All posts by James Humphreys

Solo: A Star Wars Story – Review

If there was ever a character from the intergalactic pantheon of personalities brought out of the mind of George Lucas that has taken on a whole life of his own beyond the movies, it would be Han Solo.  The rogue smuggler is undeniably one of the series most beloved characters, and that’s largely due to the fact that he’s one of the more relatable.  He has no special powers, he doesn’t come from royalty, he’s not destined to be the savior of all good things.  He’s a man just caught up in a situation far bigger than himself, and he uses his cunning and charisma to help him get through it all.  This helps to make him not only a standout hero in the beloved series, but also one of the most admired.  Many Star Wars fans look up to Han and use him as a role model.  You’ll find him to be a favorite in cosplaying at conventions all around the world, and his lines from the movie are often the ones most widely quoted in everyday life.  He’s also been the point for many arguments about the integrity of the franchise, as the infamous “Han shot first” debate will tell you.  But, that same passionate fandom has also made Han Solo one of the more elusive characters in the franchise, as few have been willing to tackle the character further, unless the character gets the full respect he seems to deserve.  That’s why you got nary a mention of him in the prequel trilogy, since George Lucas was not willing to open up that segment of his franchise to more scrutiny, and his inclusion in The Force Awakens (2015) had to be dealt in the most delicate of ways, and with the full participation of his original actor, Harrison Ford.  But, with the Star Wars franchise branching out beyond it’s main saga into untold stories set within the same universe, the time seems to be right now to finally delve into Han Solo’s backstory and give him a long awaited movie that’s all his own.

Though the character was the brain child of Star Wars creator George Lucas, Han Solo really didn’t become fully defined until the release of The Empire Strikes Back (1980), which was written by a fresh young writer named Lawrence Kasdan.  Kasdan is often credited for finding the soul of the character, turning him into more than just a hot shot pilot with a blaster at his side.  We see in Empire that Han believes in more than just himself, that he willingly will put himself in harms way if it means someone else lives another day and saves the world.  He even shows a romantic side, while at the same time being true to himself (“I love you.” “I know.”)  That same intuitiveness with regards to the character made Lawrence Kasdan almost a necessity when Disney relaunched the franchise with Force Awakens, as that film centered very heavily on Han Solo’s ongoing story, and ultimately his departure.  Working with J.J. Abrams on the script, Kasdan and Harrison Ford finally gave Han Solo the heroic finale that they had long wanted and George Lucas always denied them.  Of the many things that made The Force Awakens a wonderful cinematic experience, Han Solo was certainly one of the highlights and it was great seeing the iconic character back in true form once again.  But, it soon appeared that Lawrence Kasdan wasn’t done telling Han’s story.  Not long after, it was announced that Kasdan was working on a script for a Han Solo movie.  It’s fitting seeing as he already showed us how Han’s story ends, the next logical step was to show where his story began.  Unfortunately, the film experienced the most turbulent of developments in this franchise’s revival, with original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie) being fired halfway through, later replaced by Ron Howard.  This led many to believe that this would be the stumbling block for the revitalized Star Wars franchise, and potentially one of the most disastrous blockbusters in recent memory.   Are the doomsayers right, or did the movie make a death-defying escape just like it’s namesake hero.

The story takes place in the early years of the newly formed Galactic Empire.  The planet Corellia has become a factory base for all the war machines that the Empire is using to spread their power and influence across the galaxy.  On this industrial planet we meet a young thief named Han (Alden Ehrenreich), who steals a rare and expensive substance named coaxium as a means to help buy his way off the planet.  Along with his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), they make their way with the coaxium to the nearest space port, but are separated once they are discovered by imperial forces and arrested by Stormtroopers.  Han narrowly manages to escape, but his only means of getting out alive is to enlist in the Imperial army.  Several years of combat later, Han meets a band of mercenaries who intend to run off with military goods that’ll help them on their high target looting missions.  Han wants to join them but is denied and labeled a deserter by the army officials.  His sentence is to be eaten alive by the army’s trapped “beast.”  The beast turns out to be a Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotomo), who Han manages to bond with because of his understanding of the Wookie dialect.  Having a Wookie by his side gets the mercenaries to change their mind about Han and he joins their crew.  Soon, Han gets to know the team, including Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), and Rio Durant (Jon Favreau).  A mission to steal a whole shipment of coaxium fails and leaves Tobias in a precarious situation with his client, crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), but Han suggests stealing un-enriched coaxium right from the source on a mining planet called Kessel.  The only problem is that they need a ship fast enough to make the run quickly and underneath the suspicion of the Empire.  A smooth-talking gambler named Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) has just the ship they need called the Millennium Falcon, and the mission is a go.  But, the question arises whether or not Han is able to trust those around him, and who in the end is really his friend or his enemy.

Like I stated before, Solo: A Star Wars Story comes into theaters under a heavy amount of scrutiny.  Lucasfilm managed to steer a troubled production before with the film Rogue One (2016) and that movie ended up making half a billion domestically alone.  But considering that directors Lord and Miller were shown the door only a year out from the film’s scheduled Memorial Day Weekend 2018 release date made many people wonder if the whole Star Wars brand was a high speed train dangerously heading down a track that hadn’t been fully laid yet.  That’s the baggage that Solo makes it’s way to the big screen with and the question is, did Lucasfilm and Disney manage to save this production from disaster and make it a worthwhile addition to the franchise.  Well, the answer is yes, and no.  First of all, I can safely say that this is by no means the movie that is going to ruin Star Wars forever.  On the whole, it works very well as an action film, and the story does feel cohesive and not at all chaotic, even despite the dramatic eleventh hour change in direction.  At the same time, I do have to say that it is the weakest movie that we’ve seen from the most recent slate of Star Wars films.  It lacks the enchantment of Force Awakens, the grittiness of Rogue One, and the unpredictability of The Last Jedi (2017).  It’s the one Star Wars film that feels the most like a product of franchise building.  It’s not a terrible product, just one that feels unremarkable compared to the rest.   But then again, it could have been a whole lot worse.  Frankly, I found that the movie worked best in the moments that made you forget you were watching a Star Wars film, and instead just allowed the plot and the characters to exist on their own.  Every time the movie stopped to remind us something about Star Wars lore, or spotlight a legendary moment in the life of it’s hero Han Solo, it would rob the movie of some of it’s momentum.  Essentially, Solo is a story about the criminal underworld in the same vein as something like the works of director Guy Ritchie, and when it was in that mode, I was engaged.  But when the shifted to talk about the Empire and Rebellion, then it started to lose me.

I give a lot of credit to director Ron Howard for guiding this movie through a rough production and helping to salvage what could have been a disaster.  Lord & Miller are by no means bad directors, but it was apparent that their vision was not going to work in this franchise.  There is two much at stake for Lucasfilm and Disney to steer too far from the formula that has worked so well for the franchise so far, and the duo’s more satirical style may have been too much of a risk, especially after the fallout from Rian Johnson’s bold decisions in The Last Jedi.  So, that’s why Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy had to make the tough decision that she did, and I for one commend her for taking such a dramatic action.  Ron Howard may be seen as too safe a choice by some as a replacement, but the one thing that Howard does bring is a strong sense of professionalism to the whole thing.  His workmanship has resulted in generally good working environments on set, in which he has made both cast and crew happy to be working with him.  Though his output is inconsistent, ranging from great movies (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon) to terrible ones (The Grinch, Far and Away, all the DaVinci Code films), he still is a highly respectable filmmaker, and that’s the kind of thing you needed to calm a troubled production like this.  In many ways, I think his more restrained vision was better suited for Lawrence Kasdan’s straight-forward script (which he co-wrote with his son Jonathan), helping to bring out those things in the script that I found more appealing overall.  I think Lord & Miller might have reminded us too much that we were watching a Star Wars movie.  Howard found the story that can stand well enough on it’s own separate from it’s place in the franchise.  That being said, Ron Howard’s input isn’t terribly exciting either, and it’s more geared towards fulfilling an obligation of the story rather than surprising it’s audience.  But, like I said before, it could have been worse.

One of the movie’s saving graces surprisingly is the one thing that had most people worried going into this film, which is the casting of Alden Ehrenreich in the lead role.  When it was announced that Alden was playing the role, both fans and critics took issue.  He looks nothing like Harrison Ford, nor does he sound like him either.  Rumors of Alden having to take acting lessons and working with a dialect coach all throughout production also didn’t help and it appeared that many were expecting to blame him very much for this movie’s failure.  But, I can assure you that he not only gives a fine performance in the movie, but he manages to carry much of the film quite effectively as well.  Yes, he isn’t anywhere the same as Harrison Ford in the role, but I found that refreshing as Alden made the character more of his own, and didn’t attempt to emulate Ford’s performance too much.  Sure, he plays with the same cocky, devil-may-care attitude, but it’s perfectly in tune to what this character would have been like in this point of his life, before the events of the future would shape him further.  If Alden had tried to imitate Harrison Ford too much, I feel like his performance would have suffered, and it would have taken me right out of the movie.  Again, when the movie doesn’t remind me too much that I’m watching a part of a larger narrative, I felt more engaged, and Alden’s take on Han Solo really helped to make that possible.  He’s also supported by a very able cast.  Donald Glover’s Lando likewise manages to give his iconic character a worthwhile portrayal; full of the same sly charm that Billy Dee Williams brought to the role, but again still making it his own.  I also liked Paul Bettany’s unconventional villain in Dryden Vos.  It’s nice to see a Star Wars antagonist that’s just a common criminal for once, and not an all powerful Sith lord.  Strangely, another problem with the movie is the exact opposite of the problem I found with Rogue One.  Where that movie had weak lead characters and an incredible supporting cast, this movie has a weak supporting cast around a strong lead.  As much as Han and Lando worked well in the movie (and Chewy too), the remaining new characters all felt a little thinly drawn and uninteresting, despite capable performances from the likes of Woody Harrelson and Emilia Clarke.  I guess when it came to the one that mattered (Han) the movie did do an excellent job, but not much else stands out.

The movie is also a mixed bag in the visuals department.  Chalk this one up to the shift in direction that the movie faced.  You can tell that the movie gave up on delivering the wow factor in it’s visual presentation of the world of Star Wars.  Instead, the locales and stylings are much more basic and not intended to draw the audiences attention in the same way other movies in the franchise have.  There are moments that do stand out, like the image of a Star Destroyer passing through a narrow tunnel in a massive dust cloud or the decadent trappings of Dryden Vos’ personal space yacht.    But essentially, this is a movie more concerned with giving us a story rather building onto a world.  One thing I do appreciate is that it does bring a sense of the lived in world that made the franchise a stand out in the first place.  What made the original trilogy so memorable was that it took the glossy sheen off of the Science Fiction genre, and presented a grungier view of the intergalactic.  I love the fact that the most legendary space ship ever shown on screen, the Millennium Falcon, is first looked at as a piece of junk, showing that greatness comes not in appearance, but rather in how valuable that ship has been in life-changing situations.  A piece of junk can alter the course of history.  And I won’t lie, there is some nostalgic joy in watching Han Solo take command of the Falcon for the first time in this movie.  Apart from the reverence this movie shows in the origins of the legendary Falcon, the remainder of the movie remains fairly low key.  Perhaps the original vision for the movie called for more visual flair, but it was probably the thing that clashed too much with the story and made the whole thing feel too out of character with the franchise.  What we end up with is a compromised vision that serves a purpose, but at the same time feels safe.  It will remain to be seen if Star Wars does try something unusual in the future, but this was clearly not the movie where it was going to happen.

So, what we ended up with is an underwhelming film in the sense of it’s place within the most lucrative franchise in movie history, but still an overall decent action thriller.  I for one feel that this was the best we could have gotten out of this film considering all the chaos it went through in it’s production.  How different it could have turned out if it had a more streamlined development, we may never quite no.  Lawrence Kasdan’s mark on the character of Han Solo is still undeniable, and I love the fact that he has built this unconventional mythology around this character all on his own parallel to the world building that George Lucas was doing with the rest of this galaxy.  While George Lucas was building a mythology, Kasdan was crafting a legend, and the new movie Solo is another chapter in this saga.  I’d say that you can look at Solo, Empire, and Force Awakens as an unofficial trilogy around the legend of Han Solo, showing the key points in his life where he finds his calling, when he discovers his true devotion, and where he chooses to make his final stand.  In the end, I can say that Solo does do the character justice even if it does little else for the universe around him.  I did like Han Solo a great deal in this movie, which is a true testament to the effectiveness of Alden Ehrenreich’s performance, and if the true intention of this movie was to show that Han can carry a film all on his own,  then I say that it was a success.  But, Star Wars is at a point where the stakes have been raised and being passable isn’t going to cut it for a while.  The movie underwhelms in comparison to it’s loftier brethren, and that’s partly to blame on the last minute heel turn it had to make.  Solo is probably forever going to represent a cautionary tale for Hollywood about not getting too far ahead of oneself in pursuit of box office glory.  It will remain to be seen if Kathleen Kennedy made the right choice or not to make such a dramatic change late in the game.  For the most part, Ron Howard and company managed to turn out something okay in the end, and it is by no means a disaster, nor the worst thing to ever happen to the Star Wars brand.  For now, Solo may look disappointing, but in time, we may look at it for what it is which is a pretty good action movie with a charming hero at it’s center.  I have a good feeling about this.

Rating: 7.5/10

Deadpool 2 – Review

Well, here we are again.  After surprising the entire world with his electrifying box office returns in the early weeks of 2016, the “Merc with the Mouth” is back once again to rip apart our funny bones on the big screen.  The road to bring Deadpool to cinemas nationwide was not an easy one in the first place.  After many years of pitches and non-starters, it seemed like no one was wiling to invest in an R-rated super hero flick with a demented sense of humor.  The character himself was significantly undervalued among studio execs, who just saw him as a sideshow in a larger franchise, namely the X-Men one that was put out by Fox.  As a result, Deadpool’s first ever screen appearance came in the form of a character that in no way represented what was on the page in the much maligned film X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), and is often seen by comic book aficionados as the worst comic to screen translation ever.  But, what arose out of this adaptation disaster was a surprising champion for the beloved character.  The actor who portrayed Deadpool in the film, Ryan Reynolds, recognized that the character deserved better and he took it upon himself to fight for a movie that did justice to the source.  He worked closely with screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick for years trying to craft the movie that they wanted for the character and Reynolds spent years trying to pitch the project to Fox executives, but to no avail.  It wasn’t until leaked footage of a screen test made it online and got an enormous response from fans that Fox eventually relented and granted Reynolds and company a modest budget to work their magic with, and that they did.  Not only did the movie please fans of the comics, but it enjoyed enormous cross-over appeal, making it one of the highest grossing comic book movies ever, and easily the biggest hit of the genre that Fox had ever seen, eclipsing their own X-Men films.

Naturally, when a movie lands as well as Deadpool did, you just know that a sequel inevitably had to follow, and the filmmakers didn’t waste a second either.  This time around, they have a far more substantial budget to work with, now that Fox no longer is squeamish about R-rated super hero flicks, and seemingly unlimited free reign to do whatever they want.  The one downside to getting more of what you wanted is that it might overwhelm and undermine what worked so well before.  During the process of making the sequel, it seemed like the franchise was indicating very directly that they were about to go in a different direction.  Director Tim Miller left the project due to creative differences, and Ryan Reynolds assumed more creative control this time around, even contributing much more of his voice to the screenplay itself.  Oftentimes for franchises to survive, creative shuffling like these are mostly necessary, but sometimes too much meddling behind the scenes can mess up the formula too much and ruin the conditions that made the original such a phenomenon in the first place.  Movies like Ghostbusters (1984), Ace Ventura (1994) and The Hangover (2009) have all proved that comedies are a hard thing to franchise, and that usually the only way for movies like them to work is to exist completely in untried territory.  But, Deadpool is a child of two genres, and one is far more reliant on franchises than the other, and in general, it would be foolish on the filmmakers part not to take the opportunity while they have it.  So, in a short 2 years since the first movie made a huge splash, Deadpool 2 arrives in theaters at a time when the genre is hitting another peak, especially on the Marvel front.  Is this movie another brilliant lampoon of the super hero genre like the first movie, or does it end up like most comedy sequels and spoils the laughs by having too much of a good thing.

The movie picks up more or less where the original left off.  Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) is enjoying the life of a mercenary, with his regenerative powers keeping him near indestructible.  But when tragedy hits close to home, and he loses the love of his life, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), Deadpool falls into a deep depression.  Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) of the X-Men reaches out to him, hoping to bring Deadpool out of his funk by making him a trainee for the super team.  On one particular mission, Deadpool, Colossus and Neagsonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) arrive at a shelter for troubled and orphaned youth with mutant powers, where one volitile resident named Russell (Julian Dennison) is wrecking havoc.  Deadpool recognizes that the tortured boy is lashing out at the shelter’s staff because of abuse he’s received there by them, and it causes him to loose his cool and attack the wrong people.  This results in both Deadpool and Russell being sent to a maximum security prison for mutants known as the Icebox, where collars neutralize their powers, causing Deadpool’s dormant cancer to flame up again.  Meanwhile, a cyborg enhanced mutant of the future  named Cable (Josh Brolin) travels back in time with the intent of killing someone in the past who took everything from him.  He arrives at the Icebox and pursues the boy Russell, while Deadpool tries his best to get in his way.  After making it out of prison, Deadpool sets out to free Russell himself along with help from other mutants.  Among them is Bedlam (Terry Crews), Shatterstar (Lewis Tan), Zeitgeist (Bill Skarsgard), Vanisher (secret cameo), and Domino (Zazie Beetz), whose super power of luck is something that Deadpool has a hard time of conceiving.  Together they form a new super team known as the X-Force, but the question remains if they are any match for the extra powerful Cable, and is Deadpool on a “death wish” crusade that not only will leave him jeopardized but many others as well?

When judging the merits of a comedy or a super hero flick, it usually differs significantly based on the rules that apply.  Super hero flicks tend to be more scrutinized because there are so many expectations put on them based on the source materials that they are trying to adapt.  Comedies on the other hand are judged based on how well they made us laugh.  Deadpool 2 faces critical judgment based on both due to it’s bridging of both genres and considering both angles, I say that it does the job pretty well for what it set out to do.  First and foremost, it is an entertaining ride.  I laughed out loud many times while watching the movie, most frequently at the points in the movie where Deadpool takes knowing shots at other films in the super hero genre.  But, like most of the great spoofs and parodies done on the big screen over the years, Deadpool 2 understands what genre it’s in and does it’s best to honor that tradition while at the time ripping it apart.  When Mel Brooks made Blazing Saddles (1974) he put in the work to make it look and feel like an authentic Western.  The team of Zucker/Abrahams likewise did the same with their Naked Gun movies.  Reynolds & Co. know that their movie needed to work well as a comic book adaptation before they delved into the meaty comedic potential of it all, and that’s why this and the original Deadpool succeed so well as representations of both genres.  It manages to feel like a comic book movie, but also gets to point out all the ridiculous things about the genre that you can’t help but notice after the movie makes you aware of them.  In particular, the inconsistent timelines of the X-Men franchise are a continuing running joke in the Deadpool movies, and once again Wolverine is the subject of much of Deadpool’s most savage jabs.  The best jokes are usually saved for breaking the fourth wall, but the movie is smart enough to know that it can’t just rely on the humor alone to carry the film.

One big change in the process of making this movie was to give it over to a different director.  You have to definitely give props to original director Tim Miller for shepherding the original film to the big screen with very little precedent to guarantee that it would become a big hit.  That being said, considering that he was a first time director, his style was pretty limited and was probably best suited for the small budget that they were allowed.  When Fox granted the sequel more money, Ryan Reynolds knew that they need a more visionary voice to maximize the production and give it a bigger feel, and that’s why Tim Miller parted ways with the project.  In his place, they got John Wick (2014) director David Leitch to helm the project.  Leitch proved to be an ideal choice, because his whole style of directing is to go completely over the top ridiculous with the action scenes in his movies, which is something that really put the John Wick franchise on the map.  That same absurd level of violence matches perfectly with Deadpool as well, and if there is anything in this sequel that is an improvement over the first, it’s the action set pieces.  The ones in the first movie were fine, but Deadpool 2 really makes the most of the expanded budget and gives us action moments that makes the first movie look like a trial run.  There is a car chase in particular that is a real standout in the movie, which expertly balances the eye-catching stunt work with fast-flying sight gags in a very complex sequence.  It also doesn’t try to be showy either, as the action manages to say tightly in frame without wearing out the audience’s attention.  Leitch knows when to land a hilarious moment within hard hitting action, and sometimes even uses the horrific nature of the violence to elicit a laugh, which makes his input here so valuable, because it’s exactly what the character would want his audience to see.  At the same time, it stays true to the spirit of the original, by not fixing that wasn’t broken in the first place.  Gags repeat from the first one, but they feel like pleasant reminders rather than desperate rehashes.  For the most part, Deadpool 2 succeeds at upping the ante of the franchise and bringing out the potential in the biggest possible way.

The one downside that I found with the movie is that it tended to struggle with it’s footing early on in the movie.  One thing that I had a problem with in the first Deadpool was the few times when it sunk into conventionality in between all the moments that broke away from it.  I understand that an origin story has to serve a larger plot in many ways, but the original hit it’s marks better when it got that business out of the way and finally let loose with Deadpool at his zaniest.  The sequel likewise struggles with tone early on, as it tries to push a plot into motion.  I understand that there has to be moments that helps us build sympathy for our main antihero, but these scenes usually end up becoming the weakest in the film.  In particular, the section of the film in the Icebox was a point where I was worried that the movie was going to lose me.  A Deadpool without his powers ends up turning moody and lethargic, and in the process, becomes less funny.  But, once it got past this point in the movie, which I can say is probably when Cable finally enters the picture, the movie finally found it’s footing and didn’t relent until the credits started to roll, and even continued beyond that.  But, that shaky first act is what keeps this from becoming a perfect sequel.  Overall, even despite it’s setbacks, I felt that the first Deadpool was a more balanced film, mainly due to the fact that it didn’t get sidetracked into a needlessly long period of time with the character becoming a shell of himself.  Deadpool 2 also lacks the original’s novelty, which helped it to stand out upon it’s original release.  But, even still, I was still having a good time watching the movie, as was the audience I was watching it with.  It’s just too bad that the same cliches that hamper other films in the genre also seem to manifest in a movie like this too, even despite Deadpool’s best attempts to ridicule them.

The one thing I can’t find any fault with though is the cast.  Ryan Reynolds of course proves once again that he is the best possible man for the job to bring this character to life.  His snarky delivery and boyish charm brings out the demented humor of Deadpool brilliantly throughout the entire movie, and you can’t help but love his devotion to this project as well.  For someone to devote nearly a decade of development towards getting a comic book faithfully translated to the big screen is a commendable achievement, and his commitment remains palatable as the movie unfolds.  Thankfully he has many more fresh faces to join him in the mayhem.  Chief among them is the inclusion of Josh Brolin as Cable.  This fan favorite strongman from the comics makes for a perfect straight man to counterbalance the zaniness of Deadpool, and I found him to be the much needed anchor that keeps the film from going off the rails too much.  It’s amazing that in the same summer (only three weeks apart no less), Brolin has managed to nail performances as two iconic Marvel comic book characters; the other of course being Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War.  And they are two completely different character types as well, which just shows you the incredible range that he has as an actor.  He may not look too much like the original Cable (which itself is joked about in the movie), but he gets the character’s essence right, and he’s a more than welcome inclusion in this franchise.  Also noteworthy is Zazie Beetz as Domino, whose use of luck makes for some really bad ass action moments, as well as some of the best visual gags.  Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) also makes for a welcome addition, and his chemistry with Reynolds as Deadpool helps to shape much of the story’s emotional weight.  I also love the return of Colossus and Teenage Warhead as a part of Deadpool’s circle of friends.  Colossus in particular has been best served by the Deadpool franchise, because in the other X-Men movies he’s too often relegated to being a background character.  Here, he gets more of the spotlight he deserves and his boy scout style personality is wonderfully contrasted against Deadpool’s.  It’s all another sign that the best parodies are the ones that honor the things they are also trying to mock, and Deadpool 2 shows that perfectly in it’s characters.

So, as far as comedy sequels go, Deadpool 2 is a pretty solid one.  While not perfect and maybe not as tightly made as the original, it still has plenty of moments that made it entertaining enough to warrant it’s existence.  In a way, I enjoyed it in the same way that I enjoyed movies like Wayne’s World 2 (1993), or Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), in that they may not be fresh or as consistent as their predecessors, but were still a whole lot of fun, and even had some gags that stand out among the best in their selective franchises.  I can tell you one thing, there was a moment in the post credits scene that made me laugh harder than anything I’ve seen in a long while.  The best thing I can say about Deadpool 2 as a movie is that it delivered on what it set out to do.  It didn’t try to out do itself and spoil the formula that has worked well enough for it so far.  The one thing it added was a bit more scale to the proceedings, now that Fox has loosened the purse strings a little bit.  The new direction by David Leitch really helps to make the action set pieces more visually effective while at the same time hilariously over the top.  The movie also makes me anxious to see where Reynolds & Co. go next with this franchise, especially with Fox’s Marvel properties possibly being brought into the MCU once the Fox/Disney merger goes through (if it does).  Disney CEO Bob Iger has already stated that Deadpool’s current formula will not be tampered with, because why fix something that isn’t broken, but it will be interesting to see if the “merc with the mouth” gets to cross paths with likes of the Avengers, and what kinds of mayhem may come out of those meetings.  That’s still many years away, and my hope is that Ryan Reynolds holds true to keeping the movies fun as both irreverent comedies as well as faithful adaptations of the comics.  He’s carved out a wonderful niche in both genres with these movies and the world is much better place with the regenerative degenerate as a matinee idol.

Rating: 8/10

Evolution of Character – Alice in Wonderland

If there is any piece of literature that has endured nearly unchanged in it’s popularity over the years, it would be Lewis Carroll’s imaginative Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or more commonly known today as Alice in Wonderland.  Written in 1865 by Reverend Charles Dodgson under his pseudonym of Carroll, the books of Alice in Wonderland and it’s sequel Through the Looking Glass (1871) became landmarks for the progression of English literature.  Carroll’s nonsense style of writing was in stark contrast to romanticized and refined literature of the Victorian period.  It was also a revolutionary book with regards to fantasy, as Carroll’s visions of Wonderland were unlike anything imagined before, with his cast of anthropomorphic creatures and a fantasy world which doesn’t play by any logical rules.  Ever since it’s original, and often controversial publication, the Alice novels have been embraced by people from across the world, particularly those with counter-cultural tastes.  It received a particularly notable revival in the psychedelic sixties, being referenced in many different art and media from the time, including Jefferson Airplane’s seminal tune, “White Rabbit.”  But there is one constant from the books that has helped it endure through the ever changing cultural landscape, and that’s the character of Alice herself.  Alice is the ultimate audience surrogate in literature as she acts as our eyes into the madness of Wonderland, and as a result becomes the one we identify with the most, no matter who we are.  But, adapting such a character for the movies proves to be difficult, because you have to find the right kind of actress who can embody that passive, every person quality and still manage to stand out as their own personality.  Alice has managed to maintain her popularity over the years and what follows is some of the most notable cinematic versions that have left their mark over time, and helped keep Alice a continued icon in both literature and in cinema.

MAY CLARK in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1903)

Even in cinema’s infancy, Alice proved to be an ideal choice for showcasing the new art of film-making to the world.  Despite the limitations of the form, this silent short uses every trick available at the time to bring Lewis Carroll’s visions to life, including some very early forms of film compositing.  The movie may look primitive today, but you can still see a noble attempt by the filmmakers to do their best to recreate iconic parts of the story, using the famous John Tenniel wood engraved illustrations as inspirations.  Filming on location in the gardens of an English estate also help to give the movie a definite fantasy quality to it as well, as it’s not far off from the world that Carroll know himself.  Despite it’s groundbreaking aspects, it’s clearly not a definitive retelling of the story itself.  Every scene is merely a tableau recreating moments from the book, often disjointed from one another.  It doesn’t help that much of the film has been lost to time, and only 9 minutes of the original 15 survive to this day.  Character development is minimal, but the one who stands out is easily Alice.  May Clark is notably older than what you’d typically think the young girl from the books would look like, but she does her best to perform, even against all the special effects around her.  She was not a professional actor, working instead as a film cutter at the Hepworth Studios that made the film, but some of that inexperience still makes for a decent Alice, as she does capture some of that passive quality about the character.  This would mark the first ever cinematic telling of the classic Alice story’s, and it’s an interesting artifact of cinema’s early days, particularly with regards to how famous stories were first made into movies.

CHARLOTTE HENRY in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933)

Despite it’s international popularity, Alice in Wonderland would remain a mostly English institution for most of it’s earliest cinematic adaptations.  That was until 1933 when Hollywood finally took it’s shot at portraying the Alice stories for the big screen.  This lavish production directed by Norman McLeod and written by future Oscar-winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz features a fair mixture of some imaginative old Hollywood production values, some of which seem like precursors to what we would see in a couple years with The Wizard of Oz (1939).  But what this film version is notable for is introducing the notion of making Alice in Wonderland a showcase for an all-star cast, something that future film adaptations would continue even up to today.  Some of the biggest names at the time appeared in this film, even in very minor roles.  You’ve got W.C. Fields playing Humpty Dumpty, Gary Cooper playing the White Knight, and as strange as it might be that is actually Cary Grant inside that Mock Turtle costume you see in the picture above.  Though the movie is visually interesting, the production unfortunately hasn’t aged well over the years, mainly by the fact that it doesn’t grasp the full strangeness of Carroll’s novels.  The best part of the movie though is Charlotte Henry in the role of Alice.  She does capture the wide-eyed wonder of the character and her charming smile does make her presence on screen worthwhile in every scene.  she also does carry the movie even through all the disjointed episodes that the movie desperately tries to connect into one fluid narrative.  Interesting tidbit, this production caused producer Walt Disney to cancel a live action/animation hybrid film that he was working on, even before Snow White (1937), with Mary Pickford in the role of Alice.  This cancellation would of course would be short lived as we would find out some years later.

KATHRYN BEAUMONT in WALT DISNEY’S ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)

When most of us think of the character Alice and her adventures in Wonderland, this is usually what pops into mind first.  Disney’s animated version of Lewis Carroll’s tales is without a doubt the most famous version ever made, and I would also argue it’s the best cinematic version as well.  The animated medium is really the only possible way to do the work of Lewis Carroll any justice, because much of his nonsensical leaps of logic are not all that dissimilar from the way that cartoon logic works.  Here the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, and the March Hare can portrayed as actual animals without any other signs of humanity other than their voice.  Alice can indeed change in size without any special effects.  The Queen’s guard can actually paper thin playing cards.  Wonderland was made to be animated and the Disney company managed to bring out the true madness of the Carroll’s writing.  At the same time, it’s also the best version because it’s the most streamlined and linear, making it the most cohesive version we’ve ever seen on film.  Much of Carroll’s side characters are excised, so no Griffin or Mock Turtle and no White Queen or White Knight.  Instead Disney chose to center the story on Alice herself, making her a much more active character than usual.  Here she’s motivated by two goals, following the white rabbit into Wonderland, and then finally finding her way home.  This helps to make her a much more engaging character, given wonderful personality by her voice actress Kathryn Beaumont, who also modeled for the character.  Since it’s premiere, this version of Alice has become the standard by which most others are judged by, and has gone on to influence her visual looks ever since, particularly with he iconic blue dress.  The movie was also instrumental for the story’s resurgence during the psychedelic sixties, no doubt due to the often surreal imagery found in the movie.  Interesting enough, this was one of the few movies of his that Walt Disney personally didn’t like, which is odd given that it has since become of the studios most enduring popular titles.

CORAL BROWNE in DREAMCHILD (1985)

This very unusual film takes a different approach to the story of Alice and her adventures in Wonderland.  The movie addresses the true life story of Alice Liddel, who was the real life inspiration for the character.  In the film’s story, we find Alice visiting America in her later years as she accepts a special honor from Columbia University.  During her trip, she begins to look back on her early childhood which she spent in the company of Reverend Dodgson (played by Ian Holm).  Her close relationship with him inspired the stories that have since followed her throughout her life, and as she has grown older, they in some way haunt her because she is always going to be tied to this fictional girl who is not at all who she is now.  This leads to some surreal hallucinations where she believes she’s seeing Reverend Dodgson and various characters like the Mad Hatter and March Hare in her daily life.  The movie connects these moments with early childhood memories of Alice (played as a young girl by Amelia Shankley) spending time with Dodgson in what some would say is a tad bit uncomfortable way.  The movie attempts to examine some of the more questionable aspects of Dodgson’s life, namely the rumored pedophilia of which Alice might have been the subject of, but it’s undermined by the movie’s frequent flights into fancy with the hallucinations and the various recreations of moments from the book, brought to life with some rather grotesque puppets from the Jim Henson workshop.  These frightening versions of the Mad Hatter and the March Hare would feel more at home in something like Labyrinth (1986), and not in a serious drama that examines the toll of loss of innocence over several years.  Even still, the portrayal of Alice is still endearing, with Coral Browne giving a solid and dignified performance as the aging Alice.  It’s fascinating to look at the real life inspirations behind famous characters, and how their lives were affected by the popularity that endured afterwards, especially if they overshadow something darker underneath.

NATALIE GREGORY in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1985 MINI-SERIES)

Taking a cue from the classic Hollywood version, this made-for-TV musical version of Alice in Wonderland certainly follows the idea of filling every role with an all-star cast.  And it seems like even the most minor of roles is filled by a known name, whether it makes sense or not.  You’ve got Sammy Davis Jr. as the Catepillar, Telly Savalas as the Cheshire Cat, Ringo Starr as the Mock Turtle, and even future Full House star John Stamos shows up in the most minor of roles as the Jack in the Queen of Heart’s court.  But it is noteworthy that at over 3 hours this is one of the most comprehensive versions of the story we’ve ever seen, adapted from both Alice novels.  But at it’s center is the performance by newcomer Natalie Gregory as Alice, who appears in every scene of this long production.  One noteworthy thing about her casting is that she is decidedly younger in age than most Alice’s we’ve seen before, who have usually been more pre or early teen in age.  Gregory’s Alice is very much a child and it makes the peril she finds herself in all the more frightening.  There are some rather disturbing moments in the movie, like when Alice finds herself in an alternate version of her home where she sees her family on the other side of a mirror with no way of letting them know she’s there.  Latter she finds herself all alone when confronting another one of Lewis Carroll’s creations, the fearsome Jabberwocky, and Natalie Gregory manages to hold her own in these moments, making us actually fearful for her safety.  She captures the very real innocence of the character, which is put to the test in this topsy turvy world that has no place for logic, which she increasingly realizes is what sets her apart.  This version’s Alice stands as one of the more engaging, and you’ve got to hand it to a young newcomer who can stand out in a huge cast like the one that this version has.

KRISTYNA KOHOUTOVA from ALICE (1988)

Of all the versions of Alice in Wonderland that have been filmed over the years, this may be the strangest one of all, and that’s saying something.  This very bizarre movie comes from Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, who is a pioneering animator in the stop motion form.  But, Svankmajer’s style doesn’t utilize the charming clay and wood crafted puppets that we normally associate with stop motion animation.  Instead, his animation uses bizarre puppetry involving creatures made out of household appliances, scrapbook cut outs, and most disturbingly animal carcasses and skeletons preserved through taxidermy.  Seeing these things in still life are disturbing enough, but they take on a whole new level once they are animated.  And this is the format that Svankmajer decided to bring the story of Alice in Wonderland to life with.  In a way, this style might have been to Lewis Carroll’s tastes, given it’s bizarre nature, but to the casual viewer, this is certainly not a version of the story that is suitable for all ages.  The interesting thing though is that the animation is balanced out with a real life actress playing Alice; a very young performer named Kristyna Kohoutova.  Svankmajer’s minimalist depiction of Wonderland, which seems to exist within the same drab interior room, takes on a surreal aspect as it appears to be all part of Alice’s dream state, or rather nightmares.  Kristyna’s Alice merely acts as our guide from one surreal moment to another, including providing her own third person narration.  The most distinctive moments occur when live action Alice shrinks down and becomes an animated doll and also when she encounters the shockingly murderous White Rabbit, which is one of Svankmajer’s more disturbing creations.  Not for the faint of heart, but interesting for those curious to see a really unconventional take of the classic Lewis Carroll stories of Wonderland.

MIA WASIKOWSKA in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)

After many years Disney decided to revisit the works of Lewis Carroll with a lavish production directed by visionary filmmaker Tim Burton.  It would be a wildly successful film at the box office and would jump start a recent trend at the Disney Studio to do remakes of all their past animated hits.  But, much like the remake craze at Disney, this production would end up being a mixed bag.  On the one hand, I do like this version of the character of Alice.  Mia Wasikowska’s performance may be a little on the under-acting side, but I liked how her version of the character was more assertive, inquisitive and intelligent than past versions.  The problem is, everything else about the movie is entirely wrong and completely misses the point with regards to what Lewis Carroll’s stories were about.  Alice in Wonderland was a satire about the social confines of Victorian society and Carroll created Wonderland as an examination of a society where all the rules were flipped upside down and nothing made sense.  But for some reason, Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton decided to normalize Wonderland, making it a society that steers away from Carroll’s nonsense vision and more closely to something like Tolkein’s Middle Earth, which not surprising the film tries to hard to emulate, because of the success of the Lord of the Rings movies.  This also leads to a trend of recent adaptations of classic tales that I hate, which is the desire to put a sword in the hero’s hand and make them a “savior” figure.  You see this again in other films like Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), and no other character looks more out of place in a suit of armor than Alice.  She’s a strong character to be sure, but not everyone is destined to slay a dragon, and yet this movie desperately tries to make us believe that Alice is the only one capable of saving the day.  Of all the adventures we’ve seen of Alice, this is the one that misses the mark the most, and it’s a sad given that Wasikowska’s portrayal isn’t terribly bad and could have been amazing if Tim Burton wasn’t forced to Tolkeinize Wonderland.

Though the styles have changed, Lewis Carroll’s Alice still remains a strong presence throughout her many cinematic outings.  There’s something about her “stranger in a strange land” character that we identify with strongly and it’s through her eyes that the incredible world of Wonderland comes to life.  More than often, the most interesting cinematic versions of the story are imagined through the medium of animation, whether it be Disney’s classic version or Jan Svankmajer’s surreal version.  It’s also interesting how many times a cinematic version of the story often involves an all-star cast.  Even the two Disney versions fill their casts out with notable names, and it sparks some interesting debates about who played the role better; like which Mad Hatter is the crazier one, Ed Wynn’s or Johnny Depp’s.  What I like best though is when the film’s do their best to capture the true madness of the story that Lewis Carroll had written.  The Alice stories were really ahead of their time and have provided the basis for every surreal adventure into unknown worlds that have come since.  You can find elements of Alice in Wonderland in everything from The Wizard of Oz (where a girl from our world travels to another magical one), to The Chronicles of Narnia (magic portals that link our world to another) to even something like Planet of the Apes (where society is satired through a re-imagined world, visited by someone from our own world).  Carroll’s stories continue to influence movies, art, music and more and will probably see many more interpretations in the future.  But as for the character of Alice, it is interesting to see how much this young girl has been embraced as an icon of literature and of movies.  As a result, she is often the one that filmmakers take the greatest care to get right, and this has resulted in some of the most interesting choices of casting that we’ve seen in many of these movies.  She may always continue to fall down that rabbit hole forever, but the strength of her character always comes from how clever she can be to find her way back home.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2018 – Film Exhibition Report

There are a lot of things that I love about living in the City of Angels called Los Angeles, but chief among them is the fact that I live only a stones throw away from the heart of Hollywood.  Hollywood of course is not definitively one singular place here in the Southland, but an industry spread across the whole city.  But when one refers to a place named Hollywood itself, it is often used to describe the stretch of road called Hollywood Boulevard between the intersections of Vine Street and Highland Avenue.  This is where you will find the world famous Walk of Fame which continues to draw tourists from across the globe.  And then of course, you have the legendary movie palaces of the El Captain, the Egyptian, the Cinerama Dome and the Chinese, which are probably the most famous movie theaters in the entire world.  World premieres are held in these venues, a tradition that dates back to cinema’s early days and continues up to right now.  They also have in recent years become the home to an annual event that helps to celebrate the wonder that is cinema in the place where it was born.  Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has over the last decade made their Classic Film Festival a special treat for those of us living and working in Los Angeles, giving us the opportunity to watch legendary and classic movies the way they were intended to be seen, on the big screen, and also be given the extra pleasure of hearing from the people involved with their making as special guests.  This year has been my 7th overall and 5th that I have covered for this blog, and every year I manage to improve my overall experience at the festival.  I’m attending more movies, planning my days out better so that I don’t miss the ones that I want to see, and checking off a lot more titles off the list of classic movies that I haven’t watched yet.

This year, I had to adjust a lot more of my planned schedule due to some unfortunate timing.  With Marvel’s early release of Avengers: Infinity War last week, I had to miss the opening night events in order to watch that movie instead so I could write my review.  Because of this, everything on this blog has been pushed back a week, including my full report of this festival.  It’s likely that I wouldn’t have seen much on the Thursday night opening of the festival anyway.  They had a special award ceremony in the Chinese Theater that was exclusive only to special passholders and invited guests, both of which I was not one of.  This new award is called the Robert Osborne Award, named after the longtime host and face of the Turner Classic Movies channel who sadly passed away last year.  The Osborne Award is intended to honor artists and filmmakers who have left a significant mark on the industry and are dedicated to preserving the treasures of cinema’s past with their work and advocacy.  Naturally, the first ever recipient for this award is noted cinephile and master filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who was there to accept the honor, introduced by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Despite not being there at this event, I have watched Martin Scorsese’s acceptance speech online, and it’s one that already has stirred up some debate as the famed director took a few shots at websites like Rottentomatoes.com, stating that they’ve negatively affected the industry by turning films into rated products rather than art that’s looking to be discovered.  the same opening night also included a 50th anniversary screening of The Producers, with director Mel Brooks in attendance.  I don’t feel too bad about missing out on this, considering that I’ve seen Brooks twice at this festival in previous years.  So, despite missing opening night, I did make the most out of the rest of the festival, and that is what I’ll be sharing with you right now.

FRIDAY APRIL 27, 2018

Because I work a regular job in the morning, I wasn’t able to make my way to Hollywood Boulevard until after 5:00pm.  After a quick rush to use the city’s transit system, I managed to arrive at the Chinese Multiplex in the Hollywood & Highland Center (also the home of the Oscar venue, Dolby Theater) where I got in line for my first film of the festival.  It was a screening of the classic Universal Studio’s monster flick, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1945), with the added treat of being presented in it’s original 3D presentation.  Unlike the original two strip 3D process, which required red and blue glasses to get the full effect, this screening of Creature was given a digital makeover, allowing for current 3D technology to make the film both pristine and up to date.  Unfortunately, even despite arriving with enough time to spare, the event staff had a hard time filling all the available seats.  I did manage to get in, but it was very late into the presentation.  Basically, I sat down as the movie was running, with the opening credits already complete.  I missed the entire opening presentation, which was conducted by comedian and radio host Dennis Miller, who is an avid fan of these classic monster movies.  Despite being disappointed by missing the opening, I did see most of the film itself, which was a first time for me.  It was really neat to see a classic film shown in 3D, as early films in the process liked to show off the technique a lot more than most modern day films do.  The underwater photography in particular really holds up in the 3D process.  A screening like this is something that only a festival like TCM’s  can make available to the public, as classic 3D movies are hard to find nowadays, especially on the big screen.  Thankfully, missing the opening for this presentation was the only time this would happen for the rest of the festival for me.

Upon exiting the film, I managed to get immediately in line for the late night showing in the Chinese Theater, which would end up being something that would end up continuing for me for the rest of the festival.  This night included a screening of the classic horror movie The Exorcist (1973), with director William Friedkin in attendance.  Despite the long standby line that I stood in, I was able to make it into the theater and got a pretty decent seat as it turns out.  TCM host Ben Mankiewicz welcomed director Friedkin to the stage with a warm round of applause from the audience.  Despite there being chairs on stage for a sit down interview, the energetic Friedkin refused to take a seat, feeling much more comfortable standing on stage, even despite admitting that he had a cracked rib from a prior injury.  Mankiewicz and Friedkin began talking about the movie’s making in general, and connected it with the recent premiere of the director’s new documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth (2017), which covers the same subject matter as The Exorcist.  They also talked about the unorthodox casting of playwright Jason Miller in the role of Father Karras, as well as the inspired casting of classic film actress Mercedes McCambridge as the voice of the demon.  Afterwards the discussion was opened up to people in the audience.  The one thing that stuck me about this presentation is that William Friedkin likes to talk.  You give him a question, he’ll give you a twenty minute answer.  And yet, none of us were bothered by that because everything he shared, from the casting choices to the decision to use “Tubular Bells” as part of the soundtrack was fascinating to listen to.

Perhaps the highlight of this discussion was after one audience member asked Friedkin if there was any truth to an urban legend about the movie.  Apparently, an extra in The Exorcist named Paul Bateson, who plays a radiologist’s assistant in the film, went on to become a real life serial killer in the years after.  This is an already known fact, but audience member wanted to know if the rumor was true that this real life serial killer ended up being the inspiration for the serial killer in Friedkin’s later film Cruising (1980), starring Al Pacino.  Mankiewicz interjected immediately, believing that this was purely an urban legend and that Friedkin’s answer was going to be a definitive no.  But, then the director, to Ben’s surprise, actually went on to confirm that it was true.  The look on Mankiewicz’s face when Friedkin said this was priceless.  From that, Friedkin went on to detail how he actually approached Bateson, after he had been caught and convicted, by visiting him at Rikers Island and interviewing him about the details of the murder.  And those interviews with a real life serial killer, who Friedkin had been in contact with before through The Exorcist, did provide the backbone of the murders portrayed in Cruising so many years later, and Bateson was indeed an un-credited consultant for the film, confirmed by the director himself.  It’s fascinating revelations like that which make these discussions before the movie so worth it.  Friedkin talked for a full hour before the movie even started, but despite making the night longer than expected, it was still worth it.   I’ve seen The Exorcist before, but watching it on a big screen made the experience even more special, and it made my first night of the festival very rewarding.

SATURDAY APRIL 28, 2018

Because the previous night went long (The Exorcist didn’t finish until nearly 1 am in the morning) I slept in past the first run of movies presented in the early morning.  One that I wished I had seen was a presentation at the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard called Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich (1958), which apparently was the one and only film ever shot in the short-lived widescreen process called “Cinemiracle” which was similar to the Cinerama process that the Dome was built to present.  I’ve watched movies in the Dome before, but never one in the Cinerama process, so I missed yet another opportunity here.  But, I was already on little sleep to begin with, so I had to make a choice to rest up for the rest of the festival.  My first choice for this second day was to go to the Chinese again for a screening of the Steve McQueen classic, Bullitt (1968).  Unfortunately, the movie sold out even before they began to let standby patrons in, so even though I got there on time, I was out of luck.  This would thankfully be the one and only time that would happen this year.  I quickly made my way to the multiplex upstairs, where the next available movie was being played, which was Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), the Oscar winning film from Robert Benton starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, which was about divorce, single parenthood, and custody battles in the late 70’s.  Director Benton was there as a special guest, interviewed by critic Leonard Maltin.  Because I came to the movie late, I only caught the tail end of their pre show interview, but thankfully, they would return after the show for more.

Both Maltin and Benton stayed to watch the movie with us, and afterwards an emotional Leonard clearly was very touched having seen the movie in it’s entirety again after a very long time.  They arrived up front to talk more about the movie and were joined by producer Stanley Jaffe.  They discussed the decisions in adapting the Avery Corman novel to the big screen, which resulted in a more even handed portrayal of the divorce between the two leads in the film, making Streep’s character a bit more sympathetic than she is in the book.  They also discussed Robert Benton’s approach as a director, which Leonard Maltin described as capturing “moments” rather than directing a plot.  In the film, it’s clear that Benton took a much more hands off approach, allowing his actors to play out their scenes naturally instead of drawing attention to the fact that they are performing for the camera.  This results in a movie that has a much more natural, real life quality to it.  They also talked about how crucial it was to find the right young actor to play the pivotal role of Billy Kramer, the child at the center of the story, and how they land on the casting of then 7 year old Justin Henry, who is still to this day the youngest nominee ever for an Oscar.  It was an informative discussion and helped to make up for me missing the first half of it prior.  The movie still plays well after nearly 40 years, and the audience, like Leonard Maltin, was still moved by it’s story.  So, after this, I immediately made my way outside the multiplex to wait in line for the next movie in the same exact theater as the last one.

After a break of about an hour, in which I got a quick lunch, I entered the theater for my next film, which was the groundbreaking Merchant Ivory classic Maurice (1987).  Though not as widely known as many of the other movies at the festival, and certainly not the most heralded of the Merchant Ivory films either, Maurice was actually the best new discovery that I left an impression on me at this festival.  I hadn’t seen this one before, but having watched it now and on the big screen, I was struck by just how relevant this movie continues to be even 30 years later, and how it plays in a different context today than it did back when it first premiered.  The main reason why I wanted to go to this screening, however, was to see director James Ivory in attendance before the movie.  89 year old Ivory recently made history becoming the oldest Oscar winner ever for his screenplay for the movie Call Me by Your Name (2017), and his work on that script was no doubt influenced by his work on this film, which was called attention to in the interview with Ben Mankiewicz.  Ivory discussed how they took a chance adapting E. M. Foster’s controversial novel about gay romance in Edwardian England in the middle of the peak of the AIDS crisis across the world.  In a time when homosexuality was still a taboo during the 1980’s, this positive portrayal of a sexually repressed young man at the turn of the century coming to terms and embracing his sexuality was a bold project to undertake, especially after James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant’s internationally successful A Room with a View (1985).  The movie has a frankness about it’s subject matter that still makes the movie as prescient as ever, and it was interesting to hear James Ivory’s perspective on the film’s legacy.

What’s even more pleasing is that even at nearly 90 years, Ivory is still not slowing down.  He is already working on another screenplay for director Alexander Payne and he plans on trying to get back behind the director’s chair once again, this time for an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard II.  He also thought it was interesting how both Maurice and Call Me By Your Name work together as a dual package of queer themed movies.  He observed that one is a tragic story of pain that concludes with a happy ending and the other is a happy story of love that has a bittersweet finale.  In a way, he is grateful that time has made some things better for LGBT people, and that movie’s like Maurice may have had some positive influence in changing the culture, but he also stressed that there is still a lot more that can and should be done to achieve full equality.  It was a very rewarding experience hearing from the director himself, and I found the movie very touching as well.  Though the Merchant Ivory style isn’t exactly what I typically go for, I still found it’s portrayal of a young man’s discovery of his sexual identity in such a repressive culture very relateable and affecting.  I wonder if it’s actually time for this movie to gain a new revival after Ivory’s success at the Oscars, because this is a movie worth rediscovering.  The fact that there is even a scene where the main character goes through a type of conversion therapy (which features a cameo from Ben Kingsley as the therapist) makes the movie feel sadly all too timely as well, as so-called therapy is still being used to “fix” a person’s sexual identity today, despite it being debunked as junk science.  I’m very glad I made the time to catch this one at the festival and it’ll probably be a movie I revisit again in the future.

I decided to skip the next round of movies so that I could get a prime seat for the final film of the night at the Chinese Theater.  This was going to be a 20th Anniversary screening of the Coen Brother’s classic comedy The Big Lebowski (1998).  After Maurice, it was a four hour gap in between, in which I passed over other movies like Heaven Can Wait (1978), The Lost Weekend (1945), and silent comedy Show People (1928) which played with a live orchestra.  And the reason why I took this long of a break was because I did not want to miss Lebowski, mainly because they were going to have the “Dude” himself, Jeff Bridges, there as the special guest.  Thankfully the planning worked out and I got in without worry.  Apparently, I didn’t need to take special measures because everyone got in regardless if they were in standby or if they had a pass.  The theater was packed for this one still, and even though I’ve already watched Lebowski a dozen times already, I have never watched it on a big screen before.  Ben Mankiewicz arrived to open the discussion, and he stated that after speaking with Bridges backstage, he believed it was better to just toss aside his notes for the interview.  And sure enough, once Jeff was on stage, the entire program became a much more free-wheeling talk between the two.  Bridges even started things off with a moment of meditation with the entire audience.  You knew that the moment that he walked on stage that we were about to have a fun time.

He talked about the inspirations that influenced the persona of the “Dude”, which he acknowledges is one of his favorite roles.  An interesting tidbit is that the famous slacker wardrobe, like the sweater and the clear plastic sandals, were actually clothing articles that Jeff actually owned, meaning he is responsible alone for crafting the look of the character.  He talked a lot about working with the Coen Brothers as well as with his co-star John Goodman, whose character was heavily influenced by maverick filmmaker John Milius.  He also fondly looks over the legacy that the movie has left behind, noting how he loves to visit the annual Lebowski Fest, where he sees so many people dressing up like characters from the film, including as he mentioned someone dressed like the sketch that Jackie Treehorn scribbles in the film.  After the interview, he said he would stay and watch the film with us, because he hadn’t seen the whole thing since the film’s premiere.  Grateful for the reception, he left the stage and the movie began.  It was a whole different experience watching this with an audience, because every time a classic moment would happen or a popular character would show up, the audience would erupt in jubulent laughter and applause.  The movie is still funny after 20 years, and even the passage of time hasn’t diluted it one bit.  Combined with the pre show interview and the big screen presentation, this was the highlight of the festival so far for me.  Only one full day left after this, and it would be a big one too.

SUNDAY APRIL 29, 2018

I started early this morning to make it to the Chinese Theater in time for a 9:15 am screening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).  After two long days before, catching a nearly three hour Spaghetti Western in the early morning was going to be an endurance test for me with the minimal amount of sleep I had gotten each day.  Thankfully, I did make it through and managed to watch this Leone classic for the first time all the way through, all the more rewarding given that it was on the giant Chinese theater screen.  The film was introduced by director John Sayles, himself a filmmaker of some modern day revisionist Westerns like Lone Star (1996).  He wasn’t interviewed, but instead gave us the audience a background history on the movie we were about to watch.  He detailed the fact that this was Leone’s first ever film backed by a major Hollywood studio (Paramount) after so many years working within the Italian film industry.  He also pointed out that because of movies like this, an extreme close up of an actor’s eyes has been given the term the “Italian Close-up.”  The movie, while sluggish at times, was neat to watch on the big screen, especially with it’s beautiful widescreen panoramas and the iconic Ennio Morricone score.  Afterwards, I quickly went to the cineplex to watch Frank Capra’s classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), another movie I had never watched the whole way through.  I arrived just before the movie started.  Thankfully there was no pre-show interview, but instead an introduction from a TCM host, so my last minute arrival didn’t make me miss much.  For a first time viewing, it was interesting to see this movie with knowledge of our current political climate.  While hokey and a little naive at times, it’s still inspiring to watch Jimmy Stewart’s passionate performance in this film, and makes you wish that a figure like him still existed in politics today.

After my two films in the early morning, I made my way over to the Egyptian, which would surprisingly be my one and only time at this venue this year.  Past years, I usually caught one film a day here, but considering there were so many that I wanted to watch at the Chinese this year, this was the only time I could fit in a movie at this venue.  The Egyptian has become a special venue for this festival, because it is now the only one equipped to present movies in original film prints.  Over the course of the festival, the theater presented movies in everything from 70mm, to 35mm, to the extremely volatile Nitrate prints.  Though also equipped for digital presentations, the festival has made the Egyptian entirely their film print theater.  Thus, this was also my one and only time to see a movie that was actually film running through a projector.  For this showing, I managed to watch the film Bull Durham, again another first time for me.  In attendance was director Ron Shelton and also a previously unannounced guest, actor Tim Robbins.  Interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz, Shelton and Robbins were asked about the different life influences that they brought with them into the movie.  Shelton himself was a minor league ball player before he got into film-making, so the movie clearly is semi-autobiographical in a way.  Robbins talked about how he was a right handed actor who had to learn how to throw left-handed, which led to Ron and Ben making the joke that he’s a “right-handed lefty,” kidding him of course about Robbins outspoken political views.  Mankiewicz also joked if it was difficult to get Susan Sarandon to act like she was attracted to Robbins in the movie, and Robbins replied saying that the movie resulted in three children with Sarandon, his real life partner, whom he met on this film.

Ron Shelton also talked about the difficulties of shooting the movie on location in Durham, North Carolina.  Apparently, the film was shot in the middle of Winter, despite it taking place in the Summer, and Shelton points out that he had his actors chew ice before each take in order to minimize the visible breathe vapors that would have shown up on film in the cold nights they were shooting in.  Both men are clearly proud of their work on the film and are happy that it still holds up after thirty years.  Having never seen it before, I was happy that my first experience was with actual film projected on a big screen.  Film just has a different texture to it, and helps to give the movie an aged quality that enriches the experience.  I’m not that into sports movies in general, and I wouldn’t exactly say that Bull Durham converted me over either.  I still enjoyed the movie, especially every moment with Kevin Costner on screen, who really makes the film entertaining with his snarky character.  Sadly, I would have to miss out on catching the last Nitrate screening of the festival, something which was a highlight for me at last years fest, because I had to conclude my festival this year over at the Chinese.  For the last big show of the night, TCM was setting us up for their biggest gathering yet, with a 40th anniversary screening of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978).

This was clearly intended to be a major reunion for much of the cast and crew.  In attendance were director John Landis, executive producer Sean Daniel, actress Martha Smith, songwriter Stephen Bishop, and actors Tim Matheson, Bruce McGill, Jamie Widdoes and Mark Metcalf.  Being a long time fan of this movie, this was a screening I did not want to miss, especially with all these people in attendance.  Not only do I think it’s one of the funniest movies ever made, but the film holds a special place for me because it was shot in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon.  Using the University of Oregon as the setting for the fictional Faber College, the film is one of only a handful of films ever shot in Eugene, and easily the most famous, and just watching it again is kind of like a short little homecoming for me.  I was clearly not the only one in the audience from Oregon, as the mention of Eugene, nearby Cottage Grove and the University in Ben Mankiewicz’s intro brought a cheer from some people in the crowd (myself included).  Ben also scored some points with me by responding to the cheer by adding “Yeah, Go Ducks.”  Afterwards, the large group of guests were brought on stage, easily the biggest of the whole festival.  John Landis led the charge for most of the discussion, talking at length about the many hurdles it took to get the movie made by the very skeptical studio execs at Universal.  Apparently, Landis passed over Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd in some of the lead roles, in favor of fresher faces, and only wanted to keep John Belushi out of the cast members coming from Saturday Night Live.

Some of the best stories though revolved around the many tumultuous encounters that the cast had filming on the Oregon campus, including numerous fights started with students in the local fraternities.  They also talked about working with Belushi and also the recently departed Stephen Furst, whose widow was also there in the audience and was given a special mention.  Casting of established actors like Donald Sutherland and John Vernon was also talked about, and it was interesting that they had the full confidence of Vernon from the very beginning, who was not like the stuffy character he plays in the film and believed from day one that this raunchy comedy was going to be a hit, giving the troubled production a much needed seal of approval.  They also talked about shooting the climatic parade scene in Cottage Grove, Oregon, which Mankiewicz pointed out to the classic film loving crowd was also where Buster Keaton had filmed his classic, The General, all the way back in 1927.  In addition to the often hilarious stories (including one where Bruce McGill stole a piano and brought it to his hotel room), singer Stephen Bishop even performed the two songs he contributed to the film; the title song in the credits as well as the ballad he actually sings in person in the film before John Belushi takes his guitar and smashes it on the wall in a famous moment.  Needless to say, the movie is just as funny today as it was 40 years ago, and it’s take no prisoners raunchiness and politically incorrect attitude is even more refreshing now in a world where comedy is too often deconstructed and minimized.  And I got to see a time capsule of my hometown on a giant screen, which proved to be a perfect way to bring this year’s festival to an end.

So, there you have my lengthy review of this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival.  It’s not much different from previous years, and that’s a good thing.  I like that after nearly a decade of running this festival that the TCM crew has managed to run this thing as smoothly as they do in the hectic center of Hollywood where it takes place.  I myself have managed to figure out how to make the most of my experience, and this year I managed to break my own record and watch a total of 9 movies.  Some were ones that I have seen many times, including all the final shows of the night, but there were a few that were new to me that I’m grateful that I waited for in order to watch them on a big screen.  I even shocked myself in realizing that I’ve never watched the entirety of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or have missed out on lauded films like Once Upon a Time in the West and Bull Durham.  Also, discovering Maurice at this year’s festival was rewarding and has given me a renewed interest in the works of Merchant Ivory.  But, what I love best about this festival is getting the opportunity to see the people behind the movies in person before every screening.  The fact that TCM can organize the schedules of this many legendary actors and filmmakers over the course of 4 days and many different films is quite astounding.  It definitely shows you the quality and pull of the TCM brand that they can attract this much talent into one place.  The volunteer staff are always nice and helpful as well.  The introduction of the Robert Osborne Award is also a wonderful addition to this year’s event, and I look forward to seeing it become an important tradition continued in the festivals from here out.  Next year, TCM Film Fest hits it’s 10 year mark, and I hope to be there for that too, hopefully shattering another personal record and maybe getting into events I hadn’t before been able to in years past.  So, here’s to another successful festival this year and once again TCM reminds us all of the importance and wonder of cinema and how special it is to be close to the history of film itself, both in Hollywood and in our homes as well.

 

Avengers: Infinity War – Review

When Marvel touts that their new film is 10 years in the making, they really mean it.  Sure, the actual filming of Avengers: Infinity War may not have started until only a short while ago, but the groundwork to make this movie happen has been what’s taken Marvel a decade or so to work out.  Think about the level of forethought it took to see this day come.  Back when the newly formed Marvel Studios was working on the first Iron Man all the way back in 2008, the idea of bringing a massive event story like Infinity War was probably just wishful thinking.  And yet, it was always something they held onto just in case this shared universe thing caught on.  When the first Avengers made it to the big screen, we got our first real taste of what a shared universe movie could look like, and yet there was an even bigger world yet to explore as Marvel began to put into place a plan that would make their wishes come true.  Starting with the second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), we began to be introduced to the concept of the Infinity Stones, which would be the connecting thread that would bring the many different heroes of Marvel Comics together on the big screen.  Each stone has it’s own unique power, which plays a different role in each of the different movies they appear in.  Their introductions have allowed us the audience to generate growing anticipation, knowing that the gathering of all these stones, some with incredibly destructive powers, is leading towards something cataclysmic.  And yet, Marvel has still miraculously found a way to show the blueprints behind their plan without loosing the interests of the fans.  While we know something is coming, we are still enjoying the fact that along the way we are becoming endeared to this world and the characters that Marvel has created.

What amazes me is that Marvel started down this road without even having all their pieces in place to do so.  First of all, they began their grand scheme with their properties still scattered between different studios.  Paramount held the rights to the key group of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man; Universal held onto the Hulk; Sony was still making use of Spider-Man; and Fox remained in control of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.  There was early cooperation between Paramount and Universal towards collaborating for an eventual Avengers movie, as evidenced by the Tony Stark cameo at the end of The Incredible Hulk (2008), but Fox and Sony were still staying clear, meaning that if the Avengers were to happen soon, it was going to be a much smaller group than Marvel would’ve liked.  Then a sudden development changed everything.  Disney, which had not even attempted to enter the Super Hero field before, suddenly bought out the entirety of Marvel, including the Studios.  Though this looked to end the march towards a cinematic universe, surprisingly Disney secured the rights away from Paramount and Universal without a struggle, and Avengers opened to record breaking box office in 2012 right on schedule.  Eventually, Disney more than made up their investment as Marvel Studios became the most valuable brand at the box office over the next decade, and the Studio became more confident that they could make their move towards an Infinity War like event.  Eventually Sony relented and allowed Spider-Man to make an appearance in the universe and Fox is about to be brought into the Disney fold with all of it’s characters, though sadly too late for this event.  Even as the pieces fell into place, it is amazing that Marvel never lost focus and even managed to improvise as more options were made available to them.  Knowing the end game without even knowing exactly who would show up indicates some major risk-taking on Marvel’s part, and now it has finally arrived; the wish-fulfillment of 10 years of unprecedented world building.  But, the question is, did Marvel make Avengers: Infinity War  worthy of 10 years of planning and hype, or was it a whole lot of build-up for nothing?

Infinity War takes it’s title and story from comic book events that Marvel published in 1991 and 92.  Though many of the elements of those comics make it into this movie, the film is not a direct adaptation, instead choosing to make this a culmination of everything up to now in the MCU.  The narrative of the film takes place on two different fronts; on Earth, and in the cosmos.  Out in space, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is sent adrift after his ship is destroyed by Thanos (Josh Brolin), who has come to collect one of the Infinity Stones that is in the possession of Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).  Later on, the Guardians of the Galaxy find Thor unconscious and floating in space.  He is revived and seeks to find a way to avenge his people and destroy Thanos for good.  With the help of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), he sets off to the same place where his original hammer was forged in search of a weapon capable of killing the “Mad Titan” once and for all.  On Earth, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) has an encounter with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has been warned of the coming of Thanos by another survivor of the attack; Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), aka The Hulk.  But, the warning comes too late, as Thanos’ henchmen, The Black Order, have come to collect the remaining stones on Earth, one which Strange has.  They are whisked away on the Order’s ship, but not without gaining a valuable ally; Spider-Man (Tom Holland).  On the other side of the world, the other stone bearer Vision (Paul Bettany) is kept protected by what remains of the Avengers, led by Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and War Machine (Don Cheadle).  After encountering the Order, they take Vision and his companion Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) to the one place that can keep him safe the longest; Wakanda, where King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), aka Black Panther, is readying his people for a fight.  But the question remains if all the Avengers assembled are capable of stopping someone like Thanos, even as he gathers more and more Stones, granting him God-like power.

You can tell from all I’ve explained above that this is a pretty loaded movie, and I haven’t even gone that far in depth, mainly because if I said any more, it would start getting into spoiler territory.  The biggest danger that Marvel could have faced while making this movie was to overreach themselves.  So many characters and so little time to tell your story.  How could they fit it all into a 2 1/2 hour movie?  The answer is, remarkably well.  I’m happy to say that, for the most part, the movie with all these astronomical expectations put upon it manages to stick the landing.  This is absolutely Marvel firing on all cylinders and it creates what is undeniably one of their most satisfying films yet.  I hesitate to call it their best work just yet; I’m still processing what I just saw.  But it absolutely stands shoulder to shoulder among their best films.  And I think a large part of what makes the film work so well is the capable direction of the Russo Brothers, Joe and Anthony.  The duo started their time at Marvel with the well-received sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and then continued to impress the heads at Marvel and Disney with their first real test at assembling a movie with a larger cast with the incredible Captain America: Civil War (2016).  With those films under their belt, it was clear that they were the best successors to the Avengers franchise that Marvel could find after the departure of Joss Whedon in the directors chair.  To undertake such a massive film, with an army of iconic characters all at their disposal, probably would have been overwhelming for less adept filmmakers.  What made the Russos so ideal for this film was the fact that they are not filmmakers who try too hard, and instead bring a more measured approach to their storytelling.  They are not here to satisfy every comic book fan’s fantasy; they are here to service the story that needs to be told.  And with that, they manage to fit in just enough for every character without spoiling the audience with an overload of too many awesome moments.

One of the best parts of the movie is the way it uses the character dynamics of the MCU, both established and untried.  We see the remnants of the Avengers squad come back together in unexpected ways, and witness what long separations have left on the minds of each character.   We also explore more of the mentor relationship that Tony Stark has with Peter Parker, which delves even deeper than what we saw in Spide-Man: Homecoming (2017).  I also liked the dynamics of Doctor Strange and Iron Man having to work together, given their often competing mindsets, which lead to some often hilarious back and forths between the two.  But there are two brand new character interactions that really carry the movie over the edge for me.  One is Thor meeting the Guardians of the Galaxy.  Their moments together, especially when Star Lord (Chris Pratt) tries to alpha male Thor and fails badly, are among the film’s funniest and they never fail to entertain.  Even better, Thor actually shows incredible chemistry with Rocket Raccoon as they team up to create Thor’s new weapon; one of those friendships that you never thought you’d see develop in the Marvel universe ever, but you’ll be glad it exists now.  The other major relationship that drives the film is the one between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her adopted father Thanos.  The movie delves much deeper into their relationship than ever before, and we learn much more about what each means to the other.  While the Thor/ Guardians relationship brings the movie it’s greatest moments of levity, the Thanos/ Gamora relationship brings the film’s more somber moments, and both balance out the story in a very complimentary way.  Sure, some of the cast are given the shorter end of the stick (Black Panther fans shouldn’t be looking for too much of a continuation of the Wakandan story just yet), but a great deal of time is given to those who matter in this story, and it’s just the right amount spread amongst all.

The movie’s biggest triumph does belong to the character of Thanos.  This is a character that has been teased for quite a long time, first seen in profile at the end of The Avengers (2012) and then briefly in person in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  We’ve known of his coming for quite some time, which could have proved underwhelming in the end if Thanos was just your generic super baddie.  Thankfully, all that build-up allowed for Marvel to really hone in and find the character of Thanos, to make him fully rounded and in some shocking ways, a bit relatable.  Thanos is a man driven by obsession and not just blood lust.  In his mind, he is doing the right thing by bringing balance to the universe, by eliminating half it’s population one planet at a time.  He’s not a villain who stands over his victims and laughs maniacally at their pain.  He is cold, calculated precision and giving the power of the Infinity Stones to a mind like that makes him infinitely more scary.  I was fascinated by how the movie explored his mindset throughout the movie, showing that he is a monster of a different kind than anyone else we’ve met in the Marvel Universe.  To believably pull this kind of character off, it takes a capable actor to find the subtlety at it’s heart, and Marvel found the right actor in Josh Brolin.  Not only does the voice match perfectly with the character (deep and booming), but he even manages to find the little humanity that lies beneath the surface.  I also have to highly praise the animation used to bring Thanos to life.  Utilizing the same motion capture technology used on movies like The Hobbit and the Planet of the Apes series, they managed to include a remarkable amount of Brolin’s own on set performance into the final digital character that it almost feels like Thanos is really there in person.  Close-ups in particular really show off the incredible detail put into the model, and I could see Josh the actor even through the character in the tiny mannerisms that are distinctly his own.  Thanos gets his moment to shine, and the movie pulled out all the stops to make his arrival worth it.  By himself, he makes this a not to miss movie experience.

Knowing that this is Marvel’s most important movie to date, you can definitely expect that no expenses were spared in it’s making.  A reported $1 billion budget was approved by Disney to make this and it’s untitled follow-up for next year, which would even out to a record breaking $500 million per movie.  And every penny looks to have made it on screen.  Of course, paying this high price cast is one thing, but the movie also features some remarkable visuals as well.  We revisit the kingdom of Wakanda once again, sharing the same visual wonder that we experienced in Black Panther earlier this year, and it provides the setting for a climatic battle that stands on an epic scale equivalent to the likes of Lord of the Rings.  All of the space set stuff is also visually stunning, showing us worlds that we’ve yet to see in the Marvel Universe and still uniquely original compared to anything else we’ve seen in the movies.  There is one planet shown connected with one of the hidden Infinity Stones that presents this surreal quality that stood out from the rest and it left a very haunting effect on the experience.  It can get a bit overwhelming at times as we hop from one setting to another, but the Russos prove that their uncluttered approach is the right one.  They don’t try to force feed anything to us; they let each world develop into the story in a believable way that allows us to understand where we are and why we’ve moved to this place at each particular moment.  My only complaint about this is that the obligatory re-familiarizing that this movie has to undertake in order to set everything up does cause the first half of the movie to drag a slight bit.  All the meaty moments happen later on, and while the opening introductions take their time, it’s not enough to make you uneasy while you wait.  When this movie gets going it hits some big moments, and that helps to smooth out those early rough edges by the end of the film.

I would definitely say go out and watch this movie right now, but I feel that most of you are probably already doing that at this moment.  This is going to be another monster hit for a studio that has had nothing but hits for the last decade.  Marvel has set the gold standard for world-building in movies over the last 10 years, and have managed to not only bring all their characters together in one film, but also make that same film coherent and engaging as it’s own stand alone story.  No character goes un-wasted, and some get to shine brighter here than they have in any other movie before.  The Russos managed to take this seemingly impossible undertaking , and make it feel effortless by the end, purely by giving the right amount and nothing more.  This is not a movie made for fan service; this is a culmination of everything that Marvel has done in accordance with their ultimate goal.  And I do have to say, it is one of their boldest moves too.  I can’t say exactly what transpires, but this movie has one of the most shocking endings that you’ll ever find in a movie made by Marvel or anyone else.  It’s a drastic move that could only come from a company that has the confidence to see it through and not worry about how the audiences might react.  The audience I saw the movie with were left pretty stunned as the credits began to role, and I’m interested to see how this ending plays out in the rest of the world.  It’s gutsy, and I applaud Marvel for holding to their guns.  To say that it is world-changing would be an understatement.  No doubt it’s going to make us even more eager to watch the next installment.  Regardless, considering all the factors that this movie’s making had to be scrutinized under, I think that the basic fact that it flows together as well as it does is a real triumph on Marvel’s part, and perhaps the greatest indicator yet of why they stand unchallenged as the kings of Comic Book movies.

Rating: 9/10

The Movies of Summer 2018

You’re probably thinking that this is a little early for my yearly summer preview.  We’re in the middle of April and the official start to the Summer movie season is still two weeks away.  Well you can thank Marvel for that.  Probably as a precaution to stay ahead of spoilers as they roll out their movie worldwide, Marvel decided to move up their premiere date for Avengers: Infinity War a week earlier than their usual first week of May window.  So, the summer’s most anticipated film, and probably the most anticipated movie of the year (let alone the decade), is now scheduled for the last week of April, which is usually a dead zone for movie releases.  Of course, Infinity War will change that easily with what is expected to be a record breaking weekend, but unfortunately, it changes my own schedule for articles on this blog.  For one thing, do I even still consider Infinity War a Summer movie at all, or a late Spring one?  Considering that the whole month of May is considered part of the Summer season according to Hollywood, I guess one extra week doesn’t change much at all.  Regardless, Marvel is going to build upon a year that they have already dominated up to now.  Black Panther now stands as the third highest grossing movie of all time, as well as the highest grossing super hero movie in general, which is all the more remarkable considering that it opened in February.  It once again shows that with the right amount of planning and hype (and a little luck) any part of the year can produce a record setting blockbuster film.  Even as Black Panther’s run is starting to finally settle, other movies are filling it’s place with some solid box office performance.  Recent hit A Quiet Place is demonstrating once again the consistent working model of low budget, smartly crafted horror movies generating strong box office returns.  Really, the only disappointments so far have been sequels like Pacific Rim: Uprising and reboots like Tomb Raider, which doesn’t bode well for an upcoming Summer season chock full of the same.

Like previous years, I will be breaking up this preview into three categories; the movies that I believe are must sees, the ones that have me worried, and the ones to skip entirely.  I will give my thoughts based on my own preconceptions of the movies based on the effectiveness of their marketing, as well as just my overall enthusiasm regarding each one.  Remember, I don’t always have the best batting average when it comes to handicapping these movies, so some of these movies may turn out to be better than I anticipated, or worse.  My hope is for the better.  I will also embed trailers to each film to give you a little visual sample of what I’m writing about as well.  So, without any more delay, here is my outlook for the movies of Summer 2018.

MUST SEES:

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (APRIL 27)

Like I stated earlier, the decision to move this movie’s release up a week creates a debate as to whether it is a Summer release or not.  Because I still want to spotlight this movie, I’m going to still classify it as a Summer release film, one because it’s Marvel, and two, we were already pushing the boundaries before by including the month of May.  And this isn’t just any Marvel movie; this is “THE” Marvel movie.  The one that all the others before it were leading up to.  The whole purpose of having the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe was to eventually have that one day when all the various pieces would come together as one into a single, giant sized event.  We got part of that with the first two Avengers flicks, but those team-ups will seem small when compared to this.  This movie is going to have every single established character that has appeared in the last 18 films made by the studio all sharing screen time together, and that alone makes this a historic production.  Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and also the Guardians of the Galaxy, they are all here.  Needless to say, this is a movie that we’ve long awaited.  From the moment Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury showed up in Tony Stark’s compound and told him about the Avenger Initiative in the first Iron Man (2008), there has been a plan in place at Marvel Studios, further reinforced by the introductions of the all powerful Infinity Stones and the mad Titan searching the cosmos for them, Thanos (Josh Brolin).  Every Marvel movie up to now, even the recent Black Panther, has laid the groundwork for Infinity War to happen, and this comes as the culmination of 10 years worth of planning and execution that has yielded one of the most prolific franchises in movie history.  Let’s hope that this movie lives up to the unprecedented level of anticipation that proceeds it, and given Marvel’s record so far, it’s hard to think that they won’t have something special ready for us this year.  They are clearly confident enough to give it to us a week early so let’s assemble Avengers.

DEADPOOL 2 (MAY 18)

Speaking of Marvel super heroes, it’s time to revisit the “merc with the mouth.”  Deadpool 2 comes quickly on the heels of the surprise hit from 2016, with Ryan Reynolds once again returning to the role that he has made all his own.  The first Deadpool was a breath of fresh air in a genre that was starting to grow stale at the time, with it’s irreverant sense of humor and constant fourth wall breaks that really turned the super hero film on it’s head.  My hope is that the same crazy spirit that lifted the first movie will carry over into the second.  The trailers are already doing a good job of selling the humor in the new film, with jabs taken at everything from the X-Men franchise, to cinematic universes, to even The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005).  Creative differences led to the original director Tim Miller leaving this project, but the reigns were given over to the team behind the thrilling John Wick franchise, so hopefully the movie is able to maintain a level of fun that feels consistent.  One major plus for this movie is the inclusion of the character Cable (Josh Brolin once again, who’s about to have one hell of a Summer season), who looks to be a great foil for Deadpool to work his looniness off of.  As I’ve written about the movie before in past reviews, Deadpool was a shot in the funny bone that the superhero genre desperately needed at the time, and it’s success has been definitely earned.  A sequel is definitely not out of the question, since there is so much more to lampoon in the genre going forward, and DP is sure to have plenty more adventures to come, which should become interesting once Fox is incorporated into Disney, and Deadpool has the opportunity to finally mingle with all of Marvel’s other characters, whether they like it or not.

INCREDIBLES 2 (JUNE 15)

Sticking with this Summer’s notable streak of super hero movies, we finally have the long awaited sequel to Pixar’s Oscar-winning classic, The Incredibles.  Incredibles 2 comes to the big screen after a 14 year gap, the longest so far in Pixar history, narrowly eclipsing Finding Dory’s 13 years.  Pixar takes their time to revisit their past successes, but when they do, it usually is worth the wait.  The positive thing going for this sequel is that it sees the return of director Brad Bird to the world of animation, after a decade long side track into live action film-making which garnered mixed results; the thrilling Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) and the underwhelming Tomorrowland (2015).  Here he gets to revisit the narrative that turned him into a household name in the first place, and share the continuing adventures of the super powered Parr family.  A lot of fans have said for a long time that if there was ever a Pixar movie that was deserving of a sequel, this was the one, and thankfully the studio has finally got around to it.  The premise seems to be a worthy follow-up to the original, with both Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl trying their best to live a normal domestic life while at the same time trying to save the world as super heroes do.  This time around, we find Mr. Incredible left with the responsibility of running the household on his own, which should lead to some very funny situations, especially with baby Jack-Jack’s out of control powers becoming a problem.  Couple that with new villains and returning allies like Samuel L. Jackson’s ultra-cool Frozone, and this should be as thrilling a ride as the original was.  Let’s just hope that even after 14 years, this movie is still able to find the heart that made the first one so endearing, which shouldn’t be too hard as Pixar is renowned for it’s ability to constantly play to the best of our emotions.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT (JULY 27)

Stepping away from super heroes for a moment, let’s take a look at another franchise that has shown some remarkable legs for so many years.  This sixth entry into the Mission Impossible franchise returns Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt back into another harrowing mission to save the world, only this one might be his last.  Cruise has always demonstrated a sense of fearlessness in most of his movies, often choosing to perform his own stunts most of the time, and the Mission Impossible movies are where he likes to show off his skills the most.  And Tom Cruise need to return to favorable ground after the disaster that was The Mummy last year.  The series has recently seen a bit of a resurgence thanks to the success of critically acclaimed entries like Ghost Protocol (2011) and Rogue Nation (2015).  Fallout seems to be closing up this second trilogy by picking up right where Rogue Nation left off, and seeming to hint that many of the dangling story-lines surrounding Mr. Hunt are about to be closed for good.  It’s hard to say if this is Tom Cruise’s last go around, but he certainly looks to still be in top form again here.  It’s clear that these Mission impossible movies are his favorites among all the action films he’s made, and in particular, he really likes to use them as a showcase for some truly insane stunt work.  It’ll be hard to top climbing the Burj Khalifa or riding on the outside of real plane on take off from the previous films, but Cruise notably did break his ankle for real on one stunt for this movie, showing that he indeed is not willing to slow down.  His regular team mates also return, including Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg, though notably the film is missing Jeremy Renner (who was probably busy on Infinity War).  Thankfully, Man of Steel’s Henry Cavill seems to be filling this gap effectively.  Let’s hope that even after 6 total films that this is still a mission worth accepting.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (JULY 6)

Now it’s back to super heroes again.  What can I say, Marvel is having a banner year with Black Panther and Infinity War, so it feels right to feel optimistic about anything they put out right now.  The first Ant-Man overcame a troubled production that saw the departure of it’s original director, Edgar Wright, and ended up becoming a modest success in the end.  Though far from Marvel’s best work to date, Ant-Man still managed to do just enough right in order to warrant a sequel.  It’s a bold move to make this their follow-up to Infinity War for this summer, but hopefully it’s a sign that Marvel has confidence in their little hero.  One notable thing about this sequel is that it finally introduces the Wasp into the Marvel universe, played here by Evangeline Lilly, who is a long time fan favorite from the comic books.  Paul Rudd of course returns as the titular Ant-Man, and his character was no doubt boosted by his very beloved cameo in Captain America: Civil War (2016), which introduced his Giant Man phase in spectacular fashion.  Not much else is known about this movie apart from what the trailer has shown us, but it looks like they are playing around with the size changing mechanics a whole lot more, which could be interesting to see play out.  I also like seeing Michael Douglas returning in the mentor role of original Ant-Man Hank Pym, and the revelation that the original Wasp is also going to factor into the story, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, is also something worth getting excited about.  Without a troubled production this time around to weigh the release down, Ant-Man and the Wasp is hopefully one more Marvel sequel that builds upon an already good thing.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (MAY 25)

What’s there to really worry about with a new Star Wars movie.  The world’s most popular film franchise is enjoying a Renaissance period right now, with The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi all becoming enormous box office successes.  And this new film is focused on one of the series’ most popular characters, delving finally into his mostly mysterious backstory.  So, why am I worried about this one.  Well, sadly this movie has been plagued by nothing but bad press for the last couple of years; pretty much from the time the movie started production.  The original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie), were let go after a creative dispute over the tone of the movie with Lucasfilm worrying that it strayed too far from the Star Wars formula.  The casting of relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich in the iconic role of Han Solo also left many people scratching their heads, since he doesn’t really look or sound anywhere close to Harrison Ford.  Couple this with many expensive 11th hour re-shoots and many people are worrying that this might be the movie that derails the resurgence that the franchise has enjoyed these last couple years.   The prospects don’t look good for the movie, but then again the Star Wars name will still help it make a lot of money.  It’s the worry that the movie may tarnish that same name in the process that still hangs heavy over it.  The plus side is that veteran director Ron Howard is helping to guide this movie past the finish line, and the film does have an impressive cast besides Ehrenreich that will be interesting to watch, like Woody Harrelson and Game of Thrones Emilia Clarke.  Most people are excited to see a return to the big screen for fan favorite Lando Calrissian, with Donald Glover filling Billy Dee Williams big shoes.  It remains to be seen if this movie can pull off a comeback and continue the Star Wars hot streak, but more than any film in this series before, this is the one that has to clear the most roadblocks.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (JUNE 29)

The sad thing about sleeper hits in Hollywood is that it makes studios believe that they can turn what little success they got into bigger success by franchising something that wasn’t really built for a franchise.  The first Sicario (2015) was a brilliant and taut thriller that ended up making it’s way to the top of my best of the year list for that year.  But, it was a movie that was more about it’s characters than the subject matter and the setting, that being the border drug war between Mexican cartels and the Feds of the United States, and the movie concluded on such a perfect note that any more to the story would have diluted the power of everything that came before.  But, it appears that Sony believes there is more to mine out of this property, and have manufactured a sequel without the original director (Denis Villeneuve) and with far more emphasis on the action set pieces.  My worry is that the movie is going to forget what made the original so perfect, which was largely the level of restraint that Villeneuve utilized to maximize the impact of the brief action sequences, and instead just turn this into another generic and bloated action movie that contains lots of violence and no soul.  Then again, there are some positives that do still intrigue me about this sequel.  Despite loosing the director, the movie does retain the original screenwriter (Taylor Sheridan), who since writing Sicario has been on a role with other acclaimed scripts like Hell or High Water (2016) and Wind River (2017).  Stars Josh Brolin (again) and Benicio del Toro are also returning, and Del Toro’s return is crucial, because his character from the original is one of my favorite movie characters in recent memory.  Hopefully, this is more than just a studio cash grab and that it’s able to live up to it’s exceptional predecessor, but even still, we’ve seen Hollywood indulge too much in a good thing before, and ended up spoiling something special in the process.  I just don’t want to see that happen to Sicario too.

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (JUNE 22)

A couple years ago, I also included the first Jurassic World in my “worry” list, believing that it was going to be just another lame studio reboot of an already diminished franchise.  Surprisingly, I found myself actually liking the movie in the end.  While it was no where near as good as Spielberg’s 1993 original classic, it was still the best Jurassic Park sequel that we had yet seen, and it did spectacularly well at the box office, becoming one of the highest grossing movies of all time.  So, naturally there is going to be a sequel, as Universal is striking while the iron is still hot.  But, given how much Jurassic World was already stretching the franchise thin by rehashing already overused tropes that were already established in previous films, it really leaves you wondering what else the franchise still has left to offer.  The trailer unfortunately shows a whole bunch of story-lines being crammed together; a volcanic catastrophe, dinosaurs getting sold at auction, genetic experimentation gone wrong, and it just makes it look like this movie might turn into one confused and jumbled mess.  The already thinly drawn characters from World are returning, but Chris Pratt’s star power could help make his scenes at least enjoyable.  Also I cringe at the pandering inclusion of Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm as a means of tying this film in with the original.  At least the studio brought on a legit good director to guide this sequel with J. A . Bayona, who made my top film of 2016 (A Monster Calls).  My hope is that he can bring something worthwhile out of this, but considering that I’m getting some strong The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) vibes from this trailer (which is the worst film in the series), I am once again worried about where this franchise is headed.

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (AUGUST 3)

This is an unusual Summer release.  If you’ve been reading my blog these last few years, you’ll know that I have mixed feelings with regards to Disney’s recent frenzy of live action remakes of their classic animated films.  I liked Cinderella (2015) and Pete’s Dragon (2016) quite a bit, and I tolerated most of The Jungle Book (2016), but I hated Maleficent (2014) and absolutely loathed last year’s Beauty and the Beast.  So you can understand why I might be a little weary of a live action movie centered around Winnie the Pooh.  Now, to be fair, this is less of remake and more of a re-imagining.  The story shows the titular Christopher Robin now fully grown up and with a family of his own being revisited by Pooh after who knows how many years.  There could be some interesting story possibilities to mine out of this scenario, especially with how different Christopher must seem to Pooh as an adult and how that might clash with the bear’s view of the world.  The danger is that, like most of Disney’s other recent remakes, the filmmakers might end up mining too much from the original animated cartoons hoping to capitalize on our familiarity instead of forging new ground and creating something original that can stand on it’s own.  The fact that this is a more or less original story is a positive sign, but there’s not much else that this trailer is telling us.  The movie can’t just rest on a saccharine sweet reunion between old friends; there should be some pathos there as well.  I’m not going into this movie expecting to hate it, but it’s got to show me that there’s a justification for a new take on Winnie the Pooh on the big screen.  Some reverence for the past is fine, and I like the fact that they retained long time voice actor Jim Cummings in the role of Pooh, but like most other movies, it’s best when we are treated to something new.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN (JULY 20)

Seriously, a sequel to Mamma Mia (2008).  The original was already one of the most critically panned musicals to come out in the last decade; why bother making another?  Sure it has a fan base, but not a very big one.  Not only that, but the sequel leaves out one of the biggest drawing factors of the first movie, which was Meryl Streep in the headlining role.  Her character is deceased this time around, leaving a big hole in an already sunken pit.  If you can’t tell, I’m not a fan of this musical or movie.  What may have played well on the stage died horribly in a lamely executed film adaptation, even with Meryl’s participation.  Without her returning (at least in a lead role), what else is there to be excited for in this film.  The real kicker though is that it’s clear that the filmmakers are so devoid of new directions for this story that they are just going back in time and showing us the origins of Meryl’s character, played by Cinderella’s Lily James in flashbacks.   I was probably never going to see this movie at all to begin with, but my hope is that even those of you out there with any bit of curiosity will take a long look at this sequel and recognize that it is a studio cash grab and nothing more.  At a time when movie musicals are struggling and needing a La La Land (2016) like reinvention, the last thing we need is a franchise that’s just rehashing old tracks like an overused karaoke machine, which this movie very clearly is.

ALPHA (AUGUST 17)

Not only does this movie have the disadvantage of having one of the most overplayed movie trailers in the last year, due to the fact that it’s release has been pushed back numerous times, but it also has to put up with the controversy surrounding it’s casting choices.  Hollywood is already facing backlash in many instances of white-washing their films by casting white actors in roles meant for minorities, and here we have a big budget studio film that again falls into that same misguided territory.  The movie is set thousands of years ago during the last ice age, and shows the beginnings of what would be the domestication of canines as companions for early humans.  The premise could be intriguing, but you can’t help but be distracted by the fact that the human characters, who are supposed to be indigenous tribal people, are all being played by Caucasian actors.  Now, the movie could get around that fact by placing their setting in a prehistoric Eurasian context, but the inclusion of creature that are native to North America like buffaloes indicates that this casting is clearly out of line with real history, and again shows Hollywood’s reluctance to extend representation to Native performers in many mainstream films.  Even apart from this controversy, the movie just looks bland, especially compared to other recent survival in the wild films like the more visually interesting The Revenant (2015).  The fact that the studio has had trouble finding an appropriate release date shows that there isn’t much to hope for with this one.

TAG (JUNE 15)

I originally thought that this trailer was a joke, like that fake Crocodile Dundee reboot staring Danny McBride that turned out to just be an ad for Australian tourism.  But, no, this is an honest to goodness real movie, and I honestly would rather watch another Crocodile Dundee.   We’re seriously so devoid of new ideas that Hollywood is now making an action comedy based around the game of tag.  Sure, the cast that includes Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Ed Helms, and Hannibal Buress is impressive, but I just can’t get over the lameness of the premise.  It’s not a good sign when the movie’s tagline states, “we’re not kidding” showing that even they know that this is a hard sell.  The trailer doesn’t give me a lot of confidence either.  It seems like they are trying to aim for a Wedding Crashers (2005) or The Hangover (2008) kind of vibe here, but those movies had more of a grounded reality to them to make their hi-jinks funny.  Here, you have to swallow a lot of disbelief to think that a game of tag has these kind of stakes to it.  And yeah, I know that it’s supposed to be based on a true story, but even with that, this look less like a fun romp and more like a ploy for cheap laughs.  I’m far less inclined to believe that this movie will tag me with a surprising amount of laughs, and I’ll more than likely want to avoid the game altogether.

So, there you have my look at this Summer’s upcoming releases.  Surprisingly, this is kind of a soft field for what is typically a packed season.  It’s like everyone is steering clear of big hitters like Infinity War and Incredibles 2, with large gaps of several weeks filled with not much other than smaller indies and standard studio fillers.   The month of August in particular is devoid of any real buzz-worthy tent-pole films, which is surprising given how recent movies like Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Suicide Squad (2016) have shown it to be fertile ground too.  Is this a sign that Hollywood is not as enamored with the Summer months like they used to be, considering that blockbuster films are now appearing in all parts of the year?  It might be more likely that this Summer season is just a little less full than past years, as it’s been shown that packing a blockbuster into every week of the season isn’t going to necessarily generate record breaking results.  Next year could be very different, depending on what moves the studios make based on this year.  The unexpected success of Spring and Winter films is certainly having an impact, and parts of the year that looked like the only place to gain box office traction once may not be seen as such in today’s market.  But, even still, a monster production like Avengers: Infinity War is still going to set many Summer season box office records without any doubt, and several other films this Summer, like Incredibles and Jurassic World will also likely hit it big.  So, even though it starts earlier than usual, thanks to Marvel, this should still be a typically strong summer, and I’m happy to have shared my thoughts with you about it, even as they come earlier than normal.  Here’s to sun and fun at the movies these next few months.

Sink or Stream – How Hollywood is Responding to the Rise of Netflix and Streaming Content

If there is a single constant in the world of entertainment, it’s that it is ever changing.  Every new era we live in sees advancements in technology, and those advancements in one way or another will somehow change the way we live and in turn how we entertain ourselves.  We live in a world right now that has the most advanced access to communication that history has ever known, and it will only grow more sophisticated over time.  In addition to the abundance of online access as a way of communicating to others, we have also seen in the last decade the rise of online streaming as a way of sharing content with the world.  Whether it is through our own videos published online through places like YouTube, or streaming channels like Netflix, Amazon or Hulu, more and more people are finding their entertainment online rather than through traditional broadcasting.  And this is a change that the entertainment business is still trying to come to terms with.  Before the internet began to change the patterns of human behavior, Hollywood could easily gauge the pulse of their audience by following the box office returns in the movie theaters, or collect the ratings from the Nielsen programming charts with regards to television.  But today, streaming content lives by a different set of rules, where people have more choice in what they want to watch and when they want to watch it, with the actual numbers of viewership being kept a closely guarded secret within the different streaming corporation.  As a result, you have new giant players in the entertainment business taking advantage of their head start and inside knowledge of a new form of entertainment that Hollywood and the rest of the industry doesn’t quite understand yet.

What has really been shaking the film industry lately is the meteoric rise of Netflix in the last few years.   Started in Silicon Valley in 1998, Netflix grew from a simple website specializing in video rentals to a full blown movie studio in just a short 20 year span.  Their DVD rental by mail service of course is what got them on the map to begin with (and led to the eventual downfall of once unstoppable rental giant Blockbuster Video), but it was their introduction to streaming on demand content that really propelled them further.  First, it began with streaming movies that were already licensed out to them, but then Netflix took the bold step of deciding to create original content for their subscriber base to access.  They began with original shows, but later went on to producing original films, as well as buying up independent productions from festivals and the international marketplace.  All this has led Netflix to becoming a major player in Hollywood, with exclusive content being added to their platform on almost a daily basis.  They are now attracting the likes of Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, and many more high profile filmmakers to joining their roster of content makers, giving them the kind of prestige that normally is reserved for the biggest studios in the industry.  But, more than all that, they have effectively changed the way that we are consuming media today.  The Netflix model is now starting to become the norm in society today, as more and more people are choosing to watch their shows and movies from the comforts of their own home and on their own schedule.  It’s far more convenient for audiences to click and watch something immediately through their Netflix page, rather than having to look up the showtimes of their local theater or planning their day around the scheduled broadcast of their favorite show.  And by servicing this preferred way of watching media, Netflix has been able to prosper.  But, the question has also been raised questioning Netflix’s role in entertainment; if it plays online and never gets screened in a theater for an audience, should it still be considered a movie?

That is the question that is being raised right now in the industry, and one that has caused a rift between the traditional system of film distribution and Netflix’s online empire.  Just this last week (as of this writing), Netflix decided to pull several of their films from screening at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France.  This was in response to rule changes made by the festival that required the films in contention to have a scheduled release in French theaters within the same year.  This of course goes against Netflix’s business model, which is that everything they produce is exclusive to and can only be accessed through their site, which would be pointless if the film was also available elsewhere in a local theater.  Though Netflix was still allowed to screen at the festival, their streaming only rule prevented them from competition, so the company chose to remove themselves completely out of protest.  In the long run, this decision won’t hurt Netflix in terms of revenue, but it is a slap in the face to the filmmakers who were eager to have a presence at this year’s festival, including Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuaron, who was sad that his new Netflix produced film Roma was not being screened because of this boycott.  But the one point that Cannes’ decision is making with their new rules is to state a standard for what is considered a movie or not.  For the many years that the festival has run, movies have been screened for audiences in theaters, and this has been the norm of the industry for decades.  It’s something that Netflix can’t duplicate with their on demand services, because a theater experience is certainly a lot different than a home viewing experience, and some believe that this is crucial to how we judge the quality of a film in the end.  Steven Spielberg also recently put in his two cents, stating that if a movie is shown only on television through Netflix or other streamers, it is therefore a TV movie and should not be eligible for accolades like Oscars of Cannes’ Palme d’Or, which are given out to theatrical films.

Though there is validity to what Cannes and Spielberg are arguing about what constitutes a cinematic experience and what doesn’t, there is the counterpoint that states that the traditional way of watching a movie is evolving and that a theatrical experience may not be the norm in the future.  Netflix could indeed be positioning themselves for a New Hollywood of the future that will see more and more premieres of movies online than in regular brick and mortar movie theaters.  Though the shift hasn’t happened yet, as most theater chains are still seeing good business thanks to blockbusters like Black Panther currently, the gap between theatrical and home video releases are becoming shorter and it may be only a matter of years before the middle man is cut out completely and even big blockbusters make their premieres online instead.  From then on, theatrical experiences will turn into a novelty rather than the standard for entertainment, and many businesses that are reliant on the model as it is now will quickly disappear because they couldn’t adapt.  Remember, Netflix has crushed another industry before (Blockbuster) through their ability to read the signs of a changing culture, and they are very capable of rising above the heap of another un-adaptable industry in the future.  But, to take stock in what Spielberg and other skeptics have said, if the old standards mean nothing in the end, then what can we honestly call cinema as a result.  To be considered for accolades that have existed for several decades, these movies from streaming services must adhere to the same rules that all the other past winners have, and that puts places like Netflix at a crossroads.  Do they bend to the rules of the past, or do they make the rules bend to them?

The notion of a New Hollywood emerging out of this conflict is something that is causing a lot of friction in Hollywood today.  Some in the industry are going to fall behind, without a doubt, and those who adapt will find themselves in a far different position than when they started out.  The studios for instance are already going through some of those changes.  Everyone from Warner Brothers, to Paramount, to Sony, to Disney and Fox are expanding their online presence and working to increase their output to reach the new crop of online viewer, sometimes in partnership with places like Netflix and in other places in direct competition.  The recent and still processing acquisition of Fox by Disney may in fact play into this as well.  Disney recognizes that the business is changing, and that Netflix may not just be a producer of films in the future, but perhaps could be a mega-studio that dictates both what gets made and how people get to watch it in difference to what they themselves wish to make.  So, once the Fox Studio went on the market, Disney made their bold move to acquire it as part of it’s own media empire.  Some have speculated that this is Disney creating a Hollywood monopoly, but I personally believe that this is them and Fox preparing themselves for the New Hollywood that will emerge through the influence of Netflix.  Disney has already announced that they are ending their current partnership with Netflix and will launch their own streaming service in the near future.  Considering that this new Disney streaming channel will now have two studios worth of exclusive content tells me that this is their attempt to be prepared for this change in the industry, and indicates to me why Fox felt more inclined to merge with them than they would’ve a few years ago.  Better to face this new world as partners than to fend off the unknown all by yourself.

But, apart from joining forces to create a new mega corporation that can live longer in a reforming industry, there are other things that Hollywood can take into consideration in order to balance out the changing tide of streaming content.  What has helped Netflix to prosper in such a short time is their ability to draw top tier talent to their company.  The fore-mentioned Scorsese and Coen Brothers are also following in the footsteps of fellow prestigious talent like David Fincher, Noah Baumbach, Joon-ho Bong, and many other celebrated artists who have taken their new projects directly to the distributor, even with their insistence on streaming only presentations.  And this is largely due to Netflix more lasse faire and risk-taking attitude towards the content that is produced.  They are production company with deep pockets that allows for more creative freedom than most other studios are capable of giving.  With that in consideration, who wouldn’t want to go to Netflix with their new movie or show idea?  Even Spielberg stated that he’s still open to working with Netflix in the future on some project despite how he feels about their eligibility for Oscars.  Mainly the reason why Netflix allows for this kind of creativity is because they don’t have to follow the same rules as the rest of Hollywood.  They don’t have to focus group their movies to ensure that they appeal to the widest range of cinema goers across the country.  If they believe that a project is good enough, they will make it and put it on their channel and make it available to anyone interested, which often is helped when it’s got a big name attached to it.  For Netflix, it’s not a race to box office grosses or ratings, but instead about growing their subscriber base, which is helped out with a diverse set of exclusive content.  The beneficial result of this is to change the other studio’s preconceptions of what is popular with audiences and convince them to up their game and compete with more creative freedom within their own company.  Those who can’t see the benefit of Netflix’s risk-taking and only choose to play it safe will only isolate themselves further in the changing market.

But, Netflix can also box themselves in if they are too insistent on their platform becoming the new standard.  Because, even despite the change that the industry is going through, there will still be a place for the traditional cinematic experience.  Cinema has faced the onslaught of changing technology before, especially with the introduction and normalization of television in the 1950’s, and it’s continued to prosper ever since.  The reason for this has been the enduring appeal of an in theater experience.  When television began to challenge the theater business, they answered by widening the screen and making new films feel like an event worthy of leaving home and the TV alone for a couple of hours.  The era of blockbusters in the 80’s and 90’s also helped to counteract the rise of home video, which brought a whole new way of watching movies into the average household across the world.  Hollywood even managed to marginalize direct-to-video entertainment, showing that it was in no way the same as seeing a movie in the theater.  Netflix provides more of a challenge to the theater business than most other things before, but again, competition does spur on innovation, and I can see the theater business evolving in this new era as well.  In a way, it’s something that already distinguishes Netflix from it’s most direct competition.  Amazon Studios releases all of their movie theatrically before putting them on their streaming service and not on home video, which has helped them to gain an edge over Netflix in the accolades department, having more nominated films so far than the other thanks to films like Manchester by the Sea (2016) and The Big Sick (2017).  And with future competitors like Disney/Fox, Apple, and AT&T’s Time Warner conglomerate emerging, all of whom which have long standing partnerships with theater chains across the world, Netflix could find itself lacking in marketplace that might thrive well enough without them.  My guess is that Netflix could indeed enter the theater business itself if it wanted too, by buying up or starting their own theater chain; though this might run the risk of violating anti-trust laws that dismantled the studio system in the 1950’s.  As it shows, the advancement of a New Hollywood in the years to come could prove to be problematic, even with a leader like Netflix.

There is no doubt that we are right now witnessing the infancy of a new world order in terms of how Hollywood and the entertainment business will function in the future.  It may not be at the top just yet, but Netflix is quickly becoming the leader in this New Hollywood movement and it remains to be seen just how much of an impact they leave on the business as a whole.   Netflix is already making it’s case in Hollywood by gaining a strong foothold within the industry.  They have already moved their headquarters from the Bay Area to the heart of Hollywood; buying up the legendary Sunset Bronson Studio Lot on Sunset Boulevard and building a massive new tower that bears their name and looms large over the ever busy 101 Hollywood Freeway.  And you’ll be hard pressed not to find a picture online of Netflix CCO Ted Sarandos where he’s socializing with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.  This is company that clearly has it’s eyes on broadening it’s presence in Hollywood and emerging as the industry leader once the market moves closer to streaming exclusively over releasing theatrically.  Even still, Hollywood is changing alongside Netflix, and we are already watching that evolution take some dramatic steps.  Disney and Fox will soon become one entity and other major studios may either consolidate to compete and start their own streaming service, or fall off completely.  In a decade or so, the “Big Six” studios as we know them now could end up becoming the “Big Three”, with maybe even Netflix or Amazon becoming majors themselves.  This is all speculation, but there are clearly many things that Netflix is already changing about Hollywood that could lead them down this road.  They have the benefit of artists being attracted to their more lax restrictions and interference, and the convenience of their service is also appealing to audiences.  But, they’ll have to deal with the question of whether or not what they are making is considered a movie at all based on the standards that the industry has been built upon.  They may have to adhere to what Hollywood is now, but only until Hollywood becomes like them in time.  Then it won’t matter what screen it’s presented on; Netflix and it’s ilk will be our window into the world of cinema for the internet based age that’s going to shape all of us for generations to come.

Off the Page – The Great Gatsby

There are few other directors out there who can create such a divided opinion of his work than Baz Luhrmann.  The Aussie auteur either receives enormous praise for his lavishly made films, or is savaged by critics for his often indulgent tastes.  There is very little ground in between on most of his movies, and surprisingly enough those same critics directed at one of his films may end up switching allegiance on their stance towards the director based on the next film.  I think the strong feelings that Baz elicits from critics and viewers are due to the fact that he has an uncompromising style, which is certainly unique and all his own, but is also an acquired taste.  Starting off with his debut in the lavish Strictly Ballroom (1992), Baz has gone on to refine a style that emphasizes bold colors, quick paced editing, and an often operatic form of storytelling.  And when he uses his distinct style, it’s often used to challenge cinematic conventions by working it’s way into unexpected genres.  He re-imagined Shakespeare by putting a modern twist on Romeo + Juliet (1996), which was irksome to some Bard purists.  He also tried and failed to make a sweeping romantic epic centered around his homeland in Australia (2008).  However, his most highly regarded film, Moulin Rouge! (2001), is largely seen as the movie that revitalized the dormant movie musical genre, so while he may be divisive he at the same time has also proved to be highly influential.  I myself am mixed on his effectiveness as a filmmaker.  While I absolutely loathed Australia,  as I wrote in my scathing critique here, I do admire his bold visual style, especially in his earlier work like Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet (Moulin Rouge was borderline in my opinion).  But after the failure of Australia, Baz needed something to prove that he could balance style with substance again, and once again he made a bold choice in tackling a beloved literary classic; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Gatsby is not only a cherished classic in literary circles, but can also make a case for being the “Great American Novel,” taking that distinction away from the likes of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter.  Published in 1925, Fitzgerald’s novel is a snapshot of America in the Roaring Twenties, chronicling the decadence and greed that consumed the country at the time and dissecting the essence of the American dream that both drove the nation forward and also caused it to crack apart at the same time.  Fitzgerald drew heavily from his own experiences, having attended many lavish parties put on by the social elites of his day, and in particular, captured in his writing the types of characters that he would meet in many interactions.  Though Fitzgerald certainly observes the cultural awakening of the 20’s with an air of admiration, he casts a critical eye (through a quite literal metaphor even) on the class divisions that also define the era.  It’s a novel about dreaming, but also about the limitations of dreams, and it ultimately concludes on a very sour tragic note.  The bleakness of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is largely what made the book a failure in it’s initial release, because nobody who was enjoying the decadence of the Jazz Age was interested in seeing the downside to all their fun.  Of course, the Depression Era that followed changed a few minds, and now The Great Gatsby is regarded as a masterpiece.  It is now considered essential reading for nearly all American school curriculum, because of it’s distinctly American themes and the way that it dissects the social issues and divisions that still resonate in modern society.  Though F. Scott Fitzgerald was disheartened by the lack of appreciation that his work received in it’s time, and also dying at the young age of 44 believing that his writing was lost to era, he may be appreciative of the fact that Gatsby’s legacy endures to this day; even when given up to new interpretations like the one in Baz Luhrmann’s film.

“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice. ‘Always try to see the best in people,’ he would say.  As a consequence, i’m inclined to reserve judgement. But even I have a limit.”

One big difference that can be derived between the book and the movie is the intent of each.  What F. Scott Fitzgerald envisioned as an examination of the world that he lived in, Luhrmann sees as a canvas for his lavish production design.  Baz is clearly fascinated with the era of the Roaring Twenties, and all the visual splendor that can be drawn from it; the fashion, the opulent art deco architecture, and even the striking contrasts between the have and have nots of the era.  In The Great Gatsby movie, Baz wants to play around in this era and use his film-making talents to do it.  The movie does take advantage of the many lavish parties that Fitzgerald describes in his book, and films them with the same over the top vigor that he brought to Moulin Rogue 12 years prior to this production.  The quick editing and glitzy cinematography make a return here, but the movie doesn’t stop there with the modern aesthetics added to this classic narrative.  The movie also adds a hip hop flavored soundtrack, with music that is quite obviously anachronistic to the era, although in some cases inspired.  It’s certainly a jarring thing to hear the rapping of Jay-Z (who also served as the film’s executive producer) butting up against the likes of Cole Porter.  But, it’s part of the clashing of cultural elements that defines a lot of Luhrmann’s style.  But even with all the cinematic flair that he adds to delight the eyes of the viewer, is it really possible for this Aussie director to capture the essence of this quintessential American story.  Surprisingly, he does, albeit with a few less than successful elements.  Though I despised Australia, I actually found that I had more positive feelings towards The Great Gatsby, which strangely feels more natural to the director’s sensibilities than the love letter to his home country.  And while I don’t think that Fitzgerald ever imagined the same kind of story that Luhrmann tells in his movie, I do believe that both find common ground on a very crucial element; the character of Jay Gatsby himself.

“My life, old sport, my life… my life has got to be like this.  It’s got to keep going up.”

For a lot of reasons, the success of an adaptation of The Great Gatsby rests mostly on how well cast the role of the titular Gatsby is within the movie.  Baz Luhrmann’s film is certainly not the first to hit the big screen, and probably won’t be the last, so there are many examples to draw comparisons with.  Robert Redford famously took on the role in a 1974 version, with a screenplay adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola.  And while Redford certainly looked the part of the dashing young man, he unfortunately doesn’t resonate too well because he made the biggest possible mistake with the character; he tried to make him too relate-able.  The key with the character of Jay Gatsby is that he must remain unknowable; an enigma with a face that you can never quite understand.  He is a man of ambition, charming as well as cunning, but apart from that, no one quite knows where he came from and how he got rich so fast.  There are explanations given as to his past, but they are described by Gatsby himself, so one still is left wondering if it’s the truth.  The only thing that defines the motivations of Jay Gatsby is his sole desire to be loved, and in particular, to reconnect with the one love that he let slip away; the enchanting Daisy Buchanan.  Gatsby’s pursuit is the heart of the mystery behind Fitzgerald’s tale; why would one man go to such lengths just to fill this one hole in his life.  That’s the soul of the character that Baz knew he had to match, and luckily he didn’t need to reach out too far.  He reconnected with his old cinematic Romeo, Leonardo DiCaprio, and tasked him with bringing the character to life.  DiCaprio’s performance turns out to be just perfect because he distills the character down into a man who is always in the middle of a performance.  There is not an authentic bone in Gatsby’s body, and Leo brings that cadence out brilliantly.  With blustery proclamations, grand gestures of showmanship, and a desire to ingratiate himself to others by greeting them as “old sport,” Gatsby comes through the screen exactly as the unknowable man that Fitzgerald imagined in his book.  What the author wanted was to connect the ambition of Gatsby the Man with the limitations of the American Dream, and show that a man that has everything may still in fact lack everything.  In getting a bombastic performance from a reliable actor like DiCaprio, the movie managed to find that essence.

The effectiveness of DiCaprio’s performance helps to ground the rest of the movie and makes Luhrmann’s flashiness actually serviceable as a part of the overall experience.  In many ways, it reflects the reputation that the book has managed to amass over the years.  A story this iconic should be given the most mythical of treatments, and Luhrmann treats The Great Gatsby with the same ethereal wonder as a grand opera.  This is clear in what is absolutely my favorite moment in the movie, which is the introduction of Jay Gatsby into the film.  Any other movie would have probably given Gatsby a more dignified entrance into a scene, but Baz wanted something grander.  During one of the party scenes, the character of Nick Carraway (played by Tobey Maguire) is trying to navigate his way through a ruckus party at Gatsby’s mansion, hoping to catch a first glimpse of the mysterious millionaire.  A one point, he crosses paths with someone who he believes to be a waiter at first, and one who remains out of sight while speaking to him on screen.  Then in one magnificent shot, the mystery man turns to face the camera and says to Nick “For you see, I’m Gatsby.”  The moment is then punctuated with fireworks in the background and a crescendo in the score courtesy of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” all with Leonardo smiling straight at us with champagne in hand.  It’s the kind of moment that only cinema can capture, and it’s the kind of moment that allows Baz Luhrmann to elevate the character of Gatsby in the most epic way possible.  For this, the over the top treatment seems appropriate, because it’s thematically in tune with the excesses of the era it’s depicting and it helps to bring new life into a story that audiences are probably overly familiar with.   But, despite it feeling appropriate for the time period for which it is depicting, does Baz still manage to connect us with the lessons of Fitzgerald’s tale, or does it get lost in all the director’s indulgences.

“I remember how we had all come to Gatsby’s and guessed at this corruption while he stood before us concealing an incorruptible dream…”

Though Baz Luhrmann is an expert craftsman when it comes to visualizing a story, the one thing he isn’t known for is subtlety.  While a lack of subtlety can help some of his movies feel entertainingly aloof, it does however minimize the effectiveness of moments that should carry more weight.  And this is where his adaptation of The Great Gatsby shows it’s cracks.  In particular, while the minimal development of Gatsby’s character is appropriate for his place in the story, the same can not be said about the others.  Most of the other characters are painted in very familiar tropes, which ignores the complexities that defined them in the book.  They instead are turned into archetypes, which leaves little mystery as to how their characters will function throughout the rest of the story.  In particular, the characters of Tom and Daisy Buchanan are short changed the most in this version of the story.  Tom, in one moment in the movie, cites the controversial work of an author named Goddard, which was a thinly veiled reference to white supremacist author Lothrop Stoddard in Fitzgerald’s novel, and his book called “Rise of the Colored Empires.”  In the movie, this is equivalent to having a sign over Tom’s head reading “I’m a Racist Bigot and you should hate me.”  There are already many negative things to dislike about Tom Buchanan (serial infidelity for one), but this obvious connection to racist ideology is hitting it too much on the nose.  Daisy is also thinly drawn, becoming little more than just the object of Gatsby’s desire, rather than the duplicitous, femme fatale that she is in the book.  It’s funny that in this movie, Gatsby has more chemistry with Nick Carraway than he does with Daisy, but it makes sense since DiCaprio and Maguire have been best buds since childhood.  I don’t fault the actors for these portrayals; in fact I do think Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton do the best they can with their roles as Daisy and Tom respectively.  I especially enjoy the Clark Gable-esque cadence that Edgerton added to his performance.  But it’s very clear that for these characters that Luhrmann wanted to spell things out for his audience rather than to let the characters form naturally as part of the narrative.

It sometimes extends into the thing that Baz Luhrmann s usually good at too which is his visual flourish.  In the book, the most vivid and reoccurring symbol for the story is this billboard off the side of the road in the gray landscape of the Valley of Ash, where all the coal plants are.  The billboard is for a long out of business optometrist, visualized as large, bespectacled eyes, faceless and plastered on a plain starry sky, which has deteriorated over the years due to lack of upkeep.  In the book, these eyes metaphorically act as the Eyes of God, watching over our characters and appearing to cast judgment.  It’s a powerful symbol, and one that has gone on to be the trademark image of the entire story; appearing on the cover of many reprints of the novel over the years.  But, in the book, it performs purely as that; a symbol, which only gains significance through interpretation.  In the movie, however, Luhrmann’s lack of subtlety does away with any pretense regarding the billboard.  When a climatic vehicular manslaughter happens at the end of the second act, Luhrmann cuts right to the eyes, gazing down on the event, pretty much spelling out what was in the subtext of Fitzgerald’s writing, that these are the eyes of God, and he’s watching these foolish mortals destroy one another.  It robs that symbol of it’s power in the process.  There is also another strange element that Baz adds to the movie which proved to be distracting.  In some parts, Baz seems to love the prose of Fitzgerald’s writing so much, that he literally puts it on screen.  In place of Nick Carraway’s narration of remembrance from the novel, Luhrmann creates a framing device of Nick writing the novel out as a means of therapy, and as he writes, particular passages of the text transpose over the images of the movie itself, making you very aware of their importance.  While an interesting idea, I think they too robbed the power of the words by making us too aware of their significance.  In these two instances, Baz’s indulgences pull you out of the movie and reduce the effectiveness of what Fitzgerald wrote on the page.  It’s not a bad thing for Baz Luhrmann to feel so strongly about the mythical qualities of The Great Gatsby, it’s just that he should have understood that it’s better to let those things speak for themselves.

“I knew it was a great mistake for a man like me to fall in love…”

Baz Luhrmann can be infuriating as a director sometimes, but you can’t help but admire the way he swings for the fences with every project in a way that few other directors do.  The Great Gatsby may not be a great film in total, but it does more right than wrong, and at the very least does an honorable job of trying to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel to life.  The book is almost too esteemed a piece of writing to ever get a faithful adaptation that’ll please every one.  Despite it’s flaws, I seem to find this version the best that we are likely to ever get, just because of the unique spin that Baz put into it.  His version of the story presents an idealized world, where the characters and the setting are larger than life, and mythic representations of the character of America.  Perhaps with his outsider perspective, Baz Luhrmann found himself to be the ideal visionary to carry this story into a new century and re-contextualize a classic without loosing too much of it’s essence.  That being said, some of his indulgences also do minimize the narrative a bit, and to really get a grasp of the power of this story, it’s better to go back to the original novel.  I will say, The Great Gatsby is one of Baz Luhrmann’s more restrained works of film-making, and it certainly is a breath of fresh air after the mess that was Australia.   It also worked out well for him in his career, as the movie became a surprise hit at the box office, which no doubt was helped by the widespread familiarity that the story continues to have.  The one good thing that can come from a flashy, cinematic adaptation like this one is to bring the themes of the story into the present and remind audiences that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story still has a meaning today.  The American experience is still one of turmoil and prejudice, and The Great Gatsby reminds us of the struggle each of us goes through in order to pursue this fleeting thing that we call the American Dream.  In the story, we see through the persona of Gatsby that the hope of a dream causes us to cast aside too much of who we are deep inside, to the point that when we obtain a bit any bit of fame and fortune, we have to keep pretending to be someone else in order to keep up appearances.  That’s ultimately the tragedy of the unknowable man that is Jay Gatsby, and both Baz Luhrmann and Leonardo DiCaprio capture that element perfectly on film, which helps to make it a movie that honors the book’s long legacy.   As we see through their version, Gatsby becomes the face of America; broken and uncertain, but still beaming with a sense of hope for something better.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Ready Player One – Review

When Steven Spielberg chooses his next project, it immediately turns that film into a big deal.  No other filmmaker has the kind of clout that Spielberg has amassed over his over 50 year career in Hollywood, and that kind of power allows for him to have the kind of creative freedom that most other people in Hollywood will never be able to reach.  And while there are many films that have reached cinemas worldwide under the direction of Steven Spielberg that are typical of what you would expect from the man, occasionally he likes to throw in a curveball for audiences once in a while.  Take for instance the year 2002, when in the summer we got the futuristic political thriller Minority Report from Spielberg.  The movie seemed to be right in the wheelhouse of the man that gave us Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and Saving Private Ryan (1998); a dark effects-driven sci-fi flick that had something to say.  But, only a few short months after, released just in time for the holidays (and Awards consideration), Spielberg released a second feature called Catch Me if You Can, which was wildly different in tone and content from Minority Report, and in a ways a bit of a departure for the director.  After making a big budget Sci-Fi flick, which has been the director’s specialty for decades, it’s surprising that he he would next go after a light, comedic adventure based on the true story of one of history’s greatest con artists.  Like I pointed out in my profile of Steven Spielberg from earlier this year, the man has two phases of his directing style; a serious side, and a playful side, and often it comes as a surprise which phase he jumps to next with every new feature.  The same has once again proven true with his last two features, released a mere three months apart, the serious true life The Post (2017) and the more playful Ready Player One (2018).

Ready Player One couldn’t be more of a clear example of Spielberg’s gear shifting career as a director.  After The Post, which was Spielberg again exploring serious issues in a stripped down, true life presentation (in this case the publication of the notorious Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post), Ready Player One finds him once again working with material that allows him to have a little fun.  The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, who also serves as a co-writer for the screenplay adaptation with Zak Penn, and the premise itself is not just a tonal change for the director, but also quite the stylistic change as well.  Cline’s novel for one thing is heavily reliant on pop culture references as a part of it’s narrative, and many of those references are to films from the Spielberg library.  So the fact that we have a movie now that pays homage to cultural influences of our childhood made by one of the same architects of that era of pop culture is a bit of a surprising turn.  Spielberg is no stranger to throwing in some Easter eggs to past influences in his movies, but they’ve always been in references to things that influenced him and he’s never really been self reflexive and thrown in references to his own work before.  For Spielberg to undertake an adaptation of Ready Player One is certainly taking a risk of alienating segments of the audience that has come to expect certain things from him and his movies.  But, at the same time, a movie like this still makes sense for him, because he is a self-proclaimed nerd and this is story that is all about embracing the nerd in all of us.  There is a lot to unpack as to why Spielberg found it in his best interest to be the one to bring this story to the big screen, but for now, it’s time to look at whether or not he made this into a good movie or not.  We know that Spielberg can have fun making movies, but the question is did he make Ready Player One a fun ride for all of us, or was it too much of a pop culture overload to make us care or not.

The story is set 27 years in the future, in the year 2045.  Over-population and environmental degradation has led to harsh times for people, who are now huddled together in densely populated areas.  One such place is in Columbus, Ohio, called the Stacks, which are trailer homes stacked on top of one another like Jenga blocks.  In this community lives Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), who spends most of his time escaping his harsh existence in the stacks by entering a Virtual Reality program called the OASIS.  The OASIS is an online generated community where everyone can enter as an avatar and interact in a virtual world that has no limits.  Wade has become an expert within this VR world through his avatar named Parzival, and he along with a group of other gamers have embarked on this harrowing search for the hidden Easter egg that are at the heart of the system.  The game’s creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) left hidden clues as to the whereabouts of the Egg’s location upon the event of his passing, and whoever figures the clues out and passes the challenges to get to the egg will be given control over the OASIS, which is worth over a trillion dollars in value.  Wade/Parzival becomes the first to succeed at the first challenge, and he seeks out the help of his fellow gamers to figure out the next challenge.  Among them is the fearless Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), the resourceful fixer Aech (Lena Waithe), as well as the mysterious warriors Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki).  Together, they work their way through the next couple mazes, but a real world threat looms over them along the way.  Also seeking the Easter egg is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the CEO of the fearsome IOI corporation, which has enslaved debtors who have lost everything they own within the OASIS, among them Art3mis’ family.  Assisted by an online hitman named i-R0K (T.J. Miller), Sorrento means to take control of the OASIS himself and turn a profit for his company by inundating the system with more ad space, something that Halliday never wanted for his creation, and to which the other gamers are deeply opposed to.  But with numerous resources at his disposal, Sorrento makes the road to the Easter egg as perilous as possible, and real life just as dangerous.  For Wade/Parzival, it’s not just a game anymore, but a race towards a better future.

Like I wrote before in last weeks article about Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Spielberg is no stranger to filling a movie with multiple references to other things.  But, when a film is reliant on it so much as a part of it’s story, you run the risk of struggling to find that right balance that allows for the references to work in service to the story and not against it.  And for the most part, Spielberg actually makes it work in Ready Player One.  The references are numerous in the movie, but their placements always come with a purpose as a part of the overall narrative.  The movie never stops the momentum to point spotlight directly on the references; they are there in the background and act as a reward if you are quick enough to spot them.  That in a way is what makes Ready Player One such an enjoyable movie.  Spielberg knows that a lot of people will respond happily to seeing many of their favorite pop cultural icons briefly on screen, but he also has the good sense of not taking the focus off the story in order to make sure that every reference is pointed out.  He’s refined his story-telling skills too much over the years to ever get sloppy and pander to his audience.  He knows how to balance everything together into a neat little nostalgic package.  He definitely makes every reference count in this story, and some do in fact work exceptionally well as a part of the narrative.  If the movie has one thing working against it, it’s that it doesn’t really do anything new either.  The breakthroughs are more in the presentation of the world that it creates, but the story is still one that we’ve seen a million times before.  A rag tag group, led by the boy with all the answers, goes on a journey through a magical world trying to find a mythical treasure before an evil overlord does.  It’s not even the first time Spielberg has gone down this road before, as the exploits of Indiana Jones and the Goonies will tell you.  But you can play a familiar tune and still make it entertaining, and I was definitely entertained by watching this movie.

The movie’s greatest success without a doubt is the world of the OASIS.  You can tell that a lot of thought went into the creation of this virtual reality wonderland, and it’s something that only the magic of cinema could bring to life.  I especially like how well it recreates elements of the real world, but feels fabricated enough to feel genuinely like it’s a part of a video game; kind of like how the best video games of today are.  Spielberg does an especially good job of establishing this world effectively without having to go into too much detail.  He does that in a single shot flyover of the different worlds within the OASIS in the movie’s prologue, and it may very well be one of the most intricate things that the director has ever put together in one of his movies.  From there, we have all the information we need to know to understand what this world is and how it works, and that allows for the story to breathe a little easier having all the exposition already established.  From there, the references are laid into the narrative with maximum effectiveness, some actually given even more importance than others.  There is one section of this movie that is without a doubt the most epic love letter to the movie The Shining (1980) that you will ever see, and it is a definite highlight of the film.  I can tell you, I had a smile on my face through that entire sequence.   Sadly, the cooperation between Disney and Warner Brothers that made Roger Rabbit possible is absent here, as this WB made film is distinctly absent of references to Disney owned properties, like Marvel and Star Wars (although the Millennium Falcon is mentioned once).  But, Spielberg still makes great use of the cards he’s dealt, and many Warner and Universal properties are sprinkled effectively throughout, including a wonderfully expanded role for the Iron Giant.  And there are many blink and you’ll miss them cameos from other properties throughout the movie, and I’m sure a lot of the repeat viewing of this movie will be devoted to spotting all the ones we missed the first time around.

If there is one thing that is a bit of a mixed bag with the movie, it would be the main characters themselves.  None of the characters are bad per say, it’s just that the movie never really devotes adequate enough time amongst everything else to developing them.  This may be the fault of having too many characters in the story, and the movie could have been better served excising one or more to give more time to the ones more central to the plot.  I did like the characters of Sho and Daito, but they are essentially there to make it look like Parzival has more than one friend; otherwise they serve no other purpose.  And speaking of Wade/Parzival, he unfortunately suffers quite a bit in the narrative from a lack of development.  We never quite understand how he managed to master the intricacies of the OASIS despite his lack real world resources in the Stacks, and when his real life problems come into focus in the movie, it doesn’t really resonate because it’s so disconnected from his life in the virtual space.  As a result, he comes across as a “Mary Sue” style character, who has the answer to everything and as a result becomes somewhat of a bland protagonist.  I’ll give actor Tye Sheridan credit for trying his best to bring personality through in his performance, which does help the character stay likable enough to root for.  The same goes for Ben Mendelsohn and Olivia Cooke, whose charismatic performances carry their characters beyond the underwritten archetypes they are on the page.  The best performance, though, belongs to Mark Rylance as Halliday.  He takes this enigmatic, socially awkward nerd who built this magical world and gives him a warmth and humanity that is missing from most of the other characters in the movie, and does so in a touching and often funny way.  I will also say, Spielberg has gotten much better at getting good performances out of motion capture.  Since the movie spends most of it’s time in the digital OASIS, most of the actor’s roles have to carry through these digital avatars, and the movie succeeds at making them work.  It helps that the digital realm explains their look, but these animated overlays are light years ahead of the dead faced characters in Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin (2011).   So despite the limited development devoted to them, there is still a lot to like about the characters in this movie.

There is one thing that you have to consider when going to see this movie, however, and that’s what to expect from the experience.  If you are looking for Spielberg to delve deep and find some grander meaning in this narrative, then you might come away disappointed.  More than any film he has made before, Ready Player One feels more like a fun romp than a mythical tale.  There is a distinct absence of the Spielbergian touch that defines many of his other movies, which is often associated with sentimentality.  For the most part, you don’t really miss that aspect of Spielberg’s style, because it wouldn’t fit the context of this story.   But there’s something about the Spielberg touch that could have connected us better with the characters and their stories, especially when the movie takes us into the real world.  One thinks about the sense of awe that we felt seeing the dinosaurs for the first time in Jurassic Park (1993), or the emotion we felt when E.T. came back to life.  Ready Player One never loses it’s comedic, irreverent edge and while that is consistent with the rules of it’s own narrative, it’s kinda out of line with the works of Steven Spielberg.  The story is involving, but it is not moving in the same way that the other ones I mentioned are.  Perhaps Spielberg knew that to put too much of himself into this movie might be seen as too self-serving, so he left much of the story development to the writers, while he made sure that the world of the OASIS would stand on it’s own.  It’s a formula that serves the movie well, but I could’t help but feel that something was missing and it may be that thing that makes Spielberg so distinct, whether it might have been detrimental to the story or not.  That being said, some of the Spielberg magic does come through, especially in the emotional ending which has the director’s fingerprints all over it, and as a result becomes one of the movie’s most effective scenes.  Restraining everything else might have shackled the movie in some ways, but when Spielberg was given the chance to do what he’s best at, he did not waste the opportunity.

For me, judging a movie should come down to whether or not I enjoyed my experience, and for Ready Player One, I certainly did.  It is definitely a nostalgia heavy experience, and I for one am grateful that the movie managed to balance that all together in a package that is both pleasing to the eye and intriguing to follow.  It’s just nice to see Spielberg let loose and play around in a sandbox once in a while, reminding us all once again that he too is a nerd at heart who also likes to play with his toys.  The story and characters may be a little too basic at times, and some of the Spielberg touch is absent which makes the movie not as emotionally resonant as some of the director’s most famous works, but at the same time it doesn’t take away from the fun factor of this movie.  For me, it was just neat to see another film that expertly combined so many pop culture references into a movie that gives them a purpose.  The more streamlined Roger Rabbit has more resonance, but Ready Player One does have the same element of fun to it.  It was certainly neat to see how one person who has crafted the memories of our childhood looks back on that era himself and finds entertaining new avenues to play around with them.  The fact that he name drops and borrows references from the works of Robert Zemekis and Stanley Kubrick, both of whom were and are good friends with Spielberg, makes this an especially mind blowing experience.  All the references that we find dream worthy have a whole different meaning to him, because he was there when most of these references began.  He was in the writers room when Zemekis was crafting the final draft of Back to the Future, and now 30 years later, the DeLorean time machine makes a key appearance in Spielberg’s own film.  That’s what makes Spielberg’s involvement in Ready Player One so special.  In a way, this is Spielberg’s gift to the fans that have made all these references possible over the years, and he intended this movie to be a thank you to all the fans who have encouraged him to continue building more nostalgic memories over the years.  Despite it’s flaws, the most important thing is that Spielberg made an entertaining movie, and one that celebrates the joys of pop culture, and that’s one thing that all us self-proclaimed nerds should be thankful for.

Rating: 8/10

Working for Toons – Roger Rabbit and 30 Years of the First Spielbergian Intertextual Masterpiece

One thing that seems to define this generation of blockbuster film-making is the appeal of shared universes.  It wasn’t just enough to see Batman or Superman have success in their own franchises; now we want to see them occupy the same space together on screen.  Bringing different worlds together in larger than life mash-ups is now the hottest trend in Hollywood, because it opens up a variety of new avenues for storytelling that otherwise wouldn’t happen in a singular character’s story.  In some cases, putting two universes together helps to settle some longstanding debates, like who would win in a direct fight, but there’s also the fun of exploring what it would be like if Character A were to cross paths with Character B, and so on.  It’s also a trend that plays on our sense of nostalgia, allowing for clever twists on elements from our childhood to enhance the enjoyment factor of seeing them all come together into one.  And this is something that extends beyond cinematic universes and into a separate genre of it’s own.  We have seen in more recent years a trend to make movies that are solely built around inter-textual worlds, where characters from all sorts of intellectual properties intermingle in ways they otherwise wouldn’t be able to in their own closed off worlds.  And this cross pollination of multimedia often results in some hilarious, reference heavy situations.  Some prime examples include the Bad Guy Support Group from Wreck-It Ralph (2012), or the visits to the many different worlds of The Lego Movie (2014).  Our source of enjoyment derives from the fact that we are already aware of who these characters are and seeing them brought together and thrown into an either mundane or out of character situation is hilarious as a result.  But even though trend has gained momentum now in our geek saturated culture, the blueprints for making it work can be found in the first bold cinematic experience that dared to cross all paths into one 30 years ago; the groundbreaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).

It may seem like a natural in today’s culture, but people seem to forget just how mind-blowing Roger Rabbit was back in the 80’s.  Up until that point, cross-overs were seen as a television gimmick used to pick up ratings.  And often, TV cross-overs were mainly just limited to characters from one show on a network appearing on another show, or shows from one mega-producer being used to help cross promote the other.  Think the Flintstones meeting the Jetsons; a big deal to people who are fans of both shows, but not all that surprising because they were both produced by Hanna Barbara Productions.  But Roger Rabbit did something almost unthinkable for it’s time in not just bringing a cross-over to the big screen, but doing so with characters from long time rival companies.  In particular, the thought that Disney and Warner Brothers would ever work together and have their huge casts of characters share screen-time was ludicrous.  But, it managed to happen in this movie, and that was largely due to several things falling into place at once.  First, the mid-to-late 80’s is often seen as the Dark Ages for animation in general, with Warner Brothers already having ended their long running animation department years prior, and Disney on the cusp of shutting down theirs after the costly failure of The Black Cauldron (1985), so both were in a situation where they both sought common ground in order to keep their legendary departments alive.  Secondly, filmmakers who were raised up on animation and had an interest in seeing these worlds collide had gained just enough clout in the business to make that a reality.   Those filmmakers in particular were Producer Steven Spielberg and Director Robert Zemekis.  Such an endeavor seemed almost perfect for Spielberg, since many of his films up to that point had references to either Disney or Looney Tunes cartoons in them, or both (like in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and he could be that bridge between these animation giants to make them.  Robert Zemekis also proved to be an ideal choice because of his zest for cinematic ingenuity and irreverent humor, both of which defined Back to the Future (1985).  And though the timing was right to make it happen, how it would happen was even more crucial.

One of the stipulations made in order to have this cross-over happen was that each iconic character needed to have equal time with the other.  That meant Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse could not appear one second longer than the other in the movie’s run-time.  And considering that this was a Disney produced movie (under the Touchstone banner), Warner Brothers were adamant about this bargain not being breached in any way.  The same was true for all the other animation studios that lent their characters over too, and some didn’t even bother; notable exceptions included Hanna Barbara who prevented the use of Tom and Jerry in the film, as well as Paramount who kept Popeye out of the picture.  But, Spielberg and Zemekis kept the right balance and found the right amount of time for all the characters by not making them the focus of the movie.  As historic as the meeting between Bugs and Mickey is on the big screen, as well as the memorable piano duel between Daffy and Donald Duck, they occupy only a small fraction of the movie’s overall narrative.  Instead, the movie devotes most of it’s time to telling the story of entirely original characters.  Well, original in the sense of how they are created just for this story.  The movie is actually based on a crime novel by author Gary K. Wolf called Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, published in 1981.  And though it is far different in tone, the movie does carry over many of the characters from the novel.  The fact that the more famous, established characters are just background extras in this original plot helps to give the movie the distinguished place in film history, while also standing separate on it’s own merits.  The film noir inspirations also make Roger Rabbit a unique experience because it’s a genre you rarely see mixed in with cartoon characters.  These were key ingredients to help make the movie work beyond the gimmicks of seeing the different characters interacting, and the fact that it was wrapped around a very shall we say “grown up” genre made the movie all the more rewarding.

But, where Who Framed Roger Rabbit? leaves the more lasting legacy as a foundation for showing how to mix different IP’s together is in how well it makes that interaction a part of it’s story.  The real genius behind the movie’s narrative is in the creation of a place called Toontown.  Through Toontown, the movie can point to a definitive explanation as to why cartoon characters can interact with the live action, human world, and why they all exist together as a community despite their competing places of origin.  And by designating it as a place, the movie can also set it up as a destination to which the characters must explore in order to solve a mystery, allowing those desired interactions to happen without feeling forced.  As the narrative goes along, we see that Toontown has an importance by the end, and we become invested as to it’s fate, falling victim to the maniacal plans of the villain.  The screenwriters, Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman, used examples of segregated communities from the early 20th century like Harlem or Watts as a basis for the existence of Toontown, where the citizenry flourish culturally, but are closed off and sometime exploited by the huge cities that surround them.  Using this allegory, Toontown as a place becomes a symbol for a whole variety of concepts that extend beyond the story, like the cruel side of showbiz and the devaluing of an entire community in the name of progress.  It’s no coincidence that the story involves the villain planning to erase Toontown from existence in order to build a freeway, since similar situations actually occurred in the history of Los Angeles; just look at the poor residents of Chavez Ravine who were removed in or to make way for Dodger Stadium.  Because it occupies such an important part of the story, Toontown has become the template for creating similar communities in movies like Roger Rabbit.  You can see it’s influence within The Lego Movie’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, or Wreck-It Ralph’s Niceland, where the community’s futures are tied directly with the plights of the characters.  Even Spielberg is looking to make a Toontown of his own with his upcoming Ready Player One, where the VR world of the Oasis crosses so many references together with a narrative centered around community.  Through all these different places, we see a purpose for these characters to interact and have it be in a place that has meaning for the story.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? also stands out this many years later because of the effectiveness of the characters.  Indeed, the remarkable thing about the movie is that it makes us care for entirely new characters even while more famous, established ones occupy the background.  The movie’s best accomplishment is in the realization of the titular Roger, who is a character that could have easily been mishandled.  He is obnoxious and too looney for his own good, but the movie manages to endear him to us by the end, by grounding his character with a harrowing mystery surrounding him.  A lot of the effectiveness of Roger comes through in the balanced vocal performance by comedian Charles Fleischer (who himself is descended from animation royalty as the grandson of legendary animator Max Fleischer) who makes Roger a perfect blend of the zaniness of a Daffy Duck with the heart of a Mickey Mouse.  The movie also took an enormous risk with the depiction of the voluptuous wife of Roger, Jessica Rabbit (voiced by an uncredited Kathleen Turner), whose palatable sexual energy would’ve been unthinkable in any other animated movie.   But as well realized as the animated characters are, it’s the human beings that really steal the movie.  Christopher Lloyd may play the least subtle villain in movie history with his depiction of Judge Doom, but it is a highly enjoyable performance nonetheless, making great use of the actor’s own wild and cartoonish impulses sometimes.  But, it’s Bob Hoskins who really own this movie as Eddie Valiant.  I think a lot of people take for granted just how good his performance is in this movie, considering that he’s often acting against thin air where a cartoon character that’s going to be added later, and is 100% sincere in his delivery.  I especially love the moment where he reconnects with Betty Boop, and plays it like he’s had a long standing friendship with her.  That’s the mark of a great actor, where he can play against cartoon characters and make it feel authentic.  And Eddie Valiant is the kind of grounded protagonist that helps to give these kinds of movies the sincerity that they need to feel genuine to their intentions.

But for a movie like this to work, it needed to make you believe in it’s world, which is one where cartoons and human beings can interact, and that it’s a just an accepted part of reality.  This is where the Oscar-winning visual effects played such a crucial role.  It wasn’t the first time that live action and animation were combined together.  Disney and the Max Fleischer studios experimented with the technique all the way back in the early days of animation, and Disney would famously revisit the process again with movies like Song of the South (1946), Mary Poppins (1964) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).  But, for Spielberg and Zemekis, the vision they had was far more advanced than the old green screen processing that had been used for the technique before.  This time, they wanted the animated characters to move around in a live action space, in sync with a moving camera.  This was impossible before because of the way you had to animate the character, as they would have to appear dimensional in order to be transposed onto a live action frame of film.  This called for a style of animation that was more unlimited by the rules of squash and stretch that had been the backbone of the medium for decades.  Thus, independent cartoon legend Richard Williams was given the task of directing the animation in this movie.  I spotlight Mr. Williams work in my article about his unfinished masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler, and his input into Roger Rabbit was essential because he specialized in animating in multiple perspectives.  Based on the work in Cobbler, you can see he had an eye for dimensional animation that is done entirely by hand, without the assistance of computers, and that became key in making Roger Rabbit and the other animated characters look like they were authentically a part of our world.  Now, we can use CGI to keep the models of animated characters consistent, but in 1988, all they had was the skill of William’s team, and his own eye for consistency.  One spectacular example of the groundbreaking work is in the car chase scene, where an animated cab driven by a live action Bob Hoskins is being chased through the streets of Hollywood by a real squad car driven by animated weasels.  So many layers of visual effects had to make that work, including animating over footage shot from a moving vehicle, and yet it comes together seamlessly.  In the end, we may be engaged by the story, but it’s the film’s technical wizardry that really blows us away.

Though many films have followed in it’s example, few if any have really mastered the effectiveness of what Who Framed Roger Rabbit? managed to accomplish.  Though Roger Rabbit may be full of appearances from so man iconic characters, it actually is not a reference heavy movie.  For the most part, it actually keeps everything tied to it’s plot.  The characters that pop up never call attention to their previous work, they are actually working professionals who perform in Hollywood just like most other actors.  One great scene shows Eddie Valiant walking around the fictional Maroon Cartoon studios and running into Dumbo and half the cast of Fantasia who are on loan there.  Much of the humor is not taken from the fact that they are there to begin with, but in the fact that they are just trying to perform everyday functions like you would normally see on a studio lot.  But through this experience, we learn more about the character of Eddie Valiant, and his own prejudices towards the toons that he must overcome throughout the movie.  Sometimes the problem with movies that are reference heavy is that they forget how to tie their multiple properties together into a purpose for the story.  The Lego Movie managed to do this by grounding it’s story around the lovable character of Emmett, who guides us through the story and becomes our eyes for all the funny references around him.  It even builds to the meta finale in a believable way, as the make-believe world falls away and we see the true reality behind the story.  Some movies that failed at this like The Emoji Movie (2017) or Pixels (2015) just force references at it’s audience and forgets to make you care about any of them, because they just exist for the sake of reminding us of other things without a purpose.  At the heart of Roger Rabbit, there is a genuine interesting story about redemption and overcoming prejudice in order to see justice done.  The fact that Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny show up in one scene is just the icing on the cake, and the movie would’ve worked regardless if they appeared or not.

Now 30 years later, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is still a highly entertaining movie, and it continues to stand out as the best example of how to create an inter-textual movie.  It’s interesting to see Spielberg revisit this kind of ground again with next week’s release of Ready Player One.  Already, the movie is generating plenty of buzz with quick pop culture references spotted in the trailer showing among a variety of things the DeLorean from Back to the Future, Chucky from the Child’s Play franchise, and even the Iron Giant from Brad Bird’s 1999 classic of the same name.  What remains to be seen is if Spielberg can manage to combine all of these different elements together into a compelling narrative, the same way that he and Zemekis managed to with Roger Rabbit.  In the end, Roger Rabbit shows that it doesn’t just take making all the different worlds coming together as one to carry a film.  There has to be a purpose to all of it, which Roger Rabbit found in it’s film noir murder mystery.  Through it’s central narrative, we got compelling characters in Roger and Jessica Rabbit, as well as a fully realized protagonist in Eddie Valiant, and a fully realized community in Toontown that allows for the story to have urgency in addition to all the visual splendor.  After so many years, it’s the story of the Toons standing up for their right to exist that helps to make Roger Rabbit more than just a gimmicky movie, but a compelling story as well.  And the effective way that the many different references come about in the narrative should provide the necessary blueprint for how to successfully implement the same concepts in other films.  For the most part, this type of narrative has been best handled by the likes of Spielberg because he is a self-proclaimed nerd himself and wanting to see the intermingling of worlds is something that really appeals to his nature as a storyteller.  Hopefully Ready Player One manages to be more than just a reference heavy gimmick.  Roger Rabbit made us believe in the harmony between competing IP’s, and that kind of cooperation has rarely been realized ever since.  We may never see Disney characters or Looney Tunes share the screen ever again, but for one brief moment 30 years ago, they managed to cross that bridge and it was magical.