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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Movies of Summer 2020 (Hopefully)

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

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

TENET (JULY 17)

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

WONDER WOMAN 1984 (AUGUST 14)

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

MULAN (JULY 24)

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

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

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

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

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

THE GREEN KNIGHT (MAY 29)

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

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

Trolls World Tour – Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

This is….