The Good Dinosaur – Review

good dinosaur

A Thanksgiving release has long been a tradition for animation; at least it has been as long as I’ve known.  Dating back to the mid-November release of The Little Mermaid in 1989, animation studios (most often Disney) have staked a claim on the weekend and have usually dominated it year after year.  This also became a tradition for Disney’s prized computer animation partner Pixar, who has also benefitted from a holiday release schedule dating all the way back to the Thanksgiving opening of their first feature, Toy Story.  Needless to say, this is a prime weekend for family audiences that enjoy good animation, and both Disney and Pixar have consistently delivered at this time of year.  Most of the Pixar films have followed the same release patterns over time; either opening on this weekend, or coming in the middle of the summer.  And so far, positioning themselves in a prime release pattern has provided them with near consistent success.  Sure, some Pixar films have done better than others, but we’ve gotten to a point where any time the studio releases a film, it becomes an event, and those dates carry that weight with them.  This year however, Pixar has taken the unprecedented action of releasing two films on both of their claimed time slots. While it doesn’t put the films in direct contention with one another for box office, this closer than usual release does put them in contention for people’s attention, and as a result both movies are going to be more highly scrutinized than they normally would.  This summer, we got one of Pixar’s all time best with Inside Out (which I reviewed here), and that success unfortunately raises the stakes higher for it’s follow-up, The Good Dinosaur.

The Good Dinosaur comes to theaters after a long and tumultuous development.  The movie suffered many story problems early on and it eventually led to the removal of it’s original writer/director Bob Peterson (Up), a Pixar veteran, from the project.  A move like this usually means that a film is in deep trouble, but it’s not a first for a studio like Pixar, which holds it’s movies up to a very high standard.  Pixar has long held the belief that a movie is not worth making unless the story is sound and sturdy.  Throughout their history, they have long put their story development through the highest scrutiny in order to keep the quality of their brand strong.  This has worked for them in the past; a shake-up in the directors chair for Ratatouille (2007) saw the removal of original director Jan Pinkava in favor of a complete overhaul done by Brad Bird, who then went on to win an Oscar for his work.  Even Toy Story went through an overhaul in it’s development, which reworked the character dynamic between it’s principal characters, Woody and Buzz Lightyear.  Needless to say, Pixar has shown that it can be done.  However, they’ve also shown that some projects are too troubled to be saved and their high standard can’t always ressurect a project that’s doomed from the beginning.  Case in point, Brave (2012), which saw an overhaul and removal of it’s original director Brenda Chapman, but it resulted in a film that felt unoriginal and stale.  Because of the less than successful results of Brave, those same worries are again present with a similarly troubled production like The Good Dinosaur, which also has to deal with the extra pressure of following up the near perfect Inside Out.  Thankfully, The Good Dinosaur shows very little of the scars of it’s troubled production, but at the same time, it also shows that it’s hard to follow-up perfection, even when you’re Pixar.

The Good Dinosaur takes place in a “what if” scenario that presents an alternate reality where the dinosaurs were not wiped out by an asteroid hitting the earth and have instead lived on and evolved to the present day.  This is the setting of the film, which tells the story of Arlo (voiced by Raymond Ochoa) the third born child of a pair of Apatosauruses simply named Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand).  As he gets older, Arlo tries to overcome his crippling fear of everything in life, made especially difficult by his overachieving siblings, Buck and Libby.  Poppa tries his best to instill confidence in Arlo, which includes teaching him how to trap critters.  One day, a critter finds it’s way into the family’s crops, which turns out to be a human child named Spot (Jack Bright).  Poppa leads Arlo after Spot in order to help him get over his fear, but when they venture too far from home, they get caught in a storm and Arlo loses Poppa in a flash flood.  Alone, Arlo must find his way home, but to do so, he must rely on the instincts of the little critter Spot, whom Arlo believes is responsible for getting his father killed.  Though they start off on their journey begrudgingly out of necessity, they quickly develop a shared kinship as they bond over their shared tragic pasts.  Over time, Arlo helps to civilize the wild Spot and show him the importance of family, while Spot helps to embolden the timid Arlo, and together they take a harrowing trip that has them battling a pack of bloodthirsty Pterodactyls and rustling cattle with a family of T-Rexes.  And soon, one time enemies become the closest of friends.

The Good Dinosaur overall is a very easy film to like, maybe even love.  While I did enjoy my time watching it, I can’t say that it moved me as much some of Pixar’s best films.  There are some flaws that do affect it.  But, surprisingly, the story itself is not one of them.  Yes, the thing that actually gave the Pixar story team the most amount of headaches throughout production is actually this movie’s greatest strength.  I think this is largely the result of an assured directing job from first-timer Pete Sohn.  Sohn came onto this project late in the process and I think that he deserves a great amount of credit for righting the ship.  First of all, this is a tough premise to make workable from the beginning, putting the idea across of this alternate reality.  Thankfully the movie makes it work by not dwelling too heavily in presenting it.  The movie starts with a prologue that shows the fateful asteroid heading on it’s way to Earth.  Instead of striking the planet like it’s supposed to, we see the giant rock skim the top, leaving all the dinosaurs unharmed.  It’s simple, but effective, which allows the rest of the film to flow more smoothly, without having to reinforce it’s premise over and over again.  Secondly, I love the way they put a twist on the whole “boy and his dog” scenario, by making the “dog” in this case the “boy.”  Arlo and Spot’s relationship easily carries this film in a big way and it’s a heartwarming friendship.  Pete Sohn also deftly handles the tonal changes of the movie, making the comical moments work hand-in-hand with the heavier oNed.  There’s a surprising amount of tear-jerking scenes here, whether it’s Poppa’s death early on, or the bonding moments with Arlo and Spot.  If you’re not moved by a scene towards the end that leaves the friendship at a crossroads, then you my friend are made of stone.  Naturally, this is the kind of thing Pixar excels at, so it’s not surprising that they nail the emotional stuff here too.

It’s good to see that Pixar’s high standard of story did work out in the end for this feature.  Unfortunately, while well told, is not particularly groundbreaking either.  This is where the inevitable comparison with it’s predecessor begins to hurt it.  Inside Out was such a standout for the company, both in concept and in execution.  What Pixar has done so well over time is reinforce the belief that they are capable of making things you’ve never seen before over and over again, and Inside Out was proof of that.  It’s the kind of movie that reminds you that it could only come from a place like Pixar.  The Good Dinosaur on the other hand feels like it could have come from someplace other than Pixar.  Now if that were true, it would be considered a masterpiece from that company, but the fact that Pixar made this one makes it feel a little out of place in it’s catalogue of hits.  We’ve seen stories like this before from Disney and from Don Bluth, with films like The Lion King (1994), Bambi (1942), and An American Tail (1986) all showing their characters learning life lessons in the wild after suffering a tragedy.  An even more apt comparison would be Don Bluth’s A Land Before Time (1988), which is very similar in story and tone to this movie.  The Good Dinosaur is not covering new ground here, which in turn makes it less successful as a movie than Inside Out.  That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it just could’ve been more.  My other problem with the movie is the inconsistent animation style.  The fill overall is beautiful to look at, but there was a glaring issues with the character designs here.  I felt that the overly cartoonish look of the characters clashed too heavily with the photo-realistic imagery of the environments.  Though the characters are still animated with wonderful personality, the clashed way too much with the backgrounds, and it did take me out of the film occasionally.  I wish this had been an instance where Pixar showed some restraint and made their characters feel more like they belonged as a part of this world.

But, that being said, I do want to praise the work that the animators did on the environments themselves.  There is so much detail put into even the tiniest of elements, whether it be the terrain that the characters tread across or the plants that grow around them.  Even the raindrops feel authentic.  The filmmakers took inspiration for the setting from many points in the American West, including picturesque places like the Blue Mountains of Eastern Oregon to the prairie lands of Nebraska, to even the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains.  Every environment is lovingly recreated here, and having grown up myself in the Pacific Northwest, I can tell you that much of the setting here feels absolutely authentic.  You can almost smell the pine trees as if they were right there in front of you.  And although the characters do clash with this environmental design in a distracting way, I still have to applaud the animators for giving the characters a lot of personality.  Spot, in particular, is the character that feels most in place here.  I’m sure that audiences are going to love this character the most, mainly because of his unpredictable and wild personality.  But at the same time, Spot’s animation shows a lot of signs of subtlety, which comes out perfectly in some of the film’s more dramatic moments.  Arlo’s cartoonish design may feel out of place at first, but he grows on you too, and his innocence is perfectly conveyed in the animation.  You also see the progression of the character as he becomes emboldened over time.  One of the movie’s best plot strengths is getting across the compelling arcs of Arlo and Spot’s stories, and it’s made all the more poignant with character animation that perfectly presents their growing personalities.

The film is not just limited to them alone, however.  There is a whole cast of characters help to flesh out this world as well.  While watching this movie, I was often reminded of one of Pixar’s most beloved features, Finding Nemo (2003), and in a good way.  In that film, we were presented with another journey taken for the characters that took them to many new places and helped to introduce them to a diverse group of new faces.  That sort of progression through different experiences instead of telling a traditional good vs. evil narrative is present here too and it works just as well as it did for Nemo.  Just like that movie had it’s heroes meet a band of reformed sharks, survive a school of jellyfish, and cross the ocean on the backs of sea turtles, this one has Arlo and Spot meeting many interesting friends and foes along the way.  I particularly enjoyed the encounter they have with a family of cattle rustling Tyranosauruses named Butch (Sam Elliott), Ramsey (Anna Paquin) and Nash (A. J. Buckley).  These characters were entertaining enough to support a movie of their own, and their brief presence in the film is very welcome.  I especially liked Sam Elliott’s gruff voice coming out of the ferocious looking Butch.  There’s menace in his performance, but also a lot of heart, and the character actually does serve a purpose in the movie by teaching Arlo that fear is not something to be ashamed of, but something to help motivate him.  The voice cast is universally excellent, especially the two young stars behind Arlo and Spot, and like Finding Nemo before it, the movie is made all the better by a colorful and diverse cast.

So, overall, The Good Dinosaur may not reach a level of greatness when stacked up against it’s more groundbreaking brethren, but still, it’s a very enjoyable and pleasing film that will win over audiences.  I’m sure that most people won’t know or care about the hard road that this movie had to take towards it’s release (it was actually supposed to come out last year, but had to be delayed to fix it’s problems, with Big Hero 6 taking it’s previously announced spot).  But, because I’ve been aware of the troubles that this movie faced, I would definitely call this film a minor triumph.  It doesn’t fall into the same pitfalls as Brave which is very welcome.  But, unfortunatly, because of the delay, it had to share a release year with an instant classic, and sadly that comparison reflects onto it negatively.  Had The Good Dinosaur been released any other year, say having to follow-up a lesser Pixar movie like it was origninally going to, then this might have been viewed a bit more favorably.  Unfortunately, I can’t overlook some of the flaws that this movie has, which did affect my experience watching it.  That being said, it is still a beautifully animated and touching film for the most part.  When your family has finished carving up that turkey and downing that plate of stuffing and mashed potatoes, this will be an ideal holiday film to watch for everyone.  Overall, it’s high mid-range as a Pixar movie, not quite reaching the upper-tier.  But, it does show that it’s worth the extra effort to get the story right, which will hopefully continue to be the standard of practice for the legendary animation studio.

Rating: 7.5/10

Tinseltown Throwdown – Antz vs. A Bug’s Life

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Whenever Hollywood studios develop projects that are similar in story or style, it usually can be explained away as just a coincidence or more likely companies just capitalizing on a trend.  And then there are cases where the two movies are so alike that it can’t be seen as anything other than pure competitive one-ups-man-ship.  This becomes especially true when you have two companies that have a long history of trying to out-do each other, especially if one is playing catch-up.  And for much of the 2000’s, that was the situation with animation giants Pixar and Dreamworks.  Pixar hit the market big first with their groundbreaking Toy Story (1995).  But in the mid-90’s, Dreamworks was also formed with the partnership of filmmaker Steven Spielberg, music mogul David Geffen, and former Disney exec Jeffrey Katzenberg.  With Katzenberg on board, Dreamworks naturally set out to create an animation wing of their own that would be competitive against the juggernaut that is Disney; Pixar’s parent company.  Admirably, they set out to attract the best talent in the business that wasn’t already under contract with the House of Mouse and they came out of the gate swinging with their first feature in development, the traditionally animated epic The Prince of Egypt (1998).  The Prince of Egypt did fairly well at the box office, and even garnered an Oscar for Best Original Song, but with the success of Toy Story from Disney/Pixar, the animation industry began to shift dramatically towards computer animation.  To stay competitive, Dreamworks partnered with PDI (Pacific Digital Imaging) to create an CGI feature of their own.  And the subject they chose to animate seemed a little too familiar to those who were seeing what Pixar was also following up with themselves.

For any animation studio out there, one of the hardest subjects to try to animate is the world from the point of view of an insect.  You’ve got to take in the sense of scale of the miniature world and how life-like it has to appear to feel real.  Needless to say, it takes ambition to pull it off, so rather surprisingly, both Pixar and Dreamworks landed on this subject very early on in their life span.  Within a short window of time, Pixar announced that A Bug’s Life would be their follow-up to Toy Story and Dreamworks announced that Antz would be their first computer animated feature ever.  It’s understandable that this would seem like a logical choice for both companies to come to in order to assert their positions as animation pioneers, but when it was announced that Antz was being rushed through production in order to beat A Bug’s Life to theaters by a couple of weeks, it started to make people wonder if this was more than just a friendly competition.  Certainly the tumultuous departure of Jeffrey Katzenberg from Disney may have led some to believe that this was a direct challenge against his former company, hoping to prove that he can do them one better.  Regardless if that was his true intent, the tight release schedule between the two movies marked the beginning of a decade long battle between the two animation powers, with multiple films released over time that featured strikingly similar plots, characters, and/or settings. These included 2000’s The Road to El Dorado and The Emperor’s New GrooveFinding Nemo (2003) and Shark Tale (2004), and also How to Train Your Dragon (2010) and Brave (2012).  It was an interesting battle of like-minded films for many years, but in this article I’d like to focus on where it all started with Antz and A Bug’s Life because it represented a time when both studios were on an even playing field, which makes the contrasting of the different films all the more interesting separated from the legacies they launched.

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“Yes, Z. You are insignific-ANT.”

Certainly by looking at the surface of both films, you can definitely see a great deal of similarity.  Both are about bugs, with ant colonies being the primary focus.  Both feature an underdog hero that upsets the established order.  And both feature a princess who becomes the love interest of the hero as well as the catalyst for that social change.  But, when watching both movies, you will actually find that the plots themselves are not as similar as you’d think and that’s the most interesting difference between the two.  Antz is about a lowly worker ant named Z (voiced by Woody Allen) who wants to challenge his place in the social order by leaving his job in the tunnels and fighting in the army, hoping to prove himself.  He does just that, trading places with his army friend Weaver (Sylvester Stallone), only to find himself way in over his head.  After escaping to the outside, Z learns of a sinister plot by General Manible (Gene Hackman) to commit an ethnic cleansing of all the worker ants, leaving only the stronger fighter ants loyal to him in charge.  As you can see, even despite being a family film for all ages, there are actually some very heavy themes throughout.  That works as Antz biggest strength, because it feels much more original in story than most other animated films, particularly when it’s dealing with themes of individuality in a totalitarian system.  For a class of film that has so often dealt with themes about the nobility of royalty (like most of the fairy tales told by Disney) it’s kind of refreshing to see an animated film invoke the ideas of political authors George Orwell and Aldous Huxley (whose novel Brave New World was a particular influence here) that speaks more to the heroism of the lower, oppressed classes.  Though not new concepts explored in Hollywood film-making, this was certainly something different for animation, and it helped to make Antz a standout right away.

A Bug’s Life by comparison seems a bit more familiar and less of a gamble in the story department.  It involves a lowly worker ant named Flik (voiced by Dave Foley) who seeks to help out his colony by hiring “warrior bugs” who will help them fight a gang of Grasshoppers who are terrorizing their community, led by their lethal leader Hopper (Kevin Spacey).  Flik finds the bugs he needs, only to learn too late that they are in fact “circus bugs” and not real warriors.  Overall, while still entertaining, A Bug’s Life doesn’t really feel that original, and not because of some similarities it has with Antz; it’s basically Seven Samurai (1954) with insects, and not much else.  True, it does alright with the formula, but after the groundbreaking Toy Story, you would think that a place like Pixar should’ve done something wholly original as their follow-up.  Instead, the story of A Bug’s Life plays by the rules of a standard underdog against the oppressors story-line, which granted Antz did as well, but with a much more sophisticated angle.  When you look at all the Pixar films together, A Bug’s Life actually ranks among the less popular, following in the company of Cars 2 (2011) and Brave (2012), two other very formulaic pictures.  A Bug’s Life is better than those two though, but it’s not all that surprising that it’s place in the Pixar library has diminished over time as the studio has continually pushed the boundaries with movies like The Incredibles (2004), Wall-E (2008), and Inside Out (2015).  As story-lines go, Antz takes more chances with their story by not being afraid to go into darker and deeper themes, which helps to give it a slight edge.

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“I only got twenty-four hours to live, and I ain’t gonna waste it here.”

Though the stories share many similarities, and differ greatly in their presentation, the bigger difference between the two would be the development of the characters.  And again, there are different levels of effectiveness that define the two films.  First off, we look at the main characters of Z and Flik.  In this case, the better of the two would be the former.  Flik, though likable, is sadly the more generic character, and that’s probably because of the story’s insistence that he be too likable.  Flik is clumsy, yes, but the movie never portrays him in an unflattering light and he continually plays the role of the misunderstood every-man who has all the answers.  This sadly robs the character of any individuality; Flik is just too nice for his own good.  Z on the other hand is not as easy to like right away.  He’s a smart ass who talks behind peoples’ back and for most of the movie he acts only in his self interest, up until the point that he discovers that he must stand up for what is right.  Also, he’s continually plagued with self-doubt and a feeling of inferiority, which often explains why he lashes out at others in the movie.  This is where the casting of Woody Allen makes all the difference with the character, because this kind of personality has been a trademark of his throughout his career.  Allen contributed some un-credited dialogue into the movie and I’m sure that was  primarily geared towards shaping the character of Z.  He’s an unconventional hero, one who never intended to make a difference but did so anyway, and that’s what ultimately makes him more interesting.  By contrast, we know Flik will rise to the top in the end and that sadly makes him less interesting as a character.  What he needed was a less telegraphed story arc that would’ve opened up more depth to his development.

antz 1

“Time stands still for no ant.”

Where A Bug’s Life actually gains an advantage over it’s competition is in the rest of the film’s characters.  One thing that has really differentiated Pixar and Dreamworks over time is the way they cast their characters.  Dreamworks tends to favor marquee names that will help to sell their films, while Pixar leans more in favor of casting actors better suited for the role (including having their own in-house artists voicing characters in the final product).  This was true from the beginning with these two movies.  Antz does have the benefit of getting a name like Woody Allen on board, who brought a lot to the role.  Unfortunately, the rest of the acclaimed cast leaves much less of an impression.  Apart from actors Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain playing the WASP-iest of wasps, no one else makes their characters distinct, which is especially problematic when it’s hard to tell them apart.  A Bug’s Life on the other hand has a wonderfully diverse set of characters all voiced by many talented character actors who were perfect for the roles.  There’s something a little genius about having a ladybug voiced by hard-edged comedian Denis Leary.  But, the unconventional casting also helps to set these characters apart from the rest, giving them easy to define personalities.  This even extends to the ant colony, which had voices as diverse as Julia Louise-Dreyfus, Phyllis Diller, Alex Rocco, and Roddy McDowall among them.  But, the best bit of casting that puts A Bug’s Life ahead of Antz is with the villain.  As legendary as Gene Hackman is, he’s saddled with a rather generic villain to play as General Mandible; never once deviating from the typical identity of the military a-hole character trait.  A Bug’s Life on the other hand has Hopper, one of the best animated villains of all time.  Kevin Spacey brings a lot of menace to the part and makes the character truly terrifying, something I’m sure he picked up from roles in Seven and The Usual Suspects.  He stands out because he oppresses not out of a need to keep a sense of order, but instead for his own sadistic fulfillment, which makes him a far more terrifying and effective villain overall.

Now, one thing the films share in common is that they were both made during the infancy of computer animation.  You look at the textures and the fluidity of the animation found in both movies and hold them up to the standards of today, you’ll definitely see how far we’ve progressed in the technology over the last decade.  But, despite the fact that both were made in a less advanced time and look dated today, one still manages to hold up better than the other.  And again, this is where A Bug’s Life’s diverse cast helps to give it an advantage.  A Bug’s Life makes the most of it’s limitations by giving the movie more color and different styles of character design.  When you look at the cast of Antz, the characters all look the same, showing a rather lazy attempt at character design on the art department’s part.  Sometimes while watching it, I couldn’t pick our hero Z out of a crowd because his design was no different than the rest.  By comparison, Flik stands out more because he interacts with many different types of bugs, and not just his own kind.  Antz unfortunately didn’t attempt to give it’s movie more than just a unified design for all it’s characters, and that unfortunately diminishes it’s visual presentation, especially when seen today.  I think that A Bug’s Life had the advantage of having been preceded by Toy Story, which helped Pixar learn a lot of lessons about character and environment design.  Dreamworks wouldn’t be able to differentiate itself by style until years later when movies like Shrek and Madagascar (2005) relied more heavily on stylized animation.  Unfortunately, their advances have left Antz more forgotten over time, while A Bug’s Life still holds a more esteemed reputation in the eyes of audiences today.

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“It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there, princess.  One of those Circle of Life kind of things.”

The fierce battle between the two animation giants provided a interesting era of creative growth over the last decade, sparking a lot of advancement in the medium.  But, what is so fascinating about the rivalry between Dreamworks and Pixar is that it existed right from the beginning.  Really, it seemed that much of their identity as companies was defined by their desire to out do the other and it began right here with these two very similar movies.  Over the years since, both studios would be vying for greatness in different ways; Dreamworks would garner the bigger box office success, but Pixar would win more of the year end awards.  Sadly Dreamworks and Pixar have both fallen victim to their own success, with the former seeing lower box office due to an overly aggressive release schedule and the latter having to make less effective sequels to their biggest hits (Cars 2 and Monsters University) which in turn alienates it’s audience from the originals.  Not to mention their success has enabled other producers to up their game, including Disney itself and Illumination Entertainment with their pesky Minions, causing a more competitive market.  But, without the competition we’ve seen, we wouldn’t have the high quality of animation that we see today, so we should be grateful that Dreamworks and Pixar were trading blows so early on.  Though they both have their strengths and weaknesses, I’d say A Bug’s Life comes slightly out on top thanks to it’s more appealing visuals and iconic villain.  That being said, Antz isn’t worth ignoring eithe , thanks to an engaging main hero and a surprisingly intelligent story-line.  Though both movies were produced and released at a time of bad blood between the studios which continues to this day, it’s still refreshing to see a fine legacy born out of that conflict.

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“Finally.  I have become a beautiful Butterfly.”

The Long Game – How Great Movies Gain Their Audience Over Time

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When we look at many of our favorite movies over the years, it’s natural to think that any of them were always viewed as beloved classics from the day they premiered.  Some of them have no doubt, but there are many others that didn’t find their way into our hearts until many years later.  Oftentimes, it’s just a matter of timing, and that some movies were either overlooked upon their first release, or they fell victim to poor marketing that didn’t effectively allow the movies to find their target audience.  For whatever reason, Hollywood often has a hard time predicting how movies will perform, both in the short run and the long run.  No doubt, the business of the industry is centered around profitability and the more a film is able to make a return on their grosses in their immediate release the better.  That’s why there’s such a reliance on franchise building and sequel bating in the film industry, especially if your film costs are in the $100 million range.  But, there are the films that are stuck in the middle, those that are ambitious but hard to market that unfortunately are held to the same standard of the blockbusters.  It may seem unfair, but Hollywood is a commercial business, and the only way money gets spent is if those providing the funding can see the potential for big returns.  Thankfully, many filmmakers have become good at pitching projects that do push the boundaries and try something different while at the same time appealing to a large audience.  And these ambitious experiments often turn into some of the greatest cinematic wonders that we love today.  Unfortunately, they are also films that make Hollywood weary of failure.

This is common around Awards season, and this year in particular is a strong example of many ambitious projects under-performing according to the high standards of Hollywood.  The last month, we saw a strong collection of releases from some of Hollywood’s most acclaimed talent, which included Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak, Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk, Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs and the Sandra Bullock starrer Our Brand is Crisis.  All were heavily marketed as potential Awards season champions and quality entertainment that was sure to give the season a more sophisticated identity over the bombastic dumb fun of the summer.  Unfortunately, apart from Ridley Scott’s The Martian and Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, every other ambitious film from the last month failed at the box office.  Entertainment Weekly recently ran an article discussing this very thing in their November 13 issue (read it here) in which they dubbed the string recent disappointments “SHOCKTOBER.”  While Hollywood should fret about a pattern of underwhelming returns at the box office, at the same time I don’t think that it’s also fair to say that it was the movies themselves that were to blame.  Really, even though the recent box office has been sluggish, it’s not a reflection of the quality of the films, and many of them are actually still worth seeing.  I already reviewed The Walk and Crimson Peak favorably, and I actually believe that Steve Jobs is one of the best films of the year so far.  But because none of these movies made a profit, it unfortunately leads to a desire on Hollywood’s part to not invest in projects like them in the future, and that’s the sad reality about the business.  Though immediate box office can help boost a movie’s esteem, sometimes other films take their time, and develop their audiences over a long period.  And in some cases, this is actually better for the lifespan of a movie.

It’s the staying power of a movie that ultimately belies it’s greatness.  When we look at the best movies of all time, they all share a popularity with audiences that transcends their time and place.  But, when you dig deeper into a handful of them, you will notice that many lists of the greatest movies ever made will include a mix of both successes and failures from box offices of years past.  For every Star Wars (1977), Some like it Hot (1959)and Casablanca (1943) there’s a Blade Runner (1982), Groundhog’s Day  (1992), and a Touch of Evil (1958).  All are considered masterpieces now, but the latter category didn’t achieve success immediately and in fact weren’t fully appreciated until many years later.  In some cases, a spectacular failure can even turn into a beloved classic completely out of nowhere.  I’m sure nobody thought that director Frank Capra’s biggest box office failure would turn into his most beloved feature decades later; the Christmas perennial It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  That movie performed so badly that it shut down the company that made it, and yet today it is almost a sin for it not to air on network television during the holidays.  These are clear signs that great movies always find their audiences eventually; it’s just that not all of them do it in the same way.  Though the stigma of failure can plague a movie for a while, we’ve been shown that quality does get appreciated in the end and that time can help refresh a film’s perception in interesting ways.  Why, we’re even seeing that now with notorious flops like Heaven’s Gate (1980), which was deemed worthy of a Criterion release recently despite it’s reputation.

But, for these movies to exist at all there has to be credibility in their value, and Hollywood, as much as they try, can’t always predict how movies will perform in the long run.  This ultimately effects what films end up getting made, and the need for immediate satisfaction is the prevailing desire on the part of those financing the projects.  When a movie fails to make money, the studios become less likely to invest more into something different, and that’s when we see fewer chances being taken.  I would only ask Hollywood to consider the fact that movies, if they are good enough, can be more profitable in the long run and that immediate box office won’t always be the last word on a film’s success.  Take the case of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner; this was a box office failure in it’s time and people viewed it as a sign of Scott’s decline in stature in the industry.  But, with subsequent home video releases and airings on cable, the movie found an audience and  became a cult hit.  That cult status later hit the mainstream and now Blade Runner is not only considered one of Scott’s most beloved films, but also considered to some as his masterpiece over successes like Alien (1978) and Gladiator (2000).  Also, most importantly, it has become a moneymaker for it’s studio Warner Brothers; maybe not to a Star Wars level, but still you’ll see a fair share of memorabilia and special edition releases devoted to the film to this day, all of which generate plenty of money.  This is a perfect example of a movie that has aged beautifully, like fine wine.  It shows that you can’t just dismiss a movie right away because it didn’t give you what you wanted up front.  That being said, no body can predict how audiences tastes will change over time.

A large part of how a movie does perform at the box office has to do with how well it answers the hype that surrounds it.  Marketing of course does the work of generating attention for movies, and in many cases hype can be helpful and deserved.  But, there’s also the risk of putting too much hype on a film , because it can generate the wrong kind of attention.  This was the case with many of the recent releases that failed at the box office this October.  A lot of attention was drawn to the quality filmmakers and star power that these movies had, and also the fact that they were about something important and/or artistically daring.  In most cases they were, but the marketing failed to make that case to audiences.  What I saw in the advertisements for these films was a desperate desire to make these movies appear important, but at the same time, it ended up also making them appear indistinct.  That’s the danger of Awards season marketing; studios want to make these movies look like contenders, such as those that have succeeded before them, but at the same time, it diminishes what could have made them different from the rest.  The Steve Jobs movie, for example is one of the most interesting cinematic experiments I’ve seen this year; telling the story of a historical figure in our culture in only 3 scenes, helped out by the masterful direction from Danny Boyle and a killer screenplay by Aaron Sorkin.  Unfortunately, that daring artistic choice is not highlighted in the marketing, and it made the movie look just like any other biopic we’ve seen, which it is not.  The same can be said about the downplaying of the artistic achievements in Crimson Peak and The Walk.  Like the Entertainment Weekly article states, this is a case where Hollywood fell victim to making “too many films for a similar audience.”  But when you look at the films themselves, there’s nothing similar about them at all.  It’s only the marketing that made it look like they were of the similar vein.  That’s the danger of Award season marketing, because it puts all movies into a similar category when really they should belong in their own spotlight.

And being the big winner of award season doesn’t always give a movie a long life span either.  Anybody else remember Ordinary People, the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1980?  Didn’t think so.  There are other years where you can find many of the greatest classics ever made by Hollywood that all lost to a movie that few today even remotely remember.  One of the more recent examples of this was 1999.  That year, American Beauty walked away with the big awards, beating out movies like The Green Mile and The Sixth Sense.  It probably made sense at the time, but sixteen years later, the movies that stand out from 1999 that have aged the best are ones that weren’t even nominated; American Beauty not being one of them.  This includes my own favorite film from that year, David Fincher’s Fight Club.  The movie reached theaters amid mixed reviews from critics and a disappointing box office run, especially given that A-lister Brad Pitt was the star of it.  But, despite not clicking with the Hollywood elite initially, Fight Club did find success in the underground market, especially among college aged youth at the time, and like Blade Runner it developed a cult following that eventually hit the mainstream.  Now Fight Club is rightfully considered a classic years later, even to the point where awarded thesis papers are written today on college campuses across America discussing the philosophical questions raised by the film and it’s significance to cinematic art.  Other 1999 films have also likewise developed devoted followings like The Matrix and The Iron Giant, and have since left a remarkable impact in the decade following their release.  Iron Giant in fact recently received a special anniversary re-release, which is pretty remarkable for a movie that bombed when it first came out.  All the while, American Beauty isn’t even mentioned much today, much less seen worthy of an anniversary re-release.  Director Sam Mendes is in fact much more heralded today for his James Bond movies and less for the film that earned him an Oscar.  It just shows that vying for the end of the year gold doesn’t always guarantee a long life span for your film, and that sometimes it’s much better to make a movie that builds an audience over time.

The other thing that determines a movie’s ability to find it’s audience is how it deals with the circumstances of it’s release. Like I stated earlier, failure in the beginning doesn’t always mean failure for eternity in the whole of cinematic history.  If a movie is worthy of it, it will eventually find an audience.  Sometimes this is helped by viewing the film through the prism of nostalgia.  This often happens with movies that are emblematic of the time they were made and feel unique when contrasted with the movies of today.  Just look at any of the movies mocked on Mystery Science Theater.  What seemed bland and sub-par in it’s own time can come off as charmingly ridiculous when taken out of their original contextual time period.  The same goes with some of Hollywood’s more undiscovered classics.  People attracted to different genres can often find a hidden gem deep in the studio vaults, if Hollywood gives them a  chance to be seen.  That’s why Film Noir, Western and Sci-fi genres benefit from the passage of time, because audiences that seek out unseen classics will almost always find what they are looking for, just due to the sheer probability taken out of diverse tastes.  Time makes us ultimately forget how a movie performed and instead makes us see the movie on it’s own merits, as a great story worth telling and that’s what ultimately makes them a classic in the end.  Sometimes a great film was overlooked at the time just because the studio didn’t see any value in it and decided to bury it for years.  Thankfully, with the resources we have now, nothing is buried anymore, and even the forgotten are given a chance to shine.  Blade Runner and Fight Club managed to do it on home video, and It’s a Wonderful Life did it on television.  The more avenues a movie has given to it, the better chance it has to find it’s audience in the end, and all the great ones do eventually.

So, despite Entertainment Weekly’s worries that one bad month is an omen of ill tidings for the industry, it should not be a reflection on the movies themselves.  A great film eventually finds a way to make money in the long run.  Sadly, Hollywood is an impatient beast, and waiting for returns a decade later is not a good way to run a business.  So, movies like Steve Jobs, Crimson Peak and The Walk are going to carry the stigma of being disappointments for a while, and it will probably hurt their chances during Awards season, which is a little unfair.  But, Hollywood should understand that box office numbers are not always a sign of a film’s actual overall value.  Sometimes a failure at the box office may be discovered by an aspiring filmmaker who is then inspired by it and eventually one day they make a game-changing film that does produce an immediate box office success.  Overall, I’m saying that Hollywood execs shouldn’t be discouraged from taking chances once in a while.  Yeah, it will be good for business if you travel down the safe route with predictable, name brand fair that’s guaranteed to give you a big opening weekend.  But, if you have the opportunity to reach for greatness by making something that’s different and challenging, it may give you decades worth of positive returns.  Basically, you’re left with the choice between producing an opera or a fireworks show.  Both have the potential to entertain, but one will stick with people for far longer despite costing you more initially.  Hopefully the October releases this year can stick it out; and the awards season has been known to pull movies out of the abyss of disappointment by giving them the spotlight through a deserved nomination.  In that regard, it shows that playing the long game can be tricky, but at the same time, oh so rewarding.

Spectre – Review


There are few if any characters that have had as much of an impact in cinematic history as 007 himself, James Bond.  From the very moment that Sean Connery ordered his first vodka martini as the secret agent in Dr. No (1962), the entire world knew they had found a new cinematic icon.  A large part of it had to do with the charisma of Connery, of course, but as we’ve seen over the years, Ian Fleming’s Bond can live far beyond just one single actor.  George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnon have all donned Bond’s neatly tailored threads over the years, sometimes in spectacular fashion and at other times in some rather mediocre ways.  For a long running series like James Bond’s, it’s sometimes difficult to keep up the high quality from film to film, which has kept the Bond franchise consistently inconsistent.  Each new actor does bring in fresh blood, but rarely do all of their movies become all time classics.  Going over every Bond film, you can pick out at least one from each star that’s a classic, and for some of the more prolific like Connery and Moore, they may have two or more classics among them.  George Lazenby lucked out with having his one and only outing as the character being the great and underrated On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).  Basically, what I’ve seen from  the Bond franchise is a very roller coaster like flow to it’s level of quality and that the longer an actor commits to the role, the more they leave themselves open to having a shakier record as the super spy.

Which leads me to where the series is at now, as we reach the latter part and possible end of the Daniel Craig era.  Daniel Craig’s turn as Bond has been one of the most praised across the board, and it’s easy to see why.  The Bond franchise had declined heavily towards the end of Pierce Brosnan’s reign.  Brosnan started off strong with the classic Goldeneye (1995), but his three follow-ups got progressively worse, ending with the laughable Die Another Day (2002), the movie where Bond surfs on a tsunami and drives an invisible car.  When it came time to choose a new actor for the role, parent company EON Productions wanted someone who could bring the series back to it’s roots, and the perfect man for the job ended up being Daniel Craig.  Though not a household name at the time, Craig has since left his mark on the character, making Bond tougher and grittier, while at the same time not betraying the suave roots of Fleming’s original.  Craig became the Bond of the 21st century and modernized him in a way that greatly appealed to audiences.  Since being cast, Craig has appeared in four films total (contracted for five) and he holds the distinction of having one of the best batting averages of all the Bond actors.  Of his movies, you can definitely consider two of them all time classics, his debut Casino Royale (2006) and the record breaking Skyfall (2012).  Quantum of Solace (2008), while not bad by any means, does fall short of the other two, showing that even Craig is not immune to a dip in quality during his time.  And after Skyfall, which could arguably be the best Bond movie ever made, it’s put a lot of pressure on what follows it after.  So, this week, we finally see how Daniel Craig’s James Bond fares in his fourth outing; the hotly anticipated Spectre (2015).

The interesting thing about Daniel Craig’s Bond movies is that unlike all the others, they share the same story arc, each one connected to the other.  Spectre picks up right where Skyfall left off, with James following a lead left to him by his recently deceased former boss M (Judi Dench), which leads him to take on rogue missions much to the chagrin of the new M in charge (Ralph Fiennes).  With the assistance of hi-tech quartermaster Q (Ben Whishaw) and reliable desk operative Moneypenny (Naomie Harris), Bond is able to go undercover and infiltrate a shadow organization that he believes is responsible for terrorist attacks all over the world, called simply SPECTRE.  Once he makes it inside, he soon learns that one man is in charge of the whole operation going by the name Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), and that he is more aware of Bond’s presence than he realized.  After escaping in a chase through the streets of Rome, pursued by Oberhauser’s henchman Hinx (Dave Bautista), Bond seeks out an old enemy, Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who can give him more information about SPECTRE, which the old man does with the promise from James that he will protect White’s daughter Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux).  All the while this is happening, M, Q, and Moneypenny are having to deal with the shutdown of the 00 program in favor of a computer driven surveillance system developed by a tech wizard code-named C (Andrew Scott), leaving Bond all on his own.

Spectre does something unique in the Bond franchise in that it ties up all the loose threads of each previous film, even the more standalone Skyfall.  As a result, this movie has an interesting sense of closure for Daniel Craig’s version of the character, which would be fitting if this is indeed his final outing.  But, the question is, does this movie live up to what has come before and become a third classic for the actor; or does it disappoint and only prove that it’s time for a change.  Well, truth be told, when it comes to making all time great Bond movies, it seems you only live twice.  But, that’s not a sign that this movie is bad.  Spectre really is everything a Bond movie should be.  It’s got great action set pieces, including a spectacular opening in Mexico City that I would consider one of the best in the series, and a great fight sequence between Craig and Bautista on a train.  It’s also got the series’ trademark sense of humor that helps to keep the movie from ever becoming too heavy and self-important.  Really, any other time this would be considered an all time great in the series, and as a standalone film, it’s easy to recommend to everyone.  The unfortunate thing for it is that it’s coming right off the the heels of Skyfall, which is not only a franchise best, but arguably one of the best spy thrillers ever made.  Because Skyfall is so close in my memory, it only made me think of what this film was missing, which might be a little unfair of me, but I would be lying at the same time if I said that I didn’t have a nagging couple issues with this movie either.

I’d say that my biggest fault with the film is that it suffers from a very underwhelming third act.  Much of the film’s best scenes play out early on and the movie leads up to a very satisfying confrontation with Bond and the villain, including some revelations that will please die hard fans of the franchise as well as the Fleming novels.  Unfortunately, the film goes on for another twenty minutes or so after it should’ve ended, with a pointless game of cat and mouse through the streets of London, adding nothing more to the movie other than another action sequence.  Skyfall on the other hand built up to it’s climax in a perfect way, giving it the weight and tension that it needed.  That’s what’s missing here.  Spectre also suffers from periodic lulls in pacing.  While the movie does come alive whenever there is an action sequence, it would slow down thereafter and lose my interest in some of the more dialogue heavy sequences.  Not that the’re bad scenes, but I would at times start to loose attention to what was going on.  And at 2 1/2 hours, Spectre is the longest Bond movie to date, which makes these down moments all the more problematic.  But at the same time, the movie doesn’t fully suffer for it.  There is still a great deal to enjoy about this movie.  It may be flawed, but at the same time, you can say that about 80% of all the Bond films.  Only a select handful have ever achieved masterpiece status.  I would put Spectre on the high end of the “almost masterpieces”, which would include movies like Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Octopussy (1983), Live and Let Die (1973), and From Russia With Love (1963).

What I did love, however, was James Bond himself in this film.  Daniel Craig once again proves why he is one of the greatest actors to ever play the role.  Only Connery could be considered better, given that he originated the character, and even that might be up for debate at some point.  Craig has never been letdown in this series, even with the story faults here in Spectre and more so in Quantum of Solace.  He’s believably tough whenever he gets into a fight, but also dashing enough to be charmingly suave.  He also nails the sense of humor of the character perfectly as well.  There’s a hilarious moment when Bond is staying in a seedy hotel in Morocco and he’s awoken to a mouse crawling across the floor in front of him.  In a great bit of subtle humor, Bond quietly pulls out his gun, points it at the mouse, and jokingly starts to interrogate it.  It’s one of the best character moments in the movie and it helped to make up for some of the movie’s other shortcomings.  In addition, Christoph Waltz is ideal casting as the villain, and it makes perfect sense that he was cast once we learn more about him towards the end.  I only wish that the movie had utilized more screen time for Waltz, because he doesn’t become a factor in the story until very late.  But, once he’s present, he doesn’t waste anytime leaving an impact, which is exactly why you get an actor of his quality on board for something like this.  I also liked the fact that Team Bond is more involved in this story.  Q and Moneypenny are not wasted on the sidelines and are given much more to do in this movie than in most of the previous Bond films, which is refreshing.  Even the new M helps out more, getting in a few well deserved fight scenes of his own.  Spectre is definitely bolstered by it’s capable cast, and I’m happy to see that no role was wasted overall.

The movie also benefits from well constructed set pieces and edge of your seat action scenes.  From what I’ve read, this is the most expensive Bond movie made to date, and you can see every penny put to use on screen.  The eye-opening Mexico City prologue is indeed one of the standouts and you can tell that director Sam Mendes wanted to set the movie’s bombastic tone in a big way.   The scale is perfectly conveyed immediately, especially given the nearly five minute tracking shot they used to open the movie.  I’d say that the only thing that’s missing is the beautiful, painterly styled cinematography from Roger Deakins that we saw in Skyfall.  Here the cinematography was done instead by Interstellar (2014) photographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, who goes for a grittier, more realistic style.  But, that helps to give this movie it’s own unique visual imprint to set it apart, so it’s not a negative by any means.  I also like the fact that this movie doesn’t overdo it with the visual effects.  That’s what plagued many of the later Brosnon Bonds, which overused CGI to the point where Die Another Day felt like a cartoon at times.  Here, the CGI supports the action rather than overwhelms it, which is what all the Craig Bonds have done exceptionally well.  Though they have the capabilities now to have James Bond do anything possible on the big screen, it’s a good sign that the filmmakers are restraining themselves to keep their super spy earthbound.  And this movie does an overall great job of retaining the tried and true feel of a Bond movie.  The famous title sequences are brilliant works of pop art in their own right and this one adds yet another stunning entry, although the title song by Sam Smith does unfortunately sound like a karaoke version of a Bond theme, and doesn’t quite reach the heights of Adele’s Oscar-winning ballad from Skyfall.

Overall, it’s hard to be truly fair to a movie like Spectre.  On it’s own, it is a very acceptable and downright enjoyable action thriller.  Unfortunately, the movie must also carry the weight of the franchise that it represents, made even more complicated by the fact that it’s following in the footsteps of a masterpiece.  But, at the same time, I do have to point out the flaws that are inherent, which do affect the overall quality of the movie.  It was a smart move on EON Production’s part to retain the creative team from Skyfall, which included director Mendes and screenwriter John Logan.  Unfortunately, success is a hard thing to repeat, so I do have to give them credit for doing as well as they did.  If only they had stuck the landing in the third act.  From what I’ve heard, this was one of the more troublesome productions for the series, leading star Daniel Craig to want to call it quits afterwards.  He still has one more film on his contract, but it remains to be seen if they decide to part ways and move on despite this.  The ending of this movie opens the door for both possibilities; it brings closure to Bond’s arc throughout all the Daniel Craig films, but at the same time, it also leaves room for further adventures.  Only time will tell which avenue they choose.  Regardless, as the end credits state, Bond will return and the franchise will continue to go on.  If this is the end for Daniel Craig as 007, then it’s a fine farewell.  He’s had one of the best runs ever as the character and though Casino Royale and Skyfall rank as solid 9’s, Spectre comes in as a respectable 8, with Quantum of Solace falling down to a 7.  It’s an almost classic that will certainly be worth watching no matter what.  And that’s all you need in the end from Bond, James Bond.

Rating: 8/10