All posts by James Humphreys

Tinseltown Throwdown – Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano

The disaster film has had many ups and downs throughout the history of cinema; mostly downs.  Sure, you have your Oscar-winner Titanic (1997), but most of the time the genre is marked by many sub-par efforts that either end up laughably bad (1996’s Twister) or just plain bad (2004’s The Day After Tomorrow).   And the common fault with most disaster films isn’t whether or not they can make the disaster appear real or not; in fact, most of the time, these types of movies are wonderful showcases for the best advances in visual effects.  No, the thing that most of these types of movies struggle with the most is how they tell their stories.  In reality, disasters as a moment in time are quite brief.  Usually when a movie tackles something like an earthquake or a tornado as a part of their story, they have to film the run-time with a lot of extra filler, because those natural occurrences last minutes at the most.  There are ways around such problems.  Movies like Twister and San Andreas (2015) manage to keep the story momentum going by making their films not just about one disastrous event, but a whole string of them.  And movies like Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure (1972) get their dramatic tension not from the incident itself, but from the aftermath, and all the desperation that comes about from the characters trying to survive.  It’s easy to forget that the human drama is the essential part of any disaster movie, and oftentimes these movies fall apart because the filmmakers seem so disinterested in their stories.  The worst kinds of disaster movies are usually the ones where human beings are treated purely like lambs to a slaughter, except whichever character the bankable movie star is playing, as they somehow miraculously survive without a scratch.  This is a genre that has many different types too, with no natural or man-made disaster seemingly unexplored, and there was a period of time when the genre was so prolific that it often resulted in direct competition with like-minded films.

This was the case in the late 90’s, as digital effects were starting to become a more useful tool in Hollywood.  Though the genre saw a renewed interest in this decade, it’s roots go back further.  Disaster movies were always brought out the best in big screen entertainment, and even the early days of the talkies saw it’s fair share; like San Fransisco (1936) where Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy survive through the 1906 earthquake, or In Old Chicago (1937) where Tyrone Power and Alice Faye try to endure the Great Fire of 1871 that consumed the city.  But the genre didn’t hit it’s peak until a producer named Irwin Allen stepped into Hollywood during the 1970’s.  Not only did Allen develop films that utilized the best visual effects available at the time, but he also invented the idea that these disaster films should also include all star casts as well.  With movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (1974), Allen made the disaster film not only the most visually stunning productions of their time, but also the most star studded, making them must see entertainment and huge box office successes for their time.  Though the blockbuster era would overtake the box office reign years later, Allen’s disaster flicks are still gold standards for the genre, and their influence no doubt was still felt once the genre saw it’s revival later on.  Already mentioned films like Titanic and Twister were breakthroughs in terms of using CGI to bring the epic scale of these events to life, and Hollywood saw this genre as the perfect showcase for this new technology.  And with a huge swell within a particular genre, you are bound to see movies that bear very many similarities.  I already wrote about two such films, Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998) here, but a very competition happened a year prior with a more earthbound type of disaster; the eruptive duel between Volcano (1997) and Dante’s Peak (1997).

“Isn’t it beautiful, nestled all nice and cozy right up against the mountain?

“Yeah, just like Pompeii.”

Before examining the ways that these movies distinquish themselves apart from one another, and what makes one better than the other, one thing needs to be made clear.  Neither of these movies are good.  A large part of why the disaster film disipated as a genre before the 90’s were over is largely because of movies like these, both of which flopped hard.  And the major problem that affects both of them is the same as with most other bad movies in this genre; they’re boring.  Both movies unfortunately cannot fill their run-times with anything interesting apart from the disasters themselves, and this ends up making the movies feel very hollow.  This also means that the movies also resort to having the main characters do stupid things in order to move the plot forward, instead of doing what a normal, rational person would do, which is to flee an erupting volcano immediately.  The movies’ attempts at humanizing the characters are also fairly lame, and often resort to generic stereotypes or worse.  They are essentially movies where the visuals matter more than the story, and the screenplays are just your 101 basics.  For some reason, these movies also like to fit in a lot of side characters, which makes character development even more impossible; my guess is that this is a holdover idea from the Irwin Allen days, but just without the star power to make us identify with the characters quicker.  That being said, the movies do feature some large scale visuals; though time has not been kind to the early CGI used.    Still, you can see the money spent on the screen, and in some cases, points where the movie went above and beyond what was to be expected.  But, there are fundamental differences that make one less bad than the other, and it primarily involves the actual source of the disasters themselves; the volcanoes.

volcano 2

“We’re going to put as many people in front of it as it takes”

The big difference that separates the two movie is the plausibility of their concepts.  Dante’s Peak has a relatively more earthbound story, setting the movie in the gentle and serene location of a rugged mountain town named after the titular peak.   The volcano in question is also what you would imagine; a cyndrical, snow-capped peak not unlike the many mountains of the Pacific Northwest, which themselves were formed through volcanism.  The movie clearly takes inspiration particularly from the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980, so even though the movie takes a lot of liberties with the sciences and realities of volcanic activity, it at least counts on the audience’s familiarity with an event like St. Helens to draw a parallel.  Volcano on the other hand doesn’t seem to care about the science of volcanic activity and just seems more content to set their movie anywhere just so it would look cool.  This is especially true by the fact that they set the movie in Los Angeles, a place rarely affected by the impact of volcanism, and that they place the source of the volcano in the world famous La Brea Tar Pits.  Here’s the most jarring problem with that; tar pits are not a bi-product of volcanic activity.  They are the result of trapped methane gas and porous rock, and are great places to find fossilized remains because of the way it traps and preserves, not destroy and reshape like volcanos do.  The fact that the filmmakers of Volcano think that Tar Pits naturally lead to lava shows that they clearly were not doing their homework.  Yes, Dante’s Peak is ludicrous at moments too, but it grounds itself with at least some basic knowledge of how volcanoes work.  There is an interesting moment in the movie where the Geological Society official, played by actor Charles Hallahan, states real life instances of volcanic warnings that proved to be false alarms but still resulted in communities losing valuable tourism income.  Though a minor point, it does show that the movie at least tried to underline itself with something based in reality.  At the very least, the movie treats the science with a little more respect.  There aren’t instances of characters diverting lava with a barrier to make it change direction, as if it were flowing water and not a viscous material that can layer upon itself and climb over obstructions.

The movie Volcano is the far more ridiculous of the two because of this, but some of that does work to it’s advantage.  The movie at the very least devotes a better amount of it’s run-time to the disaster itself.  It thankfully spares us any more character development, and it almost becomes endearing just how much the movie doesn’t care about the people in it.  The problem with Dante’s Peak is that it takes far too long to get the to meat of the film, which is the eruption.  Far too much of the first half involves Geologist Harry Dalton (played by a very oddly cast Pierce Brosnan) seeing the warning signs and no one taking him seriously.  Of course the movie resorts to this cliche, which has been seen in countless movies before like Jaws (1975), Jurassic Park (1993), and also all the way back with The Towering Inferno.  We get a lot of this too, as clear signs are dismissed in a very irrational way, clearly intended on the filmmakers part to stall the inevitable in order to pad the movie.  In addition to this, the movie also gives us a very labored courting relationship between Dalton and the town’s mayor, Rachel Wando, played by Linda Hamilton.  All these set ups end up getting dropped once the mountain erupts, so devoting so much time to it seems pointless.  At least with Volcano there are no warning signs.  The volcano just manifests suddenly without too much build-up, and all the drama is drawn from the results, rather than the lead-up.  I do appreciate that Dante’s Peak at least attempted to make more out of itself than just the disaster, but when the characters are this dull and the pacing is so flat, it does test your patience.  The eruption is almost like a welcome release in the end, and I’ll say this, the second half of the movie is much better in general, and delivers it’s spectacle well without overdoing it.

dantes peak 2

“A man who looks at a rock must have a lot on his mind.”

The movie’s also differ greatly when it comes to their casts.  Both drift heavily away from the all-star days of Irwin Allen, and instead just spotlight their headliners, with the remainder of the cast filled by capable character actors.  In this regard, the cast of Dante’s Peak fares a tad bit better.  Pierce Brosnan filmed this movie in between Bond films, so he looks a tad bit disinterested with his mind obviously elsewhere.  Still, that 007 charm does carry over, and even though the character is fairly limited in development, he still manages to maintain screen presence throughout.  Linda Hamilton also does a capable job of playing her role.  No stranger to action films, she holds her own in the movie’s more climatic moments, and thankfully she does so without invoking any similarities with Sarah Connor from the Terminator series, her most famous role.  And surprisingly, the two have chemistry, even if their relationship in the movie feels contrived.  That’s a fair bit better than what the cast of Volcano gives us.  Tommy Lee Jones is in such a “doing it for the paycheck” mode with his performance in this movie.  Considering that in the same year he delivered an endearing performance in the very fun Men in Black (1997) shows just how bad his work is here, because we know he’s capable of better.  Surprisingly, it’s Anne Heche who comes out of this looking better, and her performance is almost as bad.  There’s little I can tell you about either character, because the movie does little to make either one memorable.  But, the bar was lower for Heche in comparison, so she  had less of a case to make.  Shockingly, she was given the brunt of blame for Volcano’s box office failure, because the movie came out around the same time she did from the closet.  Her public declaration of her sexuality and then relationship with comedian Ellen Degenres was pointed unfairly as the reason why audiences stayed away, which shows just how much times have changed.  It’s a good thing now that homosexuality is no longer a blight on one’s career, but sadly Anne Heche was unfairly scapegoated for something that was the studio’s fault, not hers.

The one other aspect that sets the film’s apart is the way they capture the spectacle of their events.  The CGI of the mid to late 90’s doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny compared with today’s standards, despite some rare exceptions (Juuassic Park).  The movie Dante’s Peak does benefit from a minimal reliance on the film-making tool, and only uses it for the more impossible moments, like the pyroclastic flows swallowing the town, or a torrential river clogged with debris.  What I do appreciate best about Dante’s Peak is that it mixes in the CGI with a lot of detailed models, which has sadly fallen into a lost art in recent years as computers have replaced the technique.  Looking at making of materials for the film, you can see how the movie managed to create a believable mountain and it’s destruction through very intricate models, which helps to maintain a realistic quality to the movie in general.  They even built false hillsides for certain scenes on film studio lots in Vancouver, BC, just so they could demolish this environment in a controlled fashion and make it look authentic.  That sense of detail was expensive (over $100 million before inflation), but every dollar is there on screen.  Volcano doesn’t have that air of authenticity, as they obviously couldn’t destroy large swaths of the streets of LA.  But that movie’s way around this is no less impressive.  For the production, 20th Century Fox built a lifesize replica of the intersection of Wilshie Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in midtown LA, out in the Mojave Desert.  This included false facades of landmarks like the Tar Pits, the Petersen Automotive Museum, and the LACMA Museum Complex.  From this set, they could demolish all they wanted, and still have it look like Miracle Mile in Los Angeles.  The movie still relies more heavily on the CGI portions, and because of that over reliance, it’s effects don’t hold up as well as Dante’s Peak.  But, both movies do have a lot of ambition behind them, which makes you wish it was focused on better stories.

volcano 1

“I’m not paper; I’m lava. What beats lava?”

So, overall, I would say that Dante’s Peak works much better as a film than Volcano.  It’s far more grounded, it has a better cast and it doesn’t rely too heavily on film-making short cuts like CGI.  Even still, it is a very flawed movie, and at times quite boring.  Volcano in some ways benefits from being so laughably ludicrous that it becomes entertaining, but that doesn’t make it any better.  Dante’s Peak is in general a much better made movie.  Regardless, both movies were responsible for the quick burnout that the disaster film faced.  Despite the successes that came after them, these two movie were pin pointed to as examples of wasteful spending by Hollywood, and many future disaster films were shelved or canceled as a result.  It didn’t help much that the failure of Kevin Costner’s Waterworld (1995) was still on the industry’s mind at the time, and studios became more weary of creating elaborate sets such as the ones used for these two films.  At the same time, no one suffered much from these failures.  Brosnan continued to play James Bond for several more years, unscathed.  Tommy Lee Jones had Men in Black  to quickly help people forget that Volcano even existed.  And Hollywood has learned that supporting someone’s LGBTQ identity is actually a net gain rather than a detriment, and Anne Heche has thankfully been let off the hook for the movie’s failure that she was unfairly singled out for.  I doubt that these movies will ever be looked at as anything but examples of how fleeting trends can be in Hollywood, even within the robust disaster film genre.  And even today, the genre is still in need of some fresh ideas.  I would gladly watch either Dante’s Peak or Volcano over any of Roland Emmerich’s awful disaster movies.  What interests me is how both films seemed to fail at the same time, and over the exact same subject.  Maybe it was just that audiences didn’t find volcanoes all that interesting, or because the moment of reckoning for this volatile genre just happened to fall at this time, bringing both films into it’s own path of destruction at the worst possible time.

dantes peak 3

“I’ve always been better at feeling out volcanoes than people and politics.”

Cinematic Dragons – The Growing Influence of China in Hollywood

For the longest time, the entire cinematic world made it’s way through Hollywood.  That dream factory in the American southland was where all the money came from as well as being the focal point from which all pop culture stemmed from.  And the main reason why Hollywood grew to have this special place in our cultural development is because for the longest time, America was the undisputed leading market for all things in the world.  Because of America’s unique connection to the birth and development as film as an art-form, it’s no surprise that Hollywood’s output was specifically geared to appeal to a broad but specific American demographic.  Sure, there were budding film markets that grew up internationally during this same time, some with influential filmmakers of their own who would leave their own valuable mark on the industry as well, but to be a big deal of the world of film, you still had to play by Hollywood’s rules, and those were dictated by the demands of the American market.  But, in the last few decades, there has been a shift that has dramatically altered the way Hollywood does business.  As more and more nations have pulled themselves into developing and even prosperous economies, their film industries have grown alongside them, and Hollywood has taken notice.  Right now, film studios are thinking less about how a movie will perform domestically, and are instead focusing more on the international grosses.  And that is having an effect on what kinds of movies are getting made today.  The money is now no longer going towards movies that will play well just for the American market, but for the entire world.  And that includes your easy to translate fare, like the Transformers movie, the Fast and the Furious movies, and most anything that animated.  But. what is interesting right now is the ever increasing influence of one nation in particular, that not only is rising as a film market but is even challenging the American market as the largest in the world, which is greatly changing not only is changing Hollywood’s focus but is even shifting the way it does business as well; the ancient country of China.

China, for the longest time, was an almost zero factor market for Hollywood.  From the rise of Communism through the Cultural Revolution, China was a closed off nation that accepted nothing from the outside world; including movies.  Until Nixon opened up diplomatic relations in the 1970’s, China was a country that probably knew nothing about Hollywood, nor had seen all the advances that cinema had made in all that time.  But, in the years since, they’ve made great progress in establishing their own mark on the film industry.  For the longest time, the center-point for Chinese film-making was in Hong Kong, the one time British colony that was untouched by Communism.  From Hong Kong, the world was introduced to a whole new genre that was distinctively grown out of Chinese culture; the martial arts film.  And from these movies, we were introduced to the first Chinese movie star in Bruce Lee, who managed to achieve international fame even before China began to open itself to the rest of the world.  Martial Arts cinema did help to put Hong Kong on the map as a hub for film-making, and that in turn helped to develop a new class of Chinese filmmakers.  Names like John Woo and Zhang Yimou began to make an impact not only in their homeland, but worldwide as well.  And it wasn’t just Hong Kong that took notice of their talents, but Hollywood as well.  Woo eventually made his way stateside where he took his distinctive style that he honed on films like A Better Tomorrow (1986) and Hard Boiled (1992) and helped to redefine the American action thriller with Face/Off (1996) and Mission Impossible 2 (2000).  And though he began outside of China in the small but important Taiwan film industry, Ang Lee quickly became known for his mastery of multiple franchises, which became a skill that managed to make him the first Asian filmmaker to win an Oscar for direction.  And he too also brought a uniquely Chinese flavor to his films, best illustrated in his sumptuous martial arts epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

To put it in short terms, China not only made up for many missed years separated from the world of cinema due to their isolation, but they did so in a spectacular fashion, quickly leaving their mark.  But now, they are having an impact on cinema in a different way.  After opening up special capitalist districts within the traditionally Communist nation, the nation quickly became a booming trade market, which has seen their national wealth balloon to unprecedented levels.  Because of this, more than 2/3 of the over 1 billion people in China have moved out of poverty and into the middle class.  As a result, more Chinese citizens have the income available now to do a variety of activities, including going to the movies on a regular basis.  And this been where business has really boomed for the Chinese film industry.  Over a thousand new movie theaters have opened up across China in just the last couple years alone.  Though they still haven’t caught up to the total number of screens here in North America. they are closing that gap fast, because there are far more Chinese out there than Americans, and the demand for more screens is high.  For a long time, imported American films were the top draw for Chinese theaters, and still are (except Star Wars for some reason), but China’s own film industry has seen a boom in their box office returns as well.  When you look at each year’s top grossing worldwide releases, you’ll see a growing number of Chinese productions like Wolf Warrior (2015) or Operation Red Sea (2018) appearing on the list, grossing in the range of $500 million each.  And these films don’t even reach American cinemas at all, which shows you just how much money right now can be made in China alone at the box office.  And because of this, American studios are taking notice and rethinking their strategy for which films to make.  The regular American film-goer no longer has the maximum influence over the market; now it is shared with the Chinese, and an amalgam of all other film markets worldwide.

That worldwide gross number is now a bigger chunk of the pie than the domestic grosses, and that has greatly influenced which films are given the bigger percentage of attention in Hollywood.  We’ve seen in particular a steady decrease in things like romantic comedies, westerns, and period epics being made by Hollywood, because these movies tend to be expensive and don’t translate very well over in places like China.  But the things that do translate well overseas are big, loud action films, which rely less on witty dialogue and intricate plots.  Disney has excelled with Marvel films, as well as their many animated properties, and one only has to look at the fact that the country is now home to two Disney theme parks to see how well their brand has connected with the Chinese.  Other studios are finding their footing in different ways.  Paramount has connected with their Transformers films, with many of the recent chapters in the series intentionally setting their stories in China.  Warner Brothers has even gone further by investing in movies that really are motivated solely by the international market.  Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) was disappointing at the domestic box office, despite critical praise, but it did extremely well in Asia, with China accounting for nearly $100 million extra in grosses alone, and that sole reason is why it received a sequel earlier this spring.  Another surprise was the film Warcraft (2016), based on the popular online multiplayer game.  By all accounts, the movie would’ve been considered a costly flop based on the domestic gross alone, and yet, it made a profit because of how well it did oversees, especially in China.  Despite what critics may think of these movies, the rising influence of a new class of paying customers out of China and elsewhere are dictating the projects getting greenlit by the choices they make at the box office.

What’s even more interesting, however, about Chinese rising influence on Hollywood is not just their increased profile as a film market, but also the fact that they are having an even more prominent presence right in the heart of Hollywood itself.  Many emerging billionaires coming out of China right now are not only investing more heavily in film-making, but they’re going as far as to purchase several little studios in Hollywood itself, making movies for American audiences in addition to their own.  This has recently manifested in the arrival of cross-cultural movies targeted to appeal to both countries.  One of the clearest examples of this is the recent release of The Meg (2018), a big budget monster movie where a team of scientists from all over the world cross paths with the giant prehistoric shark, Megalodon.  Though there’s nothing remarkable about the premise, it is interesting to note how much of the casting of the movie is reflective of the studio’s interest in appealing to both American and Chinese audiences alike, having British action icon Jason Statham and Chinese actress Li Bingbing sharing top billing, and with near equal amounts of the movie’s dialogue spoken in English and Mandarin.  What this shows is that China is looking not just for their own homegrown filmmakers and actors to do well over seas, but they’re even seeking out American talent to participate in their own distinctly Chinese films.  This has led to some confusion here in America, especially when it was revealed that all-American actor Matt Damon was going to appear in a movie called The Great Wall (2017).  Some cried foul and said that it was an egregious example of white-washing a Chinese movie, but in reality Damon’s role was specifically tailored by Chinese director Zhang Yimou to be filled by someone of European decent, as part of a larger ensemble that was dominated by native Chinese actors.  Unbeknownst to many, this was not white-washing, but a sea change in who was starting to call the shots in Hollywood, and the fact that A-listers from Hollywood like Damon and Statham were not just linked to domestic productions anymore really showed how much that change has already affected the business.

But dramatic shifts in the way that Hollywood conducts business is not without risks.  And considering the volatility of the Chinese economy, with it’s rapid growth beginning to show stresses and signs of potential collapses in some sectors, the ramifications for some chaotic downfalls spreading into Hollywood as well also increases, especially with more and more smaller studios being bought up by Chinese conglomerates and new billionaires.  In some cases, you have production companies either being started up or bought out by wealthy investors who know no one thing about how the film industry works, and yet are putting up a ton of money just to get their name into show business.  In these cases we see the most extreme cases of boom and bust from these Chinese investments.  This late August slate of new releases in particular represents the growing presence of Chinese money in Hollywood.  Would you have expected films like A-X-LKin, and The Happytime Murders to all have been Chinese productions.  Not a single one looks distinctively geared for an Asian audience, and yet each was co-financed by a Chinese production company.  Ironically, they are being beaten at the box office by a completely American production called Crazy Rich Asians (2018).  And it’s that lack of focus in knowing how to produce broader appealing movies that is the drawback to the increased investments coming from China.  One of the more troubling examples has been the case of Global Road Entertainment.  Once called Open Road Films (which produced the Oscar winner Spotlight), Global Road reformatted under the new management of Tang Media Partners, which is conglomerate run by Chinese-American billionaire Donald Tang.  Tang’s inexperience with running a film studio quickly became apparent as costly flops like Show DogsHotel Artemis, and the fore-mentioned A-X-L have all lost the company money in very quick succession and the short-lived company is now in financial straights.   It’s not the case with all Chinese investments in Hollywood, but it certainly marks a cautionary sign of how quickly things can go awry once a new influx of money floods into the business.

In a lot of cases, Hollywood is going to end up compromising a lot of things in order to work with the new Chinese economy.  In most ways, an improved alliance is a good thing.  Increased cultural exchange is going to help both China and America live in better harmony, as well as benefit each other financially.  But, there are aspects that Hollywood is going to have to come to terms with the more they of the global giant in their community.  One is the fact that a large part of their investment is coming from a nation with not the greatest human rights track record.  The Communist nation’s lack of freedoms for things that liberal Hollywood holds dear, like free expression and human rights, are going to make many future agreements a little tumultuous.  Some very anti-Chinese government pet causes of Hollywood celebrities in the past, like a “free Tibet”, may sadly have to be compromised as China becomes increasingly in charge of where the money goes in the business.  I think that’s why you see some avenues of Hollywood remaining cautious through all of these changes, and that’s leading to a whole new face in the industry itself.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney and Fox’s merger was in some way motivated by some of this, as neither company wants to face a hostile takeover by an international conglomerate and feel that they are better suited pooling their resources together to stay independent as a distinctly Hollywood institution.  It’s hard to say, but the clear indication is that by becoming the fastest growing film market in the world as well as one of the wealthiest, China’s impact on Hollywood and Cinema in general will be felt for many years to come, and in many cases, will be a permanent change.  And to face this sea change, Hollywood has to adjust alongside it, otherwise China’s red wave of influence will leave much of it washed out and buried.

It’s hard to say if a greater Chinese influence on cinema is going to be a plus or a negative for the industry just yet.  On the one hand, Chinese filmmakers and actors are gaining much more notoriety than before, and more and more Chinese people are seeing the benefits of a vibrant film culture in their lives as many of them are increasingly going to the movies each week.  Hollywood is no longer undervaluing the Asian audiences either, and are far more willing to invest in movies that have a distinct Asian perspective to them.  The cross pollination between cultures is also a positive outcome, as the once isolated nation grows more comfortable with seeing America as a partner rather than a threat, and vice versa.   At the same time, China’s volatility also runs the risk of creating a more chaotic state in the film industry, as many start-ups from enthusiastic but inexperienced investors can’t sustain for very long in Hollywood, and that in turn creates a lot of uncertainty for the industry in general.  Despite the costs, it’s a trend that can’t be avoided.  We are going to be seeing a lot more co-productions with China in the years ahead, with multi-national movies like The Great Wall and The Meg becoming more and more common.  And Open Road Entertainment’s quick downfall is not an indication of all Chinese investments going sour.  There’s companies like the Huayi Brothers, who have found success with a diverse slate of releases both big and small, including movies just for Chinese audiences and American audiences, like Journey to the West and the Bad Moms series.  American companies are even looking to target China’s market specifically, with Horror film producer Jason Blum announcing a new slate of films through his Blumhouse Pictures specifically made for Chinese audiences.  And it’s not just China alone that Hollywood wants to focus on, but other emerging economies like India and Latin America as well, though their vibrant film industries have been around far longer than China’s.  It’s the fact that China’s growing industry is so fresh and unexplored and yet insanely wealthy at the moment that has made the whole film industry take notice all of a sudden.  China is a serious player in the game right now, one that may even eclipse that of Hollywood’s home base of America in the years to come, and it will be interesting to see what becomes of this industry down the road as a result.

 

The Movies of Fall 2018

The Summer of 2018 has passed us by, and looking back on these last few months, we see many interesting results that give a different perspective on the movie industry right now.  For one thing, this summer was a period of both great success for the film industry, but also great turmoil.  On the positive side, box office reached record highs this summer, bolstered by the likes of Marvel’s Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp, as well as the record-breaking Incredibles 2 and the monstrous Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.  But, this was also a summer of huge shake-ups in Hollywood that is likely going to effect the way movies are made in the future, and also with how they are seen.  The continued rise of Netflix is putting pressure on the movie theater industry, and this summer we saw the beginnings of a whole different look for Hollywood.  The enormous merger of Disney and Fox cleared it’s biggest hurdle and will become a reality in the next year, increasing the likelihood of a competitive on demand to take on Netflix with a catalog of properties bolstered by two major studios.  To combat the rise of streaming only content, movie theaters embraced the idea of adding subscription plans to their ticketing service, though the company that pioneered the concept, MoviePass, has barely made it through this summer intact and will likely crash and burn in the near future.  This is an industry in transition, and it’s fascinating to watch this happen in real time, with sweeping changes happening much faster now than any era before.  It only makes the next few months ahead even more exciting as Hollywood’s evolution continues to unfold, and especially with Awards season about to begin.

Like previous previews I’ve written in the past, I will be spotlighting movies coming out in the fall months ahead that fall into three categories: the must sees, the movies that have me worried, and the ones that are worth skipping.  These are my own preconceptions of the following movies, based on my own level of enthusiasm for each movie based largely on how well they are being sold, and also based on my own thoughts regarding my interest in their potential.  I’m not always the best handicapper, so these aren’t predictions for how well these movies are going to perform both critically or at the box office.  Some of these could turn out to be incredible surprises, or crushing disappointments.  Or, they could end up being exactly what I thought they’d be.  So, with all that, let’s take a look at the Movies of Fall 2018.

MUST SEES:

FIRST MAN (OCTOBER 12)

Of course, with any Awards season, you will see a big push from the major studios to put their own prestige film into the race, and that leads to new additions to one of my favorite genres in filmmaking; the historical epic.  This tried and true genre of film has always wielded some of the most impressive movies from Hollywood over the years, if not always awards contenders.  This year, Universal and Dreamworks look to make their claim with this space based epic centered around the life of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon.  Movies that have centered around the glory days of the space race have done generally well over the years, from The Right Stuff (1983) to Apollo 13 (1995).  But, it’s surprising that it has taken this long for Hollywood to make a movie about the original moon landing of the Apollo 11, in addition to portraying the roles of the men who accomplished it, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.  Finally seeing this story make it to the big screen is one thing, but it’s also interesting that the movie is coming from director Damien Chazelle.  Only on his third feature, the still young director is coming off of his success from directing the musical La La Land, which is quite the jump of genre.  I for one am intrigued to see how well he handles the shift.  He does have a great eye for visuals, and some of those shots of the moon landing do look impressive (which will be especially true for the select scenes shot specifically for IMAX).  I also like the fact that it seems that he’s going for a first hand perspective here, showing all the details from Armstrong’s point of view, especially with all the scary potential for catastrophe that this mission could’ve faced.  Chazelle’s carrying over his La La Land leading man, Ryan Gosling, who seems like a perfect fit for the private, reserved Armstrong.  I love when Hollywood shoots for something big and important, and this ode to mankind’s giant leap will hopefully be a worthwhile one.

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET: WRECK-IT RALPH 2 (NOVEMBER 21)

Disney has rarely returned to the well with sequelizing their animated features; at least in theaters.  But, when they do, it’ usually for a film that’s deserving of a follow-up.  Such is the case with this sequel to their surprise hit, Wreck-It Ralph (2012).  The original had a lot of fun with playing around with the concept of characters from one video game jumping into another, and they made good use of all the cameos from gaming icons to fill out the background of their movie; including the now iconic Villain support group scene.  But, as we see in this trailer, the makers of Wreck-it Ralph are not just going to repeat the same old formula.  They are instead opting to expand Ralph’s world further, bringing him out of the arcade and into the world wide web.  The idea could run the risk of dating this sequel in our present, unlike the appeal of the  first which drew on our nostalgia for video games of yesteryear.  But, it seems like Disney is doing something clever here, by putting the jokes squarely on themselves.  With a sequence devoted to Ralph (once again voiced by John C. Reilly) and his companion Vanellope (Sarah Silverman, also returning) taking a trip to Disney’s own website, the movie has a great opportunity to create some hilarious meta-humor.  Key among them is the now much talked about sequence involving Vanellope meeting the Princesses.  I watched the entire sequence at the D23 Expo last year, and I can tell you there is a lot more there that most people haven’t seen yet, and it’s all hilarious.  It will also be interesting to see how the movie addresses the down side of the internet as well, which can’t be avoided and might prove to be a strong antagonistic story point.  New characters played by Taraji P. Henson and Gal Gadot also look to add some extra flavor to this universe, and I’m eager to see if this sequel is able to live up to it’s predecessor and possibly even surpass it.

AQUAMAN (DECEMBER 21)

In the wake of what has become of Zack Snyder’s DC Universe, culminating in the disappointing Justice League from last year, it seems that there is little to be hopeful for in the house that Superman built.  And yet, there’s something about this Aquaman trailer that has me excited.  I think that the most pleasing thing about it is that it is very colorful.  Gone are the muted, drab colors of the Snyder films, and instead we get a look at the undersea world that is full of bold, bright colors that create this lush visual canvas of the undersea world.  And then there is Jason Momoa’s performance as the titular superhero.  Easily one of the highlights of Justice League, Momoa clearly loves playing this role and his sense of fun is infectious.  It helps to believe in the integrity of the character you are playing, especially when it’s a character that has long been mocked as ridiculous in comic book circles.  From this trailer, it’s clear that Jason Momoa loves this character, and that he wants to make him not only stronger, but kind of a badass as well.  It’s also clear that director James Wan wants to meet the challenge of this film as well.  Known mostly for horror flicks like The Conjuring (2013), Wan is branching out into new territory with Aquaman, and it seems like he’s doing so by embracing the comic book elements fully.  Many of the scenes in the trailer look like they could’ve come right off the pages of a comic, including some rather epic shots both above and below the waves.  And another great sign of Wan’s appreciation for the medium is in how well he has translated Aquaman’s nemesis, Black Manta, to the big screen.  Most other filmmakers would have done away with Black Manta’s bulky helmet, but Wan brings it to life in all it’s glory, knowing very well that it’s iconic and it defines the character.  Let’s hope that like Wonder Woman, this Aquaman movie helps to elevate it’s titular hero, and brings the DC universe back to where it should be.

BOY ERASED (NOVEMBER 2)

It wouldn’t be the Fall season without a little Oscar-baiting fare thrown in the mix.  And while some are your usual independent, socially conscious drams that usually will not be widely seen by the public, there are some that are noteworthy and are worthy of spotlighting, even if they don’t end up getting the big awards.  This film in particular appeals to me for obvious reasons.  One, it’s another in a very positive trend in Hollywood of embracing movies that tackle LGBT themed issues and bringing them to a wider audience and making them mainstream.  Two, it’s the first “Hollywood” film to ever address the very real problem of queer youth being forced into gay conversion therapy, a widely discredited practice perpetuated by religious fundamentalists that is akin to psychological torture in some cases.  It’s something that we haven’t seen dramatized in a mainstream film before and I think that it’s about time that some light is shed on this issue.  The movie is written and directed by actor Joel Edgerton, who also plays the pastor in charge of this conversion camp, and he seem to have brought a very passionate and human perspective on this subject, both critiquing the practice while at the same time trying to understand the people who are a part of it, both with the victims and the perpetrators.  I love the fact that the movie seems to be as interested in the story of the parents as well as the boy at the center of the film (played by rising star Lucas Hedges).  It shows that their struggle is just as complex, and it’s smart on Edgerton’s part not to make religion itself the boogeyman of this movie, but instead show how people can be easily misguided in pursuit of their faith.  I hope that this movie presents a compelling examination of this all too real problem, and gets a real conversation started on the matter.

MARY POPPINS RETURNS (DECEMBER 19)

It’s always a big risk to make a sequel to a classic movie, especially when a good many years or decades have passed in between each movie.  Disney is now planning to do just that with one of their most iconic films, following up on the original which was made a whopping 54 years ago.  The original Mary Poppins (1964) is a universally beloved classic, with fans spanning several generations.  Making a sequel to a movie like this is certainly a risk, but it seems like Disney is doing their best to honor that legacy while at the same time making this movie stand well enough on it’s own.  The casting of Emily Blunt as the iconic nanny is a smart choice.  She has the same manner of cadence to her performance as Julie Andrews from the original, and Ms. Andrews has already blessed the choice of casting with her seal of approval.  I also like the change in time period for this film, as we find Mary revisiting the Banks children grown up into adulthood and with children of their own.  It’s a time period that has already gone through two world wars, which would put Mary’s advice and expertise into a different perspective altogether.  While this movie hasn’t hinted at any musical sequences yet, it’s likely that we’ll hear a bunch of new songs here, and it helps that Emily Blunt is a talented singer in her own right, and will be backed up by Broadway icon Lin-Manuel Miranda as her co-star.  The movie also has an impressive supporting cast, including Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw, plus it will also see iconic veterans joining in like David Warner, Angela Lansbury, and yes even Dick Van Dyke.  It may never be able to top the original, but with a top notch production like this, it can at least work as a fine complimentary piece to it’s legacy.

MOVIES THE HAVE ME WORRIED:

VENOM (OCTOBER 5)

One of the pleasing things about the brokered deal between Sony and Disney to share custody of the Spider-Man franchise was that it helped to bring organization to the often out of control series and helped the character effectively integrate into the already established MCU.  The result was a fresher, younger webslinger played by Tom Holland, who made great appearences in Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, while also starring in his own acclaimed Spider-Man: Homecoming.  A peaceful solution benefited both parties.  However, it seems like Sony still wanted to make the most of their exclusivity with the Spiderverse characters, and they continued to push through projects that were already in development before Spider-Man made his return home to Marvel Studios.  The first of these is this movie that centers around the fan favorite Spider-Man villain, Venom.  Unfortunately based on this trailer, Sony seems to still be stuck in their Amazing Spider-Man universe plans that should’ve been given up once the character was recast.  It’s unclear if this movie even exists in the same universe, which could be problematic if fans are clamoring for an eventual meet-up between the character, which might not happen.  Also, the CGI heavy trailer also doesn’t give us much to grab onto either.  The one bright spot is the casting of Tom Hardy in the titular role.  It helps to have a quality actor in the role, and his muscular build is closer to what’s required for the character, especially after how miscast slim Topher Grace was as the character in Spider-Man 3 (2007).  Hardy is also no stranger to playing comic book heavy’s, given his iconic work as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).  I hope he gives enough of a good performance to make this movie worth the effort, otherwise Sony is only going to complicate things further with an already dissatisfied fanbase who wants to see all their superheros coexisting together.

CREED II (NOVEMBER 21)

When the first Creed hit in 2015, it defied many expectations.  It revived the long dormant Rocky franchise and not only did it become a box office hit, but it even earned Sly Stallone himself an Oscar nomination for his return to the iconic role.  Now, we are getting a sequel, which is not at all surprising as the story was open ended enough to warrant one, and the first movie itself was a continuation of the Rocky storyline itself.  The downside, however, is that this movie is being made without the visionary behind the original, director Ryan Coogler.  Coogler of course made history this year with his blockbuster film Black Panther over at Marvel, which made him unavailable to direct this sequel.  One would have hoped that MGM would’ve held out a little longer to allow Coogler more time to bring his input into the sequel, and continue the story his way.  But, that’s not what happened, and this new Creed comes to us from an entirely different team.  Stallone apparently is more involved behind the camera this time around, including having a pass at the script.  It’s not too much of a worry, since Stallone did write the original Rocky (1976) himself, but his track record with the rest is a little shaky.  On the plus side, the entire cast returns, including Stallone and Michael B. Jordan, and the movie does venture into the territory that we all expected this story to go, with Jordan’s Adonis Creed taking on the son of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, who’s also reprising his role).  It works thematically, because the first film was all about the young boxer rising out from under the shadow of his famous father, and this movie allows him to confront the other demon that haunts his family’s name; the tragic death of Apollo Creed.  I hope that the movie lives up to this potential, but without Coogler’s crucial involvement, I have my worries.

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD (NOVEMBER 16)

It appears that Hollywood just can’t get enough of J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World.  Seven years after the final film in the Harry Potter franchise premiered, the universe that Ms. Rowling created still has enormous legs, and that was enough to convince Warner Brothers to invest in this spinoff series that unlike the Potter films does not come from a literary source.  The Fantastic Beasts franchise marks a departure for the acclaimed writer, as she takes upon the duties of screenwriting herself.  The new films are set within the same world, but centers on different chatacters as well as a puts it in a different time and place; specifically America during the Roaring 20’s.  The first film was honestly just okay; neither anything spectacular, nor a complete disaster.  To be honest, it was a better franchise launch than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001), and we saw how that franchise improved over time, which bodes well for the potential that this Fantastic Beasts can possibly have.  But, what we’ve seen so far from this follow-up makes me worried about the direction that the studio is taking with the franchise.  Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016) did well at the box office, but not spectacular, which was enough to cause concern at Warner.  So, already, they are drawing heavily from the Potter well again.  The Hogwarts school features very prominently in the trailers, which tells me that the studio desperately wants to remind audiences that this takes place in the same world as the beloved and profitable franchise.  This unfortunately lessens the chances of this franchise being able to stand apart on it’s own, and possibly might even make it feel superfluous and unnecessary as a result.  The franchise should be allowed to be it’s own thing, and I worry that studio interference might cause it to suffer as a result.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (NOVEMBER 2)

Speaking of movies plagued by behind the scenes interference, we have this high anticipated musical biopic about one of the greatest rock bands of all time.  The first major problem that this movie faced was the firing of it’s original director, Bryan Singer.  Singer’s departure was originally described as due to creative differences, but it’s since been hinted that the studio removed him from the project because of personal issues, many of which are not pretty damaging.  Whatever the case, actor Dexter Fletcher stepped in and directed the remainder of the film, though Singer still gets the full credit because of DGA rules.  The other behind the scenes issue that’s come to light is the alleged micro-managing that the surviving band members have been conducting during the making of this movie.  This includes their insistence on downplaying significant parts of their history, including front man Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality and his tragic battle with AIDS, which ultimately led to his untimely death.  This issue in particular led to actor Sasha Baron Cohen abandoning the role of Mercury early on, because he felt it was disrespectful to the icon’s memory.  All these backstage problems could potentially result in a disjointed and underwhelming film, which would be a shame given the subjects involved.  That being said, what does look promising is Rami Malek’s performance as Freddie Mercury.  Even if the rest of the movie suffers, it’s still likely that he will be a powerhouse in the role; potentially even Oscar worthy.  My hope is that the movie lives up to it’s potential and that all the problems behind the scenes doesn’t effect the power of this story and the image of it’s iconic subject.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

THE NUTCRACKER AND THE FOUR REALMS (NOVEMBER 2)

Disney has been pretty hit or miss with their live action fantasies.  The ones that usually end up being the worst are the films that stress production design and costuming over story and emotion.  This retelling of the Nutcracker story, popularized in the Tchaikovsky ballet, looks like yet another over-produced mess in the same vein as Alice in Wonderland (2010), Maleficent (2014) and Beauty and the Beast (2017)all style and no substance.  The even more insulting aspect is the fact that the subtitle indicates that Disney expects this to do well enough to spawn a franchise.  I highly doubt that this will happen since I feel very little enthusiasm out there for exploring the world behind the story of the Nutcracker.  Even quality actors in the cast like Helen Mirren and Morgan Freeman doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence either, because all of them look lost and confused in the above trailer.  One sign of things being a little off is the fact that Disney had to switch directors halfway through production, with Joe Johnston taking over from Lasse Hallstrom.  That’s almost never a good sign, and as we saw with Solo: A Star Wars Story earlier this year, a change in the director’s chair won’t always fix a troubled movie.  I could be wrong, and this movie could turn out to be a visual, charming feast, but given the baggage that this movie is bringing along with it, we’re more likely to get sour berries than sugar plums this holiday season.

THE GRINCH (NOVEMBER 9)

You would think that Hollywood would learn that some stories are better told with brevity.  Dr. Seuss’ classic 1957 storybook is not a very long read, and was translated perfectly through animation by Chuck Jones with his 1966 holiday special, which ran at a very tight 25 minutes in length.  That would prove to be just the right amount of time with this story, because any attempts to bring it to feature length have proved disastrous.  Ron Howard’s 2000 film was an outright mess of a movie, filling the gaps inbetween Seuss’ text with a bunch of random filler that didn’t add anything  worthwhile and in some cases, particularly the crude humor and painfully unfunny schtick from Jim Carrey, were insulting to the tone of the original book.  But, that was live action; you would think that it might work better in animation.  Unfortunately, Illumination Animation’s upcoming adaptation looks like it’s straying even further from the source material.  Not once in the trailer do you hear anything  remotely close to Seuss’ distinctive, rhythmic style of writing, and instead recasts the iconic character into the same kind of situations that you would find in the studio’s marquee franchise, Despicable Me.  Illumination’s track record with Seuss adaptations, Horton Hears a Who (2008) and The Lorax (2012), has been pretty shoddy, so my guess is that this new take on the Grinch will likely fall under the already low bar.  I didn’t think you could do any worse than the 2000’s Grinch, but it appears that Illumination found a way.

ROBIN HOOD (NOVEMBER 21)

Did we really need another retelling of the legend of Robin Hood?  It was less than a decade ago that Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe took their shot at this age old story, and it failed miserably as well.  I would think that it could possibly work if the movie offered an interesting new spin on the tale, like Guy Ritchie take on Sherlock Holmes (2009).  But, sadly, this looks as generic as anything else in this tired genre.  Even Guy Ritchie couldn’t breathe new life into the medieval swashbuckler recently, as was the case with last year’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017), which this new Robin Hood bears an uncanny resemblance to in tone.  The one saving grace that could come from this movie is the cast, including rising star Taron Egerton in the title role, as well as convention breaking Jamie Foxx in the role of Little John.  But they will have to overcome quite a lot to pull this movie up in a time when audiences are frankly tired and disinterested in this kind of movie now.  There is such a thing as adapting a story that is too familiar, and the truth is there is nothing new that Robin Hood could bring us that we haven’t already seen a million times before.

So, there you have my outlook for the upcoming fall season in cinema.  Mostly, I focus on the expected blockbusters, but what is really special about the next few months is the unexpected surprises that emerge without much fanfare.  These are usually the movies put up for Awards consideration late in the season, and they usually don’t get talked about much until they suddenly appear on everyone’s radar.  More than likely, what might end up being the big awards favorite of the season is one that I would’ve never thought to have singled out for this preview, because it has either not been fully advertised yet, or it’s one that I don’t full know how to judge just yet.  It’s no surprise that the last few Best Picture winners have never shown up in any of my previews, and that’s because their momentum really ramps up further down the line.  Even still, with the movies I’ve spotlighted here, I hope that it helps make some of you aware of what to expect in the months ahead.  One interesting thing I noticed is the lack of a major entry from either Star Wars or Marvel, two of the brands that have dominated this season as of late.  For now, Marvel is keeping things tightly guarded until next year when Captain Marvel and the next Avengers are released, and Star Wars already filled the annual quota with Solo earlier this summer.  So the victors of this fall season will be very different than in years past; good news for DC and Aquaman.  Regardless of the results, I just hope that everyone has a great time at the movies in the next few months.  Whether it’s the weather or the elections that get you down in the following days, the warm embrace of a good movie is enough to lift us up, inspire us, and make us embrace the things that we love.

The Director’s Chair – Wes Anderson

Every new generation of filmmakers that comes onto the world stage usually has to try very hard from the get go to define themselves in the ever competitive world of showbiz.  And with each new generation you have many different types who approach the art of film from a different standpoint.  Sometimes you get the workman style, adapt to the business kind of filmmaker that doesn’t so much create a definitive signature style of their own, but manages to find consistent work in Hollywood because of their ability to conform.  And then you have the independent minded, flashy styled filmmaker who absolutely want to leave their own mark on cinema.  These are the kinds of filmmakers who create a brand around themselves and turn every film they make into a personal statement of their own unique vision.  Unfortunately for many of these filmmakers, they are usually unable to sustain long careers in Hollywood, because by focusing too much on style over substance they often fall into self-parody and audiences eventually grow tired of their overt attempts at gaining attention.  But, those who do manage to sustain an extensive career while also staying true to their artistic style often become some of the most beloved filmmakers of all time.  One such filmmaker who has managed to achieve that in recent years is Wes Anderson.  Anderson falls into that rare category of filmmaker whose body of work is unmistakably his own.  One only has to look at a single frame of each film and they will immediately recognize it as an Anderson picture.  And even more remarkable than finding that unique style is the fact that he’s managed to sustain a prosperous career without ever having to compromise his vision.  Sure, his films are not box office bonanzas, but they do find their audience and each one has over the years has achieved almost cult status.

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Wes Anderson found his film-making voice in quirky comedies that often centered around absurd characters.  Most of his early work were collaborative in nature, involving many of the same crew, as well as the help of his writing partner Owen Wilson, his friend and classmate whom he first met at the University of Texas.  But, as Anderson and Wilson’s careers took different paths in later years, with Wilson pursuing his acting career more fervently, you would also see a shift in Anderson’s directing style as well.  His movies became less grounded and often ventured into more surrealism.  Some would say that his movies are almost like modern fairy tales, which is a statement that I don’t think he would shy away from.  He clearly is no longer trying to make his movies feel natural anymore, although he still gives each of his movies their own sense of logic that helps to ground them just enough to feel real.  In many ways, it’s the confidence that he brings to his own cinematic voice that has earned him the respect of audiences and the industry alike.  Few directors can move from movie to movie like he does without repeating themselves and still remain true to their style.  Though he has worked exclusively in comedy throughout his career, his movies all place his humor in different worlds and situations making them feel fresh.  He has taken his style around the world into different cultures, different points of view, and has even made it work in the medium of animation.  How many filmmakers do you know who can make an animated movie still feel exactly like one of their live action films?  Like other directors in this series, I’ll be looking at the main things that define Wes Anderson’s movies the most and how they have contributed to the unparalleled body of work that bears his personal stamp and has turned him into a force within the world of cinema.

1.

SYMMETRICAL FRAMING

The first thing that will come to mind when the name Wes Anderson is brought up is the way that his movies look.  His visual style is unmistakable, though not unusual.  What you’ll find in every movie of his is deliberate staging to emphasize the symetricality of the shot.  This usually involves the focus of the shot being center frame, with the mise en scene of the setting drawing the eye directly to it, whether it be an actor or a prop.  Anderson also employs the technique of “planimetric staging,” where the camera is placed at a 90 degree angle with the subject of the shot.  This is an age old framing style that has been used by the likes of Buster Keaton, Jean-Luc Godard, and Stanley Kubrick over many films, but none of those directors relied on it as heavily as Anderson.  Wes Anderson almost exclusively uses this style of staging in every shot, which is what gives his movies that unique look.  It’s best utilized with interiors, like in the house from The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), or the titular hotel from The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), where the symmetrical framing emphasizes the boxed in quality of those environments.  One could say that Anderson’s reliance on this technique is part of his way of emphasizing the storybook style of his narratives, like every frame is picture from a storybook or comic.  It’s an idea that seems intentional on the director’s part, as one of his reoccurring motifs in his movies is showing overhead shots of book covers on a flat surface.  The planimetric staging also changes the way action works in his movies, as his camera never tilt, but rather pans across, almost perpendicular to where the shot started, something that was very noticeable in the shifts from subject to subject in Moonrise Kingdom (2012).  Though this style runs the risk of devolving into self-parody, Anderson has managed to make it work for himself and it’s something that endears himself to the audiences who appreciate his work.

2.

CARTOON LOGIC

Apart from the look of his movies, there is one stylistic choice that also sets his movies apart, which is the often hyper-realism that his movies exist within.  Though on the surface his movies do look earthbound, they sometimes take leaps of logic that seem to defy explanation.  Some would call this cartoon logic, which is where physics and reality are bent just slightly in order to achieve the right punchline for a gag, visual or otherwise.  This is normal in the world of animation, where logic is limited only to one’s imagination, but in live action, it becomes a lot trickier, because there are some things that just have to make sense in the long run.  Sometimes Anderson manages to work around the laws of physics in order to achieve the right punchline by showing us the aftermath of some incredible event, rather than the event in full.  Some examples include how Owen Wilson’s character from The Royal Tenenbaums managed to be flung out of a car and into the third floor of the Tenenbaum house without a scratch on him.  We never see the crash itself; only the sound of it followed by the sights of Wilson’s character reeling from the flight he took as well as the wrecked car itself, and what remains of the poor dog who got in it’s way.  Moonrise Kingdom is also full of seemingly ridiculous sight gags that wouldn’t work in the real world but completely make sense in these movies, like the climatic image of Bruce Willis holding tight to the two young protagonists while dangling from the wreckage of a broken church steeple.  It only made sense that Anderson would eventually be drawn to animation as a medium, where these absurd visual punchlines feel more at home, which he has now done twice with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and Isle of Dogs (2018).  But even in animation, his films still retain the same cartoon logic, which he has managed to make work in live action as well.  It’s something that helps to make all of his movies not only visually interesting, but consistently funny as well.

3.

FAMILY UNITS

One reoccurring theme that Wes Anderson always returns to in his movies is the cohesiveness of family.  Nearly all of his movies in one way or another address the internal issues that each family faces.  The most obvious example would be The Royal Tenenbaums, which is exclusively centered around the trials and tribulations of a broken family.  In that film, you see how actions taken by different generations cause ripples on those who come after, and how it often leads to misunderstanding and oftentimes complete withdraw.  And yet, Anderson’s movies always stress the importance of family in each of our lives.  Primarily, Anderson’s films examine the role of the father figure more than anything else.  In every movie, the primary protagonist is either a father who’s trying to prove his worth to his family who feel estranged from him, or is a young lost soul trying to find guidance from a surrogate father who takes them under his wing.  The former is best represented in characters like Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum and George Clooney’s Mr. Fox.  Both men are forced to realize that years of selfishness has alienated themselves from loved ones, and they only find their true happiness in learning that it’s better to be involved as part of a family rather than an island to oneself.  The latter is best illustrated through the relationships seen in Rushmore (1998) and The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Ralph Fiennes’ M. Gustave in particular perfectly encapsulates the idea of an Anderson father figure, because he’s this force of nature who inspires loyalty from his young ingenue, lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) even when it takes both of them down some very self-destructive paths.  Though father figures are an important aspect of his movies, Anderson does leave room for other dynamics, like in The Darjeeling Limited (2007), where three brothers (played by Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody, and Jason Schwartzman) make a journey to confront the mother who abandoned them (played by Angelica Huston).  No matter which avenue he takes, this theme of family is an important one in Anderson’s movies, because it’s usually the thing that makes them relatable to most people.

4.

BILL MURRAY

Though not an essential part of Wes Anderson’s entire filmography, one thing that does tie most of Anderson’s films together is the presence of famed comedian and actor Bill Murray.  Murray has appeared in every single Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore, the director’s second feature.  Since his critically acclaimed performance as the alcoholic deadbeat Herman Blume in that feature, Murray has become something of a good luck charm for Anderson.  Though Murray does have an appearance in all of Anderson’s movies, and even lends his voice to both of the director’s animated features, he doesn’t always take the spotlight.  Sometimes he’s just another face in a large ensemble of great actors, like in The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel, or even just makes the briefest of cameos, like he did in the opening of The Darjeeling Limited.  But, when Anderson wants to spotlight Bill Murray in something, it’s usually going to be something special.  Perhaps the greatest of his roles in these movies would be as the famed nautical filmmaker Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic (2004).  Zissou is a character tailor made for the hilariously deadpan actor, and much of the film’s best humor comes from Murray’s perfect ability to remain straight-faced through all the absurdity in the film.  Though it’s interesting that the movie that spotlighted Murray the most in Anderson’s filmography is also the one that strained their relationship the most, as the grueling shoot caused a rift between the two.  They have since reconciled their differences, but Murray’s chosen since then to take a more supporting role in Anderson’s work.  Even still, for many Wes Anderson fans, it’s still a treat to see where Bill Murray shows up, since he’s become such a beloved part of these movies as a whole.  Hopefully, it’s a working relationship that continues on much longer.

5.

NOSTALGIC SOUNDTRACKS

The one other thing that usually defines Wes Anderson’s films is their use of music.  Anderson usually underscores his movies with a collection of classic tunes rather than original orchestral scores, although that’s changed in more recent years with Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and Grand Budapest Hotel all being scored by Alexandre Desplat (the latter which won an Oscar).  But everything before Mr. Fox usually lacked any definable score, and instead used a playlist of songs ranging from Bob Dylan to the Beatles to the Kinks.  But more often, his soundtracks would favor the sounds of indie folk singers who are largely unknown.  More than anything, the choices in music are meant to evoke a sense of nostalgia, helping his movies to retain a sense of a time gone by, even if it’s set close to the present.  They emotionally underline the mood of the story, and also help to give the movie character as well.  Even in his fully scored features, Anderson still samples some classic tunes in sometimes funny ways.  Fantastic Mr. Fox has a scene that features the love theme from Disney’s Robin Hood, which is a funny reference because in that film the legendary hero is played by, of all things, a fox.  Anderson also recalls cinematic inspirations in some of his culturally specific movies.  In The Darjeeling Limited, you hear select pieces from the films of legendary Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, as well as the opening theme from Merchant Ivory’s Bombay Talkie (1970), and more recently in Isle of Dogs, the main theme from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is used in one scene.  The Life Aquatic also played on Anderson’s penchant for nostalgic tunes by using the works of David Bowie,  but instead had them performed by musician Seu Jorge entirely in Portuguese within the movie itself.  It shows that Anderson not only uses music to give his movies a nostalgic flavor, but to also be playful with the choices, especially if you have a keen ear and can recognize the references that he’s purposely pointing us to.  For him, the music is not just there to drive the story, but to also enhance the experience overall and reinforce the idea that movies can have a playful side as well.

Wes Anderson’s style makes him something rare in Hollywood, which is a true original.  Nobody else makes movies the same way that he does, and few if any even attempt to.  To be so unique an artist in this day and age is a real talent, since this is an industry that usually favors safe and universal voices behind the camera.  It’s clear that Wes Anderson is not to everyone’s taste, and he does have his few detractors, but his movies still are true to their own self and that has earned him a strong following over the years.  His signature framing style is certainly what makes him stand out the most, since no one else has the same eye for composition that he does.  In an age where most filmmakers want to broaden the scope of their image to show all the possible dimensions, Anderson embraces flatness and makes it look beautiful.  That storybook style of imagery also translates well into his often cartoonish brand of comedy.  Most often the thing that I find most endearing about his movies is the fact that they embrace their absurdity and willfully lean into it.  It’s because of the confidence that Anderson approaches his humor that we are able to suspend our disbelief and appreciate that not every joke makes logical sense.  But, despite the flights of fancy, Anderson still finds stability in creating identifiable human stories within them, most often centered around family.  And it’s in his larger than life characters like Royal Tenenbaum, Steve Zissou, Mr. Fox, and M. Gustave that we see Wes Anderson at his most inspired.  These characters are what ultimately helps to give Anderson’s films the beloved status that they have enjoyed.  And considering the fact that Wes Anderson is still relatively young as established filmmakers go, we should continue to expect to see even more interesting stories and characters from him for many more years to come.  He may evolve as a filmmaker in that time, but one hopes that he’ll remain true to his own style, because no one else is capable of replicating it.

 

What’s Wrong With Being Popular? – The Motion Picture Academy’s Problem with Recognizing Popular Movies

It’s been a consistent struggle ever since the dawning of the film industry.  No matter what era we live in, you will see a broad disconnect between the kinds of movies that general audiences like, what professional critics like, and what people in the industry like.  And for the most part, these differences are inconsequential and really just come down to a difference in personal taste.  But, Hollywood is also an industry that rewards itself every year, and wishes to either rank or crown certain movies as more honorable than the rest.  And it’s only then that these rifts in personal taste extend into more heated arguments.  Beginning in 1927, the Beverly Hills based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began the tradition of honoring the top achievements within their industry each year, creating one of the most coveted awards in the world in the process; the Oscar.  Though it started humbly enough as a banquet at the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, the Academy Awards have since evolved into the biggest prize within the industry, as well as the focus of much of the studios’ efforts and resources.  Oscar campaigning has become an industry within itself, and has only grown to have more influence over both how the industry operates, but also with how the movie-going public responds to all of it.  Movie critics suddenly have more sway now because their consensus over the quality of each new film gives the industry a better sense of what is worthy of nominating and which films will better find an audience.  But there is one problem with that; critics are audience members too, and not one unanimous voice, and some of their personal tastes often clash with what the average audiences want to enjoy, and what the industry itself wants the public to enjoy.

One thing that has become abundantly clear in recent years is that the industry has become less concerned with overall box office when it comes to selecting the best films of the year, and for the most part, the big winners at each year’s Oscars are small, independent dramas that most often earned their way up to the podium due to critical approval.  In general, most of the movies that do win Best Picture at the Oscars, as well as many of the other top accolades, are often deserving of the honor.  But, too often now, they are films that become quickly forgotten as the industry itself moves in different directions.  Can many of you out there say off the top of your head which movie won Best Picture five years ago?  If you’re someone like me who watches the industry closely each year, you probably can, but the average moviegoer likely does not nor do they care (the answer was 2013’s 12 Years a Slave by the way).  In the end, most audiences go to the movies to be entertained, and not to witness a future awards winner.  And more than likely, what ends up being entertaining might not be awards quality material.  Look at some of the biggest franchises in recent years like Fast and the FuriousTransformers, and Jurassic World; all international juggernauts that are perfectly capable of grossing a billion worldwide easily, and yet if you asked for critical opinion on each, you’ll get nothing but disdain.  Despite what ends up being good for the industry’s bottom line, these critically panned franchises can easily be dismissed by the Academy, but then comes the problem when a studio movie is a box office hit, and is a critical darling.  At this point, the Academy is forced into the awkward position of rethinking their brand, which they have so intently cultivated around the aura of prestige.  It raises the question to them whether or not something commercial should be in contention with lesser seen films that may benefit more from what is commonly called the “Oscar boost.”

In order to not be seen as giving an unfair advantage to big studios over smaller production companies, the Academy has largely chosen to distance itself from the commercial side of Hollywood and focus on the more prestiege side of the industry, which is their perogative to do so.  But, the Academy is also faced with the unfortunate aspect that their choice to reward smaller, lesser seen films has resulted in a smaller audience for their own televised broadcast.  The ratings for this year’s Oscars telecast was the lowest of this decade, and this has put the Academy into a position of reevaluating their strategy as an institution.  The Academy has made several smart choices in recent years, like expanding their membership to include more diverse representation both in age and cultural make-up.  But, the lower ratings have also forced the academy to face the reality of popular entertainment being deserving of their top honors and this has led them to making some not so wise choices.  Just this week, the Academy announced that they were making big sweeping changes to their future Oscar ceremonies.  The first change was that below the line categories were no longer going to be televised, and were instead going to be handed out during the commercial breaks and announced later in the show in an edited compilation, all in an effort to reduce the show to a quick 3 hour run-time.  Below the line film industry professionals rightly called foul, as they saw this as a move to focus more on the celebrities being honored rather than the hard working behind the scenes people who never usually get the same spotlight.  The other controversial move was to announce a new category for Best Popular Film, which the Academy sees as a way of recognizing movies that they often ignore, as a means of bringing back the movie going public who will be more familiar with the movies in this category.  Again, this new category was immediately scrutinized for it’s lack of clarity and it’s in many ways dubious dismissal of popular movies in general.

The Motion Picture Academy has had to face the unfortunate reality in recent years that they are slow to evolve with the rest of the industry.  While it is noble to shine the spotlight on movies that often go unseen by honoring it with a prestigious award, the Academy has done so by stacking the odds more in the favor of what they deem worthy rather than what is more deserving.  A large part of the Academy’s problems has been an aging roster of voters, whose personal tastes have tended to clash more often with the average movie going public, which to their credit, the Academy has made strides towards changing.  But, even still, for a commercially popular film to break through and appeal to the Academy’s higher tastes, it has had to be so good that it couldn’t be ignored.  This has managed to happen before, with box office behemoths like Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) winning Best Picture in their respective years, but it often rarely happens.  Sometimes the Academy’s stringent adherence to prestige has resulted in a backlash, as was the case when Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) was denied a nomination for both Best Picture and Best Director for it’s year, categories that it might have had a solid chance of competing in.   But, because it was both a Super Hero film and a sequel, it didn’t fit within the Academy’s typical mold, and was left out; though Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker couldn’t be ignored, and was honored with an Oscar.  Audiences expressed their displeasure at the exclusion of the Dark Knight and that added pressure did lead the towards changing their rules, extending the Best Picture race from a field of five nominees to a maximum of ten; ensuring that blockbusters like Dark Knight would have a better shot in the future.  But even despite this capitulation, the Academy still has struggled with having an answer for addressing this popularity problem that is driving down their television ratings and plaguing their relevancy within the industry.

One thing that I see is that the issue is not with too few nominations being made available, but perhaps there being too many awards.  One thing that the Academy has done over the years is create specialized categories that doesn’t particularly honor a specialized trade within the industry, but rather honors a specific type of movie.  These categories spotlight films that fall under the classification of Foreign, Documentary, and Animated.  As is often the case, some of the best movies of the year often are representative of these three categories, and in many ways are deserving of being labeled the Best Picture of the year.  And yet, these categories at the Academy Awards end up being the only place that these movies are recognized in.  Only rarely do we see a film from any of these categories rise above and earn a Best Picture nomination; in fact, within the entire history of the Academy Awards, not one documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture.  For a lack of a better term, these categories have become “ghettos” within the Oscars, as a way of honoring a specific movie while also keeping it out of contention for the top award so that the more typical films get a better shot.  And with a new “Popular” category, the Academy is again creating a sub category to “honor” movies that otherwise it would completely ignore while at the same time stacking the odds better in favor of the prestige flick.  It’s quickly been described as a millennial’s “participation” award, to show that they are spreading the wealth around by giving even popular movies an award.  But spreading the wealth would only apply if each award held the same value, which they don’t.  While each film that wins in the Foreign, Animation, and Documentary categories are usually deserving of the honor, they absolutely should also be contenders for Best Picture as well, and their often sure bet wins in these categories often makes the Academy believe that they’ve given them enough already.  Doing this with a category specifically meant for “Popular” movies would only make the disconnect between the Academy and the movie-going public even greater than it already is.

The term “popular” is also too broad, and can be used to lump all sorts of different types of movies into one category, mainly if they don’t fall under the guise of a prestige flick.  Which leads to another problem with the Academy’s disconnect with popularity, which is their very specific idea of what makes a film fall into the category of “prestige.”  A prestigious film is often a finely crafted drama, often historical, focused very intently on the quality of it’s own writing and performance, and most often has a statement to make; political or otherwise.  These movies often have been dubbed “Oscar Bait,” and far too often you’ll find Hollywood easily taking the bait every year, no matter how manipulative it may be.  There are those years where an outsider voice does pierce through and receives the Oscar recognition without resorting to baiting the Academy, but more often the case will be that in order to get that coveted Award, you’ll have to compromise your vision and appeal to the Academy’s very narrow tastes.  That’s why Steven Spielberg has had better luck at the Oscars with movies like Schindler’s List (1993) instead of with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), because one is a historical drama and the others are seen as “popcorn” genre flicks.  Spielberg certainly deserved his win for Schindler’s List, but his style of film-making had to change dramatically from what we were used to seeing from him before in order for him to win the award.  And he’s not the only filmmaker whose had to change in order to play the Academy’s game.  Historical epic Titanic was a wild departure for director James Cameron, who had cut his teeth with action flicks like The Terminator (1984).  The David Fincher who directed with flashy style with Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999) was easily dismissed by the Academy for years, but the more subdued approach he gave to movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and The Social Network (2010) brought him into their good graces.  There are also the countless times where comedic actors try to go serious in order to get their recognition (Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, Steve Carell in Foxcatcher).  While none of these moves translates into sub-par work, it still shows that artists are less free to make the movies they want to do and still get the Academy’s seal of approval.  And thus that line between popular entertainment and prestigious entertainment becomes more apparent.

Even though I’m piling onto the already notorious reputation of an already disgraced man, but this is yet another way that I feel mega-producer Harvey Weinstein has ruined the film industry.  On top of all his sexual misdeeds, Weinstein was also a bully when it came to campaigning for the industry’s top honors.  His aggressive campaigning on behalf of the movies from his Miramax and Weinsetin Company labels often crossed into borderline illegal territory.  The Academy has even had to combat his influence over their voters by changing many of their rules regarding awards campaigns.  This was especially the case after the surprise upset where his period dramedy Shakespeare in Love (1998) won over the heavily favored Saving Private Ryan (1998) that year.  It was later revealed that many of the voters were swayed by the aggressive marketing push that Weinstein had orchestrated, and not by the fact that they liked it more than Private Ryan.  But even despite the Academy’s attempts to make the field fairer for all nominees, Weinstein’s influence never the less took hold; most effectively so in redefining the idea of the prestige film.  You look at the difference between awards winners before Weinstein came to prominence and those after; particularly in the 90’s.  In that decade, there was a fair mix of popular blockbusters winning Best Picture (The Silence of the Lambs in ’91, Forrest Gump in ’94, and of course Titanic in ’97) alongside smaller films (Unforgiven in ’92, The English Patient in ’96).  But since the turn of the millennium, it’s been prestige ever since, with Shakespeare in Love’s upset marking that turning point.  Weinstein’s goal was to not so much help prestigious movies have a better shot at the Oscars, but to make his own style of prestigious Oscar bait the ideal for Academy voters, and sadly far too many bought into that.  Not all of them were bad or undeserving, but too often these types of movies pushed out more deserving flicks; like when Weinstein’s The Reader (2008) took the slot that should have belonged to The Dark Knight.  Though Weinstein has gratefully been exposed as a monster, and has been shut out of the Hollywood altogether, his legacy continues and the Academy’s latest move feels like a holdover from an era that made it easier for people like him to win over others.

The Academy has to wake up and realize that the answer to making their broadcasts more popular with audiences is to not create a separate category for just “popular” films, but rather embrace the idea that popular movies can be prestigious too.   One thing they should do is to change their notions of what constitutes prestige and what doesn’t, as the Weinstein influence has clearly made that term too specific to be fair to all.  If you look at the industry as a whole, you can see that movies that have lasting power in our culture tend to come from a more commercial beginning and that as often is the case become the ones that influence the next generation of filmmakers and film-goers the most.  Just because a movie is “popular” doesn’t make it not important.  You look at this year in particular, where the most socially groundbreaking film to be released in theaters was not a indie drama, but instead was a Super Hero movie from Marvel Studios; the blockbuster phenomenon Black Panther (2018).  Black Panther hit the culture with such an impact early this year, appealing to an often overlooked demographic that has felt underrepresented by Hollywood and even brought timely issues of social justice and racial inequality to American cinemas in a bigger way than most independent dramas could ever do.  It’s that kind of impact that the Academy would be foolish to ignore when the next round of Oscar voting starts, but by creating this Popular Film Oscar that it is mostly likely going to be a shoe-in for, the Academy will mistakenly believe that they’ve given it just enough.  It’s these movies that make a difference in society, and if the Academy wants to be seen as being in touch with the culture today, they shouldn’t try to marginalize a movie like Black Panther into a “separate, but equal” category.  Popular and prestige are not exclusive, they can be the same thing.  Think about previous years where the Academy got it wrong; we forget about American Beauty from 1999, but we still remember The Matrix, Fight Club, and The Iron Giant from that same year, because of their cultural impacts.  The Academy’s move to boost diversity in membership is a good start, and has shown itself in a more open attitude towards genre flicks lately, with The Shape of Water (2017) becoming the first Sci-Fi Best Picture winner in history.  But the “Popular” Oscar would be a foolish step backward that I hope doesn’t become a new tradition for the Awards, because it’s exactly the kind of “behind closed doors” move that closed off the organization from the regular movie audience in the first place, and put them in the current state of irrelevancy that they now find themselves in.

Collecting Criterion – The Thin Red Line (1998)

Apart from the many collections of classics both from different eras of Hollywood history and the best from the international market, the Criterion library also has plenty of titles to choose from cinemas most esteemed artists.  In some cases, Criterion is the only source for the complete works of some of the most notable film directors of all time, especially in the North American market.  It’s the only place you’ll find the complete filmographies of international icons like Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, and Jean-Luc Godard.  The Collection also gives special treatment to renowned homegrown American filmmakers who work outside the Hollywood system and are rewarded with a special spotlight in a Criterion home video release.  These include independent cinema icons like Richard Linklater who has films like Dazed and Confused (1993, Spine #336) Boyhood (2014, #839), and the Entire Before trilogy are part of the collection.  Also there is Jim Jarmausch, whose Stranger than Paradise (1984, #400) and Dead Man (1995, #919) are also a part of the collection.  And then there are the directors whose filmography are more, shall we say, dense by comparison.  Some would even say impenetrable due to the filmmakers very aware and self-indulgent style.  The most likely candidate for this would be David Lynch, whose trippy and noteworthy work like Eraserhead (1977, #725) and Mullholland Drive (2001, #779) have made it into the Criterion library.  David Cronenberg’s likewise grotesque style has also made it into the collection with Videodrome (1983, #248) and Scanners (1981, #712).  And on the other end of the spectrum, the whimsical but very stylized movies of Wes Anderson, like Moonrise Kingdom  (2012, #776) and Rushmore (1998, #65).  But there is an even more enigmatic director out there whose films are beginning to find their home completely within the Criterion Collection; the very mysterious Terrence Malick.

Thus far, Malick’s films up to the early 2010’s have all made it into the Collection, and with them, you see one of the most peculiar progressions a film director’s career has ever taken.  One thing that Terrence Malick is probably most known for is the 19 year gap that he had between his second and third features.  He started off strong in his career right out of film school, directing the critically acclaimed Badlands (1973, #651) and following that up with the equally beloved Days of Heaven (1978, #409), which won the Academy Award that year for it’s stunning cinematography (much of which was captured at “magic hour”, which has since become a popular visual technique for filmmakers).  And then surprising after that, Malick’s career went completely silent.  There were many rumors of Terrence being a recluse and hermit during those 19 years out of the business, only fueled by Malick’s insistence on privacy throughout most of his life.  But, in reality, he took those years out of film-making to teach philosophy at a university in France.  In time, the lure of cinema would call him back, and it would surprisingly be a war film that wound up doing it.  The Thin Red Line (1998, #536) was a risk for someone so out of practice, and also because Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) was in direct competition during that same year.  Though the movie wasn’t a big box office draw, it did receive an overwhelmingly positive critical reception and even was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, both a first for Malick.  But what amazed people the most is how well Malick maintained his unique cinematic voice even through the long absence.  If there is one thing that defines his movies it’s that they are less story driven and more like visual poetry.   And The Thin Red Line would show that Malick could take that definitive style and put it into different genres, which would explore further in his next couple features, The New World (2005, #826) and the Palm d’Or winning The Tree of Life (2011, #942).  But, it’s through The Thin Red Line that we see his style put through the most grueling test and it’s easy to see why it made an ideal choice for Criterion.

The movie is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by James Jones.  The Thin Red Line was the second in a trilogy of novels based on Jones’ wartime experience in WWII, the first of which was From Here to Eternity, which was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1953.  The novel chronicles many different conflicts, but focuses primarily on the Battle of Guadalcanal during the Pacific campaign of the War.  Malick’s adaptation is not the first even done from the novel itself, as there was one other made in 1964, starring Keir Duella.  However, there are very few similarities between both features, and also between Malick’s film and the source novel.  Terrence Malick is renowned for his ruthless way of editing his movies, often shifting things around at the last minute, sometimes even completely changing the intention of the footage from what he had planned from the day they were shot.  Whole subplots and even characters are given the axe in his movies, and Thin Red Line is no exception.  Perhaps the most notorious change he made during the editing of this film was to completely change the main character of the movie, without ever making a rewrite to the script.  The way he shot the movie was closer to Jones’ original text, with the author’s surrogate, Corporal Fife, acting as the audience’s eyes and ears to the first hand experience of combat.  In the movie he is played by Adrian Brody, in what would have been his first lead role in a movie.  But, shockingly, Brody’s performance was nearly excised completely in the final cut, with the focus shifted to a different character instead; Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt.  How you can make a movie in which the intended protagonist is turned into a minor character is mystery, but somehow Terrence Malick managed to do it, and this has commonly become a theme of his work ever since.  It’s often said that Malick finds his movie in the editing room, picking and choosing footage in a way that doesn’t so much move the story but rather follows rhythm and feeling more than anything else.

It’s safe to say that Terrence Malick’s films are not for everyone.  The fact that he doesn’t follow basic story-telling rules when it comes to cinema is enough to put many people off, but it’s also the thing that sets him apart as an artist as well.  Truth be told, his movies in recent years have turned more self-indulgent and their lack of coherence is making them fall under more scrutiny by critics as a result, but when he began his career Renaissance with the release of Thin Red Line and through the making of The Tree of Life, he was definitely leaving his mark strongly on the world of film-making.  And while his film strays wildly from the source novel in terms of character development, Malick’s style does in a way honor the spirit of the novel.  One theme that defines the book Thin Red Line is that it emphasizes war as a very personal and isolating experience for every soldier, in that they suffer the horrors of war by themselves, all different from each other.  One Terrence Malick trademark that the movie uses extensively is internal monologues played over montages of random visuals.  In the film, the monologues are given to several different characters, Cavizel’s Witt, Sean Penn’s Sgt. Welch, Brody’s Fife,  Nick Nolte’s Lt. Col. Tall, and a variety of others.  And their monologues again feed into Malick’s style by emphasizing the character’s emotional state rather than spelling out exactly what they are going through.  This keeps in spirit with Jones’ novel because it’s emphasizing the emotional toll that’s being taken on these different soldiers as they experience the carnage around them, and how it’s making them further isolated from each other and the world.  Indulgent, yes, and it often makes the movie hard to follow at certain times.  But, it does something that few other war movies have done, which is show the emotional grind that such an experience has on the human soul.

Whether the deliberate pacing and the loosely tied narrative leaves you infuriated or not, there is one thing about The Thin Red Line that is undeniable and that’s just how gorgeous it looks.  The movie was shot by John Toll, who had previously won back to back cinematography Oscars for Legends of the Fall (1994) and Braveheart (1995).  He would turn out to be the right DP for this production because Thin Red Line is an epic scale production, far bigger in scale than anything Malick has made before or since, which is kind of a gutsy move for a filmmaker who hadn’t made anything in almost 20 years.  One thing that is also emblematic of Malick’s work is the lyrical way he observes nature in his movies.  The jungles of Guadalcanal are visually stunning in this movie, especially when combined with another favorite of the director’s; the “magic hour” lighting.  Malick also uses his canvas to project a wide picture of the war, with his soldiers often swallowed up by the environments they exist within.  This in particular helps to separate the movie from the documentary style of Saving Private Ryan, which was shot with tight close-ups and shaky hand-held photography.  Malick was less concerned with authenticity of the “you are there” experience, though he does put emphasis on the historical details, especially when it comes to the production design and costuming.  But the movie deals with the horrors of war through a more poetic way, with nature metaphorically placing the turmoils that these soldiers are enduring into a metaphysical context.  Malick style, particularly with his visuals, have influenced many other filmmakers.  Christopher Nolan has stated that the work of Terrence Malick is a constant inspiration for him, and you can clearly see some of that in his own films.  Dunkirk (2017), in particuar, feels very heavily influenced by The Thin Red Line, especially in the beachfront scenes of the former, which strongly reflect the groundlevel view of Malick’s battle scenes.  It shows that even 20 years later, this war film still has left a mark on a whole new generation of filmmakers.

Criterion naturally wanted to give this beloved film the best home video presentation possible, and once again they have delivered.   A new high definition digital transfer was made from the original 35 mm negative, and a restoration was conducted by Criterion under the supervision of Terrence Malick and John Toll.  Special attention was put into retaining the color and lighting palettes true to the director’s vision.  One thing that does set The Thin Red Line apart the most from other war flicks of it’s type is it’s abundance of lush colors, spotlighting the sun-drenched settings of it’s story.  It’s also something of a trademark of the director, as his films often use color contrast as a significant narrative tool.  Compare this with the de-saturation of color from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which more closely match that film’s grittier, documentary style.  The vibrancy of The Thin Red Line’s color palette is served well by this new high definition transfer, as is the increased level of detail in the textures.  The film’s attention to detail when it comes to the production design is also benefited by the restoration.  One other restoration that has been benefited from the Criterion touch is the restored soundtrack.  A certified  DTS-Master mix has been cleaned up of all pops, hisses, and scratches to retain the best aural experience possible, close enough to how the film would have sounded in the theater upon it’s original release.  While not as dynamic as Private Ryan’s complex soundscape, the movie still features very realistic sounding effects that make the war scenes feel true to life.  However, it’s Hans Zimmer’s moody and hypnotic musical score that benefits the most from this restoration, and it’s the part of this home video presentation that will really pop out to you the most while watching the film again, even on the simplest of home sound systems.  As an visual and aural experience, this Criterion presentation is the best that this movie has received in many years.

Likewise, the edition also features the Criterion Collection’s usual high quality bonus material as well.  Unfortunately, because of Terrence Malick’s strict privacy rules, he is all but absent from every bonus material on this set.  There isn’t even any video footage of him in the making of material, nor any recording of his voice.  We do get insight from many others involved with the film though, especially from the enormous cast.  First of all, there is an informative feature commentary track with John Toll, producer Grant Hill, and production designer Jack Fisk.  Their conversations really help to the best insight into how the film came together, and what it is like to work under the direction of Malick.  Several interviews with cast members are included, including Jim Caviezel, Kirk Acevedo, Thomas Jane, Elias Koteas, Dash Mihok, and Sean Penn.  There is also an interview with Hans Zimmer about his approach to scoring the film.  The film’s editors Billy Weber, Leslie Jones, and Saar Klein also are interviewed, and provide an interesting perspective the way Malick creates his vision in the editing process.  We also get a very interesting interview with Kaylie Jones, the daughter of James Jones, who provides us with interesting insight into the man who crafted the original book from his own recollections of combat.  Another brand new interview is conducted with casting director Dianne Crittenden, who shares rare audition material of the actors in the film, including many more stars who didn’t make the final cut.  There are also fourteen minutes of cut footage from the film, which honestly is only a fraction of what really exists out there.  There are also some fascinating newreels collected from the war era documenting the actual battles on the Guadalcanal and Solomon Islands.  Also included are some neat, extended footage of the Melanesian tribal chants that were featured as part of the score, as well as an original theatrical trailer.  All in all, another solid collection of extras, even despite the lack of input from the director himself, and further exploration into the massive production that this film was.

Terrence Malick is something of an enigma in the world of film-making, and his movies often reflect that.  You’ll find just as many people who hate his self-indulgent style as you would find those who will absorb it all in happily.  His work has become more divisive in recent years, as he has gone from a filmmaker of very few credits to one of many.  Some would say that his continued returns are diminishing the once mythical status that his name once held.  Even so, I think most will find that The Thin Red Line, his first film after a long absence and also his most ambitious in terms of scale, is the least divisive film he has made overall.  While there will be some that will scoff at his proclivity towards poetics in the movie, there will be no one that will deny that the movie is exquisitely constructed and quite a harrowing experience overall.  It particularly amazes me that someone like Terrence Malick could put a film of this scale and complexity together after being out of practice for so long.  That in itself is a marvel of film-making, and a real testament to his skills as a director.  If there is one flaw that I would give the Criterion Collection treatment of this film is that it doesn’t go far enough into exploring the real story behind the film’s making.  Apparently, Malick shot enough footage to make close to three or more movies of the same length, and most of it never made it into the final cut.  Full performances from other famous actors like Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, Bill Pullman, Martin Sheen, and Mickey Rourke were all shot, but completely left out of the movie.  I would have liked to have learned more about the movie that could have been in addition to the one that we ultimately got.  But, I blame that more on the secretive director and less on Criterion’s part.  They gave us the best look into the film’s making that we could get, and I’m thankful for that.  If anyone is looking for an entry point into the work of Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line would be the best place to start, and Criterion offers the best possible presentation the movie has ever received.  Though filmmakers like Malick may rub some people the wrong way, at least Criterion gives those who do love their work presentations that will please overall.

Mission Impossible: Fallout – Review

The movie career of Tom Cruise has been an interesting one to witness over the last 30 plus years.  Going from heartthrob, to matinee idol, to action movie star, he has carved out an unusual trajectory as he’s evolved as an actor.  Recent years has seen him grow more comfortable in the action movie genre, showcasing his physicality more than anything else.  Sometimes his choices in action roles range from the excellent like Edge of Tomorrow (2014), to the just okay like Jack Reacher (2012), to the just plain awful like The Mummy (2017).  While many of these films are varied in both style and success, there is clearly one series over the years that has turned into his proudest effort: the Mission Impossible series.  The Brian DePalma directed original in fact began this new phase of Cruise’s career, and it has been clear ever since then that Cruise has had an appetite for the genre ever since.  It’s almost like every movie he makes now in between new installments in the series are merely just warm-ups for what he has next for us in this series.  It’s interesting to see the Mission Impossible movies also evolve along with his career as well.  After the original, the series struggled to find it’s footing, shifting styles dramatically with new directors behind the scenes.  John Woo brought a lot of style but little substance to Mission Impossible 2 (2000), and J.J. Abrams couldn’t find either style nor substance in what was his first feature film with Mission Impossible III (2006).  But then after a long break, Cruise and company found new direction for the series by focusing on the things that made the movies fun in the first place, the insanely over-the-top stunts.  The first three movies in a way undermined the stunt work by adding too much visual flair to them, either through unnecessary CGI, or through indulgent directorial touches (especially with Woo’s film direction).

Strangely enough, it was a director from the world of animation that helped to bring more of a reality into these movies.  Director Brad Bird of Incredibles fame appealed to Tom Cruise’s appetite for more authenticity in the action scenes, and with the fourth film in the series, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), we finally got an idea of what these movies could actually deliver.  Instead of making the central mystery the focus of the film, the Mission Impossible series was now all about pushing the envelope when it comes to the death defying acts that the main hero (Cruise’s Ethan Hunt) must go through in order to save the day.  This was especially proven through the now iconic sequence where Cruise scales the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai; the world’s tallest building.  Instead of relying on the safety of movie magic to recreate the needed location for the sequence, Cruise and Bird insisted on shooting at the actual tower, with the film’s star literally hanging off the outside of the building.  Sure, safety lines prevented him from falling to his death, but he was still doing an extremely dangerous stunt that even seasoned professionals would have balked at.  Cruise’s insurance even refused to let it happen, and he responded by dropping their account and finding a new one.  Despite all that, the sequence made it to the screen and looked incredible (especially in IMAX) and has since become the high water mark for the series since; and for all action films for that matter.  Every Mission Impossible since has been in a “how do we top that” mode ever since and it’s finally given the series the identity it’s always needed.  This is now a series defined by big moments, often involving Cruise doing his own death defying stunts, some of which could potentially kill him for real.  The follow-up, Rogue Nation (2015), put Cruise on the outside of a real plane taking off into the air.  And now, we have the sixth film in the series, Mission Impossible: Fallout, which aims to set the bar even higher.  But, does Cruise and company still have anything more left to prove with this series?

The movie picks up not long after the events of Rogue Nation.  Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is briefed about a new mission to eradicate what’s left of the terrorist organization, The Syndicate, after the capture of their leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris).  The most radical of these remnants have renamed themselves the Apostles, and are being directed by a new leader named John Lark.  Though little is known about Lark, it is believed that he and the Apostles are intent on acquiring stolen plutonium in order to create a bomb that will kill millions and as they put it, “with a great suffering create a lasting peace.”  An attempt by Ethan and his closest associates, Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) to extract the plutonium from some black market sellers goes array, and the cargo ends up in the wrong hands.  The failed mission leads to an intervention by the CIA to take over the more secretive IMF agencies actions, with whom Ethan gets his marching orders from.  CIA director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) assigns her own agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), to accompany Hunt on the next leg of his mission in order to assure that no further mistakes are made.  Arriving in Paris, via a harrowing Halo Jump, the pair of agents find the plutonium again in the possession of another black market seller, the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) who needs their help in a secret extraction mission as a sign of good faith in their deal.  That mission it turns out involves breaking Solomon Lane out of prison.  Though not keen on seeing his enemy freed from captivity, Hunt plays along in the hope that it will get him closer to finding the plutonium.  Things are made even more complicated once an old acquaintance, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) has orders from MI-6 to take Lane out first.  As dangers keep building up, and alliances begin to be questioned and true motives are revealed, it soon becomes apparent to Ethan Hunt just how Impossible this Mission is, and that it might be the one that he ultimately can’t win in the end.

Like I said before, the series has gone through a stunning transformation over the years, and in many ways has really been hitting it’s stride much better now than it did when it first began.  The bar was set pretty high by Ghost Protocol, and while Rogue Nation was pretty entertaining overall, it still lacked the overall WOW factor of it’s predecessor.  Thankfully, Fallout is an even better effort, coming pretty close to being the best we’ve seen from the series so far.  I still consider Ghost Protocol the best in the series, but Fallout is a very close second.  The reason why I enjoyed this new entry so much is largely due to the fact that it retains much of the best things about this series so far, and executes them to their best potential.  What I love about these last couple Mission Impossible movies is that they have grown to embrace the silliness of the plots and gimmicks of the series and have found fun ways of using them in some often exciting and hilarious ways.  The gimmick with the masks returns (something carried over from the original TV series) and the way it’s used in this movie leads to some of the film’s best surprises.  I won’t spoil what happens, but there are some especially enjoyable reveals with those masks in this movie, including one hilarious cameo appearance.  I also love the fact that while the action set pieces are incredibly complex in their execution, they also allow for there to be some vulnerability in the characters as well.  Cruise’s Ethan Hunt isn’t bulletproof in this film, and the action scenes even allow him to get beat up once and a while, sometimes in a way that gets a laugh out of the audience.  That endearing aspect has been what has helped the series find it’s character since Ghost Protocol and up to Fallout; that ability to not take itself too seriously and having a main hero who doesn’t always succeed in the cleanest of ways.

I will say that the one thing that keeps the movie from rising to the top of the franchise is it’s unfortunately bloated running time.  The movie is nearly 2 1/2 hours long; the longest Mission Impossible film made so far.   For the most part, the movie keeps our attention through all that running time, but there are points where it does lag, particularly at the beginning.  Ghost Protocol still stands on top because it was better paced than any of the other films in the series.  It was also the movie that laid out it’s plot better than any other movie; never once getting caught up in the minutia and confusing the audience with it’s twists and turns.  Fallout mostly steers clear of that too, but by devoting more time to clear out the plot details, it also makes the spaces in between the action set pieces feel too long.  It helps that the action scenes are so well done that you don’t mind too much overall as you watch the movie, but the pacing issues are still noticeable.   The movie also makes the mistake of not exactly having a complex mystery at it’s center.  It’s pretty obvious from the beginning who the real villain of the movie is, and when the big reveal happens, it lacks the surprise that the filmmakers seemed to think that the moment was going to have.  You can also predictably figure out how the plot will wrap itself up, even down to the final climatic moment.  But, the movie kind of pokes fun at these moments too, which is also refreshing.  There is a moment during a climatic countdown where the characters actually do make you aware of the common cliche you’ll find in scenes like it, and in a way sort of subvert the moment and make it feel like a fresh spin as a result.  Despite these flaws, the movies still manages to keep you on the edge of your seat through most of it’s run time, and though the plot can be predictable, the small variations are not and they genuinely lead to some worthwhile surprises.

Now let’s talk about what really makes these Mission Impossible movies special, and that’s the incredible stunts.  The series has recently garnered the reputation of having the most insane on location stunts that we’ve ever seen executed on the big screen, and even more amazing, with it’s headlining star doing much of the work himself.  Like the aforementioned Burj Khalifa sequence and the plane takeoff from Rogue NationFallout has “Wow” factor moments as well, some of which come very close to being among the best we’ve ever seen.  Much of the entertainment value of this movie is just in watching how far Ethan Hunt (and by extension, Tom Cruise) pushes himself to win the day and save the world, and some of it really gets into mind-boggling territory.  Perhaps the most notable sequence of this movie will be the helicopter chase sequence, which Tom Cruise actually prepared himself for by learning how to pilot a chopper solo, just so he could get those authentic shots of him from the point of view of the cockpit as he’s flying it.   And that’s not even the most insane part of that stunt.  There’s a point where Cruise is actually climbing up to the bottom of the chopper via a cargo lift cable and attempts to climb aboard while it’s in midair.  The close-ups of this scene show you without a doubt that it’s as authentic as possible and Tom Cruise is genuinely underneath a flying helicopter, with only the support wires removed digitally in post-production.  It was so intense that I nearly felt a pit in my stomach watching this sequence, knowing just how death-defying it must have been in order to get that shot.  It’s insane, but it does put you right in the middle of the action, which makes it all the more enjoyable, and lengths ahead of most other action sequences found in the genre.  I honestly think that this movie makes a solid argument for there to be an Academy Award category for stunt-work, because the ones in this movie are deserving of some recognition.

One other thing that I love about this film, as well as the two that has preceded it, is the way it has rounded out the cast.  The series has become less of a one man show, and has managed to fit in wide variety of supporting players who help to balance out the series.  Simon Pegg has especially become a welcome comedic relief, working very well off of Tom Cruise’s intensity as Ethan Hunt, and even finding ways to help Cruise find the humor in his own character as well.  I especially love the banter between the two of them, especially when Ethan vents his frustration when Pegg’s Benji’s advice doesn’t end up being that helpful.  Ving Rhames, the only other actor besides Cruise who has appeared in all 6 films, is given much more screen-time this time around, and it’s a great to see him far more involved in this plot.  His longtime partnership with the character also brings out some of the movie’s most tender moments, and it becomes especially apparent in this film that Ving’s Luther is the one who brings the heart and soul into this adventure.  I also like that Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa makes a return to the series, as she proved to be quite the resourceful ally to Ethan in Rogue Nation, and very much his equal in both intelligence and skill.  While Henry Cavill’s Walker is a bit on the underdeveloped side as a character, the actor still makes the most of his time in this role.  I like the physicality he brings to the character, carrying a whole different swagger to the profession than what Ethan has, and watching it play off between the two characters is a lot of fun.  And it has to be said that Tom Cruise keeps returning to the character of Ethan Hunt for a reason.  Not only does playing him allow for Cruise to fulfill his adrenaline junkie appetite, but Hunt is also just a fun character to be in general.  Intelligent, persistent, but also clumsy and vulnerable at times, Ethan Hunt is just an ideal action hero.  He can wow you with his physicality, but can also make you laugh when he takes an unfortunate knock to the head.  I suspect that Cruise likes this character so much, because he allows him to have the most fun while performing; even when it’s during one of those crazy stunts.  And when the lead star looks like he’s having a good time, as well as the rest of the cast, that will in turn make the audience feel like they’re having a good time.

I honestly don’t know how much mojo this series has left, especially with regards to it’s leading man.  Tom Cruise is inching closer to 60 years in age, and though he has held up better than many others in his age range,time will eventually take it’s toll.  The fact that this series has gone on for over twenty years on the big screen and is only getting better is something kind of miraculous in today’s age in Hollywood.  A large part of it’s success is clearly in embracing it’s wilder aspects and choosing to focus more on taking the series to new heights (both literally and figuratively) with regards to the action set pieces.  This one in particular really was trying to push the envelope and show us things we’ve never seen before.  I’m still amazed by that helicopter sequence in this movie, and I hope that the eventual home video release gives us plenty of behind the scenes footage to show off just how exactly they were able to make it happen.  I will say that if there was ever a movie worth watching on the biggest screen possible, this is the one.  I was fortunate to have seen this on a very large IMAX screen, which featured select scenes shot with IMAX film stock specifically for this kind of presentation; the helicopter sequence being one.  If you are lucky enough to be near an IMAX theater too, I would recommend paying the little extra for the ticket price, because that impressiveness that IMAX brings is well worth it.    You’ve got to give producer and star Tom Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie a lot of credit for turning this action franchise into an event level experience that rivals most others within it’s genre.  The fact that their goal is to top each previous film that came before with even more mind-blowing set pieces is really worth celebrating.  And the passion that Cruise puts into these movies, even to the point of literally breaking bone, is something you’ll rarely see any movie star do nowadays, which is both worrying and admirable at the same time.  Though not the best in the series, Mission Impossible: Fallout is still one of this summer’s best films and near the top of it’s already esteemed franchise.  It’s a mission worth taking, should you choose to accept it.

Rating: 8.75/10

Top Ten Favorite Comedies

There are several genres of film that leave a great impact on my own experiences.  I will say that I am partial to the historical drama more than any other, as my favorite film is Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and I include many other epics as among my favorites as well; like Braveheart (1995), Ben-Hur (1959), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and so on.  But, if there were a genre that I can point out that has given me the most consistent entertainment over the years, it would be the Comedy genre.  The best feeling to have in a movie theater is the ability to laugh, and it’s the one and only genre where people actually enjoy the communal experience of watching a film with an audience of complete strangers.  Laughter is infectious and the more people laughing together translates into a better experience overall.  Not every comedy is good though, and sometimes the worst films out there are the comedies that fail to make us laugh in any way.  They are extremely hard to make, as comedy is subjective to every individual audience member.  But, when a comedy can hit all the right notes and appeal to a huge audience overall, then it can become an instant classic.  And for many people, they can easily point out the comedies that have left the best impact on them and have informed their own sense of humor.  As a movie fan, I certainly have my own favorites as well.  Some are movies that left an impact on my own development as a person and a movie fan, and others are just the ones that make me laugh the hardest.  Here, I have listed the comedies that are my absolute favorites.

Before I begin, I do want to list off some comedies that I do love, but just narrowly missed my list; This Is Spinal Tap (1984), The Jerk (1979), The Producers (1968), Caddyshack (1980), Coming to America (1988), Home Alone (1990), Dumb & Dumber (1993), Airplane (1980), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Some Like It Hot (1959), His Girl Friday (1940), Wayne’s World (1992), and Deadpool (2016).  And with all that out of the way, let us begin the countdown.

10.

THE SANDLOT (1993)

Directed by David Mickey Evans

There are comedies that make you laugh, and comedies that make you think.  And then there are comedies that take you back to a bygone time.  When The Sandlot was first released, I was 10 years old, not that far off in age from the characters in this movie.  And this comedy was one that really struck home for the pre-adolescent me.  Here was a movie that celebrated the simple pleasures of boyhood, and mined it perfectly for all the comedic potential that it could bring.  Its about the friendship building experiences of summertime baseball games, getting sick on carnival rides, telling scary stories during tree-house sleepovers, and even faking your own drowning so that you can sneak in a kiss on your first crush.  In many ways, it’s a movie that you can identify strongly with as a child, and still look back fondly with as an adult.  And it still makes me laugh 25 years later.  I love the fact that nearly all of the second half of the movie is devoted to a string of comedic set ups as the boys try to retrieve a Babe Ruth autographed ball from a back yard Wile E. Coyote style, trying desperately to outsmart the fearsome guard dog that patrols it.  There’s also a lot of hilarious adult humor snuck in, like Ham’s trash talking behind the plate trying to psyche out the opposing batter.  But, also like a lot of other family oriented comedies made at the time, it’s also a sentimental film, mostly touching upon the coming of age of all the boys in the story.  Most films like this end up turning sappy by the end, but Sandlot manages to balance it all out and it remains a comedy that I can still reflect back on very well and still laugh at the same way that I did when I was younger.

9.

ANIMAL HOUSE (1978)

Directed by John Landis

This is definitely a movie that could never get made today.  Given the #MeToo movement’s widespread influence on the film industry today, a movie like Animal House would have died on the vine long before a single frame of film would have been shot.  So, the fact that the movie exists at all, and is still regarded as a masterpiece of comedy today is something of a miracle.  Is it racist, misogynist, and nihilistic.  Sure, but the entire movie is such a cartoon that it’s hard to make any claim that the filmmakers were at all serious about any of that stuff while they were making it.  The clear goal of director John Landis and writers Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller was to provoke humor through shattering conventional tastes and adding a rebellious sense of fun.  The whole movie is anti-authoritarian, and that’s helps to make the movie feel so fresh all these years later.  A big part of the movie’s success was largely due to the incredibly funny cast, and most especially to the breakout performance of John Belushi.  Belushi had that special ability to get a laugh out of people with just a simple look, something showed off brilliantly like the memorable smile at the camera during the peeping tom scene or the annoyed look he gives right before smashing a guitar on the staircase.  Other moments like the Toga party, the horse in the office prank, and the climatic parade debacle are all still just as funny today as ever.  I’ll say that another reason why I love this movie so much is because it was shot in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, so it always feels like a homecoming for me when I re-watch it.  We Oregonians still hold this comedy up proud (the “Shout” sequence even plays on the jumbo screen during football games) and even if it’s values may not have aged well with the times, it still makes up for it by remaining relentless in it’ s humor.

8.

THE GENERAL (1927)

Directed by Buster Keaton

The silent era was a golden age for slapstick comedy.  Since synchronized sound made it impossible to tell jokes in movies, humor had to be communicated through movement, and this in turn led to some of the greatest visual comedies of all time.  The era sparked the legendary film careers of famous vaudeville comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, as well as of course, Buster Keaton.  Each comic left a profound impact on film in general, sometimes pushing the medium to new heights as they each tried to out do each other with their incredibly complex routines.  And while Chaplin is often considered to be the greatest artist among this class of comedy, I actually find myself more partial to the works of Buster Keaton.  Chaplin had some amazing set pieces to be sure, but Keaton’s films have comedic bits that still boggle the mind over 90 years later.  It can be seen in films like Sherlock Jr. (1924) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), where you wonder how in the world he didn’t kill himself performing the stunts in these movies.  There are so many amazing stunts in his movies, and they help to make his films still incredible to watch today.  But, it’s The General that remains his masterpiece.  This Civil War set comedy finds Keaton working with the most dangerous of moving props, real locamotive trains, and using them for some of his biggest stunts yet.  There is an especially harrowing moment when he sits on the grill of a train and uses a piece of lumber to knock off another piece of lumber off the rail tracks with only seconds to spare.  Had he mistimed that by a second, he would have been dead.  It just shows how far some would go to get a laugh and Keaton went further than most, always putting hmself in harms way to do it.  And it results in comedy that still grabs our attention nearly a century later.  The fact that he also does all this with an unwavering deadpan expression is just another reason why Buster Keaton is one of the greatest comedic minds in history.

7.

HOT FUZZ (2007)

Directed by Edgar Wright

One of the most misused forms of comedy over the years has been the parody.  Though pioneered by the likes of Mel Brooks and the team of Zuckers/Abrahams during the 70’s and 80’s, the subgenre has sadly slid off in recent years and has often been associated with the characterization of lazy comedy.  But one filmmaker has managed to take the parody film and reinvent it into something new that’s all his own.  British filmmaker Edgar Wright doesn’t specifically reference certain movies, but instead pokes fun at the genres themselves.  He spotlights the cliches, and spins them around into hilarious bits that drive some of the biggest laughs in the movie.  Much in the same vein as Mel Brooks, Wright is clearly affectionate towards the things that he mocks, and his movies often work just as well as any of the other movies from the genres that they are poking fun at.  His parody films have formed what has become known as the Cornetto Trilogy, and it includes the Zombie film Shaun of the Dead, the cop thriller Hot Fuzz, and the sci-fi extravaganza The World’s End (2013).  While all of them are comedy classics, I would choose Hot Fuzz as my favorite.  It’s the most consistently funny of the movies, with the most pointed of genre send-ups.  Wright clearly takes inspiration from the hyper-kinetic style of Michael Bay for this film, and using it in the setting of a quaint town in the English countryside just makes it all the funnier.  Comedic partners Simon Pegg and Nick Frost also relish the humor here, acting perfectly in tune with all the crazy antics that unfold in the movie.  The bullet-flying finale is an especially strong highlight as the duo take on many beloved English character actors playing the townsfolk, including a devilish turn by former Bond, Timothy Dalton.  Along with Wright’s flashy editing style, this is modern comedy classic that we desperately needed.

6.

GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)

Directed by Ivan Reitman

High concept comedies are also especially hard to pull of consistently.  Mixing humor into other genres usually doesn’t translate all that well, but when it does, it can create some of the most unique comedies out there.  Fresh out of Saturday Night Live, actor and writer Dan Aykroyd had the idea to create a comedy centered around a pair of ghost hunters as a new vehicle for him and his Blues Brothers partner John Belushi.  But, Belushi’s untimely death in 1982 put the project on hold, until Aykroyd reworked the script with Harold Ramis and expanded the team to include Ramis, Ernie Hudson, and fellow SNL alum Bill Murray into the mix, and what resulted was a monster comedy hit.  What makes the movie work as well as it does is because it manages to blend the comedic styling of it’s cast perfectly with the genuinely scary images produced through some groundbreaking visual effects, making it a perfect genre mash-up.  It is interesting watching the movie and jumping back and forth between riotous laughter and uneasy tension from the scary imagery.  Honestly, it’s that tension that helps to sell the jokes, because of the stark contrast.  One moment that sticks out is the possession scene where Sigourney Weaver’s Dana starts speaking in the guttural voice of the demon Zuul (which is unsettling), and then it is undercut with Bill Murray jokingly complimenting her on a “lovely singing voice.”  You also don’t get much zanier once a destructive god appears in the form of a fluffy marshmallow man.  There was an attempt to repeat the success of this movie with an all-female remake in 2016, which was well-intentioned but poorly executed.  The able cast was undermined by a terrible script that had none of the punchiness of the original.  And that’s really because Ghostbusters was a one of a kind phenomenon that couldn’t be replicated, and it still remains so 30-plus years later.  Even still, these are the one’s who we are going to call.

5.

DR. STRANGELOVE or HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

When comedies come to mind, the last person one would think of as an icon of the genre is Stanley Kubrick.  The 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Shining (1980) auteur worked mostly in darker territories of cinema, with humor coming through as a rarity in his movies rather than the norm.  And yet, Kubrick is also responsible for a movie that is not only considered one of the funniest movies ever made, but also one of the most important too.  The subject of Kubrick’s one and only comedy could not be more unlikely either; nuclear war and Armageddon.  And yet, he managed to find the inherent comedy within the same situations that could drive humanity towards annihilation, and mines it for some incredibly funny moments.  Mostly it comes down to grown men acting out their frustrations in a child like matter once they feel inadequate or threatened that becomes the catalysts for war in this movie.  A general orders a nuclear strike on Russia after he believes that fluoridation of water has contributed to his impotency in bed; a Russian premier puts his wife on the phone because he feels that the U.S. President hurt his feelings; another general believes nuclear strikes are better than looking weak in front of the enemy, etc.  Some filmmakers would believe that such things are no laughing matter, but Kubrick manages to make it hilarious, mainly through the exceptional cast.  Peter Sellers commands the film with a triple headed performance as the President, a put-upon lieutenant who might save the day, and as the titular Dr. Strangelove, in a truly demented comedic turn.  However, it’s George C. Scott that actually steals the movie in a hilarious over-the-top performance as General Turgidson.  And there has been no better image for the absurdity of war than Slim Pickens riding a nuclear warhead like a bucking bronco, waving his cowboy hat all the way down.  Kubrick may not have been a purely funny guy, but he told one hell of a good joke here; one that still resonates today.

4.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen Brothers are likewise not known as humorists, even though they have produced their fair share of comedies.  Some of their most noteworthy comedies like O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) and Raising Arizona (1987) often include a sense of melancholy underneath the surface, and some of their darker films surprisingly have an unexpected absurdity to them as well, like Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007).  It’s probably just a result of their unique style as filmmakers.  But there is one all out comedy in their filmography and it is easily one of the single funniest movies ever made.  The Big Lebowski was seen as a disappointing follow-up to the critical success of Fargo when it was first released, but over the years it has built a devoted fan base that has made it cult classic.  I for one believe that it is the greatest character driven comedy of all time.  Every single funny bit in this movie is derived from the ridiculous personalities of the main characters and how each of them interact with each other.  It’s a movie of extreme personalities, led most effectively by Jeff Bridges “The Dude”.  Bridges created a true original with this character, and it’s just a delight to watch him stumble his way through an increasingly absurd series of events as the movie unfolds.  Add into the mix John Goodman’s unhinged and hilariously vulgar role as Walter Sobchak and you’ve got one of comedy’s most hilarious duos ever.  I also get a kick out of John Tuturro’s shamelessly zany performance as Jesus (“Eight year olds, Dude.”)  A lot of the humor is also enhanced by the beautiful flourishes brought in by cinematographer Roger Deakins; especially in the iconic dream sequences.  Some of the hardest laughs I’ve ever had in my life watching a movie have been when I watched this, and that’s why it remains one of my favorites.  The Dude abides indeed.

3.

BLAZING SADDLES (1974)

Directed by Mel Brooks

One can’t talk about movie comedies without mentioning the work of Mel Brooks.  The legendary humorist all but invented the parody film and is responsible for many of the most acclaimed comedies of all times.  Though his Oscar-winning work in The Producers is rightly celebrated, as are other classics like Young Frankenstein (1974), High Anxiety (1977), and Spaceballs (1986), I believe the most consistently funny movie in his whole oeuvre is Blazing Saddles.  Much like Kubrick’s Dr. StrangleloveBlazing Saddles stands out so much more as a comedy due to the fact that it’s punches aim so much higher.  In it, Brooks pays ode to the Western classics of Old Hollywood, but he does so with an eye to the racial divisions that those movies would have never even dreamed of addressing.  It was a risky move to make, but Brooks manages to make the presentation work due to the fact that no group is spared; White, Black, Gay, Straight, Man, Woman, everyone is targeted for ridicule in this movie.  And it is hilarious in it’s relentlessness.  It helped that Brooks got assistance from another provocative comedic entertainer, Richard Pryor, who helped give the racial commentary the bite that it needed.  The cast is also uniformly amazing in the film including Cleavon Little as the hot rod sheriff who stirs up the racial division in the quaint town of Rock Ridge.  We also see Gene Wilder at his most restrained playing the Waco Kid, Jim.  Harvey Korman is also perfect as the villainous Hedley Lamarr, as is Madeline Kahn in the Marlene Dietrich spoofing role that earned her an Oscar nod.  Satire, especially when it touches on a subject like race, can be a tricky one to pull off, and Blazing Saddles is one of the greatest examples of it.  It turns Hollywood on it’s head, addresses harsh realities about race in America, and still manages to remain funny as hell all the way through.  That’s why Mel Brooks still stands among the best in his league when it comes to comedy.  It’s also the only issue film you’ll ever see where a horse gets punched in the face.

2.

MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1975)

Directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam

While I often find myself quoting one or two phrases from many of these comedies in casual conversation on a daily basis (“You’re killing me Smalls.” “That rug really tied the room together.” “Ray’s gone bye-bye Egon”), I would say that the comedy that has gotten the most mileage for me as the most quotable is Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  The legendary group of British comedians perfectly translated their sketch style comedy to the big screen with this off-kilter take on Arthurian legends.  And the one liners are too numerous to list.  How many times have any of us gotten a cut on our body and jokingly quipped “Tis but a scratch,” in response?  Or have had the absolute urge to shout the word “Ni” for no reason.  Some of us have even gone further and have memorized the full passage from the Book or Armaments describing in prayer how to use the Holy Hand Grenade.  But apart from it’s endlessly quotable script, Holy Grail is just a rollicking hilarious film to watch.  It is Silly with a capital “S”, and perfect utilizes the nonsensical sense of humor that Monty Python was notable for.  Whether it’s smashing coconut shells together in place of riding on horseback, John Cleese’s Sir Lancelot slaughtering his way through a wedding party, a Black Knight refusing to loose a battle even as his limbs are chopped off, or King Arthur’s troop getting defeated by a bloodthirsty bunny rabbit, this is one endlessly hilarious ride of movie.  No matter how many times I’ve watched this movie, it has never failed to get a strong laugh out of me.  Even when I watch it with an audience, I can’t help but repeat some of the lines back at the movie, which doesn’t become a problem, because most of the audiences I’ve seen it with were doing just the same.  Both as a comedy and as an experience, there is hardly anything else like Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

1.

GROUNDHOG DAY (1993)

Directed by Harold Ramis

This may not be the most consistently funny movie on this list, nor the one that I quote the most or laugh at the most.  But, Groundhog Day is my favorite comedy of all time simply because of the fact that it’s also one of my favorite movies of all time, period.  Groundhog Day appeals to the part of me that wants to experience a movie that works on so many more levels than just by how funny it is.  It is a very layered movie, delivering a dizzyingly cerebral concept of a man living the same day over and over again.  This is the kind of thing that you would find in an episode of the Twilight Zone (which I think it might have been at some point), but here it becomes a hilarious set up for the comedic talents of Bill Murray.  Murray gives the best performance of his career as a man who evolves through his desperate attempt to escape the same repeating 24 hours of his life.  It’s an existential experience that makes the viewer also take consideration as to how they live their own lives, and that’s something that you rarely seen coming through in a comedy.  Like many of the other films on this list, this movie was guided by the irreplaceable comedic genius of Harold Ramis, who was never better behind the directors chair, as well as showing off his range as a comedic writer.  The movie evokes a bygone era of Capra-esque comedies from the 30’s and 40’s and transposes it perfectly into the modern day without loosing a bit of the charm.  It’s a very non-cynical film, which is something rare in comedies today, and I wish that more movies were like this one.  I went further into length about this movie in my retrospective here, but I just want to point out how brilliantly Ramis executed the concept of this comedy into the film-making, making every repeated action work to the advantage of the comedy and never once letting it grow weary and stale.  I love this movie deeply, and it easily earns it’s place as my favorite comedy ever.

So, most likely my list of comedies will probably differ greatly from everyone else’s.  Comedy is subjective and people have their own tastes, which often ranges to varying degrees.  But, more than likely, the top names in comedy will be similar on most people’s lists.  The names of Mel Brooks, Harold Ramis, Edgar Wright, and the Coen Brothers probably show up very frequently when discussing the Kings of Comedy when it comes to the movies.  And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in calling The Big Lebowski and Monty Python and the Holy Grail as one of the greatest comedies ever made, as both have their rabid fan-bases that have grown into the millions over the years.  Mostly, when I consider what stands out as the comedies that left the biggest impact on me, I look at more than just how much they made me laugh.  I grew up with movies like Ghostbusters and The Sandlot, which went a long way towards informing my tastes in comedy.  And as I became more literate in the art of cinema, I discovered more about the amazing work that went into creating comedies like Dr. Strangelove and The General; comedies made well before my time.  Times and attitudes may change, and stuff that may have been hilarious 10 years ago might seem quaint or inappropriate today.  But, if your comedy can withstand the rigors of time and still make people laugh the same way so many years later, that’s when you know that you’ve made not just a great comedy but also a great film.  I hope that spotlighting some of these has helped a few of you see how important it is to have a good laugh at the movies.  Especially in trying times like the ones we live in now, humor is not only needed, but essential.  Humor is the best medicine after all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ant-Man and the Wasp – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.5/10