All posts by James Humphreys

Evolution of Character – Emma Woodhouse

There exists a stereotypical viewpoint over the works of an author like Jane Austen.  The books that she wrote over the course of her all too brief life have been the inspiration for many costume period dramas that more often or not are targeted towards middle-aged women heading to the movies with their friends after an afternoon lunch at a local wine bar.  Sure, Austen’s fan based has skewed female over the years, but it is such an underestimation of her impact on literature.  Her works are evocative of an era in pre-Victorian England, but the themes therein throughout her novels are just as provocative today as they were back when she wrote them.  On the surface, her novels are comedies of manners, but they also tackle harder issues such as class differences, the roles of women in society, and perhaps most pointedly, the manners of sexual activity.  She was not afraid to point out the abuses that men enact upon the “fairer” sex, and also challenge the definitions of masculinity and femininity in her novels.  Though still bound by the constraints of her time, Austen still managed to prove her free-thinking ideals through her writing.  It’s probably why she has endured so long as a favorite writer to many, because her writing was so ahead of it’s time.  As women have gained more equality over time, Austen’s novels take on a far more nuanced poignancy, as modern day critics begin to view Jane Austen as a pioneer for cementing a feminine voice within the canonical institution of Western Literature.

What particularly stands out in Jane Austen’s writing are her heroines.  In contrast to her contemporaries, Austen wrote about women burdened by societies expectations and constructed narratives that gave her female protagonists more control over their own destinies.  In the single most famous sentence of any of her works, the opening passage of her 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, she wrote, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  In a few simple words, she diminishes down exactly what men expect of the women in society, so that throughout the rest of the novel, she can focus far more on the complexity of her female characters, and how they challenge these “truths.”  In her short lifetime, Jane only published four novels, with two more (Persuasion and Northhanger Abbey) published posthumously.  Each of her novels focuses on much of the same thing, women torn between their independence, societies expectations, and falling in love.  But for the most part, she also goes out of her way to draw sympathy from the reader towards her heroines throughout the narrative.  Except for one.  With her fourth, and last published novel, Emma (1816), Jane Austen set out to in her own words, “take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”  With the character Emma Woodhouse, Jane created what may end up being her most richly complex character overall; spoiled rich and hopelessly naive, and yet endearing in her pursuit of self-realization and personal satisfaction.  What is interesting about Emma is that she is a character so far ahead of her time, that translating her story to modern day diminishes nothing from Jane Austen’s original vision of the character.  That is what has given Emma Woodhouse such an interesting presence on film throughout the years.  What follows is an interesting collection of some of her most noteworthy screen appearances, with some interesting contrasts that enrich the character and Austen’s writing even further.

JUDY CAMPBELL from EMMA (BBC FILM) (1948)

It may be surprising to know that Emma’s cinematic presence actually emerged relatively recently, as opposed to the other works of Jane Austen throughout the years.  Pride and Prejudice famously made it to the big screen in 1940 with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, but Emma would have to wait another half century before that would happen.  Instead, the story of Emma Woodhouse made it’s debut mostly through the medium of television.  The first ever adaptation of the novel outside of theater was this televised production put on by the BBC network in England.  Unfortunately, because the BBC never kept back-ups of their aired content due to their routine of recycling old tapes (Doctor Who fans know about this all too well) the original broadcast of this film is lost to us, surviving now only in scant still photographs like the one above.  It’s hard to judge how well this version translates Austen’s story, but it is interesting noting how this version came to be.  The project was spear-headed by actress Judy Campbell, who played the title role in addition to writing the teleplay adaptation.  A colleague of notable playwright and actor Noel Coward, Campbell was popular performer in her native England and she used the new medium of television to give herself a creative spotlight in the post-War years.  No doubt she viewed Emma Woodhouse as an ideal role to play, showcasing her knack for comedy as well as drama.  Other roles of hers that have survived throughout the years give us a sense of her talent, and you can imagine what she likely brought to the character in her performance.  Sadly, the lack of forward thinking on the part of the BBC has prevented this very first adaptation from surviving to the present day.

DOARN GODWIN from EMMA (BBC MINISERIES) (1972)

Given a couple decades to learn that it’s better to preserve for posterity, the BBC finally revisited the story of Emma Woodhouse again, this time with a version that was intended to last.  The lavishly produced mini-series (which also aired here in the States the same year on PBS) leaves no stone un-turned in the 6 episodes devoted to telling this story.  With that amount of time, the series does give an extensive amount of time to developing all the characters within the fictional village of Highbury.  The character of Harriet Smith, Emma’s friend and “pet project”, gets far more extensive development of character here, as we see the effects of Emma’s meddling in her advancement take a hold over the prolonged story-line, played effectively by actress Debbie Bowen.  Where I think that the mini-series falters slightly is in the depiction of Emma Woodhouse herself.  Actress Doran Godwin’s portrayal is perhaps a bit too restrained for the character.  Emma has to be nosy and at times very rude, but Godwin’s Emma is a bit too refined.  It’s perhaps because the BBC was churning out all these similar themed period dramas, including others based on Jane Austen’s other novels, that Doran Godwin was just filling in that expected Austen heroine persona, which she does convey well enough.  But, remember, Emma Woodhouse is not the same kind of character.  Her growth as a character is in discovering her own faults and that’s something that I don’t believe comes through in this telling of the story.  Emma, as a character, is Jane Austen’s critique of misplaced confidence among the idle rich, and it’s something that in many ways calls for a less conventional portrayal.  As classy as Doran Godwin’s performance is, it’s perhaps too refined for what the character needed.

ALICIA SILVERSTONE from CLUELESS (1995)

Of course, this is as far from conventional as you can get for adapting a Jane Austen novel, and in doing so, it managed to hit a bullseye.  Writer and Director Amy Heckerling took Jane Austen’s Emma and brought it up to date with a very contemporary re-telling.  To capture the essence of Austen’s vision of wealth mixed with naivete over gender roles and sexual destinies, she changed the setting to the one place that still fits within those conventions today; Beverly Hills, California.  In doing so, she transformed Austen’s high-spirited but naive heroine from a rosy-faced pre-Victorian debutante to a dim-witted but open-hearted American teenager.  A lot of the comedy comes from the different ways that Heckerling examines the “clueless” bubble in which her characters exist within.  Emma Woodhouse becomes Cher Horowitz (played to perfection by Alicia Silverstone) whose ambition to improve the lives of others clearly is over-matched by her lack of actual expertise, and whose focus is often dictated by fashion trends.  Despite the difference in time periods, Cher’s story is nearly beat for beat what Jane Austen imagined for Emma.  She spends the movie delighting in playing matchmaker and giving social outcasts their time to shine, such as the Harriet Smith stand-in Tai (played by the late Brittany Murphy).  But like Emma, she only realizes later on that her ambitions have taught her nothing about actual love, and that part of her loneliness has come from misjudging others.  Her crush turns out to be gay (already wed in the book), and the one she really discovers feelings for is the one who always pushed back against her attitude, that being her ex-step-brother Josh.  One improvement that Heckerling made from the book was reduced the age difference between her heroine and her ultimate love, which she did well by casting the ageless Paul Rudd in the role (seriously, 25 years later, he still looks the same).  It’s amazing that the best adaptation of Austen’s novel is the one least like the book, and yet it’s faithfulness to the ideals of the character as absolutely spot on.

GWYNETH PALTROW from EMMA (1996)

Of course, it only took a year later for us to get a film adaptation of Emma that actually sets itself in it’s original period.  In contrast to Clueless, this version of Emma is far less focused on pointing out the absurdities of it’s main character.  For the most part, Emma’s flaws come about more out of her tireless ambition that her lack of knowledge.  This version, played by then rising star Gwyneth Paltrow, is extremely assertive and intelligent, but is shown to be unfocused or perhaps too stubborn to understand what effect her meddling in other people’s affairs is actually doing.  Following a string of lavish productions based on the works of English classics during the 1990’s, including the many Merchant Ivory productions as well as Ang Lee’s lavish adaptation of Sense and Sensibility  (1995) written by Emma Thompson, this adaptation of Emma was a no-brainer.  Given the recent popularity of Clueless a year prior as well, the works of Jane Austen were experiencing something of a revival, and many people were anxious to see how this movie would indeed stand up.  While the movie itself is wonderfully produced and looks beautiful, and also has some great supporting performances from the likes of Toni Collette and Ewan McGregor, it’s portrayal of Emma herself unfortunately suffers, and there is something of a tragic reason for that.  American actress Gwyneth Paltrow was still fairly fresh in Hollywood at the time, and hadn’t quite mastered the British accent at this point, though she would improve by the time she played her Oscar-winning role in Shakespeare in Love (1998) a couple years later.  At the same time, she was being haunted on the set by Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein who was grooming her for stardom and “other things.”  Now that we’ve seen the disgraced former producer finally be brought to justice,  Paltrow has come forward detailing  her own awful encounters with the predatory Weinstein, and it explains in a way the cloud that hangs over this movie and her performance.  It would have been interesting to see where she might have gone with the character had she performed under better circumstances.

KATE BECKINSALE from EMMA (ITV FILM) (1996)

Not to be outdone by their American counterparts, but British television also offered up their own new adaptation of Emma in the same amount of time.  Produced by independent British cable company ITV, this adaptation is a beautifully lavish production that does indeed feel true to the time period of Austen’s England.  Though lacking the budget of Miramax’s version, this television is still impressively mounted and features a stellar cast of British character actors.  But, what makes it stand out even more is Kate Beckinsale in the title role.  Long before Pearl Harbor (2001) and the Underworld series, this was the role that launched the actress into stardom.  She was celebrated for her performance, and it’s largely what got her attention in Hollywood soon after.  With regards to how it stacks up to Jane Austen’s vision of the character, her performance is certainly closer to the book than any other we’ve seen up to now.  She is less restrained than Gwyneth Paltrow and Doran Godwin’s portrayals, but is not a caricature like Alicia Silverstone’s Cher.  She balances both the comical and the dramatic with ease, and captures the gentility of the character perfectly well, but at the same time shows a bit of edge that helps to ground her in present.  Of all the earnest adaptations of the novel, this is the version of Emma Woodhouse that feels the closest to what is on the page, and that is a testament to Beckinsale’s range as a performer.  She would of course have a prolific career on the big screen, including a role in another Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship (2017), based on Jane Austen’s last posthumously published novel, the unfinished Lady Susan.  Given the crowded market of new films all adapting the same novel in a two year span, it’s a special thing to have this one stand out as well as it does.

SONAM KAPOOR from AISHA (2010)

It seemed inevitable that Jane Austen and Emma Woodhouse would find their way to Bollywood eventually.  Set aside the troubled influence of the British Empire on the Indian subcontinent, but English literature has found an interesting niche within Indian society, and in particular, has been a reliable source for adaptation in their vibrant film industry.  Jane Austen’s stories in particular fit very well with Bollywood’s love of melodrama and glamour, and of course Emma would be among them too.  Indian society is still grappling with issues of class strata and the expanding roles of women in society, and the plot of Emma lends itself very well to this dynamic.  I also wonder if the movie Clueless also influenced this adaptation, as it sets the story in the present day and it also a movie centered on fashion and pretty people living in pretty houses.  But, the essence of Austen’s story is still there, and the portrayal by actress Sonam Kapoor does follow the exact same attributes that we expect from the character.  She’s open-hearted, but also oblivious to what she really needs to do in order to find happiness, and obviously that involves her looking beyond superficial status.  Integrated society is something relatively new to India in the last couple generations, so seeing the heroine here using her influence to help out her lower class friends is something bold to show in a Bollywood film.  Kapoor herself probably identifies a lot with the character given that she is Bollywood royalty herself, being the daughter of one of India’s most famous actors, Anil Kapoor (Slumdog Millionaire).  What her portrayal definitely shows is the universality of Jane Austen’s work across the world, inspiring women from all walks of life to define their own destiny, while also holding onto their ideals.

ANNA-TAYLOR JOY from EMMA. (2020)

The most recent adaptation of the novel brings the character far more into the 21st Century with a decidedly more cynical take on Austen’s narrative.  This new film enjoyed a brief theatrical run in the early Spring of 2020, before theaters closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and largely got overlooked as a result.  Which is a shame, because it’s probably the film version that more closely follows Jane Austen’s intentions with the character than any other adaptation we’ve seen thus far.  In this version, we do get a version of Emma Woodhouse that is hard to like.  She is dismissive to others that she finds annoying, often rolls her eyes at inconveniences, and is clearly out of her depths with regards to what she believes is best for those around her.  It’s like filmmakers made this earnest, straightforward adaptation of the novel, but with the awareness of the movie Clueless.  The satire of Amy Heckerling’s modern adaptation certainly influenced this version, which places the story back in it’s appropriate setting, but combines it with a knowing wink to it’s audience about all the absurdity of it’s era as well.  Anya Taylor-Joy certainly relishes her time in this role, and she conveys so much through just her facial expressions alone.  I especially like the fact that she captures Emma’s unwarranted superiority in the early part of the film, showing the smugness of the character that I don’t think I’ve seen in any other version to date.  Through this, we see much more of an evolution that the character undergoes throughout the story.  In many ways, it’s a brave thing for the actor to do in starting off their performance by making the heroine less appealing and more spoiled.  If done correctly, the actor can earn far more goodwill from the audience when they see the hard edges of a character soften throughout the film, and Anya does that very well here.  It’s still fairly new, but already I feel like this version of Emma Woodhouse has cemented her place in the albeit short cinematic history of the character.

The work of Jane Austen is likely not going to diminish anytime soon, and surprisingly it has been the inspiration for not only some lavishly produced period adaptations of a long ago time, but also some rather sharp social commentaries of our own times as well.  Clueless for one thing holds up remarkably well today on it’s 25th anniversary as a satire of a specific class of people that still exist in our society; the idle rich.  When Austen first conceived of Emma Woodhouse as a character, she imagined this well-to-do upper class lady who felt that her own station in life granted her this authority to determine the destinies of those around her.  Though done without malice, Emma’s naive notion of thinking that she can make the best choices of partners for all the people in her life comes out of her lack of awareness over her position.  People in lower class can figure out love for themselves, they don’t need the guidance of an “enlightened” girl with very little to distress her.  Too often we see today people with wealth and influence try to inject themselves into an issue, and despite them meaning well, it only leads to more complications than what might have existed before, and in turn, reflects badly on said wealthy individual.  I think that is why Jane Austen wanted to write Emma as an experiment.  She wanted to shift the focus away the traditional “lowly” girl elevated to high standing through a dream husband that defined so many novels at the time, including her own, and instead show the flaws of a rich individual who understands so little while proclaiming to be an “expert” in love.  Emma Woodhouse as a result remains Austen’s most layered character and a character that remains surprisingly and disturbingly relevant to today’s society.

The New Normal? – Did Universal and AMC Change the Theater Industry Forever?

Within a matter of days, it will have been 5 full months since the silver screens went dark across the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on with only the faintest view of the light at the end of the tunnel emerging, and we still don’t know if and when it will be safe to go back to the movies.  My optimistic outlook on the summer movie schedule for this year sadly didn’t pan out, and for the first time ever, the Summer Movie Season did not happen.  Once the launching point for some of the biggest blockbuster openings of the year, the Summer this year saw not one single theatrical opening.  Sure, the odd independent film did make it to a Drive-In here and there, but those were done at the same time as a day and date Video on Demand release, where the actual money was being made.  It’s a sad reality, but one that is unavoidable.  It’s just not safe or possible right now to cram people into a dark confined room and expect them to return in the same numbers as they have before.  As a result, the entire theatrical industry has had to completely restructure itself just to be able to survive.  The largest chains in America, AMC, Regal, and Cinemark have had to take out massive loans just so they can cover the substantial rental fees that their un-opened theaters require to remain standing.  AMC in fact is verging on the edge of bankruptcy and may even begin subtracting their reach in order to survive into next year.  All the while, the theaters are struggling with the ever increasing threat of streaming and VOD taking their business away for good.  This led to the very contentious showdown between AMC and Universal over the decision to release Trolls World Tour early , in breach of Universal’s long-standing contract with AMC.  This led many to believe that AMC would no longer run any Universal film as retaliation.  But, as we learned this week, the two parties came to a new agreement, and it is one that shockingly may forever affect the theatrical industry forever.

Here’s what you need to know about what this new agreement.  Upon the release of any new film under the Universal umbrella, the movie will play first theatrically in theaters like AMC exclusively for a period of 17 days.  Then at the end, it has the option of offering the same films as a VOD rental, thereby allowing the studio to make money off of audiences who prefer to stay at home much sooner than they have before.  What this does is close the previous window of 75 days (or roughly 2 1/2 months) that existed between theatrical and home video releases; a previously agreed upon deal that allowed theaters to benefit much more from the long tail lingering box office runs that have helped to keep ticket sales strong long after opening weekend.  With AMC and Universal closing that exclusive window down to just 2 1/2 weeks, it means that movie theaters only have that short amount of time to make the most of a movie’s opening box office before they lose to competition from on demand.  Now, the deal also gives AMC a bigger slice of the VOD rental revenue on Universal films as well, but upon looking at the deal as a whole, it’s hard to see where AMC really benefits at all.  Ticket sales alone aren’t what keeps the theater afloat; its the concessions sales that actually brings in the profit.  And with a still raging pandemic making concessions sales a harder sale even if the theaters reopen right away, it almost looks like AMC is the losing party in this, because that window of exclusivity is so much smaller.  But at the same time, AMC no longer had any solid ground to stand on.  The thing that makes this new deal between the two entertainment giants so eye-opening is the fact that it is in complete contradiction to what has been the norm in the theatrical machine of cinema for most of it’s history.

With Universal and AMC’s new distribution deal, we see an unprecedented shift in the dynamics between the theaters, the distributors and the studios.  The thing that has drawn so much attention is that this 17 day window is not standard across the industry; it’s just between Universal and AMC.  Naturally, other studios like Disney, Warner Brothers, and Paramount complained to AMC about them giving this special consideration to their competitor rather than them.  And Regal and Cinemark raised concerns as well, saying that AMC was changing a norm across the industry that is going to hurt their long term futures as well.  Sure the pandemic has led to drastic measures to be taken to allow for movie studios to be able to still make revenue during the closure of theaters across the country, but no one thought that Universal and AMC would shorten it by so much.  As of right now, Regal, Cinemark and many other smaller chains maintain contracts with all the studio distribution departments that enshrine that long-lasting tradition of a wide theatrical window.  With AMC’s supposed capitulation, it puts the pressure on the other chains to reconsider their own contracts, as the other Hollywood studios are demanding shorter windows like Universal has gotten, so that they too can remain competitive.  This has led many to believe that this change in the length of exclusivity for theatrical runs may be part of the new normal that we are likely to see after the pandemic has run it’s course.  And it is a new normal that will forever change what we think of as the theatrical experience.

What will change most is the way that we judge a movie by the revenue that it makes.  Particularly in the last decade or so, box office became the barometer of a movie’s success.  If a movie didn’t open well in the first week, or even in the first couple days, it would be labelled forever as a box office bomb, which for some movies becomes a stain that is hard to wash off.  Sometimes, movies would benefit from long theatrical runs, and become a box office hit steadily over time.  Remember, neither Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) opened to record-breaking box office, but they continued to build their audience over successive weeks and eventually became the highest grossing movies of all time.  But, with the exclusive theatrical window shortened, that long tail effect is far less likely to happen.  The movies will still be able to generate profit with the VOD option being made available sooner, but box office numbers will likely plummet after that 17 period.  And at that point, we may have to reconsider what we label as a flop and a hit, because many movies make money on different scales.  Something big like a Marvel movie no doubt has a huge front loaded opening weekend, which helps to cement a reputation for being a box office champion, but there are sleeper hits that quietly become profitable long after they’ve left the silver screen.  With a shorter window, the terms box office hit and box office flop become far more relative.  Do we begin to combine these two revenue generators together, or do we abandon the entire notion of judging a movie by how many tickets it sells?  This is one of the things that is likely going to change dramatically with this new normal that is likely going to take place, and it’s one that puts far more pressure on the theatrical market than it does the studio.

What this also means is a huge reversal of established law that prohibited the studios from having too much influence over the theatrical market.  Here’s a history lesson for you:  the United States Supreme Court made a landmark decision in the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948, otherwise known as United States vs. Paramount Pictures, where it was stated that film studios could not own movie theaters, nor hold exclusive rights on which theaters would show their movies.  This decision effectively ended a practice known as block-booking, which is where a studio sells to a theater a collection of films as a unit, to which the theaters had to screen, regardless of the quality of the films themselves.  This benefited the studios, because they then could ensure the profitability of their movies regardless if they were good or not, which itself caused an unfair advantage towards what was known as the Big Five of the time (Paramount, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, MGM, and RKO) all of whom owned the same theaters.  The smaller independent studios like Republic, United Artists, Columbia and yes Universal (the ones who didn’t own theaters) complained that block-booking squeezed out business for them and they took the majors to court for what they saw as a violation of Antitrust Laws.  The Supreme Court ruled in their favor and the theatrical and distribution machine that ensured profitability for the major studios were completely upended.  Theaters now had to run independently, and it was now upon the studios to reassess what kind of movies they would be making for theatrical release.  It was a time of significant upheaval, because the studios no longer force theaters to buy nearly 400 movies in a given year, and it led to many layoffs and closures of theaters across the country.  At the same time, television emerged to fill that gap, and the studio system became effectively a shell of it’s former self.  But out of this emerged new innovations like Widescreen and surround sound, which made going to the movies again a special engagement.  And movie theaters likewise adjusted.  The newly formed independent industry grew, and eventually evolved to create multiplexes across the country, creating more theaters than before.  But, under the circumstances that we are in now, a lot of consideration is being given to reexamining that past decision.

There is no doubt about it; the Paramount Case was a violation of Antitrust Law, which stifled competition in the marketplace, and by breaking up the studios from the theaters, it did open the industry up to more independent voices and renewed competition that would help it grow.  But, in a time when the very existence of movie theaters is at a precarious point of collapsing altogether, some are wondering if studios should once again take a larger role in the theatrical distribution market.  There have been exceptions over time.  Many of the major studios today can hold an interest in publicly traded companies that operate movie theaters, although not with a majority stake.  A small chain like Pacific Theaters, which owns the popular brand Arclight in some major American cities, has investors like Disney as a part of their portfolio.  And studios are allowed to have ownership of independent screens as well.  Disney owns the landmark El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Boulevard here in Los Angeles, and have used it as their home base venue for premieres and special screenings.  More recently, Netflix purchased the nearly 100 year old Egyptian Theater down the street from the El Cap, and have used it for their own screenings, while still maintaining the partnership with American Cinemateque that existed previously with the venue.  But the change that we are seeing with AMC and Universal is an unprecedented quid pro quo that we haven’t seen between theaters and studios since that Paramount Case decision.  What does that mean for the future?  The two parties are not exactly breaking the statute of the law, since AMC is maintaining as an independent body, but by giving so much leeway to Universal, it’s granting so much more power to a studio body to distribute the way it sees fit than we’ve seen in a very, very long time.  Is it going to lead to even further control of the theatrical market by the studios from here out?

One thing to consider is that changes have been made many times to the theatrical experience to suit the times, and they have been funded largely by the studios themselves.  The reason why movie theaters converted all to digital projection 10 years ago was because the studios invested in the technology.  They saw the money that was being made by 3D movies like Avatar, and they wanted to be sure that the widest possible reach of the audience could be maintained, so they helped the theaters update their equipment.  The existence of multiplexes are another example of this; when the blockbuster era emerged, more screens were needed to meet demand.  Now, with theaters closed and in need of cash flow, who else can they turn to than the movie studios for a lifeline?  Federal loans can only help in the short run; a long-term plan is going to be needed to get the movie theaters back to normal.  The question remains, do studios step in temporarily or is it time for industry to revert back to its old ways.  The Paramount decision remains in place, but it has been chiseled back over time, and with our current administration, who knows really how much oversight is in place.  Up until now, I would’ve said that the Paramount Decision ensured a far better environment for all parties; it granted more autonomy for the theaters to operate the way that they saw fit, and that put more pressure on the studios to change the movies that they make.  It was a balance that was not always perfect, but nevertheless allowed for more creative freedom to build business more effectively.  But the times call for immediate reassessment of the flaws in the system.  There’s no doubt that part of why AMC is in such a desperate situation is because of their recklessly unchecked growth.  No doubt they felt the pressure to hand more influence over to Universal.  The question is, what is Universal going to do with it?

One thing that is certain now is that enough has been done to ensure that the major theatrical chains will eventually reopen once this pandemic has run it’s course.  That is good news for people like me who greatly prefer the theatrical experience because after spending months watching movies in the home, I can say that there seriously is no substitute.  But, in the case of Universal and AMC, have we seen too much given away in exchange for these theater chains to survive the pandemic closure.  AMC’s window of profitability is much smaller now, and Universal now is able to ensure it’s financial security at the former’s expense.  Not only that, but the other chains and studios are now put into the situation that they have to reconsider their own contracts in response.  Are we now going to see a complete breakdown of the separation of powers tradition in the industry, and witness exclusive engagements between different studios and chains as a new normal?  It’s hard to believe that only 5 months of closed movie theaters could change so much in the industry overnight.  It remains to be seen if the deal made between AMC and Universal will indeed change cinema as we know it.  The next Universal release won’t even be until next year, as they’ve completely given up on the rest of 2020.  With other studios still holding onto their 2020 releases, do they make similar deals with the theaters to ensure their bottom line?  The thing that I worry about the most is that movie theaters, who were already struggling against the rise of streaming, are going to be forever relegated by this move.  We may likely see a complete reduction of the theatrical market in the years ahead, with the larger chains forced to close many of their under-performing locations forever.  Many other contractions in the past have led to periods of renewal after, and movie theaters have made resounding comebacks over the years.  But, this time is different.  The studios have a new way to make money, and it’s putting the theaters in an ever increasing position to prove their worth.  The pandemic is testing that at this very moment.  We’ll know in time what this will all lead to, but it’s safe to say whatever comes out of this time of turmoil for the movie theater industry is not what we would’ve called just a few months ago anything close to “normal.”

Cauldron Born – The Story of The Black Cauldron and When Disney Went Dark

Sometimes you just want to try something new.  After devoting much of their history to producing films that were geared for all audiences, Disney found itself in the post Walt years in something of a creative depression.  Not wanting to divorce themselves from the tried and true formula that had worked for them so well in the early days, Disney unfortunately began to become complacent in the 1970’s, and were likewise criticized by both the industry and their fan base for it.  While Hollywood was in a experimentally vibrant period of renewal with films like The Godfather (1972), Taxi Driver (1976), and Jaws (1975), Disney was putting out simple light entertainment like The Barefoot Executive (1971), The Shaggy D.A. (1976), and Pete’s Dragon (1977).  They were films that were entertaining an increasingly smaller audience base, and it seemed more and more that Disney was out of step with the time period.  This would come to be known as the Disney Dark Ages; a time where the once mighty company reached it’s closest point of failure.   If Disney was going to survive, they needed to reconsider the kinds of projects they would be investing money in, and with the times changing like they did, that meant green-lighting projects that never would have made it past Walt’s desk during his time.  In the late 70’s, Disney made it’s first forays into more grown up entertainment, albeit with caution.  This included their first ever PG-rated film, the Sci-Fi adventure The Black Hole (1978), as well the horror themed The Watcher in the Woods (1980) and the highly experimental Tron (1982).  Though Disney changed precedent many times to make these kinds of films possible, it unfortunately didn’t work as expected, with many of the films either disappointing at the box office, or outright flopping.  The question going into the decade that followed remained this; could Disney indeed grow up and make edgy entertainment, and even more uncertain, could they do it in animation too.

Disney animation during these Dark Age years was also in something of a transition.  With Walt Disney’s untimely death in 1966, the animation studio that had been the core of the company since the beginning no longer had a clear creative direction.  The powers in charge of the corporation looked to a select group of Disney artists known affectionately as the Nine Old Men to steer the next few years of animation at the studio, but there was only so much these artists could do.  The Nine Old Men were just that, growing old, and were ready to retire.  Some would stay on well into their twilight years at the company, but it became more important than ever that new talent was needed as a replacement for these aging veterans of the Golden Years.  The studio established a special studies animation program at the nearby California Arts Institute in Valencia, California.  There, the Nine Old Men would pass along the tricks of their trade to a new crop of animators.  Out of this program would emerge the artists that would go on to define the next 30-40 years of Animation, including future pioneering directors like John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Ron Clements, John Musker, and even Tim Burton.  And though the promising talent that was coming out of Cal Arts was giving the studio confidence about the future, the state of the products that they were making was a less optimistic picture.  The Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) and The Rescuers (1977) were all under-performing at the box office, and as a result, the budgets were slashed with each subsequent film.  It also became noticeable that Disney was just tracing over old animation in a way to save costs.  It was not an ideal situation for an eager new crop of artists to find themselves being a part of.  Something big and different was needed to shake Disney out of it’s complacency.

That bold new thing would turn out to be a collection of fantasy novels known as The Chronicles of Prydain.  Written by American author Lloyd Alexander, the Chronicles of Prydain were a high fantasy series based on Welsh mythology that was no doubt inspired of the wild success of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.  Alexander wrote five novels in total, formalizing the concept during his time stationed in Wales during World War II.  All five novels would be published a year apart in the mid-1960’s, with the second and fifth both earning prestigious Newbery honors.  It seems strange now, but fantasy novels were not a popular source for Hollywood properties back in the 60’s and 70’s; even Lord of the Rings would be passed over multiple times.  So, surprisingly, Disney picked up the rights to Alexander’s novels in 1971 in a rare big studio move.  Nine Old Men legends Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were the one’s who initially brought the series to the studio’s attention, seeing it as a possible successor to the likes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) or Sleeping Beauty (1959).  Early pre-production began in earnest in 1973, with veteran conceptual artist Mel Shaw creating the first visual development for the film to be.  Shaw, whose incredible pastel paintings helped to influence the style of Disney films all the way back to Bambi (1943) created a truly epic vision of the world of Prydain that could rival Sleeping Beauty in scale and scope.  But alas, as production rolled along in the years of the Disney Dark Age, that vision would sadly become more and more compromised.  It became clear that Disney would not be making all the books in the Prydain series, instead opting to condense the epic story down to a singular film.  Many characters were either excised or condensed down, and the story itself beared less and less resemblance to the original books, save for the bare essential ingredients.  Eventually, you would think that Disney would choose to either shelve such a project for later or abandon it completely after it became clear that they didn’t have the resources available to make it into a reality.

But, continue they did, because in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Disney was facing a crisis in the field of animation that shook their very foundations.  Don Bluth, a prominent animation director who rose through the ranks of Disney, had a very public falling out with the diminishing studio.  He complained that Disney was not rising to the standard of what they used to make, instead opting to make safe and often cheap looking animation.  He wanted to push Disney towards taking more artistic risks, but when they refused to listen to him, he decided to not only cut ties with Disney, but he also took half of their staff with him, as many of them shared his grievances.  It wouldn’t be long before Bluth had set up his own independent studio and within a short time, he received studio backing for his first feature; The Secret of NIMH (1982).  NIMH would be a game-changer in the animation industry; utilizing Disney quality animation on a story that was far more mature and darker than what we knew was capable from the genre.  Adult animation existed before, but it was niche and no where near as polished as The Secret of NIMH.  And it appealed to audiences of all ages.  Adults could finally watch a cartoon that had some edge to it, while kids could enjoy a movie that actually challenged their senses.  In essence, it was movie that more or less should have been what Disney could have been making, but weren’t.  And Bluth’s gamble worked.  The Secret of NIMH was a huge success, and Disney suddenly found itself now in a position that they were unfamiliar with; playing catch-up.  Their cute animal film released just before NIMH, titled The Fox and the Hound (1981) seemed trite in comparison.  Animation was changing fast, and Disney needed to change themselves if they were going to survive.  So, that’s when they began to put their newly trained artists to work on the world of Prydain, hoping to make a dark turn of their own that would match what Bluth and his team had just done.

Taking it’s title from the second book in the series, The Black Cauldron would introduce many firsts for the Walt Disney Company.  It was the first animated feature from Disney to earn a PG rating, something that wouldn’t happen again until 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire.  It also was the first animated film ever to use computer animation, albeit in a very primitive and largely unnoticeable way, primarily for the visualization of the titular cauldron itself and a floating light orb.  Though there were some advancements during the making of the movie, The Black Cauldron also suffered from the many budget cut backs made during this period of time.  The film’s original director, John Musker, was moved off the project and re-teamed with another fresh new director named Ron Clements on the smaller scale The Great Mouse Detective (1986), and his replacements Ted Berman and Richard Rich (Fox and the Hound) were brought in to reign in the budget even more.  Despite the smaller budget, a concerted effort was still made to create a epic scale film.  It would be the first animated Disney movie since Sleeping Beauty to be for 70mm film, and it would bring back animation techniques not used since Walt’s time like animated backgrounds and the multi-plane camera to help make the movie more dynamic despite the budget cuts.  Even still, the production lagged on with delays  and numerous reworkings to the script.  The voice actors recorded their dialogue over the course of 5 years, which creates a jarring effect, especially when the voice of the main character Taran, a young newcomer named Grant Bardsley, had his voice break during that time.  Watching the movie, you’ll notice that Taran’s voice changes half way through, and that’s only because there was just no money left in the budget to recast or re-record the main character.  Despite the cost-saving measures, The Black Cauldron still came in at a staggering $44 million dollar cost; equivalent to $120 million today, which was a lot for animation.  Disney was hoping that this would be the game-changer they needed and they were banking a lot on that gamble, even with money being as tight as it was.

The conditions might have seemed favorable for Disney at the time.  Fantasy films were going through something of a renaissance in the early 1980’s.  Movies like Excalibur (1981), Dragonslayer (1981), and Conan the Barbarian (1982) emerged as box office and critical hits, and the success of Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story (1984) even showed that a fantasy film could succeed at appealing both to adult and younger audiences in equal measure.  However, Disney had another issue to contend with right before The Black Cauldron’s summer 1985 release.  After a near hostile take-over by aggressive business capitalist Saul Steinberg, the Disney Board of Directors elected to end CEO, and Walt Disney’ son in law, Ron Miller’s tenure at the studio, a move supported by Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney.  The Disney company then brought in Michael Eisner and Frank Wells over from Paramount to revitalize the ailing studio.  In one of their first moves at the company, Eisner and Wells appointed Jeffrey Katzenberg to head the animation department.  Katzenberg was in charge of shoring up the cost overruns in the animation department, and unfortunately The Black Cauldron became a major point of concern.  With animation at near 90% completion, Katzenberg requested a screening of the film in it’s current state, and according to staff at the time, was just appalled by what he saw.  The movie, as he stated, was just far too violent and graphic, and he worried that Disney might end up with an R-Rating as a result, which would’ve been catastrophic for it’s chances at the box office.  As a result, nearly 10 minutes of completed or near complete animation was cut from the film, which led to an already tense beginning to Katzenberg’s tenure at the animation studio.  Much of what was lost in the edit were some of the more graphic moments relating to the un-dead Cauldron Born soldiers that emerge in the film’s climax, which some in the animation community considers to be among some of the most incredible animation ever done at the studio.  To this day, little of those missing minutes have ever been recovered, and it’s thought that a full restored cut is impossible as a result, sadly making the movie feel even more unfinished all these years later.  Still, Katzenberg did what he felt he needed to do in order to make the movie more palatable for family audiences.  But as both he and the studio would soon learn, the writing had already been on the wall for this troubled production.

The Black Cauldron released on July 24, 1985 and was immediately met with disinterest by audiences.  Cauldron failed to capitalize on the fantasy craze of it’s era, and was also rejected by long time Disney fans as well for being very out of character from what they expected from the studio.  Perhaps most embarrassing for Disney was not only the fact that The Black Cauldron failed at the box office, but that it also lost out in it’s opening weekend to The Care Bears Movie (1985), which was still performing well despite opening 3 weeks prior.  Ultimately grossing a meager $21 million on a $44 million budget, this ultimately looked like the final nail in the coffin for Disney Animation.  In fact, Disney would be so embarrassed by the movie that the film wouldn’t receive a home video release until 1998; a full 13 years later.  But, to Katzenberg’s credit, he didn’t give up on the studio after The Black Cauldron’s crushing disappointment.  The already green-lit Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company (1988) would still continue on to completion, and the promising Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) was getting many at the studio very excited about the company’s future prospects.  So, Katzenberg looked to the John Musker and Ron Clements, whose work together on Great Mouse Detective came about as a result of Musker’s depature from Cauldron, for any new ideas that could be looked at as a future project for the demoralized animation department.  Their idea of a return to the traditional fairy tale formula with an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid was immediately accepted, and out of the ashes of The Black Cauldron, Mermaid would indeed be the movie that would launch what we now know as the Disney Renaissance.

It’s been 35 years now since The Black Cauldron crashed and burned at the box office, and it’s place within the Disney canon is still an interesting one.  For the most part, Disney still kind of treats The Black Cauldron as the black sheep of the family; an embarrassment that they would rather forget.  Despite an eventual home video release and a couple DVD releases thereafter, it has yet to be given a blu-ray release or high definition transfer.  Still, they don’t hide it away like Song of the South (1947); the movie is out there in the market, it’s just not treated with the same care as some of the other classics.  Even among die hard Disney fans, the reception is still mixed.  Some see it as an unfinished mess while others see it as a neglected gem.  It has developed a cult following over the years; in fact the film has had a long standing fan base in Asia and Europe long before it began to take hold here in America, mainly due to them having earlier access to home video copies.  The movie’s villain, The Horned King (voiced incredibly by the legendary John Hurt) is widely celebrated as one of Disney’s darkest and most captivating characters, and he’s likely the only character from the film that Disney still acknowledges today in any sort of marketing.  However, if you are a fan of the books themselves, this film adaptation will still leave you wanting.  Even Lloyd Alexander himself stated that the movie bears little to no resemblance to his narrative.  But given Disney’s recent proclivity towards remaking their past properties, I suggest that they take a look again at the Prydain Chronicles once again.  For one thing, they can finally do the books justice and not have to compromise the epic scope of the story anymore, given Disney’s success since then.  I also suggest that instead of a live action film, Disney should instead look at making The Black Cauldron into a live action series, in the same vein as Game of Thrones or Amazon’s upcoming Tolkein series.  Disney’s just sitting on those rights; why not put them to work.  The Black Cauldron as a movie is an interesting oddity in the Disney canon, and in many ways a valiant attempt to do something different at the legendary studio.  Had circumstances been different, it could have rivaled some of the greatest classics of all time in animation, but even still it’s ambition makes it a standout, especially at a time when Disney was in dire need of a shake-up.  Despite being the darkest point of the Disney Dark Ages, it’s lessons helped to spark one of the greatest revivals in movie history, and that in itself is something that helps to give it a special footprint in the history of all animation.

Focus on a Franchise – Star Wars: The Sequel Trilogy

What a ride the Star Wars universe has been on in it’s 40-plus years of existence.  When George Lucas wrote out his first draft of his intergalactic space opera back in 1977, I don’t think he ever thought that it would be a movie that would change cinema forever, let alone build it’s own empire.  He was just looking to make a movie that would satisfy his own interests; namely making a throwback to the movies that he grew up with.  Nevertheless, Star Wars changed everything, and it launched George Lucas into an entirely different path in his life.  He stepped away from the director’s chair and instead focused on managing this ever growing movie empire that spawned from the success of Star Wars.  He built Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) into an industry leader special effects studio.  He helped to put the Bay Area on the map as a film-making destination with his establishment of the Skywalker Ranch compound, and also with his early investment in Pixar Animation.  But, it was always the continued influence of Star Wars that fueled George’s many projects thereafter.  Eventually, he did return to the director’s chair and expand the Star Wars mythos even more with his prequel trilogy.  The results, however, divided the Star Wars fan-base.  Older fans saw the prequels as a betrayal, while younger fans embraced these new adventures much in the same way that the past generation had.  For Lucas, the movies proved financially successful, but he was also receiving backlash for the first time for making the same kinds of movies he had made all those years before.  As a result, Lucas again retreated from directorial duties, and instead focused on maintaining what he had already built before.  In time, he managed to win around more goodwill with his efforts to expand the Star Wars universe outside the main saga films with animated series like Star Wars: The Clone Wars as well as with well received video games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  But, in 2012, Lucas stunned the world by declaring that he was handing the reigns of empire over to a new master.

With a deal valued at just over $4 billion dollars, George Lucas agreed to sell his studio and all of it’s assets over to The Walt Disney Company.  Though the sale came as a surprise to many people within the industry, the fact that it was Disney who were behind it was less surprising.  Lucas and the Disney Company had collaborated before, mainly on theme park attractions based on Lucasfilm properties.  Disneyland won out over other heavy hitters like Universal to become the home of rides based on the Star Wars and Indiana Jones properties, and it was mainly because Lucas himself just believed Disneyland would be a better home for his characters.  For nearly 30 years, it was already commonplace to see Star Wars characters represented alongside those of Disney at the parks.  Now, with the deal in place, Disney was making all of Star Wars officially a part of the Disney family.  But, was Disney just buying Star Wars in order to capitalize on already established products.  Of course not.  Just like with Marvel, Disney intended to put their newly acquired asset to work, and they did so by announcing that they would be making a whole new series of Star Wars movies.  Not only that, but they would be picking up where George had left off in 1983 with the ending of Return of the Jedi.  This was exciting news to Star Wars fans across the world, but it also came with a grain of caution.  The backlash against the prequels was still fresh in a lot of people’s minds, and many were wondering if making Star Wars without the guidance of George Lucas was even possible.  Still, Disney wasted no time, enlisting widely celebrated filmmakers to undertake their reboot of the series, with J.J. Abrams, Rian Johnson, and Colin Treverrow put in charge of what would be the new prequel trilogy.  To the delight of many, Disney also managed to talk all the former cast into returning, including Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.  Even ailing Peter Mayhew was going to don the fur once again as Chewbacca for a couple scenes.  But, even with all that talent, a lot rested on how audiences would embrace this new era of Star Wars.  So, let’s take a look at the completion of the Skywalker Saga with this retrospective of Star Wars’ sequel trilogy.  And caution, spoilers ahead.

STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS

Directed by J.J. Abrams

The way you make or break a franchise is in how you approach the way it starts.  Some franchises just like to jump out of the gate running, delivering every bit of information we need to know right from the beginning, which unfortunately robs the movie of any mystery.  J.J. Abrams rightly assumed that everyone who was going into his seventh chapter of the Star Wars saga was already familiar with the world of this series, so he focused instead on the thing that mattered more; the characters.  In a wise gesture to the past success of the franchise, Abrams enlisted Empire Strikes Back (1980) scribe Lawrence Kasdan to help him with the script, and this made a big difference in the end.  If there was ever someone who knows this universe as well as George Lucas, it’s Kasdan, and with his help, the script was able to capture that past glory of what made Star Wars so memorable in the first place.   The story picks up 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, and all that time is perfectly summed up in the succinct opening scroll; Luke Skywalker has vanished, a zealous group known as the First Order have risen out of the ashes of the fallen Empire, and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is once again leading a rebellion.  That’s all we need to know before the movie begins, and the rest of the movie can breeze along.  The one major complaint that I hear about The Force Awakens is that it’s too familiar, and it’s hard to argue against that.  The movie does, for the most part, play like a retread of A New Hope, almost beat for beat.  And yet, J.J. Abrams was able to make that work to his advantage.  What people wanted to see was that it was still possible to make a Star Wars movie that felt like a true Star Wars movie, and to the tune of record smashing box office, J.J. proved that it was indeed possible, if a little overly derivative.

What makes The Force Awakens work as well as it does can be found in it’s opening act.  Before Abrams starts to drop all the heavy nostalgia nuggets into his film, he devotes the first 30 minutes to establishing the newest characters to the series.  In the first act, we meet Poe Dameron, the cocky rebel pilot, Finn, a disillusioned storm trooper ready to defy the First Order, Rey a mysterious, young orphan scavenger on a desolate planet, and Kylo Ren, the First Order’s Sith Lord commander.  The stakes are made clear and every new character’s wants and needs are defined very well; with much of the same economic efficiency as George Lucas had in the original film.  After all the introductions are made, and we are abe to sympathize with our new protagonists, we finally get our first taste of the series icons, starting with a hilariously casual reveal of the Millennium Falcon.  From then on, Abrams lays on the nostalgia pretty thick, but it feels earned at that point.  We’ve already grown attached to the new characters, so we’re able to both enjoy the nostalgia points while also remaining invested in this new adventure.  Even the most hardened critic will find it difficult not to smile when Han Solo and Chewie reenter the Falcon for the first time in years and with a smile Han says, “Chewie, we’re home.”  At the same time, Force Awakens is not afraid to take some chances, primarily with some of the legacy characters.  Han Solo meets his end in this film, at the hands of his own son, Kylo Ren, in a extra tragic twist.  No matter what, it was crucial for Abrams to put the series on solid footing on it’s first time outside of George Lucas’ control, and he managed to do just that.  In particular, he did a marvelous job of establishing the new generation that were going to be the standard bearers of this series, with Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver all delivering stand out performances that both stand on their own, but also do justice to the series that they are in.  The only question is, did Abrams play it too safe by repeating much of the same notes as past Star Wars movies, and would it be possible to make a Star Wars movie that felt a great deal different.

STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI

Directed by Rian Johnson

The table was perfectly set for Rian Johnson (Looper, Knives Out) to pick up where J.J. Abrams left off.  Rey, having learned that she is sensitive with the Force, goes off to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), so that he can train her to be a Jedi.  Meanwhile, Leia and the rebel force continue their offensive against the First Order, with the Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) taking on a more active role after the destruction of the Starkiller Base.  So, what does Johnson do with the narrative that’s been laid out for him; why he completely upends everything we expect we know about Star Wars.  Johnson took this opportunity to rethink what a Star Wars narrative could actually be.  Here, we have a Jedi Master in Luke Skywalker who has lost his faith and wishes to live in solitude.  Snoke, who was established to be a new big bad for the Star Wars universe, is quickly tricked and disposed of by his own apprentice; Kylo Ren.  Poe Dameron learns that it’s to the best interest of the rebellion that you shouldn’t try to take on the First Order alone, and instead fight to protect the things you love instead.  The Last Jedi takes every expectation that we have about Star Wars, and flips it on it’s head, raising some very provocative questions.  Unfortunately for Johnson, this was not the movie that many Star Wars fans were wanting or expecting.  Of all the movies in the Star Wars franchise, this is the most polarizing one, with people falling into either the loved it or hated it camps, with almost no in-between.  For me, I actually fall into the former.  The Last Jedi is not my favorite film in the franchise, but it’s the one that I admire the most, because it took the boldest chances.  The moment that Luke tosses his lightsaber over his shoulder like it’s trash was when I knew we were in for a whole different Star Wars movie, and I was all for it.  For a series like Star Wars to grow, it needed to redefine itself, or otherwise it would just keep repeating the same notes over and over again.  But, alas, a lot of vocal critics were not pleased with this choice.

The heart of The Last Jedi is found in it’s portrayal of Rey’s growth as a character.  We learn that Rey’s path towards becoming a Jedi is not going to be as easy of a road as it was for Luke.  Luke recognizes the dangers of tapping too deep into the powers of the Force, and that’s what has made him disillusioned for all these years.  He sees the potential for Rey to be drawn to the Dark Side, just like Kylo Ren and Darth Vader had been, and more troubling is just how unchecked her powers are and how her desire for purpose is fueling that dangerous road towards the darkness.   Many critics have found Rey to be a “mary sue,” but in Johnson’s narrative, he makes that point as the danger always lies in the fact that Rey is too powerful for her own good, and her naivete could drive her more easily towards the Dark Side, making her a potentially threatening presence.  It’s that fine line between heroism and villainy that Johnson wanted to explore, and show that any one of us could also mistake purity as security.  Rey’s search for identity endangers both herself and those she loves, and the fact that she steps back and accepts that heroism is  more about selflessness than glory, she ultimately manages to distinguish herself as a hero.  In turn, Luke finds a way to believe in himself again.  Though Johnson does flip the narrative around, he does leave us with Luke Skywalker once again facing down the Empire by himself, only in a self-sacrificing way that doesn’t stop the bad guys so much as it gives the good guys a fighting chance.  Luke learns to fight for what he loves, and that is where the heart of the movie lies.  At the same time, The Last Jedi may also be the most gorgeously shot movie in the entire series, with the contrasting red and white’s of the Planet Crait being a particular standout.  Sure, The Last Jedi is divisive and challenges everything we believe about the universe of Star Wars, but honestly, it’s the change that Star Wars needed and I for one welcomed it.  With the bold choices made by this movie, you would think that the final chapter would carry it forward and continue to push the series to newer heights, right?  Right?

STAR WARS: EPISODE IX – THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

Directed by J.J. Abrams

From the get go, The Rise of Skywalker was destined to be the problem child of this new trilogy.  Colin Treverrow was let go from the project right after delivering his first draft of the screenplay.  At the same time, Lucasfilm also removed a number of other directors from their selective projects; most notoriously Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who were nearly two-thirds of the way through shooting their stand alone film, Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), and also had to do numerous re-shoots in order to salvage the troubled production of Rogue One (2016).  The backlash over The Last Jedi didn’t help, and it seemed like Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy was doing a lot of last minute re-thinking that was shaking up the Star Wars universe in a bad way.  J.J. Abrams was brought back to salvage the Episode IX project, but instead of working with Treverrow’s own treatment, Abrams elected to start from scratch, while at the same time, meeting the same Christmas 2019 release date without delay.  This was a recipe for disaster, as it gave Abrams so little time to get the movie done right, but he was kind of stuck.  That release date was set, because it had to line up with the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in the parks and the premiere of The Mandalorian on Disney+.  As a result, The Rise of Skywalker ended up being a mess.  It might have not been so bad if this was any average sequel, but by being a closing chapter in a saga that has been strong for forty years, as well as the culmination of the story delivered through The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, it made the end result especially disappointing to long time fans.  It wasn’t as polarizing as The Last Jedi as this time almost everyone didn’t like Rise of Skywalker, including myself.  Is it the worst Star Wars film; no.  I will say that I never found myself bored watching the movie, like I had while watching Attack of the Clones.  But, Skywalker may be the most disappointing of all the Star Wars movies because of all the blown potential.

It’s clear that J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson are two entirely different filmmakers, as their approaches to the same story take wildly different trajectories.  But as Johnson’s subversion of tropes worked well after Abrams infusion of nostalgia, it doesn’t make much sense for Abrams to re-contextualize everything Johnson laid on the table in order to better suit his vision.  I almost believe that it might have been better to have left Colin Treverrow on to help the series flow better with a different vision for every movie, even if Treverrow’s script would’ve been messy in it’s own right.  The problem begins from the very start, as Abrams shoe-horns the presence of Emporer Palpatine into the narrative, which is indicated no where in any of the previous two films.  I do acknowledge that it is nice to see veteran actor Ian McDiarmid back in the role that he’s played ever since Return of the Jedi, but it makes no sense for Palpatine to re-enter the story at this point in time.  It takes away much needed time to further establish the growth of our cast of characters in order to change the stakes once again.  It’s a plot reset that cheats the narrative flow of the new trilogy and feels like an act of desperation on Lucasfilm’s part; hoping to bring disgruntled fans back to the flock.  Plot points are completely dropped and nothing feels earned.  The movie also has the uncomfortable aspect of using stock footage of Carrie Fisher in order to complete her role as Leia, after her untimely death before the release of The Last Jedi.  J.J. does the best he can, but her presence here feels less graceful than it should be, and it might have been better served to have had Leia pass away off screen.  The biggest insult to the fans is that the 9 film arc of this story only led up to something so hollow and manufactured.  At least The Last Jedi was trying to say something.  The goal of The Rise of Skywalker was to please everybody, and in the end it pleased no one.  Look no further than the completely insulting final kiss between Rey and Kylo Ren to see just how shamelessly pandering this movie was to being a manufactured product rather than a movie worth celebrating.

When all was said and done, was Disney’s reboot of the Star Wars’ Skywalker Saga a success or a failure.  It depends on who you ask.  Some would say that it betrayed the fundamentals of the series, while other believe that it took Star Wars into bold, brave new territory.  Regardless, I don’t think anyone can safely say that Disney stuck the landing.  Their stewardship of the Star Wars universe certainly got off on a rocky start, but the future still remains bright.  The Mandalorian received almost universal praise upon release, and there are still plans for many more stand-alone Star Wars extended universe projects on the horizon.  But the mixed results of the sequel trilogy may leave a bad taste in the mouths of several fans, because this was the saga on which the foundations of the universe were built upon.  It involved the original characters, with the performers of that trilogy delivering their swan songs as Han, Luke and Leia all meet their ends in this new trilogy.  There is still a lot of good things I can say.  The performances are strong throughout the trilogy, even with the lackluster script they had to work with on Skywalker.  Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley in particular delivered truly iconic performances as Kylo Ren and Rey resepecively, and they remain two of the past decades greatest cinematic characters, as I stated in my lists here and here.     Though Poe, Finn, and especially Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) get pushed to the sidelines in Rise of Skywalker, their selective actors’ performances remain strong right to the end.  And visually, each of the movies still maintain that great sense of wonder that every Star Wars movie has, as we jump from one world to the next, each with it’s own identity.  Disney certainly wants to see Star Wars live on forever; why else would they spend billions on it.  Hopefully the lesson they take from this is that they should never launch a trilogy without a unifying vision from the very outset.  By giving too much leeway to each individual director, they may have undermined the trilogy from the outset.  Even still, I enjoy most of this new trilogy, even parts of The Rise of Skywalker, and that’s mainly because I liked the different ways that Disney and Lucasfilm set out to expand this universe.  That’s the genius of George Lucas’s creation in the end; it’s endless possibilities.  Disney may need more time to get it completely right, but I think that Lucas put his universe in the right hands, and I have no doubt the Force will be strong with Star Wars in the decades ahead.

Social Distance – 10 Years of The Social Network and Telling Only Half of the Story of Facebook

If there is a story to tell about the past decade, the 2010’s, it would likely be the rise of social media and networking that injected itself into nearly every aspect of our culture.  Though the 2000’s marked the beginning of social media, it wasn’t until the following decade that we saw the global influence that this new technology would have.  What started as a great way to socialize online and reconnect with long time friends as well as make new ones, evolved into something much more consuming of our everyday lives; and in many ways it became both overwhelming and frightening.  By the mid 2010’s, it almost had come to the point that if you did not have a social media presence, than you pretty much didn’t exist, as social profiles started to become more of a factor in job applications and self promotion.  In addition, because social media keeps a record of everything that you post onto their selective feeds and becomes public record, it has influenced the way that we present ourselves, and either has brought out a false self portrait that is not reflective of who we really are, or has drawn out our inner worst instincts in order to gain more attention.  And then there are the ethical issues with how we put our trust in the companies that run these social media platforms, and how they may be mismanaging all the data that we provide to them in order to use their service.  That particular aspect of social media in particular has emerged as the most troubling part of the story in the last few years, as we are slowly realizing that social media has eroded many of the things that we once guarded as sacred in our society; in particular, our privacy, which we seemed to have gladly given over in order to have a more prominent appearance online.  Honestly, we are all guilty of creating the monster that has emerged in the last decade.  I too recognize that I am guilty of doing much of the same things that I just complained about in this paragraph.  The question is, how do we go about recognizing the problems that we create in order to better use these tools for a better future.

It’s interesting to note that at the beginning of the decade, we viewed the emergence of social media in a much different way.  Back then, social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook were seen as this revolutionary democratization of of media, allowing any average citizen to have a voice that could reach millions.  For the early 2000’s, these platforms were viewed as a net positive for society at large;  everyone now had the means to make their voices heard and it was beginning to shake down the foundations of the closed in barriers of old media.  What is also curious about the way that we viewed social media at the turn of the last decade was that the troubling aspects were not with the platforms themselves, but rather with the people who were making the big money off of it.  And it wasn’t the motives that bothered people, it was the fact that these new tycoons of social media were so young and inexperienced themselves.  That was the basis for the book “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich.  In his 2009 non-fiction title, Mezrich examined the rise of Facebook, and the conflicts that arose in it’s early days among it’s founders.  What was so intriguing about Mezrich’s study of hubris and greed within the rise of Silicon Valley start-ups like Facebook was how all this flourishing of brilliance, breakthroughs and back-stabbings occurred with characters who were barely out of school.  In particular, the story became about how founder Mark Zuckerberg built his empire in his 20’s, and did so by pushing aside his closest friend, Eduardo Saverin.  In a titanic rift that normally would’ve taken decades to manifest in Fortune 500 companies, we were seeing a fresh faced billionaire under the age of 30 playing hardball in order to secure his own place at the top of the pyramid, destroying every other close attachment that he had built in order to get there.  It was a ripped from the headlines rise to glory with almost Shakespearean levels of hubris and tragedy, and naturally it captured the imagination of Hollywood as well.

The book was optioned almost immediately by Sony before it was published, and work began right away on what the industry would dub “The Facebook Movie.”  Initially it was thought to have been a cash grab to capitalize on the Facebook craze of the late 2000’s, but as we soon learned, it was going to be a much deeper film than that.  Aaron Sorkin, coming off of his award winning run as the show runner of The West Wing, was given the task of adapting Mezrich’s book, which would turn out to be the ideal match.  If there is anything that Sorkin is a genius at, it’s writing a electric argument between two characters.  The bridge burning rows between Zuckerberg and his many friends turned enemies in the book gave Sorkin plenty of opportunity to indulge in what he does best as a writer.  At the same time, Sorkin put a lot of work into examining the almost enigmatic character of Zuckerberg himself.  Zuckerberg was, and remains, fairly reclusive; appearing publicly in heavily managed events or the occasional awkward government inquiry on Capitol Hill.   In order to find the character, Sorkin wisely crafted the story to where Zuckerberg is both the hero and the villain of his own tale.  The movie marvels at the genius that it took to take Facebook out of a demo run at Harvard University to becoming something that encompasses the everyday lives of nearly everyone on the planet.  And yet at the same time, we see how Zuckerberg’s manic devotion to his own work alienated him from everyone else, including some very vicious betrayals of friends and confidants.  That’s where the genius of Sorkin’s adaptation shines through.  Zuckerberg, within the screenplay, is a manic genius, but also a vicious animal, and as a result, he created one of the most fascinating screen characters of the last decade.

The key to The Social Network’s success also relied upon who would bring the story to life on screen.  Surprisingly, it fell into the lap of David Fincher, whose body of work would’ve told you that he might have been the wrong man for this kind of story.  Fincher’s style is all about flash and moving the camera around to places that it normally wouldn’t go, as he showed with Fight Club (1999), Panic Room (2002) and Zodiac (2007).  A quiet, moody character study was a bit out of character for him.  Though he did indeed tone down his style a bit and largely kept the camera still, Fincher managed to rise to the challenge nonetheless, and gave The Social Network a very polished presentation.  The subdued cinematography of Jeff Cronenweth really gives the movie it’s beautiful melancholic look, which also helps it to fit nicely alongside Fincher’s other films.  However, if there was one thing that mattered most in getting this movie adaptation right, it was in finding the right Zuckerberg.  Not only did you need to find a young actor who could capture all the complexities of the character, being both vulnerable and intimidating, but you also needed a young actor who could deliver those Sorkin monologues with all their balletic wordplay without fail.  Thankfully, they found their man in Jesse Eisenberg, whose motor mouth skills with complex dialogue made him a perfect match for the role.  It also helped that his sharp features and curly hair also made him a near Zuckerberg look-alike.  All that aside, when you see Eisenberg in action in the role, he shines, capturing every angle of Zuckerberg’s character perfectly; his smugness, his cold callous nihilism, his manic aversion to anything fitting out of place, it’s all there on screen.  And given that Fincher is known for his penchant for multiple takes for every scene, it’s a wonder how Eisenberg managed to keep that energy up, even when getting into Take #80 or more.

It’s fitting that a movie about something as revolutionary as the founding of Facebook would itself break down many barriers.  Fincher still managed to work in some ground-breaking visual effects into his movie; some of which you would’ve never realized were digitally enhanced at all.  Most famously, Fincher revolutionized the way a single actor can portray twin characters on screen at the same time.  Two of Zuckerberg’s biggest adversaries in the movie are the Winklevoss Twins; white collar, legacy students of Harvard that enlist Zuckerberg to initially develop the Facebook site based on their idea, only to see Zuckerberg take the idea and run with it himself.  Later on, the Winklevoss, or as Zuckerberg dismissively calls them “the Winklevi” take him to court, effectively turning them into antagonists within Zuckerberg’s story.  What is interesting is that the presence of the Winklevoss Twins on screen is one of the most seamless visual effects I have ever seen performed.  I initially thought that actor Armie Hammer did indeed have a twin brother, but it turns out for the entire roll, his head is digitally grafted onto actor Josh Pence’s body.  This effect allows for the two twin brother to have slightly different bodies, despite having identical faces, which helped Fincher avoid the copy and paste effect that normally arose from the old split screen technique of the past.  And the best part of the effect is that it doesn’t distract, apart from the fact that it might be too good, knowing now that there is only one Armie Hammer out there.  There are also plenty of other ingenious aspects of the movie, like the groundbreaking musical score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and also the career making performance from Andrew Garfield, as well as a career redefining one from pop artist Justin Timberlake.  It was a movie destined to leave a mark right away upon release.

Though a moderate success at the box office, The Social Network did make a mark in award season.  Sorkin would go on to win his first Oscar for his iconic screenplay, but the movie fell short in other categories, with Fincher, Eisenberg, and the movie itself all playing runner up to the more conventional Oscar bait film The King’s Speech (2010).  But despite that setback, The Social Network has grown in esteem over the decade since it’s release, no doubt bolstered by it’s continued relevance in the years after.  While the narrative told in the movie itself is it’s own perfectly encapsulated American story, we have sadly learned all too well that it’s not where Facebook’s notorious history ends.  I don’t think even Mezrich, Sorkin, or anyone else would’ve imagined just how much of a villain Mark Zuckerberg would turn out to be in the years since.  Though the movie shows us a flawed individual driven to succeed at all costs, it doesn’t quite capture the true callousness that Zuckerberg has since shown with regards to his attitudes towards the toll on humanity that his company has been responsible for.  Yes, Facebook has bridged many relationships, and has helped people to organize and socialize far better than we’ve seen in years past.  But, what has also gone unchecked under Zuckerberg’s watch has been the rise and spread of dangerous ideologies that have exploited the platform of Facebook for their own advantage.  Hate speech, misinformation, and just outright toxic attitudes have spread across social media in the year since The Social Network premiered, and it has very much re-contextualized the story of Mark Zuckerberg entirely.  He’s since changed from this punk revolutionary icon into a closed-minded, ivory tower dwelling digital baron, never caring about the damage that his product is actually doing to the world.  Sure, Twitter and YouTube also have their problem with the prevalence of hateful speech on their platform, but they at least acknowledge that a problem exists.  Zuckerberg, in his defiance, refuses to address any recognition that Facebook is being used for any dubious means at all.  For him, it doesn’t matter what speech is being used on Facebook; as long as people continue to use it, he’s content.

There’s also the issue of data mining that has become a new point of contention over Facebook.  Sure, again, Facebook is not alone in the mining and selling of data, but again, the fact that Zuckerberg is so involved in the underlying transactions within the company puts him in far more of a contentious spotlight with regards to how that data is used.  This became a particularly contentious point when it was revealed that Facebook had been selling user data to disgraced political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which was found to have used that data to spread political misinformation targeted at voters in order to effect political outcomes that favored their right-wing leaning clients.  It’s believed that Cambridge Analytica’s targeted Facebook postings influenced election outcomes including the Brexit vote in the UK as well as the 2016 presidential election that brought Donald Trump to power.  Politics aside, the actions of both Cambridge Analytica was a huge violation of campaign ethics laws and the uncovering of the scandal eventually led to it’s eventual dismantling in 2018.  Despite being found to be in contact with the disgraced firm, Mark Zuckerberg argued that there was nothing illegal about selling Facebook’s data to firms like this.  Indeed, to the letter of the law, he wasn’t wrong, but it still shows us how little regard Mark Zuckerberg has for the political process and for the need for his user base to have all the right information.  It’s interesting to see how much of this revelation of Zuckerberg’s character changes the perception that we see of the character within the film itself.  After witnessing Zuckerberg’s decline into becoming a political pariah that casually takes a blind eye to all the hateful things that his platform is used for, we now see The Social Network as an origin story for one of history’s most notorious villains, made before his true villainy even began.

You would think that 10 years of new information about Mark Zuckerberg would convince the people who made The Social Network to consider picking up where they left off, and you’d be right.  While Fincher has been fairly quiet about the matter, Aaron Sorkin has indeed expressed interest in writing a sequel to The Social Network, and may in fact be already working on such a thing, while he’s getting his other projects like the upcoming The Trial of the Chicago 7 completed.  And indeed, if a sequel to The Social Network does come together, it could indeed achieve Godfather levels of resonance.  The parallels would be adept; just like Michael Corleone, the first movie would be all about the rise of a deeply flawed individual into a seat of power, and Part II would be all about that character losing every last bit of his soul in the process of holding onto that power.  Essentially, as great as The Social Network is as a singular film, it honestly feels like the first part of an even greater story to tell.  And the scary thing is, the story of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook is still ongoing.  Who knows what other things may happen over the next ten years.  Is Zuckerberg finally going to face pressure to address the scandalous actions of his company; will he have a moment of clarity and decide to do what’s best for his customers; or is he going to continually put profit over the truth from here on out.  With an election season about to enter it’s final round in the months ahead, I worry that Facebook and Zuckerberg will only continue to devolve into the quagmire they become.   Even still, The Social Network is a profound document of American film-making, and one that still stands the test of time 10 years later, even after the crazy ten years that has changed the story completely.  You don’t make over 500 million friends without making a few enemies, and unlike Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network has only expanded it’s support rather than repelled it.

Hamilton: The Musical – Review

It’s the Fourth of July; the celebration of America’s founding that continues to be a unifying moment in time for Americans from all walks of life.  Traditionally we celebrate with parades, fireworks and outdoor activities and barbecues.  But, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has put a halt to most of our traditional celebratory events, as social distancing remains crucial to stopping the spread of the disease.  Couple this with a political climate that is at it’s most divisive that we’ve seen in quite a while, and many people are questioning if such a celebration is worth it in this time in our history.  Though it won’t stop people from spending modest 4th of July caterings with their small collective family and friends, cooking on a barbecue and launching a few fireworks, some of the bigger expressions of American patriotism are going to be noticeably muted this year.  That’s not to say there isn’t a lot still out there to help boost the patriotic spirit of the national holiday.  There are literally dozens of films and television specials devoted to celebrating the Spirit of America, and they all come in a canvas of different shades that reflects the diverse character that is America today.  Whether it’s with watching a gritty war film like Patton (1970) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), or an inspiring underdog story like Rocky (1976), or a passionate cry for justice like Selma (2014), you can find so many movies out there that shows us the soul of America, and it’s unique place in the world.  Even musical theater can grant us that special feeling of patriotic pride with the stories that it tells in song about the progress of America.  Much of the great American songbook takes it’s selections from the Broadway stage, including from shows that make it a point to tell the story of America itself.  The show 1776 did exactly that in another divisive period of time like right now, with Vietnam and Watergate dominating discourse, and told a compelling story of America’s independence.  In this time of division, we need another musical to again lift up our patriotic spirit, and thankfully, that has finally come straight into our living rooms.

Hamilton: The Musical premiered on the Broadway stage in 2015 to overwhelming acclaim and record-breaking box office.  The brainchild of musical virtuoso Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton is the story of founding father Alexander Hamilton.  Miranda was inspired to write and produce the musical after reading a biography on the historical figure by historian and author Ron Chernow.  Within it, Miranda saw a story of an underdog immigrant who would go on to be one of the men who shaped America into what it is, a theme that resonated with the son of Puerto Rican-Americans who lived through their own immigrant experience.  What it compelling about Lin-Manuel’s adaptation is that he set out to tell the story of America’s founding with a cast and style of music that is reflective of America today.  Every role, with the exception of King George, is played by a person of color, which offers up a fascinating new perspective on figures enshrined in our history like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr and of course Hamilton himself.  Miranda would fill the title role himself, and the score was filled with the same Hip Hop and R&B melodies that he used to great effect in his Tony-Award winning debut, In the Heights.  Hamilton far exceeded everyone’s expectations, and was heralded as an instant classic, winning everything from Tony’s, to Grammy’s, to even a Pulitzer.  Naturally Hollywood would come a calling, but Lin-Manuel has resisted bringing the production to the silver screen just yet, stating that he wants to show to live on the stage for while.  However, he did give in to having a filmed version of the stage show, helping to bring the show to the masses without paying an arm and a leg for the ticket price.  But, what comes as a major chock to everyone is who he granted the rights to over everyone else: The Walt Disney Company.

Hamilton: The Film remains pretty much in tact from how it was first performed on Broadway when it opened.  Lin-Manuel Miranda and most of the original cast had moved on after nearly a year of performing, but they returned for a week long engagement in late 2016 for the purpose of filming this specific version.  An extra special treat for everyone who lucked out in getting a ticket to those exclusive shows, but having the show be filmed as it’s meant to be seen (performed on a stage in front of an audience) also grants the filmed version a level of authenticity that can’t be replicated in a movie studio.  The play covers the defining years of Alexander Hamilton’s (Lin-Manuel Miranda) life.  We see him in his early years fresh out of school where he would meet several men who would leave an impact on his life; John Laurens (Anthony Ramos), Hercules Mulligan (Okieriete Onaodowan), Marquis de Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), and most profoundly Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.).  They all join the war for independence, serving under the command of General George Washington (Chris Jackson), who helps lead them and the new nation to victory;  much to the consternation of pompous King George of England (Jonathan Groff).  In the middle of service, Hamilton meets the wealthy Schuyler Sisters; Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), Eliza (Phillipa Soo), and Peggy (Jasmine Cephas Jones).  Though Angelica and Alexander develop a long standing bond, it’s ultimately Eliza who wins his heart and ends up wedding him.  After the Revolution, Washington is made President of the new nation and he asks Hamilton to join his cabinet.  However, Hamilton faces a new rivalry with Washington’s other cabinet secretaries, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Diggs and Onaodowan again, respectively).  All the while, Aaron Burr continues to advance politically, becoming ever more resentful of Hamilton along the way.

For a lot of people, having the chance to finally see the show in it’s entirety after so many years is a godsend, especially with it’s premiere falling on the 4th of July weekend where everyone is stuck at home.  During the show’s heyday, ticket prices would rise up into the hundreds and even thousands.  Not only that, but demand was so high, that waiting lists would stretch beyond a year for some people.  Even the touring version in select cities sold out well in advance, which just shows you how much of a cultural touchstone this musical was for many people.  Though many couldn’t get into the show, there was still the album that was made available around the same time, which gives the listener a piece of the experience as the entire show is sung through entirely.  And everyone, having watched the show or not, became familiar with it’s music.  Even still, demand remains high for watching the show as it’s intended to be seen, live on a stage, and I for one have tried to make that my own personal goal.  I struck out the first time that Hamilton came through Los Angeles on it’s first national tour in 2017.  Luckily, another tour quickly made it’s way back to So Cal, and I managed to snag a ticket for it, and at a reasonable price as well.  The musical was going to be staged at the legendary Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, right in the center of Tinseltown.  I made it my own personal mission to make my first exposure to this musical phenomenon as a live theater experience.  I never listened to the soundtrack, and I refrained from watching even the briefest of video teases.  I wanted to experience the play without any preconceived expectations and just let the show speak for itself in it’s intended venue.  Unfortunately, those plans did not pan out.  The Pantages closed its doors mere days before the show’s run was about to begin in accordance with social distancing guidelines.  Since my ticket was only a week or two later, it didn’t take long for that to get cancelled as well, for which I did receive a full refund.  So, when I learned that the show would be made available to watch on Disney+ this weekend, it came as a mixed blessing.  Yes, I could finally see the show in it’s entirety, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be getting that intimate live experience either.  Even still, I had to give it a watch to finally understand what all the hype has been about.

Believe me, this show comes with extremely high expectations, and a part of me worried that it may not live up to the hype that I’ve been hearing about for the last 5 years.  But, after now having watched Hamilton for the first time, I can definitely say that the hype is indeed justified.  No matter what format it’s presented in, on the stage or on the screen, Hamilton is a masterwork.  For one thing, it appeals greatly to my interest in History.  I always admire the way that filmmakers and stage directors can bring historical events to life and make us feel like we are witnessing them in action.  With Hamilton, the thing that struck me was just how incredibly well they are able to convey this epic story of the American Revolution and it’s founding fathers, with such a minimalist set.  There are no extravagant backdrops or flat-board set pieces that the actors interact with.  All that we see is a single wood scaffolding across the stage on which all the moments of the show are staged within.  Following the Brechtian style of minimalist theater, the lack of a literal set puts more emphasis on the performances, and through the actors, we are given the full breadth of the story.  I even admired how the show doesn’t even use a curtain to hide the stage between Acts or before and after the show.  It’s all up to the actors, the costume department, and the incredible lighting to deliver a sense of the story’s epic scope.  To the filmed version’s credit, it captures this craftsmanship perfectly, and gives the viewer at home a good sense of what they would see if this show was performed live in front of them.  Indeed, given that Lin-Manuel Miranda supervised this filmed version himself, he was granted the creative freedom to recreate the stage show nearly as complete as he possibly could.  Considering it went to Disney, however, he did have to make a compromise to bring it to a PG-13 rating.  As he put it himself, he literally gave Disney two F’s, as the four letter word can only be used once to retain that more family friendly rating.

Also, it’s interesting that Disney of all people won out in landing Hamilton.  In a way it does make sense; Lin-Manuel has had a strong working relationship with the studio since the premiere of Hamilton, having written songs for the movie Moana (2016), as well as performing a lead role in Mary Poppins Returns (2018).  He also has a yet to be fully detailed animated film in the works with the studio which he supposedly has a chief creative investment in.  So I guess it only made sense for him to give his blockbuster musical a home at Disney as well.  Originally, the musical was to screen in theaters nationwide this fall in a limited engagement, but with the pandemic changing everyone’s plans, Disney instead opted to move the premiere of Hamilton to Disney+, with a special 4th of July weekend launch.  It’s a shame that the theatrical experience had to be lost too, but even still, putting it on their streaming platform works to both build hype for the show as well as for Disney+ in general.  Really, for right now, it is the only venue on which the show can be seen, as Broadway has shut it’s doors for the remainder of the year, which the Pantages in Hollywood is likely going to follow in suit.  What I will say about watching the show for the first time in this way is that it hasn’t deterred me from wanting to see it staged live.  Sure, I have lost my chance of experiencing it for the first time as it was meant to be seen, but this comes as a fine alternative.  In fact, now I have something to contrast with once I do see the show live finally.  It’s kind of like how watching the movie version of something like Les Miserables or The Sound of Music differs greatly from how it’s performed on stage.  Sure those are movies, and Hamilton is a film of a stage performance, which is different.  But, you don’t see edits or crane shots on a stage.  Witnessing it in that respect may offer a different experience entirely once I finally attend a performance.

As far as the show itself as it appears on film, the experience is exhilarating.  You come in close to the actors in a way that you certainly wouldn’t get in the theater; even if you were sitting in the front row.  The subtleties that the actors work out in their performances really come through in their close-ups, and you have to marvel at just how much work they put into their facial gestures that probably wouldn’t register to all those people sitting up in the nosebleed sections of the theater.  Lin-Manuel of course is stellar as Hamilton himself, balancing all the complexities of this extremely complex man.  You have to wonder where he found the energy to write, orchestrate, and craft a performance all at the same time during the production of this musical.  Many of the other actors excel as well, especially the ones playing dual roles.  Daveed Diggs really shines in a Tony winning performance as both Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson.  His flamboyant Jefferson may even be the highlight of the entire show.  I was also impressed with Phillipa Soo’s soulful portrayal of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, whose own story shines through in the narrative, giving her a historical spotlight that up until now has largely passed her by.  And of course the music is every bit as perfect as you’d expect.  It’s one thing to listen to it, but it’s another to see how it’s performed by the actors onstage.  The music is playful, heartbreaking, inspirational, and passionate, but above all else, it is daring.  You would’ve thought that telling the story of America’s founding with hip hop and rap was possibly sacrilege, but in the hands of a skilled artist like Lin-Maunel, it’s a perfect match.  The cabinet debates are perfectly re-framed as rap battles between Hamilton and Jefferson, and it brings new life to the actual arguments that these great thinkers who built our nation put forth.  Whatever creative spark Lin-Manuel received when reading from Chernow’s book proved to be a stroke of genius captured in a bottle.  A hip hop musical about the most unlikely of founding fathers for this nation; it was a match made in heaven.

What is great now is that Hamilton is no longer an experience exclusive to the super rich or the super lucky; it belongs to anyone with access to a $7/month Disney+ subscription, where they can enjoy it for as many times as they desire.  For less than the value of the currency that Hamilton’s face currently is enshrined ($10 bill), the musical Hamilton is now available to be seen by literally millions across the globe.  And this film version also gives us the treat of seeing the show with it’s original complete cast.  Many of the performers have since moved on from the show; some following in Lin-Manuel’s footsteps and making it out to Hollywood to pursue a film career.  With this filmed version, their iconic performances will be forever enshrined.  I do give Disney a lot of credit for pursuing this for their platform, even with it’s more adult themed subject matter and language.  Even with some of the edits they made, the show remains around 99% in tact, and given the more family-friendly rating, it actually helps to make this more palatable for younger audiences.  We may even see this filmed version of the play shown in classrooms in the years ahead.  For right now, with the 4th celebrations being scaled down so much to keep families close to home this holiday, this premiere of the musical couldn’t be more welcome.  Hopefully, watching this show again may become a new tradition for many Americans.  I was really happy to have not been disappointed now that I’ve gotten my first taste of the musical itself.  I get all the hype now, and recognize that it was all very much justified.  I still wish that I had been able to see the show live in person first earlier this year, but that’s a choice that was completely out of my hands once the pandemic spiraled out of control.  I hope to revisit Hamilton again soon; both live and on the small screen.  For anyone with a Disney+ account right now, don’t miss your shot and watch it right now.  Happy Fourth everyone, and stay safe and healthy.

Rating: 8.5/10

Tinseltown Throwdown – Outbreak vs. Contagion

The 2020 pandemic almost at times feels like we are living through a movie in real time.  Acts of heroism and selflessness within our hospital walls; families suddenly stricken with the hardship of loosing their financial security; dysfunction at the highest levels of our governing bodies.  If it all weren’t so tragically real, this day and age would make for a harrowing thriller.  And I have no doubt that once Hollywood does eventually land on it’s feet after this is all over, we will see multiple dramatic recreations of this period of time.  In many ways, real life has eclipsed fiction with it’s unpredictability.  But, in the past, we have seen Hollywood take a shot at dramatizing the possible effects of what a worldwide pandemic may be like.  The only problem is audiences up until now had no interest in movies centered around medical crises.  Most global pandemics don’t quite have the grisly sort of fatality that’ll intrigue audiences, as many of them are slow, possibly less lethal diseases.  So, for many pandemic movies, the filmmakers usually spice things up by adding something else to the mix, like a plague of zombies.  This is evident in things like Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) or Will Smith’s I am Legend (2007).  Usually it’s a story about science run amok or about the fragility of human civilization, but as we can see, the disease alone has not been the thing that has interested filmmakers about pandemics, but rather the fallout that comes after.  What is rare in Hollywood is a movie that actually takes a good serious look at the actual steps taken towards combating an out of control viral outbreak.  Given how COVID-19 has taken over pretty much every part of our lives this year, it’s interesting to look at some of the few movies that actually have dramatized what a response to a pandemic would look like, and in some cases it’s interesting to see just how close and how far some of them actually came to showing what would actually happen.

The last time a global pandemic raged through the human population with such a ferocity as COVID-19 has, cinema was still in it’s infancy.  Whatever little documentation we have of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic has been the historical basis on which we have drawn from for most of our understanding of viral outbreaks.  COVID-19, like the 1918 Flu, is a respiratory disease with a very high transmission rate, but up to now has been thankfully less lethal; helped greatly by the lessons we learned from the last outbreak and the advances in medicine we’ve made since then.  But because Hollywood didn’t yet exist during the 1918 pandemic, there is little to no film documentation that chronicled the horrors of that plague.  So, Hollywood has had to rely heavily on past tense information or just use their imagination.  Now, there are two different ways that a Hollywood movie can dramatize a pandemic on screen; either remain very true to the scientific realities of a pandemic, or just make a whole lot of it up to punch up the drama.  Two of the most noteworthy pandemic movies represent both of these examples.  One is the movie Outbreak (1995) from director Wolfgang Petersen, and the other is Contagion (2011) from director Steven Soderbergh.  The former takes the pandemic concept far less seriously and uses it as a backdrop for your typical Hollywood action movie set pieces.  The latter delivers a deadly (no pun intended) serious dramatization of each step of a global pandemic.  Each has it’s set goals, and having watched both of them in the middle of an actual pandemic does offer some interesting insight into the different ways to tackle the same subject from differing angles.  The question isn’t does one more accurately depict a pandemic better than the other, because there is no question that the more scientifically sound Contagion comes out on top.  What is more intriguing when analyzing both movies is whether or not they do their job well in actually turning a pandemic story into a compelling piece of cinema on their own.

“Why can’t they invent a shot that keeps time from passing?”

First of all, you’ve got to look at the time periods in which the movies were made in order to see how they viewed what a threat of a pandemic would actually look like.  The movie Outbreak came out in the middle of the 1990’s, which was both a time of relative good health on the medical front globally, but also one where new emerging diseases sparked periodic anxiety.  Take for instance the emergence of Ebola in sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-90’s.  This devastating disease really worried a lot of people across the world, because of the high level of suffering the infected endured before succumbing to the bug.  Thankfully, it was found out that Ebola outbreaks could be easily isolated because of it’s low transferable rate, or as the World Health Organization (WHO) calls it the R0 value.  But still, the world took notice and wondered what would happen if the disease made it’s way over here.  At the same time, the world was also dealing with the fallout of another devastating pandemic that sadly went unchecked for years; the AIDS pandemic.  Because LGBTQ were scapegoated for much of the spread of the sexually transmitted HIV virus that caused AIDS, the treatment of this particular pandemic was sadly never given the right amount of containment, and it ended up ravaging it’s way through the oppressed queer community.  In the mid-90’s, Hollywood was finally acknowledging the devastating reality of an unchecked pandemic like AIDS, especially after losing some of their own to the disease, and the need to take pandemics more seriously became much more paramount as a result.  For the movie Outbreak, they use the examples of these notorious pandemics as the basis for their own.  It starts from Sub-Saharan Africa like Ebola, and it’s transmission through human contact is similar as well.  It’s origination from primates takes it’s inspiration from the HIV virus, but that’s where the comparisons end.  From there, we see Hollywood’ imagination go wild, and it’s not exactly true to science from that point on.

“Go without a mask.  You’ll see better.”

Contagion on the other hand almost plays out like a handbook from the Center for Disease Control (CDC).  Truly, upon watching this movie in the last week or so, I was struck by just how on the nose it was with regards to showing the moment by moment happenings of a global pandemic crises.  Made almost 9 years before the COVID-19 outbreak, Contagion is eerily prophetic.  It’s a respiratory disease that spreads rapidly, originated in China, causes a devastating impact on the global economy, and it exposes the fractures within our disease response system.  The one major difference is that COVID-19 is far less lethal than the one in the movie, which ends up killing in the millions within a two month span.  As bad as COVID-19 is, it’s global death rate remains low, and some countries have managed to successfully irradiate it altogether; sadly America is not one of them.  Contagion’s disease really shows us a worst case scenario and it is refreshing to see a movie where the science is focused on so intently.  The movie shows a well researched analysis of how a pandemic response would play out, both when it’s running effectively and when it is not.  At the time of the movie’s making, the most noteworthy pandemics we had known in the new century were the short lived ones like SARS, the Bird Flu, and the Swine Flu.  The H1N1 Swine Flu in particular served as a dramatic inspiration for Contagion, because it was the one freshest in everyone’s mind.  The 2009 outbreak led to the most widespread roll-out of Disease Control protocols in a long time, though it stopped short of extreme measures like social distancing and stay at home orders.  Contagion examines what would happen when that next step was needed, and sadly, reality and fiction would collide in less than a decade.

One of the biggest differences between the movies is no doubt the style of film-making.  Wolfgang Petersen has built a career making big, bombastic action films.  From his groundbreaking war pic Das Boot (1981), to his gritty natural disaster epic The Perfect Storm (2000), to the sword and sandals extravaganza Troy (2004); he is a director that likes to make his movies big and loud.  Unfortunately, pandemics don’t offer a lot of action, because it’s just doctors in PPE trying to keep people alive in hospitals.  So, for Outbreak, he pushes the science to the background and instead adds a lot of melodrama to the story.  The movie turns into a conspiracy thriller halfway through, with the military brass wanting to flex it’s muscles in response to the outbreak of this deadly disease.  It’s a very 90’s movie, where there is a lot of posturing and virtue-signalling from the movie stars playing doctors.  Dustin Hoffman’s lead character does some pretty reckless actions in order to diffuse the warmongering actions of Donald Sutherland’s General at Arms, and it makes the movie less about teaching it’s audience about the real threats of a pandemic, and more about a good guy vs. bad guy showdown.  Subtle, this movie is not.  Sutherland’s general even chooses to use a nuclear option to eradicate the disease; which would’ve seemed far fetched in the Clinton years, but maybe not so much during this current Trump administration.  Soderbergh’s approach, by contrast is extremely stripped back.  There are no explosions, no virtue-signalling, and very little melodrama.  The multitasking filmmaker basically treats the movie like a docudrama, showing every moment with the utmost sincerity towards the subject.  It’s refreshingly informative, but perhaps a little too dry as well.  Say what you will about Petersen’s bombastic style; it’s often entertaining.  Depending on what you’re looking for, something sober or something explosive, each movie offers it’s unique take on the issue of viral pandemics.

“Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein all in one.”

One of the most interesting things that both movies do have in common besides the infectious diseases is that they both feature all-star casts.  Outbreak has the previously mentioned Hoffman and Sutherland, but all features the likes of Kevin Spacey, Rene Russo, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Morgan Freeman.  Not to be outdone, Contagion has Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cottilard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Bryan Cranston, and Gwyneth Paltrow as patient zero.  It’s a stellar line up of Oscar caliber talent lined up on both sides, but the difference between them is in how they are used.  Outbreak unfortunately saddles it’s incredible cast with a laughable, illogical script.  Dustin Hoffman suffers the most, because he’s got to carry the dramatic weight of the plot on his shoulders, and it’s clear that he really is not all that into the performance.  The one nice thing about watching Outbreak today is that you do see Kevin Spacey get infected with the disease and he suffers to the point of bleeding out of his eyes,  Given what we know now about Spacey, this moment does have a nice cathartic undertone now.  The cast of Contagion are much better served by the script to their movie.  Contagion doesn’t waste time building character motivations, nor does it try to give any of them a self-aggrandizing savior moment.  The movie plops all these disparate characters into the situation of a pandemic out of control, and defines them by their actions in response.  The performances for the most part are muted, but that serves the purpose of the film perfectly.  Damon comes off very believable as a protective father trying to keep life for his beleaguered daughter as normal as possible .  Fishburne is very convincing as the overwhelmed CDC director.  The only downside for the cast in the movie is that there is perhaps too many of them.  The movie jumps from story-line to story-line so rapidly that few if any of the subplots ever feel fully fleshed out.  Marion Cottilard’s kidnapping subplot in fact seems to have been forgotten about for almost a third of the movie.  Even still, it does a good job of keeping the through-line of battling the disease the driving force, and every actor is committed to each role they play.

What I think really puts Contagion ahead is the fact that it gives us a more provocative look at society in general with regards to how we respond to something like a pandemic; something of which that has become more profound during this year.  Outbreak keeps things fairly small, so that it doesn’t have to delve too much into the moral grays of society.  For Outbreak, it’s a clear good vs. evil plot as the enlightened doctors face down the interference of ignorant military personnel.  That’s basic Screenwriting 101, but the true science behind disease control is that viruses hold no allegiance to ideology.  Everyone is at risk, and to turn the film into a clear cut battle of ideas, the disease must take a back seat.  Contagion does a much better job of showing that the frailty of civilized humanity is not a by product of a pandemic, but rather it exposes the cracks that are already there.  This is perfectly encapsulated in the character played by Jude Law, a renegade journalist that tries to use the pandemic crises to further his own career.  He uses his platform in the movie to tout an unproven drug treatment as a cure for the disease and secretly profits off the sale of the same drug.  Sound familiar.  Sure, the character exists as a means of giving the story something of a antagonist, but as we observe in the movie, his success only happens because of the desperate greed that society is driven towards in self-preservation.  By not educating ourselves and listening to science, we have made it easy for grifters like the one in this movie to get away with their shenanigans, and that’s a harsh indictment on all of us as a whole that this movie makes.  Even the “good guy” scientists in the movie are not beyond making selfish acts, like when the CDC director recklessly instructs his wife to leave one of the hot spot cities, which inevitably leaks to the public and causes the public to start panicking.  By not letting the audience off the hook, Soderbergh creates a far more resounding message in his movie, and given what has happened this year, it’s any wonder why we didn’t see this crises coming.

“We are fugitives of the law.  Idiocy is our only option.”

Neither movie is perfect, but Contagion is far more interesting to watch in our current pandemic ravaged world right now.  Outbreak comes from a more innocent time that viewed widespread pandemics as more fodder for science fiction.  And indeed, that has been the way Hollywood has treated the threat of pandemics on the big screen; as something far-fetched.  I’m honestly surprised that Contagion not only took the genre in a far more serious direction when it did, but did so with so much scientific insight that it nearly predicted the future.  We know the truth far too harshly now that pandemics are all too real.  It’s happening now, it’s happened before, and it will happen again.  Hopefully, the lesson of 2020 will prepare us for something worse in the future, but then again, I’m sure that they thought the same thing back in 1918.  Anyone looking for something light and escapist can look to Outbreak, with it’s cheesy quaintness.  It’s a product of it’s time, and while not even remotely worth seeing to inform yourself about the way pandemics work, it is ridiculous enough to show just how off the mark Hollywood can get sometimes in a hilarious way.  If anything, it’s far more offensive as a waste of a good cast rather than an affront to cinematic story-telling.  Contagion on the other hand is very informative and eerily true to life.  It’s not for anyone looking for an edge of your seat experience, but at the same time, you’ll be blown away by just how close it actually got to predicting the current predicament we are in now.  For anyone needing a clear cut explanation of how Disease Control works and how to do it properly, Contagion offers the best possible example that I think has ever been put on screen.  It’s provocative without being patronizing, and shows us exactly how our own actions have an effect on our ability to fight these kinds of devastating diseases.  In this regard, Contagion ultimately remains a very positive film even with the horrible tragedy at it’s center, because it shows science as a rescuing force in our world, something we should be spotlighting more often.  For the movie, misinformation is the real enemy of good health, and by sticking so close to the actual reality of disease science, we see a perfect visual playbook there to guide us through the right way to deal with a pandemic.  If only we had followed it from the beginning.

“Somewhere in the world, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat.”

Minimal Pride – The Problem With Queerbaiting in Hollywood

For the longest time, it was dangerous to live an openly queer life in most of America.  Up until the 2003 Lawrence vs. Texas Supreme Court decision, many states across the country could still legally imprison homosexuals without cause other than just for being gay.  The last 20 years have thankfully seen a reversal of centuries old laws discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community, including the recent Supreme Court decision this week to stop workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual identity.  Though it is certainly a step in the right direction, there is still a lot of work to be done in order to move the country closer to making life better for it’s queer population.  It’s only been in the last few years that attitudes have changed for the better in rural parts of the country, which have long been hostile to LGBTQ people.  For the longest time, if you were a queer person who wanted to feel safe from discrimination and harassment, you often had to leave small town America behind and find a new life in the more tolerant cities.  Though most queer Americans still had to live a quiet, closeted life, even in the more progressive urban areas, there was less of a danger of losing one’s career and livelihood in the city, and over time, some cities not only managed to tolerate it’s queer citizenry, but would also eventually celebrate them.  One such community could be found in and around Hollywood.  For the longest time, one of the areas in which Queer people could find acceptance was in the field of entertainment, though this was also bound by some limits.  The representation of queer people in front of the camera took quite a while to catch up, but behind the camera, there was a flourishing of representation of Queer individuals in the entertainment industry.  In the long run, the acceptance of the LGBTQ population in various departments of the film industry allowed for many barriers to eventually come down for other parts of the economy, as there became a growing number of queer individuals that wielded economic power and, more importantly, now had a platform.

So, why with all this progress made in the last 20 years, along with a long-standing tolerance within the film industry for queer people, is queer representation still lagging behind.  There are more queer characters being brought into mainstream media, but it still feels like the industry is hedging it’s bets and merely tipping it’s toes slightly into the water.  This is more true with the big budget movies being made, as the greatest advances in queer representation on the big screen have been coming from the independent market.  You look at some of the most groundbreaking queer films made in the last decade, including the Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016), they were made outside of the Hollywood studio system rather than within it.  And why is that?  It’s not because there is a shortage of queer voices or queer themed stories.  I can tell you from my own experience as a screenwriter and as a past screenplay reader that there are plenty of scripts out there that are telling stories with a queer viewpoint.  The real reason that there hasn’t been progress made in queer representation on the big screen is because of economics.  Hollywood just isn’t investing in these kinds of movies because they don’t yet see a profit motive in it.  They aren’t exactly suppressing queer voices; it’s just that they don’t have the incentive yet to push them to the forefront.  Film-making may be art, but it’s also big business, and the primary objective is to always invest in the things that will generate the most profit.  An artistic statement becomes secondary.  Contrary to what far right fear-mongers will have you believe, the queer population isn’t trying to indoctrinate people into growing it’s numbers.  The LGBTQ population is still the same 10% of the total population that it has always been; it’s just now that more people within that 10% are living openly and declaring their identity without fear.  Though the LGBTQ community has gained it’s voice and pushed back against years of oppression, their impact on the box office still doesn’t have the impact to move the industry towards better representation.  But, that too is changing over time.

One thing that has gotten much better over the last decade is a greater groundswell of support of the LGBTQ community from those outside of it.  Allies of queer people are now demanding more representation on the big and small screen, and that has enabled a still marginalized group like the LGBTQ community to finally have a voice in their own representation that otherwise would’ve gone ignored.  This has taken a much stronger hold here in America, where the politics really have changed dramatically over a short amount of time.  Only 15 years ago, the support for the gay community was so vulnerable that nearly half of the population was willing to add a ban on same-sex marriage into the Constitution of the United States.  Now, taking a decidedly anti-gay stance can actually hurt your chances in getting elected; a complete reversal of where we were only a decade ago.  Attitudes change, and the Queer community has benefited from one of the swiftest reversals in American political discourse.  But, what’s stopping Hollywood from matching the changing attitudes of the American people.  It has less to do with domestic politics than it does with international politics.  Hollywood is an industry funded more and more by foreign investment.  The worldwide box office now eclipses that of the United States, with the biggest international market being found in China.  And let’s just say, the East isn’t quite as enlightened on the representation of queer people as the West has become.  In fact, China even outright bans films that have a openly stated queer point of view or an openly gay character.  The sad thing is, because they have a vested interest in the Chinese market, Hollywood has acquiesced to China’s demands and either censored their own films or failed to make any large investment into queer representation.  Here we see the fundamental problem behind Hollywood falling behind the rest of the country in accurately representing queer characters in the culture at large, but there is another problem that has arisen as the industry has tried to cover up their lack of support by attempting to appease both sides.

This problem in question is something called Queerbaiting.  What Queerbaiting represents is the industry touting it’s efforts towards expanding representation of queer people in film, while at the same time making the minimalist of efforts.  Studios have been adding gay characters in their movies, but they are often supporting characters that either are played for laughs or have such a minimal impact on the plot that they can easily be edited out for international release.  And yet, Hollywood will still make a big deal in Western press that they have made a historic decision to include a queer character in their movie, hoping to be celebrated for making a such a progressive move.  The only problem is, the LGBTQ community isn’t buying it.  The characters that Hollywood is touting as revolutionary are in fact the wrong kind of characters to be spotlighting as such.  I’m sad to say that the company that has been most guilty of this recently has been Disney, which itself has had such a strong reputation with supporting queer rights.  Long before same-sex marriage became legal across the land, Disney granted the same benefits to same-sex couples within their company way ahead of the rest of the industry.  But sadly, they have decided that they also want the credit for creating the first out characters in their movies, and their choices couldn’t be any more counter-productive.  In particular, they made a big deal about the character of LeFou from Beauty and the Beast (2017) was going to be portrayed as gay; a move that I don’t think they planned out very well.  The character of LeFou is a minor one in the story, is played mostly for laughs (bringing in a number of reductive stereotypes in movie that otherwise didn’t need them), and also his name also literally translates into “the Fool” in French.  It’s not exactly a progressive move at all when the queer character that you are proudly promoting is literally the bumbling, buffoonish sidekick of the villain.  And thankfully, the LGBTQ community rejected this gesture as pandering.

Hollywood has long injected queer subtext into characters within their movies; sometimes in a covertly brave manner, like in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) or David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962).  But, for the most part, Hollywood has retained the hetero-normative status quo, particularly when it comes to the main protagonists of their movies.  But, the demands of the audience have changed, and it’s becoming less controversial to have a central character within the story be openly queer.  However, to maintain their status quo in the international market, Hollywood is still downplaying character’s sexual identity, while at the same time spotlighting progress being made where none really exists.  The subtext in the movies used to define a character as potentially being queer is now being touted by Hollywood as actual representation.  The only problem is subtext and actual text are totally different standards for true representation.  One of the most glaring examples of this can be found in the Harry Potter series.  After having finished publishing her final volume of the series, author J.K. Rowling revealed in an interview that the beloved character of Dumbledore was always gay.  The problem is, had she never said this publicly, you would not have been given any indication from either the books or the movies as to what Dumbledore’s sexuality was.  Within the text itself, not knowing is actually a good thing, because it doesn’t matter in the end; it’s not what defines Dumbledore as a person.  But because Rowling made a point of it in an interview, she cast a new light on the character.  Did she know all along that this was the case, or did she come up with it after the fact to win some points for representation.  Given Rowling’s rather controversial statements about trans people recently, she comes across as more of a person willing to change the text of her story in order to bring more attention to herself than anything.  That in itself is a terrible trivializing attitude towards a very real issue.  If you do care about queer representation, put it on the page or otherwise don’t do anything at all.  All it looks like in the end is that you’re using other people’s crusade to further your own agenda.

This kind of pandering is especially troublesome for queer people, because it continues to portray them as a sideshow for a hetero-normative society.  Queer people are not trying to shove their identity into anyone’s face; they just want to be sure that their face on screen is just given the same amount of dignity as any other group in society.  It’s not about meeting some kind of quota either.  Another unfortunate result of Hollywood’s queerbaiting is that they are putting gay characters into their projects like it’s an obligation, rather than a necessary move for the story.  One thing that I have particularly hated in recent television is the “token” queer character, because it’s another instance of paying lip service towards queer representation rather than actually making a difference.  It’s one of the reasons why I hold the unpopular position of hating the Emmy award winning show Mad Men, because it treated it’s queer characters as mere props to deliver a message, and then discarded them once they served their purpose.  The best queer representation on television is found in stories where the queer characters are woven into the tapestry of the show as a whole, and contribute so much more to their story other than just their sexual identity.  It’s shows like Shameless on Showtime, Modern Family on ABC, or even surprisingly Downton Abbey.  Gay audiences like to see themselves treated as more than window dressing when consuming media.  Television is thankfully following the leads of these more groundbreaking shows, but there still needs to be a lot more consideration towards how queer characters are used in the over-arching narrative of a story.

There is a danger of demanding too much of Hollywood to move towards queer representation.  This is not so much to do with how queer characters are represented, but rather by whom.  Some people pushing for queer representation also demand that the same representation be carried over into the roles being portrayed on screen.  In some cases it’s justified; queer actress Tessa Thompson for example is campaigning hard for her character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Valkyrie from the Thor franchise, to have a same-sex love interest in the next movie, something which the film’s director (Taika Waititi) and the studio (Marvel) appear to be open to.  But, demanding this across the board also limits the amount of queer themed stories that can be told.  Take for instance the controversy that arose when it was announced that Scarlett Johnansson was going to play a trans character in an upcoming movie.  Critics demanded that the role go to an actual trans actor instead of a cis gendered actress like Scarlett.  The only problem is, there isn’t a trans actor at the moment that has the box office pull that Scarlett Johansson has at the moment.  So, instead of having a movie with a trans protagonist at it’s center given a lot of attention with an A-list star attached to it, the movie is now likely to be made with a fraction of the budget and almost no widespread attention.  Yes, it’s ideal to have an actual trans person play the role, but given that we are not at a point where a trans actor has huge box office pull, is it really worth burying this kind of film right now.  The more important thing in my mind is to have many more films centered on queer protagonists, and it shouldn’t matter what the sexual orientation of the actors playing the roles are.  Look at all the most groundbreaking gay themed films of the last couple years; Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name (2017) and Love, Simon (2018), all films with gay protagonists played by straight actors.  If we invest in these movies now, no matter who is filling the roles, then we can change the attitudes of audiences faster and open the door in the future to having more queer performers reaching that lofty A-List box office pull.

The problem overall is that while Hollywood is touting their levels of progress with regards to queer representation, the actual reality of the matter tells a different story.  For right now, the progress seems to be more self serving to the industry than it is being beneficial to the queer population itself.  If you’re going to plaster that rainbow flag all over your logos and merchandise, you should back it up with some actual progressive actions.  Queer people in general love Hollywood, and have played a part in it’s industry throughout the years.  For all that loyalty, Hollywood should consider sticking it’s neck out more and actually challenge the status quo when it comes to representing queer people in media.  In terms of casting, the representation question can be much more fluid; I for one believe that straight actors can effectively still portray queer characters, just as long as the reverse can also be true.  Just look at that example from Beauty and the Beast, with sub-textually queer LeFou being portrayed by Josh Gad (who is straight) matched up with the aggressively heterosexual Gaston, played by Luke Evans (who’s an out and proud gay actor).  The actual sexual orientation of the actors factored little into the equation, and that’s how it should be; and it was the least of the movie’s problems.  The important thing is that we need more stories where a queer character is not treated as a prop, but rather as a fully fleshed out human being.  Just releasing a bit of publicity stating that an upcoming Star Wars movie is going to feature it’s first same sex kiss matters little when that moment ends up being a blink and you’ll miss it bit of pandering.  Hollywood should have the confidence that their properties can sustain themselves with queer representation included and not worry about how other parts of the world will react.  That includes removing subtext and actually make those hinted at characters genuinely realized as out and proud individuals; like Poe and Finn from the Star Wars franchise or Elsa from Frozen.  The fact that the studio that made those movies went out of their way to downplay their character’s potential queer story-lines is really disheartening.  It’s Pride Month, so why not show a little more pride Hollywood.

Da 5 Bloods – Review

We definitely are living in a strange time right now.  The pandemic has kept us stuck at home for months now, with movie theaters remaining shuttered.  There is a light at the end of that tunnel, with theaters starting to be reopened this month, albeit at a much lower capacity.  But in the meantime, people have been turning to streaming services for fresh entertainment as an alternative, and that’s driving more attention to movies and shows premiering on those platforms than they might have had otherwise.  While this is all happening, America is also in the middle of a profound call for justice, with protests happening across the nation in response to killings at the hands of law enforcement.  The confluence of both the pandemic and the nationwide social unrest has shaken up the country in a way that we haven’t seen in several generations.  The fact that both are going on at the same time is making a lot of people broaden their perceptions about society, and that is reflecting greatly on the culture itself right now.  Just this week, we saw the newly launched HBO Max service pull Gone With the Wind off of it’s platform in a temporary move meant to re-deliver the film with more consideration to it’s historical context.  This of course led to an uproar about censorship, but it also led to a reckoning with the film industry about what kind of responsibility they hold with regards to the depictions and representations of people of color that extend throughout it’s history.  As I said, it’s a time of great turbulence both in society as a whole, but also with regards to the movie industry itself, and the media that we currently consume.  Now, if only a movie were to be released today that both deals head on with the social issues of the day while also bringing more of an audience to streaming content.  It would certainly be the right movie for this particular moment.

Enter the one and only Spike Lee.  Lee has been one of cinema’s most consistent provocative voices over the last four decades.  Though he started off strong in his career with the now iconic one-two punch of Do the Right Thing (1989) and Malcolm X (1992), his movies in the years since have rarely reached that same lofty level.  His movies have either ranged from too mainstream (2006’s Inside Man) to too small to be recognized (2012’s Red Hook Summer).  But recently, Spike has seen something of a mid career resurgence.  This was due to a movie that clicked with audiences and also felt true to the director’s sensibilities that was apparent from his earliest work.  BlackKklansman (2018) was a real return to form for Spike Lee; provocative, biting, but also infused with a sense of humanity and a witty sense of humor.  It was Spike finding that fine line between making the movie that he wanted to make and having it match exactly what audiences wanted to see.  And the result gave him his biggest box office hit in decades, as well as his very first ever Oscar win for Best Adapted Screenplay.  Certainly with the wind in his sails after BlackKklansman, Spike was ready to take on another project that satisfied his artistic and political sensibilities.  And thankfully, he found that avenue in a creative partnership with Netflix.  Not only would he be adapting one of his earliest films, She’s Gotta Have It (1986) into a series for the streamer, but he got Netflix to also bankroll what may be one of his most ambitious films to date; a Vietnam War epic called Da 5 Bloods.  This new film couldn’t have premiered at a more opportune time for Lee and Netflix, with race relations becoming such a hot button issue these last few weeks and the pandemic bringing a larger audience to streaming content.  It’s a movie that I think is perfect to review right now, and also because I don’t want to write a whole review on the disaster that is Artemis Fowl on Disney+.  So, does Da 5 Bloods continue Spike Lee’s hot streak or is the director losing his touch again.

Da 5 Bloods could be considered a Vietnam War movie, but only in the sense of looking at the long term after effects of the prolonged conflict.  Most of the movie takes place in the present day, as the last surviving members of an all black unit of soldiers called Da Bloods are reunited in a return trip to Vietnam.  Da Bloods have returned to the now peaceful country under the pretense of a vacation, but their real purpose for the trip is to retrieve something they left behind 50 years prior; a stash of solid gold bricks they found in the wreckage of a down plane in the Vietnam jungle.  Now, much older and having been haunted by their experiences over the years, Da Bloods must retrace their steps through the jungle in order to find the treasure they left behind.  Those soldiers include Otis (Clarke Peters), the mild-mannered orchestrator of the mission who finds out he left more behind in Vietnam than he realized; Eddie (Norm Lewis), the semi-successful troop veteran who is bankrolling their trip; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the group’s fun loving party animal; and Paul (Delroy Lindo), the MAGA-hat wearing, ultra conservative hot head who left Nam a changed person.  Before they go on their mission, Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) shows up, having figured out what they are really up to.  In order to keep their mission a secret, the reluctantly have David accompany them, claiming an equal share.  As they make their way back to the gold, memories come flashing back to them about their years stuck in the jungle fighting in a war they never really believed in.  And many of their memories recall their beloved commander, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who made them all believe in themselves through hard times, and who they also had to leave behind in the jungle with the gold.  Once they find their treasure, and the remains of their commander, there is only one problem that remains, how do they make it back home in a country where the scars of war still run deep.

Da 5 Bloods is definitely not the kind of movie you’d expect right away.  Though it does show us glimpses of the Vietnam War in action throughout, it’s primarily about the aftermath of war and how some wounds never heal.  And in the hands of Spike Lee, it tackles even more far reaching issues with regards to race.  The movie was adapted by Spike Lee and his BlackKklansman collaborator Kevin Willmott from an earlier screenplay written by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, and no doubt much of what was added to the script was a stronger examination of the racial factor within the story.  You can really feel the Spike Lee touch in this movie, and that in itself is what makes the movie work as well as it does.  To be honest, I for one believe Da 5 Bloods is one of Spike Lee’s best films ever; probably even the best he’s made since Malcolm X.  This movie is Spike working on all cylinders and it is magnificent.  It’s visually daring, it’s unapologetic in it’s messaging, and it is most importantly a compelling story of these diverse characters.  You can see his imprint all over the movie, whether it’s the way that he intercuts still photography into a scene, or the way he has his characters interact with each other in a shared humanity way, or with just the boldness of the way he frames and blocks his shots.  The movie starts out with a rundown of how both the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were happening simultaneously in America, and how the two pivotal upheavals left their mark on black people who were fighting abroad.  This is a theme that Spike drives home throughout the movie, because we come to understand how each of these characters were shaped by the reality of fighting for a country that treated them as less than human and what in the long run they should be owed, both as people and as soldiers.

What I think is Spike Lee’s most interesting message in the film is the different ways that time has changed things since the war, and how some things never changed at all.  The men return to a Vietnam that is peaceful and serene, and welcoming to them despite all the killing they did there years before.  By contrast, it’s a country that seems to have moved on from the horrors of it’s past, while Da Bloods are living in a country where history keeps repeating itself; where black people are still struggling for equality despite some of the progress made.  The scars of the past are not right in front of them, but buried deep, like the land mines that still litter the land.  As Spike keeps reminding us throughout the movie, the split between what you owe your country and what the country owes you in return becomes this almost insurmountable divide.  Duty and Honor feels almost like making a pact with the devil.  And yet, through the memories that they share with each other about Stormin’ Norman, they keep their moral compass set towards staying true to their mission.  But, as Norman has become more distant as a memory, so is their bond to themselves.  The character of Paul in particular brings this theme out the most within the narrative.  I find it so interesting that Spike made Paul a Trump-supporting, ultra Patriot in his post Vietnam life.  That change seems so far removed from where the character should be, but it’s also a perfect encapsulation of how far gone he has been post-war.  He’s turned so self-destructive that he’ll back the least likely politician to listen to his grievances, showing how much faith he has lost in the entire system.  The other Bloods have in their own ways have found some semblance of peace, but Paul never left the War behind; his whole life has been centered around finding more and more conflicts.  And that is the tragic element that Spike Lee perfectly encapsulates in the profound story of these characters.

And speaking more about the character of Paul, I feel that he is going to be the thing that most people are going to take away from this movie.  He is one of the most fascinating characters that I’ve seen brought to the screen in recent years.  Certainly the way he is written by Spike Lee is a big part of what makes him so captivating, but it’s actor Delroy Lindo who really makes Paul shine as a character.  Lindo has been a consistently reliable character actor for decades, but has never up to now been granted anything close to a leading man part.  This is a fantastic, tour-de-force performance from the veteran actor and should earn him a whole lot more attention after this.  He at the very least should be on everyone’s short list for an Academy Award nomination next year (if we do have the Oscars next year, hopefully).  One of my absolute favorite parts of the movie is a monologue delivered by Lindo as he treks his way through the jungle brush, with his face right in the camera staring directly at us.  It’s a powerful moment, and is something that only Spike Lee as a director can pull off, with Delroy giving it his all.  Though he is the stand-out character, the remaining ensemble cast are no slouches either.  Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Jonathan Majors all contribute stellar performances in the movie, and they are so believable as these characters, that you almost feel like they have indeed fight together in Vietnam.  It’s to Spike Lee’s credit that he didn’t go with A-List actors for these roles; any other studio might have pressured him to add Denzel Washington or Samuel L. Jackson to the roles.  The fact that these characters are played by relative unknowns is a great asset to the movie because it allows us to know the characters, and not be distracted by the fact that their played by a movie star.  The only blockbuster name in the movie is Chadwick Boseman, who works very well in his supporting role of Stormin’ Norman.  It might be jarring sometimes to see Black Panther in army fatigues, but whenever he’s on screen, he still commands his moments and gives you a good sense of why these old soldiers look back on their fallen comrade with such affection.

I also have to point out how artistically satisfying the movie is.  In an interesting move, Spike Lee lays around with aspect ratios in different parts of the film.  When we see Da Bloods first arriving in Vietnam and experiencing the contemporary changes that have happened since they were last there, the movie is framed cinematically in an anamorphic 2.40:1 aspect ratio.  When we see flashbacks to the combat days, the movie shifts to a restrictive 4:3 ratio, as well as a grainy 16 mm look.  And then, in the last half of the movie, where the men enter the jungle to find the gold, the movie changes to a opened-up 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  It’s an interesting artistic choice that I felt really helped to separate the different parts of the movie in an interesting way.  It seems like when he wants to use the wider aspect ratio, it’s in the scenes that feel more cinematic, like a mainstream Hollywood movie.  When it’s in the Academy standard 4:3, it’s to emulate the feel of actual wartime footage taken in the midst of the conflict.  And when he uses the 1.85 ratio, it’s to make the movie feel more gritty, with more handheld, documentary style photography.  Naturally, like most other Spike Lee movies, Da 5 Bloods is awash with color.  He makes great use of the actual Vietnam locations that he was allowed to shoot within, although most of the jungle scenes were done in neighboring Thailand, due to the fact that the Vietnamese countryside is still a hot zone of un-triggered landmines.  Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, working with Spike for the first time, really captures a serene beauty to the Southeast Asian locations.  The color of the movie especially makes this film feel like Spike returning to form as a visual story-teller because I can’t recall a movie of his that used color this vividly since Do the Right Thing.  Even though it’s a Netflix movie, which means that you won’t find it playing on a big screen anytime soon, or ever, it’s still a bold, epic experience that you should seek out the biggest screen you can find to fully appreciate.

If you are already a Netflix subscriber, there’s really no reason why you should be passing this one over.  It is a remarkably profound story about race, war, trauma, and friendship that seems like the best possible movie we should be watching in this moment.  It’s pointed in it’s social messaging, but never preachy.  Spike knows first and foremost that this is a story about people, and it’s their story that drives the narrative, and not the larger issues at play.  What the movie represents most is Spike Lee transforming into the director he was always meant to be, but rarely was given the opportunity to achieve it.  I don’t think that he’s going to be a director that will only occasionally knock one out of the park, but will now have every one of his movies become an event worth celebrating; finally achieving the due recognition that his peers like Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson always seem to receive.  He’s managed to deliver two masterpieces in a row with BlackKklansman and Da 5 Bloods, and I am eager to see what he has next in store.  The movie works so well not just as a reflection of one of the darkest conflicts in this country’s history, but also as a brilliant character study.  Delroy Lindo absolutely needs to remain in the conversation for an Oscar, and I’ll be very upset if he’s not given at least a nomination.  And for people right now looking for a film that examines the history of this country with regards to race, this movie will offer a valuable lesson on those who were tragically left behind in a war that should have brought them home honored for their service.  Even separated from this tumultuous moment in time, I think that this will be a movie well remembered in both Spike Lee’s larger body of work and as a compelling statement made within American cinema as a whole.  Bloods don’t die, they multiply.

Rating: 9/10

Fight the Power – The Long Road Towards Making Black Lives Matter in Hollywood

America as a nation has had to confront it’s deep rooted problems with racial inequality throughout it’s entire history.  The last century itself marked significant change with regards to racial issues, with the African-American community rising up and proclaiming their right to equality, against a long standing system designed to keep them out of power.  Though progress has been made over time, like Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act, the struggle for America’s Black population still continues to remain a harsh reality, and over time it heats up into a national reckoning.  This past week, the protests following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police became one of those flash-point moments in America, where the prejudice and subjugation on display could not be overlooked.  Massive protests and rioting in America is nothing new, but what made this one stand out was the sheer scale of it.  Every major city in America saw protests erupt, with marchers of all ages, race, creed and gender showing their solidarity with the Floyd family and the people holding the sadistic police force accountable in Minneapolis.  This was, far and away, the most widespread protesting that we’ve seen in over a generation.  Even nations across the world joined in.  And one hopes that it will lead to a lasting change in this country.  But, the sad reality is that we’ve already had this conversation many times, and it still keeps going.  The narrative of African-Americans being disproportionately discriminated against and abused by police forces is just as much a part of America as it’s founding and it refrains throughout it’s history.  The reason why these protests have become so widespread is not just about George Floyd alone, but about a whole history of oppression that both the black community and it’s allies just can not tolerate anymore.

It’s hard to know right now what effects these protests may have in the future, but the important thing right now is to be heard and to assess what responsibility we have with regards to how we respond to something as blatantly wrong as the killing of George Floyd.  I personally can only claim a deep sadness for what has happened on a level of basic human decency.  I’ve never had to suffer in the same way that most African-Americans have in this country.  I grew up in a pretty sheltered, white suburban upbringing where I thankfully was never taught to be racist towards people of color, but at the same time I was also never shown what issues in America were like from non-white cultural perspective.  In many ways, I had to seek out that information for myself, in order to broaden my mind past my own white perspective.  And usually, the place where I would find the most valuable lessons on race in America came from cinema.  Or at least, it’s what I thought was a valuable lesson.  Hollywood has long prided itself on being ahead of the curve on race relations, and has touted itself as the shining force pushing progressive values across the world.  And while there are positive actions taken by the Hollywood community to break down barriers for people of color, they are often in response to barriers that they themselves have long been responsible for.  As my perspective on cinema has grown more broad over time, I have realized more and more that a large part of why America has struggles with confronting the sins of it’s past is parallel to a similar attempt by the movie industry to paint itself in a more enlightened light while also sweeping it’s own dirty history of intolerance.  Like everything else, cinema is a reflection of the culture that creates it, and the long road of African-American representation in Hollywood more or less draws a direct correlation with the larger society as a whole, with perhaps more consequential connections that we’d like to know of.

Today, African-American representation on screen is certainly far better than it once was.  You’ll find a high number of major theatrical releases that feature a black actor as it’s headlining star; from Will Smith to Denzel Washington, from Eddie Murphy to Kevin Hart, from Octavia Spenser to Tiffany Haddish.  During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, the only headliner in Hollywood of color was Sidney Poitier, and he wasn’t paid anywhere close to the salary that today’s stars get, nor as much as his white contemporaries were at the time, which is it’s own crime.  The fact that Poitier’s indisputable screen presence as a Hollywood icon paved the way for all to follow is a positive sign of progress; but it was also too long in the making.  Poitier was only the first actor of color to be given the spotlight of leading man, but his rise to fame came on the shoulders of so many who were not as fortunate.  The sad reality is that for any African-American to find work in the movie industry, they had to often remain in the background and fill either one of two kinds of roles; a servant or a criminal.  This was not particularly due to the filmmakers being prejudiced themselves; though you could find a few who were.  It was largely because of of money.  Hollywood wanted their films to play well in all parts of the country, including the deeply segregated South, and that meant pandering to the largely white audiences’ expectations for the roles they believed blacks should play in society.  Hollywood could have stuck it’s neck out and defied the societal prejudices of the day by elevating a black performer to headliner status, but for too long they chose to stick with the status quo.  And you wonder why prejudice still permeates American culture today.

That’s why I don’t really buy the Hollywood narrative that they’ve been this force for good all throughout it’s history.  If anything, they’ve played a part in perpetuating stereotypes that continue to hurt black communities.   You look at some of the ugly racial coding used in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies and you’ll understand that Hollywood still has a problem with how it portrays non-white characters on screen.  Stereotypes are cheap shortcuts used by unfunny people to make themselves appear more edgy, and not an effective way to add shoe-horn “diversity” into the story.  And stereotyping extends all the way back to Hollywood’s earliest days.  One of the most unfortunate aspects of movie history is that most of the techniques that we use today in film-making were first used in 1915 to create what is essentially a propaganda piece for the Ku Klux Klan; D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.  Hailed as the first blockbuster by early film historians, Nation is an ugly reminder of the casual racism that has existed throughout American history, and also of how white Americans at the time viewed people of color.  The movie depicts African-Americans as sex-crazed monsters preying on white women, which was an irrational fear that motivated many white supremacists in America to restrict the rights of black people and, most tragically of all, murder them in cold blood for any reason.  This is a narrative that Birth of a Nation whole-heartedly embraces and promotes, and while Griffith’s revolutionary cinematic techniques propelled the art-form to another level, it also ingrained into America a portrait of itself that was blatantly false.  African-Americans have spent years trying to regain their dignity of human beings back from false impressions that have perpetuated throughout the culture, so when you see some Hollywood movies still trafficking in ugly stereotypes, it does call into question just how much progress they can claim to have been responsible for.

One thing that does sicken me is the fact that in order for Hollywood to adapt a message of racial tolerance, it’s got to come attached with a white perspective.  Racial tolerance is not a two way street.  One thing that Hollywood justifiably gets criticized for is the “white savior” trope that permeates so many films about racial injustice.  They are movies that usually tackles issues about racial injustice, but does so through the perspective of an enlightened white protagonist.  These “white saviors” are usually liberal minded white people who stick their neck out for the oppressed and are given the reward of friendship and approval from the people who are being oppressed, who usually just become window dressing for the white character’s noble crusade.  In other words, these are movies made to make white Hollywood liberals feel better about themselves.  Think Dances With Wolves (1990), Dangerous Minds (1995), or The Blind Side (2009), movies made to service the egos of vain white movie stars while at the same time paying only mouth service to the issues they are trying to raise.  They are just a plea for validation; the movies themselves actually achieve nothing in the long run with regards to changing the culture as a whole.  And that’s because they are movies that are made by white people, for white people.  African-American filmmakers will tell you that these kinds of movies offer up nothing to the conversation, and in many ways end up trivializing the struggle their communities go through.  That’s why so many people were upset with Green Book’s (2018) Best Picture win, because it was viewed as a step backward for racial progress, showing that the white perspective was more valued than their own.

But, even given the struggle that African-Americans have gone through in their representation in Hollywood, progress has happened, and it’s been from voices that refuse to be silenced.  One such voice is Spike Lee, whose prolific film career has been defined from a undeterred drive to shift the conversation of race in America.  Most of Spike Lee’s movies center around the African-American experience, particularly when it comes to fighting for civil rights.  But no more statement from the provocative filmmaker has ever been as loud and impactful as the one found in his 1989 film, Do The Right Thing.  Filmed on the tail end of the Reagan Administration and released in the early days of the Bush Administration, Lee captured a perfect snapshot of race relations in America through a profound story of one inner city neighborhood and the people who live there.  In one incredible 2 hour block of time, Lee was able to encapsulate the racial divide of America in a narrative that was refreshingly honest.  And most importantly, he didn’t pull any punches along the way.  He discusses issues like gentrification, dehumanization, radicalization, and ultimately police brutality and violence that sadly has far too often broken up and destroyed black communities across America.  The movie blew audiences away, and instantly made Lee a household name.  It also ushered in a new generation of black filmmakers like John Singleton and F. Gary Gray, who were able to tell stories of their communities their way.  But, most importantly, Do The Right Thing was the first time a movie became a success telling  the story of the black experience without the Hollywood filter to dilute the message.  It was often attacked as a call to arms for the black community, blamed irrationally for race riots in America like the ones in Los Angeles following the Rodney King beating.  But that’s not at all what Lee meant with his film.  The movie is about a community, and how it’s many different shades of people respond to an act of violence that violates their faith in the system.  He never once says that violence is the answer, but shows that it’s a symptom of a history of injustice.  Ultimately, Lee spells it out for us what should be done about the problem and it’s there in the title, “Do the Right Thing.”  And he doesn’t mean that just as a call for black people to stand up for themselves, but for people of all colors to recognize what the right course should be.

So, what more can Hollywood do to change the conversation about race.  For one thing, allowing more representation in all corners of the industry would help.  There are many people of color already working within the industry both in front and behind the camera, with many more on their way straight out of film school.  Even still, the opportunities given to them still fall well short of where they should be as represented as part of the industry as a whole.  Films centered on African-American issues still don’t get the backing from major studios in the way that they should, and this still stems from the antiquated notion that movies about black people don’t perform well at the box office.  I have no doubt that Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) dispelled that notion pretty effectively, as it eviscerated numerous box office records; an unprecedented move for a movie written, directed, and starring black people.  It’s like a long ignored demographic responded strongly to a movie that finally spoke to their own heritage and experience.  Funny how that happens.  It wouldn’t hurt major studios to look into elevating executives of color to higher positions, so that they may be better able to tap into this growing market and craft movies that better reflect the African-American experience.  For a lot of African-American icons within the industry, their success has not come out of the open doors that have welcomed them in, but rather in spite of those that have remained shut.  It shouldn’t be imperative on black filmmakers to change their attitudes in order to gain more access, but rather for Hollywood to rethink their own position with regards to racial issues, and determine whether or not it was wise for them to leave so much off the table while maintaining the status quo.  Tyler Perry, love him or hate him, has become a media mogul outside of the Hollywood system, and has managed to build his own empire close to home in Atlanta, Georgia, becoming a new ideal destination for up and coming filmmakers, and a welcoming space for productions like The Walking Dead and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Imagine if Hollywood had someone like that on their own home turf.

One hopes that the protests that we’ve seen over the course of this last week may in some way lead to a positive change.  What’s more important than wanting change is to actually make that change a reality.  It’s on all of us, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, middle eastern, everyone to hold the people in power accountable for any injustice we see in this world.  That also extends into the culture itself.  Hollywood wants to portray itself as a bastion for progressive ideas, but without action, that perception just ends up ringing hollow.  George Clooney, in a very smug self-congratulatory Oscar acceptance speech, proclaimed that he was proud to come from an industry that awarded Hattie McDaniel an Oscar for Gone With the Wind (1939) long before the Civil Rights Movement existed in America.  What he conveniently left out in that speech was that Ms.  McDaniel was forced to enter through the back kitchen door in order to attend the Awards ceremony, because the then owner of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles would not allow her to walk the red carpet at the front entrance with her co-stars.  One small gesture, no matter how historic, did not excuse a history of racial inequality that unfortunately existed in Hollywood for decades.  the way Hollywood perceives itself is in stark contrast with the way it maintained the racist status quo in America for so many years.  Things have improved, but it was a long march forward to get there, and there still is a lot of work still left unfinished.  I can’t claim to understand the full horror of racial intolerance that black people have endured in this country, but what I can do is listen and ask what I can do to help.  That’s what all of us should be doing; listening and not ignore the problems like we have so many times before.  We need to hold people accountable, and that includes the culture at large, Hollywood included.  They say they are for changing attitudes towards racial injustice; we should all demand for them to back up words with actions.  As Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  One hopes that this point of time is one of those bends in the right direction.