All posts by James Humphreys

The Price of Admission – The Boom and Bust of MoviePass and Bringing People Back to the Cinema

Ever since the first roll of celluloid ran through the mechanisms of the first projector, the medium of film has always been for the purpose of drawing an audience.  And with the advent of cinema, a new industry built up to serve the needs of accommodating those audiences.  Concert Halls and Opera Houses gave way to the movie palaces of early Hollywood, and then later expanded into the local neighborhood multiplex capable of screening multiple movies to thousands of people per day.  The movie theater is almost as synonymous with the identity of Hollywood as the studio lot itself.  It’s no mistake that Hollywood’s most visited landmarks are both the Hollywood sign and the Chinese Theater.  And yet, movie theaters have always had to struggle to compete with newer ways to consume media.  First it was television, which brought the experience of watching a movie into the living room.  Then came home video, which gave the viewer the choice of watching a movie on their own time.  Now, streaming services have become the biggest threat to the well being of the movie theater industry, as on demand media allows the viewer to take movies on the go and watch from pretty much everywhere.  Not only that, but streaming channels like Netflix and Amazon are actively trying to compete with major studios for exclusive content, taking even blockbuster level entertainment away from cinemas and puting them on their platforms.  But, if there is one constant with the movie theater industry over the years, it’s their continued efforts to adapt to new challenges as they compete for audience attention.  Some theaters adapt better than others, but the ones that do make the most effort to change are also the most innovative and create some of the most long-lasting changes in the way we watch the movies.

Having worked in the movie theater business myself for 4 1/2 years while I was attending college, I witnessed some of those changes take hold and become the new standards in the industry.  Probably the biggest one I witnessed was the conversion to digital projection.  When I started, all our movies still ran on celluloid on every screen, until one day we received our first digital projector.  This allowed us to screen movies for the first time in 3D, which became a big draw for our little theater for a while.  Around the time that Avatar (2009) roared into theaters, the necessity for digital projection became paramount and eventually every projector in the theater was replaced with the digital model.  The 3D craze died down in the decade since, but digital projection was here to stay, and this is an evolution that wouldn’t have happened had the market not shifted so quickly.  3D and digital projection are only some of the many innovations that have come out of competition with other media platforms; others include Widescreen, Drive-In, surround sound, IMAX, and even reclining chairs.  Some chains of theaters even draw inspiration from their competitors, like how the Alamo Drafthouse chain in Texas has brought the concept of Dine-In theaters to public attention, something that you see available in other places now through some of the larger theater chains.  While all these innovations help to make the movie going experience more special, they also come at a higher price, and sometimes they aren’t enough to pull their audience away from the comforts of their own home for very long.  The sad truth is that movie theaters are constantly in an uphill battle to prove their worth in a time where convenience dictates peoples attention.  So, after trying so many ways to make the experience of watching a movie more worthy of the price of a ticket, theaters are looking for a different kind of innovation today; one that affects the way we buy tickets in the first place.

Drawing inspiration from it’s current competitors (Netflix and Amazon), the movie theater business is trying a new tactic to bring people back to the cinema; a subscription plan.  Just like how Netflix allows for unlimited streaming of their content for a low monthly fee, movie theaters are now considering doing the same, which would greatly alter the way ticket pricing is done within the industry.  Enter the innovators behind this concept; the MoviePass subscription service.  Launched in 2011, MoviePass gave subscribers the opportunity to select one movie a week to watch for the low fee of $10 a month.  Now the average movie goer usually watches one or two movies a month, so for anyone (like me) who watches more than that each month, this was an incredible deal.  Each member would get their own debit card which would be pre-loaded with the value of the ticket once it was selected through the online app, and then that member would use the card to pick up their ticket at the box office, basically seeing the movie on the MoviePass company’s dime just as long as they kept paying their fee each month.  For the cinephiles, this was a dream come true, because now they could watch as much as they wanted without breaking the bank.  There was resistance from major chains like AMC and Regal, who believed that the business model for this was unsustainable and reckless; and yet they themselves are now trying their own subscription based services in response.  Regardless of the skepticism that MoviePass has faced over it’s business model, there is no question that they are having an effect.  2018’s box office is already the highest in history, and that includes a significant boost in ticket sales as well; not just with prices.  People are going to the movie theaters again, and this may be due to the MoviePass influence.  In just a short amount of time, this service has already moved the industry in a new direction.  There is only one problem, though; they might live long enough to see the lasting effect of their influence.

As of this writing, MoviePass is in dire economic straits as their business model is starting to prove to be unsustainable as many people feared.  According to Deadline Hollywood in May 2018, the company only had enough funds to remain solvent for the next three months, which means a moment of reckoning is coming in the next couple weeks as the deadline nears.  Primary among all the concerns is the fact that MoviePass’ low subscription fee didn’t justify the amount of money spent on the access the membership allowed.  People who used the service were watching more, but they weren’t spending more.  Theater chains and movie studios have always taken a percentage off of the price of a ticket, with studios collecting the majority share and theaters balancing their take with profits off of concession purchases.  MoviePass would get an even smaller percentage off of those numbers, and yet their profits remained low or non-existent because they were giving such a bargain out to their subscribers.  Now, it’s not unusual that a company builds itself up through accruing debt in it’s early days.  Netflix is still running up high debt as they cobble up expensive content for their service, and that has made their brand more valuable over time as their service becomes more desired for newer subscribers who wants to see their many exclusives.  MoviePass, despite an astounding rise in subscribers over the last couple years, still isn’t seeing enough growth to justify the spending that they are putting into their service, and as a result, they are now hemorrhaging funds.  Their parent company, Helios & Matheson Analytics was hit with a massive trade-off in March of this year, which saw their stock freefall and the value of MoviePass dwindle down to cents on the dollar.  As a result, MoviePass was forced to change their subscription plans, which irked long time members, especially when they attempted to make the changes stealthily.  Now, MoviePass not only has lost confidence with investors, but also with it’s once faithful member base, and this has left it in the most dire of straits.

MoviePass may not survive to the end of this year, but it’s impact will still leave a mark on the industry as a whole.  As stated earlier, AMC and Regal are already trying out their own services based on the MoviePass model, with payment plans that probably will be more sustainable in the long run.  MoviePass, for all it’s faults, did address something very important that was affecting the industry as a whole, which was the often out of control movie ticket prices.  This is an industry wide issue that extends beyond the movie theaters and goes all the way to Hollywood itself.  One thing that has become a problem for the industry over the years has been the ballooning costs of movie productions.  Whether it’s to finance the enormous salaries of the all star casts, or to pay for costly visual effects, or to “fix” problems found in post-production with re-shoots, movies have become far more expensive to make, and that cost translates into more premium ticket prices as they studios try to offset the damage to their bottom line.  As a result, we’ve significant decline over the years in the number of tickets sold.  Sure, box office numbers remain high, but when adjusted to inflation, you’ll see that movies today are attracting fewer viewers today than films released decades ago.  The types of movies that make money today are also representing a narrower field, typically falling into the action adventure or horror genres.  And that’s because people today will only go out to the movie theater if the film looks worthy enough of the high ticket price.  This changed very much with MoviePass’ help, as more people were willing to go to the movie theater to see any type of movie; something that was especially beneficial to the alternative independent film market.  It still hasn’t addressed the bigger problem of out of control movie production costs, but the fact that the less typical films are bringing people to the movie theaters as the ticket price factor has been eliminated  is something that is becoming a good overall change in the industry.

The industry as a whole needs to reevaluate the way it produces media for mass consumption.  Typically the bigger the movie is, the more likely it’s supposed to draw an audience, but this has not always been the case.  Huge box office flops like Speed Racer (2008), The Lone Ranger (2013), and last year’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) prove that no amount of money you throw at a film is going to save it from failure.  But, the industry has been slow to follow trends, and many movies often come out too late to leave an impact as a result.  You only get a tiny sliver of time to become a hit at the box office.  Many classics that we revere today in fact found their audience afterwards on home video, like The Big Lebowski (1998) and The Iron Giant (1999), which shows that trying too hard to push a movie into success in the movie theaters is also not a cost-effective measure either.  The often less factored in aspect of the industry that also bleeds studios dry is the marketing of these movies.  Marketing budgets often can exceed the cost of the movie itself, especially when the studio knows that it has a bomb on their hands, and this makes it even more damaging when the marketing fails to bring the audience to the movie theater.  With a different pricing structure in place, like what MoviePass brought, people’s decisions on what they want to see can in effect change the way these movies are marketed too; perhaps in a way that may help the studio save some money.  One thing that would help is to consider balancing out what ends up in the theater with more modestly budgeted movies.  The kind of movies that wouldn’t have been cost effective before could see new life with a subscription based planso that the viewer doesn’t feel bad about wasting money on catching a movie first in the theater, instead of waiting for it to show up on TV.  Instead of trying to convince people that every movie is a “must see,” it might work better in the long run to present a “check this out” method of selling their movies.

What works so well for services like Netflix is the fact that they’ve made their service itself a must see destination.  Upon the viewing of every movie their audience wishes to see, they also offer up a dozen suggestions for something else, based on an algorithm designed into their database that analyzes our viewing patterns.  This kind of servicing could be valuable to a movie theater service like the one MoviePass runs, because it goes much further than what the regular trailer or teaser poster in the lobby can do to generate hype for each movie.  When a person uses a subscription service that takes the pain out of buying multiple tickets each week, they are more inclined to learn about what else is available to see.  That’s when suggestions similar to Netflix’s can be helpful in attracting people’s attentions to movies they otherwise would have skipped.  Movie theaters in general can target more directly to each viewer, and this isn’t just limited to other movies available.  Loyalty programs can allow them to save a little on concession snack that they otherwise would have skipped out on, which would greatly help the theaters make up the extra cost of running the subscription plan.  Netflix’s success comes out of the fact that they’ve figured out the best way to bring in new subscribers, and that has enabled them to spend so much on exclusive content, without spending too much extra on costly promotion.  In a market where theaters are competing with a service that is proving more cost effective in reaching an audience without the need of heavy marketing, this is absolutely the desired direction that they must go in order to remain relevant.  It may be too much of a bargain to make sense right away, but as membership increases and loyalty programs become more generous and effective, you’ll see a whole new life brought into this aging industry.

If anything, MoviePass could stand out through history as a trendsetter rather than an industry standard.  Most likely it will remain a cautionary tale of how not to grow a business, but even still, it’s legacy will be felt for years to come.  Already, it is beginning to create an effect on out-of-control ticket pricing and making Hollywood reevaluate how much they should spend on each film.  Is it something that is going to become an industry standard?  That we don’t know yet, but it will become an alternative that will in some way change how we go to the movies.  And in the end, this is something that reflects the long standing tradition of the movie theater industry working against the current with regards to appealing to audiences taste.  For a lot of people, it seems undesirable to leave their homes and fork over $15 to watch a mediocre movie in a room full of strangers; even worse if those strangers are also loud and obnoxious.  If a low monthly fee is all that it takes to get that same person to consider seeing one movie or more a month despite all that, then this is a service that will greatly help the movie theater survive in the long run.  MoviePass tried their best to make it work independently, but this will ultimately be something that the theater chains themselves will carry through into the future.  Sure, a lot of MoviePass’ problems arose from a poorly planned out business structure, and also the way it alienated itself from movie theaters who did business with them and subscribers who were unhappy with the unannounced price hikes, but the concept behind their service is something that movies need right now.  We needed something to balance the out of control costs that were starting to damage both the movie studios and the film industry, and while MoviePass was not a fix all solution, it nevertheless made the industry as a whole take note and begin to reevaluate.  So, in a couple of weeks, we will know if MoviePass subscribers will still be able to enjoy the same benefits as before, or if they’ll have to sign up for something new, or go back to watching movies at home like they used to do more often.  In any respect, I would love to see MoviePass or something like it become more of a standard within the industry, because it’s bringing people back to cinemas as a whole, and as a fan of the movie-going experience, I see this as a great thing for the future of movies.

Ant-Man and the Wasp – Review

Expectations are running high for Marvel Studios right now.  Even after ten years in the game, they have remarkably hit a new level of success just this year, with Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War both breaking every conceivable record in the books at the box office.  And with that box office success comes the added pressure to follow up each film with something even bigger than the last.  This hasn’t always panned out completely, with many of the Phase 2 films in the MCU struggling to match expectations, but in Phase 3, it has certainly been the case.  And this has been partly due to a different strategy on Marvel’s part, which is to try out different flavors with each new film they make.  The result has been a wonderful mix of movies that take place within the same universe, but feel uniquely characterized by the stories they tell and the heroes they focus on.  They also have helped Marvel branch out into different genres that are perfectly matched for each character, and help to add to the different flavors that characterize the MCU.  Captain America’s movies have taken on the flavor of political conspiracy thrillers; Thor’s have fully embraced their campiness and are now fully in tune with 80’s era fantasy epics; Doctor Strange has brought in a Matrix –like cerebral flavor to the universe; and Spider-Man even managed to fit in a bright high school comedy in the style of John Hughes into the mix.  Overall, every character gets their own distinct style of movie to tell their story, and it helps their own separate franchises breathe on their own, un-tethered to each other.  Even the big crossovers like the Avengers movies feel like their own series apart from the rest, taking on a colossal epic feel on their own.  But in this particular year, after Black Panther delivered some sobering political messages to it’s audience and Infinity War left us with a bleak cliffhanger that shook our senses, the one thing Marvel needs to give us now is a light, silly comedy.  Enter Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Ant-Man as a movie perhaps has had the most interesting backstory of all the films Marvel has made.  It was in development for years under the direction of Edgar Wright, who was an avowed fan of the comic book character.  But, Wright’s distinctive style clashed too heavily with the very stringent standards that Marvel Studios was imposing on their filmmakers as they were building up their universe, and Marvel’s Creative Director Kevin Feige had to make the difficult choice to take Edgar off his dream project.  Ironically, Edgar Wright’s style might have gone through better in Phase 3, where Marvel has been more welcoming to unique voices.  So, after Wright’s departure, the remainder of the film had to be completed with Peyton Reed in the director’s chair, with Ant-Man himself, Paul Rudd, and his writing partner Adam McKay making further adjustments to Wright’s script.  With all this compromising and sudden shift in vision behind the movie, it was thought at the time that this was going to be Marvel’s first stumbling block as well as their first flop.  But surprisingly, that not what happened at all.  Though the movie did feel disjointed due to it’s troubled production, it nevertheless managed to stick the landing and work as a passable entry in the MCU.  It also found an audience and continued Marvel’s winning streak.  The main reason the film succeeded was largely due to the ideal casting of Paul Rudd as the titular character.  His charming performance captured the humor and charisma needed for the part, and it made him an instant favorite in the MCU, which was a blessing for Marvel since needed him to be a worthy addition to their world before he made another appearance in Captain America: Civil War (2016).  The other positive of the movie’s success was that it granted Ant-Man a sequel, one that this time could be unburdened by production woes.  The only question is, did fewer problems translate into a better movie overall?

Ant-Man and the Wasp takes place in the months after the events of Civil War, where Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is confined to house arrest due to his illegal partnership with Team Captain America in violation of the Sakovia Accords.  Because of their affiliation with Scott, both Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are on the lamb, conducting their experiments in secrecy.  But, during one of Scott’s uneventful days at home, he receives a strange vision, where he imagines himself in the body of Hope’s long lost mother, Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was known herself as another size-changing superhero known as the Wasp.  Scott reaches out to his estranged colleagues, who manage to sneak him out of his house arrest in order to learn more about his vision.  They believe that Janet is sending a message to them through Scott because he managed to escape from the sub-atomic quantum realm, where Janet has been stuck for the last 30 years.  They have been attempting to build a bridge into the quantum realm within their secret lab, but still lack the necessary parts needed to complete the project, so they enlist Scott’s help to get what they need.  They encounter a local mob boss named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who has the equipment they need, and Hope manages to subdue his henchmen thanks to her new abilities as the new Wasp.  However, their success is short-lived as the equipment is stolen by a mysterious assailant with molecular-phasing powers known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen).  To get back what she stole from them, the team must seek help from another estranged former colleague of Hank’s, Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne).  But even with all the help they can get, including from Scott’s loyal friend and associate Luis (Michael Pena), Ghost proves to be a tougher adversary than they thought.  Is it possible for them to finish their bridge, or is the original Wasp forever left to be a prisoner within the Quantum Realm.

The one thing that will be apparent when watching this film is that it is far more tightly scripted this time around.  After the production woes of the original Ant-Man, Marvel this time had the benefit of being able to know where they are going with this franchise and commit to one style of story-telling.  You definitely don’t get the feeling that it’s two movies smashed together into one this time around.  But, the question remains is it a better movie than the original?  Sort of.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the original Ant-Man, but I didn’t hate it either.  It was a perfectly competent film on it’s own.  But, because this is Marvel, the bar has been set pretty high and Ant-Man just clearing that bar sadly makes it one of the lesser movies in the MCU overall.  With the help of a better focused production, Ant-Man and the Wasp does work a bit better, but it’s not without it’s faults too.  The unfortunate thing is that it follows in the footsteps of Infinity War, which makes this lighter comedic film feel, for lack a better term, small by comparison.  It’s not a huge step backward, but I feel that Ant-Man just pales in comparison coming so soon after Infinity War has shaken the world.  Even when put up against Black Panther, it kind of lacks something, because it feels like a retreat back to the safe and predictable that characterized much of Marvel’s Phase 2, and not the game-changer that Panther proved to be.  That being said, I was not left unfulfilled watching this movie either.  Set apart from it’s place in the MCU, this would easily be one of the most entertaining super hero movies we’ve seen in recent years.  It’s consistently funny and never boring, and even has some genuine touching moments as well.  From a pure experience point, it’s a mixed bag, but one that doesn’t spoil the entire universe that it an essential part of.

The greatest asset that the movie has is the strength of it’s humor, which is carried a long way by it’s charming cast.  Paul Rudd especially continues to carry much of the weight of this franchise and remains the main reason to watch the film.  He once again proves why he was the perfect choice for the role, with enviable comedic timing and endless charm.  You get a sense that he has fun as this character while playing him on screen, and the movie uses this as a benefit.  His performance is also balanced well with a fine supporting cast.  Michael Douglas continues to be a lovable curmudgeon as Hank Pym, whose sternness is wonderfully balanced off of Rudd’s quirks.  Evangeline Lilly especially benefits from her expanded role in this movie, taking on the Wasp persona effectively and giving her a deserved place among the ever growing roster of Marvel’s big screen superheroes.  What I also enjoy is the wonderful chemistry that each of them have together, helping us to believe that they really are a family unit in addition to being a crime fighting team.  Also, despite a very minor role in the movie as a whole, Michelle Pfeiffer makes the most of her time, imbuing Janet Van Dyne with a fine sense of grace that makes her a welcome addition to this series.  I also love the fact that a year after Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) managed to bring a former Batman into the MCU, this time as the villainous Vulture, we now have a Catwoman crossing over as well.  The one weak point in the movie’s cast is the lack of a strong antagonist, which I fault more with the lack of a strong rogues gallery for the character of Ant-Man in general than the faults of the cast here.  Ghost, while still an interesting character overall, is not enough of a threat to drive the story into epic territory.  And though Walton Goggins’ performance as the mob boss fits within the silliness of the overall experience, his character is also sadly one-dimensional.  Even still, the cast helps to make the movie an overall enjoyable experience.

One thing that I will say is definitely improved upon from the first film is the staging of the action sequences.  The first movie, while still innovative in it’s execution of the size changing gimmick as a part of the action set-pieces, still had an unfortunate lack of overall effectiveness as they usually all felt the same.  Here, much more creativity was put into the uses of the size-changing gimmick, as a whole variety of options are put to use this time.  We have the neat idea of small everyday objects like a salt shaker and Pez dispensers being turned into weapons once grown to immense size utilized throughout the movie, as well as a fun little wild card of Scott having to deal with a malfunctioning suit, which either makes him grow to the size of a room or shrink to the size of a toddler at random moments.  All this helps to make the action sequences feel fresh and unpredictable.  The movie especially hits a high point once it introduces the concept of a size-changing car chase to the mix.  Thanks to the ability to shrink their vehicle and all the passengers within, Team Ant-Man has an incredible mode of transportation that makes this a car chase like nothing you’ve seen before.  I especially love the new spin it puts on flipping a car on it’s side.  Also, thanks to the movie’s San Francisco setting, it draws comparisons to other chase sequences from movies like Bullit (1968) and What’s Up Doc? (1972), honoring the legacy of those scenes.  Hot Wheels fans will also appreciate how well that brand is incorporated into the movie.  This is where the movie really finds it’s character over the first movie and helps to turn it’s unique gimmick into something that can continually surprise and entertain it’s audience.  And in addition, it shows more clearly that this franchise has found an angle that makes it feel unlike anything else in the MCU.

One of the things that was a sticking point for Edgar Wright when he was in the middle of producing his version of the original movie was the way that Marvel was trying to force world-building elements into every one of their films.  The biggest problem with that was how it would sometimes add unnecessary padding into otherwise tightly scripted stories.  This became clear when Wright was forced to add a scene where Ant-Man breaks into the Avengers compound halfway through the movie, leading to an encounter with Anthony Mackie’s Falcon.  This is where the friction started that ultimately led to Wright’s departure, and it’s clear in the original movie that Marvel was perhaps trying too hard to connect the universe together in each film, something that was improved upon in latter movies. The sequel, apart from a brief reference to the events of Civil War, doesn’t attempt to force any other connection to the rest of the MCU in this movie, which in turn helps it to breathe a little easier and carve out it’s own identity.  At the same time, it does work in concepts from the comics that will play a larger role in the MCU later, but does so in a way where you’re not being made aware that it’s setting future events up and in turn feels solely like a it’s a part of this one story.  This is particularly the case with the Quantum Realm which the characters are trying to reach.  In the comics, the subatomic Quantum Realm is a source for many powers in the MCU, and is visited by the likes of Doctor Strange and Captain Marvel, who we have yet to meet but is coming soon.  The movie could have gone into length detailing the true meaning of this realm for the audience, but it wisely instead focuses on it as a destination where they must go, find the original Wasp, and return home safely from; and that’s it.  It’s nice to see that Marvel has learned it’s lesson and focused on what is more essential for the stories rather than what’s essential for their universe.  In time, we will learn the finer details, but in the meantime, we can enjoy the journeys that each character takes, which in the end is far more fun.  Marvel has a rich universe to draw from, but it’s good to see now that they realize we don’t have to be spoiled all at once by seeing every part of it piled up on top of one another.  We have the Avengers movies to do that, and Ant-Man is the fulfilling snack between meals.

Ant-Man and the Wasp, as a sequel to it’s own predecessor, is definitely an improvement, but at the same time, it still falls into the category of the lesser Marvel films.  That’s a downside of Marvel’s unparalleled success, that even charming little diversions won’t come anywhere close to the top of what they’ve accomplished up to now.  Even still, I am happy that the movie still exists within this universe.  This time around, the filmmakers have really figured out what an Ant-Man movie should look and feel like.  I’ve heard this movie be described as a much needed palette cleanser after the shocking cliffhanger ending of Infinity War, and that’s a fair take to have.  These movies are definitely Marvel at it’s silliest, not afraid to wear the dumb aspects of the genre as a whole with a sense of pride and find clever ways to poke fun at it all.  I especially appreciate the fact that we are no longer at a point where Marvel has to keep reminding us that this is a shared universe that these characters exist within.  Ant-Man gets his own story to tell, without having to ride the coattails of Captain America, Iron Man, or the other Avengers.  It’s also creatively more freeing to filmmakers who want to give their own spin on these different story-lines without having to shoehorn in references to other films.  That’s why Marvel’s Phase 3 has been a huge success thanks to unique voices like Taika Watiti and Ryan Coogler being brought into the mix.  Sadly, the timing was just not ideal for Edgar Wright, and my hope is that someday he might find a return to the MCU and be able to bring his voice to the mix.  Even still, despite not feeling like Marvel firing on all cylinders, Ant-Man and the Wasp is still a fine sequel that improves upon a lot of it’s predecessor’s problems.  It still features a charming and funny hero at it’s center and gives a new budding hero her long overdue debut.  Despite feeling small in Marvel’s universe, this is still big entertainment in an already stacked summer of blockbuster movies.

Rating: 7.5/10

What the Hell Was That? – The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

When Hollywood finds a blockbuster that exceeds their wildest expectations, they often try to find ways to extend it’s popularity way beyond it’s intended life span.  This often involves sequelizing the movie, whether it lends itself to a sequel or not, and usually involves a great deal promotional exposure in order to make sure that it continues to stay in the public consciousness.  Sometimes Hollywood does stumble on something that not only lives beyond one film, but can remarkably sustain continued new installments towards a series that lasts for decades.  You look at how Star Wars has evolved from a single film, to a trilogy, to a collection of trilogies, to an entire cinematic universe to see just how well an experiment in franchising can work if the movie in question opens itself up to such a thing.  An even more remarkable example can be found with the Planet of the Apes films, which based off the original 1968 film you would never even think would have had legs strong enough to expand into the new millennium.  Yet, here we have a new set of Apes films in recent years that are not only critically acclaimed, but are also breaking new ground in terms of visual effects, not to mention sharing the original film’s sharp social and political allegories within it’s narrative.  But, the same cannot be true for all franchises, and sometimes it becomes disheartening when you see a beloved film be followed up with a sequel that squanders the potential that the first movie so perfectly laid out for it.  Recent examples of this include Kingsmen: The Golden Circle (2017) and Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), which were both pale imitations of their predecessors.  But, if you are looking for a movie that perfectly personifies the idea of wasting something good in the rush to capitalize on a sequel, then you can look no further than the sequel to Jurassic Park (1993): the horribly mismanaged The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997).  It’s not only a terrible sequel to a beloved classic, but in my own opinion, it’s also one of the worst movies ever made.

That may seem like harsh words for what is essentially a harmless sequel to a blockbuster movie, but for me personally, it was one of the worst cinematic experiences that I have ever had.  Personal influences certainly shape my perception of the movie, I will be honest, but they do point out an element of the movie that I really detest.  And that element is, that it is a movie without a soul.  Now, you’re probably wondering how can a movie have a soul?  It’s a product and not a being.  Of course, when I say something has a soul, what I really mean is that it has a sense of character and identity to it; that it reflects back a sense of life that makes the 2 hours we witness watching it unfold worth the time.  Most good films have this about them.  Even most bad movies have a soul, because there are many cases where bad films stand out because of all their faults.  But The Lost World has nothing.  It’s just pieces of a movie awkwardly stitched together to give the impression of a film, but where nothing feels authentic.  When a film lacks a soul, then it stops being a movie and just becomes a product; something that was made out of obligation and not through genuine love.  I guess you can say that about most bad sequels, but it stun a lot more because this was how Hollywood tried to answer something magical like Jurassic Park.  Even more disheartening was the fact that it involved many of the same people, including writer Michael Crichton and director Steven Spielberg; two enormously creative people who should’ve taken the opportunity to build upon their past achievements to make something even more amazing.  If they didn’t have their heart in it, then why should they have even bothered trying.

One has to understand the absolute importance that Jurassic Park has as a part of cinematic history.  While mostly a typical Hollywood action thriller, the movie was still ground-breaking in it’s use of CGI technology to bring dinosaurs to life on the big screen.  Those early computer models remarkably hold up 25 years later, but that’s not the thing that makes the movie as beloved as it still is today.  Jurassic Park is also a perfect example of a movie with a definitive soul to it.  We remember the characters, the moments, the sense of thrill that we had watching it for the first time.  We quote the movie constantly, from Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm delivering sly quips, to Wayne Knight’s Nedry’s sarcastic put downs.  It’s a movie where even minor characters stand out and are remembered with fondness, like Samuel L. Jackson’s briefly seen technician, Arnold.  But, what really defines the soul of the movie is the way that it pulls us in as a viewer.  For instance, how does Steven Spielberg encapsulate the sheer magnificence of viewing a living dinosaur on screen.  He plays it off of the reactions of his actors first, then does a sweeping upward shot to capture the scale of the dinosaur that the characters are looking at.  Then, with an assist from John Williams’ brilliant musical score, we have a perfect introduction of the core concept of the film; dinosaurs live among us.  That is how a movie finds it’s soul; with cinematic language driving the glory of the moment, without words or character motives driving the scene.  From that moment on, the audience is on board for every plot point from then on, and are even intrigued by the philosophical discussions that this moment inspires thereafter. Jurassic Park plays by the Hollywood rules of plot and character for typical blockbusters, but Spielberg knew that all of this had to mean something as well, so he made his best effort to not only make the movie look good, but to have it resonate as well.  And thus, with his keen sense of cinematic story-telling, we get a blockbuster that is more than just a product; it also has a beating heart.

So, where did that all go when The Lost World came around?  Obviously not into the sequel.  When looking at what’s wrong with The Lost World, you have to take into consideration that Hollywood likes to break down each film it makes and tries to perform an autopsy on each to see what individually made it work or made it fail.  From this, they create what they essentially see as a blueprint on how to make a good movie.  If this particular moment worked so well in this movie, then we should do even more of it in this new movie, and so on.  So, essentially, you have a film that is assembled to mimic everything that was good about the original movie in order to repeat it’s success.  There’s only one problem; it almost never works out that way.  The Lost World feels so lifeless for one main reason; it’s too polished.  One has to remember, Jurassic Park is not a flawless movie.  It can be a tad cheesy at times, it falls prey to a lot of plot conveniences, and there are plot holes wide enough to drive a truck through (how exactly did the T-Rex get into the building without anybody noticing, or hearing?)  But, the movie almost embraces those things as a part of the whole experience, whether intentional or not, and it’s become part of the whole mystique of the movie itself years later.  By analyzing the flaws of the movie and trying to remove those imperfections, the filmmakers made something that was more refined, but lacked all character.  Maybe when Spielberg was developing this sequel, he thought that it was going to be easier now that he knew what he was doing this second time around, but as this movie shows, maybe it’s better when he doesn’t work with a strong sense of confidence.  One particular example I would point out is the way it uses familiar call backs to the first film.  Like the first Jurassic Park, there’s your epic introduction to the dinosaurs peacefully existing, as well as another scene involving a vehicle dangling off a ledge after an encounter with a Tyrannosaurus.  The Lost World seems to think that each moment needs to one up the original, so one scene involves a pack of Stegosauruses crossing a stream, while the other involves an even bigger truck attacked by not one but two T-Rex’s.  In each case, they both pale in comparison to the original, because they lack the intimacy and the novelty of what came before.  In other words, the less is more approach of Jurassic Park was more effective.

One of the most glaring things to note about what makes The Lost World so much worse as a movie sequel, is the fact that it completely tosses aside the logic that the original film established for itself.  Like any other science fiction, Jurassic Park is given some leeway to bend reality for the sake of narrative purposes.  But, for the most part, it is a scientifically grounded film, mainly due to the long history of writer Michael Crichton’s own work in the field of science.  Sure, science hasn’t been able to create dinosaurs out of genetic cloning yet, but the movie does a fine enough job laying out the real science behind the research in order to make it feel at least plausible.  And one thing that it does get right most of the time is how the dinosaurs would’ve actually behaved.  You have characters like Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant, Bob Peck’s Muldoon, and young Joseph Mazzello’s Tim to tell you all the real facts about dinosaurs you need along the way so that when we actually see it happen in the movie, it makes perfect logical sense.  The tidbit about how fast a Tyrannosaurus can run makes the scene where it chases down a Jeep at night all the more intense.  But, The Lost World seems more concerned about dramatic tension than giving us context, and changing the rules just to make a scene look better does not do the movie any favors.  For example, there is a point in the movie where a campsite is attacked suddenly by a T-Rex and the campers flee and somehow most of them make it out alive running on foot.  It’s like Spielberg completely forgot that this same creature was able to keep up with a Jeep driving at full speed, and now is barely able to catch up to the foot-speed of human beings.  If there was an explanation that the dinosaur was hobbled then maybe this discrepancy would have made sense, but there isn’t.  The movie just flips the logic for convenience.  And this is only one example.  The first film at least tried to make sense; this one just doesn’t care.  And that lack of care is what plagues the experience of watching it.

The distinct lack of personality this time around is also something baffling about the movie.  I know that it’s a bit unfair to use the original constantly as a reference point, but considering the fact that this movie is trying way to hard to copy it in every way makes it almost unavoidable.  And the one thing you’ll notice as a fault with the sequel is that every character doesn’t work at all in this story.  Like I said before, there original movie had top to bottom memorable characters.  They may not have been original or even always likable, but they stood out.  Here, everyone feels generic, even if they are returning from the first movie.  Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm is a prime example.  In the first movie, he was the wild card character who often was hilariously callous and a little nutty.  He was comic relief in an otherwise ensemble cast that also included dinosaurs as featured characters.  Here, he’s the primary protagonist, which is a role this type of character does not work well in.  And you’ll notice very quickly that the character is way out of his element and nowhere near as entertaining this time around.  The boredom on Goldblum’s face throughout the movie is noticeable.  In addition, the movie makes little effort to create new characters with any personality and instead just tries to fill each role with a generic archetype that’s a retread of what was there before.  Julianne Moore is wasted as Goldblum’s scientifically driven girlfriend, who basically serves that function and nothing more.  Vince Vaughn is your stereotypical hotshot soldier for hire.  And the movie gives Dr. Malcolm a mixed race daughter who is clearly just there to fill some diversity quota that the movie feels it needs to accomplish.  Diversity is admirable, but only when the character has a personality and a purpose in the story, which this character does not.  And she stops a Raptor attack in the most ridiculous way possible; through her training in gymnastics (What!?).  I imagine either Spielberg or some other producer had a child also going through gymnastics at the time and felt compelled to include it in the movie, even if it makes no sense.  Only the late Pete Postlewaithe’s character, the hard-edged dino hunter, feels anything close to original for this film.  The film’s lack of any character development, good or bad, only solidifies just how much it lacks in general.

But, there’s something else that makes me despise the movie more than most sequels and other bad movies.  It comes back to that lacking of a soul excuse that I mentioned earlier.  And it makes more sense when you consider how this movie stacks up against the other films that came after it.  Sure, it’s worse than the original, but how can it be worse than Jurassic Park III (2001), or Jurassic World (2015), or the recently released Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018).  It’s because some bad movies manage to stand out better than others by becoming so memorably bad.  That’s how some bad movies can have a soul too.  I see that especially after having seen the newest film Fallen Kingdom.  Believe me, sparing you a lengthy review, this new film is bad, and yet I still think The Lost World is worse.  And that’s because it’s so stupid at times that I almost found it’s stupidity entertaining.  Almost.  The two films are remarkably similar; they both involve extracting dinosaurs that remain in the island based parks and bringing them to the mainland, and two opposing ideals about what to do with them when they get there which inevitably leads to dinosaurs breaking loose and running a rampage in the open world.  In The Lost World it involved a Tyrannosaurus rampaging through San Diego; in Fallen Kingdom, it’s dinosaurs wrecking havoc in a mansion before inevitably branching out across the world.  But, Fallen Kingdom is significantly cheesier and aggressively more stupid, which kind of prevents it from being boring in the process.  The Lost World is bland the whole way through on top of being boring and stupid, and that is why it is so much harder to sit through.  The fault comes in the assumption on the filmmakers part that they were making something more profound with The Lost World, which a Jurassic Park movie should never be.  It can have profound moments, but it works best when it embraces a more cartoonish sensibility.  Fallen Kingdom, despite being so mind-numbingly stupid at times, at least remembers that.  The Lost World was made in between Schindler’s List (1993) and Amistad (1997), which probably didn’t put Spielberg in the right mindset to direct a movie like this, and it painfully clear in the movie’s severe lack of fun all around.  And that’s saying something for a movie that has a Raptor taken out with a gymnastic kick.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park is not the worst made sequel, nor is it the worst made movie in this franchise.  But it is the most insulting sequel that I’ve ever seen made in response to a classic movie.  For the longest time, this stood right up there with Space Jam (1996) as one of my least favorite movies ever, and it still is high up there even today as other bad movies have joined them.  And the reason for the scorn that I hold for this movie is because it’s the most blatant example of a movie that just doesn’t even try to be a movie.  It is a manufactured beast, devoid of any love put into it by people who are among the greatest artists of all time.  This is far and away the worst movie that Spielberg has made in my opinion, and that’s because it even lacks the things that made Spielberg’s other failures at least memorable; it doesn’t have the nonsensical absurdity of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), the dullness of Always (1989), nor the awkward tonal shifts of Hook (1991).  Art, even bad art, by the greatest of masters can illicit some emotional response from it’s audience.  The Lost World: Jurassic Park is a blank canvas of bland whiteness being passed off as artwork.  Every decision made with the movie is there to repeat something that worked before, and it accomplishes absolutely nothing.  Maybe it was a rushed job, and like I pointed out before, maybe Spielberg’s heart wasn’t in it because he had already moved on to more serious, worthwhile projects.  It’s just a shame that he had to burn through something as purely entertaining as Jurassic Park in order to get there.  The worst that a movie can be is to show the inner workings of it’s creation bare in front of us and reveal it to be nothing more than an empty vessel made solely to fill another’s place for one shallow reason; to make more money, and nothing else.  The Lost World is that kind of movie, and that’s why it hurt so much after seeing Jurassic Park.  You can’t make the same film twice, as this movie so painfully shows.  And Lost World holds a special plays of scorn for me, because it’s the movie that first opened my eyes to the fact that film-making could sometimes turn into a soulless venture, where greed can sometimes trump art.  It broke my once pure ideal of how Hollywood works, and showed that sometimes even the best of filmmakers can create something that lacks a soul.

Queer and Super – Will Hollywood Ever Embrace Gay Superheroes on the Big Screen?

With Pride Month upon us once again, It’s time to reflect on the many contributions that the LGBT community has made to society over the years, historically, culturally, politically, as well as cinematically.  The positive thing to note is that we are currently in the middle of a Renaissance of Queer Cinema, as the once niche market is finally hitting the mainstream.  We’ve witnessed this through two Oscar-winning projects like the historic Best Picture winner Moonlight (2016) and the critically acclaimed Call Me by Your Name (2017), and earlier this year we were given the teen romance film Love, Simon (2018) which is the most mainstream film yet to feature a gay protagonist.  Though these films are modest in terms of box office, their exposure is still an excellent sign that Hollywood is indeed ready to treat the queer community with the dignity and respect that it has long been waiting for.  And another positive from these recent films is that it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of queer themed stories yet to be told on the big screen.  The door that Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name have cracked open are about to be busted down in the years ahead.  But, there has to be something to be said about where queer films actually go in this new, more permissive environment.  For the most part, queer themed movies have stuck mostly within the romantic or coming of age genres, tettering in between tragic or life-affirming narratives.  But, if it’s not careful, queer movies could sadly marginalize themselves again if they only stick to one type of genre.  For this Renaissance of Queer Cinema to really make a difference in both Hollywood and in the culture at large, it needs to branch out into many other different genres.  There are many types of movies that could be centered on queer characters that could really put a spin on all sorts of genres, but to really make a significant mark, the most ideal place that a gay character could make a difference in is the one that is currently dominating cinemas right now; the Super Hero genre.

Perhaps hoping for a movie centered around an out and proud super hero may be a little too much to wish for right now, but this is a period in time when we’ve seen diversity in this genre take a giant leap forward.  It can’t be underestimated how big an impact Marvel Studio’s Black Panther (2018) left on both it’s genre and the culture at large.  Regardless of how good the movie is (and it is excellent), the way that it inspired African American audiences and gave them an icon to look up to and celebrate as one of their own is one, and see that same movie become one of the highest grossing movies of all time, is one of the best developments to have happened at the movies in a long time.  And this comes on the heels of the success of Wonder Woman (2017) which gave us the first super hero film centered on a female super hero.  Though there were plenty of comic book and movie fans before that were black and/or female long before these two films came out, the fact that these fans now had representations of themselves taking center stage in this genre made a big difference and it’s now invited many of the studios behind these movies to rethink what kind of demographics they should be targeting today.  These films also opened the door to what kind of voices can be added to the super hero genre as well, as Wonder Woman and Black Panther were helmed by representatives of the same communities that the central hero was meant to represent, and their input made all the difference.  Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins fought with a studio who seemed to undervalue the iconic hero and view her as more of a spoke in their Justice League wheel, and pushed for scenes that showed off more of Wonder Woman’s true heroism, like the outstanding No Man’s Land scene.  And Ryan Coogler of Black Panther put emphasis on the African identity of his characters and setting, giving them attention on a scale unseen on film before.  In each case, we see what happens when filmmakers bring new life into a genre by celebrating what makes their heroes unique and showing just how valuable they are to the genre they represent.

But, the challenge is a bit trickier at the moment for the LGBT community.  Up until this point, queer cinema has been largely marginalized in a way that most others haven’t.  Though every minority group has had in one way or another been forced to break through barriers in Hollywood and proclaim a sense of identity that’s all their own, LGBT representation has faced the harshest of barriers.  Often labeled as obscene or perverse in the public eye, even by other minority groups, queer cinema largely had to survive mostly in secret circles, and often hidden underground.  Even after the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s allowed for more tolerant attitudes, queer identity remained largely unseen on the big screen, at least in a dignified way.  Gay characters often were presented as campy and were the target of ridicule by many film’s so-called “heroes.”  And this was the norm for many decades after.  Then, when the AIDS crisis hit in the 80’s, gay representation shifted into a different kind of state; the tragic figure.  While this period did at least turn some people around towards sympathizing with gay characters in movies, it still didn’t allow for LGBT characters to stand out on their own.  Really, until the new millennium approached, all the only definitive depictions we got out of Hollywood of gay characters were comic reliefs or dying best friends.  There was no shortage of queer talent within Hollywood, both in front and behind camera, but for the most part they had to conform to the standards that the industry had set when it came to representing queer characters, and that was one that was unfairly skewed over many decades to marginalize the same community.  Thankfully, those days appear to be ending, as gay filmmakers and performers are finally telling their stories their way and the public is finally ready to accept that with open arms.  But, as the lack of diversity in many genres has shown, there is a lot of work still to do.

Though the world of cinema has been slow to move in this direction, it has been a different story in print.  There have been well-received books centered on queer characters for decades, and are often today the source for many of the ground-breaking movies getting the green-light now.  Surprisingly, the same has also been the case with comic books.  Comics have always tackled social issues head on in a way that movies largely haven’t, even in it’s earliest days.  And indeed, queer representation has even been addressed in many comic books, with a surprisingly robust gallery of heroes who openly identify as gay.  On the DC side, you’ve got heroes like Batwoman, Midnighter and Apollo, while on the Marvel side you have Iceman, Northstar, and Hulkling, and that’s just the one’s who are fully out of the closet as there are a ton of other characters whose fluid sexualities are only hinted at (like Harley Quinn and Deadpool).  But, what’s most important about the queer representation of the characters in the comics is that it is addressed directly and in a serious way, much unlike what cinema had done for so many years.  As a result, there has been a steady fan base of LGBT readers for comic books for decades, largely because they finally found a medium where their identities were treated in a dignified way and saw representations of themselves as part of the larger community of super heroes, making a difference in the world.  Comic books gave queer people a place in the world at a time when most other parts of society tried to shut them out.  So, you would think that Hollywood would take notice and recognize that a large portion of comic book readers are also a part of the LGBT community, and that maybe it might be time to carry that representation over onto the big screen.

There certainly isn’t a shortage of gay super heroes to choose from in the comic books.  But, Hollywood again has been slow to evolve when it comes to representing a marginalized class accurately on screen.  The industry has been fair to openly gay workers for a while now, but it’s also been responsible for perpetuating the same stereotypes and pre-conceived notions about the community that has kept the community from breaking free of it’s own narrow niche of the market.  That’s why it’s hard for many queer characters to break out and be recognized in other genres like super hero films or action movies.  Because of the influence of Hollywood, the large pre-conceived image of queer characters are often colored by stereotypes; a gay man has to be ultra-feminine and often cowardly, while lesbians are often in your face and aggressive, bi-sexuals are portrayed as slutty, and trans characters are just straight-up cartoons, if present at all.  Movies have programmed the culture into thinking one way about queer people, when in truth, LGBT people are as diverse in character as any other group.  As strange as it may seem, a gay character can be as gritty as any action hero and a lesbian can be nurturing and even-keel in any movie.  We are only now seeing these stereotypes of the past starting to go away, but it has yet to take hold in avenues of Hollywood unexplored with gay themes in mind.  For one thing, having an openly gay action hero would be a huge leap forward, especially with regards to putting to rest out-dated stereotypes, and what better place to try that out than in the super-hero genre, where such a gesture is guaranteed the maximum exposure.  It’s wishful thinking, but not outside the realm of possibility.  It all depends on how Hollywood wishes to market itself; do they wish to play it safe, or do they want to make history by taking a chance.

That’s why the examples of Black Panther and Wonder Woman are so key in this equation, because they have shown that taking a chance on something different results in huge success.  Whether or not a gay super hero can hit as well as Black Panther did is up for question, but I’m sure the same doubts followed that movie into the box office as well, and now we have our answer.  Hollywood has known for years that there is a strong presence of LGBT fans when it comes to comic books; but this is also an international business that has to sell their movies into places that aren’t quite as tolerant.  Sexual Orientation is still a touchy subject in much of the world, and movies are expensive to make, so for the longest time, Hollywood has maintained the play it safe route when it comes to queer representation in their movies.  There have been some that have tried to work around those barriers in clever ways.  Take for example the X-Men movies made in the early 2000’s.  Director Bryan Singer takes the narrative of super powered mutants coming together to overcome prejudice in society and frames it specifically to mirror the struggle for gay rights in America.  The X-Men comics have always had a subtext centered around fighting institutional prejudice, as the comic was first published amidst the Civil Rights struggle of the 60’s, but Singer’s modern take clearly links the struggles of the mutants in his movies to those of LGBT community.  There’s a pointed line in X2: X-Men United (2002) where Iceman’s own mother asks him, “Did you ever try not being a mutant?” which is a turn on a phrase many LGBT people will no doubt have heard at one point in their lives.  Bryan Singer himself is openly gay as well, so I’m sure the subtext in his X-Men movies is intentional.  Even still, his movies still had to adhere to some Hollywood standards (Iceman is portrayed as heterosexual in the movies, for example), so it’s not the full breakthrough that the community would have liked to have seen.  But, even still, it’s at least an acknowledgment on the director’s part that queer identity is something that can and should be a part of this Super Hero genre on the big screen.

While the push for a queer super hero is growing stronger, I do believe that there is the danger of an over-correction in this situation as well.  One thing that happened in recent years with regards to the success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe was a call from many fans to make Captain America gay in the movies.  The hashtag #GiveCapaBoyfriend trended for a while, which made many people wonder if Marvel was considering the option.  But, I think this is the wrong way to approach the issue of queer representation in super hero movies, or any film in general.  Speaking as a gay man myself, I take issue with the practice of retroactively turning an already established character gay instead of allowing a new queer character to develop naturally.  This seems to be an unfortunate growing trend recently, and I only view it as a desperate attempt on the parts of writers and filmmakers to make themselves look more progressive in retrospect.  This has been the case with J.K. Rowling outing Dumbledore long after her last book was published in the Harry Potter series, as well the more recent case of screenwriter Jake Kasdan stating that Lando Calrissian is pansexual during his promotion of the movie Solo.  It becomes problematic because with each case, they are making these revelations outside of the text of their stories, so it makes it clear that their character’s sexual orientations were an afterthought and thus never important.  Then why make it an issue at all, other than to win some praise for showing diversity.  That’s why I don’t think making Captain America gay is the way to go towards bringing LGBT representation into the super hero genre.  For one thing, in all previous incarnations, Captain has always been portrayed as heterosexual, so such a move would only be seen as an intentional gimmick and disingenuous as a result.  Also, I think it’s much better to have super heroes whose queer identity is a major part of their character be the ones to take the center stage.  Sure, it’s a longer road than the shortcut of changing Captain America, but it works better for the community that a super hero should leave his or her mark in addition to being born this way.

Hollywood is certainly at a point where they are closer to embracing the idea of making a movie about a gay super hero.  The only question remains  is whether or not it is worth the risk financially.  Black Panther has certainly opened the door to that possibility, and it may be something that becomes a reality in only a few short years.  I just hope that Hollywood doesn’t treat the move as a gimmick and resort to cliched old tricks or misappropriate established characters in order to make that happen.  There are a lot of worthy openly queer characters that have been embraced in the comic books for years that could translate well to the big screen.  Hollywood could even build one up from scratch and allow him or her to represent the movement as a whole in a way that’s unique to that character.  There are many options available, but at this point it’s a whole different frontier to be explored by the film industry.  I for one am optimistic, considering the way that audiences have embraced queer themed movies recently, both critically and financially.  Even the characters are showing a better sense of diversity recently, as previously ingrained stereotypes are becoming a thing of the past when it comes to portraying a real gay person on screen.  I was especially impressed recently with how well this was handled in movies like Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon, where each gay protagonist is merely a boy next door type of character, with not an ounce of camp to them.  That’s how I want to see a gay character be portrayed in other genres, and especially when it comes to portraying them as a superhero.  One has to remember, Super Heroes are role models, and to many young people who are beginning to form an identity of their own, they need heroes to look up to, especially if they share the same traits they do.  What Black Panther managed to do for young black children all over the world, and what Wonder Woman did for young girls as well, is something that I also hope happens soon for young boys and girls too who are struggling with their sexual orientation, after they see an out and proud hero saving the day on the big screen.  For them, especially in times like this, these are the heroes that they need as well as deserve.

Incredibles 2 – Review

Pixar Studios has come a long way from it’s infancy.  Beginning 30 years ago in a small little office in Silicon Valley, with a team that included just a handful of engineers and one out of work animator let go by Disney, the company has steadily grown to become a leading brand in the field of animation.  And they have done so not just by being innovative and groundbreaking, but also by putting emphasis on the stories that they tell.  The mantra at Pixar is that story comes first with every project they make, and that extends from the feature films, to the short subjects, to even the brief little teaser trailers that they use to announce their films.  It’s a formula that has helped them to stay on top for so many years, and that emphasis on story has been a big part of that, because every movie shows the care they take in the developing something that is more than just a short 2 hour diversion.  But that same care with story also means that the development period for each film takes much longer.  Pixar has gotten to a point where they can now support a work flow that produces a new film every year, but each movie still takes 4-5 years to complete regardless.  And this has made one thing less frequent at Pixar than most other animation studios; sequels.  Sure, Pixar has gotten around to sequelizing their most beloved films, but it’s a process that takes an extraordinary long time for them.  In the 11 years in between Toy Story 2 and 3, we got 4 Shreks.  I’ve lost count of how many Ice Ages we are up to now, and it also seems like every year brings us another Minion movie, whether we want it or not.  Usually, these other studios like to strike while the iron is hot and capitalize on their properties before audiences loose interest, but Pixar doesn’t play by those rules.  They put a lot of faith in their audiences to return after long hiatuses whenever they decide the time is right for a sequel, and it has surprising proven to be a winning strategy for them.

Most recently, Pixar has gotten around to producing sequels to their early 2000’s hits, with the gap between movies growing bigger with each one.  Monsters University (2013) followed up Monsters Inc. (2001) after 12 years.  We waited 13 years between Finding Nemo (2003) and Finding Dory (2016).  And now the biggest gap yet has been closed between their 2004 hit, The Incredibles, and it’s new sequel Incredibles 2.  It’s been a 14 year wait, and that presents Pixar with an interesting challenge.  When the original Incredibles first debuted, the Super Hero genre was in a much different state than it is today.  This was long before Christopher Nolan would elevate the genre with his Dark Knight trilogy and before Marvel would assemble all their forces into a cohesive cinematic universe.  Before then, The Incredibles was viewed as the pinnacle of story-telling within the genre, which is ironic since it was also a movie that deconstructed the genre tropes and gave them new meanings.  The Super Hero genre more or less has been influenced by Incredibles’ unique narrative, especially with regards to the way it connected super teams with a family unit, and also by how it balances humor with emotional pathos.  So, Incredibles 2 now arrives into theaters in a different era where the Super Hero genre that it’s predecessor had a hand in influencing is now the dominant force in the film industry.  And the question arises now if Pixar can return to that same level again, even after everything has changed.  The big plus is that they have everyone back on board, including director Brad Bird, who returns to animation after a mixed adventure into the world of live action film-making (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland).  One would think that the ever redefining talent that is Brad Bird would stay away from returning to a property that he got so perfect the first time around, but like the mission statement of Pixar says, if it’s a story worth telling than it’s a movie worth making, and Bird must’ve obviously believed that there was more to explore with The Incredibles.  But, the question remains, is it one story worth such a long wait?

The movie picks up literally seconds after the close of the original Incredibles.  The super villain Underminer (John Ratzenberg) begins to wreck havoc on the city and the undercover super hero Parr family steps into action as their alter egos, The Incredibles.  They manage to reduce the damage caused by Underminer’s drilling machine, but it also exposes them to scrutiny from a legal system that unfairly marginalizes people with super powers.  Unfortunately, the agency that has been protecting the Parr’s is shutting down, and their friend and ally with it, Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks) is retiring.  With few options left, Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson) and his wife Helen (Holly Hunter) take up an offer delivered to them by their fellow super hero friend Lucius Best (Samuel L. Jackson) aka Frozone.  They agree to accompany him to a meeting with a billionaire investor named Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who is eager to help improve the public image of supers all over the world and get them back into legal status once again.  Though Bob would like to flex his muscle again as the super strong Mr. Incredible, Winston believes that Helen’s Elastigirl is the better poster super for their movement, which leaves Bob on the sidelines for the moment.  While Elastigirl goes off to fight crime and promote her cause, takes on a different role as a stay at home dad to their children; Violet (Sarah Vowell), who’s issues with getting attention from a boy she likes is producing some wild mood swings, and Dash (Huck Milner) whose super speed makes him difficult to tame.  And then of course their is the baby, Jack-Jack, whose random powers are just now manifesting themselves.  Alongside the help of Frozone, fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird), and Winston’s tech savvy sister Evelyn Deavor (Cathrine Keener), the Parr family tries their best to adapt to their new lives both privately and publicly, made all the more difficult when faced with am ominous new supervillain named the Screenslaver.

I think the clever trick that Brad Bird plays with this movie is that he deals with the 14 year gap between movies by showing no gap at all in the narrative of this story.  Incredibles 2 really is like a second part to an on-going adventure for this clan of Super Heroes, and thematically it sticks very closely to the same issues that were dealt with in the first movie.  Those thing in particular are what makes this a very entertaining movie overall.  Incredibles 2, much like the original, does an exceptional job of capturing family drama and framing it within the context of a world with super heroes.  At the same time, it does flip around the structure by having Mr. Incredible be the one staying home and watching the kids, which helps to keep it fresh and distinguishable.  Much of the movie’s heart rests in what I would call “Mr. Incredible’s Adventures in Parenting” and how he both finds himself way in over his head sometimes, while also still devoted.  You can tell that Brad Bird and much of his production team drew from their own experiences of parenting for these scenes, and they are both heartwarming and hilarious due to their complete honesty.  Some of the biggest laughs especially come from how he deals with Jack-Jack’s completely random super powers, which often result from the impulsiveness you’d expect from an infant.  A disheveled, sleepless Bob Parr coaxing Jack-Jack out of a different dimension with a cookie is easily one of the best character moments overall.  At the same time, Bird never forgets that he is also making a genre flick as well, and even after 14 years, he still finds clever ways to stage and execute some stand out action sequences, and make great use of the different character’s powers.  Even as the Super Hero genre has upped it’s game, Incrediblesstill delivers surprises that help to turn this type of story on it’s head.

But, I also have to say that it does fall slightly short of it’s predecessor as an overall experience.  For one thing, it does lack the novelty that the original film enjoyed.  This is mostly forgivable since most sequels usually suffer from this aspect.  It’s not terribly re-inventive of the series, because it doesn’t have to be.  It’s a perfectly, well-executed plateau, keeping the story on solid ground but not hitting new heights either, except for maybe one or two stand out scenes.  The movie’s one big failing, however, is the lack of any meaningful threat.  The new villain, Screenslaver, is pretty weak both in concept and execution, and once it’s revealed who is behind the bug-eyed mask, it’s about as cliched a choice as you’d expect.  This is unfortunate after the excellent threat that the Incredible family faced in the first film; the maniacal Syndrome (voiced by Jason Lee).  Sure, Syndrome was a bit corny, but he perfectly matched the story of the first film, and his plot made sense in the context of what Mr. Incredible and his family were trying to fight for.  He was also darkly sinister in a vivid way, going as far to invade the Parr family home and attempt to kidnap Baby Jack-Jack.  Once it’s revealed who Screenslaver is, all the menace leaves the character all at once, and in the process, the momentum to the story slows as well.  The third act of the movie sadly feels rushed and unsatisfactory as a result, which is in stark contrast to the thrilling final battle in the original where they battled Syndrome’s giant robot. Instead, the movie ends with the Incredibles trying to stop a boat from crashing, which is kind of a step down in terms of stakes that matter.  It’s not a terrible ending, and by no means ruins the movie as a whole, but you kind of wish the film had kept the energy up all the way to the end, instead of just taking the good enough route.

But there is one thing that really elevates the movie from beginning to end, and that’s the quality of the animation.  The original Incredibles was a tour de force for it’s time, and groundbreaking especially when it came to the animation of human characters (something which at that point had been a struggle for computer animation).  Fourteen years of innovation later and you can instantly see the improvements made to the medium during all that time in the smallest of details.  I for one marveled at the subtlety that the animators put into the performances of these digital characters.  Their movements feel so natural and like real life, which helps to make Incredibles stand out amongst so many other less-subtle animated features out there, including ones made by Pixar.  Skin detail is also greatly improved.  While the original skin structure on the character models were passable in the original, they do make the characters look more plastic-y compared to what’s capable with computer textures now.  Here we get realistic face tones to each character, with tiny details like stubble on Mr. Incredible’s chin or freckles on Dash’s cheeks added in a very realistic way.  In addition to the improved textures on the character models, the movie also expands on the visual motifs of the original film, and makes them even grander.  The original’s early 60’s pastiche is continued here, and brought out magnificently in the set designs.  The new family home is especially eye catching, especially when it becomes the staging area for some standout action sequences.  There is battle between Jack-Jack and a raccoon in the family’s back yard which is way more epic that you would ever dream, and it’s probably the best example yet of Brad Bird playing to maximum level with the toys that he’s created.  Without a doubt, Incredibles 2 holds up visually to the high standards of the original, and in many ways surpasses them.

I also loved the fact that they brought back most of the original cast for this sequel.  It gives the movie a strong sense of continuity that helps to sell the fact that no time has passed for these characters between films.  Of course they had to recast Dash with a new actor, as the original voice Spencer Fox is probably in college now, and newcomer Huck Milner does a great job of picking up where he left off.  Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter once again shine in their respective roles, and it’s incredible how well their chemistry works in this movie, noting the fact that neither actor recorded their lines together.  I especially love the way Craig T. Nelson builds up the frustration in the character over the course of the movie, and Bob Parr’s rant after he’s reached his wits end is a definite highlight of the movie.  Samuel L. Jackson also lends his usual smooth gravitas to his brief moments as Frozone, a character who is still just as cool as his name sounds, and though she makes only the briefest of appearances, Edna Mode once again steals the movie, with director Brad Bird delivering a wonderfully hammy performance.  Newcomers are also very welcome in this movie.  Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks does a wonderful job stepping in to fill the shoes of the late Bud Luckey as Rick Dicker.  And speaking of Breaking Bad alum, Bob Odenkirk also steps into this world quite effectively as the smooth talking Winston Deavor, and is balanced very well by the very nuanced voice work of Cathrine Keener as Evelyn Deavor.  I also do love the fact that no character feels short-changed either in this movie.  There is enough time devoted to each character’s development, even the new ones.  And no story-lines are repeated from the first movie, nor are any gags, which shows that Brad Bird clearly put in the work to make a sequel that didn’t feel like it needed to be held up by what came before it.  This is why a movie like this benefits from a decade-plus long gap, because it makes it less reliant on repeating the past, and instead able to establish it’s own identity while still working with familiar parts.

On the whole, this is easily one of the best sequels to ever come out of Pixar Studios.  I would grade it above Finding Dory and Monsters Unviersity, as well as light-years above any of the Cars sequels.  But, it falls a little short of say the Toy Story sequels, which are still Pixar at it’s absolute best.  Incredibles 2 does a lot of things right, and certainly wins many points for not relying on typical sequel tropes like repeated gags and sideways plot development.  Unfortunately it suffers from a third act that loses a lot of steam towards the end, and also from the lack of a serious villain.  That’s what keeps it slightly below the original too, even despite the very clear upgrade that it enjoys in the visual department.  But, those misgivings are still not enough to derail the film entirely.  It’s still a great movie experience, and if you loved the original, you will not be disappointed by this movie at all.  It’s great to see Brad Bird return to form in the medium of film-making that turned him into a household name.  I hope that he continues to bring more creativity to realm of animation, but if this is just a brief exercise before he dives back into live action, my hope is that he uses this a worthwhile recharge.  One thing that I would recommend to any of you planning to see this soon is to find the biggest screen possible.  I watched this in IMAX (a first for me with a Pixar film) and it’s a movie definitely deserving of the big screen treatment.  There are action sequences here that among the most epic that Pixar has ever staged, and it’s well worth seeking out the right theater for the maximum experience.  So while not a perfect sequel, it is nevertheless a more than passable one, and one that compliments the original and does it justice.  For lack of a better word, it is simply “incredible” how well Pixar manages to keep their momentum going with their many franchise, even after nearly a generation between movies.  It shows that they take story development seriously, and they put a lot of trust in us the audience to keep waiting.  As long as the end results don’t disappoint, they can take as long as they want to make these movies, and with Pixar, we at least know that all their efforts are going to be nothing short of “Super.”

Rating: 8.5/10

What One Man is Worth – How Saving Private Ryan Opened Up the War Flick and Brought it Home

War is Hell, as most people who have lived through it will tell you.  And through every conflict that mankind has fought, the legends and the tales of heroism grow out of it too.  Many authors, painters, historians, and of course filmmakers have tried in their best own way to encapsulate the war experience through their selective artform, and though many of them are engrossing in their own way, few rarely capture the actual feeling of combat in a personal way.  As a result, over time the way we look at some of these wartime stories begins to change.  Many times, the lessons learned from a war begin to dilute and the image taken from these relics of the past come across as less cautionary and more glorifying of the war experience.  We look at Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, and the first feeling that we might elicit from them is that war creates glorious legends like Achilles and Odysseus, but upon a closer reading, we read a more melancholy side to the legend where heroes are undone by their arrogance and that war makes it impossible to return home the same way that you left it.  And yet, more than likely, you see wartime stories legends often held up as one of the positives of conflict, and this in turn helps to perpetuate a glorification of war itself as a means for creating order in the world.  War itself is spectacle, and that sadly makes it alluring to audiences who are unattached to it.  This is largely why anti-war narratives tend to struggle in defining themselves, because the very nature of war makes the stories being told much larger than life, and as a result, more thematically exciting.  That usually runs deep in the heart of the cultural divide when it comes to accurately depicting war in any form of art, especially in film.  Usually, filmmakers who’ve never seen combat never internalize the actual human toll that war brings, and they feel disconnected from it as faceless pawns are just there to fall prey to visually resplendent mayhem.  But, some films do dig deeper and try to find the truth behind the gunfire, and most importantly, the humanity.

This was the goal of Steven Spielberg when he set out to create his own war flick, Saving Private Ryan (1998).  His depiction of a brief but pivotal moment in time during the Normandy invasion on D-Day during  World War II was going to do something that most war films up until that time had never even attempted and that was to show the actual experience of war unfiltered.  The story itself in the movie is standard for the genre; a small troop of soldiers are tasked with searching a war zone to find a lone soldier whose brothers have all been killed in combat, making him the last survivor.  The story was actually inspired by the real life incident of the Niland family, whose youngest member was sent back home after it was learned that his three brothers all died in short succession of each other, though one was later found alive in a POW camp.  It’s a captivating story to be sure, but one that merely serves as the framing for what Spielberg wanted to bring to the screen.  The war film up until that time usually followed along the lines of epic film-making, with the directors often emphasizing scope over intimacy.  Though those movies often didn’t shy away from the brutality of war, such as masterpieces like The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Platoon (1986), they nevertheless made you always remember that you were still watching a movie.  Spielberg believed that he needed to rethink the way a battle needed to be shot and that led him to not looking at the grander picture and instead focusing his camera right into the heart of battle.  In doing so, whether he intended to or not, he revolutionized the way conflict is depicted on screen, and as a result the war flick would never be the same.

When someone thinks of the movie Saving Private Ryan, the first thing that will come to mind is the harrowing opening scene that recreates the Normandy invasion and landing on Omaha Beach in stunning and often grisly detail.  I, in fact, picked this as the greatest opening to a movie ever in my list here.  In a bold cinematic move, Spielberg devotes a good 30 minute chunk of his movie towards this battle scene, played out in real time, and even more surprisingly, it doesn’t have anything to do with the narrative itself.  It is merely what sets the stage and introduces the characters who we will be following for the rest of the movie.  The story doesn’t actually start until we cut dramatically to a military office where condolence letters are being typed up for the families of the fallen, and where one lady notices the names of the three brothers of the titular Private Ryan.  By this time, Spielberg has already plunged us into the hell of war and the remainder of the movie leaves us guarded for what will come next; sort of in the same way that the real soldiers might have been.  Putting us in the mindset of the soldiers of this movie by showing us the combat through their eyes is the movie’s greatest masterstroke.  Spielberg dispensed with high angle photography and stylized lighting and instead incorporated a documentary style handheld camera point of view for the Omaha Beach scene.  When the soldiers run, we run with them; when they take cover, we do too; and the camera will pan away from a live soldier for a moment, and that same soldier will be blown to pieces when we pan back a second layer.  It’s chaos the likes of which we’ve never seen in a film before, and that in turn makes it closer to a true combat experience.  Remarkably, though, it’s not unwatchable either.  Spielberg still manages to frame every second in the battle with an unflinching amount of attention; mainly due to the effect that he himself was the camera operator for most of the shooting of this scene.  Every glimpse we get is carefully chosen, from the one-armed soldier staggering around the field looking for his missing limb, to the soldiers sinking in the water under the weight of their own equipment, to the heartbreaking glimpse of a soldier screaming for his Mama while his guts are spilling out.  No other depiction of war has ever captured this amount of intimacy.

And this is what made Saving Private Ryan so groundbreaking as both an experience and as a narrative.  Spielberg had managed to do what few other filmmakers had ever done before; he captured the heartbreaking savagery of war unfiltered and presented bare.  It can be argued by that alone that this is an anti-war film at it’s core, because it does not glamorize the experience of war one bit.  At the same time, while Spielberg himself shares many anti-war sentiments in general, I don’t believe that he intended for his film to push any type of agenda either.  Indeed, the movie is about the cost of war, but also about the individual heroism displayed by each soldier.  The central question the movie asks is what one man is worth in the grand picture of a war?  The soldiers in the movie keep asking that question the whole way through, and even Ryan himself can’t comprehend why it’s got to be him that so many are going to risk their lives for.  Essentially it comes down to the way each one rationalizes the mission, and as Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller puts it in his monologue, “You tell yourself that this life taken was in the service of saving three or more other lives.”  Whether it’s true or not, it shows that on the individual level, heroism in war is about saving the life next to you rather than racking up the most kills along the way.  That’s how Spielberg crafts his heroes within the movie, by showing how much they will risk in order to spare a life, even at the cost of their own.  And Spielberg never tries to make these characters martyrs for some message nor instantly larger than life.  They are all flawed in some way, but never in a way that characterizes them as unsympathetic either.  Even the often unseen German soldiers are not so easily defined.  There really is no villainous presence in this movie other than the conflict itself.  This is perfectly illustrated in a moment where the troop faces the ethical quandary of executing a German soldier in retaliation while he is begging for his life.  It’s through tough choices like this that Saving Private Ryan becomes a much deeper war film than we first realize.

In one way or another, Steven Spielberg managed to walk that fine line between condemning war and honoring the soldiers who fought within it.  As such, it has since become one of the most influential movies we’ve seen in the 20 years since it’s been released.  For one thing, the visual aesthetic of Spielberg’s “you are there” combat sequences has been often imitated in most war films since then, though rarely matched.  Some movies have used the aesthetic well, like Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001), Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009), and David Ayer’s Fury (2014).  The hand held approach even seems to have found it’s way into war depictions of all kinds, regardless of time period or genre, as evidenced by similar battle scenes found in Ridley Scott’s Roman Empire epic Gladiator and even in fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings (such as in the Two Towers’ famous Helm’s Deep battle scene).  Even still, while the Private Ryan model is effective in creating a visceral feeling of battle on screen, fewer films have ever managed to capture the sense of overwhelming dread that permeates the entire movie.  I’d say that the only one that comes close is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), as that movie did an exceptional job of ratcheting up the tension as the specter of death hangs over the characters throughout the film.  But there are plenty of other films that merely imitated Private Ryan, but only used it’s aesthetic in a shallow way to reinforce their own spectacle.  The worst offender of these was Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), a disastrous attempt to mash the thematic elements of Saving Private Ryan and Titanic (1997) into one cynical movie.  Bay uses the same shaky cam photography and muted colors of Private Ryan, and even tried to imitate the gruesome slaughter depicted in the latter, at least in the R-Rated director’s cut.  But, what Bay failed to do was to make us care abiut the people caught up in the battle, and as a result it almost feels like the director takes delight in presenting the destruction on screen, which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t based on a real disaster, with many real life victims seemingly considered to inconsequential.  Spielberg knew that for this kind of depiction to work, the humanity needed to be paramount, and sadly few other war films seem to understand that.

Perhaps the greatest legacy that the movie left behind though, other than the groundbreaking visuals, is the effect that it left on the public afterwards.  In particular, the way it affected the veterans who fought in the war.  By the time that Saving Private Ryan was released into theaters, the WWII generation had reached retirement age and were beginning to either die off or loose their memories of their time in the service.  There were many soldiers that had documented their tales during the war for years, but there were a significant many others who simply didn’t want to talk about the war for the longest time.  This was mainly due to their experiences being too painful to relive, or because they were too ashamed of some of the acts they committed during the war.  Thus, for the longest time, veterans were content with Hollywood sort of taking the lead in presenting what the war was like for most audiences for years.  You see this in previous war flicks like The Longest Day (1962),  Battle of the Bulge (1965), and Patton (1970), all well crafted war films, but ones that were still withdrawn enough from the reality of the war to make it easier to digest for a larger audience that was perhaps too weary of war.  But, Steven Spielberg’s unfiltered look at the way combat felt to the actual boots on the ground soldiers stirred up a much different reaction, and one that was long overdue.  The images of the movie brought back much of the heartache that many of the veterans had tired to forget about over the years, and many were traumatized once again after seeing the flick.  But surprisingly, this caused many of these soldiers to open up and start telling their own stories about the war, some of which they’ve kept secret for decades, even to their loved ones.  Much like he did five years prior with Schindler’s List (1993) regarding the Holocaust, Spielberg had managed to open the floodgates and start a conversation again about the experiences that shaped this event in our history as a people.

World War II was one of the costliest wars ever in terms of a human toll, and every generation that has come after has in some way been touched by the legacy of the war.  The same is true with my own family.  I am the grandson of two World War II veterans, both of whom served honorably in the United States Navy during the war.  Their names were Lieutenant James Edwin Spencer and Private Bill Vaughn Humphreys.  They served in different theaters of the war, my Grandpa Humphreys mostly in the South Pacific, while Grandpa Spencer served in both the Pacific and in Europe.  I’m grateful that both made it home alive, because I wouldn’t be here otherwise, as both my parents were born after the war.  But, for the most part, they never talked too much about their experiences in the war.  Spencer remained in active service until retiring in the 70’s, and became an eye doctor in sunny Long Beach, California after the war ended.  Humphreys left the Navy behind and became a successful bank manager on the Oregon Coast.  My Grandpa Humphreys died in 1993, so he never lived to see Saving Private Ryan, but my Grandpa Spencer did, living up to the year 2000.  Though he was a naval officer and not a soldier like those in the movie, he still said that the movie did a remarkable job of capturing the real thing that he and his fellow veterans remember experiencing.  What’s more, he even shared things about his time in the war that I never knew before as we were discussing the movie with him.  I learned that he was actually on one of those ships that ferried soldiers across the English Channel on D-Day, and that he actually had to lie to my Grandmother about where he actually was at that time in order to keep the mission secretive.  He also said that he set foot on the beach afterwards when it was safe.  The bodies had been cleared, but the craters and bloodstains remained, in his words.  I’m sure that if my Grandpa Humphreys were alive at that time too, he would have shared even more stories as well.  This is the great effect that Saving Private Ryan had on our culture, because it opened up the narrative of what the War was actually like on a personal level, and that every family (including my own) had their own stories to tell, and were finally being told.

More than anything, this is the greatest single thing that Saving Private Ryan leaves behind; the simple basic sense that every individual life lived through the war matters, and that every experience is worth remembering, even despite the pain.  Old men who were afraid to weep for their fallen brothers in arms because it was thought that it showed weakness were now able to express the pain that this conflict left behind, because this movie gave us our best sense yet of what it was actually like.  It was not a sugar-coated or sanitized view of war; it was the truth, presented plainly for the world.  And it’s one that takes in the full complexities of the subject itself.  Much like the war it depicts, it’s a movie that addresses the moral dilemmas of combat without ever dismissing the fact that good things can come out of it.  World War II is one of history’s most complicated and bittersweet conflicts.  It does have one of the highest death tolls of any war fought in human history, but it’s outcome did leave the world in a much better place, stopping the rise of Fascism and stopping the systematic genocide committed during the Holocaust.  But, without a personal examination of the cost of war on every family, the lessons learned seem to be forgotten over time and new conflicts arise as a result.  So, the fact that this movie brought out a reckoning for most veterans who lived through the war helps to give us a better perspective on the long ranging after effects that define most conflicts in history.  At the very least, it helps to make it clear to all the WWII veterans out there that they are not forgotten or insignificant.  It can be said that Private Ryan did a great deal to raise awareness of the average war vet; including helping them to gain much needed gestures of gratitude like the long overdue monument on the National Mall, as well as countless other film depictions that tell more of their stories, including the Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced miniseries Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010).  In any sense, Saving Private Ryan answers it’s own question of what a single man is worth in the end, and that’s to say if they are able to return home, start a family of their own, and share their own experiences to teach us more about what war is actually like, then their worth is beyond measure.

Focus on a Franchise – The Dark Knight Trilogy

Before Marvel Studios set a new high standard for the super hero genre, and before DC Comics would constantly fall short of that standard as they’ve tried to keep up with their rival, there was only one true leader of the pack, and his name was Batman.  This was evident with the creation of what we know now as the Dark Knight trilogy, which was spearheaded by one of cinema’s most daring filmmakers in recent memory, Christopher Nolan.  He arrived on the scene at just the right moment for both the character and the super hero genre in general.  Both had reached somewhat of a low point in 1997 with the release of the disastrous Batman & Robin; a movie that many had considered a franchise killer.  Indeed, it took 8 years for Batman to recover from this low point, and the reigns to the series passed through many hands, including auteur Darren Aronofsky, before ultimately landing in Nolan’s lap.  And Nolan gave the character the revival he desperately need.  Perhaps the first thing one will praise about Nolan’s approach is that he grounded the character back into a real world setting.  Gone were the campy flourishes of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, and instead we were presented with a gritty reality that made the whole thing feel as plausible as a super hero movie could be.  But, one thing that I find so fascinating about Christopher Nolan’s trilogy is how well it tells the story of it’s main hero.  We delve deeper into the man that Batman is more than in any other previous version, guided by an “almost” always compelling performance by Christian Bale in the role (the voice could have been a little better).  In these movies, we finally get an understanding of why a man would fight crime dressed up as a bat, and that in turn helps us to examine our own societal responses to tragedy and hardship.  One of the larger themes that Nolan addressed in his movies is the effect of terrorism on societies, manifested through some of the iconic villains in Batman’s rogues gallery, and how the lines between good and evil get blurred under the guise of achieving justice.  Quite a hefty shift for this series to take, and one that has in turn made these three movies modern day classics and benchmarks for the genre as a whole.

BATMAN BEGINS (2005)

It’s surprising that up until this point, Batman’s origins had never been fully explored on the big screen.  Sure, his origins were alluded too in previous films, particularly with the essential element of his parent’s murder (which is also recreated again here too), but the actual details of Bruce Wayne’s road towards becoming the Bat had never been presented before.  Taking inspiration from Frank Miller’s graphic novel, Batman: Year One (1987), Batman Begins fills in those gaps between young Bruce’s loss of innocence to his ultimate donning of the cape and cowl.  And it proves to be a compelling story on it’s own; to the point where you don’t even care that Batman doesn’t make his first appearance until 80 minutes into a 2 1/2 hour movie.  We see Bruce Wayne receive his training in the ninja arts taught to him by the mysterious League of Shadows.  There he is mentored by Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul , who instills in him the idea that he must become more than a man to help stop crime in his home of Gotham City; he must become a symbol, and as a symbol, he can inspire the downtrodden and bring fear to the merciless.  This conflict between acting as a symbol and what cost that leaves on the man is a primary theme that Christopher Nolan would explore through all three Dark Knight films, but it’s foundation is laid out perfectly here in the first film.  We see how Batman’s moral code is set, choosing to fight crime just short of taking a life, and how that sets him apart from the other extreme characters who will populate his city as the story unfolds.  Nolan also gives us the added pleasure of watching Bruce Wayne build up the arsenal, with the help of his ever loyal butler Alfred (a delightful Michael Caine) and the resourceful Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).  He even manages to answer the age old question, “why bats?”  And the simple answer is, bats frighten him, and he wants to turn that fear around and make it the thing his enemies will fear.

The theme of fear would also prove an important element that would play out through the entire trilogy, and there was no better way to lay the groundwork for that piece than to embody it through an adversary whose whole identity revolves around it; the Scarecrow, played in a scene-stealing performance by Cillian Murphy.  His Dr. Jonathan Crane is a simplified version of the often caricatured villain from the comic books, but he’s nevertheless effective in this story, and is often creepy enough without the mask he dons for the persona.  What I appreciate is the fact that Christopher Nolan didn’t try to jump right in and revisit already established Batman villains for his movie (at least not right away).  Here he managed to elevate a lesser known villain from the comics and show that you didn’t need to make your baddies a freak show in order to make them memorable in your movie.  The same likewise goes for Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul.  A dramatic departure from the immortal antagonist from the comics, Ra’s purpose in this film is still no less effective in presenting a compelling threat to Batman and Gotham.  Ra’s Al Ghul begins for the series the continuing threat of terrorism that Batman will always be up against.  His terrorist ideals are based primarily around eco-centric philosophy, see himself and the League of Shadows as the ones who bring balance to the world once a major population center grows out of control, in this case Gotham.  And to destroy the city, their weapon as it turns out is fear itself, weaponized through Scarecrow’s toxic gas.  Through all this, Nolan perfectly touches upon heady themes, while at the same time making it a rousing adventure true to it’s comic book origins.  Up until the MCU began, this was widely seen as the greatest comic book origin movie ever made, and it still is one of the best.  I myself named it as my favorite film of the year 2005.  But, little did we know that Nolan had much more tricks up his sleeve in the years ahead.

THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)

If Batman Begins made for a fantastic overture, this would end up being the magnum opus.  Here we have the reason why this series is dubbed the Dark Knight trilogy.  Interesting enough, Christopher Nolan never initially planned to make a sequel to Batman Begins, let alone a trilogy.  He was already completing his next film The Prestige (2006) and had Inception (2010) waiting in the wings.  But, the success of Begins was enough to convince him to return, and this time with the full support of the Warner Brothers studio behind him.  A little sight gag in the closing minutes of Begins, where Detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) presents him a calling card of a criminal he should look into, which turns out to be a Joker card, easily gave Nolan the stepping stone for where to go next.  But, what ended up happening in the process proved to be very interesting.  For one thing, Nolan made one of the boldest casting choices in movie history by tapping heartthrob actor Heath Ledger in the iconic role of the Joker.  Many comic book fans were initially outraged by the choice, believing that Ledger was completely wrong for the character, but by the time the movie came out, all those naysayers would be silenced forever.  Heath’s performance as the Joker was not only perfect, it was transcendent.  His Joker is not only the most compelling villain we’ve ever seen in this genre, he may very well be one of the greatest screen villains of all time; in the same league as Hannibal Lecter and Norman Bates.  Watching him work of Christian Bale’s Batman especially provides some of the best moments in the movie, including the now iconic interrogation scene.  Mainly due to Ledger’s Joker, this movie has enjoyed the lofty reputation it has had over the years; topping many critics’ favorite films lists and often being considered the best film of it’s genre.  It even sparked the Academy Awards to change it’s rules, after it was snubbed for Best Picture, expanding it’s number of nominees beyond the limit of 5 per year.  Ledger’s performance did earn him a much deserved Oscar, but sadly it was a posthumous win as the actor died tragically before the film’s release.

But The Dark Knight is more than just a showcase for Heath Ledger’s Joker.  Nolan treated us to not only one iconic Batman villain in his film, but two.  Harvey Dent, aka “Two-Face”, is also featured here, and is in many ways it’s a cinematic redemption for the character.  After his terribly botched appearance in Batman Forever (1995), where he was played in a campy performance by an embarrassing Tommy Lee Jones, Two-Face finally gets an origin in this film that’s truer to his persona from the comics.  Played with excellent restraint by Aaron Eckhart, Harvey Dent represents the fine line that separates characters like Batman and the Joker.  He is at heart a good man with a conscience, but also flawed because of his temper.  And in the movie, we see how even good men can turn bad so easily as a horrific accident scars him physically, making him more susceptible to the Joker’s mental manipulation.  It’s a fine line that we also see Batman having to cross at one point too.  In order to track down the Joker, Batman uses cellular technology created by Lucius Fox to basically spy on every citizen in Gotham City, an ethical line that Fox is deeply troubled by.  At this point, we see how easily Batman can also be turned evil, as desperation has forced him into a situation where he has to abuse his power in order to win the day.  This brings us back to the overarching theme of the effect that terrorism has on society, and in Dark Knight, we see the most profound examination of this.  In the years after 9/11, the United States made many morally questionable decisions in the name of combating terrorism, and those same dilemmas strongly influenced the themes in Nolan’s Dark Knight films.  The Joker is a threat unlike anything else that Batman will ever face, one whose villainy has no rhyme or reason; someone who as Alfred puts it, “just wants to watch the world burn.”  So, to combat an agent of chaos like that, is it possible to fight back without becoming a villain yourself?  That’s the brilliantly delivered question behind Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and it’s matched with a truly epic sized presentation.  This was Nolan’s first foray into IMAX film-making, which is masterfully put to use in some amazing scenes like the opening bank robbery and the semi-truck chase halfway through the film.  It’s a movie that really earns that masterpiece mantle.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

So, where do you go next after that?  That’s the dilemma that Christopher Nolan was tasked with after The Dark Knight.  The movie was an international phenomenon, and at the time, a record setting film in the super hero genre.  Not only that, but Christopher Nolan had built his reputation further as an unmatched cinematic artist of high ambition, with his popularity soaring after making The Dark Knight and Inception back to back.  Naturally, the need for another film to round out the trilogy was going to happen, especially with the cliffhanger ending of Dark Knight.  But the question remained, what was it going to be about?  You couldn’t revisit the Joker nor Two-Face again, so who was a big enough villainous presence to follow in the footsteps of those two?  Nolan eventually got the inspiration from his co-story writer David S. Goyer to take a look at an often under-utilized villain from the comic books; Bane.  This was somewhat of an odd choice, given how the steroid enhanced muscular adversary didn’t lend himself well to Nolan’s more grounded style, but the way they re-imagined the character actually proved to work to their advantage.  Gone were the luchadore style mask and plastic tubes that feed venom into his muscles making them grow huge, and instead we got natural muscles and a grotesque, face-hugging mask covering his mouth to define the character.  The right kind of actor was needed, and Nolan once again made a brilliant choice in giving the role to his Inception scene-stealer, Tom Hardy.  Hardy had the physical build perfect for the role, but it’s in the vocal performance where he truly makes the character shine.  Hardy’s Bane has a commanding presence, delivering several long soliloquies with absolute confidence, made all the more remarkable as he is left to perform with his mouth completely covered, relying more on his eyes and body language to do the heavy lifting.  Through all this, he becomes a threat to Gotham of a different type; a zealot bent on destruction.  Before, Batman had to deal with threats to his ethics and his soul; now it’s his threshold of pain that is challenged, and it may be one that will determine whether or not a Batman will survive.

The Dark Knight Rises is the most polarizing of the movies in this trilogy.  Some people felt that it was a let down after The Dark Knight, with many complaints stating that it had too convoluted of a plot, and that many of the changes that Christopher Nolan made were unfaithful to the essence of the characters and the legacy of what came before it.  But I found myself to be in the camp of people who outright loved this movie, and believed that it was a perfect conclusion to this particular story.  I believe that to really appreciate this film, you have to look at it’s context within the full arc of the trilogy as a whole.  The Dark Knight Rises closes out many of the grander themes that were laid out in Batman Begins and followed through with The Dark Knight, and that the toll that fighting back against evil takes on a person both spiritually and physically.  One thing that culminates in this film is the sense that by becoming Batman, Bruce Wayne has essentially been fighting back an internal struggle that has been damaging his mind slowly over the years, and that’s the fact that he never was able to cope with that loss of innocence as a child.  He has essentially killed off who Bruce Wayne was, and by becoming Batman, he is in turn welcoming death, a weakness that Bane is all too happy to exploit.  In a triumphant scene at the end of the second act, Bruce Wayne must climb out of an underground prison, and to do so, he must fear death once again, which means that he must have something to live for.  When he does, he doesn’t rise up as Batman, but as Bruce Wayne reborn.  And thus, we get a satisfying arc to the character of Bruce Wayne.  The entire trilogy is about him, not Batman.  With Dark Knight Rises, Nolan poignantly illustrates how a man can find purpose again by letting go of the pain that he once thought empowered him.  Perhaps many people didn’t like the fact that the movie concludes with Bruce giving up the Bat in order to live a normal life, and passing it on to a worthy successor, Robin (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  But the arc of the story was meant to show the power of moving beyond pain by embracing life, something which culminates perfectly the themes of all three films.  Sure it’s not a perfect movie; Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is kinda shoehorned in, despite a fine performance.  For me, it was a grand epic finale to one of the finest tales ever told in the mythic super hero genre.

One thing that I do love about the Dark Knight trilogy as a whole is the fact that it is a complete story.  There’s no grander cinematic universe beyond it’s narrative; no setting up of multiple franchises with Easter eggs or winking nods.  It’s just Batman, Gotham City, and the rogues gallery that means to terrorize them.  The whole thing is a story told in three acts, with Bruce Wayne working through a soul-searching journey to define himself.  Along the way, he faces foes that are not only great threats to him and his city, but also existential threats that force him to reconsider the kind of person he wants to be.  In Ra’s Al Ghul, Joker, Two-Face, and Bane, Bruce Wayne sees variations of the kind of person that he could easily have become had he made different choices throughout his life.  I believe that’s it was essential that these had to be the villains of this trilogy, as opposed to more conventional choices like The Penguin or The Riddler.  In each of them, we see the dark side of Batman manifested whole.  Ra’s Al Ghul is a Batman who believes killing is justifiable; Joker is a Batman with no moral code, working in the exact opposite direction as an symbol of chaos rather than order; and Bane is a Batman made a slave to a twisted ideology, believing right and wrong are irrelevant.  In a perfectly stated opinion from Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight, he says, “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”  It’s a foreshadowing statement about himself, of course, but it could also apply to Batman as well.  He is ever so close to becoming a villain himself in these movies and the same can be true about all of us in our own lives as well.  That’s the greatest aspect about the Dark Knight trilogy; the ethical questions it leaves us about the true nature of justice, and whether or not symbols like Batman are as pure as we like to think they are.  Batman ultimately remains a hero by the end, but Christopher Nolan makes it clear in his trilogy that not every path taken is as morally clear cut one.  It’s a trilogy that will go on to remain one of the genre’s most triumphant, and also one of the most daring in all of cinema.  Whether you go in entranced by Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing performance as the Joker, Nolan’s unparalleled sense of epic scale, or just the sheer  delight of watching the gritty bare-knuckle fight between Batman and Bane, this is a trilogy of classics that gives the Dark Knight true cinematic honor.

 

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.