All posts by James Humphreys

King of the World – Titanic 20 Years Later and the History of the Unsinkable Movie

In the late fall of 1997, we didn’t know what was about to descend upon us in the movie theaters.  For the most part, it had been a largely lackluster year, at least as far as Hollywood was concerned.  The summer had given us some laughably over the top action thrillers like Con Air and Face/Off, as well as some outright embarrassments like Batman & Robin.  And amidst all the talk of Hollywood movies becoming nothing more than overly expensive junk food, there was this fascinating side story bubbling up about this runaway movie production about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.  Directed by action film auteur, James Cameron, the movie Titanic would arrive in theaters in the middle of December 1997 already burdened by negative press about it’s bloated production budget (a then record $200 million) and long delayed development.  Believe it or not, the movie was originally intended to be a summer release, but it was held back for 5 months due to the fact that Cameron was not able to finish it on time.  So, couple those production problems with the fact that it was an action film director trying his hand at an epic, period romance for the first time as well as the fact that it boasted an unthinkable 3 hour and 15 minute run-time, and you can imagine that the executive at 20th Century Fox who bankrolled it were pretty nervous on the date of release.  The studio, no stranger to out of control productions like Cleopatra (1963), even sold off the domestic distribution rights to Paramount, just so they could brace themselves for the inevitable fall.  So, the day of release finally came, and as it turned out for everyone involved, everything turned out more than just okay.  Titanic not only managed to become a success, it became a new high water mark for all of Hollywood, not just at the box office but in terms of acclaim, popularity and influence in the years ahead.  Now, 20 years later, we are once again reminded of just how big an impact this movie left on the industry, and how unexpected that result really has been.

Titanic broke pretty much every record that you could think off for a single Hollywood film.  In an era of blockbuster entertainment, it defied all precedent.  Three hour plus movies just didn’t make money any more, because they reduced the amount of showtimes available throughout the day, and yet here was a movie that managed to continue to pack houses every single day and make more money than movies half it’s length several times over.  Not only that, it had better longevity than any other film Hollywood had seen at the box office.  It remained number one at the box office for a still unbroken record of 14 weeks, eventually adding to a final tally of just over $600 million domestic, and $1.5 billion worldwide.  Those record numbers stood unchallenged for over a decade, but have since been topped twice by James Cameron himself with Avatar (2009) and by Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).  But, it wasn’t just box office numbers that set Titanic  apart.  It ended up sweeping through awards season, eventually picking up a total of 11 Academy Awards out a total of 14 nominations (tying the record on both accounts) including the coveted Best Picture award.  The movie, regardless to say, hit bigger than anybody ever thought it would, and for something that is in essence a disaster movie, the result proved to be anything but.  But what is interesting is how the film stands now far removed from the frenzy that surrounded it’s beginning.  Did James Cameron’s epic really stand the test of time, or was it just a flash in the pan that hit at the exact right time.  There’s a lot to take in about the legacy of Titanic, especially with regards to the legacy it left behind on the industry of Hollywood.  In many ways, it brought much needed success to areas of the industry that really needed it, and at the same time, made some things a tad more difficult as well.  Especially when you look at the way the movie impacted the people involved, the technology behind it’s making and the movie-going public as a whole, we begin to get a sense of just how monumental a movie like Titanic has been over the last 20 years.

The first thing that revisiting the film makes you think about overall is why; why the Titanic?  How did this then nearly century old tragedy inspire this big of a production and why did it become such a huge hit?  It’s interesting looking at the inception of James Cameron’s ideas for the film.  Already, people knew of his passionate obsession with deep sea exploration, something which he had already indulged himself with in the movie The Abyss (1989).  At the same time, the mystique of the Titanic tragedy was already starting to take hold in our culture.  In the mid 80’s, the sunken wreck was finally discovered in the North Atlantic, preserved just enough 2 miles below the ocean surface to give us a look into the distant past and help piece together the events of that fateful night.  From this came numerous publications detailing the storied history of the “unsinkable” Titanic cruise ship, as well as renewed interest in the personal stories of the still surviving people who sailed on it.  There was even a hit, Tony winning musical that brought the story of the ship to life.  And out of this renewed interest, James Cameron made his rather bold pitch to 20th Century Fox.  According to the director himself, his entire pitch was simply showing the executives a picture of the Titanic and saying “Romeo and Juliet on this ship.  That’s my next project,” and miraculously he got the green-light.  Naturally, the love story aspect was what appealed to the studio chiefs, but when you look at the movie as a whole, and the person who James Cameron is, it’s clear that his intention was to recreate the events of the Titanic sinking, putting the viewer right in the thick of it as it happens.  This of course is easier said than done, and as the production went along, it became clear the actual scale to the whole venture that Cameron had in mind, and all of it was very, very expensive.

As the production went into full force, it quickly outgrew what Fox had available.  A whole new facility was constructed in Baja California, Mexico just to construct the massive out door sets that Cameron needed.  The most remarkable of these was a near full-size replica of the port side of the ship itself, as well as a recreation of the Southhampton dock that it would have launched from.  The amount of detail indeed pulls off Cameron’s vision perfectly, putting the viewer on the ship just as it would have been back on it’s maiden voyage in 1912.  Even more impressive than this is the remarkable way that Cameron created sets that not only were detailed and suitable for filming any variety of scenes, but could also be dipped and sunk under water in a massive tank thanks to a colossal set of gimbal lifts.  This not only gave the sets authenticity in their recreation, but it allowed us to see what the actual effect of the ship sinking would have felt like in person.  The amazing thing watching the film is knowing how much of the amazing visual effects are done in camera.  Cameron actually did take his massive outdoor set and tilted it at a 45 degree angle, recreating the final moments of Titanic in frightening detail.  When you see the extras clinging to the railings of the Titanic set for this film, they are doing so much in the same way that the real life passengers would have.  There is no question that Titanic is a triumph of screen direction, showing an unprecedented level of craftsmanship the likes of which may never be topped.  Cameron’s tactics of directing may be shaky, because let’s face it, Titanic has it’s low points too (particularly with the love story) but it’s clear that he triumphs when it comes to drawing drama out of the tragic events of the sinking, and does so with an enviable sense of detail.  That more than anything is what holds up over 20 years later.  James Cameron wanted to bring the Titanic to life, and that he does, in a spectacular way.  You can’t watch the film today and not be awed by the remarkable artistry that went into crafting it; the costumes, the sets, the cinematography.  Even the primitive CGI effects somewhat hold up, especially the sweeping wide shots of the entire ship.  Those are the things that really build the legend of this movie in the long run.

But, the other interesting aspect of Titanic’s history in the long run is in how it’s been affected by it’s own success, particularly with regards to the negative aspects.  Titanic in a way became too big of a movie for a while, which led to an inevitable backlash.  For a time, the movie was mocked for it’s shortcomings, and parodied incessantly for everything from it’s sometimes laughable script, to it’s awkwardly inconsistent performances, to just the obsessive way that fans were reacting to it.  James Cameron himself was often a good sport about it, and would even participate in a comedic bit about the movie too.  I recall a MTV produced skit where Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn try in vain to pitch a sequel to Cameron that’s very funny, as well as one other bit where James Cameron from somewhere else where Cameron lights up a cigar with a burning $100 bill.  At least he’s got a sense of humor.  But, for a while, it became almost the cool thing to put down Titanic for all it’s flaws; even to the point of outright hating it.  Honestly, I was even finding myself falling into that same mindset for a while, almost being ashamed that I enjoyed it in the first place.  In retrospect, that reaction is a little harsh, but some of those critiques have never really gone away.  I hate to say it, but Titanic has a really lackluster script, and is only salvaged by the sheer brilliance of the direction.  Perhaps Cameron, who both wrote and directed, didn’t have quite the necessary tools of basic screenwriting to match the intensity of the moments he’s trying to convey, but at the same time, I’ve come to accept this as a part of his film-making style.  He’s a man more comfortable in the director’s chair, crafting extravagant set pieces that push the boundaries of cinema.  He can’t bring that same focus into his script, however, and that’s why Titanic is saddled with one-dimensional characters and cringe-worthy dialogue.  But, as time has gone on, these same faults also give the movie character.  Yeah it can be predictable and childish, but it comes with a certain level of charm.  It also could have been a lot worse, especially if you look at the scenes that Cameron cut from the film.  It’s clear that Cameron found his right tone in the editing room, as the movie had even more hokey and horribly out of place humor (like a cut gag of Kathy Bates’ Molly Brown asking for more ice for her drink as the giant iceberg passes by in the background).  The movie has had ups and downs, but in the end, the strengths win out.

Another interesting impact this movie has had is on the people who were involved with it.  James Cameron himself has worked through the highs and lows of his career triumphs, and has seen two of his movies break records at the box office, including ones he set himself.  At the same time, he is a man almost burdened with too much expectations because of the success he’s had.  It took him 12 years after Titanic to finally release his follow-up, Avatar, another movie that also suffered a backlash due to it’s inescapable presence.  And like after Titanic, he has struggled to get his next project off the ground, as it’s now been 8 years since Avatar and all we hear about is him continually trying to tinker with that world in further sequels.  But, at the same time, he has taken his passions to very enviable levels of achievement.  He has continued to invest his time in deep sea exploration, including revisiting the wreck of the Titanic multiple times, with it culminating in the remarkable achievement of reaching the bottom of  Challenger’s Deep, the lowest part of the ocean, a feat that only he and two other men have accomplished, and doing so in a submarine vessel that he engineered himself.  The cast of the movie as well has taken interesting routes in the years after Titanic.  The backlash towards the movie probably affected the two leads of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet more than anyone else.  For a while, DiCaprio was the most talked about heartthrob in the world, and it caused him to somewhat retreat a bit from the limelight for a while, just due to the enormous pressure.  Kate Winslet also found it hard to follow up her Oscar nominated role and was for a time unable to match the exposure that Titanic had given her.  But, what I believe ended up being a positive result of the negative backlash that both actors faced was that it motivated them to challenge themselves as actors.  Their careers over the last two decades are marked by one risky and punishing role after another, and today both Leo and Kate are celebrated as two of the best performers of their generation, with Titanic almost taking a backseat in their respective bodies of work.  The one thing that both take away from the film is the friendship they’ve developed, which continues to this day, even leading them to work together again in the less beloved Revolutionary Road (2008), playing husband and wife.  While it’s been tough going for some of those involved, Titanic still has left a positive impact on the careers of many of Hollywood’s top talent, and indeed, helped a few rise to the prominence that they were due.

The one thing that I do admire Titanic for in retrospect is that it marks a turning point for Hollywood.  It was both the start of a new era in Hollywood, as well as the last of it’s kind.  Titanic for one thing revolutionized the use of computer generated effects in movies, something that is still advancing to this day in Hollywood to varying degrees.  It also broke new ground in the industry, with regards to how a movie is marketed.  Not only did we see a shift in how a movie like this is publicized to the public, with the titular ship being pushed to the sideline in favor of showcasing the two leads in much of the marketing material.  In fact, even today, new re-releases show only Leo and Kate on the posters, taken mostly from the iconic “I’m flying” sequence on the ships bow, and with none of the ship itself in view.  The movie is also the first of it’s kind to have a pop song attached to it, which itself became an inescapable phenomenon; the Celine Dion featured “My Heart Will Go On.”  If you think Frozen‘s “Let it Go” was overplayed in 2014, you obviously don’t remember the days when this song was on every radio station for a solid year and more.  So, there was a lot that Titanic changed in the industry, but because of it’s success, I also lament the fact that it also diminished something that had existed for years prior in Hollywood.  The sweeping historical epic had always been a staple in the industry, especially as a means for the industry to earn some awards prestige.  This was evident in iconic films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Patton (1970), Gandhi (1982), and The Last Emporer (1987).  The 1990’s became the last decade to see these types of movies, as productions became more expensive over time, and studios impatient with overlong running times.  Schindler’s List (1993) and Braveheart (1995) managed to achieve critical acclaim with 3 hour run times, but they were making big money.  When Titanic managed to do both, it felt that the industry recognized that this may never happen the same way again, and the historical epic somehow disappeared over the years.  By hitting it’s zenith with Titanic, we saw the last great hurrah of the Hollywood historical epic, as the same kind of scale would later shift to movies in the Renaissance of fantasy and comic movies that are made today.  Sure, Hollywood tried to copycat Titanic unsuccessfully with Pearl Harbor (2001), but it was clear, Titanic brought a culmination to a type of movie that could never be recaptured again.

And so, 20 years later, we see how much of a legacy that Titanic has left behind on Hollywood.  It revolutionized so many things in the industry, but also deconstructed some of the old foundations that led to it’s creation in the process.  I don’t think we’ll see anything remotely like it ever again, and if so, certainly not from the same people.  James Cameron achieved what he wanted to with Titanic and has since returned to the sci-fi world that he feels more at home within.  Regardless, it’s an achievement in direction that stands the test of time, as many of the on set mechanics used to recreate the Titanic and it’s tragic sinking are still mind-boggling impressive.  There are some things about the movie that are weak, and are worthy of lampooning, but the sum of the whole is still noteworthy in the whole of film history.   Watching the film again recently, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe once that iceberg hits and the events that follow unfold.  When it comes to driving up the tension as the great ship sinks slowly into the water, the movie is unmatched.  I can hardly imagine any other movie that feels as authentic to it’s moment in time as the final half of Titanic feels.  You do, in the end, feel like a passenger on the ship with these people, and because they are relatable enough to make us care, we feel the same emotional roller coaster that they do.  It’s those devastating moments of helplessness that Cameron conveys so well, and that, overall is what I believe helped to bring people back to the theater again and again for weeks after it’s premiere.  We all want that kind of a connection to a movie, whether it makes us happy or drives us to tears.  I may not respond to it emotionally the same way over time, but 20 years later, this movie still carries a sense of wonder for me.  The craft on hand is monumental on screen, and it certainly earned every award it was given; yes even Best Picture.  The sad thing is, the movie ended up being so huge that no other movie like it could ever come close to matching it, and it diminished a genre of films that in many ways defined the best that Hollywood could offer.  I for one love a good 3 hour epic, and while Titanic is far from my favorite, it’s one that I can appreciate as something that’s just like the ones they used to make.  If you haven’t revisited Titanic recently, or are one of the few that’s missed it altogether, give it another look.  Twenty year on, and it is still a movie unlike any other before or since, and something that represents the true power of what cinema is capable of.  It’s got a heart that continues to go on.

What the Hell Was That? – Patch Adams (1998)

Robin Williams was a rare talent in our lives.  A master comedian and a genius at improvisation, he also managed to carve out a niche as a well respected actor in both comedy and drama.  Though he could be completely bombastic and off-the-wall, he still had the ability to reign himself in and give a touching subtle performance once in a while; something that indeed helped him win an Oscar for his work in Good Will Hunting (1997).  But while he proved himself time and again to be a master at so many different things, it unfortunately made it difficult to find the right kinds of roles for him.  Oh sure, he had plenty of great films come his way, and many of those movies were no doubt improved by his presence.  But, when you become an extremely popular actor in the public’s eye, Hollywood might over time begin to believe they can harness that popularity and work to control it.  That’s why at certain parts of his career, Robin was finding himself acting in roles that didn’t use his talents effectively.  These were movies that more or less began to follow a formula; one’s that thought they knew what a Robin Williams’ picture was all about, but in actuality had no clue.  These kinds of pictures tended to play off both sides of his persona on screen, the affable clown who works a mile a minute, as well as the warm-hearted every man who stood up for the right things and gave hope to the helpless.  While Robin could excel at both, these two sides often would feel out of place next to each other, and it made some of his films feel particularly disjointed.  And oftentimes, you could see Robin really struggling to define himself as an actor, but sadly was being saddled with movies that Hollywood thought were right for him.  He became a performer restrained by his own successful identity, and that led to some rather disastrous films.

This particularly came to a head in the mid to late 90’s, when Robin’s film career was hitting a repetitive point.  In the earlier part of the decade, Williams had two monster hits with his work as the Genie in Aladdin (1992) and as a cross-dressing nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), but soon after, his film output got a lot shakier.  It became clear over time that Hollywood saw Robin as a finely tuned machine that could bring the right kind of magic to any story, but that was not really the case at all.  Robin Williams, like any other actor, wanted to tackle something challenging, giving him the opportunity to surprise his audience, and if you’ve ever seen Robin perform in front of a crowd, you’ll definitely see that desire within him to be unpredictable.  Restraining him to a formula is not the greatest use of his talent, and that’s something that’s clear in his output from the 90’s.  Some movies of this period did turn out well (1995’s Jumanji and 1996’s The Birdcage), but there were plenty that didn’t (1996’s Jack, 1997’s Flubber, as well as Bicentennial Man and Jakob the Liar, both from 1999).  And when you look at the movies from this era that clearly didn’t work, you can see one thing that they all had in common; schmaltz.  It’s unfortunate to think that for a time that this was all that Hollywood thought that Robin Williams’ movies measured up to, this excessive sentimentality that’s only punctuated with his natural talent for improvisation.   Sure, some of his successes from year past had their sentimental moments, especially in his beloved turn in Dead Poets Society (1989), but that’s not what defined those movies in a nutshell either.  It’s a good thing that Good Will Hunting came along to break that cycle and leader to more serious and often darker roles later on for Robin, like One Hour Photo and Insomnia (both from 2002).  Unfortunately, before that would happen, Robin had to go through what is undoubtedly the worst movie of his entire career, and one that represented the worst of what Hollywood believed a Robin Williams movie could be; the travesty that’s known as Patch Adams (1998).

Patch Adams is the worst kind of schmaltzy movie that you could ever imagine, but that’s not the only thing that’s shameful about it.  It’s a movie that also uses it’s schmaltz in a manipulative way, believing that tugging at the heart strings will compensate for the narrative shortcomings.  But that’s not even the worst aspect of the feature.  No, what makes the movie so despising is the way that it was framed in order to be made more “marketable,” particularly towards favor during awards season.  Movies, particularly ones that are taken from real life stories, take liberties all the time in order to craft a film more towards appealing to the widest possible audience.  People are either excised or combined together and whole passages of a person’s life can also sometimes be completely ignored in order to focus on the most important parts of the narrative of the subject’s life.  But, sometimes, too many liberties are taken in order to broaden the drama of the story and that’s exactly what happened here.  The movie examines the story of Dr. Hunter Doherty “Patch” Adams, a groundbreaking American physician who founded the Gesundheit! Institute, which is a not-for-profit health care facility that specializes in Integrative Medicine.  A long time champion for free health care service not funded by insurance policies, Adams is also renowned for his colorful personality, often dressing up as a clown or wearing a red nose as a way of humorizing his patients as they go through their arduous treatments.  He’s a fascinating figure and continues to set a good example for the medical industry to this day.  Indeed, some of his techniques have since been adopted by hospitals across the world, and many new health care centers have improved the comfortable atmosphere of their facilities thanks to the example of his Institute.  When you look at his story, as a doctor who is also a clown, you can’t help but think of this as an ideal role for Robin Williams.  And yet, this was a match that was doomed to fail.

It wasn’t enough for Hollywood to just approach Dr. Adams story in a straightforward way; they had to make it their own.  First off, there is little of the real life of Patch Adams that makes it to the screen at all.  Robin Williams is nothing like the real Dr. Adams in any way, which can be overcome with a strong, well crafted performance.  But, nope, that’s not what the filmmakers wanted.  They just thought, hey here’s a doctor who cracks jokes all day to make his patients happy; all we need is Robin Williams to go wild and we’ve got our movie.  That seems to be the general result once you watch the movie.  Robin is just put in front of a camera and is told to improvise.  That’s why you see him cracking jokes with props on set like with medical supplies or a skeletal replica model.  Robin Williams can certainly improvise gold out of anything, but you know what you never see him actually do in the movie; actual medical healing.  The movie gives the false notion that all a doctor really needs is positive attitude and a sense of humor to be the best doctor in the world.  And the movie shamelessly injects this underdog aspect to the narrative, where it seems like Patch is breaking against tradition in attempting to empathize with his patients, thus breaking all the rules of his trade.  But, this was never the case at all, and it is merely a lazy attempt to find conflict in an otherwise straightforward story.  The biggest problem with the way that the movie portrays Patch is the fact that it just plays up the comedic aspects of his practice, and not the medical part.  No surprise, Dr. Adams was sharply critical of this movie, and in particular, with regards to the way that it minimized the work that he does.  He is a jokester and someone who believes in the healing power of laughter, but Dr. Adams also knows that humor and actual medicine need to go together, and that there’s a lot of hard work that goes into perfecting that balance; something that the movie definitely misses the mark on.  Robin Williams’ effortlessness with comedy is no substitute for conveying the actual hard work that Dr. Adam’s Institute goes through every single day.

In many ways, I feel that Robin Williams was more or less saddled with the burden of carrying a lazy production.  Not a single moment of this film goes by without it falling into one cliche or another.  You have the whimsical Marc Shaiman musical score, a cast of characters that are in no way realistic but are merely pawns meant to conform to the whims of the story, and it is entirely predictable in every beat of the plot.  Like I stated before, the movie is less informed by the actual work that Dr. Adams has done, and instead crafts a story all on it’s own.  And it’s one that we’ve all seen before a million times.  In particular, there was something about 90’s films that seemed to love the cliche of the court room finale.  Robin Williams was in quite a few of those if I remember, including some good ones like at the end of Mrs. Doubtfire.  The reason that you would see this cliche pop up so much was because it was an easy platform for the screenwriters to craft a monologue for their characters which basically gives them a chance to encapsulate the message of the movie in a nice, easily delivered package.  Because of it’s over-usage, this cliche just ended up turning into a clear sign of lazy writing, and sure enough that’s what you’ll find in Patch Adams.  The movie shows Patch defending his practices in front of a council that seeks to revoke his medical licence, and of course he delivers a long-winded defense of his practice, which just ends up falling into the realm of common sense that no real person would ever disagree with.  And yet, this movie thought it was profound enough to justify the conflict, which by the way is a complete Hollywood fabrication.  It didn’t help that the movie was made by two filmmakers well out of their element; director Tom Shadyac and writer Steve Oedekerk, who had risen up in the industry making Jim Carrey comedies like Ace Ventura (1994) and Liar, Liar (1997).  You can clearly see them trying way too hard to be profound, and it ultimately backfires.  The movie is too silly to be taken seriously, and too restrained to ever become hilarious.  It ends up becoming a failure on both measures as a result.

But the movie’s most egregious aspects come in the way that it tries turn real history into something that you could say Hollywood views as more “marketable.”  Marketability is a tricky thing to figure out for a movie, because it is never really a clear cut thing.  Some executives in Hollywood believe they have a pulse on what can make a movie more marketable, but I highly doubt that someone with a high paying salary and a luxurious office and lifestyle in sunny Southern California really has the best insight into what the actual viewing public wants in every movie.  Oftentimes, you just have to take a chance and hope that an unconventional movie might hit the mark, which it sometimes does.  But, most of the time, you get these compromised films like Patch Adams which clearly shows a lack in faith from studio execs in the actual story of the real person, and they instead decided to inject their own ideas to make the film “better” in their eyes.  This might not be a problem if it at least is done tastefully.  Unfortunately, Patch Adams has one of the most tasteless alterations that’s ever been done to improve the marketability of a film.  In the movie, we are introduced to a fellow physician that helps Patch start up his free clinic in it’s early days named Carin (played by Monica Potter).  She not only becomes a reliable ally for Patch, but also a potential love interest.  You also learn of her history of sexual abuse as a child which haunts her into adulthood.  Halfway through the movie, she ends up being murdered by a deranged patient she is treating, breaking Patch’s heart in the process.  This may seem heartbreaking, until you realize that Carin never existed.  Dr. Adams did in fact have a best friend who was murdered in real life, but that person was in fact a man, who had no romantic relationship at all with Patch, and was never abused as a child.  Learning this fact just makes the fabrication of the character of Carin sickening, because it shows the complete disregard that the filmmakers had to honoring the life of it’s subject.  They wanted their movie to have a conventional love story attached to it, and so they swapped genders with a real life person, gave them an unnecessary and false history of abuse, and killed that person off purely for the dramatic effect.  This aspect, more than anything else, is what makes Patch Adams such a hateable movie.

The reason I wanted to spotlight the movie Patch Adams in this series, and in particular wanted to address this sickening alteration that they injected into the story to add more drama, is because it reveals a larger problem in Hollywood with the way they try too hard to make their films appealing to too wide an audience.  Now sure, movies are expensive and you need to reach as big of audience as you can.  But that should be the marketing team’s job, not the filmmakers.  The people in charge of making the movie should be working towards making the movie the best that it can be, and that should not include any worries about how can we make this scene play more successfully in the Heartland.  This is unfortunately something that you see too much these days as studios try to alter their movies in the middle of their productions, because they feel that the movies are not good enough to stand on their own merits.  So many movies nowadays are becoming susceptible to re-shoots and alterations in post, as a means of changing what was there before into something that is better equipped to reach all flavors of audiences.  You can definitely see this happening with the movies coming from DC Comics, as Suicide Squad (2016) and Justice League (2017) both felt like they suffered from very confused productions that had no idea which direction they were heading towards.  The changing of a movie to become more marketable can even happen as early as pre-production, where the studios make a filmmaker compromise their visions in order to meet the demands of the executives.  This played out recently with the upcoming movie All the Money in the World, directed by Ridley Scott.  In this telling of the kidnapping of billionaire J. Paul Getty’s grandson, Scott wanted his first choice of Christopher Plummer to play the crucial part of the stingy tycoon.  But, the studio forced him to cast Kevin Spacey instead because he was viewed as a bigger name, thus we saw him assume the role under some really bad old age makeup.  With the scandal that erupted around Spacey earlier this year, the studio made the unprecedented decision to erase their “ideal” actor from a near finished movie and Scott was able to do last minute re-shoots with the actor he wanted in the first place.  It goes to show that not every studio makes the right choices in how to make a movie more appealing, and that sometimes it’s better to trust something to stand on it’s own.  Patch Adams represents those bad choices to the very extreme.

The failure of Patch Adams as a movie basically distills down to the fact that you can’t force a movie into being based on thinking you know what the audience wants.  Robin Williams can make anything funny, but not when it’s in service of taking it’s subject seriously.  You can believe that a character’s tortured history makes for compelling drama, but not when it’s tagged onto a real tragedy that disrespects the memory of the actual person, making their existence not even matter.  To add further insult, the real Dr. Adams believed that the movie did nothing but just exploit his name and personal history, and did nothing to further his message of compassionate care-giving and alternative medicine.  Upon release of the film, Adams slammed the movie and Robin’s portrayal of him, saying very bluntly, “He made $21 million for four months pretending to be me, in a very simplistic version, and did not give $10 to my free hospital.”  Adams later clarified that he didn’t dislike Robin Williams at all, and did not fault him for the film; his anger was more directed at how the studio just exploited his story for their own gain and not to help further any cause.  He is right to be dissatisfied with the movie, because all it does is just use Dr. Adams as a premise rather than a person.  Robin Williams unfortunately was the right man at the time to portray a funny doctor, but the movie wrongly seems to believe that this is all that matters.  Adams’ career is defined by so many other things; his ingenuity, his activism, his personality, all of which the movie doesn’t seem to care about.  And what’s worse, it takes certain aspects of Adams’ life, like the death of his friend, and adds unnecessary dramatic touches to it, which in the end is highly disrespectful.  This movie only appeals to the easily manipulated, who eat up schmaltz like it’s candy.  Even Robin Williams grew tired of this stuff, and tried to branch out, but sadly never got to shrug off completely before his untimely death in 2014.  More than anything, Patch Adams is a horrible cinematic travesty because of all the things it wastes; the fascinating story of a trailblazer in the science of medicine, the unparalleled acting abilities of Robin Williams, and the fact that it could have used this movie to affect change for good, rather than fill the wallets of it’s greedy backers with near certain and safe box office returns.

Coco – Review

Pixar Animation Studios has made a name for themselves in Hollywood for a variety of reasons.  They have an incredible track record at the box office; their characters are known the world over; and they are always pushing the envelope in the field of animation, making them an undisputed leader, alongside their partner company Disney.  But, one other thing that usually defines their movies are the ways they put interesting spins on unusual concepts and mine them into universal stories that anyone can enjoy.  From them, we have witnessed stories of what toys do when they’re not being played with, the working lives of monsters, and the suburban dramas of a family of superheros.  They have also given us an innocent romance between two robots, showed us that even a rat could be a gourmet chef, and even told us the story of the emotions within the mind of a twelve year old girl.  Pixar, on top of it’s groundbreaking animation, is also rightly celebrated for it’s creativity, and for it’s devotion towards trying new things.  However, they also work in an industry that demands continuing results, and in some ways, Pixar has fallen victim to it’s own success.  Because their movies do so well, the demand for sequels has been overwhelming for them, and despite their desire to move forward with newer ideas, they are still obliging to those demands and have made a number of sequels, especially in the last few years.  While some of their continuing franchises are still celebrated (Toy Story for example), there are quite a few who aren’t.  And you can tell which sequels are given the least amount of care within the studio.  This past summer’s Cars 3 may be the least inspired Pixar movie to date, and it is disheartening to see a studio that made such a big deal in the past about the importance of story care so little about what narrative they were telling in their own movie.  Still, whenever Pixar does have the opportunity to do something new, they relish it, especially if it’s a concept that’s ripe for the Pixar treatment.  And after seeing stories of toys, bugs, robots, rats, and even emotions, Pixar again shines it’s light on an unexpected subject; the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos.

Coco, the studio’s 19th feature, uses the holiday as the starting off point for it’s new epic adventure.  This isn’t the first time that Pixar has tackled a singular national culture in one of their movies.  Unfortunately their first experience with this ended up with the disappointing Brave (2012), which merely used it’s Scottish setting as window dressing for a rather banal story.  With Coco, the focus is placed much much more heavily on the culture of it’s setting, and the importance that it holds on the lives of everyone within it’s story.  This is a movie that is steeped heavily within Mexican culture; celebrating the art, the music, the traditions, and most importantly the people of this culturally rich nation.  It’s a movie that identifies heavily with the setting of it’s tale, and yet still manages to touch universal themes that will resonate to people of every culture, especially with regards to the importance of family in one’s life.  This is probably why the filmmakers chose Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) as the source of inspiration for this story, because of it’s association with all of the above.  It is a uniquely Mexican holiday, and one that emphasizes the importance of family and personal identity.  But, it’s not just those themes that Pixar was interested.  They also saw the potential in exploring the idea of the world that the “Dead” live within; the one that they visit from on this certain holiday.  They also found inspiration in the iconography of the festivities, including marigold flower petals and candy colored skeletons, all of which is given a very fanciful treatment by the Pixar team.  But, like I’ve said before, it can be tricky basing your entire movie around a certain cultural tradition, and Pixar has managed to fail in that arena before.  So, does Coco show Pixar at their most inspired, or is it another shallow attempt to use colorful cultural inspirations to mask it’s narrative shortcomings.

The story of Coco is centered around a passionate and restless youth named Miguel (voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez).  He is the youngest child in a family of shoemakers who have had their trade passed down through several generations.  His grandmother, Abuelita (Renee Victor) makes the family live by the strict rule of no music, based on the past past history of their family matriarch, Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach), being abandoned by a musician who wanted to pursue his dreams of stardom.  Miguel disobeys his Abuelita by practicing his music in secret, sharing his talent only with his great grandmother, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia).  On the eve of the night of Dia de los Muertos, Miguel hopes to enter the talent contest at the village’s festival, but his guitar is discovered by the family and is smashed by his Abuelita as punishment.  Heartbroken, Miguel ventures to the tomb of his idol, famed musical legend Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), in the hopes that he can use his famous guitar that remains on display there.  After strumming one note, Miguel suddenly finds something amiss.  He is invisible to those around him, except to his dog Dante, and all around him are skeletons walking among the living.  He soon realizes that he’s crossed into the realm of the dead after encountering relatives from his past that have passed on.  They take Miguel with them and enter the Land of the Dead, where Miguel must get the blessing of his great, great grandmother Mama Imelda to return home.  However, when her conditions includes a promise to never play music again, Miguel runs off.  His only chance of returning home must come from the man that he now believes to be his great, great grandfather, the legendary Ernesto, who unfortunately is unreachable.  However, when Miguel meets a wayward outsider named Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal) who promises he can sneak Miguel into Ernesto’s compound, his adventure heads into new and even riskier territory, in both a race against time and death itself.

Given that this is Pixar, the expectations on Coco are pretty high, especially when they are tackling something original.  Despite it’s place within the whole legacy of Pixar Studios, does the movie stand well enough on it’s own?  I can safely say yes to that.  Coco is an endlessly charming feature that is both heartwarming in it’s narrative, as well a visually stunning piece of animation art.  The movie is especially a welcome palette cleanser to get that sour taste of Cars 3 out of our memories.  This is both a welcome return to form for the studio, as well as a unique change of pace for them.  While you can still see the same traditional Pixar calling cards throughout the movie (stylized worlds, Pizza Planet truck cameo, John  Ratzenberger, etc.), it also feels very different from their other features.  While most other Pixar movies center around their main characters changing the course of their future, Coco is all about healing the scars of the past.  This is a movie that makes family the primary issue, and how knowing where you come from and who has made up your family tree factors into the person that you are and what course you will take in your life.  For the main character Miguel, his journey doesn’t come down to him living out his dream but instead finding out why his life matters in the grander scheme of things.  It’s ultimately a movie about not losing the things that matter, something that is tied integrally to the festivities of the Dia de los Muertos.  In Mexican tradition, the holiday is all about remembrance, and passing memories along through generations, so that those who have left us can never be forgotten.  The movie’s greatest strength is the effectiveness with which it conveys that tradition, to the point where remembering loved ones is a key point to the plot.  And, in the best way that Pixar knows how, they take the simple ideas behind the tradition and elevate it into grandiose spectacle.

One thing that I definitely can say about this movie is that it is probably one of the lushest and most extravagant films ever made by Pixar from a visual standpoint.  The Land of the Dead itself is a wonder to behold, with a sense of scale that raises the bar for Pixar.  There is this beautiful mix of styles that spans across the many years of Mexican cultural history.  You see the influence of Mayan and Aztec art and architecture, combined with post-colonial classicism, and then finally the art deco modernity of the 20th century, all literally stacked on top of one another in the fanciful realm of the afterlife.  Within it, you see the richness of Mexican culture that has spanned centuries and has been influential to so many.  Cultural touchstones are even spotlighted, with even famed artist Frida Kahlo making a memorable appearance at one point.   The movie also does a fine job of portraying a contemporary view of modern day Mexico in the living world scenes as well.  Miguel’s community has a beautiful tranquility to it that I’m sure many real Mexican people will tell you is closer to the real thing than most other images of their country that makes it into the media these days, especially compared to those that mean to misrepresent their country.  Even with the heavy cultural influence, the movie still feels like a Pixar film, especially with their attention to detail.  That extends even into the designs of the characters.  Considering that this movie deals with many characters that are dead, it’s a good thing that Pixar resisted the temptation to venture into any macabre territory, which itself would have been insulting to the tradition itself.  What they do instead is to give the skeletal characters ornamental touches similar to the candy skulls you see made specifically for the holiday.  The colorful touches also add variety to the characters’ designs, with some of the designs accentuating the individual’s personalities in some fashions.   It all adds to a lushness in the film’s design that makes this a feast for the eyes with every frame.

And while the movie stands among the greatest of Pixar’s films in terms of visuals, there is unfortunately one other aspect of the movie that sadly keeps it from reaching the pinnacle of the studio’s best.  While the story is imaginative and leads to some wonderful moments throughout, it is also far too predictable most of the time.  Maybe it’s because I’ve watched pretty much every Pixar film to date, along with hundreds of other animated films, that I am far too familiar with the playbook that these movie draw from for their narratives, and sure enough, Coco follows them to a “t”.  There is a second act plot twist that I sniffed out way in advance, and by the time it was revealed, I felt less surprised by it.  By being predictable to a fault, I felt that the movie undermined the impact of it’s story.  Sure, it plays those moments far better than other movies do, but at the same time for a movie as visually inspired as this one, it should have taken less conventional roots to get there.  I would say that Coco is better in it’s individual moments than it does as a narrative.  It probably doesn’t help that this conventional story follows in the tradition of a studio that continually told stories that nobody else was doing.  This is the same studio that had an old man and a boy scout traveling to South America in a flying, balloon suspended house.  That’s a story that you had no idea which way it was going to play out.  Here, you know how Miguel’s story is going to end, because you’ve seen it done in so many other films.  Traveling to another realm to learn a truth about the kind of person he is.  You could just as well call this land Oz or Phantasia, because the journey is roughly the same.  The movie even trots out overplayed tropes like the betrayal of a friendship and a hidden antagonist revealed late in the story.  Now, Coco doesn’t misuse these tropes horribly, but by being too recognizable, you can’t help but be taken out of the movie by seeing the mechanics behind which this story is built.

At the same time, the movie makes up for these story shortcomings by being so imagnative in all other aspects.  The movie plays familiar notes, but oftentimes they are played so perfectly that you can’t help but love them.  It helps when the movie has a great heart at it’s center in the character Miguel.  He is one of the most endearing main characters you will ever see in a Pixar movie; full of life and passion, he is a character who is instantly worth embracing.  He’s also well-rounded, with a good many flaws that prevent him from being bland as well.  Newcomer Anthony Gonzalez manages to find that fine line between precocious and grounded in his vocal performance, and he easily holds his own against more veteran talents like Benjamin Bratt and Gael Garcia Bernal.  It should also be noted that another way this movie is set apart from it’s predecessors is in it being the first fully fledged musical from Pixar.  While the animation giant has included original songs in their films before (some Oscar-winning), they have never actually been as integral to the story as the ones here.  Here, the music is a part of the story and it’s the characters themselves that carry the tunes.  It may not be a musical in the classic Disney sense, but it certainly falls more in that category than anything Pixar has made up to now.  The songs themselves were written by Robert and Kristen Lopez, the same people you can blame for those inescapable ear worms from the movie Frozen (2013), and their work here is just as strong.  The primary number, “Remember Me” in particular has a special part to play in the movie’s plot, and I’m sure that it will turn into a classic all it’s own.  The song also plays a part in the other thing that Pixar films are famous for, which is the ability to make their audiences cry.  There’s a climatic moment that I won’t spoil for you, but suffice to say, the screening I went to had some people openly weeping.  You can say that Pixar has done it’s job as intended when it makes it’s audience do that, but fear not, it’s a moment of joyful weeping. There’s no traumatic sadness like the openings of Up (2009) and Finding Nemo (2003), nor the somber feelings of Jesse’s story in Toy Story 2 (1999).  It’s the kind of emotional release of unimaginable love that ultimately becomes this movie’s greatest triumph.

So, the movie has narrative shortcomings that keep it from becoming an all time great, but individual moments within stand among the greatest that Pixar has ever committed to film.  Apart from that, I credit directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina for immersing their film so heavily within the culture of Mexico and for not compromising that vision either.  This is movie that embraces everything about the culture and imbues it with a grandeur that grabs your attention through every moment.  The movie also remains truthful and respectful to the traditions and cultural touchstones that it portrays, giving audiences unfamiliar with the intricacies of Mexican cultural traditions a great and entertaining primer towards wanting to learn more.  The movie is already being embraced by audiences in Mexico itself, where it saw it’s premiere first before anywhere else in the world.  It’s already broken box office records south of the border, and that resounding support should extend northward as well.  I myself was still enchanted by the movie, despite not being surprised by the directions it took.  Maybe Pixar’s bar has just been set far too high by past masterpieces for even this very well-crafted feature to clear.  I would still easily put it in the upper half of the Pixar canon.  The characters are delightful, the music is exceptional, and the visuals are awe-inspiring.  And it gives me confidence that Pixar is still trying their hardest to do interesting things with their movies.  The subject of Dia de los Muertos is perfectly explored in this movie, especially with regards to it’s themes about family.  My hope is that this movie inspires many people to look deeper into their own family histories, and discover all the fascinating stories that lie within them.  That’s ultimately where Coco leaves the greatest impact, and it’s one that sets a great standard of it’s own within the legacy of Pixar.

Rating: 8.5/10

Justice League – Review

A decade or more ago, movies such as Justice League would have seemed like an impossible dream.  All the hurdles it takes to make one super hero movie a reality; why would anyone want to undertake a movie with a whole team of superheroes?  But, over at Marvel Studios, they not only have found a way to make it work, they’ve done it multiple time now, with spectacular results.  Spending years of development through standalone franchise for each character, Marvel has managed to work out the formula for making very satisfying films that include all of their best heroes sharing the spotlight together.  And naturally, when one studio has found a gold mine of an idea, the rest all will follow in their footsteps.  The only problem is, Marvel’s formula doesn’t work for all things.  In the past couple years, we’ve seen several studios face-plant themselves after spending and wasting millions of dollars to establish their own “cinematic universes.”  Universal’s “Dark Universe” centered around it’s collection of monsters has been dead on arrival from Day 1, while Fox’s desperate attempts to keep their Marvel licenses in house has resulted in a jumbled mess.  The only real threat to Marvel’s dominance with regards to cinematic universes has been it’s long time competitor in the publishing world; DC Comics.  Like Marvel, they have their own collection of iconic superheroes, all deserving of their own long overdue cinematic treatment.  With the overwhelming success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy under their belts, DC parent company Warner Brothers felt confident that they had the means to create a cinematic universe of their own, and they set out to do just that.  But, again, when playing catch up to someone who’s clearly in the lead, you run the risk of one or many missteps along the way, and DC has not been immune to that.

They first launched their bold new plan with a revamped telling of the origins of one of their most beloved characters, Superman, in Man of Steel (2013).  Right from the beginning, things were off to a rocky start, as this new Superman film was criticized for souring the character and his story with a needlessly somber and dreary tone, as well as going overkill with some of the violence in the action scenes.  Much of the criticism was laid on director Zack Snyder, who many believed didn’t understand the character of Superman, and was just exploiting his story as a means to show off his very flashy style of film-making.  While it did have some fans (I kind of thought it was okay too, as you can read in my review here), Man of Steel was still universally seen as a step backward for DC, and a rocky start for their cinematic universe plans.  Things did not improve with the follow up film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was the first feature intended to show their extended universe.  There was no denying it that time, BvS was an indefensible disaster, and the clearest sign yet that DC’s cinematic plans were close to derailing.  Like I discussed in my review here,  Snyder’s indulgences as a director were undermining the development of the characters, and it turned what should have been an amazing experience into a chore to sit through.  It seemed that things might have been looking up with their next project, Suicide Squad, given that film’s more irreverent and humorous tone, but even that movie ended up being bogged down by terrible editing and incomprehensible story.  But finally, this last summer, we got Wonder Woman, which was a breath of fresh air for DC’s films.  Centered around DC’s iconic heroine, Wonder Woman was focused and engaging, and it managed to finally be faithful to the essence of the character.  It was also an empowerment tale for women at a time when we really needed it, which made it’s success all the more rewarding.  Now, despite the rocky road up to this point, DC is finally letting us see all our favorite heroes together in the long awaited Justice League.  But, has DC finally figured their formula out, or are things still an under-cooked mess.

The film is starts out in the aftermath of the events proceding Batman v. Superman.  Superman (Henry Cavill) is dead and buried, and the world is still mourning his loss.  His allies, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), try to deal with the grief of losing their friend in their own way, while at the same time searching around the globe for other super beings that may be able to help them.  While looking through the notes left behind by the now incarcerated Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), they have learned the identities of three possible individuals that could join their team.  One is the Atlantean warrior known as Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who spend most of his days either drinking or saving stranded fisherman out in stormy waters.  Another is amateur physicist Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) who has managed to harness the power of super speed through his experiments, helping him to take on the identity of the Flash.  Proving to be elusive, though, is a recluse named Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), who has lost most of his body in a lab experiment and has been miraculously been brought back to life through robotic enhancements, making him the Cyborg.  Batman and Wonder Woman manage to track down and persuade them all to help out, thanks to the assistance of their non-powerful friends and associates, including Alfred the Butler (Jeremy Irons), Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and Commissioner Gordon (J.K. Simmons).  Meanwhile, danger returns to earth as a super-powerful alien being known as Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds) returns from his exile, seeking to reclaim three powerful weapons kept guarded on Earth known as the Mother Boxes.  When combined together, the Mother Boxes can transform a planet into the same make-up of Steppenwolf’s home planet, which is a hell-scape for the rest of us.  After defeating both the Atlanteans and Amazonians who have safeguarded the boxes for thousands of years, Steppenwolf proves to be quite unstoppable, until the Justice League finally stands in his way.  But, is he too much for them as well, and do they come to the realization that they need just one more element to make their team complete; the still deceased Superman.

In the wake of Wonder Woman’s success and Batman v. Superman’s failure, you would think that DC has learned a few lessons as they’ve continued to push forward with their bold cinematic universe.  And in many ways, they have, but there are still several lingering issues.  Zack Snyder, up to now, has been the caretaker of this franchise, and his indulgences have done the series no favors.  Likewise, there has been a distinct lack of identity to the universe as a whole.  Up to this point, it seems that everything you can say about the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is that they are trailing distantly behind Marvel cinematicly, and all their attempts to catch up make them look like amateurs by comparison.  The problem is that you can see the mechanics behind what DC is doing far more prominently, because up to now, they seemed to have been more driven by the potential for box office riches more than what was right for the characters.  But, again, Wonder Woman finally turned things in the right direction, making us all hope that DC had learned it’s lesson and were giving us the movies we deserve rather than the ones that they needed.  But, how does Justice League size up given the pressure that’s been put on it.  Well, it’s complicated.  I will say that it is light years better than Batman v. Superman, mainly because this movie is not bogged down by an unfocused story.  Justice League actually has a plot-line that makes sense, and the characters are actually portrayed much better here; actually becoming closer to their comic book identities than we’ve seen before.  But at the same time, the movie still feels hollow when compared to what Marvel has been doing this last decade.  Especially when compared to something like Marvel’s first big team-up, The Avengers (2012), Justice League is remarkably small in scope.  It’s a movie that is disappointing when considering the legacy behind it and the expectations we all expect of it, and yet it still shows some signs of improvement over the heap of failures that this studio has been responsible for up to now.    I guess your takeaway from the film will depend on your feelings towards DC’s cinematic universe up to this point, and for me, my feelings were that I was unimpressed but still entertained all at the same time.

Much of the things that keeps this movie buoyant are the characters themselves.  I have to commend the casting department at Warner Brothers for getting the right people for these iconic roles (at least for the ones that matter).  Ben Affleck is, I think, one of the better Batmans we have seen on the big screen, and up to now has been unfortunately saddled with material that doesn’t bring out his full potential in the role.  Still, he makes the most of it, and he’s served better here than he was in BvS.  Gal Gadot once again proves that she absolutely owns the role of Wonder Woman here, and she is easily one of the film’s greatest elements.  I give the writers and the director credit for not making her a token girl in this team as well.  She is an equal partner in the Justice League, given just as much respect as a member of this elite squad as anyone else.  She also has great chemistry with Ben Affleck in their few scenes together, showing a welcome comradry between heroes that has been sorely missing thus far in the DCEU.   The best new edition to the pantheon of heroes is Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, a thrill-seeking macho man who brings an extra bit of lighthearted fun to the mix.  Ezra Miller’s Flash is at times a little obnoxious with his constant “funny” quips, but he’s serviceable enough as the character and brings plenty of personality to the role.  Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is unfortunately the one disappointing addition to the cast.  The character in the comics is a lot more carefree and engaging, but this Cyborg is brooding and emotionally distant.  Still, the cast is solid throughout, and they more than anything, improve upon the material given to them.  The movie is still awkwardly written, but the one thing it does get right is the sense of teamwork between all the characters.  The movie doesn’t exploit their suspicions towards each other and have them but heads for no reason, like past films have done.  Instead, the Justice League comes together seeing the bigger threat in front of them, and use their best qualities to not only win the day, but also to gain each other’s trust, and that is something so refreshing to see in a super hero movie from DC.  If there is something to praise this movie for, it’s for getting the theme of teamwork through adversity right.

Everything else about the movie is a mixed bag.  One thing that you’ll notice while watching the movie is a noticeable hodgepodge of tones and styles of storytelling thrown together.  The film went through a late, eleventh hour re-construction, which saw the departure of Zack Snyder from the directing chair, and replaced with Joss Whedon, the man who brought the Avengers together over at Marvel.  Snyder still gets sole directing credit, but the Whedon additions are still very evident, and in some cases welcome.  The  movie contains far more humorous and light-hearted scenes than anything that we saw in BvS.  That is refreshing, but the movie still suffers from Zack Snyder’s annoyingly self-indulgent directing.  There are several scenes that still showcase his penchant for explosive and loud mayhem on screen, as well as his pretentious use of slow-mo to accentuate the action.  But, there is one thing that Snyder’s direction does service to the movie and that’s a sense of scale, which in a way is kind of undermined by Whedon’s more restrained style.  Snyder has a more operatic mind while Whedon has a more televised serial mind, and those two style don’t mix together well.  Still, I thought that Whedon’s additions brought more value to the film than anything it took away.  Something that Whedon clearly brought over with him from Marvel was the sense of knowing how to make the characters more relatable, and that’s accomplished through some very welcome moments of the heroes socializing and bonding through their shared experience.  If that’s the direction that DC is headed, than it’s a welcome one.  Apart from that, I will say that Snyder’s direction here is not as infuriatingly in your face as it was before.  The only problem is that by holding back a little, the movie unfortunately feels smaller, which is not the feeling you want to have while watching the Justice League movie you been waiting a whole lifetime for.  That’s the unfortunate result of an all too late course correction for the studio.

Where the movie suffers the most though is in the visual effects department.  This movie has, without a doubt, some of the worst CGI I have ever seen in a movie with this sizable a budget.  It’s almost like the movie ran out of time and money and just had to make due with what they had, which is a sad statement for DC’s organizational skills.  I understand the shake-up at the top, with Zack Snyder withdrawing suddenly and Joss Whedon coming in at the last minute, but given the build-up for several years that we’ve had for this movie, Warner Bros. and DC should have not had to cut corners here.  There are elements like Aquaman’s swimming under water and Batman’s wall crawling, tank-like vessel that look like they’ve come out of a video came, and feel very out of place in this live action film.  And then, we come to the film’s weakest point of all; the villain Steppenwolf.  We’ve seen bland antagonists before in both the DC and Marvel cinematic universes, but Steppenwolf may be the weakest of all.  This character leaves the minimalist of impressions on the audience, and is a complete waste of actor Cirian Hinds’ talent.  The talented Irish actor could have done something with the role, but he is relegated to just a vocal performance as the character is needlessly portrayed entirely through CGI.  And it’s some of the weakest, characterless animation that I’ve ever seen.  The animation is Jar Jar Binks level bad, which is unacceptable now in 2017.  Considering that only a few weeks prior we saw stellar work done on the character of the Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok, where so much detail was put into his personality and texture, and it just shows how much further ahead Marvel is by comparison.  Even with her brief screen time, Cate Blanchett left more of an impression as the villain Hela in the same film than Steppenwolf leaves here in Justice League.  It’s with a remarkably pathetic villain and the shoddy visual effects, (not to mention Zack Snyder’s typical washed out color palette) that we see the places that DC definitely needs to improve upon if they ever hope to be competitive in the future.

On the whole, especially compared to where they were a year ago, things are looking up for DC Comics on the big screen.  The best thing I can saw about Justice League is that it does a passable job of bringing the legendary super hero team together on screen for the first time.  But, after the huge leap forward that was Wonder Woman, this movie feels like a step backwards for DC.  But not a big one.  It manages to avoid some of the worst pitfalls that sank it’s predecessors, and offers a lot of welcome changes that hopefully take fruit over there.  The things that hold the movie back are mostly holdovers from the Zack Snyder era of the DCEU, which seems to finally be coming to an end.  He never was a great fit for this, and the cinematic universe will be better served under new guidance, whether it be with Joss Whedon or someone else.  The unfortunate thing is that the whole shake-up that the cinematic universe has suffered in the last year has unfortunately diminished the much anticipated team-up that we were all waiting for with Justice League.  The Justice League is iconic in the world of comic literature, and is even credited as the inspiration for Marvel’s Avengers.  The fact that the first incarnation of the Justice League on the big screen is not one the greatest cinematic experiences of all time and just ends up being barely passable is itself a very disappointing result.  But, my hope is that DC takes this lesson and continues to improve the League in the years ahead, helping it to live up to it’s full potential.  Wonder Woman certainly showed that good things can still come from this, and Justice League is still entertaining enough to rise above the rest.  It’s not a home run, and barely a base hit, but any comic book fan (especially those who love DC comics) will be entertained by this.  The best thing I can say is that it’s great to see the heroes of DC finally assembled together and working as a team.  One hopes that the same kind of teamwork continues to make the DCEU competitive with Marvel again, because friendly competition will only make both universes that much better.

Rating: 7/10

Hollywood Monsters – The Movie Industry’s Deep Rooted and Far Reaching Problem With Abuses of Power

Normally I try to steer clear of breaking headline news about controversies within the Hollywood Industry when writing articles for this site, but the recent activities going on over the past weeks have made me want to express my own thoughts on the issue given how much of an impact that they have on the industry as a whole.  That issue of course is the unprecedented fallout that has come to pass over the revelations of sexual misconduct, harassment, and even abuse that have been perpetrated by some of the most powerful people in the Hollywood community.  In many ways, these stories go far beyond your tabloid scandals of the week, and instead reveal a much more troubling fact which is the sickening way that such behavior has been allowed to flourish for so long.  The two biggest cases (so far) have been tied to two men who were once untouchable in Hollywood: uber-producer Harvey Weinstein and Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey.  Both are facing heavy scrutiny for what seems like years of serial harassment and alleged sexual assault against several victims that were swept under the rug with hush money and legal intimidation as a way to keep their bad behavior out of the headlines.  But, eventually, all those diversions couldn’t stop the truth from coming out, as victims started to stand together and demand for their stories to be heard, no matter what the consequences.  And with their stories, were are beginning to learn more about a side of the film industry that we wish wasn’t true and is sadly far more common than we would’ve thought.  Weinstein and Spacey are just the two of the most high profile names to be exposed and more are going to join them in the weeks ahead.  It’s a problem within the industry that extends beyond just the people involved and the crimes they have committed.  What these cases only demonstrates is the fact that there is a deep rooted problem with power being abused throughout the Hollywood community.

With regards to the accusations leveled at Harvey Weinstein, the revelations are not at all surprising.  Weinstein has been a power player for several decades in Hollywood, making a name for himself in the independent film circuit with the two companies that he co-founded with his brother Bob, called Miramax and The Weinstein Company.  Along with his sharp eye for spotting new talent in film-making, which has included the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, he has also garnered the reputation of being a bully within the industry.  His aggressive Oscar campaigning and strong-arming smaller production outfits in order to put his name on the best movies on the market has always left him with this love-hate relationship within the industry.  No man has been more thanked at awards ceremonies and sweared at more outside of them than Harvey, and it’s a reputation that I get the sense that he probably enjoyed.  But, it’s that same kind of attitude that also made him feel invincible within the business, and made him believe that he was capable of having everything he wanted, including the women he wanted whether they wanted him or not.  Suffice to say, Weinstein’s rise included him trampling over quite a lot of less fortunate people, and his sense of entitled power and need for self-fulfillment led him down the road that turned him into the disgraced monster that he is today.  Kevin Spacey’s problems are different, but no less disturbing.  While maintaining his image as a well regarded, and talented actor, we are now learning about years of inappropriate, and sometimes predatory behavior towards men, and most shockingly, to underage boys as well, according to his first accuser, actor Anthony Rapp.  Spacey’s misconduct has been the more shocking recently, because of how much more it has clashed with his polished image, but it nevertheless shows us that Hollywood’s problems with powerful men taking advantage of the less fortunate is very widespread.

The surprising thing that has occurred with the revelations made against these men and those like them is the swiftness and scope to which they were dealt with.  Harvey Weinstein was exposed by a long-researched article in the New York Times, which detailed years of misconduct that included a large number of accusers, and within a week of these revelations coming to light, Harvey went from Hollywood’s most powerful producer to virtually un-hirable.  He was fired by his own company, booted from the Academy of Motion Pictures membership, and had his name removed from every film he’s produced in the last year.  His company is now on life support with the possibility of going bankrupt in the near future, leaving many in-progress projects up in the air.   And as bad as that was, Kevin Spacey’s was even more dramatic.  He’s been fired from every project he’s been working on with his long standing partnership with Netflix, including his acclaimed series House of Cards, which is now desperately trying to restructure itself without it’s primary star around.  And, just announced this week, director Ridley Scott made the unprecedented and shocking decision to cut Spacey’s role in his new upcoming movie, All the Money in the World, and replacing him with actor Christopher Plummer in a costly re-shoot intended to help the movie still reach it’s December release date, only weeks away.  That is what you call quick and decisive action, but why did it have to get this bad in the first place.  I don’t blame the production companies and filmmakers that have cut their ties with them; they are not guilty of the same actions, and it’s fully within their understanding to protect their own products and reputations.  But a lot of questions need to be asked of an industry that sees behavior like this happen and takes so long to do anything about it.

These cases tell us a lot about the ugliest aspect of Hollywood, which is the way that underprivileged and desperate talent are often taken advantage of within the industry.  It’s the downside of the dream factory that is Hollywood, in where so many people come to sunny Los Angeles with dreams of fame and riches.  But, in order to make it, some people have to go through a long process of proving themselves to those who are already established.  It’s not an always dangerous path.  Many people, myself included, have gone through internships and part-time jobs with the hopes of opening up doors to better things later within the film industry.  It’s competitive, and not everyone makes it through, but you can make it in the film industry if you do show a level of talent and motivation that people on the inside can take notice of.  But there are those out there that offer up the shortcut to stardom by having those desperate enough conduct favors on their behalf, and this is where the predatory aspects begin.  Some people in the industry know how desperate some of us dreamers want to succeed and they prey on that desperation in order to satisfy their own selfish needs.  This becomes most sickening when it involves sexual favors in return for advancement.  And the abuse of this power doesn’t just end with the solicitation, but also throughout the aftermath of such actions.  Sometimes the people in power use a person’s desperation as a means of silencing them, by proclaiming that they hold the power to make or break their careers moving forward.   It’s this level of behavior that is at the heart of what’s the problem within the industry, with so many people using their status to hold power over the less fortunate and forcing them to do things that not only is demeaning, but can significantly damage their lives.  I want Hollywood to be a place where people believe they can go and add to a vibrant artistic community and not demean themselves for a chance at something better that’ll probably never come true.

The one and only positive to come from these scandals is the fact that it’s affecting some change.  People who have abused their power are now finally being held accountable for it.  A large part of this change has been the growing union of voices coming forward to tell their stories of abuse over the years.  And the sad thing we are learning is that Hollywood has not given much credence to the voices of victims, with many in the industry spending millions to keep much of it hushed for years.  It goes beyond the tales of those infamous casting couch sessions that you hear actresses and starlets divulge in interviews.  For a long time, there have been rumors of inexcusable behavior by Hollywood elite that stem all the way to the early days.  You hear about child actors being beaten on the sets of Little Rascal shorts from the 1930’s, or Judy Garland being repeatedly molested by MGM execs, to Charlie Chaplin having sexual intercourse with underage girls, and rape accusations connected to Marlon Brando, and so on.  And yet, none of these have been treated as anything more than tabloid gossip, or a smear campaign by religious organizations as a way to paint Hollywood as this morally depraved place.  But after the outpouring of victims stories that we’ve heard in recent weeks, you can’t help but think that there may truth to all these stories that we’ve heard.  I for one shudder to think that any one of my friends and associates who have tried to pursue a career in film have faced this kind of abuse in their lives or are about to face it without knowing it.  Many people have paid a heavy price for access in this industry, and that’s a practice that absolutely needs to end.  People in power, whether they are beloved or not, should be seriously questioned when they are confronted with these kinds of accusations.  The disturbing thing is, there are a lot of hurting voices out there, and it’s not just limited to those within the industry, and most likely, it’s someone we may all know in our own lives.

What angers me the most about Hollywood with regards to this is the systematic way they have tried to bury so many of these scandals over the years.  As a way of protecting their brand, the industry has set up many networks to keep bad press from leaking out into the public.  We have heard this before with regards to keeping an entertainer’s sexual orientation hidden to the public, as well as details about celebrities sometimes rocky marital problems as well.  But, now we are learning about how accusations of sexual abuse and harassment have been kept from the public as well.  And this withholding of public attention is what is angering most people outside of Hollywood right now because it’s making the industry look like it’s only in the business of protecting it’s own.  As scandals like Watergate and Penn State have proven to show, actively trying to cover up a crime is criminal within itself.  Sure, Hollywood hates being labeled a moral abyss by right wing and religious groups, but suppressing victims stories to perpetuate an image of purity only opens you up even more to such claims.  This was particularly problematic in Kevin Spacey’s case with his desperate attempt to change the narrative by proclaiming his homosexuality to the world.  For one thing, the fact that he’s gay was not the thing that the accusations against him were targeting too, and second, his pitiful excuse to use his sexuality as a shield against being labeled a child molester only gives credence to the argument that is unfairly aimed at homosexuals by right wing hate mongers.  And as a gay man myself, I found Spacey’s actions particularly despicable and it sickens me that he would think that this was his “get out of jail free” card to play to save his own skin.  I wish you nothing but the worst going forward Mr. Spacey; you’re selfishness has caused a lot of pain for those of us in your community.  But if Hollywood is so image conscious, don’t they realize that it would do them a lot better to expose the truth rather than hide it.

Most of the anger leveled at Hollywood these days is because of the fact that many people knew about this abuse and did nothing.  Sure, a lot of people didn’t know the whole truth and act without being sure, but the thing that needed to change in the industry is the realization that it’s not all just rumors.  Victims need to be taken seriously, especially when they come forward the first time.  You’ve got to remember, people in power like Weinstein and Spacey have deep pockets and can have their legal teams pick apart anyone’s stories to make it look like the victims are not being truthful and have ulterior motives.  In some cases, that may be true, but when a victim’s story is concrete enough to withstand the scrutiny, justice will be done.  For Spacey, it took only one convincing accusation to open the door for many others, and it has pieced together a history of obscene behavior that went long unaccounted for.  Hollywood must also understand that people who abuse their positions in this way shouldn’t continue to be rewarded.  If you want to show that you take this issue seriously, than you need to stop making excuses for people you know to have been doing something wrong or illegal, no matter how talented they are.  It’s true, some great art has been made by terrible people; something which I discussed in a previous article.  But appreciation of art should never turn into a defense of a person, and if someone has done something criminal, they should absolutely be shunned by the community.  I think Hollywood would be well served by not rewarding people like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, who seem to have been given a pass despite provable evidence of their awful histories.  It won’t take away from the brilliance of Chinatown (1974) or Annie Hall (1977).  Movies, as well as all art, outlast the mortal lives of their creators, and we can still appreciate them outside of the scandals.  In the end, Hollywood just needs to show some commitment to showing that they indeed are a caring community and not one that only protects those with established power.

You see scandals like these erupt every now and then and it’s clear that a failure to do anything usually comes about from an organization or community’s reluctance to expose it’s dirty laundry for the world to see.  Perhaps many in Hollywood saw these as isolated incidents that were not worth casting too much light on, in fear of characterizing their whole community as being morally depraved.  But what was not being dealt with was the larger problem of bad behavior being overlook and somehow seen as desirable within the community.  Forceful men have often been misread as productive types within the community, and oftentimes they are given advancement based on their ability to bully their way towards success.  That certainly seemed to be the case with a producer like Harvey Weinstein, who despite his skills as a producer has been revealed to be a deceitful and dangerous human being.  The one thing a person in the film industry shouldn’t have is the power to hold a less fortunate person’s career path in their hands and not face any consequences for their abuse.  The good thing about all this is that these types of alpha male bullying and obscene behavior is now being exposed for the ugliness that it really is.  People in Hollywood need to know now, silence is no longer acceptable with regards to the misdeeds within their community.  It doesn’t matter if you respect the person for their work, or admire the art they create; if there is truth to hurtful things they have done to someone else, there has to be consequences.  And exposing misdeed in the community will not shatter the image forever.  The Catholic Church had the most horrific claims of child abuse laid against them, and yet after it coming to light, the church has endured and now has a Pope that’s taken steps towards reconciliation with the victims and is considered one of the most enlightened and compassionate that we’ve ever seen.  Penn State faced the embarrassment of child molestation within it’s organization and saw several years of victories wiped out of the record books, but after the dust has settled, they regrouped and are now an elite team once again.  Hollywood will always be the dream factory that we’ve always believed it to be, and holding terrible men and woman accountable for their years of abuse and intimidation will be the best step towards keeping it that way.  Today we are finally seeing some action taken against the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, and many more will follow.  It’s an ugly reality punch for Hollywood, but one that can start us down the road towards healing.

Thor: Ragnarok – Review

Since it’s start in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, Marvel Studio’s bold Cinematic Universe plan has had to endure many years of cinematic scrutiny in order to get where to the place they are at right now.  Devoting multiple films from multiple franchise all towards a singular goal ahead in the form of the the sweeping Infinity War saga is a remarkable example of one studio’s incredible discipline and commitment to doing something never done before on the big screen. And yet, to undertake such a goal, they have had to weather changing tastes in the market, as well as competition from like-minded producers, and also the very high risk of audience fatigue the further they go along with their plan.  But, Marvel has managed to weather the storms and has moved towards their larger ambitions with very little interference.  Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (the MCU) not only is still going strong 10 years after it’s launch, they seem to also show no signs of slowing down.  While there have been some hiccups (mostly on the television side), the great majority of their film output has been both financially and critically successful.  Even when it looked like the bottom was going to fall out from under them, such as with the troubled production of Ant-Man (2015), they still managed to do just fine.  And the reason for this enduring success is mainly due to Marvel’s very special ability to refocus their larger plans to a changing market.  While all their plans are still working toward the same goal, their tactics have managed to allow them to fix things internally that didn’t work well the first time and improve them for every next chapter.  You can especially see this in the way that they have changed their franchises tonally over the years, with some growing darker and grittier while others grow lighter and sillier, all suiting the needs of their natural progression.  And no where have we seen that more than within the franchise of the god of thunder himself, Thor.

Of all the Marvel properties to make it to the big screen, Thor may have been the trickiest one.  For one thing, he’s the only character within the Marvel universe whose origins don’t come from the comics themselves.  He is of course a figure out of Norse mythology, dating back centuries.  To do a film about Thor means that you have to take into account his background in legend and importance to Nordic culture.  At the same time, Marvel has taken the mythic figure and worked him into several decades of their own ongoing stories.  There’s the legend of myth and the comic book superhero, and both have to merge together into one character that audiences can identify with and root for.  Despite the challenges, Marvel managed to find a way to make Thor not only a viable on-screen character, but also make him a vital part of their Cinematic Universe.  A large part of their success with the character certainly has to do with the excellent casting of Australian actor Chris Hemsworth in the role, as he’s done a fantastic job of finding the humanity and soul underneath the myth.  The franchise also benefited from an assured foundation built upon the direction of the first film by Kenneth Branagh.  Branagh brought his Shakespearean sensibilities into the Marvel comic adaptation and managed to bridge both myth and comic legend together in a beautiful operatic package with his 2011 film.  In particular, he found the driving force for the drama in the dynamic relationship between Thor and his deceitful brother Loki, which has been a factor that has shaped much of the MCU so far.  But, there have been many critics that have found the Thor franchise to be the most staid of the MCU, because of it’s at times melodramatic tone.  This was especially the case surrounding the serviceable, but unremarkable sequel Thor: The Dark World (2013).  If any Marvel franchise needed to change with the times, Thor certainly look like the one.  Thus we have a third entry in the series that seems to shake up the Thor franchise completely called Thor: Ragnarok.  But is it a change in the franchise for the better or is it too much of a heel turn that spoils what came before?

Where the movie begins makes more sense if you’re familiar with the MCU as a whole.  We first find Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in the underworld battling a demon known as Surtur, who reveals that he is destined to destroy Thor’s home world, Asgard, in a cataclysmic event known as Ragnarok.  Thor bests the demon and returns home, only to find his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in charge under the guise of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins).  Thor demands that Loki reveal where he’s hiding their father, which leads them back to Earth where they find him in Norway.  Odin, it turns out, is dying and with his last moments he reveals to his sons that they have a sister named Hela (Cate Blanchett), whom Odin has hidden away for fear of her dark ambitions and ruthlessness.  After Odin perishes, the self-proclaimed Goddess of Death emerges from her prison and promptly chases after her brothers.  Thor and Loki end up getting sidetracked as they fall out of the Bifrost portal, leaving Hela uncontested as she returns to savagely reclaim her throne in Asgard.  On Asgard, Hela enlists the help of a disgruntled former warrior of Odin’s army named Skurge (Karl Urban), and with him by her side, she lays waste to all who stands in her way, with only the loyal gatekeeper, Heimdall (Idris Elba) left to save who’s left.  Thor meanwhile ends up in a trash heap of a planet known as Sakaar, which is ruled by a gladiatorial games loving overlord named the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum).  Thor is trapped and taken in shackles to the Grandmaster’s palace by a strong-willed warrior named Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), where the Grandmaster chooses him as the next challenger for his beloved champion.  When Thor enters the arena, he discovers that the Champion that he is about to face is none other than the long missing Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), who is undefeated in the arena.  After finding his “friend from work,” Thor seeks to find a way out of Sakaar and back home to defeat Hela, which proves to be a bigger test than he realizes.

The first thing that you will realize upon watching this movie is how much of a tonal whiplash it will be compared to the previous Thor movies.  Thor: Ragnarok dispenses with the somber and operatic tones of the first two movies and instead embraces the weird and campy side of the character and his world.  More than any of the previous Thor movies, Ragnarok is the comic book part of Thor’s legend come to life.  We no longer see here an attempt to take the mythology of the character any more seriously, and instead bring him fully into what Marvel has turned him into.  The movie is also, without a doubt, way more of a comedy than the last two films, both of which used their comedic bits sparingly.  And, for the most part, it’s a complete makeover for the franchise that not only works, but was pretty much essential.  Like I was saying before, Marvel has survived through the years by adapting their stories and characters while still working towards the same goal, and Ragnarok is the perfect example of how to do that right.  They recognized that Thor’s story was being somewhat limited by it’s more somber tone, so they looked at what did work with the character and put a whole lot more emphasis on it.  When you look at the best moments with Thor, from both his franchise and the Avengers movies, you can see that his strengths were in his goofy, misplaced machismo, which often led to hilarious moments of humility for the mythic hero.  Here, the movie plays up his mischievous side a lot more, allowing us to enjoy a lot more of the things we love about the character.  The movie is also unafraid to be a lot more self-aware in it’s campiness, which is something that was definitely influenced greatly by director Taika Waititi, whose other films What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) also had that side of campy fun.  And yet, with all the tonal changes, the movie still manages to feel like a natural progression of what has come before, and that’s largely thanks to the fact that the film’s whole theme is centered around change, and how the old way of doing things will no longer work, leading for new directions and possibilities to open up.

There were funny moments in the previous films, but they were sporadically placed throughout and were more or less tied to Thor’s often “fish out of water” placement in the story.  But, after several years of this, it’s clear that Thor is no longer an outsider type of character, but instead a man of two worlds, comfortable in both.  So, with that in mind, director Waititi knew that the source of humor in his movie no longer needed to be centered around his main character, but instead around the world itself.  In this movie, it’s clear that Waititi wants to lampoon everything about Thor (his character, his story) while at the same time maintaining a sense of appreciation that honors the character’s legacy.  That’s why this movie has such a playful sense of humor to it, with no opportunity to make a joke wasted.  There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, especially those involving Thor and Hulk together, and it is a refreshing change of pace for the series overall.  However, the one negative that I can say about the wall-to-wall humorous tone is that it exists in detriment to the overall narrative.  While I was having a great time watching the movie and laughing at it’s most hilarious moments, I could still feel while watching it that there was something lacking in the plot itself.  In particular, I feel that the comedy in the film undermined the menacing aspect of the villain Hela in the film.  The thing is, Hela could have become one of Marvel’s all time greatest villains, and she certainly feels like it at times in the movie, with Cate Blanchett delivering a magnificent performance.  But, she is barely in the movie at all, disappearing for large stretches of screen-time.  I can see that Waititi wanted to maximize his comedic and action-filled moments, but by doing so, this iconic comic villain unfortunately gets diminished.  I wanted to know more about her apart from some rushed exposition and for her to truly let her wrath go wild.  But, while the movie mostly lands it’s laughs, I felt that it still left some things off the table that could have solidified it as one of Marvel’s greats.

There is still plenty to appreciate though.  The cast in particular are all uniformly excellent here.  Both Marvel and Taika Waititi made the wise choice to ground this movie firmly within Thor’s world, allowing more free range for all the actors to embrace their more campy instincts.  Hemsworth, as always, perfectly embodies the character of Thor, and this movie allows him more than ever to show his range; especially his knack for comedy.  This is a very relaxed version of Thor, laying far more into his charisma than into his ability to look strong while fighting.  You can also see the maturity that has seeped into his performance, as he clearly shows the way that living on earth among mortals has left an impact on him.  Tom Hiddleston likewise shows new layers for Loki here, showing how his character has gone through a transformation over the years, going from power hungry to uncertain and aimless under different circumstances.  And, I also have to point out that this is by far the best Hulk that we’ve seen in any movie to date, with the green guy getting a lot more character development than we’ve seen before.  We even see a playful side to him, which is especially uncharacteristic based on all his other appearances, yet still very much welcome.  The newest editions to the cast are also welcome.  Cate Blanchett makes the most of her sadly all too brief screen-time, clearly relishing the part she’s playing.  Tessa Thompson also makes Valkyrie a well-developed and interesting heroine; something that I have to say was severely lacking in this series up to now.  However, my absolute favorite character in the movie is the Grandmaster, with Jeff Goldblum owning every second of screen-time that he has.  It’s a perfect match of actor and character and the movie came to life every time he appears.  It’s clear that the Waititi intentionally had Goldblum just play himself throughout the movie, making the actor’s distinct personality be what defines the character, and it totally works.  If anything, the movie is worth seeing just for this character alone (and stay to the end of the credits to see even more of him).

Another great thing about this movie, in addition to the changed tone, is the visual aesthetic.  Kenneth Branagh’s original Thor had a bold look of it’s own, but it was grounded far more in the realm of fantasy and folklore, with Asgard looking as ornate and grandiose as something that you would see in any Lord of the Rings film.  Ragnarok owes a fair share of it’s visual style to the fantasy and sci-fi films of the 1980’s.  You can really feel the finger prints of movies like Flash Gordan (1980) and Masters of the Universe (1987) all over this movie.  I’ve heard other people call this movie a Heavy Metal album cover come to life, which is a comparison that’s not without merit, given the heavy Frank Frazetta feel of it all.  But, the movie’s visuals have a more comic book basis, especially in the moments on Sakaar, and that’s from the artwork of Marvel’s own Jack Kirby.  Kirby’s colorful style, which defined the publisher for many years, with it’s bold color schemes and dramatic compositions are clearly an inspiration for the colorful world of Sakaar, which is by far the most comic book-ish world that we’ve ever seen in any superhero film to date.  It’s remarkable to think that it’s taken Marvel this long to actually find a way to put Kirby’s distinctive style somewhere into the MCU, so thank goodness this film finally allowed the opportunity to happen.  The movie’s film score, provided by Mark Motherbaugh of Devo fame, also is a wonderful throwback to an 80’s style, using a heavy dose of synth rock to the orchestral music.  Clearly the movie knows that this is a heavy metal rock album come to life, so why not sound like it.  At the same time, it still feels within character of the franchise, as it fits the Nordic god of thunder quite well, both in the commanding way and the tongue-in-cheek way.  Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song” which was used to sell the movie in the trailers also makes an appearance in the film’s score, once again, fitting well with Thor’s character.  Both sonically and visually, this is a pleasing experience and without a doubt gives this franchise more of an identity than we’ve ever seen before; one that I hope they continue to use well into the future.

So, as far as Marvel Cinematic Universe movies go, this is an admirable change of pace for a character that needed it, that unfortunately falls short of the stellar heights that the studio has reached in the past.  But, as an entry within it’s own franchise, I can safely say that Thor: Ragnarok is the best Thor movie to date.  It finally feels like the franchise has found it’s identity, and they did so by fully embracing it’s cheesier elements.  I really appreciated the fact that it found the humor within it’s over-the-top world and is not afraid to drawing attention to it’s sillier aspects.  The first two films served their purposes in establishing the character, but this movie allows Thor, the comic book super hero, to finally emerge and be what he was always meant to be.  He’s no longer shackled by the legacy of his past, but is now instead a warrior whose story is yet to be fully written, and that’s a promising future for this character.  I just wish that this tonal change didn’t undermine some of the things in the story that still needed to be grounded, like the villainous Hela, who could have been given a more definitive role in this film and the MCU as a whole.  Still, the movie works for the most part, especially as a change of course for the franchise moving forward.  It’s interesting that it’s take the exact opposite direction as the Captain America franchise, as that one started off sillier and more colorful with The First Avenger (2011) and has since gone darker with The Winter Soldier (2014) and Civil War (2016).  But, like with Captain, Thor’s transition as a character is well reflected in the direction of the franchise and I’m glad to see both embracing the right tones as they have gone along.  Both represent the incredible ability of Marvel to make the right changes while at the same time not losing their focus on the big picture.  It’s going to be interesting to see how everything ties together by the time we get to Infinity War next year.  Ragnarok, in it’s literal translation, means the end of all things, but as we see with this new Thor movie, an end leads to new beginnings and that’s what I hope ends up being the ultimate result of this film.  Thor’s story has ended one chapter, and is about to enter a whole new, and much crazier, next phase, one that I hope will be worth the ride.

Rating: 8.25/10

Top Ten Favorite Villains in Disney Movies

Only a few months ago I shared with you my choices for the greatest heroes in Disney movies.  With Halloween just around the corner this year, I decided to look at the flip-side of the coin and share with you my choices for my favorite Disney villains.  The collection of Disney Villains is a fascinating one, considering the widespread popularity they enjoy.  In many cases, you’ll find that it is the villain that becomes the most popular character from the movie, and not the hero.  And why is that, particularly in Disney’s case?  I think that it’s because Disney has figured out , more than with any other type of characters, the formula for crafting memorable and captivating personalities that instantly pop out to us on the screen.  They are often flamboyant, passionate, and they revel in their dastardly deeds and are unapologetic about it.  It also helps that Disney makes them physically stand apart from the rest by color coding them most often in black clothing.   But, more than anything, I think that we respond to the Disney villains more passionately because they embody the earliest notions of evil and dark intentions that we all have growing up.  Disney movies were often intended as morality tales for younger audiences, and it is true that our first comprehension of social evils like greed, jealousy, prejudice, and violence often come from the ones we see committed by one of Disney’s many villainous characters; that is if those social evils aren’t already present in our lives when we are young.  With Disney villains, we see those evils distilled down (some would even say watered down) into vividly imagined antagonists, and that’s why they capture our imagination so much.  Disney has made their rogues gallery one of cinema’s most memorable, and with this list, I intend to share with you the ones that have stuck with me the most, both growing up and continuing on as an adult.

Before I get to that though, I would like to highlight some honorable mentions who fell short of this list: The Evil Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves), The Coachman (Pinocchio), Chernabog (Fantasia), The Headless Horseman (The Adventures of Ichabod an Mr. Toad), The Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland), Shere Khan (The Jungle Book), Gaston (Beauty and the Beast), Hades (Hercules), Dr. Facilier (The Princess and the Frog), and King Candy (Wreck-It Ralph).  Also, I’m limiting this list to just Disney Movies.  The characters can be adapted from classic literature, but they can’t come from a source acquired by Disney long after the original creation, so no Star Wars or Marvel villains here.  And with that, let’s count down the greatest Disney villains.

10.

YZMA from THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE (2000)

Voiced by Eartha Kitt

As far as Disney Villains go, Yzma is not your typical rogue.  Her fiendish plan ends up being one of the most incompetently executed, as her adversary is turned into a llama as opposed to being poisoned as intended.  Then her dimwitted accomplice ends up losing that same victim (the true ruler of the land by the way) and both him and her must trek aimlessly through the countryside in order to find them and finish the job right; which of course never happens.  As a villain, Yzma probably maintains the lowest batting average of success as anyone on this list.  So, what makes her so special?  In many ways, she earns this spot for being just a fantastic character all around, even with all of the missteps she faces.  Disney’s underrated comedy jem, The Emperor’s New Groove, is first and foremost a farce, often calling attention to and mocking tropes of past Disney films, and Yzma is a perfect villain for this type of comedic tale.  Most of the film’s funniest moments often come out of her constant frustration upon dealing with her incompetent sidekick, Kronk (voiced to perfection by Patrick Warburton).  I especially love the moments in the movie where she attempts to indulge in her sweet villainy, and the moment is broken apart by the ill-timed and idiotic interjections of Kronk.  A bit where Kronk means to gather information by speaking to a squirrel provides one of Yzma’s most hilarious breakdowns of frustration.  A large part of Yzma’s character comes through in the exceptional voice work by the legendary Eartha Kitt, and who would have thought that the screen and stage legend would have found her comedic match with Warburton of all people.  Together, they make the greatest pairing of villain and sidekick in any Disney movie.

9.

SCAR from THE LION KING (1994)

Voiced by Jeremy Irons

The Lion King  is often referred to as Hamlet in Africa, so it’s not at all surprising that it’s villain retains some Shakespearean qualities of his own.  Serving as a combination of Claudius from Hamlet (for the fratricide) and Edmund from King Lear (for being a second son manipulating politics behind the scenes in order to gain power), Scar is very much a villain formed out of literary inspiration.  But, even with those thoughts in mind, Scar is still a memorable character in his own right.  For one thing, he stands out among other Disney villains as being the first one to murder his victim on screen.  Other Disney films tend to value showing the aftermath of such a despicable act, but The Lion King did not shy away, showing Scar making the defining move to shove his brother Mufasa off of cliff and into a Wildebeest stampede.  This was different than say hearing a gunshot taking out Bambi’s mother off-screen.  Here, young audiences saw the terrible consequences of someone’s quest for more power, and it was terrifying.  Apart from that, Scar remains one of Disney’s most vivid portrayals of villainy; he’s deceitful and ruthless, but also consumed by a obsessive sense of self-worth.  He feels that powered is owed to him because he sees himself as smarter than everyone else.  But as we see the consequences of his actions, we come to learn that the “lion’s share” of brains does not equal noble leadership skills, and the scary thing is that Scar will never see that, and will destroy anyone who questions his role.  Disney was blessed to receive the talents of Oscar winner Jeremy Irons for the role, who really brought out the Shakespearean qualities in the character.  Motivated by a tragic sense of jealousy, Scar earns his place among the best Disney villains ever.

8.

PROFESSOR RATIGAN from THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986)

Voiced by Vincent Price

Sometimes Disney gives their villains a more subtle portrayal that delves deeper into their character, and then other times, they drop all pretense and just let their baddies be evil for the sake of it.  And sometimes, even the less subtle villains are a lot of fun to watch.  Professor Ratigan is that kind of villain, done to absolute perfection.  He certainly has his source in literature too.  If his archnemisis, Basil of Baker Street, is Disney’s re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes, than it’s obvious that Ratigan is the stand-in for Holmes’ own nemesis, Professor James Moriarty.  And Disney did not waste their opportunity to exploit the best out of that legendary rivalry out Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels.  Ratigan, probably more than anyone else on this list, relishes his role as a villain.  He even gets a song where he sings about all the evil plots he’s committed, with not an inkling of shame.  What I love best about the character is the unabashed delight that Ratigan takes in developing his schemes, providing an engaging balance between the humorous and the menacing.  A lot of this comes out of the vocal performance given by the legendary Vincent Price, who you can tell is having a blast playing this part.  Price rightly steers clear of his more macabre sounding line readings which he had long been famous for, and instead perfectly embodies the voice of a megalomaniac genius criminal thug.  One of my favorite bits in the movie is the geeky way that he spells out how he’s going to destroy Basil, by using all his weapons at once (“Snap, Boom, Twang, Thunk, SPLAT!!!”).  They don’t come any more dastardly than Ratigan and that’s why he has earned a spot here.

7.

CAPTAIN HOOK from PETER PAN (1953)

Voiced by Hans Conreid

One thing that usually defines many Disney villains is their often narrow minded commitment to a singular goal, with little consideration to anything else.  Oftentimes, their goal is either for power or for wealth, but there is one villain that lives to enact one goal that’s different than all the others; vengeance.  That is the primary motivation behind Captain Hook and it makes him quite unique in the Disney canon.  There have been many interpretations of James M. Barrie’s iconic swashbuckler, but I don’t think you’ll ever see one quite as memorable as Disney’s version.  In many ways, Disney brought a bit more nuance to the character than what had been there before.  This version of Hook is intimidating, but at times can be quite comical as well, with the movie never quite breaking that fine line between those two aspects in his character.  We’re able to laugh when he runs afoul of the man-eating Crocodile, in some brilliantly animated moments of physical comedy, but then feel chilled by the next scene where he deceitfully manipulates Tinker Bell into revealing the hideout of Peter Pan.  Disney does an amazing job of giving their version of Hook so many layers to his personality, and it makes him a magnetic presence in every scene he’s in.  I especially like the detail where he tries to maintain his identity as a “gentleman pirate;” going as far to keep a promise not to lay a finger (or hook) on Peter.  Of course, he works around that by using a bomb instead; further illustrating his cunning.  Veteran character actor Hans Conreid brings out all those aspects of the character, relishing the suaveness of Hook at his most deceitful and bellowing out the infantile cries for help to “SMEE” whenever the Crocodile is near.  Overall, he’s a perfect example of how Disney can turn an already iconic character and make him one of their own.

6.

JAFAR from ALADDIN (1992)

Voiced by Jonathan Freeman

One complaint that is leveled against some Disney villains is their often lack of subtlety, which as stated with Ratigan, is not necessarily a bad thing.  But, it can sometimes be a negative when it becomes clear that narrative shortcuts were made with the depictions of a films characters, especially villains.  This means falling back on overused tropes and stereotypes when crafting your character, and the villain of Disney’s Aladdin could have easily fallen into this trap.  I mean seriously, look at him.  How could any of the other characters in the movie not recognize that the guy dressed all in black and with a cobra shaped staff was up to no good?  And yet, Jafar manages to rise above those same tropes and manages to be not just the best villain for his particular story, but one of Disney’s best overall.  I think that he works as well as he does mainly because he perfectly fits the tone of Disney’s take on the Aladdin legend.  Aladdin was very much meant to be a homage to old Hollywood spectacle as well as over the top Broadway productions, and Jafar is a prime example of that kind of style choice.  Heavily inspired by Conrad Veidt’s portrayal of the evil vizier in Alexander Korda’s technicolor classic, The Thief of Baghdad (1940), Jafar is equal parts camp, class and menace.  The stuffiness of his character is perfect counterpart to the unhinged mania, which comes to the surface once he’s granted the wishes he’s always desired.  Broadway vet Jonathan Freeman was perfectly suited for the role, finding that right campy tone that fit with the character.  Interesting fact; many years later, when Disney brought the movie to the Broadway stage in a new adaptation, they gave the role of Jafar to Freeman, making him the only person to play the same role for Disney on both the stage and screen.  That tells you right there how much of an impact his performance left on audiences.  Jafar may be an obvious villain, but he is by no means a weak one, and it shows that sometimes even a stereotypical villain could be just what the story needs.

5.

URSULA from THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989)

Voiced by Pat Carroll

In the years following Walt Disney’s untimely death, the company he founded was struggling to find it’s identity going forward.  Movies continued to be produced, but they were lacking some of the same qualities that were found in the movies from Walt’s time; namely, memorable villains.  Sure, Ratigan managed to stand out, but do many of you remember Madame Medusa, The Horned King, or Edgar the Butler as fondly.  When it came time for Disney to really stretch themselves again, and make an animated classic like they used to, it made sense for them to put a lot of effort into making a villain to stand among the all time greats.  Or in this case, swim.  Ursula was the realization of this renewed effort on Disney’s part, and along with the movie that she comes from (The Little Mermaid), she was a large part of the beginning of the Disney’s Renaissance.  Taking her inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen’s original unnamed Sea Witch, Ursula is a master class depiction of villainy.  What makes her so memorable is not just her design, which along is brilliant; taking inspiration from the body of an octopus.  It’s the depravity of her character that makes her so memorably loathsome; preying on desperate individuals, forcing them into contracts, and then collecting them into her grotesque garden of lost souls.  She knows how to manipulate the system by exploiting these “poor unfortunate souls” and do it all legally through contracts, which makes her villainy all the more hurtful.  She also is one of the most mesmerizing Disney villains, fully embracing her campy aspects.  Ursula was said to be inspired physically by famous drag queen Divine, which is a bold choice on Disney’s part.  Pat Carroll’s sultry voice also lends a lot to the character, reinforcing the camp aspect of the character.  Ursula, by being both groundbreaking and a return to form for Disney, easily earn her place among the best villains the studio has ever created.

4.

CRUELLA DE VIL from 101 DALMATIANS (1961)

Voiced by Betty Lou Gerson

There are few crimes out there that seem to be universally reviled as cruelty towards animals.  Combine that with an unglamourous portrayal of vanity taken to the extreme, and you’ve got the making of one of Disney’s most iconic villains.  Cruella De Vil is a classic villain in every sense.  Her character design as garish, aging fashionista along makes her easily identifiable, but that’s not the only thing that makes her memorable.  She is also one of the most exquisitely animated character in any Disney film, villain or otherwise.  Just look at the memorable introductory scene of her in the movie 101 Dalmatians, where she blows through Radcliffe household like a tornado demading to know where the puppies are, leaving a rotten trail of cigarette smoke in her wake.  Animated by legendary artist Marc Davis, this scene is a masterpiece of character animation, delivering all we need to know about the character in quick and often erratic gestures; her greediness, her lack of empathy, and her larger than life efforts to always be the center of attention.  As the movie goes on, we see the further depths of her character, as her plan to create dog skin coats from Dalmatian puppy fur unfolds, and she becomes one of the easiest Disney villains that we love to hate.  But, apart from her cartoonish aspects, she stands out as a fully realized interpretation of something very real that we see in our society; the self-obsessed social climber.  She not only has to be the center of attention; she has to do it in the most obscene way possible, including slaughtering puppies for her own fashion.  Of all the Disney villains, she has probably entered the cultural lexicon more than any other, as you often see many people dismiss self-obsessed divas in our culture as a “Cruella.”  Regardless of that, she certainly remains one of Disney’s greatest villains, being both a great symbol of evil as well as an entertaining character in general.

3.

LADY TREMAINE from CINDERELLA (1950)

Voiced by Eleanor Audley

Otherwise known as the Wicked Stepmother to Cinderella, Lady Tremaine is a perfect example of a villain that strays from the typical norm of Disney villains.   She has no magical powers, nor any murderous plans.  She evil simply for the fact that she holds so much power over one person, and exploits it to an unforgivable degree.  In many ways, Lady Tremaine becomes one of Disney’s scariest villains because of how realistic she is.  It is conceivable that someone in real life is capable of the same evil acts that she commits in this movie; forcing our heroine into abject slavery and submitting her to humiliating torture both mental and physical by her own true born, selfish daughters.  Cinderella is the embodiment of a light shining through the darkest of times, and Lady Tremaine finds her evil identity by extinguishing that light at every turn, giving Cinderella less to hope for and manipulating her into thinking that this is the only thing she is good for.  Mental abuse is a very real evil act, and that’s what makes Lady Tremaine all the more vivid a villain in her film.  One scene in particular illustrates not only how evil she can be, but how diabolical she is with her darkness.  When she and her daughters prepare to leave for the ball, they are shocked to find that Cinderella is ready to go to, with a dress of her own.  Instead of stopping her, Tremaine deceitfully compliments the details of her dress, pointing out that it features scraps that her daughters had discarded, which then makes the selfish daughters turn possessive and start tearing Cinderella’s dress to pieces.  In this act, Lady Tremaine has simultaneously scarred and humiliated Cinderella without ever laying a finger on her, showing just how powerful and diabolical her villainy can be.  And let’s not forget, she has one of the most chilling stares ever committed to film; one that sinks into your soul.  Almost too real for comfort, Lady Tremaine is a masterfully realized villain.

2.

JUDGE CLAUDE FROLLO from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996)

Voiced by Tony Jay

This late Disney Renaissance film is mostly regarded as a classic, albeit with a few flaws.  But, if there is anything about Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame that has received universal praise, it’s with the villain, Judge Frollo.  It was a bold undertaking by Disney to find a way to turn Victor Hugo’s dark literary masterpiece into something that’s suitable for all audiences, but if there was anything that captured the essence of the original novel, it was Frollo.  Much like Lady Tremaine, Frollo is a villain whose frightening to audiences because of the realism of his villainy.  In fact, history has often seen too many people of Frollo’s ilk, especially in modern times.  The pious, xenophobic overlord uses his power to unjustly hunt and pursue gypsies that he believes are infesting his “pure” city.  In Hugo’s novel, Frollo was a man of the church, giving his villainous intents the air of hypocrisy as well.  Disney strips their Frollo of religious affiliation (probably to avoid complaint from religious viewers) but his character is no less hypocritical in his moral authority with which he uses to justify all of his horrible acts.  I believe this makes Frollo all the more frightening in his villainy, because there is no rhyme or reason to his bigotry; as is true in real life as well.  People are just inclined to hatred, and giving that kind of feeling power is the worst thing we can do as a society.  Disney’s Frollo is also given the grotesque aspect of having lustful feelings towards the heroine Esmerelda, which shows the even further depravity of his character.  But, more than anything, Frollo remains one of Disney’s greatest villains because of the sheer fearlessness that the filmmakers took in depicting his character.  There are no soft spots to mock about him, nor campy aspect that make him alluring.  He is the most vivid portrayal of unadulterated human evil that Disney has ever put on screen.  I also applaud Disney for casting the right voice for the character, which didn’t end up being a known celebrity, but instead went to veteran voice actor Tony Jay, who delivers a knockout performance.  Disney has rarely taken the steps to show real evil on screen, but with Frollo, they managed to do so in a captivating way.

1.

MALEFICENT from SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)

Voiced by Eleanor Audley

Who better to top this list than the “mistress of all evil.”  Maleficent’s placement here shouldn’t be all that surprising to those of you that have read my list of the greatest movie villains of all time, seeing as how she was the only Disney villain to make it on that one.  But the main reason why I consider her the greatest Disney villain off all time is because she has since become the gold standard by which all others are judged by.  Walt Disney may have created the archetype of a Disney villain when he developed the Evil Queen from Snow White, but with Maleficent, he perfected it.  Maleficent is everything you want in a Disney villain; larger than life, uncompromising, exquisitely designed, and able to command every moment of screen time she’s in.  Even when Maleficent isn’t present on screen, you feel her presence, especially in the fear that all the other characters live under because of her.  King Stefan wouldn’t burn every spinning wheel in his kingdom, nor would the three good fairies live without magic for 16 years based on any idle threat.  They know what Maleficent is capable of and it terrifies them.  Maleficent certainly embodies these frightening aspects, but she is more than just that.  Her ethereal presence is also iconic in it’s own right, and is often imitated.  No one commands attention better than her, and she is well aware of it.  She almost relishes the flair she puts into her speeches, often adding plenty of poetic flourish to them.  This was also enhanced by the ideal casting of veteran character actor Eleanor Audley to the role (who also gave chilling voice to Lady Tremaine).   Maleficent also set the standard for villain designs in future animated films, with her long black robes, staff, and horned headdress.  I’ve heard Jafar from Aladdin referred to as the male Maleficent, which is not necessarily an insult.  He even makes a monstrous transformation near the end, just like Maleficent, which is another trope that she pioneered, through her iconic transformation into a fire-breathing dragon.  So much of our concepts of what makes a great Disney villain can all be traced back to her, and that in a nutshell is why she earns the top spot as the greatest Disney villain of all time.

So, there you have my choices for the greatest Disney villains.  In some of these cases you see them make definitive versions of already established characters, or create profound portrayals of villainy from scratch.  But, regardless of origin, they all share the same aspect of being iconic symbols of evil within the Disney canon, and by that extension, within cinema in general.  But, why do we love these characters so much despite the evil that they do.  It’s the same reason why we love Hannibal Lecter, or Darth Vader, or Hans Landa.  We are all attracted to great characters, and sometimes the best characters in any story are the villains.  We don’t condone what they do, but we hold them in high regard because they brought out something fantastical in their selective stories that we respond very highly to.  It’s something that occurred to me when I saw Rogue One last year, when I saw the last few minutes of the movie with Darth Vader.  While what Vader did in those few moments was horrifying (slaughtering a whole crew of soldiers) I found myself so overjoyed by the experience of seeing it, because I saw a return to form for the character that has been missing for years.  Essentially, I was happy that the movie stayed true to the darkness of the character and exploited that perfectly on screen.  For all these villains, they capture that same magnetic power that helps us to appreciate their selective stories even more, and helps us to enjoy the feeling hating a character so much that we love them for it.  That’s the power that Disney villains have had over the years, and you can see that cross over into several generations.  When I attended this most recent D23 Expo, I can tell you that I saw far more people cosplaying as villains than heroes.  In story-telling, you need to balance the light with the darkness, and Disney perhaps has done too good a job making their darker characters stand out.  But, that’s what makes their movies even better, so who can blame them for putting so much effort into making their villains so good.

Focus on a Franchise – The Exorcist

What scares us the most as an audience usually differs from person to person.  Any one of us could be scared of anything, from spiders to ghosts to even clowns.  But, what ends up making us scared comes from a personal place and what baggage we bring with ourselves in everyday life.  Fear is a personal manifestation of the feelings of rejection, revulsion, and anticipation that coagulate beneath the surface, and are triggered by an external force that brings all those feelings out at once.  And the strange thing is that many of us like the feeling of being scared, as long as we know that we’ll be alright in the end.  That is the feeling that Hollywood seeks to exploit when they try their hand at horror, but again, everyone’s fears are different.  There are some instances when everyone’s fears do line up and it ends up driving the best of horror movies to great success.  But, which example in the genre has managed to do that best.  Well, given my own personal reactions, I can tell you that one of the most effective and interesting franchises to ever come out of the horror genre is the Exorcist series.  The original film that started the franchise is of course an all time great, but what sets it apart, along with it’s follow-ups, is the effectiveness of it’s atmosphere and iconography.  With it’s Gothic imagery, it’s almost oppressive use of darkness, it’s unrelenting look into the mind of pure evil, and it’s occasional use of shocking horrific moments, The Exorcist movies stand as probably the bleakest of all horror to ever come out of the Hollywood machine.  It’s also a franchise that has not been immune to highs and lows in quality, but even that disparity between each installment is fascinating in it’s own right.  In this article, I will be looking at the franchise as a whole (the good and the bad) and see how it has made it’s mark within the horror genre, as well as look at how the peculiar sidetracks it has taken over the years have made it one of the most unique horror franchises in the industry as well.

THE EXORCIST (1973)

Directed by William Friedkin

There are few if any horror films that can claim the kind of prestige that The Exorcist has.  It is, without a doubt, a masterpiece of a film-making and an icon of the genre.  But, why did this film perform as well as it did?  To put it simply, it was a perfect example of everything falling into place at the right time, with a near flawless execution.  The story is simple enough.  A young child named Regan (Linda Blair), the daughter of a famed actress (Ellen Burstyn), suddenly begins behaving strangely at home, which then evolves into violent behavior.  Soon after, supernatural events occur and it dawns on the mother that her child might indeed be possessed by something evil.  She resorts to calling upon the help of a tormented priest named Father Karras (Jason Miller) who finds that the demon possessing Regan is no ordinary spirit but something far sinister and powerful, which then leads him to calling upon a renowned exorcist who has had a personal history with this particular demon; Father Merrin (Max von Sydow).  What most people remember most from the movie is the now iconic Exorcism itself, as Fathers Merrin and Karras perform one of the most harrowing rituals every put on screen.  This scene is chilling on it’s own, but it’s elevated even more by the exceptional building of tension that we’ve seen up to that point, watching poor Regan become tortured by the demon inside her, transforming her into a literal unholy monster.  It stands out so much from horror movies before or since it’s creation, and that’s because of the “matter of fact” way it was staged.  Director Friedkin, coming straight off his Oscar-winning success with The French Connection (1971), made the brilliant decision to shot the movie like a drama rather than a horror picture, and that perfectly heightens the terror on screen, because it feels so unnatural.

One thing you’ll notice about the movie is the brilliance of it’s stripped back aesthetic.  The movie doesn’t rely heavily on jump scares, dramatic lighting, nor music cues to heighten the tension of the movie.  It all builds naturally through the atmosphere in the movie, and seeing the slow degradation of Regan over time.  In fact, despite having one of the horror genre’s most famous musical themes (courtesy of Mike Oldfield), the film is devoid of any background music, giving it a stark realism it might not otherwise have had.  The cinematography also brilliantly conveys a natural, unfiltered dread as well.  Shot with mostly natural, diffused light, the film has this coldness that permeates the entire movie.  By the time you get to the exorcism finale, you have already been immersed in this moody, oppressive atmosphere long enough that you forget you’re watching a movie and instead feel like your seeing real life unfold; and it’s terrifying.  The cast likewise brilliantly adds to the level of authenticity to the production.  While veterans like Max von Sydow, Ellen Burstyn, and Lee J. Cobb all give exceptional performances, it’s Linda Blair in her breakout role that really makes the movie memorable.  The fact that an actress of her young age had to endure such painstaking feats in order to make you buy into her possession, including the groundbreaking make-up by Dick Smith, is really something amazing.  You see this little girl completely disappear into this demonic monster, and it is the stuff of nightmares.  Whether she’s mutilating herself with a crucifix, twisting her head all the way around, or floating feet off of her bed, Regan’s presence on screen has come to define the genre since.  Special mention should also go to actress Mercedes McCambridge, who went un-credited as the voice of the demon.  Her gravely delivery further drives home the chilling transformation.  The movie is considered a classic for all the right reasons, and it’s iconic status is rightfully deserved.  Few other movies in the horror genre can claim to be half as effective or scary as this restrained masterpiece.

EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC (1977)

Directed by John Boorman

Everything about the first Exorcist was justifiably celebrated; the atmosphere, the performances, the direction, everything.  But, what was most celebrated was the subtlety, and matter of fact-ness that it approached it’s subject matter with.  Now, imagine a sequel that was devoid of all that subtlety, as well as lacking any restraint whatsoever.  That is what we got with Exorcist II; not just one of the worst sequels to a horror movie ever made, but also one of the most baffling.  Director John Boorman brought his own cinematic style, which tended to favor the surreal over the terrifying, which he honed on quirky cult classics like Zardoz (1974).  While his style works just fine for films like Zardoz and later Excalibur (1981), it proved to be a terrible match for the Exorcist.  Linda Blair returns as Regan, who is now seeking therapy worrying that the demon who possessed her is still there.  She is also investigated by newcomer, Father Lamont (Richard Burton), who is seeking answers in the “spoilers” death of Father Merrin from the previous movie (Max von Sydow also returns in a few brief flashbacks).  The movie sets much of the action with the mental clinic that’s treating Regan, and the overly stylized setting as well as the flashy way in which it is used points to exactly why this movie failed.  It forgets exactly what made the original so terrifying, which was the show of restraint on the part of the filmmakers which heightened the realism.  Here, Boorman wants you to notice his direction, and while the movie is at times beautifully shot, it is never in any way scary.  The only redeeming value of the film is that it misses the mark so badly, that it can sometimes be hilarious to watch; but again that reflects terribly on it’s connection to the original.  It’s flashy and garish, and in no ways feels like a natural continuation of the original.  Richard Burton’s barely caring performance doesn’t help much either.  It should’ve been obvious to John Boorman that a swarm of locusts doesn’t come anywhere near as being scary as a possessed child vomiting green projectile while strapped to a bed.  And it’s a lesson in cinema showing that style cannot support moments of horror alone.  the more natural approach it turns out makes a movie much more terrifying.

THE EXORCIST III: LEGION (1990)

Directed by William Peter Blatty

After the baffling embarrassment that was Exorcist II, the franchise went into dormancy for over a decade.  Then, it found new life thanks to the efforts of the unlikeliest of saviors; it’s original creator.  Screenwriter turned novelist turned filmmaker Blatty was the man who crafted the original novel on which the first movie was based on.  When it came time to adapt The Exorcist’s literary sequel, conveniently titled legion, Blatty took it upon himself to not only adapt the book himself, but also assume duties as director as well.  And remarkably, he proved to be quite adept at it.  While, Exorcist III  is not as perfectly executed as the first movie, it nevertheless feels much closer in spirit to it’s predecessor.  It retains the right amount of atmosphere, it takes it’s story much more seriously, and it is genuinely terrifying at times.  The film centers this time around the character of Lt. William Kinderman, the detective from the first movie who was played by Lee J. Cobb.  Here, the character is played by George C. Scott, who does a commendable job of filling the late actor Cobb’s shoes.  In the movie, he’s investigating a series of murders that bear the trademarks of a notorious serial killer called the Gemini Killer.  Only one problem, the Gemini Killer has been dead for 15 years.  The investigation leads him to a mental hospital where he finds a horrifying discovery; one of the patients is the once thought deceased Father Karras (Jason Miller returning to the role).  Blatty’s film, whole not perfect, nevertheless does an excellent job of returning the franchise back to it’s roots.  In particular, the atmosphere is spot on, and subtle in all the best ways.  The movie also has what is widely considered to be the best jump scare in film history, which is a real testament to Blatty’s direction.  But, the movie’s true best element is the unforgettable performance of Brad Dourif as the Gemini Killer, who we learn is possessing Father Karras alongside the demon from the first movie.  Dourif is absolutely terrifying in the film, to the point of being hypnotic, and more than anything he is the reason this movie is worth watching.  It took a long time, but this was the movie brought this franchise right back to it’s place as one of the most terrifying in cinematic history.  Not bad for someone who literally wrote the book on this stuff.

EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING (2004)

Directed by Renny Harlin

The franchise would once again take a long sabbatical again until Hollywood would once again come calling.  This time, however, the results wouldn’t turn out quite so well.  But, strangely enough, this would also prove to be the most fascinating years out of the franchise because what we got was an unexpected experiment in film-making out of the Exorcist franchise that I don’t think anyone ever expected.  Started by rights holders, Morgan Creek Productions, the series was about to look back in time and present the untold story about how Father Merrin became an exorcist in the first place.  After the first director dropped out, the project was given over to writer turned director Paul Schrader; best known for his darker themed films like Affliction (1998) and Auto Focus (2002), as well as the screenplay for Taxi Driver (1976).  Schrader faithfully executed the script he was given, but the producers had second thoughts when they saw his more cerebral approach.  So, they chose to re-shoot the entire film under the direction of Renny Harlin, whose better known for his work in action films.  This move didn’t exactly work out either, and the film unsurprisingly flopped.  This movie, again, showed us exactly what doesn’t work in this franchise and that’s the lack of subtlety.  Renny Harlin’s Exorcist: The Beginning is a loud, in your face  gore fest that felt more akin to the style of it’s era rather than a natural continuation of the franchise.  The scares are predictable, and it makes heavy use of some truly awful CGI effects.  The only thing it shares with the other Exorcist movies is it’s name as well as the character of Father Merrin, this time played by a rather lost Stellan Skarsgard.  Nothing is added by this film overall to the franchise, making it just feel like a shameless cash grab as a result.  And for that, it marks a low point in the franchise, one which could have resulted differently, which we would soon could have happened.

DOMINION: PREQUEL TO THE EXORCIST (2005)

Directed by Paul Schrader

When we hear about re-shoots, we often speculate about an alternate version of a movie that we’ll never be able to see.  Most of the time, a re-shoot happens to alter one or two scenes to help a struggling film feel more cohesive.  Rarely do you see that happen to an entire movie, and even rarer do you see that alternative version make it to theaters as it’s own film.  But, that’s exactly how we got this fifth installment in the Exorcist franchise; one that should’ve never happened in the first place.  After Beginning’s failure at the box office, Morgan Creek realized too late that they may have made a mistake shelving Paul Schrader’s version and decided to give it a theatrical release of it’s own.  Schrader was given the most minuscule of post-production budgets in order to finish his film, and while it does present something closer to his original vision, it still feels like one that is compromised.  Still, Dominion does have one benefit, which is that it feels more in character with the spirit of the franchise.  The film is interesting to watch alongside Renny Harlin’s version, because it shows how two different directors can take basically the same plot, which has Father Merrin investigating a submerged church in the Egyptian desert that’s built upon a pagan temple, and come up with a completely different feeling movie.  While it still pales in comparison to the terrifying moments of The Exorcist and Exorcist III, it does much better at maintaining a sense of Gothic atmosphere that Renny Harlin completely ignored.  Skarsgard also is much better in this version, bringing a lot more depth to the character of Father Merrin, as we see what evil drove him back into God’s service.  Neither this or Beginning stand very strong as horror movies, but together they make for one interesting lesson in storytelling on film; contrasting Schrader’s more subtle approach with Harlin’s flashier one.  Dominion did only slightly better among critics than Beginning, but it did receive some welcome praise from a high place, and that was from William Peter Blatty, who commended it as a film in the true spirit of the original.  Regardless, it’s still something of a miracle that Dominion saw the light of day at all, even with a rather lackluster roll out by the studios.   It’s not anywhere near the height of the franchise, due to it’s still lackluster story, but it at least made an attempt to feel like it belonged in the same family as it’s predecessors and not feel like a lame attempt to follow a trend.

So, while the results have been wildly incoherent, the Exorcist miraculously has become a franchise that still has legs many years later.  The original of course is a timeless masterpiece that still manages to remain chilling even today.  And Exorcist III has managed to climb out of the shadow of it’s predecessor and become a beloved cult hit in it’s own right.  The best thing though is that you don’t have to watch the whole of the series in order to appreciate it’s finer parts.  The first and third installments stand perfectly well on their own apart from their lackluster follow-ups.  Exorcist II basically serves as a bizarre cautionary tale about how not to make a sequel, and the two back to back prequels offer an interesting look at how a movie can differ so greatly depending on who’s directing it.  But, personally for me, I admire The Exorcist franchise (at it’s best) for taking it’s scares seriously and not exploit them for shock value.  I grew up in the Catholic church, so some of the themes and iconography were all very familiar in the films.  As I’ve grown older, my views on religion have changed significantly, but at the same time, it’s still be a part of me, and it’s what follows me into my experiences viewing these movies.  It’s my own kind of baggage that these movies prey upon to bring out my fears, and that’s probably why I find The Exorcist one of the most frightening films ever made.  For me, it brought out my worst fears, of losing my soul as well as control over my own self, and that’s what keeps it resonating for me so many years after viewing it for the first time.  I still marvel at the incredible seriousness that the movie takes with it’s subject, which as we’ve seen can be mishandled to the point of silliness in other films.  The Exorcist franchise is horror film-making taken beyond the point of simple scares, and into the realm of creating genuine dread.  Exorcisms may not in fact be a real thing, but these movies have sure convinced us all that they could be.  Nothing is scarier than feeling the sense that our worst fears can manifest into real terror, and The Exorcist managed to turn that kind of fear into high art and an unforgettable experience.

They All Float Down Here – IT and the Return of Character in Hollywood Horror

Imagine the scenario.  James Bond, Batman, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Jon Snow, and Marty McFly all find themselves trapped in a cell with no means of escape.  Within the cell, they find a revolver with 5 bullets.  They are told that the only way out is for one person to shoot and kill the others with one bullet each, with the lone survivor set free.  Now, with those six characters, who do you think will be the last one left.  There are a variety of answers given to that scenario, but in truth there is only one real answer.  None of those characters make it out because none of them exist.  And yet, we know these characters and care about them to wonder what might happen.  This is the fundamental rule of storytelling.  For a story to work, we must know who the players are, and want to follow their progression through the narrative.  It sounds easy enough to do, but more often than not, you see a lot of stories fall apart because they forget to make their characters interesting or relatable.  A lot of times, characters are often treated as pieces on a chess board, moved along as part of a grander plan on the part of the storyteller, who merely is concerned with moving from point A to point B.  But, characters shouldn’t function as pawns, they should function as people; and people are complex beings who have their own interests and concerns that run contrary to other people’s plans.  With this in mind, a storyteller can craft a much deeper storyline.  But, as with seen in Hollywood, concerns about character and story often take a back seat to being able to finish a product quickly and on budget.  Oftentimes, in order to capitalize on trends in the market, movies rush through production without devoting enough time to giving characters the development they need.  You see this a lot in genre flicks, and most recently, it was a problem in the Horror genre.

Horror is a genre as old as cinema itself.  Dating back to when German Expressionists revolutionized the use of shadows to convey terror, all the way through Universal’s monster flicks and the 1950’s B-movie craze, it has been a genre that has matured and found all sorts of different avenues to define itself.  But, along with some of the milestones of the genre, like Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), there has been nearly ten times as many copycats who capitalize on the success with diminishing results.  There are a lot of reasons why so many horror flicks fail in the long run, but what you’ll find most of the time is that a good deal of them forget to focus on their characters, and instead let the gimmicks of their plot run wild.  Going back to my opening scenario, we see that identifying who the characters are and what they might do is what ultimately drives the tension of the scene.  But, when you have a genre that’s built more around famous scenes rather than famous characters, which the Horror genre usually is, than you see more a tendency on the part of the filmmakers to forget to give their characters any interesting qualities.  For many years, primarily in the post-Saw (2004), gore-obsessed years of the 2000’s, it became almost commonplace for there to be thinly drawn characters in each film.  But, this was largely a problem of Hollywood’s own making.  Outside of Hollywood, a new type of Horror sub-class began to emerge, one that emphasized the psychological and macabre rather than the bloodied and the mangled.  More importantly, it was horror that returned to the idea that the best way to scare audiences was to make them feel the same thing that the characters are feeling, and this meant making more identifiable and interesting characters.  Steadily, these outsiders have built a quiet bit of success that is now influencing the industry in a positive way, and this has all culminated with the record breaking success of the remake to Stephen King’s IT, currently in theaters.

People expected IT to perform well, but I don’t think people expected these kinds of numbers from the grosses.  As of this writing, IT has grossed 310 million dollars domestic, surpassing The Exorcist (1974) as the highest grossing horror film of all time.  Some will probably point to the popularity of the now 30 year old novel it’s based on as the reason for doing so well, as well as the familiarity that people have with the 1990 made-for-TV miniseries staring Tim Curry.  But, I think that IT’s success comes from it’s embracing of a trend in Horror film-making that has finally gone mainstream.  We are finally moving out of a period where terror is conveyed not through blood but through mood.  We all know the feeling of isolation and the worry that something bad is right around the corner waiting to get us, and the only way to convey that in a film is to through the emotions of the characters.  Recent films made by independent filmmakers on significantly lower budgets have managed to make that work, because the limitations of their films make it so that they can utilize emotion much better in their movies.  Hollywood has more often chosen to force scares on their audience rather than earning them, and as a result, audiences have become less scared by their movies.  Working outside of what studios think is scary is a more freeing way to build genuine new ideas about how to make something scary and that’s what we’ve seen.  By showing less to an audience, it makes the scares have that much more of an impact.  The new IT applies that approach to something with broad commercial appeal, and thus we get the phenomena that is the record breaking box office.  But,  more fundamentally, it is carrying over something into Hollywood that it desperately needs, which is characters worth getting scared for.

One of the trends that IT and it’s peers have in common is it’s fearlessness in showing vulnerable people in peril.  The main characters of IT are children, all with distinctive personalities of their own.  Stephen King’s novel is all about the loss of innocence and that is no better conveyed than through the confrontation between a group of tormented kids in a small town and a blood-thirsty monster clown named Pennywise.  In the novel, every benign symbol of childhood, from balloons to cartoons, are turned on their head and become objects of terror, meant to drive the kids insane.  Adapting that kind of stuff to the big screen can be tricky, but can be done if we believe that the children themselves are scared by it.  That’s what the new IT has done so successfully; it put special emphasis in choosing the right kinds of child actors who could pull off feeling terrified on screen, even when it came to being terrorized by balloons.  For the longest time before, when a young actor made it into a horror movie, they felt out of place, especially in the gore fest films of the 90’s and 2000’s.  One of the more annoying trope of that time was the creepy kid cliche, which rarely came across as scary the more it was used.  You would see this in a lot of forgettable horror flicks like The Unborn (2009), Orphan (2009), Mama (2013), as well as a numerous amount of knockoffs and remakes in that time.  IT breaks from that trend by making the children the victims of the terror, rather than the harbingers of it, and that calls for younger actors who are more confident with this material.  In other words, the filmmakers didn’t cast children because of how well they could be scared, but rather by how well they could feel like real people.  If they are believable as characters, and they are terrified, then we will be too.

This also reverses a trend in horror films where the movie became defined more by the monsters rather than the people.  Sure, the monsters are interesting creations, but when they are only ones that are in their selective films, than it becomes less about the terror they inspire and more about seeing what horror they can do.  That, in a sense, is what made horror films less scary over time.  You would see this play out very distinctively in the post-Scream (1996) era, when it seemed that every horror film was following the same formula of a group of teenagers all falling victim to some shadowing serial killer who picks them off one by one.  Over time, this formula was repeated so much that the killers themselves became much less interesting.  Then, post-The Ring (2001), ghosts became the go to movie monster, and that began to grow stale after a while, especially deep into the Paranormal Activity (2007) era.  In a different era, a remake of IT would have done away with the interesting character dynamics with the child characters and instead just made Pennywise the focus, showing all the creepy and disgusting ways he could terrorize and feast on his victims.  It works far better to use far less of him in the film and only showcase him for the maximum impact.  As far as cinematic movie monsters go, Pennywise is certainly one of the more mysterious, and that’s a part of his appeal as a character.  Stephen King has never been one to really explain why something is evil; he just allows his creations to be evil for the sake of the story.  The hotel is haunted for no other reason than to drive Jack Torrence insane and want to murder his family, and that’s where the horror of The Shining comes from for example.  Combining believable victims of terror with an enigmatic, impulsive force that’s out to kill them, and you’ve got the makings of effective suspense.

IT’s predecessors managed to create the formula to help reverse a lot of the Hollywood cliches that had plagued the horror genre for years.  One place outside of Hollywood where that happened was oversees in Australia, where director Jennifer Kent created a breakthrough horror film called The Babadook (2014).  The movie flipped the monster film on it’s head by making the terror in the film come not from seeing the presence of the titular spirit, but through the psychological toll that fear takes on the mother and child at the center of the story.  In this film, we see that horror can be found in a story as simple as two people alone in a house, growing increasingly desperate and paranoid and what that ultimately leads to, making it irrelevant whether or not a creature like the Babadook even exists at all.  Another groundbreaking horror film, The Witch (2015), made the daring choice of setting it’s story in 17th century colonial America, utilizing the eeriness of the isolation in that time period to develop a sense of dread in the picture.  The way it was shot, with low lighting and soft contrast also elevated the uneasy creepiness of the setting to maximize the terror in the film.  The other most interesting trend setter of this period was the indie horror flick It Follows (2014).  It Follows won widespread praise for the effective way that it built it’s terror through the psychological degradation of it’s main characters.  In the movie, a young woman is continually followed by a supernatural force that haunts her constantly, which began after a sexual encounter early in the film.  Clearly a metaphor for a lot of things (STD’s or Sexual Assault) the specter is never clearly identified, and always appears on screen as a far off human-like figure that is walking towards our main character.  It’s a great execution of having the terror play off the emotions and internal terror of the main character, which is a cue that the new IT has taken to heart.  With renewed emphasis on character dynamics, psychological torture, and an unconventional use of time and place, we see how effectively IT managed to use these independent production’s breakthroughs in a way that helped them reach the mainstream.

But, even with their help, the horror genre is movie in a bolder new direction, and it’s not just on the back of the recent IT remake.  Filmmakers like James Wan, who pioneered the gore-fest trend with his first feature Saw, have also been moving away from Hollywood cliches and have been working to make horror films far more effective at scaring audiences again.  His 2013 film The Conjuring was a critical and financial success, and it managed to work by sticking to effective non flashy scares that never overshadowed the the story that he intended to tell.  Another breakthrough figure to emerge recently in the horror genre is producer Jason Blum.  His Blum House Production company has revolutionized the business by emphasizing novel new ideas in the horror and thriller genres, but also limiting them to tight micro budgets.  This has enabled his company to not go overboard with the productions of their films, while at the same time allowing new voices and ideas to flourish; in other words, keeping all of that Hollywood nonsense out of the way.  As a result, the horror genre not only has new films that are trying to do something different, but also have something to say as well, which few industry driven movies have been able to do in the genre overall.  One Blum House production earlier this year, Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), turned some heads when it not only worked as an effective terror-filled thriller, but also had some sharp satirical statements to make about race relations in the United States, proving that horror films could be political statements too.  Blum also got M. Night Shaymalan’s career back on track with the success of Split (2017) which is an achievement in itself.  It’s by allowing this freedom within a structure that we see a new identity emerging in the horror genre from Blum House and it’s contemporaries, and one that is only going to be emboldened by IT’s massive success.

So, IT by no means got to where it’s at on it’s own, but it nevertheless marks the significant arrival of a new trend in Hollywood horror.  We are finally getting back to having the characters matter in horror movies again, after it seemed like the industry had forgotten how important it was to make them connect with the audience.  IT works as a perfect catalyst to convince the industry as a whole that yes, it does matter to have characters we care about in horror movies.  Sure, there are more holdovers from a less creative time still making it to theaters, like The Bye Bye Man, which seems like it was pitched solely on it’s marketable slogan (“Don’t think it. Don’t Say it.”) or Ouija (2014) which shows that you can’t turn a board game into a scary movie.  But, remaking IT made sense because we are now at a time when we crave horror flicks that take their character’s plight seriously.  The loss of innocence is a universal fear, and nothing scares more than a scary clown hunting young children.  The film would have probably done well on it’s own, but became massive due to the fact that it culminated a larger trend within the industry.  Amazingly, it’s a trend that didn’t come to the horror genre internally, but from the outside, with different independent filmmakers rethinking the genre rules entirely.  A horror movie, as we’ve come to learn, doesn’t need to push jump scares on you every minute, but can instead build terror slowly through mood and emotion.  It can also trust the performers more in conveying that sense of terror to the audience; even when they are children.  We find this in all the most recent horror classics, with IT becoming the first real mainstream blockbuster to emerge from this new field.  It may not be the best example of all of these new horror techniques, but it’s the one that found the best use of them for mass appeal, and for that, it has left a positive mark on the Horror genre going forward.  A strong tide rises all ships, and as Pennywise the Clown continually says, they all float down here.

Blade Runner 2049 – Review

Some movies are instant classics, while others become classics over time; aging like fine wine.  When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner came to theaters 35 years ago, it did not perform well at the box office.  Released in a rather remarkable summer season that also included the likes of John Carpenter’s The Thing, Disney’s Tron, Star Trek’s The Wrath of Khan, and Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-TerrestrialBlade Runner was viewed as too slow-paced and ponderous by critics and audiences at the time.  For a time, it seemed like the movie would remain a relic of it’s time and then something remarkable happened.  It found it’s audience, and turned not just into a cult hit, but became one of the most defining cinematic milestones of late 20th century.  You can see the influence of Blade Runner in everything from anime like Ghost in the Shell (1995), to The Matrix (1999), to even the visual pop of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) with all it’s flashy neon color.  The future that we also live in has somewhat seen an influence from the movie, including how some of it’s imagined future tech like video based communication, synthetic food and artificial intelligence have become a reality in our present day.  Truth be told, the then far off future date of 2019 looks far different than the reality that we see only 2 years out, but there is quite a lot that the movie did predict right. Also of note is the philosophical legacy that the movie has left behind.  Taking it’s cue from the original story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” from futurist Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner asked many questions that still are debated today; much of which centers around the basic idea of what it means to be human.  Several decades after it’s release, Blade Runner continues to be an influential film and it’s esteem only continues to grow; with more and more people claiming it as one of the best every made.  And now, 35 years later, Hollywood has done something thought unthinkable before; they made a sequel to Blade Runner.

Blade Runner 2049 is without a doubt a gamble.  One can see rebooting a franchise after a long absence if it’s got the kind of following that could justify it.  Sometimes it works out well (Mad Max: Fury RoadTron: LegacyStar Wars: The Force Awakens), other times it does not (2016’s Ghostbusters).  But, what these successful reboots have in common was their basis in the action genre.  Blade Runner is considered by many to be a thinking man’s film.  Oh sure, there are action bits in it, but the movie takes it’s cues more from classic film noir, using mood and atmosphere to build the story.  The success of Blade Runner comes from it’s perfect execution of those noir tropes, transplanted into a sci-fi plot-line.  One of the biggest fears that fans of Blade Runner had going into this movie was the worry that it would be given the Hollywood treatment, meaning that the sequel would take out all the noir elements that made the first film great and replace it with a lot more action.  To many of them, the idea of a sequel at all seemed to be an insult, because the first film stood so well on it’s own; anything else would just spoil what was already there.  While some of those worries are justified, there was a lot of good omens leading up to the making of this movie.  Ridley Scott, who’s recent track record with sequels isn’t all that great (Alien: Covenant for example), wisely stepped aside and just assumed the role of producer this time, giving the reins over to rising star Denis Villeneuve.  The French Canadian filmmaker has been on a role recently with Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), and Arrival (2016) all winning critical acclaim, and he couldn’t be better suited to carry the mantle for this daunting project.  Couple that with Harrison Ford making another return to an iconic role, surrounded with a prestige cast and crew, and you’ve got the makings of an A-List production.  But, is it a film worthy to carry on the legacy of such an iconic film, or is it Hollywood once again milking a product and missing the point.

It’s hard to say much about the plot of Blade Runner 2049 without getting into spoilers, so I’ll try to keep the important stuff vague.  It is important to have some knowledge of the original movie in order to understand the intricacies of the plot, but at the same time it does a pretty decent job of laying that stuff out for you while at the same time feeling distinctly it’s own thing.  The movie is set in the year 2049, 30 years after the events of the first Blade Runner.  In that time, the earth’s climate has catastrophically changed, leading to a global shift in weather patterns.  Los Angeles, the setting for this story, is now cold and frigid, and sees frequent snowfalls.  Every part of the city is shrouded in a misty haze, and it is in this urban sprawl that we find a young “blade runner” named simply K (Ryan Gosling).  He is assigned by his superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) to track down a rogue replicant named Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista).  The replicants (human-like androids with superior strength) have been used for the last several decades to colonize distant planets beyond Earth, but older generations were known to be rebellious against their masters.  The Tyrell Corporation that built them has long been defunct, with a new corporation run by enigmatic founder Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) built upon it’s foundations with a line of even more obedient replicants.  K finds Sapper’s compound and promptly “retires” him as all blade runners are ordered to do.  However, upon investigating the compound, K finds a tree with a mysterious box buried within it’s roots, along with a mysterious date carved into the tree; 6-10-21.  This finding leads him down a road towards learning about the old Tyrell replicants who held a lot more secrets than what was thought before, and K must now search for the man with the answers he needs; former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).

Blade Runner 2049 could have gone awry in so many different ways, as many sequels to great movies do, and I’m happy to say that this one thankfully accomplishes what it needed to do.  This is a very well crafted and masterful sequel that will please any Blade Runner fan out there.  In many ways, I was stunned just how well they pulled it off.  Watching this movie almost immediately after viewing the original makes this new film feel like the second part of a larger whole, which is exactly what it needed to do.  It expands and deepens the world of the first Blade Runner, while at the same time feeling fully complimentary to it as well.  The filmmakers did a fantastic job matching the aesthetic and thematic elements of the original film.  It is not a cheap retread at all, but a fully realized expansion, and it’s every bit a dream come true for those who worship all the bold cinematic choices that the original is known for.  In many ways, it probably worked to this film’s advantage that it came so long after the original.  It needed for film-making technology to catch up to see the vision fully realized.  The original film was groundbreaking itself, with Ridley Scott firmly making a name for himself as a visual artist, but it was also grounded by the limitations of the period.  Here, visual effects have advanced to the point where the limits are boundless, but at the same time, the filmmakers here have shown great restraint, choosing not to overload on the effects but instead use them to broaden the scope of what was already there.  The movie also needed to wait for a filmmaker of Denis Villaneuve’s ilk to give to take on the project with a degree of seriousness.  The movie also benefits having the original screenwriter Hampton Fancher on board, as it’s clear that he’s been refining this story out for decades, making sure that the next chapter in this story was worth the wait.

Now, while I am awed by the degree of success that this production managed to deliver on it’s promises and the remarkable skill put into it’s creation, there is an element to it that does keep it from being an overall great movie in my eyes.  And it’s something that more or less is tied to my feelings about the original as well.  While I did enjoy this movie quite a bit, it did have one fundamental flaw, and that’s pacing.  The original movie has pacing issues as well, but it managed to balance that out a bit more with a tighter edit (although the movie is notorious for having multiple edits, so it depends on which one you prefer).  Blade Runner 2049 runs at a staggering 165 minutes, which does make it feel more epic, yes, but also more bloated as well.  There are plenty of parts of this movie that do flow very well, and some of the slower paced scenes are welcome, if only for allowing us to soak in some of the incredible atmosphere of this film.  There are, however, plenty of moments in this new movie where the pacing drags out to a crawl which left me with a feeling of impatience at times.  One scene in particular, involving a wooden horse, is so drawn out that it actually left me rolling my eyes at one moment, almost begging for the movie to finally get one with it.  It may not be a big problem to some who are more absorbed into this world, but I just felt that some of these slower paced moments could have used a tighter edit.  In the end, it keeps the movie from really soaring in my opinion.  And again, it’s something that I felt the original had a fault with as well.  Blade Runner, I acknowledge is a great movie, but not among my own personal favorites.  It’s a movie that I find myself respecting more than loving, and that likewise is how I feel about 2049.

But there is a lot about the movie that I did love, and it mainly has to do with it’s exceptional production.  This is an Audible and Visual experience the likes that you’ll never forget.  This is by far the most beautifully shot film of the year, as well as one of the most dynamic sound edits I’ve heard in a long time.  The cinematography manages to evoke the look of the original Blade Runner, keeping it within the same visual realm, but elevates it with a far more dynamic color palette and richness to the textures.  It helps that the man behind the lens is none other than Roger Deakins, who is probably the greatest working cinematographer today and one of the best of all time.  Most famous as a collaborator with Coen Brothers, Deakins has already worked well alongside Denis Villenueve before on equally brilliant work in Sicario.  Here, working with a more substantial budget, Deakins and Villenueve create some of the year’s most staggering imagery on screen, filling every frame with eye-catching wonder.  I just love the way that Deakins captures the hidden shadows of colossal structures appearing out of the hazy smog like great symmetrical monoliths holding up the sky.  He also makes his compositions feel in character with the original, helping to honor it’s legacy while at the same time pushing out it’s boundaries.  One scene in particular in a Vegas nightclub is a tour de force in visuals that represents just how much creativity Deakins and Villeneuve can find in this world they’ve become the caretakers of.  The musical score is also a bold statement onto itself.  Composed by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, the music takes it’s inspiration from the original Vangelis melodies and takes it a whole other aural experience.  This movie has a musical score that will quite literally rattle your bones.  It’s pulsating and overwhelming, but at the same time perfect for this movie.  I could even swear that one of the themes felt inspired by the sound of a revved up Formula 1 engine.  I don’t know why it sounded like that, but it’s indeed unforgettable and worthy addition to the whole experience.  It overall makes this a remarkable cinematic experience, even if the plot itself suffers from slow pacing.

The movie also has a stellar cast, who for the most part do a fine job.  It’s neat to see Harrison Ford once again step into another one of his iconic roles so many years later and not miss a beat.  Only a short time after revisiting Han Solo, we find him returning to Rick Deckard with the same amount of passion and care put into the performance.  Deckard is a much trickier character to pull of, given the complexities that he’s got to encapsulate, but Ford does an incredible job not just returning to what he’s done before, but also finding new shades to his persona that give so many more layers to the character.  He doesn’t show up until very late into the movie, but it works to the benefit of the film because it makes his appearance all the more important when it happens; and plus, it’s not really Deckard’s story this time.  Ryan Gosling instead carries much of the weight of this film, and he does so quite admirably.  Some might find him a little dry, but I liked the restraint in his performance, which feels spiritually in line with what Harrison Ford brought to his role in the original film.  Much of the supporting cast does a great job as well.  My own particular favorite among the newcomers was actress Sylvia Hoeks as one of the Wallace Corporation’s more deadly replicant models, going by the ironic name of Luv.  There is also a nice tender performance from actress Ana de Armas who plays K’s artificial intelligence “girlfriend” Joi, who appears to him as a hologram.  It’s a tricky kind of role, but one that she brings a surprising amount of emotion into.  The only weak link in the cast would be Jared Leto’s Wallace, who while not terrible, is also not really fleshed out that well.  It’s a problem when he needs to act as your film’s antagonist, and I’m sorry he does not hold nearly half the menace nor the presence of Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty from the original Blade Runner.  Apart from this, it is a well rounded cast that helps to elevate the movie as a whole.

So, much like the original Blade Runner2049 is a movie that I can recognize as a great cinematic achievement, while at the same time feel a tiny bit underwhelmed.  Don’t get me wrong, it deserve every amount of praise that is going to come it’s way, and fans of the original are absolutely going to be satisfied by this one as well.  In that respect, this movie is an unequivocal triumph, because it took the daunting task of following up a widely regarded masterpiece with a bigger and louder sequel, and did so with in the best possible way.  It honors the original, while at the same time building upon it and expanding it into new horizons.  I can see why this movie is already being proclaimed as one of the year’s best.  The pacing problems were just too hard to forgive for me, and it keeps it from becoming a masterpiece in my eyes. I have the same reservations about the original as well, but feel that it holds up better because there were so much else about it that works.  I feel that Blade Runner 2049 should have been given another edit to tighten things up and remove some of the more bloated, unnecessarily drawn out moments.  Hell, more edits didn’t hurt the original in the long run, as Ridley Scott was better able to refine his masterpiece and find the version that both satisfied him artistically and appealed to audiences.  But, as it stands, the movie is still one of this year’s most impressive cinematic achievements, and one that will be deserving of it’s expected fan-base.  Few sequels, especially ones made so long after the original, ever come close to retaining the same level of quality as their predecessor, so the fact that this one was able to come so close is a bit of a Hollywood miracle in this day and age.  Keep in mind, I was born mere weeks after Blade Runner premiered originally in 1982, so this was a sequel that took my entire lifetime to become a reality and the fact that it turned out this good is a testament to the astounding hard work and seriousness that the filmmakers undertook in it’s making.

Rating: 8/10