All posts by James Humphreys

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

Off the Page – Dune

Science Fiction is largely seen as a primary genre within cinema, but it doesn’t quite get the same amount of respect as a great pillar of the literary world.  Sure, sci-fi literature is as successful of a genre in bookstores as anything else, but it’s only in recent years that science fiction has gained the due respect of the literary world that usually has been reserved for what is considered “high art.”  Now no longer dismissed as commercial, science fiction writers like Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury are now spoken about in the same esteem as the likes of Dickens, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Faulkner.  And indeed, the influence of the 20th Century’s most celebrated science fiction writers are having a profound effect on cinema itself, as their work is sought after more and more for adaptation, and is often referenced multiple times by filmmakers who were inspired by their work.  Of all the most celebrated works of science fiction from the last century, one that particularly stands out as the most fascinating and influential of all is the 1965 novel Dune, written by American author Frank Herbert.  Herbert’s Dune is so highly regarded in literary circles that it’s often been called the Lord of the Rings of science fiction.  That comparison is fairly apt because like J.R.R. Tolkein’s masterwork, Dune is a immensely detailed chronicle of a people, a culture, and a place that feels foreign yet familiar, and it absorbs the reader into it’s world.  Upon reading Dune, you become wrapped up in the internal politics of a galactic empire that spreads across the cosmos and take in the sights, feels, and yes even smells of each new planet the story visits, as Herbert spends a meticulous amount of time describing his world to you, in that same Tolkein-esque way.  it’s a masterpiece of world building literature and rightly has earned it’s reputation as a touchstone of science fiction.  But, as remarkable a reputation Dune has claimed within literature, it’s road to the big screen has been a problematic one, even though it’s influence throughout the sci-fi genre is widespread.  And in one particular case, we’ve also seen how difficult it truly can be to do the writing of Frank Herbert justice through a cinematic interpretation.

Dune is, like Lord of the Rings, a dense and complex book, though not particularly in a narrative way.  It’s basically an Arthurian legend combined with super hero origin.  The stakes are made very clear, and the heroes and villains are easily defined.  Where the complexity rises is from the way that Herbert describes the internal politics and the ecology of the desert planet that makes up the setting of the story and it’s title; the planet Arrakis, also known as Dune.  Arrakis is one of the most fantastic worlds ever dreamed up for any form story-telling; a desolate world that holds so much influnence for the whole of society because it’s primary export, the Melange spice, is the most important resource in the galaxy, and it is only produced on Arrakis.  The spice heightens mental consciousness, enhances human evolution, and enables interstellar flight, and the galactic empire that has discovered how to mine the spice has thrived because of it.  But, the result of the spice’s importance has been the growing desire to control it, and this has led to a feudal society where great houses go to war with each other in order to gain control of the spice.  In particular, the Houses of Atreides and Harkonnen are the ones jostling for power, with the emperor, Shadam IV, using the governance of Arrakis as means of subduing a potential rival to the throne.  At the same time, a coven of spice enhanced witches named the Bene Gesserit have been managing selective breeding among the noble houses in the hopes of creating the next step in human evolution, creating a super being known as the Kwisatz Haderach, who can channel mental awareness beyond the limits of both male and female consciousness.  And despite their intentions of finding this being among the Bene Gesserit themselves, the most promising candidate has instead turned out to be the son of Duke Leto of House Atreides; Paul.  Paul Atreides rises to become a messiah like being through the course of the story, gaining immense mental powers as well as the loyalty of the native people of Arrakis, the Fremen, and with that, he challenges the hold of the empire over the planet and proves once and for all that he indeed is the Kwisatz Haderach, with the power to both control and destroy the production of the spice.

“Arrakis. Dune. Desert planet. Your time has come.  A storm is coming. Our storm.  And when it arrives, it will shake the Universe.”

The difficulty in taking Dune and translating it for the screen is that no one can match the imagination of Frank Herbert’s writing.  He details so much in his novel with regards to the state of his characters thought processes, the many cultural traditions that they adhere to, as well as the epic scale in which he describes the immensity of Arrakis itself.  For a movie to work, a filmmaker needs to condense a lot down into something palatable and cinematic to make the narrative work for the screen and that is a lot more daunting than you would imagine.  Upon the book’s original publication, it caught the imagination of the counter-cultural movement of the late 60’s, especially with it’s emphasis on using substances to heighten one’s mental awareness.  One filmmaker especially interested in Herbert’s novel was Chilean avant garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky.  Jodorowsky had an ambitious vision for his take on the novel, expanding Herbert’s themes to represent a more new age spiritualism, and he managed to put together a remarkable cast and crew that included actors like David Carridine, Gloria Swanson, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles, as well as artists like Jean Giraud (Moebius) and H.R. Geiger.  But, just as the film was entering the final stages of development, the funding dried up and no studio wanted to make it, especially given Jodorowsky’s vision for a 10 hour run-time.  Soon after Jodoworsky’s Dune was shelved, the rights fell into the hands of legendary producer Dino de Laurentiis.   Laurentiis spent many years of serious development on the project, including having Frank Herbert himself draft a script, but again the project lingered in development hell as the project became too daunting for some.  Ridley Scott, hot off the success of Alien (1979), was at one point attached to direct, but he opted to make Blade Runner (1982) instead.  So, with the rights about to fall out of their hands, the De Laurentiis Company needed to think outside the box in order to make their project a reality, and their search ultimately led to the most unlikely of candidates; avant garde director David Lynch.  Lynch had made a name for himself as a master of the bizarre and grotesque on the silver screen, but science fiction was new territory for him, but he accepted the job nevertheless, seeing the potential to expand his unique vision on a much larger scale than he ever had before, and while it was fortunate for him, it may have been the wrong choice for the story he was about to tell.

“I must not fear.  Fear is the mind-killer.”

Here’s the thing that will jump out the most to first time viewers of David Lynch’s Dune; the movie is a fascinating look at what at what happens when you give a subversive, avant garde filmmaker a big budget to work with, and will please people who are fans of that style.  But, if you are someone who has read the book and wanted to see it faithfully brought to the big screen, you will be incredibly frustrated with the results.  David Lynch took the job of directing this film and insisted on writing the script himself, even though he had never read the book or was familiar with the story.  That lack of insight is palatable when watching the movie because the film cares little about the important things within the novel like character motivations, pacing, establishing a sense of time and place, and so much more.  It essentially is David Lynch playing around in a literal and metaphorical sandbox where he gets to indulge in his cerebral weirdness while only using the framework of Herbert’s novel to guide the movie.  It’s one of the most bizarre mismatches between director and source material that I think Hollywood has ever seen, and the story really suffers because of it.  One of the things that particularly lacks in Lynch’s take on the novel is it’s sense of grandiosity.  When you read the novel, you have this sweeping epic of vast expanses of desert and opulent palaces described to you, like something out of a film by David Lean (who was also approached to direct at one point, but quickly refused).   Lynch vision works in a more out-of-the-ordinary field which is best realized in movies like Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001); creating nightmares made real.  His style doesn’t translate into Herbert’s world, because it’s too constrained and focused on the wrong things.  He spends more effort portraying the oddities of the world and less on the drama and the character development, and that’s where the movie ultimately fails.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in Lynch’s adaptation comes in the way that it takes narrative shortcuts in order to condense the entirety of Herbert’s novel into a quick 2 1/2 hour run-time.  Anyone who was frustrated with the seemingly rushed final season of Game of Thrones would be even more infuriated by the way that Lynch’s Dune jumps ahead through the story without any regard for the story, especially when you’re already familiar with it.  To make things worse, he adds this weird internal monologue for every character into the script, having the characters state the obvious in a eerie whispering tone over the action that is taking place.  This internal monologue with the characters, by the way, appears nowhere in the novel.  What Frank Herbert does is detail what the characters are thinking, but he never has the characters actually voice them out to the reader themselves.  It’s something that in many ways can only be done on the page, and it’s an effective tool for authors to add character development that helps the reader identify with the characters more.  Herbert even included the effective trick of multiple points of view within his chapters, which allowed him more creative freedom to jump around in the story from one location to another, something that author George R.R. Martin has also effectively used in this Song of Ice and Fire novels, the source material of the Game of Thrones series.  But, David Lynch shoehorns the inner monologues in a strangely invasive way that it cheats the movie of any real mystery and holds the characters at a frustrating distance from the viewer.   Not only that, but significant plot details are ignored or minimized.  Paul is inducted into the Fremen’s ranks with little resistance.  Baron Harkonnen’s torture and exploitation of the Arrakian citizens are barely even mentioned.  Paul’s love story with the Fremen girl Chani is laughably brushed off in a quick montage.  It’s a strange way to adapt such a complex novel and shows just how much more interested Lynch was in indulging his own desires for the story.  A longer cut of the movie exists, but it’s one that David Lynch, strangely enough, has disowned, seeing as he prefers the shorter, less faithful adaptation.

“They tried and failed?” “They tried and died.”

The cast of the movie also represents a problem with David Lynch’s portrayal of the story.  Lynch chose actors that less fit the roles they were playing, and fit more into the kind of story he wanted to tell.  That’s why you get a more passive portrayal of Paul Atreides through Kyle MacLaughlin.  MacLaughlin can be a good actor, and he would go on to have a prolific creative relationship with Lynch years after with both Blue Velvet and the series Twin Peaks.  But, his portrayal of Paul is so stilted and uninspired that he makes none of the transformations that the character goes through remotely interesting or surprising.  Paul is supposed to be this inspiring figure with supreme intelligence, the finest training in all forms of advanced combat, and charisma that can inspire the revolt of a once forgotten people.  Herbert’s writing even offers up the interesting introspection of the character as he realizes that his rise in power and influence will have it’s own dark consequences in the future, as zealots will commit atrocities in his name as he becomes a new god to the known galaxy, based on his foresight into the future.  The movie forgets all that and Paul becomes this all powerful figure purely because the plot says so.  MacLaughlin does attempt to look the part, despite being several years older than the actual character is in the book, and he does capture some wide eyed wonder that you’d want your protagonist to show in such a fantastic story, but at the end when he claims his status as the Kwisatz Haderach, you are left with this empty sense of what it really means, because nothing up to that point made him special.  The movie does better at portraying the villains, who feel more at home in Lynch’s nightmarish vision, though they themselves also feel like they don’t match up with Herbert’s depictions of the characters.  Baron Harkonnen should be this morbidly obese, grotesque monstrosity, but instead Lynch cast heavy set but not fat actor Kenneth McMillan, who doesn’t quite command the evil presence in the story that he should, though his hammy acting does help.  The movie also slightly elevates the character of Feyd-Ruatha, who goes from a minor villain in the novel to a more significant threat in the film; but that’s only because he’s famously portrayed by recording artist Sting, whose steam bath scene has developed a notorious reputation all on it’s own.   Mostly it’s less how Lynch cast his film and more how he wastes characters that fails the film, as important characters like Chani, Kynes, Stilgar, and Alia are brushed aside, because they don’t fit the narrative that Lynch wants to tell.

Lynch’s version of Dune does at times come close to reaching the vision of Herbert’s novel, and it’s largely through the stuff that fits more closely to Lynch’s own tastes.  For one thing, the movie thankfully does justice to the one element of the books that the story is most famous for; the mighty sandworms of Arrakis.  The sandworms are probably among the most imaginative creatures that have ever been conceived for science fiction, or any fiction really.  The are much like the regular earthworms that burrow underneath the soil here on earth, but they grow to an almost unimaginative scale.  Imagine if an earthworm were the size of the Empire State Building, and could swallow entire villages whole in it’s gaping mouth full of razor sharp teeth.  That’s what the Sandworms of Arrakis are like, and to portray them as any less would be a great insult to the imagination of Frank Herbert.  Thankfully, most of the film’s special effects budget went into portraying the worms with the sense of scale that they needed, and the effect is pretty impressive.  You really feel the size of these things, and their importance in the story is adequately portrayed, both as a threat and as a necessary component of the ecology of Arrakis.  Being the primary native species of the planet, everything on the planet revolves around the worms, including the production of the spice.  Lynch’s portrayal of the introduction of these creatures is the one point in the movie that lines up exactly with the novel.  Duke Leto and Paul Atreides are taken to observe production at a spice mine, only to have a worm sighting cut their visit short.  They watch in amazement as the vast jaws of the monster rise out of the surface of the sand and swallows the mine factory whole.  It’s an unforgettable scene in both the book and movie, and I do give Lynch the credit for doing that part justice.  But, even despite the effectiveness of the worms, the rest of the movie feels unimaginative.  The ducal palace of the capital city Arakeen feels uninspired, as it is literally just hallways carved into rock, and Baron Harkonnen’s industrial inspired palace feels like it belongs in another movie entirely.  The costuming also is basic and unimaginative, as the water preserving stillsuits just look like glorified scuba gear.  It all falls to the fault of misplaced ambition in the story-telling, as some parts of the movie get due respect, while others are treated as an afterthought.

“We have wormsign the likes of which God has never seen.”

I haven’t even touched upon all the other bizarre creative choices that plagued Lynch’s version of Dune, including the odd choice of rock band Toto to do the music (yes, the same guys who sung about blessing the rains down in Africa).  Long story short, David Lynch was never the ideal choice to bring Dune faithfully to the big screen.  And that was well reflected in it’s reception.  The movie was a critical and box office failure.  Strangely enough, the movie was heavily criticized for being a pail imitation of the more celebrated Star Wars (1977). Which is ironic since Dune the novel was one of the inspirations for George Lucas with his own story, and there are many parallel elements found in both; the desert planets of Arrakis and Tatooine, both Paul Atreides and Luke Skywalker learning to master their super powerful abilities, grotesquely fat antagonists with Baron Harkonnen and Jabba the Hutt, an evil empire, the list goes on.  The legacy of Frank Herbert’s Dune can in fact be felt in most modern science fiction, and quite honestly it’s Lynch’s film that shares the least of that impact.  One surprisingly influential byproduct of the novel’s legacy was Jodoworsky’s unmade version.  All of the pre-production material made for the movie has since been visual inspiration for a number of other things.  H.R. Geiger, who first worked on designing for Dune would later famously provide the visual look for Ridley Scott’s Alien, including the now famous design of the xenomorphs, which were actually spiritual successors to designs he made earlier for Jadoworsky.  There was an incredible 2013 documentary made about Jodoworsky’s Dune that your should definitely check out.  Also, even after another long development period, we seem to now be getting a new adaptation coming soon that will attempt to more faithfully adhere to Herbert’s vision.  After directors like Terry Gilliam, Peter Jackson, and Peter Berg all flirted with the project before dropping out, Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) is the one now tasked with the job, and he seems to be taking the role very seriously.  The cast he’s assembled, including Timothee Chalamet, Stellan Skarsgard, Josh Brolin, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac and Javier Bardem is one of the most impressive in recent memory, so a lot of hopes are high for this one.  Though David Lynch’s Dune has a somewhat small cult following, most people view it as a cautionary tale of how not to adapt a complex science fiction epic into such a narrow and uncharacteristic mold.  Frank Herbert’s masterpiece is a story that demands a grand cinematic treatment, and with David Lynch what we got instead was weirdness for weirdness sake.  And great science fiction rises above the confines of weirdness, and makes the reader and the viewer find truth in the unbelievable, which is exactly the majesty found in the pages of Dune.

“And how can this be?  For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!”

Fan Made – Why it Helps to Love the Movie that You Remake

If there is one thing that people across the board are becoming tired with in Hollywood, it’s the lack of anything original on the blockbuster level.  Pretty much all the tent poles released this year during the summer season is either a sequel, a remake, or a reboot, showing just how repetitive the summer season has become over the last few years.  And that’s not to say that all types of movies of these kinds are bad; so far one of the best and most successful movies of the year is Avengers: Endgame, a sequel.  But the issue is not the quality of each individual movie, but rather the fact that there is little to no movies anymore that stand out as something wholly original.  Pretty much the one and only movie that fits that bill this year is Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood coming this June, and even a Tarantino release has an element of continuation built upon the director’s own cinematic universe.  Though it’s sad to see so little new ideas coming out each year from the mainstream of the industry, it’s also understandable in a way.  Movies that rely upon already established name recognition tend to be a safer bet, especially when the movie is expected to cost a lot of money, so that’s why they are more likely to receive a green light over something untried like a fresh new idea.  And this is something that unfortunately will always be true about Hollywood.  There are just not enough unique high concept ideas that come along that demand the $100 million treatment, and tried and true will always rise to the top in terms of being forwarded towards production.  Given all that, audiences are still discerning when it comes to the types of sequels, reboots and remakes that they like, and oftentimes this will become a big point of contention when audiences remark their level of satisfaction with whatever Hollywood is putting out.  Remakes in particular are a tricky brand of film to get right, and what it usually boils down to is whether it comes from the heart or not.

There is an interesting separation between successful and unsuccessful remakes, but the primary thing that defines the response to each movie is in how it matched up to the original.  The hardest hurdle that a remake must overcome is to justify it’s necessity for being; something that few movies ever get to do.  It becomes even harder when the movie being remade is a beloved classic.  For many people, there are untouchable movies that can never be tampered with, and even the thought of attempting a remake for these is instantly condemned.  But, with Hollywood becoming more and more hesitant to invest in newer, unproven properties, they are looking to more and more classic titles as a way to generate immediate box office.  From that point, it falls upon the filmmakers to deliver a movie that fulfills the criteria that the studios have set, while at the same time gaining the interest of the audience.  And in many cases, this can be daunting work.   For some filmmakers, the job becomes only that, and they deliver a movie that looks and feels like something we’ve seen before, but lacks anything else.  But, other filmmakers can take a familiar story and spin it into something that doesn’t feel like a rehash.  When this happens, we end up having a remake that not only matches the original, but may even surpass it.  And this is something that only happens when the filmmaker really believes and loves the movie that they are making.  For them, they are either hoping to reintroduce something they love to another generation, or take something that interested them but never quite reached it’s full potential and use their talents as filmmakers to do that film justice.  When a remake or reboot is approached in this fashion, that’s when it better appeals to an audience at large, because they can recognize that they’re not being fed the same rehash all over again.  Old can become new again when the filmmaker him or herself is just as much of a fan as the person in the audience is.

Currently, the ones who are putting the most money into remaking old titles is The Walt Disney Company.  Starting in 2010 with the surprise success of Tim Burton’s remake of Alice in Wonderland, Disney quickly realized that there was a market in adapting their own library of classic animated movies into live action, and since then a major chunk of their studio investment has gone into producing these nostalgia driven remakes.  The timing couldn’t be more opportune for the studio, since most of the audience that grew up with their movies, from the birth of home entertainment and the era of the Disney Renaissance, now are beginning to come of age and are having children of their own.  With a whole new generation of movie goers who are already a built in audience for these titles, it’s no surprise that this slate of remakes has made them enormous amounts of money.  The Beauty and the Beast (2017) remake is still the biggest March release in box office history, and that’s over heavy hitters like The Hunger Games (2012) and Captain Marvel (2019).  But, there’s also one thing that has stuck out with these Disney remakes and that’s the very mixed response that they’ve received from audiences.  Some do generally well critically, like Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2016), while others are severely criticized, like Beauty and the Beast and more recently Dumbo.  The same mixed reaction is also following the recent Aladdin remake, with fans split right down the middle either loving it or hating it.  No matter what for Disney, as long as they are making money, they’ll continue to make these remakes, but for a lot of long time Disney fans, this is a trend that is troubling to witness.  For them, they are seeing movies that are merely pandering to an already satisfied audience and what we get in return are movies that come no where close to capturing the magic of the original.

This is where the level of the filmmakers approach to the material becomes so important.  For one thing, if the director and cast are invested and want to do justice to the movie that they are remaking, it will help to go a long way towards making the movie stand on it’s own.  Jon Favreau in particular has demonstrated his enthusiasm for the movies he’s remaking for Disney.  With The Jungle Book, he took the basic outline of the Disney original and provided his own spin on the story that fit his own tastes as a director, particularly with the sense of humor.  No lines are repeated, but the movie does honor the parts of the original that audiences would be expecting, such as the songs like “The Bear Necessities.”  And he combine this with cutting edge technology to bring the creatures and jungle itself to photo realistic life in a way that can indeed blow audiences away.  His example shows that a director with an appreciation for the original can exceed the expectations of the audience by showing them a movie that is familiar but also groundbreaking at the same time; a formula he’s hoping to also repeat with The Lion King this summer.  Contrast this with something like Beauty and the Beast, which was directed by Bill Condon.  It becomes clear from the outset of that movie that Condon was just a director for hire, because he relies heavily on the audience’s familiarity with the original to carry the narrative drive of his version of the movie.  And everything in the live action Beauty and the Beast feels devoid of that loving touch, with every creative decision proving less effective than how it played out in the original.  When the animated version feels more true to life than the live action version, than you know that you’ve made a huge error.  And that’s the dilemma that Disney is facing with these live action remakes; is it worth making all that money when the audience is all too aware that they are cash grabs that in no way replaces the original for them.

The best way to ensure that a remake works in your favor is to show for audiences that there is a reason that this movie should exist.  Disney surprisingly found that to be the case with their remake of Pete’s Dragon (2016).  And that’s because unlike many of the other movies getting remakes, the original Pete’s Dragon (1977) was a movie that was flawed and forgettable enough to warrant a re-imagining.  Surprising, Disney gave the job to art house director David Lowery, who took the goofy musical with an animated dragon and transformed it into a dramatic coming-of-age tale that took it’s premise and characters seriously and emotionally; without songs.  And it worked.  Lowery saw something in the story that he could mold through his own style, while still being true to the core of what made the original work in the first place; the relationship between the boy Pete and his dragon named Elliott.  With that, he made a movie that both fans and newcomers could both appreciate, and have it stand on it’s own.  It’s something that all the best remakes share; the ability to be seen as it’s own unique thing, and it usually is rooted in a director finding their own voice in an already established movie.  Sometime it works best by filtering the story through another genre altogether.  For instance, Sergio Leone took the samurai films of master Japansese director Akira Kurosawa and re-imagined them as Westerns, with his “Man with No Name” series, themselves becoming classics of their own.  Leone didn’t remake movies like Yojimbo (1961) because he felt that they could be better; he remade them because he admired the storytelling and wanted to bring that into the genre that he was most comfortable with, the Western, because he believed these kinds of stories were what the genre had been lacking.  When the director is devoted to the remake of a popular film, the end result will reflect that through the passion they put into every frame.

There are instances where the director can be too much of a fan of the movie they are remaking.  That became an issue when director Gus Van Sant attempted a shot for shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).  And when I say shot for shot, I mean that he recreated every camera angle and edit that was in the original, with the only major differences being the cast and that it was in color instead of black and white.  It’s a fascinating experiment on it’s own, but the end result falls into the same pit that marks all the rest of the bad remakes; it never justifies it’s purpose for existing.  Nothing Gus Van Sant does in the movie improves upon the original; all we are reminded of is how great the original movie was, and why it should never be remade at all, because everything still works perfectly as it did when it was first made.  I think that Van Sant was always aware of this as well, as he stated in interviews that he made this remake so that no one else ever would; effectively closing the door on any chance Hollywood ever would.  The only problem is that the remake itself still exists, and should never have existed in the first place, even as a deterrent.  Sometimes filmmakers try to be too reverential to the films they are trying emulate, and it robs their new film of an identity.  This was the case when Bryan Singer made his reboot of the Superman franchise with Superman Returns (2006).  The problem with his movie was the fact that he was trying way to hard to make the movie a spiritual successor of the Richard Donner originals that he undermined his own instincts as a director, and the movie ended up being a pretentious bore.  At the time, people wanted to see something new from Superman, similar to how Christopher Nolan’s Batmans felt different from Tim Burton’s, but Bryan Singer failed to make his own film work because he was trying to recapture something that wasn’t his in the first place and which audiences had already moved on from for well over 20 years.  It’s good to love a particular kind of movie, but in the end, you still need to make the case why it should be remade, and it has to stand for more than just a personal fulfillment.

But, for the most part, being a fan of the thing you make does work to a movie’s advantage, and it helps to sell that movie to a broader audience who are expecting something to live up to their previously held expectations.  That’s why you see a range of ups and downs from various franchises as they often learn the hard way that it takes a certain kind of knowledge about a popular intellectual property to translate it perfectly to the screen.  One of the most dramatic examples recently of a long standing franchise finally figuring out how to please it’s audience and transform into a better version of itself is conveniently enough the Transformers series.  For the last decade, Transformers has been under the stewardship of Michael Bay, who clearly has never delved very deep into the lore of the property he’s been asked to adapt for the big screen.  That’s not to say that Transformers has this deep, important mythos behind it, but when watching the Transformers movies, it’s clear that Bay is making a movie that satisfies his tastes, with little regard to what fans who grew up with these characters hold dear.  But, when Paramount, the company behind the franchise, decided to spin-off one of the most popular characters, Bumblebee, into his own movie without Michael Bay, something surprising happened.  The franchise enjoyed it’s first ever critical hit for the Transformers franchise, receiving the best reviews the series has ever had.  Part of what made such a difference was the fact that director Travis Knight had a vision for the story that was more closely tied to the style of the original animated series, complete with on model designs for the Transformers themselves, showing that he himself took this property seriously, and was not going to fill it with indulgences like Michael Bay had.  This was a movie made by a fan for the fans, with the Transformers themselves, namely Bumblebee, taking center stage, which had never happened to this extent before in the series.  And Paramount has taken notice, with Michael Bay no longer being eyed to make any future films in this franchise, to the delight of many.  Any franchise can reach it’s full potential when the person making it has a sense of the inherent character of what they are making, and doesn’t just try outshine it with their own self-indulgent character.

While most audiences have learned to be suspicious of remakes and reboots, there are plenty of precedents showing that these movies can work when the person behind it puts their heart into it.  Indeed, some of the most popular movies of the last decade have been movies that either re-imagined a beloved property, or re-sparked it into a whole new generation.  Look at the two franchise with J. J. Abrams involvement; Star Trek and Star Wars, both of which are clearly made by people with both knowledge of the properties they have been asked to shepherd to the big screen, as well as the creativity to try new things to help bring the franchises into a new era.  These remakes also restore things that were lost over time when the franchises became either stagnant or had completely lost their way.  Just like how Bumblebee brought back a playfulness and identity to the Transformers franchise, the Abrams Star Wars flicks helped to undo some of the bad instincts that George Lucas had let infest the beloved franchise during the prequel era by returning the series back to it’s practical effects utilizing, non-CGI enhanced simple aesthetic.   Many other examples show how giving these franchises over to fans has reinvigorated them in ways that make them work better than they have in years.  Prime examples include Ryan Coogler’s reinvention of the Rocky franchise with Creed (2015), which puts the beloved champion into the role of mentor; and also the Planet of the Apes reboot centered around the incredible motion capture performance of Andy Serkis as Cesar the Ape, taking a once campy franchise and imagining it as a harrowing saga about survival in a harsh, post-apocalyptic world.  What these movies show is that any franchise can live a long life in the hearts of audiences when the people behind them really believe in the movies that they make and have a genuine love for the final product as well.  I think that’s why the recent Disney remakes have been such a mixed bag for audiences.  They feel more like products of a machine rather than expressions of genuine art.  That probably why their best remake to date is the one that they cared the least about; Pete’s Dragon.  That was the only one where it’s clear there was much to improve upon from the original, and the director was also very willing to show how special it could actually be.  Finding room for improvement and exploiting it is what has separated the best remakes from the rest.  After all, everyone loves something new, even when it’s from something we’ve already seen before.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum – Review

The action movie genre goes through peaks and valleys quite constantly every few years.  Often times, audiences are treated to a whole bunch of movies that are standard generic fare that grows tiresome after a while.  And then you have those new fresh take features that act like a breath of fresh air and completely change the game, and sometimes end up changing the genre as a whole as a result.  Think of something like Die Hard (1988), which completely revolutionized the action movie genre, which up to that time in the 80’s had been dominated by muscle-bound types like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.  In their place we got Bruce Willis, who looks more like the average man and was also portrayed as vulnerable as less bulletproof as his predecessors.  Audiences gravitated to this new type of action hero, because he was more grounded, funny, and relatable, and this example helped to set the standard for years to come.  Of course, as tastes have changed among audiences, so have the ideal of the action movie hero.  Today, we have in a way returned to the larger than life trope of heroes, with Super Heroes of course now dominating worldwide box office.   But, not every hero wears a cape, and some of the most successful action movie stars have been the ones who have shown an incredible ability to transition perfectly based on the changing ideals of the time.  Strangely, whenever the action movie suddenly shifts gears, actor Keanu Reeves always seems to be there at the right time when it does.  He made his own debut into the action genre with his own take on the Die Hard formula with Speed (1995), and then a few short years later, he made a huge impact by appearing in the groundbreaking sci-fi action flick, The Matrix (1999).  Keanu, to everyone’s surprise, has found his niche in the action movie genre, and continues to remain a popular fixture there, which he has further solidified with his recent involvement in the John Wick series.

Up until the first John Wick in 2014, Keanu Reeves was in a bit of a box office slump, struggling to find that follow up after the end of the Matrix trilogy.  His salvation, however, didn’t come from a golden opportunity that fell into his lap, but rather it came from a collaborative venture from two of his friends from the Matrix set who had a daring movie idea they wanted to pitch as a possible starring vehicle for Mr. Reeves.  That movie would of course be John Wick, which is a story about the world’s greatest assassin, with a legendary history, who tries to get out of the business only to be forced back in once a few thug do the unthinkable; they kill the puppy that his deceased wife gifted to him.  The movie was the brainchild of David Leitch (who was a stunt coordinator on The Matrix films) and Chad Stahelski (who was Keanu’s stunt double for many years, including on The Matrix), and their idea was to do an action thriller with the complex fight choreography of The Matrix, but with only minimal CGI manipulation.  It was essentially supposed to be a showcase for pure, physical stunt work on a level we haven’t seen before, and they clearly had no one else in mind for the role other than Keanu Reeves.  It should be noted that Keanu is 54 years old as of this writing, and even though he’s in good physical shape for someone of that age, it’s still a risky thing to ask someone in those advanced years to do the heavy stunt work required without a double that a movie like John Wick requires.  But, remarkably enough, Keanu managed to pull it off and Wick became his first breakthrough hit in years.  It proved so effective that it’s since spawned two sequels, and has introduced something that you would have never expected in a movie series like this; world building.  Chapter 2 (2017) revealed to audiences a whole underworld that Mr. Wick is a part of, and the layers go even deeper in the recent Chapter 3.  The only question is, have the filmmakers strayed too far away from the formula that the series is starting to fall apart, or did they manage to build an even more fascinating mythos that further illuminates the legend of John Wick; the boogeyman you call to kill the boogeyman.

The subtitle of John Wick: Chapter 3 is Parabellum, which is Latin for “Prepare for War.”  And that’s exactly where the movie picks up in it’s opening minutes.  The film picks up immediately after the events of Chapter 2, with John Wick on the run, trying to beat the clock before all hell breaks loose.  At the end of the last movie, John Wick (Keanu Reeve) broke a cardinal law in the underworld society that he serves; he shed blood within the walls of the Continental Hotel of New York City, which is a protected neutral safe haven where absolutely no killing must take place.  Because he committed this taboo, by shooting the film’s villain in cold blood while he was under the protection of the Continental, Wick must be labeled Excommunicado by the governing body of this assassin society known only as the High Table.  Now, John Wick is fair game for all the undercover assassins all over the world, with an enormous bounty placed on his head.  The Continental’s manager, Winston (Ian McShane), who considers John a friend, gives him a one hour head start before dropping the hammer, and then John is on his own.  He does, however, have a couple cards still to play.  One is to call upon the help of a figure from his past, a person known as The Director (Angelica Huston) who can grant him passage, and the other is to call in his one final favor with a former colleague named Sofia (Halle Berry) who runs the Continental in Casablanca, Morocco.  With Sofia’s help, John gets his audience with someone connected with the High Table, who he hopes can lift his Excommunicado, for a price of course.  Meanwhile, the High Table has sent an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to clean up the mess John Wick has left behind, and that includes removing Winston from his position of power at the Continental, as well as punishing the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), the leader of an army of underworld spies dressed as homeless transients, who also sold the bullets to John Wick that he used to kill his target at the Continental.  And so, John and his associates prepare for an inevitable confrontation with the ultimate power in their world, and because this is John Wick we’re talking about, a lot of bodies are about to hit the floor.

The first two John Wick movies are prime examples of how to perfectly balance action with dark comedy as well as an incredible eye for style and precision for the stunt work.  It’s clear that the filmmakers put effort into making every set piece in their movies feel fresh and free from repetition.  But, it’s also interesting how over the course of three movies that they’ve managed to add new layers to this narrative; almost creating a world that exists on it’s own, tied by it’s own set of rules.  The first John Wick gave no indication of what was to come next, as it was just a straightforward action flick where John goes to war with a Russian mafia boss (played by the late Michael Nyqvist).  Chapter 2 is where the world building really started to manifest, showing a whole network that operates behind the scenes, governing the world in which John Wick lives and operates.  It really helps to have seen the first two movies before watching Chapter 3, because they all blend together, and if like me you already have done the homework beforehand, this will be an enormously enjoyable sit.  The movie wastes no time in ramping up the mayhem, as it goes from one action set piece right into another.  The first 20 minutes or so of this movie, where the Excommunicado goes into effect, are some of the most insane and hilariously violent action scenes that I have ever seen.  Remember, John Wick killed a man in Chapter 2 with nothing but a pencil, just showing how lethal he could be.  There’s no pencil deaths in this movie, but John makes use of weapons just as ridiculous.  And by continuing the momentum carried over from the other movies, Chapter 3 manages to retain the sense of character that the movie clearly knows it has.  The filmmakers know exactly what the audience wants and it sees no reason not to deliver on that promise.  In a sense, the answer that the film gives you is that more is better, and with this film, we get everything we’ve seen before, just more so.

I do have to say that the opening act of this movie is almost too good, in a way that it kind of takes away from the rest of the movie.  By immediately plunging the audience right in the middle of the mayhem, you’ve primed them for an expectation of all the crazy things that might happen next.  However, once the movie gets into it’s second act, when John makes his way to Morocco, the movie begins to deflate a little bit, slowing down in order to progress the plot ahead.  None of it is bad per-say, it’s just that the opening came on so strong that it’s hard to come back from that and not have the movie feel uneven.  Chapter 2 had a similar problem where things also dipped a little in the second act, but in both cases, they never ruin the experience as a whole.  But, given that this is the longest John Wick movie to date, you do feel the run-time a bit more due to this lull in the middle.  Thankfully, things ramp up again towards the end, with more satisfying action providing a satisfying climax for this movie.  The only other nitpick that I have with this movie is that by expanding the world building over the course of these movies, it almost kind of takes away from John Wick’s own personal story.  We don’t see much character building for John this time around, as he remains the same all the way throughout.  It’s something that’s been steadily lost over time in these movies, as the first film gave us the best window so far into the psyche of the character.  The first John Wick showed a whole lot more of the cloud of pain and anquish that defined his character, which manifested because of the loss of his wife and his puppy.  As he states constantly, it was more than just about the puppy, but we see less of that understanding as this series goes along.  Even still, everything else has been uniformly consistent in this series, including it’s sense of humor and it’s focus on trying to one-up itself at every turn.

It cannot be understated how crucial Keanu Reeves is to the success of these movies.  John Wick is, in my opinion, the greatest character that he’s ever played, and that’s largely because it’s the only character that has best played to his strengths.  Keanu is an actor of extremes, meaning that he only works best when taken to the opposite ends of performance.  His best work is found in him playing the part either very broadly (like Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) or very stoically (like with John Wick or Neo from The Matrix).  He never works well in between, which is probably why he never worked out well in other genres like romance or historical drama.  With John Wick, you get the combination of all his talents; stoicism and humor, all rolled into one.  He’s a man of few words, but even still those few words can be hilariously delivered and oftentimes pretty badass.  It’s also astounding how much he throws himself physically into the roll too.  Of course the movie gives him stunt doubles for the most dangerous moments, but for most of the movie’s run time, you can see that it is clearly him on screen, since most of the fights have to done in camera and with little editing in between.  It’s almost like Keanu is trying to compete with Tom Cruise in the category of 50-plus year old actors still doing the majority of their own stunts on screen, and he’s doing an admirable job of it.  The stunt team as well should be commended.  Just like with the Mission Impossible series, John Wick is turning stunts into an art-form, and it really reinforces the case that there should be an Oscar category for stunts.  The casting for these movies is also getting more and more impressive, with heavy hitters like Angelica Huston and Halle Berry joining the fray.  Returning cast like Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne (who also followed him here from the Matrix series) are also great to see again, especially with the latter really chewing the scenery in his brief scenes.  But the real scene-stealer is an actor named Mark Dacascos, who plays a ninja named Zero, sent to kill John Wick by the Adjudicator.  His character is not only an interesting foil for John Wick, but it’s later revealed that he’s also a fan, which makes for a real interesting character interaction.  A great movie character is only as strong as the ones he shares the screen with, and this film gives you plenty to enjoy.

The one thing that I will say this movie improves over it’s predecessors is it’s visuals.  This is a gorgeous looking movie, with some often stunning cinematography.  The opening scenes of this movie, which take place at night and in the rain feels especially inspired by the look of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), with this beautiful neon glow casting itself over the action.  The movie also makes incredible use of it’s locations as well.  It’s clear that over the years, the filmmakers have been given more substantial budgets to work with, and that is apparent on screen.  When John Wick goes to Morocco, the movie actually shoots on location in Morocco.  We see him walking on the sand dunes like he’s Lawrence of Arabia, and it’s clear that there was no green screen involved.  I also have to praise the production design of this movie as well.  We see a lot more of the Continental Hotel this time around, and the architecture of the place has it’s own character that really stands out.  It’s here where we see the underground society start to take shape fully, as it seems to retain an old-fashioned aesthetic that exists alongside our modern amenities.  The Continental also has it’s modern touch too, with a stunning room made of glass becoming a central setting for the film’s climax.  It’s amazing to see the filmmakers refining and improving on their craft over the course of these movies, as the visuals are becoming bolder and more ambitious.  The first John Wick, though still visually inventive, was constrained by it’s smaller budget.  Thankfully, these guys do not waste the extra resources they’ve been allowed to use, as Chapter 3 represents their boldest artistic statement yet.  It’ll be interesting to see how much more refined they continue to get in the future, because with this movie, they have set the bar even higher.

It’s pretty amazing that we are here celebrating an action movie series with the name of John Wick.  It’s such a bland sounding name that you would think it’d be impossible to find anyone with that name intimidating.  But, as these movies have shown, it’s not the name itself that makes the man a legend, but rather the man and what he does that brings legend to a name.  That’s true in all things really; we’ve managed to make a movie star out of someone named Benedict Cumberbatch after all.  John Wick is a action hero that stands shoulder to shoulder with the John McLanes and Rambos of the world, and maybe even puts them to shame.  It’s also just incredible how resilient Keanu Reeves is as an action movie star.  Just when you thought he was done, he managed find a way back to the top, and with John Wick, he may have just found his peak as a performer.  The one thing I will say is that you must watch this movie with an audience.  Just like with Avengers: Endgame, part of the entertainment is just in experiencing the audience reactions while watching this movie.  The audience I saw it with were wincing, laughing and cheering all throughout the movie, and it felt very good to join along with them.  I had a smile on my face throughout most of the movie, and I laughed out loud more than once.  John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is not an absolutely perfect film, but it is an enormously satisfying bit of escapist entertainment.  Anyone who has been eagerly anticipating the next chapter of this series will not be disappointed.  The only question is how many more foolish assassins will have to die before the message becomes clear; don’t mess with John Wick, or his dog.

Rating: 8/10

Tinseltown Throwdown – Iron Man vs. Man of Steel

Of all the things that Marvel has changed over the last decade in Hollywood, perhaps it’s most influential would be the concept and execution of a shared cinematic universe.  There have been serialization in movies before, but never to this magnitude, and with this many seperate franchises involved.  And the experiment has become on of the most astounding success stories in cinema history, with Avengers: Endgame currently on it’s way to the all time box office crown.  Because of Marvel’s success with it’s shared universe, the last decade saw many more studios try to build up cinematic universes of their own; all to varying degrees.  Some proved surprisingly successful (The Conjuring universe), while many others fell flat (GhostbustersThe Amazing Spider-Man), and some failed in the most spectacular of fashion (Universal’s Dark Universe).  While Marvel’s example was largely the blueprint for many of these wannabe cinematic universes, few of them could ever figure out exactly how to harness it and make it work for them.  What most didn’t realize is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe succeeded both by it’s superb organization, but also by sheer luck.  It came at the right time, when audiences were willing to follow along with a large arcing narrative that’s pieced together through multiple films.  And because they came at the right time, they created a foundation that has helped to support everything that has followed after, and with seemingly no competition.  It’s that foundation that more than anything has become responsible for it’s success, and to see how it stacks up with another like minded cinematic universe, it helps to take a look at where things started to determine what makes and breaks such an endeavor.

If there was any cinematic universe that could compete with the likes of Marvel for cinematic dominance, it would be it’s own competitor on the comic book shelves; DC comics.  Before Marvel began it’s rise to box office dominance, it was DC who had long been the standard bearer when it came to comic book adaptations.  Richard Donner’s classic Superman (1978) was for the longest time the quintessential super hero movie, showing for the first time how stories and characters from the comic book page could be translated faithfully to the big screen.  A decade later, Tim Burton introduced Batman to the big screen with his 1989 film, which further increased the box office appeal of comic book characters.  It wouldn’t be until the turn of the millennium that Marvel finally jumped in with their first entry into the genre, naturally focused on their most popular character from the comics, Spider-Man.  Sam Raimi’s 2002 broke all sorts of box office records at the time, and ushered in an era of box office dominance that continues to this day.  For much of the 2000’s, DC and Marvel were equally competitive at the box office, with Raimi’s Spider-Man films and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy trading places constantly atop the box office charts.  But, one thing that Marvel didn’t have was the organizational support that DC had with their parent company Warner Brothers.  So, in comes producer Kevin Feige who established Marvel Studios, with the intention of not only giving the publisher more creative control over it’s characters, but also to create a shared cinematic universe where all of them could coexist on the big screen.  An idea like this seemed natural, since it’s largely what goes on in the comic books themselves, but what shocked most people was the fact that Marvel planned to launch this with the most unlikely of characters; Tony Stark aka Iron Man.  Iron Man is an icon now, but a decade ago, he was largely viewed as second tier compared to the likes of Spider-Man.  But, it was a gamble that paid off and in many ways it was the key to the success of everything that followed after.  Iron Man was the pivotal foundation and it becomes all the more apparent when you stack up where his place at the start of a cinematic universe compares to another, with DC beginning it’s own universe on the back of it’s most iconic character; Superman.

“They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire.  I respectfully disagree.  I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once.”

Iron Man had long been in development for years, with few people ever seriously interested in making the film, or playing the character.  For a while, Tom Cruise expressed interest in playing Tony Stark, but the movie never materialized, and ironically Tom ended up being the foundational face of one of the most embarrassing launches for a failed cinematic universe ever, with his remake of The Mummy (2017) which was supposed to begin the Dark Universe.  The newly formed Marvel Studios finally took the character seriously, and knew right away that to make the character work, it needed people who were the right match.  Luckily they struck upon the likes of Jon Favreau, who as a director brought a unique sense of mixing action and humor that in many ways perfectly suited the wise-cracking character from the comics. But Favreau’s greatest decision would end up proving to be his casting choice for Iron Man.  You would think that the original inclination would be to go with a movie star of Tom Cruise’s caliber, but instead Favreau sought out Robert Downey Jr. for the role.  It’s true that Downey does bear a natural resemblance to Tony Stark as he’s been envisioned on the the comic page, but at the time, casting him in the role was seen as a huge risk.  After years of struggling through a crippling drug addiction and spending time in prison for multiple violations, Downey’s career as an actor was pretty much dead, so casting him in anything was a huge risk.  But, Marvel saw it Favreau’s way and took the chance, and it proved to be the beast choice they could ever make.  The reason for this is simple; Robert Downey Jr. was the only choice to play Tony Stark, because he is Tony Stark.  Stark himself is a self-destructive, arrogant character who seeks redemption and a chance to better himself, and that turn for the character closely mirrored Downey’s own spiral and climb back out of the abyss.  Both him and Favreau knew that it wasn’t the iron suit that made the hero, it was the person inside, and for the movie to work, you needed to faithfully capture that aspect of the character.  Downey’s contribution became the example that all future casting choices had to follow, and from the Marvel side, their continued success comes from knowing that you cast based on the person and not on how well they’ll look in the costume.

“Born on Krypton and raised on Earth, you had the best of both and were meant to be the bridge between two worlds.”

That has in many ways been where most other cinematic universes have fallen apart.  For DC, they have had a mixed result from their casting choices.  Some have worked out really well, like Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman or Jason Momoa as Aguaman, while others failed miserably, like Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor.  But where DC found itself at a disadvantage was not merely in how they cast the character, but in the lack of insight into knowing who these characters really are.  This was apparent in the movie that was meant to launch their own cinematic universe, titled Man of Steel (2013).  Steel was their relaunch of the Superman mythos, using their most iconic hero as a the foundation on which they would build the universe.  But one thing that we’ve come to learn from building a cinematic universe with already established characters is that if you are going to start from scratch, you need to find a way to make the character feel fresh again.  Marvel managed to do that successfully with both the Hulk and Spider-Man, largely by ignoring all past character development and just having the characters already established with their powers.  Man of Steel, however, opted to go right back to the beginning and show us Superman’s origin story again, which only made the movie feel superfluous, because it’s a story-line we already know and are not surprised by.  Not only that, but the movie lacks any real insight into Superman as a character, instead putting every development in his life up as a mark of destiny; that he was always meant to be this hero, and none of it feels earned in the end.  Actor Henry Cavill is fine in the role, and does indeed look the part, but his Superman doesn’t inspire us as well as past Supers like Christopher Reeve.  There never is that moment where he makes the choice to be Superman; to be that crusader for good in the world.  Iron Man devotes half it’s movie to watching Stark build and refine his super suit, showing how he’s devoting himself to becoming an ideal, using his skill set towards a greater purpose.  Man of Steel’s Superman just exists because the universe needs him to.

There truthfully is no comparison between characters, since Tony Stark is a mere mortal man who builds himself into a hero, while the other is a god among men who must learn the best way to use his gifts in life.  One starts as a hero, while the other grows into a hero.  But there is plenty of similarities that both movies share, and it mainly has to do with how they establish themselves as the bedrock of their cinematic universes.  Again, Marvel establishes it’s cinematic universe much better, but one can almost argue that they do it a bit too much in the movie.  For instance, there are Easter eggs thrown about all over the movie, that for some eagle eye viewers hints at movies that would be coming in the future, like seeing Captain America’s shield subtly placed on Tony Stark’s workbench in his underground lab.  The introduction of S.H.I.E.L.D. is also executed well as a part of the movie, with Samuel L. Jackson’s end credits appearance as Nick Fury now becoming the stuff of legend.  But the movie also sets up threads that never followed through in the MCU, like the introduction of the Ten Rings terrorist group, which was meant to allude to Iron Man nemesis The Mandarin, and we all saw how disappointing that thread turned out to be.  Marvel sometimes falls into the trap of planting too many seeds that never fully take root, and that’s apparent in Iron Man, where it seemed they got too carried away sometimes with their fan service.  Man of Steel by comparison plays it a little closer to the chest with their hints at a larger universe.  For the most part it sticks closely with Superman’s story-line, and only throws in the barest sampling of Easter eggs, like a brief glimpse of corporate logos for LexCorp and Wayne Enterprises.  With those, they could easily tease the things that we knew were coming next in the pipeline, namely Lex Luthor and Batman, and not have us distracted with universe wide elements known only to those who had read the comics.  Of course, they would blow it with the Easter Egg heavy Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but at least Man of Steel knew to remain focused solely on Superman for the time being.

“Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe.  You just don’t know it yet.”

The other advantage that Man of Steel carried with it is the fact that Superman has a far more legendary rogues gallery.  Because of this, the stakes feel a little higher in Man of Steel than it does in Iron Man.  For someone as over-powered as Superman to feel vulnerable, you need to have him face a threat on an equal level, and Man of Steel does that with the character of General Zod, played by Michael Shannon.  A surviving Kryptonian like Superman, Zod matches the same power level, but combines this with a merciless, genocidal ambition for conquest.  General Zod seeks to make Earth the new home for his people, and that means wiping out the native human population in the process, which Superman has lived among and been raised by since he was sent there as a child.  For Superman, the fight with Zod is a confirmation of his duty to be Earth’s protector, and the movie does go out of it’s way to show that the confrontation with Zod is going to be the test of his full potential.  Even the much maligned death blow that Superman uses to stop Zod has a purposefulness in the story, because it places doubt in Superman’s mind if he did the right thing or not; which despite being out of character compared with the comics, does show a crucial development in his character that shows that he still is capable of being vulnerable.  Sadly, it didn’t help that director Zack Snyder made the baffling defense of this choice by saying that he believed Superman had to kill in order to learn that killing is wrong (???).  By contrast, Iron Man’s first nemesis is just a rival seeking to outshine his accomplishments out of pure pettiness, personified in the character of Obediah Stein.  Sure, they got an acting legend like Jeff Bridges to play the part, who does have a menacing presence in the film, but Stein’s whole plan is just to build another Iron Man suit, only bigger, becoming the Iron Monger.  Overall, he’s a weak villain that keeps the stakes pretty small in the original Iron Man.  And that has been the case with most of the Iron Man films, where the hero far outshines the villains, despite having excellent actors filling the roles like Mickey Rourke and Ben Kingsley.  In the end, Man of Steel benefited from a stronger villain, who almost made up for the lack of personality found in the hero himself.

For the most part, I did find more to like in the movie Man of Steel than dislike, but at the same time, it’s hard to ignore that it’s many flaws put the DCEU on such a rocky footing to begin with.  A lot of that falls on the clearly miscast choice of director with Zack Snyder.  Snyder was never a good fit with the character of Superman, because his style is so morose and devoid of light.  He makes a fine choice for stylistic and gritty comic adaptations like 300 (2007) and Watchmen (2009), but not for a character as inspirational and good-natured as Superman.  The biggest complaint about Man of Steel usually falls on the film’s muted color palette, which drains the joy out of the movie.  It’s a far cry from the lush, bright colors of Donner’s original, and for comic book fans especially, it probably felt like a betrayal to see the blue and red of Superman’s costume be so de-emphasized.  Man of Steel almost feels like a holdover from another era, where filmmakers almost felt ashamed of presenting a superhero dressed in brightly colored tights and a cape, and instead chose to make the costumes a little more modern and edgy.  Marvel on the other hand, not only has chosen to faithfully translate their comic character’s looks to the big screen, but they seem to celebrate it as well.  In Iron Man, during the process of building his final prototype for his suit, he decides to add a little “hot rod red” to the color scheme, matching the gold and red colors that the character model is famous for in the comics.  This example has follow through with every Marvel character since, with Spider-Man returning back to his tights and Captain America proudly donning the red white and blue across his armor.  More than anything, this brought the super hero genre out of it’s misguided tilt toward gritty make-overs and instead showed that it indeed was worthwhile to embrace everything fun about the characters, even their campy looks.  Only now are we seeing DC finally adopt that ideal as well, with the light-hearted Shazam being the most recent example.  Unfortunately, the Snyder style stuck to DC for far too long and hampered any chance of it striking the same chord with an audience that Marvel managed to achieve.

“I was bred to be a warrior, Kal.  Trained my entire life to master my senses.  Where did you train? ON A FARM?”

It’s hard to think what Marvel’s Cinematic Universe might have been like had Iron Man had not been it’s starting off point.  Jon Favreau’s deft and well-intentioned approach is what Marvel needed for the launch of their ambitious plans, and it is remarkable that it was all built around an actor who once was considered to be un-hirable in Hollywood.  The tables have certainly turned, and not only is Iron Man now an A-List super hero in the same league as Superman and Batman, but he’s even carried Spider-Man under his wing.  Robert Downey Jr.’s on-screen charisma no doubt endeared the character to fans around the world, and it’s clear why he gave it his all over so many years.  You could say that the life that Iron Man saved above all was that of the actor playing him.  The movie saved his reputation, has kept him clean and sober for over a decade now, and has made him fans all over the world, something he certainly indulges as he promotes the movies worldwide in a fashion not all that dissimilar from the persona of Tony Stark.  Hollywood loves a redemption story, and the real life one involving Robert Downey Jr. has been just that.  Sadly, Superman’s most recent big screen outing hasn’t carried that inspiring story along with it.  Henry Cavill, a talented actor in his own right, felt burdened by the lack of direction with his character and after a while, he felt that it just wasn’t worth continuing, so as of right now, Superman’s future on the big screen is once again in limbo.  If DC had put more effort into the character, and given him a story arc as inspiring as that of Iron Man, they may have been able to hold onto their actors as long as Marvel has managed to hold onto theirs.  The saddest part is that Cavill’s Superman doesn’t get the closure that he deserves, which is especially unfortunate considering how satisfying the departures in Avengers: Endgame turned out.  It all shows that when you plan to build a major cinematic universe, it helps to make sure that you are getting it right the first time, and that involves a little bit of risk, a whole lot of luck, as well as embracing what made these characters beloved in the first place.  That’s why Marvel are the kings of Hollywood right now, because they gambled and won, whereas DC tried to put their best horse forward and had him stumble out of the gate in a race he shouldn’t have started in the first place.  All the more remarkable is that all of this, the MCU and this era of cinematic universes, was all started by a once disgraced actor playing man who built a suit of iron in a cave with a box of scraps.

“I…AM…IRON MAN.”

Enjoy the Show – The Audience Experience and the Impact of Appointment Viewing

It’s difficult to quantify just how enormous last weekend was in pop culture.  Within the span of just a couple days, we saw two of the most highly anticipated culminations in two of the most popular franchises in media finally premiere; one on the movie screen and the other on television.  For the big screen, we saw Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame not only break box office records, but crush them, grossing $357 million domestic in three days, as well as an astounding $1.2 billion worldwide.  And then, a short two days later, the popular series Game of Thrones premiered it’s much anticipated climatic episode titled “The Long Night,” which presented a much hyped showdown that has been teased ever since the very first episode back in 2011.  Though one was wrapping up it’s story-line while the other was hitting it’s apex, the thing that they had in common was that these were moments that had been building up among their fan bases for nearly a decade, and it’s just by coincidence that they coincided on the same, late April weekend.  And the reactions to both were intense, becoming the most talked about points of discussion for the entire week that followed, and will most likely continue for months after.  But the other thing they have in common is that they show the power of communal viewership in helping to drive up the success of each film or show.  People came to the movie theater and tuned in to HBO because they wanted to be there right at the beginning to experience this moment in time with others who share their fandom.  Most likely, the biggest driving force is that people watched so that they wouldn’t be exposed to spoilers, but there’s also the fact that watching something together as part of a crowd experience has it’s own kind of appeal.  And that fan experience is something that Hollywood has tried hard to manage as the habits of movie goers and the demand for content has changed dramatically over the years.

The industry has given a term to the kinds of movies and shows that generate the kind of fan anticipation that we saw from this last weekend; that term being the “water cooler shows”.   This refers to the expected interactions that people have at their workplaces talking to their friends or colleagues about what they watched the night before on television or at the movies, usually taking place around the office water coolers.  They are just casual discussions between everyday people, but those water cooler talks do impact the hype built around event movies and TV episodes, with “word of mouth” becoming it’s own valuable tool.  The industry surprising relies heavily on these kinds of interactions to help get their products the right amount of exposure, but because they can’t influence every single viewer out there to say the right thing, it’s also can be an unreliable resource for building hype as well.  Social Media has helped give studios a better inlet into helping guide the fan to fan interactions; as evidenced by Marvel’s “Don’t Spoil the Endgame” hashtag that went around the internet prior to the film’s release.  And remarkably, fans responded in unison to the demands from the filmmakers to not spoil the details of the movie; even to the extreme extent like what happened to a poor fan in Hong Kong.  But, even with the tools that better allows for coordination within fan communities, Hollywood is still finding itself having to work at a disadvantage when it comes to bringing new eyes to their products.  Audience viewing habits, as they have always done, have changed from generation to generation, and right now we are witnessing yet another shift in that flow, and it’s one that is starting to entirely change the way we watch media in general.  This is the beginning of the streaming era in entertainment, and on demand entertainment is starting to bring an end to things like appointment viewing, which has been a staple of the industry for most of it’s history.  And now, the movie industry is beginning to wonder if it’s even worth putting so much money behind these kind of big events anymore.  The sad truth is that in order to make these colossal fan experiences happen, whatever production company behind it has to pour in a lot of money, and fewer of them are able to take that risk anymore.  But, by understating the appeal of sharing a moment of fandom with other people and stating that this kind of appointment viewing is the only way to experience it, it may be the only way to save the traditional movie-going and television viewing experience from going away in a world dominated by streaming content.

It helps to look back and see how Hollywood has developed it’s interaction with audiences over the years.  In the early years of the industry, studios not only produced the means of creating movies, but also the means of presenting them to the public.  Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, RKO, and other major studios all owned movie theaters across the country, and through this they were able to manage exactly what was going to be available to see in every market across the country.  It didn’t matter what was being shown, just as long as people were buying a ticket every day at one of their theaters.  Because of this, audiences would never stay and watch an entire program at the theater.  It was a more casual come and go as you please place to escape for people, and audiences were there more to see the movie stars and less for the stories, though this era did produce it’s fair share of great movies.  The advent of television and the breaking up of the studio system ended the monopoly of studio owned theaters caused the studios to rethink their strategies dramatically for the first time, and that led to the addition of gimmicks to bring audiences out of their homes for something that could only be experienced on the big screen.  Some of those gimmicks took hold, like widescreen, while others didn’t, like 3D and Smell-o-vision.  But, even though they helped bring viewers back into the theaters, audiences still behaved the same way as they did before, coming and going as they pleased.  It wasn’t until Alfred Hitchcock made his ground-breaking thriller Psycho (1960) that this audience behavior began to change.  Hitchcock demanded that every theater showing Psycho had to put up a warning for audiences stating that if they didn’t watch the movie from beginning to end, then they wouldn’t have gotten the authentic experience; referring of course to the movie’s famous mid-film  twist where the main character played by Janet Leigh is killed in the shower.  Word got around and audiences took Hitchcock at his word, and it turned Psycho not just into a box office hit, but a culturally significant moment.  And, because of it’s example, audiences began to change their viewing habits at the movie theater, making sure to arrive before a movie begins in order to experience the whole thing in one sitting, just in case it had a mid-film twist like Psycho.  Over time, this became the norm, and audiences have never returned to that original casual viewing in theaters ever again.

Though Psycho changed the way we watch the movies in the theater, it was really the era of the blockbuster that cemented the theater going experience as something paramount to the fan experience.  There were movies released over the next couple decades that demanded to be seen in the theaters, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) for it’s visuals and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) for it’s ability to scare audiences to death.  But it would be George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) that would change the movie going experience completely that still has it’s ripples felt throughout the industry today.  Borrowing inspiration strangely enough from the serials of Hollywood’s early years (you know, those years when audiences came and went as they pleased) Star Wars built it’s narrative over multiple films, leading to the formation of a fanbase that not only kept returning to the theaters to watch movies over and over again, but also could be relied upon to return whenever they had something new.  Star Wars became the template for all future franchise building in the decades that followed, and you can see it’s influence in everything from The Lord of the Rings, to Harry Potter, to even the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones.  All these monster franchises succeed on their own merits, but the one thing that they all took from Star Wars is the notion of treating the audience as an integral part of it’s existence.  These franchises don’t just create movies or shows, they create communities, allowing fans to discover one another and bring them together.  And most importantly, they know how to satisfy and prepare it’s fan base for what’s coming next.  Star Wars in particular has accomplished this to remarkable effect, as evidenced back in 1998, when people bought tickets to a movie just so they could view a teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999).  Couple this the fact that people would camp over several nights outside a movie theater just to get the best possible seats just shows how pivotal fan bases have become to building a franchise’s power within the industry.

But, there is something in the industry that has changed the way we watch movies and television, and part of this has stemmed from the many drawbacks that going to a movie theater has.  When we go to the movies, we have to accept the fact that we are going to be in a dark windowless room with a bunch of strangers, and not all of them are going to have the same kind of movie theater etiquette that you do.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my viewing experience spoiled because the people behind me decided it was appropriate to carry on a conversation while the movie is playing.  Not only that, but there are all the other pet peeves like noisy kids, people kicking the back of your chair, a cell phone ringing during a quiet scene in a movie or worse somebody turning their phone on and the bright glare flashing right back in your eyes.  Also, not every theater has the best level of upkeep, and you often might find yourself walking through aisles with sticky floors and stray pieces of trash all around.  I myself had to work as an usher in a movie theater, and though I tried my best to be thorough, there’s only a short window of time to get the job done between showings, so some things would often fall through the cracks during clean-up.  Over time, the movie going experience has more or less become commonplace in our culture, and it no longer has the allure of being something special in our lives, especially in an era when multiplexes have put the old ornate movie houses out of business.  Because of this, more people are just content to stay at home and watch a movie from the comforts of their living room, with theaters reserved only for special occasions.  For a time, Hollywood could manage with this decline in audience satisfaction, because the movie theaters were still the only place that first run movies could be seen.  But with the recent increase in original content coming from the likes of Netflix and Hulu, with Disney and Apple about to take the plunge as well later this year, multiplexes are finally being confronted with the possibility that they may lose their audiences for good.

Here’s the conundrum for audiences going into this new era of film-making.  Streaming content has opened up a wealth of new things to be excited about, as platforms like Netflix are putting their money behind bolder and more risk-taking projects, the kind that movie theaters tend to shy away from because it brings uncertainty of box office returns.  At the same time, there is something that gets lost when people have all their content available whenever they want.  Appointment viewing is something we’ve taken for granted over the years, not really realizing just how instrumental a part it played in making someone a fan.  The water cooler talks that we would have at work, school, or wherever were all about sharing experiences and shaping a bond with others through a shared fandom.  But, that fandom usually built over time through anticipation for what was going to come next.  In the case of TV shows, you could have a week’s worth of hyping yourself and others up for what was going to come next, all of which was creating the result that more and more people had to watch the next episode all at the same time, or they would be missing out.  That’s why so many of these fan bases are so devoted, because for many of them, this has been a shared experience that becomes so much of their life.  But that’s starting to change now that we’ve moved from an appointment viewing culture to a binge watching culture.  Now people are watching all their shows and movies in big chunks, which while it still allows the person to appreciate the quality of the film or show, it takes away the feeling of anticipation that would usually come between episodes, when audiences were left to wonder over several days about what’s going to happen next.  It’s that down time to process the story that helps to give an extra amount of appreciation that we’ve seemed to take for granted.  Sure, Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things have their fan bases to be sure, but you wonder if Netflix had mandated a longer roll-out of their programming like you see on traditional TV for their shows that they may have grown even more audiences over time.  The Netflix model has also taken away some of the shared audience experience as well, as binge watching has become a far more solitary experience for people since they are doing it all on their own time, and not when the platform says they should see it.

For some, this is an acceptable change, because they were never happy to watch a movie in a theater nor a show at a time that was inconvenient to them.  And those audiences have finally found their ideal form of content consumption with streaming entertainment.  But, there are many fans who prefer the in theater experience more than anything else, and that has many people concerned that streaming platforms are causing the industry to abandon the traditional forms of presentation that have been so crucial in bringing fan communities together.  This is more so a problem with television than with movies, because TV shows are definitely skewing more in the direction towards satisfying binge watchers rather than appointment watchers.  It almost makes Game of Thrones feel like the last big hurrah for appointment viewership, because there really isn’t another TV series on any network or cable channel that has continually grown it audience to this kind of level.  In time, we may see an end to the idea of the water cooler show, as more and more people watch their television at different speeds, either all at once or over the course of a long period.  And that could result in no show ever reaching that same Game of Thrones level ever again, which could change the fan making communities that Hollywood relies on into something very different.  In order for the industry to retain a little bit of that traditional sense of fan appreciation, they should look at the things that Game of Thrones did right for so many years, which is build an anticipation of unpredictability over time.  When the infamous “Red Wedding” episode premiered, it shook the industry like never before, but what really worked in the show’s favor was that it let the moment simmer over a week before the next episode, allowing audiences to absorb the shock.  Now, Thrones fans know to not take anything for granted and to watch every episode from here out just in case something even more shocking happens.  That’s what each show should really understand, that every episode matters, and each one should have just enough time down time in between to let the story sink in.  With binge watching, you really appreciate the narrative, but with appointment viewing , you appreciate the moments in between even more.

The last thing I think that the industry should consider when reaching it’s audience is to make them excited that they are all discovering a thing together.  What really stuck out to me when watching Avengers: Endgame at the movie theater last week was just how intense the audiences reactions were.  It becomes even more than just about getting ahead of spoilers; it’s about feeling the excitement in the room with your fellow fans.  I know that there are some out there that hate it when people cheer in a movie theater, but when the film earns it and is specially formatted to allow for cheering audiences like Avengers is, then it works to enhance the experience overall.  There’s one part in Endgame that I won’t spoil, but it led to an almost continuous two and a half minutes of cheering from an enthusiastic audience, and it felt good to join in with them.  That’s something that I wish was spotlighted more when it comes to promoting these kinds of movies, because the level energy from an audience creates it’s own kind of entertainment.  Game of Thrones likewise is able to do that.  If you watch reaction videos on YouTube, you can see a wide variety of live responses to what happened in each episode.  Last week’s episode in particular, “The Long Night” has a moment at it’s conclusion where a character makes their big move, and some of the reactions online to this moment are just as dramatic.  There were some videos taken from bars and even theaters reacting to this episode, and people reacted to this character moment like the person had just scored the winning goal in the World Cup.  If HBO, or any producer for that manner, wants to find a way to create another show or movie that has the same impact, just look at what these large gatherings of people respond to.  Fan communities are a powerful force in generating the direction of entertainment, and finding exactly what makes them all stand up and cheer at once is the key to finding your biggest successes.  The past weekend showed us why it’s important to understand the role an audience plays and that appointment viewing is a necessary part in letting appreciation for an art-form grow over time.  Movies and shows are there to make us laugh, cry and cheer and it’s better to do it together than by ourselves.  Sometimes an audience just needs to let go and  trust that the wait will be worth it in the end.

Avengers: Endgame – Review

If there is ever going to be something that the 2010’s will be known for, it’ll be the years that the Avengers ruled Hollywood.  The super hero team from Marvel Comics took the industry by storm over the last decade, breaking everything from box office records to previous held conventions and boundaries.  Marvel showed us, among other things, that Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America were indeed bankable characters; that a comic book movie could touch upon sensitive cultural issues like racism, gender equality, and corruption in government, and still be fun along the way; that a movie with a strong and proud black identity could break box office records; and it also showed that a movie of this genre could be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.  But, the even more impressive feat that Marvel has pulled through it all is that they’ve connected all of it together into one single narrative.  The cornerstones of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Avengers series, has been where all the hard work in building worlds and characters culminates together and gives us, without question, the most ambitious movies ever put together for the cinema.  Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige has stated that while every movie is given it’s due attention, there has always been this ultimate goal in mind to get to; an end game if you will.  Every film adds a piece of the puzzle to a narrative that runs through nearly every one, even though each one stands on it’s own separated from the rest.  Essentially, whether we’ve been aware of it or not, we’ve been following along with the greatest serial drama that has ever been created; bigger than any Star Trek, or Sopranos, or Game of Thrones.  But, just like any of those TV series, all narrative threads have to be resolved eventually, either by the end of the season or or the end of a series.  And Marvel is now in the position of delivering a finale of some kind for it’s audience, and for some it will be only the closing of a chapter while for others it will be the end of the book for good.

A lot of things had to go right for Marvel to be in this position.  First off, they had to enact their ambitious plan in a time when audiences were ready to take the journey along with these characters.  Thankfully, the MCU was launched during a Renaissance period for comic book movies and serialized story telling in general.  Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) brought respectability back to the genre after it’s near death in the late 90’s following Batman and Robin (1997).  Likewise, serial narratives on television saw a comeback in the mid 2000’s, with shows like Lost gaining devoted cult followings, with fans eager to see complex stories unfold over entire seasons.  In that same, Marvel Studios formed and plans were put into motion to create a similar serialized narrative for their own cinematic universe.  The only thing is that though crossovers and linked narratives were commonplace before on the comic book page and on television, it had never been achieved before on film; at least not to this kind of level.  For this to work, there needed to be cooperation across all production levels the likes of which have never been seen before.  This meant, they needed to find actors willing to appear across multiple films, even if it meant a reduced salary; they needed filmmakers who were willing to compromise their instincts in order to follow the playbook; and they needed to put the trust in the audience to keep up with all the various plot threads across all the movies.  And then there was the crucial aspect of getting it started on the right footing.  This fell upon director Jon Favreau, who was given the reigns of Iron Man (2008), and he took the risky (but in the end brilliant) move of casting long disgraced actor Robert Downey Jr. in the role, more than anything because he was the perfect man for the job.  Iron Man of course was a hit and the rest we say is history.  And given the incredible track record that we’ve seen in the 21 films since Iron Man, the closing of this third phase of the MCU takes on a whole new significance.  At this point we are now reaching the goal that Kevin Feige and his team had hoped to reach when they launched this universe.  The only question now is, with 22 movies under their belt, an unimaginably complex narrative having been built up, and fan anticipation at an all time high, can Marvel stick the landing with Avengers: Endgame.

This is usually the point in the review that I provide a condensed plot summary for you.  However, given the enormous cliffhanger that the previous movie, Avengers: Infinity War, left us on, even providing the smallest plot detail would spoil something major; and I’m going to try my hardest not to make this a spoiler heavy review.  So, instead, I’m going to sum up where each character arc was left off with the ending of Infinity War.  The mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) succeeded in collecting the Infinity Stones, the single most powerful artifacts in the universe.  In the final stages of his plan, he had already secured the purple Power Stone, the blue Space Stone, the red Reality Stone, and the orange Soul Stone, which he had to sacrifice the life of his daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) for.  Lured to his home planet by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the guardian of the green Time Stone,  Thanos is ambushed by an alliance of Strange, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and half of the Guardians of the Galaxy.  They nearly subdue the powerful foe, but Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) loses his cool when he learns that Thanos has already killed Gamora, whom he was in love with, and his careless rage cause Thanos to be free.  After another skirmish, Thanos nearly slays Iron Man, which causes Dr. Strange to relent and hand over the stone.  With one left to go, Thanos heads to Earth to claim the last stone, the yellow Mind Stone, which is housed in the forehead of fellow Avenger Vision (Paul Bettany).  The Avengers make one last stand in Wakanda, kingdom of Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), but are unsuccessful.  Thanos slays Vision, claims the Mind stone, and adds it to his Infinity Gauntlet.  Though Thor (Chris Hemsworth) make one last attempt to stop Thanos, he misses the kill shot and Thanos snaps his fingers, using the combined power of the stones to wipe out half of all life in the universe.  The Avengers watch in horror as friends and loved ones suddenly fade away, and the only survivors left standing are Iron Man, Thor, Captain America (Chris Evans), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Wakanda general Okoje (Danai Guira), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).  Despite being wounded by the immense power he unleashed, Thanos retreats to a secluded farm where he sits relieved that his plan was fulfilled.  But two other survivors remain who could change all that; the immensely powerful Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) who’s been trapped in the microscopic Quantum Realm.

There’s no doubt that Infinity War set the table for Endgame with one of the most shocking cliffhangers in movie history.  It’s a testament to how well Marvel pulled off their ambitious plan to build a cinematic universe that the finale of Infinity War hit so many fans hard.  Especially considering how many of the victims of “The Snap” included beloved favorites like Black Panther and Spider-Man, the reaction to the event almost felt like a loss in the family.  When I saw the movie in the theater last year, there were people openly weeping around me.  Now, I knew that this kind of thing wasn’t going to stay finite for long, because one, characters always come back in the comics, and two, sequels for some of the lost characters had already been put into development; so I knew that they would all be coming back.  The only question is how, and could Marvel pull it off without it feeling like a cheat.  Well, ten years and 22 movies of planning clearly got Marvel to the narrative conclusion that they needed because I’m happy to say that Avengers: Endgame sticks the landing and delivers a beautiful conclusion to this epic story.  Without going into plot details, I can safely say that the movie doesn’t spoil the emotional impact of it’s predecessor and in fact compliments the story very well, helping to resolve the story in a way that is ultimately satisfying.  It’s clear that Kevin Feige and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely spent years working this story out before they got it right, and thank god they did.  I don’t know if in any other circumstances this movie would have come together as well as it did, but Endgame benefited from the all the dominoes falling exactly as they should.  What’s especially impressive about Endgame is that it both succeeds as the conclusion of this two film story arc with Infinity War, as well as a culmination of all the Marvel movies up to now.  It took a decade to get to this point, but it was all worth it by the end, even if it’s not the end completely.

To separate the film from it’s place in the MCU for a moment, how does it function as a film on it’s own.  For the most part, it stands very well by itself, with minor nitpicks here or there.  Is it the best movie in the MCU; I’ll have to contemplate that for a while.  If the movie has a flaw it’s that the narrative flow is a bit shakier than some of the best Marvel movies; even compared to Infinity WarInfinity War had the benefit of the race against the clock battle against Thanos, with much of the tension being built around whether he was going to get all the stones or not, with all threads leading to the terrifying conclusion.  That tension is replaced with something else in Endgame, that while still engaging, doesn’t quite have the narrative focus of it’s predecessor.  Endgame is also far more dependent on previously built narrative elements than past Marvel movies.  To be as vague and spoiler free as I possibly can, I’ll just say that if you haven’t seen most of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies beforehand, you might be a little lost.  This is a very lore dependent movie, and it does become distracting at times when it calls on the audience to remember things in order for the plot to make sense.  Even still, there are some beautifully constructed payoffs that do make it worth it, but it also makes Endgame also feel a tad less structurally sound as a result.  Also, the movie does have a couple tonal issues that undermine a moment here and there, especially when humor is injected.  Now, there are a lot of hilarious moments strung throughout, but I found that some gags perhaps didn’t land as well as in previous Marvel films.  Even still, despite these nitpicks, it’s without a doubt one of the most satisfying movies ever to come from Marvel Studios, with a finale that is likely going to stand as one of the talked about in movie history.

I for one need to single out the incredible job accomplished by the Russo Brothers; Joe and Anthony.  This duo of filmmakers refined their craft for years working on television shows like Arrested Development and Community before they landed over at Marvel.  Since their debut with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), they proved very quickly that they were indeed the ones who would carry the MCU to to the “promised land.”  With Captain America: Civil War, they showed that they could balance a movie with multiple characters and their continuing story-lines with great care, and with Avengers: Infinity War, they proved that they could accomplish the epic sweep that the story required.  Endgame had to wrap everything that the MCU had built up to in a satisfying package that could please everybody, and they were the only ones capable of doing that.  The witty banter of Joss Whedon wouldn’t have fit here, nor the goofiness of Taika Watiti or the pop culture savvy of James Gunn.  It had to be the Russo Brothers with their unassuming, laser focus on set up and pay off in storytelling that came from their years in television that made them the best possible choice to see this film to completion.  And that’s where Endgame excels so well, in paying off all those narrative threads that have been building for years.  With Kevin Feige keeping the gears churning and Markus and McFeely giving a spirited voice to the script, the Russos applied their vast in scope but never distracting vision to this story and made all the pieces fall into place in the best possible way.  Their command over fan service moments is especially impressive, because never once do they feel forced on the audience.  Every moment of fan service is woven into the narrative perfectly and never feels out of place.  A lesser approach, like some we’ve seen from other non-MCU super hero movies, merely shoe-horns these moments in without the proper build up, making the result feel cheap.  Endgame, like the best super hero films, makes those moments feel earned, and with the workman like approach of the Russos, fans are given treats that never feel like they don’t belong in the movie.

It’s also incredible just how well Marvel has put together their cast for this movie.  This is, without a doubt, the most incredible ensemble ever assembled for a single film.  The main cast of course are uniformly excellent, showing just how perfect each of their castings have been over the years.  Some actors were discovered through their participation in the MCU, while others got the career boost that they desperately needed, and others saw their careers transform into something else than what it had been before.  And in the case of Robert Downey Jr., he experienced a complete career resurrection.  This movie is especially a celebration of the original team of Avengers, some of whom have already made it clear that they are retiring from the MCU following this movie.  Without revealing individual fates, Endgame is both a transition for many of these characters, but also the final swan song for some.  Some story lines come to an end in Endgame, and one of the movie’s greatest triumphs is in how well it brings closure to some of these characters.  One moment in particular is going to go down as one of the most triumphant singular acts of heroism that we’ll every see in a movie, and I am so happy to see a film like this nail that moment perfectly.  There are plenty of excellent stand out performances in this movie, some of which probably stand among the best we’ve seen so far from any Marvel movie.  Jeremy Renner, in particular, deserves special mention for his performance as a deeply damaged Hawkeye, bringing more depth to this often unfairly maligned character.  Chris Hemsworth also brings a new layer to Thor that you would’ve never expected and it provides the movie with some of it’s most hilarious moments.  And then there are surprise appearances that will be especially rewarding for long time fans, and seeing these faces made the movie even more special.  Also, the movie marks the final cameo from the late Stan Lee, which is fitting given that this is a movie marking the end of an era. Over 11 years and 22 movies, it’s been the remarkable cast bringing these characters to life that has been the key to Marvel’s success, and in Endgame, their effect is taken to even bigger heights.

There is no doubt that Avengers: Endgame is going to be a monumental moment in movie history.  In addition to breaking every possible box office record, the film also provides a prime example of a studio building something through complete and mind-boggling complex cooperation and having it all build to a satisfying end.  A movie like this shouldn’t work; an all-star cast having to share equal screen-time, a complex narrative juggling plot threads from multiple stand alone franchises, and putting so much faith in the audience to have the head space to follow it all.  Oh, and did I mention that the movie clocks in at a record shattering 3 hour and 2 minute run time.  Marvel has defied everything we used to know about comic book movies in the past, and they’ve reaped all the rewards because of it.  Endgame is a triumph not because it managed to pull all this together, but because it does so with heart and respect for it’s subject.  These have been movies made by fans, and that love of comic book heroes and their stories permeates every moment of the movie.  You do not feel those 3 hours at all, because there is so much going on and enough great payoff that those minutes just breeze right by.  Sure, Endgame has some minor flaws, and some plot holes might be picked apart in the future, but when the end result is this satisfying, those issues feel so insignificant.  I especially loved the way it resolves the things that needed to be resolved and some of the characters that see their stories come to a close are given the most beautiful of departures.  In the end, Marvel did what they set out to do, and everything hereafter is just the icing on the cake.  There will be more Marvel films to be sure, and Endgame even gives us some tantalizing hints about what’s to come.  But even if this was the end of the road for Marvel in general, and there was nothing left on the horizon, this would have been a satisfactory finish.  Avengers: Endgame delivers exactly what we wanted from MCU, and in turn it will set a new high bar for super hero movies for years to come.  Given that Marvel now has all their toys back to play with, the future still holds a lot of promise for the genre, but Endgame has earned it’s place as a very crucial corner stone.  AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!!!

Rating: 9/10