Category Archives: Editorials

Golden Boy – The Pitfalls of Predicting Who Will Win an Oscar

The Oscars are around the corner again, and naturally the vibe around Hollywood is one of excitement leading up to the big night.  For many film enthusiasts, it is also a big night, carrying as much weight for them as say the Super Bowl does for others, only in a televised program with far lower ratings.  And much like the Super Bowl, you’ll find many people who usually make a game out of predicting who will win, whether it be in office betting pools, simple wagers, or even actual gambling within a casino setting.  Everyone has their favorites to be sure when it comes to who they want to see walk away with an Oscar, but there are a growing number out there who are more and more serious about having the edge when it comes to knowing who will win.  And it’s not just for the major categories like Best Picture, Best Actor or Best Actress; it’s all the down list categories as well.  In a way, it’s kind of a good thing for the business because it’s getting people more interested in the often overlooked categories like the Shorts , helping those films to gain exposure that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.  But, when more is at stake for those making those predictions, the need to know how the results will turn out becomes even more of a big deal.  Nowadays, you will see every publication that covers the industry release their own Oscar predictions in these weeks leading up to the awards, making their own best guesses as to how it will all play out; and considering how much insider access that they are usually granted, it’s safe to say that they have a good finger on the pulse.  But, for those who want to put money down on the results of the Oscars, they should take note of the fact that now matter how much of an inside tract many people might have, the Awards have still shown time and again that nothing is certain.

Case in point, the results of last year’s Academy Awards; probably the most unpredictable that we’ve ever seen in recent memory.  And I’m not just talking about the now infamous flub at the end of the night where the wrong card was read for the night’s top award, although I don’t think anyone in a million years could have predicted that to happen.  I’m talking about the unprecedented come from behind victory that took the modest, little seen Moonlight (2016) to beat out the heavily favored La La Land (2016) for Best Picture.  Common wisdom would have told you that La La Land was going to steamroll through the Academy Awards ceremony unchallenged.  It was nominated for a record tying 14 awards, and the other two movies that have achieved that mark before went on to win Best Picture as well (1950’s All About Eve, 1997’s Titanic).  By contrast, Moonlight received 8 nominations, which is a good amount, but pale in comparison to La La Land.  La La Land was also a box office hit, earning more than $100 million domestically, while Moonlight was pretty much seen by only a handful of audiences in small art house cinemas across the country.  By all accounts, this upset should never have happened.  And as the awards ceremony played out last year, it seemed like nothing out of the ordinary was going to happen.  La La Land came to the final award of the night with 6 already in their pocket, including big ones for director Damien Chazelle and star Emma Stone.  Moonlight had picked up it’s expected awards for Screenplay and Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali.  So, when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway opened up the wrong envelope that was handed to them, and mistakenly thought that La La Land had won, it didn’t appear to anyone that anything was out of the ordinary.  Until it was.  What last year’s Awards proved is that a lot of the Awards season is built around compliance and expectations, much of which the actual Academy seems to enjoy working against.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (A.M.P.A.S) has been an integral part of the movie business ever since the early days of the art-form.  Created in 1927 by MGM studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, the organization was founded to honor and promote the various artistic and technical achievements accomplished within the industry, and help to promote those honorees to the rest of the world.  The Academy held it’s first Academy Awards 90 years ago in the famed Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, and it was little more than a banquet with only a handful of awards unceremoniously handed out in a quick 10 minute session.  Since then, both the Awards and the Academy grew in stature and prestige to become the chief authority over quality within the industry.  Despite all the many different awards given out to movies and professionals throughout the year within the industry, it all culminates with the Oscars, and that has mainly been due to the fact that it has set the standard for the longest amount of time.  But to understand the way the Academy Awards are selected, you need to know a bit about who is actually casting the votes.  The Academy is made up of a voting body of 6,000 or more members, all divided up into different branches depending on those members’ selective profession; Producers, Actors, Writers, Directors, and Technicians.  The actual full roster is a closely guarded secret by the Academy, but individual members are allowed to declare themselves as a voting member.  Membership is also granted to an individual by the Academy; no one can buy their way in or demand membership, it can only be given out by the Academy board itself as a recognition of the new member’s merit as a contributor to the industry.  Once a member, the voter casts a ballot for the categories within it’s own branch, and then votes as part of the full body of the Academy for the top prize; Best Picture.  It’s basically an honor given out by an elite group of industry professionals, rewarding the accomplishments of their peers.  But, a lot of the secretive nature behind how the Academy runs their balloting has caused it to face a lot of heat over the years.

The most common complaint leveled at the Academy is that they are often out of touch.  It is true that some of the Academy’s choices for Best Picture have not really stood the test of time that well, and it is often a reflection of the fact that the Academy membership skews more heavily towards a certain demographic.  If you were to judge the make-up of the Academy based on their tastes in movies as well as by who’s declared themselves publicly as members, you would be right in assuming that it’s made up of mostly white males over the age of 50.  One of the perks that has long existed with being a part of the Academy is a lifetime membership.  And as some of those members grow much older, they tend to hold onto their own preferences in movies, instead of say newer trends.  This became a major issue when people were complaining that critically acclaimed and highly successful genre flicks were being ignored in favor of smaller, socially minded dramas instead.  The lack of a Best Picture nod for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) put extra pressure on the Academy to change their dismissive attitude towards genre flicks, and they did so by expanding the nomination field from 5 to as much as 10 Best Picture nominees.  But, an even bigger issue was raised when it became clear that the Academy was suffering from a distinct lack of diverse representation among it’s members.  The “Oscars So White” campaign took the Academy to task for it’s lack of nominations to people of color, and while complaining about who wasn’t nominated was a bit misguided, the movement did raise awareness of the fact that the voting body of the Academy needed to change.  Then Academy President Cheryl Boone Issacs thankfully recognized this and sought to make a change.  In the year after “Oscars So White” the Academy made sweeping reforms to their voting standards, meaning that privileges must be earned through continued work within the industry, and not just left to people long out of touch and just resting on their laurels.  Also, a huge expansion of membership was started, with a focus on bringing in professionals from more diverse backgrounds.  With these sweeping changes, it doesn’t seem all that shocking that the Academy would gravitate towards a riskier choice like Moonlight instead of a safe bet like La La Land.

You can see a lot of these instances where the Academy gives into these push and pull efforts made within the industry.  For the most part, it does leave the organization in a better overall standing by the end, with their authority as the final word for film quality at year’s end remaining in tact.  But, change often has to come from outside, because there are definitely periods of complacency that still cast their shadow over the Academy.  These periods are often the ones that make it easier for the odds makers, because it’s when the Academy becomes predictable.  One of the more recent periods of predictable behavior from the Academy was when they seemed to have an infatuation with movies that celebrated the industry itself.  This was evident with the Best Picture wins of The Artist (2011) and Argo (2012), both of which portray the industry in the most glamorous and heroic light possible.  When you remember that the Academy is made up of industry professionals from several different branches, it doesn’t seem all that unusual that they would fawn over stories that flatter the work that they do.  But, even this trend was short lived and last year proved that a changing industry is more relevant now than before.  La La Land, another movie that celebrates the mystique of Hollywood, seemed almost tailor made to follow in The Artist and Argo’s footsteps, until the indie drama about an inner city black man coming to grips with his own homosexuality proved that notion wrong.   While some things are easy to predict about the Oscars, the thing that is far less predictable is when the Academy itself makes it’s heel turn and completely works against expectations.  We saw that heel turn manifest last year and who knows how it will play out in the years to come.  For one thing, it shows that paying close attention to how the Academy itself is operating is a key factor in trying to predict who will win an Award.

Another factor to take into account is the way that the Academy, and by extension, the industry wants to be perceived.  This is an industry that prides itself on glamour and it often extends out towards those that the industry chooses to best represent them.  Oftentimes the easiest categories to handicap for the Oscars usually are the acting categories, and one common trend that you’ll notice among the recipients of the Awards is the fact that they themselves represent a side of the industry that the Academy wants to push forward.  There are exceptions to be sure, as some performances are just too good to overlook (Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds for example), but oftentimes the award goes to someone merely for who they are and the performance is irrelevant.  Sometimes it’s for a long overdue Award for symbolizing a career achievement (Al Pacino in 1992 for Scent of a Woman), sometimes it’s for being that year’s breakout star (Alicia Vikander in 2015 for The Danish Girl), and sometimes it’s because the Academy loves a good career revival (Matthew McConaughey in 2013 for The Dallas Buyers Club).  But, there are some not so positive aspects about the predictability of the acting Oscar recipients, especially when you consider that the female led category winners skew far younger and prettier than their male counterparts.  The lack of diversity is also an issue, as few winners have ever been people of color; especially problematic when you consider there has still only been one Best Actress winner who is black in the 90 year history of the award.  The categories are more than any other the ones that benefit from the exposure that the performers put out before the ceremonies.  If you play by the Academy’s game, you are more likely to come out a winner.  But, the Academy, to it’s credit, recognizes the shortcomings they have plagued their image before.  Had people not made such a big deal about “Oscars So White,” we probably wouldn’t have seen movies like Moonlight get as much exposure as it otherwise would’ve had, and Mahershala Ali’s Oscar winning work might not have turned up as so.  But, if the nominee fits into the types that the Academy still likes, such as playing a historically significant figure or someone with a disability, then it’s easy to see why those same performances year in and year out always come up on top.

The industry also looks to the Academy Awards as a stamp of prestige that can help drive up their box office even more.  It’s not uncommon to see the awards distinctions plastered all over the marketing material used for a movie.  And the results are proven as well.  Movies do see a post awards box office bump every year, especially those that win the night’s biggest award.  Sometimes, it’s the thing that the movie needs to turn a profit in the end, so the studios and production companies make a big deal about it.  While casual audiences couldn’t care less, industry professionals spend exorbitant amounts of marketing money to make their final case for Award season gold, and for the most part, they more than anything are what drives the Oscar’s importance to the industry as a whole.  In many cases, this has gone too far.  Among Harvey Weinstein’s many dubious crimes, he was also notorious for influencing members of the Academy with many borderline illegal efforts, leading the Academy to crackdown on excessive campaigns like his.  But usually the louder a movie announces itself to the world, the more likely that it will mislead the casual person into thinking that it is the most likely to win.  That’s been the case more recently as the Academy has seemed to lean towards a trend of spreading the wealth around the industry as opposed to gravitating towards one major winner.  The days of dominant players like TitanicThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) seem to be gone, as few top earners win in many down list categories.  2015’s Best Picture winner Spotlight only won a single other award that night, for Original Screenplay, giving it less of a clear distinctive identity from that Awards.  It’s good for the wider breadth of winners, but less so for the odds makers who want a clearer sense of certainty from their awards, making it so the effort put into the hype is not wasted.

While it may not seem all that important from the outside, there are a lot of people who put a lot of stake into having an inside tract with knowing who will win an Oscar.  There are even websites devoted to year round coverage of the Oscar race, like    Everyone who believes they have a pulse on what Hollywood is going to do Oscar night makes as big deal about their predictions, and for the most part, many guesses are easy to make.  But as we saw with the La La Land/ Moonlight debacle last year, nothing is ever certain.  The best we have to go on are perceptions of who we think are making the ultimate decisions on each year’s ballot, which the Academy still keeps under wraps, and also by the aggressive efforts the studio makes to push their movie forward.  Even still, the Academy plays by it’s own rules and those rules change over time.  Even still, it is worth investing in, especially if you see a disconnect between what the Academy prefers and what audiences respond to.  Because of that, the Academy has thankfully become more diverse over time, but it also has made the awards more predictable.  If you are someone who puts a lot at stake with the Academy Awards every year, it’s best to not to put too much weight behind what the critics and industry insiders think; and yes, I understand the irony of that statement as I use my own site for making Oscar predictions, like I will in next week’s article.  For those who want more insight, just look at the history of the Awards.  The Oscars have less rewarded movies based on their own merits than how they stand as a cultural touchstone.  If you look at how each year has gone, the Awards usually act as more of a statement rather an acknowledgement of it as a work of art.  And this is a thing that changes over time, causing common notions of the industry to be turned around without warning sometimes.  We all try our best to be right, but like many other electoral processes, the end result may turn out to be something that even the system didn’t anticipate.  And while uncertainty is a disadvantage to an invested predictor, it nevertheless makes for a more entertaining Academy Awards, and more drama is what makes the Oscars worthwhile when all is said and done.

What if There Is No Tomorrow? – Groundhog Day and Bringing Big Concepts into Comedy

For most of the nation, the date of February 2 means very little and is like pretty much any other day.  But, it is designated as Groundhog Day on our calendars because of a centuries old tradition based around a superstition started by the Pennsylvania Dutch in colonial times.  According to tradition, every year on the second of February, groundhogs will rise from their hibernation and exit their nests, and upon entering the sunlight, if they spot their own shadow, it will mean that there will be six more weeks of winter.  It’s an old fashioned tale with no real bearing on how weather really works, and yet it’s a tradition significant enough to be marked on the calendar.  The rural communities of Pennsylvania where the legend originated still make a big deal out of the tradition, with the famous Punxsutawney Phil festival being the country’s most notable celebration of the holiday.  But for many years, only rural America took this tradition with any real weight.  It’s only been within the last 25 years that Groundhog Day that the holiday has garnered national and even international interest, and this isn’t because of a revival of the traditions itself, but because of a movie.  In 1993, the team of comedy legends Bill Murray and director Harold Ramis released a little movie appropriately called Groundhog Day, which delivered a rather unique story about a man who repeats the same day over and over again and is the only one aware of what’s happening to him.  And that day just so happens to be Groundhog Day, with the Punxsatwaney festival as a backdrop.  On the surface, the movie is not all that unusual a project for wither Murray or Ramis to undertake.  It makes brilliant use of Bill Murray’s dry sense of humor and Harold Ramis’ direction keeps everything low key and restrained.  And yet, when you watch the movie, you can’t help but marvel at how much the theme and ideas behind the story stay with you.  Comedies are often made to give us amusement, but Groundhog Day miraculously made us both laugh and think, and even contemplate things we never expected to think about after seeing a comedy like how the universe works and what role we have to play within it.

Groundhog Day isn’t the first story to ever have tackled the idea of repeating the same day over again in an endless loop.  The concept actually dates back to 1892 with the short story “Christmas Every Day” by American novelist William Dean Howells.  In that story, a selfish young person is forced to relive the holiday of Christmas in a constant repeat, until he realizes the folly of indulging in the shallow festivities and learns the true meaning of how to honor the holiday.  The story is indeed sourced as an inspiration by Groundhog Day  screenwriter Danny Rubin, who developed the original treatment of the film.  Working in collaboration with Ramis, Rubin took the story concept further by incorporating the idea of a person being stuck in a day he absolutely loathes, until it begins to soften his attitude over time.  For Groundhog Day, the story is one about not about breaking out of the cycle of a single day, but about breaking free of the cycle of one’s life.  Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, is introduced to us as a self-centered narcissist who doesn’t give a care to anything in the world other than his own ambition.  He is stuck in his own self-created hole of isolation, where he only is able to get by in life on the merits of his talents as a TV weatherman.  He is only able to pretend to be a man of the people, but in reality, he shuns all those around him, reducing him to one function in life because he has no one else to rely on.  Essentially, he is a metaphorical groundhog, if you will.  And what the story does is to force Phil out of his hole and see what his life is and could be.  Unlike the “Christmas Every Day” story line, the movie is not about growing a renewed appreciation for the holiday itself; Punxsatwaney Phil and the festival are irrelevant in the end.  It’s about a renewed appreciation of life, and understanding that small little happy moments are what make things worth it in the end.  And what makes the movie Groundhog Day so memorable is the fact that they address these ideas in such a thoughtful and hilarious way.

Groundhog Day in many ways owes a lot of it’s style of story-telling to the films of Frank Capra.  Capra in many ways wrote the book on how to bring socially conscious stories into comedy.  Movies like It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) showed that a movie not only could be laugh out loud funny, but also could make you think as well.  Most often, they would reveal lessons in class differences or the roles men and women play in society, but more than any other, Capra would delve into the idea of individual finding their own worth in the world.  In his movies, he defined the American every-man; the person who could shape their own destiny only after they are confronted with and come to terms with their shortcomings in life.  Most of Capra’s films tended to skew closer to reality, but he could also find meaning in his movies through supernatural elements as well.  It’s a Wonderful Life  in particular feels very akin to Groundhog Day, in which the protagonist is shown a different direction in his life only after being confronted with the realization of how life would be different if they did absolutely nothing.  The big difference of course between what Capra created and what Murray, Rubin and Ramis imagined is the personality of the American every-man at it’s center.  George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life is a good man with low self esteem who just needs to have his faith in life renewed.  Phil Connors is a product of a more cynical time, where he sees value in himself and nothing else, and the change for him is to make him see how happiness is not in self worth but in being a value to others.  Basically George Bailey and Phil Connors come to the same conclusion in their respective stories, but from completely different starting points.  The Capra-esque approach helps to cement the story in a very personable way, especially with regards to understanding the person that Phil is and what he’s going to become.  But, the movie also follows the crucial formula of making the audience think about the implications of the story long after they have seen it and helping them understand the lessons within.

For me myself, I am always astonished by how well the movie is constructed.  It is without a doubt one of the finest screenplays ever constructed; never once faulting in the cinematic possibilities offered up by it’s premise.  Harold Ramis’ direction in particular is extraordinary in how subtly in lays out the mechanics of the story.  Every little story bit needs to work multiple times without ever seeming repetitive, which calls for a lot of continuity checking and keeping the actors within the correct mindset throughout the shoot.  And much like a Capra film, we don’t just get to know more about our main character, but really the entire community as well, and it’s all done with the idea that they are all meeting Phil Connors for the first time.  All the different variations that Ramis puts on the same repeating bits throughout the film are so clever and actually build up a natural progression within the story.  And that includes very recognizable common threads, like the clock radio that always begins the day with Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” or Phil stepping into a puddle after running into contact with the obnoxious Ned Ryerson.   I especially like the editing he does with some scenes, where Murray’s Phil realizes he’s made an error and then it cuts to the the same moment on another version of the day where he corrects his mistake, which just makes you realize that Phil has had to repeat all the same steps exactly just to reach this same moment.  It’s a couple seconds for us, but almost an eternity for him.  It’s hilarious, but also kind of mind-boggling at the same.  And that is essentially the genius behind this movie.  It takes the concept, uses it in funny ways, but also causes us to realize the real world implications of it all, and how severe it must actually be.   The movie takes us on a journey into a man’s existential crisis and it is both silly and scary at the same time, making us wonder what we ourselves would do in a similar situation.

But Groundhog Day stands out in a different way than just well it uses it’s gimmick.  It is also the rare intellectual comedy, and I don’t mean that it’s a comedy that plays towards a classier, more well-educated crowd, but one that instead asks all of it’s audiences to contemplate it’s grander concepts.  When Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin were first drafting the script, they thought that a sea of condemnation was going to come their way from both the faith based and scientific communities, believing that their story was going to be nit picked apart for either being too bold or not clever enough.  To their surprise, an outpouring of praise from all corners came their way, and they soon realized that their silly little movie hit everyone on a very human level.  Since it’s premiere, Groundhog Day has since become a high water mark for what can be called the “high concept” comedy.  To be high concept, a movie has to deliver on bold premises that push the limits of what is commonly expected within the genre and this is especially hard to find in the often simplistic realm of comedy.  Comedies usually just touch upon the life’s little quirks, and don’t bring in anything more complex than that such as the mechanics of time and space being warped.  Some films have tried to reach for a grander level of meaning with their comedy, like contemplating the role of God in one’s life like they did in Bruce Almighty (2003), or literally living life in another’s shoes with Being John Malkovich (1999) or even seeing a man cope with his own self-imposed loneliness as he befriends a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man (2016).  All these movies share in common with Groundhog Day is the ability to hit some deep philosophical points while at the same time never loosing the ability to have fun with it as well.  There are movies that managed to fail to capture the same kind of effect, like Adam Sandler’s Click (2006), which squandered an intriguing premise by indulging too much in the cruder potentials of the gimmick, making the tonal shifts as it tries to hit it’s deeper points feel way too clunky.

I’ll admit from experience; bringing high concept to comedy is difficult, and often results in a story that is either tone deaf or just very convoluted.  When I was going through film school, my requirement for graduating was to complete a feature length screenplay as my thesis.  Being pretty novice, my inclination at the time was to write something that I felt appealed to my own tastes.  Because Groundhog Day was one of my favorite movies (and still is), I decided to craft a screenplay in the same vein.  In particular, I drew inspiration from the core mechanic of the story, being the repeating time element.  The difference in my script was that my character had control over his ability to repeat time, but the scenes I wrote where my main character repeats moments multiple times before he gets them right were I have to say directly inspired by the similar moments in Groundhog Day.  Suffice to say, the finished thesis script, while good enough to help me earn my degree, is no where within the same league as Groundhog.  I have nothing but the most profound respect for that screenplay, and my experience with trying to capture some of the same feeling within my own writing just shows me how much further I must go to even reach that kind of level.  And I’m not the only one that is in awe of the incredible story mechanic that the movie uses.  In recent years, we’ve seen the same element used in other genres, like in sci-fi with Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and also horror with Happy Death Day (2017).  While it can be said that all of these stories derive themselves from the original Howells short story (including the Japanese manga that Edge of Tomorrow is based on), their cinematic language is certainly heavily influenced by the foundation left by Groundhog Day.  Each and every one seems to relish the idea of their characters growing smarter as they are going through an endless cycle of the same day, incrementally improving one calculated step at a time.  To this day, all these stories are inevitably compared with Groundhog, and sometimes can be unfairly judged against it.  That shouldn’t have to be the case, as some movies offer interesting variations on the gimmick, but it just goes to show how much of an impact the movie had by being the first.

One lesson to learn from Groundhog Day from a film-making stand point is that for a movie with a unusual concept to work, it has to function first and foremost like a story.  The great thing is that Groundhog Day never tries to be presumptuous with it’s audience.  It entrusts them to follow along as it lets the craziness unfold.  In particular, it makes the very smart choice of never needing to explain itself.  Phil Connors goes through this incredible experience, and we are never explained as to exactly why and how it happens.  It’s left up to the viewer to make up their minds as to why this unusual event is happening, and decide whether it really matters in the end.  I’m sure that people have speculated that it’s an act of God, or that Phil is part of some twisted experiment, or that he has unintentionally fallen into a time anomaly.  Whatever the case, the movie rightly focuses not on what is happening in the story, but instead on how it affects Phil.  It’s a personal journey, and I think that is why audiences respond so well to it.  We are just as in the dark as Phil is with what is going on, and that allows us to absorb the personal turmoil that he faces more fully.  A less subtle approach would have had Phil digging for clues and pulling back the curtain to see who’s pulling the strings, which would have spoiled all the magic of his story.  We instead see a personal transformation take place, and that in turn inspires us the viewer to reexamine our own life.  What would we do if there was no tomorrow; would we lash out at the cruel trick being pulled on us, or would we strive to make those same 24 hours worthwhile every time.  In the end, Phil comes to learn that striving for the perfect day is not a pursuit of self-interest, but instead a pursuit of giving one’s self.  By movie’s end, Phil has reached a point where he knows every detail of the town of Punxatawney, down to the exact second, and he uses that knowledge to not play around but instead to be there at the right moment to help everyone else’s needs.  And after he has managed to touch everyone’s lives around him, he is then released from his prison.  It’s that feeling of watching the cleansing of one’s soul that makes the movie as special as it is.

Groundhog Day is a masterpiece in quite the most unexpected way.  What started as just a silly premise used as a starring vehicle for Bill Murray is now regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever made.  Not only that, it has set a new high bar for comedies seeking to deliver on higher concepts, as well as inspired a whole class of like-minded stories that try to utilize the same time warping gimmick.  I’m sure that Murray, Rubin and Ramis were all taken by surprise by how well this movie resonated when was first released and for years after.  The studio (Columbia) especially didn’t see the potential right away, and mistakenly released the film in mid February to coincide for the holiday that is it’s namesake, instead of releasing as originally intended in the Fall of 1992, so that it could qualify for the Oscars that year.  Bill Murray would have been a shoe-in for a Best Actor nomination that year, but sadly the unfavorable release date caused the movie to be lost in the early winter deadlands, making it all but forgotten by the next Oscars.  Thankfully, the movie has achieved classic status over the last 25 years, and now marks the milestone regarded as the masterpiece that it truly is.  For me, it represents story-telling at it’s finest, utilizing an unusual story mechanic to it’s fullest and finding the right amount of comedy within it’s premise.  It’s as close of a call back to classic, Capra-esque human comedies that we’ve seen in our more cynical time, and still feels as fresh today as ever.  Too few comedies actually use the medium of cinema to it’s fullest extant; giving us stories that need the magic of film-making to come to life.  With it’s clever use of editing and simple staging, Groundhog Day is a movie that continues to reveal new details and layers for the viewer to delightfully uncover with every viewing.  I still hold it in high regard, both as a cinematic experience, and as an example of superb, well thought out screenwriting, and now 25 years later it even has made me appreciate this little February tradition.  Only a comedy could find so much meaning and depth in the celebration of such a silly holiday for a groundhog.

Appropriate For All Ages – Paddington and the Rarity of Great Family Movies

Something peculiar is happening right now at the movies.  January, the dumping ground for most of Hollywood’s leftovers and embarrassments, is currently experiencing the release of what is now the best reviewed movie ever, since has been keeping track.   And that movie is a sequel no less.  Paddington 2 has in the last two weeks gone without a single bad review, which is just unheard of.  Even some of the movies that are shortlisted for this year’s Oscars have at some point received one or two negative or lukewarm reviews, which drove their Tomatoes score down a percentage or two.  The miracle of this is that no movie has ever gone this long without criticism, and it’s a January release of a G Rated family film.  So, why this movie?  Well, the short answer is that Paddington 2 deserves it.  It is a delightful, non-cynical movie that hits all the right notes, and is entertaining to both adults and children alike.  Watching it myself, I was stunned by how well constructed it was, not just on a technical aspect but in script too.  The humor and drama are perfectly balanced together and simple things set up throughout the film are brilliantly paid off later.  And of course the cast is perfectly rounded, including a delightfully villainous role from Hugh Grant, who chews up the scenery in the best way possible.  In general, it amazed me how well this movie managed to please me as a viewer, despite the fact that I am a grown man with no children of my own, and certainly not the target audience.  But, seeing it got me thinking about what the makers of Paddington 2 really believe their target audience is.  In a way, they have set themselves apart from other family pictures, and have made an effort to show that movies such as it shouldn’t be made for just the youngest of viewers, but should in fact adhere to what the G rating is actually supposed to stand for: suitable for all ages.

The sad thing is that despite Paddington 2 being so beloved by the critical community, it hasn’t translated over into success at the box office.  It is doing gangbusters over in it’s native country of the United Kingdom, but North American audiences have yet to catch on, which is where the movie really needs to do well.  Box office here has yet to push the movie over $20 million in two weeks, which is on the lower end for family films, and sadly this negatively affect the prospects of the future for this series.  I guess the first Paddington (2014) did well enough to warrant a sequel, and the team in charge certainly held up their end by making the sequel so effective, but when nobody goes to see it, the quality of the product ends up not mattering in the end.  And this is a troubling trend in the market of family friendly films today.  For many years, we have been subjected to aggressively marketed but cinematically terrible films passed off as family entertainment that casts a dark shadow over the entire genre, and it ends up numbing viewers to these movies in general.  So, when an actual worthwhile film like Paddington and it’s sequel comes along, audiences treat it with indifference.  One can only hope that the stellar reviewer and strong word of mouth can help save the movie in the long run, but it sadly won’t make much of a difference in the genre that it represents.  We are likely to see more family films in the future that pander to the lowest common denominator because they are cheaper to make and more profitable, and that’s a common trait among all genres.  Bad movies tend to pass through the Hollywood machine with more ease, and it’s a shame that no rewards come towards those like Paddington that actually attempt to aim a little higher.

One other thing that Paddington has to work against is just an all around stigma that hangs over films deemed family friendly.  It’s a stigma that goes back through the whole history of film-making and to an even larger extent, art.  Certain classes of intellectuals have sought to define quality in what they see as a part artistic expression, and for the most part, quality has been defined in most circles as something hard hitting, radical and often gritty.  Anything softer, whether it be fantasy or melodrama, is looked down upon, because it’s not challenging enough.  But, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be art.  You see a lot of films over time grow in esteem after being dismissed early on because they didn’t fit the criteria of meaningful art.  Films like The Wizard of Oz (1939), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) and Back to the Future (1985) are all considered masterpieces now, but in their time were dismissed by some as typical genre fare and nothing more.  Typically the stigma attached to these movies boils down to people dismissing them because they believe it’s all kids stuff, and real art is for grown ups.  But, as illustrated, a movie can be suitable for children and adults and still be considered high art.  It affects any storyteller who wants to take a moment to deliver something less dark and more lighthearted.  How many times do we crassly complain that an actor is selling out by making a kids movie?  Maybe that actor wants to be in something that’s appropriate enough for their own young child to watch, as opposed to their usual adult roles.  Anyone who spends their time solely in this niche of film-making must fight against it all the time.  Walt Disney spent his whole career trying to prove that he was much more than the guy who made cartoons, and even with all his success, he still was unable to shake the stigma that being in the world of family entertainment brings.

Which is why I am pleased to see the critical community heralding Paddington 2 so adamantly.  Though still short of calling it high art, critics are still recognizing the merits of the movie as a work of film craft and are passionately holding it up as a representation of what movies can and should be.  I think a large part of what has made the critical community come around on the idea of there being value in family entertainment is the fact that over time we have seen enough great family films to have set a high standard for them, and when one comes along that meets those expectations, it is worth rejoicing about.  We live in an era now where geek culture has taken over the business of film-making, and much of the people running the business today have in some way or another been driven by the cinematic ideals of their childhood.  It’s no coincidence why we are seeing a resurgence of Star Wars as a force in Hollywood right now, because the generation that came of age during that franchises early hey days are now the ones driving the industry today.  I myself know my own cinematic influences, because I grew up with Disney movies as a big part of my childhood, and those films still define my ideals in what stories I like to experience while watching a movie today.  We of course grow older and begin to indulge in more grown up entertainment over time, but the films of our childhood never leave us and the reason why some movies rise and fall today is because of how well they tap into that longing for something that connects us back to our childhood.  I think for right now, Paddington is connecting very strongly with adult audiences who recognize an innocence within it that brings them right back to their formative years as a child.  It’s not making us feel like a kid again per say, but it is helping us to shrug off our grown up baggage for at least an hour and a half and help us see the world in a less cynical light for once.

Paddington 2 also stands in stark contrast with what the genre of family flicks has turned into over the years.  If there is anything that the movie does right, it’s that it has a personality to it, and not feel that it has to pander itself towards it’s audience in any way.  That’s the mistake that many other so-called “family films” have fallen into.  They are made with the intent to appeal to little kids solely, without consideration for how the grown ups will take to the movie.  In addition to this, the choices made with the making of a family flick are usually done by adults with no insight into what they are actually making.  Often, a studio will collect a popular IP with a nostalgia driven following and put to work a cinematic adaptation of that same property, only without the understanding of what made it appealing in the first place.  That’s why we get so many cringe-worthy movie version of Saturday morning cartoon shows from our childhood that lack any comparison with the shows that inspired them.  We get Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) taking on corporate corruption instead of an evil warlord named Shredder.  We get The Smurfs (2011) cast into the chaos of the streets of Manhattan instead of their woodland realm.  There is clearly something lost in those translations which makes the movies feel like betrayals to their source.  One movie in particular, Jem and the Holograms (2015) angered many fans because of how much it dismissed the original show’s premise in favor of just capitalizing on the name alone, attaching it to a boring backstage drama.  It all comes from studios who decide they know what younger audiences want to see, but have no concept of the reality of what that is.  Paddington thankfully doesn’t try to pander to any perceived target audience.  It sticks to it’s own identity and excels because of this.

Perhaps the most saddening aspect of mass marketing so many family flicks is that they pander to such a low base of their audience.  I wonder where so many of these movie have gotten the idea that crude humor is appealing to children.  There are so many films aimed at children that for some reason use bodily functions as a generator of comedy, most often in the form of flatulence.  Sure, children do find the act of farting funny, but do they really see it as endearing.  That stuff certainly gets old when you are an adult.  But, for some reason, people who make family films seem to think that this is surefire comedy gold, and they overuse it to the point of irritantcy.     Not only that, but some “family” films even take it a step further.  I kid you not, there is a point in the live action Alvin & the Chipmunks (2007) where Alvin ingests the droppings of his brother Theodore, pretending it’s chocolate candy, just to save him the embarrassment when their guardian Dave notices the mess that the nervous chipmunk has made.  This is Alvin and the freaking Chipmunks, not Salo (1975).  But, somewhere in a studio office, people thought that this was appropriate for children.  The movie did get a PG rating, but still, to think that this is what children find funny is sinking pretty low.  I believe that somewhere down the line, people mistook crude humor for slapstick humor.  The same thing happened with adult comedies in the wake of the Farrelly Brothers success with There’s Something About Mary (1998), and somehow seeped down into family entertainment.  Slapstick can be misused too, but it can be better applied to appeal to all audiences.  Parents and children alike can appreciate a well constructed slapstick bit, as long as the end result is funny enough.  Of course, that’s a big part of Paddington’s appeal, because it uses slapstick in an effective, character driven way that helps to make the laughs land and it earns every one of them.

But the sad reality is that these lower grade family pictures are the ones that make the money, and therefore are the ones that get the green-light quicker.  It takes an extra long time for us to finally see something like Paddington in theaters.  The weird thing is, Paddington isn’t exactly a risky investment either.  It’s based on an already established literary source, those being the beloved storybooks from author Michael Bond; it’s low key in it’s execution, using simple but effective set ups and subtle use of special effects, and the story is universal and easy to follow along with.  And yet, simple effective storytelling isn’t enough to bring audiences in.  Most often you’ll see family films spotlight the low bar slapstick bits as a means of marketing the movie to a wide audience; even the first Paddington did this too, with the titular bear pulling earwax out with a toothbrush in the first trailer.  One thing that studios must understand is that while young audiences respond strongly to childish bits of sophomoric humor in the present, that doesn’t mean it will remain that way forever.  Alvin & the Chipmunks made a lot of money several years ago, but does anyone label that movie as an all time classic today?  No.  Audiences grow out of these kinds of movies eventually.  I’ll admit, there were things that I would watch as a kid that I look back on now and wonder why I would ever be entertained by it.  But you know what I still return to today as an adult; stuff like The Goonies (1985), The Neverending Story (1987), The Sandlot (1993), and of course most of Disney animation, because there is enough stuff in those movies to still appeal to the adult in me just as much as they do to my inner child.  For a family film to have a lasting legacy, it needs to understand that it doesn’t have to targeted to one select group.  Appealing to all audiences means just that; having enough common ground in it’s drama and humor to entertain it’s viewer no matter what the age.  That is how movies are remembered many years later, no matter what genre it belongs to.  It’s got to have a universal appeal that can withstand changing attitudes with every generation, especially when their younger audiences start to grow older and more cynical over time.

My hope is that people take notice of the critical response that Paddington 2 is receiving, and recognize that it is better for the industry in general that more films should be made like this.  We really need to stop thinking that a G rating is purely for fluffy kids stuff, and show that indeed adults can have a good time at the movies with these kinds of films too.  By refusing to be cynical and shamelessly marketed to a the lowest base possible, Paddington stands out as a true anomaly these day, which it shouldn’t have to be.  The industry has lost the connection to make movies like it possible on a more consistent basis, so it either steers clear of family movies altogether, choosing to invest more in grittier dramas, or panders to a target audience with a lackluster effort with limited appeal.  What I want to see the industry take away from movies like Paddington is a sense that modesty and a sense of playfulness can indeed carry a movie on it’s own, and not just the nostalgic appeal of a title.  Paddington has a personality all it’s own that transcends it’s genre and makes it work so well as a standalone movie.  The characters are worthy of our sympathy and attention, the humor is restrained while at the same time frequent and suitably ridiculous, and the visual aesthetic is splendid and endearing.  One thing that is remarkable is that I’m hearing so many of my adult friends praising this movie so highly.  These are friends with no children of their own either, and they recommend this as highly as they would for anything up for the Oscars this year.  This is a movie that certainly appeals to our inner child, but also to our desires as an adult, where we just want to see a movie out there that doesn’t make us feel miserable or apathetic.  So, if there was ever a time to listen to the critics, this is it.  Paddington is worthy of the praise it is getting, but it also represents something worthwhile that we should all get behind.  The concept of family entertainment has been so mishandled for a while now, and with this lovable little marmalade-loving bear we many we maybe, just maybe, might be able to see a little love come back into the genre once again.

Yippy Ki Holidays – The Die Hard Christmas Question and Alternative Seasonal Classics

We all have our ways of celebrating the holidays.  For many people it centers around the food, the gifts, and the celebrations, but for a lot of people out there, the holidays are also marked by the movies as well.  Quite a few people make it a tradition to watch a specific film every year around Christmas that in many ways reflects the mood of the season.  And most of the time, those movies end up being what you would expect.  You’ve got your Miracle on 34th Street (1947), your Holiday Inn (1942), your The Santa Clause (1994), your Elf (2003) and you Polar Express (2004).  These are all different types of movies from many different eras, but the one thing they all have in common is that the holidays are front and center in the story.  But, among these, there is another film that has somehow worked it’s way into the conversation; 1988’s Die Hard.  But, how is this Bruce Willis action thriller considered a holiday classic?  The first thing you think about when you hear Die Hard is certainly not Santa Claus.  And yet, there is a passionate contingent of people out there who will swear that their holidays are not complete until Hans Gruber falls from the top of Nakatomi Plaza Tower.  It’s an unusual tradition to be sure, but one that’s becoming more frequent this time of year.  Die Hard is part of a growing number of movies that have formed this alternative collection of holiday classics, becoming a sub genre of a sub genre.  They are not all Die Hard-esque style movies, but rather films that don’t quite ring out as Christmas movies, until you dig a little deeper into their themes and find that the holidays are indeed part of their respective plots.  This is also a growing category that does see resistance to more traditional holiday tastes, mainly because these types of movie redefine the definition of what a Christmas movie should be.

One of the things that people take issue with when they hear people classify movies like Die Hard as a Christmas film, is that it’s subverting the values of holiday themed entertainment.  Some would claim that Christmas movies should be uplifting and positive in their themes, and putting an R-rated action movie in the same conversation is merely a rational to weaken the impact of the holiday season altogether.  And while the argument can be made that adding any movie with a loose connection to Christmas to a list of holiday classics only weakens the classifications as a whole, I also think that a stringent guideline for what makes a Christmas movie shouldn’t be so specific either.  Indeed, the most famous Christmas themed movies do have a certain character in common with each other, but as audiences have changed over the years, so have the films, and we find the things that people value about the holidays tend to be reflected within the movies of their time.  That’s why whenever the conversation of what makes a Christmas movie comes up, there is often a generational divide.  There is crossover, but in general, you’ll find that younger generations have a more loose sense of what composes a holiday classic.  And, as time has turned tastes a bit more unconventional, the classification of holiday themes changes as well.  Perhaps in response to the pervasiveness of classics from the past, a whole new generation of subversive Christmas movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), and Bad Santa (2003) have become part of the conversation.  And with these, the idea that old definitions of Christmas favorites start to change, which gives way to the question of Die Hard being a part of the mix.

Now, to actually address the movie in question; is Die Hard a Christmas movie or not?  My answer would be yes; in fact, much more so than you would think.  The Christmas Eve setting of course is unquestionable, but that’s not the only thing.  Honestly, the movie’s plot could have worked at any time of year, because there isn’t anything that says it must absolutely be Christmas time for this story to make sense.   The fact that it incorporates Christmas themed elements into it’s story is an added bonus to everything else.  You can’t help but love the way that Bruce Willis’ John McClane taunts the bad guys with Christmas puns as he dismantles their intricately laid out plan.  The most famous example of this of course is when he sends the body of a slain terrorist down the elevator wearing a Santa hat and a blood inked message saying, “Now I have a machine gun.  Ho Ho Ho.”  But apart from that, the story itself also fits very well within other classic Christmas stories.  McClane has a Scrooge-esque redemption arc throughout the movie, where he manages to reconnect with his estranged wife by means of proving himself through this trial of fire with a group of deadly foes, all while on a holiday trip from work.  Sure, some of the thematic connections are a stretch, but you can see the deep influence that the Christmas setting has on the story.  The movie is aware of it too, as the closing credits even begin with a classic rendition of “Let it Snow;” an ironic choice given the Los Angeles setting, where snow never falls.  While the conversation of what makes an official Christmas movie or not hinges on Die Hard most of the time, you can’t argue too much that it shouldn’t be considered at all.  There’s too many aesthetic and thematic elements that support it’s inclusion, but it certainly is a movie that opens the door to considering alternatives in the conversation.

What Die Hard brought to the genre of Christmas movies more than anything was the idea that a movie didn’t necessarily have to be about Christmas in order to be called a Christmas movie.  In a sense, there could be movies that tackle all sorts of subjects that can be called a Christmas movie purely through the way it uses the setting and the iconography of the holiday.  And in this subset, we find where the degrees of arguments split.  Some people believe that one scene taking place at Christmas time does not a Christmas movie make.  But, there are also Christmas movies that take place with the holiday continuously as a part of the backdrop, but are never the focus of the plot.  Home Alone (1990) is a good example of this, given the near wall to wall Christmas iconography used in the movie.  But, when you get down to it, the setting wasn’t really necessary to tell that story.  You just needed a little kid left to fend off home invaders alone while his family is away.  It could have just as well been set during summer vacation, but the Christmas setting obviously provided more possibilities for the filmmakers.  You find little dispute towards Home Alone being considered a Christmas classic, but it’s justification falls pretty much within the same bounds as Die Hard, because the setting is just there as an added bonus for the plot.  There are also some other Christmas movies that are not necessarily about the holiday, and where it holds little significance towards the overall story as well.  One of the greatest depictions of Christmas festivities that I’ve ever seen on film is in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Fanny and Alexander (1982), but it only makes up the first half hour of a three hour epic and is largely inconsequential to what follows after.  And yet, I fully agree that the movie is just as worthy a Christmas movie as anything else.

Some of these alternative Christmas films tend to fall into the category without intending to be that way.  I’ve heard many arguments out there that Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is a Christmas movie.  That seems at first to be a wild stretch, but the signs are there.  The movie is set at Christmas time, and there are visual representations throughout the movie to remind you that the holiday is on everyone’s mind.  But, at the same time, you can’t say that the movie has in it’s mind to be classified as a holiday classic in the same company as Miracle on 34th Street.  That becomes abundantly clear once you get to the legendary orgy scene.  And yet, people want to classify it as a movie within the same genre.  My belief is that Kubrick never intended to have his movie become associated with the holiday, or any genre that pertains to it.  His movie is an exploration of the desires that drive men and woman and how they push us into some dark and depraved areas.  But, the Christmas setting does add some context to the turmoil of the characters.  The holiday season often is a time of reflection, and of considering the things we value in our lives.  It’s also a time where people become aware of the things that are lacking in their lives, and how that can be sometimes depressing.  That is why I think Kubrick wanted to use Christmas as the backdrop of his movie, because at it’s center is a character (played by Tom Cruise) who loses his way in his relationship with his wife (played by Nicole Kidman) and takes a journey towards the edge to reflect on where his life has gone wrong.  In a strange way, it has a lot in common with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) in this regard, as the main character is driven towards desperation as his life crumbles during the festivities of the season.  But, at the same time, Cruise’s character is no George Bailey, and Kubrick never intended him to be.  The two movies share universal themes and a common Christmas setting, but are otherwise from different worlds.  So, Eyes Wide Shut does have a case to make in the Christmas movie conversation, but it was an argument that I don’t think it’s creator ever thought was going to happen.

There are some filmmakers that work in a variety of genres that do make more overt gestures towards Christmas themes in their movies.  In fact, one filmmaker not only uses Christmas intentionally in his movies, it has become his signature.  That man is Shane Black, a legendary action film writer and director with a body of work spanning several decades and genres.  Starting off as a screenwriter, Shane made a name for himself with the script for Lethal Weapon (1987), an action movie with Christmas elements that actually predates Die Hard.  While his movies tend to use Christmas backdrops, they aren’t necessarily tied to the holiday itself.  And yet, more than any filmmaker, he loves to incorporate it into the plot whenever he can.  The introduction of Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs in Weapon happens in a Christmas tree farm for example.  And whether the story calls for it or not, Shane manages to find a way to work Christmas into it; something that even extends into his directorial efforts like Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2005), Iron Man 3 (2013) and The Nice Guys (2016).  The only other thing his movies have in common with one another other than Christmas is the inclusion of a wise ass little kid tagging along with the often cynical main character, which shows just how much of an intentional cinematic choice the holiday is as a part of his body of work.  One thing that I think Shane Black finds so appealing with this signature element is how it juxtaposes against the larger story he is trying to tell.  One thing you’ll notice in his movies is that his movies aren’t just depicting Christmas time in general, they are depicting Christmas in a California setting.  In many ways, Christmas time in LA has an innate artificiality to it, because it’s a city where there is never snow and Christmas trees have to be imported in, so Shane likes to spotlight the way that the holiday traditions clash with the reality of this Southwestern city, and there he finds a cinematic subtext to the stories he wants to tell, which tend to always have a dark sense of humor to them.  So whether people want to see them as such or not, Shane Black absolutely insists on his movies being synonymous with the holidays.

So, you have to wonder, why is there so many arguments for an alternative class of holiday classics.  I think the reaction to standards of tradition have something to do with that.  People want Christmas tales that reflect how they feel about the holidays, and it often includes feelings of rejecting traditional standards.  It is true that there has been something of a culture clash regarding the holiday of Christmas, and arguments on both sides tend to divide among the different movies that people choose to watch during the holiday season.  Traditionalist tend to favor movies that have spiritual themes and treat the holiday with a sense of reverence, while others tend to value the movies that subvert the traditions of the holiday.  There are movies that fall into common ground, and they are generally among the most beloved.  But there are some movies that do gather a little too much one way or the other, and these are the films that essentially are considered to be the worst of the genre.  The more traditional Christmas movies that are among the worst are the ones that immerse themselves so much in the Holiday spirit that it ends up ringing hollow and manipulative.  You can especially find these kinds of movies playing nonstop around the holidays on the Hallmark Channel.  I would also put Ron Howard’s misguided 2000 Grinch remake in this class as well.  But, when a Christmas movie becomes too subversive, it has the same effect of being off-putting and disingenuous.  Stuff like Surviving Christmas (2004) and Eight Crazy Nights (2002) think they are being clever in mocking or critiquing Christmas traditions, but it only ends up making those movies mean spirited and usually unpleasant to sit through.  If anything, alternative Christmas movies do a great service to the genre of Holiday movies, because it allows for the holiday to be associated with better films.  No one can doubt the enjoyment factor of Die Hard, so why not embrace it as a Christmas movie.  It makes the holiday a whole lot more exciting.

Like all other genres, Holiday films are an evolving genre, and the definitions of it’s characteristics are continually being refined.  But, we do know that many movies intentionally use the symbols, emotions, and aesthetics of the holiday season to add a little flavor to their movies, even to the point of making it essential to the story.  It’s just interesting to see that so many movies of different types now fall under the banner of holiday fare.  I’ve even seen the FreeForm channel play Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) as a part of their holiday marathon of movies.  Yes, Christmas is depicted in that movie, but the plot spans a full year, and there is even a scene specifically tied to Halloween in there too.  But, I guess I can’t argue with their choices either.  There are so many movies that take on the spirit of Christmas, but often fall short, so it makes sense that so many people are embracing quality movies that only have a glancing connection with the holiday.  Like I said before, one of my favorite Christmas scenes in a movie ever was in Fanny and Alexander, a film that in no way is about the holiday at all. I only take issue with there being extremes to the arguments of what makes Christmas movies.  A Christmas movie, of course, must have something to connect it with the holiday in terms of aesthetics and at times themes as well, but it in no way has to be exclusively tied to them either.  I often like how a movie sometimes decides to just use a Christmas setting for whatever reason, because it provides an interesting perspective that sheds a different light on the story otherwise.  Somethings like Die Hard, or Batman Returns (1992), or Lethal Weapon are given a fresher bit of flavor once it uses the holidays as a part of their stories.  So that’s why the question of whether or not Die Hard has earned it’s place as a Christmas classic is an essential one for the future of the genre as a whole.  Christmas is a holiday that embraces more traditions, and if a gun-wielding New York cop is a part of that for that for you, than Merry Christmas and Yippy-ki-yay.

King of the World – Titanic 20 Years Later and the History of the Unsinkable Movie

In the late fall of 1997, we didn’t know what was about to descend upon us in the movie theaters.  For the most part, it had been a largely lackluster year, at least as far as Hollywood was concerned.  The summer had given us some laughably over the top action thrillers like Con Air and Face/Off, as well as some outright embarrassments like Batman & Robin.  And amidst all the talk of Hollywood movies becoming nothing more than overly expensive junk food, there was this fascinating side story bubbling up about this runaway movie production about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.  Directed by action film auteur, James Cameron, the movie Titanic would arrive in theaters in the middle of December 1997 already burdened by negative press about it’s bloated production budget (a then record $200 million) and long delayed development.  Believe it or not, the movie was originally intended to be a summer release, but it was held back for 5 months due to the fact that Cameron was not able to finish it on time.  So, couple those production problems with the fact that it was an action film director trying his hand at an epic, period romance for the first time as well as the fact that it boasted an unthinkable 3 hour and 15 minute run-time, and you can imagine that the executive at 20th Century Fox who bankrolled it were pretty nervous on the date of release.  The studio, no stranger to out of control productions like Cleopatra (1963), even sold off the domestic distribution rights to Paramount, just so they could brace themselves for the inevitable fall.  So, the day of release finally came, and as it turned out for everyone involved, everything turned out more than just okay.  Titanic not only managed to become a success, it became a new high water mark for all of Hollywood, not just at the box office but in terms of acclaim, popularity and influence in the years ahead.  Now, 20 years later, we are once again reminded of just how big an impact this movie left on the industry, and how unexpected that result really has been.

Titanic broke pretty much every record that you could think off for a single Hollywood film.  In an era of blockbuster entertainment, it defied all precedent.  Three hour plus movies just didn’t make money any more, because they reduced the amount of showtimes available throughout the day, and yet here was a movie that managed to continue to pack houses every single day and make more money than movies half it’s length several times over.  Not only that, it had better longevity than any other film Hollywood had seen at the box office.  It remained number one at the box office for a still unbroken record of 14 weeks, eventually adding to a final tally of just over $600 million domestic, and $1.5 billion worldwide.  Those record numbers stood unchallenged for over a decade, but have since been topped twice by James Cameron himself with Avatar (2009) and by Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).  But, it wasn’t just box office numbers that set Titanic  apart.  It ended up sweeping through awards season, eventually picking up a total of 11 Academy Awards out a total of 14 nominations (tying the record on both accounts) including the coveted Best Picture award.  The movie, regardless to say, hit bigger than anybody ever thought it would, and for something that is in essence a disaster movie, the result proved to be anything but.  But what is interesting is how the film stands now far removed from the frenzy that surrounded it’s beginning.  Did James Cameron’s epic really stand the test of time, or was it just a flash in the pan that hit at the exact right time.  There’s a lot to take in about the legacy of Titanic, especially with regards to the legacy it left behind on the industry of Hollywood.  In many ways, it brought much needed success to areas of the industry that really needed it, and at the same time, made some things a tad more difficult as well.  Especially when you look at the way the movie impacted the people involved, the technology behind it’s making and the movie-going public as a whole, we begin to get a sense of just how monumental a movie like Titanic has been over the last 20 years.

The first thing that revisiting the film makes you think about overall is why; why the Titanic?  How did this then nearly century old tragedy inspire this big of a production and why did it become such a huge hit?  It’s interesting looking at the inception of James Cameron’s ideas for the film.  Already, people knew of his passionate obsession with deep sea exploration, something which he had already indulged himself with in the movie The Abyss (1989).  At the same time, the mystique of the Titanic tragedy was already starting to take hold in our culture.  In the mid 80’s, the sunken wreck was finally discovered in the North Atlantic, preserved just enough 2 miles below the ocean surface to give us a look into the distant past and help piece together the events of that fateful night.  From this came numerous publications detailing the storied history of the “unsinkable” Titanic cruise ship, as well as renewed interest in the personal stories of the still surviving people who sailed on it.  There was even a hit, Tony winning musical that brought the story of the ship to life.  And out of this renewed interest, James Cameron made his rather bold pitch to 20th Century Fox.  According to the director himself, his entire pitch was simply showing the executives a picture of the Titanic and saying “Romeo and Juliet on this ship.  That’s my next project,” and miraculously he got the green-light.  Naturally, the love story aspect was what appealed to the studio chiefs, but when you look at the movie as a whole, and the person who James Cameron is, it’s clear that his intention was to recreate the events of the Titanic sinking, putting the viewer right in the thick of it as it happens.  This of course is easier said than done, and as the production went along, it became clear the actual scale to the whole venture that Cameron had in mind, and all of it was very, very expensive.

As the production went into full force, it quickly outgrew what Fox had available.  A whole new facility was constructed in Baja California, Mexico just to construct the massive out door sets that Cameron needed.  The most remarkable of these was a near full-size replica of the port side of the ship itself, as well as a recreation of the Southhampton dock that it would have launched from.  The amount of detail indeed pulls off Cameron’s vision perfectly, putting the viewer on the ship just as it would have been back on it’s maiden voyage in 1912.  Even more impressive than this is the remarkable way that Cameron created sets that not only were detailed and suitable for filming any variety of scenes, but could also be dipped and sunk under water in a massive tank thanks to a colossal set of gimbal lifts.  This not only gave the sets authenticity in their recreation, but it allowed us to see what the actual effect of the ship sinking would have felt like in person.  The amazing thing watching the film is knowing how much of the amazing visual effects are done in camera.  Cameron actually did take his massive outdoor set and tilted it at a 45 degree angle, recreating the final moments of Titanic in frightening detail.  When you see the extras clinging to the railings of the Titanic set for this film, they are doing so much in the same way that the real life passengers would have.  There is no question that Titanic is a triumph of screen direction, showing an unprecedented level of craftsmanship the likes of which may never be topped.  Cameron’s tactics of directing may be shaky, because let’s face it, Titanic has it’s low points too (particularly with the love story) but it’s clear that he triumphs when it comes to drawing drama out of the tragic events of the sinking, and does so with an enviable sense of detail.  That more than anything is what holds up over 20 years later.  James Cameron wanted to bring the Titanic to life, and that he does, in a spectacular way.  You can’t watch the film today and not be awed by the remarkable artistry that went into crafting it; the costumes, the sets, the cinematography.  Even the primitive CGI effects somewhat hold up, especially the sweeping wide shots of the entire ship.  Those are the things that really build the legend of this movie in the long run.

But, the other interesting aspect of Titanic’s history in the long run is in how it’s been affected by it’s own success, particularly with regards to the negative aspects.  Titanic in a way became too big of a movie for a while, which led to an inevitable backlash.  For a time, the movie was mocked for it’s shortcomings, and parodied incessantly for everything from it’s sometimes laughable script, to it’s awkwardly inconsistent performances, to just the obsessive way that fans were reacting to it.  James Cameron himself was often a good sport about it, and would even participate in a comedic bit about the movie too.  I recall a MTV produced skit where Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn try in vain to pitch a sequel to Cameron that’s very funny, as well as one other bit where James Cameron from somewhere else where Cameron lights up a cigar with a burning $100 bill.  At least he’s got a sense of humor.  But, for a while, it became almost the cool thing to put down Titanic for all it’s flaws; even to the point of outright hating it.  Honestly, I was even finding myself falling into that same mindset for a while, almost being ashamed that I enjoyed it in the first place.  In retrospect, that reaction is a little harsh, but some of those critiques have never really gone away.  I hate to say it, but Titanic has a really lackluster script, and is only salvaged by the sheer brilliance of the direction.  Perhaps Cameron, who both wrote and directed, didn’t have quite the necessary tools of basic screenwriting to match the intensity of the moments he’s trying to convey, but at the same time, I’ve come to accept this as a part of his film-making style.  He’s a man more comfortable in the director’s chair, crafting extravagant set pieces that push the boundaries of cinema.  He can’t bring that same focus into his script, however, and that’s why Titanic is saddled with one-dimensional characters and cringe-worthy dialogue.  But, as time has gone on, these same faults also give the movie character.  Yeah it can be predictable and childish, but it comes with a certain level of charm.  It also could have been a lot worse, especially if you look at the scenes that Cameron cut from the film.  It’s clear that Cameron found his right tone in the editing room, as the movie had even more hokey and horribly out of place humor (like a cut gag of Kathy Bates’ Molly Brown asking for more ice for her drink as the giant iceberg passes by in the background).  The movie has had ups and downs, but in the end, the strengths win out.

Another interesting impact this movie has had is on the people who were involved with it.  James Cameron himself has worked through the highs and lows of his career triumphs, and has seen two of his movies break records at the box office, including ones he set himself.  At the same time, he is a man almost burdened with too much expectations because of the success he’s had.  It took him 12 years after Titanic to finally release his follow-up, Avatar, another movie that also suffered a backlash due to it’s inescapable presence.  And like after Titanic, he has struggled to get his next project off the ground, as it’s now been 8 years since Avatar and all we hear about is him continually trying to tinker with that world in further sequels.  But, at the same time, he has taken his passions to very enviable levels of achievement.  He has continued to invest his time in deep sea exploration, including revisiting the wreck of the Titanic multiple times, with it culminating in the remarkable achievement of reaching the bottom of  Challenger’s Deep, the lowest part of the ocean, a feat that only he and two other men have accomplished, and doing so in a submarine vessel that he engineered himself.  The cast of the movie as well has taken interesting routes in the years after Titanic.  The backlash towards the movie probably affected the two leads of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet more than anyone else.  For a while, DiCaprio was the most talked about heartthrob in the world, and it caused him to somewhat retreat a bit from the limelight for a while, just due to the enormous pressure.  Kate Winslet also found it hard to follow up her Oscar nominated role and was for a time unable to match the exposure that Titanic had given her.  But, what I believe ended up being a positive result of the negative backlash that both actors faced was that it motivated them to challenge themselves as actors.  Their careers over the last two decades are marked by one risky and punishing role after another, and today both Leo and Kate are celebrated as two of the best performers of their generation, with Titanic almost taking a backseat in their respective bodies of work.  The one thing that both take away from the film is the friendship they’ve developed, which continues to this day, even leading them to work together again in the less beloved Revolutionary Road (2008), playing husband and wife.  While it’s been tough going for some of those involved, Titanic still has left a positive impact on the careers of many of Hollywood’s top talent, and indeed, helped a few rise to the prominence that they were due.

The one thing that I do admire Titanic for in retrospect is that it marks a turning point for Hollywood.  It was both the start of a new era in Hollywood, as well as the last of it’s kind.  Titanic for one thing revolutionized the use of computer generated effects in movies, something that is still advancing to this day in Hollywood to varying degrees.  It also broke new ground in the industry, with regards to how a movie is marketed.  Not only did we see a shift in how a movie like this is publicized to the public, with the titular ship being pushed to the sideline in favor of showcasing the two leads in much of the marketing material.  In fact, even today, new re-releases show only Leo and Kate on the posters, taken mostly from the iconic “I’m flying” sequence on the ships bow, and with none of the ship itself in view.  The movie is also the first of it’s kind to have a pop song attached to it, which itself became an inescapable phenomenon; the Celine Dion featured “My Heart Will Go On.”  If you think Frozen‘s “Let it Go” was overplayed in 2014, you obviously don’t remember the days when this song was on every radio station for a solid year and more.  So, there was a lot that Titanic changed in the industry, but because of it’s success, I also lament the fact that it also diminished something that had existed for years prior in Hollywood.  The sweeping historical epic had always been a staple in the industry, especially as a means for the industry to earn some awards prestige.  This was evident in iconic films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Patton (1970), Gandhi (1982), and The Last Emporer (1987).  The 1990’s became the last decade to see these types of movies, as productions became more expensive over time, and studios impatient with overlong running times.  Schindler’s List (1993) and Braveheart (1995) managed to achieve critical acclaim with 3 hour run times, but they were making big money.  When Titanic managed to do both, it felt that the industry recognized that this may never happen the same way again, and the historical epic somehow disappeared over the years.  By hitting it’s zenith with Titanic, we saw the last great hurrah of the Hollywood historical epic, as the same kind of scale would later shift to movies in the Renaissance of fantasy and comic movies that are made today.  Sure, Hollywood tried to copycat Titanic unsuccessfully with Pearl Harbor (2001), but it was clear, Titanic brought a culmination to a type of movie that could never be recaptured again.

And so, 20 years later, we see how much of a legacy that Titanic has left behind on Hollywood.  It revolutionized so many things in the industry, but also deconstructed some of the old foundations that led to it’s creation in the process.  I don’t think we’ll see anything remotely like it ever again, and if so, certainly not from the same people.  James Cameron achieved what he wanted to with Titanic and has since returned to the sci-fi world that he feels more at home within.  Regardless, it’s an achievement in direction that stands the test of time, as many of the on set mechanics used to recreate the Titanic and it’s tragic sinking are still mind-boggling impressive.  There are some things about the movie that are weak, and are worthy of lampooning, but the sum of the whole is still noteworthy in the whole of film history.   Watching the film again recently, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe once that iceberg hits and the events that follow unfold.  When it comes to driving up the tension as the great ship sinks slowly into the water, the movie is unmatched.  I can hardly imagine any other movie that feels as authentic to it’s moment in time as the final half of Titanic feels.  You do, in the end, feel like a passenger on the ship with these people, and because they are relatable enough to make us care, we feel the same emotional roller coaster that they do.  It’s those devastating moments of helplessness that Cameron conveys so well, and that, overall is what I believe helped to bring people back to the theater again and again for weeks after it’s premiere.  We all want that kind of a connection to a movie, whether it makes us happy or drives us to tears.  I may not respond to it emotionally the same way over time, but 20 years later, this movie still carries a sense of wonder for me.  The craft on hand is monumental on screen, and it certainly earned every award it was given; yes even Best Picture.  The sad thing is, the movie ended up being so huge that no other movie like it could ever come close to matching it, and it diminished a genre of films that in many ways defined the best that Hollywood could offer.  I for one love a good 3 hour epic, and while Titanic is far from my favorite, it’s one that I can appreciate as something that’s just like the ones they used to make.  If you haven’t revisited Titanic recently, or are one of the few that’s missed it altogether, give it another look.  Twenty year on, and it is still a movie unlike any other before or since, and something that represents the true power of what cinema is capable of.  It’s got a heart that continues to go on.

Hollywood Monsters – The Movie Industry’s Deep Rooted and Far Reaching Problem With Abuses of Power

Normally I try to steer clear of breaking headline news about controversies within the Hollywood Industry when writing articles for this site, but the recent activities going on over the past weeks have made me want to express my own thoughts on the issue given how much of an impact that they have on the industry as a whole.  That issue of course is the unprecedented fallout that has come to pass over the revelations of sexual misconduct, harassment, and even abuse that have been perpetrated by some of the most powerful people in the Hollywood community.  In many ways, these stories go far beyond your tabloid scandals of the week, and instead reveal a much more troubling fact which is the sickening way that such behavior has been allowed to flourish for so long.  The two biggest cases (so far) have been tied to two men who were once untouchable in Hollywood: uber-producer Harvey Weinstein and Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey.  Both are facing heavy scrutiny for what seems like years of serial harassment and alleged sexual assault against several victims that were swept under the rug with hush money and legal intimidation as a way to keep their bad behavior out of the headlines.  But, eventually, all those diversions couldn’t stop the truth from coming out, as victims started to stand together and demand for their stories to be heard, no matter what the consequences.  And with their stories, were are beginning to learn more about a side of the film industry that we wish wasn’t true and is sadly far more common than we would’ve thought.  Weinstein and Spacey are just the two of the most high profile names to be exposed and more are going to join them in the weeks ahead.  It’s a problem within the industry that extends beyond just the people involved and the crimes they have committed.  What these cases only demonstrates is the fact that there is a deep rooted problem with power being abused throughout the Hollywood community.

With regards to the accusations leveled at Harvey Weinstein, the revelations are not at all surprising.  Weinstein has been a power player for several decades in Hollywood, making a name for himself in the independent film circuit with the two companies that he co-founded with his brother Bob, called Miramax and The Weinstein Company.  Along with his sharp eye for spotting new talent in film-making, which has included the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, he has also garnered the reputation of being a bully within the industry.  His aggressive Oscar campaigning and strong-arming smaller production outfits in order to put his name on the best movies on the market has always left him with this love-hate relationship within the industry.  No man has been more thanked at awards ceremonies and sweared at more outside of them than Harvey, and it’s a reputation that I get the sense that he probably enjoyed.  But, it’s that same kind of attitude that also made him feel invincible within the business, and made him believe that he was capable of having everything he wanted, including the women he wanted whether they wanted him or not.  Suffice to say, Weinstein’s rise included him trampling over quite a lot of less fortunate people, and his sense of entitled power and need for self-fulfillment led him down the road that turned him into the disgraced monster that he is today.  Kevin Spacey’s problems are different, but no less disturbing.  While maintaining his image as a well regarded, and talented actor, we are now learning about years of inappropriate, and sometimes predatory behavior towards men, and most shockingly, to underage boys as well, according to his first accuser, actor Anthony Rapp.  Spacey’s misconduct has been the more shocking recently, because of how much more it has clashed with his polished image, but it nevertheless shows us that Hollywood’s problems with powerful men taking advantage of the less fortunate is very widespread.

The surprising thing that has occurred with the revelations made against these men and those like them is the swiftness and scope to which they were dealt with.  Harvey Weinstein was exposed by a long-researched article in the New York Times, which detailed years of misconduct that included a large number of accusers, and within a week of these revelations coming to light, Harvey went from Hollywood’s most powerful producer to virtually un-hirable.  He was fired by his own company, booted from the Academy of Motion Pictures membership, and had his name removed from every film he’s produced in the last year.  His company is now on life support with the possibility of going bankrupt in the near future, leaving many in-progress projects up in the air.   And as bad as that was, Kevin Spacey’s was even more dramatic.  He’s been fired from every project he’s been working on with his long standing partnership with Netflix, including his acclaimed series House of Cards, which is now desperately trying to restructure itself without it’s primary star around.  And, just announced this week, director Ridley Scott made the unprecedented and shocking decision to cut Spacey’s role in his new upcoming movie, All the Money in the World, and replacing him with actor Christopher Plummer in a costly re-shoot intended to help the movie still reach it’s December release date, only weeks away.  That is what you call quick and decisive action, but why did it have to get this bad in the first place.  I don’t blame the production companies and filmmakers that have cut their ties with them; they are not guilty of the same actions, and it’s fully within their understanding to protect their own products and reputations.  But a lot of questions need to be asked of an industry that sees behavior like this happen and takes so long to do anything about it.

These cases tell us a lot about the ugliest aspect of Hollywood, which is the way that underprivileged and desperate talent are often taken advantage of within the industry.  It’s the downside of the dream factory that is Hollywood, in where so many people come to sunny Los Angeles with dreams of fame and riches.  But, in order to make it, some people have to go through a long process of proving themselves to those who are already established.  It’s not an always dangerous path.  Many people, myself included, have gone through internships and part-time jobs with the hopes of opening up doors to better things later within the film industry.  It’s competitive, and not everyone makes it through, but you can make it in the film industry if you do show a level of talent and motivation that people on the inside can take notice of.  But there are those out there that offer up the shortcut to stardom by having those desperate enough conduct favors on their behalf, and this is where the predatory aspects begin.  Some people in the industry know how desperate some of us dreamers want to succeed and they prey on that desperation in order to satisfy their own selfish needs.  This becomes most sickening when it involves sexual favors in return for advancement.  And the abuse of this power doesn’t just end with the solicitation, but also throughout the aftermath of such actions.  Sometimes the people in power use a person’s desperation as a means of silencing them, by proclaiming that they hold the power to make or break their careers moving forward.   It’s this level of behavior that is at the heart of what’s the problem within the industry, with so many people using their status to hold power over the less fortunate and forcing them to do things that not only is demeaning, but can significantly damage their lives.  I want Hollywood to be a place where people believe they can go and add to a vibrant artistic community and not demean themselves for a chance at something better that’ll probably never come true.

The one and only positive to come from these scandals is the fact that it’s affecting some change.  People who have abused their power are now finally being held accountable for it.  A large part of this change has been the growing union of voices coming forward to tell their stories of abuse over the years.  And the sad thing we are learning is that Hollywood has not given much credence to the voices of victims, with many in the industry spending millions to keep much of it hushed for years.  It goes beyond the tales of those infamous casting couch sessions that you hear actresses and starlets divulge in interviews.  For a long time, there have been rumors of inexcusable behavior by Hollywood elite that stem all the way to the early days.  You hear about child actors being beaten on the sets of Little Rascal shorts from the 1930’s, or Judy Garland being repeatedly molested by MGM execs, to Charlie Chaplin having sexual intercourse with underage girls, and rape accusations connected to Marlon Brando, and so on.  And yet, none of these have been treated as anything more than tabloid gossip, or a smear campaign by religious organizations as a way to paint Hollywood as this morally depraved place.  But after the outpouring of victims stories that we’ve heard in recent weeks, you can’t help but think that there may truth to all these stories that we’ve heard.  I for one shudder to think that any one of my friends and associates who have tried to pursue a career in film have faced this kind of abuse in their lives or are about to face it without knowing it.  Many people have paid a heavy price for access in this industry, and that’s a practice that absolutely needs to end.  People in power, whether they are beloved or not, should be seriously questioned when they are confronted with these kinds of accusations.  The disturbing thing is, there are a lot of hurting voices out there, and it’s not just limited to those within the industry, and most likely, it’s someone we may all know in our own lives.

What angers me the most about Hollywood with regards to this is the systematic way they have tried to bury so many of these scandals over the years.  As a way of protecting their brand, the industry has set up many networks to keep bad press from leaking out into the public.  We have heard this before with regards to keeping an entertainer’s sexual orientation hidden to the public, as well as details about celebrities sometimes rocky marital problems as well.  But, now we are learning about how accusations of sexual abuse and harassment have been kept from the public as well.  And this withholding of public attention is what is angering most people outside of Hollywood right now because it’s making the industry look like it’s only in the business of protecting it’s own.  As scandals like Watergate and Penn State have proven to show, actively trying to cover up a crime is criminal within itself.  Sure, Hollywood hates being labeled a moral abyss by right wing and religious groups, but suppressing victims stories to perpetuate an image of purity only opens you up even more to such claims.  This was particularly problematic in Kevin Spacey’s case with his desperate attempt to change the narrative by proclaiming his homosexuality to the world.  For one thing, the fact that he’s gay was not the thing that the accusations against him were targeting too, and second, his pitiful excuse to use his sexuality as a shield against being labeled a child molester only gives credence to the argument that is unfairly aimed at homosexuals by right wing hate mongers.  And as a gay man myself, I found Spacey’s actions particularly despicable and it sickens me that he would think that this was his “get out of jail free” card to play to save his own skin.  I wish you nothing but the worst going forward Mr. Spacey; you’re selfishness has caused a lot of pain for those of us in your community.  But if Hollywood is so image conscious, don’t they realize that it would do them a lot better to expose the truth rather than hide it.

Most of the anger leveled at Hollywood these days is because of the fact that many people knew about this abuse and did nothing.  Sure, a lot of people didn’t know the whole truth and act without being sure, but the thing that needed to change in the industry is the realization that it’s not all just rumors.  Victims need to be taken seriously, especially when they come forward the first time.  You’ve got to remember, people in power like Weinstein and Spacey have deep pockets and can have their legal teams pick apart anyone’s stories to make it look like the victims are not being truthful and have ulterior motives.  In some cases, that may be true, but when a victim’s story is concrete enough to withstand the scrutiny, justice will be done.  For Spacey, it took only one convincing accusation to open the door for many others, and it has pieced together a history of obscene behavior that went long unaccounted for.  Hollywood must also understand that people who abuse their positions in this way shouldn’t continue to be rewarded.  If you want to show that you take this issue seriously, than you need to stop making excuses for people you know to have been doing something wrong or illegal, no matter how talented they are.  It’s true, some great art has been made by terrible people; something which I discussed in a previous article.  But appreciation of art should never turn into a defense of a person, and if someone has done something criminal, they should absolutely be shunned by the community.  I think Hollywood would be well served by not rewarding people like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, who seem to have been given a pass despite provable evidence of their awful histories.  It won’t take away from the brilliance of Chinatown (1974) or Annie Hall (1977).  Movies, as well as all art, outlast the mortal lives of their creators, and we can still appreciate them outside of the scandals.  In the end, Hollywood just needs to show some commitment to showing that they indeed are a caring community and not one that only protects those with established power.

You see scandals like these erupt every now and then and it’s clear that a failure to do anything usually comes about from an organization or community’s reluctance to expose it’s dirty laundry for the world to see.  Perhaps many in Hollywood saw these as isolated incidents that were not worth casting too much light on, in fear of characterizing their whole community as being morally depraved.  But what was not being dealt with was the larger problem of bad behavior being overlook and somehow seen as desirable within the community.  Forceful men have often been misread as productive types within the community, and oftentimes they are given advancement based on their ability to bully their way towards success.  That certainly seemed to be the case with a producer like Harvey Weinstein, who despite his skills as a producer has been revealed to be a deceitful and dangerous human being.  The one thing a person in the film industry shouldn’t have is the power to hold a less fortunate person’s career path in their hands and not face any consequences for their abuse.  The good thing about all this is that these types of alpha male bullying and obscene behavior is now being exposed for the ugliness that it really is.  People in Hollywood need to know now, silence is no longer acceptable with regards to the misdeeds within their community.  It doesn’t matter if you respect the person for their work, or admire the art they create; if there is truth to hurtful things they have done to someone else, there has to be consequences.  And exposing misdeed in the community will not shatter the image forever.  The Catholic Church had the most horrific claims of child abuse laid against them, and yet after it coming to light, the church has endured and now has a Pope that’s taken steps towards reconciliation with the victims and is considered one of the most enlightened and compassionate that we’ve ever seen.  Penn State faced the embarrassment of child molestation within it’s organization and saw several years of victories wiped out of the record books, but after the dust has settled, they regrouped and are now an elite team once again.  Hollywood will always be the dream factory that we’ve always believed it to be, and holding terrible men and woman accountable for their years of abuse and intimidation will be the best step towards keeping it that way.  Today we are finally seeing some action taken against the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, and many more will follow.  It’s an ugly reality punch for Hollywood, but one that can start us down the road towards healing.

They All Float Down Here – IT and the Return of Character in Hollywood Horror

Imagine the scenario.  James Bond, Batman, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Jon Snow, and Marty McFly all find themselves trapped in a cell with no means of escape.  Within the cell, they find a revolver with 5 bullets.  They are told that the only way out is for one person to shoot and kill the others with one bullet each, with the lone survivor set free.  Now, with those six characters, who do you think will be the last one left.  There are a variety of answers given to that scenario, but in truth there is only one real answer.  None of those characters make it out because none of them exist.  And yet, we know these characters and care about them to wonder what might happen.  This is the fundamental rule of storytelling.  For a story to work, we must know who the players are, and want to follow their progression through the narrative.  It sounds easy enough to do, but more often than not, you see a lot of stories fall apart because they forget to make their characters interesting or relatable.  A lot of times, characters are often treated as pieces on a chess board, moved along as part of a grander plan on the part of the storyteller, who merely is concerned with moving from point A to point B.  But, characters shouldn’t function as pawns, they should function as people; and people are complex beings who have their own interests and concerns that run contrary to other people’s plans.  With this in mind, a storyteller can craft a much deeper storyline.  But, as with seen in Hollywood, concerns about character and story often take a back seat to being able to finish a product quickly and on budget.  Oftentimes, in order to capitalize on trends in the market, movies rush through production without devoting enough time to giving characters the development they need.  You see this a lot in genre flicks, and most recently, it was a problem in the Horror genre.

Horror is a genre as old as cinema itself.  Dating back to when German Expressionists revolutionized the use of shadows to convey terror, all the way through Universal’s monster flicks and the 1950’s B-movie craze, it has been a genre that has matured and found all sorts of different avenues to define itself.  But, along with some of the milestones of the genre, like Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), there has been nearly ten times as many copycats who capitalize on the success with diminishing results.  There are a lot of reasons why so many horror flicks fail in the long run, but what you’ll find most of the time is that a good deal of them forget to focus on their characters, and instead let the gimmicks of their plot run wild.  Going back to my opening scenario, we see that identifying who the characters are and what they might do is what ultimately drives the tension of the scene.  But, when you have a genre that’s built more around famous scenes rather than famous characters, which the Horror genre usually is, than you see more a tendency on the part of the filmmakers to forget to give their characters any interesting qualities.  For many years, primarily in the post-Saw (2004), gore-obsessed years of the 2000’s, it became almost commonplace for there to be thinly drawn characters in each film.  But, this was largely a problem of Hollywood’s own making.  Outside of Hollywood, a new type of Horror sub-class began to emerge, one that emphasized the psychological and macabre rather than the bloodied and the mangled.  More importantly, it was horror that returned to the idea that the best way to scare audiences was to make them feel the same thing that the characters are feeling, and this meant making more identifiable and interesting characters.  Steadily, these outsiders have built a quiet bit of success that is now influencing the industry in a positive way, and this has all culminated with the record breaking success of the remake to Stephen King’s IT, currently in theaters.

People expected IT to perform well, but I don’t think people expected these kinds of numbers from the grosses.  As of this writing, IT has grossed 310 million dollars domestic, surpassing The Exorcist (1974) as the highest grossing horror film of all time.  Some will probably point to the popularity of the now 30 year old novel it’s based on as the reason for doing so well, as well as the familiarity that people have with the 1990 made-for-TV miniseries staring Tim Curry.  But, I think that IT’s success comes from it’s embracing of a trend in Horror film-making that has finally gone mainstream.  We are finally moving out of a period where terror is conveyed not through blood but through mood.  We all know the feeling of isolation and the worry that something bad is right around the corner waiting to get us, and the only way to convey that in a film is to through the emotions of the characters.  Recent films made by independent filmmakers on significantly lower budgets have managed to make that work, because the limitations of their films make it so that they can utilize emotion much better in their movies.  Hollywood has more often chosen to force scares on their audience rather than earning them, and as a result, audiences have become less scared by their movies.  Working outside of what studios think is scary is a more freeing way to build genuine new ideas about how to make something scary and that’s what we’ve seen.  By showing less to an audience, it makes the scares have that much more of an impact.  The new IT applies that approach to something with broad commercial appeal, and thus we get the phenomena that is the record breaking box office.  But,  more fundamentally, it is carrying over something into Hollywood that it desperately needs, which is characters worth getting scared for.

One of the trends that IT and it’s peers have in common is it’s fearlessness in showing vulnerable people in peril.  The main characters of IT are children, all with distinctive personalities of their own.  Stephen King’s novel is all about the loss of innocence and that is no better conveyed than through the confrontation between a group of tormented kids in a small town and a blood-thirsty monster clown named Pennywise.  In the novel, every benign symbol of childhood, from balloons to cartoons, are turned on their head and become objects of terror, meant to drive the kids insane.  Adapting that kind of stuff to the big screen can be tricky, but can be done if we believe that the children themselves are scared by it.  That’s what the new IT has done so successfully; it put special emphasis in choosing the right kinds of child actors who could pull off feeling terrified on screen, even when it came to being terrorized by balloons.  For the longest time before, when a young actor made it into a horror movie, they felt out of place, especially in the gore fest films of the 90’s and 2000’s.  One of the more annoying trope of that time was the creepy kid cliche, which rarely came across as scary the more it was used.  You would see this in a lot of forgettable horror flicks like The Unborn (2009), Orphan (2009), Mama (2013), as well as a numerous amount of knockoffs and remakes in that time.  IT breaks from that trend by making the children the victims of the terror, rather than the harbingers of it, and that calls for younger actors who are more confident with this material.  In other words, the filmmakers didn’t cast children because of how well they could be scared, but rather by how well they could feel like real people.  If they are believable as characters, and they are terrified, then we will be too.

This also reverses a trend in horror films where the movie became defined more by the monsters rather than the people.  Sure, the monsters are interesting creations, but when they are only ones that are in their selective films, than it becomes less about the terror they inspire and more about seeing what horror they can do.  That, in a sense, is what made horror films less scary over time.  You would see this play out very distinctively in the post-Scream (1996) era, when it seemed that every horror film was following the same formula of a group of teenagers all falling victim to some shadowing serial killer who picks them off one by one.  Over time, this formula was repeated so much that the killers themselves became much less interesting.  Then, post-The Ring (2001), ghosts became the go to movie monster, and that began to grow stale after a while, especially deep into the Paranormal Activity (2007) era.  In a different era, a remake of IT would have done away with the interesting character dynamics with the child characters and instead just made Pennywise the focus, showing all the creepy and disgusting ways he could terrorize and feast on his victims.  It works far better to use far less of him in the film and only showcase him for the maximum impact.  As far as cinematic movie monsters go, Pennywise is certainly one of the more mysterious, and that’s a part of his appeal as a character.  Stephen King has never been one to really explain why something is evil; he just allows his creations to be evil for the sake of the story.  The hotel is haunted for no other reason than to drive Jack Torrence insane and want to murder his family, and that’s where the horror of The Shining comes from for example.  Combining believable victims of terror with an enigmatic, impulsive force that’s out to kill them, and you’ve got the makings of effective suspense.

IT’s predecessors managed to create the formula to help reverse a lot of the Hollywood cliches that had plagued the horror genre for years.  One place outside of Hollywood where that happened was oversees in Australia, where director Jennifer Kent created a breakthrough horror film called The Babadook (2014).  The movie flipped the monster film on it’s head by making the terror in the film come not from seeing the presence of the titular spirit, but through the psychological toll that fear takes on the mother and child at the center of the story.  In this film, we see that horror can be found in a story as simple as two people alone in a house, growing increasingly desperate and paranoid and what that ultimately leads to, making it irrelevant whether or not a creature like the Babadook even exists at all.  Another groundbreaking horror film, The Witch (2015), made the daring choice of setting it’s story in 17th century colonial America, utilizing the eeriness of the isolation in that time period to develop a sense of dread in the picture.  The way it was shot, with low lighting and soft contrast also elevated the uneasy creepiness of the setting to maximize the terror in the film.  The other most interesting trend setter of this period was the indie horror flick It Follows (2014).  It Follows won widespread praise for the effective way that it built it’s terror through the psychological degradation of it’s main characters.  In the movie, a young woman is continually followed by a supernatural force that haunts her constantly, which began after a sexual encounter early in the film.  Clearly a metaphor for a lot of things (STD’s or Sexual Assault) the specter is never clearly identified, and always appears on screen as a far off human-like figure that is walking towards our main character.  It’s a great execution of having the terror play off the emotions and internal terror of the main character, which is a cue that the new IT has taken to heart.  With renewed emphasis on character dynamics, psychological torture, and an unconventional use of time and place, we see how effectively IT managed to use these independent production’s breakthroughs in a way that helped them reach the mainstream.

But, even with their help, the horror genre is movie in a bolder new direction, and it’s not just on the back of the recent IT remake.  Filmmakers like James Wan, who pioneered the gore-fest trend with his first feature Saw, have also been moving away from Hollywood cliches and have been working to make horror films far more effective at scaring audiences again.  His 2013 film The Conjuring was a critical and financial success, and it managed to work by sticking to effective non flashy scares that never overshadowed the the story that he intended to tell.  Another breakthrough figure to emerge recently in the horror genre is producer Jason Blum.  His Blum House Production company has revolutionized the business by emphasizing novel new ideas in the horror and thriller genres, but also limiting them to tight micro budgets.  This has enabled his company to not go overboard with the productions of their films, while at the same time allowing new voices and ideas to flourish; in other words, keeping all of that Hollywood nonsense out of the way.  As a result, the horror genre not only has new films that are trying to do something different, but also have something to say as well, which few industry driven movies have been able to do in the genre overall.  One Blum House production earlier this year, Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), turned some heads when it not only worked as an effective terror-filled thriller, but also had some sharp satirical statements to make about race relations in the United States, proving that horror films could be political statements too.  Blum also got M. Night Shaymalan’s career back on track with the success of Split (2017) which is an achievement in itself.  It’s by allowing this freedom within a structure that we see a new identity emerging in the horror genre from Blum House and it’s contemporaries, and one that is only going to be emboldened by IT’s massive success.

So, IT by no means got to where it’s at on it’s own, but it nevertheless marks the significant arrival of a new trend in Hollywood horror.  We are finally getting back to having the characters matter in horror movies again, after it seemed like the industry had forgotten how important it was to make them connect with the audience.  IT works as a perfect catalyst to convince the industry as a whole that yes, it does matter to have characters we care about in horror movies.  Sure, there are more holdovers from a less creative time still making it to theaters, like The Bye Bye Man, which seems like it was pitched solely on it’s marketable slogan (“Don’t think it. Don’t Say it.”) or Ouija (2014) which shows that you can’t turn a board game into a scary movie.  But, remaking IT made sense because we are now at a time when we crave horror flicks that take their character’s plight seriously.  The loss of innocence is a universal fear, and nothing scares more than a scary clown hunting young children.  The film would have probably done well on it’s own, but became massive due to the fact that it culminated a larger trend within the industry.  Amazingly, it’s a trend that didn’t come to the horror genre internally, but from the outside, with different independent filmmakers rethinking the genre rules entirely.  A horror movie, as we’ve come to learn, doesn’t need to push jump scares on you every minute, but can instead build terror slowly through mood and emotion.  It can also trust the performers more in conveying that sense of terror to the audience; even when they are children.  We find this in all the most recent horror classics, with IT becoming the first real mainstream blockbuster to emerge from this new field.  It may not be the best example of all of these new horror techniques, but it’s the one that found the best use of them for mass appeal, and for that, it has left a positive mark on the Horror genre going forward.  A strong tide rises all ships, and as Pennywise the Clown continually says, they all float down here.

Movie Palaces – A Guide to Finding the Right Theater for Your Movie Experience

For as long as we have had cinema as an art-form, we have had the experience of watching movies.  It’s very existence calls for us the audience to make ourselves comfortable and observe that art for an extended period of time, and most commonly, with other people.  Cinema is a communal experience like few others, and that experience calls for the right kind of amenities to compliment it.  While the mechanics of making movies has evolved over the years, so has the business of presenting film as well.  After production is completed, the business of presentation takes over and within it comes a whole other field of innovations and changes.  The movie theater business has a fascinating history all it’s own, and it’s one that I myself am familiar with personally.  I worked for 4 1/5 years in a movie theater while putting myself through college, and it gave me a great insight into the daily functions of how a movie theater does business.  The theater was Cinemark 17 in Springfield, Oregon and in those several years I worked there, I found myself working in every possible department, apart from management.  I worked concessions, I cleaned up each theater as an usher, sold tickets at the box office, greeted people in the lobby as I tore their tickets, and even ran the projectors in the booth upstairs.  It was a multi-faceted job that opened me up to many different skills, but what I took away most from my experience there was the insight into what made the movie-going experience special.  Our job was to ensure that the audience had the best viewing experience possible and that it would ensure their repeat business in the future; a not uncommon goal for most businesses, but with the industry of film-making and presentation, it is all about ensuring that a day at the movies is the best option available to the audience.

When you look back at the history of the movie theater business, you see an industry that is constantly in change due to the changing forces of the market.  In the early days, movie theaters were as essential to cinema as anything else.  The only way you could watch a movie in the first couple decades was by going to your town’s local movie theater and paying for a ticket.  Movies were celebrated as much as live events back in those days, and the theater business likewise treated it as such.  The first theaters created specifically for film were elaborate auditoriums that mimicked the aesthetic of the great music halls of the era.  These were meant to be monuments to the artistry of film, and that’s why they were often given the name, “movie palaces.”  Even small town theaters aped the majesty of these early theaters, and some of those are what you still find today.  Competition from television forced a change in cinema though, and thus we saw the era of gimmicks in the movie theater business.  This was the era of 3-D, Widescreen, and Smell-O-Vision, as theaters were trying anything to appeal to audiences, reminding them that there were experiences still that they would only find in a movie theater. The era of the blockbuster changed cinema once again, as it became clear that single screen “movie palaces” were not enough to contain the growing business of Hollywood.  So, the multiplex came into existence; one singular building containing multiple screens which could show several movies all at one time.  For a while, multiplexes were able to sustain audience interest in a televised world, but as technology changed, so would the theater business.  Now, in our digital internet driven world, cinema faces a new challenge; streaming services.  The rise of Netfilx, Amazon, and Hulu has changed Hollywood once again, and we find cinema in a new quandary about what they should do next.

It’s not a problem so much for Hollywood, since they have new avenues opened up to show more of their product.  But, for the theater business, it’s becoming a serious issue.  Home entertainment has become more and more sophisticated in recent years, and now poses a serious threat to the survival of the cineplex theater model in the process.  When a movie has a day one release in both theaters and on streaming services simultaneously, which do you think most people would choose?  Movie theaters charge you an arm and a leg for snacks at their concessions, while at home, you are only footsteps away from your fridge.  You can pause the film while you take a break to use the restroom and not miss anything important. High Definition projectors are also becoming more affordable for home theaters, and can give the viewer even more of the cinematic experience right from the comfort of their own living room.  Which raises the question even more now; why go out to the movies at all?  For a long time, movie theaters could deal with that question by emphasizing the grandeur of their amenities, the exclusivity of their presentations, and the value of what you were getting.  But now, the streaming market has put more of the choice into the hands of the viewer and they are backing up their appeal with exclusives of their own.  Some filmmakers are embracing streaming, because it gives them more creative freedom to create the films that they want to make, feeling less pressure to deliver a product that appeals to a broader theater going public.  Netflix and Amazon in particular are trying to outdo one another in their big name exclusives, with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and the Coen Brothers all bringing their next projects exclusively to streaming.  There are purists for the theater experience, like Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, and Quentin Tarantino, but even with their best efforts, they still aren’t able to redirect the tide.

Even still, they do make a good point.  There really is no substitute to the movie theater experience.  Home viewing has it’s benefits, and is understandably the preferred choice for some.  But, I personally feel that watching a movie in a theater with an auditorium full of other viewers is still the optimal way to watch a movie.  There is just something about the communal experience of it that makes going to the movies worth it in the end.  Maybe I’m biased because of my many years working in a movie theater, but even several years removed from that job now, I still prefer going out and watching a movie in a theater over watching it first on television.  There’s just something about experiencing the same movie with a room full of complete strangers and witnessing their own varied emotions as they react to the same thing that I’m watching with them.   In many ways, it does leave a different reaction on me as I leave after watching a movie.  Seeing a crowd laugh hysterically all at once to a hilarious bit, or jump out of their seat at a well timed jump scare has it’s own level of entertainment that can’t be underestimated.  Even overhearing an audience’s opinion of a movie, whether positive or negative, offers an extra level to the experience.  I remember staying through the credits of 2015’s awful Fantastic Four reboot and remembering 20 random people in the audience all booing the screen at once.  That’s something that you won’t get at home, unless you can make yourself yell as loud as 20 people.  For me, the audience experience is what makes going to the movie theater special, but even without an audience, the thrill of seeing a movie projected on the biggest screen possible is still an ideal as well.  But, it’s not enough for some people who just want to relax and have the comforts of home available to them, as well as the ability to have entertainment available at their own convenience.

As a person who understands a little bit about the business of showcasing film and operating a theater, I believe that it is worth sharing some pointers about how to find the theater experience that is right for you.  First, you have to take into account the options within your area.  Growing up in a small Oregon college town, I had more limited options than say a big city would.  During my childhood, there were three medium sized theaters and a classic movie palace in my hometown.  That number has decreased down to the two available today, but both modern theaters are equipped with more screens in total.  There was also a rise in art cinemas over those years, which brought the option of independent, alternative cinema to my hometown.  So with all these choices, my decisions of where to watch a movie were based on location, availability and variety.  The theater in my part of town unfortunately closed in the year 2000, as well as the last remaining movie palace, but the multiplexes made up for the loss with their updated amenities.  Over time, I valued the more advanced amenities than anything else, because I wanted the best possible presentation for my movie-going experience.  The Cinemark 17 theater had the biggest screens, stadium seating, and state-of-the-art sound and projection, making it my preferred theater, and just by chance, it would end up being my workplace as well.  Living in a bigger city, you might have multiple theaters that offer the same amenities, so at that point, your choices might be limited to how close it is to your home.  Some smaller towns might only have one single theater, which limits the choices even further, and makes streaming services a more viable option for those who want more variety.  I was fortunate to live in a place that had variety but also clear cut choices, which made it easier to find my ideal theater; but not all places are going to make that choice easy, so then you have to take other things into consideration.

One thing to look at is what your local theater provides.  For someone who wants to watch a blockbuster on the biggest screen possible, seeking out a large multiplex becomes the ideal option.  Thanks to the recent successes of The Dark Knight (2008) and Avatar (2009), gimmicks like IMAX film and 3D projection have proliferated to reach a much bigger audience in more venues across the country.  Once the market sees the value of such gimmicks as part of the experience, they are more ready to invest more fully in it, and that’s why you see IMAX and 3D in more markets today.  But even with wider availability, there are some elements of these that prove to be more exclusive than others.  While you find IMAX most everywhere nowadays, insiders will tell you that it’s not a true IMAX experience until you find the right theater.  Most multiplexes today just have retrofitted an IMAX projector and screen into their normal size theater, which kind of hampers the experience.  True IMAX is presented on 100 ft. screens in select theaters across the country, and these are the only ones that are specially equipped to run true 70 millimeter IMAX, which is the best quality picture that you’ll find for the format.  This is the film process that directors like Christopher Nolan and the like are fond of, and prefer to have their films presented in.  It does limit the availability however, making it so that some film purists will have to travel out of their area to find the right kind of presentation.  Living now in LA, I can tell you that I don’t have a problem with finding theaters with special gimmicks such as this.  In fact, Los Angeles seems to be the testing ground for all the technological advancements that theaters are trying to make work for a national audience.  Here, in addition to true IMAX, you’ve got the advances of Dolby Atmos sound in theaters, as well as 4DX presentations, where the very seats you are in move and enhance the feeling of immersion into the theater.  Not all of it will cross over, but it’s interesting to see the theater industry try to figure out ways to make the theater experience even more special.

Outside of Los Angeles, there are other innovations that are making the theater-going experience something worthwhile.  In Texas, the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain has revolutionized the concept of Dine-In theaters.  There they do away with the original concession stand element of a movie theater, and replace it with full service dining while watching your film.  The Drafthouse business plan has become a favorite with Gen X and Millennial audiences who want a more of a hip vibe to their movie-going experience, and it is beginning to catch on across the country, including here in LA.  Apart from that, you see small innovations in local art house cinemas across the country.  Art cinemas bring character to the film-going experience, not only giving you a look at first run movies, but also immersing yourself into one of a kind experiences based on where you are seeing the movie.  Sometimes you’ll be watching a movie in a theater that’s been unchanged since the dawn of cinema itself, making it feel like you’ve wandered into a time capsule.  Other theaters are built into unusual places like defunct old schools, churches, factories, or a small little office space.  Despite the peculiarity of some theaters, it nevertheless makes the theater going experience feel unique, and independent theaters often bring that feeling much closer to home.  In many ways, the relics of the past actually gives the viewer much more of a kinship to the cinematic experience because it remind them of a time when going to the movies was a special event.  And if they aren’t a holdover from the past, new age art cinemas can draw in audiences by offering the things that other theaters won’t, like unique cuisine and house brewed beverages that you can only find there in the theater.  If anything, it’s that diversion from the norm that helps to brings repeat business back to these theaters.

The only downside of trying to compete with home entertainment is the the theater industry’s belief that they have to conform to it.  On a recent trip back home to my old theater, Cinemark 17, I noticed that they went through a massive new renovation.  Each theater is now equipped with leather back recliners and has fewer seats than before to accommodate the extra leg room for each customer, with giant walls blocking view of the rows in front of view, leaving only the screen visible.  While it does make the experience more comfortable for the viewer, I was troubled by the walls that closed off each row.  To me, it robs the theater of that unique audience experience that I enjoyed.  Sure, this is more ideal for the viewer who wants more privacy and something closer to their viewing experience at home, and I understand my old theater’s desire to adapt to that audience accommodation.  But it’s not my ideal viewing experience.  This was the point that I realized that my old theater was not my ideal theater anymore.  It changed with the times and became something else.  I still will go to movies there, but it’s just not the same.  Living in Los Angeles now, I do have variety to fill that need, but if I were still living in a small town, this might be a more troubling change overall.  For me, a movie theater is more than just a place to relax while watching a movie.  It’s about sharing that experience with others.  With streaming services competing for exclusive content in the marketplace, I feel that the answer for the theater industry is to not comply and make their theaters more like a home, but more like a palace.  Essentially, I want everyone to experience a movie for the first time in the most spectacular way possible and that’s by getting off the couch and joining hundreds of other in the shared majesty that is cinema.  Bigger screens, elaborate amenities, and even a clever gimmick or special treat to enhance the flavor of the moment.  Going to the movies has always been a special thing in my life, and my hope is that all of you can find that special experience too, no matter where you are.

Recobbled – The Neverending Story of a Lost Animation Masterpiece

Animation is a remarkable, yet time consuming art-form.  When audiences see a new animated film in their local theater, I’m sure that very few of them ever think about the time and money that was poured into their completion.  With changing technologies, that extensive time frame has shortened somewhat, but even Computer animated features can still take years to be completed.  Back in the Golden Age of animation, you would sometimes be looking at 5 years or more for the production of a full length feature, from concept through production, to locking it in the can.  Towards the end of the heyday of hand drawn animation, 4 or 5 years was commonplace, though it would fluctuate between a very short (2.5 years for Beauty and the Beast) and very long (6.5 years for Sleeping Beauty).  But, what about 31 years of production?  That was the case with a little seen but highly regarded animated feature called The Thief and the Cobbler (1995).  The magnum opus and work of passion for independent Canadian animator Richard Williams, Thief not only carries the longest production span of any animated film ever; it holds the record for the longest film production, period.  And in fact, it could be argued that the movie is still not done, depending on what version of the film you are watching.  I briefly mentioned this movie in a previous article about prolonged film developments and felt that it was deserving of a analysis all it’s own.  The Thief and the Cobbler is a movie that has fascinated me recently as an animation fan, not so much for the movie itself, but for the fascinating history of it’s production.  In Thief, you see not just a fascinating work of pure artistic passion on display, but a document to the history of animation itself.

To know something about this movie, you need to know a little about the mad genius behind it.  Richard Williams is a veteran of the animation medium, and is widely considered within the industry to be one of the great masters.  Though he had for many years been courted by major animation studios like Disney and Warner Brothers to jump on board their teams, Williams has largely preferred to work independently through his small London, England based studio.  From there, he has largely made a name for himself as a highly respected commercial and title sequence producer.  His work can be seen in the opening titles of 60’s and 70’s era classics like What’s New Pussycat? (1965) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), as well as in classic British television commercials from the era.  What made his work stand out was the intricate and fluid detail that he would put into his animation; utilizing complexity that few other studios would ever attempt.  In 1971, legendary animator Chuck Jones commissioned Williams’ studio to create a short adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the result was a critically acclaimed success.  Originally intended for television, Carol was subsequently given a theatrical run, which led to Oscar win for Williams and his team.  From that, he was given an even bigger commissioned assignment to create a film centered around the Raggedy Ann & Andy dolls.  True to Williams style, Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977) is an animated film unlike any other you will ever see; with bizarre and often surreal sequences that defy explanation, and not what you would expect for a movie based of rag dolls.  But, Williams career is most defined by his life’s work, The Thief and the Cobbler, a movie that sadly became too big a dream to hold onto.

The Thief and the Cobbler began in 1964 as a collaboration with Middle Eastern author Idires Shah, who collected and translated many Arabic tales about a character called Mulla Nasrudin, or “the wise fool.”  When the partnership between Williams and Shah broke down, Williams retained the idea for the project and changed the “wise fool” into the character that would eventually be the titular Thief.  Later, Williams began another go at developing the project in earnest with a new treatment by screenwriter Howard Blake.  Blake’s treatment brought many elements that would turn up in the final film, including the titular cobbler named Tack, the evil vizier Zig Zag, the sleepy king, and the plot device of the Three Golden Balls that protect the Golden City.  Though the script helped to bring structure to the story, Williams maintained a free-flowing style to his direction.  Instead of story-boarding out his scenes, he instead opted to let scenes play out based on the imaginations of himself and his artists.  This unfortunately led to a lot of sequences that added little to no momentum to the plot, though they stood out as remarkable on their own.  Williams also insisted on animating the sequences in 24 frames per second, as opposed to the industry standard of 12 frames.  The result gives the animation a remarkably smooth flow, which becomes mesmerizing the longer the sequences run; which sometimes can be several minutes without cutting.  And that in lies why it took 20 years to only complete 20 minutes of the planed 100 minute movie.  And because of this sluggish adherence to free-flowing storytelling and complex animation that Williams was hard pressed to find funding for so long to complete his master work.

Over time, William’s studio managed to stay afloat with projects like Carol and Raggedy Ann & Andy, but Thief was always waiting in the wings for when the opportunity came.  Due to mounting economic pressure, Williams constantly had to simplify his story and cut back on his animation, but he still persisted with his bold vision.  Sometimes, he lucked out with an interested investor.  In the late 70’s, 15 years since the start of production, Williams caught the attention of Saudi prince Mohammed bin Faisal Al Saud, who commissioned an animation test to see if the remainder of the film was worthy investing in.  Williams used this influx of funds to complete what would end up being the film’s most complex scene, the destruction of the colossal War Machine from the villainous barbarian King One-Eye, a sequence that to this day is mind-boggling in it’s complexity.  Though the prince was impressed with the work that Williams had done, the cost overrun and missed deadlines prevented further investment, and Williams was forced yet again to shelve his dream project, although now with perhaps the most elaborate sequence finished.  Though unseen by the public, Willaims was still able to share what he had done to other industry professionals who had nothing but high praise for what they saw.  Eventually, Disney sought Williams assistance with one elaborate project of their own; the Robert Zemekis directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).  What Willaims revolutionized at his studio was multi-perspective animation, where character and environments would constantly change perspective as the camera placement swoops around, giving them an almost three-dimensional look.  Naturally, Disney wanted this style to help their hand-drawn animated characters like Roger and Jessica Rabbit co-exist believably in a live action film, where camera movement is ever-changing.  Williams was named Animation Director for the film, and his work again garnered him an Honorary Oscar.

With the goodwill from Roger Rabbit, Richard Williams finally had the attention of Hollywood, and plenty of interested parties lined up to give Williams the needs to finally finish Thief for good.  Disney and Steven Spielberg, the parties behind Roger Rabbit, expressed interest at first in funding the project, but later backed out.  Warner Brothers stepped in and signed Williams to a contract.  With that, he had the money and the manpower to complete his film, as well a release schedule that he had to adhere to.  He was finally able to have over an hour of completed film, but again, his adherence to perfection caused to project to go over-budget and over-schedule.  Sadly, at the same time, Disney was themselves working on their own Arabian set animated feature, Aladdin (1992), which made Warner Brothers all the more impatient and worried.  Unfortunately, Williams darker and more adult-appealing film was less marketable than Disney’s blockbuster, and Warner became certain that they had a film that was un-releasable.  So, they cut their contract with Williams and ended up selling it to a secondary animation studio run by Fred Calvert in order to complete it, without Williams involved.  Williams tried to salvage what he had with a 1992 workprint screened for studio execs, but it didn’t work.  Thirty one years since the first drawing had been completed, The Thief and the Cobbler was released to little fanfare in 1995 with nearly half of Williams original film either cut or re-animated, with a new Disney-style musical score and celebrity voices cast for his originally mute title characters (Matthew Broaderick as Tack the Cobbler and Jonathan Winters as the Thief).  Vincent Price, who recorded his voice for the villain Zig Zag over the 30 year span, was retained, but because the film released after his 1993 death, his lines ended up getting cut down rather than replaced.  Miramax oversaw the release in North America, and this compromised version has since become known as the “Miramax Cut” even though they had nothing to do with the production.

Thus, the long, troubled production of Richard Williams masterpiece came seemingly to an end, with his vision never being fully realized.  He came close, but studio interference caught up to him in the end.  Regardless, Williams is still regarded as a legend among the animation community and Thief surprisingly has something to do with that.  Because of it’s long production, Thief stands as somewhat of a documentation of the evolution of animation, bridging the Golden Era with the Renaissance of the late 80’s and the early 90’s.  Think about it, in the time it took Thief to be completed, Disney Animation had put out 15 feature films, and had seen their studio both decline and be reborn under new management.  Walt Disney was still breathing when production started on this film, just to give you an idea of how far back this project began.  Animation as a whole changed so much in that time, and you can see that reflected in the movie.  While Williams attention to detail remains fluid throughout, you can spot instances when the quality differs.  The sequences that were animated late in production have a different, more polished look than others that were made decades earlier.  The older scenes, mostly centered around the Thief, have a more classical look to them, not unlike many of the trippy, psychedelic animated films that arose in the 60’s and 70’s.  Couple the sequences where the Thief tries to steal the magical Golden Balls and the climatic War Machine sequence at the end, and it’s clear that they were made in different eras, where different tools were made available to animators.  At the same time, Williams staff of animators also shows a remarkable span of animation history.  He brought onto his team some legendary animators like former Disney animator Art Babbit (who worked on the Queen in  Snow White and Geppetto in Pinocchio) and Grim Natwick (the creator of Betty Boop) to not only contribute their own animation, but also to mentor both him and his young staff.   And among his young staff were newcomers like Andreas Deja and Eric Goldberg, who would go onto prosperous careers at Disney, including working on films like Aladdin (animating Jafar and the Genie respectively).

In addition to it’s legacy of reputation and the quality of it’s talent, The Thief and the Cobbler also is a perfect illustration of how just how difficult it is to get a movie made.  Not every studio has the financial security and resources of Disney.  And Williams never wanted that either.  He knew that he would never see his vision realized in a corporate controlled environment, so he continually sought to keep his production as independent as possible.  He stated very early on that his movie was going to be very non-Disney, both in the animation and in the story-telling.  No songs, no animal sidekicks; just pure visuals transporting the viewer to a world never seen on screen before.  Sadly, when corporate interests did intervene, it turned the movie into exactly what Williams was trying to avoid.  In that regard, the “Miramax” cut stands as a cautionary tale of when studio interference spoils the finished product.  Williams’ workprint has resurfaced over time and has been circulated online in various forms.  Williams himself has managed to put the disappointment behind him and moved onto other projects, though the movie is still a sore point to this day.  Dedicated fans however have done extensive work to try to reconstruct William’s original version.  Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew, even tried to get a restoration off the ground before his untimely death in 2009.  Other fans have shared their own work online in what is now known as the “Recobbled Cut.”  This version shows William’s original intent with unfinished, work-in-progress scenes inter-cut with finished ones from the Workprint.  Though in rough form, it nevertheless shows us what might’ve been.  What’s fascinating is that it shows that animated films are ever completed in sequence, but are often done out of order, with the more complex scenes done first.  In the recobbled cut, we see that many of the unfinished parts are the filler moments in between the more epic scenes.  Thankfully, Williams brilliance shows in the film’s spectacular finished moments, like the War Machine, the chase through the palace, the villain Zig Zag’s grand entrance, and the polo game with the Thief caught in the middle.  We may not have a finished film, but these big moments allows our imagination to fill in the rest.

Richard Williams, now 84 years old as of this writing, is still working on new projects today.  He most recently completed an entirely hand-drawn short called Prologue (2015) which takes many of the techniques he pioneered with Thief like hyper-detailed character animation and three-dimensional perspective changes, and presents them in a stripped back, pencil sketch presentation.  Again, this was another labor of love that he worked on for years, even while he was still making Thief, and his efforts were rewarded with yet another Oscar nomination.  Though, he’s moved on from Thief, he still hopes that someday it will see a new life, and maybe even completed based on his original vision.  A screening of Thief in 2013, based off the Workprint with a new high-def restoration, won wide praise from the animation community, and Williams is once again embracing the film, incomplete as it is, as his most cherished work.  For those of you interested in seeing the movie, avoid the compromised “Miramax Cut” and find one that is closer to Williams vision.  Sadly, the Miramax version is the only one available on home video, but, the makers of the Recobbled version have graciously made it available to view online for free.  In fact, I’m linking it for you all to enjoy below this article, because I want as many people as possible to experience it.  It’s not perfect, nor is it among my favorite animated films, but as a fan of animation, I admire it as a work of un-compromised artistry.  It’s also a fascinating look into the creation of an animated film, with so many sequences in various stages of completion.  Whether or not we see a finished version of this one day is unclear, and it’s highly likely that it may never be complete, but for now, we can appreciate what 30 years of a persistent artistic vision can accomplish.  In this movie, you see the story of the animated medium played out in one place, with artistic styles of several eras all coming together at once and creating something special.  And whether people know it or not, it has influenced a whole generation of artists in the years since.  In the end, it’s the animated equivalent of a Venus de Milo; more powerful broken apart than it would’ve ended up being as a whole.









Development Hell – When Does a Movie Take Too Long to Make?

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.  These are the opening words of Stephen King’s epic 8 volume tome, The Dark Tower, considered to be the esteemed author’s crowning achievement in the literary world.  The sentence, taken into the context of the entire series could be read in face value as a statement of plot, or carry a deeper meaning to the themes of the story.  But, more than anything, it establishes for the reader the sense of a journey taking place before our eyes.  Now, who would have thought that the hardest journey that would befall this story would come about in it’s trek through a treacherous land known as Hollywood?  After many years of talk and numerous attempts at production, The Dark Tower finally made it’s way to the big screen just last week, fulfilling a desire that many fans of Stephen King and of the books had longed hoped for.  And the end result of all that waiting was an overwhelming and almost universal feeling of disappointment.  Why did a movie with almost two decades of development result in such a lackluster showing?  A variety of factors certainly contributed; primary among them being the fact that the movie wasn’t very good.  Fans of the books in particular were really sore about the way that the vast, epic story got truncated into a singular 90 minute film.  Other casual fans were left confused because the movie failed to properly establish it’s world and lore, making them wonder why it even was worth getting excited about.  But, what I see with The Dark Tower is a prime example of a project that unfortunately get mismanaged due to the unforgiving forces of time in the Hollywood machine.  This process is also so common in the industry that it’s been given it’s own ominous name; Development Hell.

When The Dark Tower began in the 1980’s, with the publication of the first volume titled The Gunslinger, Stephen King was already a household name and already in good standing within Hollywood.  Two of his books had already become box office hits (1976’s Carrie and 1980’s The Shining), and many more were already in development.  King was also beginning to use his fame to carry a lot more clout within the industry, stressing his displeasure with how some of his stories had been changed for the big screen.  As The Dark Tower continued to be written with each subsequent volume, King remained very protective of his work.  Hollywood remained more interested in King’s more grounded thrillers for the most part, considering that they were cheaper to make than adapting a multi-part fantasy saga.  But, that changed when the success of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter brought fantasy back into the spotlight in a big way.  Suddenly The Dark Tower was in demand and given the opportunity to be brought together as a whole.  However, this was easier said than done.  Initially, it was revealed that director J.J. Abrams was going to be involved, but he quickly dropped out after landing the Star Trek gig.  Then Universal, the rights holders, announced that they were bringing the entire series together through a joint theatrical and television presentation under the supervision of Ron Howard; with a trilogy of films and two seasons of a series giving enough time due to the epic tale.  Howard even got as far as casting before Universal got cold feet.  The project was given over to Warner Bothers, who soon balked at the soaring budget, and they passed, also leading to Ron Howard’s departure.  Sony picked up what was left, managed to cast Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey in the leads to fans approval, and got the film finally completed after many years.  Sadly, all that work and determination doesn’t always translate into a good movie.

So, are the studios to blame for The Dark Tower’s failure.  Are Stephen King’s books just too un-filmmable?  Are audiences just not interested in the story anymore?  There is no simple answer to what happened to The Dark Tower and where things went all wrong.  The simple thing is that time took it’s toll on the project, with more and more complications adding to inevitable disaster.  Being passed around didn’t help the project at all, and it probably would have served the movie better to have been scrapped and restarted somewhere else, where better opportunities could have benefited it.  Unfortunately Hollywood is not a place that likes to admit failure.  A lot of projects that enter “development hell” never get out, because doing so means that money spent just ended up going to waste.  A lot of companies purely use unfinished projects as fodder for trade, protecting the value of the rights for that project while at the same time never doing anything with them.  Eventually a studio gives up their claim when more interested parties come along, and they can make a sale or trade that passes along the cost of the project to another, allowing them to recoup.  And in all this time, no movement on the project ever gains speed.  That’s why it’s called “development hell,” because it’s where projects disappear and live out a tortuous existence out of their control.  And if a project does make it out, it doesn’t turn out for the better, like with The Dark Tower.  With promising ideas behind it’s back, like the TV and Film crossover, The Dark Tower could have been really something, but instead we are left with a lackluster single outing that feels like the bare minimum of what could have been.  It’s a sad result, but The Dark Tower is not alone.

Honestly, the fact that The Dark Tower exists at all is something of miracle, considering how unforgiving the industry can be.  Development Hell not only affects big projects like Tower, but a whole variety of other projects as well, ranging from those still in script phase all the way to films in physical production.  For every movie that makes it to completion, there are maybe twenty more that don’t.  More than anything, it’s an issue affected by dollars and cents.  Some movies gain traction, only to face a brick wall once the industry’s budget crunching sees the red flags appearing on the horizon.  It becomes less of a problem when the film is still in it’s scripting phase, because then all the company needs to do is cut the writer a check, and then just shelve the script, because it cost them nothing to just sit on it indefinitely, unless there is a licensing issue.  Unfortunately, other projects make it past the scripting stage and into physical production, which then contributes to a lot of budget overruns the longer a production is put on hold.  Once a project stops production, it becomes a lot more expensive to either keep it in suspension or to start it up again, which is why so many companies stop production early when things aren’t going well, and if it’s too late, they try their best to pass the cost over to someone else.  Money problems are not a new thing in Hollywood, as a lot of the industry is built upon the foundation of many failed enterprises.  But, some productions go even too far, and take on a life of their own as stories about what could have been.  Tim Burton’s failed attempt at a Superman film resulted in a now legendary aborted production, and Terry Gilliam’s many attempts at adapting Don Quixote  to the big screen ironically echoes the futile journey of it’s literary subject.  Both productions have been spotlighted in documentaries, The Death of Superman Lives (2015) and Lost in La Mancha (2002), which do an exceptional job at showing just how maddening it can be to see a movie start production, only to fall apart and never see the light of day.

Sadly what contributes to the state of these failed productions is something that I already spotlighted in a previous article, and that’s the unfortunate agitator known as hype.  Hype can be a movie’s best friend, but it can also unsteady a delicate situation and make the inevitable fall all that much harder.  One thing that Hollywood seems to love doing often is generate early hype for a production.  It can either appear as an Easter egg in some franchise film, or produced through a word of mouth whisper campaign through press circles, or even made through a very pointed tease.  Regardless, Hollywood runs the risk for making announcements so early in production.  It’s even more risky when the tease is all they have.  Now, they have to live up to the audience expectations that created, and the longer that the film remains in production, the more they leave themselves open to disappointment.  Audience attention spans are far more fleeting these days, with tastes changing on a dime without any warning.  By the time a long awaited movie does finally come out, it’s window may have already passed, and the early hype would prove to be worthless in the end.  Sometimes, if well managed, studios can use early hype as a way of gauging audience interest, and if they see little excitement, then they can quietly let the project die in development.  Unfortunately, some hype campaigns are not well managed, especially when you run into the factor that some involved parties are more excited than others.  Directors and actors in particular love to tout their passion projects, and hype them up even when there is no chance for them to be made.  I remember when Guillermo Del Toro teased his involvement in a new Haunted Mansion movie with the Disney company with an announcement at Comic Con, complete with a teaser poster to go with it.  Sadly, many years later, this is all we’ve gotten related to the project, and in all likelihood, that’s all that will every be.  Early hype is good only if the possibility is there for it to become a reality, and if you are out there only promising dream projects that’ll never happen, sooner or later, audiences will stop believing in what you say.

Development hell is also factored by the moving target that is audience interest.  For a lot of movies, timing is everything.  A film can be well made and have a lot of promise, but if it is not in-sync with the times it ends up being released in, then it loses all of it’s appeal.  A lot of movies that make it past the script phase end up falling into this hole because of that reason.  There is a thing in the film industry known as the “Black List” which is an annual survey of what is regarded as the best un-produced screenplays.  These are the aforementioned scripts that the studios sit on, only they garner heat enough to still grab public attention, thus staying afloat in Development Hell.  For a lot of these, it’s all a matter of timing, which sadly may never come about.  I remember hearing about one script that made it out of the list for a period of time called College Republicans, from screenwriter Wes Jones.  It was a true life inspired story about the early days of future Republican Party strategists Karl Rove and Lee Atwater when they were in college.  The development of the film gained steam in the wake of Rove’s controversial time in the White House as Chief of Staff, and it looked as if we were about to get a fascinating character study about this contemporary figure.  It even got as far as having Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe cast as Atwater, but for some reason this project suddenly went quiet.  My belief is that it’s short window closed up quickly, and whoever was involved lost interest.  I think the changing political climate factored in, as the Republican Party itself has changed, making Rove and Atwater far less fascinating figures.  The script may someday live again, but in a political landscape dominated by Trump, it’s hard to say if this political study may ever find it’s time ever again, because both politics and the Republican Party will be unrecognizable after this.

Getting off politics now, I just find it fascinating how time affects the development of movies in general.  Some films rush through production without any hangups, while others languish for what seems like an eternity.  But, why does it affect some movies more than others.  Sometimes it’s not just worries about the budget that puts movies on hold, but a lot of internal politicking that gets in the way.  Sometimes the studios put the brakes on a film because there is a dispute between the people making it and the people financing it.  Sometimes a studio sees a change in management and that leaves the already in development projects in a sort of limbo, as they are remnants of the old guard’s way of doing things.  This particular factor is what leads to some being released long after they were completed, to little or no fanfare.  A lot of companies, for whatever reason, go under and leave a lot of projects hanging.  Some of these even remain fascinating relics as half complete films that had the potential to become masterpieces.  One interesting example is an animated film called The Thief and the Cobbler (1993).  Worked on by legendary independent animator Richard Williams for over 20 years, his financial support ran out and he was forced to sell his uncompleted work to a major studio, who completed it with inferior animation at another company, completely ruining the director’s original vision.  Like The Dark Tower, too much time and outside interference spoiled what should’ve been a home-run with Cobbler.  Some devoted animation fans have since made an effort to reassemble the original Richard Williams version, which is in various states of completion, in what is called the “Recobbled Cut,” and it’s a fascinating look at what could have been.  For Williams, 20 years of work created something beautiful, but ultimately incomplete because of how complex it became.  Eventually, the desires of the artist and those paying for the art become a sticking point, and the art became compromised and cheapened in the end as a result.  It’s the sad reality of the industry that movies rarely have a pleasant development towards completion, usually ending up a mangled mess by the end.

So, while the end result for The Dark Tower is an unfortunate one, it is not at all surprising.  It was too long of a wait for the film, and too much interference slowed the production down.  As a result, you can see that lesser effort was put into the final product, and more problematic than that, too much was left out because the budget wouldn’t allow for it.  What should have been a Tolkein-esque epic saga that could have stood side by side with the acclaimed films set in Middle Earth is instead an indistinguishable action thriller; no more special than anything else out there.  King’s novels were a game-changer; the movie is sadly not.  And what upsets me more is that this one actually had some ingredients that could have made it amazing.  They certainly made good casting choices with Elba and McConaughey as the Gunslinger and Man in Black respectively.  But, The Dark Tower becomes yet another “what could have been” tale in the history of Hollywood.  I wish that this had become a reality back when they were planning a television and film adaptation.  In fact, if the success of Game of Thrones has proven anything, it’s that The Dark Tower would have been better served being adapted into a series rather than a film.  That way, you can devote enough time to capturing King’s full vision.  It’s not like that hasn’t worked well before; case in point, the made-for-TV adaptation of It (1990).  But, for now, The Dark Tower is another victim of that sadly all too common cinematic wrecking ball known as “development hell.”  It’s unfortunate that money, egos, and changing attitudes end up spoiling the completion of very promising film productions, but considering that this is such a high stakes game, it is also very predictable as well.  It makes you appreciate when a movie does live up to it’s potential even more, considering how miraculous a thing it is to get a movie out of development in the first place.  You always hope that every good story makes it out of hell and into paradise, but in Hollywood, that’s a story that sadly rarely happens.