All posts by James Humphreys

Collecting Criterion – Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)

There’s something inherently spooky about silent cinema.  Perhaps it’s the lack of sound itself that becomes so jarring, or the limitations of the technology of the day leading to many films of that period looking so high contrast in it’s mix of light and dark.  But regardless of the content of the movie itself, we look back at silent cinema with this detachment that makes movies of that era take on this almost ghostly character.  Even the light-hearted films feel like lost relics that are so separated from what we know about movies today.  And I think that this is why the horror movies of this particular period have retained their macabre appeal for so long.  The horror films of the silent era are still to this day some of the most disturbing and viscerally chilling movies ever made, and they have not lost any of their potency after nearly a century.  These movies in particular seemed to be even heightened by the limitations of their time, as the lack of dialogue and sound adds to the chilling atmosphere and the high contrast photography allows gives the darker shadows a whole lot more menace to them.  A major influence of the silent era was also the embrace of German Expressionism.  Led by many Weimer Era cinematic pioneers like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, the expressionist movement utilized new techniques like impressionistic set design, trick photography, as well as the latest advances in visual effects.  You can see these utilized brilliantly in iconic horror movies out of Weimer German Cinema like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922) and most vividly in Murnau’s still chilling Nosferatu (1922).  Many of these films, even 100 years later, still have the power to create unease in modern day viewers, and some of that may be due to the detachment that comes with their old age but it’s also due to the incredible artistry of the filmmakers who knew exactly what it would take to frighten their audience.  But, it wasn’t only German filmmakers who had mastered that skill, as a few auteurs from neighboring Denmark would also demonstrate in these early years of horror cinema.

Danish cinema has it’s own incredible early past, one which has been spotlighted by the likes of pioneers such as Carl Theodor Dreyer and Benjamin Christensen.  Though sharing a lot of similarities with German Cinema at the time, Danish cinema carved out a name for itself through a strong emphasis on performance.  You can see a heavy influence of the Danes on cinematic acting, as it was far more reserved and natural than what we were seeing from the far more operatic performances we were seeing from the cultural hubs of Hollywood and Berlin.  The Dreyer film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in particular is seen as a masterclass of silent film acting, with incredibly poignant and subtle performances that transcend even without the aid of dialogue.  Of course, Danish cinema had a heavy influence on Horror as well, with just as much a sense for the macabre as their German counterparts.  Though Car Theodor Dreyer had delved into the horror genre as well with his film Vampyr (1932), it was his fellow Dane, Benjamin Christiansen, who would leave a far more lasting mark on the genre as a whole.  A medical student turned filmmaker, Christiansen approached the horror genre from a rather unexpected angle.  He was less interested in treating audiences to a story but rather wanted to use the medium of film to inform.  This would be the case with what is considered his masterpiece, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), which is part documentary, part historical recreation.  Though, as viewers will note, his film is set up as a lecture about the history of witchcraft lore and it’s influence on hysteria throughout culture, Christiansen as a filmmaker still manages to let his creative mind run wild and as a result we get some of the most vividly arresting scenes of macabre imagery that’s ever graced the screen.  And it’s heavily influential visuals is what garnered the attention of the Criterion Collection, who have given it an honored place within their library (Spine #134); and also making it one of the oldest films in the Collection too.

Haxan of course is the Danish translation for Witch, which of course is the primary subject of what is essentially Benjamin Christiansen’s scholarly lecture on the connections between people accused of practicing witchcraft in the Middle Ages and the women suffering through hysteria as a medical condition in his time.  Presented in seven parts, Christiansen breaks down the history and folklore of Witchcraft as it’s been understood throughout Europe.  In the first part, he uses artwork to demonstrate how artists in the Middle Ages documented the practices of Witchcraft and how it was responded to by Inquisitions by the Church.  After the early cinematic equivalent of a Power Point presentation, the second part begins with portrayals of what witches in the Middle Ages might have been like, often old crones granting spells and remedies to their neighbors, including love potions.  He also shows how people working in the art of science often would be falsely branded as witches in this time.  In the next three segments, Christiansen delivers the most narrative driven section of the film, showing how hysteria and suspicion about Witchcraft often leads to a disastrous outcome.  After their father grows mysteriously ill, two wealthy maidens suspect that it was an old crone named Maria the Weaver (Emmy Schonfeld) cast a spell on him, and they turn her over to the local Monks who run the Inquisition on Witchcraft.  After subjecting Maria to torture, they wring a confession out of her, where Maria names other witches of her village and describes for them an event known as the Witches Sabbath.  Without much proof other than Maria’s own confession, the Inquisition begins rounding up women all across town, including the maidens who accused her in the first place, and we see many lives destroyed very quickly out of a case of rampant suspicion and out of control authoritarianism by the Church.  The last two segments focus on the connection between belief in the power of Witchcraft, and the malady of hysteria that is observed as a medical condition in present time.  Christiansen uses these segments to demystify the stigma of mental illness and show that people suffering these conditions have no connection with the supernatural but instead are in need of the right kind of care that’s grounded in science, or at least the science that was understood then.

Someone going into Haxan for the first time expecting it to be a wall to wall fright fest may be underwhelmed by Benjamin Christiansen’s more scholarly presentation here, as the movie is a documentary first and foremost.  But, once Christiansen does begin to delve more into the more imaginative side of what he can do with the medium of film, he really lets loose.  There is a lot of creepy imagery throughout the movie that has long been influential on the horror genre.  In particular, his portrayal of the Witches Sabbath is a particular stand-out, and one that is shockingly provocative even to this day.  Christensen utilizes ever cinematic trick in the book, including playing around with camera speeds, reversing footage, and even stop-motion animation to create unsettling moments of witchcraft that looks like it came straight from the Devil.  And speaking of the Devil, Satan himself makes quite a few shocking appearances throughout the movie, played by non other than Benjamin Christiansen himself in a grotesque, tongue-lashing performance.  Though the movie’s more grounded historical re-creations have their own interesting moments, it’s the movie’s disturbing depictions of satanic and the macabre that really makes the film memorable.  I’m still shocked that they managed to get away with as much as they did in this movie given that this movie is almost a century old.  You see characters kissing the ass of the Devil, stomping and walking over a cross on the ground, and even cooking human beings in a pot, including a baby.  The movie does not shy away from things that’ll shock most viewers, even in it’s more scholarly parts.  A segment of the movie even delves into the torture devices used on the accused during the middle ages.  He even demonstrates one (the Thumb Screw) on one of his poor actresses in the movie.  The film says that the demonstration was consensually granted and that the actress was not seriously harmed, but we’re just going to have to take Christiansen’s word for it.

Despite the shocking nature of some of the film’s content, Christiansen never once suggests any anti-religious stance.  His main argument is against the misuse of authority and the dangers of hysteria that’s not backed up by reason and science.  Though Christiansen intended to give a scholarly account with his film, I don’t think he would have ever anticipated the long lasting impact his wildly imaginative depiction of witches and satanic practices would have on the culture beyond the film.  I’m sure that quite a few heavy metal bands have borrowed their aesthetic from the imagery of Haxan, both in album cover art as well in their general live presentation.  There are other surprising areas in which Haxan became a major influence.  The scene where the witches fly on their broomsticks as ghostly white figures across a dark nighttime sky to their Witches Sabbath was a direct inspiration for a similar image used in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence of Disney’s Fantasia (1940).  More than anything, Haxan would prove influential as a catalyst for pushing the boundaries of taste through the genre of horror.  It shocked audiences in ways that few other films of that period would, and in turn it allowed the horror genre to flourish outside the confines of acceptable standards of violence, gore, and even sex in cinema.  Like all the best horror films, it is a movie that challenges it’s audience to test their character while watching the film, and see what they themselves recognize as over-the-line.  It may not be shocking as what we see today, but Haxan was a very scandalous movie for it’s time, and often was subjected to censorship, especially after the outbreak of Fascism in Europe, which cracked down hard on movies with the kinds of suggestive themes that Haxan presented.  Despite this, Haxan survived through the years and continues to find an audience so many years later.  Subsequent re-releases have returned much of the film back to it’s original cut, and some have featured new soundtracks from metal bands that claim the movie as an influence.  Despite it’s age, and it’s original intent as an examination of mental illness, Haxan remains as beloved in horror and counterculture circles as it has ever been.

Naturally, the Criterion Collection devotes just as much attention to classics of the horror variety as any other within it’s library.  The challenge with something like Haxan is the sheer delicate nature of it’s original film elements.  Subsequent restorations over the years have given Criterion a good starting point to work with, but restoring them into a new digital master requires a great deal of expertise, because you’re essentially cleaning up a patchwork quilt of a movie.  Because the original camera negative has been lost to history, the restoration team has to work with the best possible surviving elements to restore a complete film, and those elements may be in varying states of condition.  Thankfully, the majority of Haxan has survived censorship edits and massive deterioration over time, so Criterion can preserve a version of the movie that does match Benjamin Christiansen’s original vision.  The difficult task of the restoration involves taking all the elements together, cleaning them up to the same level, and then trying to make every element look like a complete whole with the same quality of picture from beginning to end.  In this regard, Criterion has done a masterful job, as the movie is consistently strong in it’s entire presentation.  It indeed is amazing how much clarity they managed to get out of the picture, considering that the movie is 98 years old.  On the blu-ray, it is given a 2K transfer, which really spotlights the amazing detail of the film.  If anything, the transfer is almost too good, because those high contrast shadows that were so spooky before don’t hide as many details as they used to.  The soundtrack is recorded from a surround sound recording by the Czech Film Orchestra back in 2001 for Haxan’s then DVD release, based on the original 1922 playlist, which includes recognizable tunes from Richard Wagner and Camile Saint-Saens.  This too has been given digital fine tuning, and sounds fantastic on any sound system.

The line-up of extras also gives the set a nice compliment to the movie for all of us Criterion collectors.  First off is an audio commentary track from film scholar Casper Tybjerg.  An expert in Danish cinema, and in particular the works of the silent period, Tybjerg gives a nice overview of the film’s history, as well as it’s cultural impact, the many different themes discussed and some insight into Benjamin Christiansen as a filmmaker.  The blu-ray also features a film introduction made by Christiansen himself as an introduction for the film’s 1941 rerelease, which helps to give the director’s own take on the movie from his own words.  Perhaps the most substantial bonus feature here is a 76 minute version of the movie that was recut and given recorded narration back in 1968.  This shortened version basically takes all the title cards out and replaces them with a voice over done by beat generation author William S. Burroughs, accompanied by a minimalist soundtrack by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.  It’s an interesting artifact of it’s time on it’s own, and shows the appeal the movie had on the counterculture generation, who were a very important factor in helping to revitalize the film’s popularity.  Another remarkable inclusion on this set are some outtakes from the film.  Discovered during the many restorations of the movie over the years, Danish archivists have managed to collect several short clips that Christiansen left out of the finished film.  They are mostly either extensions of existing scenes, or an unused moment that carries little significance, but it is interesting to see here on the Criterion set, especially knowing how old this long unseen footage is and what it took for it to survive all these years.  Finally, there is an extended look at the historical sources that Christiansen cites within the movie, titled Bibliotheque diabolique.  In this, we get further information on all the different artwork that Christiansen showcases in the movie, and how much of it actually reflects the true history of Witchcraft during the Middle Ages.  It’s another solid collection of bonuses that you come to expect from Criterion, and it helps to flesh out even more the significance of Haxan as an iconic piece of horror and cinema in general.

Indeed, when you watch Haxan today, you can see the beginnings of so many other horror conventions that persist today.  Perhaps it’s greatest influence is the fearlessness that it displays in not shying away from the more grisly details of it’s subject matter.  Though not a horror film in the traditional sense, it’s imprint on the genre is nevertheless apparent.  It’s interesting that despite making such a profound impact on cinema early on, Benjamin Christiansen’s career in film was so short lived.  He would continue making movies for a few years more, moving to Berlin first and later making it out to Hollywood thereafter, mostly making gothic horror in the same vein as Haxan.  But none of his later work would carry the same boldness as Haxan, and eventually he began to stray away from making movies, all but giving it up during the war years, and he eventually retired to his native Denmark where he operated a movie theater during the last years of his life, in relative obscurity.  Despite his retreating from the limelight, Christiansen is to this day celebrated as one of the greatest Danish filmmakers of all time, spoken in the same breath even as his more prolific contemporary, Carl Theodor Dreyer.  And I think that has a lot to do with just how celebrated Haxan is in both Denmark and worldwide.  It is a movie that genuinely creates a feeling of terror that few films have managed to do, and it’s definitely a movie that has given the silent movie era it’s eerie quality.  It’s especially nice to see Criterion spotlight this film in it’s catalogue, which helps to bring more attention to it for a whole new generation.  I’m interested in knowing how young audiences will respond to a movie like this; as they will see many of the familiar tropes of the horror genre found today used first in this remarkably resilient film.  I would also like to see just how much of the film still manages to shock.  The most surprising thing to modern audiences when they see Haxan will probably be just the boldness to which it addresses it’s themes.  It is definitely not a movie that conforms to to the standards of it’s time, but rather pushes the boundaries of taste in a way that purposefully is meant to haunt us for long after we’ve seen it.  And for a movie that still survives in tact almost 100 years later, it’s amazing how much it still has the power to bewitch us.

Criterion Store: Haxan (1922)

Cinematic Graveyard – Are These the Last Days of Theatrical Cinema?

It is amazing how quickly things can fall apart.  Last year, 2019, we were seeing international and domestic box office hitting record levels, led by the likes of Marvel, Star Wars, and other top tier franchises.  And entering the beginning part of this year, we were also seeing surprisingly strong numbers for January and February.  It may have been forgotten in all the mayhem, but we saw the originally predicted failure of the Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) movie actually turn into a modest hit, grossing over $100 million domestic.  But, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country hard in March of this year, leading to a nationwide shutdown of all non-essential businesses, which of course included movie theaters.  Suddenly, a major industry that has continually operated for a century without disruption suddenly has found itself unable to operate due to the mandated health guidelines of the country.  The major movie studios have likewise been blindsided by the effects of the pandemic, but they also had the benefit of other options to deliver their product to their audiences.  Movie theaters don’t have that same luxury.  They must be able to operate in order to survive as a business.  Since the pandemic has started, the vacancy of movie theaters has caused the industry to burn through much of their yearly finances just to pay the building costs alone.  AMC, the largest chain in America, is pretty much on life support right now as their credit rating has dropped them into junk bond territory with default and bankruptcy imminent.  Though theaters have reopened in some parts of the country, the health regulations have also made it impossible for any theater to fully return to pre-pandemic levels, and that has led many Hollywood studios to opt out of premiering any new movies right now, in fear of another shutdown due to another wave of the pandemic or the full closure of the theatrical industry in general.  Which has led many to believe if 2020 may have spelled the end of the theatrical industry as a whole, and it’s making many others to speculate how and if movie theaters can ever recover, and if it’s even worth saving.

Like I mentioned before, such a thought would not have even occurred to any of us just a year ago.  Last year at this time, we were seeing the movie Joker breaking all sorts of box office records.  On the surface everything looked good for movie theaters, as people were packing in like sardines to see the big new tentpole films from all the major studios, as well as giving surprisingly strong box office to smaller movies, like the eventual Oscar-winning Parasite (2019).  But, as the pandemic has shown us, what looked like a stable industry proved to be anything but.  The biggest chains were certainly hard hit by the pandemic, but the ones hit even worse were the small, independent theaters.  These are the ones that serve small communities, or offer alternative art house fare to their local audience, and shutting down business has proved to be devastating to them.  It is estimated that without financial help that 60-70% of these small theaters could disappear forever, leaving many film goers without a venue to see a broader spectrum of cinema available out there.  There’s something about that void that even the likes of Netflix can’t fill.  That’s why so many notable people within the film industry have campaigned for congress to include pandemic relief for all the ailing theaters out there, and it’s one of the few things out there that genuinely has bi-partisan support across the industry and culture.  One hopes that congress will consider such a bailout, but given the up and down nature of the election this Fall, it’s uncertain what might happen.  And living with all that uncertainty is what is driving the current gloomy outlook on the theatrical industry as a whole.  Every week now, we are receiving news of yet another major tentpole film either uprooting from it’s release date to move to another, sometimes delaying a full year, or just bypassing theaters all together in favor of streaming.  And the end of the tunnel is still not within sight.

Though it’s easy to shift the blame over to the government and how they responded to the pandemic, but the state of the theatrical industry also falls on the failures of the theater chains themselves for not being able to manage such a long term crisis like this.  Like I pointed out before, AMC is in the most precarious position of the big chains, because of the overwhelming amount of debt that they’ve procured just to stay afloat.  Earlier this year, they proclaimed that they had secured funding that could see them through the worst of the pandemic and help them return to business as normal.  This assertion was made back at the beginning of the Summer, with the belief that theaters would be reopen across the country by the Fall and that all the Quarter Four films would still meet their intended release dates.  Looking at the state of things right now, movie theaters (including AMC locations) have indeed reopened in many parts of the country, but the biggest markets, which account for nearly half of all box office, are still closed.  And still having nearly half of the box office out of reach has led many studios to opt out of screening their movies this year, seeing that the pandemic is still making it too risky to return to business as normal.  With this being the case, AMC’s once rosy outlook has turned pretty sour, and it led to their eventual downgrade at the stock market.  Now they’ve boxed themselves into a no win situation.  Closing the theaters once again would significantly weaken their business even more, and yet staying open is causing them to burn through much of that economic lifeline that they needed to survive.  But, it was AMC’s own hubris that also contributed to this situation.  In order to become the industry leader, the company had been taking on massive amounts of debt pre-pandemic in order to fuel their massive expansion.  Before the shutdown, Leawood, Kansas based AMC could boast that they had a foothold in every major market in America.  But the cost of that expansion was predicated on the company being able to remain profitable year in and year out.  With the shutdown, AMC suddenly found themselves underwater far more than their closest rivals, Regal and Cinemark, and there is no easy rescue for them on the horizon.  Their massive amount of personal debt makes them too risky an investment, which hurts their chances of being saved by a larger corporate buyer.  And what it shows is that part of the dire situation for the movie theaters stems from an industry that was already teetering to begin with.

There is blame to extend to the studios as well.  One of the biggest mistakes made this year in retrospect was Warner Brothers deciding to release Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020) into theaters while the pandemic was still raging.  The Labor Day weekend release of the film was touted as a triumphant return of movie theaters to normal operation after being completely shuttered throughout the Summer.  However, it became apparent very quickly that the box office was anything but normal.  Tenet opened at a meager $6 million on it’s opening weekend, and to this day has only generated about $50 million at the domestic box office.  By comparison, that’s what Christopher Nolan’s last film, Dunkirk (2017) made in it’s opening weekend, and Tenet has only reached that mark after a month and a half.  Suffice to say, the experiment did not work.  Sure, Warners and Nolan have stated that Tenet was intended to have a long, protracted run at the box office, basically a marathon rather than a sprint, but there was a very different consequence to their decision to release the film.  With a major release like Tenet moving forward, the movie theaters across the country re-opened far too soon, making it more difficult to do business in the immediate aftermath.  With Tenet not being able to light up the box office, all the other studios moved their tentpoles off of the schedule, seeing that the time was not right for them to make the same move.  And now, movie theaters are facing the harsh reality that they have nothing big to draw audiences back to the theaters for the rest of the year.  All they have is Tenet, and a bunch of small budget features that maybe bring in a handful of people.  This is what’s hurting movie theaters right now, because they are essentially operating at a loss each week, and it’s at a time that they can’t afford to lose any more money.  By being so insistent that their movie was going to save the theatrical experience, Warner Brothers and Christopher Nolan may have ended up accelerating their downfall.  That’s why we are seeing more and more theaters looking into their future and seeing only the end.

That’s one of the reasons that the second largest chain, Regal, followed it’s UK-based parent company Cineworld in deciding to close all it’s locations once again for the foreseeable future.  The next big tentpole on the calendar is Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) and it’s unknown at the moment of this writing if that may end up being moved as well.  What we are looking at right now is the possibility of a year without any more blockbuster movies.  The movie studios are essentially in a wait and see mode right now, hoping that an eventual vaccine will squash this pandemic soon and make it possible to pack in the theaters once again.  But, it’s also going to depend on if those theaters will still be there in the end.  That’s why there is the push to raise funding for these failing theaters, but we’re also seeing resistance to that as well.  Many people see the end of the theatrical experience as an inevitability, and with streaming dominating the market at the moment, it seems like a lot of people are comfortable with the idea of never having to go out to the movies ever again.  After all, the big chains like AMC have in a way dug their own grave, and the market had been oversaturated with blockbuster movies to begin with, making it impossible for the film industry to ever turn a profit unless they can get more people to fork over more money for expensive tickets.  The mid-market movie theaters roughly never had a chance to compete with the way the market had pushed in the direction that it had.  Only the big chains in the big markets could provide Hollywood with the box office it needed, and that cyclical arrangement just came crashing down over the last year.  In many ways, this year has been something of a reset for the industry.  The people who are going to the movies when they can are watching movies that otherwise would’ve been drowned out by the blockbusters.  We are seeing a re-emergence of the low risk, mini-movie as the lifeline for movie theaters at the moment, and it’s leading the film industry to see more of the value of these kinds of movies as something to procure for the future, after nearly ignoring them over the last decade.

It’s hard to know exactly what will happen once movie theaters are allowed to re-open to pre-pandemic levels.  Are audiences going to return like nothing happened, or is the movie theater industry irreparably damaged?  What might end up happening is a significant reduction of the theater market as a whole.  AMC, Regal, and Cinemark may end up closing many of their locations across the country and selling their leases on the buildings, just to shore up their dwindling assets.  Without a bailout, many of those beloved independent theaters may also be a thing of the past, which would significantly diminish the charm of movie going overall for a lot of people.   The industry will likely endure, but it will be a shell of it’s former self, especially when compared with last year.  And that reflects badly on Hollywood, which needs robust box office to justify the enormous budgets given to their tentpole features.  As we learned from the likewise failed experiment of Mulan (2020) on Disney+, audiences aren’t willing to pay a super high price for Video on Demand either.  As of right now, the movie industry is at a crossroads; do they still move forward with investing in blockbuster films that may not have the ability to generate enough box office to break even, or do they conserve what they have and play it safe until things begin to level out?  Right now, companies like Disney and Warner Brothers are beginning to lay off a significant number of their employees, which indicates that there is going to be some belt-tightening for the next few years.  Like with the theatrical market, this is a crossroads moment for the production side of film as well, as we may witness a sea change in what kinds of movies get made from here on out, and how many get made in the first place.

A lot of what Hollywood does in the near future will be determined by what we do in the present.  A lot of people are understandably apathetic towards the theatrical experience as a whole, but for the many who value the presence of a healthy theatrical industry, we are at a point where it’s up to us to give them the help that they need.  Many small movie theaters are setting up their own funding campaigns in order to draw upon donations from their local communities, and I strongly urge anyone to chip in what they can to help them.  Making our voices heard to congress and the White House is also important, and writing to your local Senator or Representative would be very helpful towards getting movie theaters the much needed bailouts that they need.  There really isn’t a partisan impediment on this particular issue, as movie going really does extend across party lines, and all it really needs is the attention to where it can’t be ignored.  But, most important of all, it matters that we ourselves get involved in saving our cinemas.  What this year has proved is that the activity of going out to the movies was just something that we took for granted; as it would never go away.  And now, we are indeed seeing something that we never thought was possible happen right before our eyes; the potential doomsday for movie theaters in our country.  There is a demand there to save our theaters; just look at the resurgence of the Drive-In Movie Renaissance that has miraculously formed in the absence of four-wall theaters.  But to save the industry from destruction it involves action on our part.  Speak up and give back wherever you can and demand that our movie theaters, big and small, get the help that they need.

As Patty Jenkins, director of the Wonder Woman films said in a recent interview, “Shutting down movie theaters will not be a reversible process.”  Her worries are justified, as there is a real existential crisis going on with the movie and theatrical industry right now.  With things going the way they are right now, with no clear sense of what direction to take, the movie industry may be forever changed, and not for the better.  That’s going to be a tough pill to swallow for an industry that saw such a huge leap forward in the last decade.  Hollywood may not be ready to put itself in a reset mode, but given the likely downturn for many years in the global box office, they’ll have no other choice.  There are some positives on the horizon.  We are getting closer to having an effective vaccine to combat this deadly virus and put a swift end to this pandemic.  And as bad as things are at the box office here in North America, they are actually returning back to normal in Asia and Europe.  China in fact is generating box office openings in the hundreds of millions again, which would’ve been unthinkable a couple of months ago.  What happens here domestically will likely depend on us as an audience.  Are we ready to go back to the movies?  One hopes that the months away from the big screen will drive the demand up even more once there is a big enough movie that demands the big screen experience.  It also depends if the big chains are able to weather these next few months and find the necessary funding to keep their doors open.  So, are movie theaters on their death bed, waiting for the end?   It’s hard to say.  Maybe we are resigned to this being the end, or maybe we’ll do our part and help the industry come roaring back, possibly even stronger, like a Phoenix rising out of the ashes.  For me, I’m hoping for the latter, because I always look forward to a good sequel.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Review

You know the old saying; that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Living through the pandemic year of 2020 is giving us a daily reminder of why it’s important to know our history in order to avoid the pitfalls that have dragged us down before.  The experience of a botched pandemic response is making us look back at the mistakes made during the 1918 pandemic, and how so much of it has fallen in line the same way.  The social unrest related to the misuse of force from law enforcement and the government is also making us look again at a similar time in America when people were having to reckon with the state of our country.  Like today, protests and riots were gripping cities across the country.  The difference was that civil unrest in that time was due to the unpopular Vietnam War.  Though the war was a major catalyst of protest, the decade before had seen a lot of civil unrest due to the fight for justice and equal rights for many the African American community.  The year of 1968 was a particular turning point for America and it’s shifting culture.  Both Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated within months of each other, and the American Left, which had been fighting hard for Civil Rights and an end to the War for years, was now demoralized and splintered, and facing a tough future in an election year.  This led to the infamous Chicago Riot outside the Democratic National Convention, where many of the anti-war protestors clashed with police officers and caused havoc within the city.  These events, along with the over zealous response of Mayor Daley’s police force, were largely observed as what brought victory to President Richard Nixon in that 1968 election, and of course, all the progress that the American Left had hoped to have gotten accomplished out of their protests only ended up leading to a backwards slide in their cause.  And the Nixon administration would in turn break the law within the White House and further engage in Vietnam for many years more.

This pivotal point in the history of American resistance would be most exemplified by the infamous Trial of the Chicago 7.  In what has since been observed as a politically motivated move to make an example of “dangerous” left-wing agitators by the Nixon Administration, seven of the most high profile participants were put on trail in Chicago for what was described as “crossing state-lines to incite a riot” which is a federal offense.  Though the men were found guilty, their imprisonment had the opposite effect, and they became heroes of resistance to a new generation of Anti-Establishment protestors.  The story of the 7 has carried on as a monumental moment of defiance in the face of oppression, and it still inspires people today to speak their minds and fight for what they believe in.  The story has been especially popular to filmmakers in Hollywood, who have tried many times to bring the story of the 7 to the big screen.  Aaron Sorkin wrote his treatment for a dramatization of the the infamous trial shortly after leaving his show, The West Wing, in the mid-2000’s.  For a while, it looked like Steven Spielberg was attached to direct the film, eyeing it as a possible next project after Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), and with actor Heath Ledger in a lead role.  However, the writer’s strike of 2007 put the project on hold and Ledger’s untimely death also dealt the movie another blow, which led to Spielberg moving on shortly after.  After a while, Paul Greengrass began to circle around Sorkin’s screenplay, with Ben Stiller in tow to help produce and star.  But further delays led them to leave as well, and eventually Amblin studios, which held the rights, decided to let the project go.  Once it landed at Paramount, a slew of other directors and actors came and went.  Then Netflix stepped in to bring in the final needed funding the movie needed, and more importantly, Sorkin himself stepped in to direct the movie himself.  And the timing for this kind of movie could not be more perfect given what’s been going on this year.  The only question is, was the delay worth it and is it the movie we need right now in our own turbulent time.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 introduces us right away to the men who would go on to define the movement, observing their moments before they made their way to Chicago.  We meet straight laced, grass roots anti-war activists Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the flashy, irreverent founders of the Yippie Movement Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong); pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch); and two protestors caught up in the middle, Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty).  In addition, to these seven, another defendant is put on trial, Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who rightly points out that he has no connection to the other defendants and is only being tried there as a means of connecting his radical group with the others, and he’s there without proper counsel.  The trial is presided over by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who has little tolerance for disruption in his court.  Defending the Chicago 7 are two lawyers, the more reserved Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shankmen) and the seasoned and confrontational William Kunstler (Mark Rylance).  On the other side, representing the Justice Department of the United States, are US attorneys Tom Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), under the direction of new Attorney General  John Mitchell (John Doman), who is still sore about a perceived insult from out-going AG, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton).  Through testimony and flash backs, the events of the infamous DNC riots are presented to us, piecing together how each individual played their part in what happened, and allowing us to see if any of their actions did indeed cross the line.  When not in the courtroom, we see the many different personality types begin to clash, particularly between the more pragmatic Hayden and the show-boaty flash of Hoffman.  All in all, it shows us that there is more at stake than just their innocence in the face of the law when it comes to this trial.  It’s about whether or not this trial is going to imprison their voices as well.

It is amazing how long it actually took for this movie to get made, and how it’s eventual timing proved to be more spot on than perhaps anyone realized.  Aaron Sorkin certainly hasn’t been hurting for success since he wrote his first draft for The Trail of the Chicago 7 back in the aughts.  He won an Academy Award for his monumental screenplay for The Social Network (2010), was nominated for another for Moneyball (2011), and even went on to direct his first feature, Molly’s Game (2017).  Having gotten that first directorial effort out of the way was probably the best thing for Sorkin to finally make Chicago 7 a reality, because it gave him the confidence to tackle a story with as much weight as this one, with all the lessons learned about how to actually do it properly.  When some writers move into directing, it can often lead to mixed results, as some writers grow too attached to their writing and leave too much in.  That was honestly the one problem with Molly’s Game as a film; Sorkin’s reluctance to trim stuff down and streamline the plot, thereby leaving the film bloated.  Given that Chicago 7 had been passed around between several different directors before, all helping him to parse the story down to all the essentials, it helped to give Sorkin the much needed fine tuning that the script called for before he could start rolling camera.  All Sorkin needed to do as a director was not mess it up, and thankfully he didn’t.  The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a major step up for the legendary writer turned director, and it proves that he is now as much of a force behind the camera as he is in drafting a screenplay.  And to be very honest, it’s probably a good thing that this movie waited for the moment when Sorkin himself could step into that role, because I can’t think of any other filmmaker who would’ve fulfilled what the script needed.

There’s no doubt about it upon watching this film; this is a Sorkin movie through and through.  Aaron Sorkin is one of those rare screenwriters today whose rhythm in dialogue is instantly recognizable.  The only other writers who I would say come close to having that stature would be either Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, or Charlie Kaufman.  What sets Sorkin apart is the rapid fire nature of his writing.  The man is exceptionally good at writing back and forth arguments between his characters, which does fit perfectly in a courtroom setting.  If anything, it’s the screenwriting in this movie that is the main attraction.  Like with Social Network and many of his other standout screenplays throughout his career, Sorkin balances back and forth between so many different tones in his writing, and does so with incredible finesse.  Within the span of a couple minutes, he could have as many as five different characters shouting off, delivering anything from important facts to non-sequiturs, to flagrant insults, to even just a bad joke.  The incredible way he writes is that so many elements come at you from so many directions, and yet it all manages to hit the mark.  Court room dramas can often drift into the mundane, but Sorkin manages to engage the viewer through every moment, making sure you hang on every word, even if it’s just a throw-away punchline.  Given that he’s working with a narrative focused on 7 different individuals, and the people surrounding them, and that he has to make them all distinctive from one another, and make the weight of their moment in time relevant to the viewer, Aaron Sorkin is certainly putting together what may be his most complex film yet.  And the end result is an exceptional achievement not only in measured direction, but also in complex story-telling.  Sorkin could have been a show off here, which he sometimes can be (especially in his television shows), but with Chicago 7, he displays a level of maturity as a filmmaker that rises to the challenge of his own distinctive writing.

It also doesn’t hurt that he’s put together a stellar cast as well.  There were so many big names that have circled their wagons around this project, including the previously mentioned Ledger.  Will Smith, Seth Rogan, William Hurt,  and Jonathan Majors were all at some points attach to this film, before the delays began to change plans.  The cast that did end up in the movie all do their jobs very well, especially those in the courtroom itself.  The role of Tom Hayden is a nice departure for Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne, who manages to hide his British accent surprisingly well in the role.  He’s also the character who experiences the most growth through the movie, which he handles pretty well.  Sacha Baron Cohen of course gets the flashiest role in the movie as Abbie Hoffman, and while I do think he perfectly captured the cadence of the notorious Yippie leader, he doesn’t quite master the American accent as well as Redmayne, often letting his British accent slip a couple times.  Mark Rylance, John Carroll Lynch, Jeremy Strong and Joseph Gordon-Levitt also deliver solid supporting performances throughout the movie.  However, the two stand outs that I think steal the movie away from the others are Yahya Abdul Mateen and Frank Langella as Bobby Seale and Judge Hoffman respectively.  Mateen’s Seale is an exceptional characterization that really underlines the frustration of African American people who are unfairly treated by the Justice system, and his performance really captures that passionate defiance in a compelling way.  On the opposite end, Langella’s Judge Hoffman is a perfect portrayal of a dispassionate judge who is completely out of his element proceeding over a trial of this nature.  His judge Hoffman in the end makes an effect antagonistic representation of the forces working against the 7 and the futility of the system trying to use the courtroom as a means of controlling speech.  There’s no doubt that Sorkin could find plenty of eager actors willing to bring his words to life.  It’s just fortunate that each and every one fills their respective roles to perfection.

It’s also interesting that Sorkin, for the first time, is working entirely within a different period.  Social Network, Moneyball, and Molly’s Game were all recent history, torn from the headlines.  Here, Sorkin is working in a time period dating over 50 years ago.  In doing so, he has to work his dialogue in a way that doesn’t feel out of step with the time period, and thankfully it doesn’t.  You do buy into this being a flash of time within the late 1960’s, when Vietnam was still raging and political upheaval was happening all around.  I think it says more about our time that so much of this movie feels so current to today.  What I like best about what Sorkin has done here as a director is the fact that he doesn’t try to do too much as a director.  He lets the screenplay and the performances carry the film, and just lets the camera observe.  If the movie had been done by a different director, I think a lot of Sorkin’s rhythm would have been lost in translation.  Spielberg would have gotten good performances to be sure, but he might have been too manipulative as well, if he tried to underscore several scenes with a sweeping John Williams crescendo.  And Paul Greengrass would’ve had the camera shaking needlessly with his hand held style.  Sorkin on the other hand just holds the camera steady and uses the power of editing to match the rhythm of his words.  The movie is devoid of big, operatic moments, and instead just allows the scenes to flow naturally.  I especially like how the flash backs are used in conjunction with what is said in court.  He’s used this technique before in movies like Steve Jobs (2015), Social Network, and even going as far back as his script for A Few Good Men (1992).  There’s a fantastic scene late in the film when Eddie Redmayne is cross-examined with a tape recording being used as evidence, and it intercuts with the incident in question, and it’s edited together in a perfectly tuned way to rev up the tension of the moment.  Like I said, over the course of writing so many films, and having already directed a feature before, The Trial of the Chicago 7 marks a bold step forward for Aaron Sorkin as a force in the director’s chair.

With the way the world is right now, there definitely needs to be a film that puts history and it’s effect on the present into perspective, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is exactly what we need right now.  It is a important reminder of where we have been as a nation, and how some problems go unsolved and end up repeating themselves over time.  In the trial of the Chicago 7, America saw for the first time people put on public trail not for the crimes that they committed, but for the threat that their message could mean to the establishment.  Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner, John Froines and Bobby Seale were put on trial for what Hoffman described as “their thoughts’ which were deemed dangerous by the then Nixon Administration.  But the attempt to silence the Chicago 7 only added to their legend and their act of defiance through their activism and trial still inspires activists to this very day.  As we face a pivotal election day in the middle of a still raging pandemic, the stakes could not be made more clear about where we stand as a nation, and the example of the Chicago 7 feels more relevant than ever.  In the end, it probably was for the best that Aaron Sorkin’s re-telling of the Chicago 7 trial took this long to  become a reality, because it eventually came out at the most important time that it could.  We are at yet another tipping point in our nations history, where the rights of citizens from every walk of life is at stake in this election, as are the fundamental pillars of our democracy.  The real gift of Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is that it reminds us of the fact that it is hard to kill an idea, and that people will always fight for the things that they value.  We have been in this position before, and though finding justice is hard, it will always in some way find a way to become a reality.  We stand on the shoulders of those who have fought for our freedoms; let’s not make their sacrifice go in vain, and continue the fight for the things that we value.

Rating: 9/10

50 Years of the Disney Archives at the Bowers Museum – Film Exhibition Review

When we watch the movies, the illusion of reality is meant to remain as invisible as possible.  Every filmmaker’s job is to absorb the audience into a world and make them forget what they are watching is make-believe.  That’s why so much importance is put into making sure that everything that is captured through the lens of a movie camera doesn’t betray the artifice that is behind it.  But what goes into making everything on camera look as close to perfect as possible involves a lot of hard work behind the scenes from multiple departments, from costuming to set design to prop-making, not to mention all the pre-production work needed to determine how a shot will look in the first place.  As a result, before the making of every movie, there is a great amount of writing, drafting, and crafting that needs to be accomplished.  And once the cameras have rolled and the many different materials built for every production have served their purpose, the filmmakers and production companies are left with a lot of artifacts of their collaborative efforts.  In the old days of Hollywood, very little regard was given to all the different props, costuming and paperwork needed to make each film; they just took up space and were discarded to make way for the next round of production material.  But later on, special movies gave rise to the desire to preserve materials with sentimental value to the film community; think Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers or the sled from Citizen Kane (1941).  After Hollywood’s golden age, there came a much more concerted effort to preserve these relics of the past as a way of preserving the history of the industry itself.  Thus began a move to create archives at all the major studios in Hollywood, with the intent to curate all the artifacts of past classic films that they could find, but also to give each studio a place to have all the same materials readily available for future filmmakers and historians to have access to for the purpose of research.

One of the first studios to undertake such a project was the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank.  In 1970, a young librarian from UCLA named Dave Smith was given access by the Disney Studios to look through some of their archived material that had been gathering space in a dark secluded part of the Studio lot that was dubbed by many as “the crypt.”  Dismayed by the haphazard conditions that all the priceless archive material was being stored in, Smith wrote a proposal to the Disney Studios offering up his plan for a permanent and safely secure archive to house all of Disney’s many artifacts from it’s extensive history in entertainment.  The Disney Company agreed with Dave’s proposal and hired him on as the first head of their newly created Archive department.  From that point on, Dave Smith and the Disney Archive team procured a vast collection of art, props, costumes, and merchandise that spans across all the nearly 100 years of the Walt Disney Company.  Before Dave Smith’s passing in 2019, he oversaw his archive project grow from a little side office on the Burbank Lot to a vast, multi-facility operation where you can find just about anything related to any Disney project preserved for all time.  Of course, once you’ve collected all of these amazing artifacts over the years, you want to also show them off to fans from across the world.  Many Disney artifacts have made it into various galleries and special displays temporarily all over the world.  But to celebrate the special 50th anniversary of the founding of the Disney archive, a special exhibition has been set up for the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California; just a short drive away from Disneyland itself in Anaheim.  In this special exhibition, people will not only get a chance to have an up close encounter with many amazing artifacts from the Walt Disney Archives, but they will also have the chance to learn the story of the Archive’s creation and how it is set up and operates today.

Settled not far from the center of Downtown Santa Ana, the Bowers Museum is a modest but still exquisite gallery of Californian artwork and world culture artifacts.  The museum planned on holding the Disney Archives exhibition from March to August of this year.  However, due to significant periods of shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum has ended up extending the Disney Archives exhibit into early 2021.  In order to remain open after getting the go ahead for operations again, the Bowers Museum strictly enforces mask wearing at all times in the galleries, and conducts temperature checks at the front door.  Upon entering the museum, guests are greeted by a sculpture of Dumbo the Flying Elephant, suspended from the ceiling.  After walking underneath Dumbo flying above you, we arrive at the entrance to the gallery itself.  On the first wall, we see the famous photograph of a young Walt Disney with the shadow of Mickey Mouse cast on the wall next to him.  Alongside it is a greeting from the Disney archivists that put on this special exhibit, giving us an introduction to what we are about to see in the halls that follow.  The first room around the corner focuses on the two men most responsible for the archive’s existence: Walt Disney himself, and archive founder Dave Smith.  The first of many eye-catching displays once you enter this room is a recreation of Walt Disney’s private office.  It is noted that the entire display is a facsimile and contains nothing from the real thing, but for someone that has been in the actual office from a tour I took of the Studio Lot a few years back, I can say that it is a pretty good representation.  The display itself does have an interesting history of it’s own.  The desk and assorted knick knacks were actually props used for the movie Saving Mr. Banks (2013), where they were used to recreate Walt’s office for the movie.  So, sure Walt Disney never sat behind this desk, but actor Tom Hanks certainly has.

On the opposite wall is a recreation of the Disney Archive entrance, which in itself is a bit of a mini-museum with it’s own rotating display of artifacts that it often houses there on the Studio Lot.  On this recreation, actual artifacts important to Disney history are found, specifically ones related to the creation of nearby Disneyland.  In the case display is housed the survey equipment that was used to measure the terrain of what would become Disneyland, including the surveyor box itself, markers and the earliest known layout map of the park.  In the case as well is a recreation of the first ever conceptual map of Disneyland that Walt commissioned artist Herb Ryman to draw up, which he was then going to show to potential investors in order to gain the funding for his dream park.  It’s a nice simple way to introduce the idea of what the archives were meant to protect with regards to displaying the larger Disney story.  On the wall opposite, the exhibit honors the late Dave Smith, spotlighting the impact that he had on saving and preserving all the things that we are about to see in the gallery, as well as all the things still kept guarded back at the Archives itself.  In the proceeding rooms, the gallery breaks things into the different kinds of spaces that one would encounter upon entering the Archives.  In a nice little touch, the gallery also tries to recreate much of what the different parts of the archive might actually look like if you were to visit it yourself.

The first room we enter is what’s known as the “Reading Room.”  This Reading Room is the only part of the archive that was open to us on the Studio Lot tour, and for the most part, it is also the only part of the archive that is open to non-archivists on the Studio Lot as well.  It is mainly the area where many people from Disney come to conduct research, much like the reading rooms of your local library.  The Archivists retrieve the materials that the researcher is requesting from the back rooms and bring it out to the reading room for them to examine hands on, with the strict guidelines that it not leave the room itself.  In this gallery recreation, we are greeted by a cut-out image of Walt Disney waving to us to enter.  Across from him is one of the first big displays of an actual artifact from the studio lot itself.  On an elevated platform is one of the animators desks that was used in the Animation department at the studio.  Though it doesn’t indicate whose desk it actually belonged to, the display does give us a good representation of the animator’s workspace; which used to be the core of the company itself.  On the walls around the desk are various conceptual artwork that was made for the movie Fantasia (1940).  Some of the art are facsimiles, but there was also one or two original pieces there on display as well.  Past this first section of the reading room, we arrive at the heart of the “Reading Room”.  In a subtle recreation of the actual room itself, the opposite wall drapes banners that make the space more like a library.  A reading table like the one found at the actual archive, gives us a sense of how different material is examined within the room.  Most of the artifacts found here are important pieces of paperwork preserved by the studio, including meeting dictations, notes, correspondence, special marketing material, and assorted sketch drawings.

Included in the displays here are some of the most important documents in Disney history.  One of the most remarkable artifacts is the very first contracts ever signed by Walt Disney himself, this one in regards to gaining a permit to film for one of his historic Alice shorts, year before Mickey Mouse.  This contract marks the beginning of Disney Studios as an operating company, so you could say that the Walt Disney Studios began the moment this piece of paper was officially signed by Walt himself.  The fact that it was found at all and survives to this day almost a hundred years later is a great testament to the dedication of the archivists, and to Walt Disney himself for never throwing anything that important away.  Other incredible finds here that may go unnoticed are interesting artifacts like Walt Disney’s original passport, dating back to 1917.  There’s also Disneyland ticket #1, the first one ever sold, bought by Walt’s brother Roy for a dollar, as well as the Western Union correspondence that Walt sent to his brother after loosing his contract with Universal which then led to the creation of Mickey Mouse soon after.  Walt’s own personal effects like reading glasses and a pen, as well as a business card from Roy Disney round out the other interesting artifacts here.  On the walls are also the official portraits of Mickey Mouse that are always commissioned from artists at the studio for special anniversary years.  In another case is found an artifact that had a special connection for Walt, but for many years was considered lost until recently found in the archives; the snow globe from Mary Poppins (1964), which itself once sat in Walt’s private office for many years.

Moving on, we arrive in the next room, which is called the “Back Room.”  This is the room that only the archivists are allowed to enter and collect artifacts from.  Gathered throughout this area is a nice collection of what might be held at any given time at the on Studio Lot archive building, which runs the gamut of pretty much everything from the studio’s long history.  The first thing that greets us at the beginning of this section is the display case that really is like a hall of fame of noteworthy Disney props from it’s early years.  In there, you’ll see the coonskin hat worn by Fess Parker in Davy Crockett (1954), the sword used by Guy Williams in the TV series Zorro, the magical ring from The Shaggy Dog (1959), the bedknob from Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), as well as two artifacts from Mary Poppins, the stack of blocks that spell out her name, and Mary’s famous carpet bag.  This display is certainly one of the more popular in the gallery, just because of the iconic items that are held inside.  Apart from this, you see displays of many different types of artifacts that the archives hold.  This includes early Disney merchandise, like the original Mickey Mouse dolls; animation cels from different movies and series, posters used by the studio in it’s advertisement; matte paintings used by the effects department on several different live action films; an animatronic prototype of Abraham Lincoln’s head used for his likeness in the Disney Parks’ attraction; several character maquettes used for animator reference; and so on.  Probably the artifacts that caught my eye the most were the actual story books used in the movies Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959).  These were the physical books that you see open up at the start of each film, and it’s nice to see them here up close and looking good so many years later.  Knowing the importance of those movies to the history of the company, it’s great to see that the only physical props used in their filming are still kept preserved with great care.

Moving out of the “Back Room” section, we enter what is by far the largest portion of the exhibit, which is the “Dimensional Collections” section of the gallery.  This Dimensional Collection section is representative of the many storage facilities that house the Disney Archives’ vast collection.  Mainly it’s the stuff that the limited space at the Studio Lot archive can’t find room for.  And it spans a vast amount of interesting artifacts that range from everything from costuming, to props, to disused theme park attraction artifacts, to even movie used vehicles.  The first thing that greets you into this part of the gallery is a disused window display from the Main Street Emporium at Disneyland, this one showing the evil Queen from Snow White.  It’s the first physical Disney Park artifact found so far in the gallery, but certainly not the last.  Just beside it are three figures from past attractions across the many Disney parks, including a Xenomorph animatronic from the old Great Movie Ride at the Disney Studios Park in Orlando, Florida, a Mayan chief figure from the El Rio del Tiempo ride in Epcot, and the old robot pilot from the Star Tours attraction at Disneyland. Across from that are tombstones from the Haunted Mansion, as well as discontinued Hitch-hiking Ghost animatronics.  And displayed across an entire wall is a collection of costumes from across the whole Disney Studio history.  These include Warren Beatty’s yellow coat from Dick Tracy (1990), Glenn Close’s Cruella De Vil dress from 101 Dalmatians (1996), Emilio Estevez’s team jacket from The Mighty Ducks (1992), as well as the flight uniform from The Rocketeer (1992).  Disney subsidiaries, past and present, like Touchstone and Miramax pictures are also represented here, as Julia Roberts’ dress from Pretty Woman (1990) and Dame Judi Dench’s elaborate Elizabeth I costume from Shakespeare in Love (1998) are also found.  In this area, you also get the first representation of the newest addition to the Disney family, 20th Century Fox, as some of their artifacts have found their way into the Disney Archive.  The first piece shown in this area is the fish man prosthetic makeup that was worn by actor Doug Jones for the movie The Shape of Water (2017), a Fox Searchlight film.

Past the costumes we find a section devoted to movie props both large and small.  Among them includes a life size model of Roger Rabbit that was used as a stand in on set to help give the crew and actors an indication of how to stage the scene for a character who would be drawn in later.  There’s also another famous iconic prop delivered from the Fox Archives found here, which is Wilson from the movie Cast Away (2000), looking just as tattered and weathered as it did in the film.  Another display also features a collection of on set puppets, including one of Winnie the Pooh from the recent film Christopher Robin (2018), a couple of hand puppets from the Bill Murray comedy What About Bob? (1991), and some stop motion puppets from the Wes Anderson animated film, Isle of Dogs (2018).   Right next to that is one of the more striking large props found so far, and one that is iconic to my generation, and that’s the shrinking machine from the Rick Moranis action comedy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989).  The prop itself has seen better days, but the archives have done a recent restoration helping to bring it back to as close to it’s original state as they could.  Having grown up with the movie since my childhood, it was pretty neat seeing this prop up close and catching all the details that I never noticed before.  Adjoining this prop section of the gallery, the Dimensional Collections section moves into an area focusing on some of the newest additions to the archive collection, which displays various things like Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent costume, to costumes from the recent film Mary Poppins Returns (2018), to the sword used in the recent Mulan (2020) remake, which was forced to debut on Disney+ due to the pandemic closing most theaters in America.  In this area, the gallery states the continued interest that Archives has in preserving all the things that are going to be coming in the near future form the studio, including from all the projects on Disney+.

The final major part of the gallery belongs to the Disney Vehicle section.  Here, we find the actual full scale vehicles that have been used by Disney at various points.  Dating back to Walt Disney’s time, there is the Model T Ford used by Fred McMurray in the film The Absent Minded Professor (1961), still preserved in a pretty good state, though highly doubtful that it flies through the power of flubber like in the original film.  Next to that is a piano on wheels, which had been used outside the Golden Horseshoe at Disneyland to entertain guests.  A very talented performer basically plays on the piano on wheels as they pedal it forward throughout the park.  Next to this is probably the one vehicle that every guest will recognize right away, and that’s Herbie the Love Bug.  This particular model of Herbie was used for the more recent Herbie: Fully Loaded reboot from 2005, starring Lindsay Lohan and Michael Keaton.  Though it’s not the original from the 1968 film, it’s still nice to see this iconic Disney vehicle represented here, and it almost certainly is going to be one  of the most photographed artifacts in the gallery as a whole.  Not far away, and right next to the final room, is a vehicle from the Fox collection.  It’s the race car used in last year’s Ford v Ferrari (2019), starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale.  In addition, the racing outfit worn by Bale in the film is displayed right next to it.  On the wall nearby, it displays a statement about the Archive’s commitment to work just as hard with the Fox archivists towards preserving all the treasures from this likewise legendary studio with it’s own share of amazing artifacts collected throughout the years.  No doubt the archivists at Disney are dedicated to making sure the past is not lost over time, and with the company growing even bigger now with Fox on board, their amazing task has become even more monumental.

To conclude the exhibit, a recreation of Disney Legends Plaza is displayed for guests to walk around.  The Legends Plaza is the one in front of the main corporate HQ building, famous for it’s colonnade roof that is supported by stone figures of the Seven Dwarves.  Along the plaza are pillars that hold plaques dedicated to the many Disney Legends that have been inducted and honored over the years.  Celebrated at special ceremonies over the last 25 years, most recently held at the D23 Expos, each legend is given a special statue and are given the chance of immortalizing their handprints in cement, unless the honor is given posthumously.  It’s a great way to honor the legacy of all those who have made the Disney Company what it is today, and sadly most of the general public never gets to see it, unless they are invited to the studio itself.  I have thankfully gotten my chance to see it during my tour of the studio years back.  Just going through all the names on pillars reveals an incredible look at all the amazing people who have contributed to Disney’s legacy, including noteworthy figures like Stan Lee and George Lucas who became a part of the Disney family much later on.  In this gallery, the plagues are just wooden recreations of the actual ones you would see at the Legends Plaza, but it does give you a good sense of who you would find honored there.  Some of them are names may not jump out to you right away, like those of the animators who worked at the studio, but others like Julie Andrews, Robin Williams, and Betty White almost certainly will.  At the very end of the exit, a banner with the entire Archive team pictured is found, alongside a thank you message for those who walked through the gallery.  A fine curtain call for a very pleasing exhibition.

For any Disney fan out there, visiting this exhibit is a no brainer.  You’ll get a very up close look at some of the most amazing artifacts found in Disney’s vast archive, including a few that rarely make it out into public view.  What I liked about this exhibit in particular is that it really gives you the sense of the history of the archive itself, the way it operates, and why it is so important to maintain.  When Dave Smith sent his proposal to Disney 50 years ago, he knew how important it was to preserve the past treasures of the Walt Disney company, and that it would be a monumental undertaking.  In the 50 decades since, the Disney archives now safely houses pieces of history spanning all the way back to the days when Walt Disney was just a young kid with a dream.  Walking through the exhibit only gives us a small sampling of the Archives’ true scale and scope, but what is found here is certainly enough to excite any Disney or movie fan in general.  I especially like the way they focused on the vast expanse of the Disney company as well, not just the animated films at it’s core.  There’s stuff from the live action films, the theme parks, and personal effects related to the man himself on display here.  A lot of it is also surprising finds that I don’t think would normally would make it out to exhibits like this.  Every corner does an amazing job to give you a sense of the importance of the Disney Archive’s existence, and it just reinforces why archives are such an essential part of the film industry in general.  If you are in the Southern California region and are a die hard movie and/or Disney fan, I strongly recommend checking this exhibit out.  Thankfully it’s been extended a few months, so you have until February to see it, barring another pandemic shutdown.  And also take in the rest of the Bowers Museum collection as well, which is quite interesting on it’s own.  It’s where art and history collide, and I couldn’t think of a better setting for Disney to celebrate it’s Archive’s 50th year.

 

Off the Page – Jurassic Park

There really are very few action adventure films that hold up as well as Jurassic Park (1993).  Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking blockbuster ushered in a new era in Hollywood when it came to visual effects, utilizing CGI at a level previously unseen before in the movies.  It also restarted a renewed interest in paleontological studies, as fans young and old finally got to see dinosaurs on screen that looked more real than ever before.  The movie’s plot certainly was tailor made for the cinema, but you have to go pretty far back to remember that before Jurassic Park was a hit movie it started out as a hit novel.  Jurassic Park was the original brainchild of one of the most celebrated Science Fiction authors of his time; Michael Crichton.  Crichton had already built up a long-standing relationship with Hollywood before.  His earlier work like The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man were runaway best sellers that in turn were adapted into hit movies.  Crichton even dabbled into filmmaking himself, both writing and directing the original film Westworld (1973), which of course would later go on to influence the hit HBO series of the same name.  So, when he began writing what would end up being Jurassic Park, he probably had a good feeling that it would likely be made into a film right away.  In fact, Universal Pictures optioned the novel even before it was published in 1990.  It passed around to a number of filmmakers, but once it landed in the hands of Spielberg, it was just a natural fit.  Who better to trust with Crichton’s high concept vision than the guy who’s been at the forefront of so many groundbreaking effects films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Back to the Future (1985).  However, Jurassic Park would be different from those movies before and that is largely due to the themes that Crichton often worked with.

Michael Crichton was a Harvard educated medicinal scholar, earning an M.D. in 1969.  However, he never actually practiced medicine in his life, opting to pursue his writing career instead, especially after getting his first novel published while still attending school.  Despite this divergent path, Crichton still put his scientific knowledge at the forefront of his work, writing through the lens of speculative Science Fiction.  Though many of his novels feature science that either doesn’t actually exist or hadn’t been invented yet, his scientific background allowed for him to provide enough informed detail to actually convince the reader that the fictionalized science in his novels could be plausible.  And many of his predictions have remarkably proven to be close to reality since he first wrote them down.  The Andromeda Strain showed a believable scenario of how society might respond to a deadly viral outbreak that seems eerily close to today.  The Terminal Man provided a dire warning of the dangers of how computers could be used for mind control purposes.  Westworld predicted the advances in robotics, and Jurassic Park speculated on the potential consequences of genetic engineering; all things that we are seeing continually explored in science today.  Despite the usual bleakness of Crichton’s narratives, he was not a science skeptic.  He believed very much in expanding the scientific advancements that he wrote about, but he also argued that every scientific experiment must come with a fail-safe protection, just in case things go horribly wrong.  More than anything, he hated the abuses of science, and this became an over-arching theme of his work.  In particular, he used his writing to critique the science for profit motive that he often saw being abused in his time, particularly by pharmaceutical companies, entrepreneur engineers, and politicians who exploited science for their own agendas.  This in particular is what frames the narrative of Jurassic Park; a money-making venture gone horribly wrong.

“Welcome to Jurassic Park.”

It’s interesting to note that Jurassic Park began not as a novel, but as a screenplay.  Crichton wrote his first draft back in 1983, with the focus of the story centered on a young grad student who creates the first living dinosaur through genetic engineering.  The breakthrough leads to investors, who devise the idea of creating a wildlife park of dinosaurs.  It’s part of Crichton’s critical eye that something as monumental as the creation of a living dinosaur would inevitably lead to the desire of exploitation for the sake of entertainment in the end.  In many ways, this early draft of what would end up being the story echoes Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the one who made the scientific breakthrough being forced to confront the harsh reality of what it means to play god, and how a perversion of nature inevitably ends up destroying those who break it’s rules.  Over time, Crichton revised his story, deciding to expand upon his themes in a novel form.  In the book, the breakthrough and exploitation period has already passed, and what we find instead is a scenario of what corporatized science run amok would look like.  The Jurassic Park in question comes across as this sanitized, Disneyland like paradise, but as the novel progresses, that veneer of safety is stripped away to reveal the harsh reality that man should never have messed around with natural order.  Though the themes never changed over the time of writing the book, Crichton certainly wrote his story with a eye for adventure as well.  His book is filled with spectacular set-pieces that do lend themselves well to cinema.  There are detailed encounters with each dinosaur found on the fictional Isla Nublar, including the memorable raptor chase and the frightening encounter with the Tyrannosaurus Rex.  For the most part, these set-pieces made the translation to the big screen pretty much in tact, but what is interesting is how the move from page to screen shifted the themes of Crichton’s novel.

“Dinosaurs eat man.  Women inherit the Earth.”

One big difference between Michael Crichton’s novel of Jurassic Park  and Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation is the way that the characters are used.  For one thing, Spielberg streamlines the number of characters to just a select few.  A lot of the novel focuses on the scientists working behind the scenes in the bio-engineering labs where the dinosaurs are created.  In the film, much of their roles are distilled down to one character in one scene of the movie.  The character of Dr. Wu (played by B.D. Wong) is given more of a role in the novel, but in the movie he appears just to given scientific exposition for the audience, explaining exactly all we need to know about how the park was able to create dinosaurs.  In this case, it actually helps the film to streamline Crichton’s scientific details.  Spielberg knows that what the audience is waiting for is real life dinosaurs, and by giving us one scene to establish what we need to know, it helps to free up the rest of the movie’s plot just for that.  Spielberg also gave more character dimensions to different characters and even altered their fate from what was in the book.  This is particularly the case with Dr. Ian Malcolm, played memorably by Jeff Goldblum.  In a case where I think the character was altered to better reflect the actor who’s playing him, Dr. Malcolm is very different from his literary origins, where he is depicted as a rigid, intellectual scientist who actually dies early on in the book.  Perhaps when Spielberg cast the suave, eccentric Goldblum in the role, he tailored the character to be more like him.  A lot of the character’s arc in the story is actually taken from another character named Donald Gennero, who is depicted in the movie as a cowardly lawyer who gets quickly eaten by the T-Rex at the halfway point.  Gennero’s skepticism of the park is also reversed in the film, with the “blood-sucking” lawyer being all in on the plan for the park, while Malcolm is given the more cynical view.

But perhaps the most dramatic change from book to screen is the depiction of the character John Hammond.  In the book, Hammond is the epitome of Crichton’s view of corporatized science taken to it’s most extreme.  Hammond in the novel is a callous, profit driven business tycoon who created the park as nothing more than a way to earn more money.  He cares little for the dinosaurs that are grown out of his laboratories, and even less for the poor humans who are put at risk of getting eaten by the dinosaurs when they get loose.  He’s basically more P.T. Barnham than Walt Disney in this regard, seeing the park less a bold vision and more as a means to increase his own stature in the world of business.  Spielberg on the other hand leans more in the Walt Disney direction with his portrayal of John Hammond.  With his version, John Hammond is more idealistic and is not concerned about the financial viability of the park.  In his own words, he “spares no expense” in seeing his park becoming a reality.  For him the park is a source of pride, but it’s in that rosy outlook that he naively misses the flaws in his plan.  It’s a far more sympathetic version of the character, departing very far from Crichton’s version.  It also helps when the charming and jovial Sir Richard Attenborough is playing him.  And Spielberg definitely seemed to want to emphasize Hammond’s noble intentions, because cinematically it reinforces the wonder of the park’s potential.  Inevitably, Hammond’s arc in the movie is proof of Murphy’s Law imagined through this scenario, where everything that could go wrong, does go wrong, and it better illustrates the Frankenstein parallels even more.  In the book, Hammond is unredeemable, and inevitably is killed by his own creation; eaten alive by a pack of dinosaurs.  But in the movie, Hammond lives, and Spielberg leaves us with a poignant moment as Hammond looks back on a park he must now leave behind, seeing it descend into disaster.  Though Spielberg’s version of the character of John Hammond is sympathetic, the themes of Crichton’s novel still resonate, as his naivete is emblematic of the lack of foreseeing the need for a fail-safe plan to be in place.  As Ian Malcolm astutely points out to John Hammond in the film, “You spent so much time thinking about whether or not you could, you never stopped to think whether or not you should.”

“If Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”

From that we see the biggest departure that Spielberg makes from Crichton’s novel, and more than anything it speaks to Spielberg’s sense of how such a story should play on the silver screen.  We as the audience need to be given the sense of wonder, looking in awe at a world where dinosaurs walk the earth again.  That’s why the opening part of the movie takes a far more optimistic tone.  The movie does begin with an intense opening scene, where we do see the lethal threat that keeping dinosaurs captive can pose; in this case with one employee becoming a victim of a velociraptor.  But, after that, the movie doesn’t have it’s next moment of danger until almost the halfway mark.  Instead, we follow the characters of Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), who are pretty much as they are from the book, as they see the park for the first time.  And their sense of wonder translates to our sense of wonder.  With help from John Williams iconic score, we are given an amazing introduction to the dinosaurs, roaming the park peacefully in the way that I’m sure John Hammond had envisioned.  But once the movie moves into the second half, the wonder gives way to terror, as we learn the real cost of toying with nature.  By giving that contrast between the idealized vision and the risks that lie underneath, Spielberg gives the themes of Crichton’s novel more resonance.  We need to be given that exciting sense of the potential of the park, before we see the terror that can come when it all falls apart.  And that’s when the terrifying set pieces of Crichton’s novel become all the more cinematic.  The Tyrannosaurus Rex encounter in particular is a masterclass in cinematic tension building, as Spielberg builds up the reveal of the creature in an incredible way.  Utilizing the groundbreaking CGI animation from Industrial Light and Magic and full sized animatronics from the Stan Winston workshop, the T Rex is an incredibly realized creation that still holds up to this day.  And perhaps drawing from his “slow reveal” lessons from the making of Jaws (1975) Spielberg brilliantly establishes the T Rex’s arrival through something as simple as water ripples in a cup.  Though Crichton’s writing lends itself very well to the cinematic form, it’s Spielberg who made it work in such a brilliant fashion with his sense of how to make it all work on the screen.

One thing that I do think Spielberg translated perfectly in tact from Crichton’s novel is the corporatization of science within the park.  After that inspiring moment where we first see the dinosaurs, John Hammond then takes his guests to the main hub facility of the park.  There we see the sanitization of what Hammond has accomplished, presented through branding, merchandising , and state of the art presentation.  The film even has the characters watch what is essentially a propaganda piece in the form of a cartoon, which both spells out the science behind the film for the audience but also illustrates the naïve way that John Hammond is trying to market his park to a less informed public.  Spielberg definitely drew inspiration here from some attractions found in Disneyland and other parks, like the Carousel of Progress and Adventures Thru Inner Space, which also provided sanitized, propaganda messaging from their corporate sponsors like GE and Monsanto.  And though there initially is no malice behind what Hammond is trying to push through what he sees as entertainment, it nevertheless shows the way that science can often be manipulated in order to create the rosiest of outlooks to the wider public.  It’s in this part of the movie that we do see the movie reach the more cynical view of Crichton’s novel.  Though the realization and the vision behind the park is impressive, it’s once the scientists dig deeper into what’s actually going on inside the labs that they begin to see behind the corporate veneer of it all, and see it’s inherit danger.  The little details in Spielberg’s portrayal of Hammond’s compound really drive home this point, as there is a great contrast between the sweet wholesome confines of the facility and the ultimate wild reality of the park itself.  It’s especially poignant when Spielberg cuts to a stuffed animal version of a dinosaur in the gift shop right after the characters have been attacked by the real thing.  Ironically, an identical gift shop can be found today at Universal Studios right outside the Jurassic Park ride exit.  At least there the dinosaurs are not real.

“They never attack the same place twice.  They are testing the fences for weaknesses, systematically.  They remember.”

In both cases, the novel and the movie are both brilliant bodies of work, but they do take different angles on achieving the same message.  For Crichton, the perversion of science is inevitable and the consequences bear out on the people who unwisely play god without caution.  In Spielberg’s film, there is an added level of poignancy where the failure of the park becomes more of a tragedy than anything.  I think the most fascinating angle that Spielberg takes in his film is the way he portrays John Hammond.  For Crichton, he was the epitome of capitalism’s exploiting of science for all the wrong reasons.  Spielberg, on the other hand, almost in a way identifies with John Hammond, viewing him as a man wanting to create something positive for the world in an entertaining way, only to see his vision unrealized and shattered by the end.  I think that it’s why he cast a fellow film director like Attenborough in the role.  Like a lot of directors, Spielberg has had his share of disappointing failures go wrong even after embarking on them with the best intentions.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he added this element into the movie that was his follow-up to the disappointing Hook (1991).  At the same time, I hardly think that Spielberg was disrespecting the vision of Michael Crichton with his revisions.  After all, Crichton had a hand in the screenplay for this as well, taking cues from his original draft and also giving Spielberg the go ahead to make the changes that he needed, with David Keopp providing the extra material.  Whether you read the book or watch the movie, the message in the end remains the same.  We all must be wary of how we use science in near and distant future.  Science is a powerful tool that can help uplift society if used correctly, but it can also be a force for destruction if used improperly.  Basically, both Crichton and Spielberg’s ultimate intentions is for everyone to educate themselves and have a better understanding of Science in general.  Jurassic Park is a cautionary tale of unchecked Science run amok by people who should never have utilized it in the first place.  And on top of that, it is an incredibly vivid adventure that still stands the test of time, even as Science has caught us up to where it’s visions may even become a reality some day.

“Before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you’re selling it, you wanna sell it.  Well…”

Intermission – The State of the Audience Experience in Movie Theaters and Why It Matters

There is one thing that I want to extrapolate from my review of Tenet (2020) last week.  Putting the movie itself aside, there was a thing that mattered a lot to me on my experience watching the film from last week, and that was the feeling I had of just being in a movie theater again.  It’s one of those things that I realized I had just taken for granted all these years, and it made a little emotional getting the chance to go back into a theater after such a long time away.  The COVID-19 pandemic led to a months long closure of the theatrical exhibition market, and as a result for me and many other film enthusiasts around the world, this has been the longest time we’ve had separated from our favorite local theaters.  Where I live, the City of Los Angeles, theaters are still closed, but in the nearby San Diego and Orange counties, they have been allowed to reopen.  Taking this opportunity, I drove far out of town to finally regain that experience and all I can say is that there really is no substitute.  After months of either consuming films at home on Netflix or driving out to the local Drive-In’s, I can definitely say that the theatrical experience is absolutely the preferred way to go.  It’s the best way to have a distraction free connection with a movie; sitting in a four-walled room in the dark with the silver screen aglow, transporting you into it’s story.  An even better experience can be found when the theater is full of equally enthusiastic fans, all reacting to the movie in the same way, either through laughter, screams or cheers.  This has sadly been what the pandemic has taken away the most, and my hope is that as time heals the destruction of this pandemic, that we may be able to return to that shared experience again.  The only question is, are we trying to hard to bring that back right now?

Tenet had a lot of high expectations coming into the start of the year.  Christopher Nolan films are always big screen spectacles, and this was not going to be any different.  What I don’t think Nolan and Warner Brothers ever anticipated was that Tenet would be tasked with being the “great white hope” of saving the movie theater industry.  The prolonged length of this pandemic and the shutdown that it has caused in order to control the spread has led to numerous tent pole films being pushed back from their original release dates.  Many opted to wait a year, while others decided to just skip theaters entirely, moving to video on demand instead.  There was no question what Nolan wanted for his film.  A passionate defender of the theatrical experience, Nolan has insisted that Tenet be screened in theaters first, and Warner Brothers has kept to their promise.  The only question is, why do it now, at a time when the pandemic is still raging?  The movie is releasing only in markets where the theaters have been allowed to reopen, which excludes the biggest ones of New York and Los Angeles, and the theaters that are screening it are doing so with ticket sales well bellow the usual capacity, in order to not violate the health guidelines of their community.  So, despite having the highest box office total in North America since the shutdown began, Tenet’s box office returns for it’s opening weekend were well below what it normally would’ve made under different circumstances.  It’s opening was a paltry $22 million, which is Nolan’s lowest opening weekend since The Prestiege (2006) fourteen years ago, and alarmingly short of what it needs to recoup the staggering $200 million budget of the movie; Nolan’s most expensive film to date.  One has to wonder if pushing the movie back to next year could have changed the fortunes of this film.  By insisting on opening the movie in the middle of a pandemic, and seeing this expensive project fall well short of it’s potential given the circumstances, it unfortunately casts a shadow of failure upon the movie, regardless of the quality of the film itself.  In the end, Warner Brothers and Nolan may have self-inflicted a negative blight on their reputations going forward.

The movies in themselves do matter, given how much work goes into making them from so many working professionals, but at the same time, so does the safety of the people who choose to go to the movie theaters.  A lot of people are just not ready to take that risk right now.  I consider myself one of those willing to venture back to the theaters as soon as possible, but I understand the concern of those who are not ready.  The reality is, Hollywood is just going to have to deal with this for probably the rest of the year and some time after that as well, and that maybe the rest of 2020 should be blockbuster free until we can get this pandemic under control.  Unfortunately for Tenet, it has become the sacrificial canary in the coal mine telling us that it’s not time yet to have things return to normal.  Just having theaters open at all is incurring some level of risk, especially for those who are working there.  I can tell you from my experience in San Diego last week that I felt very safe in the hands of the staff at the theater I attended.  Run by the ailing theater chain AMC, the Mission Valley multiplex that I visited had an attentive, friendly and most importantly cautious staff who worked hard to make the place as clean and worry free as possible.  In each theater, there was a large amount of space separating each person in their seats, and I felt very confident in the fact that I wouldn’t be infected while watching a movie in there.  Even still, the staff at the theater is under enormous pressure to make everyone feel safe in their establishment, and every day for them now becomes a march to the front lines in combating this illness.  We don’t know at this point how much of an impact working through this pandemic will have on theater workers across the world, and my heart really goes out to them considering that I too once worked in a theater like them, albeit in much more stable and healthy times.

No doubt, the worries about what might happen in the weeks and months ahead is still giving Hollywood pause.  Tenet’s soft opening is now causing another round of delays across the industry, as more and more blockbuster are pulling out of their release dates, and moving back even more.  Wonder Woman 1984, which was supposed to have been out last June, is now on it’s third delay, releasing on Christmas Day, and even that might not even be the last of it.  We also don’t know what effect that Disney’s Mulan (2020) experiment on Disney+ may have, and if more blockbuster films are just going to abandon theaters altogether.  It may end up leading to a year without blockbuster films at the theaters.  As Tenet has shown, it’s just impossible right now for any movie to generate the kind of record-breaking box office that we saw in the last decade.  My prediction is that theaters will remain open, but for the next year, you’re only going to see smaller films released on the big screen.  While Tenet and The New Mutants are suffering from mediocre box office numbers, smaller budget films playing right now at the same time like the Russell Crowe headlined Unhinged (2020) and the period drama The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) are performing at an appropriate level reflective of their substantially lower budgets.  In fact, the movie Unhinged has reached the point now where it is turning in a small profit.  I think this is going to be the pattern for a while moving forward; lower risk films carrying the burden of helping the theaters businesses stay open, while the tent pole blockbusters wait out the storm until it’s ready to open up big again.  I don’t know if that is how it will exactly play out in the end, since major studios don’t want to sit on their expensive projects for very long, but it may have to be the necessary route in order to bring things back to normal.

I certainly want a return to normal sooner rather than later, but it simply isn’t possible right now.  What Hollywood and the theatrical industry have to do right now is follow the recommendations of the health experts and follow their guidelines.  We have thankfully reached a point where a reopening is possible now, and that theaters no longer have to keep their doors shut.    There is one thing that I remember well from my time as theater employee, and that is to always make the customer feel at home when they come to see a movie at our establishment.  It’s all about driving customers to want to return again, and that aspect of the job could not be more important right now than it has ever been.  I do see an innate desire in people towards wanting to get out of their homes and go out to the movies again, but that takes a level of trust between the theaters and the audience that is in desperate need of being reaffirmed.  From my experience, I saw a theater staff ready and happy to welcome customers back, but I don’t know what the rest of the country is seeing right now.  Movie theaters are going to be going through a lot of changes in order to reaffirm their standing in the eyes of audience members, and it will probably extend to a significant alteration in how they do business.  For the foreseeable, I believe we’re going to see a lot of cost cutting from some of the major chains, including smaller staffs, fewer showtimes, and even the permanent closures of some facilities.  In order to bring more customers back, a lot of theaters are likely going to be lowering prices on tickets and concessions, just so that they can generate any money they can.  Even if the pandemic ended tomorrow, the damage is already done on the theatrical industry, and they are going to be recuperating for a long time.  But, they have no other choice but to cater to the needs of their audience, because they are going to be what is essential to their survival in the years ahead.

I did find it interesting upon my experience how much emphasis AMC put into thanking their theater patrons on returning to their venues.  Right before the movie trailers began, the screen projected a big thank you message to all of us in the theater for returning.  It’s all marketing to be sure, but the push their trying to make is an understandable one.  AMC, above all the others, was the most vulnerable theater chain in the country during this pandemic.  Taking on massive amounts of debt just to fend off bankruptcy, as well as cutting a very one-sided deal with Universal Studios, AMC is at a make or break point where they need theaters open just to survive.  And the other chains are also dealing with their own financial liquidity problems, which likely haunt them for many years.  The one thing that could make things better for the chains going forward is an expansion of their subscriber based ticketing.  AMC was already benefiting from such a program, but had to put it on hold for all their subscribers once the shutdown started.  What could help convince subscribers to restart their monthly subscription is to incentive-ize people to rejoin.  This could be either through more perks, credits, free monthly gifts, or even a tie-in offer with a partnered company.  It’s all about convincing customers that it’s in their interest to remain a loyal subscriber.  I can see AMC and Regal trying a whole variety of ideas to help boost their numbers back up to where they were before.  Their MoviePass inspired programs were after all only a couple years into their life-span before the shutdown happened; it wouldn’t be impossible for them to get back to those numbers again in the same amount of time.  Reduced pricing of concessions may be harder to implement, because it would greatly reduce the profit margin of the theater companies who are dependent on strong concessions sales, but introducing quantitative bargains could help drive more people towards wanting to buy snacks from the theaters.  Necessity is the mother of all invention after all, and movie theaters are going to be experimenting with a lot of ideas in order to bring back their lost audiences.

A lot of things could happen in the next year in order to bring people back to the theaters, but I think that perhaps the most effective tool for bringing audiences back to the theaters will be the feeling of Nostalgia.  It’s certainly what I felt when I walked back into a theater.  We all have fond memories of watching movies in a theater, whether with family or friends, or alone with a bunch of complete strangers.  The powerful effect that movies have on us comes from the shared way we respond to them.  Sometimes the greatest entertainment that we can have in a theater is in seeing the reaction the film can have on the people who are watching it.  And it’s those reactions that in themselves become part of our nostalgia for the movies.  There’s been videos floating around the internet since the pandemic began that show the audience reaction to last year’s climatic finale to Avengers: Endgame (2019).  It’s an experience that I can recall first hand myself because it was just like the response I saw at the IMAX screening I was at.  It’s the moment when all the superheroes who were killed off by the villain Thanos in the previous film, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) return and join the Avengers on the battle field, passing through magically produced portals.  It’s one of the most amazing audience experiences I’ve ever had, with the whole audience hollering and cheering, and a few even crying, all in response to this powerful moment in the movie.  It’s one of those moments in life that you could only have with a totally engaged audience, and I’m thankful that someone has preserved that moment in a video and shared it online for everyone to relive.  It reminds us what we have been missing and what we should strive to get back, and that in itself is a powerful reminder of why we need the theatrical experience.  The response that that video has received gives me hope that we may return back to normal someday, because the desire to have that experience is still out there.  It’ll take some time, but we’ll get back there.

So, for the moment, if you are still weary of returning to the movie theaters because of fear of the pandemic still raging, I don’t blame you.  Things are certainly not back to normal yet.  But I have hope that we are getting past the worst of it, and are beginning the long climb back to where we were before.  Based on the response I hear about people hoping for the reopening of their local theaters, and the strong business I see from the local Drive-In’s in my area, there is a desire out there to go to the movies again.  It’s just going to take some time in order to return to the way it was before.  Movie theaters are in a moment of renewal, where they have to start again from scratch after a long pause.  We may see a renewed focus on the customer experience that could turn into a positive for the industry going down the road, but we’ll also see a significant downturn in the market reach that they once had.  At the same time, Hollywood is going to have to consider what is in the best interest of their biggest movies in the years ahead.  Clearly putting Tenet out there as a test run did not generate the desired effect, and it may have even unfortunately tarnished the track record of one of the industry’s most celebrated filmmakers.  I’d say it would be best to just put the rest of 2020 on hold when it comes to the big tent-pole films.  It would be better to have the smaller movies carry the load for a while.  It is Awards season after all, and it’s the moment where low risk, critically acclaimed films can take this opportunity to shine, without making it look like they are putting the audience at risk.  That’s ultimately what is going to ensure the survival of the industry after all, the level of trust between the filmmakers, the theaters, and the audience.  The pandemic has disrupted the happy medium between all parties, but out of that disruption, we could see a renewed effort to make the theatrical experience better as a whole.  People want to go out to see movies; that’s apparent now.  It’s just about making it so that audiences don’t have to feel that there is a risk involved in doing so.  Things are bad right now, but this too will pass, and it’s up to us to hold Hollywood and the movie theaters accountable for taking the right measures in welcoming us back in a way that is not reckless.  No matter what, I will always choose movie theaters first when it comes to the cinematic experience, and I want it to come back in a way that ensures that it will have a bright and prosperous future.

Tenet – Review

The Summer season of 2020 came and went, and for the first time in a century, movie theaters remained silent.  There have been a few individual theaters open here and there across the country where the COVID-19 pandemic has been less virulent, but for the major chains across the country, it has been anything but a normal year for them.  With the major studios either moving all their major tent-poles to next year or dropping them off onto streaming services, there has been no reason for the theaters to reopen and return to normal business.  The next year or so is going to be a long, slow return to normalcy for the theater industry, and the feats they had to go through over this Summer just to keep themselves afloat may have made the marker for normalcy far different from what it used to be.  At this point, we don’t know where the end game of all of this will land, and that is making everyone worried.  Hollywood is facing it’s most existential crisis since the advent of television, and they are being increasingly confronted with the hard choice of what they must do in order to survive this pandemic year.  Do they sacrifice the theatrical market in order to secure financial stability for the year ahead, or do they assist the theatrical market with new releases, at the risk of receiving less than normal returns.  After a Summer that made it impossible to do any business normally in the movie theaters, Hollywood is now trying some new experiments with their upcoming releases.  As we head into Labor Day weekend, two of the year’s biggest new films are making their debut, but with entirely different roll outs.  Disney’s long delayed Mulan (2020) is skipping a theatrical release in favor of a premium streaming debut on Disney+.  At the same time, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020), which was originally set for mid-July, is also coming out this weekend, but exclusively on the big screen, and only in areas of the country where it is allowed.  Whoever prevails out of these experiments may in fact be the one that ultimately determines the future of movie theaters as we know it.

For the movie Tenet, it’s clear that a theatrical premiere was the only logical choice for it’s debut.  Christopher Nolan has built his reputation as a filmmaker on being the master of grandiose, cinematic spectacles that can only be fully appreciated on a big screen.  Ever since The Dark Knight (2008), Nolan has utilized the large format IMAX process as his favorite cinematic tool.  With every new movie he makes, he has incorporated more and more scenes shot with those very big and very expensive cameras.  Nearly 80% of his last feature in fact, the World War II epic Dunkirk (2017), had been filmed in IMAX.  So, even considering taking his newest film Tenet, which purportedly is his first entirely IMAX movie, and dumping it off on Warner Brothers’ new streamer, HBO Max, would be sacrilege to both Nolan and his fan-base.  So, a theatrical run of this movie needed to happen at some point.  The only question is, why now?  Why put this movie out while the country has yet to clear itself of this pandemic.  I understand wanting to assist the struggling theatrical industry, but with social distancing protocols still in place in theaters across the world, theaters aren’t exactly going to be a full house for quite a while.  Universal, Sony, and Paramount all moved their big tent-poles to next Summer, while Disney opted to push everything they could to November and December.  For some reason, Warner Brothers’ is making a gamble here, and they are betting high on Nolan to help bail them and the theatrical industry out.  The only question is, will Tenet indeed be that movie that will save the theatrical experience?  Can Christopher Nolan deliver a spectacle that lives up to it’s important status, or will it have proved that we were far from ready from returning back to normal?

Tenet, probably more than any other movie in the director’s oeuvre, plays around with Nolan’s fascination with the element of Time.  A reoccurring trope in all of his movies, the flow of time and it’s many different branches of theory, is clearly something that Nolan loves to explore in his stories.  Whether it’s in the nonlinear way he can tell a chronological story, like with Memento (2000) and Dunkirk, or the way he can manipulate time as a plot device, like in Inception (2010) or Interstellar (2014), he’s always looked at the flow of time as an interesting cinematic device.  Tenet places time front and center within it’s narrative, but adds a new flavor to Nolan’s use of the gimmick; inversion.  The movie follows an unnamed, highly-trained mercenary known as The Protagonist (John David Washington) who finds himself recruited into a secret underworld squad of spies tasked with stopping a world-ending event that is making use of inverted technology.  He learns that objects are being transported from the future to the past through a process of Inversion; meaning that they are moving backwards in time while everything else in moving forward.  A Russian crime lord named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is the one smuggling all the future objects and has intentions of using them to create a nuclear bomb.  The Protagonist embarks on his mission towards stopping Sator’s plot by infiltrating his organization through a relationship with Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Dibicki).  Along the way, The Protagonist also receives assistance from a resourceful but mysterious British operative named Neil (Robert Pattinson), who helps him uncover the heart of Sator’s organization, as well as the technology he’s using to actually created the Inversion effect on both objects, and people.  With time literally in the balance, can the Protagonist manage to stop Sator from enacting his evil plan, and can he also end up making sense of what which way through time is the right course.

For me personally, just being able to see this movie was an adventure in itself.  I am un-apologetically an ardent fan of Christopher Nolan’s work; especially with not one but two of his movies making my best of the 2010’s list right hereInception and Dunkirk respectively.  I have been eagerly anticipating Tenet ever since it was announced back in 2018, and was hoping that it would continue his track record of success.  When the pandemic began closing theaters, my hope was that things would get back to normal sooner rather than later, so that Tenet could still premiere on time.  With every new push back of the date, it became clear that this was just wishful thinking.  Now, some theaters are beginning to reopen, and Tenet is the movie being touted as the first big blockbuster to usher in this return to business.  Unfortunately, movie theaters are still not ready to reopen in all parts of the country where hot spots still exist, and sadly, I just happen to live in one of those hot spots.  Movie theaters in the Los Angeles metro area are still closed as of this writing, which made me worry that I would be having to wait weeks and maybe even months before I could see this movie while the rest of the country had already had their opportunity.  But, there has been a silver lining, which is that although LA remains a hot spot, it’s neighboring metropolis to the south, San Diego, is in the process of reopening, including it’s many movie theaters.  For some film enthusiasts, there is a limit to how far one will travel in order to see a movie, and for me, a 130 mile drive falls under that ceiling.  I decided that it was worth the long trip and I made my way down to sunny San Diego just so I could finally see Tenet at the same time that most of the rest of the country was.  So, did it live up to my lofty expectations and justify the long road trip that I took.  Well, yes and no.

I will say that my overall reaction to the movie is a positive one.  I would say that I don’t feel like I wasted my time and effort to travel down to  San Diego just to watch this movie.  At the same time, I do acknowledge that as far as movies within Christopher Nolan’s filmography go, I would’ve felt more satisfied with the risks if it had been for Inception, The Dark Knight, or DunkirkTenet is a massive spectacle that certainly needs to be experienced on the big screen to be fully appreciated.  At the same time, it also is probably the flimsiest story that Nolan has ever constructed for any of his movies.  Tenet is very plot heavy, and as a result, it has to rely upon excessive amounts of exposition just to make everything make sense for the viewer.  In the process, it sacrifices other important narrative elements like character development and emotional resonance.  It’s like Nolan spent so much time trying to make all the pieces of his intricate puzzle of a movie fall into place in a way that made sense while writing the screenplay that he forgot to add all the other important things that should belong in the story.  As a result, there is a bit of coldness to the story that may alienate the film from some viewers.  But, that being said, what Nolan lacks in emotional resonance he makes up for in daring visual extravagance.  Sometimes he has fallen in the trap of doing the exact opposite and relying too heavily on emotion to carry the story.  That’s why I liked Tenet over Interstellar for example.  Nolan injected too much emotion into that story to the point where it became sappy and inauthentic, despite delivering some incredible visual complexity at the same time.  Tenet is cold, but it’s also a thrilling adrenaline rush that kept me engaged all the way through.  It does pick up in the second half of the movie, where all the pieces do come into place and things start to make more sense.  But, I can see the slow burn of the first half as a being a make or break point for many viewers, and Tenet will likely be the most polarizing film he’s made to date.

One thing that helped me get through some of the more lackluster parts of the movie was in recognizing what Nolan was actually trying to accomplish with this movie.  Though Nolan is working with some very heavy, philosophical themes and out-of-this-world concepts, he’s also making what is essentially a very standard genre film too.  In particular, he’s making an espionage thriller, bearing the marks of a lot of tropes within the genre.  There is a very not so uncanny resemblance between Tenet and the likes of films from the James Bond franchise; much less a parody as a homage of sorts.  If you’re going to borrow inspiration, borrow from the gold standard I say.  Tenet has all the makings of a Bond film, but through Nolan’s unique vision.  As a result, I was able to go along with the movie in it’s more languid first act, because I anticipated that it was all going to lead to something pretty grand by the end, which it did.  And Nolan certainly makes his movies with an eye for what will look best through the lenses of the IMAX cameras.  Whether it something on a grand scale like a 747 airplane crashing into a storage warehouse, or something more intimate like a hallway fight scene between two characters, one moving through inverted time, he captures it with an incredible cinematic flair that is unparalleled in Hollywood.  And like the Bond movies he’s emulating, Nolan also does some incredible globe-trotting photography for his many locations.  The way that he crafted the inverted time environments are also pretty incredible, especially considering that much of it was done with very little digital touch-up.  Once the characters do enter inverted time, it does take the movie into surreal territory, which changes the whole dynamic of the movie in a positive way from it’s more straightforward set-up.  Working again with with the same cinematographer of Interstellar and Dunkirk (Hoyte Van Hoytema), Nolan has managed to craft a movie that still feels akin to his previous work, but also unique enough in it’s own right to stand out.

Another great thing about the movie is just how solid the cast is.  Albeit, their characters are written as pretty flimsy compared to those from other Nolan films, but the cast makes up for that with strong, engaging performances.  In particular, John David Washington carries the weight of the movie perfectly on his shoulders.  His character is such a blank slate on the script that Nolan didn’t even bother to give him a name, just merely calling him the Protagonist.  And yet, Washington stands out by giving a wonderfully charismatic performance.  He can be charming, authoritative, and even vulnerable throughout the film, and I get the feeling that Nolan left much of the development of the character up to the interpretation of the actor who plays him, and thankfully Washington brought a lot of talent into the role.  He’s also supported very well by Robert Pattinson in another departure for the heartthrob actor.  Pattinson’s performance feels like a throwback to the roles once played by Peter O’Toole, Robert Harris, or loyal Nolan stand-by Michael Caine (who cameos in Tenet) in the old espionage thrillers of the 1960’s, and he too does stand out as much more likable than he might have been originally written.  Kenneth Branagh gives the movie it’s most over the top performance as a growling, Russian thug, but this too feels at home in a movie like this, and he makes for an effective antagonist to John David Washington’s Protagonist.  There’s also solid work coming from Elizabeth Debicki, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Himesh Patel in their supporting roles.  What I also found rewarding was the pulse-pounding musical score for this film, which in itself marks a departure for Christopher Nolan.  For the first time in nearly 20 years, Nolan is working without his frequent composer Hans Zimmer, who actually turned this down to work on Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune (2020) instead.  So, in his place, Nolan turned to Ludwig Goransson; famous for his Oscar-winning score to Black Panther (2018).  And Goransson actually proved to be capable of filling Zimmer’s big shoes, and create a musical symphony that matches Nolan’s bold vision perfectly.

It may not be among my favorite of Christopher Nolan’s films, but a B-grade Nolan movie is still far better than most other movies out there.  Nolan may have become a victim of his own success, in that he has to hit one out of the park every time in order to maintain his reputation in Hollywood.  That’s why I think that many may end up being disappointed by Tenet.  It finds the director at his most uneven, particularly at the script level.  And yet at the same time, you can’t also say that he’s lost his touch when it comes to crafting mind-blowing scale within his movies either.  Though it may lack some narrative punch, Tenet may also be the director’s most ambitious movie to date, which is saying a lot.  He really is pushing the envelope in a way you see from few directors in the business, and I am happy to see that he’s continuing to build his artistic vision around more and more original concepts.  He’s working within a familiar genre, yes, but doing so in a way that you’ve never seen before.  Honestly, I don’t think anyone has ever seen a movie that utilizes the different flows of time the same way we see here.  I think that Tenet is going to see a lot of repeat viewing from people wanting to see all the things they missed the first time around.  That could be the key to Tenet finding success on the big screen, but that’ll all depend on the kind of access audiences will have to endure during this ongoing pandemic.  For me, I may not have understood all of it, and may have found some of the movie lacking in certain aspects, but I am glad that I managed to see it at all, and in a movie theater setting no less.  Part of my enjoyment certainly came from being able to sit in a theater seat again, after having missed out on it for 6 months.  There really is no replacement for the theatrical experience, and I hope that it comes roaring back soon.  I would absolutely go see this movie again, if it were closer to home.  Hopefully I can see it in the even better 70mm IMAX format when it comes to LA finally.  When that happens, or if you are already near an open theater, obey the guidelines and wear a mask.  Tenet is flawed, but it is still an enjoyable ride nonetheless, and a great reminder of why we need to keep the theatrical experience going.

Rating: 8.5/10

The New Mutants – Review

Few movies have had the kind of roller coaster like roll out that The New Mutants has had.  After years of delays, cancellations, and speculation as to if it ever was going to be seen at all, Mutants has finally made it into theaters and on PVOD this weekend.  So, why did it take so long?  A lot of factors have led us here.  The movie is based on a spin-off comic from the X-Men franchise, created by comic writers Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod.  It was green-lit in 2015 by 20th Century Fox studios, with Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars) attached to write and direct.  The production was intended to branch off from the main X-Men movie franchise, taking a decidedly darker and more horror like tone, which is in line with the comic itself.  The production wrapped filming in 2017, with an intended release date set for Summer 2018.  And then something happened that I’m sure no one involved with the film probably ever expected.  Fox was suddenly put up for sale, which caused a major disruption in the release calendar for the studio.   And when Disney emerged as the victor in the bidding war for the legendary studio, this made it extra awkward for The New Mutants, because it’s very existence conflicts with the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe plans.  Fox had been holding onto the rights to their Marvel properties throughout the 2010’s and were attempting to compete with Marvel Studios with their own franchise plans with the characters they had.  With Fox and Disney now part of the same company, Fox’s haphazard attempt at franchise building now seemed superfluous and pointless.  The X-Men franchise as we knew it was pretty much over, and whatever movies were left in the pipeline were basically just going to be epilogues to a now dead series, waiting for it’s inevitable re-imagining under Marvel’s guidance.

But, with The New Mutants already complete and ready to launch, some held out hope that it might still be given a chance to stand out on it’s own, separate from it’s place within Fox’s X-Men franchise.  Unfortunately for it, the last X-Men film, Dark Phoenix (2019), crashed and burned at the box office and was blasted by critics.  This came at a point where New Mutants was already pushed back by last minute re-shoots, presumably to film a new ending for the movie.  After Dark Phoenix‘s problems emerged, Mutants was pushed back again, going from a Summer 2019 to Spring of 2020, a full two years after the movie was originally supposed to be released.  Some were even speculating that Disney may have ended up deciding to dump the movie off on demand or on Disney+, instead of letting it play in theaters.  But, for a while earlier this year, it actually looked like the movie would finally see the light of day.  And then the pandemic happened.  New Mutants, like so many other films this year (big and small), was scuttled off of it’s April release date and was at one point not even on the calendar at all.  Without a set release date, many believed that this was indeed the final nail in the coffin for this horribly unlucky film.  But, to everyone’s surprise, Disney still committed to a theatrical release of the film.  Who know’s why, especially after deciding to put Mulan (2020) on Disney+.  Maybe it was a strange clause left in as part of the Fox merger, but there’s no definitive answer.  Despite many pockets of the pandemic still raging on in parts of the country, movie theaters are beginning to slowly re-open with strict social distancing protocols.  And to everyone’s surprise, The New Mutants is going to be one of the first movies to mark the return to theaters, with the potential of being the first box office hit of the reopening era.  The only question is, was it worth all the wait and trouble to get here?

The story begins with a young Native American girl named Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) finding her reservation community under attack by a monster of unknown origin.  She looses her father (Adam Beach) in the attack and later is knocked unconscious.  When she wakes up, she finds herself in a gloomy looking hospital, where she meets Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga).  Dr. Reyes informs Dani that she has been brought to this hospital because when she was discovered after the attack, it was shown that she possessed mutant powers, similar to the X-Men.  However, Dani is told that her powers are far too powerful and dangerous at the moment, and that she’s been brought to the hospital for safety reasons and also to help her learn how to control it.  At first Dani is skeptical of her new home, but once she begins to interact with the other teenage mutants on the compound, she feels less afraid.  The other “new mutants” include Raine Sinclair (Maisie Williams) who can transform herself into a wolf; Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), who is able to launch his body like a rocket, but hasn’t learned how to land; Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who can teleport and also summon weapons from her own body; and also Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga) who can set his whole body on fire.  Each of them has had a traumatic experience involving their powers just like Dani, which has brought them to this facility in the hopes of improving or even “curing” their powers.  However, the forces behind Dr. Reyes’ research may have other plans for the new mutants, and it be far more sinister that previously thought.  And pretty soon, the silent tranquility of the compound is broken by the arrival of the same mysterious beast that attacked Dani’s reservation; a massive Demon Bear.

So, how is this movie going to fare during a pandemic?  It depends on where it’s playing.  It will almost certainly not perform as well as it normally would under normal circumstances, but at the same time, the movie has garnered attention for it’s troubled history, which may drive curiosity up for it that it otherwise would’ve not had.  The movie is playing on screens in theaters in as many as 44 states that have since lifted their shut downs and allowed theaters to reopen.  However, I unfortunately live in a state (California) that is still on lock-down and has yet to allow theater re-openings.  It’s still a situation that I can support, because health of the customer must come first and foremost, but also disappointing because I do miss going to a movie theater and enjoying movies the way they were meant to be seen, especially when other places are already making that possible.  Disney has made The New Mutants available on VOD rental services, but I felt that I still needed to watch it on a big screen in order to really judge it properly.  Thankfully, there was one screen in the whole of the Los Angeles metro area that had New Mutants playing on it; at the Mission Tiki Drive-In in Montclair, CA, which I previously spotlighted here.   Drive-In theaters have been a godsend for me during this pandemic, as they have allowed me to still enjoy a big screen experience without having to suffer the health risks.  The choices of films have been slim, but when one I’m interested in comes available at these facilities, I will gladly choose it over video on demand any day.  I will say, watching the movie there was a great choice because there is something magical about watching a movie under the moon and stars.  The only question is, was the movie itself worth it.  Sad to say, not really.  My feelings overall about The New Mutants are a mixed bag, but the worst thing I can say about it is that it’s just generic and mediocre.

Overall, I would say that The New Mutants is not the worst thing I have seen from a super hero movie, and definitely no where near the worst that I’ve seen from the now defunct Fox X-Men franchise.  Dark Phoenix was just an embarrassment for the once proud franchise, and a terrible note to go out on.  The best thing that New Mutants does is that it closes the door on this version of the X-Men series with a less sour finale.  But apart from that, there isn’t much else to say that’s positive.  It’s more competently made than Dark Phoenix, but still unfocused when it comes to tone and character.  For a movie that was trying to put a horror spin on the X-Men universe, it’s not a particularly scary movie.  It’s clear that something went wrong during the production of the movie, whether it was studio interference or just a lack of vision on the director’s part.  Josh Boone emerged as a filmmaker with a surprise hit in the doomed romance movie that was The Fault in Our Stars.  For him to go from that to the pseudo-horror of New Mutants seemed like a bit of a stretch, and it turns out that ended up being the case.  Boone just borrows wholesale from other claustrophobic horror movies and just ends up making it feel cliche as a result.  I’ve seen many of these same tropes work better in other movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), IT (2017), and even One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) which this movie also borrows heavily from.  And it becomes very clear that the last minute re-shoots were done in part to dilute the horror elements and make the movie more like a standard Marvel action movie, particularly in it’s final act.  You’ll be spending most of the time watching this movie thinking about better films of it’s genre, and that’s never something you want a movie to be doing while you watch it.  That being said, it’s blandness in some ways shields it from being anything worse.  Like I said, Dark Phoenix not only failed, it failed on an almost legendarily bad way.  New Mutants doesn’t warrant the same kind of notorious reputation.  It’s just good enough to be passable and just bad enough to be forgettable.

One of the things that really defines the mixed results of the movie can definitely be found in it’s cast.  One thing that I do appreciate about the movie is that it keeps things very simple.  The cast in this movie is actually quite small for a franchise film, and it allows the movie to better use it’s time to establish each character without losing them within the shuffle.  The only problem is, the lack of direction on these actors is very apparent.  There is a ton of overacting clashing with under-acting between each performance, and it leads to a fairly uneven ensemble throughout the movie.  I’ll say that one of the bright spots of the movie is newcomer Blu Hunt in the role of Dani Moonstar.  She manages to keep the character engaging enough as the protagonist to keep us interested in her story.  I also like the performance of Alice Braga as Dr. Reyes, who manages to fill the antagonistic role well enough without taking it over the top.  The best performance overall I would say comes from Stranger Things’ Charlie Heaton, who manages to perfect a believable Kentucky fried accent in his performance as Sam Guthrie, giving you no indication of his real British accent underneath.  The same can’t be said about the other Brits in the cast.  I believe that Maisie Williams is attempting to do a Scottish accent as Raine Sinclair, but it slips constantly throughout the film.  And Anya Taylor-Joy’s attempt at a Russian accent is just laughable.  And it’s a shame, because I’ve seen these two actresses do so much better in other roles; especially with Maisie Williams whose understated performance here is such a far cry from her beloved work on Game of Thrones.  For the most part, these distracting attempts at different accents take away from the potential character development that these actors might have been able to pull off.  And the movie doesn’t do them any favors either with some poorly edited scenes that are meant to build the characters’ relationships together.

The movie also is visually rather bland.  I’ll give the movie credit for keeping things simple, with a single location used for most of the movie.  But, when it gets to the point where the movie needs to bring out some visual effects, it becomes clear just how neglected this movie was overall.  The visual effects in this movie are pretty bad, and definitely not up to the standard that you’d expect from a movie of this genre.  Every creature that manifests in the movie looks like it jumped out of a video game, and doesn’t feel natural at all.  At other points, like when Sam Guthrie attempts to practice his rocket launching powers, the movie literally makes it look like a cartoon; like he’s spinning around like Wile E. Coyote on one of his failed contraptions.  The best effects are the ones that are kept either at a minimum or hidden in the shadows.  The Demon Bear works effectively when you see less of it, but once we finally see him in his full monstrous glory, oh boy does it deflate the tension fast.  The only thing that I think that Josh Boone and his team get close to right is the atmosphere of the film.  The movie is shot in a way that does convey an unsettling mood, even if it doesn’t entirely make it feel creepy.  There is some creativity in the way that the movie executes the feeling of a repressive atmosphere in which these characters live in, like the blank stone walls of each of their cell rooms, and the ever present cameras that stare down on the characters from above.  Indeed, the movie actually does an effective job in it’s first act of not revealing too much right away and allowing the atmosphere to convey to the audience the feeling of oppression and menace into the story.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t live up to that potential, and the longer it goes on the less you feel the movie’s atmosphere working the way it should.

As poorly as the final product has turned out, there’s still a part of me that kind of admires what the movie has accomplished.  It reminds me of those times when you see a track runner either pull a muscle or break an ankle halfway through their race, and yet they pull themselves up and hobble their way to the finish line regardless, just so that they could say they finished it.  It’s those kinds of moments, adversity in a moment of complete disaster, that carry their own kind of inspiration with them.  The New Mutants was a movie that was probably always going to never live up to expectations and was going to be forgotten like so many other disappointments.  And yet, there is something inspiring in how it managed to defy the odds and still get a theatrical release.  The story about this movie’s troubled road to the big screen may far go down as far more legendary than the movie itself.  Despite being caught in the turbulent shuffle of a corporate merger and then once again placed back on the shelf due to a historic pandemic, The New Mutants still managed to make it to the big screen, and that in some way makes it a triumph of perseverance that we can all feel inspired by.  Unfortunately, the movie itself is a mess, and not really warranting of the hype that has surrounded it’s release.  But at the same time, it’s not an embarrassment either.  For a movie that is just a stray remnant of a now defunct franchise, it does work as a better final bow than Dark Phoenix.  Who knows, in time the movie may find a second life as a stand alone oddity, but I think that the movie is a little uneven to warrant that.  As it stands, I’m happy that the movie managed to escape it’s notoriously troubled shelf life and actually make it to the big screen.  A mediocre movie, that surprisingly carved out it’s own inspirational journey that’s far more intriguing than the movie itself.  Will it be the movie that saves movie-going overall?  I doubt it, since there is still a raging pandemic right now, and this is definitely not a movie to spark repeat viewing.  But, the fact that it’s made it to the big screen at all given all the circumstances makes me hopeful that the industry itself is still looking at the theatrical experience as an integral part of the business going forward.  If New Mutants can make it to the finish line, any movie can.

Rating: 6/10

The Movies of Fall 2020 (Hopefully)

When I published my last movie season preview here in April, I knew that it was on the optimistic side and would’ve likely changed over the course of the summer.  Sadly, the worst case scenario played out.  2020 will be a historic year for the film industry, because for the first time in who knows how long, there was no Summer movie season.  Movie theaters remained shuttered for the entirety of what used to be the most profitable period of the year, and only now are some of them (not all) beginning to reopen for business here in America.  Some of my last summer movie preview covered movies that I was hopeful would make it to the big screen on time, and almost all of them failed to meet their original release date, with only Bill & Ted Face the Music (of all movies) actually sticking the landing.  For a movie fan like me who greatly prefers the big screen experience, it’s been a rough couple of months.  Not only am I seeing so many movies I’ve been excited for be pushed back months or even a year away from it’s original date, but some of the studios have just given up and dropped their movies off on streaming services.  I’ve already covered the boom of streaming content plenty during this pandemic, but I will add that my hope is that all these measures taken is just to get us through the crises of the moment, and that things will turn around soon, giving us a chance to return back to normal soon.  I feel bad for the people behind movies like Mulan and Tenet, as they are seeing their films roll-out in a less than desired way.  My hope is that within the months ahead, it will be safe to once again watch movies on the big screen, and that the movies of Fall 2020 don’t see the same disruptions in their roll-out that their Summer cousins endured.  Like my last preview, I am foregoing my usual categories, and instead just spotlighting the most notable movies coming out in the Fall season; hopefully with all of them managing to avoid any postponement.  Anything could change between now and New Years, but hopefully for these movies, we’ll still be enjoying them this Fall season.

DUNE (DECEMBER 18, 2020)

What was already one of the year’s most anticipated new films from the start still remains the most anticipated movie of this holiday season.  Based on Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi novel of the same name, Dune is a grand scale epic that people are hoping will be the movie that brings people back to the big screen in a major way.  Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario, Blade Runner 2049) will undoubtedly bring a bold artistic style to this film, and with major studio backing from Warner Brothers, this movie will almost assuredly demand a big screen presentation just to capture the immensity of it all.  This movie could very well be for science fiction what Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy was for fantasy.  The movie also boasts an impressive all-star cast that includes Timothee Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Jason Mamoa, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Zendaya, and Dave Bautista just to name a few.  For many fans of the book, this movie will also satisfy a long held desire for a faithful adaptation that feels truer to Herbert’s vision, after David Lynch’s failed 1984 version left much to be desired.  It’s going to be interesting if Warner Brothers can pull this off, but you get the sense already that they are hedging their bets.  Nearly 3 months out from the scheduled release date, and we still don’t have a trailer.  That’s unusual for a big movie of this kind, and it makes people wonder if this will be yet another big tent-pole pushed back to 2021.  Hopefully, the pandemic will have died down by Christmas and studios will feel confident in putting this and others like it on a big screen again.  But, without a viable vaccine available in time, and a threat of a second wave, it’s possible that we may have to wait a bit longer for Dune to make it’s big screen debut, if it indeed gets one.  All I can say is if the industry needed a big movie to help boost the theatrical market once again, this would indeed be the movie to do it.

BLACK WIDOW (NOVEMBER 6, 2020)

Marvel’s newest blockbuster was supposed to herald the beginning of the Summer 2020 movie season, as Marvel has done over the last decade on the first week of May.  However, plans changed quickly, and Marvel had to postpone like everyone else; missing out on that traditional slot that has always served them well.  However, unlike most other studios this year, Marvel was actually well positioned to adapt to the delay.  Because they plant their flags so far in advance in anticipation for their upcoming releases, all Marvel had to do was have each of their movies take one step backward to the next available slot.  As a result, Black Widow, which was supposed to come out May 1 is now coming out on November 6 instead, taking over the release date of their next film, The Eternals, which was pushed back to Marvel’s next available date, February 12.  At this point the Marvel brand is so strong that they can make moves like this without hurting their chances at the box office.  Black Panther already showed that they can perform just as well in February as any other time of year, so Eternals is still in a good position.  What also benefits Marvel is that they delay has allowed audiences to build up more of an appetite for a new Marvel movie, with last July’s Spider-Man: Far From Home coming a full year and a half before Black Widow.  That’s good for this new movie, which marks the starting off point for Marvel’s Phase 4 plans.  It will be interesting to see where Agent Natasha Romanoff’s long awaited solo film fits within the ongoing MCU storyline, given what we know of her fate from Avengers: Endgame (2019).   The movie also looks like a fresh departure from past Marvel movies, taking on a more grounded Jason Bourne-esque style and plot.  The inclusion of Black Widow’s “family” of fellow assassins, played by Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour also looks to make this a fun action movie as well.  Can Marvel keep the ball rolling into Phase 4?  Hopefully, we’ll get the chance to see this November.

SOUL (NOVEMBER 20, 2020)

You can always count on Pixar to get movie goers excited about what they have coming up next.  Unfortunately for the studio, they suffered a bad hit right at the start of this pandemic when they’re highly anticipated Spring 2020 release Onward suffered at the box office during it’s brief two week run before theaters started closing.  It failed to cross the $100 million mark, a first for Pixar, and was rushed quickly onto Disney+ in the hopes that it might help the new streamer gain more subscribers.  With the pandemic raging on through the summer, it became clear that Pixar’s second original film of the year, Soul, would not meet it’s June release date and a delay was quickly enacted.  Taking the release date from Disney Animation’s Raya and the Last Dragon (now set for Spring 2021), Soul is hoping to get a chance to bring Pixar back strong at the box office.  This new film comes from Pixar chief Pete Doctor, who has one of the best track records as a director so far at the studio, having made the likes of Monsters Inc. (2001), Up (2009) and Inside Out (2015).  With his fourth film, Doctor is delving into another high concept, which is what makes up a person’s soul.  Here, the story revolves around a jazz musician and music teacher (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who suddenly finds himself in an ethereal realm after an accident, stuck between the afterlife and the place where souls begin before life.  There he meets a soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey), who refuses to join the realm of the living.  It’s the kind of ambitious, multi-layered film that Pixar has built it’s brand around, and my hope is that we will get to see this movie presented beautifully on a big, wide screen.  The trailer gives the indication that this movie will be gorgeous to look at, and hopefully those high Pixar standards bear fruit.  Let’s just hope that the theatrical experience will be able to give us that chance to witness all that beauty in the best way possible.

NO TIME TO DIE (NOVEMBER 20, 2020)

The very first casualty of the 2020 pandemic, this newest entry of the long running James Bond franchise gave us the first real indication of the severity that this pandemic was going to have on Hollywood’s plans for the year.  The movie, marking Daniel Craig’s fifth and final turn as 007, was originally going to be released in April, an unusual time slot for the franchise.  With the delay, it has now moved in a traditional Fall release, which has always been what the Bond franchise has done before, so it seemed a natural move given the circumstances.  But it is interesting that when MGM and Sony moved their massive tent-pole to the Fall, the world had not really fully grasped how bad this pandemic was going to get.  Sure, we already saw China suffer through the outbreak during the winter, but here in North America, it still seemed remote.  The decision to move this film came as a shock, given how close to the release it was.  Tickets had already gone on sale (I bought mine, in fact) and were soon refunded.  But, as we now know, it was only the first domino to fall.  In hindsight, the Bond team did the right thing by postponing the film.  Hopefully, they won’t have to do it again.  This is another movie that definitely demands a big screen presentation, as most Bond movies are.  Considering that Craig is hanging it up as the iconic character after this makes the new movie all the more monumental, and it will help to generate excitement once it’s finally released.  Seeing old faces return, as well as new ones coming in for the first time, like Oscar winner Rami Malek’s enigmatic new villain, will be pleasing to many fans of the franchise.  Let’s hope that the long wait will be worth it, and that Craig’s Bond goes out with a big bang on the big screen.

WONDER WOMAN 1984 (OCTOBER 2, 2020)

You’ve got to hand it to Warner Brothers; they are committed to the theatrical experience for their big tent-pole films.  In addition to Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, they stated that Wonder Woman 1984 would be screened in theaters and they have stuck with that.  Whether or not theaters are going to be ready is another question.  Tenet is already getting a staggered release in markets across the world, with some theaters in North America getting it for the Labor Day weekend, while others in hot spot areas (which sadly includes California, where I live) will have to wait.  Hopefully, when Warner’s next big tent-pole comes out, more theaters will be open to present it.  But, October is readily approaching and it’s hard to say if we are going to be ready.  Having already passed on two Summer release dates, people are hopeful that Wonder Woman 1984 will be able to stick the landing this fall.  The highly anticipated sequel brings back Gal Gadot as the super heroine and the movie looks to deliver on the same blend of high octane action and charming character dynamics that the original 2017 film gave us.  Given the double threat of Pedro Pascal’s Max Lord and Kristen Wiig’s Cheetah, two of Wonder Woman’s biggest foes from the comics, this looks to be a movie that not only builds on the original, but also takes it to new heights.  Hopefully, Warner Brothers and DC’s high expectations are justified with their optimistic release date.  I enjoyed the last film very much, and I too have high hopes for the movie.  This could indeed be the movie that helps to bring movie theaters back to booming business, but given the dangers involved with the ongoing pandemic, it could prove to be a huge risk as well, and it’s asking a lot of the audience to put their health on the line in order to watch this in a theater.  Hopefully, the curve finally flattens before this movie makes it’s debut, but we’ll have to wait and see.

MANK (TBA FALL 2020)

With all this talk of the big tent-pole movies pushed back from the Summer and Spring, we can’t overlook the awards season films that also normally make their way to the silver screen.  The only question is, will they make it to the screen this year.  The entire rest of the 2020 movie calendar could still be in flux, and a lot of the movies put up for Oscar season might not even make it as scheduled.  Given that Academy Awards already decided to push back their deadline for consideration into February, there is less pressure to get these kinds of movies out onto screens before December 31.  Most of the Oscar season movies may now be coming out in January or February at the latest.  There are, however, a few movies vying for Awards consideration that will be released this year, and they are mostly the ones being made by streamers like Netflix.  In fact, Netflix has a few highly anticipated new movies from the likes of Charlie Kaufman, Ron Howard, Aaron Sorkin and maybe even the Coen Brothers if we’re lucky.  But, for me, the one that I’m looking most forward to is David Fincher’s new biopic called Mank.  The movie tells the story of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who co-wrote the film Citizen Kane (1941).  The plot will detail the tumultuous history of that legendary film’s making from the point of view of Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) and show how the pressures put on him from threats by the Hearst Corporation as well Orson Welles (Tom Burke) taking most of the credit, led to a short lived career for the now celebrated writer.  For movie lovers like me, this story is one that will make for a great cinematic experience, especially in Fincher’s hands.  We don’t much about the movie other than it’s cast and that it will be in black and white (a first for Fincher).  I hope that Netflix does screen this somewhere here in LA like they did for last year’s The Irishman (2019).  At least with Netflix behind this one, we know that it will be released without delay.  The only question now is when, and hopefully we get that answer soon and with an exciting trailer to go with it.

It will be interesting to see if these release dates do indeed pan out over the next few months.  I’m hopeful that we’ve gone through the worst of this pandemic and that movie theaters will be able to screen new releases in a safe manner.  That being said, it’s going to be a while before the business will be able to return back to normal.  With the digital only releases of Trolls World Tour, Scoob! and now Mulan, a precedent has been set for how studios can circumvent the movie theater industry with a premium On Demand model for release.  One hopes that it is temporary for the circumstances, but as of right now, the movie theaters need the studios support more than the other way around.  Now of course not every movie is going to benefit from streaming.  Disney suffered a loss by dumping the $140 million Artemis Fowl onto Disney+ instead of delaying it for theaters, but let’s face it, that movie was always doomed to fail, even with theaters open.  But, movie theaters are still in a desperate place, and a lot of hopes are riding on the movies set for this Fall.  Time will only tell what impact the deals the theater industry cut with the major studios, like the controversial one between AMC and Universal, will have on the future of the business.  If anything, this Fall season may be the one that makes or breaks the theatrical market forever.  Hopefully, the movies that I spotlighted here are big enough of a draw to help people return the movies.  I am cautiously optimistic, though I do understand that it will still be a tall order.  One thing that does give me hope is that I hear a lot of people lament about missing being in a theater during this time of year.  Being stuck in a home has run it’s course for many people, and they are eager to get back outside whenever they can.  I can see this whenever I’ve gone to Drive-In theaters here in LA.  They are almost always packed, which is a great sign for the theatrical industry.  It’s hard to know the future, but if what I’ve seen is any indication, the movie theater industry may not nearly as dead as we thought.

The Streaming Summer Games – How the Streaming Race Has Fared in the Stay at Home Era

Under normal circumstances, we would be having a much different experience this summer.  This mid-August week would have seen the closing of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games, which would’ve been a unifying and celebratory event for everyone around the world.  At this point, we would have had an exciting post-Comic Con outlook to get excited about, as the industry would’ve been rolling out all their most exciting news in the mega Summer event.  And at this point, we would have had a robust Summer movie season with the likes of Black WidowWonder Woman 84Tenet, Pixar’s Soul, and many more already in our rear view mirror.  But none of that has happened.  The coronavirus continued to rage on for the entire summer, even hitting it’s peak in July, and that left us with no Olympics, no Comic Con, and no movie season whatsoever.  2020 is almost certainly going to be seen as the “lost year,” with so much in the way of entertainment and sports having been either altered or cancelled outright in the hopes of flattening the curve of the pandemic.  Worse yet, it’s a problem that we still haven’t seen the light at the end of the tunnel with yet.  We know that like most other pandemics it will eventually burn out, but the impact will be felt long after it has subsided.  Movie theaters will forever change, as will sports and fan conventions.  We may never see the box office numbers that were once the life blood of the industry the same way again, and at the very least, it will take several years if not a generation to get it back to where it was during the 2010’s.  And yet, people are still able to find entertainment that has helped them to endure through these hard times, and it’s been through a platform whose development could not have been better timed for the era that we are going through right now.  For the moment we are in right now, streaming has been the life preserver for an industry and an audience that needs fresh and new entertainment.

The year 2020 will be known for quite a lot of things, but it will probably also be known as the year that Streaming came into it’s own as a vital part of the entertainment industry.  With movie theaters, performance venues, and sports arenas all shut down in compliance of the disease control requirements, streaming became more essential for the average household than ever before.  For the last decade, streaming was just a secondary option for anyone wanting to watch something new on television; competing more directly with say cable television than with any other entertainment output.  But, with things the way they are now, people are looking more and more at streaming as the future of entertainment.  With the “Stay at Home” orders coming down hard on many American states at the first outbreak of COVID-19, people were distressed by the fact that it left them with so little options for entertainment.   But with the loss of movie theaters and sports venues came a boom for streaming services.  The streaming market saw a nearly 20% increase in new subscriptions in just the first half of 2020 alone, greatly outpacing even their most optimistic of predictions.  The market leaders, Netflix and Amazon benefited greatly from these market conditions, but the same was also true for the fresh new crop of competitor whose launch over the last year could not have been more opportune, even though it came in the middle of a pandemic.  For some like Disney and Universal, streaming came as a much needed life line to help save them from the struggles of the economic hit that came from the pandemic.  And while the market has given a favorable hand to the streaming newcomers, it hasn’t all been spread out equally.  With this tumultuous and empty summer about to soon come to an end, it’s makes sense to take a look at who the winners and losers are in this Summer of Streaming.

First, we definitely need to examine the strength of these services by the factors that they themselves measure their success.  Chief among them is the rate of new subscribers to their service and the retention rate that they yield over time.  Netflix has managed to build it’s empire through a very high retention of old and new subscribers over it’s decade long history of streaming content.  As a result, they now have nearly 200 million individual accounts that pay the monthly subscription cost, which generates monthly revenue for the company in the billions, which in turn goes into the production of new exclusive content that will help them to grow their subscriber base even further.  This cycle has enabled Netflix to not only compete with the major studios as a formidable producer in it’s own right, but has up to this point also put the theatrical market into a defensive mode.  Amazon, though they operate a bit differently offering their streaming service as an extension of their Prime membership, still has a high retention rate of their viewership, which has firmly put them in second place overall.  But there is also the other marker of success that the streaming market has been making progress within, and that’s in the accolades it receives.  It’s not enough to have a high quantity of viewable content on any given platform; it also matters if it’s quality as well.  That has been the thing that upstart Hulu has proven among it’s bigger competitors.  Despite having launched well before Netflix and Amazon, Hulu’s subscriber base has remained relatively small.  But, they made up for it by making history as the first streamer to have won the top award at the Emmys, taking home Best Drama for The Handmaid’s Tale.  There are certainly several ways in which the newest competitors can tout their achievements, and the one’s shown from Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have proved that.  And given the shake-up that 2020 has made, these factors may end up being the new barometer for success in a very changed industry.

Considering all the factors, new subscribers, high retention, and accolades for the quality of the content, there are certainly some winners in this Summer streaming season.  Of the newest contenders, there is no doubt that Disney+ takes the crown by a significant margin.  Launching last November to much fanfare, Disney+ positioned itself perfectly to not only put itself in strong contention with the streaming giants of Netflix and Amazon, but to also have a strong foothold just in case something crazy and unexpected happened, like say a pandemic.  Once theaters began closing, Disney made the risky but overall right choice to bring their short-lived box office champ Onward (2020) immediately to the platform.  Onward only managed a two week run in theaters before the shutdown, and while it did cost Disney money to cut it’s run short, it did benefit Disney+ with more interest from prospective subscribers.  Couple this with earlier than expected premieres of Frozen II (2019) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) on the platform as well, and Disney+ was generating some much needed buzz for a still relatively new streaming service.  And then they pulled out their ace in the deck; the musical Hamilton.  Originally intended for a theatrical release in 2021, Disney instead opted to launch the much anticipated filmed version of the blockbuster stage musical on Disney+ instead; and on a well timed Fourth of July premiere too.  With this, Disney not only propelled themselves ahead among new streaming competitors, they also gave the top dogs a run for their money.  Hamilton was the most streamed film on any platform this summer, even higher than any Netflix premiere, and by a wide margin.  If streaming is going to challenge the norms of Hollywood distribution in the next decade, it may not be Netflix that leads the charge but Disney given the huge swings they are currently taking, and that’s without having played their Marvel cards just yet.

One thing that has also benefited Disney+ plus thus far is their ratio of value to content at the core of their service.  Their $7 a month price tag is relatively reasonable and perhaps even a bargain given what they already have put on their service.  Not only is every Disney movie ever made available, but also every Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar film, plus a whole host of 20th Century Fox and National Geographic titles as well.  Netflix by comparison has a higher $12 a month base subscription, but their decade long production of original material has helped to back up the value of their service.  Eventually Disney will raise their price once they fill their platform with more original content, but for the meantime, their launch comes at a reasonable rate which has allowed for new subscribers to flock to them quickly, even in the middle of economic hardship.  And for a start-up, that value to cost ratio matters and it probably is what is separating the leaders from the rest of the pack.  This price point in particular is what is holding back what could have been one of the other top contenders from reaching where it should be.  HBO Max, the streaming platform run by Warner Media, has touted itself as the new home for everything under their media umbrella, including Warner Brothers Entertainment, HBO, DC Comics, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network, as well as exclusive rights to Studio Ghibli.  However, while their lineup of content was impressive, their starting price was not; $14.99 a month.  Charging more a month for a platform with very little content than what Netflix has with their huge library, was a hard pill to swallow for many potential subscribers, and in many ways it has been what has prevented it from having a huge start in the market, which has alarmed some in the Warner Media empire.  Still, a last minute deal made with cable giant Comcast has given HBO Max some legs to stand on, but their continued absence from other streaming hardware makers like Roku and Amazon Fire may also dilute any success for them in the future.  For HBO Max’s shaky start, they can only hope that future high profile exclusives like the Snyder Cut of Justice League (2017) can give them the boost they’ll need to gain ground on the likes of Disney, Amazon and Netflix.

It makes you wonder if HBO Max had not made that eleventh hour deal with Comcast that they might have crashed and burned upon release.  It shows that more than anything that succeeding in this new market depends greatly on a good strategy.  Disney benefited from ideal timing and the strength of their catalog, but also being able to improvise in a time of crises has given them the edge they needed to stand out on top.  While HBO Max has had to figure their strategy out in new circumstances, other new platforms are making themselves stand out in other ways.  Apple TV+ launched two weeks prior to Disney+, and did so with lesser fanfare, but also with an entirely different roll-out model.  Apple’s platform runs through their iTunes store, making each of their exclusive content available to purchase separately without a subscription, but also makes this available as well at a bargain rate of $4.99 a month.  The downside is that Apple’s exclusive offerings are the smallest of any of the streamers, but again the smaller monthly price helps to match that value ratio.  In addition, Apple has also given people who have purchased any of their hardware products within the last year a free year long subscription, which is helping to bring people to their service who otherwise would’ve passed it by.  It’s too early to say what their retention rate will be once those free year subscriptions are up, but it nevertheless is a smart strategy for a newly minted service to start out with.  The same could hold true for late comer Peacock.  Launched recently in July, Peacock is taking a very different strategy by offering a sizable chunk of their content for free.  Once potential subscribers sign up for the service, then they are able to watch a number of shows on the platform at no charge, with the remainder available behind a pay wall.  Again, it’s hard to know if this may entice new subscribers to pay more for the premium content, but giving away so much for free at the get go is a smart strategy to entice people to try the service out first; like giving them a test run to see if they like it.  Once Peacock starts offering more exclusives and puts more of it in the premium paywall column, they could likely benefit from all the free subscribers who have enjoyed their service up to that point and find people more willing to pay up.  The times right now favor experimentation when it comes to making a streaming platform work, and for Apple and Peacock, they are experiments that could lead to good things down the line.

But, from what we have seen over the summer, there is certainly one example that will probably stand as a prime example of how not to launch a streaming service.  Poor Quibi almost seemed doomed from the get go.  The pet project of former Dreamworks Animation founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and his chief investor, former Ebay CEO and California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, Quibi was and is an odd little duckling in this streaming battlefield.  Instead of competing with the big studios over challenging the likes of Netflix, Quibi sought to carve out it’s competition against another internet giant; YouTube.  Quibi’s format centers around short 10 minute long videos that are ideally watched on mobile devices; with some shows uniquely formatted to play in a smart phone’s portrait mode.  Though short in length, each show would be given polished production values, and would be produced by some top tier filmmakers with marquee names attached to them.  No doubt Katzenberg was calling in quite a few favors from some of his many Hollywood friends, and there were some interesting projects announced to help launch the service.  The unfortunate thing is Quibi’s very format model does not justify it’s value of a subscription service.  YouTube offers millions of hours of content to for free to anyone who opens up their web page, supporting itself and it’s community of content creators through ad revenue.  No one would want to pay extra to watch something similar to that format, and that is what is at the heart of Quibi’s failure.  Upon launch, Quibi couldn’t muster 1 million subscribers in it’s first week; a number Disney+ achieved in it’s first hour.  And since then, their subscriber base has dwindled more than 80%, leaving the struggling streamer with the smallest overall viewership of any streamer.  Sure, it was a unique angle to take, making what are essentially bigger budget YouTube videos, but it does not justify the cost of Quibi’s subscription value, and as of right now, Katzenberg’s baby is sadly on life support.  Nobody wants to be a cautionary tale, but Quibi may indeed be what we look back on as the model for exactly the wrong way to build a streaming service.

It will be interesting to see what the competition that this summer has brought to the streaming wars will create for us in the years ahead.  Disney is certainly happy to see their streaming platform become a huge success, especially when all the other divisions of their company are suffering during this pandemic.  The upcoming experiment with Mulan on premium VOD will be yet another monumental movement by Disney+ that may change the film industry even more in the future.  And though HBO Max, Peacock, and Apple TV+ are all growing their viewership much more slowly, their experimentation may pan out in the years ahead as well; perhaps even putting them in contention with the industry leaders.  The only certain thing right now is that Quibi is not very likely to last long in this market.  If they couldn’t make their move in a period of time where streaming was the only game in town, then there is little hope for their future.  They’ll likely end up on the ash heap of other failed industry experiments like MoviePass, with their assets likely sold off to each of their competitors.  And let’s not forget, Netflix and Amazon continue to grow as well with this ever expanding market.  Netflix enjoyed it’s best quarter ever in fact, with all the people waiting on the fence finally diving fully in once the loss of the movie theater business made streaming more essential than ever.  At this point, we are learning what it takes to make the best moves in an industry that is rapidly changing.  When many of these streamers set out to launch themselves over the course of the last year, I’m sure that none of them thought that their value would be so needed so soon.  And as a result, we are seeing what could be the start of the new power base for the future of the industry; especially if the theatrical market fails to recover from this pandemic.  Some are winning and some are losing, but the race to the top is a long game, and it’ll be interesting to see what each streaming services pulls out of their sleeves in the years ahead, hopefully in a more stable world than we live in now.