All posts by James Humphreys

Movie Palaces – A Guide to Finding the Right Theater for Your Movie Experience

For as long as we have had cinema as an art-form, we have had the experience of watching movies.  It’s very existence calls for us the audience to make ourselves comfortable and observe that art for an extended period of time, and most commonly, with other people.  Cinema is a communal experience like few others, and that experience calls for the right kind of amenities to compliment it.  While the mechanics of making movies has evolved over the years, so has the business of presenting film as well.  After production is completed, the business of presentation takes over and within it comes a whole other field of innovations and changes.  The movie theater business has a fascinating history all it’s own, and it’s one that I myself am familiar with personally.  I worked for 4 1/5 years in a movie theater while putting myself through college, and it gave me a great insight into the daily functions of how a movie theater does business.  The theater was Cinemark 17 in Springfield, Oregon and in those several years I worked there, I found myself working in every possible department, apart from management.  I worked concessions, I cleaned up each theater as an usher, sold tickets at the box office, greeted people in the lobby as I tore their tickets, and even ran the projectors in the booth upstairs.  It was a multi-faceted job that opened me up to many different skills, but what I took away most from my experience there was the insight into what made the movie-going experience special.  Our job was to ensure that the audience had the best viewing experience possible and that it would ensure their repeat business in the future; a not uncommon goal for most businesses, but with the industry of film-making and presentation, it is all about ensuring that a day at the movies is the best option available to the audience.

When you look back at the history of the movie theater business, you see an industry that is constantly in change due to the changing forces of the market.  In the early days, movie theaters were as essential to cinema as anything else.  The only way you could watch a movie in the first couple decades was by going to your town’s local movie theater and paying for a ticket.  Movies were celebrated as much as live events back in those days, and the theater business likewise treated it as such.  The first theaters created specifically for film were elaborate auditoriums that mimicked the aesthetic of the great music halls of the era.  These were meant to be monuments to the artistry of film, and that’s why they were often given the name, “movie palaces.”  Even small town theaters aped the majesty of these early theaters, and some of those are what you still find today.  Competition from television forced a change in cinema though, and thus we saw the era of gimmicks in the movie theater business.  This was the era of 3-D, Widescreen, and Smell-O-Vision, as theaters were trying anything to appeal to audiences, reminding them that there were experiences still that they would only find in a movie theater. The era of the blockbuster changed cinema once again, as it became clear that single screen “movie palaces” were not enough to contain the growing business of Hollywood.  So, the multiplex came into existence; one singular building containing multiple screens which could show several movies all at one time.  For a while, multiplexes were able to sustain audience interest in a televised world, but as technology changed, so would the theater business.  Now, in our digital internet driven world, cinema faces a new challenge; streaming services.  The rise of Netfilx, Amazon, and Hulu has changed Hollywood once again, and we find cinema in a new quandary about what they should do next.

It’s not a problem so much for Hollywood, since they have new avenues opened up to show more of their product.  But, for the theater business, it’s becoming a serious issue.  Home entertainment has become more and more sophisticated in recent years, and now poses a serious threat to the survival of the cineplex theater model in the process.  When a movie has a day one release in both theaters and on streaming services simultaneously, which do you think most people would choose?  Movie theaters charge you an arm and a leg for snacks at their concessions, while at home, you are only footsteps away from your fridge.  You can pause the film while you take a break to use the restroom and not miss anything important. High Definition projectors are also becoming more affordable for home theaters, and can give the viewer even more of the cinematic experience right from the comfort of their own living room.  Which raises the question even more now; why go out to the movies at all?  For a long time, movie theaters could deal with that question by emphasizing the grandeur of their amenities, the exclusivity of their presentations, and the value of what you were getting.  But now, the streaming market has put more of the choice into the hands of the viewer and they are backing up their appeal with exclusives of their own.  Some filmmakers are embracing streaming, because it gives them more creative freedom to create the films that they want to make, feeling less pressure to deliver a product that appeals to a broader theater going public.  Netflix and Amazon in particular are trying to outdo one another in their big name exclusives, with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and the Coen Brothers all bringing their next projects exclusively to streaming.  There are purists for the theater experience, like Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, and Quentin Tarantino, but even with their best efforts, they still aren’t able to redirect the tide.

Even still, they do make a good point.  There really is no substitute to the movie theater experience.  Home viewing has it’s benefits, and is understandably the preferred choice for some.  But, I personally feel that watching a movie in a theater with an auditorium full of other viewers is still the optimal way to watch a movie.  There is just something about the communal experience of it that makes going to the movies worth it in the end.  Maybe I’m biased because of my many years working in a movie theater, but even several years removed from that job now, I still prefer going out and watching a movie in a theater over watching it first on television.  There’s just something about experiencing the same movie with a room full of complete strangers and witnessing their own varied emotions as they react to the same thing that I’m watching with them.   In many ways, it does leave a different reaction on me as I leave after watching a movie.  Seeing a crowd laugh hysterically all at once to a hilarious bit, or jump out of their seat at a well timed jump scare has it’s own level of entertainment that can’t be underestimated.  Even overhearing an audience’s opinion of a movie, whether positive or negative, offers an extra level to the experience.  I remember staying through the credits of 2015’s awful Fantastic Four reboot and remembering 20 random people in the audience all booing the screen at once.  That’s something that you won’t get at home, unless you can make yourself yell as loud as 20 people.  For me, the audience experience is what makes going to the movie theater special, but even without an audience, the thrill of seeing a movie projected on the biggest screen possible is still an ideal as well.  But, it’s not enough for some people who just want to relax and have the comforts of home available to them, as well as the ability to have entertainment available at their own convenience.

As a person who understands a little bit about the business of showcasing film and operating a theater, I believe that it is worth sharing some pointers about how to find the theater experience that is right for you.  First, you have to take into account the options within your area.  Growing up in a small Oregon college town, I had more limited options than say a big city would.  During my childhood, there were three medium sized theaters and a classic movie palace in my hometown.  That number has decreased down to the two available today, but both modern theaters are equipped with more screens in total.  There was also a rise in art cinemas over those years, which brought the option of independent, alternative cinema to my hometown.  So with all these choices, my decisions of where to watch a movie were based on location, availability and variety.  The theater in my part of town unfortunately closed in the year 2000, as well as the last remaining movie palace, but the multiplexes made up for the loss with their updated amenities.  Over time, I valued the more advanced amenities than anything else, because I wanted the best possible presentation for my movie-going experience.  The Cinemark 17 theater had the biggest screens, stadium seating, and state-of-the-art sound and projection, making it my preferred theater, and just by chance, it would end up being my workplace as well.  Living in a bigger city, you might have multiple theaters that offer the same amenities, so at that point, your choices might be limited to how close it is to your home.  Some smaller towns might only have one single theater, which limits the choices even further, and makes streaming services a more viable option for those who want more variety.  I was fortunate to live in a place that had variety but also clear cut choices, which made it easier to find my ideal theater; but not all places are going to make that choice easy, so then you have to take other things into consideration.

One thing to look at is what your local theater provides.  For someone who wants to watch a blockbuster on the biggest screen possible, seeking out a large multiplex becomes the ideal option.  Thanks to the recent successes of The Dark Knight (2008) and Avatar (2009), gimmicks like IMAX film and 3D projection have proliferated to reach a much bigger audience in more venues across the country.  Once the market sees the value of such gimmicks as part of the experience, they are more ready to invest more fully in it, and that’s why you see IMAX and 3D in more markets today.  But even with wider availability, there are some elements of these that prove to be more exclusive than others.  While you find IMAX most everywhere nowadays, insiders will tell you that it’s not a true IMAX experience until you find the right theater.  Most multiplexes today just have retrofitted an IMAX projector and screen into their normal size theater, which kind of hampers the experience.  True IMAX is presented on 100 ft. screens in select theaters across the country, and these are the only ones that are specially equipped to run true 70 millimeter IMAX, which is the best quality picture that you’ll find for the format.  This is the film process that directors like Christopher Nolan and the like are fond of, and prefer to have their films presented in.  It does limit the availability however, making it so that some film purists will have to travel out of their area to find the right kind of presentation.  Living now in LA, I can tell you that I don’t have a problem with finding theaters with special gimmicks such as this.  In fact, Los Angeles seems to be the testing ground for all the technological advancements that theaters are trying to make work for a national audience.  Here, in addition to true IMAX, you’ve got the advances of Dolby Atmos sound in theaters, as well as 4DX presentations, where the very seats you are in move and enhance the feeling of immersion into the theater.  Not all of it will cross over, but it’s interesting to see the theater industry try to figure out ways to make the theater experience even more special.

Outside of Los Angeles, there are other innovations that are making the theater-going experience something worthwhile.  In Texas, the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain has revolutionized the concept of Dine-In theaters.  There they do away with the original concession stand element of a movie theater, and replace it with full service dining while watching your film.  The Drafthouse business plan has become a favorite with Gen X and Millennial audiences who want a more of a hip vibe to their movie-going experience, and it is beginning to catch on across the country, including here in LA.  Apart from that, you see small innovations in local art house cinemas across the country.  Art cinemas bring character to the film-going experience, not only giving you a look at first run movies, but also immersing yourself into one of a kind experiences based on where you are seeing the movie.  Sometimes you’ll be watching a movie in a theater that’s been unchanged since the dawn of cinema itself, making it feel like you’ve wandered into a time capsule.  Other theaters are built into unusual places like defunct old schools, churches, factories, or a small little office space.  Despite the peculiarity of some theaters, it nevertheless makes the theater going experience feel unique, and independent theaters often bring that feeling much closer to home.  In many ways, the relics of the past actually gives the viewer much more of a kinship to the cinematic experience because it remind them of a time when going to the movies was a special event.  And if they aren’t a holdover from the past, new age art cinemas can draw in audiences by offering the things that other theaters won’t, like unique cuisine and house brewed beverages that you can only find there in the theater.  If anything, it’s that diversion from the norm that helps to brings repeat business back to these theaters.

The only downside of trying to compete with home entertainment is the the theater industry’s belief that they have to conform to it.  On a recent trip back home to my old theater, Cinemark 17, I noticed that they went through a massive new renovation.  Each theater is now equipped with leather back recliners and has fewer seats than before to accommodate the extra leg room for each customer, with giant walls blocking view of the rows in front of view, leaving only the screen visible.  While it does make the experience more comfortable for the viewer, I was troubled by the walls that closed off each row.  To me, it robs the theater of that unique audience experience that I enjoyed.  Sure, this is more ideal for the viewer who wants more privacy and something closer to their viewing experience at home, and I understand my old theater’s desire to adapt to that audience accommodation.  But it’s not my ideal viewing experience.  This was the point that I realized that my old theater was not my ideal theater anymore.  It changed with the times and became something else.  I still will go to movies there, but it’s just not the same.  Living in Los Angeles now, I do have variety to fill that need, but if I were still living in a small town, this might be a more troubling change overall.  For me, a movie theater is more than just a place to relax while watching a movie.  It’s about sharing that experience with others.  With streaming services competing for exclusive content in the marketplace, I feel that the answer for the theater industry is to not comply and make their theaters more like a home, but more like a palace.  Essentially, I want everyone to experience a movie for the first time in the most spectacular way possible and that’s by getting off the couch and joining hundreds of other in the shared majesty that is cinema.  Bigger screens, elaborate amenities, and even a clever gimmick or special treat to enhance the flavor of the moment.  Going to the movies has always been a special thing in my life, and my hope is that all of you can find that special experience too, no matter where you are.

Off the Page – Treasure Island

Pirate movies have usually seen their highs and lows in Hollywood.  Popular in their heyday of Hollywood’s Golden Age, with stars like Errol Flynn making his mark on the genre, pirates later become outcast as movie budgets for high seas adventures grew higher and higher.  Eventually, pirate movies saw a resurgence in the early 2000’s thanks to Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but even there time has shifted the popularity away from swashbucklers once again.  Even still, you can see a long tradition of pirate movies throughout the history of film, and through them, you can find a whole variety of peculiar stories and characters worthy of cinematic treatment.  There are plenty of famous pirate stories that have been adapted over the years, either from true life or from literature, but if one were to pinpoint the most quintessential pirate’s tale from any medium, it would probably be Robert Louis Stevnson’s immortal classic, Treasure Island. First published 1883, in an era not too far removed from when pirates were really roaming the seas, Stevenson’s novel has gone one to become not just a beloved read to many, but also the basis for much of the pirate lore that we are familiar with today.  In Treasure Island, we see the beginnings of many tropes we associate with pirates, like treasure maps marked with an “X,” the Black Spot death mark, peg legs, and even the trope of parrots resting on the shoulders of their pirate masters.  It is, to this day, a widely read book and pretty much the first story that comes to mind when one thinks of pirates.  The tale of young Jim Hawkins and the feared pirate Long John Silver naturally has also found it’s way to the big screen as well.  Surprisingly, or not surprisingly to some, the studio that has been associated with this particular tale the most has been the Disney company, which has been responsible for two screen adaptations; three if you count Muppet Treasure Island (1996).

The second of these adaptations is the one that I want to focus on here, because it represents a very interesting thing that you usually see in Hollywood, and that’s the practice of re-imagining.  A re-imagined movie is one where it takes an already established and familiar story and re-contextualizes through a different setting or style.  You see this a lot when Hollywood imports a movie idea from the international market and remakes it.  Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) was remade into a Western called The Magnificent Seven (1960) for example, and while the setting and time period are very different, both movies still retained the same general plot.  One common re-imagining you see in Hollywood is taking a familiar story and setting it in an alien world, or out into space, which is exactly what Disney did with their animated feature Treasure Planet (2002). What’s interesting about Disney’s re-imagined version of the story is how much they ground it in the original tale, while at the same time taking it way outside our world.  It’s futuristic, and old-fashioned at the same time. Here we see 18th century aesthetic planted onto interplanetary technology from a far distant future and it leads to some quite amazing visuals.  Here, pirates don’t have peg legs but instead become part cyborg, and sailing ships are equipped for venturing through the stars instead of the open seas.  At the same time, the movie runs the risk of having these two styles clashing and causing a distraction from the overall story, but regardlesss of one’s feelings towards the look of the film, there’s no doubting that it is a bold choice.  Disney certainly gambled with this film, and sadly it didn’t click with audiences in the way they hoped.   It’s often cited as the movie that killed the traditional animation market, rather unfairly.  Still, it is interesting to see how much of the movie maintain’s the essence of Stevenson’s classic novel, even with all the sci-fi flourish.  And in many ways, it’s what helps to make the movie work as well as it does.

“The were nights when the winds of the Etherium, so inviting in their promise of flight and freedom, made one’s spirit soar.”

Disney’s development of Treasure Planet has an interesting history of it’s own.  The film was a dream project for longtime directing partners John Musker and Ron Clements.  Working together since the mid-80’s, they are the team responsible for such Disney classics as The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Hercules (1997), and more recently The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Moana (2016).  But, for most of their partnership, they had always held onto Treasure Planet as their ultimate goal.  They pitched it to the top brass at Disney as far back as before The Little Mermaid, and would return back to it between projects over the course of almost 17 years.  At the turn of the century, with technology advancing to the point where it became more feasible to make a concept like Treasure Island in space a reality, Ron & John were finally given the green-light to work on their long waiting dream.  The reason that this project meant so much to them is because they were both big fans of the original novel and of science fiction in general.  It’s probably something that bonded them together as collaborators and what drove their determination to see it through.  Now, they knew that the story appealed to Disney, seeing as how Walt Disney himself had created a live action adaptation back in the 1950’s (a studio first by the way).  Their choice of setting it in space, however, was their way of distinguishing it from all other adaptations that have come before, and make it more visually appealing in the animated medium.  Animation can tell a story in ways that are too limited in live action, so why shouldn’t they take those kinds of liberties with Treasure Island.  It’s clear that Ron Clements and John Musker set out to make the movie with a lot of love and respect for Stevenson’s original, and resetting it in space was not an attempt to exploit the story for the purposes of making it more exciting.  No, once you see the movie, you’ll notice that it’s not the changes to the setting that make the biggest difference; it’s often the changes in the characters that leave the biggest impact.

“The Cyborg!! Beware the Cyborg!!!”

There are alterations to many of the main cast that were done mostly out of expedience.  Jim Hawkins companions, Dr. Livesey and John Trelawney are combined together into one character in the film; Dr. Doppler (voiced by David Hyde Pierce), who is re-imagined to have come from an alien race that appears to be canine based.  The savvy commander of the expedition, Captain Smollett, is completely re-imagined here, not only taking on a feline form, but also shifting genders to be female, in the form of Captain Amelia (voiced with authority by Emma Thompson).  Most other characters from the box are either excised or completely altered; the villainous Blind Pew is no where to be seen for instance.  Minimizing the cast benefits the film greatly though because it puts the focus where it needs to be, which is on the relationship that forms between Jim Hawkins and John Silver.  What Ron & John seemed to care about most from the original novel is how this unlikely friendship between the young boy and the fearsome pirate forms and inevitably shapes their destinies.  It plays out much in the same way as in the book, but whereas the novel allows the relationship to form over the course of a serialized recounting over several chapters, the movie has to build that connection in a rather short amount of time.  The way that the movie makes it work is that they establish very early on that Jim is dealing with the aftermath of his abandonment by his father.  Because of this, he has turned cold and distant to others around him.  Silver, spots this while on their voyage and instantly takes an interest in steering him in the right direction.  Now, of course it probably was Silver’s way of coaxing the truth about the treasure map out of Jim, but the great surprise within the story is that Silver actually proves to be a better father figure to Jim than either of them ever would’ve realized. And that was the appeal that prompted the directors to take the story so seriously, seeing the importance of mentor-ship in forming young minds.

It is interesting comparing Jim Hawkins and John Silver to other like minded characters in the Disney family.  John Silver in particular is very unconventional as a Dinsey villain.  Where most Disney antagonists are un-redeemable rogues who get what’s coming to them, Silver actually stands out for having a redemptive arc.  In fact, it is often hard to call him a villain at all, despite his often awful deeds.  It’s his relationship to Jim that makes him likable to us the audience, because we are witnessing the story from Jim’s point of view.  As he begins to warm up to Silver, so do we, and it’s that bond that drives the emotional heart of the movie.  It is, in many ways, what makes the film work so well, because the movie makes that relationship between the boy and the pirate work so well.  John Silver is one of literature’s most memorable characters, given as he has now become the archetypal pirate for most people, and the version in the film is really something to behold.  Using a combination of both hand drawn animation and CGI, Silver is a beautifully constructed hybrid.  Instead of his signature one leg, Silver is shown to be half man and half cyborg, with computer animated limbs that transform into a variety of tools at his disposal.  His hand drawn parts were done by legendary animator Glen Keane, whose long history at Disney has included animating complex characters like the Beast in Beauty and the Beast (1991) as well as Tarzan in Tarzan (1999), which made him a perfect fit for this character.  While his character animation combined with the CGI parts are impressive on their own, it’s the way that he puts emotion in the model that really drives home the brilliance of the character on film.  Matched perfectly with the voice of stage actor Brian Murray who plays Silver, the animation calls for some rather emotional moments and it delivers.  I was particularly struck by the subtlety of the moment when Jim asks Silver how he lost his limbs, to which he replies solemnly, “You lose a few things chasing a dream.”  It’s a great moment of vocal and animation acting that makes this, in my mind, the best version of Long John Silver we’ve ever seen on the big screen.

“At least you taught me something, “Stick to it,” right?  Well, that’s just what I’m gonna do.  I’m going to make sure that you never see one drubloon of ‘my’ treasure.”

The depiction of Jim Hawkins is somewhat different, especially from the book.  He’s depicted as a bit older than his literary source, and with far more of a chip on his shoulder.  For Jim Hawkins in the novel, his passion is driven by a desire to have an adventure, which literally comes falling into his lap once Billy Bones gives him the treasure map from his death bed.  In the movie, still reeling from the crushing abandonment by his father, Jim wants to set out on this journey to prove to both his mother and himself that he’s not a failure.  The early depiction of Jim at the film’s start might put off some literary purists, because he’s absolutely modeled after a moody, millennial teenager in those scenes.  We first see him recklessly playing some extreme sports on his solar surfer, which gets him in trouble with the law, and he often punctuates his conversations with modern anachronisms like, “cool,” “dude” or “whatever.”  But, as the film illustrates, these character flaws are what motivates the transformation that he goes through by film’s end.  He’s given voice by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the film, who does a good job of bringing a lot of emotion to the character.  As an actor not too far removed from being a teenager himself at the time of this film’s making, Joseph manages to balance the maturing of the character in a believable and balanced way.  We see him grow from being pessimistic and self-involved to one willing to sacrifice his life even for those who have done him wrong.  In the depiction of Jim Hawkins, we see how important the need for a positive role model is in a young person’s life, and the great irony from the story is that that positive direction comes from a bloodthirsty pirate.  It’s a trope that you still see used today, such as the recent Oscar-winner Moonlight (2016), where a young man finds his positive father figure in his neighborhood’s local drug lord.  In Treasure Planet, this part of the story is given it’s full attention and helps it to resound all the more.  Stevenson managed to make the unusual relationship something that stood it apart from it’s peers, but the animated movie drives it home in a much stronger way.

Apart from the characters, the film makes the most profound changes in the visuals.  The blend of old and new in the film is fascinating to see realized.  According to Ron Clements and John  Musker, they took inspiration from the Brandywine School style of artwork, which emphasized fine detail and a mixture of cool and warm hues within their paintings.  You commonly see paintings of this type associated with literary book covers from the turn of the century, and that’s exactly what drew the directors towards adapting it for their film.  In order to make that work with sci-fi elements, Musker and Clements stuck to a 70-30 rule, which meant that their film would incorporate that ratio into every aesthetic element needed.  That’s how you get schooners that operate with solar sails, or grotesque aliens that wear 18th century clothing, and celestial skies that fill the place of open seas.  It’s a ratio that surprising works out very well.  Over time, you actually forget about the anachronistic disparity between the two styles, and just accept it as the world that it is, which helps to absorb you into the story all the more.  I believe that grounding it in this classical style helps to maintain the Stevenson touch, while at the same time modernizing it in an effective way.  Treasure Planet itself is a beautiful iconic image on it’s own, with it’s dual ring system that not surprisingly marks an “X” over the planet.  The visual effects themselves follow that same 70-30 rule, as it shows perhaps the most sophisticated blend of CGI and traditional animation that has ever been achieved.  With that, it brings a scale to the story that I don’t believe has ever been achieved before.  One of the most striking images is the reveal of the crescent shaped space port.  The incredibly complex shot zooms in from far away, showing what we thought was a moon is actually a intricately detailed port.  Coming in closer, we find that much of the detail resembles what early seafaring ports might have looked like in the 18th century, but with dimensions that defy the laws of physics.  It’s that blend that breaths new life in this old story and continues it throughout the film.  Some critics may not have seen the point of this change, and wondered why Disney didn’t just remake Treasure Island in a normal way, but after seeing amazing images like that one, who can argue with such a change.

“Doctor, with the greatest possible respect, zip your howling screamer.”

Disney’s Treasure Planet was a bold departure from the norm in animation, and it was a gamble that in the beginning didn’t do them any good.  The film has some devoted fans (myself included) and is growing a cult following.  But, some arguments still arise as to why Disney would bring sci-fi into Treasure Island.  The answer to this is that there is nothing about Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel that necessarily says it has to take place in a certain place or time.  In fact, Stevenson remains vague about the story’s actual setting, instead focusing on how the plot unfolds and the relationships between the characters.  Disney’s interpretation brings a new perspective on the story, while at the same time maintaining the heart of it.  In the end, it is about a young boy who comes of age, finding his way in life through the mentor-ship of an unlikely role model.  In the end, that’s what John Musker and Ron Clements wanted to explore, and for the most part, they achieved their goal.  You can tell that the whole film was made with a lot of love, and you don’t commit 17 years of your life to an idea just to do a mediocre job at it.  It does offer a great contrast with the original story, of which still serves as much of the backbone of the movie.  The film delves deeper into the personal struggles, but apart from that and the changed setting, it is essentially a faithful adaptation right down the line.  If only this film had come out a year later, with Pirates of the Caribbean revitalizing the genre, then it might have found a more accepting audience.  In the end, it is worthwhile to see both the movie and the novel itself.  Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic still holds up as the quintessential pirate’s tale, and Disney’s animated feature lives up to it’s legacy, while at the same time completely transforming it.  It is, in my opinion, Disney’s most misunderstood film and my hope is that someday it will be fully appreciated as the masterpiece that it is.  Visually, it stands out as one of Disney’s most spectacular achievements and it’s story is one that packs an emotional wallop.  Like Silver says of Jim Hawkins in the film, it’s got the makings of greatness in it.

“Look at you! Glowing like a solar fire.  You’re something special, Jim.  You’re gonna the stars, you are!”

 

Recobbled – The Neverending Story of a Lost Animation Masterpiece

Animation is a remarkable, yet time consuming art-form.  When audiences see a new animated film in their local theater, I’m sure that very few of them ever think about the time and money that was poured into their completion.  With changing technologies, that extensive time frame has shortened somewhat, but even Computer animated features can still take years to be completed.  Back in the Golden Age of animation, you would sometimes be looking at 5 years or more for the production of a full length feature, from concept through production, to locking it in the can.  Towards the end of the heyday of hand drawn animation, 4 or 5 years was commonplace, though it would fluctuate between a very short (2.5 years for Beauty and the Beast) and very long (6.5 years for Sleeping Beauty).  But, what about 31 years of production?  That was the case with a little seen but highly regarded animated feature called The Thief and the Cobbler (1995).  The magnum opus and work of passion for independent Canadian animator Richard Williams, Thief not only carries the longest production span of any animated film ever; it holds the record for the longest film production, period.  And in fact, it could be argued that the movie is still not done, depending on what version of the film you are watching.  I briefly mentioned this movie in a previous article about prolonged film developments and felt that it was deserving of a analysis all it’s own.  The Thief and the Cobbler is a movie that has fascinated me recently as an animation fan, not so much for the movie itself, but for the fascinating history of it’s production.  In Thief, you see not just a fascinating work of pure artistic passion on display, but a document to the history of animation itself.

To know something about this movie, you need to know a little about the mad genius behind it.  Richard Williams is a veteran of the animation medium, and is widely considered within the industry to be one of the great masters.  Though he had for many years been courted by major animation studios like Disney and Warner Brothers to jump on board their teams, Williams has largely preferred to work independently through his small London, England based studio.  From there, he has largely made a name for himself as a highly respected commercial and title sequence producer.  His work can be seen in the opening titles of 60’s and 70’s era classics like What’s New Pussycat? (1965) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), as well as in classic British television commercials from the era.  What made his work stand out was the intricate and fluid detail that he would put into his animation; utilizing complexity that few other studios would ever attempt.  In 1971, legendary animator Chuck Jones commissioned Williams’ studio to create a short adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the result was a critically acclaimed success.  Originally intended for television, Carol was subsequently given a theatrical run, which led to Oscar win for Williams and his team.  From that, he was given an even bigger commissioned assignment to create a film centered around the Raggedy Ann & Andy dolls.  True to Williams style, Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977) is an animated film unlike any other you will ever see; with bizarre and often surreal sequences that defy explanation, and not what you would expect for a movie based of rag dolls.  But, Williams career is most defined by his life’s work, The Thief and the Cobbler, a movie that sadly became too big a dream to hold onto.

The Thief and the Cobbler began in 1964 as a collaboration with Middle Eastern author Idires Shah, who collected and translated many Arabic tales about a character called Mulla Nasrudin, or “the wise fool.”  When the partnership between Williams and Shah broke down, Williams retained the idea for the project and changed the “wise fool” into the character that would eventually be the titular Thief.  Later, Williams began another go at developing the project in earnest with a new treatment by screenwriter Howard Blake.  Blake’s treatment brought many elements that would turn up in the final film, including the titular cobbler named Tack, the evil vizier Zig Zag, the sleepy king, and the plot device of the Three Golden Balls that protect the Golden City.  Though the script helped to bring structure to the story, Williams maintained a free-flowing style to his direction.  Instead of story-boarding out his scenes, he instead opted to let scenes play out based on the imaginations of himself and his artists.  This unfortunately led to a lot of sequences that added little to no momentum to the plot, though they stood out as remarkable on their own.  Williams also insisted on animating the sequences in 24 frames per second, as opposed to the industry standard of 12 frames.  The result gives the animation a remarkably smooth flow, which becomes mesmerizing the longer the sequences run; which sometimes can be several minutes without cutting.  And that in lies why it took 20 years to only complete 20 minutes of the planed 100 minute movie.  And because of this sluggish adherence to free-flowing storytelling and complex animation that Williams was hard pressed to find funding for so long to complete his master work.

Over time, William’s studio managed to stay afloat with projects like Carol and Raggedy Ann & Andy, but Thief was always waiting in the wings for when the opportunity came.  Due to mounting economic pressure, Williams constantly had to simplify his story and cut back on his animation, but he still persisted with his bold vision.  Sometimes, he lucked out with an interested investor.  In the late 70’s, 15 years since the start of production, Williams caught the attention of Saudi prince Mohammed bin Faisal Al Saud, who commissioned an animation test to see if the remainder of the film was worthy investing in.  Williams used this influx of funds to complete what would end up being the film’s most complex scene, the destruction of the colossal War Machine from the villainous barbarian King One-Eye, a sequence that to this day is mind-boggling in it’s complexity.  Though the prince was impressed with the work that Williams had done, the cost overrun and missed deadlines prevented further investment, and Williams was forced yet again to shelve his dream project, although now with perhaps the most elaborate sequence finished.  Though unseen by the public, Willaims was still able to share what he had done to other industry professionals who had nothing but high praise for what they saw.  Eventually, Disney sought Williams assistance with one elaborate project of their own; the Robert Zemekis directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).  What Willaims revolutionized at his studio was multi-perspective animation, where character and environments would constantly change perspective as the camera placement swoops around, giving them an almost three-dimensional look.  Naturally, Disney wanted this style to help their hand-drawn animated characters like Roger and Jessica Rabbit co-exist believably in a live action film, where camera movement is ever-changing.  Williams was named Animation Director for the film, and his work again garnered him an Honorary Oscar.

With the goodwill from Roger Rabbit, Richard Williams finally had the attention of Hollywood, and plenty of interested parties lined up to give Williams the needs to finally finish Thief for good.  Disney and Steven Spielberg, the parties behind Roger Rabbit, expressed interest at first in funding the project, but later backed out.  Warner Brothers stepped in and signed Williams to a contract.  With that, he had the money and the manpower to complete his film, as well a release schedule that he had to adhere to.  He was finally able to have over an hour of completed film, but again, his adherence to perfection caused to project to go over-budget and over-schedule.  Sadly, at the same time, Disney was themselves working on their own Arabian set animated feature, Aladdin (1992), which made Warner Brothers all the more impatient and worried.  Unfortunately, Williams darker and more adult-appealing film was less marketable than Disney’s blockbuster, and Warner became certain that they had a film that was un-releasable.  So, they cut their contract with Williams and ended up selling it to a secondary animation studio run by Fred Calvert in order to complete it, without Williams involved.  Williams tried to salvage what he had with a 1992 workprint screened for studio execs, but it didn’t work.  Thirty one years since the first drawing had been completed, The Thief and the Cobbler was released to little fanfare in 1995 with nearly half of Williams original film either cut or re-animated, with a new Disney-style musical score and celebrity voices cast for his originally mute title characters (Matthew Broaderick as Tack the Cobbler and Jonathan Winters as the Thief).  Vincent Price, who recorded his voice for the villain Zig Zag over the 30 year span, was retained, but because the film released after his 1993 death, his lines ended up getting cut down rather than replaced.  Miramax oversaw the release in North America, and this compromised version has since become known as the “Miramax Cut” even though they had nothing to do with the production.

Thus, the long, troubled production of Richard Williams masterpiece came seemingly to an end, with his vision never being fully realized.  He came close, but studio interference caught up to him in the end.  Regardless, Williams is still regarded as a legend among the animation community and Thief surprisingly has something to do with that.  Because of it’s long production, Thief stands as somewhat of a documentation of the evolution of animation, bridging the Golden Era with the Renaissance of the late 80’s and the early 90’s.  Think about it, in the time it took Thief to be completed, Disney Animation had put out 15 feature films, and had seen their studio both decline and be reborn under new management.  Walt Disney was still breathing when production started on this film, just to give you an idea of how far back this project began.  Animation as a whole changed so much in that time, and you can see that reflected in the movie.  While Williams attention to detail remains fluid throughout, you can spot instances when the quality differs.  The sequences that were animated late in production have a different, more polished look than others that were made decades earlier.  The older scenes, mostly centered around the Thief, have a more classical look to them, not unlike many of the trippy, psychedelic animated films that arose in the 60’s and 70’s.  Couple the sequences where the Thief tries to steal the magical Golden Balls and the climatic War Machine sequence at the end, and it’s clear that they were made in different eras, where different tools were made available to animators.  At the same time, Williams staff of animators also shows a remarkable span of animation history.  He brought onto his team some legendary animators like former Disney animator Art Babbit (who worked on the Queen in  Snow White and Geppetto in Pinocchio) and Grim Natwick (the creator of Betty Boop) to not only contribute their own animation, but also to mentor both him and his young staff.   And among his young staff were newcomers like Andreas Deja and Eric Goldberg, who would go onto prosperous careers at Disney, including working on films like Aladdin (animating Jafar and the Genie respectively).

In addition to it’s legacy of reputation and the quality of it’s talent, The Thief and the Cobbler also is a perfect illustration of how just how difficult it is to get a movie made.  Not every studio has the financial security and resources of Disney.  And Williams never wanted that either.  He knew that he would never see his vision realized in a corporate controlled environment, so he continually sought to keep his production as independent as possible.  He stated very early on that his movie was going to be very non-Disney, both in the animation and in the story-telling.  No songs, no animal sidekicks; just pure visuals transporting the viewer to a world never seen on screen before.  Sadly, when corporate interests did intervene, it turned the movie into exactly what Williams was trying to avoid.  In that regard, the “Miramax” cut stands as a cautionary tale of when studio interference spoils the finished product.  Williams’ workprint has resurfaced over time and has been circulated online in various forms.  Williams himself has managed to put the disappointment behind him and moved onto other projects, though the movie is still a sore point to this day.  Dedicated fans however have done extensive work to try to reconstruct William’s original version.  Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew, even tried to get a restoration off the ground before his untimely death in 2009.  Other fans have shared their own work online in what is now known as the “Recobbled Cut.”  This version shows William’s original intent with unfinished, work-in-progress scenes inter-cut with finished ones from the Workprint.  Though in rough form, it nevertheless shows us what might’ve been.  What’s fascinating is that it shows that animated films are ever completed in sequence, but are often done out of order, with the more complex scenes done first.  In the recobbled cut, we see that many of the unfinished parts are the filler moments in between the more epic scenes.  Thankfully, Williams brilliance shows in the film’s spectacular finished moments, like the War Machine, the chase through the palace, the villain Zig Zag’s grand entrance, and the polo game with the Thief caught in the middle.  We may not have a finished film, but these big moments allows our imagination to fill in the rest.

Richard Williams, now 84 years old as of this writing, is still working on new projects today.  He most recently completed an entirely hand-drawn short called Prologue (2015) which takes many of the techniques he pioneered with Thief like hyper-detailed character animation and three-dimensional perspective changes, and presents them in a stripped back, pencil sketch presentation.  Again, this was another labor of love that he worked on for years, even while he was still making Thief, and his efforts were rewarded with yet another Oscar nomination.  Though, he’s moved on from Thief, he still hopes that someday it will see a new life, and maybe even completed based on his original vision.  A screening of Thief in 2013, based off the Workprint with a new high-def restoration, won wide praise from the animation community, and Williams is once again embracing the film, incomplete as it is, as his most cherished work.  For those of you interested in seeing the movie, avoid the compromised “Miramax Cut” and find one that is closer to Williams vision.  Sadly, the Miramax version is the only one available on home video, but, the makers of the Recobbled version have graciously made it available to view online for free.  In fact, I’m linking it for you all to enjoy below this article, because I want as many people as possible to experience it.  It’s not perfect, nor is it among my favorite animated films, but as a fan of animation, I admire it as a work of un-compromised artistry.  It’s also a fascinating look into the creation of an animated film, with so many sequences in various stages of completion.  Whether or not we see a finished version of this one day is unclear, and it’s highly likely that it may never be complete, but for now, we can appreciate what 30 years of a persistent artistic vision can accomplish.  In this movie, you see the story of the animated medium played out in one place, with artistic styles of several eras all coming together at once and creating something special.  And whether people know it or not, it has influenced a whole generation of artists in the years since.  In the end, it’s the animated equivalent of a Venus de Milo; more powerful broken apart than it would’ve ended up being as a whole.

PART 1

PART 2

PART 3

PART 4

PART 5

PART 6

PART 7

RICHARD WILLIAMS INTERVIEWS

The Movies of Fall 2017

Another summer season for Hollywood is now in the books.  And with it, another indication of the kinds of trends that are defining the industry at this moment.  In general, there is a concern that box office is down across the board, as this was one of the quieter summer seasons on record.  But, at the same time, this was critically one of the most celebrated summer seasons in recent memory.  There were some critically panned turkeys this Summer, but there was a stretch near the middle of the summer where most of the new releases were getting the kind of glowing reviews that are normally reserved for Oscar season.  Certainly, we got that with Christopher Nolan’s new epic scale masterpiece, Dunkirk, but other recent releases like War for the Planet of the ApesBaby Driver, and a host of well received superhero films all managed to deliver both critically and at the box office.   But, what this summer also revealed was the changing tastes of the average movie goer.  Previous stalwarts of the industry like Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers showed serious signs of fatigue this year, as both franchises produced their lowest grossing entries yet.  The same was also true for marquee names like actor Tom Cruise (The Mummy) and Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant).  What’s even more surprising though is the resilience of the Superhero genre.  At a time when serious concerns were being raised about Comic Book adaptations loosing their luster and impact, the genre not only bounced back, they had a banner year.  Marvel continued their hot streak with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, but I think everyone was more surprised by the fact that DC not only finally got one right this year, but also won the summer with their acclaimed cinematic debut of Wonder Woman.

With the summer over, it is now time to look ahead at the very anticipated fall season, with it’s own expected high expectations.  Here we have more tent-pole features, along with many anticipated independent oddities, as well as your usual Oscar-bait fare.  Like I do every year, I will be taking a look at a sampling of this Fall’s upcoming releases and choose among them what I think will be the must sees, the ones that have me worries, as well as the ones to skip.  A few of them are to be expected, but there are a few others that might surprise you.  I also want to stress that this is just my opinions based on my early impressions of these films based on their levels of hype and effectiveness of their marketing.  I have gotten some of these wrong before, but regardless, I try my best at handicapping the months ahead.  So, with all that said, let’s take a look at the Movies of Fall 2017.

MUST SEES:

STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI (DECEMBER 15)

Once again, Star Wars is the year’s most anticipated release.  And with good reason.  The success of both The Force Awakens and Rogue One has propelled the franchise into the stratosphere these last couple years, and in many ways it was all just a warm up for this.  If history has proven anything, especially when it comes to Star Wars, it’s the middle chapter that becomes the most intriguing part of the story.  Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is still widely considered to be the crown jewel for the Star Wars franchise, and many believe that it’s still the high water mark for the series as a whole.  Just like how The Force Awakens took considerable inspiration from the first Star Wars film, A New Hope, many speculate that The Last Jedi will act as the spiritual successor to Empire; helping to raise the stakes and take the ongoing story into darker territory.  Whether or not it does that is the question, but there is still much to be excited about with this upcoming episode.  One, we see the return of Mark Hamill in the role of Luke Skywalker; not just relegated to a last minute cameo like he had in The Force Awakens, but a full integral role in this film.  We also will see the late Carrie Fisher in her final film role, with her scenes completed just shortly before her tragic untimely death last year.  And the further adventures of our new favorite characters like Rey, Finn, BB-8, and Poe will be enough to make us all eager to see this.  Also, the fact that acclaimed director Rian Johnson (Looper) is given charge of this new chapter is also a positive sign, because he seems to be a perfect fit for this franchise.  Let’s just hope that all involved are able to deliver something special, and not be detered by the enormous pressure to live up to what has come before.  As long as the journey is worth it, we will always continue to return to that galaxy far, far away.

THOR: RAGNAROK (NOVEMBER 3)

And just like Star Wars, we have yet another Marvel feature to be excited about for the holidays.  The third entry in the Thor franchise sees the God of Thunder facing a challenge of a different kind, and that’s being stripped of everything that has made him what he is.  As we see in the trailer, he is cast out of his homeland, Asgard, by a powerful new enemy, Hela the Goddess of Death, who manages to destroy Mjolnir, the hammer which gives Thor much of his power.  In ancient Norse, the term Ragnarok literally means “the end of all things” and you would expect a film with that for a title would take on an apocalyptic and somber tone.  But, that’s not Marvel seems to have done.  Instead, Thor: Ragnarok is more colorful and humorous than any film we’ve seen in the series to date.  And this approach exemplifies exactly what has made Marvel so resilient as a film company.  It’s their ability to defy expectations, anticipate changing audience tastes and alter course when needed, all the while still going full steam ahead with their Cinematic Universe plans.  After complaints were made about the more somber second entry in the Thor series, 2013’s The Dark World, Marvel seemed to take that to heart and re-imagined what could have been a darker film into something much lighter.  Not that this film is going to feel out of place in the series.  If anything, it’s the shot in the arm that the series needed.  I like where this series is going with it’s more colorful direction.  Seeing Thor and the Hulk working together also has a lot of potential in the story.  And the addition of Cate Blanchett as the Goddess Hela is also worthy of the price of admission itself.  And if there’s anything clear we can see from this film so far, it’s that it’s far truer to it’s comic book origins than anything we’ve seen before from this series.

COCO (NOVEMBER 22)

Pixar, once the most dominant name in animation for over a decade, has fallen on hard times recently.  Sure, most of their movies still deliver at the box office, but they are not quite the critical darlings that they once were.  Many people have claimed that their abundance of sequels in recent years has ended up diluting the brand and alienated audiences.  It doesn’t help that the recent Cars 3 was one of the summer’s biggest flops.  So, how does it look for Pixar’s future going into their next feature.  The answer, so far, looks pretty good for them.  If there is one thing that Pixar still excels at, it’s the quality of their animation, and their new film Coco is quite a beauty.  Using the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos as their inspiration point, Pixar has crafted a very visually appealing film, both in it’s more subdued moments and in it’s more spectacular moments.  I got to glimpse some more extended scenes from this feature at Disney’s D23 Expo, and what I saw made me confident that Pixar has another winner on their hands.  The visual designs of the Land of the Dead alone are spectacular and I can’t wait to see them fully explored in the finished film.  The coming of age story for the young protagonist, Miguel, also is something that will give the movie a strong heart at it’s center.  My hope is that the failure of Cars 3 doesn’t loom large over this film, because I want Pixar’s brand to carry the same weight that it once did again.  There was a time when every new Pixar release became something to look forward to.  Hopefully, Coco will be the kind of Pixar movie that will make us excited once again to see what they’ll have for us next; even if it is a sequel to The Incredibles (2004).

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (SEPTEMBER 22)

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait too long for this.  The first film in this series, Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), was a fun, irreverent surprise that kinda snuck under the radar and quickly became a cult hit.  This sequel seems to be doing what the best kinds of second chapters do and that’s to broaden the world in which these characters live in.  What I liked so much about the first movie was it’s world building.  Director Matthew Vaughn, taking his cue from Mark Millar’s comic series, presented this interesting look into this secret organization of suave, well-dressed killing machines and did so in a very exhilarating and tongue-in-cheek way.  It plays upon all the spy movie tropes, and manages to hilariously poke fun at them too.  This sequel takes it a step further, and introduces the Kingman to their counterparts across the pond; the American Statesmen.  This opens the door for so many possibilities for this franchise, both in terms of action and humor.  Vaughn, who has yet to make a movie that I didn’t enjoy watching on some level, did such a great job with the first Kingsman, and I’m very happy that he stuck around to create this follow-up.  I especially love his cast choices for the Statesmen; with Channing Tatum, Pedro Pascal, and Jeff Bridges seemingly perfect for these good-ol-boy archetypes.  Returning cast members Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth also look to be a lot of fun here.  And I’m really intrigued to see how Julianne Moore functions as the new big baddy for the Kingmen.  As long as it retains the same level of fun as the first Kingsman, I am definitely on board for this sequel.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (NOVEMBER 10)

This, for anyone wondering, is the little indie film that has me the most excited in the coming months.  There are plenty of other films from independent filmmakers with strong pedigrees that are coming in the months ahead, like Darren Aronofsky (Mother), Alexander Payne (Downsizing), Todd Haynes (Wonderstruck), Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water), and even an untitled one from Paul Thomas Anderson; many of which could end up on my best of the year list.  But this is the one that sticks out to me looking at the upcoming release calendar.  For one, it’s the third feature film from writer/director Martin McDonagh, whose last couple films, In Brudges (2008) and Seven Psychopaths (2012) have been some of my favorite movies in the last decade.  Secondly, McDonagh’s style is so unique, in the way he builds his characters and constructs his plots, that it makes everything he does so unexpected.  I also enjoy the way he uses humor in his movies, often taking it to the extremes in terms of taste and use of graphic imagery.  Lastly, this premise seems so well suited for his sensibilities, and I am intrigued to see where he takes it.  With a grieving mother becoming so dissatisfied with the actions of law enforcement looking into the murder of her daughter that she in turn becomes a menace to society herself seems like a story that is ripe for so much humor and drama combined.  Frances McDormand especially looks to be in her element as the mother in question, and much of the best stuff in the trailer is seeing her be as pushy and offensive as possible.  McDonagh hasn’t let me down yet, and I hope that he has delivered another quirky masterpiece this Fall.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (OCTOBER 6)

Sometimes a movie should just stand on it’s own, instead of sparking an ongoing franchise.  What made Blade Runner (1982) such a beloved film over the years was the fact that it was unlike anything else we had seen before or since.  Ridley Scott’s futuristic neo-Noir is still regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi flicks ever made and has over time been regarded as one of the best films ever as well, to some.  Needless to say, making a sequel 35 years after the fact would seem to be a big risk to take, and yet that’s what we’re getting in little over a month.  Thankfully, the movie has a solid team behind it.  It’s being directed by Denis Villeneuve, who after making Sicario (2015) and Arrival (2016) back to back, is on somewhat of a hot streak and this kind of project seems to be in capable hands with him.  The film also stars heavyweight like Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, and Jared Leto in new roles, while also bringing back original star Harrison Ford to reprise his iconic role as Rick Deckard.  Also, Ridley Scott is helping to guide the project along as producer, giving the whole thing his seal of approval.  And yet, even still, there is a worry that this film may not live up to the lofty expectations that it’s predecessor has set.  It’s hard to make a sequel to what many regard as a masterpiece, especially so many years after.  Blade Runner was also a product of it’s time, and it’s going to be hard to take it’s visual and tonal aesthetic and make it appeal to a whole different generation.  But then again, maybe I underestimate the talent behind this project.  My hope is that this is a long awaited sequel that doesn’t reflect badly on it’s predecessor and ruins 35 years of legacy that it has built up.  At the very least, it does already look very pretty, but then again most copies tend to be.

JUSTICE LEAGUE (NOVEMBER 17)

This should have been the movie that was going to be the most anticipated release of the year.  But, due to a mismanaged launch of the DC Cinematic Universe, there is a lot less certainty surrounding this flick.  Thankfully, Justice League is coming off the the heels of the critically acclaimed box office smash that was Wonder Woman, DC’s first real winner in their Cinematic Universe plan, and people are finally now hopeful that things are turning around for the League.  Unfortunately, this is still a Zack Snyder-directed feature, and his previous flick Batman v. Superman proved to be a low point for DC.  Yeah, I know that Joss Whedon was brought in late to do re-shoots after Snyder dropped out for personal reasons, but for the most part, this will still be the work of one of Hollywood’s most divisive filmmakers.  The pleasing thing to see in this movie is a more humorous tone with the character interactions, coming especially from Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Ezra Miller’s Flash.  I also like the renewed focus on Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, which is not surprising seeing as how she has single-handedly saved the DC Universe this summer at the box office.  But, at the same time, the trailers might be showing us all the humor there is in the film, and the rest will still be the messy Zach Snyder overkill that sunk BvS.  The visual aesthetic still seems too dour for a comic book movie, and there’s still a heavy presence of over-the-top CGI mayhem.  But, Wonder Woman indicated that DC might have learned some lessons and that hopefully extends over into Justice League.  Given that a lot is riding on this new film for everything that is to follow with DC comic adaptations going forward, let’s hope that those lessons took hold, and quick.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (NOVEMBER 10)

On the surface, this looks like a film that seems to have it all.  A prestigious director, a dream all-star cast, lavish production value, and a literary source that is acclaimed as one of the greatest novels of it’s kind.  But, at the same time, I feel like this movie almost seems to be too good to be true.  This may be due to the very awkward way that it is being marketed.  Establishing all the main characters in one long shot is an interesting visual idea, but the use of pop song to underscore the trailer (Imagine Dragon’s Believer) comes off as a little bit pandering.  It’s as if the makers of this film are worried that younger audiences won’t find anything interesting about this Agatha Christie mystery.  The movie also has the disadvantage of being a remake, or at least not the first go around with this material.  Sidney Lumet directed a famous Oscar-winning version back in 1974, with an equally impressive all-star cast as well.  So, Kenneth Branagh’s new version in general has the handicap of being seen as too old-fashioned and too familiar to ever appeal to modern audiences.  And yet, even still, this has some potential to be a worthwhile film in the end.  Branagh is no slouch as a director, and he has assembled a great cast here; including Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, and Penelope Cruz just to name a few.  And the production values do seem top quality from the trailer.  I just wish that the marketing behind it didn’t have to resort to deceptive pandering tricks in order to bring a wider audience.  The mystery is good enough on it’s own to warrant attention.

THE LEGO NINJAGO MOVIE (SEPTEMBER 22)

Sometimes there is such an issue as too much of a good thing.  In the last couple of years, Warner Brothers Animation and the Lego Company have defied expectations, and have crafted not one but too movies around the plastic toy bricks that have defied expectations.  Both The Lego Movie (2014) and The Lego Batman Movie (2017) have hit their mark, and become instant classics as both comedies and as animated adventures.  Now, we are getting our third Lego feature and it hopes to carry on the goodwill that it’s predecessors have already built up.  But, there lies a problem.  Is this too much too soon for the Lego franchise?  It was only a couple months ago that we got the Lego Batman Movie, which doesn’t give us a lot of time to digest on that before the next course comes in.  The other problem is that unlike Batman, the rest of the world is not as familiar with the Ninjago brand from Lego.  This movie could have an identity problem as some audiences could be confused as to how this film fits in with the other two.  So far, the Lego franchise has benefited from it’s clever sense of humor and exceptional animation style, but unless this new feature adds anything new to the mix, it may end up leaving audiences cold and tired of the franchise as a whole.  And that’s not good for a series that was just beginning to win over a lot of new fans.  My hope is that it lives up to the two previous Lego movies, but if not, it will be a prime example for Hollywood to not count all their chickens before they’re hatched.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (DECEMBER 25)

You just know from looking at a movie that it’s not going to live up to the sum of it’s ambitions.  That seems to be the case with this overblown musical retelling of the life of circus founder P. T. Barnum.  Barnum is a fascinating figure, but I don’t think that this lavish, reverential musical is the way to put the controversial showman into perspective.  Also this musical just feels too overproduced for it’s own good.  This kind of musical is the thing that would have worked a decade ago in the wake of such film musicals as Moulin Rouge (2001) and Chicago (2002), but now seems to be out of style once again after the success of La La Land (2016).  What La La Land did was to modernize the classic musical, and work it into a contemporary story of lost love and broken dreams set against the backdrop of unforgiving life on the outskirts of Hollywood.  It subverted the genre while at the same time reinventing it.  The Greatest Showman seems to be a holdover from a pre-La La Land era that showed up a little too late to be relevant on it’s own.  Ironically, it shares the same songwriters as La La Land, which may be the only thing going for it.  Otherwise, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot here that could turn out to be interesting.  We know that both of it’s stars, Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron can sing, but it might be a musical that wastes their good talent.  Also, given that Circuses are on the outs right now, with Barnum’s own show closing shop after a century, this is not the ideal time for this movie.

FLATLINERS (SEPTEMBER 29)

Here’s a movie with no illusions as to what it will eventually be; it just looks dumb as hell.  And not in a redeeming way.  A remake of a rather forgettable 1990 thriller from Joel Schumacher, this movie seems purely intended to bring in the millennial crowd and throw a bunch of jump scares their way.  Setting aside the ridiculous premise, this movie just seems indistinguishable from many other like minded thrillers, and like so many of them thinks that it is more thrilling than it actually is.  The presence of good actors like Ellen Page and Diego Luna in the cast doesn’t help much either, because they both look disinterested here.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this was just a paycheck role for most of the cast.  It’s the kind of movie that just gets made by Hollywood in order to keep this forgotten title and premise alive (ironically speaking) and out of some cinematic purgatory.  The original may have some cult following, but I doubt any of those fans are clamoring for an update to the original.  It was silly then, it continues to be silly now.

DEATH WISH (NOVEMBER 22)

Speaking of ill-advised Hollywood remakes, we get this new take on a 70’s Charles Bronson action thriller.  The original Death Wish was a product of it’s time, when inner-city crime was viewed as a nationwide epidemic, fermented by unfair economic divisions and widespread corruption on the part of law enforcement.  In that era, the late 1970’s, it was conceivable that a character like Paul Kersey would emerge, taking the law into his own hands when the old law could no longer be trusted.  But, that was then; this is now.  In an era when gun violence and tensions between cops and civilians are dominating the headlines, this kind of premise of an honorable vigilante is not just dated, but discouraged with good reason.   Remaking this movie now is not just a bad idea, it’s kind of reckless.  The last thing we should be doing is romanticizing the idea of this kind of character, because doing so can lead to many other people thinking that they need to enact their own sense of “justice” their own way, and that’s the kind of thing that can lead to some very bad consequences.  For the most part, it just looks like the film was made to exploit an old franchise and give a starring role to Bruce Willis that fits his own patented persona.  But, given how times have changed, this isn’t the kind of story that will play just as well in our current state of affairs.

So, there you have a brief outlook at the months ahead.  What excites me the most is seeing how the Oscar race shapes up by years end.  There are a lot of usual suspects from some of our most acclaimed filmmakers, but the ones I enjoy the best are the little surprises that come out of nowhere.  I’m sure that no one expected a little seen indie that was dumped into theaters in late October last year called Moonlight would walk away as Best Picture the following Spring.  I’m sure the Academy itself didn’t even expect that.  It’s unexpected things like that which makes the Fall movie season so interesting.  It’s where everything comes into focus and indicates to us just how the year will be defined cinematically.  So far, the year has been pretty good, if not record breaking at the box office.  The Spring proved to be surprisingly strong, and despite a sluggish start with duds like Alien: Covenant and The Mummy, the Summer also gave us a lot to be happy about.  I’m sure one thing that will talked about for a long time is how Wonder Woman broke all the rules of Hollywood and set a new high standard for DC in the competitive Super Hero market, but also opened the door for female filmmakers in general, showing that they are just as capable of delivering spectacular results with bigger budgets.  My hope is that the Fall season continues to deliver solid entertainment that’s well in line with what has come before.  2017 may have seen a dip in box office, but that’s not a sign of bad quality.  It’s been a good year in general from an entertainment standpoint, and my hope is that the rest of the year doesn’t let us down.

Tinseltown Throwdown – Independence Day vs. Mars Attacks

There is often a very fine line between the movies that we are meant to take seriously and those that are meant to be farcical in nature.  Sometimes a movie might be so pretentious that it makes us laugh out loud, while other times a comedy’s tone might be set so wrong that it ceases to be funny.  If one or the other falls into the opposite effect, it’s usually the sign of a terribly executed film.  But, that’s not always the case either.  One genre in particular where you see the lines blurred between the profound and the ridiculous is in the realm of sci-fi.  Pretty much every film made in this genre requires a level of suspended belief on the part of the viewer, and it’s up to the one telling the story to decide how far they will go.  There are many cases in the early days of sci-fi where you couldn’t really tell if the film’s creators were sincere or foolish when they made a genre flick.  Many films often felt like they were accidentally hilarious, due to cheap looking effects or awkward performances, or a combination of both.  That’s why sci-fi became known as the “B-Movie” genre.  Still, there were some sci-fi films that did take the genre more seriously like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1954), which helped to elevate the genre with a sense of credibility.  Since then, the Sci-Fi genre has existed with these two different shades that continues to define it.  Most of the time, they are distinct from each other, though there are some films that dare to mix the two together a little.  Star Wars, for example, indulges in plenty of campiness, but does so in a completely earnest way allowing us to take it more seriously.  Sci-Fi movies that follow the earnest or campy route usually avoid direct comparisons with each other, but sometimes a close release schedule and similar plotting provides an interesting contrast, and shows just how important the differences within the genre really are.

That proved to be the case in the summer of 1996, when we saw the releases of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks released just a mere month apart.  When you look at them on the surface, it’s hard to see how either of them could be comparable.  Roland Emmerich’s film is a mega-budget blockbuster that revolutionized visual effects in Hollywood and wowed audiences with it’s unprecedented sense of scale.  Tim Burton’s film is a throwback love letter to B-movies of the 1950’s; intentionally cartoonish and lavished with plenty retro nostalgia and flavor.  One movie takes itself seriously, the other does not.  And yet, there are some striking connections.  Both movies feature an invading alien force, both include the on-screen destruction of landmarks across the world, both center on a beleaguered American president who finds himself increasingly overwhelmed; hell, it even features a crooner in a supporting role (Day’s Harry Conick Jr. and Attack’s Tom Jones).  But even apart from the visual and thematic thing that the movies have in common, it’s also interesting to see how they differ in their execution.  Independence Day is earnest in it’s depiction of widespread destruction, and plays most of the situation with a sense of dread and suspense.  But sometimes the thematic elements are done in such an unsubtle and gun-ho way that it ends up becoming ridiculous by the end.  Mars Attacks is a parody all the way through, and never once intends to raise the tension level.  But in being so self-conscious about it’s intentions to mock it’s particular genre, does Mars Attacks also spoil the joke in the process and stops being funny?  That’s the interesting comparison that comes from analyzing these two sci-fi flicks from the summer of ’96, and by picking through all of their defining features, we can see just how thin that divide in the genre really is.

“Hello Boys!!! I’m BAAAAACK!!!”

First of all, let’s look at where the movies differ the most, which is in the visual department.  Independence Day came out at a time when CGI technology was just coming into it’s own in Hollywood.  Just a few years earlier, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) brought dinosaurs back to life in a strikingly realistic way.  Roland Emmerich and his producer/ co-writer Dean Devlin saw the potential of CGI for a whole different purpose and that was to push the boundaries of scale on the big screen.  They took the premise that we’ve seen a million times before in Sci-fi, which is the arrival of aliens riding around in flying saucers, only they did it in a way that we’ve never seen before.  Here, the alien saucers were not only bigger, but could cover entire cities; and those were just the small ones.  With the tools at their disposal, Devlin and Emmerich revolutionized the genre and showed that this silly, old premise could still present a sense of awe on the big screen.  The sequence where the saucers make their first landfall, coming out of the clouds and descending over New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. is still a chill-inducing moment of cinema.  Mars Attacks, by contrast, feels pretty quaint, but that’s not it’s fault at all.  Tim Burton made it intentionally feel dated, because he wanted to invoke the memory of of the B-movie sci-fi flicks, with all the kitsch that they were famous for.  All in all, Attacks is lovingly designed and appealingly retro.  However, unlike Day, it has the disadvantage of feeling inauthentic at times.  Burton is trying to give his movie a retro look, but with the modern tools of today, which kind of detaches the illusion just a little bit.  It unfortunately feels a little too polished to be a B-movie.  Independence Day may not be as imaginative visually, but it at least feels authentic to what it’s supposed to be, which gives it a slight edge in terms of the visuals.

“Don’t run! We are your friends!”

What also sets these two films apart is the cast of characters, or perhaps the way that the films are cast.  While Independence Day does feature some star power behind it, with Will Smith in particular being propelled to super stardom by his role, the overall cast is perhaps not used to their best abilities.  Some people in the movie do give decent performances (Jeff Goldblum in particular as the nerdy David Levinson), but the rest, I’m sad to say, are reduced to playing what are essentially a collection of stereotypes.  This is actually a problem with a lot of Emmerich movies, where he puts so little effort into creating unique individuality for his characters and instead just ends up defining them by what they are instead of who they are.  In some cases, that can unintentionally turn the characters into borderline offensive stereotypes, such as Harvey Fierstein’s effeminate boss to Goldblum’s character, or Judd Hirsch’s irritated old Jewish man.  What’s even more insulting is that these are actors who should know better than to play up the stereotypes of the communities that they represent.  Mars Attacks plays up some stereotypes as well, but they are namely of the types of characters that would’ve inhabited a B-Movie plot back in the 50’s (your military hotheads and damsel in distresses for example).  But, what is more impressive with Attacks cast is just how star studded it is.  Pretty much anyone that Tim Burton wanted to get is in this movie.  Not only does it feature Burton’s former Joker, Jack Nicholson, leading in a dual role as the President and a Casino Owner (probably as a nod to Peter Sellers multiple roles in Dr. Strangelove), but the remaining cast includes heavy hitters like Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Rod Steiger, Martin Short, Jack Black, Natalie Portman, Annette Benning, Michael J. Fox, the afforementioned Tom Jones, and Pam Grier.  They even managed to fit in Hall of Famer Jim Brown as well.  And all for a throwback to old B-Movie Sci-Fi.  Unlike Independence Day, everyone in the film knows to be intentionally silly and not have that be a result of thinly defined characters.  They are archetypes as well, but better suited for their particular story.

Unfortunately, as impressive as the cast of Mars Attacks is, the movie doesn’t actually use them as effectively as you would think.  What ends up happening is that the movie is too overstuffed with characters, allowing the audience very little time to build a connection to any of them.  Nicholson’s President comes the closest to being an identifiable character worthy of investing in, but that’s only because he gets the bulk of the screen-time.  We barely get to know any of the other characters, which becomes especially problematic when they start to get picked off one by one by the Martian invaders.  There is even a shoehorned in romantic subplot involving Pierce Brosnon and Sarah Jessica Parker’s characters that is so not interesting, because we feel nothing for the characters.  I guess it was supposed to be another reference to awkward B-Movie romances, and it is kind of funny that both characters are reduced to disembodied heads by the point that they declare their love for each other, but still it doesn’t work as well as it should.  Independence Day by contrast does a better job of endearing it’s characters to the audience.  Though the characters are lazily written, Emmerich nevertheless devotes more time for us to get invested in their plight.  I think that it helps that he focuses in on three characters in particular; the ones played by Smith, Goldblum, and Bill Pullman as the President.  By centering the film on these three, we are able to get both the grand picture of the entire event, but with easily identifiable plot threads that open up a window to these characters’ own experiences.  Broad as they may be, they have arcs that pay off in the end.  Goldblum’s David gains more courage as he finds purpose in himself once he discovers the aliens’ weak point; Pullman’s President goes from being a timid leader to one that can inspire the whole world to fight back; and Smith’s hotshot pilot finally achieves his dream of reaching outer space.  Even Randy Quaid’s redneck pilot character gets an arch, and one that pays off in the most over-the-top way possible.  Independence Day may have had the less impressive cast, but it used them much more effectively.

“Forget the fat lady. You’re obsessed with fat lady.  Just get us out of here!”

One other big difference between the movies is the aliens themselves.  It could be said the the Martians are the real stars of Mars Attacks since they are the focus for most of the plot and are responsible for most of the gags in the movie.  Taking inspiration from the card game that the movie was based on, the Martians in Mars Attacks are also visually unique.  With the skull like faces and the bulbous, brain protruding heads, they are evocative of B-Movie aliens, but grotesque and off-kilter in a way that makes them unique. Interesting enough, each and every one of them is voiced by the same guy (veteran voice actor Frank Welker) who manages to get so much character out of just repeating the same word over and over again (Ack! Ack! Ack!).  More than anything, the Martians represent the more clear input from director Tim Burton, who clearly wanted to indulge in some of the more silly over-the-top campiness of B-Movie era sci-fi.  The film itself is intentionally a live action cartoon, and the cartoonish-ly evil Martians fit ever so well into that vision, allowing them to take center stage.  The aliens of Independence Day don’t quite get the same kind of love in their movie.  In fact, you could say they are the weakest part.  The movie eventually does have to show the aliens, but once we see them, the illusion of menace is greatly reduced.  We see the creatures as these vacant eyed creatures with translucent skin and giant craniums.  In essence, not all that untypical of most other aliens we’ve seen.  Once we learn that the aliens are just as fragile as we are, and not much bigger, they become less of a threat more quickly.  That’s the unfortunate result that happens in the latter half of the movie.  It was far more effective to have the aliens personified through the massive spaceships they pilot.  At least those were able to scare us.  Overall, the aliens in Mars Attacks works better because they are given the full attention of the story, while it seems that the ones in Independence Day were an afterthought.

The last thing that defines the difference between these two movies, and illustrates that fine line between the serious and the comical in the genre, is the execution of their different styles.  It is interesting that Independence Day attempts to make us take it far more seriously, and yet fills it’s run-time with a number of irreverent comical asides that breaks the tension up.  Make no mistake, the movie does have moments of sheer terror, especially in the harrowing destruction sequence where we see landmarks like the Empire State Building and the White House blown to bits, but then it’ll be followed with a bit of colorful dialogue from Will Smith or Randy Quaid, deflating the tension immediately.  Mars Attacks more or less remains firmly in the realm of comedy, never once crossing into more serious territory.  And that is primarily what become the biggest problem with Mars Attacks; that rigid adherence to tone.  Comedy, especially with parody, is especially hard to pull off without something there to balance it.  Tim Burton keeps things consistently ridiculous, but the tension is lost as we just begin to see the movie as a string of sight gags loosely strung together.  The parody only works when the jokes are able to land, and Burton seems to be too preoccupied with everything else to make it all work together.  Some sequences are funny, like a montage of the Martians destroying landmarks, with one flying saucer changing the trajectory of the Washington Monument’s fall for maximum civilian casualties.  But a lot of other gags fall flat, when they really shouldn’t.  Honestly, I get more laughs from Independence Day, just because of how out of place some of the humor is, making it land far better.  What Independence Day showed is that it works better in your favor to blur that line between the two styles.  Sometimes it makes for a messy, inconsistent tone, but it can be worth it if the result brings a bigger impact.  Mars Attacks, with it’s unwillingness to change tone, ends up being a even keel ride around a colorful carousel, while Independence Day with it’s sometimes unpredictable and awkward tone shifts, becomes a wild roller coaster ride that leaves far more of an impression.

“I want the people to know that they still have 2 out of 3 branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad.”

So, there you have the big differences between these similarly plotted, but wildly opposite toned Sci-Fi features.  One is an awe-inspiring thrill ride that unfortunately undermines it’s own tension with lazy writing.  The other is a well-intentioned and loving parody of old style Sci-Fi, that isn’t quite as funny as it should have been.  Both have value, but in the end, I think that the sum of Independence Day’s parts make it the more rewarding experience.  It may be wildly inconsistent, and just downright laughably bad in other parts, but you have to admire the boldness that Emmerich and Devlin undertook in order to get it made.  In fact, it still stands as career best work for both men, as everything they’ve made since then has failed to connect in the same way.  Mars Attacks on the other hand is one of Tim Burton’s more lackluster efforts.  The fact that Mars Attacks came right on the heels of Burton’s most critically acclaimed and award-winning film, Ed Wood (1994), probably hurt it’s reputation as well.  It’s just too over-stuffed with material that could have produced comedy gold, but just ends up getting drowned out by everything else.  Perhaps working with such broad material worked to Burton’s disadvantage, since his strength is more in the visuals of his movie, of which Mars Attacks still benefits from.  But, it’s narrow vision as a Sci-Fi parody limits it in terms of being a cinematic breakthrough, and that’s why it performed less spectacularly at the box office than the record-shattering Independence Day.  Day may be far from a perfect movie, but it’s ambition helps to make it a far more rewarding experience, and shows that in some cases, a little mixture of the serious and the absurd can create an overall rewarding film.  It’s a beneficiary of the best of both worlds in Sci-Fi.  Attacks has more interesting aliens, but Independence Day is the better invasion movie, giving the experience the right sense of awe that the genre deserves.  It’s a flawed masterwork that earns the points purely by reaching further to the stars.

“And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: ‘We will not go quietly into the night!’ We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

Development Hell – When Does a Movie Take Too Long to Make?

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.  These are the opening words of Stephen King’s epic 8 volume tome, The Dark Tower, considered to be the esteemed author’s crowning achievement in the literary world.  The sentence, taken into the context of the entire series could be read in face value as a statement of plot, or carry a deeper meaning to the themes of the story.  But, more than anything, it establishes for the reader the sense of a journey taking place before our eyes.  Now, who would have thought that the hardest journey that would befall this story would come about in it’s trek through a treacherous land known as Hollywood?  After many years of talk and numerous attempts at production, The Dark Tower finally made it’s way to the big screen just last week, fulfilling a desire that many fans of Stephen King and of the books had longed hoped for.  And the end result of all that waiting was an overwhelming and almost universal feeling of disappointment.  Why did a movie with almost two decades of development result in such a lackluster showing?  A variety of factors certainly contributed; primary among them being the fact that the movie wasn’t very good.  Fans of the books in particular were really sore about the way that the vast, epic story got truncated into a singular 90 minute film.  Other casual fans were left confused because the movie failed to properly establish it’s world and lore, making them wonder why it even was worth getting excited about.  But, what I see with The Dark Tower is a prime example of a project that unfortunately get mismanaged due to the unforgiving forces of time in the Hollywood machine.  This process is also so common in the industry that it’s been given it’s own ominous name; Development Hell.

When The Dark Tower began in the 1980’s, with the publication of the first volume titled The Gunslinger, Stephen King was already a household name and already in good standing within Hollywood.  Two of his books had already become box office hits (1976’s Carrie and 1980’s The Shining), and many more were already in development.  King was also beginning to use his fame to carry a lot more clout within the industry, stressing his displeasure with how some of his stories had been changed for the big screen.  As The Dark Tower continued to be written with each subsequent volume, King remained very protective of his work.  Hollywood remained more interested in King’s more grounded thrillers for the most part, considering that they were cheaper to make than adapting a multi-part fantasy saga.  But, that changed when the success of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter brought fantasy back into the spotlight in a big way.  Suddenly The Dark Tower was in demand and given the opportunity to be brought together as a whole.  However, this was easier said than done.  Initially, it was revealed that director J.J. Abrams was going to be involved, but he quickly dropped out after landing the Star Trek gig.  Then Universal, the rights holders, announced that they were bringing the entire series together through a joint theatrical and television presentation under the supervision of Ron Howard; with a trilogy of films and two seasons of a series giving enough time due to the epic tale.  Howard even got as far as casting before Universal got cold feet.  The project was given over to Warner Bothers, who soon balked at the soaring budget, and they passed, also leading to Ron Howard’s departure.  Sony picked up what was left, managed to cast Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey in the leads to fans approval, and got the film finally completed after many years.  Sadly, all that work and determination doesn’t always translate into a good movie.

So, are the studios to blame for The Dark Tower’s failure.  Are Stephen King’s books just too un-filmmable?  Are audiences just not interested in the story anymore?  There is no simple answer to what happened to The Dark Tower and where things went all wrong.  The simple thing is that time took it’s toll on the project, with more and more complications adding to inevitable disaster.  Being passed around didn’t help the project at all, and it probably would have served the movie better to have been scrapped and restarted somewhere else, where better opportunities could have benefited it.  Unfortunately Hollywood is not a place that likes to admit failure.  A lot of projects that enter “development hell” never get out, because doing so means that money spent just ended up going to waste.  A lot of companies purely use unfinished projects as fodder for trade, protecting the value of the rights for that project while at the same time never doing anything with them.  Eventually a studio gives up their claim when more interested parties come along, and they can make a sale or trade that passes along the cost of the project to another, allowing them to recoup.  And in all this time, no movement on the project ever gains speed.  That’s why it’s called “development hell,” because it’s where projects disappear and live out a tortuous existence out of their control.  And if a project does make it out, it doesn’t turn out for the better, like with The Dark Tower.  With promising ideas behind it’s back, like the TV and Film crossover, The Dark Tower could have been really something, but instead we are left with a lackluster single outing that feels like the bare minimum of what could have been.  It’s a sad result, but The Dark Tower is not alone.

Honestly, the fact that The Dark Tower exists at all is something of miracle, considering how unforgiving the industry can be.  Development Hell not only affects big projects like Tower, but a whole variety of other projects as well, ranging from those still in script phase all the way to films in physical production.  For every movie that makes it to completion, there are maybe twenty more that don’t.  More than anything, it’s an issue affected by dollars and cents.  Some movies gain traction, only to face a brick wall once the industry’s budget crunching sees the red flags appearing on the horizon.  It becomes less of a problem when the film is still in it’s scripting phase, because then all the company needs to do is cut the writer a check, and then just shelve the script, because it cost them nothing to just sit on it indefinitely, unless there is a licensing issue.  Unfortunately, other projects make it past the scripting stage and into physical production, which then contributes to a lot of budget overruns the longer a production is put on hold.  Once a project stops production, it becomes a lot more expensive to either keep it in suspension or to start it up again, which is why so many companies stop production early when things aren’t going well, and if it’s too late, they try their best to pass the cost over to someone else.  Money problems are not a new thing in Hollywood, as a lot of the industry is built upon the foundation of many failed enterprises.  But, some productions go even too far, and take on a life of their own as stories about what could have been.  Tim Burton’s failed attempt at a Superman film resulted in a now legendary aborted production, and Terry Gilliam’s many attempts at adapting Don Quixote  to the big screen ironically echoes the futile journey of it’s literary subject.  Both productions have been spotlighted in documentaries, The Death of Superman Lives (2015) and Lost in La Mancha (2002), which do an exceptional job at showing just how maddening it can be to see a movie start production, only to fall apart and never see the light of day.

Sadly what contributes to the state of these failed productions is something that I already spotlighted in a previous article, and that’s the unfortunate agitator known as hype.  Hype can be a movie’s best friend, but it can also unsteady a delicate situation and make the inevitable fall all that much harder.  One thing that Hollywood seems to love doing often is generate early hype for a production.  It can either appear as an Easter egg in some franchise film, or produced through a word of mouth whisper campaign through press circles, or even made through a very pointed tease.  Regardless, Hollywood runs the risk for making announcements so early in production.  It’s even more risky when the tease is all they have.  Now, they have to live up to the audience expectations that created, and the longer that the film remains in production, the more they leave themselves open to disappointment.  Audience attention spans are far more fleeting these days, with tastes changing on a dime without any warning.  By the time a long awaited movie does finally come out, it’s window may have already passed, and the early hype would prove to be worthless in the end.  Sometimes, if well managed, studios can use early hype as a way of gauging audience interest, and if they see little excitement, then they can quietly let the project die in development.  Unfortunately, some hype campaigns are not well managed, especially when you run into the factor that some involved parties are more excited than others.  Directors and actors in particular love to tout their passion projects, and hype them up even when there is no chance for them to be made.  I remember when Guillermo Del Toro teased his involvement in a new Haunted Mansion movie with the Disney company with an announcement at Comic Con, complete with a teaser poster to go with it.  Sadly, many years later, this is all we’ve gotten related to the project, and in all likelihood, that’s all that will every be.  Early hype is good only if the possibility is there for it to become a reality, and if you are out there only promising dream projects that’ll never happen, sooner or later, audiences will stop believing in what you say.

Development hell is also factored by the moving target that is audience interest.  For a lot of movies, timing is everything.  A film can be well made and have a lot of promise, but if it is not in-sync with the times it ends up being released in, then it loses all of it’s appeal.  A lot of movies that make it past the script phase end up falling into this hole because of that reason.  There is a thing in the film industry known as the “Black List” which is an annual survey of what is regarded as the best un-produced screenplays.  These are the aforementioned scripts that the studios sit on, only they garner heat enough to still grab public attention, thus staying afloat in Development Hell.  For a lot of these, it’s all a matter of timing, which sadly may never come about.  I remember hearing about one script that made it out of the list for a period of time called College Republicans, from screenwriter Wes Jones.  It was a true life inspired story about the early days of future Republican Party strategists Karl Rove and Lee Atwater when they were in college.  The development of the film gained steam in the wake of Rove’s controversial time in the White House as Chief of Staff, and it looked as if we were about to get a fascinating character study about this contemporary figure.  It even got as far as having Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe cast as Atwater, but for some reason this project suddenly went quiet.  My belief is that it’s short window closed up quickly, and whoever was involved lost interest.  I think the changing political climate factored in, as the Republican Party itself has changed, making Rove and Atwater far less fascinating figures.  The script may someday live again, but in a political landscape dominated by Trump, it’s hard to say if this political study may ever find it’s time ever again, because both politics and the Republican Party will be unrecognizable after this.

Getting off politics now, I just find it fascinating how time affects the development of movies in general.  Some films rush through production without any hangups, while others languish for what seems like an eternity.  But, why does it affect some movies more than others.  Sometimes it’s not just worries about the budget that puts movies on hold, but a lot of internal politicking that gets in the way.  Sometimes the studios put the brakes on a film because there is a dispute between the people making it and the people financing it.  Sometimes a studio sees a change in management and that leaves the already in development projects in a sort of limbo, as they are remnants of the old guard’s way of doing things.  This particular factor is what leads to some being released long after they were completed, to little or no fanfare.  A lot of companies, for whatever reason, go under and leave a lot of projects hanging.  Some of these even remain fascinating relics as half complete films that had the potential to become masterpieces.  One interesting example is an animated film called The Thief and the Cobbler (1993).  Worked on by legendary independent animator Richard Williams for over 20 years, his financial support ran out and he was forced to sell his uncompleted work to a major studio, who completed it with inferior animation at another company, completely ruining the director’s original vision.  Like The Dark Tower, too much time and outside interference spoiled what should’ve been a home-run with Cobbler.  Some devoted animation fans have since made an effort to reassemble the original Richard Williams version, which is in various states of completion, in what is called the “Recobbled Cut,” and it’s a fascinating look at what could have been.  For Williams, 20 years of work created something beautiful, but ultimately incomplete because of how complex it became.  Eventually, the desires of the artist and those paying for the art become a sticking point, and the art became compromised and cheapened in the end as a result.  It’s the sad reality of the industry that movies rarely have a pleasant development towards completion, usually ending up a mangled mess by the end.

So, while the end result for The Dark Tower is an unfortunate one, it is not at all surprising.  It was too long of a wait for the film, and too much interference slowed the production down.  As a result, you can see that lesser effort was put into the final product, and more problematic than that, too much was left out because the budget wouldn’t allow for it.  What should have been a Tolkein-esque epic saga that could have stood side by side with the acclaimed films set in Middle Earth is instead an indistinguishable action thriller; no more special than anything else out there.  King’s novels were a game-changer; the movie is sadly not.  And what upsets me more is that this one actually had some ingredients that could have made it amazing.  They certainly made good casting choices with Elba and McConaughey as the Gunslinger and Man in Black respectively.  But, The Dark Tower becomes yet another “what could have been” tale in the history of Hollywood.  I wish that this had become a reality back when they were planning a television and film adaptation.  In fact, if the success of Game of Thrones has proven anything, it’s that The Dark Tower would have been better served being adapted into a series rather than a film.  That way, you can devote enough time to capturing King’s full vision.  It’s not like that hasn’t worked well before; case in point, the made-for-TV adaptation of It (1990).  But, for now, The Dark Tower is another victim of that sadly all too common cinematic wrecking ball known as “development hell.”  It’s unfortunate that money, egos, and changing attitudes end up spoiling the completion of very promising film productions, but considering that this is such a high stakes game, it is also very predictable as well.  It makes you appreciate when a movie does live up to it’s potential even more, considering how miraculous a thing it is to get a movie out of development in the first place.  You always hope that every good story makes it out of hell and into paradise, but in Hollywood, that’s a story that sadly rarely happens.

Collecting Criterion – M (1931)

World Cinema has created a wonderful variety of styles, all of which have left their mark both on film history and on Hollywood itself.  Pretty much any new technique developed by filmmakers around the world will influence someone here in Tinseltown, who will in turn give it a mainstream appeal.  You could see it in the development of Soviet Montage techniques from Russian filmmakers, as well as the radical free form film-making popularized by the French New Wave.  But, if there ever was an international style that had the most profound impact early on within Hollywood, it would be the style of German Expressionism.  Developed in Weimer Era Germany during the heyday of Silent cinema, Expressionism was a technique of storytelling that emphasized emotion through abstract visuals.  Instead of portraying the world as is, Expressionism distorts the world to convey a larger truth behind the veil of what we see as “reality.”  It was the primary artistic force that drove the flourishing of art to came out of Weimer era culture, and it’s cinematic contributions are no less noteworthy.  The extreme visual mind-trips like 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and 1922’s Nosferatu left a profound imprint on cinema, even across the world in Hollywood.  You can see the influence of German Expressionism in everything from Film Noir to Disney fairy tales.  The Criterion Collection is very fond of this era itself, spotlighting a few of the classics from this movement.  Pioneering dramatist Georg Wilhelm Pabst has a couple films honored in the collection including Pandora’s Box (Spine #358) and The Threepenny Opera (#405).  Even a modern Expressionist view of Weimer culture is spotlighted in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15 hour behemoth Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980, #411).  But, if there is one Expressionist filmmaker who holds  a special place in the Collection, it is the legendary Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang is not only one of Germany’s most celebrated auteur directors; he one of the most celebrated filmmakers in world history, period.  Filmmakers all over the world look to him as a big influence in their work, and it’s largely due to his fantastic command of stories told on both the grandest and most intimate of scales.  He made a steady rise in early days of German cinema, specializing in gritty crime thrillers.  He famously created the cinematic trope of criminal masterminds wrecking havoc on society with his creation of the villainous psychic gangster, Dr. Mabuse.  Though part of a longer series, only one of those Mabuse films has been given the Criterion treatment; 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (#231).  But, the film that would make Lang a household name around the world would be his colossal modernist epic, Metropolis (1927).  Metropolis is widely seen as one of the greatest movies ever made, and without a doubt the pinnacle of cinema in the silent era.  With a sense of scale unheard of until that time, Lang revolutionized cinema and created what many consider to be the first science fiction film.  You can see homages to Metropolis in everything from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) to George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977).  But, Metropolis would also be a turning point for Lang as a filmmaker, as Germany itself would begin to change.  The libertine years of Weimer Germany gave way to a rise in Nationalistic Fascism, which also saw the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.  And with this, the creative freedoms allowed to filmmakers like Fritz Lang were suddenly unavailable.  Lang’s post-Metropolis films were considerably smaller, but no less provocative.  He amazingly was still able to create some profound cinematic works, even under threat of censorship from the Nazi regime, but only for a short while.  And the most famous of these films has been given a cherished place in the Criterion Collection; the harrowing and influential crime thriller, (1931, #30).

The minimalist title M refers to a mark left on suspected child murderer who is at the center of the story; marked so that he is more easily hunted down by those wishing to bring him to justice.  The story is less about the murderer, and even less about the victims themselves.  Instead, Fritz Lang examines the societal reaction to such crimes, and how justice is enacted by both the people in power and by ordinary citizens.  It begins with the disappearance of  a little girl named Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), who is found murdered shortly after.  Outrage pours in from Elsie’s family, as well as from the neighborhood she called home, all chastising the local government for not doing enough to stop this string of child murders from happening.  As the investigation goes on, it seems apparent that the children in the city are all falling victim to the same assailant.  Fed up with the slow response of law enforcement in the city, the victims’ families enlist the help of the criminal underground to find the child murderer and finally bring him to justice.  Leading them is ruthless Schranker (Gustaf Grundgens) whose network of spies and hitmen scour the city for any clues as to the identity of the killer.  Finally, a blind balloon salesman points them towards a lead, as he remembers hearing the same man whistling Edvard Greig’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from the “Peer Gynt” suite as he was buying a balloon for each of the slain children.  When the same whistle is heard suddenly again, the city discovers the identity of the killer, a portly young man named Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre).  Beckart is hunted down, escaping for a time in an abandoned building, but is ultimately caught and brought before the community.  What follows is one of cinema’s most unforgettable portrayals of insanity and social commentary as Beckart faces a kangaroo court all intent on enacting a ruthless kind of justice that asks us the viewer how monsters are created in the end; are they born that way, or are they a manifestation of society at it’s worst?

is a captivating film, and one of the most influential ever made too.  Within it, you can see Fritz Lang writing the blueprint for the modern crime thriller, with his unflinching look at how crime and punishment and societal evils are almost always cyclical in the way they perpetuate each other.  Lang doesn’t sympathize with the child murderer exactly, but he does show the society that’s hunting him down to be nearly as monstrous as he is.  For the first time in cinema history, we received a look into the mind of a killer and examine what would drive him to commit such terrible acts; and the shocking thing is that society in general creates these kinds of monsters.  Hans Beckert doesn’t kill to make a point nor for any personal gain.  He kills, because he can.  He is driven by a compulsion, one that even he doesn’t understand completely, but still one that satisfies a deep down need inside.  And, as Lang points out in the movie, society loves to create and destroy it’s own monsters.  Beckert sees that people will fear him when they witness the results of his crimes, and he enjoys the rush of power that gives him, lustfully desiring it even more.  But, once discovered, he suddenly loses that impervious feeling, and we see the infantile little man that he really is.  All he can do then is to confess his true feelings, and what’s frightening to everyone is that this horrible monster is all too human in the end.  With M, Lang makes the case that by giving monstrous deeds so much attention, that it empowers those who enjoy committing them, and as a result we ourselves become a little monstrous ourselves for indulging in this cycle of mayhem.  No other crime thriller before or since has portrayed the cycle of violence with this much clarity, and Hans Beckert’s emotional breakdown is still one of the most harrowing moments ever captured on film; brilliantly conveyed through Peter Lorre’s iconic performance.

Lang’s masterpiece is also a remarkable time capsule of the era in which it was made.  We are familiar with the decadent flourish of Weimer Era art in Germany, as well as the rigid Fascist regime that followed it.  But, we have few documents of the years in between, where freedom gave way to totalitarianism in a short amount of time.  In the film M, we can see the beginnings of nationalistic fervor that swamped over Germany at the time.  In these days, political opportunists seized upon scapegoats for societal ills, and as we saw, the prosperous Germanic Jewish communities were singled out.  In the movie, the desperate townspeople turn to shady criminal hoodlums to enact justice where the government had let them down.  The same result was going on nationwide in Germany at the time, as “brown coat” fascists began to take more power by portraying the Jewish as a foreign entity that was destroying their society.  Eventually, this movement coalesced into the Nazi Party which gained national prominence under Hitler’s leadership.  There is an unmistakable parallel in the portrayal of Schranker to the rise of the Nazi’s, with his black leather trench coat and purely Aryan looks being an unmistakable representation of the atypical fascist thug.  Lang clearly wanted to show with his thriller a chilling examination of the social turmoil that his country was going through.  He pointedly shifts blame on the people of Germany, showing that inviting the wolves to chase the fox out of the hen house only creates a new den of wolves.   Unfortunately, Lang’s film was misconstrued by the Nazi regime, with propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels spotlighting Hans Beckert as an ideal representation of a Jewish monster.  Lang was even offered the position of the chief in charge of cinema under the Third Reich by Goebbels, but the pro-democratic Lang refused and swiftly escaped his home country.  He made his way to Hollywood, following in the footsteps of his marquee star Peter Lorre, where he again left a strong influence, becoming one of the architects of film noir style in that era.  But, would sadly mark the end of a legendary rise for both him, and Germanic cinema in general.

When it comes to a title this legendary and beloved, you can be assured that Criterion is going to give it a very special treatment.  First added to the collection in it’s early days on DVD, has benefited from a few updates and remasters over the years, leading to a new pristine blu-ray edition made available today.  The restoration was completed using a fine grain print, made from a duplicate negative restored in the Netherlands in 2000.  The original negative was of course destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, so this duplicate negative is the best source we have to preserving Lang’s original vision.  All things considered, the scan used for the digital presentation of the film looks outstanding, especially for a film this old.  There are plenty of scratches still present, but not too much to be distracting.  Detail is incredibly conveyed in the transfer, and the color scaling enables us to not have any of the darkest scenes be washed out in black.  What is interesting however about this Criterion edition is the inclusion of the complete English version of the movie.  Back when sound film was still new, alternate versions were sometimes shot simultaneously in multiple languages.  Few of these alternate versions have survived over the years, like the famous Spanish version of Dracula (1931), but thankfully film archivists were able to track down this English version of M somewhere deep in the archives of the British Film Institute.  While most of the film is dubs over the original actors, there are some instances where British actors are inter-spliced into the film, particularly in the moments focusing on the investigators of the crime.  More interesting though is that Peter Lorre performed his famous confessional speech in three different languages, since he was fluent in all of them; German, French and English.  His performance is different in each, which makes for a fascinating contrast.  I’d say that his German performance is the best, since that’s the one where he was working with Lang’s direction, but his brilliance shines through in all versions.  The English version is also un-restored, so it gives you a much clearer idea of the extensive work that went into making this movie look as pristine as it does.

Included in this edition are some valuable extras as well, which is to be expected of Criterion at this point.  In addition to the complete English version of the movie, we also get an interesting audio commentary from German film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler, who go into more depth behind the film’s historical context, it’s deeper themes, as well as it’s cinematic legacy.  Another interesting inclusion is the documentary Conversations with Fritz Lang, which is a collection of interviews conducted by Oscar-winning filmmaker William Friedkin with Lang towards the end of his life in his Beverly Hills home.  It’s fascinating to hear the man himself discuss his own work, and much of the interviews touch upon the themes and legacy of M.  Lang also recounts his harrowing escape from Germany after refusing Geobbels offer.  While some of it may have been embellished over time, it’s nevertheless shows Lang’s command over story in hearing him tell this personal account.  There’s also a short film called M le maudit, which is a short French film that was heavily influenced by the classic, and it’s director Claude Chabrol is also interviewed separately, discussing the influence that Lang’s film had on him.  Interviews taken from audiotapes of M‘s editor, Paul Falkenberg, as well as a brand new video one of Harold Nebenzal, the son of the film’s producer Seymour Nebenzal, are also included on the set.  There is also a fascinating visual essay made about the physical history of M, which includes images of how the film was marketed, how it was exploited by the Nazi regime after release, how Weimer Era culture influenced it’s setting, as well as details on the restoration work recently completed on it.  The best part of this essay is the inclusion of the French version of Lorre’s famous confessional scene, which provides yet another interesting contrast with the final film.  Overall, it gives this classic and influential film the well rounded home video release that it deserves, and lives up to the high standard that is typically expected of Criterion.

Fritz Lang’s has held up remarkably well over it’s long history, and sadly feels more prescient than ever.  With populism and nationalistic movements on the rise throughout much of the world once again, Lang’s chilling look at society torn apart through fear of the unknown feels all too prophetic nowadays.  Without knowing it at the time, Lang documented the conditions that lead to the rise of dictatorships, and it’s a harrowing cautionary tale that everyone should take note of.  At the same time, Lang also set the high standard for intelligent crime thrillers by which all successors are still judged by.  With his interesting procedural breakdown of investigative crime-fighting, to the complex portrayal of the criminal himself, Lang’s cinematic touch can be felt in every crime thriller since M, from the big screen to the little screen.  How many TV cop procedural dramas owe their existence to legacy of M?  Lang himself continued to extend the style that he pioneered, making classic noir thriller in Hollywood like Fury (1936) and The Woman in the Window (1944).  Peter Lorre also prospered after answering the call of Hollywood, himself escaping certain death under the Nazi regime, and he would become a valuable character actor for many years, appearing in such classics like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1943).  Still, features the best work of both men, and it will likely remain one of cinema’s greatest pairing of actor and director that we will ever see.   Criterion has been good to this film for many years and it is a pleasure seeing them continue to treat this film with the utmost care.  The digital restoration is superb for a film this old and it gives us an excellent representation of how the film might of looked back when it was first released.  The alternate English version included also provides us with an interesting window into how films were made in the early days of sound, before they began to figure these things out and just use subtitles instead.  Anyone who appreciates film and world history should absolutely watch this movie.  It’s scary in it’s prescience and profound in it’s unflinching view of humanity and the societies we create.  And in a world that is growing all the more hostile and untrustworthy, this film is now essential viewing more than it ever has been before.

 

Highly Anticipated – How Hollywood Manages Hype in a Fast Paced Online World

It already feels like it happened so long ago, but the D23 Expo for 2017 still has left some lasting impressions on me two weeks out.  Namely, it was the impressive big presentations in the main hall that left the biggest impact, because it gave those of us lucky enough to get in an exclusive first look at material that the rest of the world won’t see for months or even years from now.  Not only that, but they treated all of us to seeing people involved in the making of these movies come out on stage and show their own enthusiasm for what’s to come.  The interesting thing to think about in retrospect with all of this is what the ultimate purpose of all the exclusivity means in the end.  Yes, seeing all the Avengers cast on stage and viewing the first look footage was thrilling and a high point for me at this year’s Expo.  But, there were also the incredibly stringent measures taken by the Disney company to ensure that nothing shown at the Expo’s big presentations ever gets leaked out into the public.  Before each show, we had to turn off all of our electronic devices and have them sealed up in special bags.  And throughout the presentation, security guards were constantly walking through the aisle to make sure no one took any recording device out, or else they would be escorted out.  Why would such measures need to be taken, if some of this material will be visible to the public eventually?  The answer is that Disney was ensuring that two things would take place in that hall.  One, that they themselves would maintain full control over who sees whatever top secret material they are working on, and two, that by making the material exclusive, they increased their audience’s enthusiasm for what they’ve just seen, and in turn have generated word-of-mouth excitement coming out of that show building up what the true intent of what the show was meant to create; hype.

Hype is practically everywhere in the film industry, because it is the essential way that allows anyone to have a movie made nowadays and ensure that it is seen by the largest audience possible.  It goes far beyond just marketing a movie.  For a business as massive as this one, it becomes essential to know how to manage hype around a project just as much as it does knowing how to make a movie to begin with.  From inception to completion, a movie has to generate interest in order to survive.  For anyone trying to sell a script to the industry, they must understand that a certain level of hype is required to give investors the desire to want to read what’s been written.  After given the green-light, then the producers must generate excitement over what’s being made, preemptively stoking audience interest while the project is coming together.  This can be accomplished by spotlighting any celebrity names attached to the project, or giving details about the locations and/or production design being used to to make the movie.  Then, marketing gets involved with trade ads, trailers, and all sorts of cross promotion in order to make the final sell to the public.  From all points, the level of hype that a movie generates for itself will ultimately determine how well it does in the long run.  But, the hype machine’s existence as a part of the Hollywood industry is not the thing that fascinates me, since it’s always been a part of the industry from the very beginning.  No, it’s the complexity that it has evolved into overtime, and the varying degrees of success that have come out of it that fascinates me.  There are many fascinating avenues that Hollywood has gone down in order to generate hype for their movies, and they haven’t always turned out well either.  And given the fast paced world of the internet that we now live in, hype sometimes turns into this overwhelming thing that can in turn destroy the very thing that it’s trying to help.  That, in the end, becomes the fascinating aspect of hype in Hollywood.

From my experience in D23, I saw first hand how a company takes charge of generating hype for their projects.  They put on this massive show, involving incredible logistical wrangling to get the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Jon Favreau, Mark Hamill, Robert Downey, Jr. and pretty much half of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on stage for a single two hour show, and have it only be seen by 8,000 people at most.  Of course, they released press clips thereafter, but the entire experience was witnessed by a lucky few.  All of that, just to get those 8,000 in attendance excited for the future of the company.  But us 8,000 spread the word out afterwards, exclaiming about the incredible things that we saw and in turn making those who weren’t able to see the same show envious of our lucky break and intrigued even more about what we saw, an that in turn gets the hype train rolling.  It’s a balancing act, but one that pays off in the long run.  Disney is not unique in this either.  San Diego Comic Con has been in the business of hype for decades now, and they in turn have become an essential part of the business as the biggest possible venue to generate excitement for fans, with everything from exclusive content to cross promotional goodies available to everyone.  What D23 and Comic Con has shown us is the level to which hype has grown as a part of the business.  Marketing a movie now has to be bigger than the movie itself, and in some cases that is true.  Some marketing budgets do exceed the budgets used to make the movie.  But, a well managed hype campaign can also make it possible for a movie to succeed without millions wasted on marketing that never hits it’s target.  And in such a competitive, fast-paced world as unpredictable as the one we live in now, finding that right level of hype can prove to be elusive and even sometimes well out-of-reach.

The answer in understanding how Hollywood uses hype to their advantage comes from observing how it has evolved over the years.  For as long as Hollywood has existed, so has the marketing used to sell it’s product.  Print ads and posters were the start, and then with the advent of sound came the preview trailer.  But, a new level of hype began to become elevated once celebrity culture developed in Hollywood.  Soon, hyping the talent became just as essential as hyping the story, as more and more people became fascinated around the world about this little community called Hollywood.  This in turn spilled over into the way movies were developed.  A turning point came with the highly anticipated adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s best-seller Gone With the Wind (1939).  Even before the book hit the shelves, producer David O. Selznick began hyping up his project once he secured the rights and pushed interest into the public’s eye, ensuring that his movie was going to be nothing short of the biggest movie ever made.  Polls were taken from the public asking who they saw as the ideal casting for each character; an unheard of tactic at the time, but one that has since become a popular tool for other hype driven marketing campaigns in the future.  With audience awareness at an all-time high, Selznick’s gamble paid off and Gone With the Wind indeed lived up to the hype in the end.  Another turning point that caused a change in the industry was the release of Psycho in 1960.  Not only was it a smash success, but it even changed the way that people watched movies in a theater.  Alfred Hitchcock made it clear in his promotion of the movie that this was a film that needed to be seen all the way through in order to appreciate the mid-film twist.  Up until then, people came and went as they pleased when visiting the movie theater, as it was a continuous presentation throughout the day with shorts and news reels in addition to the feature presentation.  Psycho changed that and for the first time ever in the industry became the beneficiary of one of the most useful forms of hype; the word of mouth campaign.

Since Psycho, audiences fell into the habit of experiencing films as a whole, rather than just as part of day at the movies.  Word of mouth worked hand-in-hand with what advertisements could sell about a movie. And from that, the industry learned what effect audiences could have with giving these movies a boost.  But, with an external force like audience driven hype helping to boost interest in their films, the industry also opens itself up to external forces out of their control to affect the reception to their movies as well.  Controversies become an issue that affects the anticipation levels of a movie sometimes and how well a movie does in the long run is determined by how well a company can manage to weather a storm surrounding the flick.  Torrents of political fervor sometimes drives hype around some films, either making them essential viewing for the moment in time or works so dangerous that they must be seen in order to be understood.  Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) saw heavy criticism from one side, critiquing it for presumed Antisemitism and ultraviolence, while the other side saw it as a faith-affirming work of art, and both camps end up making it one of the most talked about and highest grossing films of it’s time.  Documentarian Michael Moore likewise drove up plenty of controversy for his agitprop doc Fahrenheit 9/11 (also 2004), and it too rode a wave of interest towards increased exposure and box office numbers.  But, success from controversy is not always a guarantee.  2016’s Ghostbusters reboot really mishandled the controversy surrounding the casting of an all-female team, seemingly courting the controversy by giving credence to the opinions of some despicable, online misogynists, and in turn, it turned all audiences away.  Controversy is an unreliable and sometimes treacherous way of utilizing hype to sell a movie, and it often takes an expert hand to make a film live on through those troubled waters.

But what usually becomes the biggest challenge of managing hype in the industry is the speed under which it operates.  The internet and social media are changing audience tastes and attitudes at an alarming rate, and what once was a sure thing several years ago may no longer be reliable at the moment.  That’s the danger that some of these long-gestating hype trains are running into now.  For a while, thanks to Marvel Studio’s success, it appeared that the future of blockbuster film-making was going to revolve around the creation of cinematic universes.  In time, we saw every studio in the business come out and announce that they had a bold master plan to create universes that would rival Marvel’s and become reliable revenue generators for their companies.  The only problem with making these bold plans is that you’ve got to anticipate what audiences will think in the long run about your plans.  Promise too much and deliver too little, and the hype will die out too fast.  Universal Studios is witnessing such a result right now.  They hyped up this new venture called “The Dark Universe,” which was going to be a shared universe that would combine all of their gallery of famous  movie monsters, each played by a marquee movie star.  The only problem is that they put so much emphasis on selling the idea of this shared universe that they forgot to make worthwhile movies that could live up to the promise.  The first film released, this summer’s The Mummy starring Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe, was met with such disinterest from the public, that it quickly disappeared from theaters, flopping at the box office, leaving the future of the “Dark Universe” in serious doubt.  Sadly, by being so determined to hype this cinematic universe and reveal so much of their future plans, Universal is now locked in a situation where they are going to lose money if they continue or look foolish if they quit too soon.  Thus we see the faults of trying to overreach when it comes to hyping something big.

That’s why it helps to know the kind of audience that you are hyping to and how best to reach out to them.  It also helps to be creative as well.  In the age of the internet, the target audience may be ever changing, but a thoughtful, unique hype campaign can bring that into focus.  The comic conventions in particular do a lot to generate hype in ways that trailers and advertisements can’t.  They create experiences that stick in the minds of viewers and make them interested in seeing how the final result will turn out.  In the internet age, sights and sounds make a bigger difference more than ever with generating hype for a movie, and we are seeing film companies bringing more of an outreach into the fan experience than ever before; sometimes in some very unexpected ways.  It’s seen in moments like Johnny Depp appearing in character as Jack Sparrow within the actual ride of Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland in anticipation for the new franchise movie.  It’s seen in the placing of a giant inflatable King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building in anticipation for the original film’s then 50th anniversary.  The internet also becomes a breeding ground for generating more hype for a film, by allowing interactive experiences to enrich the deep lore behind a film’s narrative.  The Blair Witch Project (1999) revolutionized this idea, creating a website specifically to explain the fictional “Blair Witch” myth and make it feel even more authentic, driving the fan explosion that the original film benefited greatly from.  Similar guerrilla style marketing has since become mainstream in the industry, like the fake Harvey Dent campaign website for The Dark Knight‘s (2008) promotion, and it’s usually effective in sparking more interest from the public.  But, it’s also an avenue of hype that also needs to be well handled.  Sometimes, it might come off as a shameless marketing ploy, like the despised website plug at the end of the horror flop The Devil Inside (2012), or the mishandled tie-in to a fake Walt Disney related backstory as the inspiration behind Tomorrowland (2015), but using creative means to generate hype for a film project is never a bad idea.

What I most like to see is when hype is used well by Hollywood.  My D23 Expo experiences are prime examples of that, and it gives me great joy to spread the hype around when it’s something that I believe in.  Hell, I devote an article at the end of every spring and summer giving you my picks for the must sees of the season, with the hope that it will make all of you more aware of them too.  Not every project needs my help, and my voice is still a relatively small one in the grand scheme of things, but I still love being a part of the hype.  Is it deceptive sometimes; absolutely, and I for one am not above admitting when I’m wrong about a movie.  Still, the many interesting avenues in which hype takes it’s form is something worth analyzing.  I am still amazed how so much thought goes into such things as exclusive presentations at Comic Cons and once in a lifetime experiences, just as way of marketing to a larger audience and get them psyched for something that won’t be complete for some time.  It backfires quite a lot sometimes, but a well executed attempt at generating hype can even outlive the production that it was trying to sell.  I like to know what goes on inside the brainstorming sessions behind these moments.  Who makes the call to say that they want every Marvel Avenger on stage together and how do they maneuver things around to make it a reality.  More importantly, how do they keep some of that planning a secret.  It all comes down to a lot of forward thinking and excellent logistical planning.  Hype is a powerful tool, and it has it’s downside too, but when done well it can be just as enriching as anything it is meant to sell us on in the first place, especially in the world of entertainment.

Dunkirk – Review

There are few directors out there that has accomplished in such a short time what Christopher Nolan has.  Plucked out of the world of independent film-making with his bold artistic statement called Memento (2000), and nurtured through a stint within DC Comics and the Batman franchise, he has now become one of the industry’s most esteemed talents, and a filmmaker to be envied.  With epic scale films like Inception (2010), the Dark Knight trilogy, and Interstellar (2014) making up his body of work, his name has now become synonymous with spectacle, something that few other filmmakers can attest to.  Even big name directors Spielberg and Scorsese will occasionally take a break and work on something minor in between their big tent-poles.  But for Chris Nolan, he continually sets his bar high, and it’s a sign of just how great a director that he is that he continually clears the high expectations that we have of him.  Not everyone will agree that he succeeds all the time, but no one can doubt that such an ambitious style is nothing but a good thing for everyone.  Not only that, but he’s also a passionate champion for the medium of film itself.  He still shoots on physical film stock, has been critical in the past of the industry’s move towards an all digital market, and specifically makes movies that you can only get the full experience of by watching on the big screen.  What really fascinates me about Nolan as a filmmaker is that he takes that same passion and bold vision, and works it into many various types of genres of film.  With Batman, we saw how his style could work within the super hero genre; with Inception, we saw him play around with heist movies and cerebral thrillers; and with Interstellar, we saw him work with the high concepts of space travel.  With his new film, we now see Nolan’s style and eye for spectacle brought into something that he surprisingly had yet to tackled up to now; the historical war film.

Dunkirk is a really interesting choice of subject for Nolan to work with, especially after some of the more out of this world projects he’s worked on in the past.  Here, Nolan is working with a real historical event, and one which you would’t expect much could be mined from for a grand spectacle.  The movie recounts the harrowing retreat of British soldiers and French civilians from the coastal town of Dunkirk, France  in the summer of 1940.  After a disastrous military miscalculation by the British army, 450,000 soldiers found themselves completely surrounded by advancing German forces.  The soldiers had no choice but to retreat, but they unfortunately were pushed back to the sea, and the British navy was unable to send any vessels out to bring their soldiers safely home, fearing that German U-boats would completely wipe them out on the way there.  Miraculously, brave British civilians crossed the narrow sea passage with their own private boats and managed to save nearly all the remaining soldiers who were left stranded.  It is considered to this day one of the greatest moments in wartime solidarity and a point of pride for the British people.  It is also considered one of the turning points in the war, because by preventing the slaughter of such a major chunk of their military force, and preserving their very much needed naval battleships, the British military opened the way to the allied invasion later on.  It’s a story deserving of a cinematic treatment, but it’s interesting that this is the one that caught the eye of a filmmaker like Nolan.  It’s somewhat unusual for him, considering that most of his movies are driven by triumph in the extraordinary, while Dunkirk is all about dread in desperation.  Still, it’s a story that Nolan clearly wants to tell, and it’s interesting to see how his style fits with this story.

The events of Dunkirk are set up with little exposition and almost with no time allowed to collect your bearings as a viewer.  Christopher Nolan immediately plants us right into the action, with a group of British infantrymen escaping gunfire in the abandoned streets of the titular town.  The group is gunned down except for a lone soldier named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), who makes it all the way to the beach.  There he finds the other half a million soldiers waiting their turn to leave for home, and all he can think about is how can he get to the front of the line.  From there, the film splinters into three separate stories from different vantage points in the conflict; on land, sea, and air.  On the land, we follow Tommy and his different attempts to find a quick route home, which brings him together with two other desperate soldiers looking for help; the silent Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) and the temperamental Alex (Harry Styles).  On sea, we are introduced to Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), a civilian who takes his own private vessel out to sea in the hopes of saving the stranded soldiers, accompanied by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a young man named George (Barry Keoghan), who only wants to help out.  Along the way, they meet a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy), the only survivor of a sunken rescue ship, who may jeopardize the success of their crucial mission.  And in the air, we follow two RAF pilots, Farrier and Collins (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) as they risk precious time and fuel in order to take out every last German plane that’s trying to sink the rescue fleet out at sea.  All the while, the commanding naval officer Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and his army counterpart, Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) do what they can to keep the hopes of their soldiers up as the world seems about to collapse on them.  It’s a race against time as we see all three stories come together in an explosive way.

The bar for Christopher Nolan as a director is exceptionally high, since he’s not only responsible for some of the best and most successful films of the last decade, but his movies may also be some of the best that’s ever been made.  So, you can imagine that a lot is expected of his work here on Dunkirk.  Well, I can tell you that he not only meets those high expectations with his new film, he completely obliterates them.  Dunkirk is an absolute masterpiece, and one of the most cinematically impressive films that I have seen in a long time.  Where to begin with this one.  I don’t think that you will ever see a war epic that puts you into the thick of battle quite as well as this one did.  Imagine the opening scene from Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), only stretched out to feature length, and that’s essentially what Dunkirk is.  The entire movie is a masterwork of editing and of ratcheting up tension.  From the opening onward, you feel every twist and turn of the battle, and become completely absorbed into what is going on.    It can be confusing to some, as little time is allowed to collect your bearings into the story, but I quickly went along with it because I could see that Nolan wanted to tell his version of the story in a different way.  Dunkirk is a film experience and not a film story.  I would bet you that his script was actually nothing more than an outline for what he wanted to shoot.  The amazing thing is that there is very little discernible dialogue in the movie, often incidental, as most scenes are played out with nothing but sound and music, both exceptional on their own.  Only in the scenes on Mr. Dawson’s boat do we get any semblance of plot and character development, and even that is kept to a minimum.  We never know much more about these characters than what they are going through at the moment, and it’s still just enough to be riveting.  This is a directorial exercise on Christopher Nolan’s part to make his audience feel like they are a part of the dread of this experience and in that regard, he has triumphed with this goal.

One thing that Christopher Nolan shows us with this movie is that not every epic movie has to have an epic length to it.  The movie runs at a very brisk 107 minutes, making it the shortest film in his entire filmography.  And yet, even at that short length, it feels as massive in scale and scope as the likes of Saving Private RyanTitanic (1997), Apocalypse Now (1979) and many more epic films of this kind.  And all those movies needed a minimum of 2.5 hours to tell their epic tales.  Nolan succeeds with Dunkirk by not spoiling the recipe for his masterpiece with too many ingredients.  There’s not a scene in this movie that feels like it doesn’t need to be there, and nothing feels missing either.  It’s exactly as long as it needs to be.  I was perfectly okay with not knowing who any of these characters were, because it didn’t matter in the end.  The movie is not about who they are, or how they feel, because in the thick of war, all that becomes a moot in the grand scheme.  Everyone in this movie has one goal, and that’s to get home safe.   Whatever characters we latch onto is solely dictated by where Christopher Nolan wants to point our focus to next.  Every scene is another vignette into all the different stories that went on during that event.  What we end up with in this film is a window into what it was like to be there in those harrowing few days; seen through the perspective of some key eyewitnesses.  I like the fact that Nolan doesn’t single one out as a main character, instead making the film an ensemble effort.  Fionn Whitehead’s Tommy might be the one standout, since he’s the first important character we meet and he carries the bulk of the film’s screen-time.  He also features on most of the film’s advertisements, and though he’s quite good in the movie, don’t mistake it as it being all about him.  It’s a film about heroism in solidarity from a multitude of people and in the end that’s where Chris Nolan finds his narrative.

The movie is also an amazing showcase for film craft.  We’ve seen the wonders that Nolan can do with large format cinematography, and in Dunkirk, he outdoes himself.  This is one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen.  Keep in mind, I watched the movie the way it was intended to be seen, and that’s in 70mm IMAX.  Christopher Nolan has made it his mission to keep physical film stock alive in our digital age, and that’s why he has this long standing relationship with IMAX.  Every film he has made from The Dark Knight (2008) on has been film for the IMAX format; with each progressive film featuring more and more scenes shot with IMAX cameras.  At this point, Nolan has crossed the threshold and has now made a movie where the majority of the scenes were shot in 70mm.  Only a handful of scenes shot on the boat were filmed using regular 35mm film stock, probably due to logistical restraints.  But, the particular emphasis on large format film-making makes the film feel massive and overwhelming.  Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who previously worked with Nolan on Interstellar, captures some exquisite imagery here with the deep focus of the IMAX lenses.  From the wide panoramas of soldiers lining up on the beaches of Dunkirk, to the empty expanse of open water, to the sometimes haunting scenes of mass destruction, everything in this movie is eye-catching and unforgettable.  The aerial battles themselves are wonders of execution, given how dynamic they are with the kind of cameras used to film them.  I found myself in awe for most of this movie.  I was sitting fairly close to the screen, and in the end it was worth being so close, because the movie just envelopes you.  I also want to spotlight Hans Zimmer’s exceptional score for the movie.  It’s heartbeat pulse rhythm is unrelenting and perfectly orchestrates the rising tension of the movie, never stopping until almost at the very end.  His longtime collaboration with Christopher Nolan has led to some truly memorable music, and with Dunkirk, he once again shows his absolute value in making these movies memorable.

For Dunkirk, the challenge will be seeing how it will stand up over time as both a work of it’s director and as an example of it’s genre.  My worry is that Nolan may have limited himself by his own passion for large format film-making, and created a movie that will end up being diminished if viewed in the wrong way.  While I commend his loyalty to film stock and large formats, he may have also made a movie that can’t live outside of this form either.  I worry that when I revisit the film again eventually on home video, that it won’t have the same visceral impact that it had on my first viewing.  It’s a big movie and deserves the biggest of presentations to go with it.  Some people who miss out on the film in the theater might not see what the big deal is once they watch it on television.  Now, my hope is that it won’t be the case, and that all the other strong points about the movie, like it’s breakneck pace and unconventional storytelling, will still be riveting to audiences no matter what format they watch it on.  For me, what made me love the film is just the instinctual sense of knowing where to put his camera that Christopher Nolan is renowned for.  There is a sequence late in the film of a sinking ship that is so well shot from different angles that it transcends conventional film-making.  One shot in particular is mounted high above the deck of the ship and is fixed in place as the entire thing tips over.  As a result, the angle of framing is tilted to an extreme where it gives you the sense that you are sinking with the ship itself, and makes you feel the same dread that the characters are feeling too.  Overall, it’s that sense of immersion that sets Nolan’s film apart, both in the visuals and in the narrative, and it makes his vision so integral to the telling of this story.  My hope is that other viewers will see that as well and help this movie live well beyond the limitations of it’s exclusive presentation format.

Suffice to say, if Dunkirk doesn’t top my end of the year list of favorite movies, it will almost certainly be near the top.  It is already the crown jewel of a surprisingly strong summer, and as of now, the best movie I have seen so far this year.  I hesitate to anoint it as a likely winner, because there are still so many promising features on the horizon, but Christopher Nolan has clearly set the bar high yet again.  I would also say that it stands as one of the best directorial achievements of his already stellar career, which is saying something.  I still hold Inception up as my absolute favorite, but again, time will tell how well Dunkirk holds up over time.  Needless to say, I am so pleased to see the marriage of his eye for spectacle combined with a harrowing true life story that needed this kind of treatment.  The story of Dunkirk is one of survival, and when gazed through the vision of Nolan’s cinematic style, the odds feel incredibly more powerful.  I also like the fact that he reserved his own indulgences, and made sure to not spoil the movie with superfluous scenes that didn’t need to be in there.  It may bother some audiences who want a little more context to what they are watching, especially when it comes to the characters, but I didn’t mind the minimalist approach to plot and characters at all.  In a way, I like the fact that the characters are little more than our eyes into the event, because it allows us to implant more of ourselves into what’s going on.  In the end, it’s not the actors, nor the cinematography, nor the direction that makes Dunkirk exceptional.  It’s the event itself that becomes the draw, and seeing a great historical moment play out in front of us.  All those other elements are there to elevate what history has already created, and make it feel larger than life.  It’s fortunate that Nolan chose to use his talents to tell this story, because it’s a story about humanity, and how big things can happen when we all work together.  Through Nolan’s exceptional sense of scale, we see that play out in the most harrowing way possible.  That’s why Dunkirk may not only be one of the best movies of the year, or one of the best war epics ever made; but could very well be one of the best movies ever, period.  Keep setting that bar higher, Mr. Nolan.

Rating: 9.5/10

D23 Expo 2017 – Film Exhibition Report

The wait is long and arduous for all of us Disney fanatics out there, but every biannual summer this magical weekend finally comes around and leaves us with a sense of wonder and amusement that makes the wait worth it in the end.  Once again, I am here to document my experience at The Walt Disney Company’s extravagant D23 Expo in Anaheim, California.  This is my third trip overall, dating back to the first year of this blog in 2013.  I can tell you that even in just the last three Expos, this event has grown by phenomenal proportions.  The 2013 Expo didn’t nearly cover the massive floor space of the Anaheim Convention Center.  Now, not only does it cover most of the acreage there, but every booth seems to be crammed tighter now with barely enough space left for the growing number of guests to walk through.  Certainly the acquisition of Marvel and Star Wars to the Disney family has increased the level of interest in this event.  Thankfully, with two Expos already under my belt, I was better prepared now more than ever to face the challenges of this event, and check off all my must sees and dos of the list.  Given how busy I was during this whole event, I unfortunately unable to give a live account like I had last time.  That is why I am writing this now midweek, instead of my usual weekend post.  That way, I’m giving you a more polished account rather than a rushed through retelling.  In addition, instead of breaking things down day by day, I decided to account everything by the experiences, such as the panels, the show floor, the atmosphere, etc.  So, let’s take a look at this year’s eventful D23 Expo experience.

THE SHOW FLOOR

On Friday morning, me and a large crowd of eager patrons made our way towards the convention center.  Already, I could tell that previous years had taught Disney a thing or two about crowd management, because they managed to keep things orderly as people lined up.  Those of us waiting to enter the show floor once the doors opened managed to benefit from some indoor queuing on the second and third levels of the convention center.  The convention also smartly had placed security check points well near the back end of the lines, allowing us to proceed on through much quicker.  By the time the doors opened, most of us were already securely inside the convention center.  It took only about 40 minutes from opening for my section of the line to make it to the show floor.  And once inside, the feeling of grandeur hits you.  Everywhere you look, there was immediately interesting to see.  Across the way was Center Stage, where various acts would perform throughout the day.  To it’s right was the extremely busy Marvel booth, where much of the Expos activity centered.  From there, you would be able to find several enormous booths dedicated to all sections of the Disney company; film, television, theme parks, consumer products, etc.  The unfortunate thing is that some booths should have been given more space than they had.  Marvel’s booth was way too small for what they needed throughout the weekend, and the vicinity around it was always jammed with traffic.  Also, it’s position right next to the center stage also made noise levels a problem.  Other than that, I was satisfied with the way the Expo handled queuing at this event.  Lines were clearly marked throughout the show floor, and most of the booths were easy to find once you had a lay of the land.  Also, it was pleasing to see a distinctively centralized position for the small vendors in the Emporium section, placed right next to the D23 Expo Arena, where some of the big shows were taking place, showing their importance to the Expo as a whole.  Apart from space usage, I found this a very inviting experience on the show floor.

THE BOOTHS

Of course, one of the big draws of the D23 Expo is the different experiences found in all the surrounding booths.  The most popular of these turned out to be the Scrooge McDuck Money Bin Dive experience, meant to promote the upcoming Duck Tales reboot on Disney’s XD television channel.  It was so popular in fact, that every day required guests to stand in line just to receive a timed wrist band for re-entry later.  And every single day saw an early sell-out of wrist bands, meaning that most people who visited the Expo couldn’t even experience it.  I myself was left out in the cold too, so I could only observe and not participate.  The booth itself was essentially a ball pit made up with plastic coins instead, but surrounding it were cameras all along an overhead canopy, which apparently can capture a 180 degree snapshot of each guests dive into the bin, which they could then share on their social media.  It looked like fun, but it’s popularity also unfortunately made it very exclusive as well.

Also on the show floor was this year’s presentation from the Disney Archives.  A mainstay of the D23 Expo, the Archive Exhibit is essentially a museum set-up, showcasing different artifacts found within Disney’s extensive collection. Previous years that I attended presented exhibits dedicated to the movie Mary Poppins, featuring actual props and costumes from the film, and also dedicated to Disneyland’s then 60th Anniversary, showcasing various artifacts from it’s long history.  This year, the exhibit was devoted to Disney’s storied exploration into the history and lore of Pirates.  Of course, all eras were showcased here, with drawings dating back to the 1930’s of cartoons made featuring Mickey Mouse fighting against evil pirates, going all the way to more recent pirate adventures like Muppet Treasure Island (1996) and Treasure Planet (2002). Captain Hook, from the beloved film Peter Pan (1953), is even given a section of his own here.  But of course, the majority of the exhibit is dedicated to one particular pirate themed brand from the Disney company; that being Pirates of the Caribbean, both the famed attraction and the blockbuster film series.

On one quarter of the gallery was the section devoted to the theme park attraction.  I really found this area to be a treasure trove (so to speak), as many of the most interesting artifacts found here pertained to the development of the ride.  Here you would’ve found early concept art, as well as models crafted to sculpt and build the then state of the art animatronic characters.  One thing that really caught my eye was the original script written for the ride dialogue itself.  The Archivists who set up the exhibit even turned the pages of the script to some of the more famous lines from the ride, like, “Another broadside and ye goes down with the tide,” or “Avast, ye scurvy scum.”  The original sheet music was also exhibited in this same area.  Of course, this section wouldn’t have been complete without parts of the actual ride itself.  Among the ride artifacts, there was a prop cannon, unused models of one of the pig sty animatronics as well as the jailhouse dog, and most prominently, one of the pirate animatronics itself; one that’s clearly an older model no longer in use.  This section in particular is probably what prompted the theme for the exhibit itself, as the attraction is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year.  And while it mostly presents a sense of the attraction’s history, it also presents a look into it’s future, with pieces of the state of the art animatronics found here from the recently opened Shanghai Disneyland attraction, centered more closely with tie-ins from the films.  And that segways into the remaining part of the exhibit.

The remainder of the exhibit focuses exclusively on the now five film series based on the ride.  The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise’s extensive collection of props and costumes take up a huge footprint in this gallery, and front and center is an area devoted to the famed Black Pearl itself.  Throughout the film section are scale models of the many ships featured in the film, but the largest by far is the Pearl herself.  This massive model is the first thing you see upon entering the exhibit, and is given it’s own moody lighting, making it an especially great photo opportunity for all guests.  Right next to the model are life sized props used on the real Black Pearl seen in the film, including the figure head and the steering wheel.  Nearby, a section devoted to props found on the ship, The Flying Dutchman, are displayed.  The Dutchman, being the ship captained by the villainous Davy Jones, is visualized through an infestation of barnacles and other sea based rot, so it’s really neat to see that detail put into all the props here.  The largest single prop in this area also happens to be Davy Jones massive pipe organ, which itself immediately catches the eye right when you enter the gallery.  Much of the remaining space is devoted to various character costumes.  Of course, Jack Sparrow’s costume is given the extra special presentation, with it’s own shroud of misty fog being blown up from behind the base it’s sitting on.  A couple other neat artifacts here, like the heart of Davy Jones, the map to the Fountain of Youth, and the costumes for the monkey Jack no doubt would excite die hard fans of the movies.  I certainly found it to be a very interesting exhibit, again showcasing just how glorious the Disney Archive collection really is.

But, as popular as this exhibit was, it didn’t nearly create as much traffic over the long weekend as the Theme Parks booth did.  This year, the Park booth was devoted solely to showing one single attraction to Expo guests.  And it was a major attraction.  Inside their booth was a massive scale model of Star Wars Land, currently under construction at both Disneyland and at the Disney Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida.  As far as models go, this one was epic in scale.  Approximately 20 ft. in length, spanning all the way across the booth, the massive model gives a very strong sense of the massive scale that is going into this amazing project.  Several Disney Imagineers who are in charge of developing this project were on hand to tell us more about the project as everyone arrived to get a closer look.  They described the setting of the land as a remote outpost within the Star Wars universe; original and unique to this land concept, but containing elements familiar to fans of the series.  It will be home to two massive attractions, one of which allows guests to pilot the legendary Millennium Falcon spaceship.  It was especially neat to look up close and get a sense of what the architecture and terrain of the of the land will look like once completed.  Knowing that large crowds would be lining up just to see it, the booth was accommodated with a winding queue that was filled up for most of the Expo.  As people waited, they were also treated to a demonstration of a droid character that rolled it’s way freely across the floor.  Piloted remotely, this droid is likely going to be a street atmosphere element that will interact with guests in the land, and it was neat to see a preview of it there at the Expo.  It certainly was a star attraction at this year’s Expo, and was probably very likely the most photographed element on the entire show floor.

THE PANELS

Of course, for an avid film fan like me, the real draw of this Expo is the exclusive first looks presented in the big Studio Presentations.  Just like last the last Expo, the big shows were held in Hall D23, which is a sectioned off portion of the show floor big enough to seat 8,000 guests.  Think of it as Disney’s Hall H, which is the famous big hall of San Diego Comic Con.  Here, the major reveals were made in Disney’s upcoming slate of animated features, live action films, and theme park attractions.  The first show in Hall D23, however, was dedicated to the induction of this year’s new Disney Legends.  Acting as a lifetime achievement recognition. the Disney Legends has become the company’s way of honoring the best and brightest that have helped the company become what it is today.  Among this year’s honorees were posthumous recipients like animation director Clyde Geronimi, comic strip artist Manuel Gonzales, film director Gary Marshall, and legendary Marvel comic artist Jack Kirby.  Alongside them were honorees present to accept this honor; some of whom were also there at the Expo to promote upcoming projects.  Among them were Oprah Winfrey, Imagineer Wayne Jackson,and theater director Julie Taymor.  The highlights of this show however had to have gone to the legendary Stan Lee of Marvel Comics making an appearance at the show only one short week after losing his wife of almost 70 years, as well as actor Mark Hamill accepting the honor not just for himself, but for the late Carrie Fisher as well.  While I would’ve greatly enjoyed being at this presentation, I unfortunately had to miss it in order to wait in line for the following show.

Thanks to my experience at the last Expo, I made sure to not waste a single opportunity to wait in line for the big shows.  I managed to get in line early enough to have a decent enough seat in the first presentation on Friday afternoon.  This one was devoted to Disney’s animation output, from both their home studio and Pixar Animation.  Hosted by animation head John Lasseter, there became a running gag throughout the show that we were seeing things so early in the development process that there weren’t even final titles set for every film we were seeing.  The show started with a reveal of another Cars spin-off, this time set in space, and then it proceeded into a showcase of the upcoming Frozen Christmas Special called Olaf’s Frozen Adventure.  Actors Kristen Bell and Josh Gad were present to talk about the new short, and Josh even sang a live performance of a new song as well.  There was also a mention of the upcoming Frozen 2, but nothing but a working title was shown.  Next came a big segment devoted to the upcoming Wreck-It Ralph sequel called Ralph Breaks the Internet.  Introduced by actress Sarah Silverman from the film, the presentation showcased an extended scene from the movie where her character Vanellope Von Schweetz and Ralph end up crashing the Disney website.  What followed was a hilarious string of inside jokes aimed at the Disney company.  It hit it’s high-point once Vanellope meets all the princesses in a spectacularly funny scene.  Afterwards, John Lasseter revealed that all the princesses were being voiced by their original actors, and one by one all of them were invited on stage.  It became a fantastic moment that was definitely the high-point of the show.

From there, the show went into it’s Pixar segment, with a first look at the upcoming Incredibles II, coming next year (a full 14 years after the first).  Director Brad Bird came up on stage, and even indulged us with a little routine involving his character from the film, fashion designer Edna Mode.  He discussed a little about what to expect with the new plot, and even showed us a little clip as well, centered on the baby of the family, Jack-Jack.  Afterwards he invited the cast of the film out, which included Craig T. Nelson (Mr. Incredible), Holly Hunter (Elastigirl), Sarah Vowell (Violet), newcomer Huck Milner (Dash), and Samuel L. Jackson (Frozone).  Afterwards, John Lasseter returned to the stage and delivered the somewhat shocking news that he was no longer going to be directing Toy Story 4, which comes out in 2019.  He instead was handing directorial duties to first time director Josh Cooley, who was welcomed warmly on stage.  He promised us that he was going to work hard to make his film live up to the previous ones.  After that, there was an announcement of a new project in the works at Pixar; a yet untitled film about suburbia, only re-imagined through a fantasy angle.  It was neat seeing early artwork for this project, which shows fantasy creatures like trolls, fairies and unicorns existing in a suburban environment.  Following that, we were finally treated to an extended look at this fall’s upcoming Pixar film Coco (2017).  Directors Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina showed us two extended scenes which gave us a good sense of what to expect.  Then, at the end, the voice of the film’s main character Manuel, young Anthony Gonzalez, started a performance of the film’s theme song titled, “Remember Me.”  Following his impassioned performance, he was joined by actor Benjamin Bratt, who plays the mythical Ernesto de la Cruz in the film, and he too sang along.  They were joined by a large grouping of Mexican dancers, who filled all the aisles up in the audience, immersing us in the experience.  It was a fine closer to a solid show from Disney and Pixar Animation.

As much as this was a packed house show, it wasn’t the hardest one to get into.  That was the one that followed in the next morning.  I was extra prepared for this one and stayed overnight at the Convention Center; camping out in line.  It proved to be worth it though as I managed to get a coveted seat for the Live Action Presentation.  This was the one that discussed all of the upcoming live action films from Disney, Marvel, and Star Wars.  First up was a presentation of the upcoming adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel, A Wrinkle in Time.  We were shown the premiere of the first trailer for the film, and on stage we were graced to see director Ava DuVernay, as well as the stars Storm Reid, Chris Pine, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kailing, and new Disney Legend Oprah Winfrey.  They talked about the movie and then revealed the new one-sheet poster, which we learned that we’d be getting a free copy of.  Oprah took it a step further by parodying her famous audience gifting spiel, shouting, “you get a poster; you get a poster; everybody gets a poster!!”  Afterwards, we were presented with a look at an upcoming film based on the Nutcracker story called Nutcracker and the Four Realms, starring Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman in the ensemble.  There were also announcements about upcoming remakes of Mulan and Aladdin, including the casting of Will Smith in the role of the Genie.  Then, we watched a video from director Tim Burton discussing his upcoming re-imagining of Dumbo.  This then led to a presentation of the upcoming sequel to a Disney classic, Mary Poppins Returns, starring Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Director Rob Marshall and Emily Blunt were both there to premiere the first footage of the film, and to make the moment even more special, it was scored by a live orchestra, conducted by composer Marc Shaiman.  Disney’s segment of the show concluded with a first look at the upcoming Lion King remake, and it looked spectacular.  Director Jon Favreau came on stage afterwards and thank us all for the support of this project, and hoped that it would be a satisfying appetizer for what’s to come.

Next up was Star Wars, with a particular emphasis on the upcoming continuation in the saga, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.  There was little mention of the already troubled Han Solo stand-alone film, and it was passed through with only an overlook of the cast.  Then writer and director Rian Johnson came on stage to introduce the cast of the film, which included Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma), as well as newcomers Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico), Laura Dern (Amilyn Holdo) and Benicio Del Toro (DJ).  They all shared their excitement for the film, and what they all love about Star Wars in general.  But, of course, the real highlight came when Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, came on stage.  He expressed his excitement for the project and his joy of working with Rian Johnson on the project.  After that, a new behind the scenes montage was presented, which offered a neat look at some things to expect in the new film.  It was especially touching to see any glimpse of the sorely missed Carrie Fisher.  Afterwards, it was Marvel’s turn to close out the show.  Surprisingly, no mention at all about the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok or Black Panther.  This was entirely devoted to the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War.  Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige was there to acknowledge that this was the studio’s 10th anniversary, and then he welcomed onto stage the voice of the Infinity War’s main villain Thanos, Josh Brolin.  Brolin briefly talked about his excitement for the film, and then was joined by nearly half the cast of the movie.  Instead of naming them all by actor, I’ll just quickly say which characters were there to challenge Thanos: Vision, Scarlet Witch, War Machine, Mantis, Winter Soldier, Drax, Falcon, Nebula, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man, and of course the one who started it all, Iron Man.  That amazing line-up would’ve been a highlight enough, but after a 10 year montage, we were blessed with our first glimpse of the movie itself.  I can tell you that I was on the edge of my seat watching the full wrath of Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet in this brief first look.  This alone made the overnight wait totally worth it.

Following this show, I managed to get more easily into the Theme Park showing.  There were some more interesting details revealed about the upcoming Star Wars Land, including the official name: Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge.  After that, more announcements about a new Mickey Mouse ride in Disney World, a Guardians of the Galaxy ride in Epcot, and a Star Wars themed Resort in Orlando rounded out a very busy conference.  One benefit for this year’s D23 Expo was the availability of the Anaheim Convention Center’s arena showroom.  The domed structure was unavailable at the last Expo due to renovation and expansion, but this year it was reopened, helping to free up some much needed space.  Dubbed the D23 Expo Arena, this room played host to some of the mid-level conferences; ones that are too popular for the showrooms upstairs, but not big enough to fill the Hall D23.  My first show in there was for a little history presentation called Melodies in Walt’s Time, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and Leonard Maltin.  It was part lecture, part concert, as a live band and choir was there to perform as well.  Following the Live Action show in Hall D23, I made my way into the Level Up panel in the Arena, which focused on Disney’s upcoming video game slate.  Sadly this was a downgrade after the dissolving of Disney Interactive in the last year, which included the cancellation of Disney Infinity, which was a game I was particularly invested in.  Most of the talk centered on the upcoming Kingdom Hearts 3 and Star Wars Battlefront II.  Battlefront even included a special guest appearance from actor John Boyega from the film franchise, who himself is a fan of the games.  Kingdom Hearts 3 showcased a reveal of a Toy Story themed level, which got a huge reaction from the crowd I was a part of; as did the announcement of a 2018 release.

The final day of the Expo had me focusing mostly on walking the floor and taking in all the experiences that I had missed in the first two days, but I did fit in one panel, and that was a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the film Hercules.  I’m not a particular fan of the movie, but was nevertheless fascinated in the behind the scenes stories behind it.  Hosted by the film’s directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, they walked us through a full history of the movie, from inception to development to animation.  They were accompanied by animators Ken Duncan (who drew the female lead Megara) and Eric Goldberg (who animated the character Phil).  Throughout the show, they presented some interesting behind the scenes footage, including rough animation, live action reference, and some early tests of the amazing CGI animated Hydra in the film.  There was also a brief video made by the film’s designer, artist Gerald Scarfe, who unfortunately couldn’t attend but still wanted to share his thoughts.  Afterwards, actors Tate Donovan and Susan Egan, who played Hercules and Megara respectively, were welcomed out.  They shared some of their anecdotes about working on the film, and we were also shown a recording session video of actor James Woods, who played the villain Hades.  To finish the show, actress Susan Egan blessed us with a live performance of the love song “I Won’t Say,” which brought the show to a nice strong finish.

So, as you can see, the majority of my experience at this Expo was devoted to experiencing these exclusive panels.  It can take away some precious walking around time, but if what is shown is worth the long wait, then it absolutely is worth it in the end.  I certainly am happy that I got into both of the biggest shows at the Expo, so it’s worth missing out on the other things.  Still, there were a couple of panels that I wish that I hadn’t missed, like one discussing the Duck Tales reboot, as well as one celebrating The Lion King.  Also, it would’ve been nice to have had the time to catch the Legends ceremony early in the morning.  But, as I have learned from previous Expos, you can’t fit it all in; not even with 3 full days.  There’s just too much to do, and so little time to do it, so you have to pick and choose in the end.  I’m sure any convention is filled with these kinds of decisions; especially the biggest and most exclusive ones.  Overall, I was very pleased with how these panels worked out in the end, and the fact that I didn’t miss out on the most important ones of all.

THE ATMOSPHERE

Lastly, I want to talk about the feeling of being there in the show room floor and among all the other guests at the Expo.  From the moment you set foot through the front doors, you immediately feel this warmth of a great, loving community coming together.  All throughout the three days of the D23 Expo I had more conversations with complete strangers than any other part of the year combined, and it was all geared around a shared love for the same thing.  No matter where I was, I could converse with anyone else in line and share the same enthusiasm for what we’ve just seen or were about to see.  I also got to have some interesting conversations with people who work for the Disney company as well.  I got to speak with an Imagineer at the Star Wars Land model, and he shared his unique life experience which had him start off his career by answering a help wanted ad in the Los Angeles Times which many years later led him to working on this massive Star Wars expansion in Disneyland.  Apart from conversations with fellow Disney, Marvel, and Star Wars fans, it was also just neat to see the varying kinds of cosplay that people came to the Expo with.  Some of them were especially intricate, showing just how serious some fans are when it comes to showing their appreciation for this stuff.  I also enjoyed the many opportunities to collect plenty of free swag; the best of which was a talking Star Lord action figure.  And more than everything, it was just a warm inviting experience.  Despite crowding issues in some places, all around you would be beautiful sights and sounds everywhere.  I especially loved how they even worked in special parades throughout the day on the show floor, which included a marching band, giant balloons, and carriages carrying special celebrity guests.  Also, Center Stage played host to acts that never required a line or pass to enjoy.  Overall, it was another great show put on by the Disney Company.  My hope is that they clear their own high bar next time around, as this thing gets bigger with every passing year.  The next one is in 2019, and my hope is to be at that one as well, covering it for all of you just as I have before.  Until then, I’ll be Wishing Upon a Star for a another great Expo in two years, and I’ll feel forever grateful to have been a part of this one too.