All posts by James Humphreys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collecting Criterion – M (1931)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dunkirk – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9.5/10

D23 Expo 2017 – Film Exhibition Report

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

THE SHOW FLOOR

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

THE BOOTHS

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

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

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

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

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

THE PANELS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE ATMOSPHERE

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

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Review

Once again I’m reviewing another entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, mainly because I find Marvel’s cinematic experiment so interesting in it’s size and scope.  With every new movie brings a new piece to the puzzle, and seeing the brand build itself through multiple franchises all bound together is a sight to which we have never seen before in Hollywood.  But, what fascinates me the most is how Marvel has managed to maintain this for so long, especially when given some of the roadblocks that have been in their way.  As many people know, this bold plan formed once Marvel created it’s own independent studio, with the intent to have more creative control over their own properties.  Before then, Marvel had been spending years licensing out their characters to other studios in order to see them make it to the big screen.  There were successes, like the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man trilogy at Columbia Pictures, as well as Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films at Fox.  But, there were plenty of failures as well, such as the disappointing Daredevil (2003), Fantastic Four (2005), and Ang Lee’s disastrous turn with the Hulk (2003).  This would lead Marvel to take more responsibility over their own characters, and thus, with the leadership of producer Kevin Feige, they formed their own studio.  Starting with the foundation of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), Marvel set out to not only do a more earnest job of bringing their comics to life, but to bring everyone back into the fold under one house.  With the acquisition of Marvel by the Disney company, Marvel not only had their home, but a parent company with deep pockets to make the dream happen.  Unfortunately, some holdouts would still remain before their plan could be fully realized.

Chief among those holdouts was of course Spider-Man.  Sony, the parent company of Columbia Pictures which held the rights to the character, refused for the longest time to let Marvel have their character back, believing that they could still profit well enough on their own with him.  As part of their original contract, they could retain sole cinematic rights to Spider-Man as long as they continued to make more movies.  Unfortunately for them, both Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire were done with the franchise and had moved on to new projects.  This left Sony in the position of strategizing a new direction for Spider-Man, not only as a means of keeping him within their fold, but also competitive with Marvel’s rising success.  Thus, we got the newly re-branded The Amazing Spider-Man series.   With Andrew Garfield now filling the iconic role, this new Spider-Man was intended to be a more grounded and dramatic take on the character’s mythos, with a bold plan to establish a multi-layered cinematic universe of it’s own.  Along with The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) and it’s 2014 sequel, Sony was planning plenty of character spin-offs as well, including a Sinister Six film, centered on Spidey’s rogues gallery.  Unfortunately for them, it didn’t work out.  The Amazing Spider-Man didn’t perform as well as hoped against hard hitters like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises that year, and the sequel proved to do even worse.  So, Sony, probably reading the signs, relented and Marvel got their golden boy back; but with conditions.  All movies made with the character from here out carry a 90-10 profit share between Disney and Sony. If Spider-Man has a cameo in another Marvel Property, like he did in Captain America: Civil War (2016), Sony gets a minority share of the profits.  And when it’s a Spider-Man franchise film with other Marvel characters in it, then the opposite applies.  So, now that he’s living under shared custody, Spider-Man now is able to have his own adventures in the Marvel Cinematic universe, and it all begins with this new film; Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Taking place right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, we find high schooler Peter Parker (Tom Holland) feeling very confident that he’s about to become an official member of the Avengers.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, still insists that he has a long way to go before he can prove to be a full-time member of the team, so he encourages Peter to use his power responsibly within his own community of Queens, New York.  So, Peter spends most of his after-school time stopping petty crimes and helping the less fortunate in his community.  In other words, being the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  All the while, he pesters his contact to Tony Stark, chauffeur Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), with phone calls wondering when he can join the Avengers again.  At school, he tries to keep his identity a secret from other students, including fellow nerd Michelle (Zendaya), his school crush Liz (Laura Harrier), and the school bully Flash (Tony Revolori).  Unfortunately, Peter’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) discovers his identity by accident, and Peter desperately tries to keep his very blabber-mouth accomplice quiet on the matter; though he still finds him a rewarding ally in the end.  On one routine encounter with some bank robbers, he discovers that some highly advanced weaponry has been hitting the black market.  Through his investigation, he discovers that they are being sold by an underground organization that has been stealing artifacts left behind by the Avengers and their adversaries and creating new weapons from them.  The leader of this group, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) even has a special winged flying rig for himself and has assumed the criminal identity of the Vulture.  Along with his accomplices known as the Shockers (Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green), Toomes has his eye on a big prize (Tony Stark’s private collection) and it’s up to Spider-Man to stop him.  And all the while, he has to balance this with the normal life of a kid that he wants his beloved Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) to still believe he is.

For Spider-Man, it’s been a rough cinematic road.  We are now on the second reboot of the character in 10 years, and the third overall iteration in general.  This could lead to a lot of fatigue for fans who just want to see a good, basic Spider-Man story on the big screen.  Thankfully, they will find it with Spider-Man: Homecoming. This is an excellent translation of the character; probably the best we’ve ever seen.  And the fact that he finally is able to stand alongside his fellow Marvel peers is just the icing on the cake.  What I especially like about this movie is the fact that both Marvel and Sony made the right choice to not go backwards with the character again and retell his origin.  Instead, Spider-Man is already an established hero this time around, and the story focuses more on his journey of learning what kind of hero he wants to be.  My biggest fault with the Amazing Spider-Man films was that they retreaded already familiar ground and added nothing new or interesting into the mix.  Their complete lack of knowing what they wanted to be also hurt those films a lot.  With Spider-Man: Homecoming, the story has a lot more identity, and that’s of a coming of age tale for a young high schooler, who also just happens to have superpowers.  The people at Marvel said that the mid-80’s films of John Hughes were a particularly strong inspiration for the tone of this movie, and it’s a good match for the character.  Up until now, we have never seen Spider-Man depicted as a young man like he is in the comics; bearing the responsibilities of his power, while at the same time dealing with the anxieties of growing up and the social pressures of high school.  This helps to make everything in this story feel fresh and interesting, without the need of explaining everything we already know about the character again.  His origins barely even get a passing mention here.  Thus, it helps the story flow much better without that cumbersome exposition.

Another reason the movie works as well as it does is because of the character himself.  This is without a doubt the finest version of the character we have ever seen, and a large part of that is due to the casting of young Tom Holland in the role.  Both Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were fine in their turns as Spider-Man, but what hampered their versions of the character was the fact that they were perhaps too mature for the part.  Both started playing Spidey in their late 20’s, so buying them as teenagers was a little hard to swallow.  Also, they were never allowed to play the character like a teenager, instead focusing more on the pathos of Peter Parker’s maturity rather than reveling in the energy of his youth.  Maguire got around this a little better by having the character quickly grow out of high school within the first movie.  Tom Holland’s version of Spider-Man on the other hand perfectly embraces the youthful essence of the character.  From the opening sequence, which has Peter Parker documenting the events of Civil War from his smartphone camera, we are given perfect introduction to a new Spider-Man who also just enjoys being a kid.  Holland is in his early 20’s, but still looks youthful enough to be believably still in high school, and his energy throughout the film is endlessly endearing.  He’s all parts charming, funny, awkward, and remarkably agile.  Knowing that quite a few stunts in the film were performed by Holland himself makes his performance all the more impressive.  But whether he’s in the suit or out of it, Holland’s Peter Parker nevertheless feels authentic, and truer to his comic origin than ever before.  This is largely what makes Spider-Man: Homecoming work so well, because it puts the emphasis back on the character, and less on how he functions within the story or a larger master plan.

But it’s not just Tom Holland’s endearing performance that makes this movie work.  He’s also surrounded by a strong supporting cast.  The other teenage acquaintances in Peter Parker’s life are also all well rounded.  Just like with Holland’s performance, all of them are not acting out of place for the characters they are playing; they all act like real teenagers do, with the same social awkwardness and impatience of youth that comes with that.  The influence of John Hughes movies really helps in this regard, because like with his movies, it spotlights the often disregarded misfits in high school.  Parker and his friends often find themselves falling victim to adults who don’t understand their plights as well as facing the abuse and humiliation from bullies their own age.  They are kids who have special skills, but also suffer the disappointment and inconvenience of detention and getting the courage to ask a crush out on a date.  The adults in the film are also given plenty of excellent scenes as well.  I especially like that the movie gave an extended role to a side character like Happy Hogan, and you can tell that Jon Favreau is relishing his extra screen time here.  Robert Downey Jr. of course still shines as Iron Man, but he also does a good job of not hogging the spotlight away from his young co-star.  Marisa Tomei’s stunningly beautiful and sexy Aunt May could put off some purists, but she does a fine job filling the role here.  However, it is Michael Keaton who really steals the show as the Vulture in this movie.  What a casting coup for Marvel to get a former Batman into their cinematic universe, only this time in the role of a villain.  Keaton’s performance thankfully belies little of his Dark Knight days, and instead fits perfectly within this story.  He’s devilish and intimidating in all the right ways, and helps to make what is generally a silly character in the comics into a very effective cinematic baddie.  It’s a real testament to Keaton’s abilities as a performer and he makes a great asset to this film in general.  There’s also a great running gag involving Chris Evans’ Captain America, which delivers a killer punchline by the end.

Now, while I do have a lot to praise about this film, there are some nitpicks as well that unfortunately keeps this from becoming an all-time great for Marvel.  Chief among them is the way this film is directed.  Not that director Jon Watts does a bad job here.  For most of the movie, he actually does a really good job of maintaining the right tone for the movie, and excels when delivering some of the film’s more humorous parts.  However, he still seems inexperienced when it comes to crafting an effective action set piece.  While the action moments are fine, none of them ever come off as exceptional.  As the director, it seemed like Watts went for the more basic approach of action directing; utilizing a lot of quick cuts and shaky cam footage to ratchet up the suspense.  It’s something that doesn’t ruin the movie, but doesn’t elevate it either.  One wonders what a more stylized vision would’ve done with the material, like Sam Raimi managed to do during his run.  Raimi may not have always hit a bulls-eye with his Spider-Man films, but he nevertheless aimed high with some of his set pieces.  The phenomenal train sequence from Spider-Man 2 (2004) is still a standout sequence that remains a high water mark for the series.  That’s why I hesitate to call Homecoming the best Spider-Man film, because it lacks a sequence like that, although it does enough to come close to the top.  The movie also suffers from a slow first act.  While there are plenty of enjoyable bits in the first part of this movie, the plot actually doesn’t kick into gear until very late, and it might have been to the films benefit to tighten things up in the beginning.  But, again, none of these nitpicks are deal-breakers, and the movie for the most part holds together very well.  In the end, most people won’t care as long as they are having a good time, and this film definitely delivers on that.

What I hope for the most is that this movie leads to a new era of cooperation between all Hollywood players with regards to who has the rights to use characters from Marvel’s stable of heroes and villains.  Sony learned that it would be in their better interest to play ball with Marvel rather than battle against them, and in the end, both companies with see lucrative returns because of this deal.  Captain America: Civil War’s $1.5 billion dollar gross certainly benefitted both parties, and Homecoming will hopefully do the same.  My hope is that it also serves as an example that working together is in the best interest for all involved; something that I wish the lone holdout Fox would wise up to.  It’s a shame that characters like Wolverine and the Fantastic Four are still left out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe purely out of a stubborn refusal by Fox to have things done their way.  What Spider-Man: Homecoming proves is that allowing Marvel to call the shots makes the end product feel all the more authentic, and people are now excited for the character once again because they are interested in seeing how Spider-Man interacts with the rest of Marvel’s universe.  A closed off approach no longer works in this industry, not with so many other cinematic universes being launched, and the fact that Fox is still going in that direction will only limit their potential for better profits down the road.  It makes the title of Homecoming such an appropriate one for this movie, because not only is it appropriate for the high school setting of the film, but it’s a declaration of how much Marvel appreciates the character as a part of their family.  Spider-Man is indeed home, unencumbered by how well he fits into a corporations plans for future profits, and instead allowed to exist as a crucial piece of Marvel’s ever expanding universe.  It’s also a film that just wants us to have fun, and that’s something that we’ve have seen a Spider-Man movie be in a very long time.

Rating: 8.5/10

Top Ten Favorite Heroes in Disney Movies

So, if you’re a regular reader to this blog, or know me personally, you’re probably already familiar with my fandom for everything Disney.  Whether it’s indulging in their many cinematic properties, or enjoying a day walking through Disneyland, or just grabbing whatever collectible catches my eye, I have many years of Disney fandom under my belt.  It’s one of the things that has brought me to my current residency in Los Angeles, which is home to much of the core of the Disney company’s many properties.  Not only is the Studios themselves here, but so is Disneyland, and plenty of other Disney related experiences that pop up every now and then in the city.  One of those is the D23 Expo in Anaheim, California; Disney’s bi-annual convention.  Just like the previous conventions that I covered in 2013 and 2015, I will of course be attending that one as well.  Leading up to this event in 2 weeks, I decided to give Disney the spotlight for most of this month of July, and to start off, how about I share another Disney themed top ten with you.  For this article, I want to spotlight who my favorite heroes from Disney movies are.  This list will focus on just the heroes from Disney movies, instead of favorite characters, since a good chunk of my favorite Disney characters would fall under the category of villains, and I actually want to save a future top ten for just them.  Also, I’m only focusing this list on characters original to Disney itself, so sorry, no Marvel or Star Wars either.  I am including live action characters though, since there are a couple that really stand out to me.  So, let’s take a look at the greatest heroic characters to come from the collective imaginations of the great artists that have worked and continue to work at Walt Disney Pictures.

10.

SCROOGE MCDUCK from MICKEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (1983) and DUCK TALES: TREASURE OF THE LOST LAMP (1990)

Voiced by Bill Thompson (1967), Alan Young (1983-2015), and David Tennant (2017-)

A list of the greatest Disney heroes wouldn’t be complete without the world’s richest duck on it.  Originally created in a series of Donald Duck comic books by famed Disney artist Carl Barks, Scrooge eventually found his way off the page and onto the screen, both big and small.  Though his first animated appearance would be in the educational short Scrooge McDuck and Money (1967), his true glory days wouldn’t come until the mid to late 80’s.  He first made it to the big screen in the exceptional adaptation of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, playing who else by Ebeneezer Scrooge.  His acclaimed appearance then lead to a Saturday morning cartoon series called Duck Tales, which is really what turned the character into a household name and endeared him to a whole new generation of fans, like myself.  From there, he has continued to be an ever present and popular part of the Disney family.  The long running Duck Tales series even led to it’s own cinematic spin-off, showing that old McDuck could even carry his own weight on the big screen as well.  What made Scrooge such an appealing character to many of us was that perfect combination of elderly wisdom and a fearless sense of adventure.  He’s the kind of person we all wished or imagined that our grandfather’s were like.  Adorably old fashioned and curmudgeonly, but never afraid to stand up for what’s right.  A lot of what made Scrooge so effective as a character was the warm, Scottish baroque given to him by actor Alan Young, who played the role well into his 90’s and up to his death in 2016.  An exciting new era awaits the character with the upcoming Duck Tales reboot, with former Doctor Who David Tennant stepping into the role.  No matter what, the world’s richest duck will always remain our favorite.

9.

EDDIE VALIANT from WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988)

Played by Bob Hoskins

Here we have the first of my favorite heroic characters from a live action Disney movie.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is that rare confluence of opportunities all coming together to create a great cinematic document that sadly may never happen again.  Directed by Robert Zemekis and produced by Steven Spielberg for Disney’s Touchstone Pictures banner, Roger Rabbit managed to see unprecedented cooperation between animation studios to create the shared Toontown community that would become the focus of this brilliant neo-noir cinematic experiment.  It will probably be the only time that you’ll ever Mickey Mouse sharing the screen with Bugs Bunny, which is an achievement itself.  And yet, it’s the human characters that really makes Roger Rabbit the masterpiece that it is today.  In particular, it’s the grizzled old sleuth Eddie Valiant that we all come away loving the most from this film.  It’s amazing to think that in a film filled with colorful characters, both animated and live action (or both), it’s the most down to earth and humorless character that we find most endearing.  This is largely due to the sheer brilliance of the late, great Bob Hoskins’ performance.  Hoskins is perfectly understated in the role, making Eddie the perfect straight man to bounce all the looneyness of Toontown and it’s citizens off of.  Also, considering that Hoskins often had to act against nothing on set makes his performance all the more remarkable, because you really buy the fact that he’s interacting with cartoon characters on screen. Apart from that, Eddie Valiant stands out because it’s his growth as a character that we all love.  He’s fighting against not only to save the day, but himself as well and all his demons (fighting his alcoholism and learning to trust the toons again).   Such a grounded, human character should feel out of place in a story like Roger Rabbit, but Eddie Valiant is exactly the hero it needed.

8.

BEAST from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991)

Voiced by Robby Benson 

Of all the Disney characters to have the most profound of character arcs, none stands out more than the Beast from Beauty and the Beast.  While many favor Belle as their favorite character in the movie, I for one found myself more absorbed in the Beast’s story-line.  And this is largely due to the fact that he’s the one that goes through the most change in character.  Belle more or less remains the same person throughout the movie, which is not a bad thing particularly, but it doesn’t make her all that compelling either.  From the moment we first see the Beast in the film, he is a creature worthy of our greatest fears.  The remarkable trick accomplished by the movie itself is to methodically convert the Beast’s character over time and make the change feel natural as he goes from monster to man.  By the end, we can believe that someone like Belle would fall in love with such a ghastly looking creature, because like her, we slowly begin to recognize the true pure heart inside.  The Disney animators who created the Beast did a remarkable job creating a truly original design; creating a version of the character that only the medium of animation could bring out.  Even more remarkable is the casting of one-time Hollywood heartthrob Robby Benson as the voice of the Beast.  Not only does he command a ferocious sounding roar for the character in his fiercest moments, but he also brought emotional tenderness that I sure cemented the character into the hearts of most fans.  Finding the right mixture of ferocity and humanity, Beast stands out as a true masterpiece of character for Disney, and a perfect example of how some heroes evolve into their true potential over time.

7.

MERRYWEATHER from SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)

Voiced by Barbara Luddy

Apart from the main heroes of their movies, Disney has also had a long history of popular sidekick characters who stand out as heroes in their own right.  Most people usually think of Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio (1940), or Tinker Bell from Peter Pan (1953), or more recent characters like Sebastian the Crab (The Little Mermaid, 1989), Abu the Monkey (Aladdin, 1992) or Timon and Pumbaa (The Lion King, 1994).  But, one of the best examples of how to use sidekick characters in a Disney movie can be found in the fairy tale masterpiece that is Sleeping Beauty.  In the film, we are introduced to the three good fairies; Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather.  The fairies, it can be argued, are the film’s main characters; even more so than Princess Aurora.  They do have more screen time than every other character, and are often the ones who actively drive the story.  It’s even them who come to the rescue of Prince Phillip who’s been captured by the evil Maleficent, so without them, there would’ve never been a triumph over evil in the end.  Though all the good fairies are great characters, I have a special place in my heart for Merrywether.  She is without a doubt the highlight of the film for me.  Spunky, opinionated, and ready for any challenge, she is everything I love in a Disney character.  She also fills the important role of being the film’s most cynical character, helping to keep the movie from ever turning too saccharine.  I also love her fearlessness.  She’s never afraid to speak her mind, even to someone as ominous as Maleficent, and she’s always ready to stand her ground.  Even in the final battle, when Phillip charges at Maleficent in dragon form, Merryweather nearly charges at Maleficent herself, with only the other fairies holding her back.  How can you not love a character like that?  Though she’s small and dainty, inside Merryweather beats the heart of a warrior.

6.

BASIL OF BAKER STREET from THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (1986)

Voice by Barrie Ingham

Okay, so it’s kind of a little too easy to include a character on here who’s just a carbon copy of one of literature’s greatest heroes in general.  But, when the adaptation is this good, it’s hard to leave him out.  Heavily inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal super sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, Basil is a perfect addition to Disney’s roster of great heroic characters.  Mirroring all of the best aspects of Doyle’s iconic creation, Basil is an endlessly engaging character whose adventures are always worth investing in.  He also carries over most of Sherlock’s quirks as well, and thankfully none of his vices (it’s G-Rated Disney after all).  I especially enjoy the way he’s devoted to his profession almost to a fault, where it sometimes leads him to be oblivious to others around him, and their well-being.  It’s a character aspect that gives him a flaw, which itself makes him far more interesting.  I especially like how the movie plays around with his growing unease with having to work with others, in particular his Watson stand-in Dr. Dawson, and a lost little girl named Olivia.  Part of what I love about the film is Basil’s evolution through the movie where he begins to let others into his life and doesn’t just try to do everything himself.  But, more than anything, the movie hits it’s high points when we get to watch Basil use his intellect to escape from a jam.  His daring escape from a death trap set up by his nemesis, Professor Ratigan, is a spectacular set-piece that represents the character at his best.  He may not be the most original of Disney heroes, but he certainly stands out as one of the most entertaining.  It’s also a shame that he’s often one of the more forgotten Disney heroes.  If there was ever a Disney character deserving of a sequel, it would be Basil of Baker Street, because it only feels like we’ve just scratched the surface with the adventures of the great mouse detective.

5.

MARY POPPINS from MARY POPPINS (1964)

Played by Julie Andrews

Another hero from the live action medium, Mary Poppins certainly feels right at home with her animated peers in the Disney family.  She is heroic in a different kind of way compared to other characters on this list, in that she’s not here to face off against some great force of evil or facing some kind of life threatening challenge.  Mary Poppins instead serves as a hero by showing guidance to those who need it in order to live their lives more fully.  She serves as the perfect example of a role model, filling a void in people’s lives by being their mother-figure, their counselor, their confidant, their supervisor, and at most times, their friend.  She is more than just a household nanny; she is a do-it-all fixer-upper.  And it’s the pureness of her character that makes her such an endearing presence to many.  We find over the course of the movie that she’s not just there to protect the children and teach them important lessons like responsibility and charity, but she’s there to also bring a broken family back together.  It may be dangerous to center a movie around such a flawless character, and indeed the movie goes a step further by even having her proclaimed as “practically perfect in every way,” but when she’s played with such grace by someone like Julie Andrews, it’s hard to argue with it.  Indeed, Mary is the ideal Disney heroine, enriching all the lives she touches and never once losing her integrity.  She only lets her guard down once near the end, as she seems to be saddened by the departure of the Banks family from her life, but it’s a moment well earned, given how well she leaves behind a solid foundation for their future.

4.

CINDERELLA from CINDERELLA (1950)

Voice By Irene Woods

Of all the groups of Disney characters to stand out as the very cornerstone of the company, it would be the Princesses.  The very first feature they ever made centered around the character of Snow White, and it’s a line that has continued all the way to the present with the likes of Anna and Elsa from Frozen (2013), as well as their most recent addition, Moana, from her own self-titled film.  But, if I were to pick my favorite Disney princess out of this line-up, it would be Cinderella.  Disney’s version of the character is without a doubt the best version that has ever existed.  She has a purity to her character that is unmatched, even among her Disney peers, and that is largely due to the way that she faces adversity.  In the movie, her struggle is all about holding onto her dignity in the face of overwhelming hatred.  Forced into servitude by her step-mother and stepsisters, she dutifully tries to keep her head on her shoulders, never once answering their cruelty with hatred of her own.  One complaint that I often see unfairly labeled against Disney princesses is that they are one-dimensional characters due to their passivity.  But, I never saw that as the case with Cinderella.  She stands up for herself when she needs to, like when she reminds her stepmother that she has every right to attend the Ball too, and she sticks up for her animal companions whenever they are in danger’s way.  And, unlike the other Disney princesses, she’s the one who determines her own fate in the end.  After it seems like the stepmother has destroyed all hope for her by breaking her glass slipper, she uses her cunning to outwit her and present to the Grand Duke her other hidden slipper.  No need for a brave prince to step in to save the day; Cinderella is the hero of her own story, and that’s why she is my absolute favorite.

3.

MICKEY MOUSE from FANTASIA (1940) AND MANY OTHER SHORTS

Voiced by Walt Disney (1928-47), Jim MacDonald (1947-82), Wayne Allwine (1983-2009), Bret Iwan (2010-)

Of course, you can’t make a list of the greatest Disney heroes and not include the big Mouse himself.  From the very first moment we saw the spunky like rodent piloting that steamboat down a river in his debut short, Steamboat Willie (1928), Mickey would become a hero for all the world to enjoy.  Today, you will probably never find a character more recognizable across the world than Mickey Mouse.  One of the great appeals of Mickey as a character is his versatility as a hero.  The classic cartoons had Mickey doing battle with pirates, gangsters, mad doctors, and even giants, and that was all before his shorts were in color.  As the animation medium became refined, so did his character.  Mickey became the embodiment of the every man underdog hero, something that audiences gravitated towards during the Depression and wartime years.  He has had many cinematic variations over the years, but none left as much as an impact as his appearance in Fantasia, where he was the star of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence.  Though it’s ironic that his most famous screen appearance in Fantasia also shows him at his least heroic, being the source of mayhem rather than the solution to it.  Still, Mickey is a quintessential hero, constantly standing up for what is right and often facing overwhelming odds in the process. It also makes him an ideal stand in for some re-tellings of classic stories, like in Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947) and The Prince and the Pauper (1990).  Certainly with being the iconic figure and symbol of the Disney company, the intent will always be there to keep Mickey purely heroic in everything he does.  The only question is if Disney will allow their character to evolve over time, or being handled with care too much, choosing to never blemish the face of their company in any way.  Variety of character helps to make him more interesting, but then again, few other characters have as much burden to carry as Mickey does.

2.

ALADDIN from ALADDIN (1992)

Voiced by Scott Weinger

Now we come to a heroic character from the Disney family who we not only want to look up to, but also wish we could be just like him.  The “diamond in the rough” that is Aladdin is a great example of an underdog character who comes from nothing rising up through extraordinary circumstances to having everything he desires.  But, all the while achieving his dreams, he never loses the essence of his character, that being a good heart underneath all the bravado and quirkiness.  It’s a good sign of his character when he doesn’t hesitate to tell the Genie that he’ll use his last wish to set him free.  And when he’s confronted with the possibility that he may have to rescind that promise later on in the story, it tears him up inside.  Aladdin isn’t perfect as a human being; he lies in order to protect his cover, but he also does it to avoid hurting others feelings.  He also steals, but it’s for his survival mostly and even still he’ll give up his stolen goods to some hungry children out of the kindness of his heart.  It’s these edges to his character that really makes him a well rounded hero, and one that endears us to him as he goes off on his adventure.  The Diamond in the Rough moniker could not be better applied, as he see a hero shaped by hardship, and a heart free of shameless self-service.  By the end, when Aladdin has the opportunity to have everything he has always desired, he still uses his wishes to do the right thing and grant freedom to the Genie.  And that selflessness still gets him happiness in the end, including the love of Princess Jasmine and a home in the palace.  It’s a perfect example of how true selfless heroism reciprocates into it’s own fortune by the end of the journey, and it’s what makes Aladdin one of the best heroes of all.

1.

PETER PAN from PETER PAN (1953)

Voiced by Bobby Driscoll

My favorite Disney hero of all time shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since I’m sure that he’s the favorite to many other fans as well.  Adapted from J.M. Barrie’s classic play, Disney’s Peter Pan is a perfect translation of the character from the page to the screen.  For one thing, animation allows for the character to take actual flight, unassisted by hidden strings.  Also, the spirit of Peter Pan is one that any avid Disney fan can identify with, and that’s the desire to not grow old.  Every Disney fan lives with a deep sense of nostalgia and it’s something that we take from childhood and hold onto throughout our adulthood.  It’s also something that we love to pass down to the next generation as well.  That’s why Disney always says their goal is to appeal to “young and the young at heart.”  That’s why the boy who never wanted to grow up remains such an endearing character to this day, and Disney’s version brings that aspect out in the best way possible.  Though Peter has his flaws (he’s sometimes dangerously negligent to other characters’ well-being), his carefree attitude still reveals a sense of duty to helping others.  He also makes for a perfect foil for the stuffy and vicious Captain Hook.  But, more than anything, he’s just a purely fun character to follow around.  I for one have had a special fondness for the character throughout my life.  Peter, along with Aladdin, were two of the only Disney characters that I dressed up as for Halloween as a kid.  They are two heroes that I could easily fit into the shoes of and pretend to be for a while as a kid.  That’s why they both rise to the top of this list because both were the ones who stuck out the most from my own childhood.  Peter Pan gets the edge slightly just for embodying that childhood wonder that defined my love for Disney more closely, and that’s why he stands (or floats) over all of his heroic Disney peers.

So, there you have my choices for my favorite heroes in Disney movies.  Some have been favorites all throughout my childhood development, while others have grown on me over the years.  I certainly appreciate a character like Mary Poppins more now as an adult, seeing the strong influence that she leaves as a mentor.  Others just rise to the top because of how much I enjoy seeing them act on the big screen.  I certainly think a character Merryweather should be considered one of Disney’s greatest heroes, because she showed that you don’t have to be big or carry a huge sword to be seen as brave.  And characters like Basil and Cinderella showed that you can overcome evil just by using your brain and outwitting your enemies.  I think it all stems back to Walt Disney’s original emphasis on the underdog hero, embodied so perfectly in the persona of Mickey Mouse.  If a small little mouse can beat the odds and save the world, why can’t anyone else.  It’s a thing that has always defined the Disney company; that while they themselves are the big dogs of the industry, they are always championing the ideal of the little person achieving greatness through perseverance and a good heart.  You see that also in the choices of other properties that they bring into their fold.  It’s understandable why they would welcome story-lines that follow a lowly farm boy who learns to become a Jedi master, or a 90 pound weakling who goes through a science experiment to become a powerful super soldier called Captain America.  It’s a theme that has served them well up to now, and let’s hope that it remains true for many years to come.  There’s no shame in holding onto the heroes of your childhood well into adulthood, especially when they are strong role models like the ones made by Disney.

The Director’s Chair – Michael Bay

For the first couple entries in this series, I spotlighted filmmakers who are universally praised as among the best to ever step behind the camera.  Now, let’s take a look at a filmmaker with a somewhat different reputation in Hollywood.  Director Michael Bay is, putting it lightly, a divisive filmmaker.  On the one hand, he’s prolific, efficient, and has a distinctive style that sets him apart in the field.  On the other hand, he’s also brash, a show-off, and indulgent to the point of inanity.  Oftentimes, he’s labeled as the poster child for what is wrong with Hollywood, with his movies often being panned by critics for the crime of being overstuffed with Bay’s own unrestrained style.  But, at the same time, Michael Bay can’t just be dismissed as just another bad director.  The truth is, he does have talent as a filmmaker; it’s just not always focused on the right things.  He does know how to create eye-catching images, utilize complex on set special effects to spectacular effect, and more remarkably he manages to keep his movies under budget and on schedule.  That last aspect is probably what has kept him in good standing within the industry, because they know that he can deliver a product without worry.  And his films for the most part continue to reach an audience, even if they do appeal to some of humanity’s lowest cultural aspects.  His indulgences prove to be a blessing and a curse, as they allow his films to stand out, but also spotlight his sometimes not too appealing personal tastes.  All of this makes him a fascinating individual overall, and as a filmmaker, it’s interesting in seeing how his career defines the distinctive line between those who are storytellers and those who just make movies.

Bay himself is an interesting case of how Hollywood grooms talent over time.  After earning his degree in film-making from Wesleyan University, Bay made a quick rise within the industry, cutting his teeth on commercials and music videos.  His “Got Milk?” ads in particular launched him to national attention, which eventually led him to being assigned to direct a Will Smith vehicle called Bad Boys (1994).  From their, he made a steady stream of blockbuster hits including The Rock (1996), Armageddon (1998), and the sequel Bad Boys II (2003).  He also was assigned by Disney to helm their Titanic (1997) copycat Pearl Harbor (2001), which itself was deemed an indulgent failure.  But, it wouldn’t be until he teamed up with producer Steven Spielberg that he would find the production that would ultimately define his career in a nutshell.  That project was Transformers (2007), a movie that showcases all the good and bad aspects of Michael Bay as a director.  It’s a well constructed, but emotionally hollow and obnoxiously indulgent film, that mirrors exactly the kind of person that we imagine Michael Bay to be, and sometimes are confirmed as much by his own actions.  Essentially, what we see in Michael Bay is someone that has been shaped by the industry, instead of himself shaping it.  He has become a workman who fulfills the obligations that are placed in front of him, but never once pushes to do anything beyond that.  And the sad truth is that because of this, he has limited himself as a storyteller.  One wonders what kind of filmmaker he might have been had he not skyrocketed so quickly, and had been trying to hone his skills for years in order to gain notoriety.  It might of meant he would have taken far more risks over the years, instead of just returning to that Transformers well again and again.   In this article, I’ll be looking at the different aspects that define Michael Bay the filmmaker, and see how they represent the good and the bad throughout his career.

1.

“BAYHEM”

If there is one thing defines Michael Bay as a director, it’s his very clear love for mayhem on screen.  Whether it is overblown pyrotechnics, or whiplash quick editing, or CGI enhanced screen filler, he definitely tries to fill every frame of his movie with activity.  This use of cinematic overkill has even been given it’s own term called “Bayhem,” owing it’s namesake to him specifically.  While Bayhem does illustrate the directors prowess on a technical level, it is often the thing that many people also hate about him as a filmmaker.  It may seem like so much activity on the screen helps to give the movie more epic weight, but oftentimes, it purely just numbs the audience down when it’s done way too much.  It’s cool seeing an explosion happen for the first time, but when it’s the ten one you’ve seen in a row in one action sequence, then it just doesn’t feel special anymore. Truth be told, nobody films an explosion better than Michael Bay.  Utilizing multiple camera set ups and a variety of tricks like slow motion, he can turn what was a quick explosion on the set and make it feel much bigger on screen.  Some spectacular instances of this include actual pyro blasts set off on real WWII era warships in Pearl Harbor, as well as the desert fight out in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009).  But, again, after you see one, you’ve seen them all, and too many in one film diminishes the returns over time.  The unfortunate result of Bay’s success, is that other filmmakers mistakenly believe that more “Bayhem” is exactly what their movies need too.  You see this in Transformer clones like Battleship (2012) and series reboots like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) and Power Rangers (2017).  The problem is that no amount of onscreen eye candy can fix a hollow story-line, and Bay’s problem is that he often puts visuals ahead of narrative.  It’s overall a mistaken belief that a static screen creates a boring scene, and that more thing going on within the frame will correct that.

2.

AMERICA

Every filmmaker has certain motifs that they like to return to over and over again, and Bay has his own as well.  If there is something that you can easily spot consistently throughout his movies, it’s the use of American iconography.  Bay steeps his films in heavy patriotic fervor, so much so that his movies are often criticized as being too “flag-waving” and sometimes even propaganda.  It’s not a bad thing necessarily to showcase the country you’re from in the best possible light; that’s his prerogative as a filmmaker.  But, again, like his use of cinematic mayhem, too much use of it eventually makes it feel hollow by the end.  Bay’s films are often carry over the patriotism further than what’s in the movie.  The American flag has been used several time as a background for the advertising of his movies, including the less reverential Pain & Gain (2013).  The only other filmmaker who uses the flag as much is Oliver Stone, but his intentions with the American flag are often meant to be ironic.  Still, Bay makes American iconography stand out in his movies, not just with the red, white, and blue, but also with it’s landscapes and landmarks.  He even set a whole movie within a famous American landmark with the Alcatraz set The Rock.  Perhaps Pearl Harbor demonstrates his Americana motif more than any other film, as it portrays everything about the places and people of it’s setting in a larger than life way.  The movie also demonstrates the very cozy relationship that Bay has with the armed services of the United States.  In exchange for a positive portrayal of the American military apparatus, Bay gets special access to film his movies with authentic military equipment and on location on their bases as well.  Some would say that makes Bay a propagandist, but at the same time, Bay is not deceitful in this aspect either.  He respects military men and women and tries to give them as heroic a portrayal as he possibly can.  One can’t fault his attraction to this motif, just the effectiveness that he utilizes it.

3.

MAGIC HOUR

If there is something that I can definitely praise Michael Bay for as a filmmaker, it’s his expert use of ‘magic hour” in his films, and his almost obsessive devotion to it.  For those who don’t know what “magic hour” is, it is the brief late afternoon span between say 5 and 7 pm when the lighting of the sun is just right to give a filmed image a distinctive, cinematic glow.  If a film is shot any earlier than than, like at “high noon” when the sun is at it’s brightest, everything will appear too washed out.  Michael Bay’s style has become unique in the industry because of how well he uses this “magic hour” to effect in his movies.  In fact, if you look at his entire filmography, you can easily see that the majority of his scenes are filmed in the “magic hour.”  Even morning scenes appear like they were shot in the late afternoon, just to give the movie the consistent look that Michael Bay desires.  And, for the most part, it works very well.  In the magic hour, Bay manages to balance light and dark in a more appealing way than it normally would if he shot the scene fully lit.  It also gives his movies a distinct feeling of atmosphere that also elevates the viewing experience.  In movies like Bad BoysThe Rock, and a few of the Transformers, he often uses “magic hour” as a way of conveying warm temperature, steaming up a scene to give his characters that extra element to work with.  It also gives Bay’s films an interesting hue of color that makes them feel distinct; not over-saturated with extreme high contrasted, but not washed out and pale either.  The only time I see the technique not used is in the night time scenes, which themselves are lit in a way that blends together with the “magic hour” moments.  So, despite Bay’s more unfortunate directorial choices, this is one that has actually benefited him as a filmmaker, and I hope that it’s a discipline that can extend to improve his other techniques.

4.

CGI… LOTS OF IT

One of the negative aspects of Michael Bay’s post-Transformers career trajectory is that it has made him far more reliant on CGI than he ever was before.  One wishes he would show more restraint and try more in camera effects like he had earlier in his career, because those scenes at least play to his strength as an expert in shooting pyrotechnics.  But, with Transformers, he began to look at CGI enhancement as a way of eliminating the middle man and giving his movies epic scale without ever having to set up the shot the normal way.  The unfortunate problem with this is that Michael Bay can’t compose a CGI template shot the same way that he can a practical effect.  He likes to move the camera around too much, and that impacts the way that we experience the CGI effect on screen.  Too often now we see his movies putting a lot of CGI activity on the screen without it ever leaving an impact on us.  The frantic camera movements combined with the overly animated effects also spotlight just how unreal the effects look as well.  You can tell that a lot of work went into creating the models of Optimus Prime and Bumblebee, but we are never able to get a satisfyingly close look to appreciate them.  And Bay’s continued insistence on using CGI more in his movies often has the end result of looking cool, but never actually feeling cool.  This problem stems as far back as Armageddon, which itself suffered from too high a reliance on CGI effects.  Oftentimes, you couldn’t tell what was going on in a scene, especially when the characters are on the asteroid itself, because Bay never stops to let us appreciate the work.  My guess is that Bay is continually fascinated by the limitless potential of computer enhanced imagery, but he’s never picked up on learning the subtle applications that can make it work better.  Like everything else in his movies, it’s more mayhem masquerading as art.

5.

SELF-INDULGENT CHARACTERS

One other major complaint that Michael Bay has faced with every film is his serious lack of appealing characters.  In many ways, Bay likes to imagine every character in his films as an extension of himself.  They are often eccentric, cocky, have an air of superiority despite never earning it, a bit nerdy, and very self-involved.  Not all of Bay’s characters are unappealing though.  I found myself very much enjoying the quirkiness of Nicholas Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed and the cockiness of Sean Connery’s Mason in The Rock, and the trio of Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, and Anthony Mackie in Pain & Gain also proved to be a winning combination of Bay “bros.”  But, his style of characterizations only work when there is some other factor to balance them, like a more natural performance from a co-star or a supporting player.  But, when every character in the movie is cocky and brash, and very, very Bay-ish, then the movie suffers.  This is the big problem with the Transformers movies, because every character is an archetype, or even worse, a stereotype, which only makes them annoying and not redeeming.  The character of Sam Witwicky (played by Shia LaBeouf) may in fact be one of the least appealing characters ever committed to cinema, purely because both Bay and LaBeouf mistakenly thought that defining his character as this cocky, self-absorbed nerd would actually click with audiences.  It’s a bad sign when your main character is so unlikable that he’s completely written out of the series with no explanation.  Unfortunately, Witwicky is only one of a wide range of poor character choices on Bay’s part.  There has to be a balance of diverse personalities to make your cast of characters appeal to all audiences, but when you fall in love with only one type of personality (even worse, one that mirrors yourself) then you alienate large sections of your audience that are put off by that personality, and that’s an unfortunate defining aspect of Michael Bay’s films.

Michael Bay is certainly unique within the industry, which I guess is a triumph in of itself.  He manages to continually deliver large scale productions, but is often condemned for being too self-indulgent.  Nevertheless, one cannot take away the fact that he has skill as a filmmaker, at least when it comes to the production side.  For someone who creates these massive scale productions, it is pretty remarkable that he’s able to deliver them on time and under-budget nearly consistently.  One wonders if a messier, more craft obsessed approach might have made him a better storyteller.  His style is still distinct and surprisingly influential.  I’ve talked about the Bay affect on action films today, which has varying degrees of success.  Bay even has some surprising fans out there, including an arguably way better director like Edgar Wright, who cites Bad Boys II as one of his all-time favorite movies.  Wright even pays homage to the Michael Bay style with his spoof movie Hot Fuzz (2007).  I won’t lie; not everything that Michael Bay has made has been terrible.  I often find that he’s at his best when he’s working outside of his element.  One of his best films is the little seen and very underrated The Island (2005), which has Bay working with a complex sci-fi concept and centering it around characters played by Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson that are not cocky and are actually worth caring for.  I kind of think that Bay missed the opportunity to improve himself as a filmmaker by latching on too quickly to success.  If he had been brought through the ringer in order to make it into the industry, he might have turned into quite an accomplished storyteller given his skill with the camera.  Instead, he’s become a product of the industry, someone there to churn out new product without ever taking any risks.  That’s why he continually keeps making the same movies over an over again, because he doesn’t want to disrupt his flow of work.  But as we’ve seen, a detour into the unknown has benefited him before.  In the end, he is a divisive figure in the industry, because he is the very representation of the mundane in the Hollywood machine.

Cars 3 – Review

You know the saying of Newton’s Law that “everything that goes up must certainly come down.”  That applies almost without question to the world of cinema as well.  The Pixar Animation studio has enjoyed one of the strongest track records that Hollywood has ever seen.  Starting with the beloved Toy Story films of the late 90’s, and continuing through to the mid 2000’s, Pixar really looked like they could do no wrong.  Everything they touched seemed to turn to gold, no matter how peculiar the premise of each story was.  It’s really remarkable that they can take oddball concepts like a rat who wants to be a gourmet chef, or a senior citizen who makes his house fly with a million balloons, or a love story between two robots in a post-apocalyptic world and turn them into beloved animated classics.  But, somehow for over a decade, the Pixar brand was one that signified quality, and unparalleled success.  And then the market changed.  In a way, Pixar has become a victim of it’s own success, because with the run that they had for so long, the pressure likewise grew for clearing the bar that they set so high for themselves.  Not only that, but the studio was also received increased pressure from their parent company Disney to produce sequels to all their big hits, in order to keep those lucrative brands going for many more years.  Because of all that pressure, Pixar has made an effort to shift gears and devote their time and money to making future adventures with their most beloved characters.  That unfortunately has led to an era of inconsistency with Pixar’s output of films.  While they sometimes still manage to deliver sequels that everyone embraces (Toy Story 3 and Finding Dory), others are also met with a level of disappointment from fans (Monsters University).  Thus, we see Newton’s law play out, as the once infallible company is now suffering through a pitfall of lowered returns on their time and effort.

No where is that more evident than with the very divisive direction that they have taken with what is now the Cars franchise.  The first Cars was a generally well liked film from both fans of Pixar and the general audience.  Set within an alternate world where humanity is replaced with sentient vehicles, who exist in a parallel society like our own, the concept was a novel one for Pixar and it helped it to stand out.  While in no way one of their all time greats, it was still a beautifully constructed feature that represented the craftsmanship of the studio at it’s best.  But what is probably most surprising about Pixar is how well it performed as a brand.  Movie grosses aside, Cars surprisingly has become the most profitable film that Pixar has ever made when it comes to merchandising.  You’d be hard pressed to visit any Toys R’ Us or toy department in any store and mall across America and not find at least one product branded around this movie.  The characters of Lightning McQueen and Mater are seen everywhere, even when there is not a movie out to cross-promote with them.  It’s because of that highly profitable exposure that Disney has pressed Pixar even harder to churn out more movies in this franchise, whether they wanted to or not.  Because of this, we now have a trilogy of movies, created over an 11 year span which is just insane for the usually meticulous studio (keep in mind, 11 years is the same number of years in between Toy Story 2 and 3).  The downside of pushing out sequels this quickly (not to mention the existence of the Planes spin-offs) is that the lack of quality control, as Pixar isn’t allowed the time to carefully craft a story as they are fond of having usually.  So, what ended up happening was that the beloved first Cars was followed up with a very lackluster sequel in Cars 2 (2011), which became the first critically panned film in the studio’s long history.  Their perfect streak was over, and what went up now was preparing to come down.  Since then, Pixar has attempted to right the ship, acknowledging the failure of Cars 2, and this year, we see them returning to the franchise to in a way make amends.  The only question is, did it work?

For those who are looking for a follow-up to the plot of Cars 2, you won’t find it here.  Cars 3 is more in line with the continuity of the first Cars, and 2 almost seems to be deliberately forgotten altogether in this film.  We find Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) at the top of his game as a multi-race champion on the professional racing circuit; enjoying the spoils of celebrity status along the way.  While still making his home-base in the small town of Radiator Springs, where his best friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and his girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) show him love and support continuously, Lightning continues to travel the world, facing little challenges along the way.  That is until he’s beaten in a race by a flashy new rookie race car named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who’s been equipped with the latest technology that makes him almost impossible to catch up to on the track.  Feeling intimidated by this new arrival, Lightning pushes his body to the limit, which unfortunately causes him to crash during a race, breaking both his body and his spirit.  Seeing Jackson Storm sit on the throne that once used to be his causes Lightning to try to compete once again, but this time trained with the same high tech gadgetry that benefited Jackson.  His corporate sponsor Rusteze takes on new corporate management under a flashy, corporate car named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who teams Lightning with a new trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who we learn is just as new to the world of racing as Lightning is to technology.  Over time, Lightning and Cruz form a bond as they both seek answers to the directions of their lives.  In a way, Lightning finds it as they take a pilgrimage to the stomping grounds of his old mentor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, voiced through archival audio), where they encounter Doc’s old trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper), who helps the duo train the old fashioned way.  But, is it enough to beat Jackson, and is Lightning ready to continue the life he had before, or see a different way.

So, in many ways, this film is a return to basics for the Cars franchise.  It’s less of a mindless side story that Cars 2 turned out to be, and more of a continuation of themes that the original had begun, becoming far more of a character driven story centered around Lightning McQueen.  But, does that make it any better than Cars 2.  Well, yes and no.  There is a big issue that I had with watching Cars 3, and that is the sad reality that I just didn’t care what was going on in  the story.  For the first time ever watching a movie made by Pixar, I felt absolutely nothing upon seeing it.  That’s pretty much unheard of for this studio.  This is the company that specialized in being able to draw a variety of emotions from it’s audience.  People wept openly in screenings of Up (2009) that I went to, after witnessing that now legendary opening montage.  Not only that, but Pixar’s films are almost always laugh out loud funny and edge of your seats thrilling.  Cars 3 was about as uninspiring as I’ve ever seen a Pixar movie ever get.  It’s about as involving to me as any sub-par History or Travel Channel series that I’ll put on TV as background entertainment while I’m working or cleaning up my apartment.  It just lies there, filling time that I could have better spent somewhere else.  Despite this, though, it does nothing offensive either to garner any significant hatred either.  My disappointment with the movie really is just in lamenting how pointless it all is.  Keep in mind, I hated Cars 2 as well, and it might generally be a worse movie overall.  But, it still got a feeling out of me regardless, even if that feeling was pure distaste.  Cars 3 just feels like the first Pixar movie ever made to me that doesn’t feel like a movie at all.  It’s that tedious feeling that made me really feel in the end unsure about the future of Pixar as a brand.

First of all, I have to stress exactly why this movie is a failure, and that’s mainly due to the lazy execution of the story.  In a way, every Cars film has been derivative of some other film.  The first Cars was an exploration of the hot shot from the city learning the homespun values of the countryside motif that Hollywood has revisited many times over the years.  In particular, critics pointed to the Michael J. Fox film Doc Hollywood (1991) as a direct inspiration for the plot.  Cars 2 was a spoof of spy films from the 60’s, particularly with James Bond and Alfred Hitchcock’s “wrong man” thrillers, shifting focus away from Lightning McQueen and onto the sidekick Mater.  Cars 3 borrows it’s plot from a lot of comeback sports stories like the Rocky sequels.  Now being derivative is not a problem as long as you provide your own unique spin on it.  The first Cars did just that, making it feel fresh and not overly familiar.  Cars 2 was too dumb to ever work as a genre throwback, or a movie in general.  The extra insult of Cars 3 is that it take it’s tropes and just plays them out to the letter, diverting in no way in order to make it feel unique.  No matter what plot point the movie threw my way, I just knew how it was going to play out, because I’ve seen it all before.  The mentor/student relationship, the shenanigans that befall our hero through training, the inevitable final race showdown; it’s all too familiar.  There is even a moment where the character Cruz Ramirez reveals to Lightning her childhood dreams and how she had to abandon them, and I knew right away that this was an obvious set up for the finale.  And sure enough, the movie followed that playbook exactly.  Pixar is a studio that very often subverted expectations with it’s storytelling, or at least were able to hide the cliches well enough to make us not care about them.  Here, we can clearly see that this was a story that was not thought through with the same kind of care, and was purely slapped together to quickly role out into theaters, never once offering the audience a challenging and provocative experience.  Pixar’s storytelling was once the exception, and now, it’s fallen into mediocrity, feeling as generic as everything else that Pixar once stood proudly over.

In general, it’s the blandness that I disliked the most from this movie.  I want my Pixar movies to be something special, and this one was not in any way.  But, at the same time, it doesn’t insult the series itself like Cars 2 did.  I think still stands as Pixar’s worst film, just because of how purely it used every minute of it’s run time to be aggressively obnoxious.  It was loud, in-your-face, and thoroughly pointless.  It also made the huge mistake of relying too heavily on the talents of Larry the Cable Guy as the voice of Mater.  Mater is best used in small doses, and to it’s credit, Cars 3 does reel back the character significantly.  Mater only appears in a handful of moments, as does most of the supporting cast of the first movie.  It may not be such a big loss, but I do miss some of the character interactions that made the first Cars such an appealing narrative.  Lightning’s relationship with Sally is sadly minimized here, which was such a major part of the first film’s appeal, and that’s a waste of the talents of someone like Bonnie Hunt, who should be in this more.  The newer characters in general are a mixed bag.  I unfortunately didn’t care all that much about Cruz Ramirez.  She’s not an offensively misplaced character in this story, but her journey was so uninspiring and cliched that it just never endeared her character to me.  Jackson Storm is an even more uninteresting new player in this movie, and probably the blandest villain Pixar has ever made.  He never inspires menace or charisma; he’s just an empty shell.  Some of the secondary characters fare a little better.  I particularly liked Chris Cooper’s Smokey, who makes a great stand-in for the very much missed Doc Hudson.  There’s also a great bit with a maniacal school bus named Miss Fritter (voiced by Orange is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria) in what is probably the movie’s only stand-out scene, as Lightning and Cruz find themselves stuck in a demolition derby.  Good characters ultimately lift up lackluster material, and sadly there are just not enough of them for this movie.

One other positive that I will say for this movie is that while it doesn’t feature the usual finesse of story-telling that has defined other Pixar movies, it still manages to hold up in the visual department.  It may not be the most groundbreaking and visually resplendent Pixar movie to date, but Cars 3 still represents the fine craftsmanship that sets the studio apart.  The backgrounds in particular are really beautiful in this movie.  The filmmakers clearly know how to create a sense of atmosphere in these movies, and that becomes particularly impressive given how frequently this movie moves around in setting.  While the novelty of a car-based world has worn off from the first movie, I still like taking in the small little details that the movie puts into each of it’s environments to show the little car-based twists on familiar everyday objects.  When the movie allows itself to slow down and have us take in the scenery, it’s when the movie works at it’s best.  This includes beautiful recreations of places like a sunny day at a coastal beach, or a fog-filled day in the valleys of the Great Smokey Mountains.  You can tell that the movie benefits from the advances that Pixar has made over the years with movies like Brave (2012) and The Good Dinosaur (2015) in trying to accurately capture the feeling of experiencing the great outdoors. The first Cars was a step forward in that process, but Cars 3 looks more advanced, with regards to how the scenes are lit, exposed, and textured.  It is certainly a beautifully looking film; I just wish that this artistry was attached to a better story.  At least it shows that while their story-telling talent is suffering, it’s animation and environmental development departments are still firing on all cylinders and showing off what they can really do.

So, again, this movie does little to make me care any more for this franchise.  The damage done by Cars 2 was too severe, and Cars 3 does very little to make a u-turn for this series.  And honestly, is this really a series worth saving.  The first Cars worked fine on it’s own; it was a simple story about rediscovery set within a unique alternate world.  Unfortunately, the success of the merchandising around this film has caused Disney and Pixar to abandon their high standards in a pursuit to exploit this world for more money, and that makes every sequel and spin-off feel like a cynical cash grab.  And that’s something that I just don’t want to see a company like Pixar fall into.  They made it their mission to always put story first, and Cars 3  seems very much like the exact opposite of that.  They should’ve recognized long ago that they have explored all that they needed to explore with the first movie.  I’m not saying that sequels from Pixar are a bad thing; Finding Dory was quite good and Toy Story 3 is an outright masterpiece. But, when you go into a movie that bears the Pixar name, you should expect something that is going to movie you in some way, and Cars 3 never once did that for me.  I just sat in the theater feeling nothing, and that in itself made me feel upset in retrospect.  Is it possible that Pixar abandoned it’s high standards for a cynical cash grab.  Solid recent efforts like Inside Out and Finding Dory make me hopeful that this is just a speed bump in Pixar’s track record, just like Cars 2 was, and that they’ll be back strong with their next effort; the very promising Coco (2017) which comes out in November.    Until then, Cars 3 will unfortunately represent another down-point for the company.  I wish I never would have had to see the day when Pixar failed to illicit any emotion out of me, and now that it has passed, I hope that it never comes around again.  Everything that goes up inevitably comes down, but the best thing about gravity is that nothing is meant to stay down either.  Pixar has fallen, but it can easily come back up again.

Rating: 6/10

From Mockery to Moonlight – The Long Road for Queer Identity in Cinema

The month of June holds the now honored position of being devoted to celebrating Pride for all members of the LGBT community.  It’s a celebration that is largely about coming together as a united community, with both those who identify as gay or straight expressing support for one another, but it’s also about looking back and honoring the progress that it took to achieve not only an identity in modern society, but also a level of respect and recognition.  The sad reality is that for far too long, homosexuals were ostracized and marginalized by society, and were often actively suppressed by the powers that be; and still are in some parts of the world.  The largest part of the LGBT struggle is to find that fleeting level of acceptance, both on the personal level and on the societal level.  It has gotten better over the years for some, as most stigmas surrounding gay people have thankfully been disappearing and people are finding broader acceptance from friends, family, and society in general.  But there is still a lot more work to do before the gay community can finally gain full acceptance.  And a large reason why there is still a ways to go is because gay people are still struggling to find a level of dignity surrounding their representation in society.  A lot of gay people unfortunately still fall victim to certain degrees of misrepresentation, and remarkably it stems from a source that has also long been an ally of the gay community; Hollywood.  While movies, television, and other media has been helpful in changing peoples minds about the gay community, and the Hollywood industry has shown strong support to gay people through their charity and support, the industry is also still responsible for perpetuating damaging stereotypes and misconceptions as well.  So, while Pride Month is a source of celebration for many, it’s also a reflection over what still needs to be done, and an important aspect of this is finding more progressive ways to represent themselves in media in general.

A more dignified representation from Hollywood is certainly something that the gay community cares about, because so many within the community are avid fans of cinema themselves.  Even when there was still a stigma surrounding homosexuality in the culture at large, a lot of gay people did manage to find a sense of community around their love of cinema, and it was a unifying element that helped to connect one another around something positive in a time of overwhelming prejudice.  But, due to restricted cinematic representation for so many years, few if any queer role models emerged in order to make gay individuals feel included as a part of society at large.  For the longest time, gay men often found their role models in iconic Hollywood actresses like Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and in particular, Judy Garland, because they appealed so much to the community’s attraction to the glamorous, the extravagant, and also the camp in cinematic art.  But, the gay community’s attraction to this aspect of cinema was largely a result of the lack of any other representation for the longest time.  Lesbian and Trans people have had even less in the way of respectful representation or role models.  Because of social stigma, the only times Hollywood would touch upon the subject of homosexuality in movies or other media would often fall into the categories of exploitation or ridicule.  It actually is only a recent phenomenon that queer cinema has actually achieved a true mainstream acceptance in our culture.  Until now, the notion of queer cinema has either faced ridicule, misunderstanding, or just complete ignorance.  But, the question remains is how decades of misunderstanding affects queer film-making and representation going into the future, and how does the gay community resolve their changing identity in cinema after defining it for so many years on the fringes.

For the longest time, the biggest struggle for the gay community with regards to cinema was just achieving an actual identity in general.  Because homosexuality was a social taboo for so long, Hollywood either tip-toed around the existence of gay people in society, or just ignore it completely.  It’s not like there was no gay people around in the early days of cinema, but because the studios knew that they often had to market their movies to middle America and Bible Belt audiences who take a very hard-lined stance against homosexuality, there was a concerted effort at the time to exclude openly queer characters in their movies.  Sometimes a queer character might appear on screen, but it was often either to act as a foil for the hyper macho marquee star (the effeminate tailor from James Cagney’s Public Enemy), or there to act as a clown to humor the audience (the photographer from Ginger Rogers’ Lady in the Dark).  The hyper puritanical post-war years nearly wiped away any queer representation in cinema completely, as religious leaders became more involved in the control of content coming out of Hollywood.  The Hays code put strict restrictions on a variety of taboo subjects, but chief among them was any reference to alternative sexual identity of any kind in society.  Even sympathetic films aimed at normalizing queer characters in movies had to do so in a way where they couldn’t outright address the issue.  The 1956 film Tea and Sympathy, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Deborah Kerr, attempted to touch on the issue, but it instead depicted it’s central character of Tom Lee (John Kerr) as “sensitive” and not gay.  Though things did loosen up during the end of the Hays code era and the beginning of the counterculture 60’s, the damage had already been done to the gay community, who for the most part, had largely disappeared from cinematic representation entirely.

The unfortunate result of any attempt at the time to reestablish a queer identity on the big screen was that it was often met with instant ridicule.  Because of little to no exposure for so many years.  Gays had become so marginalized that any exposure in society at all was a foreign concept to audiences unfamiliar to it.  When social taboos started to break down, gays were once again acknowledged on the big screen, but in a way that often pointed out how novel they were.  Oftentimes, it would manifest in some not so positive portrayals of gays meant to generate laughs from audiences (like the ballroom dance fight from Blazing Saddles) or generate unease from a deep dive into the seedier side of the community (the leather bar scene from Cruising).  The unfortunate result of these types of portrayals was that it perpetuated the idea of homosexuality as being not normal in society; that it was a bastion of the weird and the perverted in contemporary culture.  Though gay people benefited from actually being acknowledged again as real people once again in cinema, they unfortunately had to contend with this new identity as being seen as “the other” in society.  The sad reality is the misconception on Hollywood’s part in thinking that this was actually a progressive move on their part.  But what they saw as inclusionary, the gay community saw as exploitative.  Their culture was not one to be singled out for intrigue and mockery, but one that should be seen as legitimized as part of the normal human experience.  It was insulting to think that homosexuality was just something that people on the fringes of society indulged in.  When one of the few queer themed films made by Hollywood at the time ended up being the Redd Foxx film Norman…Is That You? (1976), where the comedian plays a father attempting to set his openly gay son (played by Michael Warren) right, then you can see why the gay community felt frustrated with the industry that they held close to their heart for so long.

Thankfully, at the same time, an underground independent queer cinema arose to fill the gap that Hollywood was leaving empty.  Filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and John Waters arose to create what we know now as early Queer Cinema, creating movies that finally not only touched upon issues pertaining to homosexuality, but openly celebrated it as well.  Not only that, but their movies also purposely pushed many buttons, establishing a new defiant identity for the gay community.  Their films came at a time when the Gay Rights movement began to gain exposure in American society, and their movies were perfect expressions of a class of people who were fed up with being ignored.  You can clearly see this in John Waters’ first couple features, Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Pink Flamingos (1972), both of which are visceral attacks on all social norms and a defiant defense of the weird and perverse to exist freely in society.  In his way, Waters made social progress by relentlessly assaulting the notion of normal, and questioning whether or not one thing is ever worthy of that mantle.  His movies also made the first real concerted effort in cinema to give identity to trans people as well, with drag queen Divine becoming a surprising breakout star from appearing in Waters films.  But, even still, Waters and others like him worked on the fringes of Hollywood, having to work independently in order to remain true to their visions.  But, through underground success, Queer cinema did get embraced and Hollywood did take notice.  Waters did bring his camp filled vision to the mainstream with Hollywood productions like Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1990), which somehow maintains the director’s style despite a toning down of his more vulgar indulgences.  It helped to convince Hollywood to take a chance on queer themes in the future, which thankfully pulled away from the depths of ridicule.  Unfortunately, Hollywood still had a way to go before it would fully understand how to speak to and accurately address the concerns of the gay community fully.

During the 80’s, the AIDS epidemic hit it’s high point, and that led to a crisis of identity for the gay community going forward.  Just beyond social acceptance, gay people now had to contend with the added stigma of living with a widespread disease that was unfairly blamed on them.  Again, the stigma of being social outcasts was laid upon the gay community, and the struggle to tell their story became even harder.  One common unfortunate result of the stigma placed on the gay community was that there was a growing disconnect with regards to the view of masculinity.  During the 80’s and parts of the 90’s, hyper masculine males were seen as the ideal in Hollywood, with the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger dominating the box office.  What this, pressure was put on actors to adhere to this ideal, whether they were straight or not.  It was not a new ideal, but one that hit an apex in the blockbuster era, and in this time, it put enormous pressure on Hollywood to keep the status quo going.  But, with the AIDS epidemic, you saw a crack in the macho image that Hollywood was perpetuating, when masculine actor Rock Hudson suddenly died from the disease, and it was discovered that he had indeed been a closeted homosexual this whole time.  This exposed Hollywood to a new awareness of how poorly they had been looking at the gay community, showing that they themselves had perpetuated the damaging stereotypes and misrepresented the community as a whole for far too long.  In time, they began to listen more to the complaints of gay audiences when they objected to how they were portrayed in the movies.  After complaints about the representation of a transsexual serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), director Jonathan Demme chose to make amends with his next feature Philadelphia (1993), a groundbreaking and sympathetic portrayal of a gay man living with AIDS, and fighting for his dignity after losing his job because of it.  It was a small gesture, but a move in the right direction, with Hollywood finally showing a true, un-filtered portrayal of real gay people in society.

The road to acceptance has been steadily getting better ever since, though not without some unfortunate roadblocks in the way.  You still get the occasional tired and cliched “gay panic” routines in some lazy comedy movies (particularly from Adam Sandler’s repulsive Happy Madison productions).  There’s also the occasional “coded queer” sidekick character that is mainly there for comedic effect in some movies.  I honestly don’t know if anybody finds them that funny anymore.  Truth be told, recent years have finally made it okay for gay characters to not only exist within a film, but to also to be considered as part of the normal fabric of society.  Regular occurring gay characters are nothing but a positive now in movies, and even better, are now expected.  There is still an issue, however, of Hollywood trying to understand the best way to address the troubled history of queer representation in cinema.  Sometimes it even manifests in too much acceptance.  There have been some Hollywood films that go too far the other way, and portray queer characters as these fragile little things that need their protection.  That is clearly not how gay people want to be treated in society.  Gay people want support and acceptance; not pity.  It’s an aspect of some so-called “progressive” films made within the system that I find troubling, culminating with Hollywood’s biggest attempt at Oscar-baiting the issue with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), a topic that I want to address separately in an article in the future.  Where Hollywood’s efforts are best served is in supporting not just a queer identity on the big screen, but also within the community at large.  Whenever a queer actor or actress wishes to live openly, support that, and don’t marginalize them by defining their careers by their sexuality.  Also, allow queer filmmakers to be as flexible as they want.  It’s a strong sign where gay filmmakers like Bryan Singer can work queer themes into unexpected areas like superhero movies (X-Men for instance) and have it feel natural.  Hollywood should know by now that society’s attitudes have changed, and part of that evolution is and has always been within their power.

What ultimately shows us today that things have changed for the better is how mainstream queer representation has finally become now in modern media.  No more are we seeing gays ostracized as something abnormal, but instead, just as common as every other grouping in society.  You sometimes lament how much of film history was wasted trying to ignore the existence of homosexuality in general, or trying to put it down as something out of the ordinary.  But, given how some parts of society are still actively trying to hurt the members of the gay community, it’s nice to see that they have a committed ally in Hollywood.  I think there is no better sign of progress than the unexpected triumph at this year’s Oscars for the film Moonlight (2016).  Though made by a heterosexual filmmaker, the film nevertheless represented the best mainstream portrayal of the internal struggle of identity that gay people face when growing up that we’ve seen from Hollywood to date.  It didn’t try to do make any other grand statement other than helping people understand the psyche of the every-man gay person in society, and how often the internal struggle manifests into negative actions due to having such a fractured and marginalized identity.  I think that the subtlety of it’s message helped to keep it underground for so long, and that’s why it’s win at the Oscars took so many by surprise; even to the presenters themselves.  Moonlight‘s win was so rewarding because it didn’t feel like an empty gesture on Hollywood’s part; it was genuinely earned, beating out the heavy favorite La La Land (2016) in the process.  Moonlight’s Best Picture win is the best sign yet of Hollywood finally showing full, dignified acceptance of queer cinema, but there’s still a lot more to do.   At least now, there are plenty of cinematic portrayals and role models to satisfy those who have struggled to become comfortable with their gay identity; including yours truly (sorry for burying that lead).  It’s been a long road to reach the end of this rainbow, but as we look back during this Pride Month, it’s clear to see that Hollywood has made considerable progress in giving their devoted queer fan-base the support and dignity that they deserve.