs. Kong in a theater.  HBO Max does give you a safe at home option as well if you need it, but to truly get the full experience, it has to be seen on a big screen to be fully appreciated.  As this movie has shown, when these two screen icons fight, we all win, and hopefully it is the monster hit that helps to save the theatrical experience as a whole.

Rating: 8/10

The Year Without a Blockbuster – 2020’s Impact on Cinema, the Oscars, and Beyond

One year and one week ago, the unthinkable happened.  Like every other part of life, and like so many other nations around the world, American cinema ground to a screeching halt due to the imminent threat of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Movie productions halted.  Studios sent their employees to work from home, or even worse laid them off entirely.  And even more wider reaching for the industry, the entire theatrical market shut down.  It was unlike anything we had ever seen in the history of cinema, and even more worrisome, we didn’t know exactly when it would end either.  As we were adapting quickly to realities of living in a pandemic, it became clear that this would be more than just a temporary pause; this was going to be a long lasting disruption that would leave an immediate impact on society.  I know that the problems it gave the movie industry are trivial in the grand scheme of things, but it is nevertheless interesting to see how cinema culture was forced to evolve quickly under these unprecedented circumstances.  It’s nothing that the movies has ever faced before, since the last pandemic of this size occurred over 100 years ago in 1918.  Cinema was still in it’s infancy then; there was no Hollywood, no multiplexes.  There was no standardization back in 1918 and movies were nothing more than a roadshow attraction like the circus or vaudeville.  But once COVID-19 arrived in 2020, Hollywood and cinema had reached a point where it had become a multi-billion dollar a year industry that was dependent on drawing the biggest crowds possible.  And when you have a catastrophic pandemic that is dependent on large crowds to spread more quickly, well you can see where the movie industry ran into a bit of a crisis.  Thus, we witnessed a full shut down of an entire industry that up until now, for generations, we just took for granted, and it seriously made us wonder if there would indeed be a future for the movie industry going forward.

Being the cinephile that I am, I was certainly devastated when I learned that all movie theaters across the country would be shutting down for an indefinite amount of time.  The first signs came when some of the studios began to move their tentpole features off of their original release dates and pushed them further back into the year.  Once the shut down began, then the worry became whether or not the theaters themselves could survive being closed for a lengthy amount of time.  For a while, the desire to reopen led to a level of cooperation that many hoped would help speed up the process.  Masks, hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies, though scarce in the beginning, became essential tools in the fight, and people began to take their personal health more seriously in response to the virus.  But, almost predictably, people grew tired of following the guidelines and were demanding a return to normal, despite the fact that nothing was normal just yet.  Misinformation began to spread and it prolonged the pandemic beyond what would’ve normally been a downward trend had everyone banded together.  And this continued to plague the movie industry further.  Though movie productions found a way to safely restart filming under health guidelines, movie theaters remained perilously close to the edge of oblivion throughout the rest of the year.  The movie theater chains had to take on a exorbitant amount of debt just to pay the rent while their doors remained closed.  Had they not managed to adapt and even get lucky with their finances (like AMC did with an unexpected stock boost thanks to Reddit), the industry itself was likely to have died.  Movie theaters did slowly reopen throughout the country wherever they could, but the largest markets of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco remained closed for nearly an entire year, and this made the recovery of the business almost impossible to predict.  Only now are theaters almost all back up in operation, with necessary social distancing measures in place, but there is still a sense that normal is still far out of reach and possibly even unobtainable.

Cinema’s woes due to the pandemic could not have come at a worse time for the industry, as streaming began to come into it’s own throughout 2020.  Leading off from Disney+’s meteoric launch in late 2019, the following year saw enormous growth in the streaming market as audiences were forced to stay home and watch nothing else.  Disney+ benefitted from the head start, as well as their catalog of exclusive content, but Peacock, Apple TV, HBO Max, and the rebranded Paramount+ all managed to gain a strong foothold thanks to the attention that the pandemic driven market brought to their platforms.  Even established players like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu saw an increase in activity through this time.  And these platforms were also the beneficiaries of the need by the studios to unload their increasing backlog of movies that they couldn’t show in theaters.  In a year that many of these platforms would’ve been lacking in original content they now suddenly had exclusive rights to the most sought after movies coming down the pipe from the film industry.  In many ways, 2020 has forced us to reconsider what makes up a blockbuster, because the dynamics that we judged movies on were suddenly changing.  With movies like Soul (2020) an Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) premiering on streaming as opposed to a wide release in theaters, do they still count as a blockbuster success.  The streaming revenue is not measured in the same way that box office receipts are, so how do we judge the success of a film with these metrics now?  Sometimes, these movies will be behind a pay wall like Disney+ offered with their premiere access, but for the ones that are no additional cost like Soul, you would have to believe that Disney is pointing to the increase in membership as their metric of success.  Soul certainly did find an audience, as evidenced by their Oscar nominated status, but considering that it’s predecessors in the Pixar canon have been billion dollar grossing films in the past, is it safe to call it a blockbuster success  in the same breath as those films.  This is true of all the movies released to streaming in the pandemic era.  Given that there was no other choice but to release movies this way, do all of them need to be judged as successes by different measures now?

The fact that we didn’t have a blockbuster in the traditional sense this last year really does have an impact on many different aspects of cinema, apart from exhibition.  It’s pretty striking that the highest grossing film of 2020 in the domestic North American market was a film released all the way back in January; the movie sequel Bad Boys for Life (2020).  And that movie’s $200 million box office gross pails in comparison to past years.  Only the year prior did we see Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame climb to the top of all time global box office.  With movie theaters closed through most of the year, and almost the entire year in the biggest markets, we witnessed another significant shift within the industry as a result, which is the changing paradigm of the global market.  While North America was languishing in a prolonged pandemic response, other nations around the world reopened much faster and as a result were able to get their theatrical markets to reopen sooner.  And for the first time in the history of cinema, the United States was eclipsed as the world leader in box office sales.  Ironically, the nation that most successfully was able to recover it’s theatrical industry post pandemic was China, where the outbreak first began.  Through some very draconian methods of population control, China managed to limit the effects of the virus on their economy and as a result, they were able to keep industries like movie theaters alive once they were allowed to reopen.  And not only have they recovered, but they are thriving right now in China.  Domestic Chinese cinema is now seeing box office numbers the likes of which you normally would see happen to a Marvel or Star Wars film here in America.  This is also garnering the attention of Hollywood and is mainly the reason why you are seeing so many movies move to streaming at this moment.  The movie studios want to capitalize on this robust market right now happening in China, and to avoid bootlegging that could also affect their business here in America, they are simultaneously releasing their movies globally.  So while the Chinese are enjoying entertainment on a big screen, we here in America have to make due with seeing the same kinds of blockbusters on a smaller screen.  What was thought unthinkable nearly a decade ago now seems to have become a reality thanks to the effects of the pandemic:  that North America is no longer the dominant market in the global box office.

And this worries a lot of creatives within the industry.  By appealing more to the Chinese market, Hollywood is also compromising values that it otherwise would stand up for.  Contrary to the attitudes of the modernized people of China, the Chinese Communist government still holds an iron grip on the cultural values of the nation, and as a result they are meticulous about what movies are allowed to play in their cinemas.  Anything with pro-democratic stances or messages of tolerance for different races or sexual orientations are strictly prohibited, as they run contrary to the totalitarian platforms of the ruling Chinese government.  And given that China is an enormous market for all industries, we are seeing a troubling amount of Western corporations compromising their own values in order to appeal to the Chinese, including rolling the rights of women, people of color, and queer individuals backwards.  Representation in media particularly is a troublesome point with regards to how studios are shifting their focus to the Chinese market.  Big budget movies are making it easier to remove a gay character from their movie, while still having it both ways by touting their blink and you’ll miss it queer representation here in America with an easily trimmable clip.  This issue already existed pre-pandemic, but it was certainly exacerbated by COVID, and made more troublesome by the fact that America has lost it’s box office dominance.  For decades, American cinema was a powerful force for changing cultural attitudes around the world, but when the box office paradigm has shifted to favor a country with a shaky record on human rights, the worry becomes whether or not Hollywood is going to turn it’s back on the marginalized that it long has given a voice to.  If the North American box office can recover to pre-pandemic levels (and that’s a big if), maybe the Chinese government’s influence on creative decisions in Hollywood can be neutralized, but if not, we may be seeing a troubling impact that this pandemic will have on cinema for year and possibly decades to come.

On the bright side, there are silver linings that the pandemic year of 2020 has left on Hollywood, and that’s a much improved presence of diversity in this year’s awards season.  In a year without blockbusters taking up all the attention at the box office, smaller indie films were able to flourish.  And in particular, we saw a significant increase in movies made for and by people of color garner attention in ways that wouldn’t have happened in previous years.  This year’s Oscars, which had to extend much further out than usual into the following year, especially has benefitted from this.  Only a couple years after the Oscars So White controversy, we now have the most diverse field of nominees ever in the Academy Awards.  This includes the first time ever that more than one woman is nominated for Directing (including one who is the likely front runner in the overall race).  And the nominees run the whole gamut: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and Middle Eastern.  It’s also a largely international assemblage, and one with a fair amount of first time nominees.  Had a more competitive, studio driven race occurred like any normal year, things might have been different, as more established movie stars may have been at the forefront.  It’s unfortunate that it had to take a pandemic to change the playing field to make things more diverse in the Awards race, but even still, it’s a change long overdue.  Sure, there are likely contenders in there as well, like David Fincher’s Mank (2020) and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), and even those movies represent a change in the industry as they were Netflix productions.  This streaming focused year put a spotlight on movies that otherwise would not have been able to thrive in a more competitive race, and that makes this year’s awards seem like such a turning point because not only does it represent a huge change with the movies that are getting recognized, and how we are able to access them, but also with the people involved in making them gaining attention in ways that they never have been able to before.

A more diverse field of nominees also means a lot more attention is being devoted to the stories they are telling in this very much changed industry.   The nominees of this year’s Oscars have largely one thing in common; they are telling stories that speak to their own experiences.  Unlike past years when movies like Green Book tackled racial injustice from a very white Hollywood perspective, this year we have movies about race and gender equality with uncompromised, personal perspectives that feel more truthful and less desaturated.  Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) for instance tells the shocking story behind the betrayal that led to Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton’s assassination, and it doesn’t hold any punches with regards to how institutional racism played it’s part in leading to Mr. Hampton’s fate.  It’s a black American story told by a black American  filmmaker with the intent of sharing the truth about what happened, unvarnished to make it more acceptable to “mainstream” audiences.  The same holds true for more uplifting movies like Minari (2020), where director Lee Isaac Chung drew inspiration from his own childhood to create a movie about the Korean immigrant experience in rural America.  The pleasing thing about Minari is that Chung avoids the typical Hollywood clichés that you would often see in a movie of this type as it tries to be Oscar bait, and instead he creates a more honest portrait that trusts it’s audience.  The thing that I hope happens with this year’s Oscar race is that Hollywood begins to respect these kinds of perspectives more, and chooses to invest in voices that otherwise would’ve gone unnoticed.  The pandemic, as disruptive as it is,  did bring a wall down that enabled more interesting voices to be heard, and hopefully it grants more diversity in the future to projects that otherwise would have tapped people from Hollywood’s usually insular and homogenized community.

So, one year later and the movie industry is in a far different position than it was a year prior.  A mere 12 months ago, I was looking forward to a new James Bond movie, and a summer full of new blockbusters from the likes of Marvel, DC, Pixar and the like.  Since then, most of my consumption of movies has not been on the big screen but rather the small one in my living room, and nearly 80% of all those eagerly anticipated 2020 movies that I was hoping to see have still not been released.  It’s an era that I hope doesn’t repeat again, with the culture suddenly having to slam on the brakes in order to prevent an even more catastrophic result.  There have been some interesting things that have resulted from the last year that I do see as a silver lining.  Before 2020, I had never attended a Drive-In movie theater before, and now I have many times over, including earlier this month.  In addition, the already discussed breaking down of barriers in Hollywood due to the increased representation at this year’s Oscars is another positive sign.  But, it is also crucial that the film industry must bounce back in order to make that progress a long term effect post pandemic as a result.  Movie theaters are in dire need of being saved, and hopefully we can see them steadily recover over the course of this year, because it’s important that Hollywood needs to still see the more progressive North American audience as being the more worthwhile market to cater to, instead of falling into becoming a propaganda wing for a totalitarian regime like China.  Cinema has always been one of the world’s most valuable cultural exports, and it’s important that the power structure within the film industry that it is in the world’s best interest to increase representation and not suppress it.  The Covid-19 pandemic was a learning experience for all, and for Hollywood, it became a turning point the likes of which it has never seen before on nearly all fronts.  Normal may not look the same as it did before the storm happened, but we are beginning to see the clouds finally thin out.  Movie theaters are once again re-opened, and it’s up to us to decide whether or not we want it to be a part of the future of cinema.  I’ll be supporting my local theaters, and I encourage everyone else to do as well; safely of course.  Cinema is what we decide to make it, and in a post pandemic world, let’s make the movies better than they were before, with an eye to a hopeful and harmonious future.

Finding Justice – The Long, Controversial Road to Completion for the Infamous Snyder Cut of Justice League

The decade of the 2010’s will no doubt go down as the era of the Super Hero movies.  No other genre captured the imagination of audiences around the world as much as it did in those 10 years, and the worldwide box office saw record breaking numbers thanks to movies with comic book origins.  In particular, Marvel Comics led the way with their seemingly indomitable line-up of interconnected films, all culminating in the release of the film Avengers: Endgame (2019) which capped a decades worth of on-going storylines and became the biggest box office hit of all time.  While this was going on, Marvel’s chief rival, DC Comics, was trying to repeat the same success with their line-up of super hero movies, though the success rate was not quite as consistent as what Marvel was churning out at the same time.  Though some movies performed well (2013’s Man of Steel and 2017’s Wonder Woman, for example) other films that were meant to go toe to toe with Marvel’s line-up were falling embarrassingly short.  Director Zack Snyder, an established filmmaker within the Warner Brothers stable who had successfully adapted complex comic books into movies like 300 (2007) and Watchmen (2009), was tasked with setting the overall tone for the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) with his Man of Steel being the bedrock on which they were going to build.  After Man of Steel’s success, the studio embarked on the next phase of their DC franchise, which was the first ever crossover meeting between two of their biggest Super Hero icons, titled Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).  Though expectations were high for BvS, the end result was lambasted by critics and left many comic book fans upset as well, which didn’t bode well for the future of the next project in the pipeline for Zack Snyder and crew; the ill-fated Justice League (2017).

The history of what happened behind the scenes of the Justice League movie has almost become more fascinating than the finished movie itself.  Essentially, the ultimate failure of Justice League 2017 was in the fact that it was a movie torn apart by a lot of second-guessing as well as quite a bit of hubris.  There was a deep sense of inferiority going on behind the scenes at the Warner Brothers lot, as they were seeing Marvel and their parent company Disney turning into this juggernaut before their very eyes.  Warner and DC had to go big, or otherwise concede defeat to longtime rivals, so a lot of big money went into building up the DC catalogue for the big screen.  Unlike Marvel however, DC decided to not develop their individual franchises first and instead began to build towards the big epic super hero team of the Justice League as their jumping off point.  Origin stories, a staple of the genre, were not to be bothered with, as the studio believed that these characters were already well established in the public’s eye up to this point.  Only Superman (played by Henry Cavill) was given a backstory on screen in Man of Steel.  By the time Batman v Superman came around, the road to Justice League was already in high swing.  Ben Affleck’s Dark Knight and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman were introduced at this point and central to that film’s story, but Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Ezra Miller’s Flash, and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg only got the briefest of Easter eggs.  The way that DC and Zack Snyder were setting up their universe was upsetting to fans, because it seemed like it was showing less reverence for the characters themselves and more showing how these character could make a hefty profit for Warner Brothers.  This, in turn, led to an underwhelming return for Batman v Superman, which despite making $300 million domestic, it was not enough to justify the enormous cost of it’s production, and performed under what Marvel made that same year with Captain America: Civil War (2016).  And this is where the second guessing began.

Justice League was already in the middle of production once BvS premiered, and the latter’s mixed reception did not sit well with Warner Brothers executives who were expecting DC to be competitive with Marvel.  Sadly, around this same time, tragedy struck Zack Snyder’s family, as he lost his daughter Autumn to a suicide.  Realizing that he needed to be there for his family, Snyder was granted a leave from the production by Warner Brothers.  This left the Justice League movie unfinished with a November 2017 release date looming.  Though Snyder had left a specific blueprint for his vision of the finished movie, Warner Brothers instead took the opportunity to “fix” what they perceived was the “mess” that Snyder had left them with and decided to bring someone in from the outside to change gears for the entire direction of the DCEU.  Joss Whedon, who had previously helmed the first two movies of the Avenger franchise over at Marvel, was hired on to complete Justice League in time for it’s release.  And not only was he completing what Zack Snyder already shot, but he was injecting his own style that was very contrary to what Snyder had been working on.  The new Justice League was lighter in tone, with each character being more quippy and irreverent (a Whedon trademark).  It also cut out a significant amount of story in order to meet a mandated two hour limit by the studio, something that would’ve been a struggle for Snyder, a filmmaker who likes to work long form.  So, despite delivering the movie on time, Joss Whedon’s Justice League did not feel complete.  It seemed like two movies with opposing tones mashed together and at odds.  And with costly reshoots to conform to the Whedon-esque style, the ballooned budget left little time and money to complete the complex visuals of the movie.  The finished film’s visual effects are notorious for their cheapness, especially the much lampooned Superman upper lip, because Henry Cavill was unable to shave off his mustache during shooting because of another movie.  Suffice to say, what should’ve been a shot across Marvel’s bow from DC, announcing them a powerful force in the genre, ended up a colossal embarrassment that further made them slide behind their rivals at the box office.

When Justice League crashed and burned at the box office, making less in grosses ($220 million domestic) than it’s estimated production budget ($300 million), people were immediately trying to perform an autopsy on what exactly went wrong.  For many DC comic book fans, this failure immediately reeked of studio interference, and it’s a fair assessment to make.  Warner Brothers wanted their movies to perform like a Marvel movie, so they second guessed their strategy and decided to make their DC movie more like a Marvel movie, hence the hiring of Joss Whedon.  But that didn’t stand well for fans of DC, because despite the gloominess of Zack Snyder’s filmmaking style, it does differentiate itself from Marvel.  It just further fueled the view that Warner Brothers and DC were falling way short of their rivals, who almost looked like they were brushing off the DC universe without a single thought.  A lot of fans online began to wonder what might have been different had Zack Snyder been allowed to complete his vision of Justice League.  Would it have been more coherent? More engaging?  Would it feel complete?  Would it even outdo Marvel?  The speculation was further fueled by statements by Zack Snyder after the film’s release that what ended up on the screen was not the movie he intended to make, despite him getting sole directorial credit.  Combined with people’s perceptions that they received an incomplete film in theaters, these new revelations from Zack Snyder led rise to the belief that there was a hidden away “Snyder Cut” of Justice League somewhere in the Warner vaults.  And when the internet gets a hold of some mysterious lost relic worth talking about, it often begins to take on a life of it’s own.  Suddenly in chat rooms and social media posts, people were speculating about the Snyder Cut, and why Warner Brothers was not making it public.  In turn, it became a trending topic, and DC fans began the petition #ReleasetheSnyderCut online in the hopes it would get the studio’s attention.  Unfortunately, like most things on the internet, something started with good intentions often can turn into something ugly.

The Release the Snyder Cut campaign began small with many DC comics fans spear-heading the march.  But, over time, as more time passed after the disappointing Justice League release, the Release the Snyder Cut campaign began to become a forum for something other than the movie itself.  It became a place to air grievances about the cultural divide in general, and in many cases, became pretty ugly.  Some online trolls used the Snyder Cut campaign to promote their often racist and misogynistic points of view, seeing Snyder’s DC films as the idealized presentation of their hyper-masculine worldview.  The Snyder Cut soon became a recruiting tool for more extremist views online, as it became a touchstone for what provocateurs proclaim as proof of “Cancel Culture” run amok.  The sad thing is, this toxic discourse began to cloud the Snyder Cut movement as a whole, and reflected badly on those who were trying to promote it.  Thus, pushback began against the Snyder Cut movement, because it was believed that it would be giving a victory to these online agitators who were trying to push their extremist points of view, which had nothing to do with the movie itself.  The truth is that these online extremists only usurped the movement, and were in no way involved in the actual organizing of the movement itself.  Their views were not reflective at all of what Zack Snyder actually believes, nor the organizers of the Snyder Cut campaign, nor the vast majority of those who support campaign itself.  Sadly, the Snyder Cut campaign became an unwilling participant in the ongoing and rather stupid “Culture Wars” that the media and the internet likes to formant, using anything as benign as Justice League to Dr. Seuss as a sign of societal decay and oppression, and as a means of pushing forth an agenda that has nothing to do with the subject itself.

Despite the weird turn that the Snyder Cut campaign took in the years since it launched, it did surprisingly capture the attention of Warner Brothers themselves.  Seeing how the campaign had taken on a life of it’s own, Warner’s decided to take another look at what was left on the cutting room floor with Justice League.  Indeed, there was a lot (almost double what ended up in the final movie), and it became possible for their to be enough content to see Zack Snyder’s original vision to completion.  The only question was, would it be worth it.  The answer came once Warner Brothers began their first stages of launching a streaming service, which would ultimately turn into HBO Max.  Naturally, if you are going to go big into the streaming wars, you need a project that is going to generate a lot of buzz for your service to justify the subscription price.  So, seeing the frenzy around the Snyder Cut, Warner Brothers saw it as a possible good investment to invite Zack Snyder back to complete his vision of Justice League.  This immediately grabbed everyone’s attention, because after years of fervent and sometimes ugly discussions online, we were given not just the confirmation that the Snyder Cut was real but that we were actually going to see it for ourselves in the near future.  This benefitted the studio, because it brought much needed buzz to their struggling launch of HBO Max, and it was able to take some of the heat off them, as they no longer looked like the bad guys for ruining the film in the first place.  Zack Snyder did graciously take back the role, but with the caveat that he be given full reign over the complete film.  This involved even further reshoots, as well as money to complete the half finished visual effects from the original movie.  But, in the end, he got what he needed, and the pressure was not as heated this time, because there was no danger of how it would perform at the box office.  This was something meant to bring people to HBO Max, and it no longer needed to be made to please everyone; it just needed to be unique enough to drive people to subscribe.

The timing for Zack Snyder’s Justice League to launch on HBO Max comes at an interesting time, because the fallout of the original movie is still causing a major rift within the studio to this day.  Ray Fisher, the actor who portrayed Cyborg in the movie, has had a particularly contentious relationship with Warner Brothers after his experience working on Justice League.  Part of why the Snyder Cut movement had wings for such a long time is because Fisher was championing Snyder’s work on the film and he stated that most of his performance is what got cut from the theatrical version.  Not only that, he has publicly called out Warner Brothers for what he considered to be a hostile working environment during the reshoots, going so far as to accuse some at the studio of racial discrimination.  In particular, he called out Joss Whedon for what he states were unprofessional and hostile behaviors directed to people on the set, including himself.  Further accusations were also leveled at DC Films execs Geoff Johns and Walter Hamada, stating that they continued to promote the toxic work environment around the making of the film, and ignored his past complaints.  While a lot of this is still under investigation, Fisher’s revelations have opened up a larger discussion about how cast and crew are treated on set, and in particular those who are people of color like Fisher.  He found it very peculiar that of all the characters in the movie, the one whose story got the axe the most was the one POC member of the Justice League team, whom Snyder originally intended to be the heart of the film.  Some of Fisher’s complaints about Whedon have also been given more weight, as past actresses on some of Joss’ TV programs have come forward with their own experiences of abuse on his sets.  Sadly, the contention between Fisher and Warner Brothers has severed any further creative relationship, as Ray has since been fired from reprising his role as Cyborg in a future Flash movie.  Couple this with the fact that Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill have already said farewell to their own roles as Batman and Superman, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League has now become a relic of a past DC universe that is no longer relevant.

But, for all the trouble that it took to finally get here, the Snyder Cut is a reality and is now playing on HBO Max.  And boy is it a behemoth.  Running 4 hours long (that’s right) it is a full hour lengthier than the next longest film in the genre (Marvel’s three hour long Avengers: Endgame) and double the original theatrical cut.  Zack Snyder originally intended this to be a two part saga, and for a while, he and Warner Brothers were looking at turning it into a limited series for HBO Max, until ultimately deciding to release it as one full block.  I watched the entire thing earlier this week, and in lieu of a full review, I can say that the Snyder Cut is better than the original theatrical cut of Justice League, but not a whole lot better.  The same flaws in the overall story are still there, and I think that Zack Snyder’s own stylistic indulgences continue to hamper whatever momentum he can get out of this story in general.  It’s very fundamentally flawed in that way, no matter how complete it now feels.  Even still, there are significant improvements in a lot of aspects of the movie.  The visual effects for one feel more complete and look much better.  Zack Snyder still relies a little too heavily on CGI, but thankfully the time and money was put into this version and it doesn’t have the cheap feel of the original anymore.  The villain, Steppenwolf, is also much better both in animation but also as an element of the story.  He now has motivation and he is far more menacing a threat now.  And perhaps the best addition of all is that we finally get Cyborg’s complete story, and see that Ray Fisher was indeed justified in his anger over how he was treated in the original cut of the film.  Zack Snyder may not be everyone’s cup of tea as a filmmaker, but as we’ve learned he is respected enough to be championed by his cast and crew and defended by his fans, so much so that he rode this goodwill towards seeing his vision to completion.  Not only that, but as shown in the final credits, we find that Snyder is able to finally put to rest a painful chapter in his life with a sense of triumph in the end.  He dedicated the finished movie to his late daughter Autumn with a sweet memorial in the credits.  In the end, the road to completing Zack Snyder’s ultimate version of the Justice League movie is going to stand as one of the most peculiar journeys any movie has ever taken.  Originally butchered in a moment of desperation by a studio, and using the director as a scapegoat for a mistake in direction that they set in the first place, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is no longer a mystery but now a reality.  It still may not be pretty, but it is triumph in a way to seeing a past cinematic injustice being righted.  Though the DC Universe has largely moved on from where Zack Snyder was intending it to go, which does feel awkward now as his Justice League ends with some sequel baiting, his full complete vision may indeed stand as the high point of DC films, at least with regards to it’s attempt to deliver the biggest possible DC movie possible.  In addition to the film finally being complete, we also have a finale to the tumultuous story of the Snyder Cut and it’s one that in some ways feels a bit triumphant to some people.  While there are still many problems surrounding the movie to address, especially in the larger cultural sense and with Warner Brothers corporate practices, we can finally see the full version of the movie for ourselves and judge it accordingly.  And for Zack Snyder, he can finally put to rest one of the worst chapters in his life and show the world what he wanted us to see.  The Snyder Cut is released; now we can finally move on from it.

Evolution of Character – Quasimodo

The city of Paris, France has many things that distinguish it among the great cities of the world.  The most noteworthy of it’s features would be the iconic and varied architecture of the city, ranging from medieval to modern.  Though there are many landmarks that bring tourists from all over the world to Paris, there is no doubt that many Parisians consider the heart of their beautiful city to be the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  Constructed over an 180 year period and completed in 1345, Notre Dame is widely considered to be the greatest medieval gothic structure ever created.  Known for it’s iconic twin tower façade, it’s extraordinary stained glass windows, and the far reaching tone of it’s massive bells, the Notre Dame Cathedral is a source of pride for the city of Paris.  But it may surprise many that Notre Dame has had to face destruction many times throughout it’s nearly millennia long history.  One of those times occurred in the post revolution France, after the long and straining Napoleonic Wars.  The city of Paris had long neglected it’s jewel of the city and Notre Dame had been left to rot and fall apart.  But, popular French author Victor Hugo wanted to change the minds of the apathetic Parisians and help them remember what Notre Dame meant to the city.  He set about writing a new epic novel centered around the Cathedral and the people of Paris, with the hope that it would remind people why it was important to have structures like it preserved.  The eventual novel, Notre Dame de Paris, was published in 1831, and it had the intended effect.  Hugo’s novel was immensely popular and it led to a restoration effort by the city to bring Notre Dame back to it’s former glory.  And while we have the novel of Victor Hugo’s to thank for helping Notre Dame survive a few more centuries, it also gave us some of literature’s most fascinating and unique characters as well.

The novel of course is referred to more by it’s English title, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and that’s because it’s most memorable character is the titular hunchback; named Quasimodo.  It’s said that when Hugo visited the crumbling Cathedral one day, he found carved in a stone on one of the towers a single word; Destiny.  From that mysterious, unknown message, Victor Hugo began to speculate who might have carved such a word, and what it might have meant.  Thus, he devised up the image of a deformed bell ringer who lived in the walls of the Cathedral itself.  The actual novel focuses on a number of characters, primarily the gypsy Esmeralda and the villainous Claude Frollo, a zealous agent of the Church.  Quasimodo actually has something of a minor presence in the book as a whole, but he is nonetheless pivotal to the story, and that’s why he’s become the icon on which the novel is mostly remembered for.  He’s also one of the reasons why the novel has become a popular source of adaptation in many different mediums, including film.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame has enjoyed many different film adaptations spanning the whole history of cinema, and the role of Quasimodo has been coveted by some of the most daring of performers.  For one thing, Quasimodo is a challenging role to undertake.  Portraying the deformed bell ringer requires a deep amount of soulfulness.  It can be very easy to go too over the top with the character and portray him in a cringy, exploitative way.  There is a fine line that must be walked in order to make Quasimodo feel like a genuine human being with a good soul like he is in the novel, and not the monster that he looks like on the outside.  The more subtlety the better, and as seen in his many different screen appearances, it usually comes down to the talents of the actor to give Quasimodo the sincerity that he needs.  What follows are some of Quasimodo’s most noteworthy appearances on the big and small screens, and as you’ll see, they include some performances that are iconic, as well as other that are notorious.

HENRY KRAUSS from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1911)

Even when cinema was in its infancy, Victor Hugo’s novel was seen as an ideal source for adaptation.  Naturally, the French were the first to commit the story of Quasimodo to film.  Though there was also an earlier adaptation from 1905, this 1911 version is the one that survives to this day.  Like many films of the period, it’s limited in what it can bring to the screen, and the same can be said about Quasimodo’s part within the film.  The 30 minute long movie is mostly centered around Esmeralda, and her persecution by the church, especially from the pious Frollo, who covets her for himself.  Quasimodo only factors in at the end of the movie, much like he does in the novel, acting as a somewhat unexpected guardian for Esmeralda.  The portrayal of Quasimodo by Henry Krauss is pretty limited, with the actor capturing the character as a lumbering creature that is more attack dog than man.  Some have said that the portrayal almost takes on a Frankenstein’s monster characteristics.  It’s certainly not the most sympathetic of portrayals of Quasimodo, but it’s also as much as you would expect in an early cinema retelling of the novel.  All the acting from the performers is broad and dramatic, so Krauss’ Quasimodo would be too.  And with the exaggerated, monster like mask that the actor has on, it’s easy to see how Quasimodo largely entered into the imagination of film-goers as something of a monster.  Not much sympathy given to the character here, but at the same time, he does act as the deliverer of justice like he does in the novel.  It’s a limited portrayal, but it would lead to many more who would thankfully explore the character more deeply in the year ahead.

LON CHANEY from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923)

Leave it to the “Man of a Thousand Faces” to take his own shot at portraying the iconic hunchback.  This version of Hunchback proved so popular in fact, that it actually turned Chaney into a full-fledged movie star, and helped to lead to his roles as the Wolf Man and the Phantom of the Opera years later.  Though Chaney does still lean into the monstrous side of the character, with his exaggerated and brooding performance, the movie does devote a bit more screen time to the character than he had seen before.  With more substantial budgets and better filmmaking tools, filmmakers were able to better capture the grandeur of Hugo’s novel, and it allowed for more screen time for Quasimodo in the story.  One moment that does get more focus in this version is the public lashing scene, where Quasimodo is tied down on a platform and pelted with garbage by the jeering public.  It’s a pivotal moment from the books because it bonds Quasimodo and Esmeralda, after she shows compassion for the tortured being.  Chaney portrays this moment very well and with tenderness, in stark contrast with the outward appearance that he has in the film.  Lon Chaney had the reputation of applying his own groundbreaking prosthetic make-up, and his version of Quasimodo is definitely other-worldy, if a bit over the top.  How he manages to perform underneath that mask of grotesquery is amazing, but it’s what he was best known for throughout his career.  What his version did more than anything was to elevate Quasimodo as a part of the overall story, and that in itself would influence most of the adaptations that followed.  If your movie is called The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it’s best that you know who your star attraction is, and Lon Chaney is one of the ones most responsible for turning Quasimodo into a screen icon.

CHARLES LAUGHTON from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939)

If Lon Chaney was the one who popularized Quasimodo on the big screen, Charles Laughton would be the one that gave him respectability.  In this classic 1939 Hollywood adaptation, we hear Quasimodo speak for the first time.  Granted, he is incapable of saying much; the ringing of the Cathedral bells have left him deaf and he was never afforded much of an education other than what his caretaker, Frollo, had given him.  But when he does, there is a great deal of compassion in his voice.  It’s clear that Laughton wanted to find the humanity in the character of Quasimodo, and not just portray him as some creature.  As a result, we get what many consider to be the greatest portrayal of the character ever put on screen.  Laughton had built a reputation of playing some of history’s most noteworthy figures, including winning an Oscar for his Henry VIII in the Alexander Korda production of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).  And while he had been a bit of a chameleon in the many different roles he portrayed, he never disappeared into a role quite like he did for Quasimodo.  The look that he created for the character would also prove to be influential, with softer features that that of Chaney’s grotesque version.  His rotund physique also would define the character, giving Quasimodo a less threatening outward appearance.  And even though Quasimodo is mentally stunted in many ways, Laughton does give him soulful reflection that shows that Quasimodo is indeed compassionate at heart, and aware of his own moral compass.  He even turns poetic in some of his reflections.  As a result, Laughton really captures the aspect of the tragedy behind the character, that despite his good heart and his drive to do the right things, he will never be able to be accepted by the society at large, just because of the way he looks.  Only Esmeralda (wonderfully played by Maureen O’Hara) sees the good soul within.  It’s one of the greatest performances in one of the greatest movies ever made, and a groundbreaking one for Quasimodo as a cinematic character.

ANTHONY QUINN from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1956)

This widescreen epic retelling may have much of the grandeur of the 1939 version, but none of it’s subtlety.  The Italian-French co-production is a flashy technicolor spectacle that features Anthony Quinn in the title role.  Quinn was an actor fond of disappearing into a role, though he often wished to do it on his terms.  And for the role of Quasimodo, he made the choice to portray the character his way.  This involved him foregoing a prosthetic hump on his back like Chaney and Laughton had used, and instead he created the effect of a hunchback by changing his own physical gait and posture.  This unfortunately has the effect of both not working as well as he thinks it does and also coming across as a bit insensitive to people with real physical difficulties.  The reason why past screen Quasimodos have opted to create a fake hunch on their backs was because it would genuinely affect the posture of their performance, allowing them to more effectively maintain the performance throughout.  Anthony Quinn’s non-hunch performance has the unintended effect of coming and going throughout the film, making the performance inconsistent.  Not only that, but Quinn’s mumbly performance has none of the soul of Laughton’s subtle portrayal, so it just feels like the actor is mimicking the handicap just to show off some range.  It’s exactly the wrong way of portraying the character.  The movie around him is not much better either, turning the story into a brightly colored melodrama.  Anthony Quinn has done much better work than this, and has disappeared into roles much more effectively.  But when your Hunchback doesn’t even consistently have a hunch in his back, it’s a sign that he made the wrong choices in how he would tackle this kind of character.

ANTHONY HOPKINS from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (TV MOVIE) (1982)

One of the more impressive portrayals of the character can be found in this surprisingly well crafted television adaptation.  Anthony Hopkins, better known at that time for his heralded work on the stage, takes on the role of Quasimodo with the same kind of reverence that Charles Laughton showed 40 years prior.  His version of Quasimodo certainly looks more ragged and deformed, but there is compassion behind his portrayal.  And this version definitely leans heavily in the tragic figure category.  The portrayal definitely fits the tone of this version of the story, which is surprisingly gritty for a television production.  In many ways, this version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame may be the closest to Hugo’s original novel in terms of tone.  It portrays the City of Paris as this wild, medieval place, with the Cathedral as it’s centerpiece.  Like in the book, the city becomes character in itself, covering societies both high and low, from the palace of the king to the ratholes of the sewers.  Past versions of Hunchback largely steered away from the darker elements of the story, but this version dives right in, and shows us the Paris that Victor Hugo envisioned.  Anthony Hopkins, as always, delivers a performance that matches that needed darker tone, without losing the endearing elements that keeps Quasimodo sympathetic.  It’s fitting that even in this version that creates a more broader and harsh tapestry, that Quasimodo is not overlooked, and is given life by yet another one of the greatest actors who ever lived.  It’s also a version of the story and the character that sadly doesn’t translate into too many other versions, as it’s often the case that in order to get around some of Victor Hugo’s more pointed societal critiques, namely towards the church establishment itself, that many adaptations lack some of the story’s bite.

TOM HULCE from DISNEY’S THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996)

Apart from Charles Laughton’s iconic version, this is the portrayal of Quasimodo that likely first comes to mind.  Walt Disney Animation, in the midst of their Renaissance Era, made the controversial decision to take Victor Hugo’s classic story and give it a G-Rated spin, with a happy ending no less.  And while purists of the original story will have much to complain about, there is a lot to admire in Disney’s attempt.  It’s beautifully, and even hauntingly animated, and it features one of the best musical scores of any Disney film (yes, they turned it into a musical too).  In addition, it creates one of the most unique versions of Quasimodo ever put on screen.  The movie downplays many of Quasimodo’s handicaps (he speaks coherently, and even sings) and his deformity is softened to the point where he becomes more cute than grotesque.  But, Disney does a good job of capturing his social anxiety that has developed over years of isolation.  And the themes of prejudice, persecution, and overcoming tyranny are still maintained from Hugo’s original work, and most interestingly, this version sees the story unfold almost solely through Quasimodo’s eyes.  He is more central to the story here than any version before, and it gives us far more insight into his character.  A lot of credit goes to actor Tom Hulce for his soulful portrayal, although some of his dialogue may fall a bit too heavily in the cutesy, Disney-fied territory.  Hulce still manages to show a dynamic range of emotions through the character, and probably delivers the most epic reading of the line “Sanctuary!!” in history. For many recent generations, this has been the entry point for a lot of children to learn about Victor Hugo’s original story, the idea of not judging a book by it’s cover, as well as the importance of the Notre Dame Cathedral itself. While I’m sure this movie version may have appalled Victor Hugo himself if he were to see it, it nevertheless is an impressive attempt that is more mature than the average animated film and features one of the more interesting Quasimodos we’ve seen yet on the big screen.

MANDY PATINKIN from THE HUNCHBACK (TV MOVIE) (1997)

We have another version, made for TV, that does put Quasimodo more at the center of the story.  This one, unfortunately has none of the depth of character of Disney’s version, nor the subtlety and grit of Anthony Hopkin’s TV version.  It was a movie that clearly piggy-backed on the success of Disney’s version and was released only a year later.  Interesting enough, Mandy Patinkin was one of the actors who auditioned for Disney’s Quasimodo, but did not get it (apparently due to a disastrous audition).  It’s probably a good thing in the end because his portrayal of Quasimodo here is so bland and basic.  He acts through heavy prosthetics, but doesn’t have the dynamic screen presence of Lon Chaney to make his performance work through the make-up.  Instead, he just looks like he’s making weird faces throughout the movie.  The whole thing looks like a rushed production, despite having some solid talent on board; apart from Patinkin, the movie also has Selma Hayek as Esmeralda and Richard Harris as Frollo.  It’s says a lot that a version of this story looks so much more low rent than another TV version that was made 15 years prior.  Exactly how hard was it to get a better budget for this movie.  Even still, it comes down to how well the actors can work through the shortcomings, and though performers like Mandy Patinkin have shown they can be very good in many different things, it does not work out as well when they are given so little to work with.  It’s a mostly boring and forgettable TV feature that only stands out mostly in how much it falls short of past versions of the story put to screen.

What I think is very interesting about the character of Quasimodo in his evolution on the big screen over the years is how he has gone from an oddity within the fabric of a larger narrative, to someone who commands the story completely.  Each version of Quasimodo brings him more central to the story, to where he goes from a unruly creature in the silent movie version, to being the primary protagonist in an animated feature.  It’s a testament to the filmmakers and actors over the years who have tried so hard to find the humanity in the character that we have grown to empathize with him and even identify with him in many ways.  Charles Laughton’s groundbreaking version certainly laid the groundwork for giving the character new purpose, and Disney (despite straying very heavily from Victor Hugo’s original intent) has fully turned Quasimodo into not just an empathetic character, but also a hero.  It’s surprising that not many more adaptations have come in recent years.  It has been floated that Disney will likely do a live action remake of their animated film in the coming years, and rumor is that Idris Elba is looking at making a modern day re-imagining of the story with Netflix.  Despite all the many different interpretations of the story, there is one thing that has left a lasting legacy from this book, and that’s the reverence it gave to the Notre Dame Cathedral itself.  The Cathedral almost becomes this maternal presence in the story, giving Quasimodo a home and Esmeralda a sanctuary, and it’s helped to keep the real structure cherished in the hearts of people the world over.  When the Cathedral was nearly lost in a fire two years ago, it hit close to home even to people who have never been to Paris, and that is likely due to how much the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame has permeated the culture.  Despite the cryptic message found by Victor Hugo all those years ago, there never was a bell ringer named Quasimodo, but there has always been a Notre Dame, and that in turn has given us an attachment to him as a character.  Quasimodo has become just as much of an icon as the Cathedral he called home and it’s been a pleasing thing to see him become treated more humanely with every new interpretation.

 

Raya and the Last Dragon – Review

If there was one thing that the pandemic year of 2020 has shown us about the craft of filmmaking, it’s the resilience that the industry somehow has managed to find within itself to keep things moving.  While distribution has been forever changed, shifting from theatrical to streaming over the course of the year, it has not deterred filmmakers and crew from continuing to do their jobs even while the pandemic was still raging on.  During the early days, the pandemic did grind everything to a sudden halt, and production was shut down for months.  But, adapting to the difficulties of the times, the film industry found a way to not only restart up quickly, but they managed to do so in a way that managed to keep everyone safe while on set, strictly following all the protocols needed to stop the spread of infection.  And it’s a good thing too, as keeping production on ice for the full length of this pandemic would have been devastating for Hollywood.  There needs to be a constant flow of production and output to keep this town alive, and putting everything on hold not only put thousands of people out of work, it creates a backlog jam as  more and more projects are delayed.  While on set production has it’s own demands that needed time to be put in place, the one part of the film industry that managed to continue full steam ahead without delay was animation.  Considering that an animated movie is primarily constructed with the aid of computers, it was a sensible move that many animation studios shifted to remote work, having animators and other staff complete their work from the comfort of their own home.  And because of that, animation has managed to not only survive in this pandemic effected economy, but even thrive.

One of the clearest signs of this has been the surprising box office success of Dreamworks Animations The Croods: A New Age (2020).  Though it’s may not be reflected in the total box office numbers (which are low compared to animated films from Dreamworks in years past), but The Croods sequel’s resilience in the pandemic stricken box office ever since it’s Thanksgiving weekend release has gotten some notice.  It has remained a Top 5 fixture at the box office ever since it’s release, including several weekends at the top, and even outperformed the heavily hyped Wonder Woman 1984 (2020).  And a large part of why this has been the case is because the market still remains strong for family entertainment, which bodes well for the theatrical industry.  It’s an encouraging sign that a movie like The Croods can still pull in a $50 million plus gross even with the biggest markets of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco still on lockdown.  Dreamworks was able to benefit from the shortened theatrical window deal that AMC and Universal put together, so you can expect that the digital rentals for The Croods helped to make that movie a further financial hit.  But the fact that even with the streaming option Croods still performed well at the box office has to be a positive signal that a recovery for theatrical exhibition is likely to happen once the pandemic is over.  Because of this promising development, it has given animation studios the confidence to continue to move full steam ahead, even though the pandemic is still not yet over.  The studios are cautious, depending on multiple platforms for release in order to give people safe options, but they are no longer holding back in a wait and see game anymore.  And that is a positive sign as the king of all animation studios, Disney, has now delivered their newest animated epic to both theaters and streaming; Raya and the Last Dragon (2021).

Raya and the Last Dragon is a definite departure from the fairy tale trappings of past animated films from Disney.  Here, the story centers in a mystical realm that’s based heavily on Southeast Asian cultures.  There is a kingdom called Kumundra that encircles a mighty river that is shaped like a dragon, and each part of this kingdom is named after a different part of a dragon’s body: Tail, Talon, Spine, Heart and Fang.  500 years ago in the past, a sentient plague known as Druun began to spread across the land, turning every living being into stone.  The kingdom however was saved thanks to dragon magic that reversed the Druun’s curse and restored life to all the humans, but left the dragons still cursed in stone.  Many years later, the leader of the Heart Kingdom, Lord Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) seeks to restore unity between the warring nations of Kumundra.  However, the different nations want the power of the last dragon stone, which is housed in the Heart Kingdoms’ fortress, for themselves.  A fight ends up leaving the dragon stone shattered, which causes the Druun to reemerge.  Lord Benja succumbs to the curse after sacrificing his life to save his daughter Raya (Kelly Marie Tran).  Six years later, a grown Raya seeks to reverse the Druun’s presence in the land by finding the last living dragon.  Searching all the way to the end of the Dragon’s Tail, she finds the dragon Sisu (Awkwafina), who can’t make the Druun go away herself, but does in fact have have the ability to restore the stone.  So, Raya and Sisu embark on a mission to find the other shards of broken Dragon stone, and they are helped along the way by different members of the Kumundra tribes; a young fishing boat captain in the Tail region named Boun (Izaac Wang) a baby Talon girl named Noi (Thalia Tran) who survives as a con artist, and the sole surviving member of the Spine tribe, Tong (Benedict Wong).  Meanwhile, the daughter of the Fang chieftain, Namaari (Gemma Chan), a past rival of Raya’s, is also hunting for the dragon stone shards, and is ready to take Raya down in order to posses them.  It soon becomes a race to see if they can outrun the curse of the Druun while also learning to trust one another in order to survive together.

The story of Raya and the Last Dragon’s will no doubt be a fascinating one in Disney’s history.  Unlike internal struggles that plagued the productions of movies like The Black Cauldron (1985) or The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), Raya had to face the uphill battle against an external source of production woes, namely Covid-19.  Originally set for a November 2020 premiere, Raya was delayed like everything else, but not too far back.  It is kind of remarkable that they managed to put a film this complex together through a remote network, because there’s nothing about the look and feel of this movie that would indicate that there were any production woes at all.  Raya and the Last Dragon is an extraordinary polished final product that stands up to the high standards of Disney Animation.  Many years from now, you would find it hard to believe that this movie was made outside of the high tech confines of Disney’s Burbank studio and in the home offices of it’s technicians.  The Disney Animation team went above and beyond what anyone would expect and crafted what may be in fact one of their most visually stunning movies ever.  Given that they had a couple of extra months to work with probably helped, but even still, the necessities of working remotely still made it a challenge for the filmmakers.  Directed by Disney vet Don Hall (Big Hero 6) and animation newcomer Carlos Lopez Estrada, the movie has ambition in it’s world building that really sets it apart from other Disney animated features.  Though fantasy elements like dragons and magic are nothing new to them, the complexity of a richly detailed culture that is unique to this story is really an impressive thing that the movie manages to accomplish, and do so without leaving the audience overwhelmed.  Though the Southeast Asian influence is unmistakable, the fact that they don’t tie it to any specific source, and instead use it as an influence to inform this completely fictionalized world is something incredibly fascinating to watch explored within this movie.

The world of Kumandra is without a doubt the star attraction of this movie.  The Disney Animation team did a marvelous job of crafting a world that is both familiar and wholly original.  There are so many great ideas for portraying the different cultures of the kingdom of Kumandra that make every new scene of exploration in this world fascinating to watch.  Each kingdom lives in it’s own biome, which helps to define the character of that place.  The Tail kingdom is a dry desert wasteland, marking an ends of the earth kind of feel.  Talon is a cosmopolitan waterfront community that is reminiscent of river markets found in places like Bangkok, Singapore and other major ports of Southeast Asia.  Spine is a rugged outpost in snowy mountain forests, with people equally as rugged.  But the most impressive visuals are saved for the prosperous Heart and Fang kingdoms.  The Heart of Kumandra sits literally at the peak of a massive, donut shaped mountain that is without a doubt the movie’s most striking image.  Southeast Asia, particularly on the South China Sea coastlines, have these striking rocky monoliths all over the place, but Raya goes the extra mile into the surreal by putting a massive hole in the center of one and placing a palace on top like a crown.  Not to be outdone, the Fang kingdom’s palace is another striking creation, sitting on a massive, rice field terraced mountain top with walls and towers of rigid geometry, similar to the temples and pagodas found in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.  What the movie does really well is make this land feel authentic and lived in, without wasting too much time on world building.  It doesn’t dwell long in the details, and instead just lets the audience become immersed in the sights, sounds, and even smells of Kumandra.  Of all the things that the movie does, this kind of immersive escape into another world is it’s most impressive act.

The movie also features a strong cast to inhabit the film’s world as well.  Much like what they did with Moana (2016) a couple years back, their casting choices for the voices of these characters is informed more by a regional connection to this world, and less tied down to any specific nationality.  The voices in this movie literally come from all over the world, but they all have ancestry that connects them to the southeast Asian cultures that inspired the world of Kumandra.  Among the principle cast, the film manages to gain great chemistry from it’s stars Kelly Marie Tran and Awkwafina as Raya and Sisu.  Tran, who is making the jump over here from her time in the Star Wars universe, was surprising not the original voice for the main character.  Originally, Canadian actress Cassie Steele was set to play the part, but was replaced sometime last year with Tran.  No reason has been given why, but Kelly Marie Tran does a fine job of picking up the role and making it hers.  I especially love the energy she gives in her performance, making Raya pop on screen in a way she might not have otherwise.  The voices of Raya’s other companions are also very endearing as well.  A particular favorite of mine is Benedict Wong’s performance as Tong.  Some of his line readings spoken through his tough guy delivery had me giggling quite a bit.  Gemma Chan also brings a nice bit of complexity to her role as Namaari, helping her to become more than just a stock antagonist.  I also want to spotlight the incredible efforts of the character animators, particularly the ones who animated the dragon Sisu.  It’s got to be a challenge whenever an animator has to bring life to a vocal performance from a comedian like Awkwafina.  Comedians perform in a way that is different from other actors and to translate that into an animated character that looks nothing like the performer themselves can’t be easy.  Disney’s been in this place before when trying to match the zaniness of Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy.  Thankfully, not only do the animators manage to match the comedic tone of Awkwafina’s performance, but they managed to make Sisu an amazingly dynamic presence on screen.  It’s another remarkable marriage of vocal performance and animation that stands up strong with the comedic legends that have preceded Awkwafina’s Sisu in the Disney Canon.

With stellar visual and animation, and a lively vocal cast, this movie has all the makings of an all time classic for the studio.  And while it definitely is above average, I also have to say that it does fall a bit short of legendary status as well.  Raya is top tier when it comes to visuals, and it features a surprisingly rich story line as well.  But, what the movie could have used is another polish of the screenplay itself.  The script was written by Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim, the latter just coming off the success of Crazy Rich Asians (2018).  While the duo do deserve credit for holding together the complexity of this kind of world-building and offer some interesting character development as well, some of the dialogue in the movie is a bit trite and uninspired.  In particular, the movie doesn’t have the comedic oomph that other Disney classics have illustrated in the past.  There’s one bit in particular about shopping with credit that feels very much out of place and shoehorned into this movie and it took me out of the experience for a bit.  Some jokes do land, but they are few and far between, and I feel that a another punch up (possibly with a more comedy minded writer) could have saved some of the pitfalls of this movie.  That being said, the actors do their best to make what is on the page as good as it can be.  Tran and Awkwafina’s chemistry goes a long way towards making their scenes together work.  I also think that one unfortunate thing about the movie is that it leaves out more time to delve deeper into these characters’ stories as well, and in particular, Raya herself.  Raya changes very little through the course of the movie and when I thought it would come to a point where she ultimately learns an important lesson, it never happens.  She’s sadly one of the less interesting heroines I’ve seen in recent Disney movies; not bad overall, but far less engaging than say Moana or Elsa as a central character.  These shortcomings hold back what otherwise could have been one of Disney’s most impressive films ever, and while no where near a failure, it nevertheless feels a bit disappointing overall.

Even still, Raya and the Last Dragon is still a movie well worth seeing.  If it’s safe and accessible, this movie is preferably worth going out to the movie theaters to watch.  This is a big, epic widescreen kind of movie that really needs the theatrical experience to really do it justice.  Thankfully, this movie is getting a theatrical run, but it’s limited in scope given that the pandemic is still ongoing, despite encouraging steps in the right direction.  Theaters are still closed here in LA, so I ventured way out of town to visit the Mission Tiki Drive-In once again, but it was worth the drive because I got to see it the way it was intended; on a giant screen.  Disney also has made the movie accessible through streaming on Disney+, with the Premiere Access pay-for-view feature that they used last year for Mulan (2020).  However, unlike Mulan, Raya gives you a theatrical option, so if you accept the risk, I strongly recommend watching it in a theater because one, it’s looks better than on a TV and two, it’s a better value.  I do think that some of the shortcomings of the screenplay do hold it back, but it’s made up for with a richly detailed world and some of the best animation that has ever come from Disney, and that’s saying a lot.  It’s also nice that it’s a new movie from them that is something new and original, and not a sequel.  It’s also a vast improvement over the lackluster Frozen II (2019).  It’s not anywhere near the top of Disney’s animation output, but it’s a worthy inclusion into the ranks of the esteemed Disney canon.  I can see Raya becoming a beloved classic for many and it will deserve that honor in many ways.  I will especially love to see how well the Southeast Asian community embraces the film, and it will be wonderful to see children from those communities respond to watching their culture be reflected finally in a Disney film.  That’s one of the great things about Disney’s drive to portray so many different cultures in their films; it gives a voice and identity to cultures that otherwise go unheralded in animation, and it also educates those of us outside of the culture to the wonderous art, food and people that make up those communities.  It’s kind of interesting that the plot of this movie centers around a society broken apart by the ravages of a plague, and it’s all about bridging all of our differences in order to fight against a common threat that affects us all equally.  It’s ultimately a movie about a society finding a way to heal itself, and for being one of the biggest new movies in what will be a post-pandemic world, Raya and the Last Dragon’s arrival right now couldn’t be any more pivotal to our times as they are right now.

Rating: 8/10

Seeing Spots – How 101 Dalmatians Opened Up My World to Cinema

Everybody’s childhood was no doubt influenced by the movies they saw.  Whether they were vague memories or vivid, we can recall the feelings we had when we first saw some of our favorite movies, and if you are able to recall a first time viewing that happened in your early childhood, than that means the movie must be extra special to you.  For me in particular, the fact that I can remember what the first films I ever saw in a theater were to this day is probably why I am the way that I am.  Movies, even at a super young age, grabbed a hold onto me and didn’t let go.  It propelled me to explore film more deeply, led me to pursue filmmaking as a career, took me to film school, and has kept me active in writing about movies on this very site.  It all started with my mother taking me to the movie theater to watch films from the likes of Disney, Spielberg, Don Bluth and anything else that was age appropriate.  Exact memories may be buried too deep now to be vividly remembered today, but I do know for sure what that first movie was that I saw in a theater.  It was the Walt Disney classic, 101 Dalmatians (1961).  Now reaching it’s 60th Anniversary this year, 101 Dalmatians was already an established hit before I was born.  But, because this was the early 1980’s, and home video hadn’t come into it’s own just yet, studios like Disney were continuing a long standing tradition of re-releasing their past classics into theaters again, roughly every 7-10 years.  101 Dalmatians had already enjoyed a couple of these re-releases, each of them wildly successful before it came out just in time for me to see it.  I was only 3 years old when my Mom finally took me to the theater for the first time in December of 1985, and unbeknownst to her, she was about to open up her little boy’s world to something that would define the rest of his life.

But, why 101 Dalmatians.  It’s possible that any movie would have awakened the inner cinephile in my 3 year old sensibilities.  What made Dalmatians so unique that it stuck with me all these years later.  Probably as I’ve put together the pieces of the movie’s place within the whole grand story of the Disney Company’s history, as well as with Hollywood in general, 101 Dalmatians becomes a more fascinating oddity that more than ever captures the imagination even after multiple viewings.  I am certainly not alone in holding up Dalmatians with such high regard.  The film, with all of it’s multiple theatrical releases, ranks as one of Disney’s highest grossing movies ever; with a lifetime gross of just over $900 million adjusted for inflation.  In it’s 1995 re-release alone netted it $71 million, which is better than most first runs for many films, animated or not.  One thing I have learned about the film in it’s long history that I find fascinating is that the success was even a surprise to Walt and company.  Disney was coming off of a decade of huge gambles and many financial headaches.  Disneyland had opened to mixed results in 1955, only just finally turning a profit at the beginning of the new decade.  The studio began to grow with the successes of Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953) and Lady and the Tramp (1955), but the animation department fell into the red again as Sleeping Beauty (1959) went massively over-budget and over-schedule.  The fact that Sleeping Beauty soaked up so much of Disney’s time and money led Walt to make the unfortunate choice put a lot of his future big plans on hold, so that his company could recoup.  Sadly, time would run out on Walt in the 60’s, and a lot of those plans would never come to pass.  Instead, he had to reorganize and keep his company going with projects that in many ways ran contrary to his own personal tastes.

On the heels of Sleeping Beauty’s premiere, Walt greenlit 101 Dalmatians as his next feature, which would be a wild departure from the movies that he was known for.  Based on the children’s novel by British author Dodie Smith, 101 Dalmatians did not have a fairy tale, medieval setting that so many of Disney’s past animated features took place in.  Instead, the story took place in contemporary London, England, in a world not too set apart from our own.  It was probably the first ever Disney movie to feature a TV set within it for example.  Not only did the setting feel more modern for Disney, but the visual design of the movie was altered to reflect this change.  For most of the post-war years, the Disney style became very refined and naturalistic.  Starting with Sleeping Beauty, and continuing through Dalmatians, the visual style of Disney became rougher and more graphic.  Gone were the clean, fine lines of the drawings, and in it’s place were characters and environments that looked more like they were etched roughly out of pencil.  This is partially due to the fact that in order to save on costs, Disney had embraced a new Xerox process to transfer the animator’s drawings right off the page on onto the animation cel.  This was a process that made the animator’s rough pencil drawings translate for more definitively into the final image, which gave the animation that rough, textured look.  The background likewise were designed with this new style in mind, drawing in more abstract inspiration from ad artwork from the time, and it would dramatically change the way Disney animation would look for many years after.  There was no doubt about it, 101 Dalmatians would be an entirely different movie for Disney than what they had made before.  And in typical Disney fashion, it would be the movie that nobody expected big things out of that would have the bigger impact in the long run.

Walt most likely approved of what 101 Dalmatians turned out to be, but it is clear that it wasn’t exactly something that he held up as one of his proudest achievements either.  Unlike Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959), you’ll be hard pressed to find any media out there at all of Walt Disney speaking about what 101 Dalmatians meant to him.  It was one of the biggest hits of his career, and he barely talked about it.  It’s probably because he never had a deep personal investment in the movie the same way that he did with Sleeping BeautyBeauty was meant to be his crowning achievement as a filmmaker, and when it disappointed at the box office after costing so much, it hit Walt personally.  Seeing another one of his movies that he had less investment in personally far exceed it in success probably even rubbed salt in his wounds.  But again, Walt never openly disdained Dalmatians either, like say he did for Alice in Wonderland (1951).  Dalmatians probably gave him the financial cover to make his next big project (Mary Poppins, for example) so he could have appreciated that it did that.  Despite what he thought of the movie itself, the film was embraced by fans of all ages pretty much immediately.  Audiences and critics lauded the unique visual style of the movie and it’s charming story.  In terms of the story itself, it is amazing how well it holds together when you take into account that it stars literally 101 individual dogs.  It probably works as well as it does, because of the theme of family and the lengths that we go to keep those bonds together.  Whether it’s between a man and his pet dog, a couple welcoming new life into the world, or a community coming together to help one another, the universal theme of familial love rings out through the whole movie.

But what also defines 101 Dalmatians as an all time classic is that it features what many consider to be one of the greatest villainesses in cinema history.  Apart from the titular Dalmatians themselves, the movie’s other star attraction is the incredibly evil and diabolical Cruella De Vil.  Cruella is an icon in every sense, with her billowing fur coat and her trademark white and black hairstyle (not to mention a trail of green cigarette smoke that follows her everywhere), she just pops right off of the screen.  Certainly she was meant to be a pointed satire of the fashionistas of the era, with personalities that often were just as monstrous, but her presence in the film takes on an even more sinister purpose.  Her desire is to not only take Dalmatian puppies away from their rightful owners and parents, but to also kill and skin them for their fur, just because she’s obsessed with making a spotted Dalmatian coat.  This demented level of animal cruelty makes her an especially memorable baddy in the Disney canon, and her outsized personality even further cements her within the halls of Disney Villain infamy.  Voiced with incredible zeal by veteran actress Betty Lou Gerson, and animated by Disney Legend Marc Davis (in what would be his final film assignment before moving to the Theme Parks division), Cruella immediately jumps onto the screen in her opening moments.  She intrudes on the Radcliffe home shouting “Anita, Dahling,” and spend the next scene lording over all around her, like a storm passing through the neighborhood.  If there was ever a textbook example of how to perfectly introduce your villain into a story, Cruella’s introduction scene would be it.  And throughout the movie, she commands every moment she’s on screen.  Capable of being funny and menacing at the same time, you don’t find more entertaining villains than Cruella De Vil, and she is absolutely one of the reasons why the movie has maintained a dedicated following over the years.

One great indicator of the film’s long held popularity is that it has spawned so many renewals over the years.  Long before it became a trend at the Disney studio, 101 Dalmatians became the first Disney classic to receive a live action remake.  With a screenplay by John Hughes, the 1996 remake focuses much more on the human characters of Roger and Anita Radcliffe (played by Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson, respectively) with the dogs themselves being speechless this time around.  Of course, with the Dalmatians taking more of a backseat, it allows for the other star of the film to shine brighter, which would be Cruella herself.  The remake’s biggest strength was in casting an actress like Glenn Close for the part.  Close delivers a delightfully campy performance that brings out all the potential of the character into live action, and in many ways helps to elevate the film overall, which sadly sees Hughes relying a little too heavily on his Home Alone (1990) style antics, which is not a good fit.  Still, the remake was a big success, earning Close a Golden Globe nomination in the process and even led to creation of a sequel, 2000’s 102 Dalmatians, also starring Glenn Close.  In the years after, 101 Dalmatians also inspired a couple of animated series, as well as an animated sequel that went straight to DVD like so many others from Disney at the time.  And to show that the original movie still has legs to this day, we are about to get the Cruella origin movie this summer with Oscar-winner Emma Stone starring as the titular villainess.  All of this is pretty incredible, considering that it was a movie that was originally believed to be a cheap filler in Disney’s production schedule that Walt himself didn’t really care much for.  But like other B-Movies in Disney’s long history, like Dumbo (1941) and The Lion King (1994) never underestimate the power of a good story.

So what does the movie mean to me personally.  Well, I don’t know exactly how it took a hold of me when I first saw it; I was only 3 after all.  But I have always remembered that it was the first movie I ever saw in the theater.  And as a small child, I was keenly aware of how Disney stood out from everything else I would watch.  I knew which movies I saw were Disney films and which ones were not, without even knowing where those other movies came from.  It’s probably because I had such a distinct picture in my mind of what a certain type of movie should be, and how Disney had a style that stood out from the rest.  I knew very early on that Walt Disney and Don Bluth were two very different people who made very different movies, and I could tell their movies apart from one another.  Most kids under the age of 10 probably didn’t have that kind of brand recognition developed so early on, because so many of the kids I grew up with just thought the name Disney was synonymous with all animated movies.  I was just always born to be a film buff, and I recognize that it probably started with my obsessions over Disney animation back when I was very little.  I was commonly referred to as the Disney kid at school, but that was partly due to the fact that I had yet to broaden my knowledge of cinema beyond just what the Disney had been making.  Today, I am indeed more than just that Disney kid, though it’s still there at the core of identity.  And I always return back to 101 Dalmatians as the genesis of my journey through  cinematic life.  It’s no longer my favorite movie, and at times I don’t even recognize it as my favorite Disney movie anymore.  But, it is still held in special regard as the movie that started it all for me.

With the movie now hitting that 60 year benchmark, it is interesting to see how strongly it has managed to hold up all these years.  What is special about it is the fact that it broke new ground for both Disney and animation in general.  It broke the mold with how an animated film should look, with it’s modern aesthetic and rough, sketchy animation, thanks to the new Xerox based transfer.  It also endeared so many people to these characters throughout the years.  How many dog owners do you think have named their pets Pongo or Perdita, after the Dalmatian parents at the center of the film.  The movie also effectively vilified the practice of animal slaughter for the sake of fashion.  I don’t know if the movie directly led to the downfall of the fur trade, but if it did move the fashion world in that direction, than it’s something that the movie should definitely be honored for.  And of course, Cruella still remains as popular a Disney villain as ever.  I hope the upcoming movie doesn’t go the Maleficent (2014) route and tries to find a sympathetic side to the character.  Cruella is defined by one of the most dastardly deeds a human being is capable of, and to diminish that is to be dismissive of a real world problem that should not be glorified.  Of course, the effect it has had on this one film fanatic is immeasurable.  Seeing it for the first time on the big screen led to me cuddling at bed at night with a stuffed Dalmatian doll as a little child, to sleep overs at my friends’ houses in my 101 Dalmatians sleeping bag as a kid, to buying the movie over and over again on different formats as a teen, to finally watching the movie again on the big screen as an adult on Hollywood Boulevard at the El Capitan theater in Los Angeles.  101 Dalmatians and I go way back, and it has always been a part of my journey deeper into the business of film.  And with the movie making it to a momentous 60th year, while also still maintaining the same level of popularity this whole time, I find it hard not to celebrate all those years together, particularly the ones that mattered so much to me.

Nomadland – Review

The pandemic of 2020 left a major impact on the film industry as a whole, but one of the least consequential effects is it’s impact on Hollywood’s desire to still honor the films of the past year.  Awards season, despite being mostly done remotely, has been going off without a hitch.  The one big difference of course is the much more sparse slate of choices from the last year, as most of the major studios pushed back their biggest contenders to later this year, with the hope that cinemas can return to normal business soon.  The Oscars and the Golden Globes did grant an extended period of eligibility for movies this year, with the cutoff date being the end of this month, which means that the public is just now getting the most likely contenders for the big prize nearly two months into the new year.  It’s a concession that we are unlikely to see happen again, as it’s likely that Oscar Season will tighten up again next winter, but it is interesting to see how the Academy adjusted it’s rules so quickly to adapt to these extraordinary times.  Strangely enough, last year’s Oscars happened just before the pandemic moved into full swing, and was one of the last mass gathering events to happen before the lockdowns began.  Though the Academy made the moves in the hopes that they could continue to hold a traditional in-person ceremony, that seems very unlikely as the pandemic is still raging in some parts of the country, including Hollywood itself, and holding a big mass gathering ceremony at this time would be irresponsible.  But, what we are still likely to see at this year’s Oscars is a lot of historic firsts thanks to the lack of competition from the major studios opening the door for independent movies coming from a diverse set of new and exciting voices.

One of the neatest things to have come out of the Awards circuit of 2020 so far has been the dominance of movies coming from groups otherwise overlooked by the Academy.  People of color are likely to see representation among the nominees at this year’s Oscars more than any year past, and that will be quite a gamechanger for Hollywood.  One of the historical milestones that we might see occur this year is the first time every acting category will have at least one POC in the running in the same year, with even an outside chance of sweeping as well.  And that kind of diversity even extends in other categories as well.  We may see a record number of women nominated for directing this year.  Keep in mind, there has never been a year where there has been more than one woman director nominated at a time, and in the 93 year history of the awards, only one woman has won the Directing Oscar; Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009), and that was well over a decade ago.  It’s too bad that history at the Oscars seems to only be possible if Hollywood stays out of the way, but even still, the Awards are long overdue in giving out these kinds of honors.  And the reason I spotlight this is because emerging out of the Awards season so far has been the unlikeliest of front-runners.  Chinese born filmmaker Chloe Zhao has thus far become the most honored Director of the year with her new film Nomadland.  If she were to carry her momentum all the way to Oscar night, her win could really mark a turning point for a lot of other rising filmmakers from other underrepresented backgrounds.  The question is, now that Nomadland is finally making it’s debut to the public audience, is it a movie worthy of all the hype it had received thus far.

The movie Nomadland takes place in the aftermath of the Great Recession, where many small communities faced the harsh reality of economic hardship when the industries that once kept them afloat suddenly went bankrupt.  That is the situation that a middle aged woman named Fern (Frances McDormand) has found herself in.  The town that she lived in suddenly became unincorporated by the state of Nevada after the closure of the Gypsum mine dried up all the jobs that kept the community afloat, and this came after Fern lost her husband to a long battle with Cancer.  Instead of moving back in with family or finding a new home somewhere else, Fern instead converts an old delivery van into a mini-mobile home, taking all her worldly possessions with her on the road.  She soon joins a community of modern day nomads, all of whom help each other adjust to living on the road, finding odd jobs along the way, and exchanging goods through swap meets.  Fern develops a friendships along the way, but a part of her always keeps people at an arms length, preferring solitude over long term attachments.  This aspect of her personality is challenged once she meets another fellow nomad named Dave (David Strathairn), who has been flirting around with her for some time.  She does develop a special bond with Dave, especially when they work for a time in the same kitchen of a restaurant.  But, once Dave is called back to be with his family during an important time, it forces Fern and Dave’s budding relationship to be tested.  In this experience, Fern confronts what kind of life she believes she is destined to live, and how she can square that with the necessities of life constantly being a daily challenge.  Through it all, she tests her resiliency for independence, despite the promising invites to settle down and live quietly once again.  Thus is the life of a nomad, and Fern discovers through heartache and triumph if it’s the true life for her.

For Nomadland to emerge as an Awards season frontrunner is kind of a strange thing to witness.  The movie is a very quiet, low key tone poem of an experience that doesn’t exactly scream out for recognition.  It’s quite a change from your typical Oscar bait movie, which usually wants to notice how important it is.  Nomadland is, by contrast, a very unassuming movie.  It’s the kind of film that you would stumble across in an art cinema or late night or scroll past on a streaming platform without much thought, and yet still find it an absorbing experience.  That’s why it’s so weird that it is not only doing well in the run up to the Oscars, it’s dominating.  The movie took home two major honors already that are bell weathers of the Oscars, which are the Golden Lion from the Venice Film Festival and the Audience Award from the Toronto Film Festival.  Considering other Oscar juggernauts like Green Book (2018), Roma (2018), and Parasite (2019) have rode the festival honors to eventual big wins, it stands to reason that Nomadland is going in this year as the film to beat.  So, it becomes a little unfortunate that I was ultimately underwhelmed by the movie itself.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad by any means, but it just didn’t grab a hold of me in the same way that other movies up for the major awards have in the past.  In a way I feel like the hype behind the movie did it a disservice and raised the bar too high to live up to.  I came into this movie expecting to be blown away by a modern masterpiece, and instead I found it to be a charming if a bit too languid of a movie to go on raving about.  Perhaps it’s just a first impression thing, and I may need multiple viewings to fully appreciate the movie as a whole.  But, going off of my first impressions, I’d say temper your expectations, because a game-changer that will shape cinema for years to come this ain’t.

Some of the response to the movie may be determined by the overall feelings one gets from the story itself.  Based on a novel from Jessica Bruder, and adapted for the screen by Chloe Zhao herself, The movie is overall a very intimate portrait of these people and the life that they lead.  One of the most interesting aspects of film is that it does break down exactly what modern nomad life is actually like, and it doesn’t pass judgment on these people either.  It removes the stigma of these people being transients or homeless.  The nomads in this movie have chosen this life purposely, and are content living on the road.  They work, earn money when they can, support each other, give back whenever someone has handed something out to them.  As Fern states within the movie, she isn’t homeless, she’s house-less, and there is a big difference.  And I liked the scenes where it breaks down how this community functions, as there is a support system in place for all these people as they communicate with each other even when they are miles apart.  Zhao does an excellent job of just letting the moments play out casually on screen; like we have just ease dropped into the lives of these characters.  I especially like how so much detail is put into the living spaces of these make-shift mobile homes, as they reveal so much of the personalities of these people.  Where I feel the movie falls short is that while the subject of the movie is fascinating, it’s also very surface level.  There is no greater purpose to the story; no theme that drives the narrative.  One missed opportunity that I feel the movie glossed over is the way that many of these people have been driven to this kind of lifestyle through an unfair economic structure.  There’s just the slightest hint of it in the way that job opportunities left to people like Fern, who has been displaced by the failure of outdated industries of the past, are now limited to places that devalue the individuality of the worker like an Amazon fulfillment center where Fern works over the holidays.  It’s a theme of displaced people trying to live outside of a society that has left us behind that I feel could have been explored better in the movie, and sadly is uncommented upon for the rest of the film.

What does hold the movie together though is Frances McDormand’s performance.  It is remarkable how well she does disappear into a role movie after movie, and Nomadland is no exception.  This is also one of her more subtle performances too, especially compared to her more showy performances that have won her two Academy Awards already; for Fargo (1996) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017).  She manages to make Fern a believable everywoman who like all those around her is just trying to live day by day with no greater purpose other than to maintain her independence.  In the hands of a different filmmaker and a different actress, Fern may have been portrayed with a lot less subtlety, to the point where she may have been injected with some kind of mental problems that would have been exploitative for Oscar bait.  Instead, Fern is portrayed as a normal, every day person who has just chosen this way of life as her ideal situation, and that there is no shame in that.  There is an excellent scene where Fern defends her lifestyle to her more grounded, home-owning family who are concerned about her well being, and the movie expertly avoids turning it into an explosive moment that could have made the movie feel false and sermonizing.  Instead, it is a natural back and forth disagreement that defines who Fern is, but also doesn’t portray her family as ignorant either.  It’s honest and that is refreshing to see in a movie like this.  One other incredible aspect of the movie is that Frances is for the most part acting opposite people who are not trained actors, and are in fact real life nomads themselves.   Veteran actor David Strathairn is the obvious exception, and he is quite good too, but all of the non-actors do come across as genuine in front of the camera, and it really shows the incredible skill Chloe Zhao has in bringing out that naturalistic feel in her characters, no matter what level of acting experience they have.  Even with the movie’s lack of larger themes, it does pull you in with the genuineness of the lives it’s bringing to you through the lens of the camera.

And speaking of the camera itself, another area where the movie really soars is the fantastic cinematography on display.  Shot by cinematographer Joshua James Richards, who also worked with Zhao on her previous film The Rider (2017), does a magnificent job of capturing the wide open spaces of the American west.  For a movie that’s all about untethering oneself in order to see the country one road at a time, it does a masterful job of putting you on that road with these modern day nomads.  From the in the middle of nowhere campgrounds to the intimacy of small town life, it’s a wonderful kaleidoscope of the rarely seen parts of America; the areas that can still be called a frontier.  And quite expertly, Zhao also refrains from any sort of social commentary here, which Hollywood often will do with what is known as flyover country.  Zhao’s eye is directed to showing the little lives of these people living in this larger than life world.  There are some incredible shot of mountain ranges and coastlines throughout the movie, as well as a very character driven encounter in the Badlands National Park of South Dakota.  One of the most beautiful shots however comes close to the end, when Fern does return to the home that she left behind.  There you see this vast desert valley stretch out to the mountains in the distance, and the mountain peaks are shrouded by the cloud cover of an overcast sky.  It contrasts so perfectly with the emptiness of her old home, as we see the floor, wall, and ceiling of nature itself welcoming her into her new home.  If there was ever a movie this year that demands a big screen presentation, it is this one.  Thankfully, I got to watch this in a Drive-In, which is appropriate in itself as it’s a theater experience out in the open skies and in the moonlight.  And more importantly, it was on a big screen that really sold the majesty of the big wide open spaces that were so important to the character of Fern at the center of the film.

So, even with my misgivings about the tone and narrative of the story, I can understand why so many people are singing the praises of Nomadland.  It is an expertly crafted and beautifully acted movie that will no doubt transport many people that fall under it’s spell.  It just didn’t grab me as hard as I would’ve liked.  Perhaps if I didn’t go into this movie with the knowledge of it’s frontrunner status of this awards season, I may have been less judgmental of it’s shortcomings.  As of now, I expect it to a least do pretty well at this year’s Oscars, if not outright win the entire thing, but it probably won’t be my own personal pick.  At the same time, if it does win, I won’t be too upset either.  I felt the same way about last year’s winner Parasite; not what I would’ve chosen, but I was happy to see it win (no Green Book inspired outrage here).  Of course I’m saying this even before the nominations have even been announced, so it’s still up in the air.  At the end of the day, I’d say that Nomadland is a fine cinematic experience worth checking out.  It’s a fascinating look into a world that I wasn’t aware of before, and it is constructed with love by a filmmaker who is really starting to emerge as an impressive new voice in Hollywood.  Remarkably her very next film will be the mega-budget blockbuster The Eternals (2021) for Marvel Studios, a wild departure from what she has made in the past.  Hopefully, she doesn’t compromise her unique voice too much to work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and hopefully she actually molds the Marvel formula more to her tastes, thereby adding a whole different kind of vision into that world.  If she ends up becoming the second ever female director to take home an Academy Award for her work, it will definitely add some clout to her name in Hollywood, and could allow her to make even more ambitious projects down the line.  With Oscar and Marvel on her resume, we may be seeing the emergence of one the true leaders of Hollywood for the next generation, and that’s something that’s been long overdue for a woman director.  Nomadland is a casual, visually stunning and charmingly performed film that while not groundbreaking is nevertheless an expertly crafted passion project for a filmmaker that is likely going to be going on to some very big things in the future.

Rating: 8/10

The Hippogriff in the Room – Separating Art from an Artist and What to Do With Cancel Culture

It is perhaps one of the most unexpected success stories of the last half century.  A down on her luck author manages to publish a novel that becomes a world wide phenomenon and turns her into the figurehead of a billion dollar franchise that continues to reap in the riches every year.  J. K. Rowling discovered that dream come true when she brought the adventures of Harry Potter to the world, making her not only a success within the literary world, but the world’s first ever billionaire writer.  Fueled by an equally successful film franchise based on her books, she entered the new millennium as the head of the biggest new intellectual property since Star Wars, and with the residuals continuing to come in, she has embarked on developing more and more projects based on her writing, both tied to the Harry Potter wizarding world and to her own separate side narratives.  But, in addition to being the mind behind a popular franchise, her fame has also turned her into a public figure; a figure whose voice suddenly carries much more weight in society.  And unfortunately for many, she has chosen to use her voice to put down a marginalized group in society.  In the last couple of years, Ms. Rowling has expressed some controversial opinions about the trans and non-binary communities, stating that she felt their growing status in the culture was a threat to the rights of women.  Her critical words suddenly were met with a backlash from the LGBTQ community, who shot back at her statements, labeling her dismissively as a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist).  And while Rowling remains defiant in her beliefs, she has had to face the reality over the last couple of years that her words matter, and that what she says may not be in the best interest of the empire that she has built for herself.

What we’ve seen play out with J.K. Rowling and her conflict with the trans community is indicative of a larger struggle with the limitations of free speech that we are trying to figure out in a society that is more media driven and also more polarized than ever before.  Rowling’s hardline stance on feminism to the exclusion of non-biological woman is indicative of how people have been driven to take stances on subjects these days that are increasingly partisan and closed minded.  Regardless of the merits of her position, it shows that politics and culture has turned far more tribal in recent years and that anyone who doesn’t pick a side in the fight is treated as problem instead of as someone with an open mind.  The problem, however, is that once a person like J.K. Rowling takes a clear stance on a subject, as controversial as that is, it suddenly reflects back on all the other things that she is associated with.  This is the dilemma that everyone associated with the Harry Potter franchise suddenly found themselves in after Rowling made her controversial statements.  To no ones surprise, most of the cast did not share Rowling’s opinions.  Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, even publicly went out of his way to repudiate her statements and declare his own support for the trans community.  What’s more, all this friction suddenly makes things more problematic for Rowling’s relationship with Warner Brothers, the current rights holders to Wizarding World franchise that is the creative head of.  They have many future plans for the Potter WW brand, including a continuation of the Fantastic Beasts spinoff and a possible HBO Max series.  And with Ms. Rowling antagonizing a sector of the LGBTQ community, a sector of the audience that has been a loyal part of the fanbase and that Warner would like to continue to tap into, then it creates a conflict that puts the future of the franchise in an awkward place.  The problem is, where do we as a society draw the line at limiting what a person is allowed to say, no matter how powerful they are.

That is an issue that we face in a world where social media has made it possible for anyone to have a public platform in order to share their opinions.  Rowling is one of many public figures that has had to face the wrath of backlash for opinions they have made on their social media pages.   Some celebrities have experienced some benign pushback for making ill-informed statements or a poorly timed joke, but there are others that have also seen their careers and reputations abruptly terminated because of something they shared on social media.  Deserving or not, we are seeing high profile figures face consequences for their own statements or actions, and it has significantly increased the polarization of the discourse of ideas in our society, because people become more pushed into different teams for or against a person based on the fandom surrounding them.  In particular, what happens to celebrities who are “canceled” has been taking on a more politicized connotations, as one side sees it as a sign of persecution and the other sees it as justice being served.  This has developed into what people refer to now as Cancel Culture, where it’s become something of a sport to find anything a person has done that is deemed objectionable and use it as a means of de-platforming them or stripping away their livelihood as punishment.   The extant of Cancel Culture as a greater societal problem is debatable; in some cases it seems a little extreme, like trying to ban movies and books that are deemed objectionable based on modern sensibilities, while other times it feels like Cancel Culture is being touted by individuals who want to feed into their own persecution complexes and want to have a boogeyman to crusade against that actually doesn’t exist.

J.K. Rowling is just one of the cases of people that have become the face of the growing aura of Cancel Culture as a part of our societal dialogue. However, to say that she is being cancelled is a gross exaggeration.  She is a billionaire with a firm grip on control of the empire that she was instrumental in creating.  She is in no danger of seeing her livelihood come apart.  But other public figures lower on the pecking order can suddenly see their fortunes reversed with unexpected speed.   It’s emblematic of the way that we treat celebrities in the first place.  Regardless of the severity of their transgressions, we often give the celebrity with the higher public profile more of a benefit of the doubt.  Some of that firewall protection was thankfully dismantled when the MeToo movement gained speed and brought many abusive players within the entertainment industry to justice.   But what MeToo also started was this feeling of satisfaction in bringing down powerful people, and it did fuel the drive behind Cancel Culture to find the next big power player to take down.  In a way, Cancel Culture became trophy hunting, and it began to drift away from the actual purpose of holding people accountable for their actions and instead became about seeing the mighty fall.  As a result, Cancel Culture became a new flashpoint in the ongoing culture wars between left wing and right wing values.  The right believes that Cancel Culture is being used to silence conservative voices in the media, and that it is part of a new blacklist, reminiscent of McCarthyism.  Though Cancel Culture has led to some questionable actions, it is ludicrous to believe that it’s impact is the same as the censorship of the Blacklist era in Hollywood.

A little historical refresher.  When Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, started his crusade against what he believed to be an infiltration of Communist influence into all fabrics of society, it began a scary time in America known as the Red Scare.  McCarthy sparked the House Un-American Activities Committee to weed out suspected communist sympathizers from every sphere of influence in society, including Hollywood.  It led to what became known as the Blacklist, as those to be known or even suspected of Communist sympathies were barred from receiving work within the film industry.  This included anyone who supported anything deemed radical left, like support for the Civil Rights Movement or strong support for Union workers; basically anything deemed left of center.  People were also encouraged to name names, which also disgraced many people within Hollywood who were desperate to just hold onto their jobs.  It was a dark moment in American history, but to compare it to the Cancel Culture of today misses one crucial thing.  McCarthyism and the Blacklist were invasive measures to curtail freedom of speech enacted by the federal government itself, with the assistance of corporations and major studios.  Eventually, the Blacklist was broken by saner minds in the years after and McCarthy’s own paranoia eventually got the best of him, alienating himself from even his Republican colleagues.  Modern day Cancel Culture, as pervasive as it is, is entirely mechanism of the culture itself, and is not an overreach of government.  So to say that what we are seeing now is the same thing is really misreading the lessons of history.

I certainly don’t want to think that we are only one tweet away from facing censorship, and that the best course of action is to watch what we say and conform to a single way of thinking.  But those decrying Cancel Culture should also keep in mind that freedom of speech is also not freedom from consequence.  Just because we have the freedom to say what we want doesn’t mean that others can’t hold you accountable for what you say either.  The nature of the free market is that separate entities are able to operate the way that they see fit, and that includes setting their own standards of what kind of speech is acceptable.  While corporations can set their own expectations of conduct and speech within their organizations, it is constitutionally important that the Federal Government are not the ones setting those standards.  Do media companies have too much power over an individuals freedom of speech, which has made things like Cancel Culture so problematic; certainly, but as it stands, they have the constitutional right to cancel or de-platform anyone they deem a problem to their bottom line.  I find it a little ironic that the political figures that are currently decrying the power that big tech and media conglomerates have over the limitations of speech are also the same figures that granted these corporations those powers in the first place, with the defanging of regulation and ending of net neutrality.  It’s just unfortunate for them that media companies want to cast their nets wide and appeal to groups of all kinds, including the ones that people on both sides want to keep silent.  The power that media companies wield is problematic, but the fact that they are in the business of diversity makes the complaints of Cancel Culture being one sided politically a little moot.  What matters to these corporations is that their profiles remain free of controversy, and that is why they cancel some people the way they do; not because of their nature of their politics, but because of the hostile direction that some people take their speech.

There are plenty of celebrities that span the political spectrum who remain perfectly free of controversy, and that is mainly because they know to deal with their differences in a civil way.  For some people, their cancellation is more of a self-inflicted wound.  Take the example from this week with Mandalorian star Gina Carano, whose transphobic and anti-Semitic tweets finally became too much for Disney to handle and they decided to fire her from her high profile role on the hit show.  Naturally, she played the victim, and tried to get the American right on her side with the complaints of Cancel Culture, but the fact that she was able to immediately line up another project only a day after shows that her complaints of being blacklisted are a little nonsensical.  The truth is she was fired because her words and actions became increasingly threatening and hostile, especially after her co-star Pedro Pascal publicly supported his trans sister’s decision to come out, and also because of Carano’s unapologetic support of violent extremists who stormed the nation’s Capitol.  At that point, it became more than just talking politics; it became openly encouraging hostility, and Disney was not having it anymore.  It’s a dilemma that we face with the limits that we deem acceptable for free speech.  Where Cancel Culture seems to cross the line is when it becomes blurry when a person is joking or speaking with sincerity.  Comedians in particular walk the fine line, and often them falling victim to cancel culture is where the movement takes things too far.  We saw director James Gunn lose his job momentarily because of such a backlash, with 10 year old offensive jokes on Twitter coming back to bite him, and it was this example that did make people reconsider how militant they should be taking the Cancel Culture as a whole.  But as we’ve seen, accountability for what a person says, and more importantly what they do, reflects back on the public persona that try to procure for themselves and in the end, you get the fanbase that you deserve and what you do will determine what kinds of fans those will be.

We also have to take in the notion that everyone is flawed in their own way.  The best among us are the ones that can carry their flaws well enough and rise above them.  It’s a little unfair to expect that every celebrity has to be perfect in every way.  In some cases, underneath the exterior, a celebrity may in fact be a rotten person to their core, and it becomes more incumbent on the fan to decide whether or not they want to continue to support that person when they find what they do to be problematic.  Cancel Culture may just be a culmination of so many years of people getting away with abhorrent behavior because we’ve allowed them to, and now with social media, it’s become so much easier to hold the powerful accountable.  The unfortunate thing is, art has become more centrally tied to the people responsible for creating it.  If you are a fan of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter but also either a trans person or someone close to a trans individual, you’re having a hard time maintaining that fandom.  By supporting this franchise, you are financially supporting J.K. Rowling, and her financial stability is giving her the confidence to say whatever she wants publicly without consequence.  One can boycott as much as they like, but there comes a point that some individuals become so insulated that they will never face any backlash, and will continue to spread their controversial opinions, and that can be dangerous to society.  It ultimately comes down to the power of money, and the better way to hold people accountable for their hurtful actions is to hold the power structures that prop them up responsible.  Cancel Culture’s big mistake is probably believing that the individual needs to be uniquely made an example of, while the corporations and power structures that propped them up are taken off the hook.  In the end, we have to look at what the actions of the artist means for us.  If what they say overwhelms the good art that they make, then it’s within your right to refuse to support them.  The ultimate level of consequences that a person face should reflect the harm that they have inflicted on others, but freedom of speech is a two way street that we must respect.  People can say anything they want, but people who object to that speech are also within their rights to withhold support for that person, and the greater the numbers in that pushback, the more it may cause the other person to reconsider the power of their own words.

Focus on a Franchise – Toy Story

There’s no doubt about it.  The moment Computer Generated Imagery was adopted as a tool for filmmaking, cinema was forever changed.  Though visual effects had been around since the advent of celluloid, the digital age opened up so many more possibilities for filmmakers to make the impossible appear possible.  Of course looking back on early computer imagery compared to what is possible today, you can certainly see where even in the beginning there were limitations.  And yet, the technology took the industry by storm and is now an integral part of the filmmaking process, no matter how big or small the movie may be.  But, perhaps the most profound area in which CGI left it’s mark the most was in the field of animation.  What was once a tool to enhance traditional animation to make it more dimensional (such as with the ballroom sequence from Beauty and the Beast) evolved into the very thing that would drive the hand drawn medium to near extinction in less than a decade.  In the 21st century, practically every animated movie now is produced with computers; a far cry from the pencil and paper method of the previous century.  Luckily for the industry leader in animation, Disney, they saw the writing on the wall early, and made sure that they had partnered with the studio that was at the forefront of this new frontier.  Pixar, founded by software engineer Ed Catmull and former Disney Animator John Lasseter, with financial backing by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, quickly rose to prominence in the 80’s and 90’s as the leaders of the burgeoning computer animation industry.  Having picked up a couple Academy Awards along the way for their acclaimed shorts, they were approached by Disney to take the next step forward and partner up on what would be the first ever feature length animated movie.

But what would work as the subject for the first ever computer animated film.  The traditional Disney fairy tale would not have worked, as it was too complicated to animate given the limitations of the technology at the time.  And Pixar was looking to define it’s own identity outside of what Disney was famous for making.  The inspiration for what they would ultimately make would come from their 1988 Oscar-winning short subject, Tin Toy.  In that short, the main character is a little tin drummer toy that comes to life, something that CGI could give stunning, life like reality to.  From that, Pixar devised the idea of a story centered around what toys do when people aren’t around, and imagined if they come to life and play around on their own.  Thus, we get what would ultimately become the first ever computer animated film, Toy Story.  But even after devising that concept, making it a reality would prove even harder to pull off.  Pixar was about to push the medium of computer animation further than it had ever been before; both in environmental design and in constructing character.  New rendering programs would need to be invented on the fly, just to make the characters feel like they were actually alive.  And it had to work as a story as well.  A near disastrous first pass at the story almost got the movie canceled by Disney, as the movie was deemed too slow and it’s main character was viewed as too mean.  Ultimately, Pixar managed to figure it all out, and Toy Story not only managed to become a success, it also began a revolution in animation that continues to this day.  What’s even more remarkable is that even a quarter of a century later, Toy Story is still just as powerful today as when it first came out, and even managed to a continue on as a franchise where each new film is equally as celebrated as the first.  Looking at each movie in the franchise, let’s see how exactly each movie managed to build on the one before, and also display the incredible advances that computer animation went through over the same amount of time.

TOY STORY (1995)

The one that started it all.  You’d probably have to go all the way back to Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) to find another movie that left as much of an impact on animation as this one did.  With Pixar founder John Lasseter at the director’s helm, and future Pixar titans like Andrew Stanton and Pete Doctor involved in crafting the story, Toy Story would become the standard bearer that would define every movie that would come after it.  It’s deceptively simple story, about a cowboy doll named Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) being replaced by a space based action figure named Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen) as the new favorite toy of a young boy named Andy, reveals surprising layers of emotion and complexity as it goes along; something that would be a Pixar trademark.  What is striking about Toy Story is just how well it all comes together.  Even with the primitive capabilities of computer animation at the time it is amazing how the movie still holds up all these years later.  I think it’s because that plastic-y look of early CGI just works for characters that are made of plastic, so even after over 20 years, the characters still feel authentic.  But as mind blowing as the animation was for it’s time, what really makes the movie work as well as it does is the dynamic between it’s two leads.  Woody and Buzz are a film duo for the ages, and their growth from adversaries to friends over the course of the movie is what carries the heart of the movie.  Hanks and Allen are also perfectly matched voices for these two as well, and their casting couldn’t have been more fortuitous for Pixar as by the time Toy Story hit theaters, Hanks had won back to back Oscars and Allen had the #1 sitcom on TV.  A well rounded supporting cast that included comedy legends like Wallace Shawn, Don Rickles, and Jim Varney also helped.

There is a universal story at the center of the movie that no doubt played a part in making it appeal to all audiences.  But it is surprising that it took a while for Pixar to find that heart at the center of the movie.  Initially, Woody was portrayed as a bit of a bully in the original pass of the story, as the filmmakers believed that they needed a protagonist with a little bit of an edge to him.  Unfortunately for them, it made the character too unlikable.  Apparently, Disney CEO Michael Eisner hated the original script of the story and threatened to shut the project down because of this hard cynical take on the character.  And thankfully, Lasseter and Company were in agreement.  They recognized that there was no place for a mean spirited character at the center of their movie.  They needed to soften the character in order to make it work, and that’s just what they did.  One thing that helped is that they centralized the movie more around both Woody and Buzz, with Woody’s fear of replacement driving him down a bad road and Buzz slowly realizing that he is indeed a toy and not a real space ranger.  As the movie goes along, that character dynamic drives the heart of the film, and we as the audience grow to love both of them, both for their faults and their strengths.  They are perhaps two of the most well-rounded characters that you’ll find anywhere in the medium of animation, and that’s saying something for characters that are essentially play things for children.   The thing that made the movie soar most of all was that the team at Pixar just followed their guts and made the movie that they would enjoy watching, which really gave it it’s universal appeal to audiences of all ages.  It’s funny and charming, and remarkably timeless in a way you wouldn’t expect from a groundbreaking experiment in new technology.

TOY STORY 2 (1999)

Naturally when one movie becomes a smash hit, talk of a sequel is inevitably going to follow.  Unfortunately for Pixar, the beginnings of sequel talk came at a time when Disney was deep into it’s Direct to Video sequel phase.  The studio was resoundingly criticized for it’s heavy reliance on cheap sequels to it’s beloved classics during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, and shockingly it was moving in that direction with Toy Story as well.  A follow-up to the box office hit was quickly put into production with the same team, but as development went along, it became clear that a movie like this shouldn’t go straight to video; it belonged on a big screen.  So, Toy Story 2 was spared the indignities of Direct to Video hell and was given the full blown sequel treatment.  And it’s a good thing too, because Toy Story 2 not only matches it’s predecessor, it surpasses it in every way.  The idea behind the sequel is a brilliant one; delving deeper into Woody’s character as he learns that he’s a highly prized collectors’ item with a long history.  Through learning more about his place in the world, Woody is confronted more with the fact that Andy will one day be too old to play with him, and that would be the end for him.  It’s strange to think that a movie about talking toys would involve a deep existential questions about loss and finding one’s purpose, but that’s what Toy Story 2 manages to include in it’s narrative.  It also expanded the story in a profound way, with the addition of a key new character in the yodeling cowgirl Jessie.  Jessie (voiced by Joan Cusack) is a vibrant, funny new addition to the cast, but she has a tragic backstory of abandonment that also defines her.  The highlight of the movie comes in the form of a song written by Pixar stalwart Randy Newman and performed by Sarah McLaughlin that shows how Jessie lost her favorite child owner.  In that singular song, Pixar would establish the one other trait that would define them as a studio; it’s ability to bring an audience to tears.  Quite a place for Pixar to be at with only their third ever feature (after the original and A Bug’s Life).  They were called upon to make a cheap, throw away sequel by Disney, and instead they made on of the best sequels of all time.

TOY STORY 3 (2010)

For the decade that followed, Pixar would spend it’s time building it’s reputation further with a flurry of brilliant original new features before they even entertained the idea of trying another sequel.  It would be a full 11 years after Toy Story 2 that a third movie became a reality.  By this time, the other two movies had become beloved and untouchable classics, so a third Toy Story seemed to some to be a little superfluous.  But, under the new guidance of director Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3 would again prove that this franchise still had more surprises left up it’s sleeve.  One of the things that surprisingly worked in the movie’s favor is the lengthy passage of time.  Here, we find Woody’s worst fears finally coming to a head, as Andy is now all grown up and ready to give up all his toys.  Thanks to his growth since the last movie, Woody is more or less prepared for this inevitable day, but it’s the fate of the other toys that are his family that drives his concern throughout the movie.  The film theorizes the different kinds of fate that the toys might face when they no longer have a home.  There’s a preschool where the toys are treated more like inmates at a prison, and there’s a fateful near annihilation that they also almost face in an incinerator.  The toys are given a loving new home once Andy passes them along to a sweet little girl named Bonnie in the end, and the movie ultimately shows how to let go of a loved one in a way that ultimately feels fulfilling and hopeful.  The final note that the movie leaves on, with Woody and Andy saying their goodbyes is a perfect coda to the arch that they’ve been on for the past three movies.  That’s ultimately what makes Toy Story 3 so worthwhile in the end.  It also gives us the best villain in the series as well, with the subtle brutality of Lotso Huggins Bear (voiced brilliantly by Ned Beatty).  Toy Story had a passable heavy in the demented boy next door Sid, and 2 even gave us a trio of villains (Zurg, Al, and Stinky Pete), but Lotso comes with the most compelling backstory and most dominant presence within the series, and he is likewise the best new addition to the series.  Also of note is the hilarious performance of Michael Keaton as the Ken doll.  Even with all that, it’s Pixar’s unshakable ability to do right by their beloved toys that ultimately makes this third film a worthy addition to this franchise.

TOY STORY 4 (2019)

You would think that it would be crazy to go beyond the absolutely perfect final note that Toy Story 3 left us on, with the completion of Woody and Andy’s story.  But, for Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton, it’s not where he envisioned Woody’s story would end.  After another 9 years since the last installment in the series, we were given a follow-up to the adventures of the toy gang in Toy Story 4.  With director Josh Cooley this time at the helm, the story written by Stanton and newcomer Stephany Folsom brings a surprising new angle to the forefront, and that’s the underlying love story between Woody and Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts).  Bo Peep had been there for emotional support in previous movies, but here, she is given the full spotlight alongside Woody, and their relationship is focused on with more importance than ever before.  Her life outside of the world of Andy’s Room opened her up to more possibilities and she ends up sharing those with Woody, further showing him a different outlook on what he could be doing with his life.  As we see, despite trying to put the most positive spin on it, Woody is not being played with by Bonnie in the same way that he was by Andy, and Bo Peep ultimately shows him that life outside the play room is where he should be.  Remarkably, it manages to breath new life into a series that most of us long thought had exhausted all of it’s best tricks.  We thought that saying goodbye to Andy was where it should have ended, but the real true ending is Woody saying goodbye to the other toys.  I dare any of you to not tear up the moment Woody and Buzz have their final hug together.  It really honors the lengthy history that these two character have had together and shows that, yeah, this is a fitting ending to this story.  Toy Story 4 also shows just how far animation has come since the first film, as this is probably the most gorgeous looking film in the series.  The nighttime scenes lit up by carnival lights in particular stand out.  And even still, these characters still feel just the same as when we first met them.  Fun new addition include a hilarious daredevil action figure named Duke Caboom (with the inspired casting of Keanu Reeves as the voice) as well as Forky (voiced by Tony Hale), probably the strangest character in the entire series overall.  We all believed that a movie like this was impossible, but Andrew Stanton indeed showed there was more story worth telling, and we’re all rewarded for having it come true in the end.

A movie like Toy Story really is one of those once in a generation kinds of phenomena that changes cinema forever, so it’s even more remarkable that they’ve managed to make four of these movies of equal quality.  They not only managed to make a sequel that surpassed the original, but they made another one a full eleven years later, and even a fourth nearly as long after as that and in defiance of a near perfect ending.  There is no doubt that just like the original Toy Story stands as a pinnacle in the history of animation that the franchise as a whole is without equal amongst all other animated franchises.  Each one adds something overall to the franchise that is indispensable, and it largely has to do with the different emotional turns that it takes the characters.  I don’t think any of us would have cared this much about the lives of toys like this movie makes us do.  And that’s largely because through the eyes of Woody, Buzz, Jessie and the like, we see our own anxieties and passions reflected.  How many parents out there have connected with the journey that Woody and Andy go through in this series.  So many parents know that their time with their children is fleeting, and that ultimately there will come a time when a child grows old enough to live their own life separately, and Toy Story is ultimately about accepting that inevitable step in life with a positive outlook for the future.  It’s also a series about finding one’s family, even when it’s not the one you expected.  As it stands, Toy Story has concluded it’s tale on just the right amount of story, and anything after 4 would indeed be overkill.  There is, however, room for alternative takes on these characters, which is indeed what Pixar is working on now with the spinoff Lightyear, which is an in universe exploration of Buzz’s journey to become a space ranger, played in his early years by actor Chris Evans.  For what it is, the four films of the Toy Story franchise are as near perfect of a story arc as anyone could ask for with a story based on toys.  While Disney and Pixar set out to put computer animation on the map, the team behind the movie went to infinity and beyond and delivered more than one classic for the ages, all of which will stand the test of time and continue to hold the bar high for this legendary animation studio.