Top Ten Moments From the Marvel Cinematic Universe…So Far

A lot of people are passing their time during this pandemic by catching up on a lot of media that they’ve missed over the years, just because they didn’t have the time.  I too have spent a lot of my extra free time during this pandemic to watching movies and television, but instead of catching up, I have mostly been revisiting.  This whole month of May I went back and marathoned the entire 23 film run of the Marvel Cinematic Universe; starting with Iron Man from 2008 and ending with last year’s Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019).  That’s the first three phases of MCU, with Avengers: Endgame (2019) marked as a finale to some of the most important plot threads that have been building over the last decade.  I figured it was a good time to revisit all these movies, some of which I haven’t seen since they first premiered, since this month would have been the launch of Phase Four for Marvel with the new Black Widow film; until all those plans changed with the shutdown.  With the fate of the movie going experience in flux, Marvel had no choice but to postpone the launch of Black Widow to November, hoping that by then the pandemic will have subsided and theaters will be allowed to operate again.  So, this has led to a Summer without a Marvel movie to launch it into high gear.  The first week of May has for the last decade been the domain of Marvel, as it’s the first official week of the Summer movie season, and it’s allowed them to be the trend setters for all the other movies to live up to for the rest year; which is quite an enviable position to be in.  Given that vacancy for this year, I felt it was right to look back at what Marvel has given us so far, and in particular, I wanted to spotlight all the best moments that have come from the many different but still linked together movies.  These are all my personal choices, and there were some hard ones to leave out, but after going through all the Marvel movies over the last month, I feel like all these scenes I’m about to list are absolutely the best ones that have made Marvel the powerhouse that they are today.

10.

“DORMAMUU, I’VE COME TO BARGAIN.”

DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)

One pattern that I noticed while watching all the Marvel movies is the journey that each character takes in their own self discovery.  In particular, the movies become less about how each super hero gains their powers than about why each of them is worthy of having those powers in the first place.  That’s what Marvel seems to be the best at when telling their stories; finding the humanity in their heroes.  We see it in moments like skinny, frail Steve Rogers throwing himself on a dummy grenade when all his fellow soldiers ran for cover in the movie Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).  But sometimes those moments of character can be used to punctuate the fulfillment of an arc that has completely transformed a hero over the course of the movie.  Such an arc is found in Doctor Strange, where we see Dr. Steven Strange begin the movie as an arrogant master surgeon who takes delight in humiliating the lesser intelligence of his colleagues.  But over the course of the movie, he loses everything and then has his mind open to the possibility of a world where magic is real.  But it’s not until the end, after Strange has mastered many spells, that we see the point when he becomes a true hero.  To stop the coming of the Dark Dimension and it’s master, the all-powerful Dormamuu, to our own dimension, he throws himself at the mercy of the dark lord.  However, before doing so, he uses a spell to trap both him and Dormamuu in a never-ending time loop, in which Strange is endlessly killed and reborn to suffer the same fate again.  To break the spell, Dormamuu must agree to Strange’s bargain.  It’s in that self-sacrifice that we see Doctor Strange finally rise to the level of hero; going from someone acting in his self-interest to someone willing to be trapped in a spell of his own making for eternity so that everyone else can be safe.  There are many moments like this from Marvel, but none stand out as so clever, and distinctively “Strange” as this does.

9.

BATTLE OF THE STRONGEST AVENGERS

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

It is amazing just how different in tone the third film in the Thor franchise is from it’s predecessors.  Kenneth Branagh brought a operatic sense of grandeur to the first film, but Thor: The Dark World (2013) didn’t add much else afterwards; though I still think it’s a bit underrated.  Thor: Ragnarok is another animal altogether; silly, weird, and unapologetic about it.  Certainly giving the property over to comic filmmaker Taika Waititi helped to reinvent not just the world of Thor, but also the characters as well.  I think Marvel learned through the course of making their movies that Chris Hemsworth had a knack for comedy, and that it was better for the direction of the character to kinda lean into that a bit more in future.  That’s exactly what Thor: Ragnarok does, and surprisingly it becomes something you wouldn’t have expected a Thor movie to be; a buddy comedy.  That buddy, of course, being the Incredible Hulk.  The movie hits it’s zenith with the reunion of these two Avengers, when they are pitted together in a gladiatorial arena.  The sheer delight on Thor’s face when he sees his “friend from work” is still one of the best character moments in any Marvel movie, and a great indicator of the different tone that Marvel was setting out for with this franchise.  The ensuing battle is everything from thrilling, brutal, to laugh-out-loud funny.  It also features a hilarious moment when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) reacts to seeing his brother get Hulk Smashed in a hilarious call back to his own smashing from the finale of The Avengers (2012).  Add to this some wonderfully eccentric color commentary from Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, and you get one of the most memorable, and comedic, confrontations in any Marvel Movie.

8.

CAPTAIN AMERICA IS WORTHY

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

One of the best things that Marvel has done over the course of their movies is build up little story threads that pay off in spectacular ways.  Some of these little nuggets of fan service even go on for many years and through several films, before they even get their final punchline.  One of the best journeys toward a payoff in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe has to be the one involving Thor’s Hammer, Mjolnir.  From the moment Odin (Anthony Hopkins) placed his spell on the hammer in the first Thor, making it so that only those with the purest of hearts are worthy to wield it, the rules had been made crystal clear to the audience.  It lead to a Sword in the Stone like arc to Thor’s story, where he had to prove his worthiness once again in order to resume his place as the God of Thunder.  The mystique of Mjolnir’s power would once again come up in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), playfully at first when Thor let’s all his Avenger friends take a crack at lifting the hammer at a party, and then more profoundly when the newly created Vision (Paul Bettany) manages to hand the hammer back to Thor without any struggle.  We even witness a death and rebirth of the hammer, first destroyed by Thor’s sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) in Ragnarok, and then recaptured in the past during the time heist in Endgame, showing that Thor was still worthy.  But, the truth apex of Mjolnir’s journey through all the films came when Captain America (Chris Evans) lifted the hammer himself in battle against Thanos (Josh Brolin).  All that journey through all those films, just to get to that glorious heroic moment.  When I saw this in the theater, the audience went nuts, and that’s because it was a reward to all of us who have followed along on that hammer’s arc through all the movies.  It’s one of the greatest payoffs in cinematic history, and a true testament to just how in command Marvel is at playing the long game with their movies.

7.

KING T’CHALLA VS. ERIK KILLMONGER

BLACK PANTHER (2018)

There are so many heavy themes throughout the only Marvel movie to date to ever receive a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  One of those themes that defines the whole movie is the response that an oppressed people must take when they have the means of making a difference.  In this case, the African nation of Wakanda has prospered with their advance technological skills, but have hidden it away from the world for fear of how it may be misused, or be exploited by outsiders.  All the while, the African continent was plagued by war, unrest and the horrors of the slave trade.  The movie’s antagonist, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), confronts the Wakandans with this reality, and challenges the Black Panther himself, King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), for the throne of the kingdom.  Tackling issues you don’t normally see addressed in the super hero genre was definitely something that elevated Black Panther above most other films in the MCU, and the movie most vividly gets it’s point across through the conflict between the opposing world views of it’s hero and it’s villain.  T’Challa wants to open his country to the world through peace and ingenuity, but Killmonger seeks to use the advanced weaponry of Wakanda for bloody revolution.  There are two key fights between these characters in the movie, but the first one carries more of an impact, because it shows us just how brutal Killmonger is as both a fighter and as a visionary.  Killmonger is often cited as Marvel’s most compelling villain to date because of the hardship and conviction that lines his character, and his duel with the heroic but still learning T’Challa drives the emotional impact of the movie even further, and leads to one of the most morally divided questions found in all of the MCU; what kinds of ideas of justice define us as either good or bad in this world?

6.

AVENGERS FIRST ASSEMBLED

MARVEL’S THE AVENGERS (2012)

This was the kind of movie that we had all wanted over the years, but were only now seeing finally realized.  A team up of the greatest super heroes, becoming a Super Team.  The Avengers, like their DC counterpart the Justice League, is made up of the elite group of super heroes with the own franchises and on-going stories brought together to face a threat that’s bigger than themselves individually.  What is amazing is the fact that at the time, Marvel was aiming to build their Avenger team without their A-list characters.  Spider-Man would have to wait until a Phase Three revival to make his MCU debut, and the X-Men are still waiting for their turn to join the story.  If you were to say 15 years ago that Marvel was going to build this epic Super Hero team up on the backs of characters who at that point hadn’t made their big screen debuts, you would have been seen as crazy.  Not only that, but the team was even going to include two barely known comic book characters like Black Widow and Hawkeye.  And yet, Marvel not only succeeded in making us care about this team, but did so with record-breaking success.  It all comes down to the philosophy that producer Kevin Feige and his team of filmmakers bring to each film; if you tell good stories, you’ll make people love the characters, no matter who they are.  And that’s what they did through the first five films in the MCU, all leading up to that first team up in The Avengers.  By that time, we had fallen in love with Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye, and were willing to see them save the world together.  The movie definitely hits it’s high point during the climatic Battle of New York, where we get the first of many hero poses of all the characters together.  When the Alan Silvestri theme crescendos and the camera spins a circle around the full team together, Marvel firmly cemented it’s place in cinematic history.

5.

THE AIRPORT BATTLE

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016)

Going from an iconic moment where the Avengers first came together, we now look at the moment that drove them apart.  Civil War is a very crucial benchmark in the timeline of the MCU, because it took this amazing cohesive team and broke it apart, and in a way that almost seemed like it was avoidable.  Despite the many times the Avengers were able to save the world, they also had to deal with the fact that their actions led to significant collateral damage, and the need to deal with that reality leads to fractures within the team.  The great thing about the movie is that it doesn’t treat the different factions, with Captain America on one side and Iron Man on the other, as either 100% right or 100% wrong.  We the audience are supposed to understand both sides of the argument, and it makes the debate a whole lot more complex as a result.  Of course, it does lead to an epic sized confrontation, where both sides are brought to blows, and it is a spectacular one at that.  Not only does the movie do a good job of setting up the stakes between the differences of the already established characters, but it also manages to find time to introduce both Black Panther and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to the MCU.  All the little character moments that ensue are delightfully interspersed fan service, like Hawkeye (Jeremy Rennar) and Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) friendly banter between blows, or Captain America and Spider-Man bragging about their New York roots.  The movie also isn’t afraid to bring the fight to a semi-tragic end when War Machine (Don Cheadle) falls from the sky and becomes paralyzed as a result.  This was a pivotal moment for the MCU as a whole, because it was showing us the consequences of the changing dynamics that these characters were facing in this new world that they were helping to shape.  In addition, it’s one helluva fight scene that’ll put any audience on the edge of their seat.

4.

PORTALS

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

This is where Marvel truly let it’s epic wings fly.  In a franchise known for pushing the stakes higher with every new film,  Marvel certainly knew that they needed to go big in this closing chapter to the on-going Infinity Saga that has defined the first three phases of the MCU.  And that they did.  The way this scene plays out is noting short of epic, in every sense of the word.  Captain America, bloody and beaten down, faces down Thanos’ massive army all by himself.  That is until he hears Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) in his earpiece, repeating the first words they ever exchanged in their long friendship; “On your left.”  And with that begins a truly uplifting couple of minutes play out where all of the Avengers come together, along with plenty of back-up, through portal rings created by Doctor Strange and his fellow sorcerers.  This is especially poignant as many of the characters that arrive were last seen turning to dust by Thanos in Infinity War  (more on that later).  What’s even more incredible is that before this moment, we already knew that all the characters had come back, but with Thanos’ arrival, the movie actually makes us forget about it for 10 minutes, just to make that reveal all the more surprising when it happens.  Alan Silvestri’s score is especially what makes this scene so memorable, and it’s probably one of the best pieces of music he’s ever written, which is saying a lot for the veteran composer.  For an Avengers movie that crosses the 3 hour mark, you need a climax that justifies that epic length, and Marvel went full Lord of the Rings here.  Buttoned perfectly with Captain America finally saying the words “Avengers Assemble” and you’ve got what might be the single most satisfying moment in the entire MCU.  And that’s even before the fighting starts.  With this scene, you really see where all of Marvel’s hard work at world-building and character development led to, and it feels 100% earned.

3.

THE DANCE OFF 

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

If there was ever a movie in the MCU that hit a home run right off the bat, it would be Guardians of the Galaxy.  The James Gunn directed feature was definitely a different animal to what we had seen from Marvel up to that point.  More akin to a Sci-Fi adventure in the vein of Star Wars than a super hero movie, Guardians became an instant hit with fans from all across the spectrum; causal and die-hard comic book alike.  A large part of that has to be because of the cast of characters, who were not the typical types of heroes we were familiar with from comic book movies.  There’s Star Lord (Chris Pratt) , a pop culture driven space pirate always on the lookout to steal something valuable; Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the rogue daughter of Thanos; Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), an easily agitated rodent turned bounty hunter; Groot (Vin DIesel) his plant based best friend; and Drax (Dave Bautista) a ferocious killer who doesn’t understand metaphors.  These aren’t the kinds of people that you’d expect to be the saviors of a galaxy, and yet they rise to the occasion, and in the only way they possibly can; with Star Lord challenging the fearsome Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) to a Dance Off.  Of course, the ulterior motive is to distract Ronan, which does work, and it’s something that only the goofy Star Lord could’ve come up with in the moment.  But what follows is a harrowing moment when Star Lord takes hold of the Infinity Stone of Power, which nearly destroys him.  Only by combining strength with the friends that he’s made along the way is he able to contain the stone’s power and defeat Ronan.  It’s a powerful moment that really cements the bond of this team and makes their story legendary.  Never thought a Dance Off could save a galaxy, but for a Marvel movie, which prides itself on embracing it’s goofy side, it just makes perfect sense.

2.

I AM IRON MAN 

IRON MAN (2008)

To understand what set Marvel on it’s epic run of success over the last decade, you needn’t look further than the movie that started it all, Iron Man.  From the beginning, producer Kevin Feige knew there was a plan to expand the universe past just a singular character, only he didn’t quite know what would happen along the way.  For Marvel to have become a success right off the bat, they needed to make a statement right from the beginning.  And that moment comes from a very unlikely place.  What really has defined Marvel over the years is their incredibly apt ability to find the right actors for each role.  Every actor has been perfectly cast in the MCU, but for some of them, it took a bit of convincing to make it all happen.  No one faced an uphill set of expectations than Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr.  Downey’s career was all but washed up before Iron Man, having fallen from grace due to his drug habits and his time in prison.  But, director Jon Favreau tapped him to be his Tony Stark, because he knew that nobody else could have brought the character to life better than him.  And in doing so, both Downey and Favreau set the bar for what to expect from the rest of the MCU.  The actors playing the roles were not necessarily going to be the biggest names, but instead would be the best fit for who they were playing.  The original Iron Man also sets the tone perfectly with it’s final statement; with Tony Stark declaring to the world “I am Iron Man.”  With that, the MCU would rewrite the rules of the genre;  no more secret identities, no more aliases.  It’s not just a day job for these heroes; it’s who they are and they wear their heroism everyday proudly.  It’s easy to see that Tony’s final words before he defeats Thanos in Endgame are the same that he delivered in his famous coming out speech.  He is Iron Man and that’s what being a hero means.  For a Cinematic Universe that wanted to live up to it’s mythic status on the page, you couldn’t have asked for a better opening statement than the one found in it’s first film.

1.

THE SNAP

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)

It’s strange to think that the most memorable moment from all the movies in the MCU just also happens to be it’s darkest.  Marvel’s movies for the most part have tended to have a lighter tone compared to most other films in it’s genre.  Infinity War is also a movie that contains plenty of moments of levity and uplifting heroism.  But in it’s closing minutes, all that goes away and it turns into an all out tragedy.  The mad titan Thanos has spent the whole movie finding the 6 Infinity Stones that he’s been searching for throughout all the previous MCU films.  Despite a last ditch effort by the Avengers to stop him, Thanos succeeds in his goal, collecting the last stone by removing it forcefully from Vision’s forehead.  Thor does make one heroic last move that buries his axe Stormbreaker into Thanos’ chest, mortally wounding him.  But, Thanos knows that Thor’s mercy was his biggest mistake, telling him “you should’ve gone for the head.”  And with that, Thanos uses the power of all 6 stones with the snap of his fingers.  The result ends up being one of the most shocking things ever put on film.  Suddenly, half of all life in the universe is wiped out, turning to ash before our eyes.  This includes many of our favorite heroes, like Black Panther and Spider-Man.  The cruel part about it is that the remaining heroes have to watch their friends and loved ones disappear before their eyes, with no way to help them.  Of course, it all would be reversed in Endgame, but this shocking note is what we had to live with for a year in between movies.  Not since The Empire Strikes Back (1980) has a major studio franchise left it’s audience with such a shocking cliffhanger.  It is quite simply the boldest cinematic choice made in the entire MCU.  Endgame’s triumphant finale wouldn’t have felt nearly as poignant had Infinity War not brought our heroes to their lowest point.  Watching this scene play out in the theater for the first time, I could hear genuine tears from the audience during this whole scene, and it was something I’ll never forget.  The reaction this movie got is a clear indication that Marvel did their job to perfection, because all of us cared so deeply about these characters, and watching them be taken away really hurt.  That is a sign of exceptional storytelling and what makes Marvel the best at what they do.

So, there you have my choices for the best moment from the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far.  It was fun re-watching all the movies again.  Most of my opinions on the movies haven’t really changed; I still don’t like Iron Man 3 (2013) by the way.  It’s also neat to see how everything culminated over the years.  Avengers: Endgame really is a perfect finale, because it does bring everything that had come before into context, including the much maligned Thor: The Dark World.  There are also many other little moments that stick out that really define the tone of the cinematic universe, like Thor hanging Mjolnir on a coat rack or, Doctor Strange’s assistant Wong listening to Beyonce on an Ipod, or Captain America keeping a checklist of things he needs to catch up on.  In the MCU, these heroes are characters first and icons second.  Marvel Studios set out to make us like these characters first before building these franchises around them and that has been the key to their success.  Also key has been the absolutely spot on casting choices.  Some people have had their careers made by becoming a part of the MCU, while others have had their careers redefined.  Even characters that are brought to life through visual effects like Groot, Rocket, Hulk and Thanos feel perfectly integrated into the world.  It’s going to be interesting to see where Marvel goes from here.  Are they going to be able to live up to the high bar set by the Infinity Saga, or could they even surpass it?  Unfortunately, we’re going to have to wait a bit longer to find out.  For now, it was a nice stroll down memory lane, and putting together this list really spotlighted all the things that I admire so much about Marvel.  So, hopefully we can make it through this pandemic together and stronger than before, and just remember; WE ARE GROOT.

The Director’s Chair – Christopher Nolan

There are many film directors out there that have, in one form of another, a following.  Whether it’s a full on fandom or just a casual ongoing interest, many film directors benefit from these followings as a way of generating interest for whatever project they have coming up in the pipeline.  Sometimes a filmmaker struggles to live up to those expectations, while others are able to build upon every success, eventually leading to a filmography that not only stands well alone in it’s parts, but also begins to be appreciated and studied as a complete body of work.  Often times, the most unique directorial careers exist outside the Hollywood system, working within more modest budgetary constraints which may limit their ambitions but will in turn retain their artistic integrity.  These usually are your auteurs like Terrence Malick or David Lynch, whose artistic expression is very much outside of the mainstream.  Though their movies have ambition and are true to their artistic senses, you can also see in many of their movies a very outsider imprint that’s telling of their limited budgets.  But, on the rare occasion, you’ll see a filmmaker with ambition and artistic integrity not only hit the mainstream, but somehow thrive within delivering movies that both succeed financially and are able to challenge their audiences.  It’s in that rarefied air that you find directors who not only have a following, but whose every new project carries an air of importance that instantly makes them an event in the eyes of audiences.  And one of those who has managed to get to that place recently is a director whose goal is to constantly push the limits of film-making with every new movie he undertakes.

British-American director Christopher Nolan has built up a reputation in Hollywood for making colossal, mind-bending epics.  His rise within the industry is nothing out of the ordinary.   Raised in the shadow of Hollywood while his father was a professor at UCLA, Nolan was well positioned to learn the tricks of the trade from an early age.  After attending film school back in his native London, he immediately went to work on his first feature, Following, a micro-budget thriller that would reveal much of the style and themes that he would further explore in future films; mainly those of obsession and overcoming demons, both internal and external.  Collaborating with his younger brother Jonathan, himself a burgeoning writer and filmmaker, his follow-up film, Memento (2000) would immediately gain him notoriety from the film industry, earning both him and Jonathan their first Oscar nominations.  That’s not bad for a second feature.  The non-linear story-telling of Memento itself would become one of the most influential inspirations to a whole new crop of filmmakers coming up in the early 2000’s, many of whom have held Nolan up as one of their icons.  But, to Christopher’s credit, he never got complacent based on that early success and it helped him to recognize great opportunities once they came his way.  Once Warner Brothers handed him the reigns of their Batman franchise, he proved to the world that it was not him selling out, but instead an opportunity to rewrite the superhero genre forever.  With every new movie, Nolan has wowed us making each film grander than the last, and has achieved a rarefied air of ambition mixed with artistic integrity that we haven’t seen the likes of since possibly that of Stanley Kubrick.  Like other profiles in this series, I’ll be looking at the different themes and continuing features that have made Christopher Nolan’s directorial career so distinct, and how they have manifested so impact-fully in his most noteworthy movies.

1.

BROKEN MEN

One of the most consistent tropes of Christopher Nolan’s filmography is that of stories centered around men who in some way or another are damaged or lost.  Sometimes it’s out of a dilemma of their own making, or it’s because of some deficiency that makes living a struggle.  But no matter what that obstacle is, it becomes the central driving force within the protagonist’s story in one of Nolan’s films.  His breakthrough feature, Memento, features one of the clearest examples of one of these broken characters.  Guy Pearce plays Leonard, a man who suffers from short term memory loss who literally has to mark up his own body in order to remember key information in order to solve a mystery.  In one of Nolan’s most ingenious narrative devices, he tells Leonard’s story in reverse, starting at the end and finishing at the beginning, putting us the audience in the same disoriented mindscape that the character is in.  Over the course of the film, we identify with that struggle, and how infuriating it is to come to terms with not only one’s place in the world, but also with ones self.  It’s a similar trope that Nolan would also explore through Bruce Wayne’s entire arc in the Dark Knight trilogy.  Through the three films, Christian Bale’s Wayne believes that by becoming the symbol of justice through Batman that he can inspire a reawakening in his beloved city of Gotham.  But, once he is morally tested by the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) and physically beaten down by Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) we see a further internal awakening in the character to confront the demons that he’s been trying to run away from his whole life.   In Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb from Inception (2010), we see his literal inner demons manifest as a murderous nightmare in the form of his departed wife.  It’s a theme that Nolan constantly mines to lesser and greater extents in all his movies and it’s probably the thing that sticks out the most as his defining signature trait as a storyteller.

2.

TIME

The other common trope of Christopher Nolan’s filmography apart from his troubled main characters is the way that he likes to play around with the concept of time.  Certainly the formatting of Memento showed Nolan’s interest in telling a story out of order, but even in his more linear films do we see the idea of time holding a special significance in his character’s stories.  The movie Inception introduced a very novel concept of how different levels of dreaming can stretch out the perception of time on the dreamer.  The deeper you go, the more time stretches out.  So for his characters, who are infiltrating a shared dreamscape, each new layer takes on a different timescale, and special measures are undertaken to ensure that everything can still line up on time at the different levels.  Creating these rules for his fictional world of dream heists in Inception are all fascinating enough, but Nolan has also shown interest in the way time works on a truly infinite, scientific scale as well.   With Interstellar (2014), Nolan explores the way that relative time acceleration can cause Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut to pass by decades worth of time on Earth after coming too close to the orbit of a black hole.  By the end, what ended up being a couple days for him was 75 years back on Earth, and he reunites with his daughter who has gone from a child to an old woman in the blink of an eye.  Nolan even explores the very limits of time, by having McConaughey’s Cooper enter a tesseract found in the singularity of a black hole, where time is irrelevant.  It’s in those two features where Nolan makes time an important factor as a part of the story, but even in some of his more grounded movies he uses time as an important story-telling tool.  Whether it’s the inter-cutting found in Dunkirk (2017) or the flashbacks in Batman Begins (2005), Nolan always seems to find interesting ways to use the passage of time as an element of his story.  It’s something that he’s also not through with exploring, as his next feature Tenet (2020) looks to put the concept front and center.

3.

ARCHITECTURE

One does have to wonder if Christopher Nolan hadn’t applied his intelligence to a career in film-making, he might have become an architect instead.  What you’ll notice very commonly in many of his movies is that Nolan loves to photograph buildings in his movies.  You can pull up so many stills of just the flyover shots of cityscapes in his movies, and those alone could fill up a spread in Architectural Digest.   But his interest in architecture doesn’t just stop at exteriors.  He puts just as much work into crafting unique looking interiors for his films as well.  There is something about his use of eye-catching architecture in his movies that relates to Nolan’s desire to ground his movies in a certain reality.  He’s always concerned about the authenticity of his worlds, and making the audience feel like they are a part of the scene, paying as close attention to the smallest details as possible.  And this can range from anything as spectacular as the Bat Cave in The Dark Knight, to something as intimate as Mark Rylance’s fishing boat in Dunkirk, to something as otherworldly as the spaceships of Interstellar.  At the same time, Nolan is also just as interested in manipulating architecture in unexpected ways.  Inception in particular shows Nolan pushing the limits of exterior and interior spaces to places that can never exist in the real world.  One of the most spectacular scenes in the movie involves just a simple hotel hallway, but through the manipulation of the dream world, it is literally flipped upside down.  And of course in true Nolan fashion, no CGI enhancement was used.  Taking a cue from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) rigged a fully furnished hallway to a gimble cylinder and spun the whole thing around with a camera locked into place.  Nolan did use CG to create a different spectacular moment of a city folding in on itself, but even this was done with an eye towards retaining an architectural integrity.  No matter how grounded or beyond the realm of physics Christopher Nolan’s architectural sights may be, they nevertheless make an impact in defining his visual style.

4.

IMAX

One thing that has certainly defined Christopher Nolan within the industry beyond the films that he makes is his passionate advocacy for both the theatrical experience and for the use of physical media in the film-making process.  Deeply opposed to even the thought of shooting with digital cameras, Nolan has committed himself to shooting all his movies on film stock.  For him it’s not just holding onto a sense of tradition in film-making; he genuinely believes that shooting on film brings out the best fidelity within the image, and there is plenty of evidence for that.  The kind of cinematography found in Nolan’s films would certainly not carry the same kind of atmosphere if they were shot digitally.  It also helps that Nolan always uses larger formats for his films.  One of the main reasons Christopher Nolan’s movies have become big events upon release is because his film stock of choice is 70 mm IMAX, the largest format in the whole market.  And he constructs every one of his movies around the use of this massive and expensive film stock.  It’s really remarkable how Nolan is able to construct his movies using IMAX cameras, because they are not easy to move around.  Collaborating with the greatest IMAX photographers in the business, Wally Pfister and Hoyte Van Hoytema, Nolan has managed to put the no-room-for-error IMAX lens in some of the most remarkable places.  And what he’s managed to shoot in the format has been some of cinema’s most spectacular moments ever; the flipping of Joker’s truck in The Dark Knight, the flyby of a black hole in Interstellar, Bane’s midair hijacking in The Dark Knight Rises‘ prologue, and the sinking ships of Dunkirk.  None of those scenes would have had the same impact on anything less than the IMAX frame.  And a brand new Nolan film demands to be seen on a big screen.  One hopes that the director’s reputation for showmanship on this level will be enough to bring audiences back to the theaters this summer with Tenet.  Regardless, I don’t think you’ll see Nolan abandon the IMAX format anytime soon.

5.

FAMILIAR FACES

One last thing you’ll easily notice about Nolan’s movies is that he does like to use actors more than once in his projects.  He’s managed to work with actors like Tom Hardy three times, Cillian Murphy five times, and Sir Michael Caine has been in everything he’s made since 2005’s Batman Begins (those wondering where the noticeably absent on screen actor was in Dunkirk need to listen for that familiar cockney accent coming from the comm-link radios directing the fighter pilots in the movie).  It’s not uncommon for a director to have a stable of go to actors for his movies, like Martin Scorsese and Alfred Hitchcock, but what I think makes Nolan’s use of his actors so unique is the versatility in which he uses them.  Just look at the different roles that Tom Hardy has played in his movies; from a suave dream forger in Inception, to the formidable supervillain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, to a RAF fighter pilot in Dunkirk.  The only thing those performances have in common is that in two of them, Hardy is required to wear a breather mask for most of the movie.  It is interesting that for the roles of his film’s protagonists, Nolan usually just works with that actor once; apart from Christian Bale’s three-peat as Batman.  Leonardo DiCaprio, Matthew McConaughey, Guy Pearce, Hugh Jackman and Al Pacino all delivered some of the best work of their career in a Nolan film, but they were also one and done with the director.  And it wasn’t because of any friction between Nolan and the actors; they all have nothing but great things to say about their experience.  It’s just that this is the way Nolan likes to work; he likes to return to familiar faces to fill out his supporting roles, but he prefers to have a clean slate when it comes to his main characters.  And I think that this has helped to make every new film of his feel so refreshing each time.  A new face among all the familiar ones means a chance for a bold new adventure.

There’s no doubt that Christopher Nolan has earned his spot near the top of the best working directors today.  The fact that he has made it his goal in life to push the medium of film further with every movie he makes has endeared him to cinephiles all over the world, including myself.  It’s so rare to see a filmmaker these days deliver such uncompromising vision on the big screen with the full backing of a major studio.  You can definitely see the influence of Kubrick on Christopher Nolan, himself being a unique voice who managed to maintain his artistic integrity within the studio system.  So many auteurs try to work on the outside the same way, but Nolan has managed to bend the studios towards his way of thinking, which is unheard of today in Hollywood.  Who else could’ve gotten a studio to invest in something as out-of-this-world as Inception and still see that movie not only click with audiences, but also generate a huge profit in the end.  One of the reasons why Nolan has gotten to the position that he’s in is because he recognized opportunities when they came his way and made the most of them.  When a studio offers you the reigns to a franchise, it may seem like a compromise that could threaten your artistic integrity in return for a bigger pay day.  But Christopher Nolan did not see it as a compromise, but rather an opportunity to make his own kind of super hero movie, and in turn he set the bar higher for the genre as a whole.  Had he said no to Batman, who knows if he would’ve ever gained the trust of any other studio and been able to create the spectacular films that he’s excelled at ever since.  Nolan’s career can be summed up by his good instincts and his drive to always keep moving forward with what the medium can do.  And the fact that his movies are absolute must sees in a movie theater could also make him the possible savior for a struggling industry in this current crisis that we are in right now. For me personally, I will never see a Nolan film on anything but the biggest screen possible for the first time, and my hope is that theaters will survive long enough to make that possible; for as long as Christopher Nolan continues to make more movies.

Scoob! – Review

It’s interesting how much change has been going on in Hollywood during a pandemic with regards to the way it’s able to roll out it’s new content.  With movie theaters remaining shuttered, at least up to now, Hollywood has had a revenue stream completely cut off, and it’s been leading them towards finding a different mode of distribution.  The streaming channels have provided one avenue, but it’s a area that hasn’t branched into the full market just yet as a sub-plant for the hole left behind by the closed theaters.  In the wake of the pandemic, some studios are trying out something different, which is Video On Demand rentals, where customers on video rental platforms like Amazon and Itunes can pay a full upfront price to rent or purchase the movie digitally.  Thus far, the studios have chosen to bypass the theaters altogether and opt for this VOD service instead to premiere a handful of new movies on.  This has caused great concern from the theater market, who see the move as a threat to their hopes of recovery after this pandemic.  AMC, the largest theater chain in the world and one of the hardest hit by the shutdown, even took action against Universal Studios for breaking from their distribution agreement by premiering Trolls World Tour (2020) on digital VOD without negotiating with them.  In retaliation, AMC is now banning all future Universal films from their theaters, with the Regal chain joining them in solidarity.  This spat between AMC and Universal however is not indicative of the industry as a whole.  Warner Brothers is likewise setting some of their movies for VOD distribution, but they took the extra measure of notifying the theater chains that this would be the case, and it’s helped to maintain their ongoing agreement in tact, which Warner will definitely need because they are the first ones up once the theaters reopen later this summer, with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Wonder Woman 84 still scheduled for theatrical premieres.  But for now, they are in need of a boost on the VOD side, and they’re most hopeful bet this month is the animated film, Scoob!

The new movie is another in a long line of modern reboots of long-standing IP; in this case, the characters from Hanna Barbera’s Scooby Doo franchise.  Created by animation veterans William Hanna and Joseph Barbera during their successful run as producers of Saturday morning cartoons in the 60’s and 70’s, Scooby Doo, Where are You? was an instant hit with the “flower power” generation, and it’s success would continue to propel a further blossoming of new shows from the Hanna Barbera studios for decades.  The only thing is, how do you make a product of it’s time resonate so many years later.  For Hanna Barbera, the key to success was always in maintaining a connection to the audience through the characters.  Thought the times would change, Scoody and his gang would remain true to their cores.  Scooby the lovable, mischievous talking dog, Shaggy his ever devoted clumsy friend, Fred the headstrong leader of their mystery solving gang, Daphne the empathetic optimist who would always lift everyone’s spirits, and Velma, who let’s face it, was honestly always too smart to be running around with all these goofballs, and solved most of the mysteries almost single-handedly.  The formula would remain the same throughout most of Scooby’s history, with the rag tag group discovering a super natural mystery involving ghost, monsters, or extra-terrestrials, and eventually uncovering the hoax behind them, usually with an unmasking on the real perpetrator.  The Scooby Doo cartoons have often been imitated and parodied, but the franchise itself has nevertheless maintained it’s popularity and has seen many updates throughout the years.  This year, they have made the jump to computer animation with Warner Brothers new film titled Scoob!  The only question remains is whether it’s a Scooby do or a Scooby don’t.

The story shows us the Scooby gang at it’s very beginnings, with Scooby (voiced by Frank Welker) meeting a young Shaggy (Iain Armitage) on the sandy shores of Venice Beach.  The two become instantly inseparable.   On the following Halloween, they meet three other children, Fred (Pierce Gagnon), Daphne (McKenna Grace) and Velma (Ariana Greenblatt), and venture into a supposed haunted house where they solve their first real mystery.  When they grow older, they decide to make their mystery solving business legit, but their investor has reservations about where Scooby and Shaggy (Will Forte) fit in, seeing them as a liability.  With Scooby and Shaggy sidelined, the gang of Fred Jones (Zac Efron), Daphne Blake (Amanda Seyfried), and Velma Dinkley (Gina Rodriguez) must continue their work on their own.  Shaggy and Scooby meanwhile are attacked by a mysterious horde of killer robots.  The duo are almost captured until a mysterious ship intercepts them.  They soon learn that it’s the Falcon Fury, the home base of Shaggy’s favorite super hero, the Blue Falcon (Mark Wahlberg) and his robotic canine companion Dynomutt (Ken Jeong).  They inform Shaggy and Scooby that the robot army had been sent by a villain named Dick Dastardly (Jason Isaacs), who is hunting down giant skulls belonging to the hell hound Cerberus in hopes of opening the gates to the Underworld, and Scooby it turns out is the key.  Scooby agrees to help out Blue Falcon and his crew, but his growing partnership with Falcon begins to put a strain on his friendship with Shaggy, who begins to feel unwanted and forgotten.  With Dick Dastardly’s sinister plan quickly taking form, and Scooby’s gang becoming increasingly splintered apart, the question remains if Scooby alone can be the hero everyone is telling him he should be.

Like I said earlier, this is not the first time Scooby has gone through an update to the present day.  A couple of live action films were made in the early 2000’s, written by James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy fame, of all people.  And there have been numerous new series revivals and direct to video movies made over the years as well.  This new version does the same as a lot of other recent animated adaptations of long dormant franchises have done, like Illumination’s Dr. Suess films and the upcoming Spongebob Squarepants CGI movie.  In the hopes of remaining relevant to an audience raised on the likes of Pixar and Dreamworks Animation, Scooby inevitably was going to make the jump to 3D eventually, and that kind of transition certainly had the potential to work out.  Computer animation has certainly advanced to the point where you can create models of these characters that remain true to their original hand-drawn designs, and also still retain the Hanna Barbera style of simple, limited animation that made the original show so distinct.  There was never any doubt that a new Scooby Doo movie would look good in Computer Animation.  It’s just that, there needed to be care taken with the story in order to make it worth that effort.   Unfortunately, the movie falls well short in the story department.  There could have been two different directions that the filmmakers could have gone in updating Scooby Doo to the modern day; either making the story more sophisticated and reflective of our present day, or just throw in a lot of topical reference that will date the film horribly in a few years.  Unfortunately, Warner Brothers went with the latter and it really drags the movie down and in many ways kind of insults the legacy of the characters.

The thing that really stings is that the movie actually starts off strong, with the prologue showing the characters in their early years.  I actually thought the opening of this movie did a fine job of establishing the characters in a charming, heartfelt and quite funny way.  However, the movie quickly looses its footing once the characters grow into adults, and I think you can easily pinpoint the exact moment when the movie goes downhill, and that’s the moment an awkwardly shoehorned Simon Cowell cameo is thrown in.  From that moment on, the movie just becomes a steady stream of tired pop culture puns and break-neck pacing that gives the audience no time to settle.  I really wish that the remainder of the movie had maintained the easy-going pacing of the first 10 minutes or so.  I also think that the other big problem with the movie is that it completely abandons the Scooby Doo formula that has proven effective for over 50 years in favor of something that is more akin to a Marvel or DC superhero film.  And that just doesn’t fit with Scooby Doo.  There’s no mystery to uncover; we know who the bad guy is from the very beginning and there is no attempt at all to leave our heroes in the shadows.  We’ve honestly seen this story done a million times before and adding Scooby Doo to the mix gives us nothing new.  In fact, Scooby an the gang feel very out of place in this kind of story.  The lack of originality in the story is compounded even further by the tired use of pop culture references, which is basically animation’s emergency solution for covering-up the shortcomings of a lackluster script.  There are so many references thrown around to Netflix, Tinder, Hashtags, Harry Potter, and even dabbing.  And it doesn’t come off as funny; it just cries of desperation.  This is especially insulting for a movie adapting one of the more cleverly plotted series of it’s era.  It doesn’t help that one of the most notable marketing ploys used for the film was a cross promotion with the Tik Tok app, showing that the filmmakers was more interested in making this movie more pop culture savvy than narratively engaging.  Even the hip sounding abbreviated title Scoob! reeks of desperation.  Warner Brothers honestly shouldn’t have tried to reinvent the wheel on this one, because there is a reason why the formula for the show has been used for so many years; because it works, and abandoning it just takes away all the charm that it could have had.

The characters in the story particularly suffer because of this lack of identity.  I hate the fact that the filmmakers thought it would be a good idea to split up the Scooby gang, because breaking them apart just robs the movie of all the character dynamics that could have been used to drive the humor in the movie.  I’m sorry, but Fred, Daphne and Velma on their own is not a terribly exciting bunch.  For some reason, they made Fred dumber than he ever was on the show as a way to fill in some of that missing comic relief that would have normally come from Shaggy and Scooby.  The voice acting from Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried and Gina Rodriguez is passable, but the movie always drags a bit more when it returns to their story-line.  Shaggy and Scooby do work out a bit better in their characterizations.  Veteran voice actor takes on the role of Scooby fairly well, filling in for the late Don Messick, and it’s kind of special that he is a part of this film, given that his career actually started on the original animated series.  Welker was the original voice of Fred Jones on the series, and that gig has since blossomed into a 50 year career in voice acting.  He even occasionally returns to the role of Fred for various projects, but more recently he has been the go to guy for Scooby Doo, and it’s good that Warner Brothers still honors that.  Will Forte, while not quite hitting that Casey Kasem tenor in the role of Shaggy, still manages to do an adequate job.  I did also get a couple chuckles out of Mark Wahlberg’s “aw shucks” performance as the dim witted Blue Falcon.  But, I definitely have to say that the movie is stolen by Jason Isaac’s over-the-top performance as Dick Dastardly.  He breathes much needed life into this film every time he is on screen, and is by far the best part of the movie.  It’s almost like Jason Isaacs was the only actor aware that he was making a cartoon and he gives a full camp performance worthy of the medium.  It’s just too bad that nothing else within the movie rises to that level.

The animation itself is also a mixed bag.  While the characters of Scooby and Shaggy do look on model compared to their original designs, the same does not hold up for most of the other characters.  The movie gives this strange plastic feel to the human characters that makes their models feel a little off.  This is especially noticeable in a character like Fred, who is the most visually different of all the original series characters in this movie.  It’s in that weird, uncanny valley area where the characters are slightly exaggerated to fit within the colorful cartoony world, but also grounded in a more life-like physicality that just doesn’t mix well together.  The worst example of this occurs when we meet Blue Falcon’s forgettable assistant Dee Dee (voiced by Kiersey Clemons), with her life like physicality clashing with her plastic-like skin.  It’s like she’s a living action figure, and I have no doubt that there is a toy line model that bears the same striking resemblance to this character.  It’s only when the movie exaggerates the character models that they come to life.  Dick Dastardly, again, represents the best of this, as his distinctive look does leave an impression.  I do recognize that the movie does still retain a high quality look throughout.  It’s not animated poorly at all; it just suffer from some poor choices in character modeling.  I like that the animators did include some nods to the slapstick bits done in the Hanna Barbera style that we all remember from the shows.  And also, credit to the sound effects team for throwing in the original Hanna Barbera sound clips in certain moments as well, like the famous twinkle toes bit used in everything from Scooby Doo to The Flintstones.  It’s something to help please the long time Hanna Barbera fans who are looking for something that does honor the legacy of these characters, which sadly is not in abundance in this movie.

So, is Scoob! worth the $20 rental for home viewing.  Honestly, if you just want something to distract your kids for an hour and a half, you may find some use out of the movie, but for those who were hoping for a satisfying reboot of a beloved old franchise, I’d say save your money.  Scoob! is little more than a cash grab, hoping to revitalize a known intellectual property and cynically mine it for some easy cash based in it’s nostalgia value.  The biggest problem with the movie is that it seems to forget exactly what made Scooby Doo work so well as a franchise for so many years, and that’s the simple but effective formula that it’s maintained for 50 years.  It’s trying to be less of a Scooby Doo movie and more of a super hero movie, and it’s just dragging the Scooby gang along for the cliched, predictable ride.  Apart from an emotionally effective prologue and a entertaining villain, there really is nothing to make this movie stand out as a work of animation.  The only reason we are really talking about this movie at all is because of it’s unorthodox way of reaching audiences in the middle of this ongoing pandemic.  Trolls World Tour made headlines with it’s successful roll-out online, and Warner Brothers is hoping the same will happen with Scoob!  Releasing with this kind of notoriety will certainly garner more headlines for Scoob! than it otherwise might have had in a Summer season where it would’ve had to contend with another Pixar film.  But, believe me when I say that Scoob! is a forgettable waste of time that doesn’t nearly do justice to the long standing legacy of it’s characters.  It’s not going to be a game changer that will bring the theatrical market to it’s knees.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Warner Brothers never releases a movie this way again.  If you want a satisfying Scooby snack, just re-watch the original series again, or any of it’s adequate spin-offs.  Scoob! is nothing to wag a dog’s tail at.

Rating: 5/10

Quiet on the Set – How Much a Halt In Production Will Affect the Future of Hollywood

Right now, as stay at home orders extend deep into the late spring and likely further into the summer, we are finding ourselves relying more heavily on home viewing as our one and only avenue of entertainment.  The fate of movie theaters are in limbo, Broadway is facing a massive crisis, and sports have gone dark for the foreseeable future, possibly continuing on without live audiences.  But, there’s still television to tide us over, and the seemingly endless abundance of streaming material available.  But, for many viewers believing that Hollywood will ride this pandemic wave out unscathed thanks to on demand entertainment revenue, there is another lingering factor that may spell a much darker future for the industry.  While new entertainment options are continuing to premiere as planned on platforms like Netflix, it’s only because they had been worked on and completed before the outbreak occurred.  When the world economy shut down all non-essential activity, it also put all film production to a halt.  Everything from sound-stages on studio lots to on location production went completely dark in the hopes of slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus.  And these productions continue to remain on hold, which does come at a cost.  Time lost in production usually leads to productions losing the favorable weather conditions that they needed for their shoot, or the brief window they could have had with a certain actor before they commit to another project.  And those are just the minimal problems related to a shut down.  There’s a whole human factor about all the crew members out of work right now that is especially going to hurt the industry going forward.  The question now is whether Hollywood can return back to normal after this shutdown, how  much longer they can withstand not being able to produce anything, and what options we may have to face in the aftermath of this pandemic.

You take away all the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood mystique and underneath you’ll find that it is an industry just like any other in the global economy.  All those names you see scroll by in the closing credits of a movie or television series belongs to a person who has a valuable purpose in creating the thing that you just watched.  Whether it’s constructing the set, setting up the lights, fabricating the costumes, building the props, filing the paperwork, running errands, loading the camera, supervising the script, catering the meals, or even in some cases putting out fires or causing them for the sake of the scene.  To the general public, these names in the credits are considered nobodies, but in reality, they are the lifeblood of the industry, and they are sadly the ones affected most by the shutdown.  They don’t earn the kind of money that movie stars or directors do, but they take pride in their work and can often benefit from more steady employment as their talents can be applied to a far higher variety of productions.  But with the shutdown happening right now, many of these same people have seen that market of available projects dry up.  The unions and guilds that work within Hollywood can only help so much in assisting out of work crew members, and the freelancers are left to fend for themselves even more.  They don’t have the cushy mansions and stockpiles of spendable cash that the Hollywood elite can live comfortably off of during these many weeks of isolation.  Many of them have been living paycheck to paycheck, and with the cost of living still high in Hollywood, many of them won’t be able to maintain their residency there.  So, as a result, the longer this shutdown continues, the more likely we’ll see many of the skilled labors leaving the business altogether, leading to a shortfall of available staff once production picks up again.

What will that mean for Hollywood?  Sure, productions can fill the same positions with newer faces once things begin to ramp up; but you’ll lose the experience and knowledge that seasoned professionals would’ve had.  There are a lot of crew members with specialty skills that only they are able to perform, particularly on the physical production side of things.  You put these skilled laborers out of work for an extended period of time, it may lead them to abandon their trade in favor of more stable work that doesn’t utilize the same creative aspect.  Like any other industry, there is an element of ageism in Hollywood that unfortunately causes many careers to end abruptly.  For many skilled laborers in Hollywood, a halt in production means a loss of that stability of allowing their work to speak for itself, and for many of them, it means an end to their value in the ever changing landscape in Hollywood.  Sure, the film industry needs to roll over their pool of talent in order to keep up with the changing advances in technology and standards within the workplace, but people who have spent decades refining their talents develop a skill set that can’t be easily replaced.  And when this pandemic does blow over, we will likely see many careers come to an end because the employees couldn’t withstand the storm and had to compromise in order to feed their families, or were sadly seen as expendable in order to preserve the bottom line of the studio.  It’s unfortunate, but sadly also can’t be helped either.  The studios can’t just bring production back to where it was before the pandemic, because that exposes their worker to a potential new outbreak, which itself would have even more economic consequences.  What we’ll likely see out of Hollywood in the aftermath of this is a much different character, of the new guard having to quickly take up the tools of the old guard.

While this is a devastating circumstance for the industry and the people who work within it, it is at the same time nothing new.   Hollywood has faced crises before that has significantly dwindled their resources and available staff.  And somehow, they always find a way to work around it.  During World War II, with a significant portion of our population enlisted and fighting oversees, Hollywood managed to press on by joining the war effort itself, making propaganda films funded by the War Department and promoting the sale of War Bonds in their theaters.  They also employed many women for the first time in roles typically filled by men as an effort to keep their staff  levels up to normal, a move that itself would have a profound effect on a female presence in Hollywood thereafter.  Subsequent conflicts oversees, and social unrest at home also didn’t deter the Hollywood machine either.  The only major disruptions that they faced came from strikes within their own industry.  The Screen Actors Guild, Writer’s Guild of America, and many other labor unions have all led to work stoppages within the industry as new market changes lead to more contentious negotiations between them and the studios.  The most disruptive such strike came in 2007, initiated by the Writer’s Guild and supported by all the other Unions in solidarity.  The strike lasted a full four months, which sounds like not that much time, but for a perpetually moving machine like Hollywood, it was a very costly disruption, costing billions of dollars and putting all those previously mentioned crew members in dire financial straits.  Even through this, the industry still found a way to keep moving, and that was through reality television, which began to dominate airtime because it allowed them studios to put people to work without the two biggest guilds involved, the SAG and the WGA.  Even still, movies were heavily affected, and many productions ended up being delayed or cancelled.  Until now, this has been the closest that Hollywood has come to a full shutdown.  The current climate in many ways dwarfs that of the 2007 strike, because at least that had a clear end point that could be worked towards.  How do we work around a contagion that we still don’t fully understand yet?

The uncertainty of this pandemic is the main concern of Hollywood right now.  We really don’t know when things are going to be back to normal again.  All we have to go on are charts that tell us how pandemics play out to give us a rough estimate about when infection rates will slow.  And so far, every study tells us that this is going to be a long process.  Major studios like Disney are already feeling the crunch of a deep recession affecting their future recovery.  The only thing the industry can do right now is to support each other in the midst of an uncertain future.  A lot of charitable funds have opened up in order to keep out of work technicians and staff financially afloat while the studios remain dark, but again, how long could this last?  For a lot of the industry, the need to return to work as soon as possible is becoming the only option they have left, even if it puts their own health at risk.   Like joining the war effort during WWII and relying on reality television to stay afloat during hard times, Hollywood is finding itself improvising once again, with many television shows filming from home, utilizing the video meeting app Zoom to keep people connected.  But, while this helps to fill airtime with new content, it doesn’t exactly replace what has come before either.  And it only works for weekly, non-scripted shows.  As we learned in the aftermath of the 2007 strike, there is a desire for scripted entertainment and that aspect of the industry will need to pick up immediately following the end of this shutdown.  And the clock is ticking for Hollywood to be able to do that without significant financial cost.  There is a lot about the business that is dependent upon new content releasing into the market over the course of the year, from marketing to merchandise to broadcasting rights and the subsequent ad revenue attached.  You slow all that down, it will affect more industries than just Hollywood alone.

So what options does Hollywood have right now?  While physical production is impossible during the pandemic, it is possible to have movies still work through development in order to be camera ready once the shutdown is lifted.  Writers for one thing see no difference to the way they normally work during this pandemic since they are able to work from home anyway, and the Zoom Meeting feature allows them to continue their writer’s room collaborations on a normal schedule.  In some instances, the shutdown has been a blessing in disguise for some troubled productions, as it buys them more time to fix underlying issues with their movies.  That has been the case over at Marvel, which saw the departure of their director for the Doctor Strange sequel and the assignment of a whole new one to take his place.  The shutdown now gives the new director, Sam Raimi in this case, much needed extra time to resolve issues in the production that would’ve been rushed had he had to deliver the film on it’s original May 2021 release date.  But, a lot of other film productions don’t have the luxury that Marvel has where they can just move their releases one step backwards.  For them, continuing to work still costs money and delays are costly.  Because of this, the need to make changes to their projects in development must be worth the effort.  The post production side can also function out of the home, as more and more people have available editing and visual effects programs installed on their home computers.  But, as productions continue to process their way through safe, isolated home environments, there comes another problem; the empty gaps in between when a movie will be ready to complete and when it will actually be ready to premiere.

The process of making a movie sometimes takes years, but we don’t notice that process so much, because there seems to be something new coming out every week.   But when every movie is put on hold all at once, it will create a ripple effect that will eventually catch up with the public.  Right now, there are still plenty of new shows and movies making their way to streaming channels, and that’s because they were all shot and edited many months earlier.  Eventually, Netflix and the like are going to run into the situation that they’ll have exhausted all their new content unless the shutdown ends pretty soon and they can ramp up production once again.  The 2007 strike shut things down for 4 months and it caused a noticeable disruption in the years that followed.  Imagine what would happen if this pandemic induced shutdown went on for possibly a year.  We wouldn’t start noticing it for a couple years, but eventually that lack of new content could not only affect the bottom line of the streaming channels, it could change the face of Hollywood forever as a result.  I believe that this is why the movie studios made the choice that they did to delay every theatrical release until the late summer and fall season, so that the industry can play a bit of catch-up once it’s able to.  It’s a costly choice, particularly for the theatrical market, but in the end it may be the only way for Hollywood to be able to survive what comes after.  If they don’t delay things now, they’ll either run out of new movies sooner, or rush everything into production which will hurt the quality of the output.  Strangely enough, the one aspect of the industry that won’t be affected by this is animation, which in every aspect of production can be worked on safely from home.  We may end up with a glut of animated movies in the long run because of this shutdown, depending on how long it lasts, because they are the only types of movies that can go on unencumbered.

There are some promising signs that tell us that things won’t turn out to be the worst case scenario.  Countries like New Zealand and the Czech Republic are already making the moves necessary to re-open their film-making industries, and may be ready to welcome back film crews from around the world in as little as a month from now.    Also, heavy hit areas, including New York and California (major epicenters of the film industry) are already seeing a decline in new cases and are making plans for a return to business under the guidance of the safety guidelines given by the CDC.   But it will still be a long process that will no doubt leave the industry changed for a long time.  The loss of skilled crew members who will see their careers in Hollywood come to an end itself will be a tragic outcome.  One would hope that there is enough goodwill extended out to them in order to keep them afloat and able to continue in the film business, but that’s dependent on the needs of the studios in the long run and by how long this shutdown may stretch out.  The ability for Hollywood to prolong their production schedules may also be a factor, as many promised upcoming projects may have to be sacrificed in order to either save capital or be dissolved in favor of something different.  There may be even the societal changes that could leave a lasting effect on the industry.  How comfortable will actors be with performing more intimate moments on screen in a era of social distancing.  A lot of new normals are going to be the case over the next few years, and it may change us as a culture permanently.  That in turn will extend down into the entertainment we consume, and Hollywood will be a different industry because of it.  For right now, the empty film sets that sit silently all across the world wait for a different kind of storm to blow through once this current deadly one forces us into isolation.  Hollywood is going to face a long road back to business as normal, and it may result in a Hollywood we no longer recognize.

Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater – A First Ever Experience in One of the Last of It’s Kind Movie Venues

It’s a weird time for movies right now.  This would have been the first weekend of the 2020 Summer movie season, and the launch of a new blockbuster film (originally in this case was Marvel’s Black Widow) would have kicked things off into high gear.  But, as of right now, movie theaters across the nation remain closed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  This has thrown the state of cinema into unprecedented territory, as there is no other place to go for entertainment other than what is available on streaming services.  This has caused a lot of friction between studios who impatiently want to generate income for the movies they’ve already spent millions of dollars producing and the movie theater chains who are on the brink of collapse.  This led to a squabble between Universal and the theater chains AMC and Regal, as Universal was trying to back out of a distribution deal so that they could release more of their movies online, due to the success of Trolls World Tour (2020) in digital rentals.   It’s a dispute that I hope resolves itself, because once the crisis is over, both sides are going to need to work together in  order to bring things back to normal.  And that normal may not even be what it once was.  Movie theaters may take years to recover from this, if at all.  And that is an unfortunate thing for those of us who are huge fans of the theatrical experience.  I for one don’t see the VOD option as the future of cinema, because there is always going to be that desire for the communal experience of a movie theater.  Until things get better, that option is unfortunately unavailable to us, except if you are lucky enough to find it.  Yes, there is still one big screen option left in the country, and it’s one that many people thought was long gone into yesteryear.

The Drive-In Movie Theater was believed to be a relic of a bygone era, when car culture dominated the landscape.  Now, in the era of social distancing, it’s something of a godsend because it’s the only option left for watching a movie on a big screen.  The only problem is, because of it’s decline over the last few decades due to the rise of the multiplex, drive-in’s began to disappear across the country, with only a handful left in operation.  The Drive-in Theater first started in Camden, New Jersey in 1932, but it didn’t hit it’s zenith until the post-War years.  As people began moving out to the suburbs, the rise in car sales skyrocketed, and this in turn led to a rise in businesses accommodating to the automobile.  Fast food began to be delivered through Drive-Thru pickup, and of course, a rise in the Drive-In theater.  Families, couples, and even just a casual single attendee could pick the best spot in front of a massive white screen with the sky as it’s backdrop, and never have to leave the comfort of their own car.  The experience would be improved even more as convertibles became more fashionable, which would open up the outdoor feeling even more.  The Drive-In Theater has become an iconic part of that romanticized post-war American ideal, and it’s still seen as an important part of cinematic history.  At it’s peak, 4,000 Drive-In theaters operated across just the United States alone.  However, with the rise of multiplexes, and the beginning of home entertainment, not to substantial cost of operational and property expenses, the Drive-In theater declined sharply in the decades ahead.  Most sold off their substantial properties off to developers, or in many cases converted themselves to full time swap-meets.  Today, only 300 Drive-In’s remain, and even fewer are operating normally under the stay at home orders given during this pandemic.  Fortunately, one of those last remaining theaters is within an hour’s drive of my apartment here in the Los Angeles area.  It’s the Mission Tiki Drive-In Theater in the sleepy little town of Montclair, CA and it holds the distinction of being the first Drive-In movie theater I have ever been to.

Opened in 1956, “The Mission” as it was originally called featured only a single screen to begin with.  In 1975, the theater was expanded to four, making it one of the largest operating Drive-In venues in all of Southern California, which itself was one of the hubs of the Drive-in Theater craze due to it’s ideal climate.  Though never closed like so many of it’s contemporaries throughout the years, the Mission did fall into disrepair due to neglect from past operators.  A restoration effort began in earnest in 2006 to save the aging venue, and it brought the property up to speed with the times.  The booths was retrofitted with spiffy new, top of the line digital projectors, the concession kitchen was spruced up and renovated, the screens were given clean new metal boarding, and the entire lot was repaved.  The new operators also gave the venue it’s new Tiki theme, with the front gates re-themed to Polynesian style huts and the addition of a rock garden with Easter Island style statues.  And though the re-theme is new, it does fit within the character of the retro cinematic experience.  Great care was taken to make this not only a functioning Drive-In theater, but also a prosperous one as well.  Delivering a generous $10 entry fee for adults ($1 for kids 9 and under) this is a perfectly suitable alternative to the rising entry fees at other chain theaters.  Also, during it’s daytime hours, it operates as a swap meet, like most other Drive-In’s do, even the ones no longer playing movies.  Up to this year, Mission Tiki was one of only 3 Drive-In’s still in regular operation within the Los Angeles area.  But, because of the pandemic, not only is it the only Drive-In Theater still operating, it is the one and only movie theater in all of Los Angeles County still playing movies at all.  The other two, Vineland Drive-In in the City of Industry and the Paramount Drive in in Paramount closed all operations due to the pandemic, but for some reason, Mission Tiki still found a way to stay open.

One of the reasons for this I believe is because of the sheer size of the property.  Driving into the grounds of the theater you get a sense of the expanse the venue maintains.  The actual screens themselves are so dwarfed within the open space of the property.  The Mission Tiki also benefits from something that the other drive-in theaters in the Los Angeles region don’t have, which is a sense of enclosure.  A tall grove of trees encircle the property, helping to close off the world from view.  This was especially for a newcomer like me, who was worried that I would have my eyes too distracted by traffic passing by on the bordering roads, but the owners of this theater have made sure to maintain a satisfying enclosure from the natural treeline border.  I imagine that the original theater itself benefited from the fact that they had so much room to work with and establish such an enclosure, due to the wide open land that likely existed here long before urban sprawl crept up to it thanks to suburban sprawl.  As the city itself grew, the likewise growing trees helped keep it hidden from sight, leaving only the screen and the sky above to catch your eye.  But, if you are there early enough, you might be able to take in a spectacular sight from the north side of the property right before sunset.  The peaks of Mt. Baldy and Mt. San Antonio of the San Gabriel Mountain Range are easily visible above the treeline and create a magnificent pre-show backdrop for those arriving before the first screenings of the night.  Even within a short drive outside of a mega city like Los Angeles, the backdrop of the mountains helps you to feel transported while you’re settling down to watch a movie.

The set-up to get to the screens themselves was thankfully easy to follow.  Specially marked lanes direct you to the central hub where the concessions and projection booth structure are located and from there you are branched off to your selected screen.  Once in your lot, you cannot turn around and move to another screen between movies.  Though once you are in your spot, you can stay for as long as you like.  Each screen plays a double feature throughout the night, including new releases, which makes the $10 value extra worth it.  Considering the fact that most of the movies that were supposed to have played in the last few months have been moved to later this year, what’s left over are what remains of the Spring releases that just barely made it to screens before the shut down happened.  That, and a couple movies that are receiving concurrent VOD releases.  Trolls World Tour just so happened to be one of those movies the night that I was there; the only big screen that the movie will likely ever be seen on this year.  It played on a double bill with last year’s The Secret Life of Pets 2 (2019).  Another new release playing on demand as well as solely in Drive In Theaters is Justin Kurzel’s new film True History of the Kelly Gang, starring George MacKay and Russell Crowe; a smaller film following Troll’s release example.  My night however was devoted to watching two movies that I had missed during their original run in the multiplex theaters.  Those were the new Vin Diesel action film Bloodshot and the new Blumhouse re-imagining of the horror icon, The Invisible Man, starring Elizabeth Moss.  Sparing you from a through review of both, I’ll say the better of the two was obviously the Invisible Man, which was the second feature of my double bill.  But of course it’s not the movies themselves that I was interested in watching; it was the experience itself that had me far more interested.

Growing up in Oregon, I was never exposed to the Drive-In experience.  The collapse of the Drive-In theater happened right before I was born, and the concept always felt like a relic of the past that would always escape me my entire life.  The closest I had ever gotten to a Drive-In theater up to now was in seeing a long abandoned screen propped up on the side of a freeway way out in the boondocks of rural Oregon; just sitting there in an open field unused and forgotten, rotting away more and more each year.  Still, the image of that movie screen in the open outdoors always captured my imagination because I always thought it would be cool to watch a movie outside.  Once I became an adult and learned more about the history of film, and the long decline of the Drive-In experience, it made me long even more to know what that experience was like.  I’m very surprised at myself for taking this long to actually seek one out.  It’s probably because I had become too used to watching movies in the traditional theater setting, especially since moving here to Los Angeles, which has some of the most storied theaters in the world.  But with all of them shut down because of the pandemic, I no longer had an excuse.  And upon discovering that one of them, Mission Tiki, was still operating in the middle of the shutdown, and was not terribly far from where I lived, I figured that this was the moment to finally do it.  So many years after seeing that first dilapidated screen off the I-5 corridor in Douglas County, Oregon was I now finally going to experience the Drive-In experience for real, and in many ways, it both exceeded my expectations but also left me with a sense of sadness for a pastime that I will never know fully.

As a Drive-In Theater goes, Mission Tiki is as best as you could ask for.  State of the art, spacious and yet still intimate, and with a professional staff that kept everything running well, I have nothing negative to say about the experience itself.  There were many things that took me by surprise as well.  The pavement of the lot features humps that allow you to park at an incline.  I don’t know how old this feature is, but it’s a great idea because it points the nose of your car directly at the screen and it helps to keep the cars in front of you from blocking your view.  I also liked the way they provide the sound for the movie, which is pumped to you vehicle directly through an FM transmitter.  This took a little figuring out at first, because I up to now didn’t know how to run my radio without running my car engine.  Eventually I figured it out, and was surprised to learn that it didn’t drain my car battery all that much.  My hybrid vehicle still had enough juice to drive myself home, even after 4 hours of use.  This is a great example of how advanced technology has improved the Drive-In experience, because before the Drive-In’s operated small radios for ever space that were not always reliable and were probably a maintenance nightmare that probably sped up the decline of the business.  Now, with FM transmission, the sound gets picked up by the cars themselves for playback, and depending on how new your car is, it’ll sound as good as any home theater.  But even with all this, I feel like technology has both improved the experience, but also subtracted from it as well.  In order to prevent a cacophony of sound all around you, the movie plays best in confinement of your car, which kind of robs you of the outdoors element of being at a drive-in.  How I long for the old days of convertibles and hatchbacks that allowed one to watch a movie beneath the stars.  Mission Tiki gives the best we can ask for, but our modern day world has left some of that original appeal behind, with social distancing from this pandemic only compounding the isolation.

So, for a first timer, I was very happy with my experience at the Mission Tiki Drive-In.  As the only operating movie theater in the Los Angeles metro area it is an essential experience for anyone longing to see any movie on a big screen right now.  It may not quite capture the exact feeling of what it was like to watch a movie there during it’s heyday, but it’s still great to see that a lot of effort was put into preserving this place for future generations and keeping it up to date with the times.  We may not see movies play on the big screen in the traditional sense for a long time, and the total number of screens may even dwindle overall, so it’s important to support it where you can, and Mission Tiki is very deserving of your support.  Hopefully, it will continue to serve the community of Montclair for many more years and, who knows, it might even be an example of what’s to come in the future.  If social distancing does make screening movies in a confined theatrical setting impossible over the next couple years, we might even see the Drive-In resurrected as an alternative in the next few years, with maybe even completely new Drive-In’s popping up across the country.  It’s wishful thinking, but one thing did give me hope from my experience there.  Throughout the night, I was surprised to see how many people were actually parking all around me.  And not just at my screen, but all across the lot.  All four screens were playing to possibly hundreds of people each, which gives me hope that there is still a desire to watch movies on a big screen as opposed to seeing it at home.  No doubt the low ticket price helps, which the big chains should maybe consider as a way of bringing the crowds back in large numbers again.   For anyone who lives in Los Angeles and wants to see movies the way they were meant to be seen, on a big, bright screen, then driving all the way out to Montclair is well worth the money.  And even when things do return to normal, consider extending your patronage there.  The fact that they are still providing this service at a time when everything else has shutdown gives me a glimmer of hope in this devastating time.  If you are lucky to have a Drive-In theater near you, Angelenos or otherwise, do yourself a favor and take a nostalgic drive over to these long overlooked but nevertheless important monuments to cinema.

TCM Film Fest and SXSW Home Editions – How Film Festivals are Trying to Survive During a Pandemic Lockdown

The ongoing pandemic of 2020 has taken away many options for entertainment across the world, but one of the hardest hit is undoubtedly the theatrical market.  We’ve witnessed movie theaters collapse pretty much overnight due to the shutdowns, and without some very much needed loans and debt restructuring, they could’ve easily never come back at all.  Hollywood has had to seriously readjust itself in this crisis, either by rescheduling their entire theatrical calendar or by moving something directly to on demand.  And though it has caused a disruption in the industry, the major studios do see a light at the end of the tunnel, and everything right now is centered on staying afloat until they are able to get there.  There is, however, a much more significant part of the industry that may have a more lasting change due to the coronavirus pandemic.  Though big tentpole features usually benefit from years worth of buzz surrounding them before they eventually premiere, smaller films usually spend most of the year desperately trying to find it’s audience and fight for that spotlight.  Independent and foreign language films depend on a different system outside of the studio driven hype machine  as a means of getting the attention they need, and that system is the film festival market.  Film festivals, for the most part, are the venues that provide test runs for the movies that usually fall outside of the mainstream but have the potential of crossing over if they are received well by festival goers.  These festivals often have been where the industry has found their awards season prize winners, showing the growing influence that this tradition has on the business.  But because of the uncertainty that the pandemic has put on the future of the theatrical experience itself, it has put the festival circuit into unknown territory, leading many of them to rethink their strategies for both this year and the ones ahead.

This isn’t the first time we’ve had to face a pandemic of this magnitude.  The 1918 Spanish Flu was just as widespread and far more deadly.  But what’s different is that there wasn’t an economy that included movie theaters, concert venues, and convention spaces as a daily gathering place for hundreds to thousands of people.  We’ve moved away from the more agrarian days of the early 20th century to a thoroughly social one.  Because of this, though the death toll won’t be as high as the 1918 pandemic, the economic impact will be just as severe if not more so.  Hollywood, which was in it’s infancy during the previous pandemic, has never been through a crisis like this before, and it’s testing them in a way that may determine the future of the industry.  Certainly this is something that will leave a lasting effect on the industry as well, though the festival circuit has gone through disruptions before.  The two oldest and most important film festivals, Cannes and Venice, both had to be cancelled during World War II, and they managed to come back strong afterwards.  Various other factors have also led to sudden closures of a festival as well over the years, such as a sudden tragedy like 9/11.  But, as they say, the show must go on, and it has for many of the most prestigious festivals around the world.  The traditions themselves are not lost, but what is affected most in the meantime are the movies themselves.  A movie that would’ve had it’s chance to be discovered at a festival, picked up by a distributor, and released by the end of the year just in time for awards consideration, ends up getting lost in the shuffle, and that in itself has it’s own ripple effect.  There are many people who get their one shot at glory by having their film seen by industry insiders at a film festival and by taking that away, those filmmaker’s hard work ends up being completely wasted.

For this year in particular, we’ve seen two of the most important film festivals of the spring resort to either an outright cancellation or a undetermined postponement.  South by Southwest (SXSW) is a film and live music festival that takes place in the early spring of each year in Austin, Texas, and is a favorite venue for off-beat and experimental movies to make their world premieres.  It’s also a festival that spotlights rising talent with it’s focus on first features and micro-budget short films as a part of it’s programming.  Unfortunately, SXSW’s festival dates were set to occur right when the coronavirus cases were starting to spike upward, and immediate stay at home orders were beginning to descend across the country.  With numerous panels being cancelled and a number of sponsors pulling out, SXSW were left with no other choice than to cancel the entire thing and begin to hand out refunds to it’s passholders.  For them, the swiftness of the cancellation had a profound effect, as eager filmmakers who were going to get their first bit of exposure suddenly had to reconsider their future.  Another Spring festival that was going to happen in only a matter of days doesn’t quite have that immediate effect, but will no doubt leave the industry changed in the months ahead, and that is the legendary Cannes Film Festival.  The Festival, held on the French Riviera, is considered the most valuable of all because it’s always been seen as a bell-weather for Awards season.  Last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner Parasite started it run by winning the top award at Cannes (the Palm d’Or) months prior, giving the festival much more industry influence.  Un-mooring it from it’s mid Spring time-frame could affect the awards season significantly, and potentially affect Cannes standing overall, if it is unable to prove itself with a calendar year of being that important spotlight on these special kinds of films.

Cannes may still yet be able to put films in competition this year, but it could prove to be in a truncated version that sees less film screenings and a smaller than usual market.  Because of the shortened movie season in general, there is far less of a chance for festival premiered films to be able to even have their chance to connect with mainstream audiences.  The Fall movie season is already jam-packed with movies that were postponed from the Spring and Summer, and even those new dates could be in doubt if there is a second outbreak later this year.  So even if a festival happens, the chance that it will produce a new awards favorite is pretty dim.  The same is going to hold true for all the remaining festivals throughout the rest of the year, with Venice coming in the late Summer and Toronto in the early Fall.  And at this point, does the industry still take their influence into account, or does it judge it’s Awards season favorites by a different measure.  More than likely, the industry will still be looking at the festivals for awards recognition, but it may be towards films contained within that are of the more mainstream variety.  For movies to be awards favorites, they must not only show quality, but also the ability to be profitable as well, which is a problem when certain movies are far more niche than others.  That’s why these festivals exist, so that they can be seen by the right people in a venue that signifies the best responses these movies can get from a mass audience.  In a world where movies can’t be screened in a theater for fear of an virus outbreak, what other choice is left there.  So, in the absence of movie theaters, many of these festivals are looking for the best alternative, and it is leading them to one branch of entertainment that is left open to them; the internet.

In 2020, we are seeing the beginnings of an entirely new kind of exhibition strategy, which is the virtual Film Festival.  With people staying at home, the demand for streaming entertainment has seen a significant rise, with some movies that were slated for theatrical release winding up bypassing it altogether in favor of releasing on Netflix and the like.  That works well enough for singular theatrical films, and is nothing really new, but how do you do the same with an entire festival’s worth of programming.  With two different examples, we are seeing that actually play out right now from the comfort of our own homes.  Turner Classic Movies, which holds it’s Classic Film Festival every April in the heart of Hollywood, was one of the first major public events to cancel all it’s plans in preparation for the stay at home orders due to the pandemic.  It was a big loss for movie fans across the City of Los Angeles and all over the world (including myself, who usually has a report written up this time of year recounting this traditional event).  But, days later, TCM announced that they would be forming a special Home Edition of the festival, taking the movies that would’ve been screening at this year’s festival and presenting them on their cable channel programming with specially made introductions added in the same style as they would’ve been done for the festival.  Simultaneously, they would also be releasing onto their YouTube channel never before seen footage from festivals past, like the Q&A’s with filmmakers and movie star shown in their entirety; stuff that only festival goers would’ve seen before.  In addition, they would also conduct new interviews via the online meeting app Zoom with people who would’ve been honored at this year’s festival.  Though not in any way close to filling the gap left by the communal experience of the event itself, it still gave fans of the festival something to tide us over while we wait for a return to normal.  Having spent the whole of last weekend going through all they presented both online and on TV, I was pleased to see TCM make some attempt to keep the tradition going, even if it’s on the small screen.

Certainly TCM’s example provides some idea of how to continue on a tradition of a film festival, but it also benefits from the fact that most of it’s content are films that have already graced the silver screen before, and doesn’t feel out of place being shown at home.  It’s a whole different matter when the movies that are a part of the festival are ones that have never been seen before.  Are those movies going to have the same impact if they can only be seen on a television screen instead of in the theater.  That is the gamble that SXSW is about to make this next week.  Though the festival was cancelled, it was far enough into the planning to have a full line up of movies ready to screen.  Without the festival, the movies and shorts now sit in this limbo state where they may have to wait another year to be seen at all, due to some exclusive contracts made with the festival itself.  But, like TCM’s plan to move their programming onto their channel, SXSW felt it was best to get their line up of movies out into the public right away instead of sitting on them, and thus they looked to find a way to do a virtual festival for themselves.  In the process, they managed to strike a deal with Amazon to allow their programs to stream on their Prime Video platform.  It may be outside of the valuable theatrical experience, but at the very least all these movies and shorts will have a chance to be spotlighted on one of the most widely viewed streaming platforms around.  The prestige of having the exclusive SXSW deal also helps to endear Amazon to all these up-and-coming filmmakers who had their movies tied in with the festival, helping to endear the streaming giant to the indie film crowd as well.  Any of the other streamers probably would’ve done the same, and this might begin a new arms race in the streaming market to create these platforms for film festivals that, depending on the circumstance, may have to move online.  It will be interesting to see if Amazon and SXSW’s gamble pays off, because it could indeed change the festival circuit forever.

I have no doubt that both TCM and SXSW will return to their public venue format eventually, but simultaneously, we might see these virtual offshoots make their way online in conjunction with the real thing.  It’s another form of exposure, and in the years ahead, we are going to find out which one provides the most benefit for the industry.  Sure, you may not make as much in ticket sales, but you’ll also save on the expense of having to set up the exhibition at the festival in the first place.  It’s that cost to benefit analysis that is no doubt going to be weighing on the minds of executives throughout the rest of the year.  And if the pandemic continues to be effecting the industry far into the remainder of the year, we may see them having to reconsider much of their criteria for the value all the movies by the end of the year.  The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the governing body overseeing the Academy Awards, for one thing may have to loosen up their rules for what qualifies for the Oscars next year, because there is still the possibility that theaters could remain shuttered for the rest of the year, or at the very least be so constrained that they’ll have less time to show more movies throughout the year.  With the film festivals bringing in more movies into contention, and fewer public venues to show them in, the last remaining alternative will be to have this influx of awards deserving movies move to channels like Netflix and Amazon.  Considering that the Academy requires at least 2 weeks of theatrical screenings in the cities of Los Angeles and New York for eligibility, it will be very difficult for those movies to gain the exposure they need, because of the uncertainty of the market right now.  So, many presidents are perhaps going to fall and rules bent in order to keep this industry running as close to normal as it possibly can get, which means a further tilt in the direction of online presentation.

As someone who values the theatrical experience very much, I am disheartened to see a further erosion of it’s future with so many of these festivals opting for these virtual alternatives.  At the same time, I am grateful to see these festivals acknowledge the whole left behind and try to emulate it in some way through a different format.  It remains to be seen if these changes are permanent.  In the case of TCM, I absolutely see this as a temporary fix, as so much of that festival’s purpose is to celebrate the theatrical venues themselves just as much as the movies they screen.  I have no doubt that a year from now, I will return to cover this festival as a guest in person just as I have over the last few times.  But I am curious if SXSW, Cannes, and all the others will ever return to normal.  Sure they’ll have their festivals live again, but will the industry invest in them as heavily again, or will they see the virtual model as being just as valuable.  This will really be the test of whether or not we’ll be returning back to normal in the years after this pandemic when it comes to the theatrical experience.  Moving festivals online may be economically sound because it removes so much of the marketing costs associated with setting up a premiere and transporting talent across the world to bring more prestige to a festival.  But, there is something to be said about the way these festivals generate more excitement for a movie based on that shared theatrical experience.  Word of mouth is one of the most effective forms of marketing that a film can have, and if word gets around that this movie had this kind of reaction at such and such a festival.  The impersonal feel of watching something online or on television just doesn’t carry the same kind of effect.  It’s also going to be interesting this year to see if such a gap also arises from the cancellation of San Diego Comic Con this year; one of the industry’s most valued events for generating excitement for upcoming projects.  As for now, we are seeing Hollywood testing the waters and seeing if they can do the same kind of events virtually rather than open to the public, because really at this point there is no other alternative.  It is amazing how much of this industry is a freight train that can not stop moving, otherwise it will run off the rails.  I found TCM’s experiment to be nice filler that smoothed an empty void but could not fill it in completely, and I’m interested in seeing what SXSW does next week.  But Hollywood should also consider that the theatrical experience will always be the most powerful barometer for judging the success of a movie, because it commands the most attention of it’s audience.  The film festival circuit has been part of the life blood of this industry, and I don’t see it being put to rest by a virus or by the advances of technology anytime soon.

The Movies of Summer 2020 (Hopefully)

From the very first few weeks that I started this blog seven years ago, I had created a fixture on this site that I’ve continually returned to at nearly the end of every April.  That of course being my Summer movie preview, which has always been one of my most anticipated articles each year to write.  The Summer movie season over the last decade in particular has always been huge and worthy of spotlighting each year.   No matter what, I could always count on a four month span of Marvel kicking things off with a bang in the first week of May, then the mid summer entries that always ranged from something big and loud to intimate and though-provoking, and usually it would all end with sometimes worthwhile late surprises in August.  But, this year is going to be very different.  There is some belief that we may not even have a summer movie season at all.  After the entire slate of movies from the major studios had been moved off the calendar due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic this year all the way through the month of June, the movie landscape looked pretty bleak for a while.  As of now, there is a lot of doubt that the movie theater industry can recover from this unprecedented shutdown, though that hasn’t stopped the studios from still committing to theatrical releases for their major tentpole films.  The only question is, will audiences be ready to come back, after a substantial quarantine has forced us into remaining wary of large public gatherings.  Though the summer movie season has been cut at least in half, there are still remarkably some movies that are remaining scheduled for these upcoming months, at least for now.  It still might be touch and go for a few more weeks, and the studios might reconsider some of these upcoming dates, but there is hope that not only will we see the movie theaters open for business again, but with some noteworthy movies as well in order to get excited about.

Considering the unusual circumstances of this summer movie season, I am going to forego my format of this preview article that I have followed up to now.  So for this season only (I hope), I will not be looking at the movies based on what are the “must sees,” “the ones that have me worried,” or the “ones to skip,” simply because there aren’t enough to talk about.  Instead, I am just going to spotlight the most notable movies still on the schedule at this moment, and give my general feelings about them, uncategorized.  Keep in mind, these movies are not set in stone, and they could very well be moved off at any time, like so many from this Spring were all of a sudden.  One movie in particular on this preview was even on my Spring preview as well, showing just how crazy this change was.  In addition, I will provide trailers that have been made available.  My hope is that even with all the chaos that has gone on over the last few weeks, we are hopefully past the worst of it, and able to return to some bit of normalcy, including going to the movie theaters, and that these films in particular are enjoyed the way they were meant to be seen; on the grand silver screen.  So, with all that said, let’s take a look at what can hopefully be the movies of the  truncated Summer 2020 movie season.

TENET (JULY 17)

So much was taken off the schedule in the critical moments where a lockdown of the economy became not only a possibility, but a certainty.  Marvel, Pixar, James Bond, and DC all fell like dominoes, until we were left with the reality that movie theaters would remain closed with nothing new to show until at least July; nearly 4 whole months.  This is a huge disruption for the market to face, and it’s going to take something big to bring people back to the theaters.  Fortunately, we have a new film from Christopher Nolan on the way.  While there is the possibility that this movie could be pushed back too, Warner Brothers still hasn’t made that choice yet, which indicates some confidence that they have in this particular film.  Whether or not that translates into a strong box office is unclear, given that it’s going to need to depend on the audience feeling that theaters are safe at that point.  Their desire to keep this movie’s original scheduled theatrical date is likely due to the demands of director Nolan, who is a proud champion of the theatrical experience, and who certainly wants to push the medium to it’s limits in a way that cannot be replicated in a home theater.  In many ways, this is the right kind of movie to get audiences back in a big way, because of the way it demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible; especially if you’re watching the 70 mm IMAX version, the director’s preferred format.  But it will remain to be seen if audiences go for an original concept sci-fi espionage thriller.  I for one am excited, and will gladly pay to see this in a theater, especially after seeing the prologue attached to The Rise of Skywalker last Christmas.  The plot looks so intriguing, the cast led by John David Washington and Robert Pattinson look excellent, and the visuals are the typical Nolan-style mind-benders.  I hope this is the movie that opens the movie theaters back up in a big way, because it will devastate me to have to wait any longer for another Nolan epic.

WONDER WOMAN 1984 (AUGUST 14)

Though Warner Bros. did keep Tenet where it is, they still made a difficult move of their other major tent-pole for the year.  Thankfully, it didn’t get moved back too far.  Wonder Woman 1984 is the heavily anticipated sequel to the beloved original film that many credit for steering the DC ship back on the right course.  After a steady stream of hits including Aquaman (2018), Shazam (2019), and the Oscar-winning Joker (2019), DC is on a much stronger footing than it was in the pre-Justice League (2017) days, and we can all thank the lasso-wielding super heroine herself for that.  With Director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot both returning, they look to continue the franchise with far more goodwill on their side, and it certainly looks like they are amping things up to even more epic levels.  The movie still sets itself up in the past, filling in the gaps between Diana Prince’s introduction to the outside world during the Great War and her time helping form the Justice League.  In particular, this movie takes us into the year 1984, which will no doubt exploit some of the current 80’s nostalgia that our culture seems to be indulging in at the moment.  The vibe of the trailer definitely reflects this, with an epic cover of New Order’s Blue Monday, but there’s still a lot of cool stuff to see for anyone whose a fan of the movies and the comics.  The introduction of two of Wonder Woman’s most iconic foes, Cheetah (played by Kristen Wiig) and Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) gives this movie a lot of exciting possibilities and it’s clear that Patty Jenkins is really upping the scale of the production as well.  I especially love Jenkin’s confidence that she has in her vision now.  After clashing so much with the Warner executives on the first film, it’s clear that this time she’s been given more free reign, and I’m excited to see what she can do with it.  Had we lost Wonder Woman in addition to a Black Woman movie this summer, it would’ve been really devastating, so thankfully she only had to make a short side-step and still give us something to look forward to much sooner.

MULAN (JULY 24)

Here is the movie that I mentioned that also made my Spring 2020 preview.  Of course, it didn’t make it’s original late March opening due to the lockdown orders falling a mere week before it was scheduled to start.  The lockdown was so unexpectedly abrupt in fact that Mulan had already had it’s red carpet premiere.  There are actually critics reviews that are floating online for a movie that is having to sit on the shelf at the moment over no fault of it’s own.  I am not one of those critics that got an advanced screening, so if this movie does make it to theaters, I’ll still be seeing it fresh.  In my original preview, I categorized this as one of my “movies that have me worried” picks, which is mainly due to my dissatisfaction with most of Disney’s recent live action remakes.  But right now, I am far more willing to be excited for this movie, just because Disney is still committed to a theatrical release for it, and it just might be the thing we need in order to be happy going to the movies again.  It may not change my mind much with regards to how I feel about most live action remakes from Disney, but given that this movie was indicating to us that it was trying harder to be it’s own thing rather than just a “cut and paste” copy is a pleasing sign.  I am intrigued by the supernatural element that they’ve added to this story, which in a way actually makes the animated original seem more grounded, and that had a talking dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy in it.  It’s gambling a little bit more with it’s story, and I see that as a good sign.  My hope is that they balance that with a compelling script and strong performances, and avoid all references to the original movie that will feel shoe-horned in.  If there was a chance for Disney to prove that they’re not just coasting on nostalgia, this would be the movie to do just that.  For Disney’s sake, let’s hope that moving this to a late July release will be exactly what was needed, because it’s all Disney has on the schedule until November.  Hopefully Mulan has what it takes to combat the disadvantages it’s been saddled with and bring honor to it’s Disney family.

THE SPONGEBOB MOVIE: SPONGE ON THE RUN (AUGUST 7)

If there was ever a certainty in cinema, it’s that animated films for the whole family almost always prove profitable.  That will no doubt be put to the test as another Spongebob Squarepants movie hits the big screen.  Spongebob is a decades long popular character whose made the jump to movies before.  And the timing for this movie couldn’t be more advantageous for him.  Though he also had to have his original release date pushed back from it’s original Memorial Day weekend opening, the move wasn’t too far up the calendar and in fact it puts Spongebob in a time of the year where he might not only thrive, but dominate as well.  With Pixar, Dreamworks, and other family oriented competitors off the table, this Nickelodeon produced feature has all the summer to itself to draw in crowds of kids and their parents back into theaters.  The movie is noteworthy for changing the aesthetic look of the series, going from hand-drawn 2D to CGI 3D, while still maintaining a consistent style.  I like how the animation still feels hand-crafted in a way, retaining a hand-drawn feel despite being rendered through a computer.  Most kids won’t even care, but from an animation stand-point, it is a bold artistic choice, and that’s saying something for a Spongebob Squarepants movie.  The sense of humor it retains from it’s television series will no doubt be a breath of fresh air after the months held up in our homes, and it’s lighthearted tone might help give us the pick-me-up that we all need after this crisis.  I’ll also very much enjoy seeing anything that has the audacity to cast Keanu Reeves as a “sage” brush.  If anything has a chance of turning a profit in this very much starved Summer movie season, it’s probably going to be the family friendly Animated feature, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, just as long as it does make us feel good about going to the movies again.

BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC (AUGUST 21, 2020)

Speaking of Keanu Reeves, here’s another light-hearted feature starring the veteran actor that might just be what the doctored ordered for this summer.  After nearly 30 years, the third film in this series re-teams Reeves with his co-star and longtime real life friend Alex Winter.  Apparently the movie had been in the works off and on for years, with the script coming from the same writers of the original, even with the wildly different career trajectory that Reeves and Winter took.  Winter all but quit acting to become a prolific TV director while Reeves has gone on to become on of the biggest action movie stars in the world.  But this return to their stoner comedy roots seems to be the best thing for right now.  Reeves is at a point in his career where he’s not only riding a high with the John Wick franchise, but is also able to reflect back and poke a little fun at himself.  And the genuine chemistry that he has with Winter doesn’t seem to have dissipated over the years, and they both look to be very enthusiastic about this project.  The only question is, can it bring in not just long time fans, but also cross-over audience appeal.  I imagine that the movie most likely won’t be a huge expense for any studio if it makes it’s way into theaters (big if), and it could do audiences a lot of good not only in seeing these characters appear  together once again, but also in regenerating interest in the original movies as well, hopefully steering a whole new generation towards discovering them for the first time.  We’ll have to wait and see if the movie does make it to the big screen this summer.  This could honestly be one of those late summer surprises that catches us by surprise.  And if not, it’s at least will have been a worthwhile try for two longtime collaborators seeking to see if they are able to once again Face the Music.

THE GREEN KNIGHT (MAY 29)

I imagine that when movie theaters do open their doors once again (hopefully) that the timing will still leave them with little choices in big new releases; especially with the next scheduled blockbuster being Tenet in mid-July.  So what we are likely going to see in the first few weeks are either re-releases of blockbusters from years past, or small indie films like this one to help fill that void.  This film in particular would be a strong contestant, because even given it’s independent pedigree, it nevertheless looks ambitious.  Coming from indie darling David Lowery, who as made films as wildly varied as the avant garde A Ghost Story (2017), to a Disney remake with Pete’s Dragon (2016), to Robert Redford’s swan song The Old Man & the Gun (2018).  Now he genre hops again by adapting the Arthurian legend of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” with this equally weird vision.  Coming from the always provocative A24, this movie is exactly the right kind of weird theatrical experience that can carry word of mouth throughout the year, like the studio had benefited from in their remarkably strong 2019 slate, including Midsommar, The Lighthouse, and Uncut Gems.  I’m very interested to see what Lowery does with this literally ancient story and give his own voice into this genre that will really set a new standard.  It’s about time that we see the medieval fantasy genre given a fresh new look, and from a director who is proving to be as unconventional as any we’ve seen in quite some time.  It’s the right kind of movie to help fill that gap in time before theaters can enjoy the benefit of blockbuster entertainment again, and who knows, it might become something of a main attraction in it’s own right.

I know it’s not much, but these are the movies that stand out the most among the ones still scheduled for the truncated summer movie season.  Hopefully, we’ve flattened the curve to a point where we can safely gather in theaters once again and enjoy movies on a big screen, the way they are meant to.  It’s not really a question of if the theaters can reopen (most are managing to cope with the prolonged shutdown, even with the financial hit), but more about whether we can return to normal again.  Hollywood may be facing the reality that it’ll take some time for movies to make up the box office grosses that they’ve done in years past.  There is no doubt that because of the shutdown, 2020 will be one of the lowest box office years on record.  And even when business is reopened, we may be facing the unfortunate reality that movies like Tenet, Wonder Woman 1984, and Mulan may still under-perform.  I certainly hope that this isn’t the case, and that audiences do return in strong numbers, albeit still following the recommended safety guidelines in order to prevent any further spread.  I for one will only see the movie Tenet for the first time on a big IMAX screen and no where else.  My biggest worry is that the studios will be left with no other choice than to premiere their blockbuster films solely on demand, like Trolls World Tour just did.  Hopefully, we don’t get used to a new normal, and that the theatrical experience will endure long after this crisis is over.  Summer 2020 is mostly a loss, but what we’re going to see afterwards is a jam-packed Fall 2020 and a hopefully unaltered 2021 schedule.  It’s unusual having to change the way I preview the upcoming movies based on what’s happened, but it is what it is.  I’m just thankful that there’s going to be any movies coming this summer at all.  Let’s continue to remain optimistic, and when the time has come, please remember to support your cinemas.

Trolls World Tour – Review

As I wrote a couple weeks back, one of the biggest casualties of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the movie theater industry, which as of this writing is pretty much on life support.  In this unimaginable domino effect that happened pretty much overnight, Hollywood pulled all of the remaining Spring season movies off of the schedule, in order to comply with all state and city ordinances to remain at home to slow the spread of the virus.  And this has resulted in a devastating disruption of the traditional movie theater business, which is in danger of not being able to survive the next few weeks, let alone months.  For Hollywood, the same disruption is also having ripple effects, with all productions shut down indefinitely.  We won’t see the effects of this for a while, as the delay in movie premieres still will give us a back log of all the movies that were at or near completion. But this has presented an interesting dilemma for Hollywood; how do you try to get your movie out there in a disrupted market like this one.  With movie theaters and film festivals out of the question, all that is left is home theater distribution.  Most studios have opted to give some space to allow for a return to normalcy in the market by pushing their movies back to later this year, or even further into the next one.  But there were other movies that were too far along in their marketing cycle to put off their premiere for another 6-12 months.  The movie either had to come out now, or otherwise it would lose money.  So, to salvage some of the market cost lost through the closures of the movie theaters, we have seen many early premieres of this year’s spring slate of movies on demand through streaming.  And among them is a big title that’s going to end up bypassing the theatrical experience altogether; Dreamworks Animation’s Trolls World Tour.

Trolls World Tour is a follow-up to the modestly successful animated feature from Dreamworks based on the popular toy line.  Being one of the premiere names in animation, Dreamworks was gearing their animated sequel as a major title for the spring season.  Animated movies always perform with strong legs, and the wide open Spring season would’ve given it the breathing room to do so.  With an Easter weekend premiere, and a month separating it from the premiere of Onward from rival studio Pixar, all that Trolls World Tour had to do was withstand counter-programming from the likes of the new James Bond film, No Time to Die.  And then everything fell apart overnight.  Onward’s unfortunate timing led to a very short two week run in theaters before they had to close, and in the weeks after, they had to quickly bring their film onto their streaming platform, just to keep it in the public eye and not make all those marketing and merchandising expenses go to waste.  Trolls likewise ended up in the same position, with so many marketing tie-ins having made it into stores in the past few weeks, there was no way for them to put the cow back in the barn as it were.  So, parent company Universal decided to enact a bold experiment in order to make do with the situation that they have.  They would release Trolls World Tour on it’s scheduled premiere date as a premium rental on streaming sites across the web.  Normally, this would’ve been seen as a kiss of death, as movies getting dumped onto streaming was like the new straight-to-video; a marker of lower quality.  But, given the circumstances that we are in, with the future of movie theaters in doubt, the industry is looking at Trolls World Tour‘s premiere online as a possible harbinger of what the future of market may be.  The only question is, will it work or is it just a stop-gap before things can return to normal.

Trolls World Tour takes place more or less where the last film left off.  Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) has been given the title of Queen, and she is beloved by all her subjects, including the survivalist Branch (Justin Timeberlake).  One day, she receives notice that another troll queen named Barb (Rachel Bloom) has been attacking other troll kingdoms across the world, and is on her way to invading theirs as well.  Poppy learns of the history of the different troll tribes and how they all represent different kinds of music: Funk, Country, Classical, Techno, Rock and Pop, of which Poppy’s kingdom is representative of.  Each tribe are the protectors of an enchanted strings which if combined together and were brought under the control of any select tribe would allow for that type of music to dominate all others.  Barb is on a mission to collect all the strings at any cost and bring domination of all the other troll tribes under her own Rock music.  While Branch takes this threat as an indication for all of the Pop trolls to seek shelter immediately, Poppy hopes to find Barb herself and reason with her, with Branch reluctantly tagging along.  On their way, they receive assistance from a Country troll named Hickory (Sam Rockwell), who helps to guide them along their way.  However, Barb has sent different troll bounty hunters from some of the minor kingdoms like Smooth Jazz, Raggaeton, K-Pop, and Yodelling to stop Poppy from thwarting her plans.  Meanwhile, some of Poppy’s closest friends seek out to find out more about these other troll kingdoms that they knew nothing about before, including the four-legged Cooper (Ron Funches) and the overweight Biggie (James Corden).  All together, each and every troll is on their way towards destiny, and whoever succeeds will either force domination of one brand of music over all, or bring harmony with all music coming together.

I’ll be honest, I was not looking forward to this movie, or even the first one to begin with.  I particularly rolled my eyes at the idea to begin with, because it looked like Dreamworks was just wasting their talents on what I thought was essentially a commercial, both for the toy line it was based off of and for the inevitable tie-in album that was going to be sold around the same time.  But, given the fact that I am unfortunately without many options of movies to review for the time being, and may have to wait until as far as July before I can even see the inside of a movie theater again (if at all), I decided that I had no other alternative than to take the plunge into the Troll franchise.  And, perhaps it’s maybe me being too judgmental at first based on first impressions based on the marketing for the movie, but quite like how The Lego Movie (2014) subverted my expectations and was way better than I thought it would ever be, I had a better than expected reaction to the movie Trolls (2016) than I thought.  Now, don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t come anywhere close to being as good as The Lego Movie, but for what it was, it was passable entertainment in the end which is better than the excruciating chore that I thought I was in store for.  There were still many problems that I had with it, but I admired it’s consistency with it’s story and the fact that it was a very well animated film with a talented cast performing some catchy songs.  But, how does Trolls World Tour stand up.  Well, while I can say that I have seen much worse animated features, and even worse animated sequels (Frozen II anyone?), World Tour unfortunately felt a little underwhelming in comparison to it’s already passable predecessor.  If anything, it lacks the consistency that I felt held the original film together, and everything that was flawed only felt amped up in this follow-up.  There are still some good things about it, but not enough to make me heap praise on the film.

I’d say where the movie falters is that it tries to do too much.  The titular “World Tour” allows for some creative settings to explore, but the break neck pace of the story doesn’t give us much time to soak it all in.  Just as we get settled in one of the new kingdoms, we suddenly jump into another, screeching to a halt any interesting developments that could have been further explored.  The Classical Troll kingdom in particular is given mere minutes of screen-time before it’s off to the next setting.  Sometimes one of the best things a sequel can do is to really explore the outside world more, helping to build it’s world, but I felt that this movie did too much of that.  There is enough world-building in this movie to fill maybe three movies worth, and what ends up being sacrificed in the process is other crucial things like character development and the raising of the stakes.  And that is where I feel that the movie falls apart.  The characters of Poppy and Branch really  don’t have not much to do in this film as all of their key character development happened in the previous film, so either their stories had to be regressed a bit to offer some extra tension in this movie, like the romantic subplot which for some reason seemed to be rebooted at the start of this movie.  Supporting characters really have nothing more to do than to just pop up and offer some comic relief.  One thing that I did miss about the original film is the streamlined plot of the Trolls learning to overcome the threat of their native enemy, the repulsive Bergens, and even find a way to live in harmony with them.  The Bergens, by the way, are completely side-lined in this movie, which is too bad because their development in the original, from monstrous menaces to fully dimensional characters, was one of the highlights of the first film.  Though World Tour has a lot more of the world to play around in, it unfortunately does so in an underwhelming way.

That’s not to say that everything about it is bad.  For one thing, the visuals in this movie, much like the original, are pretty spectacular.  You’ll probably never find a movie this year or any with such a vibrant color palette.  And though the different worlds are never effectively explored, they do still offer some imaginative visuals whenever they’re seen.  I especially love the craft materials texture that permeates the entire movie.  One of the most clever ideas I noticed was a waterfall being represented by ribbons of paper, like the kind we would make in school with construction paper rolled around a pencil.  Even the skin texture of the characters themselves are impressive, creating a look of felt cloth.  Though the story may be meandering, the look of the movie is likely going to impress even the most cynical of critics, which is a testament to the hard work done by the artists working at Dreamworks Animation.  These guys have become one of the most trusted names in the animation world for a reason, and the visuals here are proof of that.  Also, though I felt that the execution of the story was lacking, I did really appreciate the message that was buried at it’s center.  It’s actually even a more provocative one found in the original.  Remarkably, the movie takes a subtle jab at the music industry itself, and the way that it homogenizes so much music in order to make it what it considers “mainstream.”  There’s a strong message here about the need to retain the cultural and racial identities that are tied to various forms of music, because it’s an important aspect of retaining the diversity that keeps so much of the culture running.  It’s an especially potent message to have at a time like this where we are being driven more apart than ever, and it illustrates the need to have all voices be heard.  I didn’t expect a message like that to come from a movie like this, so I’m glad that they included it here.

It’s understandable that given such a keen focus this movie has on the element of music that the cast itself would be made up of many talented singers as well as actors.  And like the first film, this is movie full of songs tailor made for the actors performing them.  Anna Kendrick, of course, is a triple threat performer with numerous films to her credit that take advantage of her vocal range; most notably the Pitch Perfect series.  She brings a lot of energy to the role of Poppy which is an asset that helps to carry her even over some of the mediocre writing.  Even though her character is less interesting this time around, Kendrick still charms with her peppy performance.  The same unfortunately can’t be said about Justin Timberlake, who still feels miscast in this role.  He can certainly sing the songs with no problem, but his higher pitched voice just doesn’t feel right for the rustic, cynical character that he is playing.  In addition, the character Branch has little to nothing to do in this movie, so Timberlake just feels lost here in between songs.  What I do like in this cast is some of the tribute casting that the movie does for some legendary performers.  During the course of the movie, we meet some of the elders of the different kingdoms, including King Quincy (named after the legendary composer Quincy Jones) and is voiced by the godfather of funk himself, George Clinton.  There is also King Thrash of the Rock kingdom, who is voiced by none other than Ozzy Osbourne himself.  It’s a treat to hear these two legends participating in this tribute to music styles of all kinds, and the fact that they are there is a nod to their significant contributions to the musical landscape as a whole.  All the different musical covers are also spirited and well done.  Sure, it’s about selling a soundtrack album, but I could think of much more shameless uses of pop songs used in animated movies (see Illumination Animation’s entire catalog).  At least the actors here are performing their own singing, even in minor roles.  One particular new character that did given me a laugh every now and then was a raping baby troll with glitter skin voiced by SNL alum Kenan Thompson, who is very funny here.  A good cast goes a long way, and it helps this movie as a whole in general.

It’s hard to say if this is the future of movie distribution.  If the industry wanted to change the industry forever, they would’ve chosen a more compelling film than this to center the experiment around.  Trolls World Tour is passable entertainment, much like it’s predecessor, and is not really something that is demanding to be seen on any screen, big or small.  It certainly isn’t quite worth the premium asking price of $19.99 that you have to pay right now, although if you have young children that are interested, this might actually be a good value, rather than what the box office price would’ve been originally.  For children, it’s harmless enough entertainment, with a surprisingly potent message at it’s core.  But, otherwise, I’d say watch it only if you are a really big fan of the original.  If you are, you’ll probably get more out of it than I did.  It’s certainly far from the worst animation that I’ve ever seen, but no where near the best either; not even among Dreamworks animated films.  The How to Train Your Dragon trilogy to me still is the gold standard for the studio, and a prime example of building upon something that was already great with even more worthwhile character and world building.  What I liked so much about those movies is that throughout all three movies, the filmmakers were never afraid of taking risks and trying new things, consistently raising the stakes.  Trolls World Tour is a safe sequel that tries to expand it’s world, but falls well short of achieving it’s lofty goals.  I for one am just hoping that it’s release on demand was just out of necessity and not a harbinger of the new normal in distribution.  We need the movie theaters back, and World Tour‘s terrible timing was just the result of things falling well out of control for everyone involved.  Who knows, I might have felt different about this movie had I seen it in a theater with an audience.  As it stands, it’s a noble effort of a sequel, but one that both in itself and in it’s venue of viewership, makes you long for something better.

Rating: 7/10

What the Hell Was That? – The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

Living through a global crisis is not unfamiliar, but still thankfully rare.  Whether it’s world wars, or a geologically caused catastrophe, or an economic collapse, or as is the case right now a pandemic, the planet at one point or another tests the strength of it’s people and despite a lot of hardship in the process, we emerge out of it.  Though it’s a distressing time when living through it, Hollywood will often look at crises in hindsight and find it to be great fodder for movies.  The disaster movie in particular has been a favorite among epic movie makers, because of the larger than life aspects of the ordeals that the characters go through.  Often these movies are showcases for visual effects, with massive budgets and a cast of hundreds.  For the most part, there is an understanding between the audience and the filmmaker that it’s all about the entertainment value of the experience, and that is why so many disaster movies are not afraid to be a little cheesy sometimes.  The movies of Irwin Allen in the 1970’s are a great example, like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974) which were star-studded extravaganzas that took place within structural disasters.  For the longest time, apart from the all-star casts, the biggest draw of these movies would often be the grand scale destruction, especially if it involved an iconic structure.  And for the most part, these movies would retain it’s sense that it’s all just a movie, and that none of it’s supposed to be taken seriously.  Unfortunately, the world works very differently, and silly old disaster movies suddenly don’t feel so harmless once an actual real life disaster happens.  That’s why you sometimes see periods of retreat for these kinds of films, so that it won’t appear that Hollywood is exploiting a tragic moment in any way.  Eventually the periods of reverence recede, and it becomes okay to treat disasters as popcorn fare again.  It may take decades like getting our romantic Titanic movies when nobody is left alive to complain, but it always happens.  The only time when it doesn’t feel right is when a filmmaker who works solely within this type of genre continually exploits disaster sized imagery to make his own half-cooked points about the here and now.

Enter Roland Emmerich, best known as the “king of disaster movies” among film critics.  German born Emmerich has made a career out of making movies that seemingly are made solely to see landmarks destroyed.  This was certainly the case with his breakthrough sci-fi epic Independence Day (1996), which won an Academy Award for it’s ground-breaking effects, depicting an alien invasion that destroys many of the world’s largest cities.  The kind of grand-scale destruction that was found in Independence Day captured the imagination of it’s audiences, especially when seeing the Empire State Building and the White House being vaporized in a colossal fireball.  But, Emmerich was able to make that work  in sci-fi, because it fell within the understanding that Hollywood and audiences have always had; it’s all just a movie.  He continued the same principal to lesser effect in his Godzilla remake in 1998. And then two things happened after that.  In 2000, Emmerich broke away from his sci-fi pedigree and made for the first time a period set war film called The Patriotstarring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger.  Garnering some of the best reviews of his career, Emmerich took this as a sign that it was time to become a more serious filmmaker, while at the same time working within the genre that he knew best.  From this, he set out to start writing a script centered around the theme of global warming, and it’s disastrous effects on the world, complete with the catastrophic destruction he had previously imagined in his sci-fi pictures.  And then came the second pivotal moment, which was the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  The kind of destruction that seemed so trivial and popcorn fodder in Emmerich’s previous films was now so very tragically real and traumatizing for most of America, and to return to that mode of film-making no longer seemed sensible anymore in Hollywood.  For Emmerich, he too would refrain from delving back in to his old ways, but that lasted little over a year, as the king of disasters went right back to his old ways by starting production on The Day After Tomorrow.

Pretty much every thing you can hate about Roland Emmerich’s style can be found in The Day After Tomorrow, and it marks the point in his career when his film-making sensibilities really began to devolve into self-indulgence.  One thing that can account for this is that The Day After Tomorrow was his first movie working solo after breaking from his partnership with co-writer and producer Dean Devlin.  Devlin, who himself has a penchant for loud, disaster filled action movies, for the most part was a grounding influence for Emmerich, helping to give his movies a more tongue-in-cheek self-awareness.  Mainly, Devlin helped to shape the tones of Emmerich’s scripts, giving them more of a sense of what they could be rather than what Roland wanted them to be.  This includes shaping the characters and the world to better service the plot and visuals, which were always Emmerich’s bigger strength.  But, without Devlin there to reign him in, Roland was more or less left to fill his movie with all sorts of his haphazard ideas, without any sense of how to make them work into a cohesive story.  At the same time, Emmerich was also developing a more politically conscience mind during this time, which also was a bit half-baked to say the least.  Like many surface level thinkers, Emmerich has opinions, but not the knowledge to translate those opinions into a workable story.  And the result ends up being a movie that tackles a serious subject and unfortunately trivializes it, causing the opposite effect that it was intended to have.  In this case, the issue is global warming, something that was indeed a hot button issue at the time when Emmerich was drafting his script during the 2000 presidential election.  Though the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing wars that followed took the focus away from the issue, it nevertheless remained a part of the discussion even up to the premiere of The Day After Tomorrow in 2004.  Around  that same time, presidential candidate Al Gore appeared in the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006) which drew more attention to global issue.  And the reason why a documentary like that raised such an alarm is because of the catastrophic way that movies like The Day After Tomorrow failed to do the same.

Emmerich’s films often share one characteristic, and it’s the allure of the conspiracy.  He is an avid conspiracy theory enthusiast, and has often used it as fodder for many of his movies; often exploring them with complete disregard to the actual truth.  Some of it is harmless enough, like theorizing what went on at Roswell (Independence Day) or who built the ancient pyramids (Stargate) or were the Mayans right about doomsday (2012, and no they weren’t).  Then there are some conspiracy theories that he indulges that are more insidious and irrational like the false one about the authorship of William Shakespeare’s plays (Anonymous) because some of it’s arguments stem from imperial nationalistic hate groups.  Not that Emmerich prescribes to some of these more extreme conspiratorial beliefs, but the fact that he indulges many of them is something that is very irresponsible as a story-teller with immense sway within the industry.  What’s especially problematic with The Day After Tomorrow is the fact that Emmerich’s conspiracy thinking mixes in with actual science, and takes a very real problem like climate change and turns it into something as convoluted as one of his zany theories.  What was especially fool-hearty about his attempts to legitimize his vision was  that he called in actual experts from the field of climate science to observe his movie and give it their thumbs up.  The plan did not go as he expected, as scientists from NASA were especially critical of the “made-up” science of the movie and the agency even barred them from even speaking their mind about the movie any further, critical or otherwise.  Many other scientists called the movie “silly” which probably did not please the director, who wanted to be taken more seriously at this point.  In the end, Emmerich went ahead with his vision of a world overcome with sudden climate change, and the end result is no where close to real science nor towards a comprehensive narrative.

First of all, it’s clear that the science was never going to matter to Emmerich.  He just wanted to show cities being destroyed again, and doing so with a grand scale event like a natural disaster made sense to him in a post-9/11 age.  One thing that climate scientists will tell you is that global warming and climate change are two different things, with one resulting from the other.  They will also tell you that it is a gradual process that just doesn’t manifest overnight.  But, in Roland Emmerich’s eye, global warming means extreme weather happening without warning in places that it shouldn’t exist.  It’s clear from watching the scenes of destruction that Emmerich just wants to destroy landmarks, as they seem to be suspiciously prone to attracting natural disasters in this movie.  We see the Hollywood Sign and the Capitol Records building being blown away by tornadoes.  Why those specifically?  Because people who aren’t from Los Angeles will recognize them right away.  Also the Hollywood Sign being blown apart by a tornado is scientifically absurd to begin with, because tornadoes can’t climb mountains; they only manifest on flat terrain.  There is also the storm surge that floods the city of New York, which supposedly happens because of a week’s worth of constant rain.  Again, the science here is so nonsensical, because storm surges are cause by a rush of water brought in by a hurricane or tsunami, and not a long-running rain storm.  The flooding of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 is the most recent example, and it didn’t nearly flood the city up to the armpits of the Statue of Liberty like it does in this movie.  Emmerich clearly saw the time tables of the effects of climate change and felt they were too slow and too minimal for what he imagined.  The problem is, when you put that kind of rushed thinking into your movie, you give the audience the wrong impression of what actual climate change is going to be like, and that makes the job harder for climate scientists to give their own informed and researched warnings.

What’s also a problem with the movie is that the story itself is also fairly flimsy.  Emmerich’s movies typically center themselves around a nerdy loser who somehow stumbles across the key to saving the world.  You see this with Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day, Matthew Broaderick’s in Godzilla, John Cusack in 2012, and of course Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow.  There’s not much we learn about with Quaid’s character, other than he knows that an imminent natural event caused by global warming is about to destroy most of the Northern Hemisphere.  The only other aspect that we learn about him is his estranged relationship with his son, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.  Gyllenhaal’s character was originally written to be 12 years old, but was changed when the rising actor expressed interest in the movie, and became a teenager instead (Gyllenhaal was 24 at the time by the way).  As a result, this becomes the focal point of the movie, which otherwise would have been a aimless globe-trotting series of different disasters hitting the planet with unrelated characters all witnessing the destruction.  In some ways, you could have gotten away with this arrangement of characters had they been quirky enough, or charming, like those found in the ensemble of Independence Day.  But the characters, even the ones played by Quaid and Gyllenhaal, are so generic that we can’t connect with them on any level.  So, when the movie calls for them to be witness to a cataclysmic event, all we see in the audience is exactly what is on the screen; disinterested actors staring at a special effect.  It makes it all the more ridiculous when the movie can’t even hold it’s own logic together.  Supposedly, the massive storm at the end of the movie, which causes the city of New York to go into an immediate deep freeze, can destroy infrastructure and envelope interiors killing everything in sight.  And yet, our main characters can survive in a solitary room with a working fireplace?  This ludicrous logic exists solely to give us one of the most justifiably mocked moments in the movie, where “climate change” is literally chasing the characters down a hallway, like a monster.  Suffice to say, this movie is dumb.

What it also reveals is a hubris on the part of Roland Emmerich that is also the hubris of many others in Hollywood.  What The Day After Tomorrow and most other Emmerich movies reveals is the worst kind of Neo-liberalism that ends up trivializing so many important issues that should be given a more serious examination.  Roland Emmerich believes that he is a liberal thinker, that his movies are doing a lot to help left-wing causes that mean a great deal to him.  But, as is the problem with a neo-liberal mindset, he is only interested in the surface level aspects of such causes.  His movies are all about tackling the soft targets, like politicians and industrialists, but never actually takes addresses the larger societal problems that also contribute to the rise of global warming, such as consumerism and increased human activity.  He never wants to point a finger at the audience themselves to make them consider what they could be doing differently to help slow down the rate of climate change.  No, instead he presents an easily identifiable antagonist that we can all project our disgust on, putting the responsibility on the individual and not on the masses.  This is shown through the portrayal of the vice president character, played by Kenneth Walsh, who repeatedly ignores the warnings of Quaid’s character.  Walsh was clearly cast because of his resemblance to the then VP Dick Cheney, and it’s Emmerich’s lame attempt to win some political points by picking on his straw man representation of the divisive politician.  The problem is, Emmerich is no where near clever enough to make this political parody work so it comes off as petty.  This kind of neo-liberalism is often referred to as “limousine liberalism,” meaning it’s a political mindset that claims to be progressive but is formed within a bubble of comfort that has no connection from the actual plights of the world, and as a result minimizes the arguments that the subject is trying to make.  This unfortunately leads to right wing forces in opposition to progressive causes having more fodder and reason to dismiss the arguments of the other side.  Emmerich probably doesn’t know how counter-productive his half-baked arguments are to actually solving the problem that it intends to address, and that is probably The Day After Tomorrow’s biggest crime of all.  It, probably more than any other film, set back the progress this country has made in fighting climate change because it gave the other side of the argument the perfect example of the kind of overblown exaggeration that they always claim is coming from the environmental side.

Suffice to say, there is much to dislike about the movie, from it’s mediocre script, to it’s bland characters, to it’s self-indulgent direction.  But the fact that it bungles it’s important message so fiercely that it may have set back the environmental movement at a time when we need them the most is probably it’s greatest crime.  Emmerich is clearly out of his league as a social commentator, and his attempts to make a statement on the politics of this issue and point fingers at certain people doesn’t do anything to help what actually needs to be done.  Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth did so much more to address the actual problem and what needs to be done to solve it than Roland’s movie ever did, and that was because it didn’t let it’s audience off the hook.  It’s not a simple good vs. evil story-line; it is man vs. nature and about bringing balance back into the world, which calls upon us to change a lot of our own behavior.  The Day After Tomorrow just whittles the issue of climate change down to a simple series of experts vs. skeptics arguments and some big budget mayhem that seemed to be his main goal in the end.  Emmerich’s main problem is that as much as he wants to be a serious filmmaker, he never will able to be, because it’s not his strength.  He’s a loud, bombastic filmmaker who excels at portraying destruction on screen.  And as often the case, his attempts at making a profound statement often get drowned out by the sophomoric indulges he puts in whenever he fears he’s losing the audiences attention.  He has to understand, he is not a serious filmmaker.  It is okay being genre man, and indeed, he can find moments of truth even within something as outlandish as Independence Day.  But with The Day After Tomorrrow, he is only further poisoning the discourse, which should always be focused on delivering the cold hard facts about the realities of climate change.  It may not be Emmerich’s worst made movie, but it is certainly his most irresponsible, and should stand as a reminder of what it looks like when a filmmaker’s own self-interest ends up doing a disservice to the very issue it is trying to solve.  It seems appropriate that a movie like The Day After Tomorrow would in itself prove to be a destructive disaster.

Support Your Cinemas – Why We Can’t Let Movie Theaters Close Forever

A very different world we live in over the course of just a few short weeks.  At the beginning of this month, I wrote out a review of Pixar’s new film Onward (2020) as I would normally do.  Little did I know that over the course of the next couple weeks, not only would that film be pulled from movie theaters after the briefest of runs, but that the theaters themselves would also close it’s doors indefinitely.  The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused one of the biggest upheavals in recent human history, both financially and culturally.  To help stem the rapid spread of the disease, local, state and federal governments issued an unprecedented “stay at home” order, causing businesses across the country to cease operation.  Among those hardest hit by this order were movie theaters.  I already wrote about the long term effects this may have on Hollywood itself right here, but today I want to focus specifically on how this current situation may end up damaging the theatrical experience, possibly forever.  Movie theaters are one of those institutions that we often take for granted.  We’ve been going to them our entire lives, and for some of us, watching a movie in a theater is oftentimes a part of our weekly routine.  Not all experiences in a movie theater are positive ones, but I bet many of you can recall your own favorite theatrical experiences at one point, often tied to a personal favorite movie most likely.  Already leading up to this year, movie theaters were engaged in an uphill battle against television and more recently streaming.  So with this pandemic closing the doors to theaters for an uncertain amount of time is making people wonder, is this the death stroke to movie theaters as we know it?  It is a dire time for the industry, and also a time where we need to remind ourselves just how important and worth saving movie theaters are.

The most stressing thing right now is the fact that no one, not the experts nor the people in charge of the theater chains know what’s going to happen in the next few months.  As of now, the largest theater chains in America have all committed to a closure of up to 9-12 weeks in accordance with the recommendations of health officials.  That is an extremely long time for any business to close it’s doors, let alone movie theaters, and it also means a staggering loss of revenue from ticket and concessions sales.  The worst part of this is the labor cuts that are going to have to be made in order to keep the companies afloat.  AMC, the largest chain in America, had to furlough their entire corporate office in addition to making difficult staff layoffs.  Even their CEO is putting himself on furlough, just to keep some solvency in the company’s expenses.  It’s a sad reality for a once profitable company, but they were left with no other choice.  The government mandate could not be ignored, and you certainly don’t want your business to be responsible for the spreading of a potentially deadly virus.  Also, with the movie studios all pulling their movies off of the calendar for the remainder of the Spring season, there was going to be nothing worth showing regardless.  It’s bad for one company alone, but as we are seeing, it’s happening across the entire industry.  I especially feel for the theater staff, since I was one of them back in my college days.  You enter the month of March fairly secure in your position, only to find a few short weeks later that you have no job and the place you worked at may not even come back from this.  Movie theaters were one of those reliable open 365 days a year kind of places.  Even shopping malls that had fallen on hard times could always rely upon the movie theaters as an anchor that could bring in people daily.  Now, that has all come to a grinding halt, and it has many people, film goers and theater workers alike, worried that this might be the end.

The reason why people are believing this is because of the fact that streaming has developed into the fiercest competition yet in the field of distribution.  The rise of Netflix and it’s ilk has shown Hollywood a different model for exhibiting movies that allows for a wider variety of movies that normally wouldn’t survive long in the theatrical market to get more broad recognition.  So, a lot of movies that otherwise would have been buried in theaters end up gaining traction on streaming and perform better as a result.  With the “stay at home” order given out during this pandemic, streaming has now gone from an alternative option to presenting a new film, to being the only option at the moment.  The Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae comedy, The Lovebirds (2020), which was slated for theaters in April, suddenly made the move to premiering on Netflix instead, where to be honest it probably would have had a better shot to begin with.  Disney+ is also making moves as well, bumping up it’s premiere of Frozen II (2019) on the platform, and taking the extreme measure of premiering Onward on there as well in the first week of April, a mere month after it’s short lived theatrical debut.  The move is a necessary one for Disney, as they need to rely more heavily upon their still fairly new streaming platform for some cash inflow, considering that they not only have no movies playing in theaters, but their theme parks are also closed as well.  All this is making the streaming business more lucrative, while the theatrical market is stuck in the mud.  And that is worrying to the theatrical side of the business, because the last thing they needed was for people who could choose between one or the other to have no other option.  For Hollywood, it’s a shift, but not one that will stall their production; at least until it’s okay to restart filming again.  What the theater chains worry about in thus regard is that with people becoming more comfortable with watching their movies from home as opposed to going to a theater, it’s going to keep those audiences forever in that mode, and Hollywood will likewise move on to where the audience is.

Now, that’s not to say that when the theaters are eventually allowed to reopen that they’ll all be too far gone to ever reopen.  These chains have hundreds of locations nationwide, and if they had to downsize, it would take them several years to do so, and not every single one will be gone.  There is a passionate base of fans of the theatrical experience that will always return to the multiplexes no matter what; of which I consider myself one.  The only problem is, there aren’t enough of us to go around to support every single movie theater.  What I especially worry about are the independently run movie theaters that you find scattered throughout the country.  These often “mom and pop” run businesses are hurting very much right now, because they don’t have the deep pockets to maintain operations that the big chains have.  Sure, they have dedicated clienteles that will gladly return once they are allowed, but sadly, depending on how long this pandemic continues, those theaters may be too far in the red to ever return again.  It would be a major loss to see these kinds of theaters go under, because they are often the only ones presenting art house entertainment to communities that otherwise wouldn’t be able to have access to them.  But, the sad reality is that once the crest of this pandemic has thankfully passed us by, there will be far less movie theaters available for us to go to.  These independent movie theaters are sadly in survival mode right now, and in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation, where they have to stay closed to keep people safe to the peril of their bottom line.  With the recently passed stimulus bill, one hopes that those small business loans may include some much needed cash to help them weather through, but that remains to be seen.

More than likely, the road to recovery will take many years for the theatrical industry, and it will also be dependent on what Hollywood does as well.  For the film studios, moving their movies off the schedule was no easy move either, as it meant a lot of wasted marketing spent over that last few months plus it’s going to shake-up their long-term release strategy.  But, it was an easier move than say what the theaters have had to go through.  If anything, the outlook for movie theaters would be far more dire if Hollywood was coming out and stating that they were abandoning theaters altogether.  Thankfully, there have been commitments made by some of the studios to release their movies theatrically once the doors are reopened.  Warner Brothers publicly announced that Wonder Woman ’84 (2020) their big summer tent-pole, would still see a theatrical run, albeit much later in the summer than planned.  It stands to think that the other studios will likely also release their big tent-pole films into theaters when they are able to, mainly due to the already existing agreements that they’ve had with the theaters in the short term.  It’s the long term outlook that remains uncertain.  Once the theaters reopen, are they going to draw in the same crowds as before?  Will “social distancing” just become the new normal, and movie theaters will no longer be able to generate the same ticket sales in order to justify the enormous costs of the movies they are showing?  There are some filmmakers who will insist that their films be shown theatrically, like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, but in the end, they won’t have the final say.  For both the theaters and the studios, there needs to be a profit on the other end, and it won’t matter how necessary the theatrical experience is in the end; the theaters will need those audiences back in a big way in order to be seen as economically viable for the future of cinema.

So, what are they going to have to do?  For a short time, movie theaters may have to reduce their ticket prices in order to entice audiences to return to their venues again after such a long absence.  They were already moving in a direction where they were taking the now defunct MoviePass model and adopting it into their own business plan by offering a monthly subscription to regular patrons of their theater.  The subscription plan worked very well for the two biggest chains, AMC and Regal, and hopefully, they return that plan once the theaters reopen for those of us who used it.  That will certainly bring back a certain segment of their patronage, but how do you bring back the casual movie-goer?  Those lower ticket prices may be one option, but you’ve also got to convince the patron that their experience there will be wildly different than what they’ll get in their living room.  We may find ourselves in a bold, experimental time for the theater industry, which can either lead to a boom in business (like what Widescreen did) or lead to embarrassing failure (Smell-o-vision, anyone?)  It may also change the kind of movies that get screened in the theater as well.  For one thing, depending on how much contraction in ticket sales that might come about in the coming years, Hollywood may end up making movies on more modest budgets than we’ve seen in the past decade.  It’s happened once before, as the extravagant epics of the 1960’s like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Cleopatra (1963) gave way to smaller, grittier dramas in the 1970’s like The Godfather (1972) and Taxi Driver (1976).  And eventually, the blockbuster era arose out of this fallow season in the movie business, with Star Wars (1977) leading the way.  Periods of transition are turbulent, but not uncommon for the movie industry, and we’ve seen movie theaters rise and fall before.  It’s just that this time, the fall is coming hard and fast and in a moment when theaters were already suffering a blow.  It may take some ingenuity to get themselves out of this rut, but with so much uncertain, it’s anyone’s guess what might happen.

I have always been a strong proponent of the in theater experience and I feel that it is something worth preserving.  We all tend to focus on the pet peeves of watching a movie in a theater, all of which seem to be magnified in a time when the term “social distancing” has become a part of our daily lives.  Sure the people talking during a movie, or playing on their phones, or failing to manage their out of control kinds are annoying and they no longer become a part of your experience when you watch a movie from home.  Nor do you have to deal with the less than clean conditions of your theater after the ushers make the quickest of cleaning transitions before the theater can be ready for the next show.  Trust me, having cleaned a few theaters myself back in the day, we would be lucky to have more than a ten minute window available in order to get everything clean.  But, despite all this, I would gladly trade in a theatrical experience for a sit at home one any day.  And that’s because there are some movies that just never feel the same on a small screen as they do on a big one.  And seeing a truly rousing movie in a nearly full theater is one of those true delights that I cherish in life.  Just last year, I had one of the best theatrical experiences in my life watching Avengers: Engame (2019) on an IMAX screen on opening night.  Feeling the rush of the crowd reacting to what they were watching was just as entertaining as what I was watching on the screen, and that’s something that I never would’ve gotten at home.  I know that this won’t happen with every movie, but it is something worth preserving.  We are distancing ourselves on purpose right now for our own safety, but in doing so, we may end up losing the thing that most effectively brought us all together.

I heard Quentin Tarantino put it very well in a 2015 interview with the Hollywood Reporter where he said that, “movies are the art-form for the masses.”  In that statement, he means to say that movies were the one form of entertainment that spread across class, race, gender, no matter who the person was.  It wasn’t an expensive art-form of the elite like opera, Broadway, or professional sports.  Movies were available to most everyone for a reasonable ticket price, and that’s what made movie theaters such an integral part of our lives.  Now we are in a time when they’ll need all the help they can get just to survive the next few months.  Strangely, help has come from an unlikely place like Netflix, which has helped set up a fund to support furloughed workers within the industry.  Netflix’s creative head, Ted Sarandos has also stated publicly that his intention is not to have Netflix supplant the theatrical experience, but to work alongside it.  Hopefully, this experience may loosen the theater chain’s objections to Netflix’s model of distribution and we may end up seeing more of the streamer’s movies released into theaters in a wider distribution.  But, what’s most important in the weeks ahead is that we don’t forget the importance of the theatrical experience itself as a part of our connection with the movies.  Nothing can replace that, not even the most high tech of home theater set-ups.  The big screen is where most movies are meant to be seen, and the theaters are going to need us if they are going to survive.  We especially need to give our support to those small, independent theaters that provide their own one of a kind experience that can never be replaced.  Communities that otherwise don’t have much access to alternative kinds of media and film are dependent on these movie theaters’ survival, and it is very important that they continue to remain open after this crisis is over.  Movie theaters may not go away completely, but this pandemic crisis is certainly going to be a crushing blow that may take years to recover from.  But, my hope is that I can convince enough people out there to remember the value of our movie theaters and all the good they have brought into our lives.  Not everything about the movie theater business has been perfect, but I certainly don’t want to live in a world where I can never walk into a movie theater again.  So, once we are able to, please buy those tickets, order those buckets of popcorn and drinks, and please enjoy the show.

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