Collecting Criterion – The Seventh Seal (1957)

Living through the troubled reality of a global pandemic can lead one to feel depressed and hopeless.  That’s especially true when your entire world has been turned upside down within the span of only a couple weeks.  Worst fears were realized in the last couple days as pretty much all social life as we know it was shut down in order to reduce the infection rate of the Covid-19 coronavirus.  This included movie theaters, which closed it’s doors for an indefinite amount of time in an unprecedented move that really gives you the true perspective of the scope of this crisis.  The entire Spring movie slate, from March to May has been moved off the calendar and some are even bypassing the cinemas altogether now, jumping to any streaming platform willing to pay for the rights.  It’s a devastating blow that will no doubt leave a black eye to the theatrical market in film, but at the same time, what other choice did they have.  Our response to this crisis needed to be broad and drastic in order to avoid an even bigger catastrophe in the form of mass casualties.  So, for the time being, all of us are going to have to get used to living hold up in our homes with our only outlet to entertainment being whatever is available in our digital and physical media libraries.  Thanks to their decades long commitment to curating the finest pieces of cinematic art from the last century, The Criterion Collection thankfully has given us a fairly extensive assemblage of films to choose from.  Some, like me, have delved extensively into collecting their many special edition blu-rays and DVD’s, but for those who haven’t, Criterion also offers their own streaming channel, built off of the remains of the beloved Filmstruck service.  And though it is grim and perhaps too reflective of the time we are living in, there is a film that is worth spotlighting that does touch upon the anxieties of a world overrun with a plague; Ingmar Bergman’s immortal classic, The Seventh Seal (1957, Spine #11)

The Seventh Seal holds a special place within the Criterion Collection.  You could almost say that there wouldn’t be a Criterion Collection without The Seventh Seal.  This is because of the special partner in the film business that has been responsible for providing Criterion with most of the films within it’s library; distributor Janus Films.  The New York based company is a private distributor of international films into the American market, and were the ones responsible for bringing attention to the likes of Akira Kurosawa, Frederico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, Sergei Eisenstein, Michelangelo Antonioni, and yes, Ingmar Bergman to American audiences.  Their wide distributions of films from outside the Hollywood machine had a profound impact on the business and went on to influence a whole new generation of homegrown filmmakers.  And to make a name for themselves, Janus couldn’t have picked a better film to make their debut than The Seventh SealSeal developed a cult following almost immediately.  In stark contrast to all the polish and glamour of Hollywood, Seventh Seal was bleak, chilling, and a thorough indictment of a world in denial of it’s own evil.  Bergman’s style was also unlike anything that American audiences had ever seen before.  Instead of soft, natural lighting, here they saw harsh contrasts between light and dark.  Instead of larger than life performances we got cold, emotionless characters.  It was strange, but in an entrancing way.  Though Bergman had already been well established in his native Sweden, this would be the movie that would propel him to international acclaim.  And many years later, when Criterion was blessed with the chance of taking full advantage of the extensive Janus Film library, they naturally made The Seventh Seal one of it’s earliest titles.   And in turn, thanks to Janus’ influence, Criterion would become a brand synonymous with the best of cinema.  By helping Janus films become a success, and in turn leading to their eventual partnership with Criterion, you can say that Seventh Seal is the one movie we have to thank for the Collection in the first place.

The Seventh Seal takes it’s name from a passage in the Book of Revelations, itself a parable of society living through end times.  In the passage itself, it reads, “And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.”  It refers to an end of calamity that has brought about the Apocalypse, and the final revelation of Jesus’ Second Coming.  But more importantly with regards to the theme of Bergman’s film, is that it marks a point when God’s voice is silent in the world.  That heavenly silence is what marks the despair found in the story of The Seventh Seal.  The movie tells the story of a medieval knight named Antonious Block (Max Von Sydow) who has returned home to Sweden from fighting in the Crusades.  Upon landing on the beaches of his homeland does he learn the shocking truth; that the black death plague has spread across the land, killing most of the population.  Accompanied by his squire Jons (Gunnar Bjornstrand), Block intends to brave his way across the Plague ravaged countryside in order to return to his home and wife (Inga Landgre).  Along the way, they run into an entertainer named Jof (Nils Poppe) and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson).  They are hoping to bring spirits up in their travels by playing songs in every town, but their good intentions are often drowned out by the pious flagellants who intend to keep the people god-fearing.  As the knight and squire travel onward, accompanied by the band of performers, Block continually is met by the personification of Death himself (Bengt Ekerot).  Block hopes to preoccupy Death by challenging him to a game of chess, thereby delaying his inevitable fate in this death ravaged land.  It is a game that he knows literally holds his life on the line, as well as those who accompanies him, and it’s one that he willfully accepts in the hopes of it granting him a chance to hear the voice of God before the end.

Pretty much the name Ingmar Bergman is synonymous with this movie more than any other he directed.  The image of Block and Death sitting over a chessboard on a beach has become one of the most iconic moments ever put on screen.  Even if you haven’t seen the movie in total, you know that image, because it is one of the most parodied in all of cinema.  It has been referenced in everything from Woody Allen movies to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), where instead of Chess that film’s version of Death plays other board games like Battleship and Twister in a comedic spin.  The Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Last Action Hero (1993) even features the character of Death directly from this movie as a part of it’s own narrative, played by (of all people) the legendary Sir Ian McKellan.  But, apart from it’s iconography, the movie is still a fascinating work of cinematic art.  For one thing, it is one of the most profound depictions of an Apocalyptic landscape ever put on screen.  Though Bergman uses the Black Death as the scourge destroying the human race in his movie, it was meant to be metaphoric of a different kind of doomsday scenario that was weighing on the heads of people in the mid 1950’s; the fear of a nuclear holocaust.  The Seventh Seal came out during the most heated years of the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union proliferating their nuclear stock-holds at an alarming rate.  With tensions high, countries caught in the middle, like Sweden (a partial ally of the Western Block that would eventually form NATO) worried very much that nuclear annihilation would become a definite possibility.  That was the feeling of dread that informed Bergman’s creation of The Seventh Seal, and it’s understandable why he chose to re-contextualize that fear into the plague that we see in the movie.  As we learn from the film, Death knows no allegiances, no borders, no personal necessity.  Whether it is through nuclear war or a deadly pandemic, or something more benign, death will always win it’s game no matter what we do, and the scariest thought of all is that that Seventh Seal (God’s Silence) is all we’ll ever hear.

As bleak as it is, Ingmar Bergman still manages to make The Seventh Seal a thing of beauty.  Gunnar Fischer’s stark black and white cinematography would quickly define the signature of Bergman’s style, something that would even continue under the director’s conversion into color with the legendary Sven Nykvist in his later years.  The period detail is also quite good for it’s time, avoiding the polished cleanliness of old Hollywood medieval epics and showing us a time in the past that was dirty, decaying, and almost tomb like.  But apart from the beauty of the movie’s visual splendor, what really helps to make this film the masterpiece that it is can be found in the iconic performances.  It’s ironic that in this same time period where we are experiencing a global pandemic we have also experienced the passing of the late, great Max Von Sydow; bless-fully due to old age and not from any disease.  Sydow was an icon in the truest sense, crossing over into mainstream Hollywood with great ease and becoming one of the most reliable character actors in movie history, with movies as varied as The Exorcist (1973) and Flash Gordan (1980)in his body of work.  He acted all the way up to the end, even appearing recently in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), capping an over 60 year career in the movies Even at the ripe young age of 28 at the time, Sydow had a weathered look that was perfect for the character of a disillusioned soldier.  He’s also perfectly matched with Gunnar Bjornstrand as Jons, whose depiction of an outspoken, nihilistic squire is quite different from what you’d expect of other characters of his type.  Bengt Ekerot’s portrayal of Death however is the movie’s primary highlight.  His imposing figure all draped in stark black is chilling at first, but it’s balanced with an almost aloof personality.  It’s rather shocking that some of the movie’s only moments of levity come from the grim reaper himself, including a strange, nearly cartoonish moment where he cuts a tree down to claim another victim.  It’s easy to see why this movie entranced so many film-goers upon it’s initial release and it also launched two icons in Ingmar Bergman and Max Von Sydow to worldwide fame, which in itself is a reason to celebrate the film all these years later.

Given it’s treasured place right there in the early days of the Criterion Collection, The Seventh Seal has received a great deal of care in it’s preservation.  Criterion has carried the film over multiple formats, from Laserdisc to DVD to the most recent blu-ray.  And each time, it made sure to deliver a product that lives up to it’s always high standard.  The film’s original negative thankfully still remains intact at the Swedish Film Archives, and was used for a brand new 2K scan to create a digital master image to source for the blu-ray.  Bergman passed away in 2007, so he couldn’t be consulted for his approval of the new restoration, but he did help consult on Criterion’s DVD edition back in the aughts, and Criterion used his notes on that previous restoration to help inform them on things like color timing and sound mixing to create this new polish of the film.  Suffice to say, the movie looks pretty amazing for a film it’s age.  The clarity taken off of the original negative is superb, removing years of wear and tear and showing the film in the way it originally looked over 60 years ago.  The black cloak of Death’s robes are especially pristine here, revealing details that otherwise would have been lost within a black void in a less clean version of the movie.  The movie’s soundtrack also is freshened up as well.  Like most Bergman films, it’s not the dynamic range of the soundtrack that defines them, but rather the chilling silences.  The Seventh Seal is largely devoid of a musical score, and often the only thing we hear is dialogue and the ambient sounds of nature.  And then there are the chilling moments when all noise leaves the movie, marking the arrival of Death into the scene.  Had the restoration of the movie not removed the hisses and pops that could have filled those moments of silence, it would have robbed the movie of some of it’s foreboding power.  Overall, it’s a reference quality example of Criterion’s great devotion to preserving these works of cinematic art.

Like always, Criterion also delivers a healthy amount of supplements to fill out their presentation.  One is a particularly welcome introduction to the film from Ingmar Bergman himself.  Shot in 2003 for Swedish television, Bergman discusses his inspirations for the movie and what special place it holds for him in his extensive body of work.  Filmed around the same time as the introduction, we also are presented with an extensive documentary called Bergman Island (2006).  Journalist Marie Nyrerod, who also appears in the introduction, was given in-depth access to Bergman’s base of operations on the island of Faro, where the director would spend his last days.  With a series of revealing and introspective interviews, it’s a fascinating look into the life and method of one of cinema’s great masters.  There is also a wonderful English language, audio-only interview with Max Von Sydow from 1988 where the actor talks about his career, and especially touching upon his experience making Seventh Seal and working with Bergman. The interview was conducted by Bergman historian Peter Cowie, who also provides an informative audio commentary for the film, as well as a video essay called Bergman 101, which covers the full filmography of the director’s career through still images.  Perhaps the most surprising feature on this set is a tribute video essay made by one of the unlikeliest disciples of Ingmar Bergman; funnyman filmmaker Woody Allen.  Allen discusses the things that inspired him the most about Bergman’s movies including his innovations, his poetry, and his themes regarding the human experience.  You can see definitely see the influence of Bergman’s films in Allen’s own work, especially films like Love and Death (1975) and Interiors (1978).  Allen even got to borrow Bergman’s longtime collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist for a few of his own films, like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).  It’s a definite statement of one filmmaker declaring his fan-hood for another, and it shows just how much of an effect cinema has in passing down through generations.  Lastly, the original Swedish film trailer is included, itself a wonderful artifact from another time.  It all makes this a fantastic collection of extras that compliments the classic film that it’s packaged with.

In other times, The Seventh Seal would be an easy film to recommend, especially as an introduction to Ingmar Bergman’s filmography.  However, given how the movie’s themes and setting seem so eerily prescient right now, it might not be a hard one to watch for some people.  This is especially the case if you read this purely as the bleak picture of humanity that it often is.  People forced to isolate themselves out of fear of an unseen menace; pious grifters hoping to convert the fearful towards their more extreme views in addition to exploiting them for their own benefit; the sad reality that everything you thought was safe and secure is going to change forever.  But, there is something profound that Bergman finds in the movie’s final moments.  It comes in what is probably the movie’s most haunting image; the “Dance of Death.”  Awaking in the morning, alive and well, the performers Jors and Mia find that they have made it into another day free of the horrible fate that befell all the others.  And in that moment, Jors believes he can see his former companions dancing on a hillside locked hand in hand behind Death, who leads them across into dawn’s first light.  For Jors, it’s a sign of hope, perhaps a message delivered to him by God after the the silence that given to all others.  In that moment, Bergman finds the ray of hope in the face of death.  Though as bleak as the world is, there are the Jors and Mia’s of the world who will carry on after and make the world a better place in the end.  Bergman often said that this was a therapeutic movie for him, as it enabled himself to overcome a crippling fear of death.  In a trying time like this coronavirus outbreak, where ironically, the theatrical movie experience may become one of it’s most tragic casualties, we need that positive outlook in order for us to overcome our worries.  One day, this too shall pass, but not without changing our world forever.  Are we ready to meet that inevitable fate?  Can we ourselves beat our own games of chess?  It’s more important than ever to preserve movies like The Seventh Seal, and Criterion has done another amazing job with this one.  In order to appreciate the colossal influence of Ingmar Bergman, as well as the amazing start of the late, great Max Von Sydow, and even confront our current anxieties over a world thrown into turmoil, there’s no better film to look at than this immortal masterpiece.  Check Mate.

Outbreak – What Will Happen to Cinema in the Wake of a Worldwide Pandemic?

It’s the kind of thing that you always see play out in the movies, but never think it may actually happen for real.  However, this week, the entertainment world was faced with that unfortunate reality.  In the face of a worldwide pandemic, the movie industry enacted an unprecedented shutdown in order to help the containment of the highly infectious Covid-19 coronavirus.  This included the postponement or outright cancellation of many upcoming movies within the next few weeks, as well as further cancellations of media events across the world.  The South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, a major destination for independent filmmakers to premiere their new projects to the public, saw it’s first cancellation in it’s entire history.  Other key events like Coachella, CinemaCon, and various others also have put the brakes on their plans over the next few months.  Here in Los Angeles, things have also gotten seriously dire.  Many productions have been shut down until further notice.  Industry employees are now being told to work from home.  We even got the shocking news that beloved Hollywood star Tom Hanks and his wife, actress Rita Wilson, were among those infected with the disease.  Not only that but Disneyland and Universal Studios had to shut their gates to guests, disrupting a major source of income for both of their parent companies.  In total, this is a lock-down of an entire industry that was thought unthinkable before, and yet is happening before our very eyes.  That’s not to say it’s not warranted either.  It’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared in a case like this, and no one in the movie industry, not the studios or the theaters, wants to be responsible for making a bad situation even worse.  But though the short-term situation is all about caring for the safety of the public, it also is leaving the industry in a wary position about how this will effect them in the long run.

Only a short couple of weeks ago, things looked like they were going to go on as scheduled in Hollywood.  The coronavirus was making the news, but it was a far off menace, effecting the Asian markets more than anything.  Then the first cases began to hit the United States and Europe, and it grew rapidly from there.  The landslide began with Sony deciding to pull the new James Bond film, No Time to Die, out of it’s planned April 2020 release and pushing it all the way to November.  It was a risky move, as advanced tickets had already been sold to customers, but Sony recognized that it was not worth the risk depending on how serious things were getting.  The worries were also mounting after Disney and Pixar’s new film Onward opened to tepid box office last week, leading industry professionals to believe that people were staying home to be safe.  And that led to the bottom falling out this week, with pretty much the entire slate of upcoming Spring movies either being delayed or taken off the calendar completely.  This included heavy hitters like the horror sequel A Quiet Place: Part II and Disney’s live action remake of Mulan.  Even Fast & Furious 9, which wasn’t slated to release until mid-May, moved itself back a full year.  It’s all in response not just to the outbreak that has occurred, but the threat that it could get even worse.  And that is why we saw the drastic measures that were taken this week.  Poor Onward is going to be left out in the cold having to try to make up what it can in a market that is all but shutdown.  As of this writing, many theater chains have yet to cease operations, but given how the studios have pulled so many of their upcoming releases from the schedule, I don’t know how much longer they can continue doing business like normal.

The ripple effects of these decisions will no doubt leave their mark on the industry.  This is almost certainly going to be the biggest disruption the industry has faced since the Writer’s Guild strike of 2007.  And in many ways, it could be far more disruptive than that.  The strike, even as protracted as it was, still didn’t effect the theatrical end of the business.  Theaters were still able to capitalize on the backlog of already completed movies to see them through the slowdown of production.  The strike more or less was more disruptive to the television end, which had to see many of their programs go on protracted hiatuses.  But this situation could be far more destructive to the theatrical side than anything else we’ve ever seen in the history of Hollywood.  If theaters do have to close over the next couple weeks, it will be a major loss of income for both the theaters as well as the studios that make money off of the box office returns.  And moving all these movies to later dates already signals to these theater chains that they are going to see far less business in general for quite some time.  It’s the tough call you have to make in a time of uncertainty such as this one, and no matter what, businesses are going to suffer.  For an industry that has already been struggling in the wake of the rise of Netflix and it’s competitors, the movie theaters are in their most vulnerable position yet, possibly facing the final blow to their industry in general.  Of course, that’s assuming that this virus can not be contained quickly, and that audiences will return in droves once the crisis is over.  As someone who has come out of the theatrical industry myself, my hope is that those who work in these theaters and are doing their best to help stop the spread of this disease don’t end up seeing their life and careers torn apart by a crisis that is fully out of their control.

That’s the first point where we may see the long lasting effects of this virus’ impact on the industry.  The movie studios can make the choice to hold back their films, but it also means that they will see a disruption in their revenue for the year.  No one is going to come out of this unscathed, and already many of the major studios are already looking at 2020 as a lost year for the industry.  Disney has already lost 20% of it’s stock value, even losing a big chunk before the virus hit our shores due to their closure of the Asian theme parks and loss of the Chinese market at the box office.  Disney is big enough to rebound eventually, but this will no doubt leave them wounded for some time.  Thankfully, Disney is not doing anything reckless to try to counter their losses, and are following every health guideline to ensure that no one is going to be further exposed to their viruses on any of their properties.  Yes, closing down nearly all of their theme parks is going to cost them millions, but it’s better than the millions more they might have lost due to bad publicity if an outbreak broke out on their watch.  This is a time for tough choices, and it may end up changing the industry in the long run.  Certainly, the short term money issues will affect what gets green-lit in the months ahead.  It may end up convincing executives to rethink their strategies for tent-pole features, especially those with out of control budgets and troubled productions.  We may see much less of the likes of Marvel and Star Wars blockbusters, because their enormous costs will not justify their productions in an industry where you aren’t certain if there will be any box office revenue on the other end of it.  This effect is something we might not see for a while, as most big budget films like Bond’s No Time to Die and Marvel’s upcoming Black Widow are already in the can and ready to go.  But, a year or two from now, we may see a much quieter and subdued slate of releases from an industry that is less willing to take costly risks.

That is to say, if the spread of the virus does get much worse in the weeks ahead.  The best hope that we can have is that these extreme measures taken by Hollywood and the theater chains do help to stem the tide of the outbreak, but at this point, no one knows what will happen.  The film industry is in uncharted waters right now.  This is especially true when you are dealing with the possible exposure of people within the industry to the disease.  The announcement of Tom Hanks having being diagnosed really put a face on the pandemic that hadn’t really hit home for most people up to that point.  And when it became apparent that anyone, even a movie, star could come down with the disease, than it essential for everyone to take this disease with complete seriousness.  The one blessing is that Covid-19, despite being dangerously contagious, is not as destructive as past pandemics like the Bubonic Plague, Smallpox, and Yellow Fever.  Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson will make a full recovery, there is no doubt about that, and so will most people who become effective.  The danger is not so much how badly it will make the person ill, but in how fast it will spread from person to person, and lead to infections of people unlucky enough to have weakened immune systems that can’t fight the disease.  This outbreak is putting us on a learning curve of what a pandemic in the 21st century can look like, and hopefully we will learn the lessons of it in order to be ready for when the really bad pandemic starts to span across the globe.  It’s the one silver lining that we can take from this; this outbreak is exposing the weak-spots in our disease prevention system, and will hopefully lead us to fixing them in the near future.  In many ways, the drastic measures taken by the film industry is a noble bit of sacrifice in order to make up for the other parts of the disease control system that have utterly failed us.

Though the theatrical market is going to feel the effects most directly, it doesn’t mean that Hollywood is going to shut down completely.  Once the disease is under control, the industry will start up production again.  And this is largely due to the more diverse market we now have with distribution.  This is going to be a boom time for streamers like Netflix and Disney+.  While people are staying away from the multiplexes, the streamers are going to benefit from increased viewership as people stay home.  This will no doubt lead to an increase in subscription, as people on the fence will be more wiling to commit to signing up.  For Disney, they certainly have this to look forward to as their much publicized streaming service is going to have to carry the load while the theatrical side takes a hit.  The streaming market may also be the only choice that a lot of smaller films will have left to be seen by a wide audience if the theaters start to close their doors.  The cancellation of SXSW and the possible postponements of the Tribeca and even Cannes Film Festivals could lead to the loss of exposure for many important movies that were hoping to get a boost and also distribution over the course of the year.  You really see how crucial the Festival circuit is to the industry as a whole when the possibility of it’s cancellation puts so many film’s futures in doubt.  These are the kinds of movies that are likely going to be up for the Academy Awards next year (like Palm d’Or winner Parasite ended up being last year), and getting the head start from the festivals is what helps to build the hype they need in the first place.  If the theaters do close, hopefully Netflix, Hulu, and the like will swoop in and give these movies the audience that they deserve.  At the same time, it will be another step towards streaming taking over as the dominant force that it is already becoming in the industry as a whole.  And that is why the theatrical side is especially wary about how this pandemic is going to affect the future of movie experience as a whole.

For the first time in a long while, Hollywood is not in control of it’s immediate future.  It is going to have to weather the storm and hope that it will come out of it in one piece.  Wars, terrorism, and even industry shutdowns have not made things as uncertain as it is now.  Hollywood has just done it’s best to just carry on as best as it can.  But with the spread of this disease already cutting deep into the profits that they have relied upon for so long, Hollywood is right now just hoping for the best outcome they can.  In truth, this will no doubt change the industry.  We’ll see a constraining of budgets over the next couple of years in order to make up for the lost revenue of this year.  The theatrical side will see it’s biggest disruption ever, which may end up closing many screens for good; a huge loss not just for the industry but for local communities in general.  We’ll likely see streaming emerge as the savior for a shaken industry when all is said and done, and the theatrical experience further become a shell of what it once was.  But, this is all uncertain as well, as no one can say exactly what is going to happen over the course of this year.  We just know that there is going to be an immediate economic cost to the industry with so much of it’s revenue sources being cut off.  One can hope that the studios are prepared for a scenario like this and that they don’t loose faith in the return of audiences to their films.  It’s just, how will those audience end up turning up in the end.  We are going to experience a quieter Spring, that’s for sure, and hopefully the measures taken today will ensure that the rest of the year doesn’t get disrupted either.

For me myself, I am taking all the needed measure that an individual should do to avoid getting sick.  I am washing my hands regularly, and keeping my living and working spaces sanitized.  The outbreak has reached my home-base of Los Angeles, and I have seen everything from the theme parks to the live entertainment venues all shut their doors over the course of the last couple days, leading to a decreased level of entertainment within the city.  Local theaters have also shut their doors, though the big chains have yet to close as of this writing.  It’s also unfortunately led to the cancellation of this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, which has been a staple of this blog since I started covering almost 6 years ago.   It’s a depressing time, but at the same time, necessary.  We have not seen an outbreak on this scale in a long, long time, and the drastic measures taken are to ensure that more people don’t get sick.  It’s not the worst disease we could be facing, but it’s certainly nothing to take lightly either.  Thankfully, because I write this from the comforts of my own home, it will not keep me from writing.  Expect to see more articles from me every week, even as the industry goes on lock-down.  I may end up spending my time catching up on what’s playing on Netflix or Disney+, and writing about stuff like that.  My worry is that whatever may happen after this pandemic, it’s going to lead to an increased diminishment of the theatrical experience.  I am one of those who still prefers that to sitting at home and watching TV.  There are worse things that will result from this pandemic, but to me, this will be the thing that hurts the most.  I hope that when the studios do start releasing their delayed films that they do so with a firm commitment to bringing people back to the cinemas.  We need the movies now more than ever to keep the world upbeat, and if it has to go away for a while for everyone’s safety than so be it.  But never forget, the greatest connection we have to movies is when they can bring us together as a community, and that is something worth preserving after a time that is forcing us into isolation.

Onward – Review

In all it’s 25 years of making feature films, the one thing that Pixar has definitely figured out is it’s formula.  Through all their films, they seem to like returning to the same mode of story, which is taking their characters on a journey.  Whether it’s Woody venturing outside Andy’s room in Toy Story (1995), or Flik levaing the ant colony in A Bug’s Life (1998), or Wall-E leaving Earth for the cosmos, or Carl Fredrickson flying his house all the way to South America in Up (2009), or Miguel accidentally finding himself in the Land of the Dead in Coco (2017).  The studio loves to take their characters out of their comfort zones and bring them into a strange new world.  And why change a formula that has worked so well for them.  If anything, their movies suffer when they stray too far from the formula (Cars 2‘s pointless spy movie diversion for example).  It’s a formula that also works well with the other thing that defines most Pixar films, which is their ability to re-imagine the world through a different perspective.  This includes the microscopic world of insects in A Bug’s Life, or the one inhabited by monsters in Monsters Inc. (2001), or one inhabited entirely by sentient vehicles in Cars (2006), or one entirely within the mind of a twelve year old girl in Inside Out (2015).  Because of this, we certainly know a Pixar movie when we see one, and that allows the filmmakers who work at the studio to craft a whole variety of stories that fit well into that template.  While most other animation studios attempt to pick up that Pixar formula and run with it, they can never actually match it.  Pixar has refined their style over a quarter of a century now, and it really only works well because of the unique creative atmosphere that they have managed to cultivate at their Emeryville campus.  And that creative spark continues into this new decade, with the release of their 22nd feature; Onward.

Onward on the surface appears to be the prototypical Pixar film; carrying over all the same features that I mentioned above.  It’s a film that takes place in a world parallel to our own, but with a twist; in this case, a world of fantasy set in suburbia.  It’s also a film that takes it’s characters on a journey, which fittingly matches a society that has it’s origins in swords and sorcery.  In many ways, it’s almost too prototypical, like a parody of a Pixar movie that you would expect from another studio.  But, what makes the difference is not the world that Pixar sets it’s story in, but what’s at the center of the story itself.  And the origins of this story comes from a surprisingly personal place.  Director Dan Scanlon, who previously helmed Monsters University (2013), based the story of Onward on something that actually happened in his own life.  In the movie, the two main characters have lived without their father for most of their life, with the younger brother having been born after his father’s passing.  This parallel’s the real life upbringing of Scanlon, who never met his own father either.  The scenario of the movie comes from a discovery he made many years later while searching through his father’s old things, and in there he found a tape recording his father had made many years ago.  Through this, he was able to hear his father’s voice for the first time, which had a profound effect on him.  Scanlon’s example is one of those things that really sets Pixar apart, considering how much personal emotion each of the filmmakers put into their own work.  The only question left is, how does Onward stack up within the extremely high standards of the Pixar canon, and does the personal story underneath manage to give studio’s formula that extra bit of new magic as well.

The story takes place in fantasy world where sorcery and enchantment reigned.  Creatures such as elves, centaurs, trolls and unicorns all coexisted and thrived thanks to the existence of magic in the world.  But since magic was difficult to master, the creatures sought out easier ways to earn a living, so they turned to modern conveniences like light bulbs, cars, and airplanes.  Eventually, magic faded from the world, all but forgotten in a modern, fast-paced society.  Living in this modern world is the elven Lightfoot family.  Raised by their single mom Laurel (Julia Loius-Dreyfus),  brothers Barley (Chris Pratt) and Ian (Tom Holland) navigate through the struggles of growing up into men, especially under the shadow of their beloved and long departed father.  Barley is a man child, impulsive and very much into fantasy role playing games.  Ian is a shy introvert who wants to be just like the Dad he never knew, but doesn’t quite know how to start.  On Ian’s 16th Birthday, he receives a surprise gift from their mom, which turns out to be a wizard staff left by his dad.  In addition, he gave Ian a visitation spell which can bring him back to life for one whole day.  With encouragement from Barley, Ian soon learns that the wizard staff responds to his commands, and he begins the visitation spell, only to have it short circuit halfway.  Right after, Ian and Barley find that their Dad has returned, but only from the feet to the waistline.  With this unfortunate result, the two brothers must search for another Phoenix Stone in order to complete the spell before the day runs out and their Dad disappears completely.   Taking advantage of Barley’s knowledge of ancient mystical lore, they set out to follow an ancient trail to find the lost stone, with their father’s legs in tow.  This includes seeking out the help of the mighty warrior, the Manticore (Octavia Spencer) who now manages a family restaurant.  All the while, Laurel tries to find her boys before they get into trouble, aided by her centaur police officer boyfriend, Officer Colt (Mel Rodriquez).  With time against them, can the Lightfoot brothers escape the perils of this quest, both old and new.

With a fantasy world setting as it’s backdrop, you would think that this movie was set up for Pixar to just go all out and create the most imaginative world they’ve ever made in one of their movies.  Surprisingly, that’s not what they did at all.  While it does take advantage of it’s re-imagined world, Onward is actually one of the more grounded Pixar movies that I’ve seen in quite a while.  Far more focus was put onto the story and the characters than on filling out this fantasy world that they inhabit, which actually comes across as surprisingly small.  But, you know what, it actually works to the movie’s benefit.  Whereas most Pixar wannabe movies put too much focus on the world-building of their films, Pixar instead puts the focus exactly where it needs to be, which is on the characters and their story.  As a result, Onward is a shining example of the Pixar formula working to a “T”.  The characters first and foremost must be relatable and worthy of attention, and that would’ve been impossible if the eye was too often drawn into the background details of this world, which don’t get me wrong, are still impressively realized.  I get the feeling that the movie will probably benefit from repeat viewings, because I’m sure that people will want to see this multiple times in order to see all the details that they missed before.  All the while, Ian and Barley’s story takes the journey formula that Pixar has mastered and builds it towards a satisfying, and surprisingly heartwarming finale.  It’s easy to see the heart that Dan Scanlon brought to the movie, basing so much of it off of his own experience (minus the magical quest part).  It’s one of those stories that is not about the ultimate destination, but about the internal changes that the characters go through that make the movie resonate so well.  It also doesn’t take the easy route either, with characters sometimes revealing deep rooted flaws that often manifest in ways that they might not have expected.

The one downside to Onward‘s more grounded story is that it also kind of minimizes the ultimate impact as well.  Stakes remain very low in this movie.  The Lightfoot brothers go off on a quest, but never really leave their city limits that far behind, making their world remain relatively small.  There is no dark presence there to get in their way, no existential threat.  It’s just two boys on a treasure hunt.  And while the story that we get does have a lot of heart and is incredibly entertaining throughout, I also feel that this kind of character journey played out much more effectively in other Pixar films.  I didn’t really feel the emotional impact here as strongly as I did in say Coco, which had a real profound life and death struggle at it’s center.  By the end of that movie, Pixar had built up the stakes of the movie so much, that the simple act of a boy singing to his ailing great grandmother took on this profound importance.  I didn’t feel that same impact with Onward, and I don’t know quite why.  I believe that director Scanlon put as much heart into his underlying story as the filmmakers of Coco did; perhaps even more so.  Maybe it’s the fact that there was less of a lasting effect that the final denouement moment than what Coco had.  A similar effect happens with the movie Up, which even though it’s grounded in a realistic world like ours, it’s concluding chapter feels far more impactful, mainly because the stakes became higher by the end.  It may be that it’s not where the story ultimately concludes that didn’t resonate enough, but rather that the character’s journey didn’t leave as much of an impact.  Ian and Barley are closely tied as brothers in the beginning of the movie, and remain so to the very end, changing very little in their relationship.  Their journey is not a terrible one by any means, but it’s also one that may not have taken the full arc that it probably could have.

While the plot does have it’s shortcomings, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty more to love about this movie.  Chief among them is the voice cast, which is a top notch one even by Pixar standards.  Taking full advantage of their connection to Marvel through the big tent Disney connection they have, Pixar managed to bring in some big names to play the Lightfoot brothers, namely the two Peters of Marvel (Quill and Parker respectively, otherwise known as Star Lord and Spider-Man).  Chris Pratt in particular is especially well cast as the free-spirited, roleplay-obsessed Barley.  Between this and his work in the Lego Movies, Pratt has proven to be remarkably adept at voice acting, bringing an incredible amount of personality to each character he plays.  I especially love how well he balances the more goofball aspects of the character with the deeper, more sincere moments he has later on in the film.  At the same time, he finds a perfect match with Tom Holland playing the role of Ian.  Holland has pretty much become the master of awkward teenager roles in a way we haven’t seen since the days of Michael J. Fox in his prime, and he brings an incredible amount of heart to the character of Ian.  I wonder if he and Chris Pratt recorded some of their scenes together, because their chemistry comes across so strongly that you almost feel like their riffing off one another in real time.  At the same time, Julia Louis-Dreyfus brings an extra amount of heart to the movie as Laurel, making it her second major role in a Pixar flick after giving voice to Princess Atta in A Bug’s Life twenty years ago.  Octavia Spencer also does a great job voicing the Manticore, perfectly imagining an overburdened creature who has long abandoned her wilder instincts.  The strengths of these characters no doubt benefited from a cast who worked so well together, especially with the two brothers at the center.  And much of the charm in the movie comes from the perfect casting that extends pretty much across the board throughout the movie.

While the world that’s been imagined for the film does come across as pretty scaled down for the most part, it is still beautifully realized.  Even in some of their lesser movies, Pixar still keeps the bar set high with regards to their visual aesthetic.  The movie looks just as beautiful on the big screen as say Toy Story 4 (2019) or Incredibles 2 (2018).  I especially like how it maintains this purplish hue throughout, which reinforces the sort of neon based color palette of a fantasy world that we probably most associate with the 1980’s, which was a decade where fantasy films flourished.  At the same time, like most Pixar movies, it’s the background details that will likely catch people’s eye while watching the movie, especially with all the Easter eggs and sight gags that are littered throughout.  A lot of it is subtle, and does disappear into the background, much in the same way you forget about the setting in an episode of The Flintstones, but it’s still effectively realized.  I especially like how much character is brought into all of these fantasy elements as well.  The beat up van that Barley drives, affectionately named Guinevere, is a perfect example of the subtle ways that the filmmakers imagined this contemporary style fantasy world.  On the outside, Guinevere has the appearance of a typical 80’s era van, complete with an airbrushed piece of art on it’s side, but inside it’s been made to look like a miniature viking hall, complete with wooden siding on the walls, and makeshift shields and tapestries hung throughout, like a roleplay obsessed person would add to their personal space.  Guinevere almost becomes a character itself, and whose sendoff in the movie is one of the absolute funniest moments.  It’s another example of the incredible animation that has always been the thing that has set Pixar apart, and continues to remain strong as shown in the beautiful work displayed in Onward.

It’s hard to make a fair assessment of where Onward places within the entire Pixar canon.  If it were made by a different studio, Onward would be a revelation and a new gold standard for quality.  But because this is Pixar we are talking about, a studio that has consistently performed at an incredibly high standard for 25 solid years, Onward has to face a higher bit of scrutiny.  And as a result, it does suffer a bit in comparison, especially when it comes to how effectively it plays out the tried and true Pixar formula.  While still incredibly fun and engaging, I did feel that it lacked that little bit of extra pathos that could send it into all-time territory for the studio.  It’s character journey just feels a bit more minor in the long run compared to similar plots found in Coco and Up.  Also the grounded aspect of it’s story does feel like it’s shackling the world building, which could have gone a little bit farther.  Even the non-Pixar animation classic from parent company Disney, the amazing Zootopia (2016), managed to fully flesh out it’s world and maintain a compelling narrative in the same amount of time that Onward had.  Even still, the movie is delightful romp through a beautifully realized world, even if that world is a bit smaller than you might expect.  It particularly gives us some fantastic characters worth rooting for, with a voice cast that is perfectly matched together, and their story is engaging enough to follow, with even some surprising twists and turns by the end.  Honestly, you’ll probably get a lot out of this movie just hearing Chris Pratt and Tom Holland working off each other, making you wish that this kind of pair may one day happen again (get on that Spider-Man/ Guardians crossover now Marvel).  In many ways, I’d put Onward somewhere in the center of Marvel’s incredible body of work, slightly leaning towards the upper half.  And considering how very few Pixar movies are actually considered bad, that’s saying something very positive about Onward.  It’s not going to become the newest high point of Pixar’s body of work, but it’s still a great representation of the fact that their formula is still going strong.  With a passionate enough story, incredibly likable characters, and an imaginative world, this is one movie that will no doubt leave it’s viewers enchanted.

Rating: 8/10

Strength and Honor – 20 Years of Gladiator and the Last of the Sword and Sandal Epics

The late 1990’s was an interesting transitional period for Hollywood, as the advancement of computer aided technology had opened many new doors for the industry.  Special effects extravaganzas like Twister (1996), Independence Day (1996) and Armageddon (1998) were dominant at the box office, but were usually seen as little more than popcorn flicks that were rarely celebrated for anything other than their effects.  But, there was another interesting occurance that was happening during this time and that was a surprising resurgence of something that was once the dominant genre in filmmaking at one time in Hollywood; the historical epic.  Reaching a peak in the late 50’s and early 60’s, the historical epic became the defining example of what Hollywood could accomplish, taking full advantage of the new widescreen processes of the time and delivering larger than life recreations of legendary moments of the past.  Started off with the biblical epics of The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959), the genre would go on to be defined by other history based dramas like Spartacus (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Patton (1970).  They were all grand in scale and with epic lengths to match their ambitious scope (a three hour run-time being the norm).  But with out of control costs also defining their productions, like the near cataclysmic Cleopatra (1963), the genre that would become known as the “sword and sandal” epic would not be able to sustain itself for long.  But once the CGI revolution of the 90’s began, filmmakers raised on those epics of the past found a new, cost effective way to bring movies on that scale back to grandiose life.  Movies like Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990) and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995) began to reivigorate the long dormant genre initially, and then James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) pushed the door wide open.  But a true return to an actual “sword and sandal” epic wouldn’t happen until the turn of the century with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), a movie that both revived the epic in a big way, but also began it’s inevitable second decline as a result.

Gladiator, now reaching it’s 20th anniversary, is a rather intriguing oddity in the history of Hollywood.  Feeling both modern and nostalgic, it’s a movie that really feels out of place in it’s time.  It is very much a throwback to the “sword and sandal” epics of Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” and yet every aspect of it’s cinematic style is thoroughly contemporary.  And even more surprising is how much it was embraced by audiences and critics alike upon it’s release.  Despite the fact that a movie set in ancient Rome had not been a box office hit in nearly 5 decades, Gladiator somehow managed to be one of 2000’s highest grossing films, bested only by Mission Impossible 2 (2000) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000).  And it did so with no A-List stars at the time.  Australian actor Russell Crowe had only appeared in a handful of Hollywood films at the time, most notably in The Insider (1999) which garnered him a Best Actor nomination a year prior, but he was unproven as an action star.  Joaquin Phoenix’s career had barely just begun, as he had only recently moved beyond the child actor roles of his youth into more adult ones.  Plus, director Ridley Scott had been known more for his work in Science Fiction with movies like Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), and a lavish, costume drama was something that he had tried and failed at before with 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992).  But despite these limitations, the movie caught on in a big way and would go on to become one of the most influential movies of the decade.  It even rode it’s success to a Best Picture win at the Oscars, something that even most “sword and sandal” epics couldn’t do, coupled with a Best Actor win for Crowe.  It really leads you to wonder why this movie, above all the others, became the one to reach the top like it did in such an unexpected way.

Part of it’s creation no doubt was a result of a group of filmmakers wanting to indulge their nostalgia for the epics of the past, while at the same time finding a way to make good use of the new tools that could allow them to make a movie like it work.  The original concept came from screenwriter David Franzoni, who had been working on the story since the 1970’s, having been a fan of old fashioned epic movies and carrying an interest for Roman history his whole life.  Finding his way eventually to Dreamworks, and working alongside Steven Spielberg on the movie Amistad, Franzoni pitched the project to Spielberg, who himself had a long-standing interest in the genre.  Spielberg, who was too tied up at the time to direct himself, eventually gave the project over to his longtime friend Ridley Scott, who was more than eager to jump on board.  Scott certainly was also influenced by old fashioned epics, but he was far more interested in looking at this era through a more authentic vision; creating a Rome that felt less polished and more lived in.  Nevertheless, the movie would give him the chance of imagining Ancient Rome on a scale that old Hollywood would’ve only dreamed of, and on a more modest budget.  Aided with cutting edge CGI technology, Ridley could not only rebuild the mighty Colesseum, but even take you inside it, and span around looking at it from all angles, like in the now iconic 360 degree shot from it’s ground level.  After bringing on playwright John Logan and screenwriter William Nicholson in for rewrites to further match Scott’s vision, production began in earnest in the spring of 1999.  Shooting in places as diverse as Morrocco, Malta, and Northern Ireland, Gladiator was certainly one of the most ambitious projects of it’s time.  But even with a professional assembly of cast and crew on board, the movie still endured some unexpected hurdles.  Most notably, actor Oliver Reed, who was playing the role of gladiatorial trainer Proximo, suffered a fatal heart attack during the middle of shooting.  With the actor playing a crucial role in the final film, and without having completed his last scenes, Scott needed to find a way to bring his story-line closure without having to recast the actor and reshoot half the movie.  He made the controversial choice to digitally resurrect Oliver by placing his face artificially on another actors body in a groundbreaking visual effect.  Yes it’s a little ghoulish to do this after the actor has died and has no say over how his likeness is used, but in doing so, Ridley Scott managed to preserve the rest of his performance within the film, which is a wonderful final bow for the legendary character actor.

Though the movie is a magnificent showcase for Ridley Scott’s talents as a film director, the thing that I think really turned the movie into an iconic hit with audiences was the character at the center of it all; General Maximus Aurelius Meridius.  From the moment we first see Russell Crowe’s world worn but resilient face on screen as the character, we know that this will be someone who will command our attention for the next 2 1/2 hours.  Crowe absolutely owns as the charcter, being both physically imposing while also vulnerable in spirit.  And his journey through the film is no doubt what has captured the imagination of audiences around the world.  In the film’s tagline, it describes the character of Maximus as “the general who became a slave; a slave who became a gladiator; a gladiator who defied an empire.”  And it’s that undaunted drive to push beyond your limits and fight your way back to the place where you belong that makes his story so captivating.  After loosing everything, his rank, his home and his family, at the whims of a power hungry dictator, Maximus uses what power he has left (his fighting skills and knowledge of combat) to fight his way back to seek justice.  Russell Crowe is commanding in the moments that call for him to be larger than life, but I feel that his best work in the movie comes in the quiet moments in between, where Maximus becomes introspective and questions whether or not his path should lead him down this road towards vengence.  Of course, a hero is also only as good as the villain he faces, and Gladiator has a memorable one as well.  Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus is one of the most depraved heavys put on screen in recent memory, and Phoenix does a wonderful job of capturing the slimy nature at his very core.  It’s a performance that hints at the budding talent that Phoenix would display in the 20 years and more than anything else has been the thing in the movie that has aged the best over the years. Whereas most historical epics portray their villainous figures as pillars of insurmountable strength, Commodus is defined by his insecurities; a sniveling man child prone to abusing his power to compensate for his lack of strength. In many ways, Commodus is a truer depiction of what a tyrant actually behaves like than anything else we’ve seen in movie before, and it’s a real credit to the power of Joaquin’s manic portrayal of the character. It also plays off of Crowe’s Maximus perfectly, centering the movie around a truly dynamic contest between idealic good and loathsome evil.

In the 20 years since the release of Gladiator, it’s very interesting to see what kind of legacy it has left behind.  One thing that may be surprising about it is the fact that while it did revive the long dormant “sword and sandals” epic, it only did so for a short time, at least in the general traditional sense.  The movie’s box office success and subsequent Oscar wins signaled to Hollywood that this type of movie was easy money once again, which is something that only in retrospect now looks like a foolish assumption.  As stated, Gladiator stood out because of it’s stellar story and unforgettable characters, and not just because of it’s spectacle.  But, what Hollywood believed was the key to it’s success was the ground-breaking visual effects that it used to tell it’s story, which made people believe that they could plant into any old historical event and make it work just as well.  This led to some rather misquided attempts at Gladiator clones.  Much like how Pearl Harbor (2001) tried and failed to capitalize on the Titanic craze from a couple years prior, these wannabe Gladiators also would pale in comparison.  Two of the most notable failures came from one studio in particular, Warner Brothers, who put their money behind a couple of bloated epics in the same calendar year.  First was Troy (2004) from Wolfgang Petersen, which mistakenly believed that vain, egocentric Achilles (played by a miscast Brad Pitt) could become the next Maxiumus; and then there was Alexander from Oliver Stone with an even more grossly miscast Colin Ferrall as the boy conquerer.  I already went into detail comparing the two movies in an article here, but suffice to say, both missed the mark completely in recapturing the spark of Gladiator.  Ridley Scott himself would also find it hard to repeat within the genre he helped to revitalize.  His Crusades era epic, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) was butchered by 20th Century Fox upon release, removing nearly an hour of run-time from his original director’s cut and creating a hollow shell of what it could have been.  Even a re-teaming of Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott in a new version of Robin Hood (2010) couldn’t even come close to the effectiveness of Gladiator.  Which really made people wonder if Gladiator really did in fact revive the “sword and sandals” epic at all, or was it just an anomaly.

In one way, I do think that Gladiator did in fact bring the “sword and sandals” epic back in a big way; just not in the way you would exepect.  The aesthetics of the genre were revitalized by Gladiator, but it managed to thrive beyond it in a entirely different genre.  Only a year after Gladiator’s release, Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema released the first film of their ambitious The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) in many ways took up the mantle of what Gladiator brought to cinema, making it’s fantasy world feel authetic in the same way that Scott’s film tried to recreate ancient Rome.  For Peter Jackson, he wanted to take J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantastic world of Middle Earth and film it in a way that felt like a historical epic.  Great attention to detail was called for, making the world that the characters inhabited feel like it’s existed for centuries, and not look like an obvious set on a soundstage.  Removing the staginess of the production is one thing that the movie has in common with Ridley Scott’s epic, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Peter Jackson was in some way inspired by the success of his predecessor while making his own epic.  He’s certainly not copying Scott’s style, but seeing Gladiator succeed with it’s own level of authenticity no doubt must have emboldened Jackson’s determination to do the same.  So, though the historical epic genre floundered in the 20 years since Gladiator, the same kind of epic grandeur still lived on in the fantasy genre, which saw it’s own Renaissance in the new century.  We are even seeing the super hero genre beginning to pick up the mantle, with moments in Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame (2019) and DC’s Wonder Woman (2017) and Aquaman (2018) also emmulating the epic style of Gladiator and RIngs.  So, even if Gladiator didn’t make a lasting impact in the historical epic genre, it’s style still was able to live on in other genres that have only increased their epic grandeur.  Look at something like the arena fight between Thor and the Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and tell me that one of the first movies that you’ll recall in your mind is Gladiator.  Sure it may look different, but there are certainly echos that ring familiar at the same time.

One has to wonder though, is Gladiator the last of it’s kind as well.  It certainly is the last historical epic to have ridden a wave of success towards a Best Picture win at the Oscars.  In the 20 year since, the Oscars have favored contemporary dramas more than any other, with 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave being the rare exceptions.  The “sword and sandals” epic revival was pretty much over with by the end of the 2000’s, with even Ridley Soctt leaving it behind for a return to sci-fi in more recent years.  And it would seem that the once pinnacle of Hollywood filmmaking was no longer a viable artform in this vastly different market that we see today.  Nobody wants to invest in a lavish reproduction anymore of what is essentially a history lesson.  You do see modest attempts at it every now and then, but even so, they don’t have the majesty of something like Gladiator.  Netflix has recently attempted a couple tries at creating lavish period epics, like Outlaw King (2018) starring Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce, and The King (2019) starring Timothee Chalamet as Henry V.  Though both films are more ambitious than most, you can almost feel themselves being restrained by a sense of not trying too hard.  I think that’s what made Gladiator hit so well with audiences.  It was the last epic of it’s kind to not only be lavish in it’s execution, but unapologetically so.  It was a movie that was not afraid to embrace the over-the-top nature of it’s genre while at the same time trying to modernize it with a gritty aesthetic.  It’s not just in it’s epic scale that it worked, but also in it’s characterizations.  Maximus and Commodus are iconic characters that capture the imagination.  You can give them the most absurd, old-fashioned dialogue possible and they will still capture the imagination because they are that interesting.  In many ways, it’s not that the style of genre went out of fashion, but the fact that Hollywood forgot to add substance to these epics, leaving nothing but production values to do most of the heavy lifting.  And that’s why the style that Scott’s Gladiator repopularized moved on into genres that had far more interesting characters.

So, what we take away from the legacy of Gladiator is that it had a profound impact on the movies of the new century, but in a way that I think Hollywood and even the filmmakers involved probably didn’t expect.  Most of the industry expected the “sword and sandals” epic to just pick up right where it left off thanks to the movie, but that just wasn’t the case.  We ended up seeing a short lived revival, while other genres would end up prospering, picking up the aesthetic that had served the historical epic so well in the past.  But, though the movie may not have given it’s own genre the kick that it needed, it still holds it’s own as a fine epic that stands the test of time.  It did a lot of things for Hollywood as well; it reinvented Ridley Scott as an epic filmmaker, broke new ground in visual effects, made Russell Crowe a star and shed a spotlight onto a young Joaquin Phoenix. Legendary character actors like Richard Harris, David Hemmings, and Oliver Reed were also well served by this movie, with Reed’s final performance thankfully maintained even while being incomplete. But I think what works best for the movie is in how it inspires audiences who see it; reminding them of a time when historical epics set the high bar in filmmaking. Sure, Gladiator is far from historically accurate, as most films like it are, but it shows just how incredible a window into the past can capture our imaginations on the big screen.  During a rousing pre-battle speech early in the movie, Maximus tells his soldiers that, “what we do in life, echoes in eternity.”  It’s a profound statement that not only hits a personal core, but also reflects well on the legacy the movie leaves behind.  By being the bold artistic vision that it is, and striving to hold up the high standard of grand epic movies in the past, Gladiator continues a whole new generation of filmmakers to keep that tradition going on into the future, and hopefully inspire a desire to see more movies like it made in the future.  Strength and honor indeed.

Off the Page – Gone With the Wind

There are few films that hold as lofty a position in the annals of movie history as Gone With the Wind (1939).  Considered the greatest movie in what many say is the greatest year ever in cinema, Gone With the Wind is every much the movie that defined Old Hollywood.  A grand sweeping epic with an all-star cast, Wind broke new ground in everything from it’s extensive use of technicolor to the introduction of a roadshow format in it’s presentation.  To this day, it is still the highest grossing movie ever adjusted for inflation, a title it has held for over 80 years.  And in many circles, it is still held up as the Gold Standard of epic film-making, with sweeping historical dramas all in one way or another taking cue from it.  But, in also being held up as the pinnacle of Old Hollywood, it also faces the scrutiny of contemporary interpretation as well.  It’s setting within the Antebellum South and it’s depiction of the Civil War and it’s aftermath continues to be a hotly debated aspect of the film, especially with regards to the criticisms it faces with the perceived glorification it gives to the South under slavery and it’s treatment of the black characters within the story.  One cannot say that the movie endorses the institution of slavery, but it also doesn’t deal with slavery as seriously as it should either.  It’s unfortunately a product of it’s time, when black performers were not as valued as their white co-stars, though remarkably Gone With the Wind managed to make some progress in that despite the conventions of the period.  The movie continues to spark strong feelings across the board for cinephiles of all kinds, and it’s place within the legacy of the industry as a whole is undeniable.  But it is also interesting looking at how it came to hold such a crucial place in the history of Hollywood, especially when you look at it’s literary origins.

The book on which the movie was based on had in fact only just hit the bookshelves a few years prior to the making of the movie.  In fact, producer David O. Selznick optioned the novel before it’s publication.  The book was written by Margaret Mitchell, a first time novelist who had been writing columns extensively for the Atlanta Journal for many years.  A pioneer journalist in her time, she refined her strong feminist voice in a time and place where her point of view still wasn’t accepted as the norm.  Being a strong woman in a man’s world would be a theme that would define much of her writing from that point on.  In 1926, she left her job at the Atlanta Journal and an ankle injury soon after left her home bound for an extensive period of time.  Her husband convinced her that she should be spending her downtime writing, and she would do just that, working on what would be her magnum opus over the next three years.  Drawing upon the stories that she was told by her elders who lived through the Civil War and from interviews that she had with still living veterans of the conflict, Mitchell constructed the narrative of Gone With the Wind, centered around a strong willed southern debutante by the name of Pansy O’Hara; her publisher of course would convince her to change the name to the more provocative Scarlett.  Once completed, Margaret Mitchell had amassed a biblical sized manuscript that topped over 1,000 pages.  But, even despite that enormous size, the publishers fell immediately for her epic romance and upon publication, readers did as well.  After it’s debut in 1936, Gone With the Wind would earn Mitchell both a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  And of course, Hollywood came a calling and would forever cement Mitchell’s novel into it’s iconic place in American culture.  And despite the immense length of the novel, it is frankly rather surprising how little changed on it’s way to the big screen.

“With enough courage, you can do without a reputation.”

David O. Selznick knew very well that when he optioned the rights to the novel even before it’s publication that he had in his hands something that was going to take the world by storm.  When the novel became a nationwide sensation, it became apparent that not only did Selznick need to make the movie a reality, he had to be especially faithful to the source material as well.  And given the enormous length of the novel, he was also going to have to put a lot of trust in his audience as well.  The movie clocks in at a staggering 235 minutes, just shy of 4 hours, making it the longest movie ever made in Hollywood at that time, and would continue to be for many years after.  To help theaters deal with such a long movie, Selznick Productions broke the film up into two separate acts with an intermission at the halfway point.  In addition to the epic length, Selznick also spared no expense on the movie’s lavish production and costume design, all of which sparkle in the technicolor photography, which itself was a novelty in the late 1930’s.  Through it all, Selznick was determined to make the grandest spectacle ever put on the silver screen, no matter the cost, and it’s a gamble that paid off.  The movie was a financial and critical success, becoming just as much of a blockbuster as Mitchell’s book.  It would end up winning a then record 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.  It still remains a touchstone in the history of Hollywood, and is still widely seen as a classic.  And with it’s faithful adherence to the novel it’s based on, it also gives us a magnificent translation of Mitchell’s vision to the big screen.  But even so, there are some things that stand out when you compare the novel with the movie, and some of it shows an interesting disconnect that belies the divisions that still exist within America after the Civil War.

“Take a good look my dear.  It’s a historic moment you can tell your grandchildren about – how you watched the Old South fall one night.”

One big difference that you’ll notice between the novel and the movie is that the novel is much darker in it’s tone.  Margaret Mitchell was not one to shy away from the harsh realities of post-War America.  In the novel, she details the brutal atrocities that occurred during the conflict, in particular, the Sherman March that left a deep scar across the setting of Northern Georgia.  Mitchell points out hardships and acts of violence that the movies could only hint at under the Hays Code restrictions.  Margaret Mitchell’s writing also is far more a product of her point of view.  Though Mitchell was quite liberal in her politics, particularly when it came to her feminist points of view, she was also a Southerner, with a rose colored view of the South’s position before and after the war.  Though she doesn’t endorse the institution of slavery, her novel unfortunately portrays a far too idealized vision of Antebellum society in the days before the war, when slavery was an institution.  As described in the narration, as well as the movie’s introduction, the South portrayed in this story is a “dream remembered.  A Civilization gone with the wind.”  That may have been how white southerners may have looked at the South, but black southerners absolutely would feel different.  Though Mitchell is detailed in her depiction of historical events, her blind-spot with regards to race is an unfortunate mark on her writing that has not aged well over time.  The movie likewise carries some of that baggage too, though in changing some aspects of the story, it managed to escape some of the harsher criticisms as well.  The exclusion of Scarlett’s assault in a shanty town by a black man and her then husband’s rallying of fellow Ku Klux Klan members in retaliation spares the movie of having more controversial connotation within it’s narrative.  Had they stuck more closely to Mitchell’s novel in these instances, the movie would have slipped further into Birth of a Nation (1915) territory.

If there is one interesting aspect of the movie where it makes the most interesting deviations from the novel, it’s in the characterizations.  Gone With the Wind is defined first and foremost by it’s iconic characters.  So much so that when it came time to cast the movie, there was unprecedented hype surrounding who would end up getting the highly coveted roles.  The demand for Clark Gable to play the role of roguish Rhett Butler was almost unanimous, and it’s easy to see why; it’s almost as if Margaret Mitchell wrote the character with him in mind, and he does not disappoint.  The casting of Scarlett however became the most sought after part in Hollywood, and every leading lady seemed to be fighting for their chance at the role.  Bette Davis even made an entire similarly themed film named Jezebel (1938) as a possible demo reel for her chance at the part.  However, Selznick made the then controversial decision to give the part to a then unknown British actress by the name of Vivien Leigh.  Leigh may have been an odd choice at the time, but from the moment you see her on screen for the first time in all her Scarlett glory, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role.  Her chemistry with Gable in particular is unmatched and is probably what won her the role.  And in many ways, Leigh’s performance is the thing that deviates in the best way from the novel.  Mitchell’s Scarlett is far more of an un-redeemable schemer, who while is admirable in her resilience in the face of hardship is also a cold manipulative individual who ends up pushing people away.  In the movie, Leigh manages to find a deep rooted sadness in the character that helps to flesh her out even more.  It’s also an interesting, subtle commentary that the writers of the movie make on the South; turning Scarlett into a metaphorical character who stubbornly resists change in a futile pursuit of an idealized, comforting past that she can never return to.

“Never, at any crisis in your life, have I known you to have a handkerchief.”

Hollywood, while having it’s own issues with race in it’s early history, nevertheless did not want to overlook it either.  Thus, we get into the touchy subject of how the movie deals with the realities of slavery.  The movie could only go so far under the Code rules of the day, and it unfortunately had to remain cautious when it came to adapting the novel, as to not antagonize it’s Southern fan-base.  Margaret Mitchell’s novel does feature well-rounded black characters within it’s narrative, but they are in the role of slaves, who despite being emancipated still remain in service of the O’Hara family long after the war is over.  It’s another aspect of Mitchell’s blind-spot on race in America, where she didn’t view characters such as Mammy, Pork or Prissy as problematic.  The movie likewise draws backlash for it’s inclusion of these characters, but by making them a part of this colossal cinematic benchmark, it at the same time inadvertently broke new ground for black actors in the business.  Many of the black actors involved in the movie were not pleased with the fact that they had no other choice than to play domestics in a big Hollywood film, but at the same time, they were not going to waste their opportunity to show their qualities either.  Chief among them was Hattie McDaniel who played the role of Mammy, Scarlett’s blunt and strong-willed house maid.  McDaniel is a force on screen and she elevates this stereotypical character and makes it her own, putting a spotlight on a black face in cinema unlike any ever before.  And in doing so, she broke down barriers, including winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, a first ever for an African American in Oscar history, which wouldn’t happen again for another 20 years when Sidney Poitier won his Best Actor award.  You could certainly consider McDaniel’s contribution groundbreaking, but at the same time it propagated the same stereotypes that would continue to keep black actors sidelined for many years after.  So, it makes you wonder if the movie did more damage than good in race relations in America, by romanticizing this era where the only place a black person could exist was in servitude.

It’s in sanitizing the story the movie for mass audience consumption that Hollywood almost robs the importance of it’s subject matter as a result.  The horrors of slavery are pretty much glossed over and the focus is more on the suffering of the white characters instead.  But, those faults are more or less the faults of the book as well.  Margaret Mitchell was first and foremost concerned with the theme of destruction and rebirth, and most importantly, survival.  Through Scarlett O’Hara she imagines what it means to be a survivor, and how that sense of character makes someone standout and at the same time feel isolated.  Through this, the movie does capture it’s poignancy, as Scarlett is admirable in her resiliency, but at the same time hated for her selfishness.  The movie manages to keep it’s focus by giving Scarlett it’s full attention.  It’s pretty incredible how nuanced Vivien Leigh’s performance is, given that Scarlett is on screen for almost the entire four hours of the movie.  Even still, the movie today feels a little too simplistic with regards to it’s portrayal of the historical events in it’s background, and even with some of the other darker elements found in Mitchell’s writing.  Some changes are for the better, like the condensing of Scarlett’s many children into a single daughter as well as a streamlining of events.  But others, like the exclusion of details of a horrible marital rape committed on Scarlett by Rhett Butler, creates an unfortunate minimizing of crucial character developments that would have changed many perspectives on the characters.  Even still, it’s surprising how much David O. Selznick stuck his neck out for to bring the novel fully to life, including paying the hefty fine for braking the Code rules by including the then scandalous word “damn” in the now iconic line completely in tact within the movie.

“As God as my witness, I shall never go hungry again!”

Any criticism of the movie on the basis of race is more than justified, as with the original novel too, but there is no mistaking that the movie still holds a hallowed place in the history of Hollywood.  Even among critics of different racial backgrounds it is still an admired piece of cinematic art.  Not only that, but it set the bar high for epic film-making, and we have it to thank for all the grand spectacles that have followed in it’s wake, such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Gandhi (1982), Out of Africa (1985) and Titanic (1997) just to name a few.  A novel with the complexities of Margaret Mitchell’s original text was certainly going to be a challenge for any cinematic interpretation, and David O. Selznick’s production is certainly about as good as anyone could have done.  In many ways, the movies improves on many of the characters, certainly in the ways that the actors interpreted them including Vivien Leigh’s forceful portrayal of Scarlett and Hattie McDaniel’s historic depiction of Mammy.  There’s also the absolutely genuine charm of Clark Cable’s Rhett Butler and the undaunted sweetness of Olivia DeHaviland’s Melanie Hamilton.  As far as adaptations from page to screen go, you can’t ask for a better example than Gone With the Wind.  I’m sure that most people today are more familiar with the movie than the book itself, as it has become an almost universally known part of the culture.  The book itself is an interesting read, albeit with some old-fashioned views on the South that have not aged well.  It still stands as a groundbreaking work from one of the most important women writers of the 20th century.  Margaret Mitchell would never write another novel, as she returned to journalism soon after during the Second World War and had her life tragically cut short in a vehicular accident in 1949.  The legacy of her work still lives on, both in the positives and negatives, and Gone With the Wind is still one of the most widely discussed works of fiction from it’s time.  The movie itself is stunning in it’s adherence to it’s source material, but also it what it added to the work itself.  It’s also just a movie that defines the art of film-making in a way that few others do.  With it’s grandiose scope, it’s iconic characters, and it’s unapologetic sense of operatic splendor, it very much is the quintessential Hollywood movie, and without a doubt one of the most important translations of book to film that has ever been attempted.

“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

What’s the Rush? – Are Deadlines Creative Roadblocks to Movies and Is It Worth It to Delay?

Something peculiar and unprecedented happened in the film industry last year, and it came from the unlikeliest of places.  When Paramount Pictures delivered a first look trailer for their big screen adaptation of the video game Sonic the Hedgehog, it was received with a fair bit of outrage.  Long time fans of the character were quick to point out how terrible looking his new “enhanced” character model appeared, and they flooded social media with their complaints.  But what shocked many people afterwards was the fact that Paramount quickly pulled the movie off their schedule, stating that they were going to “fix” the animation and change the model of Sonic to better reflect the demands of the fans.  This is something that is pretty much unheard of in Hollywood, that a movie studio halts the release of a movie after the backlash it received from the trailer.  Originally slated for a holiday season release, the Sonic the Hedgehog movie is now being released in theaters with it’s new “refreshed” animation and, as of this writing, it is looking like it’s going to have a better than expected opening weekend.  Which raises the question; did delaying the movie actually improve it’s chances.  I haven’t seen it myself yet, but by judging the progression the movie went through from that original trailer to the final product, it looks like Paramount might have indeed salvaged what could have been an embarrassing train wreck.  I’ll definitely say that the new and improved model is a step up from the grotesque version we saw in the original trailer.  He at least looks like the character from the video game now.  But, what does this tell us about the film-making process in general.  Does it actually benefit a movie to have a delay in production in order to fix supposed problems?  Is meeting a deadline actually counterproductive to making a film better?  Is it right to take the response to a trailer as a motivation to re-work a movie?  In a blockbuster driven market like the one we are living through now in Hollywood, the questions raised by Sonic the Hedgehog’s troubled production provides some clues to problems that stem far and wide throughout the business as a whole.

So, what was the issue with Sonic the Hedgehog being delayed a few more months.  The answer is it’s something that just does not happen in Hollywood; at least not this late in the game.  One of the longest running mechanics of the studio system in Hollywood is a planting of a flag within a release schedule.  It’s a way of the studios telling the industry that they plan to have a movie ready for release  on a specific date many years in advance, even if they don’t quite know what that movie is yet.  It’s mainly done to assure business with the theater chains, who want to know what to expect over the next several years so they can make their long term plans.  Normally, these tent-pole dates occur during important periods of the year where both the studios and the theaters expect bigger than average audiences, like Memorial Day weekend or Thanksgiving or the Holiday Break.  And by planting their flag on these busy weekends, the studios can assure themselves that they have stood out among the other competition that weekend.  After that, then the pre-production planning begins, where studios figure out what they’ll actually fill those dates with.  Some studios know exactly what they’ll put there; Marvel for example has laid claim to the first weekend of the summer season every year for more than a decade.  But, other times the date exists there just for the studio to have a claim to a lucrative time frame, and then they sometimes fill it with a movie that they hope will benefit from that.  Regardless of what that movie is, the studios have that date set, and the focus from there out is making sure that a movie is ready on that date.  Once it’s determined what movie will fill the slot, then it up to the production team to make that goal.  And, as we’ve seen with Sonic, sometimes a movie just isn’t ready for prime time.

There are different classes out there with regards to how deadlines are viewed within the industry.  Some people, mainly writers, view deadlines as a positive, because it helps to sharpen their focus and allows them to get things done without too much second guessing.  On the other hand, there are other people in Hollywood, mainly on the production side, who view deadlines as cumbersome to the creative process.  Film directors in particular like to have as much time to work on a project as they possibly can, because it allows them to be experimental and shoot a scene from every possible vantage point.  Without the constraint of a time limit, they can also accommodate their production to deal with delays that occur, such as with the unpredictability of the weather.  The same goes in the editing process, where more time allows for a more thorough search for mistakes and oversights missed on the days of production.  But, a movie studio can’t allow for film crews to have all the free time in the world; because then you end up having runaway productions.  This is one of the things that ultimately ended the era of the New Hollywood in the 1970’s.  When Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980) both went over-budget and over-schedule, the studios intervened and put an end to these projects that seemingly were going to continue going on without end.  Ambitious visions are a valuable thing for a filmmaker, but at the same time, there has to be accountability with the budgets, as well as an end point in place, and thus, that’s why studios have become more reliant on those tent-pole dates to ensure things don’t spiral out of control.

But even when you have a well oiled machine that is able to fire on all cylinders towards meeting those deadlines, it can cause friction along the way.  Some filmmakers find that meeting those demands from the studio ends up diminishing the finished product.  In a tweet delivered shortly after he parted ways with Marvel Studios, Doctor Strange (2016) director  Scott Derickson described studio release dates as “the enemy of art.”  That led to what he and Marvel mutually described as creative differences that led to his being let go from the upcoming Doctor Strange sequel.   And it’s a trend that we are seeing happen more and more in Hollywood as blockbusters are becoming more like an assembly line product in service of ongoing franchises.  Some filmmakers are able to work under those conditions, while other feel stifled by it.  Marvel has benefited from a long line of stable productions throughout it’s run, but the same can’t be said about it’s sister company under the big Disney umbrella; Lucasfilm.  Multiple productions on that side have faced upheavals in recent years, with several filmmakers like Colin Treverrow, Benioff & Weiss and Lord & Miller all either being let go from a project or exiting out of their own choice.  Creative differences likely played a part in these shake-ups, but also the fact that many of them recognized that delivering under a tight schedule would’ve negatively affected their projects.  This seems especially to have manifested with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019).  The movie was almost completely started from scratch once J.J. Abrams stepped in to take over from Treverrow’s previous direction, and yet it still needed to make that December 2019 deadline.  It became clear, with an unfocused narrative and far too many plotholes left open, that the movie needed a few more months to polish out it’s story problems.  But, parent company Disney was insistent that it be done that specific year, because the release was going to coincide with the opening of Galaxy’s Edge in the parks as well as the launch of the Disney+ series that tied into the universe.  And thus, we got an unfinished movie in theaters that not only was the least popular of the new batch of films, but in some ways also tarnished the brand.

And out of that, you see why Scott Derrickson views deadlines as the “enemy of art.”  But at the same time, a project run amok has it’s downside too.  What the Star Wars,  and for that matter Sonic the Hedgehog shows us is that there should be more assessment over how much time a movie actually needs to be ready.  This can usually be examined early on in a film’s development, and oftentimes you do see film studios halt production well beforehand in order to keep a movie from going off the rails.  There are often many movies that get announced, but are never made.  Some people wonder why these movies never get off the ground and it’s because the studios assess the risks involved if they continue to head down the same road, and sometimes those risks are not worth the investment.  There’s the example of Warner Brother’s Superman Lives, which was going to be Tim Burton’s own spin on the famed comic book character, after he had already famously brought Batman to the big screen.  The movie went through a fair amount of steps in pre-productions including casting (with Nicolas Cage playing the man from Krypton) and location scouting, before the studio ultimately pulled the plug.  And the result usually comes from either the executives balking at the budget or because of a lack of enthusiasm from the public in general.  There are probably more examples of movies that died in development than there are ones that made it into theaters, and that includes projects from some of our greatest filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, or Francis Ford Coppola’s Megaopolis, or Ridley Scott’s Tripoli.  But these projects never end up hurting reputations for their creators, because they stalled long before things got way out of hand.  Perhaps what makes a case like Sonic the Hedgehog so unique is the fact that it changed course so far into production.

The unfortunate result of doing that kind of course correction so late is that it put extra pressure on the people working on your film.  In Sonic’s case, the visual effects team pretty much had to throw out months worth of work and effectively star over again.  This is especially problematic because the visual effects industry is notorious for over-working their artists, as well as adding a substantial amount to the budgets of the movies.  When a film is reaching that crunch time before a release date, it’s the pot-production crews that feel that crunch the most.  And with the case of Sonic the Hedgehog, they were saddled with having to work overtime on a project that they thought was nearly in the can already.  Having them go back and re-doing their work meant that it was going to take extra time away from their families in order to make the new deadline, and over the holidays no less.  To add more salt in those wounds, the visual effects company responsible for the Sonic redesign, Motion Picture Company (MPC), closed it’s Vancouver location shortly after, where all the Sonic work was done.  So, not only did the effects artists have to work through the holidays, but they were left without a job right after.  This speaks more to the volatility of the visual effects industry which is a whole other story, but it’s indicative of the growing problem where movie productions fall victim to their own inability to plan things out effectively.  Usually, movie studios haven’t taken the responses to movie trailers as seriously before, but in this case, the response had become so severe that Paramount had to intervene.  But, was it worth putting artists through a tough time for.  Many people get into the business for the love of creating movie magic, but when it’s becomes an arduous task to reverse a problem that should’ve been caught long before hand, that allure of creativity doesn’t seem so bright anymore.

The question remains, should movies be so beholden to set timelines.  In many ways, cinema is the only art-form that has to conform to such a demanding schedule.  Literature, for example, sometimes takes years to make it to the bookshelves from when they are announced to their ultimate publication.  We’ve been waiting how long now for George R.R. Martin to finish his next book in the  “Song of Ice and Fire” series?  Music also premieres in a different way, with singles often pre-releasing before a complete album; usually as a way to drive up hype.  The video game industry, like film, also uses release dates to gain attention for their products, but as they often fall prey to delays almost across the board, the gaming consumer base has become more lenient when it comes to receiving a video game far longer than what was expected.  So, why is it that movies are held to such a constraining time limit.  No doubt the history of out-of-control productions may have influenced it, but does holding onto it actually diminish a final product that ultimately needs more time to prepare.  It’s something that should become apparent when a major disruption happens, like a complete overhaul of the script or the team in charge of the production.  Otherwise, you are left with a movie project that either becomes a problem far too late into production like Sonic the Hedgehog, or a movie that lacks an identity because it had no time to evolve into something different like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.  The worst thing a movie can do is to waste it’s potential, and sometimes it needs just that little extra time to finally meet it.  Otherwise, you run into the embarrassment of having a movie that fails at what it was supposed to do, because there wasn’t enough time to fix it.

Ultimately, there are many films that are far beyond fixing.  I don’t think that a post-release clean-up of the movie Cats was ever going to save that film from embarrassment.  But, at the same time, we may have seen another film like Sonic the Hedgehog possibly turn around it’s fortunes.  Sure, it’s not going to become an all-time great, but it may have saved itself from the train-wreck that it looked like it was heading towards.  A last minute delay like it’s was still not without it’s costs though, as the poor digital effects artists will tell you.  But, a better box office performance for the film may teach Paramount and other studios in Hollywood that rushing towards a release date is not always a good thing.  Some movies need to incubate a little longer, and the studios need to recognize exactly when is the right moment to change course.  It certainly shouldn’t happen as late as post-production, where you have to completely redesign a character because of the immediate backlash you faced from the trailer.  At the same time, a deadline also keeps a project in check, so it shouldn’t so much be a removal of all boundaries as just a re-positioning of the goal post.  If Star Wars hadn’t been so strict with their unmanageable release schedule, they wouldn’t have been forced into a hiatus like they are now, with so much personnel being shifted around.  At some point, a movie will let you know how much more time it will need, or even if it’s going to ever happen at all.  Overall, I don’t think Scott Derrickson is right when he says that deadlines are the “enemy of art,” because I see a lot of people become more driven when they know they’ve got an end point they need to get to.  It’s probably just the writer part of me that thinks that, but having a deadline in front of me allows me to keep my mind focused on a goal and eliminates all distractions.  But, there should be precautions allowed for any case where a project gets de-railed by unforeseen forces.  I don’t blame movies like Spider-Man (2002) and Zoolander (2001) delaying their release so that they could make a last minute edit of their films to remove the World Trade Center immediately after the events of 9/11 for example.  Sometimes, deadlines are a necessary evil, but it’s one that should be flexible enough to allow movies to become the best that it ultimately can be.

The 2020 Oscars – Picks and Thoughts

Quite a departure from years past, this year’s race towards the Academy Awards has been greatly accelerated.  This has been due to a far more truncated season than normal.  Usually the Oscars are given a month long window to allow for plenty of campaigning and preparation, with the actual ceremony taking place on either the last week of February or the first week of March.  This itself was truncated even more than it had been before, as the Oscars would sometimes even take place almost as far into the year as Spring Break.  But, this year, the Oscars are reeling in the time frame even more by giving the Oscars it’s earliest ceremony date yet; coming in only a week after the super bowl.  From nominations to ceremony, the window for the studios to make their final push is at it’s most narrowest, and as a result, no real front runner has emerged; at least with the biggest award of the night.  The guild awards have given us some indication about how the rest of the night might go, but the biggest award is still anyone’s guess.  History has shown that the movie with the most nominations is the one that usually stands as the front runner, but that hasn’t been the case in recent years, and given that the most nominated movie this year (Joker) is also the most divisive one among critics and fans, probably tells us that the trend will not turn around any time soon.  But then again, this is the same Academy that awarded the heavily derided Green Book (2018) Best Picture last year, so I guess you really can’t put anything past them.  Like I have for the last several years, I will be sharing my picks for this year’s Academy Awards along with my thoughts on the top awards.  These will include my choices for who I want to see win and who I believe will win.  It’s an interesting year, and it will be interesting to see how it all plays out this Sunday.  So, without any more delay, let’s take a look at the nominees.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Nominees:  Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (1917); Rian Johnson (Knives Out); Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story); Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood); Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han (Parasite)

Out of all the nominated categories this year, this one is the most wildly diverse, as far as genre types go.  You’ve got a war movie, a whodunit, a divorce drama, a showbiz flick, and a class satire.  Interestingly enough, this category is entirely filled with screenplays written by the directors of each selective film.  Though Sam Mendes’ inclusion here is deserved, his work is far more likely to be spotlighted in the directorial category (which I will get to later).  Three of the other nominees are represented here for screenplays that clearly display their own unique style.  Though not recognized elsewhere, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out screenplay is a wonderful example of breathing new life into a long dormant genre, and his nomination is also a nice vindication after his tumultuous tenure in the Star Wars franchise.  Noah Baumbach’s portrayal of a family coming apart through divorce is one of the most impressive, stripped down examples of writing that I have seen in recent years, with his Marriage Story script managing to capture so much honesty in how real people manage to navigate through a break up.  And then you have Quentin Tarantino delivering a screenplay in the way that only he can.  It may be one of his most meandering plots, but it’s also what makes the movie so fun to watch, as it becomes a window into the past, in which Quentin is clearly wanting to have fun with.  Much the opposite is Bong Joon Ho’s scathing indictment of class divisions with his film Parasite, which surprises with it’s ever changing plot twists that make it impossible to know what’s going to happen next.  It’s hard to know what the Academy likes better here.  Tarantino’s nostalgic script is likely to please older Academy members who lived through his recreation of Old Hollywood, but since he’s a two time past winner, his chances are slimmer this time.  And though I absolutely got absorbed into Baumbach’s no frills style of writing, it might be a little too quiet a movie for the Academy to honor.  That’s why I think Bong Joon Ho gets the edge here, and his win would certainly be historic for as the first ever winner from South Korea; and a rare foreign language win in a screenplay category.

Who Will Win: Bong Joon Ho and Jin Won Han, Parasite

Who Should Win: Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Nominees: Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit); Todd Phillips and Scott Silver (Joker); Greta Gerwig (Little Women); Steve Zallian (The Irishman); Anthony McCarten (The Two Popes)

This should be one of the most interesting categories to watch on Oscar night.  For one thing, it could be an indicator for how the night might play out, if either Joker or The Irishman takes this award.  While both screenplays are outstanding adaptations of their source materials, I believe that the Academy might actually view them as a bit too conventional for this year.  Instead, the choice may actually go to something a bit more groundbreaking.  And in this case, the front runner that has emerged is one that couldn’t have delighted me more.  My favorite movie from 2019 was undeniably Jojo Rabbit, which masterfully took it’s source material, the far more seriously crafted novel Caging Skies, and turned it into this delightfully goofy and satirical comedy about love overcoming hate.  Taika Waititi’s script is a masterwork in balancing tone, managing to still convey the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, while at the same time managing to have silly sight gags and hilarious one-liners in the same vein as a Mel Brooks or Charlie Chaplain comedy.  From top to bottom, this is one of the most delightfully eccentric screenplays in a long time, and is deserving of being honored by the Academy.  the only other screenplay that could stand in it’s way is a win for Greta Gerwig’s adaptation for Little Women.  Indeed, the fact that she breathed new life into a book that has been re-adapted many times is quite impressive, and in any other year that didn’t include Jojo Rabbit, I’d say that Gerwig would be the undisputed front runner here.  She may indeed come away victorious, after her perceived snub in the Best Director category, with this award as a consolation.  But, I think with his recent victory at the WGA awards that Taika is well on his way to winning this award, and it will be one that will leave this critic very delighted indeed.

Who Will Win: Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit

Who Should Win: Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Nominees: Florence Pugh (Little Women); Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell); Laura Dern (Marriage Story); Margot Robbie (Bombshell); Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit)

Out of all the acting categories, this one looks to be the most open.  With a SAG and a Golden Globe win already under her belt, Laura Dern has emerged as the front runner, with her celebrated turn as someone that I think members of the Academy are quite familiar with; a divorce lawyer.  Dern is Hollywood royalty, and she has been a celebrated actress for many years, so she has the weight of a distinquished career as a boost to her claim for the award.  Her performance in Marriage Story is a strong one, although I’d say of all the nominated performances in the movie, it’s the one that impressed me the least.  Though she is the front runner, I’d say that she hasn’t locked down the award like we’ve seen in the other categories, and this is the one that could be the surprise of the show depending on how the Academy votes.  So what challenge does she face.  Kathy Bates and Margot Robbie are not the strongest contenders here, so it comes down to Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh.  If Jojo Rabbit has a surprisingly good night, it might help boost Johansson (who’s a two time nominee at this year’s Oscars), and she would be deserving of the award.  Her character in Jojo is certainly a standout, and a wonderful showcase for Johansson’s talents in both comedy and drama.  But, if there was one that I think stood out even more, it would be Florence Pugh’s star making turn in Little Women.  In a movie full of heavy hitters (including Laura Dern), Pugh stands out, and does a remarkable job of giving a character not well liked within the original book a much more sympathetic and richer interpretation.  Also, given the year she had with leading performances in movies as diverse as Fighting With My Family and Midsommar, a win here would give Florence a solid vindication of her status as a top tier actress.  So, even though Laura Dern may be headed towards her long overdue Oscar, I wouldn’t count out a possible upset by Pugh either, which itself would be deserved.

Who Will Win: Laura Dern, Marriage Story

Who Should Win: Florence Pugh, Little Women

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Nominees: Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes); Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood); Al Pacino (The Irishman); Joe Pesci (The Irishman); Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood)

Talk about a stacked category.  Every nominee here is a legendary movie star, with an enviable body of work across the board.  Even still, one has emerged as a front runner in this race, and not surprisingly, it’s the one guy who has yet to win his own award.  Brad Pitt has been nominated several times throughout the years, but has never managed to get the golden boy thus far.  That looks to change, as Pitt has swept through all the other awards this season and collected quite a few honors.  Unlike the other supporting category, I think this one is pretty much a lock for Brad.  It helps that he also has been accepting the award at each show by cracking a few jokes, both at his own expense and at those of his peers; all good natured.  The Academy likes honoring someone who can delight audiences, and Brad has been playing that part well, which is very much in line with the tone of his character in Tarantino’s movie.  Even still, is he deserving of the Award?  Though I enjoy his performance very much in the movie, and would be delighted to see him win the Award, it wasn’t the performance that impressed me the most out of this category.  Honestly, I was more blown away by Tom Hanks transformation into Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is an impressive feat for an actor not known for doing imitations in his performances.  And I also have to spotlight the duo from The Irishman.  Al Pacino and Joe Pesci deliver two of the best performances of their legendary careers in the Scorsese epic, which is really saying something.  Though Pacino is working comfortably in his wheelhouse as Jimmy Hoffa, it’s Pesci who becomes the movie’s true revelation, playing against type as a reserved, methodical mafia don.  If anything, I’d like to see the Academy honor Pesci just for coming out of a lengthy retirement and delivering a new performance that strong.  Though Pitt will likely win here, and be deserved, I would still like to see one last honor go to a legend of Joe Pesci’s caliber.

Who Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Who Should Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

BEST ACTRESS

Nominees: Charlize Theron (Bombshell); Cynthia Erivo (Harriet); Renee Zellweger (Judy); Saoirse Ronan (Little Women); Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)

Out of all the categories, this is one of the most unexpected, with regards to who has emerged as the front runner.  After a long hiatus out of the spotlight, Renee Zellweger reemerged with a near unrecognizable transformation into legendary actress Judy Garland, with a performance that included the actress performing her own singing, which is no small feat given the kind of person she’s playing.  What’s surprising is not the fact that she has managed to be nominated for her performance, but the fact that she has dominated all the Awards so far.  The movie itself has not exactly been embraced by the critical community, who saw it as very unremarkable and conventional by biopic standards, although every has praised her performance.  Given that Zellweger has not headlined a new film in a while, it’s a shock that this kind of performance would bring her back so strongly, almost entirely unchallenged through awards season.  Is it an indication of a weak year for female performances.  I would say no, because her fellow nominees also delivered strong work.  Cynthia Erivo’s nomination marks the only representation of a person of color in the acting categories, and though like Zellweger’s Judy her film has been described as too conventional, she is still being praised for her own performance that elevates the rest of the movie.  Johansson’s performance in Marriage Story may very well be the best one, because of the emotional rawness of her acting.  While most of the nominees in this category come across as better than average for their conventional stories, Johansson delivers a performance that captures the most broad spectrum of emotions; delivering a character that feels so natural and relatable that you forget about the fact that it’s an actor reading from a script.  At the same time, Johansson’s performance may be too realistic for an Academy that values complete transformations like the one that Renee made into Judy.  It also helps that she’s playing a icon, which the Academy also seems to love honoring, as if vicariously honoring honoring that person as well.  So, even though I think that Scarlett delivered the most impressive performance out of this field, it is most likely that Renee Zellweger’s transformative turn will be the victorious one.

Who Will Win: Renee Zellweger, Judy

Who Should Win: Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story

BEST ACTOR

Nominees: Adam Driver (Marriage Story); Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory); Joaquin Phoenix (Joker); Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes); Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood)

The story of this category is less about who is nominated than it is about who wasn’t nominated.  The biggest snubs of this Awards season came in this category, with big contenders like Robert DeNiro and Adam Sandler noticibly left out.  The exclusion of Sandler in my opinion was the most egregious of them all, and I feel that it’s going to be one of those exclusions that the Academy is going to be kicking themselves for in the years ahead as the movie Uncut Gems will likely only grow in esteem.  With those noticible exclusions, it has made the race a far more predictible one, as one performance in particular has stood out.  From the moment Joker hit theaters, all anyone could talk about was how bold and groundbreaking Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as the iconic comic book villain was.  Much in the same way Heath Ledger had done a decade prior, Phoenix transformed himself both in body and persona to become this dark and twisted embodiment of undistilled evil.  Though the movie Joker has many detractor, you’ll find fewer people finding faults with Phoenix’s performance, which has been praised across the board.  And out of all the categories at this year’s Oscars, it’s the one that I find the most consensus with.  Phoenix will likely walk away with his first Oscar for his performance here, and it will be absolutely deserved.  If Sandler had been nominated, I feel like the race could have been tighter, but since that performance was left out, it’s all Joaquin and no one else.  I’d say the only possible challenger here would be Adam Driver for his likewise outstanding performance in Marriage Story, but he is clearly a distant second when stacked up against Phoenix.  It’s interesting that out of all the comic book characters that have dominated the box office over the last decade, the only one that the Academy has seemed to respond to has been the Joker, with the late Heath Ledger and soon Joaquin Phoenix both being honored for playing the role in their own ways.

Who Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Who Should Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

BEST DIRECTOR

Nominees: Bong Joon Ho (Parasite); Martin Scorsese (The Irishman); Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood); Sam Mendes (1917); Todd Phillips (Joker)

Again, it’s another category marked by a noticible exclusion; namely the absence of a female director.  Given the strong showing of women directors this past year, it is unfortunate than none were recognized in this category, with Greta Gerwig being the most notable snub.  At the same time, it’s hard to argue that the five men nominated this year should be left out either.  Phillips may be the odd man out here, give that his movie is more driven by the strength of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance and not by his style of direction, which some have argued as being too derivitive.  The inclusion of two of the most influential filmmakers of all time is hard to overlook, as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese delivered two of their most celebrated films to date.  In my mind, Scorsese’s The Irishman was one of the year’s most spectacular triumphs, encapsulating all the things that have made his career so legendary into one spectacularly crafted epic. But, whether it’s the fact that he’s a past winner and that there is a lingering anti-Netflix bias within the Academy, The Irishman sadly has not gained a lot of traction beyond the nominations.  So, it comes down to Bong Joon Ho and Sam Mendes.  Bong certainly displays a unique style that spans across so many tonal shifts within his movie, which probably will delight many Academy members.  But, if you were to look at a movie from a purely film-making standpoint, it’s hard to bet against Sam Mendes for his work on 1917.  Not only is he recreating a time period and a war setting, but he’s also shooting the entire movie to look like it’s all one unbroken shot.  It may not have the unpredictable-ness of Parasite, but 1917 is still a tour de force of what can be done with effective staging and unparalleled cinematography (done by the likely Oscar winner Roger Deakins), and Sam Mendes vision is film-making at it’s most grandest.  Though I have a soft spot for Scorsese’s Irishman, I feel like Mendes is going to ride that Director’s Guild win all the way to another Oscar.

Who Will Win: Sam Mendes, 1917

Who Should Win: Martin Scorsese, The Irishman

BEST PICTURE

Nominees: 1917; Ford v Ferrari; Jojo Rabbit; Joker; Little Women; Marriage Story; Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; Parasite; The Irishman

And so we come to the big award of the year, and like many in recent years, it’s a hard one to predict.  The lack of a heavy front runner to steamroll through the competition in the vein of a Titanic (1997) or The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) makes this category a far harder one to handicap.  Given the complicated voting system that the Academy works with, and the larger number of nominees, there is a larger chance that really any of these nominees could emerge victorious.  Likely it will be down to a select few, especially the ones also nominated in the Directorial category.  The spreading around of Awards for the likes of Once Upon a Time… in HollywoodMarriage Story and Joker makes it less likely that those will win the top award, as their acting wins will be their high points.  Ford v Ferrari and Little Women most likely will pick up techincal awards and little else.  Sadly, The Irishman is the one that could sadly go home empty handed out of all these movies, which is a real shame given how good it is, but it’s also another indication of the Academy’s bias towards Netflix.  I for one, would love Jojo Rabbit to be the surprise sleeper and possibly spoil the race with an unexpected win, but it’s chances are slim.  In the end, it will come down to SAG winner Parasite and Golden Globe winner 1917.  A win for Parasite would certainly make history as the first foreign language winner for Best Picture, something which the Academy snubbed Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) of that honor at last year’s Oscar.  Unfortunately, it’s almost assured win in the International Film category might hurt it’s chances for Best Picture as it often has for other films.  In the end, I think 1917 is going to follow Sam Mendes almost certain Best Director win to a victory of it’s own, which would not be undeserved either.  Though my heart is with Jojo, I see this as a close race between Parasite and 1917, with 1917 having the slimmest of edges.  Thankfully, unlike last year’s Green Book debacle, all of this years nominees are actually deserving of recognition here, and it will be a satisfying win no matter who gets it.

Who Will Win: 1917

Who Should Win: Jojo Rabbit

As for all the remaining categories, here is my quick rundown of my picks for each one:

Cinematography: 1917; Film Editing: Ford v FerrariProduction Design: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood; Costume Design: Jojo RabbitMake-up and Hairstyling: Joker; Original Music Score: 1917Original Music Song: “I’m Going to Love Me Again,” RocketmanSound Mixing: 1917Sound Editing: 1917Visual Effects: Avengers: Endgame; Documentary Feature: American FactoryDocumentaty Short: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl); Animated Feature: Toy Story 4; Animated Short: Hair LoveLive Action Short: Nefta Football ClubInternational Feature: Parasite

So, there you have my picks for the 2020 Academy Awards. Though the Awards are still a big deal for the industry, it’s become less reliable as an indicator of a movie’s staying power. What we’ve often seen is a progression where a movie will hit at just the right moment to ride that Oscar buzz wave towards a victory and then by the time the next awards season rolls around, that past winner is most likely completely forgotten about. The only winners that endure are the ones that are so good they last far beyond the awards themselves, or are the ones that are notorious for being unpopular winners. The Awards are far more of a barometer for the state of the industry at this particular moment in time than it is about how well the movies will stay in the public consciousness afterwards. If a great movie doesn’t win the award, it’s not a death sentence. Awards are fleeting, but a great film will always find it’s audience no matter what and a little golden statue has no effect on that at all. Still, for history’s sake, I still hold a lot of interest in the award itself. Thankfully this year all of the Best Picture nominees are movies that I at the very least enjoyed. Sure, I have my favorites, but if any one of the nine ends up winning, I will be content with that choice. There will certainly be a contingent of people out there who will likely raise hell if their movie doesn’t win, but just like every year before, we air our grievances and just move on to thinking about the movies that will be up for the Award next year. In all, I hope it’s a satisfying ceremony this Sunday, and that whoever wins will hopefully receive a warm reception. It may be the same old process every year, but for those of us who love film and the historical legacy it leaves behind, this is still an event we wait all year for and hope that it works out the way we want it to. Movies don’t need these awards in the long run, but a little reward at the end of the year never hurts either.

 

Top Ten Movies of the 2010’s

Every time we hit a milestone, we like to look back at what the days, weeks, months, and years meant to us as we’ve reached this point in time.  The close of a decade and the beginning of a new one is such a time, and there is no more universal barometer for how we as a culture changed over the last ten years than by looking at the movies that populated it.  The 2010’s were a tumultuous time in our world, and the movies themselves were a profound reflection of that.  Not only were the stories being told groundbreaking, but also the state of cinema itself.  People were experiencing the movies in new ways this decade, with media becoming far more accessible than ever before thanks to streaming.  And this in turn was helping to bring movies to the forefront that might otherwise have been overlooked in days past.  As a result, there are fewer consensuses when it comes to the absolute best of the decade.  Everyone’s choices reflect their own tastes and with people being better able to find even the most obscure of titles, their choices are going to more likely represent a bit more of who they are rather than the popularity of the movie itself having an influence.  Some of us hate movies that everyone else loves, while there are movies that only we will go to bat for and no one else.  That in itself is what going to the movies is all about; finding that personal response that makes us really think about what we watch and leading us to discuss it further.  I, of course, have pondered over my own favorites for the decade and have carefully considered the ones below.  I know there are going to be choices you might not agree with, and omissions that you’ll find completely absurd.  But, these are my own personal picks which I believe really strongly defined the last ten years for me as a passionate fan of cinema.

I’ll tell you this, it was a hard list to par down to just 10.  In reality, it was a great decade for movies all around, and it pained me to leave off some of the runners-up.  In case you are wondering, my honorable mentions include the following; Drive (2011), Life of Pi (2012), Gravity (2013), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), The Descendants (2011), Hugo (2011), The Martian (2015), 12 Years a Slave (2014), The Shape of Water (2017), Jojo Rabbit (2019), Sorry to Bother You (2018), and The Irishman (2019).  One thing you’ll notice is that my best movies of each year make up a significant portion of this list, and having re-watched them all recently, most of them help up, and a couple did not.  In the case of the 2019 movies, it’s still too early to know how they may hold up.  For me to single out the following on this list, they had to be movies that still wow me every-time I watch it, even after repeat viewings.  I have a high standard so, I strongly consider every pick I make.  Each movie’s affect on cinema and the culture do affect my choices as well, but for the most part, I base these choices on how much they left an affect on me; the thing that the best movies always should do.  So, to conclude this year long retrospective of the decade that was the 2010’s, here are my choices for the Best Movies of the decade.

10.

ZOOTOPIA (2016)

Directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore

Animation saw many instant classics over the last ten years, from every front possible.  Dreamworks started off the decade strong with their greatest work, How to Train Your Dragon (2010).  Pixar continued to roll right along with beloved hits like Inside Out (2015) and Coco (2017).  Stop motion was even revolutionized by the work of Laika Studios with movies like ParaNorman (2012) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016).  And a surprise hit with Sony Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) showed us what might be the future of animation with it’s hand-drawn, computer animation hybrid.  But, the longtime king of animation, Disney, would still lead all challengers as it enjoyed a steady stream of hits throughout the decade.  It would break records with Frozen (2013) and it’s sequel, as well as win accolades for films like Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and Moana (2016).  But, the animated film that stuck out the most amongst not just Disney canon, but with all animated films in general, was Zootopia (2016).  Zootopia, on the surface, seems like a run of the mill animated comedy, but that’s until you realize exactly what story you’re being told.  The 2010’s was a decade defined by political upheaval; most clearly found in the chaotic election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, and the systemic rise of the extreme right that helped to put him there.  Surprisingly, the movie that reflected this time in our world the best throughout the decade was Zootopia.  It is scary to look back and see how prophetic this movie is in hindsight, where the cultural divide between races (or in the movie’s case, species) is inflamed to help a political opportunist gain power.  But the best thing about Zootopia is that you never feel like you’re being lectured this message.  It organically grows within the story, with the focus given to two of the decades best animated characters, Judy Hopps and Nick Wilde.  When you see a good person at heart driven to a terrible action out of unjustified fear, as Judy Hopps sadly finds out during the course of the movie, we learn how deep systemic prejudice has infected our culture.  And that makes Zootopia transcend beyond just average all ages entertainment; it becomes an important statement for our times.

9.

DUNKIRK (2017)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

You look at all the film directors that pushed the medium of film forward in the last decade, and Christopher Nolan is sure to come up.  Making his name nearly synonymous with epic film-making, Nolan is one of only a few movie directors today who can deliver completely original movies that can open to blockbuster success.  Though he’s not above working with commercial properties either, given his success with the Batman franchise in the Dark Knight trilogy, he still made it clear that he’s a director who will push the boundaries of cinema with every new movie he makes.  A stickler for traditional, film based production and presentation, he became one of the biggest champions for the in theater experience, utilizing large format cameras on every film he made this decade.  Though he often likes to work in genres that extend into the cerebral and fantastic, it’s interesting that one of his most celebrated films this decade was a down-to-earth war film.  Dunkirk may be a historical recreation, in this case one depicting the miraculous rescue mission during the early days of World War II, but Nolan still uses all of his cinematic tricks to make it an experience for his audience.  The movie is full of amazing period detail, with little in the way of CGI enhancement.  The way the IMAX camera lens captures the enormity of the event is truly breathtaking, especially out in those air battle scenes.  But, where Nolan truly shows his gifts as a filmmaker is in the unconventional way it tells it’s story; inter-cutting between three different story-lines taking place within completely different time frames.  He goes back and forth between them all, and never once breaks the rising tension throughout, even as days, hours and minutes pass by with a deliberate rhythm.  And it creates, without a doubt, one of the best war movies of all times, and certainly the best of the decade.  Whether it’s the masterful editing between the time-frames, or the remarkable cinematography (including those incredible shots from on board the sinking ships), Christopher Nolan uses every trick in his cinematic playbook to create one of the most immersive experiences we’ve ever experienced on the big screen before.

8.

BIRDMAN, OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) (2014)

Directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu

This was a good decade to be a Mexican born director.  Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro G. Inarritu and Guillermo Del Toro, commonly referred to as the “Three Amigos” in film-making circles, all enjoyed a prosperous decade which saw all three winning the Best Director award at the Academy Awards.  And for the most part, their movies almost always ended up at or near the top of my lists each year.  In 2014, I picked Inarritu’s Birdman as my favorite for the year, and it’s been a movie that has held up very well in the years since.  In a rare comedy for the usually drama based filmmaker, Inarritu captured a glimpse of the Broadway theater community with one of the trickiest cinematic tricks there is; the single shot take.  And to make the movie even more unique, he made the entire 2 hour film appear as if it was all just done in one long continuous shot.  It’s ambitious, but not out of character for the story that he is telling, given that theater actors must perform without edits each night on the stage.  It helps when a cinematographer as skilled as Emmanuel Lubezki (Chivo) makes every long shot glide, dart and even soar with such beauty.  And at the center of it all is Michael Keaton, giving what is undeniably the performance of his storied career.  Not only is it a perfect encapsulation of his own real life career trajectory, but it’s also a powerful showcase for Keaton’s often underappreciated range as an actor.  He breaths so much personality into the character of Riggan Thompson, a performer so desperate to show he is more than just that one superhero, and it’s both hilarious and heartbreaking to see all the ups and downs he takes this person through within his amazing performance.  Though the gimmick of the continuous shot is impressive to see used to full length (later influencing more films this decade like 1917), it’s Keaton’s self-reflexive and multi-faceted performance that helps to make this movie stand out among all the other movies of the decade, especially given how much of it was devoted to big name actors donning capes themselves, following in his footsteps.

7.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)

Directed by David Fincher

Another movie that was both greatly influenced by the decade it premiered in, as well as prophetic about what was inevitably going to follow.  David Fincher’s The Social Network told the story of the rise of Facebook and it’s enigmatic founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and how this revolutionary new social platform that was supposed to bring people together was built upon a foundation of fractured relationships.  In typical Fincher fashion, the movie is a moody, introspective narrative captured in dark rooms with emotionally restrained characters.  It’s everything you’d expect from the acclaimed director, but here he is working with material that really elevates his cinematic art.  No other director can make board room meetings as tension filled as he can.  And a large part of this is due to the rapid fire dialogue found in Aaron Sorkin’s award-winning script.  Most of the time, it’s hard to capture the rhythm of Sorkin’s writing, so it helps to have an actor as motor-mouth as Jesse Eisenberg to make it work, and indeed, Eisenberg delivers a knockout performance as Mr. Zuckerberg.  I don’t even think that the real life subject is as interesting as the one that Sorkin, Fincher and Eisenberg has created here.  Combine that with plenty of other standout performance from Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, and Armie Hammer pulling double duty as the Winklevoss (or Winklevi) twins in a very convincing visual effect.  But, it is interesting that this movie exists so early in a story that seems to be continually writing itself even further.  Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg’s history with it have taken even more dramatic turns in the years since this film that it almost seems like a sequel is not only likely, but necessary (which Sorkin has hinted being in development).  There is so much within The Social Network that indicates all the bad things that were going to come with the company (like Zuckerberg’s arrogance and unwillingness to admit fault) and the movie has only grown as an important document of our times ever since it’s release.  As a character study and a cautionary tale, The Social Network is an unforgettable cinematic experience that is only getting more and more iconic every year.

6.

A MONSTER CALLS (2016)

Directed by J. A. Bayona

This is certainly going to be one of those “for myself” kind of picks.  I’m sure that few other people would have this movie anywhere near their best movies of the decade lists, but for me, this movie remarkably stuck out, and I think that it’s because it’s theme of using stories as a way of healing resonated so much with me.  The film is about a young English boy (played by newcomer Lewis MacDougall) having to face the reality that his mother (Felicity Jones) is dying, and he does so with the guidance of stories told to him by a Monster (voiced by Liam Neeson).  The movie stands tall alongside other Spielberg-ian coming of age stories, but it’s the deep rooted message within that I think makes this movie so important within our time.  The boy listens to the stories, hoping that it will guide him to an answer that will help his mother, but in the end he learns that it’s not his mother that needs saving; it’s him instead.  The Monster’s three stories challenge his pre-conceived notions about how the world works, with narratives that turn on surprising paradoxes,  and in the end the boy realizes that the world is more complicated than happy ever after.  In a time where we are too often deceived by false hopes and unrealistic results, the movie teaches us that the worst thing we can do is to run away from the truth.  That’s what makes the movie so important as a meditation on storytelling.  We as a culture need stories to make us see the world through different eyes, and recognize the complexity of the world that we may not see clearly through our own narrow view.  The same applies to how we watch the movies, as they become to many as a window onto the world itself.  In the end, it’s a movie about embracing new ideas, and recognizing the barriers that we create within ourselves.  A Monster Calls delivers this message in the best way possible, with a unique story of it’s own carried through with the unlikeliest bond of a boy and a story-telling monster.  Stories, whether on the screen or the page, have the power of broadening our perspectives, and showing us the world with all of it’s beautiful complexity.

5.

Tie; AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) and AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019)

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

Yeah, I know that I’m cheating a little bit here by putting two movies here instead of just one.  But, in very much the same way that I would have put the entirety of the Lord of the Rings trilogy together in the same spot on my Best Movies of the 2000’s list, I can’t spotlight one without the other.  And given how Marvel was such a dominant force this last decade within the movie industry, it seems only natural that their magnum opus (thus far) would find it’s way onto my best of the decade list.  The two part climax to the nearly 22 film long Infinity Saga from Marvel is really one of the most impressive cinematic achievements that we’ve likely seen in a long time.  Coming close to the cinematic highs of the Rings trilogy and Star Wars at it’s height, Infinity War and Endgame represents the very best that popcorn entertainment can offer.  It’s crowd-pleasing without ever feeling pandering; it’s ambitious without ever loosing it earthbound sensibilities; and it wasn’t afraid of taking risks that could have easily gone horribly wrong if not handled correctly.  But what they do the best is reward fans who have been in for the long haul, while at the same time remaining engaging for any newcomers.  It is amazing how well this nearly 5 1/2 hour finale plays out, ending it’s first film with one of the most shocking cliffhangers in cinematic history, and then subverts expectations within the first minutes of the second film, only to lead into what is essentially the greatest clip show ever made, and then finally end with an epic sized battle that would make the likes of David Lean or Cecil B. DeMille proud.  It’s a testament to just how confident Marvel has become in telling it’s stories on the big screen.  There are so many memorable moments to choose from (Thor arriving in Wakanda, The Snap, Captain and the Hammer, the Portals), all of which are going to be fan favorites for years to come.  The movie also expertly brought closure to long gestating story threads while hinting future ones to come; it gave gracious exits to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America; and it showcased one of cinema’s greatest villains with Josh Brolin’s Thanos.  Honestly, these two movies make my list because they were some of the best times I had watching movies with an audience ever, and that is something worth celebrating.

4.

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino has been a cinematic fixture for three decades now, but the 2010’s were especially good for him as a director.  Building upon the success at the close of the previous decade with Inglorious Basterds (2009), he would make three more films over the course of the decade, including two films within the Western genre.  Though there is plenty to like about his experimental The Hateful Eight (2015), especially if you are a fan of large format cinematography, I think that Tarantino’s best work over this last decade was with his first foray into the Western; Django Unchained.  Interesting enough, Django may be the most conventional movie that Tarantino has made over his entire career, as far as story-telling goes.  Departing from his usual non-linear style, Tarantino tells his story of Django in a traditional hero’s journey sort of way.  What he also does with the movie is not shy away from the harsh realities of slavery in the American South.  In a great bit of revisionism, he transforms the iconic Western bounty hunter (previously played by Italian actor Franco Nero, who cameos here) into a freed slave who finally gets to turn the tables on all the slave masters who’ve wronged him.  Jamie Foxx commands the screen in the role, giving incredible weight to the character, who almost becomes super hero like by the end.  And he is equally matched with an incredible supporting cast that includes Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, and Leonardo DiCaprio in an against type role as a depraved, villainous plantation baron named Calvin Candie.  But even though the movie takes the subject of slavery as serious as a heart attack, the movie still manages to work his playful style into the narrative, with plenty of over-the-top violence and hilarious asides that have become his trademark.  Like most of Tarantino’s other films, the movie is a love letter to the director’s own cinematic inspirations, and I think that it proudly stands among the works of the great Spaghetti Western directors like Sergio Leone.  For someone known for playing outside the rules of film-making, it’s great to see him work just as well making something as straightforward and rewarding as this one.

3.

SICARIO (2015)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

Far and away one of the most unexpected treasures of the last decade.  Sicario deceptively lures you in thinking that your just going to watch your average routine combat thriller, but as it unfolds, you find that it’s a whole lot more.  Telling the story of a group of border agents combating the ruthless drug cartels across the international line, the movie puts the viewer right in the thick of the action with some of the most tension filled scenes that I can recall from the last decade.  At it’s center, the movie has one of my favorite cinematic characters in recent years with Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick.  Del Toro delivers a knockout performance here, peeling back so many layers to this intriguing character over the course of the film’s run time.  He can be refreshingly hospitable in one scene where he’s politely interrogating a group of immigrants at a detention center, and then several scenes later we see him become a cold blooded killer of a drug kingpin and his entire family.  This characterization is balanced out well with Emily Blunt’s neophyte agent, who gets caught up in this crazy situation that she can’t ever get a grip on, nor ever wants to.  The movie benefits from assured, methodical direction from Denis Villeneuve and a no-nonsense script from Taylor Sheridan.  Combine that with a chilling score from the late Johann Johannsson and superb cinematography from the master himself, Roger Deakins, and you’ve got one of the most sublimely cinematic experiences of the year.  There are so many areas in this film that go above and beyond what you would expect from movies of this type, like the now iconic border crossing bridge shootout or the night-vision filmed raid of a border tunnel.  I never expected that a movie like this would leave such an impression on me, and I’m very glad that I was able to discover it these last few years.  I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those movies that’s going to grow is esteem over the years as more and more people discover it.  I’m not too far ahead of the curve, as the movie has a very supportive fanbase (enough to have inspired a better than expected sequel even), but at the same time, it’s a movie that I think is deserving of even more acclaim than it already has, and it’s string enough to stand out as one of the decade’s best.

2.

ROMA (2018)

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

One of the things that really defined the 2010’s in cinematic terms was the rise of streaming as a platform for cinema.  Netflix certainly led the way for most of the decade, as they poured billions of dollars into creating original films and shows to play exclusively on their platform.  Given all those resources they poured into original content, you would hope that at least one of the movies would stand out as a real cinematic triumph.  Thankfully one did, and it’s one of the unlikeliest too.  Alfonso Cuaron wowed us earlier this year with the incredible cinematic experiment that was Gravity.  But, after making something that ambitious and technically daring, it’s surprising that he would follow it up with a stripped down, semi-autobiographical story about life in his native Mexico, centered around a maid and the family she takes care of.  Even more surprising is the fact that it ended up being even more of a film-making triumph than Gravity was.  With Roma, Cuaron transports you to this specific time and place and absorbs you into it’s story.  Even though on the surface the movie looks like a simple domestic soap opera, it reveals to be much more than that with some incredibly complex staging that takes this intimate story into some very epic heights.  There are some shots in this movie, with Cuaron himself working behind the camera, that are just mind-blowingly surreal, like the riot scene framed from inside the window of a department store or the single take shot across a beach and out into the water.  Did I also mention he does this in black and white.  Roma is from beginning to end cinematic poetry, and carries special significance because of it’s personal connection to the director.  Cuaron dedicated the movie to the maid who cared for him and his family while he grew up in Mexico City, and when personalized through the character of Cleo (played remarkably by first time actress Yalitza Aparicio) he gives a loving and honorable tribute to someone that likely would have gone unnoticed in the world.  A true piece of cinematic beauty and the strongest case yet for Netflix’s credibility as a film studio, given that they are the only one’s making movies like this.

And the Best Movie of the 2010’s is….

1.

INCEPTION (2010)

Directed by Christopher Nolan

That’s when you know that Christopher Nolan was the decade’s most defining filmmaker; when he’s responsible for not one but two of the decade’s best movies, let alone having one of them be at the very top.  But that’s how good he was these last ten years.  Dunkirk showed his prowess with recreating a historically significant event, and Interstellar (2014) showed how well he could display the over-whelming vastness of deep space travel. But, he started off the decade setting the bar high, and he never once relinquished it, even among his own work.  Inception is more than just the best film of the 2010’s; it’s one of the best movies ever made period.  Here Christopher Nolan does what every filmmaker should strive to do, which is to create a experience that only the medium of film can capture.  The movie is, in essence, an elaborate heist film, but where the heist takes place is where Nolan clearly shows off his skills as a filmmaker.  The movie takes the audience on a mind-bending journey into the depths of the human mind, with the characters reaching into deeper and deeper layers with the worlds we create in our dreams.  The movie plays out like a trip into Dante’s Inferno, with each layer becoming more surreal than the next.  And in each one, Nolan gets to show us imagery that defies the laws of physics, like a city-scape folding in on itself, or a hallway spinning like a wheel while characters are fighting inside it.  At it’s center, he fills his story with a colorful cast of characters, with the decade’s most prolific leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, taking full charge.  We also get breathtaking cinematography from Wally Pfister and a now iconic musical score from Hans Zimmer, which itself carries a special significance within the story.  Nolan takes inspiration from filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock, and Inception gives a near perfect blending of the two.  We get Hitchcockian sized action, but with the challenging surrealism of a Kubrick film.  And like all the best movies, it leaves us wanting more, especially with that ambiguous final shot with the top.  It is without a doubt Nolan’s most masterful film to date, and it will be interesting to see if he ever makes anything that rises up to that same level again.  He certainly hasn’t let us down yet, and hopefully Tenet keeps him going strong into the next decade.  As far as the 2010’s are concerned, it gave us an unbeatable achievement in Inception that went unchallenged all the way to the end of the decade.

One thing you’ll notice about my list above is that out of the ten (or rather 11) picks I made, only one of them won the Oscar for Best Picture (Birdman) and that landed at #8.  I don’t know if that says more about me, or about the Academy Awards itself.  Regardless, I know that my picks come down to personal taste, and that mine will likely differ greatly from others.  I chose the these films as the best of the decade because for me they were the ones that resonated the most for me personally.  Every year, I try to find the movie that checks all the right boxes and oftentimes it comes down to some unlikely candidates.  I applied the same principle to my end of the decade list, and also saw some surprising results.  I for one didn’t think a small little film like A Monster Calls would hold up so well and still make my list, or that something like Sicario would end up so high, especially over films made by masters like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.  I did know that it was going to take a lot to topple Inception from it’s lofty perch, and even the best from each year could not undo this ten year long champion.  Even if my list differs from yours, it is still shows that this decade was full of great movies that we’ll likely still be passionately singing the praises of for years to come.  I am very grateful to have started this blog within the last decade so that I can have a place to share all these movies with you my readers and actually have a written out record for the first time of my favorites from a given decade.  Thank you for reading along with my lists over the last year spotlighting the best of the 2010’s, whether it was the music here, the characters here, or the villains here.  It was a monumental ten years for cinema in general, and let’s hope the next ten gives us even more to celebrate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolution of Character – Peter Pan

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

BETTY BRONSON from PETER PAN (1924)

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

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

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

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

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

ROBIN WILLIAMS in HOOK (1991)

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

RICK SPARKS in NEVERLAND (2003)

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

JEREMY SUMPTER in PETER PAN (2003)

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

LEVI MILLER in PAN (2015)

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

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

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