All posts by James Humphreys

Cinematic Resurrection – The Remarkable Resilience of the Theater Experience in the Era of Covid

You rarely see it in a period of time where new advances in technology are rapidly having an affect on how we live our lives.  In the same way that streaming brought about an abrupt end to the video rental market, many entertainment analysts believed that the theatrical experience itself would also see a decline over time, as on demand entertainment would soon become the norm.  It sure looked like that was a possibility.  With Netflix and Amazon’s rapid rise over the last decade, and the soon to happen launch of streaming services by some of Hollywood’s top studios, the turn of the last decade seemed to mark a turning point for entertainment, where movie theaters no longer stood out as the primary place to premiere a new film.  And then of course came the perfect storm that nearly brought the theatrical industry to the brink of extinction.  The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 forced the closures of movie theaters across the world, leading to an unprecedented halt on film exhibition.  Movies, including ones that were months away from their planned release, were moved off the calendar with no sign of when they might be able to finally be seen.  In the meantime, movie studios with their newly launched streaming platforms were finding it crucial to unload the burden onto these new services to provide entertainment for audiences who were now stuck at home.  With theaters unable to operate, and streaming now able to grow without competition, it looked as if this might be the nail in the coffin for a century old industry that had long faced competition only to see themselves evolve into something better and stronger.  But, as the shadow of Covid is beginning to finally fade, we are seeing something truly remarkable happening, and that’s a surprisingly resilient theater industry crawling ever so carefully out of it’s hole.  And it makes everyone wonder, are movie theaters really destined for irrelevance or are they a much stronger part of the culture than we ever thought.

The story of movie theaters enduring through it’s most trying challenge during this pandemic has taken a surprising turn in the last couple weeks.  Disney, with their popular brand Marvel, undertook what they considered an “experiment” to see if one of their movies could perform well enough without the help of a streaming option.  With the Delta Covid variant causing problems across the country, this seemed like a tricky gamble.  Also, the movie they were testing the waters on was based on a lesser known comic book character named Shang-Chi; not exactly a household name.  Sure, he’s part of the extensive Marvel family, but Shang-Chi has no where near the following that an Iron Man or Captain America has.  Essentially, he was going to have to perform solely based on the strength of the Marvel brand itself.  But, it’s a gamble that remarkably paid off in the end.  Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings not only broke records for it’s Labor Day weekend premiere, it shattered them.  The movie pulled in $95 million over the four day weekend, and it’s three day total was only slightly behind that of Black Widow for the highest opening of the year; a movie that featured a pre-established Marvel icon with a strong following.  Surely, the Marvel branding helped to carry Shang-Chi to a strong opening, but at the same time, it also proved something else, especially in the weeks that followed.  After it’s strong opening, Shang-Chi continued to hold onto it’s audience, dropping only 50% in it’s second week, and is on track to out gross Black Widow by the end of it’s run.  This, more than anything, proves the inefficacy of the hybrid release model, as a pure exclusive theatrical window allows for a stronger audience hold over time.  This is also something that Disney observed with it’s 20th Century Studios release, Free Guy starring Ryan Reynolds.  Before Shang-Chi, Free Guy had been the box office champ 3 weeks running, and it managed to also cross the $100 million mark which is especially good for a movie made on a more modest budget than what Marvel is putting out.  As a result of both Shang-Chi’s and Free Guy’s remarkable success, Disney made the crucial choice of sticking with exclusive theatrical windows for the remainder of the year.

This news was a dream come true for the beleaguered theater industry.  The largest studio in Hollywood was abandoning the bet hedging practice of releasing day and date on streaming and in theaters, and was committing to an exclusive, albeit shortened, theatrical first strategy.  One can speculate that Disney’s premium Premiere Access was not performing as well as they had hoped, but as outsiders, there’s nothing we can prove with that being the case.  Disney’s keeping their internal numbers regarding streaming a very closely guarded secret, and they’ve only released total grosses from their $30 access fee publicly on opening weekends, with the hopes that it might help with the overall positive press with the movie.  But, after that, we don’t know exactly what the movie makes.  My educated guess is that even though the movie might do well on opening weekend, it’s following weekend grosses probably see a huge drop off.  And that’s probably because once someone buys the access to watch a movie like Black Widow, they basically own that movie after that point, so Disney no longer is making any more money on that single customer.  Movie theaters on the other hand has something that works well to their advantage and that’s repeat business.  Because people are paying for the experience of watching a movie in a theater and not just to own the movie outright, it opens the door for people to return again if they desire to view the movie again.  That repeat business helps to keep movies performing strong week after week.  What I imagine is that Disney saw that they weren’t making the same kind of long term money on their Premiere Access as they were keeping the movie in the theaters.  And a big sign of that is in how Black Widow lost 70% of it’s audience from week one to week two, while Shang-Chi managed to lose only 50%.  Yes, they do keep 100% of the profit from streaming, but they lose out on future gains that can accumulate through word of mouth.  That’s what they’ve observed over the last week, and it’s why Disney made the monumental choice to move away from that hybrid model.

With Disney committing to theatrical, it suddenly puts pressure on other studios to do the same, and some studios perhaps jumped the gun a little in response to the ongoing uncertainty in the theatrical market.  Only a couple weeks prior, Paramount made a bunch of drastic moves.  They took their family friendly comedy Clifford the Big Red Dog off it’s September release date and has not found a replacement date yet.  And after that, they moved two high profile Tom Cruise vehicles, Top Gun: Maverick and the next Mission: Impossible sequel and moved them months away from their intended dates; a big blow for Top Gun: Maverick as it already saw a year long delay from 2020.  Universal likewise changed it’s release strategy for the upcoming Halloween Kills release in October, choosing to put it on both it’s streaming service Peacock and in theaters at the same time.  And Warner Brothers, like they have all year, are continuing to release their entire 2021 slate of movies in theaters and on their streaming service HBO Max for no extra charge; a move that has irked many of their stable of filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Denis Villenueve.  The only other major studio to follow Disney’s theatrical only lead has been Sony (the only major studio without a streaming platform).  In fact, they doubled down on theatrical after the other studios began to hedge their bets.  Both of their big upcoming franchise films, Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Ghostbusters: Afterlife moved up their release instead of delaying them, and most tellingly, they did so after the successful launch of Shang-Chi.  Clearly Sony saw the same promising numbers that Disney saw, and they decided that it was better to give theaters the exclusive window for the first month, instead of selling off their titles to Netflix like they have been doing.  So at this point, the movie studios are suddenly seeing their worst fears about the theatrical market not coming to fruition, and it’s leading to some second guessing.  This in particular is leading to some flare up confrontations between studios and talent, as these drastic, panicky moves have negatively affected already pre-standing contracts.  Christopher Nolan in fact has parted ways with Warner Brothers after a 20 year relationship, as he’s now setting up his next film at Universal instead.  It’s really interesting to see the dynamic flip so much on the industry in such a short amount of time, with movie theaters now back in a more dynamic power position, while the studios are struggling to figure out their next moves.

That being said, movie theaters themselves are not entirely out of the woods yet.  The pandemic is still going on, with some parts of the United States seeing the worst flare up they’ve experienced so far.  What’s helping keep the movie theaters from reaching the point of worry now is the fact that the two biggest markets (New York and Los Angeles) are experiencing a relative low rate of spread of the virus compared to other parts of the country, and that’s due to higher vaccination rates in those areas.  Certainly, there is still a lot of worry in those large cities, and they are taking drastic measures like mask mandates and proof of vaccine requirements, but overall it’s allowing businesses to function as close to normal as they possibly can.  Movie theaters in particular are following the guidelines set, and they have been able to operate throughout the summer without leading to any significant outbreaks.  I can say from first hand, even the packed out screenings of big films has all of the audiences members respecting the mandates here in the Los Angeles area where I live, and that has been a big contributor in seeing the confidence build back up for the theatrical industry.  If Los Angeles and New York manage to keep another disastrous spike happen again, the threat of another shutdown is almost assuredly behind us.  Even still, closures anywhere are still a lingering threat, especially in the parts of the country that are really hurting right now.  There’s also concerns about what effect vaccine mandates might have on future theater attendance.  In the coming weeks, Los Angeles County will soon be requiring proof of vaccination upon entry into many indoor establishments, including theaters.  Some see this as a bad thing because of how it might turn away audiences who refuse to be vaccinated.  On the other hand, some argue that requiring proof of vaccination may help bring more people back to the theater who have been hesitant before, because it will make them feel safe knowing that everyone around them has also been vaccinated.  So, even though movie theaters have seen promising developments over the last few weeks, the storm hasn’t cleared out of the way just yet.

Even still, with movie theaters doing the kind of business they’ve seen at all this summer is something pretty miraculous.  Going into the new year, it seemed like Armageddon was on the horizon for the theatrical industry.  Many chains, including the biggest of them all (AMC) was too far into debt to recoup, and in many cases, a few of them closed for good.  AMC still operates today solely due to the intervention of meme stocks forced higher through Reddit.  But even in the face of that, it took a lot of hope to believe that audiences would come back after having to rely on streaming for their entertainment over the last year.  Did streaming claim a foothold too strong for theaters to overcome in order to return to normal?  As evidenced by what we’ve seen in the last month, streaming in fact did not kill the theatrical market for good.  As some of us already know, and what more are probably realizing more and more each day, there really is no substitute for the theater experience.  No matter how big and impressive your home theater set up is, it can not replicate the experience of watching a movie in an actual movie theater.  What I’ve really noticed in the difference is the way a movie sounds in a theater.  A home theater 7.1 system just does not have the same oomph that a nearly 25 speaker set up in a cinema has.  It’s the immersion that makes all the difference.  Movie theater sound just puts you in the middle of the movie better than it does at home.  And of course, the bigger the screen the better.  I’m sure there is not a single home theater that captures the immensity of an IMAX image.  Big movies need to be seen in a big way.  I for one have always known that and during the past year I went to great lengths to enjoy movies the way they were meant to be enjoyed.  I sought out the only operating Drive-In theaters in the Los Angeles area and drove back and forth almost weekly to these venues that were well outside of town.  I even drove 120 miles to San Diego just so I could see Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in a theater, because it was the closest one open that was playing it in IMAX.  These are the lengths one will go to for that theater experience, and I know my case is on the exceptional side.  But, what I am pleased to see is that more and more people who don’t typically go to the theaters are also realizing that special connection too.

What people are beginning to realize now is just how much they took the theater experience for granted.  For a lot of people, returning to the movies has in some way become an almost healing experience.  The psychological effect of the past year has created an appetite for many people to have something in their lives that helps remind them of life before things began falling apart.  In a way, movie theaters are the beneficiaries of that effect.  After being holed up in their homes for months and in some cases over a year, people want to be outdoors again, as well as return to activities that require them to leave their homes.  With the vaccines and mask mandates helping to slow the spread, and making the weary feel more safe as they exit their homes, we are seeing more vigorous enthusiasm for wanting to get back to the things that we’ve missed out on in the last year.  This is why movie theaters might have a bright future, at least for a while.  It reminds audiences of better times, when it didn’t seem like the world was falling apart.  The act of going out to a movie theater, or any establishment outside the home, has a therapeutic effect now; like it’s a reward for having to endure the hardships that it took to get to this moment.  One thing I wonder is how streaming will be viewed in the years to come post-pandemic.  I’m sure that it will still be robust, but the rapid growth they saw during the pandemic will likely never be seen again, and in some ways, people might turn away from streaming viewership because it will remind them of the worst days of their life as they endured the uncertainty of the year 2020.  It’s probably going to be a small effect, but I think the psychological impact of how we endured through the pandemic year will in some ways be reflected in the way we chose to experience film in the years ahead.  One thing that I do believe is driving the renewed love of going back to the theaters is the realization for many people that a shared communal experience with an audience is an indispensable part of watching a movie.  The joys of cinema are in being able to laugh, cry, and cheer together with other people, including strangers, because we are a social species, and going out to the movies is one of the best ways we can experience that joy together.  This pandemic forced us apart; it’s cinema that is helping us to come back together and in turn, helping us to heal.

A lot of these positive signs are, of course, just an immediate observation.  It’s hard to say what lasting effect it will have on the long term future of cinema.  We certainly are no where near where we were pre-pandemic, as 2019 was a record breaking year for the box office.  We’ll probably never in our lifetimes see something like the fall off that box office took in the year 2020; going from an all time high in the year before to a near flatline thereafter.  2021’s box office is still stunted, but it is heading in the right direction, with Shang-Chi becoming the first movie in over a year in a half being able to perform like a movie without roadblocks, even in the face of a lingering pandemic.  One thing that the pandemic gave us in the meantime was perspective.  We began to realize just how valuable the theatrical experience was to us in our culture.  We don’t just watch the movies, we experience them, and that experience shouldn’t be done alone.  I think that after a hundred years of the silver screen, the need to go out to the movies is just embedded in our DNA now.  Sure, it’s going to take time for many people to feel safe and confident in a theater again, and streaming will undoubtedly be an ever present force in entertainment from here out.  But, movie theaters, through all the hardship, are still open and they are still seeing healthy amounts of business.  In time, we may actually see a theatrical market that looks almost normal and back to it’s pre-pandemic levels again.  Movie theaters have had to face many calamities over time; the Depression, the War, civil unrest, the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, not to mention the existential threat television, home video and ultimately streaming.  And yet, despite all these obstacles thrown their way, they’ve managed to survive and thrive.  Covid was it’s greatest challenge yet; a force so destructive  it that prevented any business from happening, and nearly forced the complete disintegration of the industry as a whole.  So, if it could survive that, it might be able to survive any calamity.  Like I said before, people are a social species, and our desire is to share a collective experience as a group.  Movie theaters, with their abundance in neighborhoods across the globe and relatively economical entry fee compared to other forms of entertainment, are the best places for communities to gather together and enjoy the bonds of joy that entertainment brings to us.  And after an experience like the Covid-19 pandemic, it something that we need more than ever to help heal the wounded world that was broken apart over the last year.

Never Forget – Processing the Legacy of 9/11 Through 20 Years of Cinema

There are points in history where the world looks back and recalls where they were exactly when it happened.  As time goes on, the memory of those days recede into legend as past generations begin to leave us, and the only connection that we have left are the stories left behind.  Even still, the one thing that these moments in time have in common is the suddenness in which they occurred and the scars that result from the aftermath.  One such day was September 11, 2001.  It’s a day that still is etched deeply in the collective trauma of those who experienced it, either first hand or through the nationwide shock of what occurred.  Like many other days like it, it seemed like a normal, everyday morning.  It was a beautiful, quiet day for most of us.  But in the early morning, that all began to change.  At 8:46am on the southern tip of the island of Manhattan, an American Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles crashed into the upper floors of the North tower of the World Trade Center.  Believed to be a tragic accident at first, the response from first responders was swift but routine.  Then, at 9:03am, the unthinkable happened.  Another plane bound for Los Angeles flew right into the middle of the neighboring South tower.  A mere 34 minutes later, another jet crashed into the south end of the Pentagon.  And at this point, the world knew this was no accident.  America was under attack.  Only a few minutes later, New Yorkers witnessed the unthinkable as the South Tower buckled and collapsed, bringing all 110 floors crashing to the streets below.  The North Tower followed soon after, only 100 minutes after the plane hit.  News also broke that a fourth hijacked plane, United 93, had plummeted out of the sky in rural Pennsylvania, with it’s intended target (the US Capitol) never being reached.  And as many Americans began waking up that morning, they would soon learn that the world they knew would never be the same.

That was the reality of September 11, 2001.  An efficiently coordinated act of terrorism conducted by the terror group Al-Qaeda and it’s mastermind Osama Bin Laden.  And as we would learn, it was only the beginning of massive changes for not just the United States but also for the entire world.  For New Yorkers, they were left with unimaginable trauma after witnessing the iconic Twin Towers be erased from the Manhattan skyline forever.  As the smoke cloud receded, the true scope of the damage was revealed.  A gaping hole where the towers once stood mightily over the Financial District of Lower Manhattan now was a mangled pile of debris.  It would take many months for all of the debris to be cleared in what effectively became the largest crime scene in world history.  After the shock of the event, the question soon became what do we do now.  Mourning soon gave way to retribution, as our leaders promised to bring down those who committed this terrible act.  Sadly, the sense of unity that the tragedy brought in it’s immediate aftermath soon gave way to division, as the run-up to war soon became a political hot button issue.  This likewise led to a widespread rise in Islamophobia across the country and the world, as everyday Muslim Americans, who have no connection whatsoever to the terrorist groups that actually committed the attack, were suddenly viewed as suspect.  And that is a scar that still lives with us today, even as we are now almost a generation removed from the events.  People with their own agendas likewise began spreading disinformation about what they believe really happened on 9/11, and this led to a rise in a conspiracy theory culture, which in turn has evolved into a monster of it’s own that caused a bungled response to a global pandemic.  The mantra after the events of 9/11 would soon become “Never Forget,” and though we still honor the lives that were lost on that sad day, 20 years out we must look back and wonder what lessons we exactly took from 9/11, and whether or not we lost a part of ourselves in the process of coping with the tragedy, as political division, distrust in institutions, diminished global presence after costly wars, and a rise in nationalism and bigotry have come as a result of the tragedy.

Like many other earth-shattering events that have marked to progression of human history, a large part of how we process the impact of those events is through storytelling.  Because 9/11 is still so fresh in people’s minds, and was so widely covered by the media as it happened, we have an endless supply of first hand accounts of what that day was like for everyone.  And as we move further away in time, these artifacts of first hand accounts will tell the story of 9/11 for future generations.  But the interesting thing that will likely define the decades ahead is what stories are we going to be telling about that day as more and more of us who remember it are no longer around.  Specifically, what will it be like as we dramatize 9/11 in future media.  Because so many Americans still live with the memory of living through that day, it becomes hard to distill 9/11 into a narrative that effectively puts it into perspective.  That’s why we have so few movies that address the events head on.  It’s hard to put people in the middle of the events again because for many, it’s a wound that still hurts.  That’s not to say that there haven’t been attempts at it.  The range of media related to 9/11 in the last twenty years have included documentaries (lots of those), narrative films, stage plays and even a Broadway musical (Come From Away), and the way that they address the events either falls into direct confrontation or periphery side stories.  Overall, it’s interesting to see just how different we have processed the trauma of 9/11 in different forms of media, and how that has been contrary to other earth-shattering events like it.  In particular, the movies of the 9/11 era have been an interesting assemblage over these last 20 years, and depending on who is making them and for what reason, you begin to see just how complicated the lasting discussion over the events of 9/11 has been.

For perspective, 9/11 is not the first tragedy to have been dramatized by Hollywood over the years.  If it’s a headlines grabbing tragedy, there will almost certainly be a movie in it’s future.  Two tragedies in particular over the last century of film have been especially impactful.  First, there is the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.  Even with cinema in it’s infancy, the trauma of that colossal tragedy was encapsulated on film, with filmmakers using the tools of their trade at the time (including early animation and models) to recreate what happened that fateful night.  In the years that followed, movies began to look at the events of the Titanic’s sinking as a backdrop for their own original stories.  This included a fateful reveal in the Oscar-winning Cavalcade (1933), as well as an epic scale recreations in A Night to Remember (1947) and Titanic (1953).  As the generations that followed began to grow more distant from the sinking of the Titanic, the connection to that trauma also disappeared.  Upon the discovery of the wreckage of the Titanic as the bottom of the ocean, the tragedy took on a new phase, as legend etched in our collective history.  This inevitably led to James Cameron’s behemoth Titanic (1997) which redefined cinema itself.  And within it, we saw the interesting transformation of a tragedy turned into a backdrop for a epic romance.  There’s nothing wrong with that angle in storytelling, but it’s something that probably would only have been acceptable after so much time has passed in-between.  The same progression also has followed the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Unlike the Titanic, there were plenty of cameras rolling on that day, capturing the horrors of that day for everyone to see.  But, it too also saw many film dramatizations in the decades that followed.  It inspired it’s own epic romance with From Here to Eternity (1953), though the attack is used mostly as a starting point for the story.  There were other interesting film adaptations that tried to put the attack on Pearl Harbor into perspective, like In Harm’s Way (1963) and Tora, Tora, Tora (1970) which took a both side dramatization of the events from both the American perspective and the Japanese.  But, as Hollywood would learn, not all tragedies can be mined for entertainment so easily.  Made in response to the success of Titanic, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) tried and failed to inject the events of that fateful day into an epic romance narrative.  It’s interesting to see how the passage of time changes the way that we observe these tragic events and how real life trauma eventually molds into popular entertainment the further away we are from the immediate impact.

The same thing may hold true for the events of 9/11, but even 20 years out, we have yet to actually reach that point.  Most movies made over the last two decades in relation to 9/11 have been more geared to the fallout of the tragedy and less towards actually recreating the day itself.  There were a couple attempts though to do so, which surprisingly happened very early on.  Upon marking the 5th anniversary of the events in 2006, two major movie studios had 9/11 themed films that centered around the actual events that took place.  From Universal Studios, we got the movie United 93 (2006), directed by Paul Greengrass, and from Paramount we got World Trade Center (2006), directed by Oliver Stone.  Both films attempted to tell the story of two different occurrences that happened that day.  United 93 of course tells the story of the fateful flight that didn’t reach it’s ultimate target.  Through his cinema verite style, Greengrass puts the viewer there inside the plane itself as the events unfold.  We watch as the terrorists take over the plane and we see the way that the heroic passengers took it upon themselves to fight back and ultimately sacrifice themselves to thwart the terrorists from reaching their goal.  In addition, Greengrass also details the goings-on from ground control, with some FAA officials even cast as themselves, recreating their own experiences from that day.  It’s actually a really interesting dramatization of the event that does the best it can to put the viewer into the mindset of those who lived through the tragedy.  Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, by contrast, is a bit more conventional Hollywood with a more substantial budget for visual effects and movie stars.  Even still, the story it does tell is a fascinating one of survival, as it’s about two first responder firefighters (played by Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena) who managed to survive the collapse of the towers and were pulled out of the rubble days later, broken but still living.  It’s interesting that Stone chose to tell this kind of story, given his proclivity for conspiracy theories, but my guess is that it was more about honoring those heroes on that day and less about defining one’s own agenda in the narrative.  To date, apart from multiple TV movies (including ones that lionize then President Bush and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani that have not aged well in retrospect) these are the only films from Hollywood that actually puts the viewer into the middle of the events of that day.  Apart from that, 9/11 has largely been addressed through indirect reflection.

Perhaps it’s because the trauma of that day is still too raw for some people that we haven’t seen too many movies recreating the events of 9/11.  One interesting outcome that came about in the aftermath of 9/11 was how Hollywood quickly had to adjust in the aftermath.  A movie trailer for the then upcoming Spider-Man (2002) had to be pulled from theaters because it included a moment where a helicopter was dangling in a web strung in between the Twin Towers; which of course was no where to be seen in the final film as well.  Other movies released during that time, like Ben Stiller’s Zoolander (2001), had to quickly scrub out any image of the World Trade Center in the background, in some cases digitally.  The events also created a disruption in the world of entertainment that saw a halt in production for weeks across the industry, and even the shut down of theaters on Broadway for a few months.  But, as time went on, the healing began and before we knew it, life was mostly back to normal.  But, as we processed the way that the world changed in the days after 9/11, it began to manifest itself in the stories that we were telling about society in general.  Spike Lee for instance addressed the impact of the terror attack on his beloved New York City in a protracted rant delivered by Edward Norton in the movie 25th Hour (2002), which really spells out the indignant rage that many people in the city felt about the senselessness of what happened.  The war on terror that followed the attacks also have contributed a cinematic documentation of a post-9/11 world.  In particular, the films of Kathryn Bigelow really delved into the effect of a world changed by terrorism in the last 20 years, with her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2009) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) which dramatized the long in the making manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, with his eventual execution at the hands of Seal Team Six, ten years after the attacks.  While these movies don’t tackle the events head-on, they nevertheless tell us how the country and the world began to cope with the pain of those events in the years that followed.  You can honestly find many other movies that address the trauma directly or indirectly with regards to 9/11, because it’s a moment in time that changed the world forever.  It’s in our collective societal identity now, whether thorough culture, politics, or how we live our lives.  9/11 changed everything, so most movies made within the 20 years since that speak to our contemporary society is in some way or another influenced by those events.

What I find really fascinating about movies made in the wake of the tragedy of 9/11 is how they are evolving with every new passive generation.  We are now approaching a point where those who were born during or after September 11, 2001 are now reaching adulthood.  For them, 9/11 has just always been a part of their history.  They have no concept of what life was like before, and so their response to the events is taken from a second degree perspective.  In many ways, they are the audience that is going to be more influenced by the way we portray the events of 9/11 through the prism of film.  And it’s in that regard that we’ll see a very different view of the events unfold over time as we get further and further away from the actual day, much like what happened to the Titanic and Pearl Harbor.  There are no more survivors of the Titanic left to differentiate fact from fiction, and there are only a handful left who remember the events of Pearl Harbor with clarity.  So will be the case with 9/11 as well.  The best we can do as a society is to remind ourselves of the magnitude of what happened and treat the tragedy with a sense of dignified solace.  We lose that, we lose perspective on what matters as a direct result of that tragedy.  That’s why we remind ourselves, “Never Forget,” because the memory of 9/11 can be so easily manipulated to suit some external agenda that in turn can lead to many other tragedies.  Hollywood itself is not above beyond using the tragedy of 9/11 for it’s own benefit.  Take the case of the movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) which was a shameless attempt to use 9/11 trauma as a means of Oscar baiting.  In the years ahead, we need to make sure that those indirectly impacted by 9/11 aren’t misinformed by sensationalized accounts of the tragedy that are more fiction than fact.  One of the most interesting explorations of the legacy of 9/11 in cinema that I’ve recently seen on film is stories of those who have grown up in the shadow of the events.  Last year, Judd Apatow brought to the screen the movie The King of Staten Island (2020), which is a semi-autobiographical story based on the life of the film’s star, comedian Pete Davidson.  In the movie, an aimless 20-something slacker deals with coming into adulthood after living most of his life without his father, who died tragically when he was young while heroically fighting a fire.  Though 9/11 is never mentioned, the story does reflect the real life story of Davidson, whose father was one of the first responders lost at the World Trade Center that day.  It’s a perspective, the generation raised in the aftermath of 9/11, that we have yet to see and with many more young Americans like Pete Davidson coming of age in the next few years, and being able to express themselves through film too, it’s going to take the conversation about the impact of 9/11 into a whole different direction.

For those of us who were old enough to be aware of what was going on, and to remember where we were on that day, each one of us has our own story to tell in remembrance of 9/11 on that day.  Strangely enough, my own is even movie related.  I was at home watching The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939) on Turner Classic Movies that morning when I changed the channel after finishing the movie to find the South tower already collapsed and the North tower still smoking before it’s eventual demise.  In retrospect, I can remember both the shock and the disbelief.  For me, it immediately called to mind the larger than life disaster movies of the past that so casually depicted the destruction of national icons like the Empire State building or the White House.  Now, after seeing the real Twin Towers utterly destroyed before our eyes, those kinds of movies in retrospect appear trivial and even reckless.  This kind of destruction made us rethink the value of human life that succumbs to such a tragedy and helped us reconsider how we approach mass destruction as an element in our storytelling.  At least that was the hope at the time, as many films since, particularly those of directors like Roland Emmerich and Zack Snyder have gone right back to creating mass destruction as a back drop for popcorn entertainment.  The worry over time is that the lessons of 9/11, particularly the humanitarian side, will be pushed aside in favor of spectacle.  With so many voices out there who still remember sharing their personal stories, that human perspective still remains, but as successive generations begin to add their own narratives to the mix, more becoming further attached from the events of the day, who knows how we as a society may reflect on the importance of 9/11.  One thing that makes this 20th anniversary so impactful is that it is occurring in the middle of another worldwide tragedy, the Covid-19 pandemic, which is helping to remind everyone of what shared trauma really feels like.  The pandemic itself is likely going to see it’s own evolution in media over the years, especially as future generations learn from our first hand accounts of these tragic days.  There are plenty perspectives to take away from the way cinema has dramatized the post-9/11 era, but as we have learned thus far, the most potent stories are the ones that come from those who actually lived through those events, and the best thing we can do is to preserve those memories as best we can.  On this day, if you aren’t anywhere near a memorial where you can pay your respects, look up an documentary that includes the harrowing recollections of first responders, victims, and people who were there that day, and listen to the grief, anger, hope that they feel and live with everyday since.  That is the real story of 9/11 and the reason that even 20 years on we must never forget.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – Review

If you can count on one studio to push forward on it’s plans even in the midst of a global pandemic affecting worldwide box office, it would definitely be Marvel.  After a year off due to the pandemic related shutdowns, Marvel returned with a vengeance in 2021.  In addition to their big screen releases, Marvel was also making a statement in the streaming wars, with shows like WandavisionThe Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki making a statement on Disney+, with their own narratives tied in with those of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe.  But, even with that offshoot on streaming, Marvel and Disney still had big plans for their mega-franchise on the big screen, which unfortunately was dealt with increased challenges due to an ongoing pandemic.  Theaters having finally reaching a point where they could operate again at near full capacity still was not enough assurance for studios to gamble on releasing their movies over the course of the last summer.  Some still did, and the result was mixed.  Some movies prospered while others floundered, and the overall numbers are still underwater from where they had been pre-pandemic.  One of the movies that did manage to do better than others was Marvel’s Black Widow, which Disney put out in theaters in a hybrid release with Disney+ Premiere Access.  Overall, Black Widow did win the Summer of 2021 with the highest domestic box office, but even still, it was on the low end for the MCU as a whole.  Some wonder if the hybrid theatrical/ streaming release may have in some way undercut Black Widow‘s long term box office grosses.  For Disney, Marvel’s parent studio, that seems to be a theory taking hold, as they decided to take a different route with their next film in the line-up by granting it a theatrical only window of 45 days.   And that film is the bold “experiment” known as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Shang-Chi is certainly not one of the more well known heroes from the Marvel comics, though he has enjoyed his fair share of devoted fans.  First introduced in 1975 by creators Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin of Marvel Comics, Shang-Chi was heavily inspired by the popularity of martial arts legend Bruce Lee.  Utilizing mastery of Wushu style martial arts, he developed into one of the more noteworthy heroes within the Marvel canon who did not rely upon any supernatural power.  That’s not to say that he hasn’t at times has had to rely on help from the supernatural world within Marvel Comics, but for the most part he is a self-made, self-reliant hero.  Though his presence in the Marvel universe is noteworthy for it’s Asian representation, it hasn’t been without controversy either.  For one thing, part of Shng-Chi’s backstory is that he is the song of supervillain Fu Manchu, a character (not originally created by Marvel) who has been used in movies and comic books often as a racist trope to slander Asian people in various media.  Over time, Marvel lost the rights to use Fu Manchu as a character in their comics, and Shang-Chi’s backstory has been altered to separate itself from the racism of it’s past.  Even still, the same backstory remains of Shang-Chi having this dark past of being the son of a criminal overlord; first in the comics with a newly created character named Zheng Zu, and in this movie, it’s changed again to reintroduce an already established villain from a different franchise, namely Wenwu: The Mandarin.  It’s interesting that not only has Marvel seen Shang-Chi as a worthy addition to their MCU family, but they are even betting on his movie to perform solely on it’s own theatrically.  The question remains, is Shang-Chi a character strong enough to warrant a risky challenge at the box office at this time, or is he a sacrificial experiment to reinforce a studio’s push towards more streaming options.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings wastes no time in getting the adventures started.  We are introduced to a young Asian man living in San Francisco named Shaun (Simu Liu) who when not working Valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) is out late partying  and singing karaoke.  But on one day when they are taking the bus to work, the duo of Shaun and Katy are accosted by sinister looking thugs intent of grabbing a pendant that Shaun wears everywhere he goes.  To the amazement of all those on the bus, including Katy, Shaun not only holds his own in the fight against the thugs, but he also displays almost inhuman martial arts skills.  Even still, one of the thugs named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) manages to steal the pendant away.  This prompts Shaun to leave town in search of the pendant.  He of course now comes clean to his friend Katy about his past and reveals that his real name is Shang-Chi.  He tells her that the men were a part of the Ten Rings terrorist organization, which is run by the Wenwu (Tony Leung) his father.  Wenwu, aka The Mandarin, is a centuries old war lord who wields the power of the mystical Ten Rings, which gives him super powers as well as eternal life.  He created the Ten Rings as a multinational ring of anarchic terrorists who among other things have toppled governments and kidnapped high profile targets (such as Tony Stark in the original Iron Man) for ransom, with Wenwu becoming increasingly powerful and wealthy along the way, as well as more ruthless.  Upon her insistence, Katy accompanies Shang-Chi to China, where he seeks out his estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), who keeps a similar pendant to his.  Both were gifts from their deceased mother Li (Fala Chen), who Wenwu believes left them keys to finding the mystical land of her origin known as Ta Lo, where Wenwu still mistakenly believes she still lives.  Upon learning of their father’s dangerous plans, Shang-Chi and Xialing set out to find Ta Lo before their father can, with Katy and her expert driving skills helping along the way.  And as we soon learn, there is more at the end of the road in Ta Lo than they initially realize, including an even more sinister force that could be unleashed by their father if he is not stopped.

The premiere of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings comes at an interesting crossroads for Marvel.  After the mixed results of Black Widow’s premiere in the Summer, Disney is now seeing Shang-Chi as testing ground for the strength of the theatrical market in the face of an ongoing pandemic crisis.  This led to a bit of controversy as current Disney CEO Bob Chapek referred Shang-Chi to an “experiment,” which is wording that the movie’s star Simu Liu took issue with.  It’s unfortunate that the studio is treating this less like an exciting  new chapter in their mega-franchise, and more like a guinea pig in their test of the current state of the theatrical market.  It’s unfortunate that this movie is releasing under these circumstances, because had it not, this would have likely been a real game-changing movie for Marvel.  For one thing, it marks a significant moment for the MCU as it introduces an Asian superhero into the Avengers line-up for the first time.  There have been Asian characters in the MCU before, but none have been the headliner like Shang-Chi, and for Marvel, they are hoping that this movie does for the Asian community what Black Panther did for black audiences.  This is reflected by the fact that the movie is top to bottom representative of the Asian community, both in front and behind the camera.  Director Destin Daniel Cretton tapped into his own Asian heritage, particularly when it comes to cinematic influences, when making this movie and it shows.  People who are familiar with Wushu martial arts films such as those by filmmaker Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) will see a lot of that same style present in Shang-Chi.  And while that style does set it apart from other Marvel movies, it’s still distinctively an MCU film, with several notable Easter eggs throughout.  I also like that the movie takes time to make a pseudo-apology for the Mandarin fake-out in Iron Man 3 (2013) which is still one of the low points of the MCU.  As a stand alone feature in the MCU, it works well enough to establish our hero and where he will fit in this world, while at the same time doing some incredible world building along the way.

Unfortunately, there are some glaring flaws with the movie as well.  For one thing, it falls into the unfortunate trap of following the Marvel formula a little too stringently.  In particular, the movie loses focus as it heads towards it’s end, a “third act”-itis that is sadly becoming more and more of a problem for more Marvel properties.  Seen likewise in other properties that succumbed to underwhelming climaxes as of late in the MCU, like Black Widow and Wandavision, Shang-Chi unfortunately breaks away from the more interesting character building that happens earlier in the film to raise the stakes higher as it enters the home stretch.  And this unfortunately drowns out what made the movie interesting in the first place with a lot of CGI-enhances mayhem thrown at us on screen.  Though this movie still remains more visually interesting than say Black Widow, which really turned generic in it’s final climax, Shang-Chi still feels a bit hollow in it’s closing minutes.  The movie works a lot better when it departs from formula rather than steering into it.  I especially found the earlier fight scenes, like the one on the bus, to be far more engaging than what essentially turns into a kaiju fight in the film’s climax.  And one of the biggest victims of the movie loosing it’s focus as it adheres to formula is Shang-Chi himself.  We really don’t get much character development from him throughout the movie as he remains so of a passive traveler through all the different points in the plot.  The only thing that saves him as a character is the natural charisma of Simu Liu, who really has to do some heavy lifting here to bring out more character than what is on the page.  Still, overall his development into a hero feels more generic than say what we’ve seen from Spider-Man, or Black Panther, and even the early Avengers.  It’s overall a problem of the movie trying to do way too many different things instead of focusing on where the real intrigue of the story lies, which is Shang-Chi’s relationship with his father.

Though the story is a bit on the weak side, the same can’t be said about the cast.  They are definitely the highlight of this movie.  Chinese-Canadian Simu Liu, who was introduced to the world on the Comic Con stage in 2019 only days after being officially cast, is immediately magnetic on screen, and though he’s let down a bit by the screenplay he’s given, he nevertheless shines through with infectious charisma that absolutely certifies him as a perfect choice for this role.  And being already proficient in martial arts before hand also lends some authenticity to the fight scenes in this movie, which requires Simu to do some incredible moves in front of the camera without the aid of visual effects.  He also has incredible chemistry with Awkwafina as Katy.  Her presence in the film is primarily to provide comic relief, but she also works well as that connection to a normal life that Shang-Chi values so much.  I really appreciate the fact that the movie does break a bit from formula and doesn’t immediately turn their relationship in the movie into a romantic one.  Shang-Chi and Katy pretty much remain platonic friends right up to the end, though it’s a relationship that is certainly stronger than just casual.  A lot of the movie’s best moments belong to the two of them together, and you really get the sense that it’s a friendship that drives Shang-Chi to be a better person overall.  Though they both make strong leads, it’s almost certainly going to be the case that the most talked about performance in this movie is Tony Leung as Wenwu.  In a very interesting reimagining of the famed Marvel supervillain, Leung commands the screen, portraying Wenwu in this quiet intensity like an Asian Michael Corleone.  Long considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, both in his native China and worldwide, Leung’s presence here is a real blessing for Marvel.  He brings a gravitas to the role that really affirms Wenwu as a top tier Marvel villain; and really helps to make up for the disappointing Mandarin fake-out in Iron Man 3.  It’s also significant that pretty much the entire cast (with only a couple exceptions) is made up of Asian actors.  Even a previously established Asian character in the MCU, Wong (played by Benedict Wong) from Doctor Strange (2016) gets to participate briefly in this movie; which is not a spoiler because he appears in the trailer.  That thorough Asian representation throughout the movie alone is pretty significant, not just for a Marvel movie, but for any studio movie.

And while I do nitpick Destin Daniel Cretton’s handling of the story itself, I do commend his staging of the fight scenes in this movie.  Working for the first time on a large scale film like this, Cretton is not a director you would first think of to take on a Wushu style martial arts epic.  Up until now, he’s been more known for small, intimate dramas like Short Term 12 (2013) or Just Mercy (2019).  But, Marvel certainly sees potential in rising talents and believed Cretton was up to the task of bringing Shang-Chi to the big screen.  In particular, Cretton shows quite a bit of creativity in staging the fight scenes in this movie.  The previously mentioned bus fight in particular is a noteworthy standout, because of it’s combination of close quarters fighting and the fact that it’s also on a moving vehicle in the middle of San Francisco traffic.  Another fight on bamboo scaffolding also presents another stand-out moment, with specific nods to the crazy stunt work of Jackie Chan being spotlighted in that scene.  And while the CGI fest that makes for a messy climax in the movie’s final act loses some of the movie’s more intimate charm, it still makes the finale showdown between Shang-Chi and Wenwu worthy of what’s come before.  Considering that both actors, Liu and Leung, are experienced in martial arts, it makes it all the more satisfying watching them fight each other on screen, especially knowing that one of them came from the John Woo school of action movies.  I especially like the way that the Ten Rings themselves come into play as part of the fight, both as a superweapon and as something more integral to the story that brings these characters together.  It’s also interesting how Destin Daniel Cretton mixes his Asian cinema influences, bringing in the grittiness of a John  Woo action film and mixing it with the ethereal fantasy of a Zhang Yimou epic, and even injecting a bit of the intimate personal drama of Wong Kar-Wai.  It’s a movie deeply entrenched in the cinematic traditions of past Asian masters, but brings a great amount of it’s own voice to the mix and likewise also manages to fit perfectly within the grander Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I have no doubt that the one thing this movie will undoubtedly accomplish is bringing more eyes to past Asian cinema, which would be an especially good outcome because many of those classics from these great Asian auteurs are due for rediscovery.

So, on it’s own, it’s a perfectly suitable introduction for a character that has really yet to emerge as an important player in the Marvel canon.  If anything, this movie will do a lot to raise Shang-Chi‘s stock as a comic book character, and more importantly, raise up an Asian presence in the ongoing narrative that is the MCU.  Already, the movie is being proclaimed as an Asian Black Panther, but I think that it’s unfair to have to stack this film up against another groundbreaking film in the Marvel universe.  Shang-Chi is piece of a grander puzzle, but it has to stand on it’s own as it’s own story.  There are quite a few things that I wish were a bit better about the movie, namely it’s unfocused screenplay, but overall it does the job of making us like it’s central hero.  Shang-Chi really had a lot of hurdles to clear, especially with the fact that he is a mostly unknown character in comparison to say Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man and Black Panther.  In some respects, a better comparison for Shang-Chi would be what Marvel accomplished with Guardians of the Galaxy.  Guardians also started off as a very obscure title that was elevated to new heights thanks to it’s placement in the MCU.  Now the whole world knows the team of the Guardians of the Galaxy and speaks of them in the same breath as the Avengers.  All it took was a well crafted movie that appealed to a broad audience, and the hope is that Shang-Chi can achieve the same outcome and move beyond just his own small but devoted fanbase.  It’s too early to tell if it will work, but if it does, a lot of good things will come of it.  Not only will it give Asian representation in Hollywood a big boost, but it will also help turn Shang-Chi into more than just a novelty character and instead put him in the same league as Marvel’s A-team.  Not only that, but it will also likely boost Simu Liu into another level of stardom, which he already seems to have deftly accomplished since being cast in the first place.  In addition, it will hopefully bring new eyes to a long history of Asian cinema, especially if it helps people rediscover the spectacular body of work that Tony Leung has amassed over the years.  So, even though I have some misgivings about the movie as a whole, I will certainly be extremely happy if this movie becomes a big hit for Marvel, not just for the sake of survival of the theatrical industry, but for all the good things it will do for Asian cinema in general, past and present.  In the end, that will be Shang-Chi’s most heroic accomplishment, and it’s something we should certainly be rooting for.

Rating: 7.75/10

The Movies of Fall 2021

So, it wasn’t pretty, but we managed to get through a full Summer movie season after a year long pause due to the pandemic.  Over the course of the last four months, we saw a lot of hurdles thrown in the way of the theatrical market, but we also managed to see it persevere in surprising ways.  The rise of Covid cases due to Delta variant has been an unfortunate roadblock in the recovery of our world post-pandemic, and movie theaters are another sector of the economy feeling the pressure of this unfortunate situation.  Couple this with so many movies remaining in a state of limbo, with studios not sure whether they are going to risk putting them on screens in packed theaters, or playing it safe and releasing them on streaming.  Some movies, like Paramount’s Clifford the Big Red Dog and Sony’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage decided to just abandon the calendar completely, and try for next year instead.  Despite this, there were positive signs.  Universal’s Fast and the Furious sequel did deliver a solid box office opening after it’s year long delay, as did Marvel’s Black Widow, though both were near franchise lows for total box office.  And there was also the unexpected success of A Quiet Place Part II, which not only turned a massive profit for studio Paramount, but it also marked the first film to gross north of $100 million since the pandemic began, a major achievement that gave relief to a beleaguered theatrical industry.  Along with signs of strong box office hold even for movies available at the same time on streaming like Disney’s Cruella and Jungle Cruise, and there is plenty of good news coming out of this summer that gives cinema lovers hope for the coming months ahead.  Despite some lingering, persistent obstacles, the movie theater industry is slowly but surely starting to rebuild, and hopefully with the next round of movies, we’ll finally see something that resembles something close to normal.

Like my previous articles, I am going to be looking at the movies of the upcoming fall season through the prism of three separate categories: the must see movies, the movies that have me worried, and the ones I believe are worth skipping.  And like previous years, I could be completely wrong about a few of these.  I am largely basing my choices on how I am feeling about each movie based on the effectiveness of it’s marketing and the general buzz that has surrounded the film during it’s development.  You will also see a few familiar films spotlighted again here, since they were displaced holdovers from the pandemic affected delays of 2020.  Like this Summer, my hope is that all these movies manage to finally hit their release dates, Delta variant not withstanding.  So, without further ado, let’s look at the movies of Fall 2021.

MUST SEES:

DUNE (OCTOBER 22)

Perhaps no other movie coming out this Fall has more eyes on it than this highly anticipated new adaptation of the monumental Sci-Fi novel from Frank Herbert.  After a notably mixed movie version made by David Lynch back in the 80’s, a lot of people were hoping for a more faithful and ambitious cinematic retelling that would honor the epic scope of Herbert’s original text.  When beloved auteur Denis Villenueve decided to undertake the venture, people were very excited that Dune was finally going to get the movie it deserved.  And with an all-star cast involved, headlined by rising star Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atrades, it looked very much like Dune was going to do for the Science Fiction genre what Lord of the Rings had done for fantasy.  But, the pandemic put a giant sand worm sized roadblock in the movie’s way.  Originally slated for a Christmas release last year, Warner Brothers decided to put their big tent pole on hold for a full 10 months, instead giving Christmas Day to Wonder Woman 1984 in a limited theatrical and streaming debut.  Then, based on their Wonder Woman gamble, Warner Brothers decided to make their entire 2021 release schedule day and date releases in order to drive more traffic to their struggling HBO Max platform, including Dune.  This angered many filmmakers with films slated for release this year, including Villeneuve, whose grievance is entirely justified.  Just by looking at the visuals from the trailer, you can tell that this movie was designed from the ground up to be shown on a big screen.  Warner Brothers decision has looked increasingly short-sighted, especially in the wake of disappointing box office for In the Heights and The Suicide Squad, and many worry that the same fate may happen to Dune as well, which would hurt the long term goals for building a franchise around the movie, which would be especially devastating when you learn that this first film is only half of Herbert’s original story.  Please, see this one in a theater and show Warner Brothers that the future of cinema still belongs on the big screen.

ETERNALS (NOVEMBER 5)

Another 2020 outcast, the obstacles for this new Marvel film are not quite as severe as they are for Dune.  For one, Disney appears to be increasingly moving away from their day and date release options, due to strong holds of their titles at the box office and the threat of piracy that a simultaneous streaming release poses to repeat business for them.  They are already seeing good results from allowing 20th Century’s Free Guy play exclusively in theaters, and they are hoping to see the same happen with another Marvel release, Shang-Chi: Legend of the Ten Rings.  Depending on how well Shang-Chi performs, there is a good chance that this highly anticipated Marvel film will make it exclusively to theaters, which would be ideal as it looks like this was a movie meant for the big screen.  Having been delayed for a full year may have also had an upside for Eternals, as within the last year, it’s director Chloe Zhao went on to win a historic Oscar for Best Director for the movie Nomadland.  With a reigning Oscar winning director behind the movie, parent studio has an extra bit of prestige that it can sell this movie on, along with a staggering all-star cast that includes people as varied as Angelina Jolie and comedian Kumail Nanjiani.  What will be interesting to see is just how Chloe Zhao’s film-making style works with a more substantial budget.  Thus far, there has been strong buzz surrounding this one, with Marvel head Kevin Feige being especially impressed with what Zhao has done so far, particularly with her insistence on shooting with little to no visual effects and with real locations instead of sound stages.  Marvel already has had a good representation of allowing bold filmmakers to bring their own style to the Marvel Universe.  It will be interesting to see what they get from someone with some Gold already on her shelf.

SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME (DECEMBER 17)

Speaking of Marvel, they have another film lined up this Fall, made through a partnership with Sony.  Made remarkably in the middle of last year’s pandemic, this new entry in the Spider-Man franchise continues the current run with actor Tom Holland.  The film appears to pick up right where the last film, Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) left off, with an unmasked Peter Parker now having to live in a world where everyone knows he is indeed Spider-Man.  Because the attention is overwhelming, he seeks help from another Avenger ally, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who believes he can help Peter make everyone forget his secret identity.  Of course, plans go array and chaos ensues.  What is exciting about this new film is that it is the clearest sign yet of Marvel playing one of their most exciting cards in play; the Multiverse.  Already brought to imaginative life in the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018), and hinted at in the Disney+ shows Wandavision and Loki, the Multiverse opens up so many possibilities for the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward.  Not only can it allow for many different variations of things we have already seen happen in the MCU so far, but it can even bring all the periphery Marvel films made before the formation of the MCU into canon.  This is very definitely the plan being set up in this film, as Holland’s Spider-Man is being confronted by the villain Doc Ock, who is the same Doc Ock from the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man trilogy of the 2000’s, with Alfred Molina returning to the role after 17 years.  With hints of other returning  villains as well, like Jamie Foxx’s Electro and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, this could turn out to be an insane adventure, and even more excitingly though unconfirmed, Tom Holland may even be able to share the screen with his predecessors, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield.  If that doesn’t happen, it will still be interesting to see how Spider-Man and Doctor Strange work together, creating a whole different character dynamic we have yet to explore.  No matter what, it’s sure to be a movie that most people will want to see play out, and especially on a big screen.

NO TIME TO DIE (OCTOBER 8)

Suffering perhaps the longest delay of the entire pandemic, the last Daniel Craig headlined James Bond film is finally coming to theaters.  This movie’s incredibly long gestation included multiple delays before the pandemic, with original director Danny Boyle leaving the project over creative differences, and also Daniel Craig taking an extra long time to decide if he wanted to return or not.  But, No Time to Die eventually ended up in the can and was ready for a spring 2020 release.  And then, you know what happened.  No Time to Die was in fact the canary in the coal mine that indicated just how bad things were going to be, as it was the first studio film to move off it’s release date, even after advance tickets had already been sold ( I got one reserved myself).  It further saw two more movies, going off it’s new November 2020 release date, and moving to April 2021 and then eventually October 2021.  For now, it appears that this release date will stick, even in the face of the Delta variant, and we’ll finally be able to see Daniel Craig’s swan song to 007.  Hopefully, the delay hasn’t tampered down anticipation.  It really does look like they’ve pulled out all the stops for this film, with the series seeing it’s first American director at the helm (Beasts of No Nation‘s Cary Joji Fukunaga).  The cast includes a lot of returning faces from across Craig’s tenure as Bond, including Christoph Waltz as 007 nemesis Blofeld.  It will also be interesting to see what new addition to the cast, Oscar winner Rami Malek, brings to the film as a mysterious villain.  Even with all the changes, the movie will surely deliver on all the globe-trotting high octane action that the franchise has been known for.  For one thing, I’m sure audiences will be thrilled to see this on a big screen, because it will be the last go around for an actor that has probably left the strongest mark on the character since maybe the late Sean Connery.  And after having to wait so long for this new movie, through all the delays, this final hurrah will hopefully be worth the long wait.

HOUSE OF GUCCI (NOVEMBER 24)

You really got to hand it to the ageless Ridley Scott.  At the time of this new film’s release, the legendary director will turn 84 years old, and not only does he have one movie coming out this Fall, he has two.  True, one of them is a delayed holdover from 2020, but even still, at a time when most of his contemporaries are entering retirement, he’s still churning out a movie a year.  This year in particular sees two of his most highly anticipated movies in years coming out a mere month apart.  The Last Duel certainly has a lot of exciting things about it, including the first script co-written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who also co-star in the film) since Good Will Hunting (1997), and it’s a medieval set epic that is certainly familiar ground for the director.  However, it looks like the latter film, House of Gucci, that looks like it has the most promise, especially when it comes to Awards season.  Scott still has yet to take home a Directing award from the Oscars, despite several nominations, and with two heavy hitters in play this season, it might finally be his year.  The cast for this film is especially impressive.  Taking place in the cross section of the fashion world and the Italian mafia in the hedonistic 70’s and 80’s, the movie includes Adam Driver (who also appears in Last Duel) as the legendary designer as well as Lady Gaga as his ruthless wife Patrizia, a role that is already garnering a lot of Oscar buzz.  Though Jared Leto’s presence under layers of make-up is a little weird, it will still be interesting to see what he does with his own role.  In addition, we get plenty of hard hitters like Salma Hayek, Jeremy Irons, and Al Pacino in the mix, and it overall looks like a winning recipe for an awards season favorite.  Hopefully it allows for the legendary Ridley Scott to finally get his due recognition as one of the great filmmakers of all time, which I think he’s earned regardless of whether he has an Oscar or not.  Regardless, we get two exciting new films from the master this fall, and that in itself is a strong reason to get excited to return to movies again this season.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (NOVEMBER 11)

Yet another exile from 2020, we have the latest attempt to revive the Ghostbusters franchise for a new generation.  After the disastrous premiere of the 2016 reboot, Sony decided to look in a different direction with this new film.  In a surprising choice, they tapped Jason Reitman to direct, the son of the original film’s director Ivan Reitman.  And in difference to the 2016 version, Reitman decided to not reboot the story as a whole from the beginning, but instead continue on from what had been there before.  This new film takes place 30 years after the events of Ghostbusters II (1989), and follows the new adventures of the grandchildren of original Ghostbuster Egon Spangler (who was played by the late Harold Ramis).  When they find their grandads old gadgets in his middle of nowhere barn, they unexpectedly bring out the spectral chaos that he had spent years trying to combat.  What is interesting from the trailers we’ve received so far is that this film is tonally much different from it’s predecessors.  While the other Ghostbusters were often slapstick comedies with scary elements, this new film appears to be taking the mythos far more seriously and instead turns the series into more of an action adventure.  This could be both a good thing and a bad thing.  It at least is a nice change of pace from the horribly botched 2016 reboot, where the comedy was too broad and overwhelming (and just not funny) to work within this kind of premise, but at the same time, taking things too seriously could also be antithetical to the spirit of the original as well.  At the very least, with Jason Reitman carrying on the work that his father started, he has a credible case to take something like this with a more serious tone.  And it is nice to see so many of the original cast return to these characters that we love in more than just a glorified cameo.  But, the question remains; is it still Ghostbusters?  I a hoping for the best, but also dreading the worst.  Hopefully we get the former.

TOP GUN: MAVERICK (NOVEMBER 19)

It just seems like the time when Hollywood seems intent on reviving old franchises.  But unlike Ghostbusters, Top Gun hasn’t continued it’s story since the original in 1986.  Nearly 35 years later, Paramount and the original’s star Tom Cruise are bringing back the legendary daredevil pilot Maverick to the big screen.  This time Tom Cruise is bringing some of the tricks he learned from the Mission Impossible franchise to help up the ante in this long in the making sequel.  Instead of utilizing a mix of edited stock footage and character close-ups that helped to sell the illusion back in the original, Tom Cruise is instead shooting real actors in real planes, giving the movie a level of authenticity that we haven’t see yet in this franchise, nor in most other movies of it’s kind; except maybe Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017).  That should almost certainly make the movie a must see, just to check out what I’m sure will be some remarkable flying scenes in the movie, including with Cruise himself right there in the cockpit.  That being said, is Top Gun really a movie worth sequelizing, especially after this many years.  I know that the original has a dedicated fan base and a lot of staying power in the pop culture.  But, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone that would consider the movie an all time classic either.  The original movie is extremely cliched in it’s non-combat scenes, and the movie often is just as heavily mocked as it is celebrated.  It’s hard to say so far if this movie is likely to improve on the original, or fall into the same pitfalls.  At least we know that Tom Cruise is such a showman these days that the movie at the very least will be a spectacle on the big screen.  Here’s hoping that what he’s managed to refine over in his Mission Impossible franchise translates into something special for Top Gun.

THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS (DECEMBER 22)

Yet another franchise trying to regain it’s mojo after a long period of dormancy.  Unfortunately, where this franchise left off was not on the best of circumstances.  The then conclusion of the Matrix trilogy in late 2003, The Matrix Revolutions, divided audiences and critics, and fell well short of it’s box office goals.  It unfortunately has not shaken it’s reputation as a disappointing conclusion to a once promising franchise.  But, Warner Brothers and the creative team behind the trilogy are now attempting to try and shake off the sour taste of that disappointing third film with a brand new entry 18 years later.  This time, original creator Lana Wachowski is going solo on this film, with her sibling Lily sitting this one out.  It will be interesting to see if a single Wachowski can pull off the same kind of magic that made the original movie such a game-changer with a new generation.  On the plus side, she has two of the original stars, Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss returning to reprise their roles as Neo and Trinity; which is strange considering that both characters (spoilers) died in Revolutions.  Given how his career has been going as of late, with a surprising Renaissance to his names thanks to the John Wick franchise, Keanu isn’t really in need of a new Matrix movie, so coming back to it really is more of a sign of Mr. Reeve’s devotion to the series and his love of working with the Wachowskis.  The one question that lingers is if they will be able to translate the appeal of The Matrix to a new generation.  The original Matrix was such a product of it’s time, with so movies since copying it’s aesthetic and formula, and I don’t know if that Punk Noir style is going to carry over after nearly two decades out of the picture.  It helps that most of the people involved have decided to return, and we already know that Keanu Reeves still hasn’t outgrown these kinds of movies (in fact he may be even better prepped for them now).  One hopes that this movie can end the series on a more satisfying note, and maybe even open it up to a brighter future, but it will all depend on if some of that mojo is still there after so many years.

ENCANTO (NOVEMBER 24)

Usually I have nothing but high hopes for what’s coming next in the Disney Animation pipeline, but their next film Encanto (which marks their milestone 60th feature) has thus far left me unimpressed.  I hope that it’s just a case of tepid marketing thus far, because all we have to judge this movie by is this trailer, which gives only a vague sense of what this movie is about.  At the same time, I feel like Disney has been unfortunately unfair to the animation world during the course of the pandemic.  They appear to be playing favoritism on their end, by giving this and their last animated film Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) theatrical releases (albeit a hybrid one with Disney+ premiere access) and at the same time denying that honor for it’s last two Pixar films, Soul (2020) and Luca (2021), both of which went straight to Disney+.  Pixar is going to see a return to the big screen in 2022 with their dual releases of Turning Red and Lightyear, but even still it’s very suspect that Pixar’s parent company would deny them a chance to perform on the big screen while still granting their own in house films that honor.  For this long time Disney fan it leaves a sour taste in my mouth and unfortunately hangs a dark cloud over this movie, which I might have otherwise been looking forward to under different circumstances.  I hope more revealing marketing in the future helps to generate more enthusiasm for this movie from me.  It is certainly marketing itself on having new music from their current golden boy Lin-Manuel Miranda, which I can’t complain about.  And I’m sure that it will be lovely to look at with all of the usual high quality animation that Disney is known for.  I just wish that the corporate shenanigans behind the scenes wasn’t reflecting negatively on this film.  In truth, Disney should not be playing favorites with their different animation studios, because all of them have been putting out some of their best work ever in the last few years, and we should all have the chance to see the animators’ work on a big screen.  Hopefully next year, the playing field has been made level once again.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

WEST SIDE STORY (DECEMBER 10)

Never thought I’d be putting a movie directed by a legend like Steven Spielberg on this section, but it’s a sign of just how much I think this movie is a mistake.  I don’t know if the original West Side Story (1961) is in the class of “untouchable” movies that can never be remade, but it’s close.  There certainly can be a way to re-adapt the musical; Broadway has been doing that for years.  But from what I can see so far from this first trailer is that Spielberg is unfortunately just remaking the original movie over again with very little in the way of changes.  It is nice to see racially appropriate casting this time around, and the return of Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance in the original 60 years ago, is also very welcome.  But, what I don’t like is the fact that Spielberg has staged and shot this movie almost exactly like the original film directed by Robert Wise.  It’s never a good sign when a remake is too afraid to venture away from the original it’s deriving from.  All it does is remind you how great the movie was done the first time around and how unnecessary this remake is as a result.  We don’t even get any signing in this trailer, except for a melancholy rendition of “Somewhere” by Rita Moreno off camera, which does not bode well for what we’ll expect to see from the rest of the cast.  I know that Spielberg has been itching to do a musical for a long time.  I just wish he had chosen something new or um-adapted for the screen that he could really have given his own personal stamp on.  Instead, here he’s playing around with something that already feels like it belongs to someone else, and it looks like he’s playing it too safe by doing so much to remind us of a more classic movie.  It’s unthinkable that I am recommending skipping a Spielberg movie, but that just might be what happens with this potentially disastrous movie.  I hope I am wrong.

KING RICHARD (NOVEMBER 19)

It wouldn’t be a Fall movie season without a little Oscar bait.  And once again we are seeing Will Smith vying for the gold that he really seems to gunning for.  He has done some commendable dramatic work in the past, most notably as Muhammad Ali in the Michael Mann biopic Ali (2001), but a lot of his dramatic roles have also fallen flat over the years.  Here, he’s trying once again with a dramatic turn as Richard Williams, the father of pro tennis phenoms Venus and Serena.  Unfortunately, it looks like another case of Will Smith trying too hard.  One of the things that has made Will a movie star over the years has been his infectious charisma on screen, but one thing that has also gotten in his way has been his own ego.  That’s been reflected in his more dramatic roles where Will tends to want to show off a bit more instead of playing things more straight.  Try as he might, he can’t disappear into a role as well as other actors, and it can be distracting because all audiences can see most of the time is just Will Smith in a costume and make-up.  It’s also a problem that this movie is not particularly interesting as a sports biopic either.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense telling the story of the Williams sisters by focusing on their father instead.  The movie also faces another hurdle falling under the controversial choice by Warner Brothers to make their movies available in theaters and streaming at the same time, which as we have seen has made it harder for movies like this to find an audience.  We’ll see what affect Will Smith’s star power has on this film’s performance, but I would imagine it’s not going to be much in the long run.

DEAR EVAN HANSEN (SEPTEMBER 24)

This one I feel may put me in the minority, but I honestly don’t feel any good vibes about this one.  Set aside the fact that star Ben Platt (reprising his role from Broadway) appears too old to play a teenager in this movie, this movie also seems primed for release at the worst possible time.  Musicals in general are really beginning to fall into a slump, as evidenced by In the Heights face-plant this Summer.  Dear Evan Hansen was a massive Broadway hit, but what worked on the stage doesn’t always translate into film.  And I feel that’s what is in this movie’s future.  Director Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) doesn’t have previous experience with musicals, and it appears that he is making this film look like his other past movies.  That in turn may put off some of the musical’s biggest fans because a straight laced film adaptation will likely end up taking something that felt huge and grand on the stage and reducing it to something that feels small on the screen.  Very few musicals can effectively make the transition from stage to screen and it’s usually only a certain breed of grandiose productions that can pull it off.  Dear Evan Hansen is likely going to miss that mark and it will reflect poorly on the musical’s reputation.  Hopefully there’s an earnestness that can pull it through, but I highly doubt that this movie is going to effectively carry over the acclaim that the musical achieved on the Broadway stage.

So, there you have my thoughts on the upcoming movies of the Fall movie season.  And that’s only a handful of what to expect.  We are actually seeing an unprecedented year at the movies, as we’re getting movies made for this year as well as holdovers from last year hitting the theaters.  In addition to the movies I already spotlighted, there are new films coming from acclaimed directors like Edgar Wright, Guillermo Del Toro, and Wes Anderson in the coming months.  There’s also all the upcoming movies making it through the early Fall film festival circuit that may help us get more of a sense what to look out for as Awards season heats up.  And given that movies are more or less being firmly planted in the ground these days, it’s very likely that all the movies I spotlighted will indeed be fully shown to audiences this year, and on the big screen.  It’s especially gratifying to have a seasonal preview again where I’m not talking about something that is coming to Netflix or any other streaming channel in the coming months, although there will be those out there too.  But, if we keep doing what we can to stem the tide of this pandemic and finally put it to rest, these uncertain days about the fate of the theatrical market and it’s calendar of releases will become a thing of the past.  I’m hopeful that it can be done and that 2022 will find the domestic North American box office right back to where it stood per-pandemic.  2021 thus far has been tough going, but it’s one where we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.  And thankfully, as we’ve seen in the unlikeliest of places, people are eager to return to the movie theaters, and the studios are becoming increasingly convinced that cinema is an essential part of their long term success.  Hopefully that becomes increasingly clear this upcoming fall, and that we no longer need to judge these movies based on how they perform in spite of the pandemic.  So, overall, I hope all of you have an enjoyable, and safe, time at the movies, because there is no better time to go back than now considering what we have on our plate this Fall.

Tinseltown Throwdown – Mary Poppins vs. My Fair Lady

Whenever I spotlight movies with similar plots and thematic elements in this series, it’s usually a competition between movies that are indirect competition, whose standing as a movie doesn’t necessarily need to be defined with it’s comparison to another.  But there are instances in Hollywood history where movies were indeed made to compete against one another, and in some cases, the behind the scenes story of these competitions becomes just as intriguing as the movies themselves.  Such was the case with the year 1964, when the big budget movie musical saw a brief revival in the early part of that decade and hit a high point when two studios actively jumped in and took shots at placing itself atop with their own additions to the genre.  Surprising to many is that this cutthroat competition at the box office involves two musicals with the unlikeliest of settings to appeal to a broad American audience; that being turn of the century Edwardian England.  The two movies in question were of course the Broadway to Hollywood transplant that was Warner Brothers’ My Fair Lady (1964) and the cinematic original Mary Poppins (1964) from Walt Disney Productions.  Today, these two movies are quaint, audience pleasing relics of a bygone era in old Hollywood, but it may surprise many that behind the scenes, these movies involved a back and forth war between two studio giants that saw the making and breaking of creative partnerships between the executives and the talent involved.  Despite the turmoil behind the scenes, the movies still became huge successes for both parties, and both remain perennial favorites for cinephiles everywhere.  But based on their weaknesses and strengths, it is interesting looking at how they stack up together, especially considering their shared history.  So, let’s take that jolly holiday back to Golden Age Hollywood and see which lady remains the fairer.

First off it is interesting looking how these two movies came into being in the first place.  My Fair Lady had previously started on the Broadway stage in 1958, with music and lyrics by the team of Lerner & Lowe, the same people who turned Camelot into a massive hit on the stage a couple years prior.  The musical itself was based on the famous play Pygmalion by English playwright George Bernard Shaw, which itself was inspired by the Greek myth of the same name.  The musical added songs, but still retained the core plot, characters and whit of Shaw’s original piece.  Lady of course was a smash hit and Hollywood took notice immediately.   Warner Brothers won out in a bidding war with other studios and began development immediately on a screen adaptation.  Unfortunately for them, the movie languished for a while as it became harder and harder to fill the different roles with actors that would fit.  In the end, it was decided that the original Broadway cast would be carried over, except for one notable exclusion; the original Eliza Doolittle, Julie Andrews.  According to historians, Andrews was passed over because Warner Brothers’ head Jack Warner didn’t view her as a big enough name to carry a movie this size.  Rex Harrison, the other lead in the musical playing Professor Henry Higgins, was just coming off a major role as Julius Ceaser in Fox’s Cleopatra (1963), which shielded him from the same scrutiny, so unfortunately for Ms. Andrews, who had yet to make the jump from stage to screen was denied her shot, despite the rave reviews she had earned before in the role.  Jack Warner instead turned to Oscar-winning screen legend Audrey Hepburn for the role of Eliza, which turned a few heads in the industry because Hepburn did not have a musical background.  She had sung on screen before, including the song “Moonriver” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), but that was a far cry from what she was going to undertake as Eliza Doolittle, which is not an easy role.  And indeed, even Jack Warner began to have second thoughts, even after passing over Julie for Audrey.  He made the controversial decision to dub over all of Audrey’s singing tracks with an uncredited vocalist named Marni Nixon, who had previously done dub work for Deborah Kerr in The King and I (1956).  Unfortunately, the news of this replacement broke through and became a scandal of it’s own, which sadly reflected back on Audrey Hepburn and damaged her reputation as a vocalist on screen for some time after.

“In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun.  You find the fun, and snap…the job’s a game.”

Meanwhile, Disney was in the midst of it’s own tumultuous development of a big screen musical.  Instead of taking a known property from the stage, Walt Disney and company set out to create one from scratch, adapting a well known children’s book series to screen.  This two languished on for years, as Walt Disney had to contend with Mary Poppins’ notoriously stubborn original author P. L. Travers in order to secure the rights.  The back and forth with Ms. Travers itself inspired it’s own movie called Saving Mr. Banks (2013), starring Emma Thompson as Travers and Tom Hanks as Disney.  Walt did eventually get Travers on board, though just barely, and set out to make Mary Poppins the culmination of all his cinematic prowess that he had gained up to this point.  With a collection of catchy songs by the Sherman Brothers and top notch talent assembled from across the studio, Disney had the movie ready to roll.  There was only one issue left; who would play Mary?  As it turned out, Walt had a gift land right into his lap as Warner Brothers discarded one of the top tier Broadway talents off of their My Fair Lady adaptation, and she was suddenly available.  Walt, who was also a fan of Broadway, had been trying to sway Julie Andrews over to his studio ever since her introduction in Camelot, and not one to miss an opportunity, he took full advantage of Jack Warner’s misstep.  Julie Andrews was offered the role of Mary Poppins without ever auditioning, and she gladly accepted the part on the spot.  With their Mary in place, Disney’s production went into full swing, just as Warner Brothers was deep into production with their Andrews-less My Fair Lady.  With high expectations for both, they entered cinemas months apart, Poppins first in the summer and then Lady in the late fall, and were both immediate smash hits.  Indeed, their competition lasted long into the next year and gave a huge boost to the then flailing movie musical genre.  This extended well into Oscar Season, where My Fair Lady came out on top with the Best Picture honor, but Julie Andrews (the one Jack Warner thought was not ready for the movies) earning Best Actress, in a race where Audrey Hepburn had been completely shut out of.

“The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain.”

It might be easy to view this as a case of Audrey Hepburn being horribly miscast in the role of Eliza Doolittle, but that entirely not true at all.  Audrey’s performance in My Fair Lady is actually quite strong and divorced from all the controversy surrounding her casting in this film, one could look at this movie and believe rightly that Audrey Hepburn is actually perfectly cast in the part.  It’s Warner Brothers, and Jack Warner in particular, who are responsible for shaping the controversial reputation of her role in the film with their terrible mismanagement of the back stage drama that unfolded.  When she’s onscreen, Audrey is magnetic.  She brings an infectious energy to the role, does surprisingly well with Eliza’s cockney accent in the early part of the movie, and just looks flat out amazing in the lavish dresses.  In many ways, the reason why her performance falters in the overall movie is not her fault at all.  It’s an incomplete performance, made all the more noticeable by the fact that Marni Nixon’s melodic voice is so different than her own.  Nixon has a thoroughly stage trained voice meant to invoke power, whereas Hepburn’s singing voice comes from a more earthbound place.  That’s not to say they couldn’t make Hepburn’s more natural tones work for the role.  Over the years snippets of Hepburn’s real vocal tracks have emerged and they prove that she indeed had the vocal range to deliver in this role, but sadly we get the mismatch that occurs in the final film, and it is a negative reflection on the film.  No inconsistencies exist in Mary Poppins on the other side.  Walt knew fully well of the gift he was granted with the angelic voice of Julie Andrews it is used to the fullest in Poppins.  From “Spoon Full of Sugar” to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” to “Feed the Birds”, Julie’s Mary imbues the movie with unimaginable grace, and her Mary remains to this day one of the most beloved movie heroines of all time.  Not only that, but Julie also shows a maturity in front of the camera that you wouldn’t expect from a Hollywood novice, and it immediately brought her fully off the stage and onto the screen.  And yes, Jack Warner realized this as well, only after it was too late.

But, My Fair Lady does have many elements that make it stand out strong in comparison to it’s competitor, and in some ways is even superior in comparison.  One is the story itself.  Mary Poppins is a thoroughly entertaining piece of cinema on the whole, but one nitpick that someone might make about it is that it’s light on story.  Mary Poppins, a magical nanny, swoops into the lives of the Banks family and through a series of extraordinary events, manages to repair their fractured relationship before leaving to return to wherever she came from.  It’s the nature of adapting a narrative from a episodic series like the original Poppins books that the movie itself would take on an episodic structure.  That’s essentially what we get in Mary Poppins.  It’s a movie with interconnected adventures loosely tied together, and as great as those individual adventures are, they really don’t have much bearing on the overall story.  Much of the narrative drive of Mary Poppins is not focused her, nor the Banks children but instead on George Banks, the father (played superbly by David Tomlinson) who’s the only character with an arc in the movie.  Mary Poppins, throughout the entire movie, remains mostly an enigma, providing instigation to the plot rather than any active participation.  By comparison, the character arcs in My Fair Lady are far more layered and intriguing.  Taking it’s cue from George Bernard Shaw, Lady has much more bite to it than Mary Poppins.  It takes the risk of introducing it’s characters in a not so flattering light upfront, with Eliza Doolittle introduced being a brash, unsophisticated street vendor and Henry Higgins introduced as a misogynistic high class jerk who looks down on the poor.  It’s a story about transformation, as Eliza goes from Cockney to classy, and in turn she forces a change in Higgins where he begins to learn the error of his ways and softens his brash façade.  A tried old tale of a selfish man believing that he can craft the perfect woman, only to find that a perfect woman is one that doesn’t need him in order to feel complete, and him in turn forced to change his ways to prove his own worth.  Shaw reinvisioned it for his own time in Pygmalion, and the musical perfectly carries that forward through song, and you can see the same story play out in more a modern reimagining like Pretty Woman (1990) and She’s All That (1999).  Overall, it’s what gives My Fair Lady extra cinematic weight over the more airy Mary Poppins.

“Winds in the east, mist coming in.  Like somethin’ is brewin’ and ’bout to begin.  Can’t put my finger on what lies in store, but I feel what’s to happen all happened before.”

Another thing that My Fair Lady has over Poppins is a more commanding second lead.  Much has been said about the controversial choice of casting Dick Van Dyke as a cockney voiced chimney sweep in Edwardian London.  True, Dick Van Dyke is a national treasure and a still living legend as of this writing, and his presence in Mary Poppins is a welcome one, especially in the musical numbers where he excels.  However, the accent is notoriously bad, as the all-American star of stage and screen finds it well out of his range to convince us he’s a Cockney.  Compared to his co-star whose Englishness is gracefully on display through the whole movie, he definitely looks a bit out of place, though his chemistry with Julie is strong.  In My Fair Lady, we get Rex Harrison at the height of his power as a performer.  In a sense, this was a difficult role to undertake, as Henry Higgins is not an easy character to like.  With such a backwards, toxic view of the opposite sex, how are we ever to believe that Henry Higgins can be a worthwhile romantic foil for Eliza Doolittle by the end of the movie.  Somehow, Rex Harrison manages to balance all that perfectly in his performance.  His delightfully salty insults carry this edge of ridiculousness that helps to soften the blow and make the character intriguing to the audience.  Only an actor with the kind of presence as Rex Harrison could believably pull this off, because if you were to say the things that Henry Higgins says to Eliza in the movie outside of context in the real world, you’re probably opening yourself up for a workplace harassment suit.  An interesting side note about Harrison’s performance in the film is that he refused to do a dub track for himself.  As a veteran stage actor, he was used to delivering a different level of performance with every show, and he wanted to maintain that even in the movie.  If they pre-recorded his voice, it wouldn’t match what he was giving them in front of the camera.  So, unlike his fellow actors, he had his vocal tracks recorded live on the set instead of in a separate booth later.  If you look closely in the movie, there are hidden mics sewn into his costumes, such as a tie or a corsage pinned to his suit, just so they could capture his singing in the moment.

One of the things that both movies actually illustrate brilliantly together is the level of production design that went into making them.  Despite the fact that both movies are set in Edwardian London during the early part of the 20th century, it will amaze many to know that both movies were actually shot entirely in sunny Burbank, California and completely indoors on soundstages at their respective studio lots.  In fact, it’s quite possible that both movies were shooting simultaneously within only a mile distance from one another; I know, I’ve walked that actual distance between the studios, it can be done in less than 15 minutes (depending on the timing of the crosswalks).  It’s amazing how both films are still able to convey an authentic sense of time and place even under these conditions.  You never question the fact that you’re looking at studio built sets that invoke the feeling of the outdoors.  In some cases, they really pulled out all stops to convey authenticity, like the Ascot Gavotte sequence in My Fair Lady, where the crew actually had real race horses gallop at full speed across the different ends of the stage to make it feel like the characters were at a real track.  Still, there are several moments in My Fair Lady where it’s hard to shake off the stage bound origins it derives from.  It’s a very interior heavy film, and a lot of the movie is set within people’s homes and far fewer set out in the open streets.  Mary Poppins on the other hand expands far beyond the limits of the soundstage.  Spends much more of it’s time outside, which feels authentic and detailed even though it’s all still in a soundstage.  With a combination of brilliant set design, plus exquisitely detailed matte paintings done by the legendary Peter Ellenshaw, Mary Poppins gives you a more fully enriched and alive London, which feels remarkably real to the viewer.  The movie even broke ground by placing it’s actors in an animated world (Disney’s strong suit) in a still impressive to this day visual effect.  Though My Fair Lady has top notch production values, Mary Poppins on the whole is the movie that takes the most advantage of it’s cinematic options and in general feels the most alive.  When you can convince an audience that they are indeed in cold, damp London, England and not in a scorching hot soundstage in Burbank, California, you know you’ve done right.

“The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she is treated.”

In the end, audiences were blessed with two classics that have indeed withstood the test of time to remain cinematic favorites to this day.  Indeed, for some it’s hard to choose one over the other, because they are both so brilliantly crafted and offer different experiences.  The one thing that binds them together is the fact that one movie benefitted from the callous oversight of the other and created this fascinating “what if” scenario that cinephiles have speculated over.  How different would things have been had Jack Warner not shunned Julie Andrews and allowed her to play the role she had created for the stage originally?  Would Mary Poppins have been the masterpiece that it is had someone else filled Andrews place in the role?  Would Audrey Hepburn have escaped that unfortunate cloud of controversy that would leave a mark on her otherwise flawless career?  Certainly in the end Julie Andrews got the last laugh.  Upon receiving a Golden Globe win before her inevitable Oscar, she thanked in her speech the man responsible for making it happen, Mr. Jack Warner, in a not so subtle dig at the man who thought she was not ready for the big screen.  It is indeed unthinkable to imagine anyone else in the original role of Mary Poppins than Julie Andrews, and it was a stroke of great timing on Walt Disney’s part to bring her on board the moment she was available.  And of course she would carry that on into an even bigger role as Maria von Trapp in the juggernaut that was The Sound of Music (1965) a year later.  One thing that I hope no one overlooks is that Audrey Hepburn was not an inferior replacement; she was a great Eliza Doolittle in her own right.  I think taken on that alone most audiences today will recognize that she is indeed one of the things that makes My Fair Lady a continuing classic to this day.  Mary Poppins is indeed the more ambitious of the two, but My Fair Lady holds it’s own with impressive production values and great performances to it’s credit as well.  It’s a close call competition that leaves a stellar legacy for both productions that are both “loverly” and “practically perfect in every way.”

“It’s a Jolly Holiday with Mary.  No wonder that it’s Mary that we love.”

Cinematic Crossroads – Delta Variant, Contract Disputes, Mandates, and the Fleeting Sense of Normal at the Movies

For cinema lovers, a happy ending seems to be something more and more that we will only ever find on the big screen.  At the beginning of this Summer, things for once were finally beginning to look up for the pandemic ravaged movie theater industry.  Nearly all domestic theatrical markets were reopening, including the biggest ones in New York and Los Angeles, and the studios were finally setting their release calendar in stone after a long year of delays and cancellations.  And for the most part, we did get something of a Summer movie season, with heavy hitters like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Universal’s Fast and the Furious franchises all delivering us something to watch over these last couple months.  There were certainly a lot of high hopes that things were indeed coming back to a sense of normal finally.  But, happy endings don’t always happen like they do in the movies.  While box office has indeed gotten a lot healthier than it was during the almost non existent lockdown box office of last year, it still remains soft when compared to the record breaking numbers seen over the last decade.  Black Widow for instance has seen a $175 million gross to date, which is great during a pandemic affected market, but puts it on the low end of Marvel movies overall.  And that’s one of the few bright spots, as other high profile movies like In the Heights and The Suicide Squad opened soft and faded fast from the box office.  There are a lot of factors that attribute the still low box office, and it shows that even though we have gotten past the worst of this pandemic, we are still not out of the woods yet, and that “normal” is still far away.  But, there’s another question that may arise out of what we’ve seen so far from these post-lockdown days; is normal really achievable, and are we going to need to reassess what it actually means in a cinematic sense.  Business is still definitely not back to normal despite some definite improvements in the last few months and it’s going to make the movie studios rethink their strategies moving forward.  And that, in turn, may end up changing the way we think of success in entertainment overall.

Certainly the biggest factor in the soft box office that we have seen so far is the fact that the pandemic is still taking it’s toll on the population.  Now, things were certainly worse off last year for both the population in general as well as the movie theater industry.  What has changed today is that we now have a vaccine which is the best weapon in our arsenal right now to combat the spread of Covid.  In many parts of the country, particularly the urban ones, the vaccine rollout had been overwhelmingly successful, and has kept hospitalizations and casualties low, enabling the health care system to better provide service for those most affected by the ongoing infections.  Though reaching herd immunity is difficult against such a rapidly spreading and evolving disease, it’s not impossible and getting a majority of the population vaccinated is key to achieving that goal.  This in turn has enabled the movie theaters to return to normal operations, especially for those in the largest markets which experienced a year long closure.  But, even with businesses being allowed to reopen, there remains one lagging problem; audiences are not ready yet to fully return.  Though vaccines have helped to bring the the numbers down in many places, there are still several parts of the country that the virus is still running rampant.  This is due to what is called the Delta Variant of Covid-19, which is far more transmissible than past strains of the virus, and is far deadlier to those more susceptible to the virus.  Another cause of rising cases is a deluge of anti-vaccine misinformation that has been spread across social media, which in turn has caused vaccine hesitancy in many of the population.  Initially, many indoor businesses, like movie theaters, were going by a “honor system” with regards to welcoming patrons; leaving the question of vaccine status to a level of mutual trust.  Sadly, the honor system has not worked, and businesses are now finding themselves in the unfortunate situation of enforcing safety guidelines again that they had hoped wouldn’t be necessary.  This includes mandating the wearing of masks indoors, and in more drastic cases, demanding proof of vaccination.  This has further complicated matters, as it is affecting many businesses that are depending on a return to pre-pandemic levels of business, like the movie theaters.

With an audience base still wary about heading out to their local theater in response to the still not under full control pandemic, it has put the industry in a bind that they had hoped was behind them.  One big difference is that for now the threat of movie theater closures is behind us.  There are enough safeguards in place to help keep the movie theaters open for business even in the worst case scenarios.  Couple this with the fact that the largest markets are also benefitting from the highest levels of vaccination in the country also helps to ensure that movie theaters will remain open.  The problem now for them is that they are not able to fill up the multiplexes like they used to, and that is hurting their reputation within the movie industry in general.  Despite having enough movies available now to fill up their many screens, the audiences are still showing hesitancy.  Some are worried that the safety protocols are not strong enough, or that the guidelines are too restrictive and not worth going out to the movies for.  That’s why we are seeing a soft summer movie season right now, with only a handful of big projects actually making a dent at the box office, and only just.  Sure, little business is better than no business, but the movie theaters are having to deal with the pressure of delivering for a movie industry that is increasingly seeing their business as obsolete.  The closure of the movie theaters over the last year also coincided with the rapid rise of streaming services, and more and more it looks like the movie studios are willing to cut out the middle man that they have had to share a fraction of the profits with.  The movies coming out this summer are holdovers from 2020 that would have been huge tentpoles that would’ve benefitted both sides if business continued as normal.  But, with expensive tentpoles performing only modest to disappointing box office under the conditions that we have now, the movie studios are losing their confidence more and more with the once booming theater industry.

Perhaps now is even more of a crossroads moment for the future of the movie theater industry than what we saw during the height of the pandemic.  Movies have the ability to play on the big screen again, but the audiences are not returning like we had hoped that they would.  And even though external factors are part of the reason why, movie theaters continue to struggle to compete in a market where streaming has a stronger foothold than ever.  What could happen in the future is anyone’s guess.  The movie theaters could end up riding out the storm and see business pick up again once the pandemic has finally dissipated in the next year, with audience hesitancy no longer being an issue.  Or, this soft box office year could end up being indicative of a new normal for the movie theater industry as they descend into an overall decline.  One thing that 2021 will tell us is just how much value the movie theater industry on the whole will mean to the future of Hollywood.  This year, we are witnessing the studios using the unique circumstance of the pandemic to experiment with a hybrid day and date release model for both theaters and streaming.  Late last year, Warner Brothers announced that their entire 2021 slate would premiere both in theaters and on their streaming platform HBO Max, and they have not reversed course on that path.  Likewise, Disney announced the co-release of their movies this summer on the big screen and on Disney+ for an extra fee.  From this move, we have our best indication yet of what the studios might do with the release of their movies in the future; whether there are better profits to be made with one or the other.  And thus far, the results are inconclusive, at least to the lay man.  While movie theaters and studios must publicly declare their box office grosses for every week, internal streaming numbers are still held close to the chest, meaning only the studios themselves knows how they are performing.

Some places have tried to make sense of how these experiments are performing, but thus far, the studios have been wildly inconsistent.  For a moment, it looked like HBO Max’s experiment might have worked, with one of their big early tentpoles, Godzilla vs. Kong performing better than expected in the midst of a still stifled pandemic market, becoming the first film since the beginning of the lockdown last year to cross the $100 million benchmark, but just barely.  From that vantage point, it seemed like the streaming competition didn’t affect the movie’s box office appeal, but as Warner Brothers headed into the lucrative summer season, that rosy outlook changed.  In the Heights, a musical movie with a lot of promising crossover appeal, fizzled out quickly, making it a costly failure that couldn’t recoup it’s own budget despite rave reviews.  And more recently, The Suicide Squad, an expensive reboot of a franchise based on the popular DC comics also performed poorly against expectations, leaving many to wonder if Warner Brothers left a lot of money on the table betting on this day and date release plan.  One big problem for Warner Brothers is that they made their movies available at no extra charge, meaning they were going to need the money made off the new sign ups for HBO Max to compensate for the lower amount of tickets sold in theaters.  Disney on the other hand, charged it’s customers $30 for the same privilege on top of their subscription price.  Now, Disney touted that they made such and such money on select movies during opening weekends in the hopes that it would be taken into account in conjunction with the box office in theaters.  But, since the opening weekend grosses, they’ve remained silent about their streaming numbers, which has led many to speculate whether or not the movie is actually doing as well as they say.  Adding to the confusion, Disney has announce that they were not going to do the same with the upcoming Shang-Chi from Marvel, as an “experiment,” which has led many to believe that the studio is not getting the desired results that they were hoping for.

The problem with the studios choosing now to be experimental is that they are disrupting the progress they need to make a return to normal necessary.  For one thing, Disney has found itself in hot water because choosing their hybrid release model for some movies was in violation with contracts made with the talent at their studio.  Scarlett Johansson in particular opened up the floodgates when she filed a lawsuit against her former employer, stating that shifting the movie to partial streaming prevented the movie from reaching higher box office numbers, which she would’ve benefitted from as part of the percentage clause in her contract.  With Disney segmenting part of the overall gross of Black Widow into streaming, the lawsuit claims that they intentionally did this as a way of keeping Mrs. Johansson’s slice of the profits low, so they wouldn’t have to pay her fair share.  Her claim also states that because the contract specifically calls for an exclusive theatrical window, Disney violated their terms by leaving her out of the decision to move it partially to streaming, which would’ve required a separate contract.  In this case, HBO Max actually did the ethical thing, by granting it’s talent like Gal Gadot of Wonder Woman a separate bonus to offset the low grosses as a way to still honor their contract.  Disney on the other hand acted unilaterally and without covering all their bases, and in turn has alienated themselves from some of the biggest names in the industry, all so they could reap the benefits of a downtrodden market.  Such a costly oversight in turn could prevent these studios from actually investing in the movies needed to help bring the movie industry back to normal.  Disney is very dependent on it’s pool of talent, and when they start to distrust you because you chased after money, it’s going to hurt you in the long run.

Perhaps as a response to their touchy situation after mishandling the Scarlett Johansson lawsuit, or perhaps the premium access option is not panning out as well as they hoped, Disney is abandoning their day and date model for now, with their next couple films being theatrical exclusives, with some conditions still attached.  Movie theaters must now get the most they can out of the first 45 days of a movie’s release, because the new normal has shortened the theatrical window with pretty much every studio.  Warner Brothers and the nation’s largest chain, AMC, inked a deal that allowed for that exactly, and beginning in 2022, movies from WB will now see a theatrical release first before making it to streaming.  Universal, Disney, Paramount, and Sony also likewise have set similar deals, which at least gives the theatrical industry the benefit of first runs again.  However, with the shortened theatrical windows, we’ll see less of those long tail success stories of underdog movies.  In the past, some movies enjoyed word of mouth promotion that helped to carry their modest early numbers to enormous success over a long term run.  Think There’s Something About Mary (1997) or The Sixth Sense (1999), Slumdog Millionaire (2008) or more recently The Greatest Showman (2017), movies that started small but grew to huge successes because audiences just kept returning week after week.  Sometimes, there were movies that were still actively playing in theaters almost a full year after their initial release.  Those days might be gone now after the pandemic has forced theaters to renegotiate that broader window with the studios.  The pressure is now on movies to make the most they can upfront and that favors the big studios more and becomes a major problem for the independents.  The sleeper hit may become a thing of the past as a result, and it would create a more homogenized market at the movie theaters, which in turn would lead to far less interesting movies to draw audiences back in.  Thus, we are now faced with a decision as to what makes a movie a success anymore, because the metrics of the box office are likely forever changed.

It’s a crossroads point for the movie theater industry.  They are faced with the prospect of losing their foothold in this ever changing business of cinema which has been at the forefront of the artform for over a century.  Meanwhile, the movie studios are facing the problem of trying to get back to normal in a marketplace that still isn’t ready to be there yet.  Movie theaters are thankfully back and operating again, but the ongoing pandemic is making it too hard right now to bounce the industry back to normal.  And with the Delta Variant complicating things, we are likely to see box office suffer for the near future, which is going to be devastating for many of these highly anticipated movies that we’ve been waiting the better part of a year to see, and in some cases even longer.  A few movies have already jumped ship, with Sony’s Venom sequel moving back 3 weeks and Paramount’s Clifford falling off the calendar completely.  All of a sudden, a September that looked full of upcoming movies has suddenly turned empty, and it leaves a lot of doubt over what will happen with the big titles releasing in October, which includes MGM’s next 007 entry, No Time to Die, and Warner Brother’s epic Dune.  We can try our best to offset the uncertainty of the Fall season by quickly getting this Delta Variant under control with mask mandates and rapid vaccination increases, but it’s a tall order with so much hesitancy still hanging in the air.  It’s like trying to have a barbeque in a park surrounded by a forest fire.  The box office is no where near back to normal and it’s on all of us to do the responsible thing in order to preserve the theatrical experience.  Movie theaters have made many sacrifices and compromises to ensure their survival.  Their continued success into the future is going to depend on how Hollywood views their worth, and thus far, this year is still not giving us any conclusive sign of how things might go.  My hope is that we will soon turn that corner and see the pandemic recede and audiences finally feel comfortable returning to the theaters again.  The crossroads to the future of cinema is an uncertain path to see clearly, but we’ve underestimated the power of cinema before and lets hope the rough road ends up being the right one in the end.

The Suicide Squad – Review

The story of how The Suicide Squad made it to the big screen is just as wild and turbulent as what ended up in the final movie.  In the wake of Marvel’s unprecedented success over the last decade, rival DC comics sought to capitalize on their own legion of characters in the hopes that they weren’t going to fall too far behind.  Riding off the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, parent studio Warner Brothers began the master plan for a DC Extended Universe (the DCEU), which would take each of their most famous comic book characters and have them co-exist in a shared cinematic universe much in the same way that Marvel had done, in the hopes of capitalizing on the cross-over potential.  Though ambitious in scope, the execution would end up hitting a lot of snags along the way.  The first few films by director Zack Snyder (2013’s Man of Steel and 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) received mixed to negative reviews and only managed to break even at the box office.  As a result of the lukewarm reception, Warner began to have second thoughts about their massive investment.  Studio execs started to become more hands on, and were quickly reworking movies already in production.  Sadly, one of the movies that was put through the wringer during this period of studio interference was the first Suicide Squad (2016) directed by David Ayer.  What started off as a darker toned action thriller was quickly reworked into a more comical, crowd-pleasing romp; a la Marvel.  The end result became an unfocused mess in the editing room that completely robbed the movie of a coherent tone, and as a result, DC had yet another film savaged by critics.  Thankfully the critically acclaimed Wonder Woman (2017) was on the horizon, and Warner Brothers along with DC would once again shift gears, but the damage had already been done to their reputation and Marvel continued to outpace them to record breaking box office.  But, after finding their footing in recent years, DC has found a groove that works for them, and that includes having the confidence to tackle the Suicide Squad once again.

One thing that DC did benefit from was a costly mistake on the part of Marvel’s parent company Disney.  In the midst of the rising disruption that came from the #MeToo movement in the late 2010’s, Disney was quick to avoid any controversy that came their way.  After a twitter spat between left-leaning filmmaker James Gunn and right-wing provocateur Mike Cernovich, the latter dug up old tweets from the former where he made several gross and inappropriate jokes.  Despite Gunn’s justified assertion that these old tweets do not reflect the person that he is now, Disney was quick to action and immediately fired Gunn from all his upcoming projects at Marvel.  This rash action suddenly left a glaring vacancy in Marvel’s upcoming plans, because James Gunn was the creative mind behind one of their most celebrated franchises; the Guardians of the Galaxy.  Disney in retrospect has acknowledged that this was a major blunder on their part because they not only lost a premiere talent with Gunn, but they also disrupted the trust they had garnered with their most successful brand, who were not pleased with the move.  Despite what Disney did, the creative community had James Gunn’s back, with all the Guardians’ cast fully backing him publicly, and many film directors refusing to fill his shoes in the Guardians franchise.  But, someone was going to end up capitalizing on Disney’s misstep, and that was DC.  Within weeks, Warner Brothers snatched up James Gunn and offered him a project under their tent.  Given Gunn’s fascination with outsiders, he naturally was drawn to the Suicide Squad run of comics, and as a result, DC had the genius mind they needed to make a reboot work.  And Gunn gets to have his cake and eat it too, because Disney would reverse course months later, allowing Gunn to return to the Guardians’ franchise after his DC obligation.  So congratulations Cernovich, your petty, short lived twitter victory just allowed James Gunn to get two multi-million dollar deals at two major studios instead of one, which will make him more money than you will ever see in your lifetime as a lonely internet troll.  But, back on point, did Gunn’s jump from Marvel to DC translate over well, or did something get lost in between?

The movie itself is both a sequel and a reboot of sorts.  The events of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad did still take place, and some of the past team members have returned.  This includes Captain Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnamann), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), who have been assembled again by Intelligence Commander Amanda Waller (Viola Davis).  They are joined by a band of newcomers to the Suicide Squad team, which includes a couple of sharpshooting mercenaries called Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and Peacemaker (John Cena), with immediate friction formed between the two.   Then there is the manic depressive Polka Dot Man (David Dasmalchin ) whose super powers are pretty self-explanatory.  There is Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchoir), who has carried on the mantle from her father (Taika Waititi) who had the power to command rats.  And we also have the half-man/ half-shark Nanaue, aka King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone).  Rounding out the team are Savant (director Gunn regular Michael Rooker), TDK (Nathan Fillion), Javelin (Flula Borg), Mongal (Mayling Ng), Blackguard (Pete Davidson), and Weasel (Sean Gunn), who is exactly what his name states.  They are all tasked with going to the enemy-infused island nation of Corto Maltese, which is in the midst of a bloody coup, and infiltrating a heavily fortified citadel called Jotenheim, where Amanda Waller wants them to destroy all traces of a secret program known only as Project Starfish.  In order to break in to the facility without alerting the Corto Maltese army, they must first find the lead scientist named Gaius Grieves, aka The Thinker (Peter Capaldi).  Of course, plans go awry and team members are lost or scatter to different parts of the island.  Unfortunately, because of the explosive devices that Ms. Waller has installed in each of their heads, the Suicide Squad must still carry out the mission against the odds.  As they go deeper into the island, and uncover more of it’s mystery, things grow increasingly more complex and allegiances challenged, especially when the truth of Project Starfish comes out and begins to wreck havoc on the island.  And that’s when things begin to really get weird.

It’s quite easy to see why James Gunn jumped at the opportunity to reimagine the Suicide Squad under his unique vision.  Much like the Guardians of the Galaxy, the members of the Suicide Squad are a bunch of outsiders that skirt the fine line between criminal and hero.  They are all inherently flawed from the outset, and yet through Gunn’s story-telling, we grow to love them as they prove their worth through using their eccentric tricks to take on a greater evil.  Also, James Gunn loves his irreverent humor, and DC was allowing him something that he couldn’t get away with at Marvel; the freedom of an R-rating.  Now he could get away with all the gore, violence and profanity that the Disney company would never allow in their PG-13 franchise.  Gunn is, after all, from the school of Troma Productions, a schlock film micro-budget studio where he originally cut his teeth as an amateur filmmaker.  Much of what he learned from his time at Troma has followed him through every film he has made, including the Guardians franchise.  He has even paid tribute to his mentor, Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman, by giving him cameos in his many films.  And while there are elements of Gunn’s Troma past in the Guardians franchise, The Suicide Squad is actually a far more representative film of Gunn’s lineage as a filmmaker.  And that is the main appeal of The Suicide Squad; it is James Gunn unfiltered.  Here, he is taking the kind of gory, demented mayhem that defined his earlier work and ramps it up with a more substantial budget afforded to him by Warner Brothers and DC.  This isn’t a movie deeply interwoven into the lore of DC’s expanded universe plans; this is just a director letting loose and having fun, and taking us all along for the ride.  If you were expecting something more akin to what he did with the Guardians of the Galaxy, you may be a little disappointed as well as a little horrified.  But that’s a good thing in the end, because James Gunn isn’t franchise building here.  He’s just giving us a delirious romp without compromise and showing us the Suicide Squad movie that we should have had in the first place.

One of the best aspects of James Gunn’s Suicide Squad is that he keeps things pretty simple.  For James Gunn, it’s not the plot itself that matters, but what the characters do along the way that moves the movie along.  It’s a pretty straight-forward plot, which Gunn then injects his hilarious character interactions with.  We know that eventually this band of rogue villains will have to end up saving the day, but the way they get there is often paved with hilarious bickering and character side-steps that throw the audience into unexpected places.  One of the biggest laughs in the movie involves how Polka Dot Man deals with his past trauma.  I won’t spoil what happens, but it is one of the most hilarious running sight gags in the movie, and exactly the kind of thing an oddball like James Gunn would come up with.  At times, the non-sequiturs do build up to a point where it does make the movie lag in the middle.  I would say that it’s less focused and on pace as his Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but at the same time, he’s working in an entirely different mode here, and it’s a bit unfair to compare with his other famous franchise.  Even still, the movie has a great first act and an absolutely amazing climax, but the middle part does slow things down a bit, like Gunn suddenly realized he needed to stretch things out a bit more.  But, even in it’s weaker moments, the movie still remains consistently funny, with some truly inspired ideas.  These include a fight sequence involving Harley Quinn that explodes with animated flower petals, as well as a hilariously staged ambush of a rebel base by Bloodsport and Peacemaker, with the two trying to one up the other with every kill.  And every moment that involves King Shark is a delight, even when it does grind the movie to a halt like a scene with him at an aquarium.  There are faults, but James Gunn just fills the movie with so many creative ideas, that you hardly think about them for long.

Of course, one of the things that you’d expect would deliver in a movie like this is the cast, and they do not disappoint.  Showing once again his deft command of an ensemble, James Gunn gets a lot of great performances out of faces both old and new to the franchise.  What is interesting is that he doesn’t use them all in the way you’d expect, which again is a major plus for the movie.  Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn for example is actually more of a supporting character this time around instead of a more centered focus that she fulfilled in the original Suicide Squad.  She is still a presence and appears throughout the whole movie with a good amount of screen-time, but Harley’s overall contribution to the plot amounts to pretty much a B Plot comparatively.  Even still, Margot Robbie is still in top form as the fan favorite villain, and she certainly looks like she’s having fun in every scene.  More character arcs are given to the other members, particularly Bloodpsort.  Idris Elba does a great job of balancing the heavier side of his character development with the comical Gunn asides.  And the normally brooding dramatic actor does not falter at all in carrying the wild tonal changes of the movie.  John Cena also delivers some hilarious one liners in the movie, with no hint of self-awareness which makes it funnier, though his performance can be a bit one note.  Of special note are Daniela Melchoir and David Dastmalchain as their respective characters.  Dastmalchain in particular finds some surprisingly deep pathos in what many people consider to be the lamest villain in the DC comics, and turns him into a really fascinating character overall.  And Melchoir gives her Ratcatcher so much warmth and heart that really endears her within this movie, especially in how she befriends King Shark.  King Shark likewise delights in this movie, functioning pretty much as the Groot of this DC comics film.  Also, bravo to James Gunn for bringing back Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, easily my favorite carry-over from the original Suicide Squad.  There is no one more perfect for that role, and Viola does not disappoint.  It’s also amazing how well she is able to work this character into the new tone of this franchise.  Like all the best comic book movies, a lot is dependent on how well these characters are cast, and James Gunn gave his actors a wealth of riches here.

It’s also interesting to see what James Gunn does differently here in regards to how the movie looks compared to what he’s done before.  In addition to carrying over his Troma refined sensibilities, Gunn has also drawn inspiration from another segment of cinema history.  There is a clear influence of exploitation war films in the DNA of this movie, even down to the way the entire movie looks.  There is a graininess to the picture that kind of gives the movie a grindhouse 16mm feel, even though Gunn actually shot the movie with digital Red cameras.  Judging by the promotional material of this movie, films like The Dirty Dozen (1967) were a clear inspiration, and it’s a style that perfectly fits this story.  This movie does involve guerilla combat in a hostile land, so it makes sense that it would emulate one of the grittiest war movies of all time.  Even when the movie expands in scope towards it’s finale, it still feels within character with what we’ve seen before.  Gunn carried over much of the same crew that he worked with on the two Guardians movies, and it’s really neat to see them work in a wildly different style as well.  The color palette is far more earthy and subdued than Guardians and that really helps to distinguish this as a bold new direction for this team, showcasing that they are capable of doing a whole variety of different kinds of movies.  I also want to point out the excellent music in this movie.  James Gunn of course famously injected many classic rock tunes into the soundtrack of Guardians of the Galaxy, which became a part of that series’ identity.  He includes a few here too (including a great introduction scene underscored by Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues”), but not as much as you’d think.  Instead, a beautifully composed score by John Murphy, which also has some Dirty Dozen echoes, carries most of the movie.  It’s a great way to distinguish this from Gunn’s more mix-tape infused Guardians movies, and show that he’s not a one trick pony.  He can make a straight-forward action flick without turning it into a jukebox.  More importantly, the music is there to support the movie, and not actively work as a part of it, like how Guardians made it’s hero’s love of classic rock a major part of his character.  It’s a movie heavy on style, but never wasted and it overall works to give The Suicide Squad a delightful sense of character that stands on it’s own.

Though the way we ended up getting this movie involved a lot of backstage drama, I am in the end grateful that we now have someone as talented as James Gunn having contributed to both Marvel and DC.  I especially love the fact that this whole episode just shows how much filmmakers should be valued in this business.  The reason why the original Suicide Squad  fell short was not because David Ayer failed to deliver, but because he had the opportunity to do things his own way taken away from him and given to uninspired studio execs who were only caring about their bottom line.  The same thing ended up happening all over DC in those earlier days, with Zack Snyder’s mangled Justice League (2017) being perhaps the most notorious example.  Since then, Warner Brothers has somewhat learned it’s lesson and allowed filmmakers to have a bit more creative freedom over the final product.  This even included a significant investment by the studio to allow Zack Snyder to finish his vision of Justice League with his now infamous “Snyder Cut,” and David Ayer is now trying to argue for the same opportunity to finish his original vision of Suicide Squad.  Luckily for James Gunn, he entered into an atmosphere of creative freedom at Warner Brothers that wasn’t there before and has been able to capitalize on that with this far more engaging take on the Suicide Squad series.  It’s not a perfect movie, and I dare say I still prefer his Guardians movies, but this is still an exceptional work that showcases that he’s not just a one franchise filmmaker.  He can be trusted to bring the best out of any kind of franchise, and that is definitely going to help his stock within the industry.  In the long run, he has ultimately shown that creative vision matters, and that perhaps studio interference is never a good thing for the movies in general.  I am definitely excited to see what he’ll take from this experience when he returns to Marvel to make Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.  Hopefully this unusual experience has only sharpened his skills further, and that there is going to be even more great things to come in that beloved Marvel series.  Until then, The Suicide Squad shows that he is still an amazing creative force no matter where he is working, and it’s worth seeing, especially on the biggest possible screen you can find.  You can’t keep a creative mind down for long, especially one as dementedly off the wall that James Gunn holds inside his head.

Rating: 8.5/10

Top Ten Medieval Movies

There are many different kinds of movies that stand strong over the years, but what usually stands up the strongest are the ones centered around adventure.  There’s something to be said about crowd pleasers that deliver on thrills, both on an intimate and epic scale.  Though you can find adventure films that span across all types of genres (fantasy, sci-fi, and so forth) what seems to capture the imagination the most for many audiences are adventures of a historic kind.  Human history is full of moments in time that have become the things of legend, and these historical moments in turn provide ample inspiration for cinematic treatment.  The historical epic was at one time the most dominant of all genres in Hollywood, especially during the advent of widescreen into cinemas.  Historical dramas, whether they be biblical, prehistoric, or medieval, gave Hollywood a chance to show off the craft of their trade on a scale unseen before.  They provided production design, costuming, and prop making a chance to indulge in extravagance while at the same time being grounded in a historical context that wouldn’t be too alienating to audiences.  But even though these kinds of movies were rousing crowd pleasers, they were at the same time enormously expensive to undertake, and each one would be a gamble once it hit theaters.  Over time, the gamble would prove to be too much for the industry, and the historical drama would recede as a force within the industry.  But, the movies that we have gotten over the years still stand out as shining examples of Hollywood working with all engines running, and taken out of the context of their performance at the box office, some of these movies eventually do find their audience, especially among those who wish to see epic cinema at it’s most ambitious.

Of the many historical epics that have especially stood the test of time, the most interesting group among them are those set within what we consider the Medieval Dark Ages.  This was the period of chivalry, mighty castle fortresses and epic battles between knights in armor.  At least that’s what we understand from a majority of the movies made in Hollywood about that time period.  But in reality, Medieval times really applies globally, with different parts of the world that shared many different upheavals that defined their history that also could be considered epic in scope.  While Europe was in the midst of the rising influence of their warring kingdoms, the Tsars were consolidating power in the Russian steppes, Genghis Khan was continuing his conquest of China and growing his vast Mongol empire, feudalism rose the samurais to ultimate power in the Japanese archipelago, and vast empires were rising in the Americas under the Mayans and the Incas.  Though separated by vast distances on the globe, every part of the world was experiencing their own epic stories during these tumultuous times, and they have been the inspiration for some of cinema’s grandest adventures.  In this list, I am going to list my own choices for the best medieval movies from across the globe.  Keep in mind, I am classifying these movies based solely on their place within a certain historical time and place.  Some of these stories can feature supernatural and fantasy elements, but they have to be earthbound, so no fantasy realms with medieval influence will be on this list (The Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride) and they have to be entirely set in the Medieval times (no Highlander).  Before I begin, here are a couple noteworthy movies that didn’t make my list, but are still worth seeing: Black Death (2010), How to Train Your Dragon (2010), A Knight’s Tale (2001), The Name of the Rose (1987), El Cid (1961), Apocalypto (2006), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), The Sword in the Stone (1963), Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Wolfwalkers (2020), The Court Jester (1955), and The Hidden Fortress (1956).  Now, let’s take a look at my picks for the 10 best Medieval movies of all time.

10.

THE LION IN WINTER (1968)

Directed by Anthony Harvey

Not all Medieval movies need to be centered around epic sword battles.   In this case, it’s centered around an extremely dysfunctional family who just so happen to be the sovereign rulers of the kingdoms of England and France all meeting together for a Christmas gathering.  That’s not to say it’s without it’s own thrilling twists and turns.  Adapted by writer James Goldman from his own play, The Lion in Winter centers upon the political machinations of King Henry II of England and his would be heirs.  Though the many members of the family come together out of obligations to their familial ties, it’s clear throughout the course of the story that each is trying to outwit one another in a pursuit of power.  Henry (played magnificently by Peter O’Toole, who also previously played the same role in 1964’s Becket) has sired another child with his mistress and he seeks to legitimize the child and give him a claim to the throne over his older, grown sons Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) and John (Nigel Terry).  Complicating the family matters even more are the visiting Prince Phillip of France (Timothy Dalton) and the Queen Mother Elanor of Aquitaine (Kathrine Hepburn), both of whom stir up more disunity within the family for their own quest for power.  Taking place over the course of one tumultuous Christmas Eve, the story is an intriguing look at the back-stabbing squabbles of the ruling class.  As a movie, it’s a beautifully constructed film with authentic medieval flavor.  It’s also a tour de force of acting, with many rising stars like Hopkins and Dalton commanding the screen.  But above all else, it is the absolute queen Kathrine Hepburn who commands the film.  Winning the third of her four Oscars with her performance here, her presence elevates the movie to epic heights, and really takes her real life historical figure into the realm of legend.  Though intimate in scope, The Lion in Winter is nevertheless a Medieval classic in every way.

9.

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (2005)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Taking the opposite direction from The Lion in Winter’s intimate story of inter-family politics, we see here a prime example of epic filmmaking within a Medieval setting ramped up to it’s zenith.  Director Ridley Scott had already modernized the sword and sandal epic with his Oscar winning Gladiator (2000) just a few years prior, and he looked to do the same with this Crusades era epic centered around the Battle of Jerusalem.  Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out the same way.  20th Century Fox butchered Scott’s original vision to release it in theaters in a more palatable 2 1/2 hour runtime.  Sadly, the theatrical cut was an uneven mess that failed at the box office.  But, somehow Ridley was able to convince the studio to release his original 3 hour and 15 minute version on home video and audiences were able to see the movie as he originally intended.  What we discovered was not only a movie far superior to the one released in theaters, but probably one of the greatest medieval war epics ever made.  The character motivations made more sense, the flow of the story was more natural, and it was far more introspective of the themes throughout the story.  Written by screenwriter William Monaghan, the story focuses on a lowly farmer named Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) who through lineage and perseverance finds himself transported from the snowy fields of France to the scorching deserts of the Middle East, where he in turn ends up commanding a defense of Jerusalem from the Sarasin army of Muslim warrior King Saladin (Ghassan Massoud).  The epic adventure has all the grandeur you’d expect, but the longer cut also provides an interesting meditation on the morality of war.  What Scott and Monaghan do so well in the story is their fair portrayal of both sides in the battle.  Saladin is shown to be an honorable leader, as is his counterpart on the Christian side, the leper King Baldwin (a remarkable uncredited and masked Edward Norton), and it’s the Zealot agitators on the edges that are truly responsible for the atrocities of the Crusades.  The movie was made in the midst of the ramp-up of the War on Terror, and the movie illustrates the folly of “holy wars” and imperialist nation building.  Sadly, the movie that illustrated that the best was left off the big screen in favor of a truncated version free of controversy.  At least Ridley Scott was able to get his version seen in the end and it should be the only version anyone ever sees.

8.

ALEXANDER NEVSKY (1938)

Directed by Sergei Eisenstein

Even the Soviets knew the crowd pleasing force that epic Medieval adventure could have on the big screen.  Pioneering filmmaker Eisenstein, who made a name for himself and Russian cinema with silent epics like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1927), continued into the sound era with rousing propaganda adventures meant to spotlight the glory of the Russian worker post Revolution.  However, his often extravagant films were criticized as too bourgeois for the more hard lined Stalinist regime.  Still, when Russia needed a rousing adventure film to move the masses, he was called upon to deliver.  During the 1930’s, the Soviets were concerned by the rising power of Fascism coming from Germany under the reign of Hitler.  To convince the Russian people of the evils of Germany, the Soviet regime enlisted Eisenstein to adapt a famous Russian legend of a noble Prince named Alexander Nevsky who successfully defended the Russian people from an invasion from Teutonic (i.e. German) invaders.  And deliver he did, with a magnificent Medieval epic that transcends it’s propaganda origins.  Alexander Nevsky is one of the most exquisitely crafted epic movies of it’s era, with Eisenstein pushing the limits of scale and drama to the extreme.  The production design is top notch, and has even set the standard high not just for Russian cinema, but even that of Hollywood.  The harrowing battle on a river of ice is a particular highlight that is still unmatched nine decades later.  What is particularly surprising is that Eisenstein was inspired not just by cinema from European contemporaries, but from an unlikely Western source as well; Disney.  His staging and camera composition, as well as his use of music, actually owes a lot of influence to some of the more epic cartoons that the animation studio was churning out at the time, including the groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937).  The Western influence was perhaps too noticeable, because Stalin banned the film for several years after a peace treaty was signed with Hitler’s Germany in 1938.  That treaty didn’t last long, and war soon broke out, forcing the movie to be released in full finally, however it was too late for Eisenstein whose good standing with the Soviet government was never able to recover.

7.

SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)

Directed by Clyde Geronimi, Eric Larson, and Hamilton Luske

Speaking of Disney, they’ve had their own long history with movies in a Medieval setting.  With fairy tales being the source of most of their most noteworthy movies, it seems only natural that one or two would be set in a Medieval period.  The already mentioned Snow White certainly centers it’s story in a vaguely Medieval, Germanic setting, and Disney also did their own spin on Arthurian and Robin Hood legends with 1963’s The Sword in the Stone and 1973’s Robin Hood.  But, if there is one movie that is unmistakably tied to Medieval times in both story and it’s visual aesthetic, it’s Sleeping Beauty.  Before you say that I’m bending the rules to include this here, I want to point out that despite the fantasy elements this version of the story is based on the Charles Perrault adaptation, which firmly sets the story of Briar Rose in a distinctly Medieval French setting.  And I think above all the other movies on this list, this movie does the best job of conveying the feel of the middle ages through art.  Walt Disney wanted this film to look different from any he made before, and in particular, he wanted it to look like a moving medieval tapestry come to life.  Long before the Renaissance would revolutionize the art of painting, the most common artform in the middle ages was weaving tapestries for the walls of castles.  Within them, they immortalized great achievements by kings and knights, and did so with remarkable, stylized graphic detail.  Disney translated this look into the angular, sharp edged style of Sleeping Beauty, which conveys a look of unmistakable medieval influence.  The forest scenes alone are spectacular in their attention to the tiniest details.  Disney also romanticizes the epic adventure aspect of the story in a way no one else could, with grand palatial castles that seem to extend on forever, and an epic battle between the forces of good and evil that is one of the grandest things ever put on screen.  The final battle between the Prince and the evil fairy Maleficent in her dragon form is the stuff of cinema legend.  It certainly sets in the audience’s eye the ideal for how a medieval adventure should look, and it certainly does a lot to spotlight just how interesting the artwork of that period was.

6.

EXCALIBUR (1981)

Directed by John Boorman

Sticking with a segment of the medieval era depicted on screen, we find one of the most imaginative retellings of the legend of King Arthur.  The origins of the King Arthur legend and his mythical kingdom of Camelot are still a mystery to many historians, but they are still a large part of the grander cultural identity of the British isles.  Much of what we honor as the ideals of the chivalry of knights and their codes of honor stems from the Arthurian legends.  And with this version directed by the always unconventional John Boorman, we get one of the most ethereal retellings of the age old legend, while still remarkably staying true to it’s source material.  You get all the expected extravagance of a typical medieval epic, as well as some the oddball touches that the Zardoz filmmaker was known for.  There’s a half demented Merlin hanging around (played to perfection by Nicol Williamson), a Knights of the Round Table cast that includes Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson in their earliest film roles, as well as Helen Mirren playing an evil sorceress.  But perhaps what makes the movie work as well as it does is the fact that it feels much less like a product of Hollywood and more like the product of an artist trying to convey a true feeling of the story’s medieval roots.  Boorman shot most of the movie in real castles in Ireland, and almost all of the movie is on location around these monuments or outside in the surrounding forests.  There’s a level of authenticity found here, where the medieval setting feels more lived in, than previous films had ever captured before, and it helped to set a new standard for many of the medieval setting movies that were to come after.  You can see from the rise of fantasy films throughout the mid to late 80’s the strong influence of Boorman’s Excalibur.  Though Arthurian tales are plentiful in the history of cinema, few have been as influential as this one was.

5.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938)

Directed by Michael Curtiz

On top of King Arthur, the other go to medieval legend that has been a stalwart in Hollywood has been that of Robin Hood.  It almost seems like every generation is eager to deliver it’s own new spin on the character, and we’ve seen Sir Robin of Locksley make it to the silver screen dozens of times now.  Whether it’s Disney’s fox, the aging version brought to life by Sean Connery, or the different star vehicle versions with Kevin Costner or Russell Crowe, there are plenty that first come to mind when we think of the name Robin Hood.  But, if we were to point out the greatest cinematic version of the legendary story, most would point to this adaptation from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Perhaps one of the greatest swashbucklers to ever come out of the Hollywood system, The Adventures of Robin Hood is the epitome of classic Hollywood.  With dashing Australian matinee idol Errol Flynn in the titular role, we get a Robin Hood that is all parts handsome, charismatic and worth rooting for.  His appeal as a rebellious figure in the face of injustice was particularly poignant for it’s time as both America and Britain were witnessing the rise of Fascism throughout Europe.  Making Robin Hood a champion of the oppressed helped to mold this centuries old legend into something that could motivate modern day audiences, much in the same way Sergei Eisenstein was doing at the same time with Alexander Nevsky.  Regardless of it’s higher meaning, the movie set the bar high for medieval adventure filmmaker for many years after.  Though glossy as most historical movies of that time were, Adventures of Robin Hood is a technicolor extravaganza, with the colors of all the costumes and the sets just leaping off the screen.  Though many Robin Hood movies have come after, I don’t think any have come close to being as thoroughly delightful as what what we see here.  It’s high adventure at it’s best.  Whether he’s swinging from tree to tree, firing arrows at far away targets, or doing one on one battle with the nefarious Sir Guy of Gisborne (Basil Rathbone), Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood stands tall amongst all the rest.

4.

THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman

Now we have a medieval movie that certainly lives up to that moniker.  Far from the sugar-coated view of Medieval times that Hollywood presented, Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on mortality is as grim as it gets.  Set in the midst of a breakout of the black death across Europe, we follow a set of common people living in Medieval Sweden who are constantly in fear of the specter of death that hangs around them.  Death even appears in physical form as a man dressed in black robes (played by Bengt Ekerot) who challenges a knight returned from the Crusades (the late Max von Sydow) to a game of chess.  Highly symbolic, Bergman’s story nevertheless is grounded in it’s medieval setting.  In many ways, this was the most accurate depiction of life in Medieval times that movie audiences had seen.  The hardship of the peasantry struggling to live in harsh times is certainly something that hadn’t been seen on the big screen, as Hollywood was more intrigued by the high chivalrous aspects of the time period.  Bergman’s medieval world is harsh, grimey and without much chivalry to speak of.  Even Max von Sydow’s knight is treated with much less chivalry than what was coming out of Hollywood.  Despite the grimness of the story, Bergman’s Seventh Seal is captivating as our band of characters try their best to stay out of death’s way, which we ultimately learn is a foolish endeavor.  Coming out of our most recent pandemic, The Seventh Seal takes on even more relevance, as we see so much civility and normality fall down around us in response to a microbial threat that we are still trying to come to grips with.  It’s a still haunting tale that uses it’s medieval setting to glorious effect.  In many ways, it echoes the kind of fables that would have been told in those times, which would have been shared in response to hardships that medieval people had to endure.  You probably won’t find a more poetic image in cinema than the danse macabre that closes the film, as Death leads our band of characters into the afterlife in an unforgettable hillside parade.

3.

MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)

Directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam

And now for something completely different.  The legendary comedy team behind Monty Python’s Flying Circus made their big screen debut with this parody of medieval epics, and did so in the silliest way they could.  Typical of their legendary irreverent style of comedy, the movie eviscerates every medieval movie trope known.  Each new segment of the movie is full of quotable lines and the most ridiculous slapstick, and each has become the stuff of legend in their own right.  There’s the Castle of the French Taunters, the Black Knight who defends his post to the point of lunacy, the Knights who say Ni, the viscous white rabbit guarding the cave who can only be bested by the Holy Hand Grenade, and the sexy adventure through Castle Anthrax.  Each episode is more ridiculous than the next and showcases the six person squad of comedic geniuses (Terry Jones, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, and Terry Gilliam) at their very best.  In addition to all the insanity, the movie does feel authentic to it’s medieval roots as well.  It’s clear that these scholarly comedians are thoroughly familiar with Arthurian legends, and have a deep understanding of English history as well; all of which gets mocked incessantly throughout the movie.  At the same time, the movie’s micro budget actually works in it’s favor, as it gives the medieval setting a more earthbound, lived in feel.  Most of the movie was actually shot around a real castle in Scotland, which had to play the part of many different castles throughout the movie.  And the on location feel of the movie really helps to make it feel authentic; something Excalibur would also do a few years later with a more substantial budget.  Holy Grail is to many the pinnacle of the Monty Python output, and even almost 50 years later it’s still one of the funniest movies ever made.  How many people do you know have quoted some part of this movie, from “Tis but a scratch,” to “Go away or I shall taunt you a second time.”  But if there is one quote that perfect sums up the insanity of the movie’s medieval setting, it’s, “Let’s not go to Camelot.  Tis a silly place.”

2.

BRAVEHEART (1995)

Directed by Mel Gibson

Putting all the controversy about Mr. Gibson aside, there is no doubt that he captured something unique with his Oscar winning film Braveheart.  The only movie with a medieval setting to ever claim the Best Picture prize at the Academy Awards, Braveheart is not without it’s own controversies.  Historians, particularly Scottish historians, will tell you that this movie is filled to the brim with historical inaccuracies; to the point of being more fiction than fact.  But, given that Hollywood has had a long history of fudging with historical facts to make their stories more entertaining, it doesn’t seem that unusual that Braveheart would do the same as well.  And that’s the point behind Gibson’s story about the Scottish rebel known as William Wallace.  He wanted to make history into legend and tell a rousing story in the process like the historical epics that Hollywood used to make.  And while historians balked, audiences embraced this epic adventure.  Many claim it’s even been responsible for revitalizing renewed interest in Scottish independence from the United Kingdom.  For the most part, Gibson’s direction does what most great epics of the past have done which is take full advantage of the tricks of the trade that are at his disposal.  Before Braveheart, you usually would see epic battles shown from a distance, which allowed the audience to see the vastness of the scene in full.  But Mel puts the camera right in the middle of the action on the ground, showing the audience all the bloody mayhem up close.  It’s some of the most harrowing combat ever put on screen and in many ways it would set the standard for epic battles for the next several decades.  You can see the imprint of Braveheart in everything from Gladiator, to The Lord of the Rings, to even Game of Thrones on television.  At the same time, Mel keeps the internal story interesting, with a supporting cast that feels authentically at home in this world.  Of special note is Patrick McGoohan as King Edward Longshanks, one of the most unforgettable movie villains ever and a personal favorite of mine.  As far as medieval epics go, you’ll be pressed to find one that checks all the boxes as effectively as Braveheart does; one of the absolute benchmarks of it’s genre.

1.

SEVEN SAMURAI (1954)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Strangely the greatest movie with a medieval setting isn’t what most people would consider typically medieval.  But, out East, while Europe was in the midst of it’s middle ages and saw the rise of kings and knights, the Island of Japan was also in the midst of it’s own feudal rise to prominence.  Instead of knights in chain mail and armor, Japan had Samurai who had mastered the art of swordplay.  This era too has been mined for cinematic retellings, and out of Japan’s cinema industry rose one of the greatest filmmakers of all time; Akira Kurosawa.  Though he worked in genres both historical and contemporary, Kurosawa had an special fondness for this period of his nation’s history and he would return to the Samurai genre many times.  Of all his movies set within this medieval period, none stands out more than what many consider (like me) to be his masterpiece; Seven Samurai.  Seven Samurai is not a specific fable important to Japanese history, but instead tells a more intimate story of common people trying to survive the hardships of their times.  Much like Bergman’s Seventh SealSamurai is more about a universal lesson in the nature of mankind that resonates far beyond it’s medieval setting.  Even still, Kurosawa tells this simple story in the most epic way possible.  The titular samurai all come together to protect a small village from a band of marauders who terrorize them daily, and over the course of the movie, we learn more about them as individuals.  It’s a story that can be transposed to any place in the world, and has as it’s been turned into everything from a Western to a Pixar animated film starring bugs.  There have even been re-imaginings of it in a medieval European setting, which is appropriate given the time period.  Still, the story feels most at home in it’s Samurai genre beginnings, and it showcases just how interesting that period in time was to Japanese, and world history.  Though half a world away from where we expect it, the finest example of a movie making the most of it’s medieval setting is found over in the land of the Rising Sun, and that’s first and foremost because it’s not only a great movie within it’s own genre, but one of the greatest movies ever made period.

So, there you have my picks for the best medieval movies ever made.  As you can see, I tried to look beyond just Hollywood and see the time period in a more global sense.  A lot of these cultures were more interconnected than you’d think, as things like the Mongol Empire and the Age of Discovery connected once disparate cultures faster than ever before.  Seven Samurai may be world’s away from the knights in armor epics of Hollywood, but at the same time it still has a lot in common, particularly with it’s themes and the way it stages itself.  Kurosawa himself was influenced by Hollywood epics, so it makes sense that they would also take inspiration from him in this cyclical exchange of creative ideas within the global cinematic market.  Still, I imagine that when most people think of Medieval set movies, they first will think of the films centered around legends like Robin Hood and King Arthur, and that’s a pretty good assessment of the genre’s identity in all of cinema.  Medieval movies are the homes of legends.  It’s where we go to find rousing adventures that transport us to a different time and place.  As we’ve seen, they’ve been used as powerful propaganda tools like Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, and have also shaped the standards of cinematic art like Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.  They also help to turn unknown figures lost in the annals of history into instant legends, like Braveheart did with William Wallace.  They are also effective in preserving the legends of the past that we otherwise have little written records of; an effective continuation of oral tradition passed on into modern times.  I do wish that the historical epic wasn’t too much of a risk for Hollywood studios to undertake today.  There are some that try to revitalize this long dormant genre, like Netflix’s Outlaw King (2018) and The King (2019), and this year we are getting two ambitious twists on the genre with David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) and Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel (2021).  Hopefully these two succeed in finding an audience and help to prove that medieval epic movies have their place in contemporary cinema.  Medieval tales of knights, kings, and yes even samurai, have their place in our culture as tried and true legends, and naturally their movies fulfill that same glory.

The Director’s Chair – Quentin Tarantino

In the years following Hollywood’s Golden Age, a new crop of filmmakers rose up that not only possessed the skills to make movies of their own, but were also keen on the importance and historical significance of the movies that had influenced them.  For the first time, a generation of filmmakers were making movies that were reflective of the movies that had come a generation prior.  Many new filmmakers not only sought to replicate the kinds of movies that they had grown up with, but they also began to deconstruct them as well, viewing old tropes through newer sensibilities.  You can see this through the works of French New Wave auteurs like Jean-Luc Goddard and Francois Truffaut as their early films took heavy inspiration from pre and post-War film noir. And then there are the many directors like Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone who breathed new life into the Western, with far more attention paid to the horrific violence that really did mark the Old West.  You can also see how  old sci-fi serials of the past were reimagined by a filmmaker like George Lucas into a groundbreaking gamechanger called Star Wars (1977).  It was a generation that made a profound impact on cinema for several decades, and brought the industry into a whole different identity than where it started.  Even still, there is a consistent line of new filmmakers standing on the shoulders of those that had come before them, and using their influence to inspire what was to come next.  So, it’s interesting to see what kind of new generation would follow in the footsteps of the first generation fully influenced by the cinema of the past.  It turns out that the cycle keeps moving along, as each new generation strives to replicate the kinds of movies that left a deep impression on them.  Particularly with a generation as rebellious and experimental as those that had risen up in the 60’s and 70’s, it was going to be interesting to many scholars of cinema how the next generation would develop in it’s wake.  Indeed, beginning within the early 90’s, a new crop of filmmakers did begin to emerge and change the face of cinema again, and one of the most noteworthy of those new voices was a fresh young rebel named Quentin Tarantino.

Born in Knoxville, Tennessee but raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Tarantino seemed born destined to be a filmmaker.  Spending much of his early years going to movie theaters in the heart of Hollywood, Tarantino not only grew an appreciation for the movies that the studio system was putting out, but also the ones that were being made on the fringes as well.  Tarantino is an unashamed fan of what has been deemed over time as “grindhouse” cinema.  These were movies made on the slimmest of budgets, often dealing with taboo subjects and containing many button pushing elements, and were almost always showing in cheap seat theaters that were not always well kept.  These were movies that challenged the mainstream, and Tarantino ate them up with pride.  Whether they were Spaghetti Westerns, Blaxploitation, or just the average raunchy comedy, these movies spoke to the still developing mind of Tarantino during these formative years.  Before embarking on a filmmaking career, Tarantino worked in a video store, where his deep knowledge of cinema made him a natural source of recommendations to customers.  Through the encouragement of some industry friends, Quentin began working on screenplays that he hoped to one day sell and help him break into the film industry that he had such an affinity for.  In those early days, he would craft the stories that eventually formed the foundations of True Romance (1993) and From Dusk ’til Dawn (1994).  In the meantime, he earned a little extra money as a part time actor, including playing an Elvis impersonator on an episode of The Golden Girls.  The residuals for that gig alone help him secure enough money to start development on his first feature as a director, Reservoir Dogs (1991).  Though modest in budget and scope, Dogs nevertheless revealed Tarantino’s unique voice and it immediately put him in the spotlight.  The meteoric rise continued with his second feature, Pulp Fiction, which won the Palm d’Or at Cannes and helped Tarantino earn his first Oscar for the Screenplay.  Since then, he has remained a Hollywood fixture, and without a doubt the most influential filmmaker of his generation.  In this article, I’m going to examine all the noteworthy things about his movies that stand out and define him as a filmmaker.  And no, feet will not be one of the filmmaker trademarks I’m going to spotlight.  So, let’s put Quentin Tarantino in the Director’s chair and see what makes his movies both noteworthy and entirely unique.

1.     

UNFLINCHING VIOLENCE

Even in his earliest movies, it’s readily apparent that Tarantino is not one to sugarcoat onscreen violence.  Throughout the entirety of Reservoir Dogs, actor Tim Roth’s character is bleeding out from a gunshot to his gut, the result of a botched robbery he played a part of.  And that’s one of the least gruesome acts committed in the movie.  Another character, Mr. Blonde (played memorably by Michael Madsen) cuts the ear off of a hostage he has taken.  Tarantino drifts the camera away when the gruesome act is committed, but you do see the aftermath, grotesque ear cavity and all.  This unflinching look at violent acts extends all the way through his filmography.  Even the movies he wrote and didn’t direct (True Detective, From Dusk ’til Dawn and 1994’s Natural Born Killers) have the same focus on violence.  But at the same time, it isn’t violence without reason or purpose.  Tarantino purposely wants you to feel something viscerally when you see it on screen.  A lot of the reason he puts it in is movies is due to the influence he took from the grindhouse movies of the past.  Just like how those movies pushed the envelope with their depictions of on screen violence, making liberal use of blood packs and gory make-up to drive home the fact that these movies were outside of the mainstream and proud of it.  Some would see it as exploitive and there have been complaints from some that Tarantino glorifies violence.  But he has pushed back on that claim many times, stating how essential the violence is in his movies.  One of the things that you commonly see in his movies is how the violence usually erupts when you least expect it.  The ending of Once Upon a Time ..in Hollywood (2019) for instance is a particularly shocking outburst of violence, that’s both uneasy and hilariously abrupt.  The montage of a gory car wreck in Death Proof (2007) also showcases how Tarantino pushes the envelope to get a reaction out of his audience.  Other films that aren’t quite as gory, like Inglorious Basterds  (2009) or Django Unchained (2012) still have a fair share of their movie centered around acts of violence, so it’s something that is present throughout his work.  He’ll agree, these movies aren’t for everybody, but at the same time, he holds true to the fact that violence in his movies should never be done as a compromise.

2.

GREAT, QUOTABLE DIALOGUE

Tarantino by trade is a film director, but he will probably tell you that his foremost talent is in screenwriting.  There is no doubt that the thing that most people take away from his movies is just how fresh and memorable the dialogue in it is.  Quentin’s voice really is what distinguishes him the most, and it’s what has set him apart from most of his contemporaries.  There have been many independent filmmakers in his wake that have tried to imitate the Tarantino style, but almost all of them have failed.  No one writes like Tarantino, and I think that it’s because he puts so much of his own mind into the things he writes.  Quentin’s special talent is his use of non-sequiturs in his dialogue, which is the characters talking about stuff that means nothing to the overall plot, but at the same time, reveals so much about the characters themselves.  The back and forth discussion about McDonald’s menu items in France between Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules and John Travolta’s Vincent in Pulp Fiction is a perfect example.  Talking about the “Royale with Cheese” ultimately is just two old colleagues wasting time on a way to a job, but from that discussion, we learn so much about who these two are.  Tarantino loves his character building monologues, and it’s especially fulfilling for him when he can base so much of his character interactions on film nerd discussions that he’s probably had with his own friends over the years.  The opening of Reservoir Dogs I almost guarnatee is based on a real discussion he’s had at parties over the meaning of Madonna’s discography, and it makes it all the more interesting that this is how Tarantino chooses to introduce these characters to us.  It’s not all pop culture though.  Quentin has often said one of his most favorite things he has ever written is the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds, which introduces the fearsome Colonel Hans Landa (played spectacularly by Christoph Waltz), and it’s easy to see why.  It’s one of the most unnerving introductions of a villain in cinema history, and Quentin brilliantly conveys the true menace of the character not through actions but through words alone.  Even the way Tarantino structures his movies, often in a non-linear way, is done only in the way that makes sense when he does it.  There have been so many copycats, but Tarantino the writer is still an unmatched original.

3.

UNFORGETTABLE NEEDLE-DROP SOUNDTRACKS

On top of Tarantino’s cinema influences, it’s also easy to see what kinds of music left a deep impression on him as he grew up.  No doubt, listening to the top 40 radio stations in the Los Angeles area stuck with him as throughout all of his movies, he likes to underscore his scenes with a carefully chosen selection of classic hits.  Sometimes he’ll include a universally known song, or he may use a deep cut.  Part of the fun of watching his movies is not knowing what you’ll hear next, and being surprised by the ingenious selection.  Even more interesting is when he subverts a scene by setting the mood with an unexpected track.  The already mentioned ear slicing torture scene in Reservoir Dogs is made all the more noteworthy by the fact that Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You” plays through it all; with Michael Madsen dancing unnervingly to the beat.  Even when working in a bygone time period, Quentin will throw in an anachronistic choice like David Bowie’s “Cat People” into Inglorious Basterds or Jim Croce’s ” I Got a Name” into Django Unchained, and it will still make complete sense to the story he’s telling.  The man just has an ear for music, and knowing which popular songs work best in the stories that he’s telling.  Some music that otherwise had fallen into obscurity over the years sometimes have been revived thanks to it’s placement in one of his movies.  The now iconic use of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” for the opening credits of Pulp Fiction cemented that guitar heavy instrumental in pop culture, and is often used whenever anyone does a parody of Pulp Fiction in any other medium.  He doesn’t just use any kind of pop music; it’s music from a specific period in time that was influential to Tarantino in his formative years.  It’s another part of his own character that he injects into his movies and helps to make them uniquely his own.  We are listening to the soundtrack that he himself would hear if he were living in the world of these characters.

4.

DEEPLY, DEEPLY FLAWED CHARACTERS

There is definitely one thing to say about the characters in Tarantino movies and that’s for the most part nearly all of them should be judged on a morally relevant scale.  Because his movies often deal with characters living in a violent, crime ridden world, it’s often hard to say if there truly is a pure soul in any of his movies.  This is definitely true with movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.  Because of Pulp Fiction’s non-linear, anthology style plot, you’ll actually find instances where characters that are heroes in one plot thread turn out to be villains in another.  Another example of judging characters based with moral ambiguity is with the Basterds brigade in Inglorious Basterds.  In normal circumstances, we would be looking at these characters, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), as war criminals, but their atrocities are painted in a favorable light because they are committing them against the Nazis.  It’s probably the only movie in history where we are actually rooting for suicide bombers.  Even still, Tarantino makes sure that there are characters with righteous intentions behind their acts of violence.  This includes the Bride (Uma Thurman) in the Kill Bill duology, or Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) in Inglorious Basterds, or Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) in Jackie Brown (1997).  Just as violence is a part of the fabric within all of Tarantino’s movies, so is the impact it has on the characters, and it asks us the audience to consider the moral implications along the way.  Yes, in many cases, these are bad people doing bad things, but in the context of these stories, it asks us to question if there is a morally justified reason to use violence in order to seek justice.  It could be that, or sometimes it’s just Tarantino showing how messed up a world we live in, like putting a sympathetic spin on a character named Cliff Booth (Pitt again) in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood who probably, almost certainly killed his own wife.

5.

CINEMA ON A PEDASTAL

It’s an almost unmistakable fact in watching Tarantino’s movies that he is a man who is in love with the art of cinema.  Whether it’s referencing movies throughout his different films, or actually incorporating them as an element of the plot, the movies are always a fixture of his filmography.  You can see the Tarantino’s cinephile side come out strong in moments like the Jackrabbit’s Diner scene in Pulp Fiction, where the waiters and waitresses are all dressed like 50’s pop culture icons, and John Travolta’s Vincent Vega knows the difference between Jane Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe.  Cinema also plays a key role in the plot of Inglorious Basterds, as the big climatic finale is set within a movie premiere.  More recently, Quentin devoted an entire movie as an ode to a bygone era in the dream factory itself with Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, even going so far as to actually recreate the look of Hollywood Boulevard in the 1960 by redressing the facades of the real place to make them exactly as they word decades before.  Even apart from that, Tarantino loves to honor past generations who were a major influence on him by including them in his movies.  He helped to bring back long overlooked actors like Laurence Tierney, Robert Forester, and Pam Grier and gave them important roles that helped to revitalize their long dormant careers.  And even outside of his films, Tarantino has been a passionate champion for traditional cinema.  He refuses to work with digital cameras, working exclusively with good old fashioned film stock, and he even has experimented with using long out of use film formats, like the ultra wide Panavision 70 on his movie The Hateful Eight (2015), a format that hadn’t been used in over 50 years.  He only is so adamant about the kinds of equipment he uses on set because it’s his way of honoring the history of filmmaking that means so much to him, and he wants to preserve it as much as he can.  His passion for physical film media even extends to presentation, as he became the owner of the New Beverly Cinema, a single screen venue south of Hollywood, where movies are shown solely with actual film stock.  Just this year, Tarantino added the legendary Vista Theater in the Los Feliz neighborhood to his collection, which shows that his commitment to preserving the theatrical experience, with a strong emphasis on real, physical film, remains strong to this day.

There is little doubt that years from now the name Quentin Tarantino will remain a prominent one in the annals of film history.  Carving out his own, uncompromised niche in the Hollywood community, he has become one of the rare, unvarnished talents in the whole of the industry.  Very few filmmakers have the kind of creative freedom that he has managed to secure for himself, and that’s mainly because Tarantino has been especially effective in endearing audiences to his unique style and consistently managing to bring people back to the cinemas solely based on his own brand alone.  Everyone now knows what they are getting with each new Tarantino movie, and he hasn’t failed to deliver yet.  In fact the only thing that may get in his way is his own self.  For years, Tarantino has stated that he is quitting directing after his 10th film, which should be the one that comes next.  It seems like a premature time to hang things up, but Quentin insists that he’s rather go out at ten films, than continue on and lose his edge like he’s seen happen to so many other directors that he loves.  I personally don’t buy that, and I think he’s being a tad too hard on himself thinking that mediocrity is his ultimate destiny if he continues to make movies into his twilight years.  It’s where his obsession with movie history ultimately becomes a hinderance on his own self worth.  I hope that Tarantino sees it a different way in his later years, and I believe that a premature retirement are not in the cards for him.  He’s too talented, and I for one don’t believe that talented people just stop cold turkey.  The creative bug will catch him again and he’ll make more than 10 movies in his career.  As for now, we have a pretty eclectic body of work to appreciate from the last 30 years, and most of them have stood the test of time and can still be viewed just as well today.  What will be interesting is if another Tarantino like individual will rise up in the years ahead whose style owes itself in part to that of Quentin Tarantino.  Like how Quentin has used his movies to honor the ones who came before him, I’m sure that some future filmmaker will do the same, and Quentin will see that as it’s own reward.  He knows he stands on the shoulders of giants of the past, and I’m sure that the greatest joy in his life is knowing that the next generation that will redefine cinema will be the ones that stand upon his.

Black Widow – Review

It is pretty remarkable to look back and see where Marvel had managed to get to in 2019.  It was closing out the Phase Three era with the conclusion of it’s Infinity Stone storyline that had crossed over nearly two dozen films over 10 years.  With the double whammy releases of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), Marvel Studios claimed the crown as the ultimate kings of the box office.  But they weren’t done yet.  Even as Endgame put a nice button on all the events that had led up to it, Marvel was still setting the stage for what was going to come next.  On the horizon was Phase Four, which looked to be even more ambitious than what Marvel had done before, expanding their cinematic universe even further (and even into a multiverse).  The ambitious plan not only called for continued stories on the big screen, but also mini-series releases streaming on Disney+, the platform of Marvel’s parent company.  Given how huge a year Marvel had in 2019, with an extra assist from Captain Marvel (2019) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), it only looked like the next year was going to be even grander.  Cue global pandemic.  The Covid-19 virus outbreak ground everything to a halt, including Marvel’s plans for the year 2020.  Every planned release in that year had to be pushed back, including the ones that were done and in the can.  For the first time since 2009, we had a year without anything new from Marvel Studios.  After a decade long run of dominance, this was an unusual sight.  But, as the pandemic has thankfully waned, those delayed projects are also finally making their way to audiences, although done in a way that none of the team at Marvel likely intended.  Instead of relying on cinemas, which are still recovering, Marvel launched Phase Four instead on Disney+ with Wandavision, and continued through the Spring and Summer with The Falcon and Winter Soldier and Loki series; none of which were supposed to lead the charge originally.  Instead, that distinction was originally intended for a movie that finally gives the spotlight to one of the founding members of the Avengers: Black Widow (2021).

Black Widow’s history in the MCU goes almost all the way back to it’s very beginning.  She made her first appearance in Iron Man 2 (2010) played by Scarlett Johansson, who would continue on through the next ten years, playing the character in several crossover events during that time.  Though not given much to do in her first outing, Black Widow’s presence grew over time in the MCU, eventually becoming one of the six original Avengers.  And though Scarlett Johansson brought a great amount of strength to her performance, there has been an unfortunate aspect to Black Widow’s place within the MCU.  She essentially was there in the beginning to be eye candy for the male centric audiences that Super Hero movies originally catered to, especially when you take notice of the skin tight costumes she used to wear and the provocative hero stances she would pose in the movies.  Not only that, but there was an element of tokenism with her placement in the team.  But, thanks to Scarlett’s influence over the character, she was able to rise above these controversial aspects of the character, and helped to make Black Widow not only a standout in the Avengers team, but also an essential member who takes on leadership, even over those more physically powerful than her.  And in turn, Black Widow became a positive role model for young girls who over the last ten years have become the most rapidly growing segment of comic book fandom.  Not only that, women were now pushing to tell their own stories their own way within the genre.  She was the trendsetter in proving that these movies were not just for teenage boys anymore; they were for everyone.  So, over time, demand grew higher for Black Widow to get a movie of her own, which Marvel eventually agreed to.  Despite the long wait that resulted from the 2020 pandemic, we are now finally able to see Black Widow take to the big screen in her own story.  The only question is, is it a story worth telling or is it one that doesn’t do justice to a character we’ve grown to love over the last 10 years.

There are some small spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t seen Captain America: Civil War (2016) or Avengers: Infinity War, as this story takes place in between the two.  Following the events of Civil War, which saw the break-up of the Avengers and leading the likes of Captain America, The Falcon, and Ant-Man to become fugitives of the law, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) aka Black Widow, also finds herself on the run, after she helped the others escape by attacking Black Panther.  Now a fugitive herself, she is having to escape General Ross (William Hurt) and his forces, who are in hot pursuit.  With the help of her tech engineer Mason (O-T Fagbenle), she manages to find a safe haven off the grid, but the peace and quiet doesn’t last long.  After receiving a mysterious package from an unknown sender, she is immediately attacked by a masked assassin known as Taskmaster, who has the special ability to mimic any fight move against an opponent.  After evading Taskmaster, Natasha follows some clues to that leads her to another safe house in Budapest.  There she meets up with the one who sent the package, Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), another Widow assassin who shares a history with Natasha, as they were pretend sisters in a sleeper cell family cover set up by the Russians 30 years ago in rural America.  Yelena thought she could trust Natasha with the package, which contains vials of a mysterious red liquid, because of her Avengers connections, but Taskmaster and other Widow agents have caught up to them.  After nearly escaping, Yelena tells Natasha that the Red Room where both of them received their training is still operational, and under the stewardship of notorious Russian criminal Dreykov (Ray Winstone), who Natasha thought she had already assassinated years ago in a mission that granted her a place in S.H.I.E.L.D.  They resolve to take Dreykov and the Red Room down, and to do that, they need the help of the two people who pretended to be their parents all those year ago; Alexei (David Harbour) who was Red Guardian (Russia’s answer to Captain America), and Melina (Rachel Weisz) who is still Dreykov’s chemical expert.  With the “family” back together, will they be able to take down the mighty machine that is the Red Room, as well as their ultimate weapon, the Taskmaster.

Part of the excitement surrounding the release of Black Widow is the fact that we had to wait so long for it to happen.  In addition to the tragic consequences of what the pandemic did to the theatrical industry, it was also just strange not having anything from Marvel for over a year after they had been so omnipresent in the years before.  There were several worries over that time that Marvel was going to just end up skipping theaters overall and release Black Widow on streaming, which would’ve been a devastating blow for the theaters.  But, thankfully Marvel and Disney remained resolute in giving Black Widow the big screen treatment, though they did have to compromise with a hybrid Disney+ Premiere Access release as well.  After multiple date shifts, we now are able to see the movie that we’ve long been waiting for.  But after a year of delays, how does the movie play today after all that has gone down.  To be honest, I think the delay may have actually favored Black Widow in the long run, because had it come out in the summer of 2020 right on the heels of what we got from Avengers: Endgame, I think audiences might have been a little underwhelmed by this movie.  Black Widow is a serviceable movie, but not a big game-changer like many of the more recent Marvel movies we’ve been seeing.  It’s giving us more or less a Marvel version of a Jason Bourne movie.  It does fit with the character of Black Widow, but there’s not a whole lot beyond that as something that fits within a larger Marvel narrative.  Essentially, we are just seeing a stand alone side story focused on Black Widow  and nothing more.  It might be satisfying to many, and there is plenty within the movie that does satsify long time fans; but anyone expecting huge earth-shattering twists and turns should probably look elsewhere.  It’s hard to say how that would’ve played out in 2020 with Endgame so fresh in people’s minds.  With a little extra distance from that monumental achievement, a more standard film like Black Widow plays a little bit better, and removed from it’s original intention of launching Phase Four also helps the movie out as well.  It’s a movie that in many ways feels like an obligation, but even still, it works on it’s own merits.

The one nagging aspect of the movie is the question of whether it was a story that needed to be told.  It’s kind of strange watching this movie after having seen Endgame because (spoilers), Natasha ends up sacrificing her life to see the mission to it’s end.  Knowing that, it takes away some of the drama surrounding her character in this movie.  We know she’s going to live by the end of this story so that she could be a part of Infinity War and Endgame, and we also know that beyond that she no longer will be a part of the cinematic universe due to her death in Endgame.  So, Black Widow is a story very much out of place in the continuing Marvel storyline.  It’s like Marvel intended this story to be made way back in Phase Three, but the train had already left the station and they couldn’t make any more room for Black Widow’s story, so this movie is a make-up for having missed the stop before.  Honestly, I wish there was more to this movie, because a character like Black Widow and her actress Scarlett Johansson deserves a better sendoff than just a basic spy thriller.  She’s one of the original Avengers; a character that has done so much to increase female representation in Comic Book movies.  The movie Black Widow just assumes that audiences will accept it’s awkward placement in the timeline, which I’m sure that many will, but a character like her should have been given a more monumental sendoff.  Still, Marvel isn’t delivering a bad movie by any means.  There is still plenty to enjoy in the movie, with the usual slick balance between action, comedy, and suspense that Marvel has excelled at.  As a swan song, it falls short, but as an action packed spy thriller, it is definitely better than most.  You just have to go in with tempered expectations, because this movie is just going to deliver enough to warrant your time, but not enough to place it within the all time greatness of Marvel at it’s peak.

One troubling thing you’ll notice while watching the movie is that Black Widow is the least interesting character in the movie.  True, most of her character development has been spread out over the ten years that she was a part of the Avengers team, but even still, it’s a shame that she doesn’t command an even greater presence in her own movie.  The more meaty character development here belongs to the members of her “family,” which really belies the true intention of this movie; it’s here to pass the baton to the next generation.  It’s very clear that Florence Pugh’s Yelena is being set up as Scarlett Johansson’s successor in the Black Widow role in future Marvel projects.  And in that regard, the movie does do a very good job establishing her.  Yelena is great character, which Pugh plays to perfection.  She’s tough, funny, and more than holds her own in any conflict.  Her future is going to be pretty bright in the MCU, and I’m happy that she makes the obvious changing of the guard aspect of this movie feel earned.  David Harbour’s Alexei is also a great addition, as he provides a lot of the comic relief in this movie, as well as a genuine bit of charming vulnerability that makes his a character worth rooting for.  I especially love his fixation on how he stacks up against Captain America, with him at one point asking Natasha straight up, “Does he talk about me much?” much to her annoyance.  Rachel Weisz has much less of a presence in the movie, but she does use it well.  Indeed the best part of the movie is seeing this dysfunctional faux family come together and work off each other.  It does offer a little insight into Natasha’s character as well, and why protecting family is important to her.  Being an orphan who had her childhood stolen from her, she would do anything to protect any semblance of family that she had, and in time, she managed to become a part of two families of her own choosing; the one in this film and the Avengers.  Sadly the biggest letdown in the cast are the villains.  Ray Winstone is a great actor but here he is just a stock villain, which is disappointing after a string of strong Marvel baddies like Thanos, Killmonger, and Hela just to name a few.  And though Taskmaster looks pretty badass, there isn’t a whole lot beyond that, and the mystery of who is behind the mask is easily pieced together.  It’s a mixed bag, but thankfully the best characters in the movie are going to be the ones that have a future in the long run with Marvel.

As far as the action goes, the movie lacks the grandiosity of Marvel’s more out-there projects, but that’s kind of the point.  Black Widow is a much more grounded film, taking it’s visual cues from the likes of the previously mentioned Jason Bourne movies, as well as some James Bond and a little sprinkling of Mission: Impossible.  Director Cate Shortland proves to be perfectly capable of making these big set pieces work, but what I find she does best with are the more intimate action beats in the movie.  My favorite fight is actually one between Natasha and Yelena early in the movie.  It’s a scene that shows you don’t have to rely upon a bunch of CGI tech wizardry to pull a suspenseful scene off.  Sometimes you just need two really skilled stunt women throwing each other against the walls.  There’s also a really solid car chase through the streets of Budapest that rivals any that I’ve seen in other spy thrillers.  It’s at the point where CGI becomes ever more present that I think Shortland begins to lose her grasp of the action, and unfortunately that’s what makes up the final act of the movie.  The finale is honestly one of the messiest and least affecting that I have ever seen from Marvel, and it’s one of the main reasons why it knocked the movie down a peg for me with regards to other Marvel films.  Marvel, especially in recent years, has done a stellar job with building their movies up to satisfying resolutions, especially in the last two Avengers flicks.  But the finale to Black Widow is just loud and dumb, and so far removed from the grounded reality that made the rest of the movie work as well as it did.  It makes it even less effective when the movie just wraps everything up in a pat resolution, like the writers realized they needed to quickly wrap things up, and the audience is left wondering, “was that it?”  Overall, it is pleasing to see this kind of genre made through the guidance of women behind the camera just as much as in front of it.  Shortland, despite her lack of long term experience with action thrillers, does actually deliver some tense scenes that are on par with the genre.  But, given the way the movie ends, the whole thing turns out to be a mixed bag.

So, fair warning, don’t go into this movie expecting another Avengers level event.  It’s a perfectly serviceable movie in the Marvel canon, but nothing truly spectacular.  Like I mentioned before, the delay may have done the movie a service, because the pressure to follow up on Endgame was taken off of it’s shoulders.  Because of Marvel’s stellar track record, I think it’s at the point where we have to judge these movies on a curve compared to other Hollywood movies, much like what we do with Pixar now.  Compared to other spy thrillers out there, Black Widow is certainly a cut above, and especially groundbreaking in the fact that it shows this genre through a female perspective.  But, as a Marvel movie, I’m sorry to say that it actually falls into the bottom half.  It’s not bad by any means, but it falls short of the high bar that Marvel has set for itself.  It’s especially disappointing in the fact that it is the last we’ll ever see of Natasha Romanoff in the MCU.  What Scarlett Johansson has brought to the character over the last ten years should not be understated.  She transformed a sexist old trope into a genuine positive role model that has transformed the Marvel fandom for the better and opened the door for so many more female super heroes in her wake.  Marvel should have honestly given us a little more to digest than a “look what she was doing after Civil War” storyline.  I would’ve liked to have seen more of her backstory with regards to how she left the Red Room and joined S.H.I.E.L.D.  There’s so much to be mined there like what made her turn and how did she befriend Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).  They could have also done a soul-searching story about how she learned to cope with the tragedy that took place at the end of Infinity War.  Overall, I feel like there were better stories to tell than the one we got in this movie.  Natasha deserved better.  Even still, as a set-up for the future Black Widow adventures for Yelena, it does the job well enough.  Of course, there’s a not to be missed end credits scene that does indeed set up the next chapter.  Despite it’s disappointing elements, it is satisfying to see Marvel return to the cinemas once again after such a trying period.  And with exciting things on the horizon like Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao’s Eternals and sequels to Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, and Thor in the near future, along with all the Disney+ projects upcoming, Marvel is going to do just fine regardless how this movie performs.  As of now, it should be noted that despite it’s shortcomings, Black Widow magnificently sends off Scarlett Johansson’s decade long legacy as Natasha Romanoff with a movie that firmly establishes all the great changes she brought to the character that made her an icon for a generation.  It was perhaps a little too late, but better now than never and hopefully it’s the start of greater things down the road for Black Widow in the MCU.

Rating: 7.5/10