Collecting Criterion – The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)


The Criterion Collection is known for being the distributor of some of the greatest and underseen classics of yesteryear, but they also have a reputation for putting out modern films as well.  In fact, if you look at the complete collection entirely, you’ll see that a good percentage of the titles are ones from the last 20 years or so.  This does open up the debate over whether or not the Criterion Collection has a high enough standard over which titles it includes, considering the fact that it takes time for a film to earn the status of a classic.  Some of Criterion’s more controversial choices for inclusion in recent years have included the films of David Fincher (#476 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, #627 The Game), a film by Girls star and creator Lena Dunham (#597 Tiny Furniture) and also the movies of Michael Bay, I kid you not (#40 Armageddon, #107 The Rock, both now out of print).  This begs the question of what makes a film a classic and if Criterion are the ones responsible for making that decision.  I’m sure that Criterion would themselves say that they choose titles not because of their status as a classic, but on whether or not it’s a title that will sell well in the video market.  The fact that they devote so much time and effort to make the editions of their titles so good is one of the things that has set them apart.  And the reason why they choose to release films from contemporary directors is so that they can get the filmmakers’ actual input on the release of their films in the collection, as well as their approval.
One director who has not only had his whole filmography released under the Criterion label, but has also had his career boosted by the Collection as well, is Texas-born filmmaker Wes Anderson. Anderson is a very polarizing director, mainly due to his very distinctive style.  His films usually are identified by their quirky story-lines and characters, their unconventional use of pop songs (mainly from the 60’s and 70’s) to underscore a scene, the bold use of colors and deliberate composition in the cinematography, and last but certainly not least, the presence of the great Bill Murray.  Some people either love Wes Anderson’s movies in all their eccentricities, or loathe them as being nothing more than style over substance.  While I can see how some people dislike Wes Anderson’s style, I for one can’t get enough of it.  I have yet to see a Wes Anderson film that I didn’t like; even the one that left me a little underwhelmed (Criterion #450 Bottle Rocket) was one that I could still appreciate.  And part of what has made me a fan of Wes Anderson’s work has been the excellent Criterion releases devoted to his films.  So far, six of his movies have been released as part of the Criterion Collection: the aforementioned Bottle Rocket (1996), #65 Rushmore (1998), #300 The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), #540 The Darjeeling Limited (2007), and coming next February, #700 Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), which was my personal pick for the best film of 2009.  One film in particular does stands out, mainly due to it’s early popularity, as a film that really began to define Wes Anderson’s status as a filmmaker: that being #157, 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums.

The movie follows the struggling relationship between members of an affluent, but fractured family.  The patriarch, Royal Tenenbaum (a perfect Gene Hackman) finds that the funds that have helped to support his decadent lifestyle have been drying up, and this leads him to turning back to the family that he had all but cut ties with years ago.  The once proud family, made up of three former “wonder kids” now in their adulthood, are also struggling to take control of their lives.  Chas (Ben Stiller) a Wall Street hot shot in his youth, who’s now struggling to keep everything afloat as a single father after his wife had died in a plane crash.  Adopted daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) gave up a promising career as a playwright in order to settle down in a now loveless marriage with psychologist Raleigh St. Clair (Bill Murray).  And Richie (Luke Wilson), the youngest, had a promising career as a tennis phenom, before he began to lose his game and faded into obscurity.  Etheline Tenenbaum (Angelica Huston), the mother, has manged to keep her house in order despite the hard times with the help of her accountant Henry Sherman (Danny Glover), who has suddenly shared his growing affection with her.  This prompts Royal to step in and reclaim his family before he loses them forever.  And how does he do this?  By telling them all that he’s dying of cancer, which is a flat out lie.
The film is a loaded one to be sure, and I wouldn’t disagree that Wes Anderson sometimes struggles to keep everything in check over the course of the run-time.  But, The Royal Tenenbaums is nevertheless a very effective and charming movie.  What makes it work so well, no doubt is the cast.  Gene Hackman is outstanding as Royal Tenenbaum, and he steals every moment he’s on screen.  What I love is the fact that Royal is so likable in this movie, even when he’s doing and saying the most horrible things.  Wes Anderson’s scripts, which he co-writes on every movie (this time with co-star Owen Wilson), are known for their sly, and rather outlandish sense of humor, and no character better exemplifies that than Royal.  I especially like the way that he takes little consideration of other peoples feelings, even when he’s in direct conversation with them.  An awkward exchange with Chas at a cemetery in particular is both an uncomfortable and laugh-out-loud funny moment in the movie (“Oh, that’s right.  We’ve got another body here.”)  Gene Hackman alone would been enough to watch this movie, but the rest of the cast is also excellent.  Angelica Huston brings a lot of class to the character of Etheline and helps to give the film its moral center.  Gwyneth Paltrow is hilariously deadpan as Margot.  Ben Stiller and Luke Wilson deliver some of their best performances as well.  And Anderson regular Bill Murray is absolutely hilarious in his few moments onscreen.  Add in Owen Wilson as ticking timebomb next-door neighbor and author named Eli Cash, and you’ve got a very well rounded cast.
If the film has a flaw, albeit a minor one, it’s the fact that it feels unfocused.  I mainly see this as a byproduct of trying to fit too many things into one film. The cast of characters is enormous, and trying to give everyone enough screen time is a daunting task for any filmmaker.  The Royal Tenenbaums was made in the early part of Wes Anderson’s career, at a time when he was still figuring things out.  Looking back on the film, you can see that his style was still forming at this point in time.  The Royal Tenenbaums would be Anderson’s last film to feature a kind of naturalistic aesthetic look to it, as he began to head in a much more whimsical and cartoonish direction with his next film The Life Aquatic.  I think that the more subdued visuals of Royal Tenenbaums is probably why this film has remained to date one of Wes Anderson’s more popular films.  It’s undoubtedly his most mainstream film to date, though The Royal Tenenbaums is not a conventional Hollywood movie by any means.   But as a part of his overall body of work, I see this movie as one of his lesser efforts.  I still love it, don’t get me wrong, but when I think of a Wes Anderson movie, this is not the one that comes to mind.  I think of his later films as being the ones that really define him as a director, given how much more assured they are.  But, I am glad to see how well this film has held up both as a movie and as a part of the director’s full oeuvre.
What is significant about the Criterion edition of this film is the fact that it was released as part of the collection almost instantly.  Like I had said before, sometimes it takes a while for a film to achieve classic status, and only then it may find it’s way into Criterion’s catalog.  The Royal Tenenbaums, however, was selected to be a part of the collection right when it left theaters; the shortest window ever for a Criterion title.  The choice was made probably because of the fact that Wes Anderson’s previous film, Rushmore, sold so well under the Criterion label in the years after it’s premiere.  Adding The Royal Tenenbaums seemed like a no-brainer choice, especially after it’s own successful run in theaters.  But, what’s even more remarkable is the fact that Criterion had the exclusive rights to the film’s DVD release, thanks to a deal with Touchstone Pictures who financed the movie, and they made the movie available to the mass market.  You have to understand that this was an unusual move on Criterion’s part.  Up until that point, Criterion released their titles in small quantities and usually limited the availability to a few select retailers nationwide.  In my home town, I would usually only find a Criterion movie section in my local Barnes & Nobles, and that was it.  So, the fact that The Royal Tenenbaums was so widely available was a significant game changer for both Wes Anderson and Criterion.  I’m sure that for many people, Royal Tenenbaums had to have been their first Criterion title, which opened up the gates for a whole new audience for the distributor.
The Royal Tenenbaums DVD release back in 2002 was an enormous success, making the movie one of Criterion’s best-selling titles.  Last year, they revisited the film again with a Blu-ray edition, which helps to give this 12 year old film a fresh new look.  The movie is stunning in high definition, as is every other Wes Anderson film.  This is probably why the director has become a favorite among Criterion collectors like myself; his bold use of colors brings out the full potential of the color range and brightness in a Blu-ray presentation.  The blu-ray edition also carries over every bonus feature from the previous DVD release.  Among the extras found here are a Director’s commentary by Anderson himself.  There’s an interesting filmmaker profile of Wes Anderson made by none other than acclaimed documentarian, Albert Mayles.  There are also a dozen or so behind the scenes clips of the actors at work on the set, along with some interviews.  There’s also a fun little faux talk show made by Anderson called The Peter Bradley Show, which highlights miscellaneous people involved with the film like extras, grips, and the late Kumar Pallana, who played Royal’s butler in the movie.  Also included in the set are original artwork pieces by Wes Anderson’s cousin and resident company artist, Eric Anderson, whose style perfectly compliments the movie.  In fact, the Criterion Collection has used Eric Anderson’s artwork for every one of their Wes Anderson titles, including using some of them as the cover art for each edition, including this one.
So, The Royal Tenenbaums stands as not just an important release for Wes Anderson, but as a groundbreaking movie for their the Criterion brand as well.  I’m sure that a lot of people have this film to thank for introducing them to both Criterion and Mr. Anderson.  The film has aged very well over the years, though I think that it’s clear that Anderson has clearly moved on to bigger and better movies since then.  The Royal Tenenbaums was a launching point for him; an opportunity to show what he can do with more tools at his disposal, and I’m happy that the end result was as successful as it was.  My hope is that Wes Anderson continues to stick by Criterion and have every one of his releases available under their label.  The one holdout is last year’s Moonrise Kingdom (2012), but I’m sure that a Criterion edition is in the works for it in the near future.  The years ahead also looks bright for the director.  His next film, The Grand Budapest Hotel is set for release next March and the trailer alone is enough to make me smile.  I also like the fact that Wes Anderson’s style has clearly become so identifiable now, that it received a SNL send up this year that was both mocking and reverential at the same time.  It even included narration from Alec Baldwin, who was also the narrator in The Royal Tenenbaums, showing just how impactful this film has been.  Even if you find Wes Anderson’s style a little too quaint, The Royal Tenenbaums is still worth watching.  If anything, this Criterion edition will give this film the stunning presentation that it rightly deserves.

Flicks and Picks – The End of the Blockbuster Video Era


Though it was long seen coming, it finally became official this last week.  Blockbuster Video is no more.  While this is a sign of how things have progressed in home entertainment for mostly the better, with on-demand and streaming video making it easier for the consumer to watch whatever they want, it does also bring an end to an institution that has been at the center of many cinephiles lives.  Apart from some independent holdovers here and there, you rarely will find a video store in your local neighborhood today.  But back in the day, finding a store devoted to video rentals was as easy as finding a McDonald’s.  The decline of video stores over the years certainly has had to do with the advancements in streaming video, but the dominance of Blockbuster Video as a company also played a role as well.  In a way, by working so hard to become the top dog of the video rental market, Blockbuster also facilitated it’s own downfall when the market changed once again.  Though the end of Blockbuster was inevitable, and needed to happen, it does leave a gap for those of us who’ve built their love for film through renting from their local video store.  The video rental experience, while not exactly life-changing, is something that most film lovers have been through at some point in their lives, and this week it has now become a thing of the past.   In this article, I will look back on this era that Blockbuster Video defined, and what it’s end means for the future of home entertainment.
In the late 80’s, we saw the emergence of VHS, which gave studios and filmmakers the ability to make films available for purchase after their theatrical release for the very first time.  Before, audiences had to wait for airings on television before they could see their favorite films again, and that also meant having to put up with commercial breaks as well.  When VHS tapes started to be produced by the studios directly, it led to the creation of a niche market, with stores opening up across the country, directly geared toward filling that public appetite.  Being able to own a movie as part of a collection is a commonplace thing nowadays, but when home video sales began, it was an exciting new frontier and it had an influence on the film industry almost instantly.  Not only did the rise of home video affect the number of theatrical runs that a movie would have, but it also drove the movie studios towards film preservation and restoration as well, because of course, presentation matters for home viewing.
But, like with most new technology, VCR tape players were very expensive, and buying a movie to play in it was also not cheap at the time.  Some retailers even had to pay prices as high as $100 per movie in order to have it available in their stores.  So, in order to get more out of their product, and to let audiences have better access to the movies they wanted, video rental services came into being.  Like checking a book out from a library, consumers would be able to rent a movie for a certain amount of days at a low price.  This business model worked extremely well and led to boom in VCR sales.  Video stores popped up all across the country, both locally owned and franchise operated, and home video sales very quickly became a major part of the film industry as a whole.  But, it wasn’t just studio films that benefited  from this new market.  Independent producers saw an open opportunity in this new industry, and before long a whole Direct to Video market opened up, thanks to video stores allowing to indiscriminately sell and rent out a whole variety of films as a way to fill their shelves with more product.  In these early days, it was very common to see a diverse collection of independent stores in your hometown, as it was in mine.  There were stores that I grew up with  in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon that went by such varied names as Silver Screen Video or Flix & Picks, and choosing a rental from these places certainly had an affect on my growing interest in movies at a young age.
But that changed in the mid 90’s when the video rental industry became more standardized.  Out of this period of time came a chain of stores known as Blockbuster Video.  Blockbuster was founded in 1985 in Dallas, Texas, and started off as just another local retailer like most other stores, before it began to expand rapidly.  In the late 90’s, it was common to find at least one local Blockbuster in your area, and by the end of the decade, Blockbuster was unrivaled in the home video market.  Their rise had the negative affect of forcing all of the other competition out of business, which benefited them for the time being, but it would come back to bite them in the years ahead.  Blockbuster may have been ruthless to the competition, but to become the best in the industry, they did manage to do many beneficial things that did revolutionize the market.  For one thing, they were the first national retailer to begin video game rentals.  Their standardization of rental pick ups and drop offs also revolutionized the way we rent movies, making the drop off slots at your local store a life-saver late at night.  Also, Blockbuster was also the first chain to begin working within the film industry to create exclusive promotions and deals on upcoming releases.  Despite seeing a lack of choices in rental stores happen because of Blockbuster’s dominance, I don’t believe that consumers cared much about it as long as Blockbuster still operated efficiently.
Most film lovers will attest that they’ve probably spent a good amount of their time in a Blockbuster store.  While many of us could find exactly what we wanted at any time, there was another side effect that also changed how we grew up watching movies after spending time in a Blockbuster, and that effect would be the impulse rental.  I’m sure most of you out there have come out of a Blockbuster Video at one time with a movie you’ve never even heard of instead of the one you wanted, simply out of curiosity.  Having a variety of choices seems normal now, but not until video rental came about did consumers have that level of control over what they were able to choose.  Before, you would have been limited to the whatever was playing on TV or in your local cinema, but stores like Blockbuster made consumer choices as simple as a quick scan through their shelves.  For cinephiles, I’m sure that part of their growing love for films started out of making a surprise choice in the local video store, and with stores as big and as well stocked as Blockbuster, those surprises could have come from even the most obscure of titles.  Blockbuster was also handy for film students like me whenever we had to watch a film as part of an assignment.  Whether it was a film we knew or not, at least we had the comfort of knowing that there was a place we could look for it in a hurry.
In the later years, however, the market began to change again.  The internet revolutionized video streaming in the later part of the 2000’s, and our reliance on Video and DVD for home entertainment purposes soon became a thing of the past too.  Even though Blockbuster cleared out all comparable competition, they were ill equipped to take on the likes of a Netflix.  What Netflix did was to eliminate the middle man in video rentals, and have movies sent directly to the home through the mail, which made it unnecessary for anyone to go out to a store and rent a movie anymore.  Blockbuster tried it’s own rent by mail service in response, but by then the damage had already been done.  Netflix had surpassed Blockbuster as the number one rental service and the former giant had to begin downsizing in order to survive.  Soon, Redbox emerged and took away even more business from Blockbuster, appearing as convenient vending machines in grocery stores for anyone looking for an impulse rental.  Like most all other forms of retail, the trend has moved towards online shopping, and Blockbuster is one of the biggest to have fallen, mainly because their business model was one that couldn’t adapt in the digital age.  All that’s left for Blockbuster is it’s still recognizable name, and even that is owned by someone else now (it was purchased by DirectTV in 2011 for the branding it’s on-demand service).
Because Blockbuster eliminated much of the competition beforehand, it has actually made the transition to on-demand video renting faster and less rocky.  There was no large grouping of various retailers resisting the the changes in the market; only Blockbuster.  And now that they are gone, the era of land-based video rental shops has ended with them.  Sure there are independent stores in certain areas that still serve nostalgic purposes, but their clientele is limited.  Now it is more commonplace to hear that people have a Netflix account rather than a Blockbuster card.  But Blockbuster still left a legacy that will not be quickly forgotten, especially among longtime movie aficionados.  Many of us can still remember moments when being close to a Blockbuster came in handy; whether it was for a late night impulse rental, or for a quick bit of research, or for merely wanting to see a movie that you missed the first time around.  For many people, the first time they watched a particular movie, it was probably not in a movie theater but through a rental from big blue.  I can certainly say that I credit my local Blockbuster for helping me experience so many different types of movies.  One of my favorite films of all time (Seven Samurai) came to me out of an impulse rental from Blockbuster, and I will always be grateful for that.
So it’s a bittersweet end for the onetime giant.  Their closure spells the end of an institution that has been a big part of all of our cinematic experiences, but it’s a closure that was necessary.  Netflix and Redbox are just much better and convenient services, and Blockbuster was a relic that was standing in the way.  But, as we move forward, will those two also fall prey to the same fate as Blockbuster.  My guess is probably not.  Blockbuster had the unfortunate circumstance of being the top force in a market that was destined to fall.  Netflix and Redbox, however, have relished in the fact that they stand in direct competition with each other, and that has led to new and creative avenues for both companies.  Unlike Blockbuster, Netflix has branched out and generated their own exclusive content, including comedy specials and original shows like House of Cards, which not only makes it a great rental service, but also a competitor to broadcast TV.  And Redbox is able to make itself available in locations all across the world without having to set up the infrastructure of an entire store chain.  And with Amazon and Walmart entering the market with their own video streaming services like AmazonPrime and VUDU, it’s showing that the rental market is one that is going to continue growing in this new direction.  Blockbuster is certainly done as an independent company, but without it ever being there in the first place, the rental business would certainly never have gotten to where it is now, and that’s the legacy that it ultimately will leave behind.

Thor: The Dark World – Review


Marvel Studios has built something up that we rarely see fully realized in movies and that is a wholly compatible universe where all of their comic heroes can coexist within, while at the same time maintaining their own unique worlds in their selective franchises.  From this, we have seen the big screen translations of famed Marvel characters like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor become hugely successful, with The Avengers movie series being the orbital force that binds everything together.  While this has been a strategy that has brought about some very great results in the last few years, such an ambitious project is bound to hit a few pitfalls eventually.  For me, that happened this summer with the release of Iron Man 3.  While still a huge success at the box-office, the movie suffered from a lack of focus in it’s story-telling and became the first disappointment of the so-called “Avenger Initiative” thus far.  My worry after seeing the lackluster Iron Man 3 was that the individual films dedicated to each super hero were only going to turn into bland appetizers in preparation for the Avengers main course; and they would no longer be able to stand on their own as a singular movie.  With Thor: The Dark World being released this week, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier following in April 2014, I was afraid that these two characters were going to fall into the trap as Iron Man, and were only going to drag down Marvel’s master plan even more.
Thankfully, my worries proved untrue after watching Thor: The Dark World.  This second installment in the Thor franchise is a genuinely entertaining and overall worthy addition to the “Avenger Initiative” project.  Following up on the previous Thor film, as well as The Avengers movie itself, The Dark World manages to build upon what we’ve already seen and make it bigger and more epic without ever losing it’s focus.  I think that’s what helps it succeed where Iron Man 3 floundered; that ability to keep things under control.  The first Thor was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who was an unusual choice for such a project in the first place, given his notoriety as an actor and director of Shakespearean productions and small scale dramas.  But Mr. Branagh not only managed to create a successful first outing for the god of thunder on the big screen, his style of directing proved to be a great tone setter for the series as well.  The Dark World follows through on that foundation and manages to not only work as a sequel, but also stand very well enough on it’s own as a movie worth seeing.
Picking up right after the events of The Avengers, we find Thor (Chirs Hemsworth) leading his armies in battle in an attempt to restore order to each of the Seven Realms, of which Earth is also included.  At the same time on Earth, we find Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a physicist and love interest of Thor in the first movie, discovering dimensional anomalies in the city of London, England.  After examining dimensional portals in a warehouse, Jane is pulled through one suddenly, which takes her into a secret vault containing a powerful super-weapon called the Aether.  Jane unwillingly is turned into a host for the Aether as it enters her body, and she is sent hurtling back to Earth.  In no time, Thor finds her and whisks her away to Asgard, the kingdom of Thor and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins).  There, they keep her safe, as an ancient race of aliens called the Dark Elves arrive to reclaim the Aether for themselves, which they plan to use to destroy the Seven Realms together in one catastrophic event called the Convergence.  Disobeying his father’s stubborn orders, Thor knows of only one way to take Jane out of danger’s way, and it means calling upon the help of his treacherous brother, and main Avengers villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston).
For a very complicated plot such as this one, I’m surprised that the filmmakers involved managed to not lose control of it and have everything end up as a convoluted mess in the end.  I believe what helps to carry the story through are the characters themselves.  Chris Hemsworth has now had two films to develop the character of Thor over, and his performance in this movie shows just how comfortable he has become with the role.  He’s charming without coming across as smarmy or self-indulgent.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give him much to do until the second half, which would have been more of a problem if there weren’t any other strong characters there to pick up the slack.  The rest of the cast is more or less in tact from the first movie, and they all fit well within the story-line without seeming superfluous.  Natalie Portman, especially, improves upon her role from the first movie, in that she has an integral part to play this time, other than being the love interest character.  I like her resourcefulness throughout the movie and the ways that she avoids being just another damsel in distress.  Anthony Hopkins also brings great gravitas to the character of Odin, but you wouldn’t expect any less from an actor of his caliber.
The movie’s brightest spot, however, is the character of Loki.  He has been the one that has improved the most over time, and I think that it’s largely because of his evolution, aided by actor Tom Hiddleston.  In the first Thor movie, I found Loki to be a rather bland villain; and when it was announced that he was going to be the primary baddie of The Avengers (2012), I was very doubtful of the choice.  Thankfully, the character went through a major transformation between the films and not only proved to be a great antagonist for The Avengers, but one of the film’s highlights as well.  I think what happened was that they stripped all of the doubt and worry from the character’s persona and just made him unapologetic in his sinister ways, thus making him a much more memorable villain.  That characterization has carried over into The Dark World and the movie is better for it.  Loki gives the film a significant jolt of adrenaline every time he’s on screen, which helps the movie greatly whenever it starts to slag.  He gets all the best lines, and his chemistry with Thor is even more entertaining than the chemistry between Thor and Jane.  Tom Hiddleston looks like he’s having a lot fun here with the role, and that sense of fun becomes very infectious for audiences watching the film.  I’m sure that the growing number of Loki fans out there will be very pleased with how he’s used in this movie.
The downside of having Loki present, however, is that he steals so much of the effectiveness away from this film’s more principal villains.  The portrayal of the Dark Elves is really the one thing that keeps this from being a truly great film.  They are very forgettable and uninteresting bad guys on which to center the film around, and sadly, the movie never really delves deeply into them as individual characters.  They’re not terrible villains by any means; and definitely not the awful, slap-to-the-face villains that Iron Man 3 presented us.  There’s just not much to say about them other than they are mean and they want to destroy.  The leader, Malekith, is played by a former Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston, and he does the best he can with his underwritten character.  The problem that I have with their function in the story-line is that we never really get to understand what the Dark Elves are.  They are an ancient race bent on destruction, but it’s never explained exactly where they come from or what they plan to do once they have enacted their apocalyptic plans.  That being said, their look is unique and they have a very memorable looking spaceship that is used effectively in scenes throughout the film.  Perhaps if there wasn’t a better villain already taking up screen-time in the movie like Loki does here, then maybe the Dark Elves would have worked better, but unfortunately they stand as one of the weaker elements in the film.
That being said, I am glad that the movie doesn’t fall into the trap of being just a lead-up to different movie.  In some ways, that actually makes it an improvement over the first Thor.  Thor (2011) was a wonderful film in it’s own right, but it was also tied a little too closely with the “Avengers Initiative” Phase 1 plan, and that led to some awkward shoehorning of elements from the overall Marvel universe.  In this movie, the references to other Marvel characters are minor, allowing the story-line to stay more focused within Thor’s world.  Sure, there are mentions here and there of the “New York Incident,” especially when Loki enters the film’s plot, but even these moments make sense in their placement within the film.  There’s also a great cameo halfway through the film that I won’t give away, but it makes perfect sense once you see it.
I also think that the film did an excellent job with it’s visual look.  Asgard has been expanded upon from the first movie, which rarely left the confines of Odin’s immense palace.  In this film, we are given more overview of the surrounding world that Thor calls home and it is beautifully realized.  I especially like the different ways that the production design team worked in Nordic styles into the look of Asgard.  At one point in the movie, there is a fierce aerial battle in the skies over Asgard and the warships that the Asgardians use to battle the Dark Elves are made up to look like flying Viking longboats.  It’s clever visual elements like this that makes Thor’s world feel unique, while at the same time easy to understand.  Also, bringing the action on Earth to London helps to blend the visual styles of the different worlds together.  The original film brought Thor to New Mexico, which significantly clashed with the scenes set in Asgard.  Here, by taking the setting to an Old World city like London, the filmmakers manage to keep the blending of styles consistent throughout the whole movie.  Thor feels much less like a fish out of water in the Earth scenes here, which helps with the character’s familiarity with our world in the story.  First time film director, Alan Taylor, tackles both sides very well, and while he may not have the same extravagant style as Kenneth Branagh, he nevertheless manages to keep all of the elements of the film working together.  Perhaps it’s because he’s worked in both kinds of genres for so long, directing episodes of both Game of Thrones and The Sopranos, that he was able to find that right sort of balance.
Thor: The Dark World may have some faults in the story-line and in some of the characterizations, but it mostly succeeds as both it’s own stand alone film and as part of the Marvel universe as a whole.  This was a breathe of fresh air after being severely disappointed with Iron Man 3.  What is most pleasing about the film is that the filmmakers were able to actually make a movie that exists more within Thor’s own world than what we’ve seen before.  I view this film as being only slightly better than the first in that regard, but both films have about the same strengths and weaknesses.  What makes the Thor movies so interesting, and perhaps more interesting than any of the other Marvel films, is that they are grounded more in fantasy than anything else.  Iron Man and Captain America are identified as science-fiction works, but the Thor movies play by different rules, and as a result, you can actually get away with more of the cheesy, swashbuckling elements in the plot.  Marvel films do deliver consistently on the action front, but when a movie like Thor unashamedly indulges itself in some of the more operatic moments, it feels very natural and appropriate.  What I love most here, though, are the little character touches.  It’s hard to think that a small thing like Thor hanging his hammer on a coat rack would be so endearing to me in this film, but that’s how well it works.  I’m happy to see Marvel pick itself up and do well by their hammer swinging hero, and I hope that it marks an improved trajectory for both “Avengers” Phase 2 and for Thor’s own series as well.
Rating: 8/10

Apocalyptic Cinema – Making Disasters Entertaining in Movies


One thing that we often see in human nature are destructive impulses; or to be more specific, we all like to see something get destroyed.  Whether it is a benign thing like blowing down a house of cards or something more extreme like an implosion of a building, we just enjoy watching something that was built up be taken down.  Hell, we even do it to each other through schadenfreude; whether it’s in politics like the Anthony Wiener scandal, or the rise and fall of a Hollywood star like Lindsey Lohan.  Our culture seems to relish destruction as a part of entertainment.  I don’t necessarily find this to be a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t get out of hand.  And that’s usually what we find in a lot of movies as well.  Disaster films have been a staple of movie-making for generations, but in recent years, we’ve seen visual effects work become sophisticated enough to the point where destruction looks authentic enough to be believable.  But, when we start to see movies become ever more comfortable showing widespread destruction as a part of their storytelling, there starts to be a question about where the line must be drawn.  Is it right for us to feel entertained when we see things like the White House or the Capitol Building being destroyed?  How about the entire world?  In this article, I will look at the highs and lows of disaster film-making and how the audiences reactions to them reveal the extremes to which people want to be entertained.
A lot of the reason why Disaster films exist is because they are a great showcase for special effects.  Going all the way back to the silent era, we’ve seen filmmakers use primitive but successful effects work to create larger than life destruction.  You could even look at some of the early Biblical epics like Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments as early examples of a disaster movie.  The film had a moral message yes, but there were many audience members I’m sure who saw the film just because they wanted to see the grandiose destruction caused by the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.  As special effects have become more sophisticated, so has there been an increase in disaster movies.  Soon films were crafted around some of the most famous disasters in history, like In Old Chicago (1937), which depicted the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, or San Francisco (1938), dramatizing the famous 1906 earthquake.  It wasn’t until the 1970’s, however, when Disaster films could be declared a genre all to itself.  In that period, we saw a glut of disaster related movies made specifically for the purpose of being epic, star-studded extravaganzas, with the latest is special effects work on display.  These films included Earthquake (1974), starring Charlton Heston; The Poseidon Adventure (1971), with Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine; and The Towering Inferno (1974), with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, just to name a few.
The rise of the disaster movie genre in the 70’s began to die down in the 80’s, mainly due to the rise of Science Fiction and Fantasy films as a showcase for effects work, but the genre lived on as it began to evolve.  In the 1990’s, we saw the emergence of a filmmaker who would go on to not only redefine the genre, but make it all his own.  This filmmaker was German born director Roland Emmerich, and over the course of his career, you can see that nearly 80% of his filmography is made up of disaster movies.  The movie that put him on the map in the film industry was a film that actually redefined two genres in one, and that was 1996’s Independence Day.  The movie was essentially an alien invasion narrative, but what Roland Emmerich did was to use the techniques utilized in popular disaster films as a means to make the destruction caused by the aliens look and feel as real as possible.  In the movie, we see catastrophic explosions engulf entire cities, destroying landmarks before our very eyes, including the White House itself.  This was a film that not only drew upon our greatest fears of total annihilation, but it also made it feel completely real.  Independence Day was a phenomenal success when it premiered, and it made the disaster genre a force to be reckoned with.  As for Emmerich, he has stuck mostly with the genre that had made him a player in Hollywood, with mixed results, with successful but ludicrous films like Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and 2012 (2009) all falling into that same mold as Independence Day.
But, what was interesting about the success of Independence Day was that it revealed something about how we react to seeing destruction on film.  In the movie, famous landmarks like the Empire State Building are blown to pieces and thousands of people are destroyed in seconds before our very eyes.  And this is what we consider entertaining?  Maybe entertaining isn’t the right word.  I think movies like Independence Day do well because it allows us to face our fears and indulge that sinking feeling of helplessness.  It’s not so much the scenes of destruction themselves that we find so entertaining, but the framework around them.  While watching a disaster movie, we need to feel the impact of the destruction, and that’s why so many disaster films have to finish with a happy ending.  In Independence Day, the colossal destruction closes the first act of the film.  The rest of the movie details how humankind copes with the aftermath, and how they fight off the invaders despite the odds against them.  You have to go through a lot of darkness before you can appreciate the light at the end of the tunnel, and that’s what has defined the best films in the genre.  If a film takes a bleak outlook and doesn’t give the movie a satisfying resolution, then it’s going to fail.  This has been the case with other disaster films, like 2009’s Knowing, which leaves everyone dead and earth uninhabitable at the end; sorry to spoil it for you.  Even the laughable 2012 left room for some hope for humanity, and not surprisingly, it did much better.
Disaster films have to thrive on that feeling of hope.  We become enthralled when we see something grand get destroyed, but it’s what rises from the ashes that makes us feel grateful in the end.  That’s why we enjoy watching controlled demolitions; old buildings must come down in order to make way for something better.  That’s helps us to understand why we accept destruction as entertainment.  Many films skirt that line very often, but the way a disaster film can get the audience on its side is through the characters.  Characters in disaster movies must be likable and easy to identify with.  It also helps if they are not thinly drawn stereotypes as well, but fully defined people.  Emmerich’s films have tended to have lackluster characters, which is why casting makes a difference in his movies, and other ones like them.  Independence Day worked well because you had charismatic performances from actors like Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith, who helped to balance the film out by creating characters you wanted to root for.  Other disaster films tend to miscast their roles, making their characters’ story-lines a little more hard to swallow.  Case in point, John Cusack in 2012.  Cusack is a fine actor when a movie calls for it, but when your character is a mild-mannered author who somehow is able to outrun the eruption of a Supervolcano; that I have a hard time buying.  Now it’s difficult to say that a character needs to believable in a movie centered around a fictional disaster, but sometimes it does matter.  Likability of the characters is what separates the good disaster films from the bad ones, and unfortunately that’s something you rarely see work effectively.
For the most part, disaster films exist because they are showcases for the newest techniques in special effects.  The human element in the films are crucial, but they do play a lesser part in the creation of the movies as a whole.  But, when the balance of these films aren’t settled in the right way, then they do run the risk of seeming either lackluster or worse, exploitative.  This was an issue in Hollywood in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in New York City, where we saw a level of destruction in real life that we could only comprehend in movies before.  Soon after, the Independence Day style destruction of city-scapes in movies stopped for a while, because that imagery became all too real for us and seeing it on the big screen afterwards would’ve been seen as insensitive.  Now that time has passed, we are seeing that kind of destruction depicted again, but it took a while for us to get there.  What I think makes audiences understand the level of acceptability in disaster imagery is the balance between the level of destruction in the movie and how it functions within the narrative.
Even though it came out months before 9/11, I think that the Michael Bay film Pearl Harbor (2001) feel into that unacceptable exploitation category because it didn’t find that right balance.  In the movie, the famous attack is depicted in gruesome detail, but it lacks any resonance because it is just the backdrop to a rather lackluster love triangle plot.  A lot more respect could have been paid to the real men and woman who died on that day instead of having everything hinge on fictional characters that we care so little about.  Pearl Harbor felt more like a shallow Hollywood attempt to exploit a tragedy for the purpose of creating a film that showcased impressive production values and matinee idol stars.  In other words, it was a movie driven more by marketing than actually informing audiences about the real event.  If you don’t find that right balance in a disaster movie, than your film will not be believable, as was the case here.  Pearl Harbor failed as a movie mainly because it knew what it wanted to be, but the filmmakers didn’t know how to make it work.  They were trying to follow in the footsteps of what has ultimately been the only disaster film to date to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture; that being director James Cameron’s Titanic (1997).  The reason why Titanic worked and Pearl Harbor didn’t was because it had a balance to it.  The love story at the center of Titanic, while not the most engrossing, did keep the narrative moving and it did endear the characters involved to the audience before the pivotal event happens.  Also, James Cameron put so much detail into the recreation of the ship’s sinking, and every moment of that is well executed on screen. No shaky cam or needless destruction is present in the climatic moments of the movie.  It works because the film was, dare I say, respectful to the actual disaster and to the victims of the event as well.
Making disaster movies thoughtful turns out to have been a secret to the genre’s success.  Going back to my example film once again, Independence Day, we see that the film works despite it’s more ludicrous moments by actually having characters work out logical answers to their dilemmas. It’s not enough to have the characters just move from one disaster to another without explanation, like in 2012   Or to have our characters helplessly standby as the world crumbles around them and inject stale philosophical points about why it all has happened, like in The Day After Tomorrow.  We want to see our characters be problem solvers and actually deal with the apocalypse like its something they can come back from.  That’s why, despite it’s many flaws, Independence Day succeeds.  Mankind coming together to help “Take those sons of bitches down,” is an ultimately inspiring thing.  Whether it’s against nature, or the extraterrestrial, or against our own selves, we enjoy watching characters pull themselves out of a struggle.  That’s why I think World War Z succeeded this year, despite all the naysayers who predicted it would fail (myself included).  The movie looked like another exploitative take on the zombie sub-genre, but the finished film was a more thoughtful examination about how the survivors of the catastrophe try to deal with the problem and learn to survive.  Sometimes it helps to treat your audience to a more thoughtful story about survival, rather than just destruction.
Disaster films will always be around as long as there is an audience for them.  And as long as filmmakers actually treat its audiences’ intelligence levels more respectfully, then we’ll also see the Disaster genre gain more respectability in the film community.  I like the fact that Disaster films have become such an acceptable part of cinematic history, that it’s now commonplace to spoof it as well.  This summer, we got not one, but two comedies centered around apocalyptic events: Seth Rogen’s This is the End and Edgar Wright’s The World’s End.  Both films are hilarious takes on the genre, but they both know what makes a good disaster film work in the end and they exploit those elements perfectly.  It comes down to characters you want to root for and wanting to see them overcome even the complete destruction of society as we know it.  Even though the film’s are played for laughs, the same basic elements hold true and the filmmakers who made them know that. Overall, destruction becomes entertainment because we look forward to the process of renewal.  Disaster movies fail if they indulge too heavily in the destructive parts or leave the audience with no satisfying resolution.  It’s human nature to enjoy seeing something blow up, but we also enjoy seeing something good rise out of the rubble of the destruction, and in the end, that’s why we enjoy good a disaster movie.