As Time Goes By – The Dramatic Actions Taken by a Post Merger Warner Brothers

There’s so much to say about Warner Brothers as an institution of the movie making machine that is Hollywood.  Founded in 1923 by the namesake brothers, Albert, Harry, Sam and Jack, Warner Brothers grew out of it’s humble beginnings as a small production outfit in the San Fernando Valley outside of Hollywood to become one of the biggest names in entertainment.  Though Warner Brothers made movies of every type, they were best known for their Westerns and Gangster flicks, and for curating a stable full of some of the biggest movie stars in the world, including Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHaviland.  They were also famous for their animation department which created the popular Looney Tunes characters, including Bugs Bunny who was second only to Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse in popularity around the world.  As the years rolled on and the Warner brothers themselves began to leave the business, the WB studios would carry on building their portfolio with numerous successful intellectual properties.  One of their most lucrative acquisitions was DC comics, which gave them exclusive rights to the characters of Superman and Batman, both of whom have appeared in a number of Warner projects over the years.  In addition, Warner Brothers has expanded to acquire the properties of Hanna Barbara Animation, as well as expanding their reach in distribution through the development of cable services like HBO and Cartoon Network.  Add to this recent high profile franchise like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and Warner Brothers has continued to maintain it’s foothold as one of the giants of Hollywood.  But, even through the years of building up their library with noteworthy titles, the studio itself has gone through growing pains that have been pretty dire.

Like most other studios in Hollywood, Warner Brothers has had to rely upon survival through ownership by larger corporate conglomerates.  Jack Warner, the last of the brothers to have ownership of the studio, sold to the production company Seven Arts Productions as part of a merger upon his retirement.  The partnership continued under the name Warner Communications, and achieved success during the 60’s and 70’s with popular edgy films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Th Exorcist (1973) to name a few.  In 1989, media mogul Ted Turner put in a bid to merge his Turner Communications empire, with brands like TBS, TIME, and CNN involved, with Warner Brothers and thus began the era of Time Warner.  The nearly 12 billion dollar deal at the time was seen as alarming to many, including other rival studios.  Viacom, the owners of Paramount Pictures, even filed a complaint to the SEC in order to stop the merger.  But, the lawsuit failed and the Time Warner merger was finalized.  This helped Warner Brothers gain a foothold in the growing market of cable television, allowing Ted Turner to distribute all the numerous titles in the Warner library across his many networks.  He even created Turner Classic Movies as a way of giving fans of the classics a place to watch their favorite films without commercial interruption.  But, as time went on, we would see that this wouldn’t be the last time that Warner Brothers would become part of another merger.  In 2018, Time Warner was bought by communications giant AT&T, who became the new stewards of the vast library of Warner Media.  During AT&T’s tenure, the focus went into following the rise of streaming services, with the goal being to create a streaming platform based on all the Warner Brothers properties that could compete with established titans like Netflix and Amazon.  That big push itself became a costly venture that in many ways led to the very next merger in Warner Brother’s future.

The streaming wars began to heat up in the fall of 2019, with the launch of Apple TV+ and Disney+.  Warner Brothers still had a bit more time to get their platform ready to compete, but they were hopeful that they had the library material that could immediately draw in subscribers.  Utilizing their very valuable HBO brand, the platform HBO Max debuted in May of 2020, right in the midst of the Covid pandemic lockdown that was forcing most of the population to stay at home.  Though there was no doubt that the Warner Brothers library, which included everything throughout their history from movies to television shows, would give subscribers plenty of viewing options to choose from, the entry price itself became a bit of a hard sell for many.   At $15 a month to start, HBO Max was far and away the costliest streaming platform in the market, even higher than Netflix.  This in many ways hampered growth on the platform in it’s early months, which shouldn’t have been the case given the circumstances of it’s launch.  To gain a foothold in the pandemic effected streaming wars, then WarnerMedia president Jason Kilar made a rather drastic decision about how to use HBO Max going into it’s second year.  For the whole of 2021, every Warner Brothers theatrical film would be released day and date simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max at no extra cost.  This in the beginning was necessary, as most theaters remained closed in big markets like New York and Los Angeles due to pandemic restrictions, but as the year went on and theaters began re-opening, the 2021 strategy began to look a bit more short sighted in the long run.  Warner Brothers movies performed far below their competitors at the box office that year, and though the day and date release did boost subscribers over the same time frame, it was not at the pace WarnerMedia was hoping for, with Disney+ far out-performing them in the same time frame.  In the process, it started to look like following this strategy resulted in Warner Brothers leaving a lot of money on the table as box office saw steady improvement over the course of the 2021.  This was especially unfortunate for their tentpole films like James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (2021), Denis Villenueve’s Dune (2021) and Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections (2021).  Village Roadshow, the production company behind the Matrix franchise has even filed a lawsuit against Warner for what they see as suppressed revenue that they view as violation of their contract with the studio.  I’ve written about this before here, but suffice to say this plan did not pan out like Warner Brothers hoped, and it possibly is what compelled AT&T to make the move that happened next.

Wishing to divest WarnerMedia from their corporate portfolio, AT&T began to speak with interested parties seeking to take on management of the studio and it’s library.  Out of those talks emerged Discovery Communications.  The cable channel giant Discovery has expanded over the years from it’s original network to encompassing multiple channels across the cable line-up, all with a focus on producing reality television.  This includes channels like HGTV, the Food Network, and Animal Planet.  It’s massive expansion over the last decade has been under the management of CEO David Zaslev, who is now the man at the center of this new merger with Warner Brothers.  Like WarnerMedia, Discovery themselves were dipping their toes into the streaming market, with Discovery+ also hitting the market within the last year.  Now, with this multi-billion dollar merger, the Zaslev regime at Discovery is now taking creative control over one of the biggest and most storied studios in Hollywood, and that is causing quite a big disruption in the industry.  Like all big mergers, including the recent Disney and Fox one, there will be a large change in the labor force at the studio.  Because of redundancies, most of those who worked at the Warner Brothers offices under the AT&T regime will now have to compete with their counterparts from the Discovery side in order to stay in their position.  Both Warner Brothers and Discovery are going to lose a lot of talent in the process, which may end up changing the culture around the studio over the next several years.  And this will no doubt impact the streaming end as well, as you have two platforms now under the ownership of one company.  Does Warner Brothers Discovery continue to maintain both at enormous cost, or do they merge the two together into one?  Right now, this is a story that is still playing out before our eyes, and it’s one that we still don’t know the outcome of.  But what we do know is that already there have been some severe moves made by the Zaslev regime at Warner Brothers that have left many outsiders wonder how bad are things really inside the Warner Brothers studio at this time.

Since taking the reigns of the Warner Brothers empire, David Zaslev has been pretty ruthless in shifting the direction of the studio away from where his predecessors left it.  For one thing, the day and date release model has been scrapped, with theatrical once again taking precedent.  This has certainly come at an important time for Warner Brothers, as big tentpoles like The Batman (2022) and Elvis (2022) saw their releases this year and jumped to healthy box office totals.  This even convinced the Warner Brothers theatrical team to expand their release windows beyond the 45 day window that they negotiated the movie theaters into during the pandemic.  But what has been especially dramatic during these early post merger months has been the dramatic cuts made to production.  Numerous shows have been either cancelled or scraps across all of the WarnerMedia platforms, with talk of even the CW broadcast channel being wiped from the airwaves completely in favor of expanding the streaming business.  The most controversial moves however have happened on the DC comics side.  Seemingly discontent with the output of Warner Brothers cinematic adaptations of their DC comics properties, which over the years has been dubbed the DCEU, David Zaslev is looking to press the restart button as she sees them falling way behind their Marvel counterparts over on the Disney lot.  As Zaslev has stated, he’s looking for a Kevin Feige like figure to oversee the direction of their comic book properties, giving them the same care that Marvel has shown theirs.  At the same time, he is slamming the brakes hard on the current direction of the DCEU.  Numerous projects like a proposed Wonder Twins movie have been cancelled before they moved any further than the development stage, but that’s nothing as drastic as cancelling a nearly complete movie.  Over the last year, a Batgirl movie has been rolling camera, with Leslie Grace playing the titular hero, as well as Brendan Fraser in the villain role and even more remarkably, Michael Keaton reprising his legendary role as Batman.  But, just in the last couple of weeks, Zaslev has not only halted production on the film, but he’s also cancelling it’s completion, stopping it from even releasing despite $90 million already being spent on it.  In the end, Warner Brothers will write off the expense on taxes, but that’s a lot of money drained for a movie that no one will ever see.  And this has left many people wondering exactly what is the deal with Zaslev’s ruthless surgical change to the studio he’s now in charge off.

It certainly is a rash, and possibly short sighted  move to cancel a $90 million dollar film without letting the public decide if it’s something that they would want to watch.  The move is especially insulting to the hard work being done by the cast and crew involved.  But, there is the other argument to be made that this was a necessary evil to be made in order to give the studio a better future.  One thing that is clear is that the DC side of the Warner Brothers empire was already in trouble before David Zaslev took over.  The studio very much took the wrong direction in building their brand based around the Zack Snyder directed Justice League movies.  Even as Zack Snyder was making his Justice League (2017), the studio had buyers remorse and took advantage of his absence during a family tragedy and wrestled creative control away from him, bringing in Joss Whedon from the Marvel camp to complete the film the way they wanted, which was cheap and crowd-pleasing.  Instead, the end result ended up alienating all audiences, which in turn sparked an internet campaign to restore Zack Snyder’s original cut.  In this example, we see a short-sighted studio move leading to more costs later on, as an extra $70 million in reshoots were made to finish Snyder’s cut of Justice League.  But, the troubles didn’t end there for DC.  Both Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill left their roles as Batman and Superman respectively, and a whole slew of scandals began to erupt around Flash actor Ezra Miller, who now is at the heart of numerous felonies that has abruptly led to the end of their time in the role of the Flash.  This is overall something that Zaslev needs to gain a hold of in order to save the brand itself and make it competitive with the juggernaut that is Marvel.  A fresh start may be what’s best for the DCEU, but the question remains why Batgirl needed to be the sacrificial lamb and not say the still on the calendar Flash movie.  No one involved with Batgirl has problematic baggage like Ezra Miller.  Why are we not seeing the movie made by good professionals but are being allowed to watch a movie starring a pariah?  It probably comes down to the cost in the end.  It’s easier to write down a $90 million production on taxes than it is to do the same with reported $200 million plus production like The Flash.  The studio apparently has more faith in The Flash making it’s money back theatrically than it does with Batgirl.  Business wise it makes sense, but Warner Brothers does have the unfortunate appearance of playing favorites with the wrong projects, especially when  the unfortunate one stars a woman of color in the lead role.

The problems that people see going on at Warner Brothers right now post merger is that the new regime is being too careless with it’s hatchet towards all the studio excess that it sees.  Comedian John Oliver joked on his HBO show Last Week Tonight that it appears that David Zaslev is burning everything down for the insurance money.  Going off this point, for many, the dramatic cuts seem to be too much blood-letting at a time when Warner Brothers really needs to play catch up to it’s competitors in the growing streaming market.  But, there is an argument to be made for the moves that Zaslev and his team are making at Warner Brothers.  Zaslev has stated that the goal is to invest more in a smaller number of important projects, and far less on a gluttony of programming that doesn’t have a guarantee of success.  It’s basically the quality over quantity approach.  It’s a motivation that honestly has merit in the wake of Netflix’s own recent troubles.  Netflix has been billions on original programming, and the seemingly careless way they’ve gone about greenlighting new projects has resulted in stagnant growth for their company.  They are no longer generating enough new subscribers in order to justify their excessive spending.  Zaslev’s cautious approach to approving the creative output for Warner Brother’s streaming footprint seems to help better position Warner Brothers for what is likely to be a slowing down of the streaming boom.  If you can be ahead of the curve with regards to a shift in the market, it will definitely help in the long run and better position the studio competitively.  Zaslev is concerned about making the streaming brand worth the value, though some say that part of the reason he’s making the choices he’s doing now is because unlike most others in the industry, he’s not a huge champion of the streaming model.  He opened up very late to the idea of taking Discovery into streaming, and right now the fate of both Discovey+ and HBO Max is up in the air because of Zaslev’s largely disinterested favor towards streaming.  Most likely, the two will merge like their parent companies and become one platform, but what that will end up looking like is a mystery right now.  There are a lot of uncertainties going forward post merger, but David Zaslev’s drastic moves may in the end be the thing needed to build a better future for the studio.

One thing for sure is that Warner Brothers will still remain a powerhouse in Hollywood.  It has one of the most enviable portfolios of brands in the industry, which will likely help to carry the studio through in the coming years.  But, for the moment we are witnessing  the process in which a major company goes through a drastic transformation once it’s ended up in a merger with another company.  The same scenario played out when Disney and Fox became one company, though the merger there was a bit more one sided in Disney’s favor, as everything changed on the Fox side.  A lot of anxieties are being fueled by the unknowns about what the long term effects will be of the cuts made by Zaslev in these early days.  One worry is that Zaslev comes from the world of reality television, and that he might not be the right kind of visionary to head one of the most heralded studios in Hollywood, at least on the storytelling end.  For one thing, it’s incredibly disheartening when so much work goes into the making of a movie, only to have that movie not see the light of day.  This leads many to believe that David Zaslev is not looking out for the best interest of the creatives, and is more concerned with protecting the bottom line.  But, there is merit to the idea that he sees a shift in the marketplace as the streaming wars has cooled off and the market is looking more and more likely to stagnate for a while.  In the long run, he may be proven right in investing money not in broadening the scope of the studio’s output but instead putting more effort into building up the brand and restoring it’s reputation.  That was certainly something that defined AT&T’s brief tenure as stewards of the studio, where they were far more concerned about chasing the competition.   With the chaotic direction that the DC properties were headed, as well as diminishing returns from other areas like the Wizarding World brand and it’s aimless Fantastic Beast franchise, the regime at the top of Warner Brothers really needed to take a look at what was best for the future of their studio, and it looks like it’s one where they play things a bit more subtly.  We’ll find out in the end how well these changes play out, but there is no doubt about it that Warner Brothers Discovery’s birthing pains as a new conglomerate in Hollywood has been one of the most controversial in recent memory.

Bullet Train – Review

Whenever a major action movie shakes up the formula and becomes a major hit with audiences, it will suddenly become the touchstone for a whole new generation of movies just like it.  That was certainly the case after Die Hard (1988) unexpectedly shook up the industry upon it’s release.  Suddenly, the studios were looking for the next Die Hard, and it often led to a lot of sub-par copycats.  Then in the mid-90’s, the movies of Quentin Tarantino began to shake up the action genre in their own way.  Now there were a lot of action movies where the heroes were speaking with quippy dialogue and making pop culture references.  But, through them all, most of those movies couldn’t match either Die Hard‘s perfect pacing or Tarantino’s sharp wit.  Mostly, the action genre is about peaks and valleys.  There are icons that rise up and stand strong, but they are surrounded by a lot of junk that falls flat and becomes forgotten to the ages.  And there really hasn’t been much change to that cycle.  The only thing that has really changed is that action movies more or less are now dominated by comic book adaptations and sequels.  There are original ideas making their way into action films today, but they are often either outside of the Hollywood system (mainly in the foreign market) or they are the passion project of a famous movie star or film director.  One particular action film that brought some fresh new life into the genre was John Wick (2014) starring Keanu Reeves.  John Wick brought back an emphasis on choreographed stunt work into a genre that had long been diminished by fast editing and CGI.  The John Wick series is all about in camera stunt work and long takes, stripping the genre down to it’s fundamentals and having fun with them.  Naturally, this too has led to a proliferation recently of action movies in that same Wick style, which is not all together a bad thing.  If a movie is going to inspire a bunch of copycats, at least it should inspire the kinds that are grounded in reality like it is.

One of the men behind the success of John Wick is director David Leitch.  Leitch had been a long time stunt man in Hollywood before getting behind the camera.  Among performing and coordinating stunts in films as varied as Fight Club (1999) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001), he also worked on the incredibly complex stunts involved in the Matrix trilogy.  That’s where he met and bonded with Keanu Reeves.  Leitch would continue to work with Reeve on many other films like Constantine (2005), but all the while the two were collaborating on a dream project that appealed to their collective creative tastes.  That film eventually became John Wick and it not only helped to revitalize Keanu’s film career, but it also began Leitch’s second career as a movie director and producer.  He was uncredited for his work on John Wick (Chad Stahelski had the sole credit even though it was a shared position between the two), but his follow-up really demonstrated his talent for putting his actors right in the thick of the action.  He cemented Charlize Theron as an action star with Atomic Blonde (2017), which again involved another actor performing a lot of her own stunts for authenticity.  Afterwards, David did a couple of franchise jobs, jumping aboard Deadpool 2 (2018) and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019).  Now he finds himself back making another original action film, this time collaborating with another actor whom he once performed as the stunt double for: Brad Pitt.  Their new film Bullet Train takes the Leitch style of stunt heavy action and sets it within the titular high speed location.  The question that remains is, does Bullet Train live up to the standard that a filmmaker of David Leitch’s career has set for him, or does it quickly come off the rails.

In present day Tokyo, we meet a small time assassin code-named Ladybug (Brad Pitt) as he is assigned to steal a case full of ransom money from another bunch of assassins working for a rival player in the criminal underworld.  Ladybug, who is renowned for his bad luck, follows the case full of money to a bullet train bound for Kyoto.  On board, he runs into a pair of assassins known as Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who are delivering the case to their boss, a Russian criminal overlord named the White Death (Michael Shannon), along with his delinquent son (Logan Lerman).  At first, Ladybug manages to snatch the case away undetected, but he soon learns that there are many other high profile assassins on board the same train.  He first runs into The Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny) a Columbian hitman who seeks revenge against Ladybug, though Ladybug barely remembers what the transgression was in the first place.  There is also a young British girl named Prince (Joey King) who also turns out to be a trained assassin while sneakily posing as an innocent bystander.  She herself has another job to perform on the train, which is to hold the man who originally brought the case on board the train, Kimura (Andrew Koji).  Kimura’s father, a crime boss known as the Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), is a rival of the White Death, and Prince’s motives involve stirring up this rivalry between the two.  In addition, another assassin named the Hornet (Zazie Beetz) is taking out additional targets on the train with her own specialty; injecting victims with the venom of a highly toxic snake.  Ladybug quickly finds himself in over his head and continually complains about his situation to his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock) over the phone.  What was suppose to be a simple snatch and go has now devolved into a full blown gang war on this high speed train.  What follows is a crazy string of events that involves the briefcase full of money itself, a venomous snake let loose on the train, as well as a bottle of water with it’s own journey to take.  The only question that remains is who will be left standing once the train reaches the end of the line.

Needless to say, the plot to Bullet Train is a complicated one.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the movie ends up being pretty divisive for critics and audiences.  One’s response to this movie will probably hinge on the viewer’s tolerance level for quirky dialogue and plot contrivances.  And for someone like me, I found that my tolerance is pretty high.  Overall, I found Bullet Train to be a generally fun ride of a movie.  Sure, it’s a bit of a mess that screams indulgence on the part of the director, but it’s never dull and left me having a good time.  I’d say where the movie may be a problem for many is that the movie has wild swings in tone.  For the most part, it does have an over the top quirkiness that works in it’s favor, but the movie also has moments that are meant to tug at the heartstrings or feel terrifying when the stakes are raised.  At some points, it doesn’t really capture those other kinds of moments as well as it does the more humorous parts.  There’s a tragic backstory given late in the film that is emotionally wrenching, but a second later it gets undercut by a quippy remark delivered by either Brad Pitt or another star.  It’s hard at times to know exactly which kind of tone David Leitch is trying to land on, and it leaves parts of the movie uneven.  But, at the same time, when the movie wants to be clever and give us an unexpected surprise, it usually generally works.  There are some really clever twists on the trope of establishing a long tragic backstory for some of the characters, and even for just an object sometimes.  In those moments, the movie does manage to turn the genre on it’s head a bit, and have some fun with what we are expecting the story to go.  And I’ll give the movie this credit, it keeps things moving along, like the titular train itself, and part of the entertainment value was in seeing how all the new complications build up to take the story into avenues that you don’t see coming.

There is a John Wick aspect to the way that the movie is filmed, with stunt work taking precedent over every other effect.  The movie offers up some pretty clever moments, like a fight between Pitt and Taylor-Johnson’s characters in the train’s snack cart station.  The way that the motion of the train is used, particularly with it’s speed is also a strong component of the action scenes, including some of the harrowing moments when the characters are on the outside of the train, which can reach speeds of over 200 mph.  There are moments though when CGI does have to be used, and thankfully they are at the points where the movie intentionally goes cartoonish.  It’s at the points where the characters must do battle in close up combat that you see the work put into the choreography of the scene.  And, like Leitch’s other films, they try to use as much of as they can with the name actors.  It helps that when the movie does try to freshen things up with the action sequences, they use the train itself and different parts of it to make each scene unique.  Another good example of this is when Brad Pitt and Brian Tyree Henry get involved in a fight in the train’s Quiet Car.  At that point, the fight is about hurting the other opponent without you or them making a sound, and this helps to make it a humorous while also brutal action sequence.  The diversity of the fight scenes help to make the 2 hour runtime not feel burdensome, because apart from them, the story itself is fairly flimsy.  It’s mainly about following each scene up with what had happened before, and not much else.  There aren’t any deep character evolving scenes, though characterizations do remain strong.  The plot is essentially just there to stitch it altogether in the end.

One thing that is impressive about this movie is the pretty solid cast that’s been brought together.  The movie is especially serviced well by a very funny and charming lead performance by Brad Pitt.  What I especially like about Pitt’s performance in this movie as Ladybug is that he creates a character who’s not exactly great at his job.  A John Wick this character ain’t, but that’s not to say that he doesn’t prove himself to be heroic by the end.  I like the fact that Ladybug is just a lower level assassin caught up in something that is far outside his level of expertise, and that part of his finding his way out of a predicament is just a result of dumb luck.  Pitt brings a nice folksy relatability to the character, and he is delightfully oblivious to the heavy drama that the other characters bring into the story.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry also bring a lot of extra humor to the movie, as well as some surprisingly sincere dramatic moments.  Their characters, Tangerine and Lemon are comically referred to as “The Twins,” despite the glaring differences in skin color and physique.  Their working class London East-ender accents are also a fun aspect of their personalities.  I also found the performance of Hiroyuki Sanada as the Elder to be very effective, especially given that he’s the only character in the story that brings about some dramatic gravitas.  He’s also pretty remarkable with a sword in the movie.  The film’s one weak spot in the cast sadly is Michael Shannon as the villainous White Death.  Shannon is great actor, and he does leave an impression in this movie, but the character shows up very late in the movie and has such little time to define his presence, perhaps robbing the character a bit of his menace during the closing of parts of this movie.  I also should give a special note of praise to Sandra Bullock for her mostly vocal performance here.  I like how her line reading perfectly balances off of Brad Pitt’s in-over-his-head novice.  In some ways she plays it as part high stakes supervisor par psychiatrists, helping Pitt’s Ladybug work through his insecurities during the job.

One of the most important characters in the movie though just happens to be the train itself.  The majority of the film takes place aboard this one train, and the movie does a great job of helping situate the viewer into understanding the geography of this one train.  Each car features it’s own defining features, which in turn give character to the different action set pieces that happen within them.  There’s the aforementioned Quiet Car, the dining car, the bar car, as well as one car that is meant for kids complete with it’s own mascot character walking around.  The plot of the movie involves the characters moving back and forth across the trains cars, often either bumping into one another or chasing each other down.  The movie does a good job of allowing each new location to be defined before letting the characters start wrecking havoc inside them.  There’s some especially wild moments that involve the mascot character getting in the way.  Even while the movie does take place in a singular location, the film crew did a fantastic job with making the viewer feel like they are aboard that same train.  cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who’s worked with David Leitch on all of his past movies, paints every scene in these vibrant colors, befitting the neon glow of modern day Japan.  It’s probably safe to say that not one scene in this movie was filmed on a real train in the vicinity of cities like Tokyo and Kyoto.  Instead, it was all film in front of blue screens in stages across Hollywood.  The fact that we the viewers still are able to imagine the train as being real and the environment outside the windows shows just how well the production and post-production teams were able to bring this setting to life.  If you’re going to name your movie after the setting where the majority of the story takes place, the filmmakers better make sure that it looks great on screen, and that indeed seems to be the case here.

It’s overall not David Leitch’s strongest work, but still, there is a lot of entertainment value to be had.  It’s one of those turn your brain off movies where you just go along for the ride.  The characters are fairly simple, but at times the actors bring out some surprising depth to the roles they are playing.  Brad Pitt is especially enjoyable in this movie, with a character exhausted from all the bad fortune that has fallen his way and yet still manages to find a way out of a predicament.  I imagine that for most involved here, the movie is just a fun bit of exercise, allowing them to make something crowd-pleasing without overextending itself in order to be profound.  It’s pure popcorn cinema, and indeed a good example of this movie being done right.  Given how so many action movies end up feeling like copycats of something else, it’s just pleasing to see a movie that wears it’s uniqueness proudly.  The script can get a little overly indulgent, but Leitch’s direction is solid and inventive.  It will be interesting to see if his career continues to centered around making movies on this scale with an original idea or gimmick around them.  Is he going to continue on as a director for hire for most of his time  in Hollywood, sticking mostly to movies guaranteed to have positive box office.  Perhaps making those corporate financed movies every now and then is what helps to finance the riskier movies that he wants to make more of.    Hopefully, the personal movies that he wants to put out into the world are worth it.  Bullet Train, like I stated before, offers up the bare minimum that summer blockbusters require but at the same time has a bit more interesting quirks to it that help to make it unique and much less of a copycat of other hit action movies  Hop aboard this train, preferably on a nice big screen, and just check your cynicism at the door and indulge yourself in a slight but still satisfying summertime action flick.

Rating: 7.5/10

Top Ten Movie Theaters Around Hollywood

Today we are all used to going to the movie theaters at any numerous multiplex location in our area; most likely attached to malls or any other retail/dining complex destination.  But, this wasn’t always how movies were presented to the public.  Once upon a time, movies were distributed to locations across the country that operated out of single screen venues.  Often these movie theaters of the past were old town halls or music venues that were converted into movie theaters once the artform began to mature into the cultural institution that it is today.  The number of screens depended on the size of the community, but the venues themselves were big and spacious, dwarfing the amount of seating per screen at most movie theaters today.  During the height of the studio system, new movie theaters began to spring up alongside these converted old music halls, and it created a flourishing of what became known as the Movie Palace.  Not only did these movie theaters flourish during this time, but the owners put a great amount of investment into making them opulent and works of art on their own.  But, the Paramount decision that broke up the studio system in the 1950’s also disrupted the revenue stream that kept many of these palaces alive.  Over time, it just wasn’t economically sound to continue rolling out movies slowly to these single screen venues.  Soon, the multiplex became the preferred theatrical model for Hollywood, and the movies palaces slowly died out across the country, many being demolished or returning back to their previous status as a concert venue.  Still, there are many movie palaces of the glory days of Hollywood that have managed to survive, either through community support, heritage protection status, or generous funding from wealthy investors.  You can find many of these movie palaces sprinkled throughout the country, but perhaps the biggest concentration of them anywhere can be found right in the heart of Hollywood itself.

Hollywood is more than just the center of the movie industry.  It is a destination of it’s own, drawing in visitors from around the world.  The heart of tourism in Hollywood is naturally the street that gave the industry it’s namesake; Hollywood Boulevard.  There you’ll find the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as famous haunts of the Hollywood Elite like Crossroads of the World, The Roosevelt Hotel, and Musso & Frank’s Bar and Grill.  But of course the biggest draw in Hollywood is the collection of iconic movie theaters that line up along Hollywood Blvd, as well as on the side streets of Vine, Highland, and Sunset.  There were many more theaters that used to line these streets of the past, but the survivors that still operate today continue to be a big draw and are among the most famous movie theaters in the world.  These movie theaters also are where the biggest film premieres take place, with A-list talent riding up Hollywood Blvd. in their limos quite frequently throughout the year.  No wonder the Dolby Theater, home of the Academy Awards, was built in this same neighborhood.  But, Hollywood Blvd. is not the only place around Hollywood that has managed to retain their own legendary movie palaces.  There are other great one of a kind movie theater experiences found across Los Angeles connected to the Golden Age of Hollywood, and are still very popular among the local Angelino community.  What follows is my list of the top 10 theater experiences in the Greater Hollywood area.  I have seen at least one movie in all of these theaters, so I’m basing my choices on personal insight.  For a theater to make it on my list, it has to be a singular unique venue.  It can be part of a theater chain and have an adjoining smaller screen connected to it, but the theater must be currently operational or in the process of being renovated for film screening purposes, solely used for movie screenings, and independent of other theaters of it’s kind.  So no legendary closed theaters of the past like the Carthay Circle or the Pacific, or a converted venue like the Pantages or Avalon Theaters, which have long since been used for performances instead of film.  So, let’s take a look at the best movie theaters around the heart of Hollywood.

10.

THE NUART THEATER

Location: West Lost Angeles, Santa Monica, Blvd.

The Nuart Theater may be the most outlying theater in the vicinity of Hollywood within the Los Angeles city limits.  It’s far out near Santa Monica in the Sawtelle neighborhood, literally right next to the 405 freeway that crosses by it.  One would say that it’s as far away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood as you can get for an independent movie house in LA.  So, what makes it so special.  Over time, the Nuart has used it’s outsider status to become a haven for Avant Garde and revolutionary cinema.  The movie theater started out like any other movie palace of the past, opening in 1929 on the Santa Monica Blvd. stretch that marked the final leg to the ocean of the historic Route 66.  Naturally, being on the thoroughfare that many beach goers were taking to reach those famous coastal waves, the Nuart attracted a younger crowd, and likewise their line-up of movies catered to their cinematic tastes.  In the counterculture 60’s and 70’s, the Nuart played host to many experimental films that were emerging from some of the industry’s most renegade filmmakers.  Filmmakers like John Waters, David Lynch, and many other indie darlings were instrumental fixtures here during their rise as filmmakers.  The theater has changed hands numerous times, but despite the change of management, it has still retained it’s art house cred within the community and in Hollywood in general.  It’s probably best known today for it’s late night screenings, including it’s long tradition of the interactive screenings of the cult hit The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).  Renovated extensively in 2006, the Nuart still retains it’s independent spirit while still keeping up with the most advanced technology, helping to give viewers the best possible experience with movies that fall outside of the Hollywood norm.

9.

THE LUMIERE MUSIC HALL

Location: Beverly Hills, Wilshire Blvd.

The Music Hall has certainly one of the most storied histories among the local theaters in Hollywood.  As the name suggests, it wasn’t always a movie theater.  It operated as a venue for live entertainment and studio for radio and television since it’s opening in 1936 and up to 1956, when it made it’s conversion to  movies.  Like the Nuart, it specialized in art house cinema, becoming an especially popular place for foreign imports.  It operated for over 40 years under the local Laemmle chain, until the lease was up in 2019, and the landlord began exploring other options for the building that the theater is attached to.  Laemmle decided not to extend their lease and it looked like the longtime Beverly Hills fixture was going to close for good.  However, a trio of Laemmle theater veterans decided to form their own management company to pick up the lease in order to keep the theater open independently.  This new team of Luis Orellana, Lauren Brown and Peter Ambrosio were given a one year lease plus a renewal option to reestablish the theater and show that it could operate on it’s own.  For a while, it looked like the Music Hall was saved.  Then, only 5 months after the lease was set, the Covid-19 pandemic shut down movie theaters across the country.   This was a devastating blow to the new managements plans.  They were able to generate some revenue from movie streaming on their website as well as opening up their lobby to concession and merchandise sales, but these were paltry compared to the money lost from no ticket sales.  Thankfully, the lease was given an extension and the theater did re-open in March of 2021.  It continues to run art house movies on it’s three screens.  The theater’s main theater, the 200 seat Auditorium 3 is the best preserved part of the theater that represents how it appeared in it’s early days.  Though a small operation, it’s nevertheless an important fixture in the historical footprint of cinema in the Los Angeles area, and with it’s dedicated management team, it’s one that is dedicated to preserving the theatrical experience for years to come.

8.

THE BRUIN THEATER

Location: Westwood Village, Broxton Ave.

If you’ve seen a movie theater appear in a Hollywood set movie, chances are it was this one.  The Bruin Theater definitely has movie star looks to it, with it’s striking art deco façade.  But, it’s actually not anywhere near Hollywood itself, instead being situated far off in Westwood, near the UCLA campus, taking it’s namesake from the university’s mascot.  It’s been a fixture of Westwood since it’s opening in 1937 and is seated on the corner of Broxton and Weyburn Avenues, right across the street from it’s larger sister theater, the Fox Westwood Village Theater.  The Bruin has a single level cascade style auditorium with a large screen capable of running everything from 35 to 70 mm.  It’s a popular venue for movie premieres in the area, especially from the nearby 20th Century studio lot.  But, what is interesting is that the Bruin has often appeared frequently in movies itself.  Filmmakers such as John Frankenheimer, Robert Redford, and Paul Schrader have all used the Bruin as a location in their film.  Most recently, Quentin Tarantino featured the Bruin in his period film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), with Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate stopping by it to watch a movie that she herself starred in.  Today, it still runs blockbuster films and is a favorite for the local student population from UCLA.  Having been operated by Regency Theaters since 2010, the theater still maintains it’s art deco style and looks pretty much the same as it did when it first opened.  It’s most defining feature is the blue and gold neon marquee out front, reflective of the universities school colors, as well as a shining example of mid century design that invokes the golden age of Hollywood.  The spherical marquee alone makes this one of the most picturesque landmarks in the area, but the theater that is housed inside it, which still maintains it’s own art deco style, is also something that should not be missed.

7.

THE NEW BEVERLY CINEMA

Location: Fairfax, Beverly Blvd.

Speaking of Quentin Tarantino, we can’t talk about local Hollywood theaters without mentioning the one that the famed director owns an operates himself.  The building that it is housed in dates back to 1929, but it wasn’t used as a theater until the 1950’s.  Being a little out of the way from the heart of Hollywood, the Beverly Cinema specialized more on independent cinema, namely cheap grindhouse movies.  Hence why this particular theater was so special to local aspiring filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.  The theater over time ran into financial hard times during the 1980’s, resorting at one point to being a porno theater.  As Tarantino began to gain clout in the movie industry, he sought to help out the struggling theater and spent much of his money helping to subsidize it.  After the owner of the theater passed away, Tarantino jumped in and saved the theater from closing, purchasing it outright in 2007.  The New Beverly Cinema as it has since been called now presents a series of screenings curated by the director with one key requirement; that it must be screened with real film.  As Tarantino has said in his mission statement for the Beverly: “As long as I’m alive, and as long as I’m rich, the New Beverly will be there, showing double features in 35mm.”  And that’s exactly what has happened.  The theater has been renovated from it’s once duplex layout to a full single auditorium, and has become a favorite venue for film stock purists like Mr. Tarantino.  The theater even holds special event screenings, with live discussions with filmmakers, including Tarantino and his closest friends.  It’s a specialized venue where one is able to see classic films screened in the traditional style, but every now and then visitors may been even treated to a special showing of a first run movie, as long as it’s shown on film.  It’s certainly a living tribute to the dedication of one prominent film fan who not only wants to preserve the experience of watching a movie, but to also maintain the uniqueness of the places in which the movies are seen.

6.

THE VISTA THEATER

Location: East Hollywood, Sunset Drive

On the far eastern edge of Hollywood is this single screen gem that has been a fixture of the nearby Los Feliz community.  It’s outsider status among the movie palaces in the Hollywood area has helped to keep it unique in character from the rest.  In particular, it has managed to remain a beautifully maintained time capsule of the movie palaces of early Hollywood.  Built from the ground up in 1923 solely for the presentation of movies, The Vista is a beautiful art deco infused venue with Egyptian inspired interiors.  The mix of old and new blends perfectly into a stunning palace for the movies.  Like the Bruin, the Vista has itself appeared in a number of movies, probably most famously playing the part of the movie theater in the prologue of Wes Craven’s Scream 2 (1997).  It went through it’s hard times in the 70’s and 80’s, at one time screening adult films for a while.  But, it was picked up by the Landmark Cinemas chain and was renovated heavily in the 1990’s, helping to bring the theater back to it’s old glory.  However, the Vista faced a huge crises when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.  It left the Landmark chain in significant trouble, and in 2021 when the rest of the theater market was finally beginning to re-open, the Vista remained closed.  The marquee out front still read the words “To Be Continued,” but that remained significantly in doubt as Landmark began downsizing after the blow of the pandemic.  It was soon revealed that Landmark was putting the theater on the market, which left many movie fans worried, especially if the property fell into the hands of a developer with no intent on preserving the theater, instead choosing to demolish it in favor of upscale retail or housing.  To everyone’s delight a buyer came forward with the intent of not only preserving the theater, but also bringing it back to it’s former glory.  And that buyer is of course, you guessed it, Mr. Quentin Tarantino.  Upon buying the property, Tarantino also started an extensive refurbishment of the whole theater, costing in the range of $6 million.  Unlike the New Beverly Cinema, which runs a curated program of classic movies, Tarantino still intends to have first run movies play at the Vista like they had before, although his prerequisite of film stock presentations will still be in place.  The theater is expected to finish it’s remodel in the next couple months and hopes to open to the public late 2022 or early 2023.  One hopes that under Tarantino’s management the Vista will have a bright future ahead of it.

5.

THE FOX WESTWOOD VILLAGE THEATER

Location: Westwood, Broxton Ave.

Located right across the street from the smaller Bruin, the Westwood Village theater dwarfs all others in the Hollywood area.  Seating nearly 1,500 people, it’s the single largest movie theater in Los Angeles by capacity.  With two levels of seating, audiences throughout the venue will have a perfect view of the enormous screen, capable of presenting film in the largest formats available, other than IMAX.  Apart from the size of the venue, it’s also noteworthy for it’s skyscraping tower above the marquee.  The 170 foot tower has been the centerpiece of the Westwood skyline since the theater first opened in 1931, and it looks pretty much the same as when it was first built.  Not only has it been an iconic structural feature, but it’s also contributed to the marquee presentations of several films that have played there, with the spacious façade of the tower’s front view displaying large promotional banners and posters over the years.  At night, the white tower stands out illuminated by spotlights, becoming an eye-catching sight for locals and tourists alike.  Inside, the art deco influence remains about the same from the early days of the theaters history.  In many ways, it’s the big brother equivalent of the nearby Bruin Theater.  Inside, they look very similar, but the Westwood Village is just grander in scale.  It’s an especially popular theater for the Hollywood elite.  Not only is it visited my many movie stars that live in the area, but it’s also a popular venue for movie premieres as well.  Some filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson have often cited the Westwood Village to be one of their favorite theaters in the world, which is pretty high praise.  Like the Bruin, it’s also a popular hangout of the local UCLA student body, and it’s often where many of them will catch the latest blockbuster film, with the Bruin usually the better option for smaller, independent films.  With it’s striking exterior and it’s immense scale, the Westwood Village certainly stands as the most striking example of the movie palace boom at it’s very peak, showing the presentation of film at it’s most epic scale, and setting the bar high for others like it.

4.

THE EGYPTIAN THEATER

Location: Hollywood, Hollywood Blvd.

Here is the granddaddy of them all.  The Grauman’s Egyptian is the single oldest movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard that is still standing.  Tucked away at the end of a courtyard in an alcove off of Hollywood Blvd, this venue is about to reach it’s century mark.  Opened in 1922, this Egyptian themed theater has been a landmark for Hollywood throughout the years.  In many ways, this was the theater that sparked the movie palace craze, with it’s attention to thematic architecture as a part of it’s appeal to audiences.  Not only was the theming apparent from the outside, with the concrete walls carved to look like the ancient ruins of an Egyptian temple, complete with hieroglyph paintings and statues of Egyptian pharaohs, but the interior featured columns modeled after those found in Egypt and an ornate sunburst ceiling fixture inspired by art found in ancient Egyptian tombs.  It was a magnificent architectural wonder for it’s time and a gem in the rising boom of movie palaces spreading across the heart of Hollywood.  While most of the theaters around the Egyptian went away over the years, the classic icon managed to stay afloat.  It remained a popular theater for many visiting Hollywood over the years.   But, hard times in the 80’s led to it’s closing in 1992.  Thankfully, it’s historical landmark status saved it from demolition and in 1996 American Cinematheque bought the theater with the provision of renovating it.  Controversially, the theater was gutted of many of it’s ornate fixtures, most of which had fallen under disrepair over the years due to neglect.  Thankfully, the forecourt was restored to it’s original glory.  American Cinematheque maintained the renovated theater for 20 years, using it as a special venue for classic film screenings and discussions.  But, in 2018, another interested party came in to purchase the theater for themselves; streaming giant Netflix.  The purchase was finalized in 2019, with Netflix still allowing American Cinematheque permission to program screenings at the theater in addition to their own events.  A renovation was planned as well, though it was delayed by a year due to the pandemic.  The Egyptian is still in the middle of that extensive overhaul, which will include restoring the interior back to it’s original ornate beauty, and the hope is to have it open by the end of the year in order to have it open for the 100th anniversary.  Let’s hope that Netflix gives the old theater the fresh update it deserves and continues to make it a must see landmark in the heart of Hollywood.

3.

THE EL CAPITAN THEATER

Location: Hollywood, Hollywood Blvd.

The El Capitan is another survivor of the decline of classic movie palaces across the country and in Los Angeles.  The venue was first opened in 1926, situated right across the street from where another icon would eventually emerge on Hollywood Boulevard, the Chinese Theater.  Unlike the other theaters in the area, the El Capitan doesn’t stick out like with an iconic façade.  It instead is tucked behind an office building, with it’s marquee entrance stretching out to the street.  From the outside, it’s kind of an unassuming and even ugly structure, but looks are deceiving.  On the inside you will find one of the most ornate and stunningly beautiful screening rooms in all of Hollywood.  The interior is a beautiful mix of art deco and gothic combining into a wall to wall ambiance that in some ways may even overshadow what you are seeing on the screen.  The theater has gone through many ups and downs over the years.  It closed briefly in the 1930’s due to the effects of the Depression, and then re-opened as the Hollywood Paramount, eventually ending up in the ownership of United Artists thereafter.  It’s final independent owners, Pacific Theaters, ended their ownership in 1989, and the El Capitan fell into disrepair while sitting empty.  Then, in 1991, the theater re-opened under a new owner, the Walt Disney Company, who restored both the name and the theater itself to it’s original glory.  It held it’s first premiere, The Rocketeer (1991) following the remodel and since then it has been Disney’s home for all of it’s world premieres, showcasing everything from their animated features to the latest Marvel and Star Wars films.  Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige even chose the El Capitan as the venue to showcase to an excited crowd the then future Phase 3 plans for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Whether you’re a Disney fan or not, the El Capitan is still a landmark theater well worth checking out.  Not only does it give you a beautiful look at the ornateness of old Hollywood movie palaces, but it even has maintained another fixture of old Hollywood that most other theaters have removed over the years; a classic theater pipe organ, which is still played by a trained organist before select shows.  Here you’ll have the best combination of the old and new Hollywood together; classic theater ambiance combined with Disney’s unparalleled theatricality and state-of-the-art presentations of the biggest new blockbusters.

2.

THE CINERAMA DOME

Location: Hollywood, Sunset Blvd.

A personal favorite of mine and for many Los Angeles locals, the Cinerama Dome is a venue unlike any other in the world.  The youngest theater on this list by quite a stretch, it opened in 1963 as a venue custom built to present the new widescreen film format known as Cinerama.  Cinerama was known for it’s immersive curved screen presentation, and what better way to spotlight that then to make the structure that the theater is housed in visually spherical itself.  Situated near the corner of Hollywood and Vine, a short distance from the heart of Hollywood, the Cinerama Dome is unique for being the largest concrete geodesic dome in the world.  The interior is a masterwork of mid-century design, with a sweeping curtain covering the length of the screen end of the auditorium and the whitewashed underside of the dome illuminated in the glow of golden light.  Behind the curtain is the largest screen of it’s kind, an 85 foot wide curved behemoth that brings epic grandeur to anything that screens on it.  It opened to the world with the premiere of Stanley Kramer’s epic comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and has since hosted everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), to Apocalypse Now (1979) to several Star Wars and Titanic (1997).  In 2002, property developer Decurion added onto the Cinerama dome by opening a large multiplex called the Arclight behind it.  The Arclight and Cinerama Dome combined became a favorite for movie fans across Los Angeles, often rated at the top of all the movie theaters in the city.  But, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, it brought an abrupt end to the Arclight as a Hollywood fixture.  The operators of the Arclight, Pacific Theaters, did not survive the lockdown and filed for bankruptcy in April of 2021.  Fans of the theater were devastated and were concerned for the future of the property.  The Dome itself is a protected landmark, but the Arclight structure behind it is not, and people were worried a new owner would end up gutting the property.  Thankfully, Decurion managed to maintain ownership of the Arclight property even after selling off all the other Pacific Theater assets, and moves are being made to re-open the theaters again soon as a re-christened Cinerama Hollywood.  One hopes that nothing other than the name will change, as the Arclight and the Cinerama Dome were the best in the business to begin with.  When it finally, hopefully, re-opens, it is an essential theatrical experience that cannot be missed.  Quite simply, this theater is the most unique theatrical experience of them all in Hollywood, and the place where the movies go to be the grandest they can be.

1.

THE TCL CHINESE THEATER

Location: Hollywood, Hollywood Blvd.

The crown jewel of Hollywood.  The Chinese Theater is not just the most famous movie theater in Hollywood, or Los Angeles, or the United States, but probably the world entire.  It’s striking façade is just as iconic as the Hollywood Sign or the Griffith Observatory as a landmark in the Los Angeles region.  Upon opening in 1927, it took the crown of the King of Hollywood Movie Palaces and has never relinquished the crown since in almost 100 years.  Founded by Sid Grauman, who also owned the Egyptian and El Capitan theaters for a time in the early days of Hollywood, the Chinese Theater is an integral part of the history of Hollywood.  This is especially true thanks to the tradition that still remains present in it’s courtyard.  It’s said that when silent movie actress Norma Talmadge accidently got her heeled shoe stuck in wet cement in the new theater’s courtyard in 1927, it inspired Sid Grauman to start a tradition of movie stars leaving hand and shoe prints in cement as a permanent tourist attraction to bring more people to the theater.  The tradition continues to this day, with footprints of all eras mixed in across the courtyard of the theater, from John Wayne to Judy Garland, to even Star War’s C-3PO.  Inside, the Chinese inspired décor continues, leading to a gargantuan, ornate auditorium.  The theater was extensively remodeled in 2013, sinking the seating floor several floors down in order to give the venue stadium style seating while still maintaining the ornate walls and ceiling of the original theater.  The deeper floor to ceiling depth also allowed the Chinese to be converted into an IMAX theater, with a taller screen size that’s capable of supporting the large format.  To this day, the Chinese Theater is the centerpiece of activity in Hollywood.  No other landmark is more visited or photographed.  Special events still are present there like movie premieres and also film festivals, like the Turner Classic Movies one that I attend every year.  Certainly, no trip to Hollywood is complete without at least seeing the Chinese Theater.  It is an icon in every way, and the pinnacle of the Hollywood movie palace experience.

There is no doubt that Hollywood is not just the heart of the movie industry, but also the best place to watch movies in a theatrical setting as well.  It is home to the best and most famous movie theaters in the world, and offers both locals and visitors the best chance of feeling connected more personally to the movies as well.  These are the theaters that the movie stars and filmmakers call home as well.  In the case of the New Beverly, Lumiere Music Hall and Vista Theaters, it is indeed the ambitious public display of dedicated fans of the cinematic experience that keep these places running.  I’m sure that there are plenty of movie palaces across the country that are as well preserved and well maintained and lovingly operated as those found in Hollywood.  But there is no place in the world where you’ll find so many of these theaters so closely concentrated in one place.  And I’m just spotlighting the ones in the vicinity of Hollywood, as there are plenty more scattered throughout the Southland, including in Downtown LA as well as communities like Santa Monica and Pasadena, each with their own storied histories.  I have certainly spotlighted the major landmarks like the Chinese and the Cinerama Dome, but I also wanted Nuart and the Vista to get their due respect as well, as they are also a crucial part of the movie theater centered history of Hollywood.  Living near Hollywood as I have for the last decade, I have been privileged to visit each of these unique venues, both small and large.  They really tell you a story of what made Hollywood what it is today, showing how a lot of work went into making the theaters themselves part of the presentation.  You just don’t get the same kind of feeling watching a movie in a standardized multiplex, though it’s still preferable to watching a movie on the couch at home.  I do watch most of my movies at a multiplex, which themselves are grand in scale here in Los Angeles, but for special occasions, I will make an effort to see a film at the El Capitan or the Chinese, and hopefully again someday soon at the Cinerama Dome.  If there is a unique movie palace in your area, or a small boutique arts cinema, please support them, because they don’t all have the historical protections that the ones here in Hollywood have.  One-of-a-kind cinemas are something worth protecting, and the glory of the ones found here in Hollywood are great examples of what makes movie theaters so special to all of us.

Nope – Review

The Hollywood career of Jordan Peele has been an interesting one in terms of it’s evolution.  The LA based comic first made a name for himself in sketch comedy, appearing first on the late night show Mad TV and then later moving over to Comedy Central with the critically acclaimed show Key & Peele, alongside his fellow Mad TV alum Keegan-Michael Key.  Launching off the success of Key & Peele, Jordan began to look towards the big screen as his new frontier.  He co-wrote and produced the comedy Keanu (2016), which co-starred him and Key, but what Jordan was really interested in was directing.  What’s more, he wanted to direct a film in a genre that was completely outside what he had built his brand around up to this point; a horror movie.  With an investment from Universal Pictures, as well as from famed horror movie production outfit Blumhouse, Peele got his shot the following year with what would be his directorial debut, Get Out (2017).  Peele’s genre-bending thriller was a phenomenon upon release, not only winning critical acclaim for it’s expert mix of horror genre conventions and sharp racial political satire, but also becoming a huge hit at the box office.  The movie even went on to become an awards season favorite, including multiple Oscar nominations with Best Picture being one of them.  The movie eventually lost out to The Shape of Water (2017) that year, but Peele did come away an Oscar winner for his Original Screenplay; a first for a black writer.  Not too bad for a first time director.  The only question afterwards was, what would he do for an encore.  For a movie director to hit it big right out of the gate on their first film, the pressure becomes much higher for whatever they may do next.  But, Jordan Peele was not ready to rest on his laurels yet.  He already had not one, but multiple projects lined up next.

Given his passion for the horror genre, it’s no surprise that many of his follow up projects would fall within that same pedigree.  He would help relaunch the Twilight Zone series for the CBS All Access streaming platform (later rebranded Paramount+) and he even participated as the show’s host, keeping in the tradition started by Rod Serling.  He also worked as the producer on Spike Lee’s award winning BlackKklansman (2018), as well as the writer/producer on the remake of Candyman (2021), directed by Nia DiCosta.  But, of course what most people were interested in was his follow-up directorial effort, which became known simply as Us (2019).  Us shared many similarities with Get Out, particularly in how it used social commentary to underline the horror moments on screen.  For some, it didn’t quite hit as hard as Get Out did, though everyone was in awe of the lead performance given by actress Lupita N’yongo.  What Us revealed about Jordan Peele as a director was that he was a definite original voice in the film industry that was really connecting very well with an audience, but at the same time, his was a voice that was still trying to refine itself and perhaps seeking a way to be more than just a one trick pony.  He is at a point in his career where his name alone is now a major selling point for a movie, and that can be both a blessing and a curse.  Take for instance M. Night Shayamalan, whose name was at one time a signifier of something fresh and bold in Hollywood, but eventually his desire for artistic integrity began to clash more with what fans expected of his work, and in the end he lost his lofty place as a marketable director and his name became more and more synonymous with low quality films.  Now on his third film, Jordan Peele is also grappling with the fact that there are heavy expectations with regards to the movies he makes.  With his new film Nope (2022) we are now seeing Jordan Peele establish where he himself would like to take the direction of his filmography, and the question remains if it’s something that offers the same kind of freshness as his previous work, or is it a step too far that may alienate some of his most dedicated fans.

The movie finds Jordan working in another genre that feels logically extended out from horror; that being Science Fiction.   Nope is set mostly on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where the city fades away into an arid, mountainous desert.  There is found the Haywood Ranch, where a family of horse trainers have made their homestead.  The Haywood’s are said to be descended from the jockey that appeared in the famous 1878 Muybridge Horse Photos, the first known example of motion pictures and a precursor to the craft of film that we know today.  Today, the Haywoods specifically train horses for movies, and their stable of steeds has been very popular for many years on several film sets.  But, the ranch has been facing hard times after the sudden death of the patriarch, Otis Haywood (Keith David) from a freak accident.  His two children, Otis Jr., or OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), and Emerald (Keke Palmer) have been trying to hustle their way towards more opportunities, but sadly their efforts have been for not and they’ve been forced to sell the livestock that has been a part of their family for generations.  One of the buyers of their horses has been an old friend of OJ’s, Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) who’s a former child sitcom actor who has since become the owner of a small Western themed tourist trap known as Jupiter’s Claim, which is situated right next to the Haywood Ranch.  One night as the Haywoods contemplate their future, OJ spots something unusual flying across the valley that their ranch is in.  Though not believing it at first, OJ and soon Emerald both realize that they are dealing with an alien form of life in the shape of a flying saucer.  They seek more help to capture the alien on film to prove their case, including an electronics store technician named Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and an old-school, low tech cinematographer from Hollywood named Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott).  And though their aim is to capture the being on film, the means to do it without risking their own lives proves to be tricky.  Eventually they begin to realize that on the Haywood Ranch, it’s either going to be them or the thing in the sky that remains by the end.

One thing that I think may happen with regards to this movie is that it’s going to polarize a lot of people.  Up to now, Jordan Peele’s movies have been pretty straight forward about what they are and what they are trying to say.  With Nope, Peele is not really making any grand statement and he leaves things a bit more ambiguous by the end.  For those that have become fans of his work because of his sharp witted satirical edge, they may walk away disappointed by this movie, because it’s not about any social issue really.  There may be some subtle themes about man’s relationship to nature and how we respond to spectacle, but in the end, this is more just Peele telling a straightforward alien encounter story.  And if you go into this movie with few expectations, and knowing very little about what it’s about, you might come away feeling differently.  I made an effort to go into this movie cold, not listening to any of the speculation and fan theories beforehand, and as a result, I like this movie quite a bit.  For me, I wanted to see Jordan Peele expand beyond what we already know he is capable of making and actually use his third film to showcase that he is more than just a socially conscious horror movie director.  Here we find Jordan taking a more Spielbergian turn, where the movie is less about the scares and more about the atmosphere and tension.  The movie in fact digs deep into old school Spielberg inspirations, like a mash-up of Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), with a little bit of Duel (1971) thrown in.  And much in the same way those movies worked, it’s a movie more about the experience than the destination.  We never really know what the alien is or where it came from, or why it’s choosing to haunt this specific ranch.  The mystique is very much the unknown element.  In Jaws, we never know why the shark is on a killing frenzy; the movie is about what the characters are going to do to overcome the beast and survive the day.  That’s the principle behind Nope too, and as a result, it makes the movie feel fresh in comparison to Peele’s other films.

The one drawback to Peele using tension to drive the momentum of the story is that it does make the movie lag at certain points.  It’s never to the extent that it spoils the movie, but there are moments where you definitely feel the 2 hour and 10 minute length.  I think this mainly comes from the fact that some moments feel like repeats of ones before, especially when the characters are trying to evade the alien.  Even still, Jordan Peele adds some things that really help to keep the scenes interesting and inventive.  There’s a really clever use of music halfway through the movie, and how playback speeds affect the mood in that scene.  Taking the Spielberg approach to strong effect, Peele wisely holds back in revealing what’s going on with the alien.  We only get a couple really good close-ups through the early part of the movie, with the scene really building up strong tension from the quick glimpses we see of the creature, not really knowing where it may come at us from next.  Without saying too much about what we eventually end up seeing, Peele wisely keeps us in the dark with regards to what kind of threat the alien is to our characters.  And even after we finally get our answers, it’s something that is not at all what we expect.  The movie is a departure for Peele, but it also does bear his mark quite clearly.  The movie does balance all the more intense moments with levity that harken back to his comedy days.  It also has a distinctively African-American perspective to it, from the cultural shout outs to black artists of the past as well as examining how race plays into the business of Hollywood.  Dynastic legacies of African-Americans in Hollywood is not something that is spotlighted often, and the fact that the Haywood family has only managed to be valued as horse trainers in the business despite a family connection to the very birth of cinema shows just how small their footprint has been, despite being so integral.  It’s the closest that the movie comes to a social statement, but at the same time it’s never brought to the forefront, as the collision between mankind and alien is ultimately what the movie is about.  That’s why I liked the movie as much as I did; because it left me contemplating the movie and it’s themes long after seeing it the first time.

One thing that I especially have to praise about this movie is the visuals.  This film is probably Jordan Peele’s biggest leap forward yet as a visual story-teller.  Despite taking place mostly in one location, the Haywood Ranch (plus some detours to the Jupiter’s Claim park and the now closed Fry’s Electronics store in Burbank), the movie has a very epic feel to it.  I think that one of the reasons this movie has a very grandiose feel to it is because it was shot by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who many know for his frequent work on the films of Christopher Nolan.  With movies like Dunkirk (2017) and Tenet (2020) on his resume, it’s natural that Hoytema’s preferred film stock of choice is 70mm IMAX, and that’s what they used on Nope.  To really appreciate the scope of this movie, it has to be experienced in IMAX, as this was the format that the movie was shot on.  Naturally, the moments that take the most advantage of the IMAX format are the ones involving the alien itself, and if you are able to see the movie on a true, full sized IMAX screen, you will be blown away by the magnitude of the experience.  But, even on a smaller screen, the film feels like a big step forward for Jordan Peele.  His other films really showed how he flexes as a writer and storyteller, but Nope shows us him flexing now as a film director.  He fills the screen with a lot of clever visual ideas, like the windsock figures that are littered across the landscape, but at the same time he never loses track of the story he’s telling.  The landscape itself is it’s own character, with the valley that the ranch sits in giving this feeling of entrapment on it’s own, for both the characters and the alien.  Hoytema does an especially good job of capturing the terrain from above and below, as well as the changing weather patterns.  This in it’s own right helps to bring more tension to the scene, because depending on whether it’s the day or nighttime, it plays into how much we see of the alien.  I also have to commend the visual effects team for crafting a representation of the alien that is definitely foreign, but at the same time feels organic and realistic.  When we see the alien in it’s true full form, it is one of the most striking visuals I’ve see in a movie in a long time.  Some might find it a bit too odd, but for me, it was very imaginative and made all the more impressive by the large format presentation.

One of the other great things about this movie is the cast.  Peele once again works with his Get Out leading man Daniel Kaluuya, himself a recent Oscar winner for Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), and they once again bring out the best in one another.  What is especially great in this movie is that Kaluuya is joined by Keke Palmer in the role of his sister, and their character dynamic is so perfectly portrayed in this film.  Kaluuya’s OJ is stoic and soft spoken while Palmer’s Emerald is bombastic and in-your-face, and their polar opposites friction throughout the movie helps to make them very engaging characters.  I especially like the different way they express themselves with regards to being in the thick of danger.  Kaluuya says so much with just a look and a simple under his breadth delivery of his lines.  He especially gets a good laugh in the movie by the way he says the titular phrase “nope” in response to seeing something scary.  Palmer’s Emerald has some hilarious lines throughout, often being the one who brings levity to the film.  The secondary characters also offer a surprising amount of character to the movie.  Steven Yeun doesn’t appear in the movie for long, but his character has a tragic backstory that really offers up an interesting perspective on his character and Yeun plays that inner turmoil perfectly, showing just how much showbiz has become a mask for his pain.   Brandon Perea and Michael Wincott also perfectly embody the types of characters they are playing, both feeling like they are being called for a higher purpose by seeking visual proof of alien life.  I especially like the aloofness of Wincott’s cinematographer, as he really is a perfect example of a Hollywood professional so deep into his own artistic senses that he’s in a different world than the rest of us.  Consistently throughout his movies, Jordan Peele has crafted strong character ensembles that contribute greatly to the stories that he’s telling; probably something that he learned to value from his sketch comedy days.  When you’re working in a very high concept genre piece like this one, it’s very dependent on the ability of the audience to care for the characters on screen, and Nope‘s colorful ensemble of personalities definitely helps to make the movie resonate with it’s audience.

I definitely see that this may be a movie that ultimately becomes polarizing for some.  I have always admired the way that Jordan Peele writes his movies, but Nope is the first time that I’ve been truly impressed with him as a director.  He has made an ambitious movie within his own unique style and has shown that he indeed can make a movie on a large scale.  Although the movie is still pretty small in budget compared to other summer fair, given it’s singular location and small cast, it has the feel of a grand blockbuster, and it makes me wonder what else Jordan is capable of behind the camera.  What would happen if he’s granted a budget on the scale of say a Marvel film.  He’s already demonstrated that he can use IMAX photography to impressive effect, so I think it’s not outside the realm of possibility that we may see something more epic from Jordan in the years ahead.  I also like the fact that he’s also trying to break out a bit from the formula he’s been building around his name since Get Out.  He doesn’t always need to be the horror movie guy that talks about racial politics in his films.  He can make any film he chooses and still leave his mark with his own distinctive voice.  He hasn’t turned his back on race and larger social issues; they’re still there if you look closely in Nope.  But what he clearly wanted to do in this movie was make a alien encounter movie unlike any we have seen before, and I believe he succeeded in that goal.  Sure, the movie is a little long in the tooth, but I was on the edge of my seat for most of the movie.  It is especially good if you know nothing going in.  Peele expertly lets the drama of these characters’ lives drive the story and then throws in the weird an unexpected to give it the freshness that it needs.  I also love the fact that it’s a love letter to the idea of capturing life on film, whether through motion or still photography.  If Peele argues for anything in this movie, it’s for the importance of physical media, which is valuable in a situation when digital equipment is rendered useless.  It’ s another movie that celebrates the process of filmmaking rather than the glamour that surrounds it, and that statement is no better said than by putting at the center of his movie two characters who train the horses that appear in the movies.  I strongly recommend seeing Nope, on the biggest screen if possible, because love or hate it for most of you, you can definitely say that it’s something thought provoking and new, and that is indeed what Jordan Peele sets out to do as a filmmaker, even if he likes to leave us with a good scare along the way.

Rating: 8.5/10

Collecting Criterion – The Last Emperor (1987)

The Criterion Collection has long held the the works of post-war Italian filmmakers in special regard, and the library as a whole includes a big block of titles just of the collective works of the great masters of Italian cinema alone.  One of the first great Italian filmmakers of the Italian neo-realist revolution in the post war era was Vittorio De Sica, whose masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (1948, Spine #374) is a prized addition to Criterion’s library.  There are also the movies of Roberto Rossellini, including a three movie collection he made with his wife Ingrid Bergman, as well as many films made by the most Italian of directors Federico Fellini, including La Dolce Vita (1960, #733), 8 1/2 (1963, #140), and Amarcord (1973, #4).  Later influential Italian filmmakers are also spotlighted in the Criterion Collection, including Luchino Visconti with films like his epic scale family drama The Leopard (1963, #235), as well as Pier Paolo Pasolini with his (to put it mildly) controversial film Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1976, #17).  Pasolini’s particular brand of controversial subject matter depicted in his films would go on to influence another Italian filmmaker named Bernardo Bertolucci.  Bertolucci would make a big splash on the Italian film scene with his 1970 film The Conformist, a hyper-stylized and politically charged movie that won him international acclaim.  He was often a controversial filmmaker too, pushing the boundaries of sexuality to their limit, and as discussed with the making of his film Last Tango in Paris (1972), perhaps crossing the line in terms of consent with his performers.  Despite his beginnings in Italian cinema, Bertolucci eventually branched out into the more global market, with most of his movies in the latter part of his career being in the English language.  He’s not particularly well represented in the Criterion Collection, with only two of his films in the library of titles.  One is his feature debut, La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper) (1962, #272), while the other is the film that probably marks the biggest success of his career, as well being the movie he is probably most well known for; the Best Picture Oscar-winning epic, The Last Emperor (1987, #422).

It’s interesting that for a filmmaker as identifiably Italian as Bernardo Bertolucci was, his most successful film had nothing to do with anything Italian at all.  The Last Emperor is a movie about the nation of China, and more specifically, it’s about the titular doomed monarch.  The movie tells the story of a controversial and yet at the the little known historical figure named Pu Yi.  Pu Yi became Emperor of China at the age of only three.  As he grew up in the Forbidden City during the early part of the 20th century, the nation of China itself went through a turbulent upheaval.  China became a republic after the decline of colonial influence in the region, but that alliance was soon broken by civil war, between the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong.  In the middle of the brutal infighting, Pu Yi was forced to flee the Forbidden City and live in exile.  Eventually, the Imperialist Japanese invaded mainland China and set up the Manchurian region as a puppet state called Manchukuo, tapping Pu Yi as it’s figure head leader.  Upon the Japanese defeat in World War II, Pu Yi was arrested and sent to prison in the now firmly Communist China.  He went through re-education, was released after finishing his reformation, and lived the rest of his life in obscurity.  This was an interesting unknown chapter of history that proved to be rather different for Bertolucci as a filmmaker.  He was now stranger to epics, having previously made the 5 hour family drama 1900 (1976), but The Last Emperor would be an even more monumental undertaking.  Bertolucci became the first Western filmmaker to ever be granted permission to make a narrative film in China, and even more historically, he was the first Western filmmaker ever granted to film in the Forbidden City.  Interior China, especially the Imperial City of Peking (later Beijing) had been closed off to much of the Western world, with European colonizers remaining mainly in the coastal cities of Hong Kong and Shanghai.  Post WWII China became further isolationist under the Maoist regime, with the Cultural Revolution turning China into a hermit nation.  Eventually, China did open up to the West and there began to be a cultural exchange taking place, with cinema becoming an important bridge between cultures.  Hence why The Last Emperor was such an eye-opening cinematic experience for people in the 1980’s, because it was our first really expansive look into this once forbidden nation.

The movie itself covers much of Pu Yi’s life through the prism of his reformation while in prison.  In 1950, 44 year old Pu Yi (John Lone) is transported to Fushun Prison in southern Manchuria.  There he is interrogated by the Camp Warden (Ying Ruocheng) and his fierce deputy interrogator (Ric Young).  Pu Yi is asked to write his life’s story in a journal for them to examine in comparison with his fellow conspirators.  Pu Yi first looks back at his childhood, being coronated at the age of three and now making his home in the opulent Forbidden City.  3 year old Pu Yi (Richard Vuu) is worshipped as a God by the thousands of eunuchs and maids who work within the City walls.  But, when he is 8 years old, the Emperor (Tijger Tsou) learns the hard truth, that his powers as Emperor is limited only to the city walls, because outside the walls, the nation of China has become a republic governed by a President.  He continues to grow up realizing he’s just a symbolic Emperor with no real power, shattering his sense of purpose in the world.  Worse yet, he is not allowed to leave the Forbidden City, increasingly feeling like a prisoner.  When he turns 15, Pu Yi (Wu Tao) meets an English tutor named Reginald Johnston (Peter O’Toole), who helps to give the isolated Emperor a more worldly education, as well as a bit of a nudge towards a modern perspective.  Upon adulthood, Pu Yi begins to seek reforms in the Forbidden City, which then spells the end of the thousands of years of Imperial rule within the Fordidden City.  Pu Yi, and his two consorts Wanrong (Joan Chen) and Wenxiu (Vivian Wu) leave the city never to return and escape the warring factions in China thanks to Johnston’s contacts at the British Embassy.  While in exile, he is influenced by his cousin Eastern Jewel (Maggie Han) to seek help from the Japanese, who have invaded Manchuria and are turning it into a puppet state.  The exiled Emperor takes up the offer from Japan, and becomes a monarch once again, but soon learns that he has no power at all, with his Japanese handler Masahiko Amakasu (Ryuichi Sakamoto) being the one truly calling the shots with orders from Tokyo.  Meanwhile, Wenxiu has walked out of her life as a consort, and Wanrong descends deeper into her opium addiction.  The allied forces eventually defeat Japan, and Pu Yi is captured by the Red Army.  He spends fifteen years in prison, only reconciling with his crimes after learning of the atrocities that were committed in his name without his knowing about them.  He is released reformed, and lives out the rest of his days as a lonely gardener, a now anonymous face in a nation that once revered him as a God King.

The story of The Last Emperor is a remarkable tragic tale of a fall from grace.  It’s fascinating watching the movie to see how quickly in one lifetime the nation of China changed it’s course in history.  Pu Yi was crowned emperor in the final days of a once mighty empire that remained a force in the Eastern world for thousands of years, and his life would see him witness to the rapid modernization of China to where it is now.  As we see in his early childhood, his way of life is a relic of a more medieval time in Chinese history, existing more as a performance piece in order for the players to continue profiting off of the wealth of generations before.  But as the outside world encroaches, Pu Yi defiantly refuses to believe that he is pawn in the politics of the modern world.  Ultimately that is the tragedy of his character, the delusion that he had any real power at all.  He was born within an illusion, and no matter what defiant motions he made, he would never actually be an emperor the way his ancestors were.  Instead, he becomes a witness to history, as he sees China change in the tumultuous wartime years.  It could be so easy for a character like Pu Yi to be portrayed in a passive, uninteresting way, but actor John Lone brings an impressive amount of weight to his performance as the doomed emperor, especially in the scenes at the prison when the character is broken down by his captors.  The same is also true of the three young actors that play Pu Yi in his formative years, as we see the naiveite of youthful passion become challenged over time.  I think that this is where the strength lies in the film.  Bertolucci and company managed to find near Shakespearean levels of complexity in this often forgotten and passive player in world politics of the 20th century.  He remained a powerless figure all his life, and yet his story is powerful one of a changing world with an a tragic fall from grace found in it’s center.  The way that Pu Yi desperately clings to his past glory is tragic and yet identifiable.  We ultimately sympathize with his plight, despite the fact that he was a cog in a very destructive war machine.  Still, we feel bad as the grandeur of his early life disappears and is replaced with hardship.  Even as Pu Yi’s influence disappears by the end of the film, and he becomes just another average citizen, the movie does leave us on a semi-triumphant note.  An elderly Pu Yi pays a ticket to visit the Forbidden City, becoming a tourist in the place he was once raised in.  And yet, he is the only person there who knows all the secrets, because he was truly the last one to sit on the throne of the Emperor.  And he proves this by showing a young child a special keepsake he hid under the throne’s seat, which turns out to be a jar with a cricket inside, a secret only the Last Emperor of China would have known.

Bernardo Bertolucci was granted the permission to make a the film by the Chinese communist party under special conditions, which obviously limited how much commentary he could make about the Chinese government.  Given that Bertolucci was a lifelong socialist, it was not hard for him to keep the politics of the movie within the line of the Chinese government’s demands, but the movie in essence is not one concerned with taking a side in politics.  It’s about the life of it’s subject, and how he was a witness to world history.  Before Bertolucci, documentary filmmakers from the West had been granted access to film within China’s borders, albeit under tight scrutiny.  But, The Last Emperor was a full blown, Hollywood backed film production that was granted unprecedented access to areas once declared off limits to outsiders before, and this was a definite coup for Bertolucci and his team.  They were the first Western film crew to ever shoot a movie in the Forbidden City itself, and with that they were able to give Western audience an authentic look within this mysterious fortress, from it’s grand courtyards to it’s opulent throne rooms to it’s intimate private gardens.  And, with the help of Bertolucci’s longtime cinematographer, Oscar winner Vittorio Storaro, they captured the grandeur of the Forbidden City with amazing visual splendor, including mind-boggling epic scale and a vibrant color palette.  The famous moment when young Pu Yi wonders into the courtyard and is greeted by over a thousand worshipping  servants is a prime example of how well Bertolucci’s visual style was a perfect match for this epic tale.  The same grandeur remains true throughout the movie as Pu Yi’s journey takes him deeper into the upheaval of history.  Bertolucci manages to fill the frame with amazing compositions and splashes of color, reminiscent of the way he filmed his earlier movies like The Conformist.  With the historic nature of the film’s production, as well as the pedigree of talent in front and behind the camera, it was wildly celebrated by critics upon release.  Because it was independently produced, it did not receive a wide release by a major studio; only being picked up later by Columbia for distribution.  Still, it managed to be seen by the right people, becoming the surprise big winner at the Academy Awards in 1988, sweeping all 9 categories it was nominated in, including Best Director for Bertolucci and Best Picture.  Since then, it has grown in esteem among cinephiles and casual viewers as a prime example of the thought provoking and artistic historical epic that Hollywood doesn’t really make anymore.

The Criterion Collection delighted many fans of The Last Emperor when they announced that it would be added to their library of titles, though it would also spark a bit of controversy once it was finally released.  The film went through an extensive digital restoration based on a high definition scan of the original camera negative.  Given the good quality of the source negative, it stands that Criterion fans would be excited for a release of the film with an almost immaculate picture in high definition.  However, there was a bit of disappointment that came when we actually saw the final product.  The restoration of the film was done under the supervision and approval of Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer, and at his behest, he had the film cropped to an aspect ratio of 2.00:1.  This was a shock to many of the film’s fans because the original film had a widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1.  The fact that Criterion was giving us a cropped version of the movie ratter than one reflective of it’s original framing seemed to be a betrayal of their original mission to preserve movies in the way they were originally meant to be seen.  Still, this was an order given by Storaro himself, who made the choice because he disliked how movies lost their picture quality in home video release on standard definition TVs, so he had the film’s framing changed to maintain the integrity of the picture.  Unfortunately, he seems to be in a mindset for a different time when widescreen, high definition television were not standardized across the market like they are now.  He made the same controversial choice as well for another film he shot, Apocalypse Now (1979) when it received it’s “Redux” re-release.  Apocalypse Now has since been re-released again, restoring the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but The Last Emperor still is only available in the cropped 2.00:1.  My hope is that with Criterion’s recent launch of 4K releases in their collection that they may hopefully revisit The Last Emperor and restore it back to it’s original aspect ratio, so that we can full appreciate the full breadth of Bertolucci’s epic canvas.  For what we do have on the DVD and Blu-Ray releases, the image is still fairly good, maintaining the vibrancy of Storaro’s remarkable color palette, which especially pops in high definition.  The movie’s stereo soundtrack also sounds great as well, especially in the remarkable exterior scenes within the Forbidden City.  It’s a strong presentation, but one that still feels compromised when one knows of the way the movie should truly look.

The Last Emperor was one of the first titles to receive a Blu-ray release under the Criterion banner.  While there was improvement in the image quality, the release at the same time streamlined the truly bountiful 4 disc DVD edition that the film had received earlier.  The 4 disc DVD set included not just the movie itself, but also the 3 1/2 hour long television version.  The longer version is the one that I was introduced to first when I bought the movie on VHS.  It was only when I purchased this Criterion version that I got to see the original cut that played in theaters, and while the longer version adds a lot of extra character moments (particularly for the supporting characters) it is almost identical to the theatrical version in terms of plot momentum, and most people wouldn’t know a difference.  The theatrical version (at 2 hours and 45 minutes) is perfectly streamlined and well paced, but the television version remarkably doesn’t sag at all either, both offering compelling experiences.  Unfortunately, the Blu-ray set only features the shorter theatrical cut, so if you can seek out the DVD set, it’s worth it to watch both versions of the movie.  All of the bonus features are thankfully carried over from DVD to Blu-ray.  One includes a compilation audio commentary, which features snippets from different people involved in the film’s making, including director Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, screenwriter Mark Peploe, and composer-actor Ryuichi Sakamoto.  There is also a collection of documentaries, including The Italian Traveler, Bernardo Bertolucci, which details the career path that led the director from his early days in Italian cinema all the way to filming in China; The Chinese Adventure of Bernardo Bertolucci, which gives an in depth look at the making of the film; as well as contemporary documentaries made by Criterion with interviews from various cast and crew.  There is also a video diary included from Bertolucci himself, showing is own hands on experience making the movie.  There is also included a BBC interview from 1989 with Bertolucci, a brand new interview with cultural historian Ian Buruma who gives historical context for the movie’s setting, and an interview with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne who co-wrote the film’s score with Chinese musician Cong Su and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also played the role of Masahiko in the movie.  I don’t normally talk about the booklet included in the sets, but the DVD one in particular has an essay that is especially worth a read.  It was written by actor Ying Ruocheng, who passed away in 2003, and he recounts his upbringing in China during the time period that’s depicted in the movie, and how he brought all that experience into his pivotal role as the Warden in The Last Emperor.  It’s an especially insightful read.  Overall, a very strong bounty of extra feature to compliment this monumental film.

The Last Emperor is one of those thoughtful epics that you just don’t see made that much anymore.  It is grandiose and yet intimate in it’s depiction of a world changing before our eyes.  The story of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China is a fascinating one, as we see a man who was born into Godhood only to end up spending his last days as an oridinary anonymous gardener.  That trajectory of his life is fascinating to unfold, and almost mythical in it’s own way like the tragedies of the Ancient Greeks.  Pu Yi in the grand scheme of things was nothing more than a pawn in the larger game of world politics, and yet his story reveals something monumental in the grand narrative of history.  His brief, powerless reign marked the end of a dynasty of rulers that shaped the course of human history, and contributed to the world things as long lasting as the Great Wall of China.  The Emperor was at one time to the Chinese people the closest thing to a God on Earth, and they would literally move mountains to serve them.  Pu Yi believed that he was owed that same kind of devotion, but as we see him tragically realize, he was a relic for a world that no longer existed.   As the world crashes down around him, he realizes that the need for power and validation is what has broken him down, and it’s through the guidance of the Warden that he eventually learns that being ordinary is where he ultimately finds peace.  It’s a captivating tale captured magnificently through Bertolucci’s visual splendor, and rightfully is celebrated as one of the greatest epics ever made.  It’s really interesting that the film that opened up the West to the remarkable wonders of China came from a very Italian voice.  But, it really is to Bernardo Bertolucci’s credit that he did not waste his opportunity to film within the mysterious Forbidden City itself, finally giving the Western world a window into it’s unimaginable scale and opulence.  Criterion has given the movie itself a deservingly grand presentation for home viewing, although my hope is that we’ll eventually get a proper restored widescreen restoration if Criterion ever puts out a 4K release in the future.  For now, the Criterion edition of The Last Emperor is the best we have available, and it’s well worth watching for an authentic, extravagant and epic scale look at the wonders of Imperial China.

Thor: Love and Thunder – Review

Out of all the many characters that have been given the spotlight by Marvel in their expansive Cinematic Universe, I think the one who has had the most interesting arc through the many movies spread across the last decade has been the God of Thunder, Thor.  You would expect every super hero film to have the standard Joseph Campbell hero’s journey blueprint, and for where Thor started as a character in his film series, that’s exactly the model that Marvel chose to follow.  The original Thor (2011) was your standard super hero origin story, which was more noteworthy for it’s operatic visuals courtesy of director Kenneth Branagh, than for it’s cookie cutter plot.  The same is true for the even more generic sequel, Thor: The Dark World (2013), which many consider to be the worst film in the whole MCU canon.  But, over the course of Thor’s appearances in these movies, as well as his presence in the Avengers films, Marvel discovered something about the character that they didn’t expect.  It turned out that Thor became a much more interesting character when you took him a little less seriously.  A large part of finding the essence of the character came from the actor playing the role, Chris Hemsworth, who proved to be surprisingly adept at comedy in addition to looking the part of a handsome, muscular god.  This was something that began to blossom in the later half of Marvel’s initial Cinematic Universe plans, with the third film in his solo franchise fully embracing it’s silly side without remorse.  Thor: Ragnarok (2017) was in many ways a re-launch point for the character of Thor, and his trajectory as a character has been greatly influenced by the events of that film.  His character development even hit a whole new level of poignancy with the two part arc of Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), where we found Thor broken and vulnerable emotionally for the first time.  It again took the character to unexpected places that has made him one of the most richly textured characters in the whole MCU.

Since Thor: Ragnarok,  the shepherd for the Thor side of the Marvel universe has been director and writer Taika Waititi.  Taika’s background in comedy has been a valuable asset for the series moving forward, because not only does his style bring out more of the lighter side of the character that audiences have increasingly been gravitating towards, but he also has been instrumental in making the Thor movies feel truer to their comic book origins.  Let’s face it, comic books are silly by nature and that has been the appeal of them ever since the early days.  The Thor comic books in particular have been where Marvel has put out their most mind-bending, psychedelic material, with their hero literally playing around in the realms of the Gods.  At the same time, Thor also has an Earthbound connection that helps him remain relatable to the audience.  His friendship with the fellow Avengers has shown that, as well as his often contentious relationship with his brother Loki (played in the movies by Tom Hiddleston).  But certainly the relationship that has mattered the most for him in the comics has been that with Jane Foster.  First introduced in the Thor comics in 1962, Foster has been the primary love interest for Marvel’s Thor, and the thing that has helped him transition most from celestial God to earthbound super hero.  She appeared in the first two Thor movies, played by Natalie Portman, and though her character was critical for the plots of those film, she surprisingly disappeared from the greater MCU story-line for quite some time.  This might have been because Natalie was uninterested in continuing on it the time consuming Marvel machine, or because Marvel’s new direction with the character of Thor didn’t have a clear place for Jane Foster to be involved in.  Regardless, Jane Foster has been absent from the MCU since Thor: The Dark World nearly 9 years ago, mentioned briefly in passing, or shown through stock footage in Avengers: Endgame.  But, despite creating a massive revamp of the Thor’s story-line, Taika Waititi did find a way to reintroduce the character of Jane in a way that fit well in his more irrelevant style.  And with the return of Thor’s love interest into his cinematic story-line, it’s fitting that that the movie itself is called Thor: Love and Thunder.

Following the events of Avengers; Endgame, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been traveling through the cosmos, having hitched a ride with The Guardians of the Galaxy.  Alongside the Guardians, as well as his close friend Korg (Taika Waititi), Thor has gotten himself back into shape and is again in top fighting form.  But, a distress call from his fellow Asgardian Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander) alerts him to a more dangerous threat in the cosmos.  A renegade assassin named Gorr, The God Butcher (Christian Bale) has been slaughtering Gods across the galaxy, empowered with a powerful weapon called the Necrosword.  Thor leaves the Guardians and returns to Earth, where the Asgardian people have set up a new colony called New Asgard, which itself has become a popular tourist attraction.  Upon his return, he finds New Asgard under attack by shadow monsters sent by Gorr.  He fights alongside his people, including the Asgardian king, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).  While in the thick of battle, Thor sees his old weapon, the mighty hammer Mjolnir, flying around.  The once shattered hammer has been re-forged and Thor believes that it has returned to him in his moment of need, but that is not the case.  Mjolnir is now being wielded by another fighter, known as the Mighty Thor to the New Asgardians.  Thor soon learns that Mighty Thor is actually Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), his ex-girlfriend who he hasn’t spoken to in years.  Unbeknownst to Thor, Jane had gained possession of Mjolnir after it called to her during her visit to New Asgard.  in addition, Jane also keeps secret the fact that before becoming the Mighty Thor, she was in the middle of battling stage 4 cancer, and while in god form she keeps the cancer at bay, once she’s not the hammer has accelerated her condition.  The Asgardians do manage to fight off the shadow monsters, but they soon realize an even more horrific reality, that Gorr has stolen their children away during all the chaos.  To bring the children back, Thor, Jane, Valkyrie, and Korg seek to find help from the other Gods.  They venture to Omnipotent City, the fortress of the Gods, to make their plea, including to the God of Lightning, Zeus (Russell Crowe).  But, are they too late as Gorr’s plans extend beyond just kidnapping children.

Going into this year, I was really looking forward to seeing Thor: Love and Thunder.  I’ve been especially high on the films that have featured Thor recently, especially the Avengers film, and I absolutely love what Chris Hemsworth has been doing with the character.  In addition, I have become increasingly a fan of the work of Taika Waititi.  His last film, Jojo Rabbit (2019), was my absolutely favorite film from that year, and it is quickly becoming one of my favorite movies in recent memory as well.  I was very eager to see what he would do as a follow-up, here returning to the director’s chair of another big Marvel project.  So, did Thor: Love and Thunder meet my lofty expectations.  On the whole, I would say that it did succeed at one major fundamental point; that it left me entertained.  But, meeting or exceeding my expectations, well that’s something that I would have to pick apart a bit later.  Fundamentally, Thor: Love and Thunder is a very entertaining romp, delivering the expected action beats that you would expect from a Marvel project, as well as the loony irreverant humor and charm of a Taika Waititi project.  But, it doesn’t go any further than that.  I did find myself laughing quite often, with Hemsworth especially delivering the goods as a comedic performer.  And the movie does have a lot of striking visuals, both showing off Taika’s creative eye as well as bringing to full life images made memorable on the page.  I do however see how this movie might be a letdown for some Marvel fans.  A lot of promise from the premise laid out in the marketing of this movie seems to be missing.  For one thing, with a character named Gorr, the God Butcher being present, there really isn’t a whole lot of butchering going on in this movie.  Greater universal implications are also kept to a minimum, as this movie does little to address the frustratingly vague Phase 4 plans that Marvel is undertaking in this post-Endgame era.  The way I see it, forget about where this movie rests in the grander scheme of things and just judge it by the singular story it’s supposed to be telling, which is one of reconnecting with the things that matter the most to you, like love.  In essence, it’s the closest that Marvel has gotten to creating a romantic comedy.

Though I do appreciate the entertainment value it gave me for it’s two hour runtime, I do recognize that it is a bit sloppy in it’s story telling.  It’s been reported that a lot of stuff was left on the cutting room floor, and this movie feels like it too.  It’s a far more scatter-shot plot than Thor: Ragnarok, which had it’s stakes very clearly defined.  One of the things that becomes frustrating is the way that the story doesn’t take the right amount of time to establish it’s important plot points.  We never see Jane Fosters transformation into the Mighty Thor.  The movie just cuts ahead and she is in full super hero mode at that point where she shows up again.  We do get a backstory montage to help fill in the gaps, which includes a little window into Thor and Jane’s years together, but I feel like the movie missed out on having a powerful moment on screen as Jane makes her first transition into Mighty Thor.  Some of the learning curve would’ve been appreciated too.  I understand that part of the pressure on Taika in telling this story was to keep the momentum going, and the movie seems to be shackled by the fact that it has to get from one place to another very quickly.  Fans of the Guardians of the Galaxy will be disappointed that their presence in the movie is pretty minimal; pretty much just limited to the first act.  But even still, better to have them there than to not have them.  Despite the film’s sloppy presentation, there is still a story with heart at it’s center.  One thing that still remains true is the character arc of Thor himself.  We do see how the years have helped to soften his character, and how this re-connection with Jane is meant to push him towards the next phase of his journey.  While the movie’s place in the greater MCU story-line doesn’t make much sense now, I have a feeling that it will carry much more weight after we’ve seen the full breadth of Thor’s part in it play out.  For one thing, resolving the dangling plot thread of what happened to Jane Foster in the years since we last saw her is definitely enough to help justify this movie existing.  And Taika certainly does know how to keep things from feeling boring or uninteresting, and at the same time, also knowing when to hold back on the the light-hearted stuff when the movie needs to have a bit more tension.

The performances throughout the movie are certainly the movie’s greatest asset, helping to smooth over some of the flaws inherent in the plot and the script.  Hemsworth of course continues to delight as Thor.  With over a decade as the character now on his resume, he effortlessly manages to find the right balance between goofy charm and manic strength.  You can also see the years of development of his character wonderfully represented in the way he shows his vulnerable side throughout the movie.  The return of Natalie Portman is also very welcome, and to her credit, even after a very long absence on screen, her role as Jane Foster never misses a beat.  The chemistry between her and Chris Hemsworth works even better now after the long absence, because they are both able to be a little looser within Taika Waititi’s direction.  Returning cast including Taika as Korg and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie are also still a lot of fun to watch here.  I especially like that they are far more direct now about Valkyrie’s sexual orientation, reflecting Thompson’s own real life queer identity, and having it be a natural part of who she is.  The film’s entire celebration of relationships of all types is especially great to see, and it fits very well within the theme of the story as a whole.  While the characters that we are all familiar with are served well by the movie, it’s the newly introduced ones that stand out even more.  One of the biggest coups for Marvel in some time was getting an actor of Christian Bale’s caliber to appear in this movie.  Sure, he’s no stranger to comic book movies (having played Batman), but he’s also an actor who picks his roles very carefully, and probably has had his fill with super heroes.  So, it’s quite surprising to see him cross over into the MCU and play the role of a villain.  While Gorr is a bit underwritten on the page, Bale does some amazing work as the character in his performance.  He is genuinely terrifying and unpredictable, and does some really interesting stuff even through the heavy make-up to deliver a truly original villain within the pantheon of Marvel heavies.  He also makes for a perfect counterpoint to Thor’s colorful personality, and their clashes in the movie are truly epic.  I should also spotlight the work of Russell Crowe as Zeus.  Though his time in the movie is brief, he makes the most of it with a delightfully hammy performance, complete with an over-the-top silly accent.  The characters, as well as the remarkable casting choices behind them, have always been Marvel’s greatest asset, and Thor: Love and Thunder proves once again that this remains true.

One other thing that Taika has excelled at with his adaptation of the Thor section of the Marvel universe is his incredible eye for visuals.  Taika particularly has a thing for 80’s pop culture, which is reflected in everything from the color scheme to the choices in needle drops within the score.  This was especially true in Thor: Ragnarok, where multiple still frames throughout that movie could make for an ideal metal rock album cover.  Love and Thunder takes things to a bit more earthbound level, but there are still nonetheless moments that pop with the same kind of flair found in Ragnarok.  One of the most striking visual moments in the movie is when Thor and his companions enter the Dark Realm where Gorr resides.  The Dark Realm is a place so bleak that even color disappears from it, which causes the scene to shift to an eerie black and white color scheme, with only small traces of color shining through.  This section of the movie has a starkness that you never see in any Marvel movie, and it is a definite stand out sequence.  There’s also some impressive visuals found in the Omnipotent City sequence as well.  I’m sure there is going to be a lot of cross-examining of that scene by die hard Marvel fans hoping to look for every possible Easter egg they can find in that sequence.  What I also like is that Taika gives the scene an impressive sense of scale, making it feel like you really are in the realm of Gods.  Even in the earthbound moments, there are also a lot of background details that many comic book fans will appreciate.  I like how New Asgard has become this busy tourist haven, and the people who live there have created a community that feels both old world and new world at the same time.  Though Ragnarok may have had more moments of grandeur and a lot more unique elements, especially with the Jack Kirby inspired world of Sakaar, Love and Thunder still gives you enough visual treats that feel at place within the Thor franchise.  The Thor movies have always been the ones that have embraced the weird and fantastic within the MCU, and it’s great to see that in this new chapter that they are still finding ways to bring the page to the screen in a spectacular way.

At this point in time, Marvel needs to be wary of super hero fatigue starting to set in with their movies.  Thor managed to successfully reinvent himself as his series progressed, but the longer the series goes, the more it can run out of fresh new things to show us.  Right now, there are grumblings among fans and critics that Marvel’s Phase 4 has been a bit aimless so far, and that the formula of quippy heroes facing the same end-of the-world threat levels in every movie is growing a little tiresome.  I myself have been a little more critical over the last year with regards to Marvel’s phase 4 films, knocking down Black Widow (2021) and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) a few points because of their adherence to formula.  Oddly enough, of the non-Spider-man Marvel movies that have launched so far in the MCU’s phase 4, the one I actually liked the most was the much maligned Eternals (2021), because it was the only one that broke from the formula.  Thor: Love and Thunder I feel is more in that same range, though I do recognize that it is a flawed movie in many ways.  The pacing is a bit of, as well as the tonal changes, and some of the characters are not used as well as they could have been, especially Gorr the God Butcher.  But, I was entertained from beginning to end.  Perhaps the movie is best viewed as a stand alone film rather than as a piece of a greater hole, because at that point it will fall far short of Marvel at it’s peak.  I still liked seeing these characters again, and the movie made me laugh out loud quite bit.  I think on repeat viewings I’ll like the movie even more, because I’ll be able to catch more of he subtler gags thrown in throughout the film.  Anyone hoping that Thor: Love and Thunder would clear up some of the confusion about where the MCU is heading may come away disappointed, as this is just a Thor movie and not much else.  For what it is, I still feel it’s worth recommending just for the entertainment value, as well as the truly stellar performance from Christian Bale as Gorr.  I think that in time we’ll see what this movie meant in the grand scheme of things within Marvel’s master plan.  But for now, it’s a charming piece of popcorn entertainment that will offer audiences a nice adventurous time with the mighty God of Thunder.

Rating: 8/10

The Legends of ’82 – How a Change in Hollywood Led to the Best Summer Movie Season in History

It’s been true throughout the history of Hollywood, and especially true in the era of the blockbusters; the Summer season is the best time for movies.  With many young audiences heading out of the classroom into their Summer vacations, the movie theater becomes not just a great place to socialize, but to also escape the sweltering summer heat.  This increase in audience traffic is why the movie industry save their most valuable products for the summer movie season.  Though in the past the long Memorial Day weekend was mostly seen as the ideal beginning of the Summer season for movies, with franchises like Star Wars historically staking a place in that 4-Day window, the beginning of the Summer now has moved even further forward to the beginning of May, with Marvel Studios historically claiming that post.  No matter where Summer begins or ends, the truth remains that these are the days that Hollywood values most during the year, because it’s where their movies will perform the best.  It’s where blockbuster franchises are born and prosper and where movie stars shine the brightest.  It’s also where the studios make their biggest efforts to push their finances into the black, which is especially crucial in this pandemic recovery era.  But, over time, some years have been more monumental than others.  The last truly blockbuster year was 2019, right before the pandemic busted up the theater industry, and it was led by the likes of Avengers: Endgame (2019), Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), John Wick Chapter 3 (2019) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) just to name a few.  But other years in the past like 2008, 2002, 1996, and 1994 were marked by Summer seasons that were defined by not one but two or more monumental box office successes.  It’s usually within the Summer season where we see the biggest impact a movie can have on shaping an industry, but one has to wonder what can be considered the best Summer season of all time in Hollywood.  There are many contenders, but one in particular stands out, and it’s representative of a movie industry at a crossroads in time.

1982 is a monumental year for many things.  For me it has significance, because it was the year that I was born.  But for the movie industry, it was a turning point year.  You could honestly say that it was the year where the 70’s truly ended and where the 80’s truly began, in a cultural sense.  The seventies was the Disco era, giving us cultural touchstones such as Saturday Night Fever (1977), as well as an era of political turmoil that broiled into harder edged movies like Taxi Driver (1976).  But, the seventies also gave us a little movie called Star Wars (1977), a fun romp of sci-fi adventure that would go on to have a great influence in the years that followed.  Catapulting off the success of Star Wars and another surprise hit from the 70’s called Jaws (1975), the era of the blockbuster was born, and continue to spread and prosper as the new decade began.  Movies from the same masterminds of those past hits, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, continued to make big profits for the studios, including The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  But, the nadir of the shifting balance with the culture at large didn’t quite hit it’s peak until 1982, when that Summer we saw a proliferation of movies that not only would define that year in particular, but really the entire decade that followed as well.  The movies of Summer 1982 not only defined the narratives that would be told across the rest of the 80’s, but it would also leave an impact on the aesthetic as well.  During the 70’s, the defining style of the era was gritty, cinema verite, pioneered by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese as they made movies that were grounded in reality and exploring the darker under-belly of society.  It was a style that worked well for a society that was going through an upheaval, but one that fell out of favor as society wanted to embrace something more colorful and dynamic.

One of the big reasons why the change between the cinematic styles of the 70’s and that of the 80’s occurred is because it was a time when power shifted back to the studios.  During the 70’s, it was the filmmakers who had the most clout in the industry.  They spent the better part of the decade pushing boundaries and challenging norms, which was celebrated by an anti-establishment, counter-culture audience.  It was the era of maverick filmmakers, who made the films their way without the studios interfering heavily in their work.  As long as these movies found an audience and were profitable, Hollywood executives would grant those filmmakers the freedom they desired.  And it was an arrangement that worked out well for the industry.  After reeling from a string of costly flops at the end of the 60’s, Hollywood was at a point where they would hand more power over to these cinematic renegades, because they were more attuned to where the audience was at that point.  But, even this era had it’s limits.  One of the things that led to the end of this maverick era of filmmaking was the increasing frequency of out-of-control productions that were bleeding the studios dry.  There were costly flops from once prominent filmmakers like, like William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977).  Some productions that still turned a profit were giving studios pause by virtue of just how chaotic and costly they were to shoot, such as what happened with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).  The final straw became Michael Cimino’s notorious Heaven’s Gate, a flop so costly it financially ruined a once powerful studio (United Artists), and from then on the studios reigned back control from the renegade filmmakers, and have never given it back.  Since then, it’s been the studios that have had the most power over what makes it into the theaters, and naturally what they favored the most were reliable bankable brands and movie stars to build their products around.  Thus, the era of the blockbuster was born, taking the lead from the likes of Star Wars and Jaws.  But, as we would see from the films of the monumental year of 1982, it was a mixture of both the big and small that would define the era of the 80’s.

So, what movies exactly made their mark in the Summer of 1982 that would lead to a change in Hollywood over the next decade.  It’s fitting to start with what was undeniably the biggest hit of the entire year.  Steven Spielberg had been one of the darlings of the latter part of the 1970’s.  His back to back hits of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) gave him the reputation of being Hollywood’s new Golden Boy.  He did experience one career hiccup however, when his big budget comedy 1941 (1979) failed to live up to expectations, but Spielberg’s good friend and colleague helped to pick him up again and offered him yet another career defining hit called Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Afterwards, Lucas was willing to allow Spielberg to helm yet another sure fire hit by offering him the chance to direct his next Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi (1983), but Steven had other plans.  He came across an interesting little script from a writer named Melissa Mathison, who was married to Indiana Jones himself Harrison Ford at the time, about a boy who befriends an alien from another world and helps him find his way home.  This charming coming of age story resonated with Spielberg, and he passed on the offer to direct a Star Wars in order to make it, which is no small thing.  Eventually, what resulted was the film E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), and it would not only be another success story for Mr. Spielberg, but a new high water mark that would keep him on top for many years to come.  The original box office gross for ET was record breaking at the time, shattering even the lofty numbers of Star Wars.  Audiences couldn’t get enough of the heart-warming story of the young child of divorce name Elliot (Henry Thomas) whose life is changed with this close encounter.  Everything about the movie hit it’s mark perfectly, with Spielberg’s earnest direction, the groundbreaking visual effects, and the rousing John Williams score.  It was also the blueprint for the movies that would follow in the next decade.  Hollywood would invest more heavily in movies that targeted select audiences, and would instead focus on movies that appealed to all.  Fantasy and Science Fiction would rule the box office throughout the 80’s due to their escapist fare, and the hard-hitting social commentaries of the decade before became more niche in Hollywood, as well as much less ambitious.  Judging by the time it was released, 1982 could’ve been viewed as the Summer of ET alone, but history has shown that there were many more movies that Summer that would leave an impact.

ET was the mega hit of the Summer ’82 season, but several other movies in that year came out that over time have gained followings that are on par with ET.  There were modest hits that came out that summer like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), which Trek fans will acknowledge as being the best film in the entire Star Trek series.  Animation icon Don Bluth took advantage of the post-Walt era vacuum at Disney and released his feature debut The Secret of NIMH (1982), helping to shake up the fledgling animation market with his surprise hit.  There were also surprisingly strong entries from the horror film genre that was starting to come into it’s own in 1982, with Summer hits like Poltergeist (1982), Friday the 13th 3D (1982), and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which many proclaim to be among the greatest films in the genre ever.  Another surprise hit was a medieval based action movie that helped to make a movie star out of an Austrian born body builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger called Conan the Barbarian (1982).  The Summer also saw a major hit with a movie that connected with the coming of age audience emerging in the early 80’s.  Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High established a kind of movie that would proliferate in the years that followed, which was the teenage sex comedy.  With it’s frank discussions teenage angst and sexual awakenings, not to mention a now infamous topless pool scene, Fast Times was a monumental film that would define a generation.  It was reflexive of the cultural shifts taking place in the 80’s, and it would also influence trends that extended for year after including tastes in music and fashion.  It also introduced something into the cultural vernacular that would be known as “Valley Speak” based on the pop lingo that originated on the other side of Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley.  The impact of Fast Times can be seen throughout the remainder of the decade, particularly in the films of John Hughes.  Despite not having the box office numbers that ET had, Fast Times at Ridgemont High demonstrated how even a more modest movie like it would end up putting 1982 on the cinematic map.

What is also interesting is how even the big flops of that Summer would go on to become highly influential films in the long run.  Probably the most noteworthy example is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).  Blade Runner famously did not perform well at the box office, losing it’s studio (Warner Brothers) a significant amount of money.  But, in the years since, Blade Runner has been widely praised as a monumental film within the Science Fiction genre.  It’s dystopian view of the distant future year of 2019 probably turned away audiences at the time looking for lighter fare, which they indeed got with ET, but like all great movies, it found it’s audience over time, and is regarded as a classic now.  Even through the 80’s, you can see the influence of Blade Runner manifesting in other films and shows.  One particularly unexpected place where it would make it’s impact first during the 80’s was in Japanese animation.  Katsushiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) very much carries a link back to the aesthetic of Blade Runner, and it’s also strongly felt in latter anime films like Ghost in the Shell (1995).  Though 1982 audiences weren’t quite ready to fill the cinemas for a movie like Blade Runner, it’s impact on the rest of cinema in the years after is undeniable, and it has certainly earned it’s rightful place in cinema history ever since.  To think, that you could have been able at one time to see both ET and Blade Runner in theaters around the same time is quite astounding.  Though not as cinematically significant as Blade Runner, there was another Science Fiction film that nevertheless made a cinematic impact even after failing at the box office.  Disney’s groundbreaking Tron (1982) was a big departure for the family friendly studio and was probably too out of the ordinary for most audiences to take, but what it introduced was a tool that would go on to change cinema forever.  It was the first studio film to ever feature computer generated environments, albeit very primitive compared to now.  Still, it was enough to inspire a new crop of filmmakers who were excited by the cinematic potential of computer animation.  Without Tron, we don’t get to Pixar Animation or the advances made by ILM and Weta Digital who would bring dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park (1993) or take us into the world of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Tron’s neon color scheme would even have a cultural influence on the aesthetic of the excessive 80’s.  With both Blade Runner and Tron, we see how even in it’s box office disappointments the year of 1982 would change the face of cinema forever.

Beyond the movies themselves, the year 1982 also marked a big shift in the theatrical business that likewise would be influential on the decades of the 80’s.  One other thing that marked the culture of the 1980’s was the rise of the shopping malls, which became the popular hangouts of teenagers in their afterschool socializing hours.  The malls were certainly a symbol of the laisse faire Reagan-era consumerism, but they were not just a place for retail alone.  Most malls across America were anchored by one major tenant that began a huge expansion in the 80’s; the cinema multiplex.  Major chains that sprung up in the years before like AMC, National Amusements, and United Artists, worked with new malls in development to build theaters within the mall that could screen multiple films all at once throughout the day.  These multiplexes replaced the outdated model of movie houses that were single screen, and were located mostly in downtown areas.  The multiplex brought cinema to the suburbs alongside the mall experience.  And as a result, the era of the blockbuster thrived as movies were now playing on as many as 1,000 screens at the same time across the country.  That number would only grow in the years ahead.  Sure, the cineplexes were smaller than the 1,000 seat movie houses, but the sheer quantity of locations enabled the box office numbers to make up the difference and even exceed what had been seen before.  1982 was the year where that difference began to be seen nationwide.  The revenue coming in from the multiplex market was amounting for the greatest volume of tickets sold, and it was reaching markets that had long been out of reach before due to the scarcity of venues.  Now Hollywood was making more money, and they were more keen to make more movies in order to reach more screens nationwide.  The universally beloved ET helped to make business good for both the cineplexes and the malls, as more audiences coming to the mall meant better business traffic for all other retailers, and that in turn led to more developers across the country adding theaters to their malls.  We honestly wouldn’t have had the same kind of volume of monumental hits in one summer season had the multiplex not come into it’s own during that year.  1982 became a benchmark year for it’s movies, but also because of the fact that it was the first true year that benefitted from this new era in theatrical distribution.

When you look back on the year of 1982, it’s the movies that came out during that Summer season that come to mind first.  Naturally, Hollywood still didn’t shake old habits through the rest of the year.  The Academy Awards still played it safe by giving Best Picture to an old-fashioned epic biopic, Gandhi (1982), but the fact that so many of the films of that year remain classics to this day is a real testament to the strength of the year as a whole in cinematic history.  We are now at the point when many of these movies are reaching their 40th anniversary, and it’s remarkable how so many still remain relevant all these years later.  E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is still an evergreen classic for all ages, never once feeling dated or quaint by today’s standards.  Time has honestly helped to make Blade Runner an even better movie today than it was when it first came out, and it’s esteem continues to grow each year.  Tron remains a touchstone for the advancement of visual effects, and it even managed to spawn a sequel, Tron Legacy (2010) a full 28 years later.  And Fast Times at Ridgemont High stands to this day as one of the movies that defined the 80’s culturally in more ways than one.  And though their cultural influences may not be as noteworthy, the fact that Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian, Poltergeist, The Thing, The Dark Crystal, The Secret of NIMH, An Officer and a Gentleman and Fitzcarrldo were all sharing space in the multiplexes during that Summer season is pretty astonishing.  The year also gave us the likes of Tootsie, First Blood, Diner, The Verdict, and Sophie’s Choice, so there’s even more to the story of 1982 beyond the Summer months.  What really marks 1982 as a monumental year overall is that it was the turning point in a changing Hollywood.  The renegade years of the 1970’s ended here in 1982, as a new phase of the industry began to take hold.  And with it, the cultural shift into the 1980’s began.  The changes in music, fashion, and the kinds of stories being told all sprang from the movies that were hitting the multiplexes springing up across the country, and 1982 was the year that marked the crossroads.  There were certainly movies before then that were pushing Hollywood in that direction, but the sheer quantity of them all landing in the same year is what made 1982 different.  Much like how 1939 was seen as the best year of cinema for the Golden Age, 1982 is in the same degree being widely seen as the greatest year of the Blockbuster Age, and the strength of the films films from that year that still remain classics is strong proof of it being true.  Hopefully, the are touchstone years like 1982 that are on the horizon for Hollywood as it once again finds itself in upheaval.  For this cinephile, I’ll always be prideful of the fact that I was born in the midst of what many consider to be the greatest Summer at the movies ever.

True Self – How Hollywood Has Evolved on it’s Portrayal of Transgender Issues

One of the great gifts of cinema is that it helps to give voice to people who ordinarily will have a hard time reaching the attention of a broad audience.  Hollywood has often valued the underdogs in society, because they are naturally the ones with the most interesting stories to tell.  This is especially true with movies based around characters that represent marginalized groups.  Like so many parts of society, mainstream Hollywood often takes it’s time to grow and evolve when it comes to embracing more progressive attitudes towards marginalized people, because it’s often looked at as non-commercial generally.  But, the art of cinema itself is powerful enough tool to change minds in a compelling way, and eventually, Hollywood and the rest of the film industry recognizes that it’s better to embrace social awareness rather than resist it.  That’s been true throughout the history of cinema, as the Civil Rights movement and Women’s Liberation of the mid century helped to shape the movies that were being made in the years that followed, allowing for more representation in front and behind the camera to flourish and help break down social barriers.  Soon, it became clear that having people of color headline a movie, as well as be involved in the filmmaking process, was not only good business, but also necessary as it meant tapping into a growing demographic that for the longest time had been ignored.  There is still progress to be made, but in looking back on the early days of Hollywood, it’s very clear that the direction towards diversity has been a beneficial one for the movie business overall.  In recent years, Hollywood has had to reckon with the need to improve their representation of the LGBTQ community.  Queer people of course have long been a part of the entertainment business, but more recently the stigma of being out as a performer or filmmaker has begun to shift in a more positive direction.  Again, the art of cinema has been instrumental in allowing people within the LGBTQ community to tell their own stories and bring about mainstream acceptance.  But, there are still plenty of areas where the industry should move towards allowing other marginalized voices to be heard.

One group that particularly needs the help of cinema to help push back against societal stigma is the transgender community.  Trans issues are, to put it lightly, becoming a hot button issue right now in America; stirred up as a wedge issue to drive up outrage in an election year.  The trans community has recently been marginalized in fields such as sports and in education, being condemned by hard right agitators as indoctrinating children and also being slanderously labeled as “groomers.”  The campaign against the trans community has even slipped into Hollywood, as any voice of support for trans rights has been condemned by a loud, vocal minority as being an agenda to destroy the fabric of society, which they are continuously fear-mongering about in an attempt to solidify their own dogmatic views on gender.  Anyone from the LGBTQ community, or any other marginalized group that has gone through their own struggles for representation, will recognize what is going on with the trans community right now.  How they are being scapegoated for society’s woes, and how they are being “othered” as a way of justifying their exclusion from certain rights.  It’s an unfortunate cycle that society has yet to break; the way we go out of our way to find something or someone to hate.  Because there has been progress made on gay rights in recent years, and bigotry towards gay and lesbian citizens is now no longer an accepted norm, people looking to hate have shifted their focus on the trans community specifically.  It’s an all too easy act to hate the things that we don’t understand, and for a lot of people, they can’t quite wrap their heads around what it means to be transgender.  That’s why in this crucial time, it is more important than ever that Hollywood recognizes that trans rights matter, and that it is crucial to allow their stories to be told to a mainstream audience.  Of course, because Hollywood is a business, it’s easier said than done, and over the course of time, Hollywood has struggled to really grasp the how trans issues should be depicted on the big screen.  They go where the audience is, and right now, audiences have a mixed view of what gender identity means in general.

Hollywood, in many ways, has been instrumental in reinforcing the gender norms that have permeated into our collective culture.  Look at the majority of movies made over the years, and the dominant narrative you’ll find is the hero’s journey, where a strong-willed man wins the heart of a fair maiden, and they live happily ever after.  It’s a tried-and-true formula, but in the end, it just perpetuates the gender norms that we as a society have adopted.  Men are strong and women are the fairer sex; and thanks to the movies, that how we believe that it has always been.  Of course, there has always been people who have existed across the gender spectrum.  They just haven’t been able to tell their stories.  The closest that Hollywood could ever get to portraying any representation of trans identity was through cross-dressing, and even here it was limited to comedy.  A man wearing a dress was only acceptable if was drag, and played for laughs.  The movie Some Like it Hot (1959) is a prime example of how Hollywood could get away with putting male stars in drag, while at the same time getting around censors with some stealth acknowledgement of a marginalized trans community.  The movie even closes with the now iconic line where Jack Lemmon’s character confesses to his smitten beau, played by Joe E. Brown, that he is indeed a man and not a woman, and the reply is “Well, nobody’s perfect.”  It’s a funny punchline, but with special extra meaning.  He knew that he was falling in love with a man in women’s clothing, and he doesn’t care.  Still, most other movies didn’t have the wit of Billy Wilder to sneak in a forward thinking line like that.  B-movie director Ed Wood, who was a closeted transvestite himself, attempted to create a compassionate portrayal of character experiencing gender dysphoria in his movie Glen or Glenda (1953) and he was laughed out of Hollywood as a result; though the movie has become a cult favorite to some.  There was no doubt that any positive portrayal of gender bending in Hollywood was very restrictive in the early days of cinema, and it wouldn’t get any better for a long time, even as Hollywood was making baby steps towards more inclusion elsewhere.

In addition to perpetuating gender norms throughout it’s history, Hollywood also marginalized trans people through very negative and unflattering depictions.  Take Hitchcock’s Psycho for instance, where it is revealed that the real murderer is Norman Bates, who has been cross-dressing as his deceased mother.  Despite it’s rightly regarded status as a cinematic masterpiece, Psycho also unfortunately carries with it the outdated view of trans people being predators intent on terrorizing the “normal” people out there.  If the movie were made today, who knows how a movie like Psycho would deal with the crossdressing element of it’s story, but it would likely be different.  Still trans identity on film went through the difficult trial of having to break free of Hollywood’s increasingly rigid depictions of gender identity.  If you wanted to see movies that took a more progressive view of gender fluidity, you either had to seek out international films from places like France or the Netherlands which had more Lasse faire attitudes towards sexuality and gender identity, or find independently made films in the U.S. that spoke for the trans community, like those of director John Waters.  Still, many films, even into the counter-cultural 60’s and 70’s, still explored the issue of trans rights with a sense of it falling within the outrageous.  If characters were exploring gender fluidity and dressing in drag, it was often as an act of defiance rather than being truthful to one’s identity.  You see this with movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), where the character of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (memorably played by Tim Curry) is the very definition of gender fluid and loving it.  The character is also there to shock, rather than inform the audience about trans identity.  Even as attitudes were beginning to change regarding the queer community, trans people were still seen as too abnormal for society to accept.  But, trans people did begin to speak out and demand some change from the way they were depicted in Hollywood movies.  Another classic horror film, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), received some backlash from the trans community over it’s depiction of the film’s cross-dressing villain, Jame Gumb (Ted Levine).  Director Jonathan Demme was thankfully receptive to the criticisms and sought to find a way to make it up to the LGBTQ community for his insensitive portrayal of a trans character in Lambs.  This led him towards choosing the queer-rights storyline of his AIDS drama Philadelphia (1993).

The interesting thing about how depictions of trans characters in movies has changed in the years since is that it still breaks down along the same accepted binary gender norms that are part of the mainstream culture.  In particular, it seems that it’s easier to find a positive story of a female to male transition story than to find one about male to female transitions.  Case in point, it wasn’t all that long ago when a story about a character in transition from female to male was celebrated enough to win an Oscar.  Hilary Swank, a straight cisgender actress, won the first of her Oscars for Best Actress in the role of Brandon Teena from the movie Boy’s Don’t Cry (1999).  The movie, based on a tragic true story, was a breakthrough for Hilary Swank and it was an important milestone in telling a story through the point of view of a trans character.  A year prior, the Best Picture award went to Shakespeare in Love (1998) which involved the female protagonist played by Gwyneth Paltrow having to dress as a man in order to perform in plays during the patriarchal “Golden Age” in England.  In the years after, there came an interesting mix for movies related to the issue of trans rights, but with casting choices that remain perplexing.  Take for instance, the movie Transamerica (2005), which had cisgender actress Felicity Huffman playing a trans woman.  So essentially, she is a woman playing someone born a man who transitioned into a woman.  One thing that you’ll notice about these casting choices is that not a single one is played by an actual trans performer.  Most of the noteworthy movie roles for a trans character have been filled with actors and actresses who are cisgender.  Thus far, the argument has been that there aren’t enough trans actors out there with the kind of clout and box office pull as there are cisgender actors who can fill the same kind of role.  I can understand the argument as a gay man myself.  I wouldn’t want to limit queer actors to just queer roles, because that is limiting to the talent of those actors and actresses who can play both gay and straight parts equally.  But, there is the strong argument that giving more opportunities to trans performers to play trans role is crucial to their crusade for visibility in our culture.

To the great credit of the trans community, they have made their voices heard.  There was an uproar when it was announced that actress Scarlett Johansson was going to be cast in the role of a trans man for a movie.  Johansson made the argument that she should be allowed to play any part she wants to, but this was an argument that seemed a little tone deaf, especially to a marginalized community desperate to have better opportunities in Hollywood.  She eventually bowed out and the movie ended up dying in development after losing it’s bankable star.  It’s the unfortunate thing about the business of Hollywood, that movies only get made if there is somebody with clout attached to it, and for a marginalized group like the trans community, they don’t quite have that someone yet who can get a movie into production without having to face any hurdles.  Still, more and more actors who do have that clout are putting their support behind trans actors and are trying to ensure their visibility in future projects.  Even cisgender actors who have won awards before for playing trans characters are changing their attitudes about who should be offered the roles first.  Eddie Redmayne went on the record that he feels ashamed now that he played the role of trans icon Lili Elbe in the movie The Danish Girl (2015), a part that he earned an Oscar nomination for.  Indeed, there seems to be a shift in the industry that cisgender actors are stepping away from trans roles in order to let transgender actors have their shot first.  If the movie is good enough, it can help a trans performer gain more notoriety and eventually there will be enough trans performers with clout who will be able to accurately fill those role of trans gender characters.  One thing that is helping is the encouraging support that up-and-coming as well as established actors who go through transition in the middle of their careers are receiving from the industry in general.  The Wachowski sisters, Lana and Lily, went through their transition and managed to maintain enough support in Hollywood to get another Matrix movie made.  Elliot Page’s transition has also been heralded by the industry, and his role on the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy was reworked to fit with his new identity.  As the industry itself begins to accept the idea that roles for trans characters can be filled with trans performers and still be a hit, it will do a lot of good to help elevate the voices of trans characters into the larger culture as a whole.

That, more than anything, is what is most important about giving trans performers and filmmakers more of an opportunity to tell their story on a larger stage.  The fight for equal rights has been difficult for people across the LGBTQ spectrum, but this moment in time has been particularly hard for the trans community.  With many states across the country actively passing legislation to restrict trans people from everything from sports to just basic healthcare needs, the urgency for elevated voices in the trans community is more crucial than ever.  Right now, there is an effort to silence any talk of trans rights in the United States, with trans people being slandered as “groomers” as well as those who consider themselves allies of the trans community.  Even film companies like Disney are being attacked after they voiced their support for trans and gay rights, after states like Florida (where Disney has a crucial business stake in) have moved to ban discussion of gay topics in schools as well as cut off access to healthcare for trans students.  There’s the mistaken belief that gay and trans people are indoctrinated into their identity by the culture at large, but that is an absolute falsehood.  People are born queer or with gender dysphoria just as much as they are born straight or cisgender, and it’s through the support of family as well as the culture they grow up to love that young people who feel different from others are able to better accept themselves for who they are.  That is why it is important for there to be affirming media to help young people who fall within the LGBTQ spectrum, because it allows them to understand that the way they feel does not make them a broken person.  For too long, these groups have been pressured into silence, and many LGBTQ people from past generations have been forced to live closeted live.  Suicide was always a big problem in the LGBTQ community, especially among trans people.  What made things change was seeing more and more positive and affirming portrayals in the media.  As people saw themselves reflected more in the movies and TV shows they watched, it greatly boosted their confidence to come out and be seen themselves.  This is what scares the people out there that want to legislate queer people out of existence; that their carefully cultivated and restrictive ideals of social norms will no longer apply, and that people will be harder to control through their idea of morality.  But the truth is society works much better when the people within it are not forced into being something they know in their heart that they are not.

There is certainly a long way to go in the fight to protect trans rights.    What is especially important is help protect the very young who experience gender dysphoria.  For them, it’s especially crucial that they see themselves portrayed positively on the big and small screen.  Hollywood still has some work to do in allowing trans voices to be heard, but with more performers such as Elliot Page and Laverne Cox becoming more visible in the movie industry, there is hope that their voices will become more mainstream in the culture.  Of course there will always be those out there who refuse to accept anything other than the rigid gender norms that they have seen perpetuated in society since they have been born.  The fact that there is just the slightest change in the culture on the aspect of gender identity is too much for them to handle, and the loudest among them are crying the loudest to push back.  But, what we should be doing is listening to people when they say they feel like they were born the wrong gender.  There are a lot of stories that could and should be told about the trans community.  And those stories can help many more people feel happy about who they are, and encourage them to live without shame.  Even though they were made without authentic trans voices, it’s still worth checking out movies like Boy’s Don’t Cry and Transamerica, and The Danish Girl.  They are movies that help tell a story about the trans experience and, more importantly, they humanize trans people in ways that can hopefully change people’s minds about the community as a whole.  One certainly hopes that the big Hollywood studios are genuine when they say that they will work to protect the rights of the trans community, both in their work place as well as with their audience.  It would certainly help if they acted more to give more roles to trans performers than they do now.  Progress has been made, but there is still work to be done.  Minds can be changed.  I have even found myself evolved on this issue, and I owe that to being able to see more informative media related to trans issues.  As we celebrate Pride this year, let’s all make an effort to hear the voices of those being actively silenced now like those in the trans community.  You’ll find that their stories are probably among the most interesting of all.

Lightyear – Review

Well, it’s been over two years, but Pixar is back on the big screen again.  As an effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Walt Disney company had to make the tough decision to either postpone most of their upcoming movies, risk putting them out in a diminished theatrical market to little box office returns, or take them directly to their streaming platform, Disney+.  Some movies were easily handed off to streaming, but there were some that were tougher to take away from the big screen.  The big tentpole features under the Disney umbrella were held off to wait for better conditions post-pandemic, like Black Widow (2021), Jungle Cruise (2021) and Raya and the Last Dragon (2021).  But, for whatever reason, Disney didn’t seem to want to wait with their roll out of movies from the Pixar Animation studio.  Long held as the vanguard of computer animation, Pixar has been one of the strongest performers in the Disney studios.  Unfortunately, they were also burdened with bad timing during the pandemic.  Their film Onward (2020) had a very brief theatrical run that was cut short by the pandemic lockdown, forcing Disney to cut their losses quickly and take the movie and bring it almost immediately to streaming.  Pixar also had another film scheduled a few months later, the Pete Doctor directed Soul (2020), and as the days rolled along into the midst of the pandemic, it became clear that theaters would not be open in time, or for many months after.  As a result, Soul became the first ever Pixar movie to not receive a theatrical release, instead making it’s debut on Christmas Day 2020.  One hoped that this would be a one off choice based on difficult circumstances, but Disney had other plans.  Despite Raya and the Last Dragon receiving a hybrid theatrical and streaming release in Spring 2021, it was decided that the next Pixar film planned for the Summer, Luca (2021) would also go straight to Disney+, even though most theaters by that point would be open.  After that, most Pixar fans hoped that the following year would be different, but no.  Even with movie theaters more or less back to normal business in 2022, Disney decided again to release the next in line Pixar film, Turning Red (2022) exclusively on Disney+.  And this led to some justifiable grumbling in the halls of Pixar Animation.

Thankfully, this run of streaming exclusives seems to have come to an end, and the next Pixar film, the Toy Story spinoff Lightyear (2022) is premiering first in theaters.  It would make sense that Disney would feel more confident in the theatrical performance of this film, given that it centers on a well known character like Buzz Lightyear.  What is interesting however is that this is not exactly the same Buzz Lightyear that we know from the Toy Story movies.  Those films featured Buzz Lightyear the toy.  Lightyear is about the man that the toy is based on.  And to differentiate the two a bit more, Pixar also cast a new actor in the iconic role; Chris Evans of Marvel’s Captain America fame.  This sparked it’s own bit of controversy, as many fans of the original Buzz Lightyear voice actor, Tim Allen, voiced their displeasure of him being replaced.  Some even conspiratorially said that Allen was “cancelled” by Disney for his political views, without showing any evidence of that being true.  This movie was in the works with  Chris Evans attached at the same time Tim Allen was voicing toy Buzz again in Toy Story 4 (2019), so they clearly were not pushing Tim Allen aside.  Allen is even returning for a Santa Clause spinoff series on Disney+ in the near future, so you can’t say that he’s been cancelled by Disney at all.  Pixar has made it clear, this is a very different version of Buzz Lightyear, and if you were to ask Tim Allen himself, I’m sure he would give his seal of approval to the casting of Chris Evans in the part.  Unfortunately, this isn’t the only thing that Lightyear has become a lightning rod for.  The inclusion of a supporting character in a same-sex relationship has also sparked up controversy, despite the fact that it’s an inconsequential factor in the story and is treated respectfully and appropriately for all ages.  Clearly, some people just want to complain about the whole inclusivity of it, as a means of erasure of queer people in the guise of “family values.”  I think it’s fair to say that those complaining the most about this movie are also judging something they haven’t seen, and are probably too afraid to confront the issue of queer inclusion in media as well.  It’s sad that something as innocent as a simple kiss unjustly warrants censorship in other.  But, thankfully, Lightyear is still getting the opportunity to be seen by a large audience on a big screen, which Pixar has not had the privilege of since the pandemic began.  The only question is, does Lightyear go to infinity and beyond, or does it fail to launch?

The movie introduces us to Captain Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) as he commands the travel of a space module, which he dubs the “Turnip” because of it’s shape, through it’s intergalactic journey.  After landing on a mysterious new planet, him and his crew discover that the planet has hostile lifeforms that put it in danger, and they try to make an escape.  Buzz makes a daring escape, but his recklessness also causes them to be stranded on another part of the planet.  Buzz feels like he let down the mission, but his fellow space ranger Captain Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) convinces him that he can help save the mission through helping them discover the right formula to create the fuel that allows for warp speed.  Buzz undertakes the test flight himself, and while he manages to achieve incredible speed, he falls short of warp drive.  Unfortunately, he learns that when he does the flight tests, the faster he goes he’ll experiences a phenomenon known as time dilation. As a result, what seems like a couple minutes to him will actually be 4-5 years for everyone else.  Still, he doggedly pursues his mission and conducts more test runs.  In a short amount of time for him, he sees Alisha get engaged, marry her wife, raise a family and grow old.  After he conducts yet another test run, he learns that Alisha has passed away from old age, and that her replacement, Commander Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who was raised on this planet, is putting a halt to the remainder of the mission.  Buzz, still determined to complete the mission, and with the help of his robotic cat companion, SOX (Pete Sohn) he finally finds the right formula and achieves warp speed.   Unfortunately, another significant chunk of time has passed, and he returns to the planet to find it under siege by a robot army, commanded by a hostile robot overlord named Zurg (James Brolin).  The colony has walled itself off behind a laser shield, and only a scant group of survivors outside remain.  Among them is Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Kek Palmer), as well two recruits named Morrison (Taika Waititi) and Darby (Dale Soules).  Together, they must find a way to bring the warp speed formula back home and stop the Zurg army from destroying the colony.  Of course, as Buzz soon learns, not all plans go the way the way they should, and sometime even he can be his own worst enemy.

There is a great thrill seeing that hopping lamp Pixar logo grace the big screen again, though I’ve been privileged enough to be in Los Angeles, which saw exclusive theatrical showings of Luca and Turning Red in one theater that I got to attend.  But, having this movie widely available is thankfully a return to form for Pixar Animation, and hopefully it will continue on in the future.  But, despite the welcome return, how does this movie compare with the other films from Pixar, which is a studio that has set a very high bar.  I will say that this is a movie that is better served if you hedge your expectations.  On the surface, it’s a very serviceable, well-made action based sci-fi adventure.  But the fact that this movie came from Pixar, which is supposed to be the home of movies that go, for lack of a better phrase “to infinity and beyond,” this movie may end up being a tad disappointing.  It doesn’t exactly push any boundaries, and is more or less just an exercise in seeing the different ways they can explore the Buzz Lightyear character.  At the same time, I can’t say that I disliked much about the movie either.  The only disappointing thing I can say about it is that it plays things very safe; which is ironic considering that it’s at the center of so many controversies.  For a studio that creates so many imaginative worlds in films like Inside Out (2015), Coco (2017), and Soul (2020) as well as deep emotional stories like Up (2009) and Wall-E (2008), Lightyear comes across as far more conventional than their average film.  I think that Pixar may have unfortunately set their bar a little high as well.  Before the movie begins, title cards appear stating that “in 1995, a little boy named Andy received a toy action figure based on the main character of his favorite movie,” followed by “This is that movie.”  Unless the movie rises to the standard of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings after making that statement, then you are clearly going to set yourself up for disappointment.  It becomes a little hard to swallow afterwards that this particular movie, as conventional as it is, left such a resounding impact on one child’s life, even if he is himself a fictional character.  This really comes down to a marketing mistake.  It seems like Disney and Pixar didn’t fully trust that the audience would catch onto the conceit that this is an entirely different character from the Buzz that we know and they added the disclaimer to make it clear.  Here’s an idea, don’t assume that your audience is dumb and can’t figure the difference out.  The movie might have been better served if it was allowed to define itself without having to re-establish a connection to Toy Story.

That being said, there are definitely things to like about the movie.  One of which is the character development that they do with Buzz himself.  I like the fact that they showed him to be a flawed individual, who has to grow and mature into the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command that we all know him to be.  It kind of parallels the character development that the Buzz in Toy Story went through, where he went through his own self discovery, accepting that he was a toy and that he needed to take his mind off the mission instilled in him to better function in his new reality.  The Buzz in Lightyear also has that same deluded sense of self worth that makes him  culpable in some catastrophic mistakes.  What we see is him being a hero to a fault.  His devotion to the mission causes him to become isolated, and he loses those close to him as a result.  The sequence of him experiencing time dilation, as he watches his best friend go through a full life while he’s stuck in his short amount of time (a moment that feels very similar to one found in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar) is particularly heartbreaking, and it’s especially poignant because it’s a punishment of Buzz’s own making.  Though you can feel some of the action sequences just going through the paces and having the film just spin it’s wheels, it’s others like the time dilation sequence that do carry a lot of poignancy that helps to elevate the movie beyond just the average animated film.  I also liked how this element of Buzz’s character development ties into his confrontation with the villainous Zurg, whose presence in this movie puts it’s own interesting spin on the established good vs. evil showdown between Buzz and his arch-nemesis.  In many ways, this movie explores the character of Buzz Lightyear in far more detail than you could ever do in the Toy Story movies.  Buzz’s development in those movies is more or less shaped by his contentious but ultimately mutually respectful relationship with Woody.  Without Woody present, as well as the existential realization of being a toy, what else is there to know about Buzz?  I like the fact that Pixar deconstructed the character in this film, showing that heroes are not born, but rather shaped by the choices that they make, and that sometimes the best course to becoming a better hero is to recognize your flaws and not be burdened by failure.

One of the best things about this movie is the casting of Chris Evans as Buzz.  All of you complaining about the absence of Tim Allen will be silenced almost immediately upon watching this, because Evans slips into the role effortlessly.  Like I said, this is very much a different Buzz, but Evans still brings the smooth mixture of gravitas and stoic humor that Allen has given to the character.  There’s a nice little running joke about the mission logs that Buzz records, despite being told that no one actually listens to them, which eventually just becomes Buzz’s way of thinking out loud during the course of his story.  Evans does a good job of channeling the boy scout wholesomeness that he utilized so well during his time as Captain America, but he also manages to capture the sillier side of Buzz Lightyear very well, especially when he tries to remain stoic in moments of absurdity.  There are plenty of other good performances from other members of the voice cast as well.  James Brolin brings a surprisingly menacing tone to his performance as Zurg, even if it’s not quite as terrifying as his son Josh’s villainous performance as Thanos in the Marvel movies.  Uzo Aduba and Keke Palmer are also quite good in their roles as two generations of the Hawthorne family that Buzz befriends over time.  You also get solid humorous performances from Taika Waititi and Dale Soules as their misfit recruit characters.  But, if there is a character that easily steals the show, it’s SOX, the robotic cat companion to Buzz.  Voiced by veteran Pixar director and animator Pete Sohn (The Good Dinosaur), SOX is far and away the funniest character.  The animation of the character itself is hilarious, with Sox behaving very much like a toy cat robot, but he also has some of the most dryly hilarious lines in the film.  It’s probably likely that he was a character that Disney wanted in the movie to sell toys, and I have no doubt that SOX will be a highly in demand character when tie-in merchandise hits the shelves.  But, Pixar makes him much more than a cynical cash-grab ploy, and he is a large part of the entertainment value of this movie.  All around, this is a strong collection of voice actors who really enrich the characters that they are playing, especially with Chris Evans who had some big shoes to fill.

The film also has a lot of strong visual to back up the story as a whole.  Of course it’s expected that a movie like Lightyear would be visually up to the high Pixar standard.  What really impressed me with this movie is just how good they are with the lighting of the scenes.  This movie has some of the best atmospheric lighting that I’ve ever seen in any animated film.  There’s some moments in Buzz’s apartment in the early morning where the lighting is so subtly subdued that you would think that it’s live action and not animation.  The movie also knows when to go wild with the color and lighting as well.  The sequence when Buzz finally achieves warp speed in his test flight, which I’m pretty certain was very much inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is a breathtakingly beautiful moment of animation.  I’d say that the only let down by the movie visually is the lack of diverse locations.  The entire movie takes place on this one deserted planet, which is not much unlike any other alien planet we’ve seen in countless other Sci-Fi movies.  Considering this is Pixar, which has shown boundless imagination when it comes to world building, the lack of exploration in this Sci-Fi world is a tad bit disappointing.  Sure, there are different corners of the planet they come across, but it still feels like the movie is needlessly grounded when it should be intergalactic.  This is Buzz Lightyear we are talking about.  He should be able to venture from planet to planet in a grand adventure.  This movie keeps things pretty much grounded for the most part, with the only variety coming from when they head into Zurg’s fortress like ship.  That being said, the movie is not a slouch when it comes to the animation.  What really makes Pixar stand out as a studio is the subtlety that they put into their character animation.  You see the broad range of emotions perfectly captured in the facial animation of Buzz, and it goes a long way in helping to enrich his character’s emotional journey.  At the same time, I love the stilted robotic animation that they put into a character like SOX, which in itself is part of the humor in the film.  So, in the visuals sense, you can definitely say that this rises up to the high Pixar standard, and shows that they are definitely not falling off as a standard bearer in that field.

In the end, it really comes down to expectation.  With a legacy like what the Toy Story movies have, one might feel this movie is a let down, because it doesn’t quite have the same heart as those films do.  But, it’s also not trying to be a Toy Story movie either.  I myself was able to understand the gimmick of this movie, and disassociate it from it’s previous roots to judge it as it’s own thing.  The biggest fault that it has is it plays things a bit too safe.  Pixar could take us to endless worlds of possibilities, and yet here they tell a pretty standard Sci-Fi story.  It’s not poorly told by any means, but you get the feeling like Pixar undermined their own ambitions.  I get the feeling that the concept came first before a story was even thought up, and in the end it was treated as an afterthought.  It would have been much better if an interesting story had been conceived first and then worked into the Buzz Lightyear mythos, because then you’d have something to better grab the attention of the audience beyond the name recognition of the main character.  At the same time, Pixar does find some interesting angles within this story, particularly surrounding Buzz’s own self discovery.  Thanks to a very strong vocal performance by Chris Evans, you still find a lot to like about the character of Buzz Lightyear without it ever overshadowing the work that Tim Allen put into the character for so many years.  Combine that with solid animation and an enjoyable supporting cast, especially scene-stealer SOX, and you’ve got a film that still finds plenty of ways to entertain audiences of all ages.  I know that many Pixar fans will be happy that the studio finally has a movie on the big screen again.  Honestly, this should have happened a while ago and it’s kind of unfortunate that Lightyear is the movie to break that cycle.  Pixar during the pandemic has been on a roll, with Soul, Luca, and Turning Red being among their best films in years, so the fact that they weren’t given the same privilege as Lightyear, an objectively less interesting movie, is pretty unfair.  Still, I hope Lightyear does well enough to keep Pixar on the big screen, because it’s the best way to watch the kinds of films they make.  To infinity and beyond all you magicians over there at Pixar; keep reaching for those stars.

Rating: 7.5/10

Off the Page – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Just like the same movement in cinema, American literature also changed significantly during the rise of counter culture in the 60’s and 70’s.  Rising out of the Beat generation and it’s poetic forbearers like Allen Ginsberg, the hippie movement brought it’s own wave of groundbreaking, socially conscious writing to the forefront of attention in the minds of young American.  Tackling everything from social taboos, to the rights of the oppressed, to psychedelic philosophizing, to just plain old “sticking it to the man,” there were many books both fiction and non-fiction that helped to define that turbulent era.  One prominent voice to emerge from that time period, whose writing particularly evoked all the rage, restlessness, and free-spirited thinking of the hippie movement, was novelist Ken Kesey.   Kesey was not your stereotypical hippie.  He was broad shouldered, had a horseshoe haircut that he often hid under a beret, and was also an avid outdoorsman who hunted. He often viewed himself as a bridge between the beat generation and the hippies, as he embodied the enduring spirit of one into the other.  He founded the hippie collective known as the Merry Pranksters, who travelled across the country aboard their psychedelically painted school bus and hosted “happenings” in numerous cities where they would share their art as well as psychotropic drugs with new people.  These “happening” were immortalized by fellow novelist Tom Wolfe in his 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid  Acid Trip.  He was also an early mentor of a little band known as The Grateful Dead.  But, it’s through his writing that we best know him.  He didn’t write much throughout his career, often spending most of his time as a cultural ambassador as well as a teacher, but the stuff he did write are touchstones of the era that he participated in.  He often considered his second novel, 1964’s Sometimes a Great Notion, to be his magnum opus, but the novel he is better known for is his debut, which of course spawned it’s own Oscar-winning adaptation; 1962’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Kesey had it in his mind to be a writer very early on.  After earning his English degree at the University of Oregon, he continued onto a graduate creative writing program at Stanford.  While there, he worked part-time on a graveyard shift at mental health facility.  At the same time, he also earned a bit of extra cash volunteering to take psychoactive drugs as part of Project MKUltra.  Both of these side gigs during his formal education no doubt inspired him with the subject of his first novel.  He completed his manuscript almost immediately after graduation, and it was published not long after in 1962.  It was a controversial book to say the least in it’s time, with it’s very anti-authoritarian message, and it was even banned in some parts of the country.  But, in general, it caught on with young readers, especially those of the beat generation and in the burgeoning counter culture.  Also surprisingly, it caught the attention of some big names in entertainment.  Actor Kirk Douglas optioned the book almost immediately for a stage adaptation, which was brought to Broadway by playwright Dale Wasserman.  The play was likewise also a hit, and it’s been revived and staged many times over the years since.  However, a film adaptation took a bit longer to come together.  Douglas maintained the film rights as well, but no studio would finance the project, often objecting to the tone and message of the story.  After a decade, Kirk Douglas had grown too old to play the lead part of Randall McMurphy anymore, and he was starting to look for other parties interested in taking the project off his back.  Well, that interested party turned out to be his son Michael Douglas, who was eager to prove himself as a movie producer.   Michael eventually landed a deal with Warner Brothers, with a script adaptation by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman.  Czechoslovakian filmmaker Milos Forman was tapped to direct, this being only his second English language film after Taking Off (1971).  Kesey largely remained hands off during the making of this movie, but the production did honor his native Oregon roots by filming the movie at a real asylum in the city of Salem.  Indeed, comparing the book with the finished movie, one will find an almost faithful adaptation, though with some very crucial difference.

“I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.”

One thing that the movie gets almost exactly right in it’s adaptation is the core theme of the story.  The book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel about individualism, and how institutions are built to break down the free will of those within it and why it’s necessary to fight back against it.  At the heart of the story is the clash between two different mindsets; that of the revolutionary fervor, embodied in the character of inmate Randle Patrick McMurphy, and that of rigid conformity, embodied in the caretaker of the facility, Nurse Ratched.  The brilliant thing about the story is that neither character is purely good or evil.  McMurphy enters the mental asylum feigning illness as a way to receive what he thinks to be lighter incarceration than prison, which he’s been sentenced to for statutory rape.  Nurse Ratched is by all accounts well liked outside of work, but in the asylum, she is a manipulative, passive aggressive tyrant.  There are a lot shades of grey with these characters, which is what makes Kesey’s novel such a richly layered narrative.  McMurphy is likewise manipulative, but his challenging of Ratched’s authority and refusal to comply, even if it’s sometimes for selfish needs, is an inspiring shake-up of the established order.  What Kesey celebrates in McMurphy is the refusal to just let the system grind down the individualism of the people within it.  As demonstrated through scenes where we meet the individual patients at the asylum, they are often kept under control through rigorous routine, harsh rules for stepping out of line, coercion through rewards and public shaming.  McMurphy, unlike Ratched, sees the individualism in each of the different inmates and treats them like they should be treated; as human beings.  The other inmates suddenly gain a sense of their own self worth once again, and one by one begin to rise together with Randle in pushing back against Ratched.  The rebellious spirit of course doesn’t last long and McMurphy pays the price.  But, in a very important line of dialogue, he implants the seed of rebellion in all of them, after failing to lift a hydrotherapy console in the washroom he says, “But I tried, didn’t I?  Goddamnit, at least I did that.”  Even if rebellion leads to destruction, as it does by the end of the story, the idea itself endures and thrives.

“Mmmmm, Juicy Fruit.”

It cannot be said enough how well this movie is cast across the board.  After Kirk Douglas had outgrown the role that he originated on stage, there really was only one logical choice for Randle McMurphy.  Jack Nicholson was at the time of this film’s making hitting a career highpoint.  He had already won acclaim for roles in Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Detail (1973), and of course Chinatown (1974), all three which earned him Oscar nominations for Best Actor.  He was steadily becoming the movie star of the moment in the mid-70’s, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a movie that was just tailor made for him.  When you read Randle McMurphy on the page, you can think of no one other than Nicholson in the role.  Fast talking, abrasive, and irreverential, you would almost think Ken Kesey wrote the character with Nicholson in mind; which I doubt was the case as Nicholson was just a bit part actor back when Cuckoo’s Nest was first published.  It’s honestly a good thing that the movie adaptation had to wait ten years just so Jack could be ready to play the part.  He nails every part of the movie, capable of being laugh out loud funny but also sincere in the more dramatic moments as well.  But, he is pretty much matched in every way by the breakout performance of Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched.  Fletcher in many ways improves upon the character as she is written in the novel.  The way that she exudes menace through such a cool demeanor and controlled voice is remarkable.  She is the perfect embodiment of every stuffy bureaucrat who dehumanizes people down to pawns in their own little power play.  The way she breaks down her patients, especially Billy Bibbit in the film’s finale, with her cold hearted use of shame is a very chilling portrayal of institutional evil put on screen.  Fletcher won out the role after performers like Angela Lansbury and Anne Bancroft passed on it, and like Nicholson as McMurphy, it’s a part that seemed to be made just for her.

What I find the most interesting about the remainder of the characters is how they are fleshed out by the movie in a way that they aren’t in the book.  The biggest example of this is the thing that is most different between page and screen.  That would be the character of Chief Bromden.  The tall, silent Native American patient at the asylum, played in the movie by Indigenous actor Will Sampson, is a secondary but still very important character in the film.  However, in the book, his role is fleshed out because he is actually the point-of-view character through which we witness the story unfold.  We get much more insight into Bromden’s mindset, and it’s interesting seeing how someone like McMurphy is observed through someone else’s eyes.  In the movie, McMurphy is the focal point character, and Bromden grows into an important part of the story the more that McMurphy interacts with him.  Even with the different POV’s on which the book and movie hinge around, the story still effectively gets it’s themes across.  It kind of works a little more interesting in the film, as Bromden remains an enigma for much of the first half, being a stoic mute.  It helps to raise the surprise level even more when he does break out of his shell, demonstrating the McMurphy’s influence on him.  Even as McMurphy succumbs to the limits of his rebellion, it’s Bromden who in the end carries his spirit on, as he smashes the window open with the hydrotherapy console that couldn’t be lifted up before, leading the the movie’s bittersweet but uplifting conclusion.  The book allows the reader to understand the thought process of one taking in the lessons of defiant rebellion, but the movie also makes that transformation feel rewarding as well, because we are able to see what the spark of rebellion is like when found in the unlikeliest of places.

“You know Billy, what worries me is how your mother is going to take this.”

I will also say that the thing that also brings out the authenticity of the adaptation is the choice of location as well.  The insane asylum that we see in the movie is the real deal, and probably not that unlike the one that inspired Kesey in his writing.  An interesting side note, the role of the asylum’s director was played by the actual director of the Oregon State Hospital where they filmed.  Milos Forman and his team did such a remarkable job turning the asylum itself into a character.  The way that Kesey describes the interiors of the hospital in his novel, with it’s cold sterile feeling, comes across perfectly in the movie.  Not only that, but Forman also utilized the local Oregon flavor of the setting as well.  Being an Oregon native myself, I can tell you that this movie is a source of pride among Oregonians.  No where does the movie show off the beauty of the state of Oregon better than in the scene where McMurphy hijacks the asylum’s field trip and takes the patients on a fishing trip off the coastline.  This is another moment in the movie that perfectly captures the spirit of Kesey as a character, since he himself was an avid fisherman, and often spent many trips fishing up and down the coast.  My hometown of Eugene, Oregon was ground central of Kesey’s Merry Prankster movement.  To this day, many of Kesey’s disciples still live in the Eugene metro area and are continuing to contribute to the counter culture flavor still found there.  Kesey remained a fixture in the local arts scene until his death in 2001, and the city honored him with a statue in the town square.   Kesey’s home state of Oregon was just as big of a muse in his writing as anything else, and though it’s as integral to the plot of Cuckoo’s Nest as it is to Sometimes a Great Notion, it’s still nice to see that the movie went the extra mile to bring it’s location shoot to the Beaver State.  That’s a major contribution brought to the film by director Milos Forman, whose style was very much shaped by his years working in documentaries for Czechoslovakian television.  He knew the importance of having his movie set in real places rather than on a soundstage.  It’s something he would apply on even larger scales later on, including the Oscar-winning Amadeus (1984).

It’s interesting to see how differently both the book and the movie were received in their respective times.  The book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was in many ways far more subversive in the early sixties than the movie was in the mid-seventies.  For the book, the country had yet to go through traumatic experiences like the Assassination of President Kennedy or the Vietnam War, so it’s plea for rebellion was not as widely accepted in it’s time.  It was subversive to challenge authority, something that was only valued by the beatniks and counterculture, and not the mainstream.  But, of course, there was plenty to be rebellious about in that time.  Marginalized groups like African Americans, the LGBTQ community, and Indigenous Tribes were beginning to march for their rights in the time period that Kesey was writing his novel.  Though he used the allegory of patients within an insane asylum, the same theme of demanding dignity in a world built to suppress them still rang true through in Kesey’s writing, and so many activists found inspiration in the way Randle McMurphy created what the late congressman and activist John Lewis called “good trouble.”  By the time the movie was released a decade later, the world had changed dramatically.  The psychedelic 60’s gave way to the rebellious 70’s, and when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest reached theaters in 1975, the counterculture was not only thriving, it had become the culture.  The war in Vietnam was in it’s final, miserable days and the hard fought for Civil Rights Act was the law of the land.  But, this was also the era of Watergate, and America was still facing a crisis of authority pushing down on the oppressed.  However, in that expanse of time, people now knew to spot the flaws in the system, and call out those who were abusing their power for their own satisfaction.  In that respect, Nurse Ratched changed from a symbol of the system to a much more defined monster, reminiscent of the would be authoritarians like President Nixon who were trying to put the counterculture back into the shadows of society.  Across it’s different eras, the story remarkably maintained it’s resilience, but as we saw, it also gained new and interesting layers between book and film.  Even almost 50 years later, there are still many other elements to the story that gain new significance in perspective with the times.

“You’re not an idiot.  Huh! You’re not a goddamn looney now, boy.  You’re a fisherman!”

As a movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s remains a landmark in cinema.  It was only the second movie ever to sweep the top five honors at the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay) after It Happened One Night (1934), and the only other movie to do that since has been The Silence of the Lambs (1991), putting Nest in an exclusive club.  Nicholson of course finally walked away a winner after so many nominations, and honestly, of all his performances this was the right one to honor him for.  His work as Randle Patrick McMurphy is just iconic, and so full of energy.  Ken Kesey gave his protagonist the initials R.P.M. for a reason, and Nicholson is the one and only actor to truly bring that character to full potential on screen.  Louise Fletcher likewise delivers an iconic performance as Nurse Ratched, turning her into one of cinema’s most unforgettable villains.  The supporting cast, many who came from the Broadway and Off-Broadway stagings, also includes an incredible group of up-and-comers from that era like Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif.  But, it’s also interesting to see how much of the book is maintained through the translation.  Every moment of the book makes it on screen and the only real big difference is whose eye’s the story is seen through.  Speaking of the character of Chief Bromden, you couldn’t ask for a more emotionally stirring finale than what happens between him and Randle in the closing minutes.  There you see the true power of rebellion manifest.  As the spirit is destroyed in one person, the lobotomized Randle, it is carried forward through Bromden, the one he inspired the most.  And as Bromden runs off into the horizon after making his breakthrough, we are left feeling optimistic about the future, even through a moment of despair.  The will to fight for a better world is greater than one man.  Ken Kesey saw injustice in his world, and it’s interesting that he chose to spotlight those deemed broken by society as his champions in a cry for humanity.  To this day, that is what has kept One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest such a powerful and relevant story.  We still see people treated unfairly in uncaring engine of our society.  For Kesey, the purpose of his story was to help convince the reader that no one is helpless and doomed to a life within walls.  We just need to be convinced that we matter in the world, and that it’s worth demanding better of the system that is built to look over us.

“One flew East. One flew West.  One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”

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