All posts by James Humphreys

Collecting Criterion – The Rules of the Game (1939)

It’s strange when you see something thought to be old fashioned and classical all of a sudden become the rage once again.  I often think about that when I look at the series Downton Abbey.  The English made television series is a relatively simple show about relations between members of the British aristocracy and the working class staff that labor in their opulent manor house.  Period dramas such as these tend to be a niche genre with a limited audience pull, but to many people’s surprise, Downton Abbey became a phenomenon; not just in it’s native country but across the world too.  I myself got caught up in the hype too and became an ardent viewer of the show over it’s six season run.  There was just something so perfectly fine tuned about the show that made it incredibly appealing, which probably is attributed to the excellent ensemble cast as well as the razor sharp wittiness of show creator and head writer Julian Fellowes.  But Downton Abbey is by no means a fluke either.  It follows in a long tradition of period dramas that focus on the class differences that manifest within the walls of stately manors.  You see it quite a lot in the films of Merchant Ivory, as well as in a series that served as the precursor to Downton Abbey called Upstairs Downtairs, which aired on the BBC (and on PBS here in the States) in the late 1970’s.  Upstairs Downstairs even gave this particular sub genre it’s commonly used nickname.  Julian Fellowes also won an Oscar for writing a movie that many consider now his Downton trial run, called Gosford Park (2001), directed by Robert Altman.  But what may surprise many people is that this film tradition didn’t begin in “Merry old England,” like you would assume, but rather in pre-War France.  The Upstairs/Downstairs genre of film can arguably be traced back to the Jean Renoir classic, The Rules of the Game (1939, Spine #216) which also has been graced with a special edition via the Criterion Collection.  Many of the standards of the genre that we still see used today were written in this original satirical dramedy, and surprisingly, for it’s time, these weren’t a stroll back into a bygone era, but in fact a product of it’s time.

Jean Renoir, the son of famed impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, holds a very special place in the Criterion library.  Not only did they choose to spotlight his work early on in their home video releases, but they even launched their line with a Renoir flick.  Renoir’s legendary anti-war drama, Grand Illusion (1937, #1) was the very first ever film released under the criterion label on DVD.  It’s understandable that this was the movie that Criterion chose to launch themselves onto the DVD format with, because it’s often cited by many as the greatest film ever made; at least in art house circle.  Orson Welles even cited it as the highest achievement in film-making, and this is coming from the guy who made Citizen Kane (1941), which itself is held up as the greatest film ever made by many.  Whether people today still share that sentiment is unclear, but Criterion has certainly help it to maintain exposure.  Because of Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, Renoir is often referred to as the father of French Cinema, helping to give it notoriety throughout the world.  Renoir was indeed a bit of a Renaissance man in cinema, as he wrote, directed, and produced all of his own movies, and even acted in a few as well.  He was also not afraid to inject his own points of view into his movies, as many of them are often social critiques.  The Rules of the Game in particular became something of a scandal in it’s time with it’s frank social commentary attacking the upper social class.  Eventually, his politics led to his exile from France due to the occupation of Nazi forces within the country, who made his films strictly “verboten” to the public.  Renoir eventually settled in Hollywood where he would make a string of artistic but still compromised films.  Still, he held a special place in his heart for his early French films and their journey towards cinematic redemption in the years after World War II are a fascinating story in themselves.  The Criterion edition of The Rules of the Game in particular does a great job in helping to shed a light on a film that in retrospect stands as an important cultural marker for both French and world cinema.

The Rules of the Game as a title refers to the societal rules that both of the classes must adhere to within a strictly stratified society.  The story centers on a collection of French aristocrats and the servants who wait upon over the course of a night within a palatial countryside chateau.  Over the course of the night, tangled relationships begin to start boiling to the top and threaten to break apart the fragile facade of the “game” that all of them are playing a part in to maintain appearances.  The primary thrust of the story comes from the love triangle between Andre Juieux (Roland Toutain), a beloved celebrity pilot: Christine de la Cheyniest (Nora Gregor), the woman he’s been having an affair with; and the Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), Christine’s husband, who also has his own side affair going on with a mistress named Genevieve (Mila Parely).  With the help of Andre’s friend Octave (Renoir himself), an acquaintance of the Marquis, Andre is able to gain an invite to a lavish ball being held at the Marquis’ chateau, with the intent of getting close to Christine in order to share his true feelings for her.  Meanwhile, Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost) is being pursued by a newly hired servant named Marceau (Julien Carette), whom she has a playful little flirtation with, which draws the ire of Lisette’s husband, Schumacher (Gaston Modot), the estate’s groundskeeper.  As the night’s festivities go on, the various love triangles begin to cross paths, and mayhem ensues.  The Marquis’ scandalous marriage turmoil begins to undermine his rich aristocratic veneer, while the staff’s inability to keep their professionalism on course throughout the night with jealousy running rampant threatens to strip away any amount of dignity they might have had in the eyes of the ones they served.  And thus, the rules end up getting consistently broken by people desperate to keep the game going, despite not seeing the apparent truth right in front of them; that they are all flawed human beings with the same desires and bad judgments regardless of their position in life.  And in the end, misunderstandings and unchecked jealousy inevitably leads down to the road of bloodshed.

Perhaps even more fascinating than the movie itself is it’s road to redemption in the years since it’s release.  Even though the movie has gone on to influence so many other films and shows, it may surprise you to know that it was a financial disaster when it first premiered.  At the time, it was the most expensive movie ever made in France, costing around 5,000,000 francs, which would be north of $100,000,000 in today’s money.  This was largely due to the lavish interior sets that Renoir had constructed, some of which were so spacious that you could only capture the full breadth of them in wide shots.  Renoir needed a strong showing not just at the French box office but also in the international market to break even, and considering the incendiary nature of the film’s overall message, that was going to be a steep uphill climb.  The film was almost immediately suppressed by influential people in the French upper class, who objected to being portrayed in such a foolish light in the film.  Renoir would continue to tinker with the film in order to attract more of an audience, cutting nearly a third of the film down over time.  And then, the war reached the French borders, and Renoir and his many collaborators had to suddenly flee in order to escape Nazi persecution.  Like I mentioned before, many resettled in Hollywood and even had prosperous careers there.  You may even recognize actor Marcel Dalio who played the Marquis, because he turned up in Casablanca (1943) as the croupier at Rick’s Cafe.  Sadly, Renoir had to leave his original films behind, and as the war went on, many of the original camera negatives to his movies were destroyed, including the original cut of Rules of the Game.  After the end of the war, Renoir sought out whatever he could to reconstruct his nearly lost masterpiece.  Thankfully, copies had been held in vaults across Europe and, in time, he managed to assemble a nearly full reconstruction of the film.  To this date, only one scene remains missing, but Renoir was satisfied with what he had and deemed the missing scene inconsequential.  The film enjoyed a celebrated re-release in the 1960’s and since then has become the beloved cinematic classic that it remains to this day.

There are a lot of factors that have helped to keep Rules of the Game a relevant film throughout the years, and I think primary among them is the humanity that Renoir puts into the characters.  No matter what the person’s social standing was, he treated each person’s story with the same amount of importance.  This was unique at the time, as domestics often were relegated to the background of the story, merely there to be window dressing as the movies spotlighted the glamorous lifestyles of their principle characters.  But here, the characters downstairs are fully fleshed out people as well, with intriguing dramas of their own, which sometimes even mingles in with the upper class itself.  Renoir was interested in the human condition, and found the environment of a palatial countryside estate to be a perfect setting to explore the follies of separating the classes.  It should be noted that Renoir’s film is a critique of the people and not a condemnation.  None of his characters are truly bad, but the system they prop up is indeed the thing that he intends to scorn.  One of the film’s most famous scenes is the Rabbit Hunt halfway through the movie, which is also it’s most controversial.  The movie shows real animals (rabbits, pheasants, ducks) being gunned down by the hunting party in a shockingly frank depiction.  The scene is a not so subtle metaphor to the horrors of war, which Renoir himself experienced during World War I, with the animals being stand ins for soldiers dying in the field.  In this scene, Renoir is pointing the finger at the upper classes of Europe who seem to treated war itself as a bit of sport without ever taking into consideration the consequences it leaves behind on both the lower classes and the country itself.  In many ways, he used this metaphor as a stark warning to the people of France to become more aware of dangerous recklessness of their game of social manners, as it brings danger even closer to their door, which no doubt was on Renoir’s mind as Fascism and Communism were on the rise in Europe.  The movie’s ability to make compelling human drama across the entire social spectrum, both rich and poor, made the film more fascinating in the years beyond it’s release and has been the thing that has remained influential to other films today.

Criterion has given the movie another stellar restoration in order to preserve it for future generations.  As stated before, the original camera negative was a casualty of World War II, and for a time, people were worried that it would remain a lost film, much like Orson Welles’ severely compromised Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  The restoration of the film was a painstaking effort and the condition of each film stock was mixed.  Eventually, enough work was done in order to make it feel like a whole piece once again.  Criterion has gone even further, taking the 1960 restoration as their blueprint and conducting even further clean-up using the digital tools of today.  With enhanced color timing and a thorough washing off of all scratches and warps made to the film over 80 years, Criterion now has a new pristine digital master that helps to bring the movie as close to it’s original look as it possibly can.  Because the original negative is lost forever, we can never have an exact duplication of the film’s original clarity, so the picture can be a little soft at times, but the blu-ray transfer does it’s best to retain the fine detail within each frame.  The contrast in the blacks, whites and grays all look incredible, and help to showcase the lavish sets that Renoir had constructed for the film better than we’ve seen in years.  The movie’s soundtrack has also been given a polish to help it sound up to date.  The famous hunting scene in particular sounds very good, with each gunshot carrying the intended jarring effect.  For a movie this old, and one that has had a troubled history up to now, this is a stellar restoration that is likely to be the best we can ever expect.  And given Renoir’s artistic background, holding visuals up to a high standard, he would’ve probably approved of this restoration himself.

The supplemental features are up to the usual high standard that you’d expect of the Criterion Collection.  First of note is a film introduction by Renoir himself, which he filmed specifically to show in front of the movie before it’s 1960 re-release.  He explains why it’s such an important film to him, especially with regards to the themes.  He also shares a fascinating anecdote about how one angry viewer even tried to burn the theater down that the movie was screening in.  There are a couple excerpts from two television documentaries about Renoir, one from French television and another from the BBC.  They both specifically center on the period in which he was making Rules of the Game, helping to shed context of the movie’s place within his overall career.  A video essay also spotlights the film’s initial, problematic release, as well as the year’s long restoration that helped to resurrect it for a new generation.  A vintage interview with the film’s restoration team on a French television series called Les ecrans de la ville also gives more background to the reconstruction of the film.  Renoir historian Chris Faulkner also recorded scene-specific analyses just for Criterion, where he discusses more about the film’s underlying themes, it’s controversies, it’s history, and even a bit more about Renoir himself.  There’s also a commentary track written by film scholar Alexander Sesonske and read on the track by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich.  A comparison of the film’s two alternative endings is also featured, as are interviews both new and archive from people like film critic Olivier Curchod, set designer Max Douy, Renoir’s son Alain, and actress Mila Parely.  As usual, Criterion treats all their titles to a wealthy collection of bonus features that are there to please the film buff in all of us and give us the most in depth look into these beloved classics.

It’s hard to watch The Rules of the Game now and not see it’s DNA found in every period drama today that portrays the day to day lives of the fabulously wealthy, and the hard working people behind the scenes there to help keep up appearances.  It’s even more surprising that the genre continues to remain strong even today, with a surprising juggernaut like Downton Abbey continuing to remain popular, even as it makes it’s way to the big screen.  But the remarkable thing is that The Rules of the Game feels even more relevant now than ever.  As the world has again spiraled into political unrest, a story like Rules of the Game once again feels like a dire warning.  Social inequality doesn’t present an ideal society, despite the allure of decadence.  Trying to maintain your place within the “game” eventually blinds you to what’s going on, and eventually the struggles of the lower classes boil up and will eventually break the game apart in total.  For Europe in the 1930’s, it was the rise of Fascism, which the French elite paid no mind towards, until the Third Reich were marching their way down the Champs Elysee.  Today, we are seeing inequality become a factor again, and it in turn is leading to a rise in populist sentiments, which is disrupting political order and is literally splitting nations apart, all the while our entertainment seems to remain distracted by celebrity culture.  Renoir wanted to spotlight the human condition within a decadent world, and pull back the facade to show how little difference there was between the classes, and how corrupt the system was in trying to maintain that lie.  Shows like Downton Abbey and Upstairs/ Downstairs aren’t quite as incendiary as Rules, but they do share Renoir’s passion for treating all the characters with the same amount of importance.  Because of that, we find relatable people that we can identify with in each story and imagine where our place might be in this kind of society, which helps us to contemplate where we stand in our own world.  It’s legacy lives on many years later, but The Rules of the Game more than anything represents a fine cinematic representation of art and storytelling coming together in a deceptively simple yet compelling way, with Criterion’s excellent presentation and package, it will continue to inspire more like it in the years to come.

Rule Number One – Talking About 20 Years of Fight Club

When people discuss the years that are considered among the best ever for movies, probably the most recent one to come into that conversation would be the year 1999.  Closing out the 20th century as well as the last millennium with quite a bang, we saw a year that banged out one classic after another, many of which have gone on to be highly influential 20 years later.  But the interesting thing about 1999 is the fact that so many of the best loved movies from that year were ones that at the time were not major hits upon release.  I already spotlighted one of those movies a couple weeks ago with my retrospective on Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant here.  I myself in particular have really found the legacy of these rising classics particularly interesting, because they go all the way back to when I started paying closer attention to the movie industry in general.  In 1999, I was a sophomore in high school who had just seen Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen and knew that my life’s path was going to be in the pursuit of film-making.  Because of this renewed interest, I began expanding my range of films to look out for, trying to open my perspective to include a wider spectrum of what the industry had to offer.  And in the early fall of 1999, I managed to catch a movie that not only hit the right spot, but would go on to become the first movie that I ever proclaimed to be the best movie of the year, since this was also the first year ever that I began to keep track of that distinction.  That movie would be the shocking, “in-your-face” spectacle that was David Fincher’s Fight Club.  Fight Club knocked me off my feet the first time I ever watched it, and even 20 years later it still packs a punch.   But the interesting I discovered while revisiting it was how different it plays today than it did back then.  The movie still holds up, don’t get me wrong, but the message takes on a whole different meaning in today’s cultural climate.

Much like The Iron Giant had in the weeks prior to the release, Fight Club was not financially successful right away.  It didn’t bomb as heavily as Giant did, since it was not a terribly expensive movie to make, but it still underwhelmed, given that it had an A-list star like Brad Pitt on the marquee, as well as two rising, Oscar-nominated names like Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter involved as well.  Critics were even divided at first.  Roger Ebert notably gave the movie a thumbs down review, stating that he found the movie an unfocused mess.   But, as with most movies that become classics long after their initial theatrical release, Fight Club found it’s audience on home video.  Fight Club came out at just the right time to take advantage of this new technology called DVD, and it was the first cult hit to rise on this new format.  In time, the movie became a best-seller and critics were starting to change their tune.  For a lot of people, the movie was a revelation, as well as a breath of fresh air after a decade of polished, studio fare.  Like it’s fellow 1999 alum, The MatrixFight Club brought a notably punk style to the medium of film; changing the way movies looked, sounded, and even edited.  But while The Matrix had a sleek cyber-punk aesthetic to it, Fight Club was grungy, dank, and even rotting at the edges at some points.  It was a movie that was held nothing back and presented a decidedly anti-Hollywood aesthetic to the big screen.  And a lot of people started to ask themselves; is this movie the future of film-making?  Is this the start of an American New Wave?  Did Meat Loaf actually give an awards worthy performance in a movie?  No matter what anybody said then or in the years after, Fight Club had left a mark on the film industry.

Perhaps one of the things that really started pulling in new people to the movie was the unexpected way it played a trick on it’s audience.  Again, the year 1999 had many noteworthy things that left an impact on audiences, but one that really stood out was the renewed popularity of the plot twist.  M. Night Shayamalan had earlier that same year stunned people across the world with his now infamous twist ending to The Sixth Sense, helping to propel that film to record breaking success.  But, at the same time, Fight Club had it’s own shocking plot twist that in some ways is even better executed than Shayamalan’s.  Had The Sixth Sense not taken so much of the thunder away in the weeks prior to Fight Club’s release, I wonder if the revelation in Club may have hit harder than it initially did.  For those of you who haven’t seen the film and don’t know what I’m talking about, well fair warning, but there are SPOILERS ahead.  The plot centers around a nameless protagonist known only in the credits as the Narrator (played by Edward Norton).  After a rough couple of weeks of working a thankless job and going to therapy, he runs into a quirky gentleman on a plane ride home named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).  After the Narrator’s apartment burns down, he crashes at Durden’s run down home in the bad part of town, and the two come up with a crazy way of letting out some of their aggression; they begin to fight each other.  In time, other people want to join in and both the Narrator and Tyler start what ends up becoming known as the “Fight Club.”  Over time, the Club becomes bigger with Durden making more demands of it’s members to declare their loyalty to the group, creating in away a cult like organization.  This troubles the Narrator who desperately tries to reverse the zealot like direction this club is going in.  But, in his efforts, he finds that he can no longer reach Tyler and the Club has transformed into a full on terrorist organization, all of whom look to him as their leader.  And then we get the bombshell.   The Narrator cannot locate Tyler Durden, because he is Tyler Durden.  The Tyler we’ve seen is just an imaginary friend that has manifested through the Narrator’s paranoid schizophrenia, and with that, the movie reaches it’s legendary peak.

The plot twist stems from the original novel of the same name from author (and fellow Oregonian) Chuck Palahniuk, but it’s execution is so well handled by director David Fincher and screenwriter Jim Uhls.  For nearly two-thirds of the movie, you have to buy into the belief that Tyler Durden and the Narrator are two different people, and not two personalities in one body.  The excellent chemistry between Edward Norton and Brad Pitt sells that dynamic perfectly, and you just have to admire the fact that the movie expertly keeps you in the dark until the bombshell drops.  But that’s not the only thing that makes the movie a classic.  This movie, probably more than any other, cemented the Fincher style.  David Fincher had won acclaim four years prior with the unforgettable thriller Seven (1995), and was able to deliver a compelling drama with The Game (1997).  But with Fight Club, we saw Fincher really begin to play around with the camera, utilizing CGI for the first time, which he pushed to the limit with what was possible in 1999.  This was the first movie where Fincher started using his high speed pans, which would take the camera across the plain of view at such incredible speeds and through impossible barriers that could never be done with a standard camera (like through concrete walls or even something as tiny as the ring of a coffee mug).  Such a technique has since become David Fincher’s signature, and it put him on the map as a filmmaker.   The movie also defies many cinematic conventions, like several points where it breaks the fourth wall, and reminds you that you are indeed watching a movie.  There’s a great moment where we see Pitt’s Tyler working as a movie projectionist, and while he is working with the Narrator speaking directly to the audience about what a projectionist does, Tyler points to the point of the screen to the reel marker appears just as it flashes on screen, referring to it as a “cigarette burn.”  When I became a projectionist myself in college, you can bet that I called those markers cigarette burns as well.  And it’s that free-wheeling sense of anything goes that made Fight Club so appealing to a young, blossoming film buff like me back in 1999.  Indeed, watching it only gain in popularity over the years has been very satisfying as someone who took to it so strongly from the very beginning.

But, after 20 years since it’s initial release, it’s interesting to see how differently it plays now than it did then.  In 1999, the world was a much different place than it is today, and it’s amazing to re-watch the movie in 2019 and see how far ahead of it’s time it was.  There are some things that both the novel and the movie couldn’t have foreseen, like the rise of social media and the radicalization of fringe political movements, but given how so many elements of the story feel so relevant today, it’s really amazing to see how prophetic Fight Club actually is.  Some would argue that Fight Club is actually partially to blame for some of the discord that we see in the world today.  The movie has been described as a textbook for how to start a radical terrorist organization, showing step by step how groups such as those form; preying on angered, disenfranchised civilians to join their ranks in order to spread chaos as a means of pushing forward a demented agenda.  While the movie never intends to endorse this kind of behavior, it nevertheless shows a detailed look into the formation of a powerful political movement formed around a dangerous ideology.  And some have argued that Fight Club glamorizes it as well.  It’s hard to not notice that some of the tactics that the followers of Tyler Durden enact within the movie bear many resemblances to actions taken by fringe groups today.  The mayhem of the Fight Club cult are in many ways akin to the pranks pulled by Internet trolls today, though many are much more malicious than anything that Tyler Durden came up with.  There’s also the unfortunate way that elements of Fight Club has been co-oped into some hate groups’ talking points.  You know the term “snowflake” that the Alt-right likes to use dismissively against their political rivals; that came from Fight ClubFight Club certainly, as a movie, wanted to stir the pot a bit to shake conformities within society, but it’s unfortunate that the movie has in some ways emboldened some of the worst in our society, who have taken the absolute wrong message out of the movie as a whole.

The thing that gets gets ignored the most with regards to Fight Club as a narrative is that it is first and foremost a satire.  In particular, it’s a scathing indictment on the societal definition of masculinity.  One thing that gets forgotten about the movie is how the character of the Narrator is defined.  The movie is about him trying to discover for himself what it means to be a man.  First the story attacks how corporations define masculinity, as the Narrator spends his money on things that society says should define his worth as a man, but it all instead makes him feel empty.  He only finds true happiness after he does the least masculine thing that society has defined; weeping openly in the arms of another man, or in this case the voluptuous “bitch tits” of his friend Robert ‘Bob’ Paulson (an unforgettable Meat Loaf).  Later, he creates the persona of Tyler Durden through a need to have an ideal, masculine friend to rely upon, and that relationship in turn leads the Narrator down the road to promoting an ideology where the ideal of masculinity is defined by how hard you can hit the man that you consider your friend.  This later evolves into the desire to destroy beautiful things, because they are a threat to a masculine ideal because they come from a decadent, corporatized place.  This leads him to nearly killing pretty boy Angel Face (a young Jared Leto), because of that desire to destroy something he found beautiful, which gets to another deep psychological underpinning of the story.  It should be noted, this movie called by many as a Fascist, testosterone fueled pro-male fantasy, was authored by a politically progressive, openly gay novelist who lives in the hipster capital of America; Portland, Oregon.  This story was never intended to celebrate the ideal of the Heterosexual, Macho, hyper-masculine American male; it was meant to be a scathing indictment of that kind of person, and for some reason or another, that seems to have been ignored by both some of the movie’s fans as well as it’s critics.

Much like other misunderstood satires such as Blazing Saddles (1974) and Tropic Thunder (2008), the message seems to get lost in all the noise so that it appears to some that it’s participating in the very practice that it’s trying to mock.  The way that I look at the movie Fight Club today is not as a step by step breakdown of how terrorist groups are formed like some have described it, but as an extremely effective dissection of the root causes of toxic masculinity.  The brilliance of Chuck Palahniuk’s story is in the characterization of his Narrator.  The fact that he is never named in  the novel just illustrates the blank canvas that he is supposed to be in the narrative, and how that emptiness leads him down more dangerous roads in order to fill that empty void.  Tyler Durden is a fiction made reality through the Narrator’s deranged desire to find a better version of himself, and as the story shows us, the desire to be more manly in a way drives one to become a little more monstrous each day.  Palahniuk spotlights a very interesting point here, in how a pursuit towards a perceived ideal in masculinity sometimes drives men, even rational thinking men, into acting against their own self interest.  This sometimes manifests in some ways towards actions like men taking unnecessary risks in order to prove their manhood (such as the car wreck test halfway through the movie), or threatening violence against those who threaten their masculinity.  For the narrator, he’s on a dangerous journey of self-discovery, which ultimately leads him towards reconciling his perceived inadequacies with what he ultimately wants to be as a man; which is closer to being more compassionate.  In order to get there, he literally has to destroy a part of himself in order to excise Tyler Durden completely from his mind; bringing the self-harm metaphor right to the forefront.  You can see the same kind of toxic masculinity represented in those who same politically extreme groups that tout Fight Club as an inspiration, despite missing the whole point of the movie.  How many men have unnecessarily harmed themselves trying to prove their masculine worth.  How many of those men also attack other for not being masculine enough to their liking.  The same hatred can be found in all those closeted males who take their frustration over their own sexuality and channel it into persecution of openly queer people as a result.  Palahniuk, as a queer person himself, must have wanted to examine where that line of thinking might be coming from, and the narrative he found in the process did a brilliant job of helping to shed light on this issue in a meaningful way.

That’s why Fight Club feels just as relevant today, because we are currently in a climate where definitions of toxic and ideal masculinity are again beginning to stir heated debate.  In my opinion, Fight Club subverts what you might expect of it.  It presents this hyper-masculine pastiche on it’s surface, but underneath, it’s a biting satire of the destructive paths men take in order to reach an unrealistic ideal.  It’s just too bad that much of it’s message has been lost over the last 20 years, and in some ways has been unfairly misinterpreted by both some toxic fans and also by ill-informed critics.  It’s critique of toxic masculinity may be the most profound we have ever seen put on film.  It’s a shame that in the same year, the Academy Awards celebrated a different kind of examination of masculinity with the very overrated American Beauty (1999).  American Beauty also examines the psychological journey of a disgruntled American male, but instead of critiquing this kind of character, it almost lionizes his sudden transformation into a self-absorbed rebel, even making his lust over a teenage girl as a part of his awakening enlightenment.  It doesn’t help that he’s also played by an equally toxic human being named Kevin Spacey.  Suffice to say, American Beauty has aged terribly over the years and feels very much like a relic of it’s era, while Fight Club has become more relevant than ever.  No other movie really digs this deep into the root causes of toxic masculinity and shows it reaching such dire extremes.  What Fight Club shows is that much of the discord that arises from toxic masculinity comes from a dangerous sense of fear; fear of not being seen as manly enough by society and how that leads to destructive ends in order to compensate for those perceived weaknesses.  Tyler Durden is not a poster boy for the best of masculinity; he is a villain bent on destructive ends.  And the scary thing is, there’s a little Tyler Durden in every man, young or old, who feels like they are lacking something in their life.  Fight Club, even with the veneer of it’s revolutionary punk aesthetic, ultimately wants us the viewer to choose compassion over destruction, and that is why it continues to remain a beloved classic to this day.  Even 20 years later, I am still confident in my choice to have it top my list for the year 1999.  And by examining how it’s message resonates today, I am not just confident it’s the best movie of 1999, I think it stands as one of my favorite movies, period.  I am James’ complete lack of surprise.

It: Chapter Two – Review

If there was ever a shared cinematic universe that has yet to be properly exploited, it’s the one from the mind of author Stephen King.  King, the modern master of horror, has churned out novel after novel over nearly 50 years of writing and with all that has created one of the most prolific canons ever in literature.  What’s even more surprising about all of his novels is the fact that many contain a shared mythology.  Sure it’s a convoluted and bizarre mythology that loosely ties his stories together, but it’s there and it’s very much a product of his imagination.  But those ties have never really been explored too deeply on the big screen, because as much as Stephen King has a devoted fan base and a body of work worth a dozen or so franchises, King’s relationship with Hollywood has been a sometimes contentious one.  Very protective of his own work, King often oversees the adaptations of his books into film himself, ensuring that everything he values from his own writing makes it onto the screen in tact.  Because so many of his novels run on the long side, he often forgoes taking his books to the big screen in favor of creating television mini-series instead, because the longer format gives him the time he needs to include everything from the books.  This often has come with it’s own downside, as King has had to compromise the more graphic elements of his stories in order to meet television standards, but it’s a compromise he has been willing to make in order to retain his control over the adaptation.  This probably stemmed from the 1980 adaptation of The Shining by Stanley Kubrick, which King famously hated because of all the changes Kubrick had made to make it more “theatrical.”  The receptions of his television adaptations have been fairly mixed over the years, from positive (Under the Dome) to very negative (The Langoliers).  But if the was one that proved to be a standout, it was probably his 1990 miniseries of his most famous novel; IT.

For a novel with a title as simple as IT, it is remarkably monstrous in size.  Running the length of a Bible, IT is peak Stephen King, in both the best and worst ways.  For one thing, it has some of the most surreal and frightening imagery that he has ever committed to the page.  One the other hand, it is also bloated and meandering, and just plain weird for weird’s sake, showing the author at his most indulgent.  The novel is famous for a lot of things, but perhaps it’s most famous creation is the titular monster at it’s center; the demon clown who also goes by the name Pennywise.  Even the novel’s most ardent critics will admit that Pennywise is one of King’s most enduring creations.  Anyone who’s already afraid of clowns will no doubt be traumatized by the mere thought of this character, which makes the novel all the more famous, because of the often provocative covers of the novel, which continue to display the demented smile of the monster, even to this day.  Stephen King’s TV mini-series adaptation ran for two nights shortly before Thanksgiving in 1990, and it very much was a TV event.  In retrospect, it hasn’t aged very well, and does feel like a neutered version of the original novel (with good reason considering some portions).  But again, it was Pennywise that was the standout, with actor Tim Curry giving a now lauded performance.  While satisfying to Stephen King, a lot of fans of the novel felt that the mini-series left a lot to be desired and that a movie version was needed to do the book justice for real.  But how do you take the immensity of the novel IT and do it justice on the big screen.  The answer came 25 years later when director Andy Muschietti came up with the idea of taking the two time periods of the novel (when the main characters are children and adults) and splitting them into two separate movies.  The novel intertwines the time periods, and the mini-series more or less stuck with that structure too.  But Muschietti’s approach worked very well and the first film, IT (2017), which focused on the characters as children, broke box office records.  Now, this week, we are presented with the final, It: Chapter Two, and the question now is was the cinematic approach taken effective enough?

IT: Chapter Two begins right after the close of the first chapter, with a rag tag band of pre-teens who call themselves “The Losers Club,” recovering from their near death encounter with the demonic Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard).  The all swear to each other that if Pennywise ever returned to their hometown of Derry, Maine, they would as well in order to destroy “it” once and for all; no matter what.  27 years later, after a mysterious murder is committed in Derry, with all the tell-tale signs of the Clown’s handiwork, a grown up Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) begins to call up the friends that he hasn’t seen in years, delivering them news of the day they hoped never would come.  Among them include prolific writer Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), comedian Richie Tozier (Bill Hader), successful entrepreneur Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan), insurance risk analyst and hypochondriac Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransome), and deeply scarred Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain).  They meet in a Chinese restaurant back in Derry, and fondly reminisce, until they realize that one of their friends, Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) is not there with them.  They soon learn that Stanley had that same day taken his own life, and the painful memories that they had surprisingly forgotten all start flooding back.  And then, Pennywise’s mind tricks begin to manifest.  Some of them want to flee as quickly as possible, but Mike claims he has found a way to entrap Pennywise and seal him away for good.  It involves them making a sacrifice a token of their past in a ritual, so each of them sets out to find something in town they had left behind.  However, the longer they stay in Derry, the easier it becomes for Pennywise to begin playing with their minds again.  On top of that, the former bully who tormented the Losers Club as children named Henry Bowers (Teach Grant) has been broken out of an insane asylum with Pennywise’s help, tasked with killing each one of the Losers.  Whether hunted by evil living, dead, or otherwise, the Losers Club are determined to put an end to Pennywise once and for all, which becomes all the more difficult as the Clown only grows more powerful the more fear he spreads across town.

The first IT from 2017 was a surprise hit that year, breaking every conceivable record for a horror movie during it’s run, as well as setting new high water marks for the month of September and the fall movie season in general.  It benefited greatly from the book’s long standing reputation, and also from a strongly emphasized theme of nostalgia at the heart of the film.  Since the first movie depicted the story of the main characters in the past, it made sense to have it set in the past (the 1980’s to be exact) so that Chapter Two could have a contemporary setting.  Because of this, there was a lot of 80’s flavor added to the movie that gave it some extra character, not unlike the Stranger Things TV series that owes a lot of it’s inspiration to the works of Stephen King itself.  Given how well the first movie resonated with audiences, the pressure was on to follow it up strong with the inevitable Chapter Two.  And I have to say, director Andy Muschietti met the challenge and then some.  When comparing the two, I have to say that I found Chapter Two to be even better than the original.  Though I liked the first IT well enough, I thought that it was a bit uneven in tone, fluctuating wildly between moments of sincerity and moments of absurd over-the-top insanity.  IT: Chapter Two follows much more the unhinged weirdness of the latter, and it benefits greatly from that.  I think that in the time between films, Andy Muschietti realized the best way to approach the story was to really embrace the zanier aspects of King’s novel, and avoid the melodrama altogether.  The first film at times felt like a mash-up of Stand By Me (1986) and Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which often made it feel distractingly sporadic in tone.  Here, the movie sticks with the creepiness and keeps the sentimentality to a minimum.  And it’s a formula that for the most part works.

One thing that I actually found myself really impressed with about this movie was how well paced it is.  IT: Chapter Two  remarkably has a run-time of nearly three hours, which is unheard of for a horror movie.  The first IT also ran at a bulky 2 1/2 hours, and when you combine the two, that makes for nearly 5 hours total devoted to this story.  But, given the length of King’s novel, it’s understandable.  Even so, Muschitetti manages to never make this movie feel it’s length, and he does so by constantly delivering new set pieces to drive the story along.  Every character is given their own standout segment of the movie, some more frightening than the others.  I haven’t read the novel myself to compare how much of what ended up in the movie came from the book itself, but each encounter with Pennywise in the movie is thankfully diverse and keeps revving up the tension up until the end.  I especially like a scene with James McAvoy’s Bill attempting to save a child trapped in a Hall of Mirrors maze while Pennywise is on the other side of the glass.  It’s an especially creepy scene with incredible atmosphere, which is owed a lot to the movie’s exceptional production design.  There’s very little of the movie that feels rehashed, even from the original movie, and that helps to give it an identity all it’s own.  In some ways, the movie owes just as much inspiration to the work of director Sam Raimi as it does Stephen King, as it balances the juxtaposing tones of humor and horror with a great amount of skill, something Raimi excelled at with his Evil Dead films. It works much better than the Spielbergian overtones that director Muschietti tried to incorporate into the first IT.  You’ll definitely be finding yourself laughing at this movie just as much as you’ll be clutching the armrest of your seat in anticipated terror.  Few movies can strike that balance, and I felt that Chapter Two did better than most.

The other thing that I also found really remarkable about the movie was just how well cast it was.  For one thing, this is a very strong ensemble of adult actors, with impressive bodies of work of their own.  For one thing, Jessica Chastain is one of my favorite actresses working today, and it is nice to see her here in the very crucial role of Beverly, elevating the part beyond just being the token girl of the Losers Club.  James McAvoy always delivers solid work no matter the role, and it’s especially pleasing to see comedic actor Bill Hader given such a meaty role in a big movie like this, helping to boost his stock as a film actor.  But, what is especially impressive about this cast is just how close they all look like their younger counterparts from the original IT.  You put these actors side by side with the young actors who played the same characters in the other film, and you could definitely believe that they are the same person 27 years apart.  There’s even one incredible moment in the movie when the picture dissolves from the face of James Ransone playing Eddie in the present day to the face of young Jack Dylan Grazer playing Eddie in the past, and the similarity is uncanny.  Andy Muschietti probably intended to cast for lookalikes, but you rarely see it done this well in movies.  There are moments where the movie does have to remind you that we are seeing different time periods at play, and surprisingly we revisit the past quite a bit in this movie.  You can tell at some points that some of the young actors had short window to film their scenes before their bodies changed too much; such as Finn Wolfhard (Young Richie) and Wyatt Oleff (Young Stanley) who both grew several inches between movies.  But the effect still works for the most part and the movie goes between different time periods with ease.  It also has to be said that the one constant for both films, Pennywise, still remains strong.  Bill Skarsgard looks like he’s having a blast playing this character, which is something he has in common with Tim Curry’s iconic take on the character.  It’s always hard to portray terror with the guise and personality of a clown, but he nails it and becomes both terrifying and hilarious at the same time throughout his performance.

All this being said, the movie is not without it’s faults either, which keeps it from becoming an all time great as well.  The interesting thing is that the problems with this movie come less from the crafting of the movie and instead comes from the story itself.  Even with an expanded budget and more time to devote to the material, I still think that no amount of time and money could make everything from Stephen King’s novel work on the big screen, and there are moments in Chapter Two that I still feel could have been changed or excised completely.  One is the completely unnecessary Henry Bowers plot cul-de-sac which is as pointless here as it was in the original mini-series, and I assume in the book as well.  It even culminates in an underwhelming resolution, which just made me wonder why it was even deserving of being here in the first place other than just as a way of remaining true to King’s novel.  You know, there was a reason why Kubrick took the living hedge monsters out of The Shining, because he rightly knew that it wouldn’t have worked on film, and that it would have been an unnecessary addition.  King should understand that while his books are amazing creations, not every single idea in them is golden, and that definitely becomes apparent by the film’s end.  There’s a running joke in the movie where people’s common complaint about the books that Bill writes, saying that he’s terrible at writing endings, which is a self aware nod to the often universal complaint about IT‘s almost universally hated ending.  But, even despite making a self-aware joke, even this version still can’t overcome the silliness of it’s climax, which is another example of the filmmakers perhaps adhering too closely to the source material.  At least this time around, they try a little harder to make the ending work; they do it better than the mini-series anyway.  But, yeah, it’s still the weakest part of the movie, but not enough to undermine what had come before.  And the novel is even weirder than what we see in the movie (no giant cosmic turtle in this one I’m afraid) so I commend them for trying to fix as much of the original story’s problems as they could, but even still, Stephen King’s novels unfortunately have just as many problems as they do their strengths, and that even extends into the best adaptations of his work.

For the most part, as a horror film and an adaptation of Stephen King’s writing, IT: Chapter Two is a success, hindered solely by shortcomings of the original story itself.  I thought that this movie did fix a lot of the uneven tone that undermined the first movie in the series, and I was especially impressed by how well it utilized it’s nearly three hours of run-time.  You really don’t feel those three hours at all, which is a triumph in itself.  The cast is uniformly excellent and I was impressed with how well each matched their younger counterparts from the first movie.  Bill Skarsgard definitely deserves a lot of praise for creating a memorable version of Pennywise for the big screen.  Filling Tim Curry’s big clown shoes is not easy, but I feel that Skarsgard’s Pennywise is on par with the original.  The only thing I would say Curry’s version has over his is the voice, with Tim’s natural baritone coming off a lot more sinister than Skarsgard’s squeakier tenor.  I also appreciated that the movie embraced it’s sillier tone at times, never taking itself too seriously, which allows for the zanier Stephen King elements to land more effectively as the movie goes along.  Again, the faults in the film have more to do with the fact that King wrote too much into the original story to begin with and also, in a way, had no idea how to wrap it all up in the end.  King is much better at crafting ideas than a full, perfectly constructed narrative, and that often has been something that has been a blessing and a curse for him as a novelist.  At least now, thanks to Andy Muschietti’s valiant efforts, we do have a cinematic version of it spread over two films that probably be the closest we’ll ever get to a perfect adaptation of this monumental novel.  I for one am happy to see an earnest attempt like this of bringing Stephen King’s writing to the big screen and my hope is that we see more like this in the future.  There have been many King adaptations over the years, but few actually do the books justice, or even elevate beyond what King envisioned, so with IT Chapters 1 & 2, it is pleasing to see someone take the biggest and most complicated book of them all and actually deliver something worthwhile with it.  And that’s no laughing matter.

Rating: 8/10

The Movies of Fall 2019

As the summer season comes to a close, a diagnosis of the state of the industry becomes more understood.  And what we’ve learned from the past three months is that one singular studio is dominating all the others; Disney.  With 4 of the top 5 box office grosses this year coming from The Walt Disney Company, they are clearly the undeniable champ of the summer movie season.  Though part of their continued dominance may be due to the fact that they are the only studio with the properties that are capable of bringing people out to the theaters.  Otherwise, most people are opting to stay home and stream their movies on their TV.  Other studios have been struggling to find the next big property that can compete against the Disney juggernaut, and they are coming few and far between these days.  Universal saw healthy results with their Fast & Furious spin-off Hobbs and Shaw, but their Illumination Animation release, The Secret Life of Pets 2, disappointed.  Warner Brothers barely got any traction with Detective Pikachu.    And Sony had to share a piece of the pie with Disney over their big hit, Spider-Man: Far From Home, which probably led to the un-amicable split that both companies made to their contract last week.  The change has been dramatic to the industry when it comes to what we can see at our local cinema, and it either comes down to huge tent-pole productions that only make a profit if they have the backing of a noteworthy brand (which is increasingly becoming monopolized by a single studio), or if it’s a small indie film that costs little and manages to find a modest profit after finding an audience.  Everything that used to fall into the middle is heading to streaming instead, and this could very much change the power dynamics in Hollywood for years to come.

But, with Summer behind us, it’s now time to look in the months ahead, which is Awards season. There are plenty of movies that we already know will be strong contenders for year end awards, but the fall festival, which includes Venice and Toronto, could offer up even more surprises that haven’t even been put on the radar yet.  In addition, we also have those holiday tent-poles to look forward to as well.  Like I’ve done in years past, I’ll be taking a look at some of the most noteworthy upcoming releases for the Fall movie season.  They’re broken up into the must sees, the ones that have me worried, and the ones that I insist are worth skipping.  It’s all based on my own response to the early buzz these movies are receiving in addition to how well the marketing is doing it’s job in promoting these films.  I could be wrong about a few of these, but I feel pretty confident about my choices here, and I welcome any surprises that might prove my first impressions wrong.  So, let’s take a look at the movies of Fall 2019.

MUST SEES:

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (DECEMBER 20)

This one is a no-brainer.  Perhaps the most anticipated movie of the year (excluding those from Marvel Studios) this is a movie that you could say is 40 years in the making.  Albeit, there have been several gaps in between, some as long as a decade or more, but Rise of Skywalker, the ninth mainline film in the entire Star Wars franchise, purports to be the final chapter in this ongoing story that began all the way back with A New Hope in 1977.  This “Skywalker Saga” includes the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy, and after The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, this will be the end of this sequel trilogy that began after the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm.  One of the things that I have loved the most from these current films is that they’ve given one final go-around for the original cast that started it all, and this upcoming is no exception either.  Not only are we getting the final screen performance from Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa (taken from unused footage from Force Awakens) but we also get the return of Billy Dee Williams in the role of Lando Calrissian.  Apart from that, there seems to be a concerted effort on director J.J. Abrams’ part to bring everything full circle before the final chapter closes.  The nostalgia heavy trailer from last week’s D23 Expo seen above showcases moments from across the entirety of the series, and I believe that it’s setting us up for a film that both wraps up it’s own story-line, while also paying tribute to all the mythology that has come before it.  It’s going to be difficult to bring a franchise this important to cinema to a satisfying close, but from what I’ve seen so far, it appears that both J.J. and his cast and crew have definitely got their hearts in it.  And considering the implications as seen from the trailer, showing the revelation of “Dark Rey,” this is series that still has a few surprises left to reveal.

THE IRISHMAN (NOVEMBER 27)

I know that this is breaking my tradition of spotlighting movies coming soon to theaters, but considering how much bigger of a chunk Netflix is contributing to the industry these days, and also because a Netflix movie topped my best of the year list for 2018 (Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma), I figure that it’s about time to include the streaming giant on this preview as well.  This is also due to the fact that a Netflix original just so happens to be directed by Martin Scorsese, whose new film The Irishman looks so promising.  Here we find the legendary filmmaker in familiar territory, telling the story of a cross-section between politics and the criminal underworld, which seems like a natural for the man behind Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995).  In fact, the movie even includes many Scorsese regulars in the cast, including Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, with Al Pacino acting for Scorsese for surprisingly the first time ever.  Scorsese may not have created the mafia film, but he certainly matured it and made it his own, so it’ll be interesting to see him return once again to this kind of movie.  It’s also an interesting story of speculative history; showing us the death and disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) from the point of view of the man who allegedly pulled the trigger on him (DeNiro).  Hopefully, the Netflix connection doesn’t cloud the reception of this movie like it did for Roma last year.  Netflix is almost daring the Academy to ignore them this time, given how much pull the Scorsese name carries.  I always love to see what Scorsese has in store with every new movie, and whether it’s in theaters or streaming on Netflix, it will absolutely be a must see.

JOKER (OCTOBER 4)

Speaking of Scorsese, here we have a movie that owes a fair amount of it’s inspiration to the legendary director.  The movie looks to tell the backstory of the iconic villain from the pages of the DC comics, and it’s tone, look and even plot are all very Scorsesian.  It even has Robert DeNiro in a key supporting role, making the connection all the more apparent.  But, it all feels like a good fit for the clown prince of crime.  This is another in a smart, upward trend for the once struggling DCEU, where they are focusing instead on individual movies rather than building towards a cross-over event.  After the delightful Shazam, DC goes dark once again, which is really the only way to capture the menace of the Joker.  From the excellently constructed trailers, we get a real good sense of how much actor Joaquin Phoenix is pouring himself into this role.  He is already standing on the shoulders of great performances that have filled this role before (Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger) but Phoenix seems to bringing something even different to the role, which is this underlying sadness to the character.  Here we see a man driven to the edge by a steady stream of hardships and heartache, and through all that, we see the monster underneath boil up to the surface.  Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) comes very much to mind in this regard, but there’s also a fair amount of The King of Comedy (1983) at play here too.  How much this all plays into the DC mythos is unsure, and director Todd Phillips assured that this was going to be a very different Joker story than we’ve ever seen.  But, regardless, I think it will be worth seeing just for how unnerving and powerful Joaquin Phoenix’s performance might be.

KNIVES OUT (NOVEMBER 27)

After spending time in the Star Wars universe, director Rian Johnson returns to familiar ground with an earthbound murder mystery, with a sly sense of humor thrown in.  While the story itself may seem pretty basic for it’s genre, the cast assembled is something to behold.  Even in just the central family you have heavy hitters like Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Christopher Plummer just to name a few.  Plus, we get an investigative detective played by none other than James Bond himself, Daniel Craig.  These are the kind of ensemble casts in movies that garner their own attention, and it’ll be interesting to see how Rian Johnson utilizes them in his film.  This kind of movie seems more in line with the films he made in his early career like Brick (2005) and The Brothers Bloom (2008), so it’ll be interesting to see how much of an impact the work he did on Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) left on his directorial style.  Is he no longer in touch with his old techniques, or is he still capable of delivering on something less grand in scale but still distinctly his own creation.  My guess is that the plot of this movie is less consequential to the overall appeal of the film than the interactions between the actors.  And it will be interesting to see Johnson also work is a broader comedic style, since his films have tended to be a bit more on the grittier side up to now.  This is where the Star Wars influence may have been helpful to him as a director, because it’s allowed him to play around in different genres that he otherwise would have had a more difficult time transitioning into.  Regardless, this film still looks like a fun romp that uses it’s impressive cast well.

JOJO RABBIT (OCTOBER 18)

If there is one type of movie that I especially enjoy seeing it’s a satirical comedy, especially one that takes a very politically incorrect spin on a subject.  This one, from the demented mind of Taika Waititi, tells the story of a young boy in the Hitler’s Youth army during the height of Nazi Germany whose imaginary friend just so happens to be a happy-go-lucky version of the Fuhrer himself (played by Waititi).  Given the touchy subject of fascism and nazis, I applaud Taika for not holding any punches.  I’m of the belief that figures like Hitler and all his Nazi followers should be mocked rather than feared, because it robs them of their power.  I think people tend to be drawn to things that are not politically correct and that has been what has allured many people towards embracing more fascist ways of thinking in recent years, because it’s seen as more rebellious towards a politically correct society.  With this film, which shows the absurdity behind the Nazis and their ilk, Taika is in a way reclaiming politically incorrect humor for the anti-fascist side, and I think that is something absolutely worth celebrating.  This movie has all the sly, unforgiving humor of a Mel Brooks comedy, and like Brooks, Waititi seems very determined to put Nazis and fascists in their rightful, diminished place.  After all, the movie’s tagline is that it’s a satire that “goes to war on Hate.”  And just seeing Waititi in his Hitler costume alone is enough to put a smile on my face.  My hope is that Taika delivers the kind of comedy we need right now to effectively bring politically incorrect humor back to where it should be; in the service of combating hatred and injustice in the world.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

FROZEN II (NOVEMBER 22)

Let’s face it, one of the main reasons why Disney is a dominant force right now in entertainment is because of the surprise successes of movies like Frozen (2013).  The original was almost unstoppable at the holiday box office when it first released, and you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing the show-stopping number, “Let it Go”, someplace around you for months on end.  So, why am I worried about this one.  Well, it has to do with the expectations of having to recapture something that big for a second time, which sequels rarely do.  I had mixed feelings when it came to the original (admired the artistry, but was disappointed with the narrative), so my expectations are not astronomical.  But, I do admire the fact that this movie helped bring confidence back to Disney animation, which has led them to making more daring and ultimately satisfying animated films like Zootopia and Moana (both 2016).  An underwhelming sequel could unfortunately shoo people away from Disney animation, or even worse, make Disney become complacent again by retreating back to safe and predictable.  There are some positives to note about what I’m seeing in the trailer.  First of all, there seems to be more focus on telling Elsa’s side of the story, which is a good change of pace because I felt that she was the best character in the first Frozen, and was underutilized in favor of her more obnoxious sister; sorry Anna fans, but I could’ve used less of her in the movie.  Also, there seems to be more peril and adventure at the heart of this movie, which could help make it an exhilarating sit.  I just hope that they don’t rely too heavily on Olaf related slapstick.  Disney Animation needs to keep being daring, and it would help to see that in what is now their most bankable franchise.

AD ASTRA (SEPTEMBER 20)

On the surface, this should be a must see film.  A space-based adventure film with an intriguing premise, an all star cast, and an impressive looking production; all this seems like a movie that I would get easily excited for.  So, why am I not.  I think one thing that might be affecting my reception of this movie is the space film fatigue that we seem to be recently experiencing.  These types of movies started off strong with Alfonso Cuaron’s epic Gravity (2013), and continued on with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) and Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015).  But with the underwhelming reception given to Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018), it almost feels like the genre has crested and is beginning to wane again.  I feel like I’ve seen this movie before, and yet it’s completely different than any other one that’s been made.  I hope there’s more to it than just a ticking time clock towards stopping annihilation.  At least the trailer does leave some room for unknown secrets to be revealed.  But, the movie has to overcome the fact that it’s on the back end of a cinematic trend and it’s not really distinguishing itself right out of the gate.  Brad Pitt has recently been giving us some good leading man roles, and I certainly feel like he’s coming off some of his best work yet in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  Hopefully we see the best of him in this role too.  And hopefully the movie gives us more in a visual sense than just another Space Odyssey wannabe.  We’re hungry for originals, and this could be that promising new thing, or it could just be more of the same.

DOCTOR SLEEP (NOVEMBER 8)

It’s always daunting to make a sequel to a beloved film, especially one that comes nearly 40 years after the original.  Working in Doctor Sleeps favor is the fact that author Stephen King himself wrote a book sequel to The Shining first, before there was even talk of a movie sequel.  With Doctor Sleep being a best seller, Warner Brothers now had the licence to revisit the property, but even with that, there are still risks with regard to how well that may play with The Shining’s die hard fans.  For many, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is an untouchable masterpiece.  Now, I feel that a sequel is possible if given the right approach, and Stephen King himself obviously found a story that satisfied him.  However, what worries me is just how much this movie adaptation of the book seems to be reliant on Kubrick’s version of The Shining.  For one thing, Kubrick’s film deviates wildly from the book, which caused a now famous rift between the director and the author.  This could lead to some narrative issues with Doctor Sleep, and I worry that referencing another film too heavily will only reflect badly on this new one as a result.  I will say that the casting of Ewan MacGregor as a grown up Danny Torrence seems pretty right.  And the director, Mike Flanagan has been responsible for some of the best recent horror films as of late, including some King adaptations as well.  But, he has rarely treaded on sacred ground like this, and it’ll take a lot of careful film-making to make this movie a worthy companion piece to the original Kubrick classic.  This movie must stand well enough on it’s own, otherwise all work and no play makes Doctor Sleep a dull movie.

GEMINI MAN (OCTOBER 11)

Director Ang Lee is one of this generation’s greatest filmmakers, and a remarkably versatile talent who seems to effortlessly jump from genre to genre.  But, if there is one area that he seems to struggle with, it has tended to be action movies.  He created a great artistic spectacle with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), but his adaptation of the Hulk (2002) was a muddled mess.  Now he finds himself working in the genre again, on a film that languished in development hell for over a decade.  Based on the marketing so far, this movie looks to be far from Ang’s artistic comfort zone.  It sadly comes across as another generic action flick, but relying very heavily on it’s hook; the de-aging effect on star Will Smith.  A few years ago, this might have been a breakthrough special effect, especially when the movie was in it’s earlier stages of development, but given that Marvel has already been using this technique for several years now (to sometimes impressive effect), it just no longer has the same impact.  Considering that the movie is hinging so much on this one gimmick, that Will Smith is facing off against a younger version of himself, makes me worried that it’ll ultimately be a let down.  I hope that Ang Lee’s skills as a filmmaker helps to elevate the material and makes this a movie that transcends it’s genre.  But, thus far, all we’ve got to go on is that somewhat uncanny valley image of a de-aged Will Smith, and for many, it’s either off-putting or not impressive anymore.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE (NOVEMBER 1)

You know we’ve been down this road before.  Every time they reboot the tired Terminator franchise, it ends up leading to a movie that further sinks the series into irrelevance.  This time, series creator James Cameron is said to be more involved, and that this one is truly the authentic sequel to the last great film of this series, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992).  However, we were also told that Cameron gave his approval to the last film in the series, Terminator: Genysis (2015), and that film was a convoluted mess that completely wrecked havoc on the franchise’s already complicated timeline.  I highly doubt this will be the movie that rights the ship.  Sure, it is nice that Linda Hamilton is returning to the role of Sarah Connor, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence also helps to bring a sense of continuity (he’s also the only consistently good thing in this series).  But, the dour and uninspiring trailers don’t fill me with a lot of confidence.  It just seems like the franchise is regurgitating the same old cat and mouse chase element from all the other movies, with the heroes being hunted down once again by the same shape-shifting robots.  It was a novelty back in the late 80’s and early 90’s; now it just feels generic.  As much as James Cameron wants to keep this franchise going, I feel like it’s better to give it a rest and not try so hard to fix continuity that no one really cares about anymore.

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL (OCTOBER 18)

If you weren’t sick of the Disney remakes already, here’s a sequel to their live action adaptation of Sleeping Beauty.  The first Maleficent (2014) was seen by many as the movie that started off this recent trend of remaking Disney’s animated classics, and it was also the one that started the trend of making them inferior to the original.  Despite a strong performance from Angelina Jolie as the titular dark fairy, the movie took the absolute wrong angle with the story by turning the iconic villain into something of an anti-hero.  Maleficent’s appeal as a villain is her almost operatic sense of maliciousness, and the fact that her villainy knows no bounds.  But by turning her into a sympathetic character in the first Maleficent, especially with making her the reluctant guardian of Princess Aurora, the movie undermines everything that made her iconic in the first place.  And now, Disney believes there is more to this story to tell, and it almost feels like they are completely disregarding their own character development between films.  Apparently, Maleficent breaks bad again here, really for no other purpose other than it’s what we associate her most with.  If you’re going to change a character like this all of a sudden, Disney, at least be consistent.  There’s a reason why people love Maleficent so much as a character, and it’s not just because of her iconic look.  She is “Mistress of all evil” for a reason.  There are times when a revisionist spin on a tale is appropriate, and then other times it spoils the appeal of what made the story so magical in the first place.  And I don’t like seeing the menace of Maleficent become so diluted in these movies.

MIDWAY (NOVEMBER 8)

Usually I look forward to a epic scale war picture, but it also depends on who the film is coming from.  Unfortunately, this one is from one of my most disliked filmmakers; Roland Emmerich.  The action film director has been on a downward slop over the last decade, and the fact that he wants to tackle a subject like the Battle of Midway makes me especially worried.  The World War II battle is an important turning point moment in the Pacific theater of the conflict, and it’s very much worthy of an epic scale production to bring it to life for modern audiences to witness.  However, it appears that Emmerich is just falling back on his impulses for spectacle rather than emotional involvement.  There are a lot of Pearl Harbor (2001) vibes going on with this movie based on the trailer.  The over-reliance on CGI, the unnecessary melodrama, and also the fact that it looks so uninspired.  Spielberg revolutionized the genre by putting the audience right in the middle of the action with Saving Private Ryan (1998) and more recently Christopher Nolan showed how to create scale without reliance on visual effects which helped to convey authenticity in Dunkirk (2017).  Emmerich’s track record with historical epics is not exactly encouraging.  He did make The Patriot (2000) nearly 20 years ago, which was cliched but effective, but since then 10,000 B.C. (2008), Anonymous (2011) and Stonewall (2015) have shown just how irresponsible he can be when working with history in his films.  What worries me the most is that the movie will end up dishonoring the memory of those who fought in the battle just so that he can indulge his unsubtle and bombastic tastes as a filmmaker.

So, there you have my outlook on the closing months of the year 2019.  Most likely, we are going to see the Disney company finish out strong like they have all year, riding on the sure bets of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Frozen II.  But there is still plenty of room for surprises.  I certainly don’t know what to expect from the awards race just yet, as many of the films that should emerge as front-runners at year’s end haven’t even been given set release dates yet.  Also, the emerging influence of Netflix will play a major factor, as they are about to debut an ambitious release schedule in the next few months, with The Irishman standing out as the premier attention getter.  Netflix will also see their first real challenge to their supremacy in the streaming market once Disney+ launches in November.  It will be interesting to see how streaming content will evolve once these two media giants begin to go up against each other, and how that may affect things at Awards time as well as at cinemas across the world.  Even so, there is still no shortage of exciting new releases coming in the months ahead.  I especially can’t wait to see how Star Wars wraps things up with their epic conclusion to the series.  Also, considering that I live in Los Angeles, where films are legally bound to screen for eligibility in Academy Awards consideration, I’ll still have the opportunity to watch all the Netflix movies on the big screen, which will give me the chance to judge effectively how they stack up with theatrical release films.  In the end it shouldn’t matter, but if it came between watching a movie in a theater or on my TV for the first time, I will always choose a theater first.  So, I hope that my preview has been helpful in spotlighting some noteworthy films that might interest all of you in the coming months.  Let’s hope that our holidays are full of fun times at the movies, no matter which way we end up watching them.

D23 Expo 2019 – Film Exhibition Report

The magic of Disney returns once again to the Anaheim Convention Center, and it only continues to get bigger with every passing year.  Since the last Expo in 2017, Disney has broken new records at the box office, opened up their largest theme park expansion ever, and has acquired an entire movie studio as part of the largest media merger in history.  The addition of 21st Century Fox as a part of the Walt Disney Company in particular has been the most monumental change in the last 2 years, and it should make for an interesting  showcase over the next few days as Disney lays out what lies in the near future for the company.  In years past, the focus has largely been on giving the Disney fans a chance to fully explore all the many facets of the Disney company in a fun and informational environment.  Every time, more and more of the expansive Anaheim Convention Center gets utilized and Disney has even more to show off this time around.  I have tried my best to get in all the major sights of the Expo, with a particular emphasis on catching the major announcements made throughout the 3 Day event.  This year, Disney introduced the somewhat controversial addition of advanced online reservations for this year’s Expo.  Naturally, like buying tickets for a midnight showing of Avengers: Endgame, the online registry was flooded with passholders hoping to get one of those coveted seats, and many people unfortunately were left out.  I myself ended up missing out on reservations for the shows I really wanted, but there’s still the standby queues available, so much of my upcoming Expo experience will probably involve waiting in long lines.  At least I’m not as focused on waiting in line for merchandise or talent signings; it’s all panels and booths for me, so hopefully I can plan it all well enough to enjoy my time there.

This will be my 4th overall D23 Expo.  Again, like the last two, I will be spending all 3 days there.  I hope to have daily updates loaded onto this site for all of you to read, hopefully with plenty of pictures as well.  It’s going to be a hectic couple of days, but I will spend any moment I can to write down my thoughts about all the experiences I will have during the Expo.  After having gone through this 4 times now, my hope is that I’ve become an expert navigator through the convention experience, but who knows how much the online reservations added this year will have an effect.  In any case, as a lifelong Disney fan, I am extremely excited to see what awaits all of us behind those convention floor doors.  Please enjoy my following day by day chronicle and let’s all take a look at this wonderful world of Disney on display at D23 Expo 2019.

DAY #1 (AUGUST 23, 2019)

If there is one thing that the last three Expos has taught me, it’s to be prepared, and very much so.  Given how I didn’t know what effect the online reservations might have, I prepared myself to be extra ready for all the stuff I wanted to see and possibly even guard myself for some disappointment.  As such, I left my hotel room extra early, at around 3:30 in the morning to be exact, and made my way to the Convention Center.  This was already a smart decision as there was no wait at the security checkpoint.  Once through the metal detectors, me and the other guests were directed down to the Convention Center’s entry.  Out front, we were greeted by the first major photo spot for attendees to pose in front of; the expo logo spelled out in giant 3D letters, which looked really great with the Convention Center facade in the background.  Those of us who came this early were taken down to the Center’s Hall E, which is located in the basement.  I’ve already had many hours spent in this spacious hall from past Expos, and once down there, we were all split into groups; those of us who wanted to attend the first show of the Expo (the Disney Legends induction ceremony) or those who wanted to be the first ones through the doors into the Expo show floor.  Because my goal was to attend the second big show of Day 1 (the Disney+ presentation) I opted to go to the show floor queue instead of Legends.  Already, I could tell that 10 years of Expos has improved Disney’s crowd control performance, as the many swaths of people were expertly escorted upstairs and formed into nicely organized rows once it came time to open the doors.  So, for the first time ever, I managed to walk into the show floor right at the stroke of 9am, already making me feel happy that I planned well ahead.

And first impressions of the show floor were very positive.  Disney has thankfully found the best ways to lay out all their many different booths to fill up all the available space within the show floor.  One thing that really stuck out right away was the enormous push that Disney was going to put on their streaming platform that launches in November; Disney+.  Located very near the center of the entire open show floor was the massive Disney+ booth.  The Disney+ set-up included a stage at it’s center with kiosks lined up at it’s front, flanked by costume displays for two of the platform’s most anticipated launching programs (the Star Wars series The Mandalorian and the Lady and the Tramp remake) and demo rooms on either side of the stage.  This booth was clearly built to be the star attraction of the show floor.  The stage was there to host both demonstrations as well as interviews with special guests.  There was even a special press balcony located over one of the demo rooms for even more space to conduct special press coverage and interviews throughout the day.  The kiosks out front were there for guests to take advantage of a special offer.  Just for guests at the Expo, they would be able to sign up for 3 years of Disney+ for a 30% discount (roughly $4 a month) and in turn they would be made part of what Disney calls the Founders Circle, which got them an exclusive pin as a reward.  Just around the corner and on the backside of the Disney+ booth, were two other streaming platforms already available through Disney and are going to be available as part of a bundle with Disney+ in November; Hulu and ESPN+.  Hulu’s booth featured artifacts from some of their exclusive programming on display (The Handmaid’s Tale and Castle Rock), while ESPN had sports memorabilia, including an entire wall devoted to the history of sneakers.

Being one of the first on the floor, I decided to take advantage of the short lines that would no doubt fill to capacity in an hours time.  Just so I could get it out of the way, I went over to this year’s Walt Disney Archives exhibit.  In past years, the Archives have displayed incredible artifacts from their vaults, like a collection of ride pieces from Disneyland attractions of the past, or the last Expo’s incredible exhibit devoted to Pirates.  This year, the exhibit was devoted to costuming, and in particular, they had it focused on Disney heroes and villains.  Dubbed Heros & Villains: The Art of the Disney Costume, this sprawling gallery contained original film used costumes from across the entire history of live action Disney films.  The first room, which worked as a bit of an introduction, was devoted to spotlighting some of the designers who have contributed to the Disney films that were going to be represented in this gallery.  Theses included Oscar winners like Sandy Powell and Coleen Atwood, who’s dresses for movies like 2015’s Cinderella and 2010’s Alice in Wonderland.  This space also replicates what their offices probably look like, with the results of their work (the costumes themselves) sitting within the center of the rooms.  After the introduction, the exhibit opens up into a wide open floor with the costumes lined up all along the walls.  From here, you will find costumes ranging from the witches dresses worn by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy in Hocus Pocus (1993); Tim Allen’s Santa outfit from The Santa Clause (1994); a dress worn by the legendary Bette Davis in Return to Witch Mountain (1978); and most prominently, many of the costumes from the several recent Disney remakes like Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Aladdin (2019).  Some of the most interesting sections of the gallery include a corner devoted to Mary Poppins, with the famous grey coat and flower hat worn by Julie Andrews in the original, flanked by two new dresses worn by Emily Blunt in the recent sequel.   There was also a large section devoted to the character of Cruella De Vil, with several dresses worn by Glenn Close in the 1996 remake of 101 Dalmatians on display.  In addition to the costumes, there was also the Cruella De Vil limousine from the movie sitting in the corner, which was one of the largest props put on display here, along with the golden pumpkin coach from the Cinderella remake.

After visiting the exhibit and getting my first look at this year’s show floor, I made my way back to the lobby to get ready for my top priority for this first day; seeing the Disney+ presentation in the expansive Hall D23.  Interesting enough, this afternoon slot on the Expo schedule used to go to the Animation Studios presentation, which this year got lumped together with the live action studios for the Disney Studios presentation on Saturday.  This once again shows how much Disney wants this Expo to spotlight their upcoming streaming platform.  The last of Hall D23’s standby for the Disney Legends were just getting seated around 10:30am, a half hour into the show, and then they finally opened up the line for those of us who were waiting for Disney+.  We were escorted down to Hall E in the basement, where the line was again split up into separate queues.  Being a D23 Gold Member, I was able to line up in a priority queue just for Gold Members, and since I was early enough, I was nearly at the front of the line.  I still didn’t know if it was a guarantee of having a seat, but to my incredible delight, Gold Members were seated even before those with online reservations.  As a result, once they started letting us in after a couple hours of waiting, I was able to get a fairly good seat.  Albeit, I was in a line for Section A, which is off-center from the main stage, but my seat put me fairly close to the screens that would be displaying all the exclusive footage.  Surprisingly, we were allowed to have our phones out for this show to capture the moments on stage as they happened, though security were around to stop people from video taping the exclusive footage.

So, to start of the show, we were treated to a live stage performance by the cast of the upcoming series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.  This hard to describe series takes place in a school that provided the shooting location of the original made for Disney Channel movie, and now the students there are putting on a staging of their own and that’s the plot of the series.  Hope you got all that.  Even still, the musical performance got the show off rolling and we were introduced to the MC of the presentation, Community star Yvette Nicole Brown.  Wearing a sparkling Disney+ shirt, she preceded to enthusiastically introduce all the many Disney executives and talent who were there to show off what we were expecting to find on the platform when it launches November 12.  After the High School Musical segment was complete, we moved right into Marvel’s slate of programming.  Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige walked out on stage to kick things off.  First off, we were given more detail about the exciting new animated series What If…?, which will be an anthology of multiverse variant stories with characters from across the Marvel Universe.  Many of the characters will be voiced by their original actors, with Jeffrey Wright debuting as a narrator character known as the Watcher.  Surprisingly they had finished animation to show us in a debut trailer.  Some of what we saw looked amazing, especially the hybrid CG/hand drawn style that is reminiscent of a comic feel.  The footage really spotlighted a story line where Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and not Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) gets injected with super serum and becomes Captain Carter instead.  After showing the clip, Feige welcomed Haley Atwell on stage, who seemed very excited to be returning to the role.  But Feige was not done.  He continued to talk about the shows already announced at Comic Con in July, including Loki, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and WandaVision.  Each time, he introduced cast members like Anthony Mackie, Sabastian Stan, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, and a video greeting from Tom Hiddleston.  But after that, Feige surprised everyone by making three previously unknown show announcements that will be part of Marvel’s Phase 4.  They included Ms. Marvel, Moon Knight, and She Hulk.  It’s nice to know that even with the huge comic con Marvel presentation that they still save some surprises for us at D23, and the Marvel presence on Disney+ is something to definitely be excited for.

So, after Marvel’s big showcase, the show moved on to non fiction programming.  First off was a new reality series starring everyone’s favorite celebrity weirdo, Jeff Goldblum.  His new show basically follows the Jurassic Park actor around as he tries new things and activities, all with his oddball personality providing much of the entertainment.  Goldblum of course was there to introduce the trailer, and as I was watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one though of a show like this before, because it looks like a lot of fun.  Afterwards, actress Kristen Bell arrived on stage to talk about a reality series that she’s producing called Encore.  In the show, people who had stage performing backgrounds from high school are given a chance to return to the stage and put on a musical after many years having not performed.  After this, we saw a first look at a special secret project that Disney had been working on which is a documentary series called One Day at Disney, which follows around several employees of the Walt Disney Company, from animators to theme park cast members and chronicles a day in their life.  After this, the presentation moved on to feature films, where we saw sneak peaks of young adult and children films called Star Girl and Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made.  Primary among the feature films however was the premiere of the trailer for Disney’s Lady and the Tramp live action remake.  And, as we learned after, MC Yvette Nicole Brown has a role in the film as Aunt Sarah, and she walked on stage with the real life dogs who portray the characters Lady and the Tramp in the movie, one of which she has adopted herself

However, Disney knew what to close out this presentation with in a strong way, and we segwayed into the platform’s lineup of Star Wars programming.  Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy walk out on stage to deliver all the announcements.  She started off by saying that all previous and future Star Wars films would be available to watch on Disney+, and then she talked a little about the upcoming revival of the beloved Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series.  After this, she then told us that they are currently working on a brand new series spun off of Rogue One, specifically centered on the characters of Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna) and imperial droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk).  Both actors came out on stage and within seconds just started riffing off one another, showing their strong chemistry that they hope to continue in the show.  After that we arrived at the most anticipated new show on Disney+, and perhaps the most anticipated program to launch on the platform period; The Mandalorian.  This new show, created by director Jon Favreau, explores the years after the fall of the empire in Return of the Jedi (1983), and shows the lawlessness that comes in it’s wake; in particular, focusing on bounty hunters that roam the galaxy.  The show focuses on a Mandalorian, the same race that Boba Fett is derived from, and shows him navigating his way through this new world order within the Star War’s galaxy.  Favreau appeared on stage and welcomed the cast which included Pedro Pascal as the Mandalorian himself, Gina Carano, Carl Weathers, Giancarlo Esposito, and Taika Waititi.  They all talked about how excited they are to be in this show, with Favreau also expressing how much he wanted to make this into a series, going as far back as when he was working on Iron Man (2008).  They then showed us a first look trailer, and I can tell you that it looks really good and is something that I can’t wait to see.  This was the last part of the show, but Kathleen Kennedy remained on stage to deliver one last surprise.  She then welcomed actor Ewan MacGregor on stage.  Despite many a rumor, this was the big confirmation that MacGregor will indeed be returning to the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in his own Disney+ series, which he seemed very excited about.  And with plus sign confetti raining down from the ceiling, Yvette Nicole Brown brought the show to a close.  So, with Day 1 complete, I managed to successfully attend at least one of the must see presentations.  But, as I’ve learned in years past, it’s the Saturday morning show that would become the biggest challenge to attend.

DAY #2 (AUGUST 24, 2019)

Showing just how much bigger this Expo has become over the year, just as I exited the Convention Center there was already a lengthy line going from the security gates all the way down Katella Avenue to the very next intersection half a mile away.  You can bet that I got right back in that line.  After a few hours, they started letting us reenter past the security gates and back to the Convention Center itself.  I got back into Hall E at about 11:00pm, four hours later, and was about to spend the next 10 hours waiting for the hotly anticipated Disney Studios presentation.  It was hard getting a little shut-eye while laying on the cold concrete floor, but I was ready for what was next.  I had my Gold Member place saved in line and that gave me the peace of mind that I was going to get in.  At around 9:00am, we finally started seating and I can tell you that it filled up to capacity very quickly.  My seat was not as close as it was for Disney+, but it was at a distance that I could still see enough.  After a short sizzle reel, the show began and Studio chairman Alan Horn walked on stage to begin the presentation.  Surprisingly, one thing that they have saved for Expos in the past was used as their opener this time around; Star Wars.  The finale to the 40-plus year Skywalker Saga as it is known now comes out this December with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and it was the primary thing that was going to be talked about with regards to Star Wars.  Kathleen Kennedy once again took the stage and she welcomed director J.J. Abrams on to talk a little about the film.  He spoke about the incredible pressure he now has to close out this long ongoing story, and how excited he was to be working on it.  He also spoke about the important impact that the late great Carrie Fisher had on his experience making Star Wars.  Later, cast members Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, and Billy Dee Williams came out on stage to talk about the movie.  After that, the very anticipated premiere of the new trailer came on screen, and we got a major surprise at the very end that quite literally stunned the entire 7,000 strong crowd of Hall D23.

After that, we launched right into Marvel’s section of the show, again surprising given that they were the closer of the last Expo’s presentation.  This year, there wasn’t much for Marvel to present.  We are past Infinity War and Endgame, and much of the upcoming stuff is either too far down the line or is coming to Disney+.  Kevin Feige did come on stage with one major announcement, and to help him with it, he welcomed director Ryan Coogler.  Coogler was there to announce that Black Panther II is in the works, and though he couldn’t detail anything (not even the official title) he still was able to tell us the premiere date; May 6, 2022.  Afterwards, Feige began to talk about the very next Marvel film currently in production; Black Widow.  Star Scarlett Johannsen, and co-stars David Harbour and Florence Pugh were unable to attend but they did send us a video greeting from the set.  Afterwards, we got to see the first available trailer footage of the movie, which looked quite good.  It had a nice Jason Bourne feel to it, which does make it feel different as a Marvel film.  There’s also a cool and brutal fight scene between Black Widow and her sister (Pugh).  After that, Kevin Feige talked about the next film in their calendar, Eternals.  No footage was shown, but he did welcome the cast on stage, which included Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Dong-seok Ma, Lauren Ridloff, Selma Hayek, Lia McHugh, Barry Keoghan, and Angelina Jolie.  Feige also confirmed that Game of Thrones star Kit Harrington was joining the cast, though he himself was not at the Expo.  And, just as the cast members were about to leave, the screen above revealed the first official image of them in costume.

After Marvel, the focus shifted to Disney Studios proper, and we were about to learn more regarding the upcoming live action remakes in the Disney pipeline.  One was for the upcoming origin film called Cruella, which of course follows the early years of the beloved fur coat obsessed baddie, Cruella De Vil.  The film’s star, Emma Stone, couldn’t be there but she recorded a greeting for us, which included a bit where she bickers with one of her Dalmatian co-stars.  We were then shown the first ever image of what Emma Stone will look like as the character.  Following that, we were treated to a more in depth look at the upcoming remake of Mulan.  The film’s director, Niki Caro, came on stage to talk a little about the movie, including what drew her to the story and why she felt it was important to tell it in this certain way, which is closer to the original legend.  We were then treated to an extended scene from the movie itself, which shows Mulan’s encounter with a Matchmaker.  The movie looks visually impressive and my hope is that it reverses the downward trend that these remakes have been taking.  The next project discussed was the movie adaptation of the Disneyland ride, Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt.  Both came on stage in spectacular fashion, Johnson riding on a replica of a Jungle Cruise boat and Blunt in a fancy old fashion convertible.  They clearly wanted to show off their on screen chemistry, and it was fun to see them share playful jabs at each other.  They even debuted competing trailers as well.  After this, we moved into the animation side of the presentation.  First up was Pixar, with new Studio chief Pete Doctor taking the stage.  He was excited to show the two new films coming in 2020 from the studio.  First up was the less known about film called Soul.  We learned that the movie is set in a world where a person’s soul first forms a personality before a person is born; an interesting Inside Out-like concept.  The movie centers around a wannabe jazz musician who finds himself body-less at the worst time.  We were then introduced to the voice cast, led by Jaime Foxx and Tina Fey.  Given how nothing was known about this movie beforehand, it was nice to finally have the exciting revelations about this movie come to light.

Afterwards, the focus shifted to Pixar’s very next film, Onward.  the film’s director Dan Scanlon arrived to talk a little more about the plot, which uses the premise of fantasy creatures in a modern, suburban setting to tell the story of two elf brothers.  He then welcomed the voices of the characters on stage; Tom Holland and Chris Pratt.  These two probably got the biggest rock star ovation out of the entire show, especially for Holland who has had to go through this week with his future in the Spider-Man franchise going through a huge upheaval, which is currently now over between Sony and Marvel as of this writing.  They showed us a few extended clips from the movie, which shows quite a bit of plot details, and so far it looks like yet another Pixar flick with a lot of laughter and tenderness attached to it.  Before they left the stage, Holland addressed the audience saying how grateful he was to the fans through such a “strange week,” and he concluded by using a line from Iron Man himself in Endgame; “I love you 3000.”  After that genuine moment, we moved on to Disney Animation to finish the show.  Here they were able to announce for the first time their next film after this year’s Frozen II, titled Raya and the Last Dragon.  This film takes place in a world inspired by the culture and folklore of Southeast Asia.  The showed us a beautifully animated clip, which gave us a glimpse of what we were going to see.  After this, they welcomed on stage the voice actors of the film, Cassie Steele (Raya) and Awkwafina (the Last Dragon), both of whom were excited to be a part of the movie.  Finally, the film closed out with a look at this year’s upcoming Frozen II.  Director Jennifer Lee, whose also now the head of Disney Animation, welcomed two new cast members to the stage, Sterling K. Brown and Evan Rachel Wood.  We were then treated to an extended sequence which premiered a brand new song that will be in the movie.  As a finale for the entire show, we were then treated to a live performance by original cast members Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff and Josh Gad, who sang another brand new song for us.

This would be the biggest show of the entire Expo, and no doubt, what we saw was going to be the talk throughout the rest of the day on the show floor.  As we exited, they handed out a pack of three exclusive mini posters, including a very exciting one for Rise of Skywalker.  Because I now had the biggest must see of the Expo out of the way, I was able to relax and enjoy the show floor for the rest of the day.  One thing that I was able to try out that was new was the Gold Member lounge in the north end of the hall.  There, I could line up to spin a prize wheel, which utilizes the new RFID technology that they programmed into our pass badges.  In addition, there were refreshments and seating available for us members who just wanted to have a relaxing place to rest.   I also got to spin a prize wheel at the nearby Marvel booth, which I have to say was laid out much better this year than at the last Expo.  Two years ago, Marvel had this tiny corner booth that caused major traffic jams throughout the day.  This year, they had a huge booth that could accommodate large crowds, which was a major improvement.  Speaking of Marvel, I finished out the day by attending a panel in the smaller venue of Stage 28, located on the third floor, that was centered on the full 80 history of Marvel Comics.  The panel was hosted by Marvel editor-in-chief C.B. Cebulski and executive editor Tom Brevoort, and they gave a fascinating overview of the history of Marvel, from it’s early years, to the Stan Lee years, to it’s current time alongside the massive cinematic MCU.  One hilarious moment occurred when Brevoort mentioned their partnership with Sony, which illicited boos from the very pro-Disney crowd.  The two made this a great and informative panel and they informed us that as we all leave, we’d be receiving a copy of the upcoming Marvel Comics #1000, with an exclusive variant cover showing Mickey Mouse appearing with the iconic characters of Marvel; a first in the comic’s history.  After this tiring day, I thankfully had a hotel room to go back to and get myself prepared for the final day ahead.

DAY #3 (AUGUST 25, 2019)

Even with the busiest stuff behind me, I still got myself over to the Convention Center fairly early.  Arriving well before sun up, I headed to Hall E to get in line for the morning presentation of the Disney Parks presentation; the last of my must sees of this Expo.  And just like the last two days, my over-preparedness got me in a good position to have a guaranteed seat at the show.  We were brought in around 9:30am and the room still filled up to capacity.  The show began with Disney Parks and Resorts chairman Bob Chapek taking the stage.  He first discussed the successful debut of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland over the summer and was eager to see the debut in Disney World in the days ahead.  We were treated to an exciting sneak peak of the next big addition to Galaxy’s Edge which opens early next year; the E-Ticket ride known as Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.  After that, he welcomed different team leaders working on projects across the globe at all their different resorts.  One of the most intriguing was a new Star Wars themed resort coming to Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  The exciting aspect of this resort is how it’s themed.  Apparently it’s going to create the experience of travelling on a cruise vessel in Space, themed to the Star Wars universe.  The ship itself is dubbed the Halcyon, at it will be home to a two day experience where your stay will be very much like a cruise itinerary, complete with Star Wars themed experiences.  After this, the presentation then began to talk about the exciting new Marvel themed land coming to Disney’s California Adventure.  Currently under construction, the land will have the name Avengers Campus, and will feature new attractions and experiences featuring the likes of Spider-Man (yes, the movie deal dilemma does not affect the theme parks), Ant Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther and others.  Placed right next to the already open Guardians of the Galaxy ride, this land will give visitors the immersion into Marvel story-lines that they’ve long wanted to have in the parks.  To conclude the segment, they revealed that this place would also be home to another E-Ticket attraction themed to the Avengers movies themselves.

After those announcements, the presentation moved on to the thing that was going to take up the biggest chunk of the show, which was the vast re-structuring of the Epcot park at Disney World.  We learned that the section of Future World was going to be re-branded into three new sections:  World Celebration, World Discovery and World Nature, which all fits with the branding of the northern section of the park known as World Showcase.  Celebration will see the biggest change to the park’s map, as half of the Innoventions buildings will be removed to be replaced with new gardens and fountains themed around the movie Moana (2016), and it’s connection to the life of water.  Spaceship Earth will remain the park’s central icon, but the ride it houses will see significant improvements.  At the northern end will be a three story structure that will house a garden on it’s roof, which will provide a breathtaking view of the park surrounding it.  The currently vacant Wonders of Life building in the World Discovery section will finally see something installed, which will be themed into a Play pavilion, boasting games and other activities.  Next door, currently under construction, there will be a Guardian of the Galaxy themed ride inside the former Universe of Energy pavilion, which will feature a new roller coaster technology that pivots the vehicles towards show scenes, and will feature a reverse launch.  It will be called Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.  Finally, they talked about the World Showcase, where the pavilions celebrate countries all over the world.  The previously talked about Ratatouille ride coming to the French pavilion was detailed a bit more, but what they spotlighted next became one of the show’s highlights.  Suddenly chimney sweeps rushed onto stage to perform the song “Step in Time” from Mary Poppins (1964), and at the very end, legendary Poppins star Dick Van Dyke appeared on stage.  The 93 year old actor was all smiles at the standing ovation he received and he happily announced that a Mary Poppins attraction was coming to the United Kingdom pavilion at Epcot.  A lot of stuff they showed was exciting, but it makes it even better when you’ve got an icon on stage to deliver it.

It should also be noted that they also announced a new partnership with Target, as Disney is now going to introduce special Disney Store sections to the big box store giant.  As a special gift to those of us in the audience in recognition of this partnership, we were given $10 Target gift cards as we left the show, with one special guest luckily gifted with a $2300 card for a Target shopping spree.  It wasn’t me unfortunately, but I’ll happily take a $10 gift card.  With the third and final big show now complete, nothing was left but to enjoy the rest of the show floor.  I made my way through all the remaining booths that I had yet to experience.  There was a neat little one dedicated to Disney on Broadway, which gave guests a VR experience.  After this, I also went to the Team of Heroes booth, which allowed you to create a Marvel themed gift bag that would go to a sick child in hospitals across the country, with a Disney Volunteer sticker given out to show Disney’s appreciation.  I also took in the Disney animation booth, which feature life sized figures of characters from Frozen, Toy Story 4, as well as a life size recreation of the van featured in the movie Onward, which was a very popular photo spot.  I did get in one final panel inside the spacious D23 Expo Arena.  There we were treated to a panel about The Art of Disney Storytelling.  Hosted by John Stamos and his wife Caitlin McHugh, the panel talked about the approach all the different departments of the Disney company takes to tell stories that connect with people.  Panelists included long time Disney story artist Floyd Norman (one of the first African-American animators who worked for Disney), producer Don Hahn, Imagineer Tony Baxter, and story artist Paul Briggs, who directorial debut, Raya and the Last Dragon was announced the morning before.  It was an informative panel, and gave us an interesting look into the working process that all these icons of their craft go through in order to deliver something that will appeal to everyone.  After that panel, nothing was left but to walk the floor and take in one last trip around the floor before the final minutes struck down.

And so there you have my experience at this year’s D23 Expo.  I’m overall pleased with my experience and especially happy that my years of experience have helped me become an expert in preparedness for this whole thing now.  There were some things that would have liked to have seen that I sadly missed out on.  One was a Haunted Mansion 50th Anniversary celebration in the D23 Expo Arena, which sadly filled up before I could make my way over to it, due to the Saturday Morning Disney Studios presentation going 30 minutes over schedule.  I also didn’t get to see a panel devoted to The Simpsons, a rare presence at this Expo for Fox related properties.  Perhaps it’s too soon after the completion of the Fox/Disney merger, but there was very little of the Fox Studio present at this Expo.  Perhaps, and hopefully, that will change in future Expos, but as for now, The Simpson were the ones carrying that Fox banner into this new era at Disney as part of this Expo.  In general, I was pleased with how well organized this Expo turned out to be.  The online reservations in no way ruined the experience, and in fact resulted in not much change overall.  Hopefully they can revise the reservation process in the future, but it wasn’t the cumbersome disaster that I was worried that it was going to be.   And just like past Expos, it’s still hard to fit in everything even over 3 days.  There’s just so much to occupy yourself with.  Maybe it’s because priority one for me is to get into the big Hall D23 shows, which involves me waiting for significant amounts of time in line.  If I focused on other things like shopping, I might have spent more time on the show floor, but shopping at the stores, which were quite busy throughout the Expo, was never high on my list.  So, I can say unequivocally that I had an excellent time at this year’s D23 Expo.  I hope that Disney continues to give make this celebration a special thank you to all the fans out there.  As the company grows even bigger, the more elaborate this Expo has gotten, and it will be interesting to see what it will look like at the next one in 2021, or even the 2023 Expo, which will mark the Disney Company’s 100th anniversary.  In any case, 2019’s D23 Expo was enormously satisfying and I’m glad I went once again.  Keep making the magic happen Disney.

A Giant’s Journey – The Triumphant 20 Year Rise of The Iron Giant

The art-form of animation has many different faces, but it’s evolution over the years has heralded many different eras with the medium as well.  For the longest time, when people thought of animation, the thing that would pop into their mind was the traditional hand drawn, painted cel form of animation.  This was mainly because the people responsible for bringing animation into mainstream popularity were the people at the Walt Disney Company as well as those at Warner Brothers with their line of Looney Tunes shorts.  And for many years, they set the standard for what the public would accept as the look of hand drawn animation.  While the medium was pushed forward by leaps and bounds made by the artists at both studios, the success they saw also in a way stifled any artistic deviation within animation.  Disney stuck mostly with making safe, family-friendly fare while Warner Brothers stuck with cartoonish slapstick, and since they saw continued success because of this, other up and coming studios never strayed too far from the formula.  To really take the medium further into more daring territory and do something completely different in animation, you usually had to work independently like animators Richard Williams and Ralph Bakshi did, and those guys were lucky to see even one of their movies turn a profit.  After a tough time for animation in the 70’s and 80’s, the Disney studio came roaring back with an era now known as the Disney Renaissance.  Again, with one studio dictating the popularity of the art-form, there was less enthusiasm for deviating from the formula in animation, and the business of animation became less about finding one’s own voice and instead more like seeing what Disney was doing right and trying to copy it.  That unfortunately led to many competitors creating what you could call Disney-lite animated films, which were movies trying way to hard to be like a Disney movie but lacking that one thing that made Disney stand apart.  In turn, this only drove down the different brands of these animation studios, as audiences lost their trust in them.  Sadly this happened at the worst possible time for that one movie that indeed stood out from the rest and was destined to become a classic on it’s own; The Iron Giant (1999).

If you could point to an animated movie that came from outside the Disney Studios that can be considered among the best of all time, Iron Giant would be that movie.  In fact, when I compiled my own list of the best non-Disney or Pixar animated films as seen here, this was the one that I put at the very top.  This movie is an absolute masterpiece of animation, and the thing that is great about it is that it can stand perfectly on it’s own without ever having to be compared to another film in the Disney canon.  It is stylistically very different, taking more of it’s inspiration from Cold War era character designs as well as using a Norman Rockwell style grounded approach to the environments.  In terms of narrative, it also deviates heavily from Disney.  It’s not a fairy tale, but rather science fiction.  There are no talking animals, no songs, no magical happy ever after.  It’s about real people in a real town who are suddenly introduced to a very massive visitor from outer space.  And it even deals with some very heavy subjects like death, social paranoia, war, and being ostracized for being different in small town America.  But at the same time, the movie is not the anti-Disney movie.  Classic Disney from the Golden Age of the 1950’s also gives the movie some inspiration, particularly in the color palette.  And it’s message of friendship between the unlikeliest of companions is something that feels like it could have appealed to even Uncle Walt himself.  The movie is rightly seen as a masterpiece today, but believe it or not, The Iron Giant was in it’s time one of the biggest box office flops of it’s day.  It performed so badly in fact that the animation studio responsible for it, Warner Brothers Feature Animation, closed it’s doors soon after.  Apart from it’s unusual road to becoming reality, the really fascinating story about The Iron Giant is how it managed to stay in people’s consciousness and eventually find it’s audience, sometimes even many years later.  It’s all a testament to the fact that great movies never die; they just get reborn.

The beginnings of The Iron Giant stem all the way back to the very Cold War era setting that is seen in the film.  The original children’s book on which the movie is based called “The Iron Man,” was written by author and poet Ted Hughes.  His book is a simple tale of friendship that is built around the bond between a boy and the living war machine that he befriends.  Within the tale, Hughes delivers a powerful yet subtle anti-war message, essentially exploring the idea of what would happen if a “gun” decided it didn’t want to be a “gun.”  It’s in choosing the path of refusing one’s destructive programming in favor of a pacifist life that defines the Giant’s story and it’s that message that became so appealing to filmmakers interested in adapting the story.  You can see echos of the tale in movies like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992), but it wasn’t until a rising star in the field of animation named Brad Bird came across it that the book was finally going to see it’s jump to the big screen.  Bird, a contemporary of many now legendary Disney animators, managed to find his footing in animation outside the “house of mouse,” working on shows like The Simpsons and Amazing Stories instead.  Despite calls from Disney to come over and join their team, Bird instead set up home in the newly formed Feature Animation unit of Warner Brothers.  Warners was renowned for their Looney Tunes shorts, but until the 90’s they had largely stayed away from making feature films like Disney.  But, with the Disney Renaissance becoming a monumental success, Warners quickly cobbled together their own studio to take advantage of this new trend that was making a mint for their competitor.  Their first feature would be the very Disney-esque Quest For Camelot (1998), with Bird’s directorial debut coming up second right after it.  Though someone of Bird’s talent was capable of tackling any project, it’s still logical that The Iron Giant would be the thing that he would tackle first as a director.

For one thing, the Cold War era setting is something of a favorite for the director.  If you look through all of Brad Bird’s filmography, there is a clear heavy influence of the retro graphic style of the 1950’s throughout his films.  It’s there in The Incredibles movies as well as the movie Tomorrowland (2015), which practically is a time capsule of a different era in itself.  No doubt he wanted to explore that era graphically, but the movie’s powerful story of friendship no doubt played a big part in bringing him to the project.  Working with a script adaptation from Tim McCanlies, Bird’s approach to Ted Hughes original book is remarkably faithful, albeit it changes the original English setting to a distinctly American one, and it also removes the giant alien bat that appears in the original book’s climax.  No doubt the focus was put on getting the relationship right between the Giant and the young boy, and that’s where the movie really soars as a narrative.  There is nothing forced or schmaltzy about the bond that they form.  When we meet the young boy named Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) he already has an interest in strange and out there ideas, so he would respond to meeting a 50 foot tall robot differently than a more closed minded individual.  The Giant himself is also wonderfully naive about his true nature, and the movie has a lot of fun showing him forgetting just how big and powerful he really is; acting like a giant, metal puppy dog.  There’s no dobut that the animated medium was the only way to effectively tell this kind of story, because through animation, you could best convey the wide range of emotions seen in the Giant’s transformation from monster, to playmate, to ultimately savior.  But, it’s also a testament to Brad Bird as a director that he grounds the movie in a sense of authenticity as well.  Even while the extraordinary is happening throughout the story, it never feels cartoonish nor fanciful.  And in that sense, Bird made an animated feature that indeed felt unlike anything else at the time.

Unfortunately, the foundation on which the film was going into theaters standing upon was far from solid.  The Disney Renaissance was already beginning to wane in it’s later years, with modest successes like Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999) being overshadowed by the disappointing receptions of Pocahontas (1995) and Hercules (1997).  Plus, all the copycat films trying to follow the Disney formula like Fox’s The Swan Princess (1995) and Don Bluth’s Anastasia (1997) all under-performed and made audiences grow weary of the animation medium as a whole.  At the same time, computer animation was growing into a bigger threat with every new release, with Pixar’s Toy Story (1995) and A Bug’s Life (1998) both becoming huge box office hits.  Naturally the timing was terrible for Warner Brothers who came too late into the came.  Quest for Camelot was panned by critics, being labeled as a cheap Disney knock off, which did not put the new studio on solid footing.  A lot of pressure was resting on The Iron Giant to pick up the ball after Camelot had dropped it.  The movie did, thankfully, receive widespread praise from critics, but that didn’t help it enough.  The movie was unfortunately released the same mid-August weekend as M. Night Shyamalan’s  The Sixth Sense (1999), which of course became a box office phenomenon.  After being buried in theaters, the movie only made a quarter of it’s original budget back, which only accelerated the downfall of Warner’s animation studio.  The studio cut it’s staff after The Iron Giant’s initial release and left only a handful to finish their next and last feature, the animation/ live action hybrid Osmosis Jones (2001).  Brad Bird left Warners soon after and made his way over to Pixar, where he was able to get a little pet project off the ground called The Incredibles (2004), which would of course help turn him into a household name thereafter.  It’s just unfortunate that once a studio finally had something special to set it apart in a Disney driven world, it was far too late to undo all the bad mistakes of the past.

But, like all great movies, the film didn’t fade into obscurity.  Those film critics who heralded the film in it’s initial release continued to sign it’s praises long after.  Eventually, word of mouth carried the movie along, and once it reached home video, it sold far better than Warner Brothers had expected.  After that, the Cartoon Network licensed the movie for airing on their channel, and again, it enjoyed solid viewership every time it played. With solid home entertainment numbers coming in, the movie no longer appeared to be the embarrassment that Warner Brothers had thought they had before.  Now, it was a modest success, albeit now at a time when Warner Brothers no longer had the infrastructure in place to follow up this success with.  It didn’t matter at the time that they no longer were making animated movies, since Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings were already making them plenty of money.  But, The Iron Giant did become a clear sign that they could make an animated movie that could rival those made by Disney in terms of quality, if not box office success.  The fact that of all the animated movies released in the year 1999, including Tarzan, South Park, and Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant is the one that celebrated the most 20 years later is really a testament to it’s lasting staying power.  Eventually, Warner Brothers would reopen their animation studios, albeit for computer animation instead of hand drawn, and make celebrated films like Happy Feet (2006) and The Lego Movie (2014) out of it.  The Iron Giant may not have directly re-convinced the studio to invest in the medium once again, but it probably helped convince Warners that they had a place in the history of animation worth preserving.

It is pretty remarkable to see how widespread the legacy of The Iron Giant has gone beyond the film’s place at Warner Brothers animation itself.  It’s been referenced in many different films, most prominently in Steven Spielberg’s recent big budget extravaganza Ready Player One (2018).  The Iron Giant himself gets an extended cameo within the movie, even participating in the movie’s climatic battle scene.  It’s also interesting how it’s managed to influence the career of the actor who got to bring voice to the Giant himself.  Vin Diesel won the part over some long established veterans in voice acting, including legendary Transformers alum like Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, and it was now doubt due to Diesel’s natural low bass voice.  Diesel, a relative newcomer at the time, brings so much humanity into the role, and remarkably does so with a limited vocabulary.  When your character says only a handful of lines, it takes talent to find the personality underneath those few words, and Diesel somehow managed to do it.  Much like how Karloff found the humanity in Frankenstein’s simple way of speaking, Diesel managed to create an endearing character with a few grunts and growls.  But where his performance really shines is in the closing moments of the movie, which is the film’s most famous scene.  When the film’s villain recklessly launches a nuclear weapon at the town where Hogarth and the Giant live, the Iron Giant consciously self-sacrifices himself to save everyone.  Before this, Hogarth has introduced the Giant to comic book icons, and in particular Superman, which the Giant takes a liking to.  As the Giant nears his fateful impact with the warhead, Hogarth’s words ring in his ear, “You can choose to be whatever you want to be,” meaning he didn’t need to be the weapon he was built as, and in a perfectly delivered line reading from Vin Diesel, the Giant realizes who he desires to be in that moment; “Superman.”  That moment still gives people goosebumps to this day in it’s absolutely perfect execution of uplifting pathos.  It wouldn’t surprise me that this role would one day lead to Vin Diesel delivering such an endearing presence through a simple reading of the words “I am Groot.”

There’s no doubt about it; The Iron Giant is an all time classic and one that thankfully has matured well over these last 20 years since it’s original premiere.  It’s a shame that it’s blundered original release only accelerated the further downfall of traditional animation as a fixture within the industry, but it’s not a reflection of the quality of the film itself, obviously.  Traditional animation sadly had no answer to the groundswell that was computer animation, which more or less took everything over in the new century.  It’s only thanks to the fond memories that we have for The Iron Giant and the Disney Renaissance that traditional animation still has a presence in our culture today.  The Iron Giant even shows that there is a place for films made outside of Disney that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of their canon.  The Iron Giant has so much to offer for those who are looking for something different, or just for something that honors the medium of traditional animation with every lovingly crafted frame.  Brad Bird clearly put a lot of heart into the film, both as a fan of the story and of animation itself.  It’s no mistake that Hogarth’s surname is a nod to the original author of the book, and there is a wonderful little Easter egg for animation buffs when we meet the two elderly train conductors, based on real life Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (who also provided their own voices too).  But what’s probably most important about The Iron Giant’s 20 year legacy is that it’s universal themes feel even more relevant today.  It’s all about a character built to be destructive choosing to reject those instincts and learning to be a good person.  The Giant chooses not to be a gun, which is the fundamental message of Ted Hughes original narrative.  In a world we live in now, when it’s become so easy to act out in destructive ways as weapons of division and destruction are more widely available to us, it’s all the more inspiring to see a literal weapon of war making the conscious decision to reject his programming and choose to be better than all that.  He chooses to be a hero; he chooses to be Superman.  And that’s what makes The Iron Giant more than just a great cartoon; it’s a great and profound movie in general, and one that will remain a Giant in cinema for all time.

What the Hell Was That? – Wild Wild West (1999)

It may be hard for a millennial film goer to know what the late 90’s were like for cinema.  For one thing, there was a lot less super hero movies released every summer.  Before Marvel and DC began flexing their muscles, the 90’s were a time when blockbusters were centered around movie stars, who at that time were starting to command paychecks reaching $20 million dollars a movie or more.  In this same time, you saw a lot more variety in the kinds of movies being made, because as long as a bankable star was attached, people would flock to the theater to see it.  It was a particularly strong time for things like the historical epic, the sci-fi adventure, and the romantic comedy; movies that you typically don’t see get the green-light for blockbuster treatment nowadays.  And in this time, we saw the meteoric rise of many a movie star.  If there was one whose ascent defined the 90’s in a nutshell, it would be Will Smith.  The former Fresh Prince had just wrapped up a successful run on television and felt it was time to branch out into television.  Starting with the modestly successful Bad Boys (1994), a buddy cop film from Michael Bay co-starring comedian Martin Lawrence, Will would later play a starring role in two of the 90’s biggest box office hits back to back; Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997).  Each movie built on the one before and in a short span of time, Will Smith went from a cinematic neophyte to the King of Hollywood.  Couple this with a resurgence in his rap music career, leading the entire nation to start “getting jiggy with it,” and it appeared that nothing could stand in his way.  But, as we would soon find out, it could also take one disaster of a movie to grind that train to a halt.

The downside to the much of the celebrity obsessed culture of the 90’s is that Hollywood put perhaps too much trust in the actor’s ability to bring in an audience.  This often led to a lot of movies either turning out mediocre, because quality mattered less than star power, or they let productions run amok solely hoping for the name recognition to help bail them out in the end.  That’s why the 90’s ended up being a mixed bag for a lot of movie stars, who would be responsible for a lot of the good and bad through much of the decade.  For every Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) there was a Father’s Day (1997); for every My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) there was a Runaway Bride (1999); for every Ace Ventura (1993) there was a Cable Guy (1997); all movies that pale in comparison to their predecessors.  But a lot of these movies could still benefit their selective stars (Robin Williams, Julia Roberts and Jim Carrey) respectively, since it kept them largely in the spotlight.  It had to take something tanking extra hard to change all this emphasis on movie star appeal leading the market, and that movie unfortunately had to involve Will Smith, who was a the peak of his powers in 1999.  Coming immediately off of the success of Men in Black, Will and director Barry Sonnenfeld were looking to collaborate on something again, given their great experience working on their last film.  Not wanting to go right into a sequel, Sonnenfeld latched onto a project that he felt would be an ideal follow-up; a big screen adaptation of a cult tv series from the 60’s called The Wild, Wild West.  The original series, starring Robert Conrad, was a quirky spin of Western tropes with a little bit of science fiction thrown in.  Having just succeeded making a comical science fiction action flick with Men in Black, Sonnenfeld hoped to do the same in the Western as well, and sadly, he would realize too late how wrong his approach would end up being.

The Wild Wild West series, was a product of it’s time; campy, and low budget; typical of other likewise shows of the time like Batman and The Green Hornet.  And that low budget sensibility is what helped it find it’s footing, because the show relied much more on it’s creative story-telling and quirky personalities.  Which leads to the very first problem you will find apparent with Barry Sonnenfeld’s mega-budget adaptation; it’s unnecessary excess.  The movie, Wild Wild West (1999) cost a then staggering $175 million to make (eclipsed only by Titanic’s $200 million at the time).  That’s an acceptable amount of money to spend on a historical epic, but not on an adaptation of a tv series, and one that was budget-minded to boot.  Understandably, a lot of people saw that the movie missed the point of the show, which was a point stressed at the time by the show’s original star Robert Conrad, who refused to cameo in the movie and has in the years since publicly mocked this film relentlessly.  But, exactly where did all the money go?  Well, upon viewing the movie, you will notice quite a bit of the film devoted to showcasing the many gadgets of the character Artemus Gordon (played by Kevin Kline), an eccentric inventor and government agent assigned to work with Jim West (played by Will Smith).  A lot of the gadgetry feels out of place, like holdovers from Men in Black, only in a post-Reconstruction America setting, and it shows just how devoid of creativity the filmmakers had in making this movie.  They weren’t interested in adapting the TV series; they just wanted to do Men in Black again, only as a Western this time.  From Artemus’ needlessly complex train, to the neck magnet death machine of villain Dr. Arliss Loveless (played by a very hammy Kenneth Branagh), to the infamous giant spider (more about that later); the film clearly wants to show off and it does it in the poorest possible way, showing very clearly that a little bit too much hope was vested in the ability of it’s movie star to carry this clunky mess.

Which brings us to the involvement of Will Smith.  Will could not have been more beloved around the world than he was near the turn of the century.  His movies were beloved, his albums were #1 hits; he was on top of the world.  But, that overconfidence probably clouded his judgement leading up to the making of Wild Wild West.  It’s been said that Will Smith took on the role of Jim West because he was a fan of the original series, and also having the role be written for him in a bit of color blind casting must have been appealing as well.  That said, this misguided career move also took Will away from other roles that may have taken his career in a different direction.  For one thing, he apparently turned down the role of Neo in The Matrix (1999) in order to appear in Wild Wild West.  Can you imagine how different cinema and his film career would have been had he taken the red pill instead?  All that aside, Will doesn’t look too bad in the role.  The costuming department clearly set out to make Will appear stylish in an all black cowboy suit.  The same effort can not be said about his performance, however, as it becomes very clear early on how out of place Will is in this kind of movie.  Not that portraying Jim West as a black man is out of place; the concept is actually well executed.  No, instead, Will just resorts to the same tricks that he used in other movies, which makes him feel too modern for this Western setting.  He’s a man out of his time, and that becomes distracting after a while.  Kevin Kline fares a bit better fitting into the Western setting, but he’s not a good match for Will Smith as the co-star.  There’s a rhythm that you need to have in order to work as a pair with another actor, and Kline’s delivery is a tad too mcuh on the quirky side for most of the movie; perhaps more to do with the terrible screenplay than anything.  You can clearly see that Will’s performance is missing the stoicism of Tommy Lee Jones from Men in Black to work off of, and he more or less is acting opposite another actor who is acting in the same quirky tone, emphasizing the mismatch.  Needless to say, Will Smith has stated that turning down The Matrix is the biggest regret of his career, and it’s clear to see why.

The humor of the movie is also something that is painfully awful about this movie.  For one thing, none of it ever works the way it way it was intended.  A lot of that has to do with the over abundance of CGI to bring a lot of the gadgets to life.  This came out at the point in the late 90’s when the wonder of CGI was starting to wear off on audiences.  Having started the decade off with something as mind-blowing as the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993), we were now being treated to computer rendered machines that stood in as a phallic sight gag.  Essentially, audiences stopped being impressed.  You also have Will Smith and Kevin Kline bickering throughout most of the movie in a way that I guess was intended to be charmingly funny, but we never get a chance to grow to like these characters, so it just feels forced.  These characters are not Riggs and Murtaugh; they’re just archetypes built for the actors who are portraying them, who are mismatched to begin with.  And some of the scenes that are meant to be the show-stoppers in terms of hilarity just end up stopping the show; grinding the movie to a halt and going on for what seems like forever.  A scene where Will Smith dresses in drag in order to distract the villain is especially painful to watch, because it’s both pointless and a shameful desperate ploy to get a laugh from the audience.  Yes it establishes early on that dressing in drag is a go to technique for Atremus Gordon for going undercover, but when the movie has Jim West doing the same thing, the plot just essentially breaks down and you feel embarrassed for the movie at this point, because it’s exploitative.  It makes it even worse that West’s drag persona is named Ebonia.  Yikes!!

Will Smith may have had the charisma to live through some sophomoric comedy bits, but the movie goes even more off the edge when they interject some very misguided racial undertones to the mix.  The absolute worst part of the movie lies in the absolute piss poor way that it deals with the issue of slavery in America, and the resulting racism that still persisted post-Civil War in the Old West.  The film tries to add some pathos in Jim West’s backstory, telling how he lost most of his family from a Confederate Army raid that destroyed a settlement of black refugees who escaped on the Underground Railroad.  Had the movie given more depth to West’s character, this backstory would’ve carried more resonance, but instead it’s just dropped on us as exposition, giving it absolutely zero power.  The racism prevalent in the Old West is nothing to take lightly, and it can even be dealt with seriously through humor, as Mel Brooks proved with Blazing Saddles (1974).  But, Wild Wild West is no where near as clever, so the fact that it tries to shoehorn in a tragic backstory like that just feels exploitative in the end.  But that’s nothing compared to a downright cringey scene where Jim West tries to smooth talk his way out of a lynching.  You heard that right.  Will Smith resorts to his “slick Willy” charm shtick in a scene where there is literally a noose around his neck, surrounded by a crowd of torch wielding white settlers.  For all of those who complained about Will Smith in blue skin from Disney’s Aladdin remake, you need to relax because Will can and has done much worse on film, and this scene is proof of that.  This lynching scene from Wild Wild West is without a doubt rock bottom for Will Smith as an actor, and may very well be one of the most offensive scenes that any mainstream film has ever put on screen.  There’s a lot about Wild Wild West to be embarrassed about, but this is the moment for me in particular where it just flat out became un-redeemable.

A lot of blame can be put on director Barry Sonnenfeld for taking the absolute wrong approach to the material, or on Will Smith for allowing his ego to cloud his own judgement, but as with many other runaway movie productions, you have to put much of the blame on the one responsible for the money itself.  That just so happens to be the infamously eccentric producer Jon Peters.  The hair-dresser turned producer had gained a steady stream of hits throughout the 1980’s, culminating with the mega success of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).  Into the 90’s, his track record began to wane, and he split from his producing partner Peter Gruber to venture out and make movies more suited to his own tastes.  He tried for many years to get Wild Wild West off the ground, including having Mel Gibson and director Richard Donner attached at one point, but it never came together.  Some of the problems arose from a few of Peters’ sometimes bizarre demands of the story.  One in particular arose out of another project he had been working on, which was a reboot of Superman called Superman Lives, directed by Tim Burton and starring Nicolas Cage.  For that film, Peters commissioned fresh new director Kevin Smith to write the screenplay.  Among the many puzzling demands that Peters wanted Smith to put into the script one stood out; Superman had to fight a giant spider.  Kevin Smith left the project before it fell apart and always remembered that weird addition he put into script, which became an anecdote that he would retell for years after.  But what makes that anecdote so funny is that many years later, we would get a giant spider in a Jon Peters movie, and it was in Wild Wild West, where it felt even more out of place; appearing as the colossal steam-punk monstrosity built by Dr. Loveless in order to conquer the United States.  It’s the thing that Wild Wild West is probably most infamous for, and also the thing that it gets the most mockery from.  When the best your movie is good for is to be the punchline of a Kevin Smith anecdote, that’s when you know your movie is an absolute failure.  It’s not even bad enough to be a joke;  it’s a punchline.

Since it’s premiere, Wild Wild West has become the poster child for misguided, runaway studio productions built around the hubris and ego of it’s creative team.  In many ways, it spelled the end of the era of movie stars being the driving force of the industry, because if Will Smith, at the height of his celebrity, couldn’t lift this mess to a less embarrassing box office run, then it meant that name recognition wasn’t the magic key Hollywood after all.  Studios became a lot more cautious in the years since, and as a result movie stars took a back seat when compared to the appeal of the brand in Hollywood, with stars taking rolls in smaller films in order to keep their names in the spotlight.  Will Smith, likewise, retreated from making big budget movies for a while, at least on the same level.  It’s only recently that he’s gotten back to the box office numbers that he had been pulling from the 90’s with his two most recent blockbuster hits Suicide Squad (2016) and Aladdin (2019).  Even still, you can see how negatively Wild Wild West left a mark on his film career for a while.  It effectively screeched the momentum of his career to a halt, and completely forced him to reassess what he was doing when picking his film roles.  He’s fared okay since then, with modest successes and a couple Oscar nominations, but those early years still stand out as the ones that people most fondly remember.  Wild Wild West is more of a cautionary tale than anything.  It shows us what happens when a movie production becomes too over-confident and too reckless with it’s own indulgences.  It also proves that It seems foolish to try to invest so much money into the  Western genre; a lesson that foolishly was forgotten in the wake of Heaven’s Gate (1980) and was overlooked once again with the equally disastrous The Lone Ranger (2013).  Some of these may have fumbled good intentions, but Wild Wild West was just doomed from the beginning, with it’s lazy approach towards the material, it’s reliance on self-indulgent excess (a giant, freaking Spider!!!) and just flat out offensive use of serious, real world injustices.  I could go on and on, but the flat out point is that Wild Wild West is a travesty of a movie that unfortunately ruined the solid reputation of the people involved, and now is just best referred to as the punchline that it is.

Who’s in Charge? – Directorial Vision and the Shifting Dynamics of Control in Hollywood

Last week, director Quentin Tarantino released what he considers to be his 9th (if you count both volumes of Kill Bill as a single movie) and penultimate feature film; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  The movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt and set in and around the heart of the film industry at the height of the 60’s counterculture, with the upending Manson Family murder of actress Sharon Tate as the backdrop, is quintessential Tarantino, which is good news for anyone who’s a fan of his work.  It’s indulgent, lengthy, and extra violent, but also hilariously observant of all the quirks of both the world of Hollywood and the people who inhabit it.  But what makes the movie even more remarkable is the way it stands out in the current field of the summer box office.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood it turns out is a real oddity in today’s Hollywood; an original concept film from an acclaimed director that’s not a sequel or a remake, and one that is capable of opening to healthy blockbuster numbers against tough competition.  Had this movie come from another director, I don’t think it would have nearly been as successful as it has, and would have probably quickly run through the art house circuit before fading into obscurity.  But because Tarantino has built a reputation and a fan base over the last few decades, he was able to generate enough hype around this movie to give it the best opening weekend box office of his career.  And even more amazing is the fact that he did it without ever having to compromise his vision.  Once Upon a Time is through and through a Tarantino film, and that is why people are showing up in big numbers to watch it.  All this makes Quentin Tarantino one of the most envied filmmakers in the business, because he has the power to deliver the movies he wants to make and have them succeed at the box office.  For most others, power like that is very hard to come by.

There really are only a handful of directors today that have the kind of artistic sway that Tarantino has on his movies, and even fewer are able to consistently deliver at the box office as well.  The only other director who is able to deliver an un-compromised vision like that and still generate huge grosses is Christopher Nolan.  Nolan certainly has his history working in mainstream franchises (the Dark Knight trilogy) but it’s his own original work that people have become most fascinated with.  His 2010 film, Inception, became one of that year’s most profitable movies, and cemented him not only as one of the most acclaimed directors of his time, but also gave him the goodwill to pursue even more ambitious projects in the future, something he has continued to do with Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017) and his upcoming Tenet (2020).  And like Tarantino, his name now is synonymous with big screen grandeur, which may seem strange today to think as being unusual for a filmmaker, considering the fact that there are so many big name directors out there.  But, here’s the thing: how many directors out there can sell a film purely on their own name alone, let alone have it be their untarnished vision brought to the big screen.  Most of the time, for a director to see their complete vision make it to the big screen, they either have to tamper expectations or compromise, because Hollywood just doesn’t invest in bold, directorial styles anymore.  If a director is lucky or talented enough, they may be able to work outside the system to maintain the purity of their vision within their body of work, but it’s a rare thing, and rarely do you get to the level of Tarantino or Nolan from it.  You have your Wes Anderson’s and David Lynch’s in this group, but you also have your Richard Kelly’s and M. Night Shaymalan’s as well.  The director is a powerful position within the film business, but over time the role of a director has diminished as a level of importance when it comes to determining whether or not a movie will be a hit.

The power over what gets made and how it gets made has shifted dramatically over the years.  For many years, the movie star became the biggest selling point of a movie.  The output of a studio was very much determined by the strength of their stable of contract players and, as was often the case, the bigger the profile of the movie star the better choices of movie roles they would get.  And the studios would push their movie stars heavily, whether or not the movies were any good, because it was what the audiences wanted to see more than anything.  But, after the break-up of the studio system in the early 50’s, the movie star appeal was no longer the driving factor in Hollywood.  Now it was spectacle, as new technologies were created to help movies compete against the rise of television.  Widescreen, surround sound, 3D, and other gimmicks were introduced as the main selling point of movies of this era, and it brought to audiences larger than life productions like Ben-Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Sound of Music (1965), all of which were defined by the epic size of their productions.  And then came the 1970’s, which ushered in an era that very much changed the landscape of Hollywood, to the point where we are still feeling it’s effects today.  For decades before, the concept of the auteur in film-making had been gaining traction within the industry, thanks in  part to European film scholars who themselves became auteur filmmakers themselves and ushered in the New Wave era in movies.  Celebrating uncompromising directors of the past like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Hollywood embraced the auteur theory of it’s past glory, and gave more power to the director than ever before.  The 70’s was the era of the movie director, with up and comers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and William Friedkin being allowed creative freedom from the powers that be in the industry that they otherwise wouldn’t have been given in any other time, and gaining success at the same time.  This continued with the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who would continue to keep the identity of the director a powerful force within the industry, even as it continued to change.

Now, the seas of change have shifted again, and right now it is neither the director nor the movie star that has become the biggest draw in Hollywood.  The power of one’s brand has become the leading currency in today’s film industry, with all the biggest movies coming out today in some shape or form stemming from a pre-established franchise.  Whether it’s your Marvel, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or even Fast and the Furious, it doesn’t matter what the name of the movie is or what level of quality it represents, if it’s attached to the a popular brand, people will watch them.  Disney is even taking their own classic animated films and remaking them in live action, to the point of completely copy and pasting the original scripts like with The Lion King (2019), and people are still seeing these movies in droves.  For the most part, people are seeing these movies for what they are and for how they are placed within their franchises as a whole.  It matters less now who is starring in them and even fewer people in the audience are aware of who is directing them too.  Avengers: Endgame didn’t become the top grossing film of all time because the Russo Brothers directed it or because it starred Robert Downey Jr. (though both things probably helped that out a little).  It became the top grossing film because it was the Marvel movie to eclipse all other Marvel movies.  This is a business now clearly concerned with finding name brands that will capture the imagination of audiences, and the role that the actors and directors play only matter as a mean of making the brand look better.  There’s nothing wrong with using brand appeal as a means of selling a film, but as some would tell you, it’s not an ideal place for filmmakers who want to carve out their own identity.  The filmmakers and cast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are all incredible, but they also understand that the movies they are making only have the attention they have received because they are part of the Marvel franchise, and therefore are identified as Marvel creations rather than independent films.  And in a market where franchises are continually becoming the dominant force, this leads to far less individuality and ingenuity on display in the broad market.

Which makes the Tarantino’s and Nolan’s so rare today in Hollywood.  For them to get to this point in their careers, it had to take years of establishing themselves as the brand; that their movies bear the unmistakable mark of their vision.  As their audiences grew, so did the budgets allowed to bring their visions to life, to the point where they can now make any film with their name attached into an event.  But, it has to be understood, these guys are the rare cases.  They are at the point of their careers where they can deliver on ambitious projects, because they have the trust of the studios behind them, and in many cases, they lucked out by making movies that find their audiences at just the right time.  For many other directors, they have to work through different channels in order to do something ambitious, and in many cases this leads them to sacrificing some ambition.  Unfortunately, if you are a beloved art house director who wants to make something grander, and that involves making compromises with a major studio in order to find the funding, it sadly leads to claims by their fan-base that they’ve “sold out.”  The fear of being labeled a sell out is enough to deter many a director from taking that next step.  It’s probably why you still see filmmakers with very definitive vision like Terrence Malik working well outside the system, making movies limited by smaller budgets, but are purer to the director’s intended vision.  That’s why you see far fewer “auteur” style directors working within the system.  Sure, these directors are all excellent at what they do, but their direction is far more flexible and open to compromise, which in turn makes their work less “visionary.”  For some directors, vision is everything while others value the work and the paycheck, and for the studios, they have far more confidence in investing in the latter.

The turn to devalue the auteur identity of the director and embrace the value of the brands occurred mostly because of two reasons.  One, was the decline of the studios trust in the director’s ability to deliver through on their ambitious projects.  Despite seeing the rise of the prestige directors in the early part of the decade, the latter part of the 70’s saw many runaway film projects that got to big to handle, all because the directors had been given too much power.  This was the case with Francis Ford Coppola’s massive Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now, which went massively over-budget.  Coppola actually had to be sent back home by Paramount, because he was just continuously filming with no real idea of where to end his movie.  Thankfully for Coppola and Paramount, the movie recouped it’s massive budget, but Coppola was never trusted with anything as ambitious ever again.  The same luck didn’t pan out for Michael Cimino.  Having just come off the success of The Deer Hunter (1978), Cimino was granted almost complete control over his next film, which was going to be the epic Western Heaven’s Gate (1980).  It too went massively over-budget and over-schedule, but unlike Apocalypse Now, it didn’t recoup it’s then record breaking budget, and it even put it’s studio, United Artists, out of business as an independent producer.  Heaven’s Gate is widely regarded as the movie that spelled the end of the era of the director in Hollywood, but it was the rise of the blockbuster in the 80’s that really diminished the impact of the director even more.  Even though a name like Spielberg still carried weight in this time, general audiences were far more interested in high concepts and broader entertainment than they were interested in who was behind the camera.  People didn’t watch Back to the Future (1985) because Robert Zemekis’ name was attached to it; they watched because it was a movie with a time machine made out of a DeLorean.  The time had arrived when the movies far out-shined the people who made them.

It is interesting how time has flipped the power dynamics in Hollywood.  First it was the movie star and then director, now it’s the name recognition of the franchise itself that carries the weight in the business, and that mostly puts the power within the industry into the hands that control the brands themselves; the producers and executives.  That’s probably why so many cinephiles lament this time in Hollywood so much, because far less power belongs to the artists and far more is given to the people running the business.  But, when box office grosses matter, fewer creative risks are taken.  We just have to trust that the people investing the money and organizing the productions have a vested interest in entertaining as well.  That’s mainly what separates a Marvel from everything else; because producer Kevin Feige has a clear intention on doing justice to the brands that he’s in charge of.  But even as the business of theatrical film-making has been coursing in this direction for years, the industry itself is also evolving once again, which in a way is allowing for more creative freedom to return to the directors.  Streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and the upcoming Disney+ are giving filmmakers a chance to experiment once again with more ambitious budgets, because they are being funded by companies less concerned by box office results.  That’s why we’re seeing so many directors flocking to these channels, because they are finally being given the opportunity to make more personal projects again, but with unbound ambition thanks to platforms that care more about having something unique on their platform and less generic.  This is something that recently has challenged the status quo within the industry, and it will be interesting to see if this does open up a new era where the director becomes king once again.

For one thing, you’ll never see Quentin Tarantino leap over to streaming only for his films.  He’s a stickler for the in theater experience, which is why he always shoots his movies on film with the intention of having them screened in large formats.  Christopher Nolan likewise shoots most of his movies in IMAX, which demands the viewer to watch his films on the largest screens possible, as they lose much of their impact in home viewing.  But, they have reached the point where they can comfortably survive doing things the old fashioned way in this “new Hollywood.”  For other directors who haven’t gotten to that point, there is a dilemma that they have to face.  To deliver a movie on the big screen, they either have to compromise or work within a budget, or they can see their visions fully realized with substantial budgets in the streaming world, but never have it play theatrically as a sacrifice.  If anything, streaming has given back some clout to the brand of a director, but with their insistence on exclusive access, they also restrict the ability for the director’s vision to be seen in the way it sometimes should.  Movies like Roma and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman should be seen on the big screen, but unfortunately Netflix just doesn’t have the ability or the desire to give these films wide releases.  As a result, maintaining one’s vision now has another compromise within this industry; albeit, one that at least grants them more access to funding than what’s been allowed in the last couple decades.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out as streaming becomes a far bigger player within the industry.  In the meantime, it is reassuring that some visionaries like Quentin Tarantino still have the clout within the business to pull together un-compromised films that still find a large audience.  It’s also pleasing to note that this new stand out film from him is also a love letter to the glory of Hollywood itself, particularly hearkening back to an earlier time when movie stars and directors were the star attractions.

Top Ten Movie Characters of the 2010’s

There are a lot things that have helped to define the cinematic landscape of the 2010’s, but one of the most important is the many unforgettable characters that have graced the silver screen.  It’s been an interesting decade, particularly because much of the characters that have left an impact on audiences have far less to do with the popularity of those who play them.  In decades past, the effect of the movie star and their persona played a major part in creating characters that stood out in their selective films,  Now, though an actors charisma does play a part in helping make characters memorable, it no longer is so closely tied to the personality of the actor themselves.  Now, movie characters carry the power of the brand, and by virtue, can be the thing itself that turns a performer into a movie star.  This has certainly been the case with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the decade’s most predominant cinematic touchstone.  The characters themselves have pre-established fanbases, and those lucky enough to be cast in those parts have in turn experienced significant career boosts.  It’s different than years before when characters like the Terminator, or Ethan Hunt, and Jack Sparrow only took the world by storm once a big movie star was able to fill the role.  But even outside of the popularity of characters in big franchises making an impact, another pleasing development over the last decade is the increase of diversity represented on the big screen.  Because many marginalized groups of the past are finally gaining mainstream attention thanks to a more progressive minded audience, we are finally getting characters on the big screen that are able to tell stories that have long been ignored, and it’s very much helping to broaden the minds of so many people in both the industry and in the world itself.

For this list, I will be counting down my choices for the best movie characters of the last decade.  I may leave a few of your favorites out, and believe me, it was hard narrowing this down to my standard ten.  These characters had to have premiered on the big screen in their current form within the last decade itself, so that unfortunately left me excluding a hugely influential character like Iron Man off the list despite him having one of the best character arcs of the decade, because he made his premiere in 2008.  This list also excludes villains, since I am saving them for a top ten list of their own later this year.  I am, however, including anti-heroes here among their more pure-hearted fellows, and characters based on real people are also allowed, just as long as their movie falls within the timeline.  Some of these choices are no-brainers, while others are ones you might not have considered, but I wanted to spotlight them and the impact they had on me.  Overall, I want to show just how interesting and diverse this decade in movies has been, and which characters will end up being the ones that I will remember back on the most from these years.  So, let’s count them down.

10.

JORDAN BELFORT from THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)

Played by Leonardo DiCaprio

If the 2010’s had a defining movie star, it would be Leonardo DiCaprio.  The one-time heartthrob from decades past has matured into one of Hollywood’s most reliable big screen stars, winning both critical praise on nearly every film and retaining healthy box office pull.  He didn’t make very many movies this year, but the ones he did were all instant hits, including Inception (2010), a pair of Tarantino flicks (2012’s Django Unchained and the upcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) a remake of The Great Gatsby (2013) and of course The Revenant (2015) which finally won him a long overdue Oscar.  However, if there was a character that best represented his talents this decade, it would be the zany performance that he delivered as real life disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort.  In Martin Scorsese’s biting indictment of Wall Street culture, DiCaprio lets loose in a performance unlike anything we’ve seen from him before.  For one thing, he shows that he indeed can give a comedic performance, holding his own against established comedy actors like Jonah Hill.  The quaalude hangover scene is a sequence of absolutely insane physical comedy that would do the Three Stooges proud, and it’s incredible to think that the normally intense DiCaprio is able to act this silly on screen.  Apart from that, his deranged pep talks to his staff also show DiCaprio relishing the freedom that this role allowed him to present.  The real Jordan Belfort was probably no where near as interesting as the character found in this movie, and that what makes this creation of Leo and Marty’s so memorable.  The Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort is more of a symbol than a human being; a representation of unchecked ego and hubris, and that’s what ends up making him such a profoundly memorable character.

9.

CEASAR from THE PLANET OF THE APES series

Played by Andy Serkis

One of the things that definitely became a big shift within the film industry over the last decade was the advances made in motion capture technology.  Though pioneered in the decade prior, the technology matured even further in the 2010’s, taking it ever closer to reaching true photo-real parody.  Some of the most impressive uses recently have been the aging and de-aging of actors used in a few of the Marvel films, as well as the incredible life-like animals found in Disney’s remake of The Jungle Book (2016).  But the uses of motion capture are only effective when it’s in the service of creating a memorable character, and capturing the passionate performance behind the digital layer.  That’s something that was best realized in the surprisingly effective reboot of the Planet of the Apes.  Those movies introduced us to the character of Ceasar, the hyper-intelligent ape who leads a revolt and establishes a new society of mentally enhanced apes in a world where mankind is on the brink of destruction.  These movies, unlike their campier predecessors, take the premise very seriously, and managed to deliver a gripping tale of war and survival in the process.  And the effectiveness of the drama comes from the fact that Ceasar is a such a profoundly interesting character.  Brought to life by Andy Serkis, who has mastered the art of motion capture performance through years of portraying characters like Gollum and King Kong, Ceasar is one of the most expressive and life like digital characters ever put on screen.  And Serkis’ performance shines through, giving the character layers of depth; fierce, but compassionate, and totally in command of his identity.  Some people argue that motion capture robs some of the authenticity of an actors performance by hiding it under a digital mask, but Ceasar shows that an actor can really portray any role, just as long as it’s good enough to shine through.

8.

MAYA from ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

Played by Jessica Chastain

A somewhat controversial character from the last decade, Maya stands out as a captivating figure in a story that in itself was a decade in the making.  The search for Osama Bin Laden was one of the top on-going dramas in real world politics for almost the entirety of the 2000’s, starting with the 9/11 attacks and culminating in the nighttime raid by Seal Team 6 on his compound in Pakistan ten years later.  The finality of that monumental day, with Bin Laden meeting a violent end, made it possible to encapsulate the entire history of that worldwide hunt into it’s own narrative, which director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal set out to do.  But, to focus this complex story, they needed a character who could embody every frustrating twist and turn of this decade long search, and they found that in the character of Maya.  Created as an amalgam of several different people who worked tirelessly within the CIA during the hunt for Bin Laden, Maya immediately grabs a hold of the audience with her tireless ambition and her candid, sometimes extremely blunt, personality shining through.  Jessica Chastain gives a fiery performance that really showed her ability to take command within a role.  In many ways, Maya was a perfect poster child for working women in the 2010’s; working harder than most of their male counterparts, consistently having to reaffirm their often ignored opinions and suggestions until they are ultimately proven right in the end.  I especially knew that I loved her as a character once she introduces herself to the CIA director after discovering the hide out of Bin Laden as “the motherf***er who found the place.”  It’s that assertive confidence that just immediately endears her to the audience.  Her tactics are extreme, as indicated by the film’s controversial depiction of torture, but it was people like her in the end that brought to a close one of the most brutal manhunts in human history.

7.

ELSA from FROZEN (2013)

Voiced by Idina Menzel

Animation has never been short on animated characters, and this last decade has been no exception.  Whether it was Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Baymax from Big Hero 6 (2014), the many different emotions of Inside Out (2015), Judy Hopps from Zootopia (2016), or Miguel from Coco (2017), we were treated to a wide array of instantly lovable characters from the medium of animation.  But, to stand above the rest, a character’s legacy beyond the film also must be accounted for, and for that, you definitely have to spotlight the central character of the biggest animated hit of the decade.  While I was lukewarm on the movie Frozen itself, I will absolutely acknowledge the importance of the character Elsa with regards to the movie’s tremendous success.  Elsa, apart from having the movie’s signature song “Let it Go” (which was unavoidable when the movie first came out), Is also far and away the most compelling character in the movie, and in general, one of the most profound in all of animation.  The movie did an effective job of depicting the internal struggle she faces every day of her life, hiding her supernatural ice-making powers from the world until she can no longer control it and begins to wreck havoc.  We learn how narrow that ledge is between being a hero and being a menace can be, and that retreating from the world and suppressing one’s true self only ends up causing more harm than good.  That’s why the movie resonated so strongly with the LGBTQ community, who saw Elsa’s struggle with her identity as a reflection of their own coming out experiences and in turn they’ve embraced Elsa as one of their own; though Disney hasn’t hinted at anything with regards to sexuality with her; at least not yet.  Idina Menzel gives her voice a lot of heart, and not to mention some incredible pipes for the songs as well, and “Let it Go” has put Elsa on the animation map for all times, so it makes sense that she would stand out as one of the decades most monumental characters.

6.

RIGGAN THOMPSON from BIRDMAN or THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE (2014)

Played by Michael Keaton

One of the themes of the decade has been the growing power of character roles having influence over the personas of the actors that are playing them.  Now imagine that idea as the basis for your entire movie.  That’s what we got with Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Oscar winning Birdman, which centers around the character of Riggan Thompson, an actor whose whole career has been defined by the one superhero role he played many years before.  Riggan is an interesting character because of the unique struggle he faces, where no amount of hard work and devotion to his art is able to shake off the past that has come to define the man that he is.  He is so haunted by his legacy as the titular Birdman, that his character persona even speaks to him as a voice in his head.  It’s a fascinating portrait of the progression of a performers career, where the rise to the top comes with its own drawbacks, and the climb back up after the fall can be even harder than it was before.  Through Riggan, we see a bittersweet tale of what it’s like for an actor to fight for control over their own artistic ambitions, and that ultimately that true happiness may never manifest despite the best of intentions.  What’s even more fascinating about the character is the way that his story so closely mirrors that of the actor portraying him.  Michael Keaton may not be as negative towards his past career playing a superhero, but you can’t help but feel that Keaton brought a lot of his own personal experiences into forming this character, and in turn, delivered his best performance to date.  Riggan embodies so many things that we normally associate with actors; vanity, emotion, and a short fuse, but we also see the side of the performer in detail that few other movies are able to show such as the self-doubt and vulnerability, which Keaton captures so perfectly in all those long unbroken shots.  Plus, we even get to see him fly.

5.

CLEO from ROMA (2018)

Played by Yalitza Aparicio

Some of the best characters to emerge from the 2010’s have been the ones who come from marginalized segments of society, whose stories are only now finally reaching mainstream audiences.  Director Alfonso Cuaron drew inspiration from his childhood in making this film, and in particular he wanted to make a movie about the women who helped raise him; his mother and his housekeeper/nanny.  The nanny character in particular became the focal point of this deeply personal film, and by telling her story, Cuaron created one of the decade’s most fascinating characters.  Cleo’s presence at the heart of Roma not only sheds light on the lives of working class people in Mexican society, but also reveals a lot about the lives of Indigenous Mexicans as well, a segment of society that has almost never been portrayed with such importance before on film.  Alfonso Cuaron has refined his craft so well over the years that he was able to confidently hold the point of camera still within scenes and have them play out in such a true to life way, almost like we the audience are ease-dropping into the lives of the people on screen.  It’s amazing to think that Yalitza Aparicio had no prior acting experience before taking the role of Cleo in this film, because she is such a natural in front of the camera.  There’s not a false note in her entire performance, and you would almost think that she and the other characters in the movie were almost pulled out of real life.  Cleo also goes through some harrowing moments in the film, including finding herself in the middle of a riot as well as saving two of the children in her care from drowning in turbulent waters.  This was clearly a character that meant a lot to the Alfonso, knowing her connection to the real life person that was in the director’s own life, and the power of the film is found in the deep emotional attachment that Cuaron pushes for the audience to have with this simple, kind woman’s story.

4.

KING T’CHALLA from BLACK PANTHER (2018)

Played by Chadwick Boseman

You certainly can’t talk about the best characters of the decade without talking about the ones brought to the big screen by Marvel.  And a whole bunch of them could make an strong argument to make this list; maybe even fill it up completely as well.  Excluding Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, there’s Chris Evan’s Captain America to consider as well as Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, and Scarlett Johanssen’s Black Widow.  But, to narrow it down to one, I also have to consider how much of an impact the character left behind as well, and no one left a bigger impact in the last decade than King T’Challa himself, the Black Panther.  Introduced first in Captain America: Civil War (2016), T’Challa immediately won over audiences as a welcome addition to the lineup of Marvel Superheros.  But it was with the premiere of his own stand alone film that the character made history.  The movie outperformed everyone’s expectations and shattered all sorts of records.  More importantly, it set a new milestone for a movie made by an African American filmmaker and staring a predominately black cast.  With all that, Black Panther broke down so many barriers that had unjustly sidelined people of color from achieving mainstream success in the film industry.  There is still a long way to go yet, but Black Panther helped to kick that door open by proving a movie with such a distinctive black voice could be profitable in Hollywood.  And all the while, Chadwick Boseman brought so much grace and charisma to the role, which has helped to make T’Challa a new favorite for many a Marvel fan.  It’s easy enough to make a hero to root for in the super hero movies, but it’s another thing entire to make a character that can inspire greatness in others, especially those who have been long forgotten, and that in turn has made him a profoundly important cinematic character from this last decade of film.

3.

ALEJANDRO GILLICK from SICARIO (2015)

Played by Benicio del Toro

Probably the most morally ambiguous character on this list, Del Toro’s Alejandro is also a character that leaves a lasting impression.  What I love about this character in the movie Sicario is the way his true nature slowly unravels throughout the movie.  When we first meet him, he’s a mild mannered lawyer tagging along on a DEA mission to battle against the Mexican Drug Cartels.  But, as the film progresses we see more of the ruthlessness that hides beneath the calm exterior.  And in the end, we see that Alejandro has become a killer even more ruthless than the drug lords that he hunts down.  The sequel, Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018) tempers down some of the intensity of his character to make him a bit more sympathetic, but the development of his character in the original 2015 film is still something to behold.  Benicio del Toro is brilliant in the role, keeping the character mostly in the dark until the opportune moment when we finally see his true nature, while at the same time making his dual nature relatable at the same time.  There’s a quiet intensity in his performance that I think few other actors could have pulled off, especially with this much subtlety.  I especially love the tension he brings to that scene at the end of the movie with Emily Blunt’s character, where he exudes so much menace without ever breaking his cool demeanor; acting in the same mild-mannered way as he had when she first met him, only now he has a gun pointed at her head.  Alejandro is the very definition of an anti-hero; a person who commits bad deeds of his own in the pursuit of a greater good.  Given the insanity of the drug wars on the border, it’s people like him that are really the only ones who achieve any amount of justice in this kind of conflict, but it does create the dilemma of whether we are comfortable with the ways he gets the job done in the end.  In any case, his presence presents to us one very fascinating character study of quiet intensity.

2.

JOHN WICK from the JOHN WICK series

Played by Keanu Reeves

This has been a decade where characters from the comic book pages have sprung off the page and taken over the big screen in a massive way.  But, it’s one thing to adapt an already familiar super hero for the cinema; it’s another to create a whole new one from scratch, and make him just as popular.  That’s what’s happened with John Wick.  A passion project for star Keanu Reeves, the original John Wick (2014) took audiences by surprise with it’s fresh and creative approach to action film-making and helped to rejuvenate Reeve’s career as a movie star.  With two sequels that followed, each one building on the other, the John Wick franchise has built it’s own unique mythology and complex world which in many ways have turned the character into more than just a hit-man, but a superhero in his own right.  What especially has endeared John Wick to audiences is the fact that Keanu Reeves, despite being in his mid-50’s, does much of his own stunt work, which in itself is breathtaking to watch play out on screen (with very little CGI enhancement, I might add).  What I love best about the character is the fact that he has this notorious history surrounding him, making him almost a celebrity within that world, something that Keanu hilariously tosses off as an annoyance in his character.  John Wick also matches Keanu’s own persona better than we’ve ever seen before on screen; a man of few words, but with a sly sense of humor underneath.  And watching him throw himself into those insanely well choreographed fight scenes is really something to behold on screen.  More than anything else, it’s great to see an actor portray a character that they obviously have a lot of fun playing, and that is the key to John Wick’s appeal.  He’s a superhero of his own making, and the world couldn’t have asked for anything better.

1.

REY from the STAR WARS series

Played by Daisy Ridley

All these characters on this list have enhanced their place within their selective narratives and stood out because of it.  But it’s another thing entirely when you change the face of the culture itself.  Star Wars, without a doubt, is the single most influential cultural influencer to have come out of Hollywood within the last 50 years.  Fan culture exist today because of it’s impact, for all the positives and negatives that it carries with it.  When Disney rebooted the franchise with The Force Awakens in 2015, they made the bold decision to not center it around any already established character, but to instead introduce a new hero to franchise that would carry it into the future.  And to the surprise of many, this new Jedi hero on which the fate of the galaxy would rest would be a young, misfit girl named Rey.  Though strong female characters have always been present in the Star Wars franchise, going all the way back to Princess Leia, this was the first time that we would see a female lead wielding the legendary lightsaber and holding her own in battle with the Dark Side.  This sadly led to some backlash from bigoted fans who believed that Disney was using Star Wars to push some kind of feminist agenda.  But, what I love about the character Rey is that she breaks down the traditional expectations of a Jedi warrior in the Star Wars mythology.  The powers of the Force call to her, despite the fact that she comes from the middle of nowhere and has no idea where she came from.  Because of her outsider status, she inspires so many that have often been overlooked by the powers that be in the Star Wars community, and as a result she is changing the face of fan culture as we know it.  Despite receiving backlash, fans of Rey as a character have pushed back and held her up as a role model, which in turn is inspiring a whole new generation of young, female fans who have long wanted to wield lightsabers themselves in the same way that the boy have done for many years prior.  Star Wars has proven in this last decade to be just as important to the culture at large as ever, and Rey is a key reason why it looks to have a bright future in the years ahead.

So, there you have my choices for the top ten characters of the 2010’s in cinema.  There are plenty other good ones I may have left out, including ones that I’m sure you’ll be reminding me of later.  For me, these are the ones that both pleased me the most as well as the ones that I believe had the most profound impact on movies as a whole over the last decade.  Some are genuine heroes that are well worth rooting for, while others are deeply flawed personalities that have fascinating arcs that play out over the course of their narratives.  What I find fascinating are the characters that shed light on different races and nationalities like Cleo from Roma  and  T’Challa from Black Panther.  These were only the most interesting examples of a whole movement towards better representation in all of cinema that has been happening over the course of the last decade.  Of course, characters that break boundaries and change the culture, like Rey from Star Wars are also important, especially when her popularity exposes previously existing prejudices and forces a conversation within the culture itself.  I also found forceful personalities, with an ambiguous moral compass, captivating to watch over the last decade like Alejandro from Sicario and Jordan Belfort from Wolf of Wall Street, just because it was fascinating to see how close to the edge of villainy could they bring themselves to without loosing their appeal.  It will be interesting when I form my list of the top villains and see how they contrast with the ones here.  Overall, this was a decade where character became a more powerful tool in selling a film than star power, and it’ll be interesting to see if that is something that continues in the next ten years.  As the story of Riggan Thompson in Birdman showed us, characters sometime take on a life of their own and can even overwhelm the actors who portray them.  Regardless, this was a decade of many strongly defined and memorable characters, and hopefully I’ve reminded all of you of some very important ones we were introduced to in the 2010’s

The Lion King (2019) – Review

Producing a remake of a movie presents a whole lot of issues with regard to audience reception, but one thing that should be on the mind of every filmmaker who attempts it is; is it worth the effort.  When embarking on a remake, you have to be aware that you are walking down an already laid out path for you, and sometimes that can inhibit your ability to be creative.  Suddenly, you are dealt with the choice of either following the original formula to the letter, or veering off into something different.  The best thing that a filmmaker can do when they produce a remake is to allow their version to stand on it’s own, separate from the original.  There are plenty of good examples out there of great movie remakes, like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), to the Coen Brother’s True Grit (2010), to all those many A Star is Born which seem to always come out every generation.  But to be successful, remakes need to either do one of two things; exceed expectations, or milk all the nostalgia for the original that they can get.  Sometimes movies that do the latter end up being criticized as evidence of creative bankruptcy, merely exploiting a known property purely as a cash grab.  And one studio that is facing current scrutiny in this regard is Disney.  For the past decade, starting with Tim Burton’s remake of Alice in Wonderland in 2010, Disney has been dipping into their library of animated classics and looking at potential ways to remake many of them in “live action.”  The action is understandable, given how well these movies have done at the box office, but at the same time, long time fans of the originals are complaining that the remakes being made by Disney lack anything original and it feels to them like Disney is just cashing in on their properties rather than adding anything meaningful to their brand.  It all comes back to that question of whether the remakes justify their existence or not, and sadly for many it’s only taken away from their enjoyment of the originals and not added to them.

This year in particular has raised that question even more, as Disney brought three new remakes to the big screen this year; the overall primary tentpoles of their fiscal year.  Thus far, the results have been mixed.  The first remake was of one of the Walt era classics, Dumbo (2019), with Tim Burton again returning to remake another animated film.  The movie was widely panned by critics, and barely resonated with audiences, making it a rare box office dud for the studio.  But then, on Memorial Day weekend, Disney released a remake of Aladdin, which many had worried about due to the initially off-putting transformation of actor Will Smith into the Genie via CGI.  Though not universally beloved, the movie still found it’s audience and managed to hold strong all through the summer, making nearly $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales as of this writing.  But, these were only warm ups to the remake to the undisputed king of all Disney animated classics; The Lion King.  If there ever was a movie remake that was sure to get attention, this one is it.  The original 1994 classic was a monster hit, becoming the highest grossing animated film of all time upon it’s initial release, and it still holds a strong place in the Disney legacy 25 years later.  The only thing is, how do you take a movie with an all animal cast and make it “live action.”  Well, I put “live action” in quotations because the answer that Disney found was to use animation of another kind, only this time use it to make everything look like it was in “live action.”  Pioneered in 2016 in another Disney remake of The Jungle Book, this new photo-realistic CGI animation tool allowed for actors performances to translate into realistic looking animals, which enabled Disney to retell their version of The Jungle Book, but with a level of visual authenticity that almost mirrored real life.  Now, they are taking this same technique and applying it 100% to the world of The Lion King, making everything from the creatures to the environments completely from CGI animation.  The only question is, does it do enough to stand on it’s own, or is it animated in all the wrong ways.

If you were a kid who grew up in the 1990’s, the story of The Lion King will already likely be ingrained in your memory.  The Pridelands, realm of the wild animals of the African Serengeti, is watched over by the lion king known as Mufasa (James Earl Jones, reprising his role from the original).  Him and his mate Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) have borne a new cub named Simba (JD McCrary) who will one day take Mufasa’s place as king, which is a prospect that doesn’t sit well with Mufasa’s bitter younger brother, Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor).  Simba desperately wants to prove his bravery, which leads him on a dangerous excursion beyond the borders of the Pridelands, and into the Elephant Graveyard, realm of the hyenas.  His run-in with the hyenas puts him in danger, along with his best friend Nala (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and caretaker Zazu (John Oliver).  Mufasa saves them, but the incident bruises what self-esteem Simba has.  Meanwhile, Scar has been conspiring with the Hyenas, hoping to use them as a means of eliminating his brother and the future king so that he can take the Pridelands for himself.  With the hyenas help, Scar tricks Simba into standing in the middle of the path of a wildebeest stampede.  In the attempt to save Simba, Mufasa puts his own life on the line.  Simba is saved, but Scar pushes his brother back into the stampede, killing him, out of view of a horrified Simba.  Simba believes he is responsible for his father’s death, and Scar convinces him to flee into exile.  Though the hyenas are sent to finish Simba off, they give up their pursuit once Simba is out of sight.  Simba, completely alone, eventually reaches the outer edges of the Pridelands, beyond the desert sands, and there he encounters two new friends, Timon (Billy Eichner) the meerkat and Pumbaa (Seth Rogan) the warthog.  They take Simba in and teach him the philosophy of Hakuna Matata, meaning no worries.  Years later, a grown up Simba (Donald Glover) reconnects with a grown up Nala (Beyonce), who has escaped the tyrannical rule of Scar, and she tries her hardest to convince Simba to go back and assume his rightful place as king.

Perhaps more than any other remake from Disney, this was going to be the hardest one to get right.  Not only is it a logistical challenge making this movie as close to live action as possible, but there’s also the fact that the original movie is so universally beloved and, some would say, untouchable.  Now, Disney can indeed take one of their classic films and create a remake that stands well on it’s own.   I for one thought the remake to Cinderella (2015) was exceptionally well made, and the remake to Pete’s Dragon (2016) is I dare say an improvement over the original.  There are other examples of remakes to classics that, while they come nowhere close to being as good as the original, still manage to be entertaining, like The Jungle Book and Aladdin.  And then you have the movies that fail to ever justify their purpose for existing, like Maleficent (2014), Dumbo, and Beauty and the Beast (2017).  The biggest knock against the worst of these movies is that they merely rehash the original, adding nothing new of substance and exist purely to remind you of their superior originators.  My hope was that this Lion King would rise above that, and the fact that Jon Favreau was overseeing it gave me hope, seeing as his Jungle Book remake was one of the more passable ones, and probably the most impressive visually we’ve seen.  Sadly, those hopes are dashed almost immediately from the opening seconds of the movie.  The film opens with a near shot for shot reconstruction of the “CIrcle of Life” sequence that also opened the original, and though it is impressive to look at, it quickly dons on you the viewer that you are just going to watch the same movie over again with nothing new added.  This movie was a crushing disappointment for me, as I saw what was essentially a cover band version of one of the greatest animated films ever made, devoid of all the heart that made the original so special in the first place.  Favreau, whose work I usually love, appears to have been told by the powers that be at Disney that he could not deviate one inch away from the formula of the original, and so the entire movie just feels like deja vu.

Let me get right to the absolute, biggest problem with the movie, and that’s the animation itself.  The original Lion King uses the medium to it’s fullest potential, which allows for the suspension of disbelief to be more palatable as we watch animals talking and singing and expressing very human like emotions.  The exaggeration in expressions is something that we take for granted a lot in animation, because it’s just something that has always been a part of the animated medium.  With the squashing and stretching of hand drawn characters, as well as what’s allowed in modern day computer animation, you can make even members of the animal kingdom capable of carrying heavy drama or lighthearted comedy, because it plays out so much in the extreme expressions that animated models can project.  However, when a movie goes out of it’s way to stick so closely to true life in the way that it’s characters look, it unfortunately restricts that freedom that animation can allow.  That’s what happens in this version of The Lion King, and it is painfully distracting.  Here’s the thing with creatures like lions, hyenas, birds, warthogs, and meercats; they all have expressionless faces in real life.  They can’t show a range of emotions like human beings can through facial gestures, because their bodies aren’t made for that.  Unfortunately, the animators here went too far into the direction of authenticity when it came to creating realistic looking animals, and what happened was that all the characters have dead, expressionless faces.  It especially becomes a problem in a moment like Simba mourning over the death of his father.  In the original, you felt Simba’s anguish because it was drawn so well on his face, completely with tears running down his cheeks.  In this movie, you can hear the pained vocal performance from the actor, but the animated Simba just looks like an empty, emotionless vessel.  And that’s just one distracting example out of many.

The animation not only robs the movie of it’s emotional weight because of the loss of expression on the characters’ faces, but it also robs the impact of the vocal performances as well.  Disney put together a stellar all star cast for this movie, but unless you knew who all these people were ahead of time, you wouldn’t even recognize their presence in this movie.  Donald Glover, it turns out, does not really have a distinctive voice, and he comes off a whole lot less charismatic here as Simba than he does in so many other roles where he’s present both in body and voice.  Beyonce fairs a bit better as Nala, who is the only character that’s given a bit more development in this movie, but even she suffers from the lack of emotional range given to her animated character.  And though it is pleasing to know that Disney wanted no one else to play Mufasa than the one and only James Earl Jones, it sadly squanders his presence here by just having him read the same exact lines that he read for the character 25 years ago.  You can especially hear the passage of time in his voice too, as his vocal performance doesn’t quite have the same power to it.  The one saving grace for this movie is, strangely enough, the comic relief.  Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan are perfectly cast as Timon and Pumbaa, and though their digital models are just as stiff as the others, they at least are allowed to act more exaggerated.  Their moments are also the only parts of the movie that veer off script from the original, as they rely more heavily on their improv skills to deliver the humor, and it was a breath of fresh air that helped to distract from the lack of originality elsewhere.  Even John Oliver gets in a few laughs, again using improvisation to his advantage.  The script is credited to Jeff Nathonson, but it probably should have credited the original film’s scribes (Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton) too, since about 80% of the script is exactly word for word the same, which is very distracting in the  movie and shows just how little effort was put into making this movie stand on it’s own.  If only everyone else was allowed to improvise like the comedians were, then we might have had a more interesting movie.

Essentially, it seemed like the primary concern on the part of Jon Favreau and his team was to show off what they could do with their new animation technology.  Apparently this movie was made with a special Virtual Reality process, which allowed Favreau and his crew to create a fully animated simulation that they could enter with VR headsets and shoot like a real movie, choosing shots like they would on a live set.  Sure, it’s all impressive and ground-breaking, but when you put all the effort into that and none into the story and helping differentiate your version from the previous one, well then all you’re doing in the end is just making a glorified tech demo.  And that’s essentially what happened here.  I wonder if Jon Favreau would have been better served taking this style of life-like animation and applying it to an original movie concept; one that isn’t just a remake of something else.  I will say that he used it to impressive effect in his direction of The Jungle Book, which did feature some jaw-dropping animation.  But that movie had the advantage of a real, live action kid playing Mowgli who could give the audience a reference point to compare the animation with.  With The Lion King, there is nothing to offset the expressionless faces of the animals with.  Couple this with a script that seemed too afraid to take any chances and the movie just misses the mark at every opportunity.  I will say, the environments do fair a bit better.  When you realize that every blade of grass, every rock pebble, and every drop of water was rendered through a computer in this film, it does give you pause.  We are getting closer than ever to breaking through that uncanny valley when it comes to environmental construction.  But, even with that, it still lacks the grandness of Disney’s original.  The ’94 Lion King was epic in scope, in ways few animated film have ever achieved, and it’s amazing that the same exact scenes feel less grand the more realistic they are reconstructed.  The Wildebeest Stampede for example feels far less grand in the new version.  CGI can do amazing things, and bring previously impossible things to life.  But what it can’t do is capture the majesty of the painted image through a photo-real lens.  It just reminds me of Jeff Goldblum’s line from Jurassic Park (1993), where he said, “You got all caught up in whether or not you could, you never stopped to think whether or not you should,” and that really explains the folly of trying to make a “live action” Lion King.

It’s hard to say if this is the worst of the Disney remakes.  I will say, as disappointed as I was in this film, it didn’t draw the same ire that I had for Beauty and the Beast (2017).  That film was not only inferior to the original in every way, it was also unpleasant to look at, with garish ugly designs for all the characters in that film.  The Lion King, apart from the appalling, emotionless character animation, the movie is colorful and competently crafted.  But, I will say that it feels like the laziest of the Disney remakes that we’ve seen thus far.  There was no effort at all to do anything different with this story; it is just the same exact film repeated, minus the heart and emotion of the original.  I was frankly stunned by how little this movie deviates from the original.  Entire scenes are repeated to the letter, and there are no surprises whatsoever.  Beauty and the Beast at least attempted to write some new things into it’s script to make it a little different.  They were all terrible ideas, sure, but it was at least some change.  If you’ve seen the original Lion King, and I’m sure most of you have, than you probably know every beat of the narrative, and it will all play out exactly the same way in this version.  The movie adds nothing, and in fact, it only takes things away in some bafflingly unnecessary ways.  The songs especially suffer, because they lack the flights of fantasy that you could get away with in the original.  The villain song “Be Prepared” is whittled down to just a short, half-spoken verse, which should really enrage fans who love that particular song.  It’s the very definition of a movie that exists solely to make money and play upon our nostalgic memories of the original.  You could say that about any of the other Disney remakes too, but at least some of them have justified their existence for being and stood just fine on their own.  This one will never, ever replace the original, and I pity the poor person who has this version be their first exposure to the story.  Please, just stick with the original.  25 years have not diminished the shine of that classic one bit and even this remake won’t damage it either.  Watch it again and forget this new Lion King, because it’s lion’s roar is nothing but a whimper.

Rating: 5/10