All posts by James Humphreys

Tarnished Gold – Are the Oscars Losing their Importance in Hollywood?

Hollywood is a city built on glamour and prestige.  Though movies are made for the masses, the heart of the community itself is in presenting this golden gleam of high class and glamour.  It’s the place where you either have to be somebody important or at least can pretend to be somebody important.  Much of it is a facade, but there’s no doubt that when you do visit Hollywood, there is an air of luxury and decadence all around you.  It’s the kind of Hollywood that you see outside of the tourist haven of Hollywood Boulevard; the one that exists where the stars and power players live and play.  The real Hollywood actually exists across the hills behind the famous sign in the less glamorous San Fernando Valley (where I actually live), because that’s the home of the biggest studios.  But the Hollywood that we seem to picture in our minds is the one found in places like Beverly Hills and Malibu.  There is a stark class difference in these kinds of places, because of the way the communities cater to their famous residents, and it’s the kind of luxury way of life that definitely gives this aura of desirability to the lifestyle of the movie star.  But, there is a downside to this kind of high quality way of life, in that it also causes the people living in these communities to live in a bubble; one that unfortunately may cloud their perception over what is really valued within their industry.  One of the biggest complaints leveled at Hollywood over the last few years is that it’s becoming more and more out of touch with the audiences of film goers and show watchers that they are reliant on for keeping them in the business.  This can be seen in the way that some within the industry are resistant to changes in the market (like the expanding influence of streaming platforms), and also sometimes alienating themselves from a fan-base by demanding too much from their loyalty.  But if there was ever a place where the disconnect between people in the industry and the audiences across the country appears most prominently, it’s with what should be the biggest night in entertainment every year; The Academy Awards.

The Oscars, as they are more commonly known by, has for nearly a century been the pinnacle of achievement within the movie industry.  Not only that, it’s a driving force as well.  Countless movies have been made with one purpose in mind, and that’s to secure that golden statue at the end of the year.  We may not have seen some of the most memorable films and performances on the big screen had it not been for the allure of the Oscar.  But, when something is that highly valued, you can almost always count on dishonest ways of securing it to always occur behind the scenes.  The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences have changed their rules countless times in order to make sure that their system remains pure and without corrupt influence.  Even still, it’s a highly competitive race, and much like in the world of politics, it gets uglier every year.  Now when a movie gets nominated, you’ll almost always read opinion papers and news reports about how problematic it’s content is and how this star’s off the set behavior is reflecting badly on the movie itself, and why voting for this film or performance would be morally wrong.  It’s all studio driven smear campaigns meant to influence the very easily persuadable voting block that is the Academy, and these campaigns in themselves can cost millions of dollars on their own.  And why all this effort?  Because, in years past, an Oscar win meant a boost in box office ticket sales for any given movie.  For the movie studios, Oscar campaigns are worth the cost in the end, because the box office would justify it in the end.  But, with streaming taking out the factor of box office grosses, this is changing the game a little bit more, and now the studios are starting to find that the influence of Oscar gold is not as important as it used to be.

The rise of streamers like Netflix and Amazon has put the Academy in an awkward position, because now the effect it has now on box office is somewhat lessened.  Before, it became a big deal to have a movie proclaim itself as Best Picture of the year.  These days, a Best Picture win is almost forgotten about and barely even mentioned a year after the fact.  Can anyone, other than serious Oscar history buffs (like myself) name the Best Picture winners of the last five years.  I’d be surprised if anyone can remember who one it last year; Green Book for those interested (and good for you for already forgetting it existed).  The Oscars have always struggled to keep up with the changing times, but it’s status as an institution in our culture had never been challenged until recently.  Now, the Oscars are starting to hit a crucial point where they are teetering on the brink of irrelevance, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way for them to get back to the top.  The awards have been in a gradual decline ever since it’s peak in the late 90’s, when the movie Titanic (1997) swept through with record breaking viewership of the broadcast, but the fall has been precipitous in the last couple years.  Despite the expansion that the Oscars has made to the Best Picture category since 2010 (up to 10 nominees each year), it seems like the winners increasingly end up pleasing nobody in the end.  And with so much doubt cast over what should be the biggest award of the night, along with less influence it has on the box office itself, the Oscars are in desperate need of a reinvention.  But how do they do that, when tradition is so ingrained in it’s DNA, and the Academy itself is so resistant to changing it’s ways.

For one thing, there has to be a fundamentally different way it needs to present itself to the public itself.  The Oscars have always been a stuffy, affluent affair, and in many ways that’s been a part of it’s appeal.  But, in the last few years, the Oscars broadcast has tried way too hard to appeal to all audiences, and in doing so has lost their identity.  Gone are the musical numbers and the montages, and instead we are treated to just an endless roll out of the awards with little pomp and circumstance to surround it.  The show has even dispensed with the host of the ceremonies, who usually would end up being the only one to give the show some much needed levity.  This has been an unfortunate result of the Academy trying way to hard to comply with the demands of the medium on which they are presented.  The Academy Awards have been broadcast on television since 1953, and has been a fixture ever since.  But, as stricter FCC rules have come down hard on live shows like the Academy Awards, the opportunities for spontaneity to occur has also dwindled.  The Oscars producers have tried more and more to stamp down any moment that might get them in trouble at these shows, like a political rant or a publicity stunt gone awry.  But unfortunately for them, these are the moments that have made the Oscars the fascinating institution that they are, and trying to suppress these moments only makes the show feel more boring and unremarkable.  Not only that, the show has to limit itself in order to hit those necessary commercial breaks that the network demands.  That’s why the orchestra always plays music in the middle of a winner’s speech, because it’s the show producer’s way to tell the person to wrap it up.  Even with that, the Oscars always receive the complaint that they are too long.  And in response to the network’s complaints about the shows’ lengths, the Academy made the fundamentally ill-planned decision to pull some of the categories out of the broadcast all together; a decision that was thankfully reversed after the backlash it received from rightfully indignant members of the industry.

Though it may be a controversial proposition, I would suggest that maybe broadcast television may not be the best place for the Oscars to be at this point anymore.  Much like how the industry is already moving in this direction already, perhaps the Academy should embrace streaming as an alternative form of presentation.  This way, they can avoid the pitfalls of having to comply with broadcast standards and commercial breaks, and instead present the ceremony in all it’s glitz and glamour like it used to.  There is the issue of how they deal with the cost of the ceremony, which the commercial breaks from the live broadcast would have taken care of, but there could be an alternative to this as well.  The studios could use the ceremony itself to premiere exclusive first looks at their upcoming movies, paying the Academy itself for the privilege.  Yes, it makes the show more commercial in itself, but honestly, isn’t it that way already.  The Oscars can’t pretend that their ceremony isn’t all about building hype and earning money for the movies winning the awards.  There is the argument that it’s about honoring the art, which is valid, but Hollywood is still a business, and I would rather see the Academy take the ceremony back into their own hands than to have them comply to the standards of another branch of the entertainment business.  Other awards shows are already starting to embrace the streaming model, like the Game Awards, so this might be a possible avenue in the Academy’s future.  If anything, it will free them up to be the kind of show that it honestly should be, which is un-apologetically showbiz at it’s most spectacular.  Hosts should be free of constraints, winners should be able to say whatever they want after they win, musical numbers should dazzle and amaze.  Yes it could all be messy, but it will still make it memorable.

There is also the issue with how the Academy votes for their winners.  The downside of the industry living within a bubble can be especially felt here.  More and more we are seeing a disconnect between what the audiences value and what the Academy values.  At a time when audiences, critics, and industry elites can’t agree on what deserves the year end accolades, it becomes increasingly unclear whether the Academy is still the supreme authority over this in the end.  This is especially clear when it comes to movies that are deemed “popular.”  A couple years ago, the Academy got into hot water again when it was putting forward the idea of making a Popular Film category for the Oscars.  This caused a huge backlash, and was again quickly reversed, but it was also telling of just how insulated the Academy voters are as an audience themselves.  To them, they thought that throwing a bone like that to blockbuster favorites was a positive step forward, but what it actually did was expose the elitism that the Academy seems to be unaware they have.  When a big budget blockbuster crosses over into becoming highly influential for the culture at large, like the movie Black Panther (2018) did in breaking down so many barriers for African-American filmmakers, it stands that a movie like it should get the due recognition from the Academy.   But to ghettoize it by pushing it into the “Popular Film” category just undermines it’s impact, and is kind of an insult to the people who made it and the fandom that embraced it.  This has increasingly become an issue with the Academy, who seem to be making more and more “safe” choices at the ceremony, like what happened with the Green Book debacle last year.  In one of the Academy’s least popular choices for Best Picture in many years, the Oscars looked like it was beginning to lose touch with the audience, because it was ever so clear this time that the Academy just went for the least offensive pick in a field of otherwise challenging films.

There’s also the unfortunate factor of what appears to be a far less engaged pool of voters within the Academy.  The demographics of the Academy that we’ve come to find out has shown that they are disproportionately white, male, and above the age of 50.  There has been more efforts to boost the diversity of the Academy voting block, especially in the last decade, but even still, the movies that end up winning Best Picture seem to be the ones that appeal only to that narrow demographic that I stated above.  Not only that, they are a demographic that has their own biases when it comes to what qualifies as a movie deserving of the award.  As we’ve learned over the years, many Academy voters tend to not watch movies in a theater, instead choosing to base their votes on the screeners that they can watch from the comforts of their own home.  And those that do watch in the theaters are passionate about that standard of presentation, and are skeptical of new models like streaming.  There are even those who don’t watch the movies at all and just vote based on their gut feeling.  This apathy shown to the experience of watching the movies themselves really raises the question if the votes the Academy makes are valid at all.  Sure, no one should pressure the Academy to vote one way or another, but at the same time, you really wish they would go in informed before they cast their votes.  My feeling is that a vote should be cast only after the voter has viewed all the nominees eligible for the award.  Preferably they should see it in a theater, as many movies are best viewed that way, but I do know that it’s not possible for some of the oldest voters in the Academy.  They just need to show those of us outside of their closed, elite organization that they are ensuring that every movie is given it’s fair exposure to the voting block as a whole, and that those ingrained biases that the voters might hold will not go unchallenged.  Like any important institution, there needs to be a trust between the industry and the consumer; otherwise, it’ll appear that the Academy is purely just catering to a select group of elites and nobody else.

Are the Academy Awards destined to become an irrelevant relic of the past.  Hardly.  It still holds an importance every year in Hollywood that will likely never go away.  At the same time, with shifting demographics, newer platforms for presentation, and changing attitudes both within the industry and in the public at large, the Academy really needs to wake up and try experimenting a little in order to not look like it’s stuck in the past.  For one thing, it should embrace it’s glory days of the past, and not be so eager to conform to a strict standard that robs it of any spontaneity.  It should also reconsider what it considers worthy of Oscar gold, because as we’ve seen in recent years, some of the best films are the ones that don’t even get a passing glance from the Academy, because they are too unconventional.  The Academy is not compromising it’s integrity if it suddenly embraces a movie that’s deemed “popular.”  Popular movies can be works of art too.  Also, there should be more effort to broaden the spectrum of voices within the Academy itself.  Part of why the demographics of the Academy have shifted so far one way is because that’s what the industry valued many decades prior, but now the industry has taken on a much more diverse character and the Academy itself should reflect that more closely.  Otherwise, that divide between what the Academy values and what the movie-going public values is only going to widen further, leading to even further irrelevance in the future.  It would also stand for the Oscars to maybe embrace new forms of presentation to allow greater access for viewers to see the ceremony in the same way that the attendees do.  Instead of the broadcast model, allow for an uncut live feed to be available online; that way you don’t have to cut out categories and allow the ceremony to move along at it’s own pace.  At the same time, I understand that I’m making these suggestions as an outsider who will probably never move the Academy to change it’s ways.  But, I do speak as someone who has been a fan of the Academy Awards and what it represents.  I want to see the Oscars gain back some of it’s glory, and that requires a bit of change to make it happen.  Hopefully, the Academy learns to embrace some of the changes made to their organization over the years and hopefully welcomes in a wider swath of deserving movies into it’s pantheon of winners.  We want the Oscars to mean something, and that requires them to make the most informed choices in who they honor.  Like the statues they give out, all they need is a little polish in order to make it shine once again.

Evolution of Character – Peter Pan

There are just some characters that were meant to soar across the silver screen.  Naturally, one of them is well known for his power of flight.  Since his debut on the London stage in 1904, Peter Pan has captured the imagination of audiences around the world.  The boy who never grows up and whisks the Darling children off to an adventure in the magical realm of Neverland has remained almost perennially popular for over a century.  Indeed, Peter Pan is timeless, and he continues to remain popular to this day.  Created by author and playwright J.M. Barrie, Pan takes his inspiration from the ancient greek god of nature, and has become a symbol of youthful exuberance.  He’s both an aspirational hero for young children and also a negative reference point for describing an immature adult.  And for his entire existence, he has always belonged to the visual medium.  Before the movies existed, the stage was the greatest venue for entertaining the masses, and Barrie’s masterwork was what in those days would have been considered a blockbuster.  There was probably nothing more breathtaking at that time than seeing the performer playing Peter Pan (most likely a girl, especially in the early days) flying across the stage, supported by unseen wires.  That act of onstage magic would continue to inspire audiences for many years, and carry over into the medium film.  And as advances in cinematic techniques improve over time, the magic behind Peter Pan and the wonders of Neverland looks and feels more spectacular.  It didn’t take long for Pan to work his way onto the silver screen, and his journey through cinema has remained a consistent one.  You rarely see any of his cinematic adventures stray very far from Barrie’s original text.  In many ways, the differences come less from the story, and more from what each performer brings to it.  So, let’s take a look at some of the more notable cinematic interpretations of the boy who could fly, Peter Pan.

BETTY BRONSON from PETER PAN (1924)

There were several silent productions made with Peter Pan in the earliest days of cinema, but this Paramount Pictures production is the most noteworthy.  The movie is pretty much a direct adaptation of Barrie’s play, carrying over many of the conventions from the stage.  The lead role is played by a woman, in this case actress Betty Bronson.  The actor in the role of the villainous Captain Hook does double duty, playing the role of Mr. Darling as well like in the play.  There is even an actor still dressed in a dog suit playing the role of Nana, the Darling children’s pet canine.  But, what separates this from the stage version is more substantial production values.  The flying sequences have more weight to them, because for one thing the actors can fly higher and further on a sound stage than on theatrical one.  Early processing effects also presented things that you could never do on the stage; like showing Tinker Bell for instance, who only appeared as a flashing light on stage before.  Other than that, the movie still feels very close to it’s stage origins, which is particularly true about the titular character himself.  Betty Bronson fits into the green tunic-ed hero perfectly, capturing the spunkiness of the character, as well as his strong willed determination.  Anyone who had been familiar with the play in it’s early days would have been satisfied with her performance here.  Though limited by the lack of sound from this period, Bronson still manages to convey the personality with a plenty of lively pantomime.  She also works comfortably with all the visual effects that are on display, never once looking like she’s out of place.  The movie represented the right kind of way to bring Peter Pan successfully to the silver screen, and it would remain influential for years to come.

BOBBY DRISCOLL in WALT DISNEY’S PETER PAN (1953)

When we think of Peter Pan as a character, this is likely the first image that’ll pop into mind.  Like many characters from classic literature, it’s the Disney version that ends up becoming the definitive take on the character, and rightly so in this case.  Through animation, we are able to see the character leap fully out of his stagebound origins and take actual flight; no wires required.  Peter Pan was pretty much destined to be an animated character, and thankfully Walt Disney did him justice.  Disney himself believed very much in the character, recalling his early childhood days when he performed as Peter in a school play, with his brother Roy pulling the ropes backstage to help him fly.  When Walt had his production slate firing up after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Peter Pan was a logical choice for development.  The war years would delay it’s premiere by a decade, but once Disney returned to it, the movie solidly fell into place.  Peter was animated by one of Walt’s trusted Nine Old Men, Milt Kahl, who brilliantly imagined the way Peter Pan takes flight; not so much soaring as floating in midair, something which only animation can convey.  Also, in breaking from the stage tradition, Disney cast a boy in the role as opposed to the youthful actresses used in the stage productions.  Bobby Driscoll, who had been a favorite child actor at the studio for films like Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1948), was just reaching that point where his voice was beginning to break, and it’s a perfect match for the youthful yet authoritative Peter.  He’s a child, but one with responsibilities, which Driscoll captures perfectly in his spirited performance.  The whole movie is probably the main reason why Peter Pan remains a popular character to this day, as it still holds up several generations later.  Peter is still a fixture in the Disney canon, but even at the same time, it does so while still honoring the character J.M. Barrie created long before.

MARY MARTIN from PRODUCER’S SHOWCASE: PETER PAN (1955)

For the same generation that grew up with the Disney production, this was the other Peter Pan that defined the character.  Famed Broadway director Jerome Robbins took the original Barrie play and added songs to it from famed lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green (of Singin’ in the Rain fame) and crafted this new musical adaptation.  The musical became an instant Broadway hit, and catapulted it’s star, Mary Martin, into a household name.  Because the Disney version was still fresh in people’s minds, it prevented a full movie version from getting the greenlight, but that helped to open the door for television as a result.  The live broadcast series Producer’s Showcase, which helped to bring little seen stage productions to a mass audience, decided to bring Peter Pan onto their show in it’s entirety, complete with all the original cast members from the shows, including Martin who was still in the middle of her legendary stage run.  The broadcast was also historic in that it was one of the first ever live broadcasts shot in color, despite color television not being available yet to the public.  This would become useful in later re-broadcasts years later, but it represents an exceptional forward thinking idea on the producers part.  The production values are pretty limited compared to other Pan adaptations, as unlike most others, this one is clearly stagebound, but it makes up for it with Mary Martin’s magnetic presence as Peter Pan.  Her depiction of the character is rightly seen as one of the greatest ever.  Just the way she spreads her arms and legs out as she flys around the stage just shows how much she is trying to convey a sense of weightlessness.  Her role would remain a high-water mark for generations.  Even the recent live tv version starring Allison Williams as Peter and Christopher Walken as Hook can’t quite capture the same exuberance that Martin brought to the role.  It shows just how much a gifted performer can bring to a role.

ROBIN WILLIAMS in HOOK (1991)

The premise to this Spielberg directed fantasy is a fascinating one.  What if Peter Pan did leave Neverland and grow up?  What kind of person would he be?  And the movie presents us with an interesting answer; he becomes an asshole lawyer who’s emotionally distant to his wife and kids.  The first act of Hook is actually quite brilliant as it builds up this interesting story of a man having to confront the childhood he left behind, and find his way again, with Robin Williams delivering a strong performance as the grown up Peter Banning.  And then, the movie beings to loose it’s way.  I know many people love this movie, but for me, it falls apart after that strong opening.  It’s happens when Peter makes it back to Neverland, and it’s this drab, ugly place.  And from that point, all the promising magic drains out of the movie.  Even when Robin Williams finally emerges in all his Peter Pan glory, it’s kind of a let down, because his buffoonish Pan is not as interesting as the character he had already been establishing himself as.  I honestly get more out of the scenes with Hook and Smee, played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman and a perfectly cast Bob Hoskins.  Mostly, my disappointment with this movie says more about me with my transition into adulthood.  I find that I like this movie less as I get older, because I see more of the flaws.  The ugly production design probably is where the movie looses me the most, because I have this colorful view of Neverland in my mind, that no doubt was influenced by the Disney version.  But also, I feel like having the normally rambunctious Robin Williams in the role of Peter Pan should have been a slam dunk, and yet he’s so much better when he’s not in his green tights.  It’s not a good sign when Robin Williams gets upstaged by Rufio (played by Dante Basco), who yes is a standout, if somewhat cliched character.  I hold it against no one if you like this movie, but to me, it’s a lesser depiction of Peter Pan and his story; even made more disappointing by what it could have been based on how it starts out.

RICK SPARKS in NEVERLAND (2003)

Although Hook may have missed the mark in it’s story, there is another version that completely departs from Barrie’s tale entirely.  Here we have a modern retelling of the story, stripping away the childhood wonderment of the the original story, and giving it a seedier, adult oriented makeover.  This micro-budget, avante garde depiction from Queer Cinema auteur Damion Dietz reimagines the fantasy world of Neverland as a run down amusement park that attracts outsiders and social outcasts, like prostitutes, drug addicts, hustlers, and con artists.  There’s a satirical point made in this somewhere, but it gets drowned out by the filmmakers grungy style.  It’s no more apparent that the director cares little about the essence of Barrie’s original story than with his choices with regards to the character himself. Peter is very much a character of this world, in that he’s an immature man child, indulging in the dark depths of this Neverland. Actor Rick Sparks is fine in the role, but his character is far from likable. It’s definitely not a version of this story that is appropriate for all ages and should only be seen by the morbidly curious. But it does illustrate how the story can be adapted to a different place and time, and still remain familiar. But unless you want to see a coke snorting Tinker Bell and a BDSM obsessed Captain Hook, I’d say look elsewhere for a better version of this story.

JEREMY SUMPTER in PETER PAN (2003)

Though Peter Pan has had a long history on the silver screen up to this point, it’s surprising that it took this long to actually get the character portrayed in live action as he’s written on the page. In this P. J. Hogan directed feature, we get a Peter who’s actually played by a young male actor, and not just in voice. A then pre-teen Jeremy Sumpter does look the part, though seeing an actor this young in a costume this skimpy is unsettling at times; evoking the idea of the wrong kind of Neverland. Sadly, he’s not given as much development as past versions of Peter, because despite what the title says, this isn’t his story. This movie actually focuses more on the character of Wendy Darling. It’s her journey into blossoming womanhood that fills out most of the movie’s runtime. Peter is more reduced to an ideal love interest for her, which I guess might explain the outfit. Sumpter is also overshadowed by an over-the-top performance from Jason Isaacs as Captain Hook. But given how little impact he has, Sumpter still gives Peter a presence. We see more of Peter’s cunning instincts in this version here; the kind of strong awareness that has allowed him to remain alive in a world where he’s constantly hunted by pirates. His playful side is there too, but the movie does a capable job of showing why he is so revered by both the Wendy and the Lost Boys. Though the movie itself is unfocused and scattershot, it does a fine job in portraying its central hero, and especially gives much more importance to the bond between him and Wendy.

LEVI MILLER in PAN (2015)

Now this is a strange one to be sure. At a time when classic family stories are constantly being rebooted, I’m surprised Disney was beaten to the finish line with this one. Although, it didn’t quite benefit studio Warner Brothers either. Pan was a costly flop for the studio, earning back only 20% of its original cost. Not only that, it put off a lot of audiences who were expecting a faithful adaptation of the story. Instead, it offers up an origin story as it were, with young Peter being kidnapped by pirates from a London orphanage and taken to a post-apocalyptic Neverland where he and his other “lost boys” are expected to work as slaves in a vast mine controlled by the power-hungry Captain Blackbeard (a very campy Hugh Jackman). Oh, and the slaves pass their time by singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit.” I am not kidding. There are many baffling cinematic choices like that one in the movie, and it’s surprising that a quality director like Joe Wright (Atonement) was behind this mess. For me, the movie is to the point where it’s so weird that it becomes fascinating to watch, like a guilty pleasure. But oddly enough, the one thing that is not interesting in it’s weirdness is Peter himself. Levi Miller unfortunately is a little boring in the role, somewhat lost in all the movie’s insanity. He’s age appropriate enough, but the movie seems less interested in his character than it is about his world, and it becomes clear that he’s just there to fill out a role rather than be the character. There is little else to indicate that this young kid is going to become the character we all know. It pretty much just sets up the origin story tropes, while at the same time forgetting to make it’s hero all that interesting.

So, it’s been an up and down journey for Peter Pan as a character on the silver screen. In many ways, the character has kind of been lost in more recent years, as many filmmakers have needlessly tried to adapt the story to more modern sensibilities. And it really is unnecessary because the character is at his very core timeless. The Disney classic proves this, as it still remains a popular film almost 7 decades later, and as a stage production, the story has changed very little from J.M. Barrie’s original text. There really is no need to do a deconstruction of the whole narrative. As a character, Peter Pan remains very relevant. He still inspires the adventurous side in most younger audiences, while also making older viewers reflective of their own childhood ideals, and how they’ve changed as they’ve gotten older. It’s something that at one point the movie Hook was building an intriguing narrative towards, until it gets undone by the films spectacle and unfocused execution. Still, Peter remains popular and its because he’s a character that remains constant through all generations. Though we may grow old, he remains the same youthful spirit that stays as a part of lives, no matter who fills out the role. I myself still consider him one of my favorite characters, and may or may not have dressed up for Halloween as the character when I was still a kid (green tights and all). Think happy thoughts, and let’s all continue to fly to Neverland with Peter Pan.

Where to Now? – How Cinema Transitions from One Era to Another

When we enter into a new decade, the first thought that we often ponder over is what the last 10 years were all about.  This can cover a variety of things; politics, music, culture, and really just the lives we had during that time.  Essentially, we like to mark this transition in years as an era of time, as if these 10 calendar years themselves had their own defining characteristics.  The truth is that eras are not so easily defined, as a time period we know as the 70’s in fact probably didn’t define itself until probably the latter half of the decade, and spilled a little bit over into the early 80’s.  But, we still seem to define these decades as such because of all those above factors: the culture, the politics, the music, and of course, the movies.  If anything, it’s really the movies that have come to define the transitioning of our culture from decade to decade, as you can definitely see a progression that not only was shaped by the culture that made them, but also would go on to influence the culture itself.  We all like to determine what was the defining 80’s movie, or the defining 70’s movie, and so on, and there are always some worthwhile candidates throughout.  But, as indicated earlier, the movies that come to define an era don’t always come right at the turn of a new decade.  Despite some rare examples, few movies actually make that transition hit right at the turn of the decade, and are often found somewhere in the middle, or even at the very end.  But, even still, it is interesting to see how much eras of cinema coincide with the character of the decades that they exist within.  And as we go into a new one this year, it makes us wonder where the next ten years are going to take us next, and if those markers even matter anymore, given how much change cinema seems to be going through even year to year now.

In many ways, we really didn’t take into account how much a decade left it’s mark on the movies until really after the culture itself shifted.  Once the counterculture movement started to move into full swing in the late 1960’s, it was about then that film criticism and analysis started to look back on the years prior as a way of defining the past from the culturally shifting present.  That’s when people started to look at the eras that were apparent, much less defined by the decades they existed in, and more defined by the advancements they made within the art-form.  Specifically, early films were defined as the Silent Era, which encompassed decades worth of movies extending from the first Edison Vitaphone shorts at the turn of the 20th Century to the grand expressionist masterpieces of the German masters to the very beginnings of Hollywood itself.  This celebrated era finds it’s end with the release of Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927), the first “talkie” which would revolutionize the industry overnight and bring synchronized sound to the art-form.  But even after The Jazz Singer, silent films didn’t just end; Chaplain for instance would continue making silent movies for several more years.  But it would mark the end of their dominance in the medium, as sound film would quickly take over as the norm.  This as a result becomes the narrative of the history of cinema; with one fell swoop, one era of movies comes to an end and then another begins, ignoring the more opaque line that really exists between each.  Even still, cinema aficionados really want to classify a time period within these parameters and pinpoint exactly where the era ends and begins.  This is why the Silent Era feels so fittingly concluded by The Jazz Singer, because it’s works like a cinematic exclamation.  Also, it marked a point where new advancements in technology would play the defining role in presenting a transition for cinema in general.

As such, the years that followed would see new eras defined by the various new advancements in the medium.  The introduction of technicolor, the invention of anamorphic widescreen, even 3D and Smell-o-vision would characterize the changing times of cinema in the years ahead.  Real world issues would also play a factor too.  The 1940’s would absolutely be characterized as one thing in particular within cinema, because it was the thing that was on everyone else’s mind at the time; the War Years.  With World War II raging throughout the globe from 1939 to 1945, it’s easy to see how such a worldwide event would dominate every aspect of the culture, including the movies.  Indeed, every movie made in those years was in one way or another affected by the War, with some more overtly addressing it than others.  Even if you watch a sweet little romantic movie from that era, you’ll notice in the movie’s credits that there’s a reminder to buy war bonds in the lobby, which shows that even escapist entertainment needed to do it’s part for the war effort.  But, even despite the war hanging over the culture and the industry like it did, it doesn’t mean that there was a disruption in the advancement of film-making during that time either.  Some of the greatest movies ever made directly deal with the War head on and still hold up even long after the conflict is over; Casablanca (1943) being one of the shiniest examples.  But the War years as they are known in cinema also extended beyond just the War itself, as the aftermath also left it’s mark in the years after.  Soldiers coming home from the war became not just a different audience for the movies, but also an interesting subject as well.  The Oscar-winning drama The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) tackled the lingering trauma of the post war experience head-on, including having a real life wounded vet, Harold Russell, playing a key role.  There was also a movie like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) that while not about the War itself still was thematically linked to it; especially considering that both director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart were returning vets themselves.  Culture and technological advancements alike would both shape the different perceived eras of cinema, and though brief in comparison, the War Years themselves would leave the most profound of change on the industry.

But, once the counterculture began to really push society in a different direction, the importance of cinema leaving a statement became more relevant to how it would define an era.  For the most part, the years immediately following the War probably defined cinema the most, as it has been affectionately been dubbed the Golden Years.  During this time, to give rapidly growing families from the “Baby Boom” the kind of escapist entertainment that they desired, Hollywood began investing in bigger, more lavish productions.  This was the era of the Roadshow picture, with massive scope and production values meant to envelope the audience in an experience that they could only find on the big screen.  This was also spurned on by the beginning of television as a direct competitor.  Movies became grandiose spectacle, and with it, so came the inevitable downfall.  These movies often became financially unsound, with budgets ballooning to unfathomable heights.  20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra (1963) nearly bankrupted the studio, and they weren’t the only ones feeling the crunch.  At the same time, people were growing frustrated with the Hollywood machine, and were more attracted to the international output of bold new artists coming out of the French New Wave or the Italian Neo-realist Movement.  Thus, we began to see push-back from the Counter-culture, who saw big “Hollywood” as a relic of the past, and who wanted to carve out a “New Hollywood” in it’s place.  And in this period of time, you will find the most definitive year of stark transition ever in Hollywood.  Though the psychedelic 60’s had a major influence throughout the decade in cinema, Old Hollywood was still a lingering presence.  And then came 1969, where you see the real schism finally split the two apart.  It was the year that produced both Hello, Dolly (1969), an old-fashioned, and expensive, throwback musical and Easy Rider (1969), a micro-budget celebration of hippie culture in America.  Dolly crashed and burned at the box office, while Easy Rider became a smash hit, and the writing was finally on the wall.  1969 was the year that New Hollywood had finally come into it’s own.  This was even more apparent come Oscar time, when Best Picture was given to the first X-Rated winner, Midnight Cowboy; on the same night that Old Hollywood legend John Wayne won his Oscar for True Grit no less.  You won’t find a year that stated so much about the change in cinema than that one right there.

From that point on, it became less about the advancements in the medium that defined, but more about the culture itself that defined the movies.  And as such, the decades themselves became the benchmarks for the movies that premiered within them.  The 1970’s, in retrospect, took the counter-culture ideal more seriously, and as a result we saw a significant reduction in Studios being the driving force behind the movies and more the directors being the one’s pushing cinema to the next level.  It was the era of the director, a time period defined as some would call the “easy riders and the raging bulls,” as the 2003 documentary of the same name details.  Coincidentally enough, those were exactly the same movies that would bookmark the era, as the creative freedom given after Easy Rider would dissipate soon after Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980).  Much like the studios before them, the ambitions of the maverick directors of the era would soon become unmanageable, and their projects would in turn go over-budget and under-seen as well.  Great promising careers from amazing directors like William Friedkin, Michael Cimino, and even Francis Ford Coppola were cut short because they lost the trust of the studios financing them, and were left to work under tighter constraints for the rest of their careers.  Only Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese would manage to continue working on consistently high levels in the years ahead, which would be easily defined as the era of the blockbuster.  The 1980’s evolved in the wake of the downfall of the director era, and became more about escapist entertainment.  Every studio thereafter wanted their own Star Wars (1977) or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), and it became a fruitful time for fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure.  Though we see this as a defining aspect of the 1980’s, it would also extend far into the 1990’s, as digital technology began to redefine special effects.  And in this time period, box office became a race like never before.  Back in the early days of cinema, there would always be untouchable kings, like Gone With the Wind (1939), but starting in the 90’s, records would fall with regular consistency, and it was not always an indication of the quality of the film, but more about how well a movie can do on it’s opening weekend.  Thus we got into a time when intellectual properties became the most prized commodity in Hollywood; not the stars, nor the directors, but the brand, and that in a way has led to an era that more or less hasn’t changed in the last 20 years.

Right now, if you were to define the 2000’s and the 2010’s in cinema, I’d say that you’d have a much harder time than previous eras before.  That’s because the traditional markers that we’ve used before in defining the different eras of cinema have kind of lost their value over time.  What I think is the most defining change over the last 20 years of film is the advancement of digital cinema.  Since the year 2000, digital film-making has gone from a novelty to a norm in a very short amount of time.  And in that same period, movie theaters have also quickly converted to digital presentations as well.  This has reduced the necessity of physical media in making and presenting media, which movie studios and theaters see as more cost effective and efficient.  But it also leads to something that I don’t think many people have realized.  The reason why so many movies from different eras have a different look and texture to them is because film stock itself changed so much over the years.  There are very big differences between how a movie looks in 70mm, 35mm, and 16mm, and even the brand differences between suppliers like Kodak and Fujifilm, and processors like Technicolor and Deluxe, would make a big difference in how a finished movie would appear.  But now, with many movies today not even using film, it leads to a result of all movies looking more or less the same, at least in terms of texture.  Everything now has that digital sheen to it, all the way down to the way they are presented.  Even television shows are beginning to look more like movies today, and that’s because they are using pretty much the same types of cameras.  There are holdovers that still shoot and even present on film, but for the most part, movies have been going in this decidedly digital direction, and that has defined most of what we’ve seen in the last several year.  Combine this with an even more homogenized studio system that favors brands over original ideas, and you’ve got an era of Hollywood that seems to be more driven by repetition and standardization than ever before.

The only really disruptive thing that we’ve recently seen in the last 20 years has been the way we watch movies now.  If there was ever something that defined the 2010’s in cinema, it would be the rise of Netflix and streaming cinema; as well as super hero movies.  Netflix didn’t start in the last decade (it’s actually a surprisingly 20+ year old company), but it certainly came into it’s own in the last 10 years, and that is mainly due to their decision to invest in their own content.  Probably seeing the writing on the wall early on, knowing that eventually the other studios would want to take their model and use it for their own distribution, Netflix spent billions on exclusive movies and shows that could only be viewed on their platform, and as result became a studio on their own with a reach in viewership rivaling that of the big six.  Even with Disney, Fox, Warner Brothers, and Universal all jumping into streaming now, Netflix still has themselves positioned well, because of the quality of content they’ve acquired, including movies now from giants like Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers.  More than anything, what Netflix has disrupted the most is the viewing habits of the movie going public.  Their streaming model has offered the most direct competition to the theatrical experience since the advent of television, and that in itself is defining the last decade of cinema more than any movie has.   Movie theaters are desperately trying to hold onto their patronage that has benefited them for several decades before, and because of Netflix and the like, we’re going to see a new era for the presentation side of cinema the likes of which we haven’t seen in many decades.  So, if it’s not the movies that are defining the eras of cinema at this point, it’s the way we are watching them that is.  For the last ten years, it was Netflix that reigned unchallenged; perhaps the next ten will be defined by how all the new platforms will challenge each other in this new competitive market.

There are many different ways to look at cinema as blocks of easily defined eras, but the truth is far more complex than that. The truth is that cinema has been fluidly flowing from one decade into another, and only in retrospect do we take a look back and try to form a pattern in it all. The movies that we say defined the decade may have, in fact, not been recognized as such in their day, and were instead more likely just seen as the great movies that they were. Defining an era more comes out of how we want to look back at the years that have passed us by, and see a way that we can explain why attitudes and personal tastes change over time. At the same time, our perceptions of cultural touchstones, like the movies, can also be influenced by the era they come from, and helps to shape their reception for newer audiences. Terms like the Silent Era, the Golden Era, and the Psychedelic Era are easily marketable and can help to draw attention to older movies based on what someone is looking for. In many ways, Hollywood enjoys define their different eras, even if they don’t exactly know how to shape them to begin with. In the end, it is determined by the things that we find the most fascinating about the movies in each era that determine how they will shape their place in time. Whether it’s through the technology that pushes the medium forward, the stars that capture our imagination, the artists that drive the art-form, or as we are seeing right now, the way we watch the movies, cinema will more or less tell it’s own story, which it does so through it’s own evolution. An era in cinema is an easy to grasp definition, one that doesn’t tie down to a set number of years. So, as we look back at the last ten years, and forwards to the next ten, it helps to understand that a new era of cinema is just another chapter in an ongoing story that flows in it’s own way. Great movies can come at any time from anywhere, and the great part of history is that it is constantly being written. For now, feel happy that you are experiencing a time in cinema that itself will be seen under different eyes in the years ahead, and that hopefully you’ll have been part of something exciting historical and important to the culture at large.

 

Top Ten Movies of 2019

The year of 2020 is upon us, and a new decade begins.  Usually the end of the decade calls for a retrospective on the previous decade that was, and I will be getting to that too in the weeks ahead.  But for this first week of the year, I’m going to focus on the year we just went through, 2019, and share my thoughts on what went on with the movies over that time.  2019 was a pretty significant year when it came to the distribution of films.  Netflix’s influence on the business was palpable, as both Disney and Apple made their debuts in the streaming market as a direct challenge to the supremacy that Netflix had enjoyed in the field.  Movie theaters had not been completely affected too much yet, as box office sales were still high, though not record numbers.  One studio however, Disney, did have a record setting year, as they delivered just an onslaught of blockbuster movies during this last calendar year.  Riding the wave of huge finales for their Marvel and Star Wars properties, as well as remakes of their beloved animated classics and new animated sequels, Disney took a whopping 40% of the box office share this year, with Warner Brothers being the only credible challenger thanks to the success of Joker (2019).  The Fox merger also boosted Disney’s box office stake, and suddenly Hollywood began to a look a lot different in such a short amount of time.  But as far as the quality of movies goes, this was actually a strong year overall for the industry.  So much so that it was actually quite hard to create a top ten list this year.  There were so many good films made this year that I had to make some hard choices about what to leave out, as I try to limit myself to just the standard 10.  Even the runners up are worthy of anyone’s top tens for the year, as I’m sure many of them likely will be.  But, I made my choices below and I’m sticking by them.

Before I begin, here are 10 in no particular order that nearly made my list: 1917, Little Women, Joker, Dolemite is My Name, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, They Shall Not Grow Old, Parasite, The Farewell, Knives Out,  and Under the Silver Lake.  And now, let’s get to my Top 10 Movies of 2019.

10.

TOY STORY 4

Directed by Josh Cooley

It seemed pretty impossible.  Toy Story 3 (2010) was the perfect ending for a trilogy that has come to define excellence in animation.  It wrapped up the story-line spread across three movies, released over a fifteen year span, on such a perfect note with Andy saying goodbye to all of his beloved toys in a heartfelt, emotionally impactful scene.  There was no way that Pixar could ever pick up the story again after that in any satisfying way.  But, somehow miraculously, they managed to do it.  Toy Story 4 is that fourth chapter of a story that you never asked for, and yet it is exactly what you needed.  Thanks to a deftly written script by Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton and newcomer Stephany Folsom, we learn that saying goodbye to Andy was just the end of a chapter, and not for the whole book.  There was one more adventure to go, at least for Woody.  Here, we are given the definitive conclusion to this on-going series, and it still delivers.  All the characters that we’ve grown to love are all back, and the movie even manages to fit in a few more new favorites.  I particularly loved the daredevil action figure named Duke Caboom (voiced hilariously by a game Keanu Reeves).  The movie also marks a triumphant return for Bo Peep (voiced again by Annie Potts) who really comes into her own in this film.  I never thought Pixar could thread the needle again with their flagship franchise, given how high the bar had been set by it’s predecessors, but they managed to do it, showing just how good they are with their artform.  In particular, it does the characters the most justice, giving them a sendoff worthy of what has been built before.  The final scene with Woody and Buzz Lightyear is especially emotional.  If you loved everything else from this series, this will also be another one you’ll cherish; to infinity and beyond.

9.

THE LIGHTHOUSE

Directed by Robert Eggers

Put this down as 2019’s most unusual film; and that’s saying a lot.  In a year defined by unique horror movies like Ari Aster’s Midsommar and Gasper Noe’s Climax, Robert Eggers The Lighthouse stood out even more.  This black and white, narrowly framed avant garde nightmare of a film is really unlike anything else you’ll likely experience at the movies.  And that’s what made it so memorable, and in many ways, delightfully subversive.  In equal measures a character study, a surrealist mind trip, a screwball comedy, and a horrific descent into madness, this is movie that uniquely carves out it’s own path and you can’t take your eyes off of it.  Containing a cast of only two for the entirety of it’s run-time (minus the quick glimpse of a mermaid), this movie is carried by it’s stars, Willem Dafoe and a revelatory Robert Pattinson, who seem hell bent on trying to out crazy the other.  There is plenty of excellent back and forth between the two, leading to some of the most demented monologues that you’ll ever an actor speak without catching their breath.  And the cinematography is stunning in this movie as well, capturing the absolute isolation and ravaging that the elements wreck on the tiny little island that house the titular lighthouse.  For the most part, you’ll probably be left wondering if any of the bizarre stuff seen in this movie is real or not, and the movie does an excellent job of keeping it’s audience in the dark, even up to the very end.  It’s definitely not for everyone, but it pleased the cinephile in me, as it hearkens back to very early cinema; like a silent expressionist film, but with sound also playing a key factor.  No doubt Eggers was influenced by these movies too, and it gave him the inspiration for a movie that is likely going to be remembered as a bold cinematic experiment.

8.

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON

Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz

This was something of a comeback year for Shia LaBeouf.  After a few years of getting in trouble with the law and making less than ideal life choices, which took a toll on his struggling film career, Shia began to take some control over his life and that included making bolder choices with his films.  He got to write an autobiographical script while doing a stint in rehab, which turned into the film Honey Boy, which deals with the turbulent relationship he had with his father, whom he plays himself in the movie.  It’s an excellent display of catharsis on his part, showing that he is making an effort to heal the trauma of his past that had put him on the wrong path.  More importantly, Shia is trying a lot harder as an actor, and the movie that really showed off how much he has grown this past year was the charming little indie The Peanut Butter Falcon.  Here he plays a wayward troublemaker trying to make an escape who by chance runs into a young runaway with special needs, played by a scene-stealing Zack Gottsagen.  The movie then turns into a beautiful, Mark Twain-esque journey, exploring the often unseen world of the Mississippi Delta region.  The relationship between the two characters is a charming delight to watch, equal parts uplifting and side-splitting hilarious.  Shia especially makes his rough edges work well for the character here, and he is perfectly matched with his co-star Gottsagen, who makes a breakthrough here for special needs actors.  The locals are gorgeously captured and the story is simple but emotionally resonate, much in the same vein as many of the great Twain stories of old.  If this and Honey Boy are any indication, Shia’s career is finally looking like it’s turning a corner in a positive way.  And it helps when you make a movie like this that is just plain delightful to it’s core.

7.

ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

You got to hand it to Mr. Tarantino.  He’s not shy about sharing his obsession with film in all the movies that he makes.  Most of the time, he limits it to clever in jokes or overt references.  But with Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, he gets to finally deliver a love letter to all things cinema in his own way.  The movie takes place in a particular time in Hollywood that Tarantino was interested in; centered around the notorious Manson Family Murders in 1969.  But this movie is about the Manson Murders as much as Reservoir Dogs (1991) was about a bank robbery or Pulp Fiction (1994) was about a briefcase.  He even plays the events of those murders out in a revisionist history style like what he implemented with WWII in Inglorious Basterds (2009) with the tables turned.  This upset historical purists, but at the same time, Tarantino spells out exactly what he’s doing from the beginning.  This movie is first and foremost a fairy tale; it’s called Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood after all.  And like most fairy tales, his Hollywood is full of it’s valiant knights, it’s roguish warriors, it’s fair princesses, it’s warrior queens, and it’s evil warlocks; namely the actors, the crewmen, the starlets, the dedicated performers, and the con artists.  All these incredible characters populate this wonderful cornucopia of Tinseltown that Tarantino has crafted.  At it’s center is this wonderful bromance between his two leads played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, as a temperamental fading star and his devoted stunt man.  Margot Robbie also delivers a beautiful turn as the legendary Sharon Tate, whose real life inspiration was the tragic light of an older, innocent Hollywood that got snuffed out by the Manson family.  The recreation of this bygone era on the real Hollywood Boulevard is done with remarkable attention to detail, and shows just how much Tarantino wanted to bring his ideal version of Hollywood back to glorious life.  It’s a love letter of the best kind, and a treat for all fans of cinema.

6.

APOLLO 11

Directed by Todd Douglas Miller

It’s amazing to think that the best documentary of the year features not one interview and is comprised entirely of footage shot 50 years ago.  And yet, Director Todd Douglas Miller managed to craft a remarkable, you are there experience chronicling the monumental first moon landing on it’s fiftieth anniversary.  All of the footage used in the film is real footage shot during the mission from a variety of different vantage points.  This includes a lot of footage that has never been made public before, including some truly incredible footage.  Included in the movie are remarkable 70mm footage of the rocket launch from ground level, the complete uncut orbital descent to the surface of the moon taken from Buzz Aldrin’s own camera, and an alternate, color film angle of Neil Armstrong’s first step.  And it’s all edited together in sequence, giving you a moment by moment experience unlike any other depiction of the moon landing we’ve seen.  It’s mind boggling how much footage there exists of this mission (and yes conspiracy theorists out there, this footage is 100% authentic, so consider yourself debunked).  The movie also brilliantly ties everything together with the real comm-link communication between the astronauts and the Houston Mission Command Center.  The only fabrication this documentary adds are sound effects, helping to give the experience more of a cinematic feel.  No matter what, this will likely be the definitive cinematic presentation of this monumental human achievement.  Not even First Man (2018) managed to hit with this kind of emotional impact.  This is as epic as documentary film-making can get, and it’s amazing to think that it took 50 full years for this footage to even be seen as it was intended.  Thankfully this movie is the best possible presentation to show it all and it demands to be seen on the biggest possible screen that you can find.

5.

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

By all accounts this movie should never have worked.  Not only did it need to satisfyingly wrap up the story first set up in Avengers: Infinity War the year prior, but it also had to conclude 10 years and 22 films’ worth of on-going narratives that have all linked together in one way or another.  It also had to follow one of the most notorious and shocking cliffhangers in cinema history, as well as deliver a plot that could subvert all our fan theories and still satisfy.  Oh, and it also ended up clocking in at three hours, the longest super hero movie ever by a wide margin.  Needless to say, a lot was riding on this movie, and somehow, Marvel miraculously did what it set out to do.  Sticking the landing would be an understatement.  This movie is both exactly what we wanted and also not what we were expecting at all.  We knew that all those heroes dusted away at the end of Infinity War were coming back, but we didn’t know exactly how, and what is brilliant about the movie is that it undercuts the hopeful resolution almost immediately, leaving the audience with a decidedly off-guard sense throughout the rest of the film.  I love the fact that nothing is an easy fix for the Avengers in the movie, and that they actually had to live with some of the trauma of the losing their friends and loved ones for a long time.  It’s something you don’t see play out that often in movies like this.  But at the same time, it does deliver on all the expected highs as well.  The final act of this movie is a prime example of how to do fan service right.  It’s just one brilliant payoff after another.  This was probably my favorite in theater experience watching a movie this year.  Hearing an audience of 400 people all cheer out at once over the  lifting of a hammer by a certain character is something that you’ll never forget.  In addition, it provides a beautifully told swan song to the original Avengers team formed in the 2012 film, as some of the characters’ story arcs come to a fitting end in this film.  Marvel says they had an “endgame” plan all along from the moment they launched this Cinematic Universe, and Avengers: Endgame is a plan perfectly executed, with even more hope given to the future ahead.  I loved it 3000.

4.

MARRIAGE STORY

Directed by Noah Baumbach

Taking a break from talking about the big and epic from last year, here we have a movie that is small and intimate in all the best ways.  With Marriage Story, director Noah Baumbach tells the story of a family breaking apart with the most minute of character details revealed through the whole experience.  It’s a movie that doesn’t take sides, but instead shows the painful process that divorce can be and how it brings out the worst in even good people.  It’s certainly not the first movie to tackle such an issue, but it’s one that absolutely feels like one of the most authentic portrayals of the process of divorce we’ve ever seen on screen.  The actors utterly disappear into their roles, and it’s almost like we’re ease-dropping in on a real couple breaking apart before our eyes.  It’s heartbreaking, truthful, as well as uplifting and at times very funny.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson deliver two of the year’s best performances as the couple in question, growing more resentful of each other while still trying to cling to that hopeful kinship that brought them together in the first place.  There is a rawness to their arguments in the movie that creates some of the most tension filled scenes of the year; all the more remarkable considering that none of it deviated from Baumbach’s script.  One particular fight masterfully progresses from cordial, to sarcastic, to furiously enraged, to finally tearful and it is all feels authentic.  Even the moments on their own, the actors shine.  Johanssen has a single take monologue that is astonishingly presented, and Driver even gets to literally sing his feelings away.  It’s a movie that reminds me of the laid back dramas of the late 70’s like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) in all the best ways.  Sometimes the best dramas are the ones found in just an ordinary family.

3.

UNCUT GEMS

Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie

Never thought I’d see an Adam Sandler movie this high on my best of the year list.  Sandler is no stranger to dramatic roles, famously venturing out of his comfort zone for Paul Thomas Anderson’s romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love (2002) in a brilliant, underrated performance.  Since then, he retreated back to his patented screwball comedy style, which sadly led to diminishing returns over the years.  But this year, Sandler made a triumphant return to drama in a knockout role in this new film from the Safdie brothers.  And boy, this movie will blindside you and knock you down completely in a way that you not believe.  This movie can be described as an anxiety attack in film form, with every twist and turn just driving the tension up further to near unbearable points.  And the fact that Sandler is the one at the center of all this madness and delivering a performance so perfectly tuned to the story it’s telling is something quite miraculous.  It would be an absolute shame if he isn’t nominated for an Oscar for what is likely going to be the greatest performance he’ll ever give, though I feel that might likely happen.  Even still, the depths he goes with this character are amazing.  You just see him take more and more unnecessary risks all in the pursuit of fulfilling that glorious huge payday, and the bad choices just keep on building.  As a shady jewel peddler, he runs afoul of gangsters, creditors, spiteful exes, and even NBA legend Kevin Garnett.  The Safdie brothers aggressively vibrant visual style also drives up the uneasiness of the situations and it makes the entire experience of watching this character self-destruct all the more memorable.  And while Sandler’s character is the definition of a scumbag, you still end up rooting for him by the film’s end, which is a testament to his performance.  Again, pretty miraculous that Adam Sandler ended up giving one of the year’s best performances in one year’s best films.  The talent was always there; it’s just that someone needed to recognize it in him and wrestle it out.

2.

THE IRISHMAN

Directed by Martin Scorsese

With films like Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes, David Michod’s The King, and the previously mentioned Marriage Story from Noah Baumbach, 2019 was going to be Netflix’s big push for Oscar Gold after loosing out the year prior when their film Roma (2018) lost out to Green Book (2018).  And while all these movies are strong contenders, there was never any doubt that Netflix’s top dog this year was going to be Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman.  And despite what happens at the Oscars in the weeks ahead, there is no doubt that Netflix and Scorsese delivered the goods.  The movie is pretty much everything that has made Scorsese’s career legendary wrapped up in a single, 3 1/2 hour film.  It’s almost feels like a finale in a way too, like this will be the last opportunity for him to make a movie like this ever, so he put everything he has into it.  That seems especially true with the cast he assembled.  Working once again with his longtime friend and collaborator Robert DeNiro after a long hiatus, the two are perfectly in tune once again.  Scorsese even talked Joe Pesci out of retirement to be in this one last movie, and it’s a beautiful, different paced return to form for the legendary actor.  We also finally get to see Al Pacino work with Scorsese for the first time, and he’s just as great as you’d expect.  The movie almost feels like the third and concluding chapter of a trilogy, combined with Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) even though their only linked by genre.  Think of this as Scorsese’s Return of the King.  It’s exquisitely crafted, brilliantly acted, often hilarious, occasionally shocking; it’s everything you want a Scorsese film to be.  No matter what the purpose of making it was for, I applaud Netflix for making a movie like this happen.  If anything, it’s the kind of movie that can elevate a studio to the next level, and given how much Netflix has already changed, that’s saying quite a bit.

And my pick for the best movie of 2019 is…

1.

JOJO RABBIT

Directed by Taika Waititi

Crafting a satire around Nazi Germany is no easy task, as it opens you up to a lot of mine fields if you don’t hit the right tone.  Even more so if you also include the horrors of the Holocaust in the mix.  But, somehow New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi managed to find that balance, and deliver not just one of the year’s funniest comedies, but also one of the most uplifting stories about love and friendship triumphing over hate that I’ve ever seen.  And he does it even while appearing in the movie as a comical version of Heir Hitler himself.  One of the reasons why the movie works so well is because the characters within the movie are so wonderfully written and performed.  Young newcomer Roman Griffin Davis gives a commanding performance as the idealistic yet naive Jojo, giving him equal weight whenever the movie gets silly or heavily dramatic.  The same goes for the entire cast as well, including Scarlett Johanssson, Sam Rockwell, and Thomasin McKenzie.  Even secondary performers like Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant shine.  But what is especially remarkable about the movie is that it doesn’t shy away from the truly evil acts committed by the Nazi regime, and the film manages to balance the heavy stuff with the comical stuff without giving the audience tonal whiplash.  It feels very much in the same vein as a Charlie Chaplin comedy like The Great Dictator, with maybe a little Mel Brooks and Monty Python thrown in.  Taika really demonstrates how good of a filmmaker he is with this movie, especially when it comes to tackling such a sensitive subject.  Not many people can balance savage, cartoonish satire with tearful human drama effectively, but he managed to pull it off.  It’s the kind of comedy that we need right now; unafraid to label hatred for what it is and a passionate showcase for the healing power of love.  I loved every minute of it.

So there you have my picks for the best movies of 2019, but like all my lists from year’s past, I also have my picks for the year’s worst.  Sadly, this one was pretty easy to choose from, as 2019 had it’s fair share of bad movies as well.  What follows are my bottom 5 movies of 2019.

5. CATS – So mind-boggling misguided in it’s execution that it almost redeems itself as a piece of camp entertainment.  But this adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical never actually finds it’s footing, because you are constantly disturbed by the appearances of the actors in CGI fur making them look like felines despite their human physiques being retained.  Despite some strong performances, this movie is as appealing as a hairball.  For musical fans or the morbidly curious only.  Don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

4.  THE KITCHEN – The year’s most poorly executed drama, and one that sadly had some potential behind it.  Centered around three mob wives played by Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elizabeth Moss who take over operation of their husbands businesses while they are jail, the movie could have been an interesting new take on this genre of film.  Instead, it’s a sloppily edited piece that tries to cram in too much story and suffocates anything that could have given this movie any real bite.  The three leads are so poorly defined as characters that you don’t care at all about their stories, and it’s a waste of the talents of these actresses; some of whom are really trying to grasp onto something here.  This Goodfellas wannabe probably illustrated the most wasted potential of any movie this year.

3. MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL – There were quite a few attempts to relaunch long dormant franchises, most of which failed like Terminator: Dark Fate and Rambo: Last Blood.  This one, however, was by far the laziest.  The hope was that the strong chemistry between actors Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson would help lift this franchise back to it’s former glory, and move beyond the duo of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.  But no, their onscreen chemistry couldn’t salvage this tired franchise, which just again resorts to the same tired tricks that ran stale years ago.  If you want to see Hemsworth and Thompson at their best, just re-watch Thor: Ragnarok (2017) again.  Otherwise, avoid Men in Black: International.  Even a good match of actors can’t overcome a premise that has long lost it’s luster.

2. DARK PHOENIX – Fool us once, shame on you.  Fool us twice, well shame on us.  It was foolish to think that Fox would get the Dark Phoenix saga right the second time around in their X-Men franchise, especially after bungling it so badly with X-Men: The Last Stand (2016).  But, somehow they not only failed us again, but they even managed to make it worse.  This was far and away the worst film in Fox’s long running X-Men series, and sadly it is also the final note that it’s going to go out on.  I’ve also never seen such a great cast in a movie feel so awkwardly directed either.  The performances in this movie are just cringe-inducing bad, and these actors have shown to be much better in other things, so I don’t know what happened to make them so amateurish here.  With Marvel now in charge of the characters again, we are going to see a full reboot that will make all of this non-canonical in the end.  It’s a sad ending to a franchise that had some great moments with a solid cast.  It’s too bad Dark Phoenix is as poor of a final note as it ended up being.

And the worst movie of 2019 is…

1. THE LION KING (2019) – It pains me to say that Disney managed to take one of their most beloved, flawless classics and turn it into the worst movie of the year.  To be honest, Dark Phoenix is the worst made movie of the year, but The Lion King is the one that I hated the most because of what it represents.  This is just copy and paste film-making at it’s very worst.  I love what director Jon Favreau has done with most of his career, but this movie is a waste of his talent, and it tells me that he was just given a mandate by the studio to deliver the same exact film without any creative freedom.  We are just given the same movie over again, only in “live action,” and devoid of any of the emotion that made the original animated film so memorable.  The biggest problem is that all the characters are animated to look and move like real animals, and real animals don’t emote the same way that they can in cartoonish animation.  So that’s why you have these awkwardly blank faces on these characters going through a variety of emotions, and it robs any personality out of the film.  Couple this with the fact that it’s just the same exact script and you’ll only be constantly reminded how much better the original animated classic was.  This is the worst example of the creatively bankrupt trend that Disney has been on with their movie remakes, and I worry that it’s going to lead them down the road of further lackluster film-making for an easy buck.  They should be using their resources to take bigger chances, and broaden their body of work; not just regurgitate past successes towards diminishing returns.

So, there you have my look at the movie of 2019, including it’s best and worst.  It was quite a year for movies, and it completed the decade on a fairly strong note.  In the weeks ahead, I will be giving my overview of the best movies of the last ten years, but before I wrap up this year’s list, I do want to look ahead at what we’ll be seeing in the following year.  With huge finales from the Marvel and Star Wars universes having played out in 2019, 2020 is going to be a bit quieter for the most part, though that’s not to say there won’t be some big films coming out this year.  Marvel kicks off their Phase 4 with the long awaited Black Widow movie this summer, and then delivers us a whole new team of heroes with The Eternals this fall.  Also this summer, DC will bring their biggest champion yet, Wonder Woman, back to the big screen with the highly anticipated sequel Wonder Woman 84.  We also get Christopher Nolan’s new epic thriller Tenet this summer, which I’m sure will be a must see IMAX experience like all his other movies.  We’re also going to see long in the making follow-ups to some classic franchises like Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Top Gun: Maverick.  There will also be some fresh new animated films from Pixar (Onward and Soul) and Disney (Raya and the Last Dragon).  And probably the most intriguing project of the year could be the new big screen adaptation of Dune from director Denis Villeneuve, featuring a huge all star cast.  It’s a year that really seems to be defined by new beginnings just as much as 2019 was defined by epic finales.  Here’s hoping that 2020 sets off the next decade right as far as cinema is concerned.  It’s been fun sharing all these best and worst of the year picks with all of you, and I hope many of my picks were interesting ones.  Here’s to the year ahead and continue having a fun time at the movies.

The Movies of Early 2020

This is a week of remembrance for everyone.  The decade is about to come to a close, and we are about to enter the uncertainty of the new era that faces us ahead; the 2020’s.  We already know a bit about what lies on the horizon cinematically, but much of the talk today is about what movies defined the last ten that we have lived through.  Looking back on just this year alone, we saw a record smashing year at the box office; mostly on the Disney side.  At the same time, more of a shake-up was happening on the distribution front, as both Apple and Disney launched their streaming services just in time for the holidays.  All the while, Netflix was upping their game by putting out an ambitious front of their own, releasing sure to be Awards season favorites with The Irishman, Marriage Story, and The Two Popes.  All in all, 2019 was a relatively strong year for film, which is going to make my year end list all the harder to compile next week, given that I’ll have to leave a lot of good stuff out.  I don’t know exactly where to rank the last year in relation to the decade itself either, but it was certainly up there.  For one thing, no matter what format you see it in (either streaming or on a big screen), it’s great to see a huge outpouring of new films coming from all corners of the industry.  Some are even taking bolder chances on themes and content, although there are some negative aspects to what the studios are putting out as well, particularly when it comes to molding these films for the international market, including censorship in some places.  There will be plenty of time to debate these things later, but for now I’m looking ahead at the immediate future, and seeing what awaits us in the months ahead.

Like all my past previews, I will be looking at a certain selection of films from the upcoming Winter and Spring months, and tell you which ones are the must sees, the ones that have me worried, and the ones to skip.  Each of these choices are based on my own level of anticipation for these movies, based on my responses to the effectiveness of their marketing, and just the general buzz that they carry with them.  Keep in mind, my predictions are informed, but not always accurate, as there are plenty of movies that can either take me by surprise or completely disappoint.  I also have included movie trailer embeds for context, so that you can see for yourself what movies I’m talking about, and perhaps help you form an impression of your own about the movie.  So, without any further ado, let’s take a look at the movies of the first season of the new decade in 2020.

MUST SEES:

NO TIME TO DIE (APRIL 10)

Good old double-O.  For a while this series was in limbo with regards to where it’s future might lie.  It seemed like the series couldn’t quite live up to the series high-point of Skyfall (2012), as the follow-up Spectre (2015) didn’t perform quite as well.  At the same time, this generation’s James Bond (an absolutely amazing Daniel Craig) was expressing doubts about returning for another feature, raising speculation about who might step into the role next.  Add to this a loss of a director (Danny Boyle) halfway through pre-procuction, and we have a lengthy five year gap between bond movies.  But, somehow things came together, and EON Productions managed to talk Craig into returning for one more film (his fifth overall as 007).  Now we finally have a new Bond movie to get excited for, and in a rare Spring release.  Craig, despite having now played the character over a 14 year period (the longest of any actor in the role, including Moore and Connery), still looks to be in top form here, picking up right where he left off, and though this will likely be his swan song as the character, he certainly doesn’t look like he’s taking it any easier.  It’s also going to be an interesting experience as this will be the first Bond film with an American in the directors chair; Cary Joji Fukunaga of True Detective fame.  In addition, the returning cast also brings a wonderful sense of continuity and teamwork to the series, and the addition of another double-O agent played by Lashana Lynch might offer some hints about where the future of the series might lie.  As long as the action is up to the already high standards that the series has set, with it’s special blend of nail-biting tension and sly humor, we should all expect this welcome return of Mr. Bond to be one hell of a fun ride, hopefully leaving us shaken, not stirred.

ONWARD (MARCH 6)

You can always rely on Pixar to deliver something entertaining.  Though the gimmick that the movie revolves around isn’t all that breakthrough (re-imagining modern society through an alternate reality; this time with fantasy creatures), the story it’s trying to tell still looks like it’s right up their alley, and likely to be as heartwarming as most of their other films.  This movie is likely going to hinge on the chemistry between the two leads, two elf brothers voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt.  Certainly that’s the thing that the trailers have been pushing forward the most, which is refreshing in comparison to other like-minded animated films.  Most other animation studios want to sell you on the gimmick, while Pixar knows that they need to sell us on the story first.  There will certainly be plenty of jokes to be had with all the sight gags in this look at a modern suburban twist of classic fantasy tropes, but unless the story at it’s center doesn’t hook us in, the rest will feel hollow.  I do like how much of the focal point is on how the brothers deal with their father only appearing to them as a pair of legs, leading to a strange Weekend at Bernie’s (1989) vibe to much of the trailer.  Not quite the thing you’d expect from a Pixar film, but they are a studio constantly known for subverting expectations and finding that special element that tugs at our heartstrings by the end.  This is also a rare Spring release for the studio, so it will be interesting to see how well they perform outside of their normal mid-summer window.  No doubt with an intriguing premise like this one, an impressive voice cast by Pixar standards, and plenty of visual splendor typical of the studio’s lofty standards, this will almost certainly be another movie from the animation giant that will work it’s magic on all of us.

BIRDS OF PREY: AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN (FEBRUARY 7)

When Suicide Squad released in the summer of 2016, it received a decidedly mixed response.  While the movie had it’s fans, many more criticized it for it’s uneven execution and clearly compromised vision, which was only compounded by the already reviled response to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) earlier that same year; putting DC in a precarious place.  But, if there was anything to take away as a positive from Suicide Squad, it was Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn, which received almost universal praise.  Given that DC’s film slate has been on better footing recently, now is a good time to spotlight Robbie’s Harley Quinn even more, this time as the center of movie itself.  Birds of Prey gives us Harley Quinn separated from her relationship with the Joker (no longer played by Jared Leto) and setting out on her own, and becoming more of an anti-hero on her own (sometimes demented) terms.  Robbie is also more invested personally in this project, acting as the films producer as well, so this movie is going to grant her the creative freedom to tell Harley’s story the way she wants to, which should be exciting to see.  The titular team behind her is also great to see, as many of them are iconic DC heroes in their own right like Black Canary and Huntress, making their big screen debuts here.  It will also be interesting to see Ewan McGregor taking on the role of famed Batman villain Black Mask here.  DC’s been on a role recently, and though this is a follow-up to one of their more flawed outings, it is thankfully bringing that movie’s best element to the forefront and taking her to new, and better heights.  Let’s just hope that Harley has what it takes to keep DC’s momentum going.

ANTEBELLUM (APRIL 24)

Here’s an intriguing idea for a movie that I still don’t think I’ve completely comprehended fully yet.  I love that even though this movie trailer has provocative imagery within it, no doubt touching upon the horrors of slavery in the American South, we still don’t know what it all means.  Is there a time travel element to this story? Multiple Dimensions?  Is it all inside the protagonist’s head?  Everything is left thankfully vague, but it still is there to be provocative, which could make for a gratefully unique horror thriller.  We’ve already seen Jordan Peele successfully work themes of race and class divisions into his films, so it will be interesting to see it done here in a perhaps more somber and shocking way.  Peele’s films always have a running current of humor underneath all the horror elements, so it will be interesting to see if a more earnest and deadly serious take on the subject might work too.  Even without the sci-fi elements that will almost undoubtedly be explored in more detail within the film, there is a lot of horror to draw from in the real history of slavery in this country, and it could provide some really gut-wrenching moments in this movie.  I usually don’t find much to like in the genre of horror, since so much of it is recycled and not all that scary.  This movie at the very least has an interesting premise and potential based on it’s themes that could transcend the tropes of the genre, and provide a thriller that truly does crawl under your skin and takes you to some really dark places.  After all, there was no bigger hell on earth to millions of enslaved Americans than the Antebellum South.

DOLITTLE (JANUARY 17)

Hollywood has had a rocky relationship with the character of Doctor Dolittle.  The classic literary character first made his big screen debut in the 1967 movie musical, which nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox with it’s poor box office.  Many years later, Eddie Murphy would step into the role as the physician with a talent for talking to animals, but it would be in an adaptation that strayed as far away from the original source material as possible; carrying over only the name and the concept.  Now, we are getting perhaps the closest to a faithful adaptation of the original books as we’ve seen yet.  For one, it takes the character back to his Victorian roots, and it also delves far more into the globe-trotting exploits of Doctor Dolittle that were a major part of the books.  I for one am interested in this new adaptation for a variety of reasons.  One, this marks Robert Downey Jr.’s first big screen project after his epic departure from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it will be interesting to see him tackle a very different kind of character after leaving such a mark as Iron Man.  Two, from the trailers, I get this earnest, non-cynical vibe coming from this film, which reminds me a lot of the excellent Paddington movies, which are some of the best examples of family entertainment we’ve seen from the last decade.  And third, the movie includes a remarkable supporting cast playing all the animals.  If the movie can balance all these elements together, we might finally have a Dolittle movie that actually does justice to the character as he was originally conceived.  Earnest and inspiring films that appeal to all ages are hard to come by these days, so my hope is that this movie helps to fill that void perfectly.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

MULAN (MARCH 27)

Let’s face it; Disney’s recent trend of remaking their beloved animated classics hasn’t been their most shining jewel in their cinematic crown.  Yes, movies like Beauty and the Beast (2017) and The Lion King (2019) are box office hits, but they have been heavily panned by critics (like myself) for being just tired retreads of vastly superior films and are creatively bankrupt as a whole.  The one positive that I can say about the upcoming remake of Mulan is that it has some potential.  For one thing, I do like the fact that it’s taking itself much more seriously than most of the other Disney remakes.  It’s doing away with the musical score and more comedic elements in favor of a more down to earth retelling of the Chinese legend.  I know that some die hard fans are bemoaning the absence of wise-cracking Mushu in this film, but I think that the Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon of the original would feel very much out of place in live action.  Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) seems to very much want to make this a epic adventure in the same vein as epic movies from Chinese auteurs like Zhang Yimou and John Woo, but with a bit of that Disney flair that helps to link it back to the Disney original.  And that’s what a Disney remake should be; something that compliments the original rather than try to copy it.  These movies should be their own thing, and Mulan seems to be on the right track.  But at the same time, I worry that Disney will try to force feed too many references to the original film that could squander this movie’s chance of standing on it’s own.  Also, the movie’s star Yifei Liu has received backlash (not unwarranted) for her pro-Beijing stance on the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which could hurt Mulan’s chances for success.  Let’s hope that this is a movie with honor, and not with disappointment.

THE CALL OF THE WILD (FEBRUARY 21)

Now there is nothing wrong with wanting to make an ambitious retelling of Jack London’s classic adventure novel for the big screen.  And having Harrison Ford on board doesn’t help either, especially when he’s playing a grizzled frontiersman in the far north.  But where this movie starts to lose me is when it presents it’s featured canine.  For some odd reason, the filmmakers decided to forego casting a real dog in the role, and instead use a fully CGI hound instead.  This unfortunately becomes very distracting in the trailer, as the dog behaves in a way that a cartoon dog would, with facial expressions and exaggerated physicality.  That’s all fine if you’re making an animated movie, but this is a live action film with real actors and sets, and the mixture just doesn’t feel right.  I guess it’s no surprise that the movie is the live action directorial debut for Chris Sanders, who has worked up to now in animation (Lilo & Stitch over at Disney, and How to Train Your Dragon over at Dreamworks), so this  was probably his call because it’s a process of characterization that he’s more comfortable with.  It probably could be worse, like the uncanny valley animals in Disney’s Lion King remake.  I just believe that we’re going to have a hard time connecting with the story in this film, because that animated dog is going to pull us right out of the movie.  Maybe this is the filmmakers way of avoiding the controversy that may arise with regards to animal treatment, much like what happened with the movie A Dog’s Journey (2019) and it’s alleged mistreatment of it’s canine actors.  Even still, authentic animals in movies do make a difference, and there are ways to make movies work without endangering them.  The Call of the Wild could have found that balance too, but it seems to have gone to the other extreme, which itself is very distracting.

THE NEW MUTANTS (APRIL 3)

Here’s a movie that may be the most uncertain of the year.  The fact is, it’s very possible that this movie may not even get released at all.  This was perhaps the most affected film in the merger of Disney and Fox, as the movie was a product of the now defunct X-Men franchise that had run through the Fox Studio since the year 2000.  With Disney owned Marvel now back in charge of the X-Men characters, there was no place anymore for this horror themed take on the characters, and the movie was left in limbo with regards to it’s future.  Just to show you how long this movie has been stuck in cinematic limbo, the above trailer is from two years ago.  And in that time, the movie has been set for release multiple times and then pulled from the schedule at the last minute with no explanation.  Basically Disney owns a finished movie that’s not theirs and they have no idea what to do with it.  It can’t be a part of Marvel’s Phase Four plans, because that’s going to involve an entire reboot of the X-men characters, and this one is still tied with the old franchise.  So, despite it looking like the movie might finally see the light of day this April, it may come with zero buzz and quickly disappear from the multiplex, with Disney hoping that we’ll quickly forget about it and move on, with at least some modest box office.  That, or Disney might just dump it onto Hulu.  It’s too bad, because there is potential there, and the film has a fine cast of young actors like Split’s Anya Taylor-Joy, Game of Thrones’ Maise Williams, and Stranger Things’ Charlie Heaton.  Sadly, mega-mergers carry it’s own set of casualties during their process, and New Mutants is one of the more noteworthy ones we’ve seen out of the big Disney/Fox deal.

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE (JANUARY 17)

I don’t think it was ever possible, but I feel like this movie needs more Michael Bay in it.  After taking an extra long break in the series, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence return to the Bad Boy franchise, and is anybody really excited for this?  Sure, both Smith and Lawrence are in their element as these characters, and they do still have great chemistry on screen together that they haven’t been able to replicate elsewhere.  But, what also made the movies work before was the over-the-top flourishes that Michael Bay added to the series.  The original 1994 Bad Boys was Bay’s first theatrical film, and showcased many of his best elements as a visual story-teller, which he would subsequently lose and over-indulge in with future films.  The overblown sequel, Bad Boys II (2003) is almost so ludicrously over-the-top, that it somehow works in spite of itself.  Unfortunately, while this new movie does have fun banter between the two leads, it also lacks the Bay flourishes, instead coming across like a Bad Boys wannabe.  It’s hard to say what effect this may have as a whole on the experience, but sadly, the visual element coming from this trailer feels a bit flat by comparison.  Love him or hate him, Michael Bay has a visual style, and Bad Boys was one of the better uses of it.  Let’s just hope that Smith and Lawrence can pull things together and carry the series one more time.  They clearly look like they enjoy working together, so hopefully that translates into a fun time as opposed to another rehashed franchise that should have been left alone.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

SONIC THE HEDGEHOG (FEBRUARY 14)

After nearly making my Movies to Skip page from last fall, Sonic the Hedgehog was pushed back several months after what can be called the most disastrous trailer launch in recent memory.  Paramount faced immediate backlash after they premiered the original theatrical trailer last summer, which featured a horribly off model CGI version of Sonic.  This prompted the studio to do a complete, eleventh hour redesign of the character, which no doubt led to plenty of computer animators working long overtime hours in order to fix the clueless filmmakers’ initial mistake.  I do feel for those animators, because they didn’t need to do all this extra work in the first place since the director and the studio clearly don’t know what they are doing with this movie.  It’s another cliche-ridden cash grab on the nostalgia market, much in the same vein as Alvin and the Chipmunks and The Smurfs have been; ignoring all the past character lore and development in favor of a G-Rated romp that’s cheap and dumbed down to appeal to mass audiences.  The new redesign of Sonic is a vast improvement, a tribute to the overworked CGI artists who deserve better recognition, but it still can’t save this project from it’s innate blandness.  Even Jim Carrey’s casting as Doctor Robotnik feels off, as it’s just another zany character that feels like he’s tired of playing.  And given the horrible track record movies based on video games already have, I don’t think there will be much this movie can do to out run it’s inevitable failure.

TROLLS WORLD TOUR (APRIL 17)

It’s been a sad, slow decline for Dreamworks Animation.  The house that Shrek built was once the second most powerful Animation studio in the industry, dominating much of the 2000’s and putting both Disney and Pixar on notice.  But the 2010’s were far rockier for the studio, as they struggled to maintain an identity.  They started off strong with movies like How to Train Your Dragon (2010) and Megamind (2010), but numerous under-performers like Rise of the Guardians (2012), Home (2015), and The Boss Baby (2017) have tarnished the studio’s once glorious sheen.  Now, after seeing their founder Jeffrey Katzenberg leaving to start his own streaming platform called Quibi, Dreamworks almost appears to be throwing in the towel and just using their talents to hit a specific target audience; little children.  Trolls (2016) was the biggest clue to this new direction, a candy-coated musical aimed at children that not surprisingly was their only box office hit of the decade.  With Trolls World Tour, they appear to be further heading down that road, with another uninspired, mass-appeal product solely created to sell toys.  It wouldn’t be as egregious if Dreamworks was occasionally taking more risks like they used to.  In the same amount of time, both Disney and Pixar have upped their game, delivering provocative and engaging movies like Zootopia (2016) and Coco (2017), which while still appealing to children, were also able to deliver profound messages at the same time.  Trolls World Tour is just another diversion that kids may enjoy in the moment, but will eventually grow out of over time, and that’s a sad direction for Dreamworks Animation to take.

UNDERWATER (JANUARY 10)

It doesn’t take much to imagine what the pitch meeting was like for this one; it’s going to be Alien (1979), but at the bottom of the ocean.  I guess it’s not surprising that 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the Alien franchise took the bait and green-lit this film.  The movie looks to be following the Alien formula to the letter, and that’s what makes this trailer so frustrating.  You know exactly where it’s going.  I almost feel that the movie might have been better served if it strayed away from the sci-fi elements, and just became a survival film instead.  It may not be all that breakthrough, but a movie focused on survivors in a crippled deep sea research station could have provided some interesting moments.  But, no, we get monsters instead.  I find the cast here an odd mix too.  Never thought I’d see a movie with actors as diverse as Kristen Stewart and T.J. Miller sharing the screen.  In Stewart’s case, this movie almost feels like a step backwards in her career, as she’s been choosing more challenging roles lately.  For Miller, this is definitely par for the course.  And given that this movie comes out on January 10, it marks the first ever wide release of the new decade, which I hope is not a bad omen of how the next ten years will play out.  I imagine this will be a quickly forgotten film that hopefully has no lasting impact on the 2020’s.  Most movies dumped off in January usually are, and this one is just another in that chain of shame.

So, that’s how the start of 2020 will play out in the months ahead.  In comparison to years past, it’s a relatively light slate.  No Marvel, no projects from prestige filmmakers.  Given how ambitious 2019 was, this is understandable.  2020 is saving it’s heavy hitters for later in the year.  For now, I am looking forward to the return of James Bond to the big screen, with Daniel Craig putting in one final turn in the role, which he put a firm stamp on.  Likewise another Pixar film is always welcome to see.  There are also plenty of movies that could end up surprising out there.  The early Winter and Spring months have become more fertile ground in recent years to find surprises that might have otherwise been lost in the Summer and Awards season shuffles.  And speaking of Awards season, most of those last minute entries are going to expand nationwide in the following month, so there will still be plenty of quality entertainment to be had for the early part of the year.  Now that I have laid out what to look forward to in the first part of the next year, I’ll be spending much of January looking back at both the previous year, as well as the entire past decade.  You’ll see my two top ten lists in the upcoming weeks, with the 2019 Top Ten coming up shortly.  With all that said, I hope my preview has been a helpful one.  There’s a lot to look forward to, as well as a few disasters you might want to avoid.  And as always, have a happy new year and enjoy your time at the movies.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Review

We come to the end of the road now.  Back in 1977, when George Lucas was completing his big gamble on a throwback to the old sci-fi serials of his youth, I’m sure that he never thought for once that his film would spark an ongoing story that has lasted over 40 years now.  He just wanted to make the kind of movie that he wanted to see on the big screen, and boy did it succeed.  I’m sure he had visions of a grander narrative, which he would later draw upon in future films, but if it was his one and only shot, he certainly made the most of it.  By the time his original trilogy capper, Return of the Jedi (1983), released into theaters, Lucas had already changed cinema forever.  Star Wars was such a monumental thing for the culture that it almost became more than a movie franchise; it became something of a religion.  Taking fandom to newer heights than ever before, Star Wars has been almost inescapable in our culture for the last 42 years.  And with that high level of fandom, you also have high standards that come with it.  George Lucas learned that the hard way when he returned to the franchise with a prequel trilogy at the turn of the century.  While the movies do have their defenders, the response to his new trilogy was decidedly negative, and that’s probably because the bar had been set too high by the original trilogy.  Though Lucas was still telling the story that he had imagined, audiences were expecting something very different; something more adventurous and less introspective.  Despite the mixed results, Lucas was content where he left the story.  Cut to 2012 and the shocking news broke that Lucas had sold off the rights to his empire to the Walt Disney Company for a whopping $4 billion.  And the even more amazing news came soon after that Disney hadn’t just bought Lucasfilm in order to play stewards to the already existing films.  They were going t carry the story even further than Lucas had gone before with a whole new trilogy, plus many more spinoffs.

Thus, we got a new trilogy that extends the story past the original six episodes made by George Lucas.  The entire enterprise launched with Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens in 2015.  Under the direction of J.J. Abrams, Awakens hit exactly the right notes for audiences; appealing to that sweet nostalgia spot in every fans heart while at the same time hinting at even bigger things to come.  It rode that goodwill to record breaking box office, with a domestic haul that still is unbeaten today; even bigger than worldwide champ Avengers: Endgame (2019).  That impressive debut even extended into the following year, carrying the spinoff film Rogue One (2016) to an impressive box office tally.  But things went differently with the film that came next.  The second film in the trilogy, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) would turn out to be the most divisive movie in the series since the prequels.  Director and Writer Rian Johnson created a Star Wars movie that challenged many tropes and undercut all the expected plot threads that had been set up in the more nostalgia heavy Force Awakens.  To some fans, this was a welcome change, because it showed that Disney and Lucasfilm were willing to shake things up in order take Star Wars in a variety of different directions.  But, for a lot of fans, they viewed this as a betrayal, and were extremely vocal about their displeasure.  The Last Jedi unfortunately exposed a toxic element that existed within the Star Wars fandom, with some people going as far as to harass members of the cast and crew of the film, which caused some of them to leave social media all together.  As it stands, Star Wars fandom is at it’s most fracutured point, with people either loving or hating the direction that the series has gone in; with little room in between.  That is the environment that Star Wars now finds itself in as it concludes this new, sequel trilogy with what is supposed to be the final chapter in the “Skywalker Saga.”  Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker has a lot of weight on it’s shoulders, having to wrap up this long running series while at the same time dealing with a fan base that is in a broken state.  Is it the new hope that can bring balance to the force, or will it only divide the worlds even further apart?

The Rise of Skywalker jumps ahead from the events of The Last Jedi.  The rebel alliance is on it’s last legs after their last stand against the First Order.  But into the fray comes an even more sinister force.  A mysterious message is sent out into the galaxy by the long thought dead Emporer Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid).  First Order Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who sees Palpatine as a threat to his control of power, hunts down the Emporer’s location.  It soon brings him to a hidden home planet of the Sith order named Exogol, where he learns that Palpatine has been quietly building up his forces over the last several decades; creating a Star Destroyer fleet with the same power of a thousand Death Stars.  Palpatine extends his assistance to the Ren and the First Order under the single condition, that they bring the girl Rey (Daisy Ridley) to him.  Meanwhile, on a new Rebel base, Rey continues her Jedi training under the guidance of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).  Despite her best efforts, Rey still struggles to overcome her doubts, and the link between her and Kylo Ren still remains, with him still appealing for her to join the dark side.  At the same time, the rebel forces have received information from a spy within the First Order of the deal that has been struck with Palpatine, delivered to them by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega).  With Rey’s help, informed by her readings from the Jedi texts, they learn of a possible way to reach the hidden world of Exogol, using what is called a Sith Wayfinder.  Joined by C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), Rey, Poe and Finn take the Millennium Falcon to a variety of new worlds in search of the Wayfinder.  Along the way they receive help from new allies, including an old flame of Poe’s, Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), and the always resourceful Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).  All the while, Ren continues to challenge Rey, pushing her to confront elements of her past that she wishes to forget, especially the ones that make her doubt who she really is.  The only question remains, can Rey find the power within herself to comabt Ren’s temptations and face Palpatine head on in order to save the Rebels and the galaxy as a whole?

In many ways, I have to respect the filmmakers and cast for undertaking the enormous burden that this movie must have been.  Facing more scrutiny than any other Star Wars production before, this movie not only had to smooth over the rift that was created by The Last Jedi, but it also has to function as both an ending for not just this new trilogy, but the entire nine movie arc that has been dubbed the Skywalker Saga; which by the way extends back 42 years now.  That is a lot of pressure no matter who you are.  The duties of this undertaking were originally going to go to director Colin Treverrow, who successfully relaunched the Jurassic Park franchise with Jurassic World (2015).  However, creative differences led to his removal from the project, which led to J. J. Abrams returning to the directors chair.  And it’s that shake-up behind the scenes that more than likely affected the outcome of this film.  The Rise of Skywalker could not have been produced at a worse time for Lucasfilm.  With The Last Jedi dividing audiences as much as it did, and the spinoff film Solo (2018) underperforming at the box office under that same cloud, it suddenly led to a lot of second guessing at Lucasfilm and parent company Disney.  Projects in the pipeline were put on hold, creative teams like Lord & Miller and Benioff & Weiss were let go, and a complete shift in priorities began to take place.  And all of that chaos is apparent in the final result of The Rise of Skywalker.  It is by far the messiest and least focused film in the new trilogy, which sadly makes it the least effective film as well.  I should note though, it’s not a terrible movie; just a disappointing one.  For a movie like this to cross into the bad movie territory, it has to completely underwhelm and feel like an insult to the audience’s sensibilities.  That’s why I have far more disdain for a movie like the recent Lion King remake, because that movie was purely just a copy and paste effort.  With Rise of Skywalker, even though there are a lot of problems with it and plenty of questionable choices, I still see the effort that was put into it by the cast and crew, which at least makes it occasionally work in spite of itself.

So, what exactly is the problem with the movie.  Well, it’s clear from the get go that the shuffling around of creative forces behind the scenes led to a story that doesn’t make much sense.  With a screenplay by Abrams and Oscar winner Chris Terrio (Argo), the movie almost feels like a course correction after The Last Jedi.  And sadly, that heel turn makes the entire trilogy look like it was made without a clear vision.  It’s a trilogy at odds with itself, and it unfortunately undermines the narrative arcs that the different characters have been going through.  Not only that, but The Rise of Skywalker leaves absolutely no time to settle itself into a cohesive whole.  It moves at a break neck speed, fitting in a trilogy’s worth of story into a short 2 1/2 hour runtime.  This is unfortunate for a trilogy that up to now was very well paced and character driven.  This is one of the rare cases where a longer, three hour run time might have given the movie a better chance.  Instead, we get force fed (no pun intended) this story, which feels very un-Star Wars.  The most glaring example of this is the way that it introduces Emporer Palpatine into the narrative.  There is no mystery shrouding his existence; no explanation given as to how he managed to survive his fate at the end of Return of the Jedi.  He’s just there now, and we have to swallow that information immediately.  It not only robs any amount of impact his character might have had on the story, but it also undermines the threat that has been built up in the previous two films with Kylo Ren and the First Order.  I am also disappointed that the movie almost seems like a dismissal of the story ideas brought forth by The Last Jedi, almost like it’s a concession to all those toxic fans that threw a tantrum because of that last movie.  I for one loved the chances that The Last Jedi took, and the fact that Rise of Skywalker just retcons it all, especially with character development, just feels insulting to all of us who passionately defended those changes.  There’s no hard lessons learned, no surprising paths take; this movie is just the parent giving the child a toy in order to make them stop crying, no matter how undeserved it is.

Now, despite my issues that I’ve stated above, I didn’t hate Rise of Skywalker; nor did I really dislike it.  I would gladly take this film over the prequel trilogy any day, with maybe the exception of the last half of Revenge of the Sith (2005).  One thing this movie definitely has over the prequels is that the performances are still top notch.  Daisy Ridley in particular owns this movie, giving Rey the right amount of complexity to see her arc through to the end.  Though there are some questionable choices made about the direction of her character throughout the movie, Ridley never lets us down in her performance and she greatly helps to carry the movie on her shoulders.  I love the fact that she has become a role model to many young fans of Star Wars, and thankfully nothing in this movie will change people’s view of her character.  She remains a badass right to the end.  The same complexity also is thankfully maintained with Kylo Ren.  Adam Driver’s performance may even be the best throughout the entire trilogy, and he thankfully also remains consistent here.  Even as his character arc takes some turns, it still is believably reached and that is all thanks to the actor.  I selected both Rey and Kylo Ren as two of the best Heroes and Villains in my decade top ten lists here and here,  and nothing in this movie diminishes that.  Unfortunately, the rest of the cast gets sidelined for most of the movie, including Poe and Finn, who are reduced to tag alongs for Rey.  One thing I do give the movie praise for is how well they dealt with closure for Leia.  With Carrie Fisher’s all too sudden passing in 2016, the movie was left without a key player in it’s final chapter, as The Last Jedi surprisingly left her alive in the end.  Utilizing unused footage of Fisher from The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams remarkably fits Leia into this story in a way that feels organic and respectful, giving this very important character a graceful sendoff that she absolutely deserves.  And even though he is awkwardly shoehorned into this trilogy, Ian McDiarmid does still own every scene he’s in, adequately chewing the scenary as he’s done many times before in this series, going all the way back to Jedi.  So, even with the story’s shortcomings, the cast in this film is by no means slouching it in their final go around in this series.

The movie, while not as eye-catching as the beautifully shot  The Last Jedi, still has moments of visual splendor.  There are plenty of breath-taking shots that still give the movie that epic grandeur that the series is known for.  Even something that feels very out of place, like the Sith Temple on Exogol, which has this H. R. Geiger influnence to it, still manages to stick distinctly in your mind.  I appreciate the fact that Disney’s Star Wars movies don’t just try to reuse the same planets over and over again, which the prequels did a lot.  They really want to show the expanse of the galaxy, and give us new worlds with every film.  There are some annoying echoes of the past (seriously, another desert planet), but the movie does go out of it’s way to show you things that you’ve never seen before in a Star Wars movie.  Even returning to a familiar location like the Death Star keeps to this philosophy, because here we see the once mighty war machine in complete ruin, decaying against the mighty ocean waves like an astonomically enormous ship wreck.  The movie is visually on par with it’s predecessors, but it again is undermined by the lack of focus in the story.  Not enough time is ever devoted to fully exploring these places.  I should also point out the very important factor of John Williams, who is scoring a Star Wars film for what is likely the very last time.  It’s an impressive achievement that the legendary composer was able to score 9 different films over 42 years, helping to maintain a continuity throughout.  Though his work here may not be the most memorable of the series, it still feels great to hear new soundscapes still come from the man who gave Star Wars it’s original epic grandiosity.  He’s really the main reason why we call Star Wars a space opera, because of the operatic quality of his music.  It’s also why even when elements of this movie disappoint on a story level, it makes it hard to say you hate the movie, because there is still a lot to love on a technical standpoint.

This year in particular was going to be a standout one for Star Wars, which is really saying something.  Not only did we get the conclusion to this trilogy, but Disney launched it’s largest theme park expansion ever with a new Star Wars based land called Galaxy’s Edge, which despite some naysayers on the internet, has been glowingly received by visitors from across the world.  In addtion, Disney lanched their much anticipated streaming platform Disney+, with the Star Wars branded series The Mandalorian as a day one launch title, which has gone on to become an instant hit with fans across the Star Wars spectrum.  So, it’s just so disappointing that Rise of Skywalker ends up being so divisive at a time when it looked like the fandom was finally starting to heal and come back together.  The Rise of Skywalker is not the worst Star Wars movie ever made, but it certainly is the most problematic.  It just seems like the movie was rushed through, without much thought into how it should tie up all the loose ends of the series we’ve been following along with for so long.  At the point where Disney and Lucasfilm saw issues beginning to form during the making of this movie, and with their long term plans as a whole, they should have stepped things back and perhaps delay The Rise of Skywalker for maybe a year in order to smooth things out.  But, sadly, it was full steam ahead and nothing was going to deter them from that deadline, and it unfortunately made the movie suffer as a result.  Though far from the worst Star Wars movie, it is by far the least successful finale to any of the trilogies.  Revenge of the Sith fixed many of the problems of it’s predecessors, and though Return of the Jedi was a disappointment in comparsion to A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), it still managed to maintain that high quality level of storytelling; especially in those moments with Luke, Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. For The Rise of Skywalker, everything is just a mixed bag. Initially when I left the theater, I came away with some positive feeling. There are certainly moments in the movie that made me genuinely happy. But the further away from it I get, the more the flaws become more apparent. So, my feelings on the movie are not anger or disgust. The movie is not a disaster; just a disappointment. There could have been so much more to this ending than what we got, especially given the enormous legacy behind it. Instead, we get something of a compromise, and that in of itself is a disappointment. Even still, I’m thankful for the journey it took us on, and my hope is that Star Wars leaves this saga behind and truly expands out into the far reaches of the galaxy; perhaps fulfilling its real potential. Sad to see the Skywalker saga end in the way it did, but it was a fun ride nonetheless. May the Force be with it.

Rating: 7/10

Focus on a Franchise – Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy

Be careful what you wish for.  There’s no doubt that cinema was forever changed by the release of Star Wars (1977) and it’s two follow up sequels.  But fans everywhere were left with one striking question after creator George Lucas made the peculiar decision to rename the original film that launched the trilogy Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.  And that question was, what ever happened to Episodes 1-3.  Initially, Lucas probably made the choice to rename his film that way as a nod to the old sci-fi serials that Star Wars clearly drew inspiration from, and that his trilogy was just a small part of a bigger narrative, some of which he hints at throughout the movies with the many characters’ backstories.  But, as time went on, Lucas indeed began to ponder more about what those first three episodes might be, as did many of the fans of the movies.  Over time, Episodes 1-3 took on this mythic status for Star Wars fans, with fan fictions and published novelizations doing much to fill in the gaps of the history of this universe that Lucas had created.  But, after a successful re-release of the original trilogy in theaters, albeit with controversial “Special Edition” changes, Lucas determined that the time was right to finally make the first three episodes of his Star Wars saga a reality.  Now we were finally going to see the story about the rise of the Empire, the fall of the Jedi Order, and most importantly, the events that turned Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader.  It was destined to be the cinematic event of the century, rivaling even the likes of the original trilogy, and fans eagerly anticipated it; some even camping outside movie theaters for weeks on end just to be the first in line to see it.

The day finally came on Memorial Day weekend 1999, with the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.  But, as with everything in life, what goes up must inevitably fall down.  Reactions to Episode I were decidedly mixed, verging towards the negative.  Longtime fans in particular were upset by a number of things that felt off about this version of Star Wars; the lack of focus on the story, the stilted performances by the actors, the overabundance of CGI, Jar-Jar Binks, etc.  This was not the Star Wars they grew up with, and that reaction would end up clouding the perception of the new prequel trilogy all the way up to it’s completion with Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).  Though the movies were still financially successful, they were nowhere near as loved as their predecessors, and even today, you still see a divide among fans that at times can turn pretty toxic.  But, are the prequels to Star Wars really that bad?  I think there is agreement that they certainly don’t work as well as the original trilogy, but individually do they still work as a satisfying cinematic experience.  That’s the hard thing to determine when the movies are serial parts of a much larger narrative, and that aspect may have had to do with why people rejected these movies initially.  It’s hard to write a compelling narrative when you already know the fates of all these individual characters.  It’s interesting that younger viewers who were first introduced to the movies through these prequels have a much rosier view of the trilogy than older fans do.  Is it a generational bias thing that has split the fanbase in two?  To see how the prequel trilogy stands on it’s own, let’s take a look now at the individual films of the first three episodes of the Skywalker Saga with the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy.

STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

After a 22 year absence, George Lucas stepped behind the camera once again to relaunch the franchise that made him a household name.  Drawing from the intricate backstories that Lucas had hinted at in his original trilogy, he was finally going to make the kinds of Star Wars movies that he always wanted to create, but was never allowed to because of the limitations of budgets.  He could now show us the full expanse of space, explore many new worlds, and even show the extravagant regalia of the Old Republic in it’s heyday.  Indeed, where George Lucas shows his brilliance in is with his world building.  There are so many imaginative new worlds explored in these new adventures, including the lush green serenity of the planet Naboo, as well as the intricacy of the city planet Coruscant, the seat of power of the Republic.  But, while the new movies show off his imagination in creating new worlds, they also reveal his shortcomings as a storyteller.  Let’s just say The Phantom Menace is far more style than substance.  This immediately becomes clear when the movie gets bogged down by talks of trade alliances, treaties and embargoes.  It’s not like the original trilogy was not without political intrigue, but it was balanced with action set pieces and character development.  Phantom Menace leaves very little time for us the audience to find our footing and immerse ourselves in this world and the characters.  Lucas just seemed too preoccupied with setting up the rules of his world that he forgot to give any detail to everything else that normally made a Star Wars film engaging.  That’s what made collaborators like Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan so valuable to the process, because they could explore those depths of character more closely while Lucas occupied himself more with creating this universe.

But, is The Phantom Menace a complete failure of story.  It’s hard to say.  The ingredients are all there, but the way it’s structured just feels off.  We are introduced to both new and familiar faces.  Liam Neeson does carry a strong presence as jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn, delivering adequate enough chemistry with Ewan McGregor, doing a credible imitation of Alec Guiness as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Had these characters been the focus of the movie, things might have worked better, but that’s not the case.  The movie keeps jumping from world to world without giving much time to settle the characters into their place in the narrative.  It’s like everyone is just there to play their part and nothing else.  We barely get to know key characters like Natalie Portman’s Padme Amidala, and iconic characters like R2-D2 and C-3PO are almost shoehorned in without much purpose to the story.  Also, the boy who would be Darth Vader is presented here as a precocious little child, not once indicating the monster that he will one day become.  At the same time, Lucas also devotes a needless amount of time to the comic relief character of Jar-Jar Binks, who to many a fan, is the most reviled character in the entirety of the Star Wars series.  I agree that Binks is not a great addition to the Star Wars mythos, but it has less to do with the actor’s performance (Ahmed Best, who does try hard) and more to George Lucas’ shortcomings as a writer.  What bothers me more about the movie, however, is that it demystifies aspects of the Star Wars lore that had always made the series so intriguing.  Specifically, it’s the introduction of the midi-chlorians that I think is the worst thing ever added to the Star Wars series.  Here, Lucas tries to give a biological explanation to the Force; that it’s something in a person’s bloodstream that can be quantified, as opposed to a mystical force that binds all life together.  That spiritual aspect was so key to the original movies, and in one misguided swoop, he undercuts it completely, just so he can show us how powerful little Anakin really is before he becomes a Jedi.  The movie has bright points, including an exciting pod race scene halfway thru, and an interesting if underutilized antagonistic threat from Darth Maul (played by Ray Park).  Disappointing yes, but the low point for Star Wars?  Well, we’ll have to see where it goes from here.

 STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

The backlash against The Phantom Menace was strong, but not enough to keep the movie from reaching box office records.  As a result, Lucas was given the go ahead to continue on with the trilogy, with the second chapter taking us ten years beyond the events of the previous film.  And you would think that with that amount of time George Lucas would learn from his mistakes and craft a more cohesive film the second time around.  That notion unfortunately goes right out the window once the movie immediately as Lucas again puts too much focus on the plot elements and not on the characters.  Only this time, he mistakenly tries his hand at making a love story too.  Anakin (played by Hayden Christensen, who takes over from Jake Lloyd) is now a fully trained Jedi under the mentorship of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and his relationship with Padme deepens into a budding romance.  These so-called “romantic” moments are so contrived and labored that they hamper the entire movie, and in my opinion, make this the least engaging movie in the entire Star Wars franchise.  Phantom Menace at the very least had that exciting pod race and some cool battle scenes.  Clones sadly is bogged down by too much moody whining from Anakin Skywalker.  It seems impossible that this obnoxious brat would become the most feared menace in the galaxy one day, and with Lucas’ terrible writing, he undermines the development of what is supposed to be one of the most important characters in the entire saga.  Christensen unfortunately is still too green of an actor to make any of this material work, and his performance is sadly the most wooden within the entire film.  There’s also a severe lack of urgency to the entire movie, with most of it devoted to Anakin returning home only to find his mother brutally murdered by Tuskan raiders, which triggers his own murderous instincts.  At the same time, Obi-Wan Kenobi is tracking down a rogue assassin named Jango Fett (Temura Morrison) who has something to do with the Separatist movement at war with the Republic.

Interestingly enough, the stuff with Obi-Wan Kenobi is the only mildly interesting part of the movie.  Acting as a bit of detective story within the overall narrative, the film at least gives us a bit more development into his character.  Unfortunately, it is overshadowed by the duller Anakin/Padme story-line.  Eventually, the movie does lead to an admittedly exciting conclusion, as the Republic built clone army does battle with the Separatist droid forces.  At it’s center, there is a great battle between the separatist leader, Count Dooku (the legendary Christopher Lee) and the Jedi.  Another thing that is so unfortunate about the lack of development in this movie is the fact that Lee’s Dooku takes up so little screen-time, much like Darth Maul in Phantom Menace.  Creating interesting new villains and then not taking full advantage of them is a common theme found in this trilogy.  All that said, the light-saber battle between Dooku, Anakin and Obi-Wan is satisfying enough, and Yoda (voiced again by Frank Oz) even gets in on the battle; even though I’m not a big fan of the new computer animated version of the character, despite it being necessary for his fight scene.  It’s unfortunate that so much time is wasted in order to get to that conclusion, and you have to wonder if all of this is just padding in order to get the movie to trilogy length.  It seems possible, as nothing really is changed by the end, other than Anakin being short one limb after his encounter with Dooku.  Everything else has this inevitability aspect to it, because we all already know where it’s going to lead; Anakin and Padme’s courtship, the rise of the clone army, the schism between Obi-Wan and Anakin, it’s all just set up.  And none of it is remotely interesting.  To me, Attack of the Clones is rock bottom when it comes to Star Wars because it commits the greatest sin of all within the series; it’s boring.  The Phantom Menace is flawed, but has points where it comes alive.  Clones is just a bridge between movies and nothing more, watched only for the sake of completion of the story.  Hopefully it all leads somewhere.

 STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

Now we get to the movie that plays the most important role of all; connecting all the threads into the original trilogy.  A lot of things have to happen here; the fall of the Jedi, the rise of the Empire, the corruption of Anakin into Darth Vader, and finally, the birth of Luke and Leia.  And for the most part, the movie actually succeeds.  There are flaws to be sure; Hayden Christensen’s performance is sadly still lacking, as are most of the still stilted performances throughout.  The movie also devotes far too much time towards developing the internal politics of the world, and not enough on the characters.  And again, Lucas sets up yet another interesting new villain, this time General Grievous, and does too little with him in the overall film.  But, these problems are not as egregious as they were in the previous two films.  When the movie needs to get serious, it gets serious, and it thankfully devotes the right amount of time to establishing the needed gravitas to the moments that matter.  The things that really makes this movie work so well though is that we finally see the villainous presence of Emperor Palpatine unleashed.  Ian McDiarmid, reprising his role throughout the trilogy that he first played in Return of the Jedi way back in 1983, finally takes center stage here and he steals every single moment.  Perhaps that’s why so many of the other villains in this trilogy were so underutilized, because Palpatine is the only one that matters.  After working within the shadows for most of the trilogy, we finally see him in his full evil presence, and his rise into power is frighteningly potent.  He even has a surprising confrontation with Yoda late in the movie, which is one of the film’s best parts.  More importantly, his presence finally gives us the true menacing presence of the Sith that we had been severely lacking in the previous films.

The movie is also not afraid to take the story into dark, depressing territory.  The fall of the Jedi is dealt with in a rather shocking way, with the Jedi being betrayed by the very same Clone troopers that they had fought alongside.  The fact that Anakin Skywalker, corrupted by the influence of Palpatine, is the one leading the slaughter is also effectively shocking.  But the movie likewise makes his reckoning feel appropriately tragic.  Finally, the turn into Darth Vader makes more sense, as we see the tragic flaw of Anakin’s character, his arrogance and fear of losing what’s important to him, lead him to the dark side.  Lucas thankfully fulfills all those aspects within this story, including the long desired for confrontation between Anakin and Obi-Wan on the volcanic planet Mustafar.  I should point out that one of the things that has remained constantly strong throughout the trilogy had been John Williams incredible music scores.  Continuing on from his work in the original trilogy, Williams never let audiences down with giving adequate epic grandeur to the music in these films.  His work in Revenge of the Sith is especially effective, including the battle theme called “Battle of the Heroes,” which underscores the epic fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan.  It might even be one of his best pieces he’s ever written, which is saying something.  Revenge also does an excellent job of tying the trilogies together.  Anakin’s final transformation into the Darth Vader we all know is dealt with in a very chilling scene, albeit undercut by the now infamously lame moment where Vader cries out, “NOOOOOO.”  But the final shot of the movie, where Obi-Wan hands off baby Luke to his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru is a wonderfully done echo of the famous double sunset scene from A New Hope, leaving this trilogy on a near perfect note.  So, despite a lot of problematic hurdles along the way that have tarnished a bit of the old Star Wars magic, Lucas did manage to stick the landing when it came to bridging the two trilogies together.  Revenge of the Sith is not perfect, but it gets the job done and easily is the best of the prequels by a long shot.

For a while, this looked to be where the saga of Star Wars would end.  Lucas had completed his full vision of this universe, showing us the rise and fall of the evil Empire, and the redemption of the Jedi Order after being brought to the brink of collapse.  But, his return to the series unfortunately showed his weaknesses as a filmmaker as well.  His long gap away from the directors chair may have unfortunately robbed him of some of the insight he needed to make the movies work more cohesively.  His instincts for one were undermined, as he relied too heavily on cinematic shortcuts like green-screen and CGI to bring his vision to life.  What made Star Wars so appealing in the first place was the fact that it had this tactile, lived in feel to it, which was dictated by the limited budgets and film-making capabilities it had to work with.  Here, the prequel movies look too clean and ultimately fake.  Sometimes it’s better to work within constraints because it allows for more creative thinking. Still, with the prequel trilogy, there were enough bright spots that made the movies financially successful, and it enabled Star Wars to stay relevant into the new century. But, it would not be the end for long, as Disney picked up where Lucas left off and continued the story even beyond those first six episodes. Now, the Skywalker Saga has been rounded out to a total of nine films, with the concluding chapter, The Rise of Skywalker only a week away from its premiere as of this writing. Any movie franchise that makes it that far on this kind of level is really something special. Though as disjointed and meandering as they are, the prequels do serve the purpose of giving us the full story of the Skywalker family, and their pivotal place in the Star Wars mythos. The only regret is that George Lucas’ imagination was too expansive to contain within even just three or six movies. We unfortunately had to go outside the saga to see the full story of the Clone Wars and the Age of the Galactic Empire, which spinoff series explored more extensively. But, even with that, there’s no denying that the prequels give more to Star Wars than it takes away, and it still remains an integral part of the full story. Let’s just hope that Rise of Skywalker leaves the saga on a fitting final note, and doesn’t result in the same polarizing pitfall. Help us Skywalker, you’re our only hope.

 

Home Alone for the Holidays – How a Home Invasion Comedy Became a Holiday Classic

Every generation of seems to have a holiday movie that resonates with them more than others.  For a lot of baby boomers, it was How the Grinch Stole Christmas? (1966), and the generation before that, it was Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  Us Generation X’ers who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s have a whole wealth of holiday specials that meant a lot to our nostalgia for the holidays.  But, if there was one that stood taller than the rest in our collective memories, it was the Chris Columbus directed blockbuster Home Alone (1990).  Now approaching it’s 30th anniversary, Home Alone was a phenomenon upon it’s initial release.  It rode it’s timely holiday season release to record breaking success, and even to this day, it still has the highest box office gross for a comedy when adjusted for inflation.  But it wasn’t just the holidays and the humor that carried the movie, and the real factor was surprising to most.  The key to Home Alone’s success remarkably came in the form of it’s then 8 year old star, Macaulay Culkin.  Culkin, who had only appeared in a handful of films before hand, was suddenly the most famous child star in the world thanks to this movie, achieving a level of fame in Hollywood for a child actor unseen since the days of Shirley Temple.  He represented a new generation of film goers who were going to make a big impact on cinema in the decades ahead, and the fact that many of us who were children at this time saw one of our own commanding the screen as well as he did in Home Alone really solidifies why we hold this movie up so much as a part of our holiday tradition.  But, it is interesting to see how the movie continues to resonate as a holiday film, given the fact that the movie isn’t necessarily about the holiday itself.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie is unmistakably a Christmas movie.  In fact, it is almost drenched in the holidays.  You’d have to look at something like It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) or the fore-mentioned Miracle on 34th Street to find another film with so much of Christmas infused into it’s DNA.  But, that’s an aesthetic part of the movie.  The basic premise of the film itself honestly didn’t need Christmas to work.  The story of a child accidentally left home alone by his family having to fend off home invaders could have easily been set at any time of the year.  A summer vacation setting would have made just as much sense in this case.  But, no doubt director Chris Columbus and writer John Hughes picked the holiday season because it provided a more atmospheric tone to the movie.  It’s one thing for a child to be left home alone; it’s another for it to happen around Christmastime.  Christmas is a holiday all about getting together with one’s family and enjoying the festivities together.  What happens when that’s all taken away.  The isolation of having no one around to enjoy Christmas with weighs heavy over the film, and gives it a poignancy that it might not have otherwise had in any other setting.  That being said, the movie probably could have worked well enough even without the holiday itself.  It’s far more about how Macaulay Culkin’s character, Kevin McCallister deals with the dilemma of keeping his home safe when he has no one else around him to rely upon for safety.  As a result, we see the characters ingenuity and the real reason audiences continue to be entertained by the movie after so many years.  The movie shifts suddenly in it’s final act into a screwball comedy on the level of something we’d see from the Three Stooges, and the results are pretty wild.

But it should be noted that the movie is never meant to invoke a holiday spirit or to solely illicit laughter from it’s audience.  Though on the surface it may seem like a farcical comedy, but underneath, there is something deeper.  Home Alone is in essence a coming of age story, showing the growth and maturity of Kevin McCallister over the course of the few days he’s left by himself.  John Hughes, who had spent much of the 80’s exploring the highs and lows of the average American teenage life in films like The Breakfast Club (1984) and Sixteen Candles (1987), went even further back into pre-adolescence when exploring the character of Kevin McCallister.  It’s interesting to note that when we first meet Kevin in the movie, he’s kind of rotten kid.  He’s disrespectful, bratty, and unsympathetic.  Combine this with the fact that he’s from an upper class household and Kevin represents every spoiled bourgeois American kid who you’ve no doubt seen throwing a tantrum every time they receive even the slightest rejection from their mother or father.    There’s even a point when he calls his mother an idiot to her face, something that I would have been severely reprimanded for if I said that to my mom.  And at first, when he finds that his whole family has left for their Paris bound Christmas vacation without him, he initially finds it liberating; immediately wrecking havoc throughout the house, and as he puts it, “watching trash and eating garbage.”  But as the movie rolls on, Kevin finds that isolation is not exactly as fun as he hoped it would be, and even begins to realize that a part of his loneliness is of his own making.  Through this, John Hughes gives Kevin a redemptive arc that helps to carry the film’s message of compassion.  Kevin, who started off the movie as a selfish brat, by the end has become more self-reliant as well as more considerate of the feelings of other people.

This message really becomes clearer beyond his character arc, as Kevin’s dilemma begins to affect those around him.  In particular, there is a beautifully told parallel story-line being told with Kevin’s mother Kate (played by an unforgettable Cathrine O’Hara).  Kate’s trek back to her son is just as harrowing as what’s going on with Kevin, because we really feel the pain that she is going through not knowing what’s going on with Kevin back home.  I find it funny looking back on this movie now in an era when everybody has a cell phone, and how so much of this would be solved today in an instant with a phone call or text message.  Still, even watching this movie almost 30 years later, Kate’s story-line still resonates, and I honestly think that Cathrine O’Hara doesn’t get enough credit for her performance here.  The normally comedic actress does have her wacky moments here and there (yelling at the incompetent flight desk representatives for one), but her moments of desperation and hopelessness do feel genuine as well.  There’s a wonderful scene late in the movie where she wonders if she is a terrible mother for leaving her child alone, while hitching a ride with a polka band in a U-Haul truck (lead by another comedy legend, John Candy), and it’s a honestly portrayed moment that shows the despair of a character who believes she has failed in her duty as a mother, not realizing that her desperate situation proves exactly the opposite.  Kate indeed becomes the movie’s beating heart, and it’s pleasing to see so much time devoted to her character as well.  Likewise, there is another wonderful arc explored with the character of Old Man Marley (played by Robert Blossom).  Kevin’s fearsome looking next door neighbor turns out to be a decent, caring person by the end, giving Kevin another opportunity to open up to others as a part of his character development.  In Marley, Kevin recognizes some who like him has pushed people away and it has left him isolated as well, and by recognizing this and encouraging the old man to reconnect with his own family, Kevin likewise recognizes what he must do for himself.  So, while there is a lot of shenanigans that go on throughout the course of the movie, it still never forgets that the characters involved are real people who evolve with their story.

Of course, the slapstick is a big part of the movie’s continued entertainment value, and it particularly works because of how on board the actors are to making it as funny as possible.  Working very much against type, we find Joe Pesci cast as one of the cat burglars hoping to rob the McCallister home in which Kevin is still present.  It should be noted that Pesci appeared in the Scorsese flick Goodfellas (1990) in the same year that he appeared in this movie, a role that would ultimately earn him an Academy Award.  To see him go from that to something as screwball as Home Alone really shows how much range he has as an actor.  Daniel Stern’s performance as the other cat burglar, Marv, is more logically placed, and Stern does indeed play up the Stooge like aspect of the character very well.  One of the biggest laughs in the movie comes from the scream that Marv belts out once he has a tarantula placed on his face.  Another reason why the comedy works is because Pesci and Stern have excellent chemistry, and their characters work so well in conflict with Culkin’s smartallecky Kevin.  Indeed, I think why so many fans of the film from my generation love this film so much is because we saw a child like us making buffons out of these adults.  Of course, a real life scenario like this would have a much darker outcome, but the movie never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously.  Indeed, we will always enjoy seeing two incompetent criminals get pelted in the face with paint cans.  Some of the traps that Kevin sets up in particular are so wildly ridiculous that they defy logic, like Pesci’s Harry getting the top of his head blasted with a blow torch.  At the same time, it’s not like this slapstick comes out of nowhere in the final act though.  There are sprinkles of what’s to come throughout the movie, like the family’s mad scramble to get ready for their trip after sleeping in, or Kevin’s ridiculous indoor sledding down a staircase.  My favorite piece of comedy though is the film noir parody that Kevin watches while eating ice cream.  Doing a hilarious send up of James Cagney gangster flicks in the middle of this family oriented Christmas flick is something that I’ve grown to appreciate more as I’ve expanded my knowledge of film history, and it’s something that helps to make this movie a delight to watch still.

It is also interesting how the movie not only acts as a quintessential holiday film, but it has also gone on to leave it’s mark as a part of people’s traditions for the holidays.  For one thing, I think that more than any other movie of it’s generation, it has brought awareness to all these old Christmas standards from generations for younger audiences.  The movie is full of many songs that otherwise might not have resonated with Genration X or millennials beyond their initial years.  These are songs that are now standards like Brenda Lee’s “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree,” Mel Torme’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” or The Drifter’s rendition of “White Christmas.”  The movie’s soundtrack is basically a greatest hits album of all the Christmas songs that our parents grew up listening to, which is another great way the movie manages to bring multiple generations of audience members together as a part of the experience.  But the movie isn’t just blessed with a varied playlist of holiday standards.  Somehow, Chris Columbus managed to land the legendary John Williams to write an original score.  And for a movie as simple and small in scope as Home Alone is, it is amazing how much bigger it feels with a Williams score behind it.  Infusing more of a Christmas tone than anything else he has ever written, Williams probably is the one most responsible for making this an unmistakable holiday film.  This includes tones of memorable original pieces, like the mad-cap, sleigh bell infused melody that plays during the McCallister family’s rush to the airport, or the quiet grace of the original tune “Somewhere in my Memory,” that plays during the more heartwarming moments.  I don’t think the final shot of the movie with Old Man Marley reunited with his family would have had the same resonance without Williams amazing score in that moment.  Honestly, we have Home Alone to thank for the many different melodies that flood our airwaves during the month of December, both good and bad, and it all does helps to elevate the atmosphere of the movie itself.  As a result you can see why the filmmakers could not choose any other time but Christmas to set their movie in.

Home Alone is one of those movies that so perfectly contains it’s concept within it’s storyline, and it feels like there is no other way to improve upon it. Sadly, the filmmakers were saddled with the responsibility of having to make a sequel to Home Alone only a couple short years later due to how much money it made for studio 20th Century Fox. Long before The Hangover movies set a new standard for uninspired sequelizing of a hit comedy, Home Alone tried desperately to recapture the same lightning in a bottle with another movie but only this time in a new location; New York City in this case. Home Alone 2: Escape from New York (1992) does try, and is not without its moments, but it’s clear that Columbus and Hughes were really stretching the premise thin. And the main reason why the sequel doesn’t work as well is because it’s missing that crucial element that made the original so memorable; Kevin’s character arc. He’s already grown as a character, so by the time we see him again, he’s already gained his maturity. How do you resolve this in order to make a sequel; you regress the character and make him fall back into his bad habits, thereby undoing all the work of the original movie. It’s an unfortunately negative result that removes the emotional heart of the movie, resulting in a half-hearted “here we go again” feel to the movie. The relationship between Kevin and his mom is also unfortunately reduced as well. Even still, the movie has it’s fans, and I do enjoy some of the best parts of the movie, like another film noir parody as well as the addition of Tim Curry to the cast as a diabolical hotel manager. But what the sequel illustrates more than anything else was just how important that underlying heart was to making the original movie work as well as it did.

 The legacy that Home Alone has left behind is one that is inexorably linked now to the holidays. Children who first experienced the movie in its initial release are all adults now with children of their own, and I’m sure that they’ll no doubt be sharing the movie with them this time of year. Disney is even now reviving the property as a possible reboot for their Disney+ service, of which the original films are already available on. It’s easy to see why the movie became an instant hit, but I think the magnitude may have been the most unexpected part of all. It may have been too much for Macaulay Culkin in those hectic few years after Home Alone hit theaters, putting him at the center of Hollywood spotlight for most of his formative years. After being hounded by the industry for some time, Culkin retreated into a quieter life, but has more recently emerged on social media carrying around a sense of humor with the role that made him famous. He even jokingly pondered what a grown up Kevin McCallister would be like in a charming commercial for Google. Sure, time changes perception, and Home Alone is not without it’s quaintness due to the passage of time. But over the years, it has also gained something for its audience that all the best holiday classics have managed to do, which is to present a warm sense of nostalgia. My generation looks fondly back on Home Alone and we have grown to appreciate it more now that we have become grown ups ourselves. Sure, we all like to be a smart ass kid like Kevin McCallister, but over time we find ourselves also wanting to do whatever we can to be there for our loved ones for the holidays. In the end, the movie shows us that Holiday season is all about the importance of family and that being alone for Christmas is not the ideal situation. Togetherness is key, and Home Alone, in its own silly way, delivers that message beautifully. So, Merry Christmas, you filthy animal.

Tinseltown Throwdown – Rocky vs. Raging Bull

Fall is in full swing and the holidays are upon us.  So, let’s talk about sports movies for a bit.  Cinema’s long history has given us a wealth of great sports related films throughout the years.  Football, basketball, and especially baseball, the many great American pastimes have provided plenty of uplifting tales of underdog heroism.  And the same goes for the many international sports, like soccer, rugby, and even cricket.  But if there was one sport in particular that has become something rather poetic for filmmakers and audiences alike, it would be boxing.  There is something about the sport of boxing that has lent itself so passionately to the art of cinema.  Perhaps it’s the grueling nature of the sport that feels so cinematic, especially when captured within the ring itself.  Maybe it’s the psychological and physical tolls taken on the the individual boxers that provides so much drama.  Each boxer depicted in these movies becomes almost mythical in a way, as they’re struggles inside the ring become almost like a echoes of the troubles that have plagued them on the outside, and we the audience see that these fights are more than just trading blows.  It’s probably why boxing movies have won more Oscars than any other sport in film.  It goes all the way back to 1931’s The Champ, where Wallace Berry won Best Actor for his portrayal of a tragic but lovable heavyweight champion.  Since then, every generation seems to have it’s own iconic portrayal of the life of a champion boxer, whether it’s classics like Gentleman Jim (1942), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), to modern hits like Million Dollar Baby (2004) and The Fighter (2010).  But there are two boxing movies in particular that have particularly risen to become the pinnacle of the genre, and both are unsurprisingly major awards winners; 1976’s Rocky and 1980’s Raging Bull.

It should be interesting to note the time period in which both movies were first released.  The late 70’s were a turbulent time in America.  Watergate had risen distrust in the United States government to an all time high, and the country was firmly divided.  At the time, even the newly elected President, Jimmy Carter, couldn’t find a way to mend the broken nation that had been suffering the scars of the Vietnam War and the unthinkable corruption behind Watergate.  At the same time, Hollywood was going through it’s own period of transition and upheaval.  The 1970’s was the decade of the director; a period where maverick filmmakers were given creative license that they had otherwise never had under the old studio system.  This allowed for bolder, grittier artistic expression, with the directors rewriting the rules of film-making as they went.  Films made in this time were decidedly rougher, more documentary like, and audiences were embracing this so-called New Hollywood.  Out of this period emerged many filmmakers who would go on to change the industry forever, like Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, William Friedkin, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.  But not everything from this era represented a rejection of establishment; there were crowd-pleasers made as well.  Enter a less renowned, but not to be forgotten filmmaker named John G. Avildsen, who just happened to stumble upon the right kind of movie at the right time, taking a chance on a script written by a struggling actor named Sylvester Stallone.  That movie would be the story of a fictional amateur boxer from Philadelphia named Rocky Balboa who gets his one big shot to prove his worth.  That movie would not only surprise everyone by becoming a big hit, but it even became an inspiration for a country to believe in hopeful once again.  At the same time, Martin Scorsese was closing out a turbulent decade for himself with a very personal and harsh portrayal of real life boxer Jake LaMotta with his new film Raging Bull.  What is interesting when looking at both movies is how they both strongly make their case for being the quintessential boxing movie, but with wildly different tones and stories.  Both are undeniably classics in their own right, but which one does the better job of portraying the mythic life struggle of a boxer.

“You’re going to eat lightning and you’re going to crap thunder!”

It’s interesting to look at the boxers themselves.  Rocky Balboa, a fictional character who no doubt was inspired by many similar boxers of the period and most likely also by the actor portraying him, is a working class stiff with the determination to make something better of himself.  Jake LaMotta, who was a real life professional boxer, starts out at the top of his game and only ends up sliding downward.  These are the obvious differences between the movies; one is a feel good triumph while the other is a tragic portrayal of hubris.  But, they are both highly celebrated, and that’s mainly due to the incredible strength of both characters.  Sylvester Stallone became an overnight success story with the release of Rocky, finally achieving that success in Hollywood that had long alluded him.  And in many ways, it mirrors Rocky’s own story of working hard to prove his worth.  For his portrayal of Jake LaMotta, Robert DeNiro took a decidedly different route.  DeNiro was already firmly established in Hollywood, having already won a Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather Part II (1974) and having already established a great working relationship with director Scorsese in both Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976).  But, with Raging Bull, he chose to not just make the boxing scenes feel authentic, but to also make Jake LaMotta look and feel as nasty as his reputation spoke to.  DeNiro went through a full body transformation during the making of the movie, putting on nearly 50 lbs. in order to play LaMotta in his overweight post-boxing days.  It’s interesting that both movies illustrate the rough life of a boxer, as both have demons that they want to excise, with the ring as their escape.  But while Rocky manages to pull himself up, LaMotta just continues to drag himself down, succumbing to pride, jealousy, and just his own bad judgment.  And yet, even in the closing moments, Scorsese and DeNiro give Jake LaMotta a bit of a bittersweet reexamination, as he literally takes a look at his own reflection and decides to move forward.  In the end, that’s the hardest match he’s ever had to win.

“You didn’t get me down Ray.”

It’s interesting to note how one movie works as a textbook example of the genre, while the other challenges it’s conventions and still represents it perfectly.  It probably has to do with the characters themselves.  Rocky, despite being a little rough around the edges, is quite lovable.  Stallone gives him an undeniable charm, and you see that reflected in the magnetic way that he earns the love and respect for all those around him, as he depends on their support to get to the top.  The movie has some wonderful tender moments between Rocky and his love interest Adrian (Talia Shire).  There’s also a great mentor/ trainee relationship that builds between Rocky and his trainer Mickey (played by an unforgettable Burgess Meredith).  The great thing about these relationships is that they help to build Rocky up for us the audience.  As they grow to like him more, we do too, and that enables us to want to see him succeed by the end.  It’s also fascinating to watch how his determination clashes against the myopic perception that is given to him by the champion he’s about to face, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).  To him, Rocky is just a step towards another fight, but to Rocky it’s so much more.  In Raging Bull, the fights only make up the background of his story.  Martin Socrsese is far more interested in seeing how the fighter exists outside the ring, and he shows how the fight sadly never leaves the fighter, even after the bell has rung.  Jake LaMotta is so wired into the sport that even the slightest provocation is enough to send him into fisticuffs.  We see that reflected in his world, as he’s constantly arguing with his wife Vicki (Cathy Moriarty) as well as his friend and manager Joey (Joe Pesci), who’s prone to violent outbursts himself (as evidenced by that legendary beat down he gives to Frank Vincent’s Salvy in the movie).  In this way, we see where the characters wildly differ, because we see where one uses the ring to be a monster while the other uses it to become a champion.

There’s a lot to be said about the different ways the movies are filmed as well.  Rocky is nothing out of the ordinary for it’s era.  It was shot in the same gritty, documentary style that was typical of the 1970’s.  And really, that’s all you need for this kind of story.  Rocky is a movie for mass audiences, but done economically enough to feel authentic, so that’s why John G. Avildsen’s direction is clean and unobtrusive.  He only saves the more emotional, cinematic stuff for the finale, as the final fight between Balboa and Creed is colorful and bright, elevating it’s almost mythic stature.  Everything else almost feels subdued, as we are almost ease-dropping into the lives of these characters.  Martin Scorsese on the other hand, treats the entirety of Raging Bull as a bold cinematic expression.  He shot the entire movie in black and white, which was oddly enough a reversal of a trend for cinema in that time.  Monochromatic movies had been almost treated as a relic of the past by filmmakers of these maverick days of cinema, so it’s interesting to see it used here.  In a way, Scorsese sort of revived the black and white movie, which has made sporadic returns throughout the years.  It’s also the one and only time that he would ever shoot a movie like that, showing just how important it was to telling of this particular story.  Scorsese’s use of black and white is probably a reflection of how he wanted to portray LaMotta’s story; stripped of all flashiness and laid bare for the viewer.  The boxing matches in particular even take on this otherworldly appearance, with the smoke filled grays of the environment almost make the scenes glow.  There’s something conventional about the way that Rocky appears, and that’s in a good way.  We in a way expect to the final fight in Rocky to look as bright as it does.  But it’s the stark bleakness of Raging Bull‘s colorless hue that unsettles us as a viewer and that helps to create a whole other experience that is no less enriching.

“He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!”

You will also never find more brilliantly edited movies anywhere.  The movie Rocky all but invented the training montage, which has become a staple of both boxing movies and all movies in general.  Underscored by Bill Conti’s now legendary musical theme, the training montage is almost a movie within itself, conveying so much story in such a short amount of time.  It’s often imitated, but rarely matched.  And the reason it works as well as it does is no doubt because of how well it is edited to the rhythm of Conti’s music.  By the time Rocky makes his final run up the steps of the Museum of Art and he does that triumphant dance at the top, you feel absolutely uplifted as a viewer, almost like you’ve trained alongside Rocky yourself.  There is almost a lyrical way to the editing of the movie, with the edits and the music almost working together to tell the story and that extends all the way to the final match.  Which is very much in contrast with how Raging Bull is edited.  Pieced together by the unmatched champion of her profession, Thelma Schoonmaker, Raging Bull treats the fighting matches as an almost wild experience.  She mixes in slow motion as well as sped up footage at almost random points, illustrating just how chaotic a boxing match can be, but it’s not in the service of showing us the fight in a fully realistic sense.  She uses her edits to convey what a boxing match can feel like for the boxers themselves, with each blow almost creating lapses in time for the fighter, which no doubt conveys the brain damage that they go through.  The movie otherwise is relatively calm outside those boxing scenes, with Scorsese holding the camera steady for the most part.  In those chaotic boxing scenes, we find Scorsese and Schoonmaker finding the real window in the mind of a boxer, which fills us in to how the character behaves for the rest of the movie.  In this sense, both movies use their editing to convey the mythical sense of the sport, in ways that only the medium of film can.

But what is most interesting about both films is that they speak to different personal aspects of their creators, and how they both reflect different points of success through their subjects.  For Rocky, it is a movie about dreaming; hoping that you don’t blow your one shot once you’ve got it and then riding that opportunity to a better life.  That’s what was on Sylvester Stallone’s mind as he began writing the screenplay for the movie.  He was a struggling actor who had tried for years to find his big break in the business.  He was not typical leading man, being a little rough around the edges.  In Rocky, he imagined a rise to fame that he himself hoped he could have for himself.  Ever the avid boxing fan, Stallone saw in this amateur boxer a version of himself, taking on an impossible job and proving everyone wrong.  In the end, it’s not about winning the fight, but showing that you are more than just a gimmick.  Rocky was only supposed to stand up against Apollo Creed for ten rounds, knowing that the fight was never going to be in his favor.  But what Rocky proves is that he can not only fulfill his obligation, but he could even give Apollo a worthy challenge as well.  So even when Creed is declared the winner, Rocky still feels like a champion, because he proved he was a worthy fighter.  Stallone may not have gained any awards for his work, but Rocky gave him a lasting career as an actor, and I’m sure that makes him feel like a champ all these years later.  At the same time, Martin Scorsese approached Raging Bull with a different set of eyes.  In the late-70’s, Scorsese was recovering from a drug addiction, something which he feared would ruin his career forever.  Having cleaned up, he wanted to make a movie that almost therapeutically reflected his own struggles, and he found that in the story of Jake LaMotta.  I almost think that’s why Raging Bull is such a harsh narrative with regards to it’s subject, because it was coming at the same time that Scorsese was so hard on himself.  For Rocky, we see someone hoping to show his worth, while Raging Bull shows us what happens after that rise to worthiness has crested.  Indeed, Scorsese almost became a different director after Raging Bull, and for the better, as it enabled him to continue on for the next forty years with a renewed outlook on life.

“If you win, you win. If you lose, you still win.”

It’s hard to say which one comes out on top as the better movie, because they are both masterpieces in their own way.  Rocky would go on to spawn a long running franchise, and even has led to a spin-off series of it’s own, Creed, which has extended the Rocky legacy even further.  Though Stallone’s film career has been through it’s ups and downs, his portrayal of Rocky Balboa is still something that makes him an iconic star in Hollywood.  When accepting his Golden Globe for the movie Creed in 2016, he thanked his “imaginary” friend Rocky Balboa, for as he said, “being the best friend an actor could ever have.”  The city of Philadelphia still celebrates the star and the character as a symbol of their city; including having a statue of Rocky sitting atop those famous steps.  At the same time, Scorsese honors Raging Bull as a pivotal turning point for his career as a filmmaker.  Not only did it allow him to excise some of the demons of his own past, but it allowed him to build his artistic senses even further.  He was able to continue building that meaningful friendship and collaboration with his leading man Robert DeNiro, which has extended many decades, even extending to today with the release of The Irishman this week on Netflix.  DeNiro likewise views Jake LaMotta as an important part of his experience as an actor.  He still claims it as his most important role, and he’s got a nice Best Actor Oscar to back that up.  In the end, how you view the movie in direct competition comes down to personal taste.  If this were a boxing match, I’d say that it’d come down to a draw, but for me I honestly would re-watch the more inspirational Rocky more times than the harsher Raging Bull.  Bull may be more artistically daring, but Rocky has the better story.  Even still, they are true icons of cinema, and without a doubt the best movies made about the sport of boxing to ever grace the silver screen.  Whether triumphant or sour, these movies are true champions.

“Yo Adrian!!!”

 

Frozen II – Review

It’s interesting to think what this era in Disney Animation will be called.  Disney’s Golden Age is often what they called the post-WWII years of the 1950’s, when the Disney company enjoyed a string of hits that included Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953) and Sleeping Beauty (1959).  Then came the Renaissance, which was heralded by release of The Little Mermaid (1989), and continued on with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994).  But what all these key eras for Disney have in common is that they all came after years of both creative and economic downturns.  That’s been Disney’s key characteristic through the years, which is their resiliency, as they seem to always find a way to put themselves back on top no matter what the storm.  Disney Animation during the 2000’s is a period of time that could be described as transitional.  After the heyday of the Renaissance, Disney’s traditional animation style was just not carrying it’s weight like it used to, which was mainly due to the rise of computer animation from their soon to be sister company, Pixar.  As CGI rose, hand drawn animation fell, and Disney’s in house studio was just able to compete.  The box office failure of costly films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and Treasure Planet (2002) only hastened the decline, and after the rather mediocre premiere of the last hand drawn film in the pipeline, 2004’s Home on the Range, Disney decided to adjust to the times and end their traditional animation studio for good.  One last attempt was made to bring it back with 2009’s The Princess and the Frog, despite decent box office, it still wasn’t enough to move the needle back.  Disney still struggled at first to meet the challenge of this new CGI animated world, with forgettable films like Chicken Little (2005) and Bolt (2008) doing little to boost their stock, but two back to back successes with Tangled (2010) and Wreck-It Ralph (2012) helped to shape things for the better.  And then came the movie that changed everything and pushed Disney back on top.

Frozen (2013) was undoubtedly a phenomenon the likes that Disney hadn’t seen since The Lion King nearly 20 years prior.  Bolstered no doubt by it’s wintery setting coinciding with a holiday season release, Frozen would continue to remain atop the box office all the way into the new year, even against heavy competition like The Hobbit.  In the end, it became the highest grossing animated film of all time worldwide, as well as the first animated film to enter the billion dollar club.  But, it wasn’t the seasonal aspect itself that made the movie a hit.  Loosely based on the Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale, The Snow Queen, Frozen marked a triumphant return for Disney to the genre that had originally put them on the map.  The central characters of Anna and Elsa were immediately catapulted into the pantheon of popular Disney Princesses, and their story of unbroken sisterhood was embraced by audiences of all ages.  The same goes for all the characters as well, with the magical snowman Olaf becoming a particular favorite for small children.  And then of course there was the songs.  Written by the husband and wife duo of Robert and Kristen Lopez of Broadway fame (Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon), the songs from Frozen became instant standards, and were sung by nearly everyone and everywhere.  Even Ryan Reynolds sang a bit of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” in Deadpool 2 (2018).  And of course there was “Let it Go,” which became one of the most omnipresent songs in recent memory.  With the success that Disney enjoyed from the release of Frozen, they managed to bring their studio back to dominance, with subsequent hits like Zootopia (2016) and Moana (2016) standing strong on it’s shoulders.  So, it makes sense that Disney would fast track a sequel to their biggest hit in decades.  Frozen II arrives this week 6 years after the original and the question remains can it recapture the magic that helped to make the original a huge success, or are we starting to see the ice begin to thaw?

Frozen II picks up not long after the events of the first movie.  Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) have reestablished their long dormant kingdom into a open society, and prosperity has flourished once again.  But, Elsa has been disturbed by a siren call that only she can hear and she wishes to find out where it is coming from.  She believes that it has a connection to the lullaby that her mother, Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood), had sung to her and her sister before she was gone.  The lullaby spoke of an Enchanted Forest beyond the borders of their kingdom, Arendelle, and a mysterious ancient river in the far North.  Accompanied by Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), his loyal reindeer Sven, and magical snowman Olaf (Josh Gad), the sisters head north to find answers.  Once at the border, they find the Enchanted Forest blocked off by an impenetrable wall of mist.  Elsa’s snow and frost powers enable them entry past the mist wall, but leaves them no way out.  Once inside the forest, they are besieged by elemental spirits of wind, fire, earth and water, which Elsa somehow manages to tame.  This gets the attention of Northuldra tribe people, who have been stuck within the forest since the they fought against the kingdom of Arendelle, along with soldiers of the Arendellian army, led by Captain Mattias (Sterling K. Brown).  Elsa, in an attempt to broker peace between their lands, resolves to find answers and a way to break the curse that has closed of the forest from the world.  Meanwhile, Kristoff hopes to find the right time to pop the question to Anna, who is increasingly distracted with having to keep her sister safe.  But, eventually, they all end up finding that some separation will ultimately be needed in order to restore order to their kingdom.  And as they delve deeper into the mystery of their past, especially with regards to what happened to their parents long ago, they may find that the truth is harsher than fiction.

There is no doubt that Frozen II will become a box office hit right out of the gate.  It’s predecessor broke so many records, and the Disney studio has not faltered in the years since, so right out of the gate this movie is going to make a mint no matter what anyone thinks of it.  But can it sustain that, and will it deserve what it gets.  If you’ve been reading my blog since it’s first year online back in 2013, you’ll know that I reviewed the original Frozen (found here) and had something of a lukewarm response to it.  I didn’t dislike the movie by any means, but I also wasn’t as enthusiastic about it either.  It may have to do with my very high standard by which I judge Disney movies by, but I still stand by my view of Frozen.  It’s serviceable, but nowhere near an all time great.  I’ve honestly found the success it enjoyed more fascinating than the movie itself, and I am happy that it propelled this new era of Disney Animation.  But, did things improve for the sequel?  Well, I’m sad to say that not only did it not improve on the original Frozen, but it even took a step backwards for me.  I was not at all satisfied with this second go around with the world of Frozen, finding myself mostly bored and uninterested in what was going on.  There’s nothing really offensively bad about it; it’s just that the movie feels unnecessary.  I’m always of the belief that a sequel must build upon what had come before it, and that it has to justify it’s existence.  The story has to have somewhere to go, and more importantly raise the stakes.  Frozen II doesn’t do that; it just changes location and tries to fill in the gaps left by the original.  That doesn’t make for an interesting movie.  It also makes the movie feel smaller, which is definitely not what you want your sequel to be.

It all boils down to weakness in the story itself.  The original Frozen had an engaging story about persevering through isolation of one’s own making.  As stated in the film, “love can thaw the coldest heart,” and that was admittedly illustrated well through Elsa’s journey of accepting that she doesn’t have to view her powers as a curse but rather as a gift, which undoes years of heartbreak and fear that she has had to grow up with.  Though the movie was unevenly structured, it nevertheless delivered in making Elsa and Anna’s transformations satisfying throughout the course of the story, which in turn drove the narrative along.  But sadly, Frozen II moves forward with it’s most important conflict already resolved.  The characters have all gone through their major transformations, and sadly don’t grow beyond that.  It would help if there was a more fleshed out cast to give more character development to, or more world building beyond what we’ve seen so far, but no.  Frozen II decides to keep things close to home and without much in the way of external threats.  The movie seems to think that we need to know where Elsa got her powers from and where the sisters’ mother and father were headed originally.  I hate to say it, but the mystery isn’t really that interesting and the ultimate conclusion even less so.  And this is the bulk of the movie.  Also, the subtlety of the original film’s message is muddled here in clunky foreshadowing and on-the-nose symbolism.  Oh, do you think that ominous dam might have some symbolic importance for the story?  Hmmm?  There is so much in the movie that feels like a wasted opportunity.  The Northuldra people are extremely underdeveloped, and could have offered an interesting new angle for the story to take.  A lack of an antagonistic threat is also disappointing.  I know Hans was far from a classic Disney villain, but at least he served a purpose.  Instead, little is risked and even less is earned over the course of the movie.

It seems strange that a sub-par effort comes from the exact same team that made the original.  Directors Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck may not have reinvented the wheel with the original Frozen, but they do deserve credit for hitting the bulls-eye when it comes to delivering for a mass audience, and for reinvigorating the Disney brand.  Jennifer Lee has even ridden the success of Frozen towards earning the top job at Disney Animation, becoming the studio head after the departure of John Lasseter, which she certainly is well qualified for.  But, even people with experience under their belt can misfire.  I will say that even though the movie is lacking story-wise, it is still beautifully animated.  There was nothing within the movie that looked lackluster on the animation side, especially when it comes to the environments.  I was really struck by how good the textures looked in this movie, whether it was the foliage within the Enchanted Forest, or the tiny crystals in Elsa’s dress; it all looked beautiful.  There was also some really neat animation used on the elemental spirits, especially with a horse made entirely out of water.  I’m sure that took some expert programming to do in the software used to animate this movie.  The character animation likewise stands on solid ground, with a wide range of emotion put into the faces of Anna, Elsa, and the others.  I’m sure that the animators also had a lot of fun finding new ways to contort Olaf’s sectional body into many different shapes.  At the same time, a lot of this is also stuff we’ve seen before.  Characters are animated with care, but are ultimately the same.  I’m not seeing anything groundbreaking in this film, except maybe with the elemental characters.  The animation fulfills it’s role here, and little else.

The returning voice cast also doesn’t disappoint, and for the most part are what helps to salvage an otherwise disappointing film.  I’m still impressed with Idina Menzel’s vocal range, and I still find Elsa to be the series’ most shining light.  Kristen Bell’s Anna still grates on me a little bit, but she is thankfully a bit more mature and subdued this time around.  Josh Gad’s Olaf may be the movie’s best asset however, as he gets most of the best lines in this movie, especially with the frankness of some of his observations.  There’s a funny bit where he recounts the plot of the first movie in his own way.  Sadly, none of the new characters leave an impression.  I mentioned earlier the lack of development for the Northuldran people, who could have been a fascinating asset had their culture been explored further.  I also am confused why the character of Captain Mattias exists at all, because he adds so little to the plot, and why cast a big star like Sterling K. Brown in the part.  He does a fine job, but the character is largely inconsequential.  The songs are a mixed bag too.  Unfortunately none are as memorable as those in the previous movie, which may be a blessing to some.  As much as people got sick of “Let it Go,” it’s still undeniably a great song.  Only one song in this movie comes close to rising to that high bar called “Into the Unknown,” and no big surprise, it’s an Elsa song.  But even still, it doesn’t carry the same weight, and I think that’s mostly a byproduct of the story itself being so weightless.  Some of the songs even feel awkwardly shoehorned in, like they were written before the story itself was fully formed, and the filmmakers had to work around them.  There are some cute things about them, like Kristoff getting to do a riff on 80’s rock love ballads, but it’s more a testament to the professionalism of the Lopez’s as songwriters.  A more robust story would have maybe turned these songs into classics, as the original did with tunes like “Love is an Open Door” and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”, but sadly this is a soundtrack that is likely going to fall way short of it’s award-winning predecessor.

Watching how Frozen II falls short of capturing of the mark set by the original Frozen makes me think very much with how they contrast against a similarly themed film series from a rival studio, and not in a good way.  Dreamworks Animation managed to create one of their most popular and critically acclaimed films with How to Train Your Dragon, which like Frozen, took inspiration from Norse culture and folklore to tell it’s story.  However, what Dragon also did was further expand it’s world in it’s subsequent sequels, with each adding new places, characters, and layers upon which they could further explore.  They also raised the stakes significantly, and dare I say, took very creative risks as well; including killing off a character or two, and maybe even showing more character flaws that deepen their characters’ stories as they go along.  Frozen II follows it’s enormously successful predecessor by playing it safe, and that’s to it’s detriment.  I wanted there to be more to the story of Elsa and Anna than just a journey into the past.  These characters don’t need to find clues toward discovering where they came from, because they already know who they are; the original movie did an effective job of showing us that.  What Frozen II needed was a more powerful test, both with Elsa’s further expanding powers and also with the family bond that ties them all together.  There is no conflict with any of them, and you all know they are going to return safely home by the end, and that’s the problem.  I’m sorry to contrast it with How to Train Your Dragon, but that series shows a much better example of how to grow your story over multiple films.  Even  by Disney sequel standards, Frozen II felt like a whole bunch of unnecessary filler.  If there are any further adventures of Anna and Elsa, which is heavily implied that there might by the end, they better have a more interesting story to tell.  Maybe a story developed by a different team next time might give the series a push in the right direction next time.  In the meanwhile, despite pretty animation and a couple nice songs, Frozen II sadly falls way short and is probably Disney’s weakest film in a long while.  Is it going to break Disney’s win streak? Not a chance, but it will never stand among the all time greats, and even though it pains me as a life long Disney fan, it’s best to forget this one and let it go.

Rating: 6/10