All posts by James Humphreys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Movie Characters of the 2010’s

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

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

10.

JORDAN BELFORT from THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)

Played by Leonardo DiCaprio

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

9.

CEASAR from THE PLANET OF THE APES series

Played by Andy Serkis

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

8.

MAYA from ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012)

Played by Jessica Chastain

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

7.

ELSA from FROZEN (2013)

Voiced by Idina Menzel

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

6.

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

Played by Michael Keaton

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

5.

CLEO from ROMA (2018)

Played by Yalitza Aparicio

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

4.

KING T’CHALLA from BLACK PANTHER (2018)

Played by Chadwick Boseman

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

3.

ALEJANDRO GILLICK from SICARIO (2015)

Played by Benicio del Toro

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

2.

JOHN WICK from the JOHN WICK series

Played by Keanu Reeves

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

1.

REY from the STAR WARS series

Played by Daisy Ridley

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

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

The Lion King (2019) – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5/10

Evolution of Character – Mowgli

The name Rudyard Kipling brings up a lot of talk in the world of literature.  Often seen as one of the fathers of modern action adventure, whose work has inspired everything from Indiana Jones to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, his most notable contribution to the medium would largely be the theme of the conflict between civilization and the wild.  This juxtaposition is what defines most of his writing, and has led to him to be a widely discussed and sometimes controversial figure in literary circles.  Though Kipling is largely responsible for exposing the Western world to cultural traditions and folklore of exotic places like India and the Middle East, he also did so with a distinctly British point of view.  Having been born and raised in Colonial India during his early years, the land no doubt left an effect on him.  He was drawn to the geographical wonders of the subcontinent, and as a child he no doubt absorbed the many folk tales that were spoken about by the native Indians.  But, he was also of the belief that it was in the Indian people’s best interest to live under British rule.  His strong Imperialist views has often clouded modern perception of his work, and though he admires the nation and people of India very much in his writing, his naivete towards the cruelty that the Indian people endured under the British rule is still problematic.  Still, Kiplng’s influence is still felt in modern literature, as well as in cinema.  Many films have been made of his novels and short stories like Gunga Din (1939), Kim (1950) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975).  But none of his works has lent itself better to the big screen than the collection of short stories that he is probably best known for called simply enough The Jungle Book.

When people think of The Jungle Book, they probably think it tells the singular narrative that we’re all familiar with, but that’s actually not the case.  The famous story of the man-cub raised by wolves in the jungle is actually only about half of the entire book, taking up three of the book’s seven short stories.  The rest of The Jungle Book is filled with lesser known stories like Rikki Tikki Tavi, The White Seal, Toomi of the Elephants, and Her Majesty’s Servants.  But the first 3 stories are what people remember the most because they center on what is ultimately the most compelling character that Rudyard Kipling ever created; the man-cub named Mowgli.  It’s interesting that through the character of Mowgli, we see Kipling telling the most personal of stories and utilizing all the important themes that would define most of his work.  Like Mowgli, Kipling was an orphan raised in a strange land where he felt out of place, and likewise, he is caught between two colliding worlds, wanting to indulge his love of the exotic while at the same time staying loyal to Queen and Country.  It’s that theme of Freedom and Control clashing in the metaphor of Civilization and the Jungle that defines Mowgli’s journey and it makes him a compelling figure in fiction.  Though Kipling often paints his non-white characters in problematic broad strokes, he thankfully devotes a lot of love and care to Mowgli, whom he clearly identifies with even despite the racial differences.  And this treatment has helped Mowgli endure as a figure on the big screen, making his mark even today, over a hundred years after he made his debut on the page.  Like other articles in this series, I’ll be looking at some of the most notable interpretations of the character, and examine all the interesting ways he has evolved as a character over time.  So, let’s take a look at Rudyard Kipling’s boy of the wild and his long cinematic journey.

SABU in RUDYARD KIPLING’S JUNGLE BOOK (1942)

Though not the first cinematic re-telling of the story, coming after a string of long forgotten silent and single reel shorts, this lush Technicolor version would mark Hollywood’s first adaptation, and it’s one that very much helped to popularize the story for mainstream audiences.  Made by the Korda bothers, Zoltan and Alexander, this version is expectedly melodramatic and cheesy in the classic Hollywood extravaganza sort of way, but what is most interesting about it is the appropriate casting of an authentic Indian actor in the role of Mowgli.  Sabu Dastagir, who often went credited by the single name Sabu, was the first ever Indian movie star to gain international fame.  Discovered by the Korda brothers, he first appeared as the titular Elephant Boy (1937), which was also based on a short story from the Jungle Book.  It was with the lavish production of Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Baghdad (1940) that Sabu became a household name, and soon after, the Korda brothers saw fit to give him a starring vehicle in their next film based on the Mowgli stories of The Jungle Book.  Though Sabu, who was in his twenties at the time, may look a tad bit too old for the part, he still maintains a charming presence throughout the movie.  The movie treats his story more as a traditional action adventure, with none of the book’s more important themes explored, and less importance placed on the animal characters as well.  But, Sabu manages to carry the character along, giving him a dignified presence that normally wouldn’t have been given to a Indian character in a typical Hollywood epic of the time.  Had he not put such a strong, culturally authentic face to the character of Mowgli, we might have had a whole different cinematic history for this character, and that in itself made a big impact; both for the character and for the exposure of Indian people on film in general.

BRUCE REITHERMAN in THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967)

Like other famous fairy tales and fables, this was likely most people’s first exposure to the story of The Jungle Book.  The last film that Walt Disney personally worked on before his untimely death, this animated Jungle Book is in many ways the best possible medium for the story, while at the same time being the least faithful.  Animation made it possible for the interactions that Mowgli has with his animal companions to be fully realized, since it’s more natural in an animated film to have a talking bear or panther than it would in live action.  But, at the same time, Walt Disney made the risky choice of making The Jungle Book without using Kipling’s original story as the basis.  Instead, the movie is more of a showcase for the characters of the book, and not the actual plot itself.  And that works to it’s advantage.  Though it’s the least faithful, this Jungle Book has still become the most beloved, and that’s because the characters are so strongly defined.  For the first time, characters like Baloo the Bear, Bagheera the Panther, and Shere Khan the Tiger take the spotlight, all voiced by well known entertainers from the time.  Disney even added another character that fit well into this version named King Louis, an orangutan very heavily influenced  by his voice actor Louis Prima.  Even still, Mowgli emerges as a relatable character.  Though far more Americanized than Sabu’s interpretation, no doubt based on the casting of young Bruce Reitherman in the role (the son of the film’s director, Wolfgang Reitherman), he still retains a bit of the passion that Kipling had originally imagined for him in the book.  His touching, paternal relationship with Baloo is especially expanded upon here, which is an important factor that would play out significantly in future adaptations.  It may not be Kipling’s Mowgli, but this is one version of the character that no doubt remained a crucial part of his legacy.

RODDY MCDOWALL in MOWGLI’S BROTHERS (1976)

Only a decade after Disney made their version of The Jungle Book, famed former Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones took his own stab at adapting Kipling’s story.  This was actually one of three adaptations of the Jungle Book stories that Jones made in the mid 70’s, with animated shorts based on Rikki Tikki Tavi (1975) and The White Seal (1975) released before it.  Here, Chuck Jones adapts the first of the Mowgli short stories, called Mowgli’s Brothers, which chronicles Mowgli’s upbringing as part of a wolf pack as well as his first encounter with Shere Khan, his mortal enemy.  It’s short and sweet, done in that distinctive Chuck Jones style that he was continuing to refine with his independent studio.  The use of color and impressionistic backgrounds are really astounding to watch on screen.  But what is even more distinctive about this version is that it is a very earnest and faithful adaptation of Kipling’s version of the story.  This short film is far darker in tone than it’s Disney equivalent, and utilizes far more of Kipling’s own writing in it’s script.  The movie also dispense with a lot of character dynamics of Disney’s Jungle Book, instead focusing on Mowgli’s own coming of age, as well as his relationship with his adopted wolf mother.  The entire film is narrated by acclaimed actor Roddy McDowall, who also plays ever role except for Mother Wolf (played by the late, great voice actress June Foray).  McDowall brings a lot of intensity to the portrayal of Mowgli, especially in delivering his warning to Shere Khan at the finale, and captures the a strong sense of what the character on the page might be like fully realized.  It’s a briefly told version of the story, but one that is truer to it’s source than most of the others we’ve seen on the big screen.

JASON SCOTT LEE in THE JUNGLE BOOK (1994)

After many years existing in the medium of animation, Mowgli finally made a return to live action in this epic adventure version of the story.  Though it takes the setting and the characters from the original story, this version is nothing like what Kipling wrote.  It instead becomes a story about the effects of civilization coming into a once untamed jungle, and how this affects Mowgli, who himself is a creature of two worlds.  It’s more Jungle Book by way of Tarzan, and you might see more similarities with the latter than the former in this movie.  Which in a way is an interesting angle to take on the story of Mowgli.  How would this character interact with other human beings after living among wild animals all his life.  Can he learn to be civil, and in turn, is becoming civil really what Mowgli wants.  As to the portrayal of Mowgli himself in the movie, well, you first have to get over the fact that Mowgli is being played by a twentysomething Chinese American actor; I’m guessing that the filmmakers were clueless to the fact that Chinese and Indian are two completely different ethnicities.   But apart from this, Jason Scott Lee does make Mowgli a sympathetic hero, with plenty of charm and humor. In many ways, his performance is like an updated version of Sabu’s Mowgli, which is appropriate as the movie is very much a throwback to old Hollywood adventure films, only with slightly more depth and hindsight when it comes to the themes, which casts more skepticism over the idea of Imperialism.  Interestingly enough, this movie was made by Disney, though it carries no similarities with the animated original, standing pretty independently as it’s own retelling.  But of course, it wouldn’t be the last time Disney would revisit this tale.

KYUTA in THE BOY AND THE BEAST (2015)

Japanese anime has taken on the tale of the Jungle Book before, but with this recent film, they turn Kipling’s tale completely on it’s head.  The story has always been about a young boy taken out of civilization and raised in the wilds of the jungle, and The Boy and the Beast follows that same idea as well.  Only this time, the wild jungle is civilization, as the Mowgli-esque protagonist Kyuta is thrown into a world where all the people are anthropomorphized animals.  While stuck there, Kyuta befriends a gruff, warrior who just so happens to be a bear, who eventually takes the young boy under his wing and turns into a surrogate father.  It’s very much like the bond built between Mowgli and Baloo, only here the Baloo equivalent, named Kumatetsu, is strict and disciplined as opposed to carefree.  Kumatetsu and Kyuta form their bond in a very master and student way, typical of those who train in art of samurai combat.  It’s a very different take on these character types that what is found in The Jungle Book, but at the same time it’s very much in the same spirit.  Mowgli, like Kyuta, learn to be more humane and honorable because of his relationship to the animal kingdom, and that is very much the key to his development as a character.  The same applies when the world is populated by animals who act like humans.  It may be a loose interpretation of Kipling’s story, but the essential elements pertaining to the central protagonist are still there.  It’s also just interesting to see how this story plays out in a different cultural setting, with the jungles of India being replaced with feudal Japan, and the Mowgli and Baloo relationship explored more deeply than we’ve ever seen before. It may not be Kipling, but it does honor the spirit of the original story and offers up an example of how the same themes can work even within a different, and more fantastical setting.

NEEL SETHI in DISNEY’S THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016)

Despite having already made a live action version of The Jungle Book in 1994, Disney felt that it was time to revisit the story again, only this time sticking closer to the formula of their animated version.  This version of The Jungle Book was one of the earliest releases in a trend now dominating the production schedule at the Disney company of taking their animated classics and remaking them in “live action.”  It’s been a practice that has produced mixed results, with some of the movies either being passable or unwatchable.  Thankfully, this version, directed by Jon Favreau, falls more in the passable category, and this is largely due to the incredible, ground-breaking effects that helped bring it to life.  The entire movie, from the environments to the animals, was crafted using photorealistic CGI, and the only thing you see on screen that is 100% real is the actor portraying Mowgli.  And the overall effect is impressive, as is the cast that Favreau put together.  You have Bill Murray as Baloo (perfect choice), Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, Idris Elba as Shere Khan, and Christopher Walken of all people as King Louis.  And the animators all did an incredible job of believably bringing these characters to life with the actors voices matching the realistic movements of these animals.  Strangely enough, the one thing that doesn’t work as well in the movie is Mowgli himself.  Sure, Neel Sethi does a fine job, and he is authentically of Indian descent.  But, because they are working more off of the original animated version, this Mowgli isn’t so much out of place but rathr out of time.  He acts more like a typical American child of today than a boy raised in the jungle in the late Victorian era.  Because of this, he feels far removed from Kipling’s original Mowgli.  They even added a strange character trait that Mowgli is an inventor, which feels very out of place in this story.  Even still, the movie is an impressive visual feat, and the characters are still entertaining, including Mowgli.  It’s just not for purists of the original story, because it takes it’s cue from Disney’s own version of the story.

ROHAN CHAND in MOWGLI: LEGEND OF THE JUNGLE (2018)

Strangely enough, while Disney was putting together their own live action version of The Jungle Book, Warner Brothers was also developing another version as well.  Directed by actor Andy Serkis, this version was intended to stick closer to the tone of Kipling’s original stories, while at the same time using the same photo-realistic animation to portray the various animals, all brought to life through motion capture technology.  Serkis himself would fill the role of Baloo, and a full all-star cast portrayed the many other iconic characters including Christian Bale as Bagheera, Cate Blanchett as Kaa the Snake, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Shere Khan.  But, probably in response to the film’s darker tone, and the fact that Disney’s version performed so well as the box office, Warner Brothers got cold feet and ended up dumping the expensive production onto Netflix, where it premiered to surprising little fanfare.  And this is a shame in the long run because though it is a movie with several flaws, it may in fact have the best portrayal of Mowgli we’ve seen to date.  Here he’s played by a young Indian American actor named Rohan Chand who not only looks authentic, but he also plays the character appropriate to his time period.  This version of Mowgli really does capture what Kipling originally imagined, which is a child of two worlds, and how he comes to accept his place in the world.  Interestingly enough, the movie has the opposite strengths and flaws of the Disney version, where this version has a far superior portrayal of Mowgli and inferior depictions of all the animal characters.  There’s a reason why Disney chose to animate their animals as opposed to motion capture, because you can exaggerate expressions through animation.  Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle almost uses it’s motion capture too well, as it becomes distracting seeing Christian Bale’s mannerisms appear through the mask of a photo-realistic panther.  Even still, it’s a version of the story that will please many fans of the book, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of Mowgli, who has never been this faithfully adapted to the screen before.

Overall, Mowgli is not an easy character to correctly adapt to the big screen.  How does one imagine the life of a child raised by the jungle.  In many ways, this has been a story that has best lent itself to the medium of animation, as it allows for Mowgli to commune with the animals without feeling unnatural.  That’s probably why Disney’s multiple adaptations are so beloved, because they make the story about the community of the jungle that Mowgli is a part of, and lets the personalities of the characters be the thing that drives the story.  However, in doing so, it departs significantly from the original narrative that Rudyard Kipling wanted to tell.  Kipling was fascinated with the clashing of cultures that manifest through Mowgli’s own coming to terms with his own identity, and though his ultimate assessment that one should dominate over the other has turned problematic over the course of history, he nevertheless gave these themes resonance through his youthful hero.  Mowgli’s exoticness and boundless spirit has certainly helped him remain popular over the years.  No doubt the spirited, and groundbreaking performance of Sabu in the Korda classic helped to solidify him as an action adventure icon, and Disney’s version of the character has helped him retain a mainstream familiarity that has helped him live on in modern interpretations.  I certainly wish that more people knew about the Netflix film made by Andy Serkis, because it seemed to, more than any other version, try to portray the character more honestly than ever before.  It’s still there on the platform, so if you haven’t seen it yet, do it now.  Mowgli’s story is a complex one, and it’s great to see that even a hundred years later, he is still enjoying a healthy existence on the big screen.  Even more pleasing is the fact that his story has also transformed with the times, as it’s escaped Kipling’s own Imperialistic ideals and has instead been an effective tool of teaching young audiences about the people and culture of India and also a lesson about respect for the natural world.  In many ways, like Mowgli himself, the story of The Jungle Book has helped to bridge that divide between society and the wild, and in turn made the world more civilized by showing how all of these things have their own value.  Like Baloo the Bear says, at least in the Disney version, “Look for the Bear Necessities in life.”

Spider-Man: Far From Home – Review

One of the most interesting aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it was able to be built on the shoulders of some of the less familiar heroes from the Marvel canon; or should I untried on the silver screen.  It’s interesting that the core group of Avengers that laid the foundation for all else to follow was made up of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, of all people.  Up until the launch of the MCU with Iron Man, only the Hulk had been tested on the big screen, and not very well I might add.  Yet, these were the characters that producer Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios were willing to bet the farm on, instead of the Marvel characters that had already had varied success before like the Fantastic Four, Wolverine and the X-Men, and most importantly Spider-Man.  The reason for Marvel Studio’s exclusion of these well known characters was pretty apparent; years of licensing out their characters to other studios created a rights issue nightmare once Marvel had established a permanent home at Disney.  To their credit, they managed to survive without these other characters and elevated the once unproven heroes into A-list names on their own, which then forced the other studios to consider playing ball, once they saw all the money that Disney and Marvel were making.  Sony stepped up first, working out a shared profits agreement with Disney that would allow for Spider-Man to participate in the Avengers crossovers, while at the same time allowing Sony to keep the rights to the character for his own standalone franchise, only with Marvel taking creative control.  This agreement has proven to be a win win for both sides, as Marvel can now include Spider-Man as a part of their universe, and Sony can benefit from the residual good fortune that his presence there brings back to his own series.

One of the things that has really mattered the most for this compromise is in how they’ve dealt with the character as part of the cinematic universe.  To work him into a continuing story-line that connects all the other films as Marvel had been doing with their universe, the makers of this new Spider-Man had to consider where he would be at in this point of his life.  So, it was decided to dispense with the backstory of the character (how he got bitten by a radioactive spider and witnessed the murder of his Uncle Ben) and just jump strait to him using his powers.  This helped to bring him smoothly into the MCU, with his debut in Captain America: Civil War (2016) winning many raves.  We didn’t need to watch him grow into Spider-Man; that story had already been told, twice.  This was Spider-Man being welcomed into the family.  What it also did was  introduce an interesting new character dynamic that most people weren’t expecting, which was the mentor/apprentice relationship between him and Tony Stark, aka Iron Man.  Since Iron Man was the one who recruited him, it makes sense that the two would form a closer bond, which became a central theme in the first solo film for this new version of the hero, called Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017).  The casting of youthful looking Tom Holland in the role also helped to reinforce this new aspect of the character, because he brought an exuberance to the character that played very well off of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man; acting very much like the eager intern wanting to impress the boss.  It worked out so well that their relationship resulted in probably the most emotional moments from both Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).  It safe to say that even though he was late to the party, Spider-Man has become an essential and beloved part of the on-going MCU, and we are about to see what comes next in his second, stand alone feature titled Spider-Man: Far From Home.  Is it another triumph for the young hero, or does he get caught up in his own web?

It’s hard to talk about some aspects of the movie without discussing spoilers from Infinity War and Endgame.  I’ll assume that enough time has passed to talk about the ending of Infinity War here, and the fact that this movie exists at all should tell you a little bit about what happened at the finale of Endgame.  Still, I’ll keep things slightly vague and warn you now; some spoilers ahead.  Okay, so unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last year, the MCU concluded the events of Infinity War with the villain Thanos wiping out half of all life in the universe.  This event was undone during Endgame, but five years had passed for those who were left behind.  Just as quickly as all the victims were wiped from existence, they magically reappeared again in the same place in an occurrence that people now refer to as “The Blip.”  Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was one of those blipped, as was his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), MJ (Zendaya) the girl he has a crush on, Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) a school bully, and Peter’s Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), all of whom are having to readjust in a society that has aged 5 years without them.  Having helped the Avengers defeat Thanos, and saying heartfelt goodbyes to fallen comrades in the process, Peter just wants to put the Spider-Man to rest for a while and enjoy a vacation away with his friends.  His school takes a class trip to Europe, where Spider-Man is not well known and never needed, so Peter finally feels free of the burden.  That is until the director of S.H.I.E.L.D, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) calls upon Spider-Man for help.  Fury introduces Peter to a new superhero named Quentin Beck, who goes by the persona Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal).  Mysterio warns them that ancient beings called the Elementals have destroyed his home and are intent on wrecking havoc in Europe as well.  Peter now must make a choice; does he put his vacation R&R on hold to save the day once again, or does he leave the Super Hero responsibility behind?  In addition, can he also fully trust this Mysterio character as well?

It’s pretty clear that the expectations for Spider-Man: Far From Home are pretty high.  Not only was Spider-Man: Homecoming heralded as one of the best Spider-Man movies to date, but in between these franchise films we’ve even been treated to one of the best animated films in years centered on the character with the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018).  Not to mention, we’re also coming off the high of both Infinity War and Endgame, which Spider-Man also played a crucial part in.  So, a lot is to be expected now.  Kevin Feige even stated that Far From Home is actually the official close of Phase 3, acting as sort of a feature length epilogue to Endgame.  The only question is, does it live up to all that?  Yeah, in a way.  I did enjoy this movie quite a bit, but I wonder if I might have enjoyed it better had it not come with all this baggage attached to it.  If the grandiosity of Endgame had not preceded it, this movie might have resonated a little more, but instead it merely just serves it’s purpose and nothing more.  My expectations were met, but were never really exceeded.  I don’t want to sound negative, because the movie is not a disappointment by any means.  As a sequel, it does work as a great companion piece to Spider-Man: Homecoming.  But, as a part of the MCU, especially in presenting a post-Avengers level event, it is par for the course.  This won’t count as one of the all time great Marvel movies, but if you’re looking for just a fun romp with your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, than this is more than satisfying.  It might be that the expectations for the character have almost outgrown what he is capable of delivering now, since so much has gone right for the character as of late.  The last thing you’d expect at this point right now for Spider-Man is go less epic and grandiose and more intimate and farcical, but that’s exactly what we get, and in a way, it kind of makes sense given everything else we’ve seen.

Far From Home plays it’s story a little closer to the core of Spider-Man’s character; having him struggle with identity in this new unfamiliar world that he’s been absent from for so long.  One of the movie’s surprising aspects is in how it deals with the aftermath of Endgame.  It surprisingly takes a humorous spin on the horrific event early on, but at the same time, it never forgets that the world has changed in the absence of these core characters.  In particular, the movie gets at it’s most interesting when Peter struggles with how his coming to terms with the aftermath is far more profound than with everyone else.  It makes him a little more careless, selfish, and emotionally distant than we’ve seen him be before, and that is an interesting exploration to take with the character.  This is Spider-Man completely un-moored, left uncertain about his future and it makes him in a more cynical state than before.  I’d say that the only fault that the movie has is that it sometimes looses that focus on this aspect of the story, choosing to conveniently drop it whenever the story needs it to.  We start with Peter clearly wanting to distance himself from Spider-Man for while as he begins his trip abroad, choosing to leave the suit at home (though Aunt May has other plans), however the moment the Elementals make their first attack in the city of Venice, Peter doesn’t hesitate to step in.  I guess Peter’s inclination is to always help out even when he doesn’t want to, but I think it would have been more interesting to see how not acting the hero would have impacted his character.  Things get more interesting in the second half of the movie once Mysterio and Spider-Man’s relationship takes center stage, and I quite liked how the movie built that up as the central conflict of the story.  It will be interesting to see how opinions on this movie may differ depending on how people view this interpretation of Mysterio.  I will say that the character is faithfully adapted from the comic, and that could be a blessing or a curse depending on how familiar you are with the source material.  For me, it became the thing that fueled the movie to it’s high points and I ended up enjoying the character quite a bit.

One thing that this movie certainly does is reinforce the fact that Tom Holland is probably the best actor to have ever filled the role of Spider-Man.  Tobey Maguire certainly did a fantastic job as well in his trilogy, and Andrew Garfield gave it his best shot in movies that unfortunately were sub-par, but Holland just captures every aspect of the character to perfection.  He has probably come the closest to embodying exactly what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko imagined in their minds when they first conceived the character.  And, as I stated before, what I liked best in Tom’s performance here was how well he portrays the emotional toll that the Infinity War Saga has put on this character.  There’s a wonderful scene between him and Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan (another great holdover from past Marvel Phases), where Peter reaches his breaking point, to which Happy helps to console him and lift him back up for the next fight.  It just shows how much range he’s managed to bring to this character, perfectly balancing the film’s more light-hearted moments with it’s heavier dramatic ones; something that he’s demonstrated several times already in the MCU.  The introduction of Mysterio into this series is an interesting choice, and I’m happy that Marvel is choosing to spotlight the villains in the Spider-Man rogues gallery that we haven’t seen yet; as opposed to just revisiting that Green Goblin well once again.  Jake Gyllenhaal is a surprising choice for the character, but when you see both sides of the character revealed, it makes perfect sense why he was cast.  He had to portray the character as relatable, and yet at the same time, duplicitous and self-indulgent, which is very true to the character’s origins in the comic.  I also love how much Marvel embraces the original character designs from the comics and that we get Mysterio brought to life in all his dome-headed glory.  The returning cast all bring a lot of fun energy to the movie, and I especially like the fact that MJ is more fleshed out in this film which is very much needed knowing how important her character will be in future Spider-Man story-lines.  The movie also gives us a couple surprise appearances from key figures in both the world of Spider-Man and Marvel in the end credits scenes, but I don’t want to spoil those other than to say seeing these characters brought a lot of joy to me and the audience in the theater.

One other great thing about Spider-Man: Far From Home is how well it looks.  The movie was shot mostly on location in many authentic European locales, and the film makes great use of them all.  Even in between the action scenes, the movie shows off the beauty of Venice, Prague, Berlin, and London with a travelogue like sensibility.  The whole movie is colorful, probably more than we’ve ever seen from any other Spider-Man movie to date, and it uses it’s widescreen canvas very well.  The film also takes some interesting flights into fantasy whenever we see Mysterio’s illusions come fully to life.  There’s one confrontation between him and Spider-Man where the illusions become so bizarre and out there that it’s like a nightmare come to life, which itself is very close to how these scenes play out in the comic books.  Those scenes in particular are something that I’ve never seen before in any Spider-Man movie, and it helped to set this movie apart from others in the MCU.  It explains why they chose a character like Mysterio for this chapter in Spider-Man’s story, because it’s a threat that he hasn’t learned to deal with yet.  This is a visually inventive film, and it shows that director Jon Watts and his team are really finding their voice as a part of the MCU, and more importantly, putting their own stamp on the character of Spider-Man.  More than anything, this has been the most confident approach to the character that we’ve seen yet, not bound to a director’s own personal style like the Sam Raimi films, nor desperately trying to follow a trend like the grittier Amazing Spider-Man movies.  Far From Home and Homecoming take their cues from the comic pages themselves, embracing both the absurd and the profound straight from  the page and putting it there on screen.

In the larger sense, I’d say that Far From Home matches it’s predecessor as a cinematic follow-up.  In the grand scheme of the MCU, it might come off as a little small, especially when it’s the follow-up to Endgame, which is an epic on a biblical scale.   But, it has it’s heart in the right place and doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the character himself.  I love the fact that the movie does explore the toll that the previous film’s events have taken on Peter Parker’s well-being, and how that is challenged by his encounter with Mysterio.  I love how faithful the movie is to the character of Mysterio himself, not being afraid to portray the more outlandish parts of the character as well as going all in on the costume as well.  In addition, we get our first ever look into what Marvel has planned for it’s future, which they’ve been pretty mum about up to this point.  The movie closes with a pretty shocking revelation in it’s mid credits scene, and it will be interesting to see where they take the character of Spider-Man from there.  Given that the actors are growing older with each new film, I’m happy to see that one of themes of the film was about maturing, and learning to rely upon ones self when that’s all you can do.  Future Spider-Man films will need to further explore that continuing maturity, and leave the high school setting behind.  I think that’s been the best thing about these more recent Spider-Man films; that they’ve explored the experience of growing up and finding your own path as an adult.  That’s what Peter Parker’s story ultimately has to be about, not just what challenges he must face with each new villain.  It’s all about that immortal line penned by Stan Lee all those years ago on the comic page, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  Spider-Man’s story explores that idea more than any other Marvel superhero, because as we’ve seen in this version, he’s still a child trying to find the right way to use his powers for good, and it’s through the friends and foes that he meets that he grows into the hero that we all need.  Far From Home retains that idea, and gives the audience a fun time in the process.  Hopefully we be swinging around again soon with this friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Rating: 8/10

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland – Film Exhibition Report

When movies have blockbuster openings, it’s no big deal, because that’s always been a part of the business.  But, when the opening of a new attraction at an amusement park starts to take on the same characteristics, that’s when people begin to take notice.  And those moments usually coincide with something movie related as well.  Of course, the ones who really brought the worlds of theme parks and cinema closer together to begin with was the Walt Disney Company, with their groundbreaking Disneyland.  Though not all of the attractions in their parks have a correlating film that inspired it, there is a fair amount of their rides and attractions that do; and in a couple cases the rides inspired their own movies.  For the most part, Disney has used their own properties as the basis for theme park attractions at Disneyland, but in the mid-80’s, they brought an outside source into the park for the first time.  Looking to replace their aging Tomorrowland attraction Adventures Thru Inner Space with something more technologically advanced (in this case, based on flight simulator technology), they struck upon the idea of basing the new ride around the blockbuster Star Wars trilogy.  However, Star Wars was not a Disney property (at the time) and they needed to convince the series creator, George Lucas, that Disneyland was the best possible home for an attraction based on his franchise.  Luckily, Lucas agreed, choosing Disneyland over other movie based amusement parks like Universal Studios, and the landmark deal would lead to the creation of the popular ride known as Star Tours.  Star Tours opened in 1987, and has continued to occupy it’s place in Tomorrowland successfully for over 30 years.  It’s success even convinced Lucas to bring his other major creation, Indiana Jones, to Disneyland with an even more advanced park attraction placed in Adventureland.  But, with the $4 billion sale of George Lucas’ properties to the Disney company in 2012, Disney felt that just one ride wasn’t enough to make effective use of Star Wars in their parks.  So, at the D23 Expo in 2015, Disney CEO Bob Iger made the huge announcement that Disneyland was not only getting more Star Wars in the park, but that it would be getting a whole land to itself.

Thus began a four year long construction project that literally reshaped the map of Disneyland.  The Rivers of America, a central body of water that encompassed a quarter of the park’s footprint and has existed unchanged since Disneyland first opened, was shortened by nearly half in order to fit the new land in the back corner of the Disney property.  The Disneyland Railroad that encircles the entire park had to be rerouted for the first time in 60 years, and was out of commission for a year and a half as the first leg of construction commenced.    The new boundaries were completed in the summer of 2017, but even still, a whole 2 more year were still needed to complete what lied beyond it.  One of the impressive feats of engineering from Disney’s Imagineering team is that not a single glimpse of the Star Wars Land construction could be seen from any vantage point beyond the boundary; not even from the elevated Railroad line.  The only glimpses inside could be found from the top of the second lift hill on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller-coaster, and even then you had only seconds to make out any details.  Disney kept the details of their mega-expansion a closely guarded secret, hoping to build up the hype as opening day loomed ahead.  The lead up to opening day almost felt like the marketing for a new film in the Star Wars franchise, and indeed the hype proved to be almost exactly the same.  Closer to opening day, it was revealed that the first month of operation at Star Wars Land was only going to be open to those who set a reservation ahead of time.  The reservations sold out in only a short 3 hours, much like how advanced movie or concert tickets disappear in a blink and you’ll miss them amount of time.  Luckily, I was one of those lucky enough to land a reservation (albeit in the last available window), and with it I was able to get a stunning first impression that I’m going to share with you now in my first theme park report ever on this blog.  Usually I reserve these reports for film related exhibitions, but when it’s a new theme park land based around a single film franchise, and opens up with the same amount of hype that’s usually reserved for a cinematic experience, I feel that it should get the same attention here, so here is my first look at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Thankfully, being a Los Angeles based local with an Annual Pass to Disneyland, there was not much difficulty in getting to the park itself.  All I needed was the reservation, which itself was free on a first come first serve basis.  Everyone who registered in time was given the choice of a four hour block on any day between opening day on May 31 and the last day of reservations, June 23.  I got my time frame on the second to last day, June 22, in the middle of the afternoon.  Sadly it wasn’t sooner, but it did afford me a time frame during the peak sunlight hours, which was better for photography.  Once at the park, everyone with a reservation needed to check-in at the Star Wars Launch Bay, located in the old Carousel of Progress building in Tomorrowland, where they would receive their wrist band for entry.  After getting mine, I was told to arrive at the Critter Country entrance to the new land, which is one of three entries scattered throughout.  They had us enter through this way because it was the least crowded due to the fact that the westernmost section of Galaxy’s Edge is mostly vacant.  This is where the future ride called Rise of the Resistance is going to be located, but it is opening at a later date.   For now, it’s just filled with landscaping and a few full size recreations of Star Wars space ships.  It makes sense to hold the crowds of people waiting for their reservation blocks to start here before they’re all taken into the real heart of the land.  Once it became time to proceed into the land proper, we were welcomed to some truly spectacular sights.  Even before entering the land itself, I just found myself being wowed by the immense scale of what I was seeing.  Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge truly immerses you into this world.  It’s 360 degrees of Star Wars all around you, and that’s even before you enter the heart of the land.  One thing that should be noted is that this isn’t a Star Wars experience that is specifically drawn from the movies; there are few if any movie references at all in the park, apart from the ones that need to be there.  Instead, it’s all meant to be a world that exists within the Star Wars universe, but is it’s own world with it’s own story to tell.

The setting for Galaxy’s Edge is supposed to be the planet Batuu, a far flung world on the edge of the galaxy that has become a favorite outpost for interstellar travel in the Star Wars universe.  It’s a planet with climate not unlike Earth (how convenient), and it’s primary geological feature is what are known as the Black Spires.  The spires are large stone monoliths that jut up from the ground pretty much everywhere you look, and range in size from the trunk of a tree to colossal mountains in the distance.  These spires have given this particular location it’s name, which is Black Spire Outpost, which is a collection of shops and eateries all catered to serve travelers from across the galaxy.  It’s a simple, but effective backstory to explain the existence of this place in the Star Wars mythos, but even more impressive is the commitment that Disney put into making everything within part of the Star Wars world as well.  Everything, from the merchandise, to the food, to even the cast members who serve you inside the land are in character.  The Cast Members speak to you as if they exist in this world, calling guests things like “weary travelers,” and whenever you make a purchase, they ask for credits as opposed to dollars (it’s all the same by the way).  The merchandise even is made to be in-world, like something that was handcrafted by people in this universe, as opposed to manufactured for retail in stores everywhere else.  And the food of course has it’s own Star Wars characteristics, which I will talk about more later.  Overall, it’s a level of immersion that is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in a theme park setting, especially to to this degree, and this more than anything is what is going to put Galaxy’s Edge into the history books when it comes to theme park entertainment.

But let me start to talk about the park itself in more detail.  From the moment you begin to reach the heart of the new land, you can see where the maximum effort of the Imagineering went.  The world evokes Star Wars, while at the same time introducing you to something new, and it all feels authentic.  One of the things that I have always admired about Disneyland is their ability to make something brand new feel like it has always belonged there.  This has to do with the great amount of detail that the park puts into making their structures look weathered and old, like they have stood in this spot for hundreds of years, despite the fact that they were only just built.  The Indiana Jones ride, for example, represents this, and that ride is only 25 years old, but it feels ancient.  Galaxy’s Edge does this too.  It’s all brand new, and yet you feel the history of this place with all the weathering and stains applied to the walls and all the props strung throughout.  The landspeeder props that I saw looked especially worn out, and that really helped to play into the immersion.  It makes sense that the land would have parts with a bit of a grungy look, because that was a characteristic of the original films that made them stand out.  It’s not a pristine, clean science fiction world; it’s a world littered with all sorts of clutter, which adds character and history to the world.  Not that this is an unsanitary environment (quite the contrary).  Every corner has a new story, from the power converters littered throughout the land, to the graffiti on all the walls, to the droids that are found up and down the avenues that sometimes interact with guests.  There honestly was no place around that didn’t serve well as a photo opportunity.  Immersion was the Imagineers goal, and they succeeded immensely.

But, of course, the big draw of any new land is the rides.  Surprisingly, given the big build-up to the opening of Galaxy’s Edge, the entirety of the land only has two rides to speak of, and one of them is still not ready to open.  So, Disney is banking heavily on the appeal of their one and only opening day ride at the park.  That ride goes by the name Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, and is naturally centered around the titular star ship.  Marking the only notable element from the movies to make it into the park, apart from the walk-around characters, the ride’s entrance is spotlighted with a full size recreation of the iconic ship.  This marks the first ever time that the Millennium Falcon has been fully and completely realized in true life, albeit as an environmental element and not as a real space ship.  The Falcon has only been presented on screen before as a scale model, or as a partial set.  But this Falcon is not smoke and mirrors; it is a fully built, true to scale model that you can walk all the way around and appreciate in all it’s detail.  Naturally, this was a popular photo spot for many, and I took my opportunity as well.  In addition to seeing the Falcon, the courtyard that surrounds it is also impressive in scale.  The facade of the ride behind the Falcon is huge (the tallest part of the land actually at over 100 ft. in height, and it’s here that you really appreciate the scale of this whole land.  The facade looms high and is easily the most impressive structural part of the entire land.  But this is only where the journey begins.  To the left of the Falcon is the ride’s entrance, which separates into three different queues for standby, Fastpass, and Single Riders.  The standby line takes guests into a garage area where it gradually ramps the line to an upper level.  In the center, you see a land speeder being worked on, and occasionally the voices of unseen mechanics are heard.  They discuss the different tests they are putting the speeder through, and the speeder prop will come to life during each test, helping to give people waiting in line something to look at during their wait.

At the second level, the line passes by large windows that look out at the Millennium Falcon.  From here, you can see all the rich detail put onto the roof of the Falcon prop below.  Past the windows is the first end point of the queue, where guests are split up into two groups and ushered into a large room.  On the upper part of the room, there is a very impressive animatronic character called Hondo Ohnaka.  Hondo is actually an established character in the Star Wars universe, appearing in the popular animated shows Star Wars: Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, and this marks his debut in a non-animated form; though his original voice actor, Jim Cummings, has still been carried over.  The animatronic is one of the most advanced to date, getting pretty close to life-like, and it’s very nice to see the attraction utilizing this tried and true theme park feature here.  He details the premise of the upcoming ride, that we’ve been selected as the crew for the Millennium Falcon, which has been loaned to us by Chewbacca himself for a special mission to smuggle a rare element out of the possession of the evil First Order.  After the intro, the two groups are taken down a corridor and are further split up into groups of six, each with their own color coded tickets.  Every guest is given a special task, to be either a pilot, a gunner, or an engineer.  Because I was riding by myself, I got engineer every time.  Past this point, the corridor opens up into a place that will be very special to Star Wars fans, a full recreation of the interior of the Millennium Falcon.  In this space, which looks very much like it was pulled right from the set of the movie, guests can lounge around until their color is called up by cast member.  Once that happens, they are taken to another corridor, which then opens into a recreation of the Falcon’s cockpit.  In the cockpit is where the actual attraction takes place, and it will feel familiar to fans of the Star Tours attraction as it utilizes pretty much the same kind of flight simulator technology.  The only difference is, everything you see in front of you is influenced by your actions within the cockpit.  There are buttons and levers all around the cockpit seats, and each one has a corresponding effect on what happens in the projected ride movie.  It’s essentially a life size video game, where you are in control of how well the mission goes.  The outcome and most of the twists and turns are pre-determined, but depending on how well you play along with all the buttons and levers, you can prevent things like crashing into the walls or how many TIE fighters you’re able to shoot down.  While not a particular game-changer, it’s still an enormously fun ride, and more than anything, it gives you the experience of flying the Millennium Falcon, which will be a dream come true for most Star Wars fans.

Because of the single rider option, I got in four rides total during my four hour block, which helped me get a good sense of all the random variations that can play out during the ride, as different groups present different levels of experience.  Thankfully, it also allowed me plenty more time to check out the rest of the land without worrying too much about getting through the centerpiece ride.  One of the other noteworthy things I checked out on my visit were the interiors of the different shops in the park.  The marketplace, just off to the side from the Falcon ride, was one of the most picturesque spots to be sure.  Looking like a Middle Eastern open-air bazaar, each little shop was unique in it’s own way, with merchandise only found in this area of Disneyland.  Because everything had to be “in-World,” all the merchandise has to fit that theme as well, and in place of all the plastic action figures found in Tomorrowland, here we had cloth dolls and wooden figures of all the famous Star Wars characters, like they were hand-crafted by someone familiar with the legends that have spread across the galaxy regarding these characters.  In the same spot, you could also find a place to buy your own Jedi robes, or a plus version of some of the famed Star Wars creatures.  Separate from the Marketplace is a bigger store called Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiquities.  Here you can find some neat looking Star Wars memorabilia, like carved busts of the famous characters, as well as other odds and ends like a replica of Yoda’s walking stick.  But the neatest feature is an animatronic figure of Dok-Ondar himself behind the cash registers, as he manages the store within his office.  All on the walls are other neat ornamentation like the head busts of some fearsome looking creatures.  Next door is an attraction that I’m sure will be a hit for many called Savi’s Workshop.  In their is a “Build Your Own Lightsaber” experience, where guests can piece together a high quality lightsaber piece by piece.  And when I say high quality, I mean $200 per person.  Since this was out of my price range, I decided to skip it.  I did get a glimpse of the Droid Depot experience nearby, where guests can build their own droids in a more affordable experience.  I didn’t participate in this either, but I saw what it looked like, and it took place in this neat little assembly line layout.  If anything, it’s neat to see Disney giving guests the opportunity to craft their specialty merchandise in addition to having them buy it.

Of course, in addition to shopping, every theme park land needs a good place to stop for refreshments, and Galaxy’s Edge has plenty of those as well.  There are the typical popcorn and bottled soda stands available, but even these are given the Star Wars twist.  The popcorn is specially colored and flavored, while the Coca-Cola product sodas are specially bottled in these Star Wars themed bottles that can be found only in this land.  The Coke bottle I bought had this ball grenade shape as opposed to the typical curved bottles found elsewhere.  It shows just how far they went with the theming to where even Coca-Cola had to redesign their products just to fit in.  The main restaurants are both located near the Falcon ride, the largest being Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo.  Docking Bay 7 is a counter service restaurant with neat interior design that makes your dining experience feel very in world.  Here, you find the interesting answer to something that I’m sure the Imagineers of Disney thought long and hard about; what would the food of Star Wars look and taste like.  In this restaurant for example, they serve up familiar dishes like barbecue ribs and chicken, but they are presented on the plate with this alien, Star Wars-y aesthetic.  I’m sure a lot of planning went into the design of each dish, making them look like they belong to this world, and though the aesthetic may be strange, the food is actually quite delicious.  Nearby, another restaurant called Ronto Roasters offers up a Star Wars spin on an old theme park standard; the hot dog.  Only here, the dogs are actually pork sausages wrapped in a pita bread.  Again, it looks alien, but is actually just a clever redressing of a familiar meal.  And the decor of Ronto Roasters is impressive as well, with a huge spit-roast barbecue pit as the centerpiece.  Something that might actually remind a lot of guests of the worlds of Star Wars is the famed milk seen in many of the movies.  You’ll find it available here as well at a Milk Stand within the First Order section of the land.  The stand serves up milk in a small plastic cup in two different colors, blue or green, and thankfully it’s processed there and not milked straight from the sea cow like Luke Skywalker did in The Last Jedi (2017).  The milk tasted fine (a slushy mixture of cream and lemonade), but it was a tad overpriced at $9 a cup.  Still, for those who wanted to know what the Star Wars characters had for their own sustenance, Galaxy’s Edge presents a very good idea of what it may be like.

Though I did get to see a lot, there was one big thing that I sadly missed out on.  It was the final eating establishment in the park called Oga’s Cantina.  In this place, from what I’ve observed from other accounts, is a bar like setting reminiscent of the Mos Eisley Cantina from the original movie.  Because of the limited capacity within the establishment, and the high demand from guests wanting to see it, they had to cut off return times for people waiting in line, and sadly I was one of those who unfortunately came too late.  I have seen some of the pictures of the interior, and it does indeed take heavy inspiration from the movie’s famous cantina scene, but doesn’t replicate it entirely.  The most notable difference inside is that in place of the cantina band, there is a DJ droid providing the music for the venue.  And not just any droid, but one re-purposed from Star Tours.  Before Star Tours had it’s refurbishment in 2011 to update it with a new randomized experience, each cabin that park guests would ride in would have a droid pilot guiding them through called R-3X, or Rex.  Voiced by Pee Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens, Rex was a fixture of the ride until the update, when he was replaced with the more well-known C-3PO.  Though a couple Rex droids were placed as decoration in the new Star Tours queue, label with a defective sticker, it was still a loss to many long time fans of the ride who had grown attached to the one-of-a-kind character.  Thankfully, Imagineers found a way to bring the character back to life in Galaxy’s Edge by granting him a new job as the Catina’s DJ.  I don’t know if it’s one of the actual original droids from the ride, or if Paul Reubens reprised his role as the voice, since I didn’t get a close up look to tell if that was the case, but even still, I applaud Disney Imagineering for re-purposing something beloved from the old Star Wars attraction and paying homage to the franchise’s past as a part of the park’s overall history.  Hopefully it won’t be too long before I get a better look inside for myself.  Though I don’t drink alcohol myself, there are other options to indulge in there, including a larger portion of the milk served outside.  This also breaks a long standing rule set by Walt Disney himself to never have alcoholic drinks served in Disneyland itself, which is an interesting precedent to break.  All in all, at least now I’ll have something to look forward to for my next visit.

To sum it all up, the many years of waiting for this place to open were well worth it.  I was blown away by the absolute quality of craftsmanship put on here.  I think it makes sense to cover this as a part of my coverage of movies, because more than any other case I have found in theme parks I’ve visited, this is the best example of movies brought fully to life that I’ve seen.  The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios is another impressive example, and I wish I had thought to cover that when it opened a couple years back here in Hollywood, but even still, the space used to create the world of Harry Potter doesn’t come close to being as big as what Disney used for Star Wars.  Galaxy’s Edge encompasses a staggering 14 acres, bigger than any land that has ever been added to any Disney park anywhere.  Even the impressive Cars Land across the way in Disney’s California Adventure park only filled out 12 total acres.  This is a mind-blowing accomplishment in theme park engineering, and we haven’t even seen it fully utilized yet.  I can’t imagine what there is left to see when Rise of the Resistance opens later this summer.  For now, I believe everyone will be content with what they’ll find on the other side of the walls separating Galaxy’s Edge from the rest of Disneyland.  What interests me now is what will happen to Star Tours now that Galaxy’s Edge is open.  The ride still exists, but seems a bit obsolete now that Star Wars has it’s own land on the other side of the park, and even a ride that shares a similar experience.  It may be only a matter of time before it is phased out and replaced, much like the ride it took over for.  It will be sad to see such a ground-breaking attraction see it’s final days, but it’s understandable at the same time.  Star Wars has a bigger piece of the park devoted to it now, and that means it’s place in Tomorrowland will ultimately be redundant.  Walt Disney always intended for Disneyland to be this ever-changing and evolving place, Galaxy’s Edge taking the place of Star Tours is another step in that evolution.  It’ll be interesting to see the ripple effect that comes from Galaxy’s Edge’s opening, not just for Disney but for theme parks in general.  Disney has again set the bar high, and this new land will be a benchmark in both theme park and cinema history for many generations to come.  So plan your visit soon and may the force be with you all.

Toy Story 4 – Review

Pixar, in it’s 30 year history, has transformed the face of animation in a way that few have.  Because of their seemingly unflappable track record of success, the animation industry completely adopted CGI as the standard, ending decades of hand drawn dominance as part of the art-form.  And despite challenges from other studios like Dreamworks and Illumination, Pixar remains on top both in terms of box office and accolades.  And through the years, they have assembled one of the most beloved libraries of films, with the likes of Monsters Inc. (2001), The Incredbiles (2004), and Cars (2006) all spawning successful franchises on their own in addition to one-offs like Up (2009), Inside Out (2015) and Coco (2017).  But, if there ever was a crown jewel in the entire Pixar canon, it would be the movie series which laid the foundation for everything that followed; Toy Story.  The original 1995 classic is without a doubt one of the most important animated films ever made.  It not only proved that computer animation could work at feature length, but it also showed that it could tell an emotional story as well.  In no time, the characters of Woody and Buzz Lightyear became household names, and Pixar was firmly put on the map.  But even more remarkable than making that splash the first time, Pixar wowed audiences again by making a sequel that not only matched it’s predecessor, but to some, it even surpassed it.  Toy Story 2 (1999) proved that the first movie wasn’t a fluke and showed that there was plenty more story to mine with these toys.  Because of that, Pixar flourished, but that didn’t stop them from revisiting the characters yet again.  Toy Story 3 (2010) picked it up again after an over 10 year gap, and again, Pixar remarkably delivered another emotional adventure that did not disappoint.  It’s almost like Pixar could do no wrong with their cornerstone franchise, and altogether it made Toy Story one of the most beloved trilogies of all time.  So, with something as perfectly packaged as the Toy Story trilogy, you would think that they would leave it be and stay content with where they left these beloved characters at the end.  But, it would seem that Pixar had more up their sleeve.

Making it’s way to theaters after another nearly decade long gap, we have Toy Story 4, a movie that both excites and worries a lot of fans at the same time.  Toy Story 4 is coming out in an interesting time for Pixar, as they are facing a bit more scrutiny now than they have before.  When the movie was first announced at the 2015 D23 Expo, then Disney Animation studio head John Lasseter was attached to direct the feature, marking his return to the series that he served as director for in it’s first two outings.  Then, two years later at the following D23 Expo, Lasseter made the shocking announcement that he was no longer acting as the film’s director, handing that duty to first timer Josh Cooley instead.  In the years since, we now have come to know why this change happened, as Lasseter was forced to resign his position at Disney and Pixar due to personal misconduct claims by employees at both companies.  His positions at Pixar and Disney are now filled by Pete Doctor and Jennifer Lee respectively, and Toy Story 4 will be the last screen credit he will ever receive from the company that he built.  It’s safe to say that out of all the Toy Story films, 4 had the rockiest development of all.  Much of John Lasseter’s original was scrapped, and new director Cooley had to pretty much start from scratch, which is daunting given the pedigree of this franchise.  The original script, written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack was completely overhauled by another newcomer, Stephany Folsom, along with Pixar veteran Andrew Stanton.  And all the revision required for an extra year of development, resulting in the first delayed release in Pixar’s history, with the more steadily produced Incredibles 2 taking it’s original 2018 slot.  Apart from all the backstage drama, Pixar is also being more heavily scrutinized for it’s heavier reliance on sequels during the last decade, as opposed to more original material.  In fact, Toy Story 4 marks the 4th year in a row we’ve has a Pixar sequel released to theaters, making some worry that the studio is running out of originality.  And there are others who believed that 3′s ending was so perfect that anything beyond it will spoil the story, and be seen as just a cash grab by the studio.  So, the question is, does Toy Story 4 justify it’s existence and pull off a victory despite all the trouble, or does it sully the Toy Story name permanently.

Unlike the time jump made between Toy Story’s 2 and 3, where we saw the toys say goodbye to their original owner Andy as he headed off to college, 4 picks things up only a short time later as new owner Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw) is still the young child that we last saw her as.  The ageless toys remain together as a family and enjoy their playtimes, though sadly, Bonnie is beginning to play favorites.  Woody (Tom Hanks) once the favorite toy of Andy, is being left in the closet more by Bonnie, who prefers playing with Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) Jesse (Joan Cusack) and the other toys.  Woody isn’t bitter about it, but he wants to find some way back into Bonnie’s attention.  One day, he sneaks into her backpack as Bonnie prepares for her first day of Kindergarten.  Though shy at first, Bonnie soon finds happiness when she builds a new toy from scraps of litter.  She lovingly names him Forky (Tony Hale), and seeing how Forky makes Bonnie feel better at school, Woody takes it upon himself to protect the new toy from harm.  That’s easier said than done, as Forky continually tries to throw himself back into the garbage, seeing himself not as a toy at all, but rather the trash he’s made out of.  During a road trip, Forky jumps out of the family camper, and Woody chases after him, telling the others to wait for them.  When they arrive at the town that Bonnie’s family is staying, they pass by an antique store where Woody notices something familiar; the lamp base that his long lost love, Bo Peep (Annie Potts) once stood on.  Hoping to see Bo one more time, Woody delays his return to Bonnie to search through the antique store, with Forky in tow.  They instead find a squad of ventriloquist dummies working under the orders of Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) a talking doll with a broken voice box.  She desires to take Woody’s box as a replacement, which Woody is not okay with.  Bo Peep does eventually come to the rescue, and she agrees to help Woody, along with help from carnival toys Bunny (Jordan Peele), Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves).  The only question is, can Woody and Forky return before Bonnie’s family leaves town.

Of all the Toy Story films, this one probably had the most daunting task to accomplish.  The films in the series are not only beloved, but they also cohesively hold together as a complete narrative.  It’s a story about what happens to toys once they stop being played with; something that was established in the first movie with Woody’s jealousy over being upstaged by Buzz Lightyear, and reaffirmed in Toy Story 2, with Woody coming to terms with the idea that one day Andy will outgrow him.  With Toy Story 3, we saw that scenario play out as Andy became an young adult and was ready to give away his toys to someone else.  And in a great resolution to Woody’s arc, we see the lovable sheriff doll put that final choice up to Andy, showing that he’s ready to let go and let the boy he watch grow up live his life on his own.  The story could have ended right there, and it would have been perfect, but Pixar seemed to think that there was more to explore with these characters, to the worry of fans who felt that this was starting to be overkill.  Well, I’m happy to say that there’s nothing to worry, because not only does Toy Story 4 live up to the lofty standards of this series, it even resolves the story in an even better way than we would have hoped for.  If you look at the entire series as a whole as the story of Woody, this fourth chapter does make sense as the concluding chapter, because it addresses the one lingering issue that we had yet to explore with his story; the loss of Bo Peep in his life.  One thing that seemed to survive from the John Lasseter version of the film was the idea that this was going to be first and foremost a love story, and indeed that is something that really had yet to be explored in this series.  We had explored the bond of friendship between Woody and Buzz, and Woody’s companionship with Andy, but the romantic angle was never explored completely.  Bo Peep was just there as a love interest in the first two movies, and completely absent in the third, as Buzz and Jesse’s courtship took it’s place.  Returning Bo Peep to the storyline finally gives Woody’s own story closure, as he finally begins to understand what he’s been missing in his life now that Andy is gone and Bonnie (through no ill intent) has seemed to forgotten him.

I have to give a lot of praise to Josh Cooley.  Taking on the role of director for an animated feature is tough enough, but he got saddled with the job of shepherding the centerpiece franchise of the entire studio during a very turbulent transition period.  The fact that he not only created a cohesive, emotionally satisfying film but also one that follows in the footsteps of some of the greatest animated films of all time and does the justice to the franchise as a whole is kind of miraculous.  He deftly manages to not only keep the series consistent both visually and narratively, but he even found new avenues to explore that you never thought would be possible.  I think that where the movie succeeds the most is in it’s focus.  The movie never makes the mistake of trying to jam in a bunch of call backs to previous films.  They are there if you think about them, but for the most part, completely relies upon it’s own new ideas to carry the narrative.  I was frankly astonished how little I was thinking about the other movies as the story went along, showing that I didn’t even need to have a refresher before coming into this film; it stands that well on it’s own.  The movie doesn’t necessarily have as challenging themes as Toy Story 2 and had, which dealt with heavy subjects like abandonment, personal identity, and even finding solace in the face of certain death, but at this point it doesn’t need to.  In the end, the story does what it need to which is to make us love these characters all over again and wish for them to live happily ever after.  I will say, without spoiling anything, that the movie’s biggest emotional punch comes in it’s final moments.  If you thought 3 ended on a tear-jerking farewell, just wait until you see how this movie ends.  I didn’t think that it was possible for this movie to get to that emotional high again, but somehow they did.  It would be a classic finale to any animated feature, but the fact that it comes from a series that already has legendary final acts to begin with is really saying something.

When you get down to it, the thing that makes all four of the Toy Story films the amazing films that they are has always been the strength of it’s characters.  Woody again takes center stage again, and Tom Hanks has never failed in all his years voicing the character.  There’s so much heart in his performance, and it’s remarkable hearing him find even more layers to explore once again.  What’s especially special about is Annie Potts returning to play Bo Peep.  She fianlly gets to let loose as the character, portraying a very independent Bo who has had to fend for herself for so many years.  This is a welcome change for a character that, I have to say, was somewhat underdeveloped in the past.  You can really tell in Annie’s performance that she is relishing this new, more confident version of the character, and it’s a very welcome change for the long running series.  Though there isn’t much left to do with the character, the movie even manages to find a minor, amusing arc for Buzz Lightyear, as he let’s his “inner voice” guide his way.  With the growing cast of characters over four films, it’s understandable that some of them are going to be pushed into the background, Jesse probably being the most noticeable, though she gets a beautiful little moment at the film’s end.  Characters like Hamm and Rex barely get any lines, and Mr. Potato Head is mostly silent, given that his voice Don Rickles passed away while the film was still in it’s early stages (he is given a wonderful memorial in the end credits).  Even still, I never felt that there was anything lacking in the character development.  I don’t think there’s even a single appearance of the Little Green Men at all, and I didn’t even notice their absence until long after the movie was over.  That’s how well the movie uses it’s characters.  The new characters all get plenty of due time.  Christina Hendricks Gabby Gabby is not quite as sinister an antagonist as past villains in the series like Sid and Lotso Huggins Bear, but she does have an effective presence that helps to drive the story along.  The scene-stealers though are definitely Tony Hale’s Forky and Keanu Reeve’s Duke Caboom, both among the most hilarious characters we’ve seen in the series to date.  More is the merrier with the cast of Toy Story 4 and it’s wonderful to see the best thing about this series get even better with more time.

It’s also fascinating to see just how much this series has grown visually.  Consider the fact that the first Toy Story was made during the infancy of computer animation.  The medium has grown by leaps and bounds since then in everything from texture replication, to environmental elements, to character design.  And even still, even with all the advancements made over the last 24 years, Toy Story still feels like it shares the same world as it’s primitive predecessor.  Yeah, it’s unfair to compare the two, but it really does show how resilient that original Toy Story still is.  The only thing that really doesn’t hold up well from the original film is the character designs of the humans, which look pretty jenky today,  but the toy designs have remarkably remained unchanged.  Thankfully, the team at Pixar never thought to fix something that wasn’t broken, and Woody, Buzz, and Bo Peep remain true to form, only supported now with more advanced technology to bring them to life.  One thing that feels more stunning than ever is the environmental design in the film.  Toy Story for the most part has been an interior based story-line, but for Toy Story 4, Pixar has opened up the world and allowed it’s characters to explore it like never before.  The antique shop itself is a remarkable work of art of interior design, with nearly every inch of the screen filled with unique wall to wall detail.  Add to this a subtle layer of dust and cobwebs and you’ve got an environment that feels alive unlike anything we’ve seen from the series before.  There’s also remarkable use of a nearby fairground, which takes on a special aura after dark, providing a stunning visual element for the film in it’s final moments.  In this movie, you can see every lesson learned by Pixar put to good use, and it’s fascinating to see how this compares with where the Toy Story franchise started.  It’s the best looking movie in the series to date, and it’s something that the filmmakers definitely wanted to show off, given that this is the first widescreen Toy Story, taking full advantage of the 2.40:1 aspect ratio.  All the while, you can still watch all the movies together and still feel like you’ve returned to this familiar and welcome world.

It’ll take some time for me to decide where I can rank this movie with the rest of the series, because frankly, they are all pretty much equal in quality.  It doesn’t quite have as deep of a story line thematically as the other Toy Story’s, but it’s far better at exploring more personal character situations than we’ve seen before from this series.  3 certainly had the best villain of the series, and you have to credit the original for laying the groundwork to begin with.  Regardless of where it’s going to fall in the long run, it’s still an enormously satisfying movie to watch, and absolutely lives up to the high standards of this series.  But, given the worries that people have had about the movie before and the fact that this one resolves in such a satisfying and definitive way, I really think that at this point Pixar should absolutely close the book finally on this series.  They got lucky with finding that one ounce of story left to tell, but now there really is nothing left to do.  This should absolutely be the final chapter for this story, and it’s a beautiful one too.  Anything more, and it will definitely be Pixar grabbing cash.  Maybe they can spin off something like a true Buzz Lightyear adventure set in space, but that’s about it.  No more.  I am grateful that even after 4 movies this series has never stumbled.  24 years later, and a whole new generation now has a Toy Story to call it’s own.  I’m especially happy to see new directors and writers answering the call and delivering something worthwhile, even amongst the turmoil and with all that pressure.  Also seeing a character like Bo Peep finally getting her due spotlight was pleasing, as well as plenty dispersed attention to every character we’ve grown to love over the years.  It’s the things like this that has made Pixar the beloved brand that it’s become since the original Toy Story, and it’s pleasing to see that even after all this time, that creative spark continues to shine.  Let’s hope that the many artists and animators at Pixar manages to keep that spirit going strong; to infinity, and beyond.

Rating: 9/10

Focus on a Franchise – Star Wars: The Original Trilogy

If there ever was a franchise that stood out in Hollywood above everyone else, it would be Star Wars.  Even the modern concept of what is considered a franchise uses Star Wars as it’s prime example.  It was the movie that launched the blockbuster era and began a revolution within the industry with everything from visual effects to merchandising.  Even more astounding is the long legacy that it has endured over the last 40 years since it’s premiere.  The franchise that Hollywood at one time dismissed as a science fiction folly now touches the lives of fans from across the globe, and has become one of the most profitable properties of all time, if not the most.  And to think, it all started with a fresh, young filmmaker who was nostalgic for the old sci-fi classics of his youth.  George Lucas, was raised on old serial sci-fi adventures like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and he held onto those memories as he began to devise what would become the movie that defined him as a filmmaker.  Hot off the success of the 50’s throwback American Graffiti (1973), Lucas began outlining what would eventually become Star Wars, and while he did have to scale back a lot of his original vision, he nevertheless stumbled upon a story that fit his desire to create a return to those serials of old.  Borrowing inspiration from things as varied as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), and Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, he crafted a basic story of good versus evil, where a young boy named Luke Skywalker rises up to challenge an evil empire that has conquered much of the galaxy.  Along the way, he is joined by mentors like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda who teach him to harness the powers of the Force, a mystical source that grants him incredible power.  But he doesn’t go into danger alone, with colorful characters like Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2.  While still derivative of many different things, George Lucas still manage to frame all of it in a beautifully constructed narrative that not only grabbed a hold of audiences, but has spawned a whole mythology unto itself, much of which even exceeds what Lucas himself had originally envisioned.

With this being a particularly banner year for the Star Wars franchise, with the conclusion of the Skywalker Saga coming this winter with the release of Episode 9 – The Rise of Skywalker, as well as the much anticipated opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in both Disneyland and Disney World, I felt that it was a good time to look over the films that have made up this granddaddy of franchises in this series.  In particular, I will be focusing on the films that have made up what is now considered the Skywalker Saga, which has been the mainline narrative of the franchise.  This is the one that started with George Lucas’ original film and has continued through three separate trilogies from three different eras.  For a start, I will take a look at the original trilogy where it all began, and then hopefully by the time Rise of Skywalker comes out, I will be able to cover a second part, discussing the prequel trilogy, with a concluding one months after the release of the final film. Following the order of release allows me to look at how each film continued to build upon one another and look at how the series managed to build and refine it’s world with every subsequent release, as well as how it managed to both meet and subvert the expectations of it’s audiences over time.  So, without further ado, let’s take a look at that mythic story from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE (1977)

Directed by George Lucas

It’s hard to say anything about this movie that hasn’t been said already.  Every once and a while, you have these movies that just come out of nowhere and change cinema as we know it, and Star Wars was one of those movies.  Nobody knew really what to expect about this movie at first; space ace adventures where all too common in Hollywood in the past few decades, most of them often falling into the B-movie bin.  But, Lucas had more ambition than just making another run of the mill sci-fi epic.  One thing that helped him achieve his more ambitious vision was the groudbreaking effects that were constructed for him by the upstart team at the newly formed Industrial Light and Magic.  Taking their cue from the groundbreaking work by Douglas Trumball in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), ILM crafted and even invented new ingenious ways to film little model ships to make them move more dynamically across the screen.  Also, in partnership with the people at the Jim Henson Workshop, they created creatures with puppetry and prosthetic make-up that looked unlike anything people had ever seen before on screen.  But, if there was anything that helped to set the movie apart more than anything else, it was the now iconic score that was composed by John Williams, who gave the movie the operatic feel that it very much needed.  And all these things working together is what helped to make this movie not just successful, but legendary.  People who saw it on the screen for the first time will always remember the rush they got from that first flyover of a Star Destroyer in the opening scene.  In that moment, you see everything, the score, the visual effects, and the scale of vision all working together to create a true cinematic moment.  The world of cinema would never be the same after those opening minutes.

But the true key to Star Wars success comes not in how it opens, but in how it plays through and that more than anything relies upon the real thing that makes Star Wars special; the characters.  Luke, Leia, Han, Chewy; these characters have become icons that have warmed their way into the hearts of multiple generations.  And no doubt, the perfect casting across the board played a big part in making these characters work.  Mark Hamil, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford were relatively unkonwn at the time of the movie’s release, and their fresh faces were exactly what the movie called for.  This was a movie that needed characters and not stars to drive it, and that has helped to make the actors who played these roles favorites to so many.  To this day, the actors who play a role in a Star Wars movie take that honor with special distinction, knowing that they are the stewards of a part of this growing and increasingly influential mythology.  The only part of the cast that was filled at the time with a noteworthy name was Alec Guiness in the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, which helped to give the movie some gravitas during it’s making as the Oscar-winning performer was well known to the Fox execs who were fronting the bill for the movie.  A mixing of performances also helped in a great way to bring to life the iconic villain of Darth Vader, with body-builder David Prowse giving the masked foe a massive physical presence, while James Earl Jones provided him an intimidating, powerful voice.  Really, everything about the movie has achieved iconic status on it’s own.  Every line of dialogue is quoted pretty much everywhere, and iconic elements like the Death Star, the dual suns of Tattoine, the Millennium Falcon, and the lightsabers are referenced everywhere in pop culture.  It’s a movie that has it’s roots deep in the collective culture and has a rightful place to be there.  Lucas, originally had planned for more of an epic story, but for the first Star Wars, he rolled everything back into just what ended up being the first act of his original story.  When the first movie broke all box office records, he was finally able to complete the rest of his story, now that he had seen it work the first time.  He rechristened the original movie Episode IV: A New Hope, cheekily referencing the old serials that had inspired him as a child, and began embarking on what was about to come next: Episode V.

STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

Directed by Irvin Kershner

The massive success of the original Star Wars put a lot of pressure on George Lucas and his team to make something that could reach those same heights.  Sequels were not uncommon, but rarely did they ever match the original, let alone exceed it.  Thankfully, George Lucas had enough story material still up his sleeve to continue the story even further, but interestingly enough, he decided to not continue on as the director.  Instead he brought on Irvin Kershner to direct, an up and comer from the Roger Corman class, known for comedies like A Fine Madness (1966) and S*P*Y*S (1974).  In addition, he hired other screenwriters to adapt his story ideas to the screen.  One was legendary writer Leigh Brackett, who had been one of the leading screenwriters of the Golden Era of Hollywood, writing classics like The Big Sleep (1946) and Rio Bravo (1959).  She wrote a draft for what would be The Empire Strikes Back before she succumbed to cancer in 1978.  After that, Lucas hired Lawrence Kasdan to flesh out Brackett’s original draft and his input would even further leave an impact on this franchise going further.  Kasdan is much more of an introspective writer compared to George Lucas, who is more concerned with world-building, and what he brought to the table was very fleshed out character development.  The essential Star Wars elements are all still there, but we get more of a sense of the personal drama at play here, with Kershner and Kasdan offering a more intimate portrait of these characters than we’ve ever seen before.  And because of that, the movie not only matched it’s predecessor in the eyes of most fans, but it even exceeded it.  The Empire Strikes Back is largely considered to be the best film in the Star Wars series, and in many regards is considered to be the greatest sequel of all time; even eclipsing the Oscar-winning Godfather Part II (1974).  A New Hope may have been the movie that catapulted the Star Wars name to iconic status, but Empire Strikes Back is what cemented it forever there.

There are so many things that began with Empire that have now become legendary in the annals of Star Wars history.  It introduced characters like Lando Calrissian (played with suave gravitas by Billy Dee Williams), Yoda (puppeteered and voiced by Frank Oz) and Boba Fett to the narrative, all of whom have become icons in their own right.  It also paid off many story threads that audiences were waiting to see realized, like the budding courtship of Han and Leia which gave us the now immortal romantic exchange of “I love you,” “I know.”  We also are given Luke finally exercising his abilities as he trains in the art of the Jedi; the galaxy’s legendary warrior class who had mastered the Force.   Luke’s Jedi training scenes are particularly noteworthy as Mark Hamill often had to perform his scenes acting opposite what is essentially a Muppet.  Frank Oz broke new ground with his performance as Yoda, giving the sculpted foam puppet emotional resonance never seen before, showing that you could indeed give an Oscar worthy dramatic performance even through puppetry.  But, Empire’s emotional resonance became all the more important as the movie ended up resolving in the thing that it is most well known for; it’s shocking twist ending.  Luke faces his arch-nemesis Darth Vader in a long expected showdown at the film’s climax, and every known trope in science fiction tells you that this is where good will triumph over evil.  But, Luke fails in his fight against Vader, losing a hand in the process.  And then, the bombshell is dropped on him.  Luke had long believed that Vader had been the one who killed his father, but Vader shockingly reveals that (spoiler!), he is actually Luke’s father.  This revelation shook the world when it was first revealed.  Up until then, we had never seen our heroes be so thoroughly defeated, and to have our notions of good and evil challenged so much.  How can Luke be the chosen hero, when his father is the bad guy?  By the time the credits rolled, audiences were shocked, confused, and eager to see what was next.  Many films have tried to replicate this mother of all twist endings, but few have ever succeeded.  And with the status quo so thoroughly upended, anything could happen in what adventure came next.

STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

Directed by Richard Marquand

No doubt The Empire Strikes Back left Star Wars in a rarefied place, but the only question remained was whether they could stick the landing with what was then seen as the final chapter of this story.  Lawrence Kasdan was again tasked with writing the script, but finding the right director proved more difficult.  Lucas originally wanted his colleague and friend Steven Spielberg to direct, having just come off their collaboration on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  Spielberg, however, wanted to continue pursuing his own projects and opted to make E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) instead.  So, after an extensive search, Lucas eventually gave the reigns to Richard Marquand, another director like Irvin Kershner known for his more intimate and small scale films.  Return of the Jedi is decidedly less character driven than the previous two films, instead focusing on resolving all the plot threads set up in the past films.  For some, many of the resolutions are not as satisfying as one would’ve hoped.  Though not a failure by any means, Return is widely seen as the weakest of the original trilogy.  And where many of the complaints against the film lie is in the introduction of the Ewoks, cuddly bear like creatures that look like they were designed purely to appeal to younger viewers, and help sell merchandise.  The Ewoks themselves are not bad characters, but the abundance of their presence in the movie and the fact that they are instrumental in bringing down the empire does feel like a cop out as part of this epic story that had been building up to this point.  Also, the fact that character development basically just stops for Han and Leia is pretty disappointing as well.  Whether these shortcomings resulted from Star Wars perhaps becoming too big and unable to sustain it’s massive narrative ambitions is unsure, but at the same time, none of it ever breaks the series completely.

If the movie has one thing that it triumphs at, it’s in resolving the Luke/Vader dynamic, which had been so memorably elevated in the previous film.  Much of the movie’s most memorable scenes revolve around the question of whether the light side or the dark side will win out in the end; with both Luke and Darth Vader trying to persuade each other to move from one to the other.  These scenes also introduce the incredible addition of Emperor Palpatine as the primary antagonist for this closing chapter.  Remarkably portrayed by actor Ian McDiarmid, the Emperor is an all time great villain; coolly manipulating these two Jedi warriors to his own ends, pitting them against one another in the hopes that he can wield his control over the victor, who will inevitably be the most powerful Jedi of them all.  Every scene with the Emperor, Luke, and Darth Vader is among the greatest in the series as a whole.  It’s not surprising that Lucas himself has wanted to revisit the Emperor several more times in films since, given the strength of McDiarmid’s performance.  The movie also offers up even more epic scale than what had previously been seen, with ILM having refined their techniques over the course of the series.  We not only get shootouts in the far reaches of space, but full on battles on a biblical scale.  Narrative shortcomings aside, Return of the Jedi is a culmination of everything that Lucas and company had learned to date.  Starting out as young upstarts, these film-making pioneers had grown by leaps and bounds and were now at the top of the ladder in Hollywood.  To see the level of growth over these three movies is really amazing to watch and that in many ways helps to make Return feel like a satisfying conclusion.  Same proved true for the characters; Luke has become a Master Jedi, the evil Empire is toppled, Han and Leia finally confirm their love, and Darth Vader even finds redemption in his dying moments.  All good stories come to an end, and Star Wars ended in a spectacular way, at least for a time.

The original trilogy has become the gold standard for franchise building for both Star Wars as a brand and also Hollywood in general.  It’s easy to see the influence that this trilogy has had on the world building, narrative progression and visual ambitions of epic franchises like The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, and so many more.  Even Empire Strikes Back downer ending has been influential for making middle chapters of these epic franchises darker than the rest.  Would Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War had ended on it’s shocking final note had Empire not tried to leave it’s audience stunned first.  There’s no end to the legendary impacts that the original trilogy left on the industry as a whole, and it certainly left a big impact on it’s creator as well.  George Lucas took the goodwill and earnings that his creation brought to him and used all that to create an empire all on his own, separated from the hustle and bustle of Hollywood.  He established Skywalker Ranch up in Marin County, California, which is an all in one facility where his team of artists can create and work close to home, and where Lucas himself was able to fully craft the kinds of movies that he wanted to make.  Though Star Wars will always give George Lucas a hallowed place in the eyes of fans all over the world, repeating his past success has still proven elusive, and that’s probably why he allowed his creation to pass hands to someone else, knowing that he may never get a chance to let it grow the way it should.  With a landmark deal made in 2012, Star Wars became another shiny jewel in the Disney crown, as George Lucas sold Lucasfilm, the studio he built, to the media giant.  Though Disney is in charge of this franchise now, Star Wars will forever be seen as a Lucas creation.  It’s proof positive that the great stories of our time can come from the simplest beginnings; where a young man wanted to scratch a nostalgic itch and share a once forgotten inspiration with the world, and in turn make it feel new again.  He wanted to tell us a story, and in turn opened up a galaxy onto our world, with characters, creatures and worlds that will stand the test of time in all our imaginations.  The Force is forever strong with the legacy of Star Wars.

Dark Phoenix – Review

It can’t be underestimated the impact that has been left by the X-Men characters in the super hero genre of film.  The powerful team of mutant beings that have long been a favorite of comic book fans across the world finally made their way to the big screen for the first time in 2000 to wide critical praise.  The Bryan Singer directed film came at a crucial time for the genre, which had fallen on hard times largely due to the failure of DC’s Batman and Robin (1997), which turned the genre into a laughing stock.  Not only did X-Men bring back respectability to the genre, but it also gave it greater purpose than just entertainment.  For the first time, we saw a super hero film tackle heavy issues like social prejudice and personal identity in a serious fashion, while at the same time never loosing track of it’s comic book roots.  In many ways, this was the movie that laid the groundwork for the super hero genre to mature into a leading force within Hollywood as both a dynamic box office powerhouse, but also as a platform for dramatic social commentary.  Without the X-Men, we probably wouldn’t have seen the mature takes on other super hero mythos that have come to define the genre like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, or Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), or even the Oscar worthy themes of Black Panther (2018).  In addition, the movie also did a number of other things.  It made an A-list star out of Hugh Jackman, and turned his character Wolverine into an instant icon.   It was also Marvel Comic’s first serious foray into film-making, which has created massive dividends to this day for the brand.  But, what is most remarkable about the X-Men movie is that it ended up spawning a franchise that has remarkably remained unbroken for nearly twenty years; more or less.  Sure the timelines are ludicrously held together, but the narrative of the series that started with the 2000 film has managed to continue on up to today, which is an enviable run for any franchise, especially in the super hero genre.  But, as it happens with all things, this too has come to an end.

For the majority of it’s time on the big screen, the X-Men franchise has been under the banner of 20th Century Fox, and not by Marvel itself.  Marvel, in it’s earliest days in Hollywood, licensed their characters out to multiple studios, hoping to fast track their brand presence in the industry at a time when it was mostly the characters from their competitor, DC Comics, that dominated the box office.  Multiple studios over time had their hands on at least one Marvel character, but no singular studio had them all.  For Fox, they came into possession of the X-Men, as well as the Fantastic Four and Deadpool.  Out of these, the X-Men looked to be the most viable choice to build a strong franchise around, and Fox for a time did very well with the characters.  The franchise spawned two successful sequels, but as the genre began to change during the mid-2000’s, the franchise began to show signs of fatigue.  At the same time, Marvel, which had began to take more charge with how their characters were portrayed on screen, launched their own studio and soon after were bought by Disney, who were intent on consolidating all the Marvel characters back under one roof.  Many studios relinquished their control over the characters, like Paramount and Universal, but Fox was less compliant.  As Marvel Studios began to rise, the X-Men franchise began a bit of a Renaissance as they successfully relaunched the franchise with X-Men: First Class (2011).  Followed up with acclaimed films like X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) and Deadpool (2016) and Fox believed they could form a cinematic universe with their own X-Men characters that they still owned the rights to.  However, the disappointing returns for X-Men: Apocalypse (2017) dampened those expectations, and soon after, Disney ended up buying Fox completely in a landmark acquisition, further spelling out the end of the line for the X-Men franchise.  Only one movie was left over in development that could give closure to this long running franchise, and the question remains; does Dark Phoenix send off these X-Men with a bang or a whimper?

The movie carries over the consistent gimmick of the past three X-Men movies, in that it jumps ahead ten years to use another decade as it’s setting.  First Class started of in the psychedelic 60’s, then Days of Future Past jumped to the turbulent 70’s, and Apocalypse brought us up to the colorful 80’s.  Dark Phoenix now sets the story in the early 90’s, with the X-Men firmly established as a beloved crime fighting force, using their powers for a good purpose.  Led by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), the headmaster at a special school for mutant children, the X-Men are sent on a special mission to space to save a stranded crew of astronauts who were attacked in orbit by an unknown, alien force.  The recovery team, led by team leaders Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), take the X-Men’s jet to orbit and have the teleportation powered Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) bring the astronauts safely out of the damaged ship.  Meanwhile, telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) tries to buy time, using her powers to hold the ship together, but while the astronauts are saved, it ends up being too late for her.  The mysterious cloud that attacked the ship suddenly rushes to her and absorbs itself completely into her body.  Worried that she’s been killed the other X-Men retrieve her from space, and to their surprise, she is not only alive but seemingly unharmed.  Back on earth, Jean starts to experience strange changes to her body.  Her powers are enhanced and uncontrollable, turning her into a menace wherever she goes.  She leaves the X-Men, seeking refuge with former X-Men foe Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who also casts her out when her new powers begin to wreck havoc.  Xavier and Jean’s boyfriend Scott Summers aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) hope to find and comfort the troubled Jean, but things are complicated once an alien race of shape-shifters, led by the power hungry Vuk (Jessica Chastain) have their eye on gaining Jean’s Phoenix force for themselves.

If you have been following the X-Men franchise up to this point, you are probably already familiar with the Phoenix Force story-line, as it also provided the plot inspiration for the problematic X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), the not so loved third film in the series.  Last Stand was rightly condemned for it’s mishandling of the beloved story-line from the comics, both in straying too far from the actual origins of Jean Grey’s transformation and for mishandling all the careful character development that had gone into establishing the X-Men over the last two films.  Knowing fully well that fans were upset with how this was handled before, Fox planted the seeds for a do-over in their relaunch of the X-Men franchise with their new cast, especially with the obvious hints shown in the movie X-Men: Apocalypse.  However, with the off-set turmoil going on behind the scenes, with director Bryan Singer no longer acceptable to helm the picture because of his alleged sexual misconduct and the upcoming Disney/Fox merger further complicating matters, Dark Phoenix’s road to the big screen was very troubled.  Delayed multiple times, this film has finally made it to theaters, and the off screen problems are very apparent.  Not only did Fox not get the Phoenix saga right the second time around, they somehow made it even worse.  I’m sorry to say that this is not the ideal closing chapter for this long-running series, and in fact, it may be one of the worst super hero movies ever made period.  This is nearly Fant4stic (2015) bad, and is worse in some ways to that rightfully malinged cinematic travesty.  While Fant4stic was a horribly made movie for a franchise that never was going to exist at all anyway, Dark Phoenix is sadly built upon a franchise that has created some of the best super hero movies of all time.  It’s tragic in a way that a franchise like this, which did a lot of stuff right up to now, especially with the characters, fails so badly at the end, with no way of redeeming itself, now that this is the end of the line for good.

Here’s where the problem lies.  Because original helmer Bryan Singer is out of the question, and standby director Brett Ratner who took over for The Last Stand is finding himself in a near similar situation, Fox left the entire project into to the hands of series writer Simon Kinberg.  Kinberg is a fine screenwriter, having penned most of the films in the series, as well as acting as a producer for the franchise as a whole.  It’s clear that he loves the characters, but he also sadly lacks any cinematic vision.  This movie is clearly directed by someone who doesn’t feel comfortable behind the camera, and that becomes apparent in the pacing, the blocking of shots, and most sad of all, in the performances of the actors.  I watched this movie just absolutely baffled at how amateurish it felt.  I know that much of the blame for movies like these fall on the director, but at the same time, I feel bad for Kinberg, because he only acted as director because nobody else would step up.  And to me, it became less of a cinematic exercise over time and more of a studio mandate, as Fox was forcing more and more out of this franchise just so they could hold onto the rights and spite Marvel.  Those circumstances don’t always translate into a cohesive film, and that’s apparent with Dark Phoenix.  The strange thing is that Kinberg, who has set up the arrival of the Phoenix Force in previous movies, completely disposes of it, instead taking his cue from the comic books, which in this version of the story, makes no sense.  In the cinematic timeline for Dark Phoenix, which remember is still connected to The Last Stand, it should’ve been shown that the Phoenix Force was always a part of Jean Grey this whole time, fueling her telekinetic powers.  But even despite that already having been established before in Last Stand, the movie dismisses this right away and explains that the Phoenix came from outer space, which yes is closer to the comic, but is completely contradictory to what’s been established up to now in the films.  Maybe Kinberg was told to change course, but if not, this is yet another example of the movie just becoming careless about what it wants to be.

Kinberg’s severe lack of experience in the director’s chair is most apparent when it comes to the actors performances.  The thing that will stand out to most people who watch the movie is just how out of it the actors are in this movie.  Their performances feel emotionless and inconsistent, like their just reading off their line for the camera, which is pretty much exactly what’s going on onscreen.  An experienced director’s job includes helping the actors find their right head space, in order to make them feel the moment they are in and think like the character they are portraying.  The right kind of director can do this with just about anybody, no matter what their experience is, and the great thing about the super hero genre is that the choice of performer and the quality of their performance has helped to bring these super heroes triumphantly off the page.  In Dark Phoenix, you have this incredibly talented cast of performers who are just lost, because they are clearly just not being directed, leaving them to rely upon their own instincts, which are sadly not all aligned together.  It’s also apparent that some of them are already checked out, having moved on to bigger and better things and are just here as an obligation as part of their contract.  Jennifer Lawrence clearly wanted to have this over and done with quickly, which is apparent based on the reduced make-up job done to turn her into Mystique.  I don’t blame any of the bad performances here on the actors, because I’ve seen them all do better in other films as these characters; some of which were powerfully delivered.  But, when they have nothing to work with, you can see just how much that hurts the actors’ abilities to perform.  Sophie Turner, who has to do much of the heavy lifting of this movie, is sadly reduced to repeating the same character beats throughout the movie as Jean Grey, mainly just being reduced to “I’m scared.  I can’t control it.”  Jessica Chastain is especially wasted, playing one of the blandest villainesses in recent memory, which is profoundly disappointing for an actress of her talent and prestige.  James McAvoy’s image obsessed Charles Xavier is especially out of character, and more than anything represents how these characters became less important as individuals and more as functions of a plot.

An even bigger problem arises from the film’s peculiar adherence to the convoluted rules of the franchise.  I still don’t know why the movies continue to leap ahead in time, just so that it can represent another decade.  The rule worked out for First Class and Days of Future Past, which were narratively very much tied to the years that they were set.  But, with Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, you begin to encounter more problems.  One, those movies don’t really need the time period to give flavor to the story they’re telling.  Dark Phoenix in fact treats it’s setting as so inconsequential that you wouldn’t even realize it’s set in the 90’s unless you were told.  Second, the leap forwards run into the problem of having actors who look too young to play the same parts.  Remember, 10 years have passed between Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, and yet all the actors look about the same age.  Jennifer Lawrence and Nicolas Hoult haven’t even turned 30 yet as of this writing, and yet their characters should be pushing 50 in the timeline of this movie; yet they still look like they haven’t aged a day.  At least McAvoy’s Charles Xavier has gone bald over the course of the movies.  It all makes the decade changing motif feel like it’s working against the progression of these characters; especially when characters like Jean, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler should all be in their mid-20’s at this point, and yet are still acting like teenagers.  And third, skipping 10 years at a time also robs the story of significant character development.  What has exactly been going on over 10 years, because the movie still treats these characters like nothing has changed since Apocalypse.  I would think that some major things would have happened to these characters during that time, but none of it is ever addressed.  So for all the things that Dark Phoenix sought to do differently in the story-line, namely the origin of the Phoenix Force, why did they still feel like they needed to jump ahead in time like the previous films had.  It’s another baffling choice that ultimately contributes to the laundry list of problems that this movie has.

The one good thing that I can say about this movie is that they wisely left Wolverine out of it.  Hugh Jackman thankfully got to hang up the claws in the far superior Logan (2017), leaving the character he played for over 17 years on a graceful note.  Sadly, for the actors involved here, some of whom have played these roles for the last 8 years, this is a less than ideal exit.  Dark Phoenix is a depressing end to a franchise that, while not always perfect, still managed to leave a positive impact on the genre as a whole.  For the most part, it’s most disappointing in the way that it once again squanders the opportunity to do the Phoenix Saga story-line once again, making it feel small and inconsequential.  But what I hated most about it was the amateurish way that it was constructed, failing in almost every department of film-making.  The camera work is uninspired, the musical score (surprisingly from the usually reliable Hans Zimmer) is a dreary bore, the visual effects are incomprehensible, and the actors performances are lazy and completely out of character.  The movie isn’t even bad in an entertaining way; it’s just a sad waste of very talented people.  Dark Phoenix, more than anything shows why this version of the series needed to come to an end.  It just became a tool of the ever defiant Fox studio to deny rival Disney a chance to take ownership of these once powerful franchise characters; a tact that also resulted in the disastrous Fant4stic.  Now that Disney and Fox have merged into one, Marvel Studios now has creative control once again of the X-Men, and no one doubts that we’ll see these characters once again.  The sad part is that the failure of Dark Phoenix all but ensures that none of the same team will carry over into the future X-Men movies, which is a shame because some of these actors have been quite good in the roles.  But, just like the ancient legend of the Phoenix bird, it has to die in order to be reborn, and that is what ultimately has to happen to this version of the X-Men.  The original X-Men deserved better closure than what we got with Dark Phoenix, but their legacy as a part of the super hero genre will always be remembered, especially when it was at it’s height.  And hopefully, what ends up being reborn after this will be the best we’ve seen yet.

Rating: 3.5/10