Civil War – Review

It’s no mystery that we are in polarizing times.  With online discourse fanning the flames of mundane disagreements into profound cultural wedges, it’s as difficult as it has ever been to discuss anything civilly anymore.  This is especially true when discussing media, as too many people are quick to project their own prejudices upon any new TV show or film without ever having seen one second of it.  Sometimes you’ll get a film that can rise above the “culture war” attacks, like last year’s Barbie (2023) did, but too often a new movie that tries to shake up the normal formula will be subjugated to attacks from purists, or people who are just looking to stir up controversy just for the clicks.  While online discourse is tiresome when it delves into “culture war” discussions, there is also the growing anxiety that is rising from the lack of accountability in our media coverage.  We are at a point where accountability can not keep up with the quickness of viral social media, and misinformation has become rampant in our culture.  Before the truth wills out, the misinformation will sadly have taken hold with too many people, and this has led to the rise of radicalization which leads to increasingly tense situations in our society.  Worries about rising violence in our communities are becoming ever more a concern in today’s age, and that makes many people wonder if our union as a nation is heading toward a cataclysmic end.  With that worry circulating in our culture, it makes one wonder how movies of this era will document the moment we are living in.  Given how “culture war” discussions have become so toxic in recent years, any movie or show that tries to take it head on is likely to face a heavy bit of scrutiny and resistance.  And stirring up controversy is something that the major movie studios are keen to avoid.  Luckily there are risk takers out there like A24 who are willing to stick their necks out and make a movie that at the very least tries to put some perspective on what a moment like this could lead us towards.

Into this tumultuous time comes a new film from Writer and Director Alex Garland.  Garland first gained notoriety for his gritty and grounded screenplay for the zombie flick 28 Days Later (2002), which was directed for the screen by Danny Boyle.  Garland would contribute a number of other celebrated screenplays before ultimately stepping behind the camera himself.  His directorial debut, Ex Machina (2015) was lauded for it’s subtle, grounded portrayal of the perils of unchecked A.I. implementation, and how it could wreck havoc by blurring the lines between reality and artificiality.  It also won a surprise academy award for it’s visual effects, which did a remarkable job of transforming actress Alicia Vikander into a humanoid robot.  Garland’s follow-up, Annihilation (2018) was even more of a mind-trip, bringing a new twist to the alien invasion subgenre of Science Fiction.  He left his Sci-Fi comfort zone with the horror thriller Men (2022), which is his most divisive film to date, as well as his least successful at the box office.  Coming off of that, he is embarking on his most ambitious film yet as a filmmaker with a scenario that feels eerily timely.  Civil War (2024) imagines a scenario where the United States of America has broken out into a second civil war.  It’s a risky type of movie to make  because in this kind of climate, especially in an election year, too many people are going to try to project their own political views upon the movie, which could either drive people away or be misinterpreted as something it is not.  Before the movie even was released, some pundits were poking holes in the premise of the movie, noting that the U.S. government in the film is at war with an alliance of the states of California and Texas, which of course is not something that could happen today given that both of those state’s governments are polar opposites in their political make-up at the moment.  But, Alex Garland is not telling a story about America as it is now, but is instead imagining an America that could exist and telling us a story about the people who would be caught up in the chaos that a modern Civil War could bring.

The subjects of Alex Garland’s Civil War are not the main players in this nation at war with itself, but rather the people who are risking their lives trying to capture the memory of it.  It’s a story about a rag tag group of journalists who risk their lives in order to capture the brutal reality of the war as it happens.  We meet Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and Joel (Wagner Moura), two Reuters affiliated documentarians who are partnered up as they cover rioting in the war torn city of New York.  Lee is a celebrated veteran photographer who has seen one too many wars in her lifetime, while Joel is an interviewer who craves the adrenaline rush of combat.  While they make rest in their hotel, they have a conversation with a veteran New York Times journalist named Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who was once a mentor to the two.  They let it slip to Sammy that their next goal is to head to Washington D.C. and get an exclusive interview with the President of the United States (Nick Offerman).  Sammy tells them it’s a suicide mission, as the Western Forces of California and Texas have advanced far into the Government’s territory and are now encircling the Capital.  And if they even make it past the frontlines and into D.C., the President’s army has been ordered to shoot all intruders, including journalists.  Lee and Joel still remain determined, and they even offer Sammy a ride knowing that he has the same goal that they do.  Before they make their treacherous trip southward, the team takes on another passenger, a young freelance photographer named Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) who looks up to Lee and wants to get her first taste of combat coverage.  The four passengers head out on a Heart of Darkness like journey through the depths of the once prosperous nation now brought to ruin through conflict.  Through it, they experience the extremes of both sides of the battle, and even have run ins with psychopaths who thrive in the chaos of war.  And as they get closer to Washington, D.C., the more violent and dark the world becomes.

Suffice to say, Alex Garland’s Civil War is not an easy movie to watch.  The film is very blunt about the atrocities of war and how it is often impossible to decipher who are the good and bad guys in the moment of battle.  It’s a very smart move on Garland’s part to not make the movie about the politics of the the two warring sides, but instead center the movie on the journalists who put their lives on the line in order to document the events that take place.  Now the movie is not entirely apolitical; the film does portray the President as a despotic dictator who has committed atrocities in the past against the American people as a means to hold onto power, and the timing of the story puts the conflict in it’s final days where the Government is on it’s last legs, showing definitively who the victors in this war will be.  But that’s all background noise.  Garland’s movie doesn’t try to hold up a mirror to our current political climate, but rather makes us the audience understand the gruesome nature of war by showing us an all too realistic portrayal of modern combat in a setting which hasn’t seen combat on it’s soil since the first Civil War.  The movie’s message is that there’s nothing glamourous about fighting in a war, and that the hard work of wartime journalists is terrifying but also essential.  And that’s what makes the movie such a profound experience that really needs to be experienced.  If anything, this is a more essential movie than anything that would have carried a more pointed political argument.  Anyone who trivializes the nature of war and thinks that another Civil War fought in this country would be an ideal outcome in order to silence those who disagree with them should be required to watch this movie and see what a folly that would be.  It’s a profound statement that I’m happy to see Alex Garland make.

Despite working with a bigger canvas and budget, Garland’s Civil War is still just as grounded as most of his other movies.  Garland’s directorial style is not flashy and remains centered and precise, giving us a very you are there feel.  This helps very much with the world building of the movie.  The America in this film is not some post-Apocalyptic hellscape, but rather a country that still looks familiar and somewhat in tact, but has been scarred by battle.  One of the things that this movie reminded me of is the recent Best Documentary winner at this year’s Academy Awards, 20 Days in Mariupol (2023), which was a movie compiled of footage from real war journalists who captured the early days of the Ukraine-Russian war in 2022 in the titular war torn city.  Having seen that documentary and the horrible things that it shows, you see the desperate ways that people try to hold their cities together even as war is trying to tear it apart.  Places that were once peaceful suddenly become devoid of life and littered with the reminders of war, like the wreckage of a helicopter in a mall parking lot, or an apartment high rise turned into a swiss cheese like ruin through constant shelling.  In Garland’s film, he juxtaposes those images in profound ways that constantly reminds you of how fragile peacetime can be, and how things we just take for granted can be taken away suddenly.  Suddenly, a routine gas station stop could turn into a life or death situation depending on how you interact with the locals.  There are times in the movie where I do feel Garland’s imagination does exceed the limitations of his budget, as some of the rendering with the visual effects do look a little cheap and it breaks the illusion, but thankfully these are rare as the movie presents the majority of the action in ground level depictions of combat.  And this is definitely a movie that benefits from a robust sound system as the battle scenes are loud and intense.

The staging of the battle scenes are definitely the highlight of the movie, as Alex Garland puts you right on the ground in the midst of it all.  You really experience the battles in this movie the way that the war journalists would.  One thing that I really liked in this movie is the emphasis it puts on capturing moments in combat that will inevitably be what the war leaves behind and frames it’s history.  This is shown in the film as snapshots taken by the characters of Lee and Jessie.  As the battle scenes play out, you see the characters aim their cameras and then the movie pauses for a second and displays the still photo that they just took, with the sound also being paused in that scene to emphasize the singular documentation that has been made.  It makes you think of the war photographs that have survived throughout history and how those brief moments have shaped our understanding of what the wars were, from something triumphant like the flag raising in the Battle of Iwo Jima to something horrific like the pained faces of the survivors of the My Lai Massacre.  A picture can say a thousand words, and this movie puts an emphasis on what it means to capture a moment that matters in a battleground photograph.  Jessie even uses an older model camera that runs on film, and she is able to capture her subjects in an even grittier black and white image.  While the movie is limited in budget, it nevertheless feels big when viewed through the eyes of the characters in this movie.  This is especially true in the climatic battle in Washington D.C. at the end of the film.  The movie doesn’t try to be epic in it’s depiction of a fortified D.C., but rather shows us what it likely would look like in a realistic sense, meaning crude barricades quickly built in an urban setting.  The battle scenes are still shot in an impressive way by cinematographer Rob Hardy where you do feel the scope of the conflict as it’s happening, and it’s definitely the type of movie that benefits from the biggest possible screen.

A lot of the success of the movie comes down to the authenticity of the performances in the film.  We know very little about the characters other than what their jobs are, and they only give us the briefest of backstory.  Mainly, it’s up to the actors to define these personalities, and the cast assembled does an outstanding job.  Kirsten Dunst does an especially great job of conveying a person who is just numb to all the violence that surrounds her.  There’s a great moment in the movie where she is just silently staring off in the direction of a battle that is glowing in the distance under a night sky, and her face just reads this hardened, jaded lack of optimism that tells you so much about her character.  But Kirsten also does a great job of showing those brief moments of warmth, especially when Cailee Spaeny’s Jessie manages to crack through that wall with her more upbeat personality.  Spaeny also does a great job of portraying that spunky, novice personality within Jessie that you watch get broken down as she gets into increasingly hairier situations.  Wagner Moura provides the movie with some of it’s brief moments of levity with his gun ho adrenaline junkie portrayal of Joel, who often is the one that has to break the ice in tense situations.  Veteran character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson also does a wonderful job of rounding out the quartet with his soulful portrayal of the seasoned and wise journalist Sammy.  Nick Offerman, who only briefly appears in the movie, still leaves a strong impression as the lightning rod of a President at the center of the conflict, wisely choosing to not emulate any specific familiar political figure and instead making him one that eerily feels too normal, hiding the fact that in the context of this movie that he’s committed horrible atrocities.  What the movie also does a great job with is make all of the minor characters stand out as well.  Each new encounter the characters make along the way adds to the tension of the movie, and all the supporting actors do a great job of creating these civilians who are barely hanging on, often through brutal and desperate means.  One particular standout is a cameo from Jesse Plemons as a white supremacist mercenary that becomes an especially terrifying obstacle for the main characters.

I don’t know if this is the kind of movie that will change hearts and minds with regard to the divisive cultural situation we are in right now.  But, as a cinematic experience, it’s an exceptional piece of work that know doubt will leave an impression on it’s audience.  There will be some who will try to frame the movie in a way that fits their own agenda; you would have to think that the movie is courting that a bit by calling itself Civil War.  But, upon watching the movie, you’ll see that there is a universal story about survival in here and also about fighting to capture the truth in the moment so that it can be preserved and remembered for future generations to learn from it.  Alex Garland and the actors in the movie have said in interviews that this movie is meant to be a love letter to journalism, and specifically to front line journalists who put their life on the lines to document the truth.  At a time when so many politicians and media personalities are trying to gaslight people into believing an alternate reality that suits their fortunes through misinformation, the work of these independent, battlefront journalists is even more essential than ever and Civil War does an excellent job of showing us the important role that they play.  We are seeing the important work of these journalists making an impact right now with conflicts happening in both Ukraine and the Gaza Strip.  What makes Civil War feel so impactful is that it is bringing that unimaginable situation home and showing us how fleeting our domestic peacetime situation can be.  We trivialize the idea of a domestic civil war, and in some grotesque cases even fantasize about it, but if one were to break out here in America it would have devastating effects that ruins the lives of everyone involved, and this movie does an effective job of communicating that bleak scenario.  Hopefully it makes audiences more aware of how devastating modern warfare is on those countries that are living through today.  It’s not a perfect war film; some of Garland’s creative choices do undermine the impact of the harshest scenes, especially some needle drop choices that feel a bit out of place.  But as an overall experience, Civil War is harrowing and thought provoking in all the right ways, and in many moments hauntingly beautiful to look at.  And to see wartime journalism at it’s finest, please also seek out the Oscar-winning 20 Days in Mariupol, though prepare yourself first for some harsh, graphic content as part of the experience.  Civil War may be a dramatized depiction of war through a scenario very much separated from our current political situation, but there is a lot of truth in the story that it is telling with regards to the people who live through such times as depicted in the movie, and it hopefully acts as a cautionary tale for us as we grow more and more closer to having our own petty conflicts flare up into something much worse.

Rating: 8.5/10

Collecting Criterion – Mulholland Drive (2001)

There are some filmmakers out there who are best described as acquired tastes.  These are the auteurs; movie directors who unique style is uncompromised in the final product of their films, which may be off-putting to some people who find that style a little dense and impenetrable.  But, these types of filmmakers are also the kind that develop a dedicated following from audiences who are drawn to that kind of bold, un-compromised type of filmmaking.  The Criterion Collection understands the appeal of unique voices in cinema, and they have served these kinds of niche fanbases with excellent home video collections from a select number of auteur filmmakers.  These include movies from Canadian director David Cronenberg, whose body horror features certainly are meant for a certain discernable audience.  There’s also Terrence Malick, whose visual poem style features can sometimes test casual audiences who are looking for more linear storytelling.  And then there is the most notoriously cerebral filmmaker to have made it through the Hollywood machine; David Lynch.  Lynch’s style is very much an acquired taste for many, given his often dark and disturbing directorial vision, but that has been the thing that has turned him into an icon for many die hard cinephiles.  There really is no one else that makes movies the way that David Lynch does; often visually daring and just plain weird from concept to the final shot.  Many say that no one captures the feeling of a dreamlike state, often a nightmarish one, on film better than he does.  Criterion has included seven of Lynch’s most noteworthy films in their collection, including his daring debut Eraserhead (1977, Spine #725), two of his most famous deconstructions of Americana with Blue Velvet (1986, #977) and Lost Highway (1997, #1152), as well as what many see as his most personal film, which is a deconstruction of the myths of Hollywood itself in Mulholland Drive (2001, #779).

The making of Mulholland Drive has a unique story on it’s own.  In addition to making his name well known as a filmmaker, Lynch also managed to break through on the small screen as well.  In 1990, he produced the mystery thriller series Twin Peaks for ABC Television, which became a massive hit for the network.  Lynch’s dark and bizarre trademarks were very much present in the show, and it made the show stand out as very much a departure from the standard network television fare at the time.  However, meddling from the network with regards to the direction of the story and also with it’s time slot placement caused the show to lose much of it’s audience in it’s second season, and ABC pulled the plug soon thereafter.  Still, the 48 episodes that it managed to air on TV left an indelible impact, and it is the thing that cemented David Lynch as a household name.  Lynch tried to put Twin Peaks to rest with a prequel movie that is also included in the Criterion Collection, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992, #898), and twenty years later he would even get to make a third season revival on the cable channel Showtime.  But after the disappointing short run of Twin Peaks, Lynch wanted to try his hand again at creating another television series.  Initially, he imagined a spin-off of Twin Peaks, centered around the character of Audrey Horne.  But, over time he devised a new idea that centered around the dark side of the film industry.  This concept would become the basis for a 90 minute pilot titled Mulholland Drive.  The show would center around several characters living on the periphery of the entertainment industry, with the main character named Betty Elms played by a then unknown Naomi Watts.  Unfortunately, the pilot was never picked up and Lynch was left with another incomplete vision that this time audiences would sadly never see.  That was until he received financial assistance from French based production company Studio Canal to shot more scenes and turn the open-ended pilot into a fully realized feature film.  The resulting completed film is pure Lynchian madness, as it deviates from the straight-forward mystery of it’s original vision and becomes on of the director’s most cerebral head trips in it’s new form.

The film introduces us to the titular road that crisscrosses the peaks of the Hollywood Hills in the dead calm of night. A woman emerges as the only survivor of a deadly car wreck, and she seeks shelter in a nearby apartment complex.  The following morning, an aspiring actress named Betty Elms (Watts) arrives in Hollywood with dreams of stardom.  She takes up residence in an apartment loaned to her by her aunt.  When Betty enters the apartment, she is shocked to find another woman there already; the same woman from the crash.  Suffering from amnesia, the woman goes by the name Rita (Laura Harring).  Betty tries to help Rita remember who she is, and to also find out why she has so much cash in her purse as well as a mysterious blue key.  While having dinner that night, Rita suddenly remembers a name; Diane Selwyn.  They track down an apartment address listed to Ms. Selwyn and shockingly find a rotting corpse inside.  Meanwhile, a film director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is struggling to cast a lead role in his film, and is being pressured by the mafia connected Castigliane brothers (Dan Hedaya and Angelo Badalamenti) to chose a girl named Camilla Rhodes for the part over everyone else, including Betty.  After the trauma of finding the corpse, Betty and Rita return to their apartment.  The grow more intimate and end up making love.  In the middle of the night they are awoken and drawn to mysterious theater down the road called Club Silencio.  The performance they watch puts both girls into an intense hallucinatory state.  Afterwards, we meet the woman Diane Selwyn, who looks just like Betty, who is a struggling actress having a secret affair with a movie star named Camilla Rhodes, who looks like Rita.  We watch their relationship crumble and Diane takes increasingly more dark turns in her life before things ultimately fall apart for her, becoming yet another casualty of the broken dreams of Hollywood.

It’s clear when watching the movie where Lynch shifted gears and turned his pilot episode into a fully realized feature film.  The first half of the movie plays out in a Twin Peaks sort of mystery soap opera.  But once the Club Silencio scene begins, the movie pivots and becomes something entirely different.  Lynch dispenses with the story that he had been telling for the last hour and he even makes you question whether any of it was real by the questions posed in the final half of the film.  The theory posed by the second part of the film is that the story we were being told was an imagined dream of the doomed Diane Selwyn, creating a different reality where her life isn’t in shambles and where she is the heroine of her own story.  That’s why Betty comes across as the more traditional heroine, because it’s the kind of cinematic role model that Diane always wished she had been.  Rita, on the other hand, is an imagined version of Diane’s lover Camilla, one in which she is more easily controlled by the possessive Diane.  It’s interesting that Lynch takes this dramatic turn with his film, especially with the knowledge knowing that it was being developed as a TV series.  Instead of completing the story that he envisioned when he originally developed the pilot, Lynch stops the narrative dead in it’s tracks and deconstructs it completely.  The movie as a result becomes far more of a commentary on the nature of the cutthroat movie business.  By showing us the contrast between Diane’s lonely, bitter existence and the imagined heightened reality of the soap opera that Betty lives within, we see how so much of the entertainment business is built upon the tragic rejection of so many people who get used and abused all in the pursuit of the fleeting promise of stardom.

It’s the main reason why David Lynch chose for his title Mulholland Drive.  The street is a winding road that sits atop the Hollywood Hills and marks a bit of a boundary between the rich and glamourous opulence of Hollywood itself and the drab and lower rent San Fernando Valley.  In a way, Mulholland Drive becomes a bit of a metaphorical dividing line between the have and have nots, which becomes central to the theme of the movie.  Mulholland Drive often gets compared with another classic movie named after another famous thoroughfare in Tinseltown; Sunset Boulevard (1950).  Billy Wilder’s acclaimed satire about the broken dreams of the film industry certainly had a big influence on what David Lynch intended for his look at Hollywood, but where the two diverge is in how the depths of humanity are focused on in the story.  In Sunset Boulevard, we witness the madness of Norma Desmond through the eyes of another, but in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, we are brought into the madness itself.  In typical Lynchian fashion, the lines between what’s real and what isn’t is blurred and through that contrast, Lynch is able to deliver his portrayal about the dark side of show business.  There’s also another interesting wrinkle added to this move when you learn about Naomi Watt’s own history with the movie industry.  She has said in interviews that her own experience trying to make it in Hollywood was very much reflected in the characters of Betty and Diane.  She struggled for years trying to break into acting, and even fell into deep depressions during that time.  Right before David Lynch cast her, Naomi was facing eviction from her apartment and had lost her health insurance.  She nearly quit acting before her friend and fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman talked her into staying, and sure enough Mulholland Drive would indeed be her big break.  She knew all too well the kind of part she would be playing and that personal experience really carries through in the film.  The role may have hit close to home, but Naomi Watt’s authenticity in the role really helps to elevate the film beyond just it’s eccentricities.

The Criterion Collection edition of Mulholland Drive is an interesting exercise in preservation.  David Lynch shot the movie like most of his films on celluloid.  However, the parts of the film that were supposed to be part of the TV pilot are shot on a different kind of stock than the parts that were filmed a year later to make the movie.  Most people won’t know the difference, but when it comes to restoration, the difference in film quality can be substantial.  Luckily for Criterion, Lynch and his director of photography Peter Deming were deeply involved in the production of this new 4K digital master, making sure the color correction and fidelity of the picture remained consistent throughout.  Lynch’s movies are often very saturated in color, often for thematic purposes and in many cases intentionally antithetical to the tone of the scenes.  The color blue is an especially important thematic element in the movie, and the 4K restoration really helps to make the blue tones stand out in this movie.  The film is available in both Blu-ray and 4K UHD formats, and those looking for the highest quality experience should definitely go with the 4K version.  One of the interesting things about the film’s transfer is that it reflects the preferred framing that David Lynch wanted for his movie.  Film made for television usually runs at an aspect ratio of 1.76:1, but on cinematic screens, films are formatted for 1.85:1 in the same widescreen format.  To account for the difference between screen and TV formats, Lynch actually gave theaters specific instructions on how to show Mulholland Drive, by having the frames manually lowered so the actors’ heads wouldn’t get cut off.  In the restoration for Criterion, Lynch was able to supervise the framing so that it will play in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio with the image centered the way he wants it.  The film’s 5.1 surround sound track is also boosted with a new DTS restoration that helps to make the film sound exceptional, especially in the more cerebral moments late in the film.

In terms of the special features, this edition of Mulholland Drive is a bit light compared to other films in the Criterion library, including the other ones directed by David Lynch.  The most substantial bonuses are the collection of interviews conducted with David Lynch as well as assorted cast and crew.  These were all filmed specifically for the movie’s original debut in the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray in 2015.  One involves both David Lynch and Naomi Watts looking back on their memories of the filming.  Watts, in particular, recounts the aforementioned struggles she faced before she got the role.  Another collection of interviews includes actress Laura Harring, actor Justin Theroux, and casting director Johanna Ray, all talking about what it was like shooting specific scenes.  Other interviews include composer Angelo Badalamenti, cinematographer Peter Deming and production designer Jack Fisk, all of whom are frequent collaborators of David Lynch and they share their different experiences working with the man on set and off.  Another substantial feature is a vintage featurette showing on set footage during the making of the film.  It’s an interesting look at what went into the making of the movie, and it gives us insight into David Lynch’s process behind the camera as well.  A short deleted scene is included, set within a Hollywood police station.  It’s an interesting inclusion, but ultimately the scene is nothing substantial and it’s easy to see why it made the cutting room floor.  Finally, the film’s original theatrical trailer is included.  Overall, it’s a light collection of bonuses, but each one is still interesting on it’s own and well worth pouring through, especially the one’s that give you a good look behind the scenes of the movie.

For a lot of people, David Lynch’s movies may be a bit too weird to fully appreciate.  I myself will admit that I don’t really get him either. He’s not anywhere near the top of my favorite filmmakers, and I am mostly mixed on a lot of his films.  Even still, I do recognize the artistry behind his filmmaking and I do admire his originality a lot.  No other filmmaker makes movies the way that he does, and that certainly is something worth celebrating.  The Criterion Collection understands that too, and that’s why they have been eager to make his movies celebrated additions to their ever expanding library.  Mulholland Drive may not be his greatest work, but it certainly is his most interesting.  Given the backstory of how this movie got made, it is remarkable how he was able to turn lemons into lemonade by repurposing an abandoned TV pilot into a daring cinematic achievement.  The way it shows the bitter downside of the Hollywood dream machine and how it contrasts the dream against a crushing reality is quite a poignant statement to make, especially for someone who has been an integral voice in cinematic history.  Though David Lynch has had his share of success in Hollywood, he’s also experienced his fair share of frustration as well; from the studio meddling that prematurely killed Twin Peaks to the nightmarish production that he endured to make the movie Dune (1984).  It wasn’t an easy road to maintain the purity of his unique style throughout his career, and there was a point where Mulholland Drive wasn’t going to survive either.  For those who find their ideal cinematic experience in the weird hallucinatory worlds that David Lynch creates for the big screen, they will undoubtedly be please with how Criterion treats his filmography.  Mulholland Drive, even after over 20 years, is still one of the director’s latter films.  He hasn’t directed a new feature since 2006’s Inland Empire (#1175), and is spending most of his days recently just working on increasingly bizarre short Avant Garde projects on his website, including delivering weather reports for some reason.  While many would like to see him return to feature films, he seems content in his own creative atmosphere for the moment, and upon seeing Mulholland Drive, it’s easy to see why Lynch is keen on avoiding the cutthroat world of Hollywood.  For the film itself, it gets a beautiful and richly textured 4K restoration via Criterion that will certainly please fans of the film, as well as a nice collection of features included on the disc.  When Criterion is spotlighting a filmmaker of David Lynch’s ilk, they are catering to a very specific and niche audience, but their work on the the restoration of these films is so pleasing to the eye, that they even will please those of us who find David Lynch just a tad bit too weird to fully love. – Mulholland Drive

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire – Review

It’s not an easy time for a franchise like the Legendary Pictures “Monsterverse” to be around in theaters.  Audiences in general are growing tired of interconnected movie “universes” are are more interested now in movies that feel fresh and diverse.  Hollywood is having to adjust accordingly to this shift after spending much of the last decade milking audiences with promises of mega-franchises based on interconnected IP.  Marvel certainly was the trend-setter with their massively successful Cinematic Universe (MCU), but even they are seeing the writing on the wall and are reigning in their universe expansion in order to make their films more successful.  Other franchises are either re-booting completely, like DC, or were just abandoned completely before being fully matured, like Universal’s Dark Universe.  But unlike all of those, the Monsterverse, a franchise built around iconic kaiju beasts like Godzilla and King Kong, has managed to defy gravity and keep growing with every new film.  It helps that the franchise didn’t exactly explode right out of the gate.  2014’s Godzilla, a modern day reimagining of the iconic monster’s debut directed by Gareth Edwards (Rogue One) was a bit of a disappointment for many.  It was visually impressive, but ended up taking itself far too seriously and as a result became something of a bore.  What a lot of critics rightly pointed out as the strengths of the movie were the brief moments where we actually saw Godzilla fighting other monsters, and that this should have been the focus of the movie all along and not the bland human characters.  While the sequel, Godzilla: King of Monsters (2019) basically fell into the same trap of boring subplots with cool looking monster fights, it was clear that Legendary Pictures were taking in the feedback and were looking at different ways to make their franchise work.

One of the answers came in the response to their debut of their other marquee movie monster; King Kong.  Kong: Skull Island (2017) was radically different in tone from the first two Godzilla movies; with a more relaxed and comical flavor to the human storyline.  It showed that the franchise worked better when it didn’t take itself too seriously and actually leaned on it’s more absurd elements.  This shift in strategy came an an opportune time because what awaited next for the Monsterverse was the highly anticipated crossover of the two icons.  Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) was a matchup that everyone had been eager to see happen, in many cases for decades.  The last time these monsters shared the big screen together, they were played by guys in rubber suits.  Now, with the full arsenal of CGI tricks at their disposal, Legendary was able to create a showdown between these titans that could truly feel as massive as the monsters themselves.  But, at the same time, Godzilla vs. Kong was a movie that demonstrated the lessons that Legendary had learned in building their franchise, giving the monster fights the spotlight, and keeping everything in between light and entertaining.  In the end, the movie accomplished it’s goal.  Released into theaters and on streaming at a time when the pandemic was still raging was risky, so it’s a real testament that Godzilla vs. Kong flourished even in those conditions.  It was the movie we really needed in that time, a good old-fashioned crowd pleaser that was worth taking the risk to see on a big screen.  Another smart move made by Legendary in their franchise plan was to accompany their new phase of the Monsterverse with a world-building spin-off series on Apple TV called Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, which gives back story to the in universe agency that monitors and sometimes protects these colossal monsters.  Overall, Legendary has successfully managed to maintain steady growth in their franchise while so many others have fallen off in recent years.  And the next chapter of their story comes in the second film teaming up the franchise’s two marquee stars with the awkwardly titled Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.  The question remains whether the Monsterverse continues to reign supreme, or is it going to crumble like so many other cinematic universes.

The movie picks up shortly after the events of Godzilla vs. Kong.  After Godzilla and King Kong put aside their rivalry to defeat the more dangerous Mecha Godzilla, they agree to settle with both remaining as from from each other as possible, ensuring harmony for the human civilization that has continually been in their crosshairs.  Godzilla will live on the surface world and ensure his dominance over other titans there, while Kong will live in the freshly discovered hollow earth world beneath the surface of the planet.  Meanwhile, the Monarch agency keeps tabs on both of these rivals and watches their activity closely, with bases even set up in the Hollow Earth.  On one particular observance, the Monarch team picks up mysterious electro-magnetic signals coming from deep within the planet, even beyond Kong’s domain.  The signals even trigger the young tribal girl Jia (Kaylee Hottle) who had befriended Kong on his Skull Island home.  Jia has been in the care of Monarch agent Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), and Jia is worried that the signals are going to trigger another war between Kong and Godzilla, as both monsters are again converging on the surface world.  Andrews seeks additional help in trying to understand what may have triggered this mysterious event, so she seeks the advice of conspiracy theorist and hollow earth expert Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), who figures out that the signal seems to be a distress call; but from where?  Andrews enlists Hayes’ assistance, as well as the help of an old colleague and current titan veterinarian named Trapper (Dan Stevens) as they embark on a journey into Hollow Earth to see where the signal may be coming from.  Meanwhile, Kong digs deeper into a deeper part of Hollow Earth that has been revealed from an earthquake.  There he finds an unexplored country with even more diverse wildlife.  And as he soon finds out, he is not the only titan sized ape in existence.  Is the signal meant to warn of an even greater danger hidden deeper under the surface of the Earth, and is it a big enough threat to make King Kong and Godzilla reluctant allies once again.

The thing that made Godzilla vs. Kong work so well is that it knew exactly what it needed to be and delivered.  We paid to see those two monsters fight, and the movie did not disappoint on that front, not wasting any time getting to the nitty gritty with the matchup happening as early as the first act of the film.  It had to live up to that title and director Adam Wingard understood the assignment.  Was it silly and ridiculous, yes, but that was part of the charm.  Godzilla vs. Kong was not afraid to lean into the absurd, especially when it came to the human characters and their part to play in the movie.  It was refreshing after the misplaced pathos of Gareth Edwards’ depressing Godzilla.  Did Adam Wingard, who returns to direct A New Empire, manage to repeat that balancing act with this new movie.  Well, let me just say that when it comes to the plot and character writing of this movie, this is probably the dumbest film in the franchise to date.  There are so many plot contrivances and non-sensical motivations on the part of the characters.  The dialogue is also heavy handed and loaded with exposition.  But, is the movie still a load of fun to watch even with all those shortcomings?  Absolutely.  What ultimately works in the movie’s favor is that it still understands what the big draw of this movie is, and that is getting to see giant monsters fighting each other, and director Wingard rightly puts the emphasis on that first and foremost.  The only thing that works against that this time around is that the movie takes a bit more extra time to get started.  The first act of the movie is honestly hard to get through, as it focuses primarily on catching up with the human characters, which as we know are the weakest element of this franchise.  But once the movie shifts it’s focus towards the monsters themselves, the movie does pick up and thankfully keeps building.  Unfortunately, the sluggish first act does keep the movie from truly being a great film and makes it a lesser follow-up to Godzilla vs. Kong.  But, if you can make it through that opening, the rest of the movie is one wild and entertaining ride.

What I found to be especially effective are the moments when the human characters are away and we just focus on the kaiju themselves.  The title of this movie is a bit misleading because this is primarily Kong’s movie.  Godzilla is little more than a supporting player, only playing a major part towards the end in the film’s climatic battle.  Thankfully, Kong himself is able to carry the movie on his own.  The movie is at it’s best when we focus on his story.  In fact, there are a surprisingly abundant sequences of this film where we follow along with Kong on his journey and there is no dialogue throughout those scenes.  The movie becomes a bit of a silent movie at this point, with Kong entirely conveying character non-verbally through pantomime.  We see him encounter the other giant apes in the underground world, and though we can’t understand what they say through their grunts and screams, we still are able to read the scene through their gesturing.  Honestly, it would be a neat cinematic experiment to have a kaiju movie done entirely like these moments, without a single word of dialogue.  Something tells me that the thought has crossed Adam Wingard’s mind, and this movie seems to be a test of sorts for if they could do a Monsterverse movie entirely through the perspective of one of the titans, with no human characters at all.  There’s no doubt that these are the most captivating moments of the entire movie, and it’s a real testament to the effectiveness of this Monsterverse franchise that we actually care that much about a character like King Kong at all.  The only thing that would’ve made it better is if more attention was paid to the character development of Godzilla as well.  Godzilla is no more than the brutish, atomic breath spewing monster that we are all familiar with, and not much else is made of his, which is probably why the filmmakers chose to sideline him for most of the movie.  Thankfully when he does enter back into the story it’s a triumphant moment.  But, it’s understandable that Kong is given the lion’s share of screen time, because he is the one grounded mostly in the human world.  He has that connection to civility, and that helps to make him a highly expressive and even introspective character.

So, what about the troublesome human characters.  Well, the script of course doesn’t do the cast any favors.  It’s to the actors credit that they can make the most out of the often clunky dialogue that they are given.  I think another plus of the Monsterverse movies is that they don’t clutter up their films by focusing on too many characters.  It is interesting how many times they establish new characters to this ongoing franchise and then just abandon them without much explanation.  None of the characters from the original 2014 Godzilla made it very far in this franchise.  The only carry overs to the sequel were the Monarch agents played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins.  Watanabe’s character does die on screen, but Hawkins’ character has been dropped completely out of the story.  In King of the Monsters, it looked like actress Millie Bobby Brown was being set up as the new main character, and while she did play a minor part in Godzilla vs. Kong, she is now completely absent in The New Empire with no mention of her character anywhere.  Instead, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry and Kaylee Hottle are the sole carry overs.  In a way, that works to the movies benefit having a smaller cast because it allows for the human story to be as brief as possible so that the parts with the monsters can take center stage.  The actors are fine, and though he’s a bit of a cheesy character overall, Dan Stevens does make for a colorful addition to the series.  It’s not really necessary to include a continuation of the human storyline at all, as these monster movies have never really been about continuity before.  But it definitely works towards making Monarch a constant fixture in this franchise, one in which all of the world-building revolves around.  While the human characters will come and go, Monarch as an organization will be the thing that connects this whole universe together across all the films.  Again, this movie knows where to put it’s focus with regards to balancing the human and monster storylines.

One of the other elements that really shines in this movie are the visuals.  Hollow Earth has been one of the best creations of this franchise so far, and The New Empire does a great job of expanding on what we’ve seen so far.  The movie also has a sense of scale that is impressive, making the titan creatures feel appropriately massive.  I also commend the CGI animators for bringing so much character into the character of Kong.  He is incredibly expressive throughout the movie and that helps to make the lengthy sequences of just him without the humans around all the more captivating.  He is a fully rounded character and given that we can only get that through non-verbal communication with Kong is a pretty good indication of the strength of the animation that was used to bring him to life.  Godzilla is a bit more limited when it comes to expressions, but the movie does a fine job of making Godzilla a believable presence as well.  What I also think is a key factor in this movie is the excellent sound design as well.  I watched this movie in an IMAX theater with the loudest sound system possible, and this movie definitely makes great use of it’s soundscape.  Every time you hear Godzilla’s iconic screech of a roar, it is something to be feared.  The sound design also helps to give you a sense of the scale of these creatures, as there is a weight to their presence, especially in the heavy uses of bass in their actions.  Even just listening to Godzilla sleep is chilling as every breath he takes in slumber sounds like rolling thunder.  Kong’s massive presence also benefits from the sound design, especially in the punches he dishes out as well as the ones he takes.  There’s also a beautiful use of color in the movie, especially when the film ventures deeper into the lost world found within the chasm discovered in the Hollow Earth.  Also, Godzilla sporting a pink color scheme after an atomic power up is a nice visual idea that really helps to set this movie apart from others in the franchise.  It’s a sign that the Monsterverse is a franchise willing to take some creative risks and more importantly not be afraid to get a little weird as well.

The one downside to this movie is that it doesn’t have the same beginning to end level of fun as Godzilla vs. Kong had.  The sluggish first act does weigh it down unfortunately.  But, one it finds it’s rhythm and manages to let loose, The New Empire can actually be a lot of fun.  It’s just the right amount of stupid without crossing into the insufferable.  The movie could’ve easily have been mishandled, especially if it took even more time trying to catch up with everything that has gone on with the human characters.  The movie knows that the humans are the true B-plot, and it just gives us enough about them to care a little about their journey while not letting it distract from the main attraction which are the monster fights.  There are some great battle scenes in this movie, with Kong especially showing of some incredible moves.  The movie also rewards audiences who have followed along with the whole Monarch linked elements of the franchise, while at the same time not making it confusing for audiences coming to this with fresh eyes.  The movie may unfortunately fall prey to changing audience tastes, especially after long time monster movie fans fell in love with last year’s Godzilla Minus One.  That film, made by original Godzilla creators Toho Studios, showed us what a monster movie could be when the human story is actually made to be captivating on it’s own.  It’s a rare example where a studio managed to make a prestige film centered around Godzilla of all characters.  That movie also won critical acclaim (and even a Visual Effects Oscar) in a way that this Monsterverse movie will fall well short of.  But, I really do feel that both of these can stand out well on their own.  Godzilla Minus One and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire are intended to be different kinds of animals.  One takes the franchise back to it’s original roots as a dire reminder of the trauma placed on the nation of Japan after a nuclear bomb was dropped on them.  The other is just popcorn entertainment done very efficiently and with some really engaging monster mayhem on screen.  Both kinds of movies are valid in their own way.  So, yes Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is a dumb action movie, but those have value too just as long as they remember to be fun, and this one is indeed fun.  I was dreading sitting through the full movie if it continued to be as lanquid as the opening act, but by the film’s end, I had a smile on my face, and that’s what a good action movie should leave you with.  Whether you are Team Kong or Team Godzilla, this movie offers just enough thrills and fun to make it worth seeing.

Rating: 7.5/10

Top Ten Movies Based on TV Shows

When television first emerged onto the scene in the post-War years, it shook up the entertainment world in a big way.  While it did pose an existential threat early on to the theatrical model of film distribution, it also in many ways made movies a whole lot better.  The mid-century disruption of television led the movie studios towards an era of innovation, hoping to coax away people from their TV sets with the spectacles of widescreen film and surround sound speakers; the kind of things that at the time you could only experience in a theater.  Eventually, a balance was struck where movie theaters were able to thrive even with the competition of television.  What television brought was the opportunity for studios to tell long format stories through serialized programs.  Over time, television shows had just as much of a cultural impact as the movies, and became a mighty pillar of the industry that generated enormous profits along the way.  The proliferation of media went even beyond that with the advent of cable television and the emergence of the likes of HBO, FX and AMC on the scene; creators of shows that very much feel cinematic.  But, the movie industry would continue to prosper, and in some cases they would inspire hit television series spin-offs, such as The Odd Couple or M.A.S.H.  What is definitely fascinating is the flip side of that; when a show inspires a film.  There are several instances when a series makes the big leap from the small to the big screen, and how much of a stylistic change that can be.  Working with a bigger canvas, sometimes the story or aesthetic of a series transforms the property into something very different than what we are used to.  There have been many failures in that translation to the big screen, but sometimes the marriage of cinema and television does work out and creates a film not just worthy of it’s place alongside the show that inspired it, but also is able to stand on it’s own as a great movie.  What follows are my top ten picks for what I think are the best movies based on television shows that have been made so far.


21 JUMP STREET (2012)

Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

It should be noted that before this movie came out, nobody had any interest in seeing it.  We had been bombarded with a ton of bad movies based on television shows in the years leading up to this, most of them just nostalgia bait that never justified their existence on the big screen.  On the surface this just looked like another one, re-worked into a comedy vehicle for actors Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill.  So it was surprising once we saw the actual movie that it turned out to be a smart and hilarious meta commentary on the very notion of cheap nostalgia cash ins.  It helps that the movie was made by the same guys who turned what could have been a lazy toy commercial into one of the best animated movies of the decade with The Lego Movie (2014).  The team of Lord & Miller are just masterful at making movies that shouldn’t exist work extremely well.  21 Jump Street really bears very little resemblance to the more dramatic show that it is based on, basically just using the premise as a springboard for the comedy, but the movie goes above and beyond just easy fish out of water jokes about two undercover cops posing as teenagers at a high school.  It is very self aware that it is a nostalgia cash grab, and it leans into that meta aspect to some hilarious results.  Jonah and Channing also have incredible comedic chemistry in the film.  Given that the movie had a lot of things going against it, especially with the fact that it was based on an early 90’s drama that most audiences today have little knowledge of, it is refreshing to see how well Lord & Miller subvert our expectations at every turn.  But, even fans of the series do get some shout outs, especially given that two of the original cast members of the show, Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise, have surprise cameos (which the movie also puts a hilarious subversive spin on).  Given that too many TV shows to movie translations miss the mark by just banking on their nostalgia, it’s nice that one such movie calls that out and has some fun with it in the process.



Directed by Trey Parker

One of the most common small screen to big screen translations that we see are from the medium of animation.  If an animated show is popular enough in the pop culture, it almost certainly makes the leap to the movie theaters.  Some of the times, it’s a show that gets translated from animation to live action, such as with The Flintstones (1994) or Transformers (2007).  But more often we’ve seen animated shows cross over with their animation style in tact, just beefed up with a cinematic budget.  In most cases, the movies just are just another episode taken to cinematic length.  This includes movies based on popular properties like Rugrats, Spongebob Squarepants, or The Simpsons.  Most of the time, these movie adaptations come out after the original run of the show is over, but a couple of these movies will make it to theaters even while they are still on the air on television.  And in the case of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, it came out very early in the show’s run.  South Park was a mere 3 seasons into it’s run when show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone created this movie based on the show.  And yet even with that brief amount of time under their belt, they managed to create one of the best TV to cinema leaps ever.  The movie is far more ambitious than anything they had ever done on the show up to then (or even since), becoming a full blown musical with an epic scale story line, and all the while still maintaining the same raunchy, subversive appeal that the show was beloved for.  The movie is a prime example of how a TV series adaptation brings out the full potential of what it can do on the big screen.  And even 25 years later, with the show still running on the air to this day, this is still the pinnacle of South Park for many.  Most of the jokes still hit today, and some feel even more relevant than ever.  Also, you’ve got to love any movie musical that brought out classic tunes like “Blame Canada” and “Uncle F$%#a” to the world.  There are a lot of great movies based on classic animated shows, but none hit quite as hard as South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut still does all these years later.



Directed by Penelope Spheeris

One of the most prolific shows to have spawned countless movie adaptations over the years has been Saturday Night Live.  The long running sketch comedy series has shepherded the rise of many comedic talents over the years, and with them they have also popularized many of the characters that these comedy actors have created.  Unfortunately, Saturday Night Live’s track record of success has been spotty.  It’s hard to take something that worked in a 5-7 minute sketch and expand it out into feature length.  And a lot of time it becomes a bridge too far, as you can really feel the premises stretch to their breaking point in so many of these SNL movies.  There are three adaptations that did buck the trend and became comedy classics in their own right.  One is the underrated MacGruber (2010), another is the classic The Blues Brothers (1980) which the first such SNL sketch to jump to the big screen, and the last one is what I think is the best of the bunch, Wayne’s World.  While so many of the SNL movies seem to be dragged down by too much adherence to back story, Wayne’s World in many ways was more free to develop into whatever it wanted to be.  The original sketch was just a parody of a low budget cable access show made in a basement.  The appeal wasn’t so much in who these characters were, but what they were.  Mike Myers and Dana Carvey perfectly maintain the appeal of their characters Wayne and Garth, and the movie builds around them and their show, allowing freedom to tell a story that doesn’t have to stick so strictly to formula.  As a result, we get a movie that is clever and creative, with fourth wall breaking jokes, hilariously cartoonish situations, and a surprising amount of heart as well.  What’s more, it’s a movie that actually feels like it adds something to the world of these characters, rather than just resting on the laurels of their familiarity from the show.  It’s something that sadly far too many other Saturday Night Live movies have forgotten to do.  It’s a movie that knows it’s playing in a bigger sandbox, and it makes the most of it while giving the characters the chance to grow along the way.  Party on.



Directed by David Zucker

Sometimes a movie adaptation becomes so popular that it will even eclipse the TV series that it was based on, to the point where you even forget that the TV show existed in the first place.  The comedy team of Jim Abrahams and Jerry and David Zucker created a short lived comedy series called Police Squad after their success with the movie Airplane (1980).  The show ran a short 6 episodes i during the spring of 1982 before getting prematurely cancelled.  Though it’s run was short, the episodes that did air were given critical acclaim, as the show maintained the same hilarious visual gags that made Airplane an all time classic comedy.  A few year later, Abrahams, Zucker and Zucker re-pitched their Police Squad brand as a movie, retaining their star Leslie Nielsen and fleshing out the premise into a feature length story.  The result was a smashing success, leading to what many consider to be a comedy classic on the same level as Airplane.  Leslie Nielsen is in his best element as Lt. Frank Drebin, perfectly accentuating the hilarious sight gags with his no nonsense stoicism, something that he also brilliantly applied in Airplane.  The movie also fleshes out the cast with some talented supporting players that also nail the right tone; including George Kennedy, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban Nancy Marchand, and yes even O.J. Simpson (back when he wasn’t on trial for murder).  The comedy in these movies works is because everyone plays things straight amidst all the absurdity, with Nielsen hitting the mark exactly.  In the end, the failure of the Police Squad series proved to be a good thing, because it inspired this comedy classic into being, though I strongly recommend seeking out the original show too, which surprisingly still holds up even against the movies.  For Leslie Nielsen and the team behind the movie, this would be a hard act to maintain, as their comedic formula lost it’s potency over time.  This original Naked Gun is still the best the best of them all as it hits the right notes with the greatest frequency.



Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

While a lot of the show to movie translations tweak with the formula a bit, a lot of them still maintain a familiarity with what we already know from the original source.  Then there are movies based on television shows that completely reimagine them entirely.  Though the movie adaptation of The Addams Family owes a fair bit to the original comic strip that the series was based on, you can’t help but notice the DNA of the television show in the movie as well; especially with the use of the catchy theme song complete with the snapping fingers.  The movie is a wonderful re-imagining of the spooky themed comedy series, maintaining it’s tongue-in-cheek macabre sense of humor, while at the same time taking advantage of the cinematic medium to up the visual aesthetic.  Visually, the movie owes a lot of inspiration to the movies of Tim Burton, who surprisingly was not involved in the making of this film, with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld making an impressive debut as a director.  Ironically, 30 years later Burton would take his own shot at adapting The Addams Family by turning it back into a series with his hit spin-off Wednesday for Netflix.  What makes this adaptation really shine is the perfect casting of all the classic characters.  Raul Julia and Angelica Huston are just the ideal choices to play Gomez and Morticia Addams respectively.  Christopher Lloyd also makes for a wonderfully manic Uncle Fester.  But the movie’s absolutely dead on casting choice was a very young Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams.  Her chilling deadpan delivery has left a lasting mark on the character, and her performance is the reason why the character has become so popular over the years.  The movie definitely ups the ante of the macabre aesthetic that never quite felt as spooky in the show, but it still remembers to stay true to it’s comedic roots, and it is a hilarious movie throughout, owing a lot to the talented cast that understood the assignment.  It’s definitely a case where the movie really took the full potential of cinema to deliver something new, mysterious and spooky with this familiar family.



Segments Directed by John Landis, Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg, and George Miller

This adaptation of the classic anthology series unfortunately has a dark cloud of controversy hanging over it.  The film was a combination of four different stories adapted from individual episodes of the award winning anthology from acclaimed writer Rod Serling, with each segment given to some of the biggest movie directors of the time.  The segment that sadly has the bad reputation is the one directed by John Landis, who was fresh off of his success with comedies like Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers.  His segment features actor Vic Morrow playing a bigoted businessman who is transported into the middle of several crises where he must suffer through the same injustices that the people he professes to hate have gone through.  One such moment involves a recreation of a battle in the Vietnam War, and Morrow’s character must help two young Vietnamese children to safety.  Sadly, during the filming of this scene, a malfunction with a prop helicopter caused it to crash on Vic Morrow and the two children he was carrying with him, killing all three instantly.  It’s one of the most notorious on set accidents in movie history, and it’s something that has clouded Landis’ reputation ever since, given the lax safety standards on set that were discovered later.  They were able to finish the film without the star, and it is an otherwise dark side note to an otherwise excellent big screen adaptation.  Fittingly, the Landis portion is the least interesting of the segments, and Spielberg’s is wonderfully whimsical but perhaps a bit too bright for this kind of movie.  Where the movie really shines is in the more horror themed segments from Joe Dante and George Miller.  Dante’s re-imagining of the “It’s a Good Life” episode is especially weird and disturbing in all the right ways and is definitely the highlight of the movie.  And George Miller’s re-make of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is elevated by an incredible unhinged performance by John Lithgow in the role famously played by William Shatner in the original series.  The movie had the unenviable task of taking one of the most iconic and influential shows on television and giving it a cinematic make-over, and thankfully these talented filmmakers were able to bring their own imaginative spins to help make it worthwhile.



Directed by Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma was no stranger to adapting a hit series  into a movie before he tackled this movie based on the classic spy thriller show.  In 1987, De Palma put his own spin on the acclaimed Prohibition Era set crime show The Untouchables.  And while that movie was an excellent adaptation on it’s own, his more longer lasting legacy in translating a show for the big screen came with this adaptation of the show Mission: Impossible, which ran from 1966-73.  The interesting thing about this movie is that it is in the continuity of the show, integrating the main character from the show (Jim Phelps), but putting him in charge of a new team.  Out of this, a new lead character was created in Ethan Hunt, a character molded specifically for a movie star named Tom Cruise to play.  The great twist with this movies is that (spoilers) Jim Phelps, the previous main character, is revealed to be the villain this time around; an interesting subversion on the original premise.  That twist is probably why the original actor who played Phelps (Peter Graves) refused to appear in this movie, but award winning actor Jon Voight fills the role perfectly in his place.  There’s no denying, this was a vehicle first and foremost for Tom Cruise to shine, which is not surprising given that he’s also the producer of the film.  Brian De Palma does do a great job of taking the iconic elements of the show (the gadgetry and the famous face masks) and giving them a cinematic flair.  He also does a masterful job of staging the action scenes as well, with the break-in to a sensory security room via rope suspension being one of the most iconic ever put on screen.  Though Brian De Palma left after one film in the series, he still left a strong foundation on which Cruise and his team have continued to build over the years, creating one of the greatest action franchises in history.  It’s definitely a case where the movie takes the premise of the show and brings it to it’s full potential, and is even not afraid to take some creative risks in order to rewrite the history of the show itself.  It’s definitely a mission worth choosing to accept.



Directed by James Frawley

The Muppets throughout the 1960’s and 70’s were a television institution.  The felt made puppets created by Jim Henson and his company had two hit shows airing at the same time, with The Muppet Show being a primetime hit on network TV, as well as Sesame Street being a beloved program for younger audiences on public broadcasting.  So it wasn’t at all surprising that the Muppets would eventually make it to the big screen.  The only question was, what kind of movie would they make.  The Muppet Movie in some ways is an origin story of how the characters got their start in showbiz.  We start off with Kermit the Frog (played by Henson himself) and his friend Fozzie the Bear (Frank Oz) taking a road trip cross country to make their break in Hollywood.  Along the way, they meet up with all of the familiar faces we know from The Muppet Show.  In a nice meta joke, they also run into Big Bird, whose heading in the opposite direction to New York to start his own show on public television.  It’s a great way to build a movie story around familiar characters without having to adhere to the format of the show they came from.  One thing that the movie does carry over from the show is the many celebrity cameos sprinkled throughout the movie, with icons such as Mel Brooks, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, and even Orson freaking Welles showing up at the end.  By the movie’s end, we see the Muppets given their big break, and it’s easy to see how the famed Muppet Show would have been a continuation of their story.  The movie is itself very iconic, with the Paul Williams penned song “The Rainbow Connection” becoming something of an anthem for the Muppet brand.  And of course this would lead to a series of loosely connected Muppet movies over the next several decades.  Most of them are excellent in their own right, but the fact that they made it to the big screen is because of how well this movie set the standard going forward.



Directed by Nicholas Meyer

If there is a brand that can definitively say it’s the most popular brand to have even come from television, Star Trek can make a very strong claim.  The sci-fi series created by Gene Rodenberry may have lasted only 3 seasons, but it’s legacy is enormous in the history of television.  It has created one of the largest and most devoted fan bases in pop culture and has spun off a whole bunch of hit television series based within the same universe.  About a decade after it’s original run, the series had grown so popular through years of re-runs that it convinced Paramount Pictures to pursue a big screen adaptation of the series.  Bringing back the full original crew of the starship Enterprise, the movie was a big budget spectacle, intended on giving the sci-fi brand the same cinematic appeal as other classics of the genre like Star Wars (1977) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Unfortunately, director Robert Wise didn’t understand the fundamental basics of what made the show work in the first place, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was a disappointing bore that alienated fans and turned away audiences.  Still, Paramount was eager to still make it work.  Nicolas Meyer was brought in to re-work the franchise for a sequel.  What he ended up doing was create a movie that indeed lived up to the legacy of the show while at the same time giving it a worthy cinematic upgrade.  What’s even better is that it picks up as a continuation of an on-going storyline from the series, bringing in Ricardo Montalban to reprise his role as the villainous meta-human Khan, with a performance now considered iconic to most Trek fans.  The Wrath of Khan really does feel like the true successor to the original series.  It rewards long time fans with a return of a classic villain and at the same time delivers moments that elevate the Star Trek franchise as a whole, including Shatner’s iconic guttural scream of  “Khaaaaan” and Leonard Nimoy’s tear-jerking final moments after Spock’s sacrifice.  This was the movie that truly resurrected Star Trek and helped to turn it in not just a force on television, but on the big screen as well; a legacy that continues to this day.



Directed by Andrew Davis

While a lot of hit movies have been inspired by television series, only one can lay claim to have been so good that it got a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.  The Fugitive is a classic in every sense of the word, taking the premise of the original hit series that ran from 1963-67, and updating it with a pulse pounding adaptation.  The story of wrongfully convicted Dr. Richard Kimble became one of the must see event shows of it’s time, and the final episode is still to this day one of the most seen in television history; on par with the finale of M.A.S.H.  It took nearly 30 years for a big screen adaptation to happen, and by that time there was enough separation from the source series to help make this film feel like a fresh new thing.  The movie wisely cast Harrison Ford as Richard Kimble, a role that perfectly utilizes his intensity as a performer while also feeling different enough from his work as Han Solo and Indiana Jones in the past.  It was the kind of meaty dramatic role that Harrison Ford really wanted to show his acting chops with, and he delivers a great performance overall.  But, the movie is made even better with the scene stealing performance of Tommy Lee Jones as Samuel Gerard, the top cop in charge of hunting Richard Kimble down.  Jones strikes the perfect balance between intensity and absurdity, with a whole movie’s worth of great one-liners.  The role would even win Tommy a well deserved Oscar for Supporting Actor.  Of all the movies based on television shows, this one feels like the one that strives the most to be a great movie, and for the most part it succeeds.  It’s another case where the film is so iconic it eclipse the show it was based on, and that show was an icon in it’s own day too.  There are moments in this movie that are just thrillingly cinematic, including Ford’s dive off of the top of a dam, which is the movie’s most iconic scene.  So many adaptations of television shows try perhaps a little too hard to break free of their small screen roots.  This adaptation is definitely a case where the story was calling for a great big cinematic re-telling and the filmmakers managed to craft a film that transcends any size screen.

One of the things that I noticed in putting this list together is that the success rate of creating a big screen adaptation of a television series is found more often on the comedy side.  It would seem that comedies lend themselves better to a feature length expansion.  It’s probably because comedies tend to be more stand alone stories with every episode, meaning that a movie fits in better with the continuity of a show by just being a longer episode.  Dramas on the other hand are serialized for the most part, which can be difficult to condense into a two hour length for the big screen, or to expand upon in a re-imagining.  The best dramatic adaptations of television shows are the ones that usually just take the premise and start with a fresh new take, kind of like what we saw with The Fugitive.  Because telling stories for television and for cinema are so different, it is often difficult to make that transition work.  Movies don’t break for commercial, and television shows have to adhere to more standards and practices than movies do.  They very much are two different formats for telling a story, so a lot of things are going to have to change in translation.  Still, there are a number of cases where it has worked and payed off immensely well.  Star Trek and Mission: Impossible are both cinematic franchises that have stood well on their own even with the television shows still standing out within the pop culture.  And in some cases, great movies can rise out of even the most trivial of inspirations seen on television, like Wayne’s World managing to become a hit comedy movie based on a short sketch from a weekly variety show.  The continuing blurring of the lines between television and cinema in the age of streaming is making the definitions of a small screen to big screen adaptation change as well.  At some point, a cinematic adaptation of a television series will not seem as much of a reward as it has been in the past, but more of an inevitability.  Even still, as seen with some of the examples on this list, there have been some great films that owe a lot to their success to the foundation that was made for them on television beforehand.  Great stories always find a way to capture an audience, and as we’ve seen it’s not so much the size of the screen that matters, but rather the strength of the story that comes through and entertains us and makes these classics endure in any format.

Off the Page – Winnie the Pooh

One of the strongest contributions that merry old England has contributed to world literature are the books that have been written specifically for younger readers.  Popularized specifically in the turn of the 20th Century, children’s literature began to blossom and leave it’s mark on the publishing world, and many of the most well known authors were coming from the English literary community.  What really distinguished English children’s literature were the memorable characters that came from these imaginative stories.  Whether it be the maniacal Mr. Toad from Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, or the boy who never grew up in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, or the practically perfect nanny in P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, these were characters that lept off the page and captured the imagination of children not just in their native England, but all around the world as well.  But the most popular of these characters may have come from the unlikeliest of authors.  That character of course would be the little stuffed bear known as Winnie the Pooh.  Pooh Bear is a character known the whole world over, rivaling even Mickey Mouse in overall awareness across cultures.  But what is it about the character of Winnie the Pooh that has managed to transcend multiple generations and cultural barriers.  In essence, there is a simplicity to the world of Winnie the Pooh that connects with our imagination at a very young age.  As children, we see our own little worlds as being much grander than they really are, and out of that we develop an imagination where that small little world is the place for a great adventure of our making and the toys we play with are our companions.  That’s at the core of the Winnie the Pooh stories, and it’s also where their creation began.  Winnie the Pooh was born out of a real place and the imagination of a real child, which itself evolved into an interesting story on it’s own.

Alan Alexander (A.A.) Milne was a mildly successful playwright in England during the earlier part of the 20th Century.  He served his country in World War I, and the experience left severe mental scars.  His writing post-War became more harsh and bleak as he was passionate to express his anti-War feelings to the world.  The toll of the war led him to retreat from the social life of London, and he spent much of the 20’s at a country estate near Ashdown Forest in East Essex.  Most of these exile years were spent in the company of his young son, Christopher Robin Milne.  Hoping to start fresh with his child that he neglected because of his seclusion due to triggering war flashbacks, the peaceful countryside allowed Milne to settle down and give more attention to his son.  He observed how Christopher Robin would create his own adventures in the woods outside their home, and always with a stuffed bear at his side named Growler.  This inspiring scene would spark the creativity in Milne’s mind once again and he began to write about Christopher Robin’s adventures in the 100 Acre Wood that was Ashdown Forest.  And though Christopher Robin was indeed a part of his stories, the name of the bear needed to be more distinct than Growler.  At the time, the London Zoo had just welcomed a Canadian bear cub with the name Winnipeg, or Winnie for short.  And though the Milne had changed the name of his stuffed bear, Christopher Robin contributed the addition of Pooh to the name, as it was what he called a swan that lived in the nearby pond on the property.  Christopher’s names for all of his other stuffed toys also made it into the story, including the tiny little Piglet, a tiger named Tigger, and a donkey named Eeyore.  Over the course of two years, A.A. Milne wrote over two dozen Winnie the Pooh stories, and they were published collectively in two volumes, the titular Winnie the Pooh (1926) and The House on Pooh Corner (1928) soon after.

“Pooh, for a bear of very little brain, you sure are a smart one.”

The two Winnie the Pooh books were enormous hits all over England and they managed to make a huge impression across the pond as well in North America.  The impact of that success unfortunately was not all that good for Milne and his family.  One of the things that really captured the imagination of young readers were the many illustrations that were included in the books, taken from pencil sketches by Milne’s longtime collaborator and friend E.H. Shepard.  Shepard’s depiction of Winnie the Pooh and his critter friends would become iconic and influential for years beyond, but when it came to drawing Christopher Robin himself, Shepard and Milne made the mistake of basing his likeness on the real Christopher.  As a result, the very young boy became a bit of a celebrity, with many people clamoring to meet the real Christopher Robin.  Christopher would go on a whirlwind tour helping to promote the book, with A.A. Milne unable to stop the frenzy surrounding his son.  There was even a reckless marketing ploy where Christopher participated in a photo shoot with the bear Winnipeg at the London Zoo.  That’s right, a barely 8 year old child was made to stand next to a live bear that could’ve easily attacked him without warning.  Thankfully nothing happened, but it is shocking to think how poorly Christopher was treated during these promotional days.  Naturally it led to some resentment in Christopher’s later years, as he grew to hate the bear that made him famous and thus denied him a simple childhood.  A.A. Milne also resented the success of his Winnie the Pooh books because they overshadowed his other work and weren’t reflective of his true passions.  Winnie the Pooh would be a sore spot in the Milne family for many years, as Christopher became more estranged from his father, whom he blamed for exploiting him.  Towards the end of his life, A.A. Milne chose to distance himself from his most popular creation, refusing to have it dramatized in any form, both on screen and on the stage during his lifetime.  Eventually he and Christopher did reconcile in later years, but they together chose to disown the cuddly little bear.

“The only reason for being a bee is to make honey.  And the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it.”

After A.A. Milne’s death in 1956, the rights to his Winnie the Pooh stories were passed on to his publisher’s widow, as Christopher Robin Milne had no interest in claiming the character for himself.  A couple years later, the widow of the publisher would put up the rights for a film version for the first time ever.  There of course was one filmmaker who had his eyes set on the Winnie the Pooh stories for a long time and jumped immediately at the opportunity.  That person of course was Walt Disney.  Disney gained the exclusive rights to the Winnie the Pooh stories in 1961, and he was intent on putting his own spin on the world renowned stories.  But, instead of crafting a full length feature based on the books, Walt opted to make short subject adaptations of select chapters of the Winnie the Pooh books.  Given that the Winnie the Pooh books are just a collection of self contained short stories, it made more sense to have a series of shorts made rather than a singular film with a feature length narrative.  And so, Walt Disney and his animators would begin their work on Winnie the Pooh with an adaptation of the first two chapters of the original 1926 book; one with a story of Pooh using a balloon to fly up into a tree in order to reach the honey found in a bee hive and other involving Pooh getting stuck in the entrance hole of the bunny hollow of his friend Rabbit.  This first short would be called Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966), which sadly would end up being the last animated project that Walt Disney would see to completion.  After his death in 1966, Walt’s animation team began work on the second featurette, entitled Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968), which among other things introduced the character of Tigger into the series.  Blustery Day would prove to be even more popular than the first short, and it ended up winning an Oscar as well for Animated Short.  A few years later, the third short Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974) was released.  The three shorts were then combined into a package feature film called The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) with new animated interstitials and a finale added.  This package feature is how most people are able to view the original run of Disney’s take on Winnie the Pooh, but it’s not the last we would ever see of the little bear.  Indeed, Winnie the Pooh would be around for quite a while, appearing in Saturday morning cartoons, holiday specials, and he would even get another animated feature film from Disney in 2011, simply titled Winnie the Pooh.  Not to mention, he would become a gold mine in merchandising for Disney, making billions of dollars for the company.  Remarkably, what A.A. Milne chose to cast aside, Disney would embrace and make their own, and it would be one of the most lucrative acquisitions they have ever made.

Though for fans of the original books, it’s that Disneyfication of the character that has become controversial over the years.  Many people in the UK are especially resentful of how Americanized the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh is.  The Disney shorts very much lack the English identity that is so crucially part of Milne’s writing.  A.A. Milne was a poet first and foremost, and his Winnie the Pooh stories were full of the kind of flourish that he excelled at as a writer.  Some of the moral lessons learned by Pooh and Christopher Robin show how Milne himself was trying to process his own outlook on life, with Pooh acting as both a companion to Christopher as well a bit of a therapist.  Much of that  flourish is minimized in Disney’s versions, as Winnie the Pooh and his friends speak more or less like other American cartoon characters of the time.  Even though the characters themselves may be missing some of that distinct Milne dialogue in favor of a more straightforward American style sense of humor, Walt Disney and his team still found a clever way to work some of Milne’s style of prose through the inclusion of a narrator.  Voiced in the original run of shorts by English actor Sabastian Cabot, the narrator plays an important function within the adaptation.  He not only brings Milne’s own voice into the film, but he even interacts with the characters as well.  One of the more inspired choices of the Disney adaptation is to have the characters actually interacting within the pages of the book itself, including treating the text as actual physical objects.  They’ll even address the narrator directly, aware of his existence.  It’s an interesting aspect that Disney added  and it helps to both pay homage to the original text while at the same time allowing for creative flourish on the part of the animation itself.

“Heffalumps and Woozels are very confusal.  A Heffalump or Woozel’s very sly.  If honey’s what you covet, you’ll find that they love it.  Before your eyes you’ll see them multiply.”

Even with the changes Disney made, the shorts still maintains a reverence for the source material.  It is clear that the Shepard illustrations were key inspirations for the visual style of the 100 Acre Wood.  Disney Animation was going through a transitional period in the mid to late 60’s, as they embraced a newer, sketchy style look thanks to a Xerox process that translated pencil drawings directly onto animation cels.  It worked well on some projects, like the more modern day 101 Dalmatians (1961), but looked a little too course on films that should have had a softer, classical look like The Aristocats (1970).  For Winnie the Pooh, the Xerox process was a perfect match, because of it’s similarity to the Shepard illustrations.  The backgrounds in particular really feel like they were pulled right off the page, and given the short’s gimmick with the living manuscript that the characters interact with, it’s clear that Disney really wanted to capture that simple beauty found in the original texts.  The character designs take heavy inspiration from the Shepard drawings too, though with noticeable differences to help make them easier to animate.  Disney’s Winnie the Pooh is a bit more rotund than his book counterpart, though Disney still keeps the shape of his bear head very similar to how it is in the book.  Piglet is almost a direct translation, while other characters are embellished a bit more.  Tigger is especially more dynamic in the Disney version, being both animalistic, but also capable of human like behavior.  Disney’s choices in voices also go a long way towards making the characters come alive.  Veteran actor Sterling Holloway, a favorite of Walt’s, was brought on to give Winnie the Pooh his voice, and it’s a perfect match.  While literary purists may bemoan Holloway’s American accent on this very British bear, there’s no denying the soft tone on his voice is delightful to listen to and feel natural for a stuffed bear named Winnie.  Ventriloquist and comedian Paul Winchell delivers a rousing performance as Tigger, especially in developing the distinctive laugh of the character with his “hoo hoo hoo hooo.”  Character actor John Fiedler brought his distinct high pitched voice to the part of Piglet, and he would continue to voice the character for another 40 years up until his passing in 2005.  One key change that the Milne family probably would’ve approved of are the changes to Christopher Robin.  In addition to also giving the character an American accent (provided by a number of young actors), they also changed the look of the character to help distance him more for the real Christopher Robin.  His function in the story is also less direct, with him passively being a part of stories that Winnie the Pooh is more independently motivated in.

“Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in the enchanted place on top of the forest, a little bear will always be waiting.”

Though Disney made several changes to the characters, they still remarkably remain faithful to the stories themselves.  All of the shorts that made up The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh were adapted from Milne’s own stories.  The stories themselves get mashed together to create bigger narratives, but each one translates original ideas from Milne’s own imagination.  Disney clearly knew that many in the audience would’ve been familiar with these stories, especially the iconic Honey Tree and Flood stories.  Where Disney saw their chance to bring their own flourish was in expanding upon concepts that are limited when described on the page.  One of the biggest moments that Disney contributed to Winnie the Pooh is found midway through the Blustery Day short.  In it, Winnie the Pooh learns about the concept of Heffalumps and Woozels from Tigger, fearing that they will steal his honey.  This leads to a nightmare sequence when Disney creates some truly surrealistic imagery.  I would make a guess that this was the segment that helped the short win an Oscar because it is a one of the most tripiest moments found in any Disney movie.  The “Pink Elephants” sequence from Dumbo (1941) seems to have been an inspiration, with Winnie the Pooh finding himself caught up in a weird place surrounded by Heffalumps and Woozels that shapeshift into anything.  It’s definitely the thing that deviates the most from Milne’s original vision, which is far more grounded in a magical reality.  Apart from that detour, which makes sense in the scheme of the story as part of Winnie the Pooh’s nightmare, the stories play out just as Milne wrote them.  The stakes never grow too dire; the only real conflict overall in the arc of these stories is the contention between Rabbit and Tigger, which the characters are too good natured to ever take too seriously.  Disney showed with the Heffalump sequence that they were capable of deviating far from Milne’s vision, but they wisely kept Winnie the Pooh characteristically simple and direct in line with how the books told their stories.

As Winnie the Pooh inches closer to his Centennial anniversary, it is remarkable to see how his influence has not waned but instead grown stronger.  After the character entered the public domain a couple years ago, it didn’t take long for opportunistic filmmakers to exploit that freedom and use the iconography of Winnie the Pooh as the basis for a horror movie.  Thankfully, Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey (2023) came and went and was widely panned by everyone, so it’s existence shouldn’t cast a bad rep on the character going forward.  What has been one of the stranger legacies of the character, however, has been his influence on global politics.  At some point, many people pointed out the visual similarities between the Disney design of the character and Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jingping.  President Xi has been aware of this, as the comparison to Winnie the Pooh is often used as a way of mocking the controversial leader, so what has come as a result has been a crackdown on all Winnie the Pooh related imagery all across China.  The only exceptions allowed are select pieces of merchandise, as well as costumed appearances at Shanghai Disneyland.  Other than that, no one in China is allowed to distribute anything not approved by the Chinese government with Winnie the Pooh on it.  Now Winnie the Pooh has been turned as a symbol of rebellion in China, which I don’t know how an anti-Fascist pacifist like A.A. Milne would feel in response.  As of now, the Disney version of the character remains the face of the character that most of us know today, and Disney is not likely to be slowing down with their presentations of the character.  He is now as big of a driver of the Disney brand as Mickey himself, with Pooh being especially popular with the youngest part of Disney’s audience.  Has it taken away from some of the appeal of the character that Milne first imagined.  The original shorts did an admirable job of staying true to their literary source, but in the years since, with Disney going way beyond the books with countless spin offs on television and home video, it can be argued that Disney has been a little overkill with their hold on the property.  Still, Winnie the Pooh remains more or less the same honey loving bear we all love, and like his original literary companion Christopher Robin, he has been a guiding role model for kindness in much of our childhood memories.  If Winnie the Pooh’s legacy in the end is to encourage a lot more kindness in the world, than perhaps A.A. Milne was able to fulfill his intent for seeking a more peaceful world after all.

“The most wonderful thing about Tiggers is that I’m the only one.”

The 2024 Oscars – Picks and Thoughts

The time has come again to hand out the gold in the heart of Hollywood as we arrive at the industry’s biggest night.  Though we are well into the new year now, the Academy Awards do feel like the final curtain to the year prior when it comes to the movies.  It’s the Awards ceremony that definitively gives us the snapshot of where the film industry is at the current moment, and this year’s Oscars certainly marks the end of one of the most tumultuous in cinema history.  What defined the year of 2023 more than anything else was the months long Writers’ and Actors’ strike, and while it did result in much needed beneficial gains for the creative community, it also shook up the release calendar on the back end of the year, when Hollywood puts out it’s Oscar contenders.  There were many films garnering for attention that still got released during the strike, but without the benefit of having the cast out in the circuit promoting them a lot of those potential contenders ended up getting no attention at all and were mostly forgotten by year’s end.  Some distributors even decided to give up and pushed their movies to the following year.  Who knows how different this year’s award season would’ve been had the strikes not happen.  While that may be a question to speculate in the years ahead, this year’s Oscars definitely reflects the affect of 2023’s other major event which was the “Barbenheimer” effect at the box office.  Not only did the two high grossing saviors of last summer dominate the box office, but both Barbie and Oppenheimer ended up with a healthy amount of awards recognition too from the Academy, with one in a pretty good position to take Best Picture.  It’s fitting that the Academy recognized the importance of what “Barbenheimer” did for the industry.  The Academy has been seen as very out of touch with the average audience for a long time, and that has been reflected in the dismal ratings for the ceremony on television in recent years.  Hopefully they learned this year that a movie being a blockbuster doesn’t always mean it’s unworthy of an Oscar, and the hope is that this year the Oscars ceremony will also get that “Barbenheimer” bump.

What follows are my in-depth breakdowns of all the top categories, as well as my quick list of all the others.  For these top ones, I will provide my commentary and reveal not just who I think will win, but also who I would like to see win, which sometimes diverges.  My track record is not 100%, but I do observe the trends and momentum leading up to Oscars night, so I try to make the best educated guess I can on these picks.  I even go out of my way to see as many of the nominated films as possible, including the short subjects.  So, with all that said, here are my picks for the 2024 Academy Awards.


Nominees: Cord Jefferson, American Fiction; Greta Gerwig & Noah Baumbach, Barbie; Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer; Tony McNamara, Poor Things; Jonathan Glazer, The Zone of Interest

Perhaps the most stacked category of the night.  Any one of these nominees would be the hands down favorite in any other year, and the fact that they all have to compete against one another is unfortunate.  In one case, the Oscars made a misstep, putting the screenplay for Barbie in the Adapted category, when it is far from an adaptation.  The explanation was that Barbie is a pre-established IP before the movie, but anyone who has seen the film knows that it’s story was purely from the imagination of Greta Gerwig, as well as her co-writer and real life partner Noah Baumbach.  This is also one of the many categories pitting the two “Barbenheimer” films against each other.  While Oppenheimer‘s script is an excellent one, with Christopher Nolan adapting a 700 page biography into a compelling and intense three hour film, it’s also clear that the film’s better strength is in it’s direction, so this is a case where Barbie actually has the edge.  But, it’s looking like that it too will come up empty handed.  A lot of the momentum in this category seems to be shifting in Cord Jefferson’s direction.  Jefferson’s cinematic debut is winning raves across the board, and in particular for it’s witty and satirical screenplay, poking fun at the way race is addressed in the publishing world.  His screenplay is sharp tongued, but also has a great deal of subtlety in it’s character building moments.  While it likely will be the winner, I do find myself more drawn to the more risk taking scripts.  Tony McNamara’s Poor Things script has some of the most hilarious “WTF” lines of the year, and it does a great job of mixing the absurd with the profound.  Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is also a brilliant example of writing through subtext, as he perfectly captures the banality of the evil found in the casual conversations from the Nazis he observes in the film; finding the power in the things not said.  But honestly out of the bunch, I found Greta and Noah’s examination of the dynamics of femininity and masculinity through the famous toy brand to be the most impressive writing achievement in this field of nominees.  Who knew that Barbie would end up being the best statement film of the year?

Who Will Win: Cord Jefferson, American Fiction

Who Should Win: Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, Barbie


Nominees:  Justine Triet and Arthur Harari, Anatomy of a Fall; Bradley Cooper and Josh Singer, Maestro; Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik, May December; Celine Song, Past Lives; David Hemingson, The Holdovers

Here we have a category with far more clear favorites.  While Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik’s May December may have gotten a lot of buzz going into awards season, the fact that this is the sole nomination that the film received pretty much tells you that it’s not favored to win.  Bradley Cooper and Josh Singer’s Maestro is a charming love letter to a legendary artist, but it’s also fairly formulaic as far as biopic screenplays go, which hurts it’s chances as well.  With those two flashy Netflix movies out of the way, the remaining nominees are representative of the strong year in independent cinema we had in 2023.  Celine Song’s understated Past Lives was a critical darling that stuck with critics and Academy voters all year.  But it’s modest showing in the other categories shows that a nomination is about as far as the movie is likely to go in this category.  For right now, the momentum seems to be behind the Palme d’Or winner from Cannes, Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall.  Triet’s crime drama showing the process of a murder trial unfolding from investigation to ultimately the verdict is a captivating watch, and the screenplay is very precise in the way it uses language as a part of the mystery.  It certainly is the movie that makes you think the most while watching it, and it’s satisfying that Justine Triet doesn’t give you an easy answer as to what actually happened either.  As good as Anatomy of a Fall’s script is, my favorite in this category has to be the script for the movie that I named as my favorite for the year.  David Hemingson’s screenplay for The Holdovers is this beautiful throwback to the subdued character driven comedies of the 1970’s, fitting perfectly with the visual aesthetic that director Alexander Payne gave the movie.  It is the perfect blend of drama and humor with just the right amount of edge to keep it from growing schmaltzy.  And he should get the award for some of the best written insults of the year, which Paul Giamatti delivers to perfection.  While it’s chances are fading, I would like to see The Holdovers make an upset win here.

Who Will Win: Justine Triet and Arthur Harari, Anatomy of a Fall

Who Should Win:  David Hemingson, The Holdovers


Nominees:  Mark Ruffalo, Poor Things; Robert DeNiro, Killers of the Flower Moon; Robert Downey, Jr., Oppenheimer; Ryan Gosling, Barbie; Sterling K. Brown, American Fiction

For all the comic book movie nerds out there, it is funny to see this as a competition between Iron Man and the Hulk, with Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo both nominated here.  While Ruffalo’s performance as a petty womanizer in Poor Things was certainly a delight and deserving of awards recognition, it seems he is likely to see his fellow Marvel alum take home the gold this year.  Robert Downey, Jr. has had one of the best redemption arcs of anyone in movie history, coming from a near career destroying set of scandals and drug addiction to eventually headlining in the biggest movie franchise ever.  Winning an Oscar would be yet another distinction to help cement Downey’s remarkable career resurrection.  Playing former Atomic policy chief and later adversary of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Lewis Strauss, Downey’s performance is big and memorable, and it demonstrates all the best qualities we’ve seen out of him as an actor.  This is his third nomination, and all signs show that he is likely to win.  But, as much as I loved Robert Downey’s performance in Oppenheimer, the performance that impressed me the most in this category was Ryan Gosling as Ken.  Comedy roles are often overlooked by the Academy, especially with the broad, cartoonish type of comedy that we see in Barbie, so it’s a real testament to Gosling’s comedic chops that he managed to get nominated for his performance.  It is far and away one of the funniest performances we’ve seen in years, with Ryan Gosling commanding every moment and being absolutely perfect in the role of the insecure Ken doll that messes up the harmony of Barbieland in the film.  His “I’m Just Ken” musical performance may in fact be my single favorite scene in any movie of last year.  As hard as it is to be nominated for a comedic performance, it’s even harder to actually win.  Still, I think that Gosling is the closest competition that Downey has in this category; a true “Barbenheimer” showdown.  But, like what is expected for this upcoming Oscar night, Oppenheimer has the edge in this category.  And it will be a deserved win for Robert Downey, Jr. whose career turnaround really is a remarkable story in itself.

Who Will Win:  Robert Downey, Jr., Oppenheimer

Who Should Win:  Ryan Gosling, Barbie


Nominees:  America Ferrera, Barbie; Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers; Danielle Brooks, The Color Purple; Emily Blunt, Oppenheimer; Jodie Foster, Nyad

Here we have the most locked down Award of the night.  From the beginning of the Awards season to now, Da’Vine Joy Randolph has dominated this category, winning pretty much everything.  Her role as the warm-hearted boys academy cafeteria cook Mary Lamb in The Holdovers has been celebrated across the board and it’s the kind of nuanced performance that really grabs the attention of Academy voters.  I couldn’t agree more.  The moment you first see her character in The Holdovers, you instantly want to know more about her, and Ms. Randolph delivers a tour de force performance that perfectly aligns with the overall tone of the film.  I’m happy she’s getting all of this due recognition as it means that The Holdovers is guaranteed at least one Oscar this year.  I don’t see any of the others in this category denying her the Award.  The only one who might have the most outside chances of an upset might be America Ferrera for Barbie, who was the surprise nominee this year.  There’s an outside chance that her surprise nomination could lead to an outside win, but it seems unlikely.  I think one of the reasons that America got the nomination was because of that viral moment in Barbie where she gives the big speech about the pressures of being a woman today that pretty much spelled out the main thesis of the film.  It’s a deserving nomination to be sure, as are the other nominees.  Danielle Brooks was a bright spot in an otherwise unnecessary remake of The Color Purple.  Emily Blunt stole the show in her brief scenes as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, leading to a first ever nomination.  And Jodie Foster was an expected stand out in the inspirational Nyad.  But Da’Vine Joy Randolph clearly stood out the most this year, with a performance that is equal measures devastating and inspiring, while also filled with charming humor.  You can count on her making the Awards season sweep, with an almost sure thing Oscar becoming the jewel in her crown.

Who Will Win:  Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers

Who Should Win:  Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers


Nominees:  Bradley Cooper, Maestro; Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer; Colman Domingo, Rustin; Jeffrey Wright, American Fiction; Paul Giamatti, The Holdovers

This is a tough category for me, because it involves pitting my two favorite movies of the year against each other.  Two favorites have emerged in this category since the nominations were read, and in the last couple weeks, the race has actually flipped a bit in favor of one over the other.  Initially, Paul Giamatti looked to be the favorite, with his win at the Golden Globes (and his subsequent after party trip to In-and-Out Burger that went viral).  But, in the last few weeks, Cillian Murphy has been racking up wins at the BAFTAs and the SAG Awards.  As of right now, it looks like Murphy is benefitting from the overall momentum behind Oppenheimer going into the Oscars, and he seems to be pulling away right now.  I do indeed like Cillian Murphy’s performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer.  It would be fitting that Murphy earns his Oscar for a Christopher Nolan film, as the two have been frequent collaborators on multiple movies.  And given how so much of the film’s success is dependent on his performance, given that he’s in nearly every scene of the three hour epic, the fact that the movie was the box office hit that became shows just how well his performance hit it’s mark.  It certainly wouldn’t upset me if Cillian Murphy wins the Award.  But, my favorite performance here comes from my favorite movie of the year.  Paul Giamatti’s career has been made up of a remarkable string of memorable, quirky characters, and sadly this is only the second nomination he has ever gotten (and first for a Lead role).  Winning here would really be a great acknowledgement for a career of outstanding character roles, but it’s also just a recognition for a phenomenal performance that achieves the right balance between hilarious and heartbreaking.  And man does he put some punch into those intellectual sounding insults.  At this point, I feel that some of that goodwill within Hollywood that Paul Giamatti has built up over the years could lift him to the top, but right now Oppenheimer is looking to have a big night and that will likely be the tide that lifts Cillian Murphy over the edge as well.

Who Will Win:  Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer

Who Should Win:  Paul Giamatti, The Holdovers


Nominees:  Annette Bening, Nyad; Carey Mulligan, Maestro;  Emma Stone, Poor Things; Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon;  Sandra Huller, Anatomy of a Fall

Again, this is a category where it looks like two favorites have emerged.  And this one is a bit more competitive than Best Actor going into the home stretch.  Overall this is a strong category with deserving nominations for all.  A special shout out to German actress Sandra Huller, who is nominated here for Anatomy of a Fall, but also delivered another standout performance in the Best Picture nominee The Zone of Interest; a breakout year for her for sure.  Right now, this is a race between Lily Gladstone and Emma Stone, and it’s hard to say who has the edge.  Both won the Golden Globes in their respective Drama and Musical/Comedy categories, but since then Lily has picked up the SAG award and Emma has picked up the BAFTA.  If I were to put my pulse on the race right now, I would say this is going to go to Lily Gladstone.  Hollywood loves to make history at the Oscars ceremony, and a win for Lily would give them that moment as she would be the first Indigenous actor to ever win an Oscar.  It would be a deserving honor too, as she was definitely the standout in Martin Scorsese’s expansive Western epic, outshining even big heavyweights like Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro in the film.  But, as much as I liked Lily Gladstone’s performance and would cheer a historic win for her on Oscar night, I do feel the best performance this last year belonged to Emma Stone in Poor Things.  Her performance in this oddball re-imagining of Frankenstein is a performance unlike anything I have seen before, and it really takes a committed and fearless actress to convincingly put it off.  Emma Stone, reuniting with director Yorgos Lanthimos after making The Favourite together, makes the character of Bella Baxter one of the most unique big screen protagonists I seen in a long while, and where she takes this character in the film is a wild journey.  And yet, she manages to nail even the more dramatic parts as well alongside the goofy moments.  It’s my favorite performance across all categories at this year’s Oscars, so I definitely am rooting for Emma Stone to prevail.  But, a win for Lily Gladstone wouldn’t upset me either, and it would be a long overdue Award for the Native Indigenous community who have long deserved recognition for their contributions to cinema.  Her win will also likely be the sole Award for Killers of the Flower Moon at this year’s Oscars, so it’s hard to completely count out the Scorsese effect as well.

Who Will Win:  Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon

Who Should Win:  Emma Stone, Poor Things


Nominees:  Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer;  Jonathan Glazer, The Zone of Interest;  Justine Triet, Anatomy of a Fall;  Martin Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon;  Yorgos Lanthimos, Poor Things

This is another one of the easy to call categories.  That not to say that the other nominees here are slouches.  It’s remarkable that Martin Scorsese is still being recognized in this category this late into his career, showing that he hasn’t lost his magic touch at all, having now been nominated in 6 different decades.  Yorgos Lanthimos made perhaps his biggest leap yet as a visual storyteller with his dreamlike aesthetic placed upon the world of Poor Things.  And Jonathan Glazer delivered one of the most chilling Holocaust films ever with a movie that remarkably shows very little carnage but conveys the horrors instead brilliantly through atmosphere and sound.  Justine Triet delivers a brilliant dissection of the French legal system in action through Anatomy of a Fall, though I feel her nomination should have been filled by Greta Gerwig for Barbie.  But, it’s been clear to anyone going into this Awards season that this is going to be Christopher Nolan’s year.  The Holdovers topped my list this year because I thought it was the best written movie of the year, but Oppenheimer was my number two and it was undeniably the best directed movie of the year.  Nolan has always been pushing the boundaries of the cinematic artform, creating these monumental films that are more than just a movie; they are events.  A huge proponent of IMAX photography, he made Oppenheimer as must see film in theaters, and that helped to contribute to it’s nearly $1 billion box office.  There has been a groundswell for years for the Academy to honor Christopher Nolan for the advancements in cinema that he has made.  The reason we have 10 nominees for Best Picture is because the Academy overlooked Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), so that’s a profound legacy he has left right there on it’s own.  Thankfully, Oppenheimer is one of those undeniable achievements that no one can argue isn’t deserving of the Oscar for Directing.  It may have taken a while, but Christopher Nolan should finally get that long overdue recognition from the Academy.

Who Will Win:  Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer

Who Should Win:  Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer


Nominees: American Fiction; Anatomy of a Fall; Barbie; Killers of the Flower Moon; Maestro; Oppenheimer; Past Lives; Poor Things; The Holdovers; The Zone of Interest

Thankfully this was another year where I managed to see all 10 nominees in a theater; even the one made for Netflix (Maestro).  And I was happy to see that 6 out of the 10 were movies that appeared on my own Top 10.  In fact, 4 of my top 5 are present in this category, and each makes a good case for being Best Picture.  However, from the looks of it, Oppenheimer is coming into the Oscars as a heavy favorite.  It has swept through all the Guild awards (except the strike delayed WGA) which is a tell tale sign of a big night at the Oscars.  It just remains to be seen how big of a night.  It might be a big winner like last year’s Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), or it could be a case where the Academy likes to spread things around.  Are there any movies that could challenge Oppenheimer for the night’s top prize.  With the second most nominations, it would seem that Poor Things could be in the best position.  There’s also Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon to contend with as well as Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, both of which tackle issues that appeal very much to the tastes of the Academy.  The other half of “Barbenheimer” could even arguably muster a surprise win as Barbie was the undisputed box office champ of last year, and is credited for saving the theater industry during the contentious strike period.  Right now, Oppenheimer feels unstoppable with all the bellwether awards in it’s pocket, but at the same time I don’t feel it’s locked down as much as Everything Everywhere All at Once had a year ago.  Weirder things have happened before at the Oscars.  I of course would love to see The Holdovers come out on top, but it’s Best Picture chances faded pretty early, and it’s got a better chance anyway in the acting categories.  In the end, I feel that Hollywood is keen on honoring the phenomenon that was “Barbenheimer” in some way, and Oppenheimer is the movie that best represents what the Academy is looking for.  It’s the kind of movie that the Academy used to love in the 90’s, that being the “prestige blockbuster;” a lavish prestige film that manages to have crossover with audiences and become a huge moneymaker as well as an Awards contender (Forrest Gump, Titanic, Gladiator).  Oppenheimer hopefully re-sparks that trend as the business really has missed that kind of movie for a long time.  Oppenheimer should be the big winner of the night; the only question is how big?

What Will Win: Oppenheimer

What Should Win:  The Holdovers

And here we have my quick rundown of all the remaining categories with my picks to win in each:

Best Cinematography: Oppenheimer; Best Film Editing: Oppenheimer; Best Production Design: Poor Things; Best Costume Design: Barbie; Best Sound: The Zone of Interest; Best Make-up and Hairstyling: Poor Things; Best Original Score: Oppenheimer; Best Original Song: “I’m Just Ken” from Barbie; Best Visual Effects: Godzilla Minus One; Best Documentary Feature: 20 Days in Mariupol; Best Documentary Short: The Last Repair Shop; Best Animated Feature: The Boy and the Heron; Best Animated Short: Ninety-Five Senses; Best Live Action Short: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar; Best International Feature: The Zone of Interest

There are a number of things that I hope we’ll see happen at this year’s Oscars.  One, I hope there is acknowledgement of the hard fought for changes that the strikes brought to the creative community this last year.  It seems unlikely, given that the guild members would like to move on and the studio heads would like to forget.  But this was a monumental thing that happened in 2023, so so mention of the progress made in the industry would be ideal.  The Academy also needs to understand that the ceremony is about the people and the movies that they make.  Don’t try to turn the Oscars into it’s own spectacle.  The Oscar winners will provide that for the ceremony itself.  The Academy has been tinkering with the format too many times in recent years, and every new gimmick they try just does not work; especially the one where they cut out and pre-taped the “lesser” categories before the start for the show.  What people want to see are the movies and celebrities they care about getting the highest recognition from the industry and that’s all the Oscars need.  I’m seeing a trend in recent Awards shows like the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards where they’ve trimmed the fat and just presented the Awards without needless sketches and montages to pad out the run time.  Last years Oscars was another example of a well paced awards that felt trimmed down without having to cut out any of the categories from the broadcast, and sure enough that was reflected in the ratings.  It should also help that two of the nominees this year were the highest grossing movies of the year.  “Barbenheimer” saved the box office last year, so let’s see if it can do the same to the Oscars as well.  I’m hopeful for a more positive direction with the Academy Awards, where prestige and blockbuster don’t have to be relegated to separate camps.  Last year revealed a significant change in what audiences want to see and it’s reflected in the nominees this year.  It looks like the theatrical comeback is becoming more and more cemented as a reality in Hollywood, as streaming was far less represented at the Oscars this year.  So, while it appears that Oppenheimer is the movie to beat at this year’s awards, there still could be plenty of surprises, and it should make for an all around exciting Awards presentation this year.  Here’s hoping for a great show at the 2024 Academy Awards.

Dune: Part Two – Review

It has not been an easy road to the big screen for Dune.  The beloved sci-fi epic novel from author Frank Herbert was once thought to be un-filmable.  Within it’s nearly 700 pages of text is a densely plotted narrative filled with political intrigue and deep philosophical questions.  Oh, and there’s giant sand worms too.  Many filmmakers flirted with adapting the text for the big screen.  Avant Garde Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky famously made a valiant attempt in the 1970’s to get Frank Herbert’s vision to become a reality, but sadly it never got past the development stage.  It’s considered by many to be one of the greatest films that never got made, and the details of it are spotlighted in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013).  In 1984, the task would be given to rising star filmmaker David Lynch, who brought his own bizarre directing style to the project.  While he was able to complete the film, it would end up being a compromised project, condensing the vast expanse of Herbert’s novel into a compact 2 hour and 17 minute run time, making it a somewhat messy adaptation.  Audiences were generally unimpressed and the film performed poorly at the box office, though over time it would gain a cult following.  David Lynch himself swore off ever attempting another big budget project like Dune ever again, instead focusing his energy on smaller, more auteur driven projects in the decades after, and he has largely disowned the movie as well, even taking his name off of extended cuts.  It would take another four decades for Hollywood to seriously take another shot at adapting Herbert’s monumental epic, with many more filmmakers flirting with the prospect before ultimately passing it by.

Enter Denis Villeneuve, a French Canadian filmmaker that had put together an impressive resume in the 2010’s.  After a string of critically acclaimed thrillers such as Enemy (2013), Prisoners (2014), and Sicario (2015), Denis made an even bigger impression moving into science fiction.  His film Arrival (2016) earned him his first recognition from the Academy Awards with nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and that in turn led to a high profile gig of creating the long awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 (2017), his highest budgeted film to date.  While Blade Runner 2049 was not a box office success, it still won a lot of acclaim for Denis for his remarkable handling of the film’s epic scale.  But all of these films seemed like warm-ups for what had always been Denis’ dream project; Dune.  With his proposal winning over the rights holders at Legendary Pictures, Denis was set to get his wish granted with a grand scale adaptation of this iconic novel for the big screen.  To do justice to Herbert’s narrative, Denis Villeneuve determined that the story would need to be split into two films.  However, to convince the financers of the project, Warner Brothers, that this was the right course of action, he would have to make Parts One and Two separately, with approval for the latter contingent on the success of the former.  It was a gamble, but it guaranteed at least one film for Villeneuve.  Unfortunately, the ability to turn Part One into a success hit a major roadblock with the Covid-19 pandemic.  Originally slated for an October 2020 premiere, the film ended up being delayed a full year.  And then, when it did finally make it to theaters, the effects of the pandemic were still in play with audiences not fully back.  Plus, Warner Brothers foolishly decided to release their entire 2021 slate day and date on streaming in addition to theaters, cutting back any potential box office profits.  This boded poorly for Dune: Part One, and yet, the film managed to find it’s audience, managing to be one of the few WB projects that year to cross the $100 million mark and it picked up a total of 6 Oscars for it’s technical achievements, and even earned a Best Picture nom.  Needless to say, despite the odds, Warner Brothers was convinced to fulfill their promise and allowed Denis Villeneuve to complete his epic adaptation.  The question is, though, did Denis Villeneuve stick the landing with Dune: Part Two.

The movie picks up right where the previous film ended.   In the distant future year of 10191, on the desert planet Arrakis, the high House of Atreides has been destroyed after a bloody coup perpetrated by the rival House Harkonnen, with the knowing consent of the Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken).  Although the Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) and his brutal nephew Rabban (Dave Bautista) believe that they have wiped out the entire Atreides household, far out in the desert plains of Arrakis, two survivors remain.  The son of slain Duke Leto, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) both survived their assassination attempts and are exiled far from home.  To survive in the harsh, worm infested desert, Paul and Jessica have formed an alliance with the native Fremen people who seek refuge in underground settlements.   Their leader, Stilgar (Javier Bardem) believes that Paul is a prophesized spiritual savior that could unite the Fremen people and help them reclaim their home world from the Imperium once and for all.  Stilagar’s daughter Chani (Zendaya) is far more skeptical of the prophesy, but over time she warms up to Paul’s presence within their tribe and over time, a budding romance emerges.  Paul and the Fremen engage in guerilla warfare against the spice trade that the Harkonnens run on Arrakis, weakening the Baron’s status amongst the high households.  The Baron seeks help from the Emperor and his daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), both of whom suggest that the Baron elevates his youngest nephew to commander of the Harkonnen forces.  That nephew is the psychotic warrior Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), who has no qualms about achieving success by any means necessary; even in harming the most innocent.  With a new threat coming to Arrakis, Paul Atreides must decide if he should embrace his position as the prophesized savior, the Kwisatz Haderach, in order to unite all the Fremen tribes, or abandon it and disappear out of fear of the thing that he may turn into if he fully accepts his destiny, igniting a much bloodier holy war across the known universe.

When Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One (2021) first premiered, it was heralded by long time fans of the books and causal viewers alike.  Dune has often been described as the Lord of the Rings or science fiction, and that distinction carries over with it’s cinematic adaptation as well.  Just as with Peter Jackson’s beloved adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic fantasy trilogy, many believe Villeneuve’s Dune to be the definitive adaptation of the novel for the big screen.  But getting to this point almost didn’t happen because of some short sighted moves on Warner Brothers part.  Unlike The Lord of the Rings which had the luxury of filming all the films in one single multi-year shoot, the completion of Dune was split up and could have ended abruptly had things not gone well.  The ill-fated “Project Popcorn” initiative of 2021 also gave ill tidings for the completion of Villenueve’s vision.  It could have been very possible that we would have only had the first half of the book on screen and nothing more; which would have been double insulting given that Dune: Part One ends so abruptly.  Thankfully, despite the hurdles, the movie was a success and Dune: Part Two is here, giving us the full breadth of Frank Herbert’s original novel.  And thankfully, despite all the drama and the long wait, Denis has managed to stick the landing.  There is no drop in quality at all between Parts One and Two, and it really does feel like the continuation of the first film.  Of course one big difference is that Warner Brothers feels less cautious this time around and has gone full force giving their full confidence to Denis.  Part One in many ways was Denis setting the pieces on the board, and Part Two is where the game really begins.  Everything is bigger, grander, and the stakes are even higher.  It definitely feels that this is the dream part of the project that Denis Villeneuve was always itching to get to, and thankfully the stars aligned to make it happen, even amidst the wort resistance.

There are a lot of things to be impressed with in Dune: Part Two and it does feel like the mightier film in the series.  But, I wouldn’t say that it does everything better than Part One.  The one thing that is a nitpick for me with the movie is that I think the pacing is not as strong, or should I say consistent as it was with Part OnePart One was a masterfully paced film that never let off the gas from beginning to end.  While the pacing is still overall good in Part Two, I do feel there are some hiccups along the way that stall an otherwise spectacular experience.  And it’s not just scenes that pad out the run time; there are moments as well that I feel don’t fully take advantage of some of the big moments in the movie.  The ending in particular seems a bit rushed, as big moments toward the finale don’t quite carry the weight they should.  The film already has a epic sized 166 minute run time (which alongside Part One‘s run time takes the full experience to 5 hours of storytelling) but I feel it could have made the experience even stronger if it let the finale breath a bit more to let the pivotal moments feel even grander.  It’s a rare instance where I’d say an already long movie should have been just a little longer; possibly even rounding out to the full 3 hours.  Even still, all of the classic moments from the book are here, and they are still impactful.  Where the movie actually feels well paced though are in some of the moments that Frank Herbert more often glosses over.  The development of Paul Atreides earning his place within the Fremen society is given more development here than any past adaptation, as is his romance with Chani, which becomes a crucial backbone for the movie overall.   One other thing that the movie sadly lacks apart from Part One is the novelty.  Dune: Part One was such a revelation when it first premiered; a welcome return of a prestige blockbuster in a time when popcorn entertainment in the form of comic book movies still dominated the landscape.  Dune: Part Two doesn’t really stand out as much; it’s just the same movie, but more.  I feel like the two movies are intended to be viewed as a whole, but it unfortunately takes away from the individual merit of the movie itself.  Again these are nitpicks for what otherwise is an impressively mounted film on any other measure.

One of the things that Denis Villeneuve really ups the ante with in this film is the scale of the action scenes.  Part One had some impressive action moments, but most of the best action scenes were contained on a intimate one to one scale.  Here, Villeneuve takes things to a more biblical level, with armies numbering in the thousands clashing on vast battlefields.  This is a movie that definitely demands to be seen on the largest screens possible, which thankfully now in a post-pandemic environment are more widely accessible than they were back when Part One was in theaters.  I caught this movie in 70mm IMAX, and let me tell you that is the ideal way to watch the movie.  Villeneuve took the cue from fellow grand epic director, Christopher Nolan, and specifically shot most of the movie with IMAX cameras with this presentation being the intended showcase.  There are some moments in this movie that will take your breath away with how immersive they are.  Arrakis is it’s own character in the movie, and Villeneuve really showcases the beauty of the familiar yet alien landscape that the planet has.  Even the surreal sunsets with the two moons of Arrakis eclipsing the sun create a kind of eerie crescent unlike anything we’ve seen before.  And then of course, there are the worms.  The colossal titans of the desert are a marvel meant to be appreciated on a vast movie screen, and the visual effects team did a remarkable job making them feel as grandiose as possible.  The scene where Paul Atreides takes his first solo ride aboard the back of a worm is a particular highlight of the movie, with all departments of cinematography, sound, computer animation, and practical effects all working together to create a truly epic moment on screen.  Also, the legendary Hans Zimmer delivers yet another heart-pounding musical score that certainly was rattling the rib cages of everyone in my theater with that mighty IMAX speaker system.

Giving the movie another air of high quality is the incredibly strong all star cast.  Part One had a very impressive cast to begin with, and Part Two managed to maintain all of the holdovers from that cast without losing any of the performance in between films.  Everyone whose character made it out of Part One alive picks right up where they left off and continues to deliver pitch perfect performances in Part Two.  Timothee Chalamet continues to impress in the role of Paul Atreides, a character that was always going to be a challenge to get right especially in this second half of the book, and he rises to the challenge with some impressively commanding moments.  The Fremen characters that only come into the story late in Part One are thankfully expanded upon here, and the actors do a masterful job with their roles.  Javier Bardem’s Stilgar is one of the few characters allowed to be a little more loose and comical compared to the stoic others in the movie, and Bardem gets some well earned laughs in the movie without it feeling out of place.  Zendaya, whose Chani barely factored in the first movie, is the biggest standout in Part Two, as you see her character go through some substantial growth in the story.  Zendaya really captures the passionate fervor that drives Chani as a character, and given all the craziness that goes on, she really helps to ground the movie with her cynical eye towards the myths and lies that have shaped the world around her.  Of the brand new characters, the real stand out is Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha.  It’s hard to imagine that this is the same actor who played Elvis Presley in the Baz Luhrrman directed biopic just a couple year ago.  He is transformed in this role, and he leaves an eerie impression.  His coliseum fight on the Harkonnen home world may be one of the best villain introductions I’ve seen in a long while.  And while they don’t have a whole lot of screen time, the characters of Princess Irulan and Emperor Shaddam IV do make the most of their presence and that’s largely due to the talents of their actors.  Florence Pugh carries a captivating sense of intelligence in her performance.  And of course Christopher Walken’s casting as the Emperor brings a great deal of gravitas to the minor role and it’s a real coup on the part of the movie to get an actor as legendary as him to be a part of this.

I don’t know what Warner Brothers was thinking by not planning ahead and having both parts of Dune filmed simultaneously.  It was probably an economic choice, but if it didn’t work out, you would have left a beloved story cut unceremoniously short with a nagging open-ended finale that connects to nothing.  Thankfully, Dune: Part Two has become a reality and the full story of Frank Herbert’s original novel can now be appreciated cinematically for all time as a complete whole.  Of course, this isn’t quite the end just yet.  Dune was only the first of many books that Frank Herbert wrote about the desert planet Arrakis and the legacy of Paul Atreides.  Denis Villeneuve has already said that he intends to return to adapt the second book in the series, Dune Messiah, which has a far better chance of getting green lit with the expected huge box office that Dune: Part Two is expected to generate.  In the end, it all worked out for Denis Villenueve, and he may have made it possible for their to be an epic movie franchise that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.  As a movie on it’s own, Dune: Part Two is an impressively mounted movie, though I think it works best as a companion to the first film and vice versa.  Denis Villenueve intended for the two parts of Dune to be a complete whole rather than two individual films with their own unique identities.  While I do appreciate the incredible achievement that this movie is, I do wish it had resonated just a bit more as it’s own film.  It might also be possible that I may warm up to the movie more with repeat viewings, and that I just need to give the film time to fully marinate in my mind.  It happened with Oppenheimer (2023) last year, where it took me two more viewings to fully appreciate that film as a genuine masterpiece.  I feel like Dune: Part Two will stick with me in the same way.  It is an overwhelming experience the first time, and that can be a good thing.  I was sitting pretty close to the colossal IMAX screen at my theater (one of the largest in America) so some distance may help me in the future.  For now, I highly recommend seeing this on the big screen and ideally in IMAX if available in your area.  Few movies are made with this kind of spectacle in mind, and like great epics of the past like The Lord of the Rings, Denis Villenueve has taken a beloved work of literature and brought out it’s full potential as big screen spectacle.  Capturing every detail, from the tiniest grains of spice to the enormity of the mighty sand worms, this movie does Frank Herbert’s vision proud.

Rating: 8.5/10

Evolution of Character – Pinocchio

Few characters seem so perfectly suited for the medium of cinema than Pinocchio, the little wooden puppet who wanted to become a real boy.  First created by Italian writer Carlo Collodi, the story of Pinocchio was intended to be a morality tale meant to teach young children to be better behaved.  Pinocchio’s journey is defined by his experiences encountering the dangerous world outside his home and gaining the insight into what is right and wrong, often through some personal trauma.  For example, whenever he tells a lie, his nose will grow, making the lie plain as the nose on his face.  To a child reading this story, something as disturbing as that will certainly make you think twice about lying too much.  In addition to that, Pinocchio is also confronted with disturbing realities such as human trafficking and torture during his journey to return back to the comfort of home and family.  And central to getting Pinocchio on the right track in life is his warm hearted, woodcarver father Geppetto, as well as a cricket companion who quite literally is the embodiment of his conscience.  One thing that has made Pinocchio a tad bit difficult to bring to the silver screen is surprisingly not the magical element that brought the little puppet to life but rather the dark nature of Collodi’s original story.  Pinocchio’s story is a harsh one, and it puts the lovable puppet boy in harms way to the point of sometimes nightmarish scenarios, from the exploitation put upon him by abusive scam artists to being eaten by a ferocious sea monster.  But, he nonetheless he has had a profound presence on the big screen and what follows are some of the most noteworthy in his long cinematic history.


It’s not at all surprising that one of the earliest cinematic works from the nation of Italy would be an adaptation of one of their most imaginative literary works.  This version of Pinocchio’s story is pretty sparse given the limitations of filmmaking at the time, basically just touching upon the basics of the story.  Even still, there are some imaginative elements put into the filming of this movie, with a lot of the magical elements feeling very much borrowed from a theatrical adaptation of the story.  One thing that this movie surprisingly would influence on future adaptations is having the world of Pinocchio being inhabited with human and animal hybrid characters, albeit played by actors in shabby looking masks.  With regards to Pinocchio himself, French born performer Polidor does a decent job of bringing Pinocchio to life.  Sure, you’ve got to get around the image of a grown man portraying what is supposed to be a child, but Polidor (tapping into his vaudevillian background) does carry the energy to make the character entertaining enough.  Of course, given the limitations of the medium at the time, this movie can’t quite get across the magic element of Pinocchio being a wooden puppet brought to life, or more specifically, getting across that he is actually made of wood.  That of course is something that future adaptations would find a way to achieve.  It should also be noted that this was once considered a lost film until it was miraculously rediscovered in a Milan vault in 1994, which has helped to keep this century old first appearance of the character preserved for audiences today.


When you mention the name of Pinocchio to anyone, this is likely the version that will first come to mind.  After changing the world of cinema forever with his first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), it was a bit surprising that Walt Disney chose Pinocchio as his follow-up.  American audiences were not as familiar with the Italian morality tale as they were with the Grimm’s brothers morality tales that Disney had used for many of their film adaptations.  But in the hands of the artists at the Disney Studios, that would certainly change.  Disney’s Pinocchio is absolutely one of the finest animated films that has ever been made, and the story of the little wooden boy is just a natural fit for the animated medium.  For one thing, they can actually have Pinocchio act like an actual marionette puppet without strings.  And while the animation can make Pinocchio feel truly made out of wood, what makes the character endearing is the voice that he is given.  Walt Disney wisely cast a real young actor to play the role, that being a then 10 year old Dickie Jones.  Dickie just has the perfect innocent inflection on all of his lines, at times being humorously naïve while at the same time giving the conviction of humanity in his performance when the movie calls for it.  Disney certainly didn’t create the character, but they certainly made him their own and their version of Pinocchio remains the gold standard to this day.  The same goes for the story that they tell, which does depart greatly from Collodi’s original text, but is still surprisingly dark and mature for a Disney movie.  Even after over 80 years, Disney’s Pinocchio is unmatched in artistry and storytelling, bringing out the full potential of the magic within Collodi’s story, wishing upon a star and making dreams truly come true.


Given just how iconic Disney’s Pinocchio is as a character, it might surprise you that he’s not the only animated version of the character to make it to the big screen.  Thanks to Pinocchio entering the public domain in the 1980’s, more animation studios were freed up to make their own Pinocchio films without running into Disney’s hold onto the cinematic rights that they held for decades.  One of the first to jump on that was Saturday morning cartoon giant Filmation (the people behind He-Man, for example) who surprisingly took a surprisingly different route in their adaptation of Pinocchio’s story.  Instead of doing a straight translation of the original story, they opted instead to do a sequel.  This of course is meant to be sequel to Collodi’s original and not Disney’s, and that becomes very apparent when watching the film.  The animation is certainly a step down from the Disney standard, though it is more polished compared to Filmation’s TV library.  In addition, this movie goes into some very weird territory, typical of what we were seeing in 80’s era animation.  In this story, Pinocchio is reverted back to his puppet state after living as a human by a dark magician who is intent on bringing the living puppet to his master, The Emperor of the Night, as a sacrifice for more power.  The movie can sometimes descend into nightmare fuel, especially with the Emperor himself (voiced by James Earl Jones of all people) who is a monstrous presence.  Pinocchio himself is given voice by a young Scott Grimes in his first of what would be many voice acting roles (Family Guy, American Dad), and he works well enough for what this kind of movie needs.  It’s an interesting 80’s animation oddity, but definitely a far cry from a true adaptation of the story of Pinocchio.


Leaving animation for a bit, there have been plenty of live action attempts to bring the imaginative story of Pinocchio to life.  In this version, the Jim Henson Creature Shop made an attempt to create a version of Pinocchio that maintained the full visual look of a real wooden puppet, but with the articulated movements that made it come to life in a convincing way that the Henson puppet manufacturers were renowned for.  Indeed, I do give the movie quite a bit of credit for using a practical effect puppet for this version of Pinocchio, and the puppet himself is pretty state of the art for it’s time, which apparently took the Henson shop 9 months to perfect.  The problem, however, with this version of Pinocchio comes from his unfortunately miscast voice.  Jonathan Taylor Thomas was the “It” young actor of the moment in the mid-90’s, coming off the success of his role on the TV series Home Improvement, and providing the voice of Simba in The Lion King (1994).  His casting as Pinocchio here was much less about him being right for the part and more with him being a big name that the film could capitalize on in the marketing.  His vocal performance clashes greatly with the rest of the actors in the film, most of them being Euro-centric: apart from Martin Landau as Geppetto doing the best he can at an Italian accent.  Thomas’ Pinocchio sounds too modern and Americanized by comparison, and it just doesn’t fit the rest of the movie, which is a shame given the craftsmanship put into the puppet model itself.  The movie also streamlines the story of Pinocchio in a way that removes all of the sense of peril and danger that was essential to growing Pinocchio as a character.  Instead, the movie more or less is just there to be a showcase for the production design with the barest of bones when it comes to the plot.  The craftsmanship is certainly first class, but it ultimately it rings hollow when it comes to making the story of Pinocchio feel alive.


One of the most misguided movie projects in history sadly involves this classic story as well.  I don’t know what Italian comedian and filmmaker Roberto Benigni was thinking taking on the role of the wooden puppet who wanted to be a real boy.  Benigni of course is a filmmaker drawn to the farcical side of things, but this kind of adaptation was certainly ill conceived, especially given where Benigni was in his career.  This was his cinematic follow-up to the Oscar Winning Life is Beautiful  (1998), which netted him an award for Best Actor amongst other things.  Perhaps it was a misunderstanding on Hollywood’s part to think that Benigni was a different kind of filmmaker after making his Holocaust comedy (?), so Pinocchio was certainly not the right kind of movie for him to fall back on.  Mainly Roberto Benigni is just doing his usual schtick of loud, boisterous slapstick comedy with only the faintest of connections to the story of Pinocchio.  It sadly does not work on all accounts.  Benigni’s version of Pinocchio lacks any sincerity, and it’s the minimalist of attempts to convince the audience that he is a wooden puppet come to life.  Mainly what we get is Benigni dressing up in a puppet costume that seems more circus clown than anything else, and the only instances we get of any connection to the original story are pathetic special effects to make it look like his nose is growing longer.  This apparently was an artistically unsatisfying project for Benigni as well.  He only directed one more feature after this one, 2005’s The Tiger and the Snow, and then he went quiet for over a decade afterwards, both in front and behind the camera.  That’s a pretty bad sign when a filmmaker’s reputation is ruined to a point where they disappear thanks to just one movie, and sadly it had to be one involving an iconic character like Pinocchio.


Thankfully, there is a happy ending to Roberto Benigni’s connection with the character of Pinocchio.  After spending many years out of the spotlight, Benigni would return to the classic story, only this time playing the part of Geppetto instead of Pinocchio himself.  The part of Geppetto it turns out is a much better fit for the actor, who manages to give a nice, tender and surprisingly subtle for him performance as the pure hearted woodcarver.  Here he acts opposite young Italian actor Frederico Ielapi as the little wooden boy, who manages to balance well off the seasoned comedian.  The movie features some well done make up effects to give little Frederico wooden like features, and the film earned an Oscar nomination as a result.  While not exactly a perfect adaptation of the source material, this film nevertheless feels truer to the spirit of Collodi’s writing.  It certainly is the best attempt made by the nation that brought Pinocchio to the world in the first place.  One of the best aspects of the movie is that it doesn’t shy away from some of the darker aspects of the story, but also at the same time, it doesn’t get too heavy into the moralizing either.  You can tell that this was an attempt to treat Collodi’s story with reverence, something that many other adaptations have failed to achieve in the past.  Sadly, the movie didn’t get much of a life theatrically, as it premiered in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. But, for those who manage to discover it, they’ll find a beautifully crafted film that thankfully helps to wash away the stench of it’s star’s previously failed attempt at portraying the little wooden boy.


We’ve seen so far Pinocchio brought to life on screen through live action and animation, with make-up effects and even with an actual puppet.  Most recently however, we can now add stop motion to the techniques used to give life to this lovable wooden boy.  2022 proved to be a surprisingly robust year for Pinocchio on the big screen, as we got a total of three new films that year featuring the character.  One was a cheaply made CGI animated film with D-List celebrity voice talent headlined by Pauley Shore as a very whiny Pinocchio.  The second was another Disney live action remake, this one directed by Robert Zemekis and starring Tom Hanks as Geppetto.  Of course, the third version, this stop motion animated feature, was the vastly superior version of the story from that year, and in all honesty, it’s probably the best adaptation of Pinocchio since the Walt Disney version.  From the visionary mind of Guillermo Del Toro, we have this beautifully constructed film that seems to be the best of both world when it comes to adaptations of Pinocchio’s story.  It has the same imaginative magical spirit of Disney’s version, but maintains the darker tone of Collodi’s original text.  In some ways, it takes the story into even darker territory by setting the film in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy pre-WWII.  When it comes to the character, the movie actually feels the truest to the original concept of the character that we’ve ever seen.  Voiced wonderfully by young English actor Gregory Mann, Pinocchio here acts as a benign blank stale of a child who grows his conscience through the perils he faces and the friends he makes along the way.  The characterization works remarkably well here, as in typical Del Toro fashion, the physical model of Pinocchio can start off as off-putting in it’s odd design but over time becomes endearing.  Guillermo Del Toro crafts a beautiful world to set his adaptation and alongside his co-director, the late Mark Gustafson, they won a well deserved Academy Award for Animated Feature.  It may not surpass the sublime magic of Disney’s original, but it is certainly a close second and the best version of Pinocchio that we have seen in quite a long while.

There are many rights and wrongs when it comes to bringing Pinocchio to life in cinema.  Some of the best attempts we’ve seen involve a great deal of imagination to bring the character to life.  His very being itself requires some advanced cinematic tricks to make him be believable as a character.  A puppet made of wood and suspended with strings is not supposed to walk and talk like a human unsupported.  Doing this in live action is especially tricky, which is why the best versions of Pinocchio exist in animation.  Disney’s version of Pinocchio is undeniably the best version of the character, because the animated medium offers limitless possibility in bringing a magical oddity like him to life.  One scene in particular, where Pinocchio turns his body around in place while keeping his head stationary is a trick with the character that can only be possible through the hand drawn art of animation.  Guillermo Del Toro’s stop motion version likewise does a masterful job of bringing the wooden puppet to full life, and at the same time also still leaning further into the jagged wooden physicality that a puppet like Pinocchio would have had.  There have been valiant attempts to do Pinocchio justice in live action as well.  The Jim Henson Creature workshop version in the 1996 film was a valiant attempt at using a practical effect, and the make-up effects in the 2020 version do a commendable job too.  The less said about Roberto Benigni’s version the better, and I’m sure he’s glad people are becoming more familiar with the newer and vastly superior version of the story he’s in.  Pinocchio is a tricky character to get right, but in the end, what matters is that the story manages to find a way to be true to the heart of what Carlo Collodi intended for the character.  The story is about innocence, and how easily it can be corrupted in a harsh world.  The best versions of Pinocchio’s story are the ones that don’t shy away from the dark elements in his journey, but at the end of the day, Pinocchio has to come out the better for it.  The key to becoming a real boy is to be brave, truthful, and un-selfish, and that is at the heart of Pinocchio’s story, and that’s a lesson that any child will certainly carry with them into childhood.  That’s why the best version of this story, like the Disney one and hopefully Del Toro’s too in the future, remain strong across the generations, because it is the kind of story that brings out the most in the imagination of a young child.  Pinocchio keeps us all wishing upon that star and giving us hope that we all let our conscience be our guiding light.

Madame Web – Review

The once resilient comic book movie genre that dominated the box office in the 2010’s has had a rough time of it lately.  It’s no longer just the reliable moneymaker that it once was, and it’s a problem that is growing increasingly problematic across the whole industry.  It’s even affected the undisputed champ of the genre, Marvel Studios, who suffered their own worst year in a long while in 2023.  The problem is not so much the characters or the stories that are being told on screen, but the fact that the productions of these movies have become so over bloated and the market has been over-saturated to the point where box office revenue can no longer cover the costs of making the movies.  There are still some bright spots, as movies like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023) still managed to check off a box office victory, but overall audiences have made it clear that they are growing tired with a genre that looks to be well past it’s peak. The studios seem to be getting the message at the moment, as both Marvel and DC have pulled back on their production slate in order to reassess their upcoming futures.  Marvel Studios only has one theatrical release in the whole of 2024, with Deadpool & Wolverine coming in the Summer, while DC is working on a full reboot of their Cinematic Universe starting in 2025.  And it’s probably a good thing for both them and the audiences that we’ll have a bit of breathing room that will help us to fall in love with the genre once again.  It’s too bad that Sony Pictures and their licensed Spider-Man Universe didn’t get that same memo.  If there was any hope for a comic book lite year at the movies, it’s been dashed with Sony’s onslaught of new films that are already built on a flimsy foundation of what Sony considers to be a cinematic universe.

Since the turn of the millennium, Sony has retained the cinematic rights to the character Spider-Man and his affiliated cast of friends and rogues; a result of Marvel’s then plan to spread their characters around to all interested parties around Hollywood.  As Marvel began to reconsolidate it’s cinematic rights into a singular studio, with the help of parent company Disney, Spider-Man remained the sole holdout purely because Sony continued to have box office success with every film.  They believed that if they continued to release a new Spider-Man affiliated movie every year, their rights to the character would remain intact and they could sustain a franchise on it’s own without having to relinquish it back to Marvel.  The plan, however, hit some speedbumps as The Amazing Spider-Man reboot of the franchise didn’t have the strongest legs.  In order to keep the rights in house, the set up a special deal with Disney where the Spider-Man character could participate in the mega-successful MCU while Sony would continue to produce the standalone Spider-Man films in conjunction.  Marvel was thrilled that they could have a say in the cinematic representation of their A-list hero again, and Sony could now benefit from the exposure that could spill over into their own movies.  While this arrangement was happening, Sony also looked for other ways to maintain their hold onto the Spider-Man rights, and they believed the best way to do that was to build up a cinematic universe of their own; not just centered on Spider-Man, but all the characters in his orbit too.  Soon, famous spider-foe Venom received his own solo film, which itself turned into a surprise success, thanks to the star power of Tom Hardy in the role.  After this, movies based on other Spider-Man linked characters emerged, including a movie for Dr. Michael Morbius and Kraven the Hunter.  This hope for a Spider-Verse seemed short lived however, as the Morbius (2022) movie opened to dismal box office and terrible critical reviews.  Right now, despite early success with Venom, the Sony Spider-Verse is looking very much like the poster child for everything that’s wrong with the super hero genre right now, and things don’t any brighter as Sony is premiering a film this week centered around one of the truly most obscure characters in the Spider-Man storyline; the mysterious Madame Web.

The movie follows the story of New York City based EMT Cassandra Webb (Dakota Johnson).  She spends most of her day saving as many lives as she can alongside her fellow ambulance driver and friend Ben Parker (Adam Scott).  On a routine assignment helping out victims of a factory explosion, she starts to have peculiar visions; almost like time slipping backwards and forwards without warning.  She soon learns that some of her visions end up coming true, which becomes an alarming revelation for her.  As she heads home from a psychiatric exam, she has her most troubling vision yet.  She witnesses three girls aboard her commuter train getting assaulted by a mysterious man.  As she regains her composure, she alerts the three girls and guides them away from the man who is pursuing them.  After a chase through the city, Cassandra manages to find a hiding place, and she tries desperately to explain the very peculiar situation to the three frightened teens.  She quickly learns that each of the girls have actually interacted with her in the past couple of days, right before the visions manifested.  Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney) was the step-daughter of a victim that Cassandra helped deliver to the hospital.  Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor) was nearly run into by Cassandra’s ambulance on the same run. And Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) lives in the same building as Cassandra.  All of them are somehow linked together by what seems like chance, but Cassandra believes there might be more answers elsewhere.  She decides to consult the journal written by her mother, the one thing she has from her as her mom died during child birth, leaving her an orphan.  In her journal, Cassandra finds a photograph of the man that was trying to hunt after her and the girls earlier; a rich tycoon named Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), who was after a source of power that comes from a certain Spider species deep in the Amazon jungle.  It turns out that Ezekiel and Cassandra’s powers of foresight are linked, as Ezekiel has had visions of his own of his life ending at the hands of the three teenage girls, who themselves will be bestowed with powers in the future.  Does Cassandra manage to gain control of her special ability and help save the future heroes, or will Ezekiel manage to undo his own fate by destroying the lives of these girls in a time when they still have no idea what is happening?

My own experience with the Sony Spider-Verse has been fairly mixed.  Excusing the animated Spider-Verse movies, which are definitely separate from the live action productions (and might I add also much better movies), the overall value of Sony’s films is a far cry from what’s been put out by Marvel Studios itself.  I for one didn’t mind the first Venom (2018), which while not a great movie was nevertheless helped greatly by a winning performance by Tom Hardy as the titular anti-hero.  Morbius was very much a mess of a movie, though I didn’t have the same hatred for it as most other people do.  It was bad, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve seen much worse movies and Morbius was just boring for the most part, with Matt Smith’s vampy villainous turn being the one bright spot.  Now we have Madame Web, which seems even more superfluous than a Morbius film, and the timing for it couldn’t be worse as it seems the super hero fanbase is drying up.  It is possible that a movie like Madame Web could overcome these roadblocks to stand on it’s own as an engaging action thriller.  Unfortunately, this movie has ended up being exactly what we expected it to be, and honestly even worse than that.  This movie is the worst Sony Spider-Verse film thus far, and it’s not even close.  Morbius had some redeemable moments by being entertainingly bad at times.  Madame Web is a movie devoid of any entertainment value.  It isn’t even the fun kind of bad.  This was without a doubt one of the most difficult sit throughs of a movie that I have had in a long time; almost reaching Dear Evan Hansen (2021) levels of discomfort.  At a time where the super hero genre desperately needs to win back goodwill with it’s audience, this movie is unfortunately going to remind everyone of all the bad things about the genre, because this movie is full of every single one.

I honestly don’t know where the genesis of all the problems with this movie lie.  The script is certainly one of the worst factors.  Remarkably, Sony decided to go with the same team of writers that had written Morbius, showing that that they learned nothing from that experience.  Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless are also the scribes responsible for such cinematic gems like Dracula Untold (2014), The Last Witch Hunter (2015), and Gods of Egypt (2016), which makes you wonder how some writers somehow manage to fail upward in the movie business.  Madame Web may be their worst script left, because the whole thing reads like a first draft from someone who just completed a Screenwriting 101 course.  The movie has the clunkiest expositional dialogue I have ever seen.  Nobody speaks like a human being, they are just information dumps simply there to move the story forward.  There’s absolutely no interesting scenes of character development.  Every motivation is forced and the situations are contrived.  The main character herself, Cassandra Webb, suffers the most from this.  We don’t get any insight into her character, such as quirks or desires.  She’s just a passive pivot point for all the events of the movie to center around.  If the powers that be at Sony thought she was deserving of her own film, than make her a interesting enough to make us care.  The same can be said for all the other characters as well.  Ezekiel Sims is likewise also hollow as a character.  We only get the most miniscule of reasons as to why he’s a villain.  He’s sole purpose here is to look menacing in a Spider-Man like suit, and he fails pretty hard at even that.

The performances are also likewise pretty subpar.  I don’t know what kind of direction Dakota Johnson got (if any), but her performance as Cassandra Webb is like watching a mannequin emote.  There is nothing there but barely above a whisper line deliveries and the occasional eye roll.   Dakota Johnson may get a bad rap based on her past work in the Fifty Shades of Gray franchise, but she is capable of strong performance, as seen in movies like Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) and The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019).  She may have had the capability of crafting a more interesting performance here, but the lack of direction just leaves her lost.  That’s true of pretty much all of the leads in this film.  The three teenagers lack chemistry with each other, which makes their interactions more grating than endearing.  They feel even more awkward interacting with Dakota Johnson’s Cassandra, who’s supposed to be the guiding mentor to all of them, but in the end just feels like another moody teenager.  Tahar Rahim doesn’t help matters much more with his performances as Ezekiel Sims.  His one-note, understated performance is the blandest possible route to take with a character that’s supposed to be a terror.  Honestly, his performance is better when you can’t see his face once it’s behind a mask.  It doesn’t improve his performance much, but it’s better than the dead eye dour expression that makes up the rest of his performance.  Honestly, the only salvageable performances in the movie are from the film’s smallest parts; that of Adam Scott as Ben Parker and Emma Roberts as Mary Parker, the future mother of Spider-Man (the movie takes place 20 years in the past by the way).  They don’t add much to the overall movie, but these characters at least offer their actors a little bit of personality to hold onto, and Scott and Roberts are at least trying.  That’s the big takeaway from the performances in this movie, a very big lack of trying.  These actors are certainly capable of emoting, but whether it’s the lack of direction or the actors just not invested in the whole production itself, what we are left with is a movie lacking in any personality whatsoever.

Is there anything about the film that is worthwhile.  The only good things I can say is that the movie does do some interesting things with the time slipping that Cassandra experiences.  I did find the editing of these scenes effective, as it does a fair job of disorienting you while also making it clear how these visions appear from Cassandra’s point of view.  It doesn’t do the time travel thing as well as similar sequences found in Groundhog’s Day (1993) or Edge of Tomorrow (2014), but it works just enough to give the otherwise stale action sequences a little bit more flavor.  It seems like the editors were the only ones making this movie that actually did their jobs right.  Otherwise, visually, this movie is another mess that ruins the experience.  Some have rightly pointed out that this movie feels like a throw back to the mid-2000’s era of super hero movies, with it’s washed out color scheme and bland camera work.  While there were definitely some super hero movies of that era that had that kind of look, which thankfully went out of style once the bright and colorful MCU emerged, the 2000’s still had plenty of visually impressive movies in the genre too; especially the Sam Raimi directed Spider-Man trilogy.  Madame Web definitely feels like it’s a movie stuck in the past, and not in a good way.  It’s only compounded more when the very generic looking visual effect appear in the climatic final act.  The movie for the most part doesn’t so much feel like a super hero movie from 20 years ago, but rather an action film from 20 years ago; the kind of filmmaking that was coming out of the school of Jerry Bruckheimer.  For Marvel’s sake, at least no one will mistake this kind of movie for one of their own; as they’ve been pretty good at keeping their own house style consistent and appealing.  There’s nothing really offensively bad about the way that the movie looks; it’s just that Madame Web’s visual style is as devoid of character as everything else in the movie, again pointing to the whole pointless nature of it’s existence.

In many ways, this movie honestly puts the problems with Marvel and DC’s recent films in a more favorable light.  As much as films like The Marvels (2023) and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023) have struggled at the box office, those movies at least tried to do something to be entertaining.  I for one actually quite enjoyed The Marvels and a recent re-watch has confirmed my positive view.  All of the complaints that other critics have levied at The Marvels I feel are more pronounced in the nothing burger that is Madame Web.  It is by far the lowest effort super hero film I have experienced in a long time; maybe even ever.  It’s astounding to see so little passion put into this kind of movie.  It’s like even the actors and the filmmakers knew just how pointless this whole thing was from the get go, and they just gave up caring.  There was no love put into this movie.  The only reason it exists is so that Sony can extend it’s cinematic rights to the Spider-Man corner of the Marvel library.  Madame Web was perhaps a stretch too far, as no one outside of the most knowledgeable comic book reader even knows of the character’s existence.  And I’m sure even that kind of devoted fan will be angered by the butchering of Madame Web as a character in this movie.  It’s likely that Sony’s going to learn a lesson from this experience, as the film is very clearly going to bomb, even harder than Morbius did.  It’s hard to say if there was any valuable reason why this movie should exist at all.  If someone put their heart into it and had a worthwhile story to tell, then it’s certainly possible.  But, Madame Web is far from that movie and another example of Sony missing the mark when it comes to building a cinematic universe in the vein of the MCU.  I don’t know if I would say it’s the worst comic book movie ever made, since we do live in a world where Fant4stic (2015) still exists, but it certainly feels like the most pointless super hero movie ever made.  And in the end, the Sony Spider-Verse has found itself caught in a web of destruction that I don’t see them ever finding a way of escaping; except solely through animation.

Rating: 3/10

He Rode a Blazing Saddle – 50 Years of Mel Brook’s Comedy Classic and Why It’s Good That You Can’t Make it Today

Mel Brooks, undoubtedly one of the most influential comedic voices of his generation and of all time, has left behind an incredible legacy over his near century long life and even at the ripe old age of 97 (as of writing) he’s still capable of making us all laugh.  Under the mentorship of Sid Caesar, Mel found his way through Hollywood as a successful joke writer before eventually deciding to expand into film.  His debut, The Producers (1968) was a smash hit, and earned the multi-talented comedian his one and only Oscar for Original Screenplay.  What particularly made The Producers stand out was that it bravely tackled a taboo subject, namely the horrific legacy of Adolf Hitler in a post-WWII world.  After the horrors of the Holocaust came to light at the end of the war, many people believed that it was in bad taste to make any jokes about the atrocities committed during the war, including any mention of Hitler himself.  Mel Brooks felt differently, seeing ridicule as the best answer against evil in the world.  He believed that by mocking Hitler and the Nazi regime through his comedy, he was robbing them of their power to inspire others that want to emulate them.  Mel knew very well that Fascism and xenophobia didn’t go away with the defeat of the Nazi regime during the war, and that the specter of Hitler still haunted humanity for many years afterwards.  That’s why his ability to mercilessly mock the imagery of Hitler and the Third Reich in The Producers was such a profound breath of fresh air when it premiered.  But Mel would continue to look to other targets for ridicule in many of his future films, including a place that rang a little too close to home in Hollywood.

The year 1974 was the zenith of Mel Brooks’ career as a filmmaker.  In that year, he released not one but two comedy masterpieces, both of which remain just as potent and hilarious as they were when they first released.  In the Fall of 1974, Mel produced and directed the classic horror spoof Young Frankenstein (1974), which was a farcical delight that at the same time was also reverential to the movies it was spoofing.  While most of the movie still holds up as a comedy, it’s also clear that Mel’s working in more of his comedy comfort zone with Frankenstein.  The other film, released in the early part of 1974, was a much more risky project for Mel, and one that fifty years later remains the most controversial film of his career.  But surprisingly enough, Blazing Saddles  (1974) didn’t start out as a Mel Brooks project, but was instead the brainchild of writer Andrew Bergman.  Bergman’s premise of a sleepy Western town that’s forced to change once they receive a new sheriff who’s Black instantly appealed to Mel Brooks, who saw the comedy potential in the material.  He worked with Bergman to flesh out the comedy even more, insisting to Bergman to write without being “polite.”  And touching up the comedy even further, Mel enlisted the help of one of the hottest stand up comedians of that time, the legendary Richard Pryor, who was also instrumental in shaping the racial commentary of the film.  But even with all of the comedy legends working together on this movie, the film was certainly going to be a hard sell.  Because of the no holds barred nature of the racial comedy, with shall we say very liberal use of a certain racial slur, the script was certainly going to face some roadblocks on the way to getting made.  Eventually it found a home at Warner Brothers, and Mel was granted access to one of the most legendary Western movie backlots in Hollywood to bring to life his silly little film.  In the shadow of Western sets that the likes of John Wayne, Errol Flynn, and Randolph Scott all shot their movies on, Mel Brooks would stage iconic comedic moments like a horse getting punched out by football star Alex Karras, the stunned silent arrival of Sheriff Bart to town, and the climatic brawl that spans the entire studio lot.

What makes the comedy so special in Blazing Saddles is the complete and full sincerity of the cast.  Each and every performer fully embodies the absurdist reality of this farcical spin that Mel Brooks has put on the Western genre.  The most instrumental casting of course is that of Sheriff Bart himself.  Though there was speculation that Richard Pryor himself would step into the role having contributed to the screenplay, Mel was insistent on getting an actor without a comedy background to play the part, as Bart needed to be a grounded character compared to the caricatures of the  rest of the cast.  He found his Sheriff Bart in Broadway actor Cleavon Little, who perfectly slipped into the role.  The crucial part of the character of Sheriff Bart is his confidence; he has to be the smartest person in amongst of whole slew of buffoons, and Cleavon plays that aspect to perfection.  His escape from a tense situation at his arrival is brilliantly realized as he uses the townspeople’s blind bigotry against them, leading to a satisfactory punchline where he says to himself, “Baby, you are so talented, and they are so… dumb.”  It’s a great summation of his character and Little’s subtle performance aids in making Sheriff Bart work as the heart of the movie.  He’s also perfectly matched with Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid.  Wilder, who previously work with Mel on The Producers, was not the original choice for the part, as veteran actor Gig Young had originally been cast.  However, Young’s drinking problem made him a liability on set, so Mel had to make the choice to let him go and re-cast the part.  It took a while for Mel to find the right actor to play the Waco Kid; he even attempted to enlist John Wayne himself at one point, who graciously declined due to the more objectionable aspects of the script.  Gene Wilder was reluctant to take the part, think that the part was too restricting for him as a performer, as he referred more bombastic comedy roles.  Eventually Wilder relented on the condition that Mel chose Gene’s script as his next project and that’s what led to the making of Young Frankenstein.  Despite Wilder’s misgivings, he was perfect for the part and some of the movie’s biggest laughs come directly from him.  Rounding out the cast, there are tons of comedy legends including Harvey Korman as the villainous Hedley Lamarr, Madeline Kahn as the vivacious Lilly Von Shtupp (who received an Oscar nomination for her role), Slim Pickens as the dim witted cowboy Taggart, and Mel Brooks himself playing the distracted Governor LePetomane.

Initially, Warner Brothers executives were hesitant in releasing the movie, as the subject matter and unvarnished language made this a very taboo project.  Upon the first screening, the executives were stunned silent by the uncomfortably frank way that Mel Brooks addressed racial issues within the film.  It was thought that the movie would either get shelved or dumped quietly into theaters in order to bury it as the studio had little faith in it’s success.  In the time in which this movie was made, racial tensions in America were still fairly raw.  The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s had been a tough fought battle for equality and it eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which broke down the Jim Crow segregationist policies of the South.  But even a decade later, racial tensions endured, especially as they were inflamed again by political opportunists like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.  There were certainly more opportunities growing for black  voices in entertainment at the time, as subgenres like Blaxploitation began to emerge, but Hollywood itself was slow to progress with the times.  What was particularly pointed in the subtext of Mel’s film was how the Western genre was itself complicit in creating this myth about America’s past; specifically putting an almost exclusively white face on it.  There were numerous stories of the old west that centered around African American cowboys and lawmen, but none of them were being told.  Sure, Mel Brook’s was approaching this subject in a humorous way, but the critique of Hollywood’s lack of diversity was certainly there as well.  Warner Brothers knew very well that this was going to be a controversial movie no matter what.  What ultimately led to the film making it to theaters was an internal screening with Warner Brothers staff, much of whom were better representative of what the typical movie going audience would be like, and they were hooting and hollering with laughter the whole way through.  Thus, Mel Brooks got his film out into theaters and of course it would go on to become an instant classic.

Looking back on the movie as it now approaches it’s 50 year mark, it is remarkable how well the film holds up.  A lot of the comedy, particularly the more slapstick gags still feel timeless.  A group of cowboys eating beans and blowing gas around a campfire definitely feels evergreen, especially with the hilariously over the top sound effects used.  But, the time that has passed with regard to the racial subjects in the movie put the movie in a different light today than it did then.  Race relations are somewhat different today than they were 50 years ago, though there is still a lot about the movie that feels sadly relevant as well.  Black representation on film has improved over time, both in front and behind the camera.  There are still some lagging factors when it comes to equality though.  Just because milestones like electing the first Black president have happened in the recent years doesn’t mean that racial tensions are gone forever.  Some would say that they are getting fired up again.  This is one aspect where Blazing Saddles is especially relevant to this day.  In the film, Hedley Lamarr appoints Bart the sheriff of Rock Ridge knowing full well that the bigoted townspeople would rather abandon the town rather than accept him as their new protector, and that will help him gain control of the land for his own aspirations.  A disingenuous politician stirring up racial tensions for his own gain feels all too familiar in today’s political climate.  There certainly are aspects of Mel Brook’s comedy that have not aged as well either.  Mel certainly is an equal opportunity offender in his many comedies, but there are times when some of the racial jokes fall into the point of gratuitousness.  Also if there was something that I think he would rethink in the film, it would be the depiction of the musical performers in the “French Mistake” number as reductive gay stereotypes.  It’s all still in good fun, and it’s clear that Mel’s intent is to poke holes in the absurdity of racial bigotry and not to indulge in the ugliness of it.  However, over time, some people have lost that context when it comes to celebrating the comedy of Blazing Saddles over the years.

One of the things that has been said a lot about Blazing Saddles is that it’s a movie that could never be made today.  There’s a lot of truth to that, as the making of the movie was very much a response to the racial politics of the time in which it was made.  But, for some, they use Blazing Saddles as an example of how Hollywood has lost it’s way.  There are many critics online who point to this film to say that movies have gotten too “politically correct” or Hollywood has gotten too “woke.”  It’s interesting that they would single out Blazing Saddles of all movies as being the film that represents a time in Hollywood that wasn’t “woke” as it’s a movie that honestly is one of the most socially conscious films ever made by a major studio.  It was “woke” before that ever became a term.  Mel Brooks is and has always been an outspoken defender of civil rights movements in America.  Even in his late 90’s, he still speaks his mind on these issues.  One of the last social media posts made by his late friend and fellow comedy legend Carl Reiner before his death in 2020 was pictures of Carl and Mel at the latter’s then 94th birthday party, with both of them proudly wearing shirts that said “Black Lives Matter.”  Being called “woke” would be a compliment to Mel and not an insult.  But, for some reason, the anti-woke crowd wants to claim Blazing Saddles as a movie that speaks for them.  You have to wonder, what is it exactly about the movie that they like?  It certainly can’t be the criticism of naked racism, as Mel Brooks is clearly making fun of the complicit nature of white bigotry that pervades the Western genre.  I shudder to think that the only reason some people like this movie is because of it’s un-censored use of a certain word.

Here’s the thing about the way the movie uses racial slurs in the film.  Never in the whole movie is a racial slur meant to be a punchline for laughter.  Sure there are situations in which the n-word is skirted around in a hilarious way, like the old prospector character Gabby Johnson getting drowned out by a church bell right as he says the word or when Governor LePetomane asks Hedly Lamarr, “What are you nuts?  Can’t you see that that man is a Ni?”  But when the actual word is spoken, it’s not taken as a joke, but is instead intend to be a shocking jolt.  It also is important to note that the word is said by some of the dumbest and most ignorant characters in the movie.  They are the subjects of ridicule in the movie first and foremost, and that’s the intent of the story Mel is trying to tell.  Stories of the American West have long glamorized the image of white Americans taming the old west, while whitewashing all of the racial injustices that happened along the way.  Primarily it was the slaughtering of Native American tribes that got left out of the myths of the Old West, as indigenous people were reduced to savage obstacles in the way of progress, but also at the same time settlers of other races, including Blacks and Asians, were also left out of the Western myths too.  Blazing Saddles breaks down that myth by making it clear to the people of Rock Ridge that bigotry is their own worst enemy and that using a slur is just a sign of their own stupidity and blindness.  If there are people out there who find the n-word usage to be the one funny thing from this movie, and that it’s the thing that they lament as not being able to be done today, well, they are telling a lot about themselves then; and also making Mel Brooks’ point for him.  As the Waco Kid succinctly says in the movie, “These are people of the land.  The common clay of the new West.  You know… morons.”

That’s why it’s a good thing that a movie like Blazing Saddles couldn’t and shouldn’t be made today.  Blazing Saddles is a comedy that needed to exist in it’s own specific time; a time where naked bigorty needed to be called out and that Hollywood had to be confronted over it’s own shameful history in perpetuating the stereotypes that fan the flames of racism.  It’s a movie that should stand on it’s own and speak across generations.  The reason why a movie like it shouldn’t be made today is because I don’t think anyone would be able to offer the same thing that Mel Brook’s added that made the difference; a feeling of hope.  Today, comedies are far more cynical and geared toward the irreverent, because the belief is that positivity is a gateway to sappiness.  What is important in Blazing Saddles is that in defiance of all the bigotry he faces, Sheriff Bart fulfills his duty as a protector of his town and ends up saving the day in the end.  Even more than that, he does so by using his intelligence to win the day, not just outsmarting his enemies but also winning them over to his side.  The movie is hopeful about overcoming prejudice, even though it’s still aware about the long arduous road that is, with Sheriff Bart at one point saying, “Someday, they’ll even address me in broad daylight” when talking about the townsfolk he just saved.  There are many people who have tried to emulate what Mel Brooks has done with movies like Blazing Saddles, but few capture the same amount of wit and intelligence that his movies contain.  There is a very nuanced and pointed commentary about race in America amidst all of the fart sounds and sex jokes.  That’s what makes Blazing Saddles such a special comedy; it truly hits so many levels when it comes to comedy, with a sharp satirical edge and a fair amount of broad slapstick for good measure.  And it never fails to make us laugh, even after 50 years.

This is….