Alice Through the Looking Glass – Review

alice thru the looking glass

Fantasy films seem to go through cycles in Hollywood.  Sometimes they are out, and then sometimes they become hot properties again.  After something of a resurgence in the 1980’s, the fantasy genre went into hibernation during the 90’s, until Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy brought it back in a big way.  Afterwards, it seemed like any Young Adult novel or any original fantasy concept became a profitable investment to make, until it didn’t.  Towards the end of the 2000’s, the fantasy genre seemed to fall by the wayside with Comic Book movies taking it’s place.  And now, it seems like the genre is only being kept afloat by the one studio that has seemingly cornered the market now; Disney.  What benefits Disney is the fact that they’ve built their brand around the fantasy genre, and they have a proven track record of getting it right.  Think of any iconic fairy tale, and more than likely Disney has made the definitive version of that story for the big screen.  But, when we think of the definitive versions of these stories, like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or the Little Mermaid, it’s usually the animated version that we think about.  So now, it is interesting to see Disney taking their own animated classics and translating them into live action today and in turn becoming the only studio delivering grand scale fantasy films to the market right now.  It’s easy to see why they are doing it; they have an extensive catalog to draw from and each comes with it’s own built in audience.  But, one has to wonder if rehashing their old classics in a new guise is actually beneficial to the Disney brand or not, and whether or not this adds any substance to the fantasy genre as a whole.

So far, Disney’s live action adaptations of their animated films have been mixed.  One of them did hit it’s mark last year in Kenneth Branagh’s retelling of Cinderella, a movie that did a great job of drawing on the nostalgia of the original film while still maintaining an identity of it’s own that worked.  This year’s The Jungle Book did an okay job with it’s adaptation, delivering on the visuals but underwhelming in it’s plot.  And then you get the bad adaptations that missed the mark completely.  2014’s Maleficent disappointed because it took the edge out of one of Disney’s greatest villains as well as missed the point of the original fairy tale.  And then there was Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010), the movie that began this recent trend of adapting animated classics.  The concept sounded perfect on paper; legendary Gothic filmmaker Burton taking on Lewis Carroll’s classic absurdist fantasy with Johnny Depp bringing his special brand of hammy acting to the role of the Mad Hatter.  How could it go wrong?  Well, as both an adaptation and a movie, it went very wrong.  Tim Burton’s Alice was no where near as whimsical as it should’ve been, and instead was dour and surprisingly violent.  This Alice had none of the cartoonish zaniness of Beetlejuice (1988) or the visual splendor of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).   It’s Tim Burton at his most disinterested, merely delivering on what the studio wanted instead of coming up with something unique.  Still, the movie was a box office hit, grossing over a billion worldwide despite it’s shortcomings.  A sequel was naturally in the works thereafter, but perhaps rightly, Tim Burton decided to move on.  Now a follow-up is here six years after the release of the original, titled Alice Through the Looking Glass (taken from Lewis Carroll’s own sequel to his original novel), and it’s premiering in a decidedly different atmosphere than it’s predecessor.  Did Disney learn some of the lessons of the original or did they just double down and coast on formula instead of doing something different?

The movie takes place only a few years after the adventures in the last film.  For those who haven’t seen the original, it should be noted that the 2010 film was not a remake of the original story, but instead something of a pseudo-sequel, finding Alice returning to Wonderland in adulthood.  This sequel finds Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) in the position of sea merchant, running the same ship that her father once did.  She unfortunately returns home to find that her investment partner has suddenly died and that the deed to her ship is in the possession of his spoiled, entitled heir, who’s looking to fire her.  Alice now finds that her livelihood is in danger, but her dilemma is interrupted when she is visited by her old friend The Catepiller (Alan Rickman in his last film role), now a butterfly who can cross between worlds.  He shows Alice a way back to Underland (their home’s name, which Alice mistakes for Wonderland) through a mirror (or looking glass), where she is greeted by the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) as well as the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) and the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry).  They tell Alice that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) has lost his mind and that the only way to bring him back to himself is to find his family, who are believed to be dead.  Alice is tasked with altering the past to prevent the Mad Hatter from losing his loved ones, and to do so, she must steal a device called the Chronosphere from Time himself (Sasha Baron Cohen).  Through her time travels, she tries to save her friend, while at the same time learning about all the backstories of the residents of Underland, all the while being hunted down by Time, looking to get back what’s his.  She soon learns, all the problems facing her friends lead her once again to facing an old enemy; the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).

So, as you can see, very little of this actually bears any resemblance to the Alice in Wonderland story that we all know.  This is a movie that merely uses the setting and the characters for it’s own purpose.  Now, does this work out as a good thing or a bad thing for the movie?  Well, here’s the situation.  On the whole, this is a better movie than the 2010 original; but not by much.  Using an original plot as opposed to mishandling a familiar one does indeed benefit the film; it’s less pressure to stay faithful to the original source.  That being said, this movie still carries over the same problem of the original, in that this world never once fells right as a representation of Wonderland.  Lewis Carroll’s original 1865 children’s novel was a masterpiece of absurdist literature.  It appealed to readers because Carroll’s Wonderland was a place where all rules of law, manners, and even physics were turned upside down and everyone there was just a little bit “mad”, making Alice’s journey both whimsical while at the same time always perilous.  It’s beloved by anyone who lives outside social norms, embraces the unusual, and let’s their imagination go wild.  The animated form is a perfectly suited medium for Carroll’s vision, because it’s the best way to capture the mad-cap sense of it all, and that’s why Disney’s 1951 feature is as beloved as it is.  So, it makes it all the more baffling why Tim Burton’s film as well as this sequel tries so hard to bring order and sense to Wonderland.  This is a Wonderland that’s fanciful, but in a way that’s forced.  It’s as if the studio was playing it too safe with the material, and in turn, it kind of neuters the vision of Wonderland as a whole.  This sequel sadly falls into the same trap as it’s predecessor by making Wonderland feel like every other fantasy realm we’ve ever seen, and less like it’s own unique world.  If there was ever a time to show off that anything is possible in the realm of fantasy, this would be the film to do it in, and it’s sadly a road not taken by this series.

I believe that a great deal of the problem with this movie and the original is in the screenplay.  Screenwriter Linda Woolverton has had a long history of writing for the Disney company (contributing to the scripts of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King for instance), but recently she’s been tasked with adapting these animated classics into the live action medium and I feel that it’s a task that’s not well suited for her.  A big problem with her writing style is that it relies too heavily on explaining things.  She seems to devote too much time to trying to make sense of a story that doesn’t need to be complicated in the first place.  There’s a lot of “on the nose” dialogue in this film, like Alice’s constant usage of half-baked philosophical musings that have no meaning, such as ” Sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  The way Woolverton plots her movies also tends to lean too closely to fan fiction rather than actual real screenwriting.  Like most low grade fan fics, Alice seems too self-interested in letting uncharacteristic scenarios play out than actually building any weight behind them.  This has led to some bad story-telling ideas at Disney recently like turning Maleficent into a hero instead of a villain (another script written by Mrs. Woolverton), and here, it makes the mistake of turning Alice into a proactive, warrior-like crusader, instead of the wandering traveler that she is in the book.  It’s a weird thing that’s happened to the fantasy genre in the wake of Lord of the Rings, where it seems like each film needs to end with their hero taking sword in hand and fighting in an epic battle, as Alice did against the Jabberwocky in the previous film.  Thankfully, that doesn’t happen in this movie, but Alice’s Back to the Future style time travel adventure doesn’t quite fit well either.

The big difference between this and the 2010 Alice is mostly in the style of film-making.  Instead of Tim Burton directing, this time the reins are given over to James Bobin, who a couple years back delivered a charming new big screen adventure for the The Muppets in their new movie of the same name.  He also started off his career as the co-creator of the cult series Flight of the Concords, which shows that he has a knack for absurdist comedy.  So, allowing him to direct this Alice in Wonderland sequel makes sense.  Unfortunately, Bobin can’t quite overcome the faults of the screenplay.  His management of the story still feels disjointed and at times rushed, not allowing any cohesive character development or tone to take hold.  That being said, he does help improve some of the visual aesthetic for the film.  The Tim Burton Alice not only suffered story-wise, but it was also ugly to look at, with muted colors and garish CGI overkill; only the Oscar-winning costumes by Coleen Atwood stood out.  Thankfully, Bobin does make this sequel look brighter.  The colors pop a lot more and there are some genuinely interesting visual ideas throughout, like Time’s gothic style fortress or the Red Queen’s garish vegetable built  hide-out.  Sadly, most of these visuals are drowned out by the movie’s over-reliance on CGI imagery.  Not only that, but the pacing is so manic, that the movie never devotes enough time to allow these visuals to soak in.  The movie only excels when it’s allowed to embrace the weirdness of this world and that sadly is few and far between.  But, credit is due to James Bobin for at least trying to make this world interesting, as opposed to Tim Burton’s disinterested approach in the last one.

The cast is also a mixed bag.  Mia Wasikowska was decent enough as Alice in the original, and she remains mostly the same this time around too.  Alice has so far been a fairly bland hero in these movies, but that’s more the fault of how she’s written than how she’s played.  Mia at least tries to make the character sympathetic, even when the script calls for her to do some really stupid things.  The same cannot be said for Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.  This is without a doubt the worst performance that the notoriously eccentric actor has ever created.  Sometimes his acting intuitions generate some interesting roles out of him, and his oddball role as Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies is rightly iconic for that reason.  But here, I don’t know what he was thinking.  His whispery voiced, kubuki make-up wearing Hatter is a complete misfire of a character.  He’s not charming nor endearing.  Anytime he’s onscreen, the movie suffers as a result.  I get the feeling that he was just saddled with this role only because it was the only way Tim Burton could get Disney on board and Depp was only helping a friend out, but could never fully grasp the character and this was him just coasting on instinct.  Sadly for him, he’s the character that the rest of the film hinges on, and the lack of appeal for the Hatter reflects badly on the film as a whole.  Fairing better are Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter in their roles as Time and the Red Queen.  These two seem to know what kind of movie they’re in and they are clearly having fun with their roles.  Cohen actually make Time a surprisingly effective new addition to this world; both funny and poignant when he needs to be, utilizing his talents as an actor perfectly.  Carter, the best performer from the original as well, continues to be strong here and gives the single funniest performance, surprising given who her costars are.  It really shows how much the right cast can elevate material they’re given, and I applaud Disney for not only holding on to what they already had, but also expanding it and giving them more to  do.

So, is it worth revisiting this Wonderland yet again.  Well, if you were a fan of the original (which I doubt very few are) I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.  The movie is a mild improvement over the original, but let’s not forget, the bar was low to begin with.  This sequel is still plagued by terrible writing, a way too artificial visual aesthetic, and an uneven cast of characters.  Not to mention, there’s no cohesion to the plot (the story-lines within Wonderland and outside of it have nothing to do with each other) and the time travel element is pointless and never taken to it’s full advantage.  That being said, this film does feel less lazy than it’s predecessor and it thankfully avoids some of the same genre pitfallls.  This movie thankfully doesn’t end in an epic battle like so many other fantasy epics, and instead goes for a somewhat near apocalyptic conclusion.  There’s also the performances of Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter that help to liven up the movie and keep this from being too humorless and dour.  Still, the fact that Disney devoted so much time and effort to create a Wonderland that feels anything but wonderful is not a good sign.  If you’re going to bring Lewis Carroll’s absurdist vision to life, don’t hold it back.  Disney is the studio best equipped to adapt this source material and they did an admirable job of just that in their animated classic.  Sadly, the translation has not panned out in the live action medium and it makes one wonder if Disney’s raiding of it’s animated canon for this treatment is really a good idea overall.  If you want to watch Alice in Wonderland, go with the original animated classic.  Alice Through the Looking Glass is not the worst thing ever, but it’s a far cry from wonderful too.

Rating: 5.5/10

What the Hell Was That? – X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

We live right now in a Golden Age of Comic Book Movies.  What was once seen as a niche market, with only the occasional crossover hits, is now the dominant force in film-making today.  It seems like any studio will take a shot at adapting Comic Books into movies these days, whether they are good or bad, just so they can capitalize on the trend.  While comic book films are diverse, the vast majority of them are coming from the big three players in this battle at the box office; Marvel, which is owned by Disney; DC Comics, which is owned by Warner Brothers; and 20th Century Fox, which has held on to it’s licensed characters from Marvel (namely the X-Men).  Though independent comic book adaptations still happen occasionally (such as Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)), it’s these three competitors who are clearly driving the state of Comic Book adaptations forward.  For the most part, fans of comic books are pleased with the state of things in this booming industry.  A lot of these movies are made by fans for fans, and the studios are learning quickly that it’s better to give their audiences what they demand, instead of delivering what they think the audiences want.  Marvel, of course, is leading the way with their ambitious Cinematic Universe, which has tied all their collective films together.  But, it’s not been without tough competition from their competitors, such as DC’s Dark Knight trilogy and of course the unexpected success of Deadpool earlier this year.  But, the one thing that the studios have learned is that when one of their comic book movies fails, it fails hard.

We’ve seen a number of times over the years where a comic book series runs out of steam and hit a low point.  Sometimes those low points result in movies that are so bad that they completely shut down the series as a whole, stopping any chance of further installments.  Most Comic Book franchises have fallen victim to this at some point.  Superman saw his series come to an end with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), a ludicrously cheap sequel in a once revolutionary franchise.  Batman also reached an absurd end with Batman & Robin (1997), which traded in the gloomy gothic grandeur of Tim Burton for the neon, cartoony carnival excess of Joel Schumacher. Spiderman has had to be rebooted twice thanks to two horrible movies; Spiderman 3 (2007) and The Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014).  It’s practically a miracle that nothing like this has happened yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though Iron Man 3 (2013) and Ant-Man (2015) brought it awfully close).  But, what somehow redeems some of these movies in the long run is the fact that they are so bad, it actually makes them fascinating.  I could go on about the ridiculous and seemingly unthinkable creative choices that went into the making of some of these movies (like the dance sequence in Spiderman 3, or the laughably terrible acting in Batman & Robin), but to be considered one of my least favorite superhero movies, you would need to something much worse; and that’s be a complete bore.  A boring superhero movie is worse in my opinion than any weirdly horrible film.  Batman & Robin at least has camp value.  Superman Returns (2006) does not.  But, if I were to pick out one of the worst Superhero movies I’ve ever seen because of this factor, it would be the worst film in the X-Men franchise; X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

Up until last year’s Fantastic Four (2015), I would say that Origins was the worst superhero movie that I’ve ever seen.  It’s not the worst made or the worst acted, but it’s the one superhero movie that feels the most bland and uninteresting.  Just watching the movie you feel like no one involved had any passion behind the project and that it was made purely out of an obligation to keep the franchise going.  The only problem is, there was no place for the franchise to go.  Fox had already put an end to the X-Men story-line with 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, an equally derided sequel that left fans upset, because of the way that it shamelessly killed off some fan favorite characters for no good reason.  Origins was an attempt to keep the franchise going by rolling back the clock and showing how it’s titular hero began.  The only problem was that nothing interesting was revealed to us.  The origin of popular X-Men character Wolverine (played throughout the franchise by Hugh Jackman), was already explained pretty well in the critically acclaimed X2: X-Men United (2002), so using this movie to tell a story that we already know felt pretty pointless.  That being said, a earnest approach to the story could have found new and unique revelations about the character.  Sadly, because this was a film driven more by commerce, Origins relied more heavily on action set-pieces than actual character development.  This film came at the tail end of an era when studios were more interested in the characters than stories.  Because of this, many movies of this era usually forced superheroes into story-lines that normally weren’t suited for them; feeling more like generic action films rather than something that was pulled off of the panels of the comic.  This film is exactly the worst example of that.  It’s explosive without reason and hard to care about despite it’s attempts at trying to be profound.

Some of you may be wondering why I dislike this movie over say the more aggressively bad X-Men: The Last Stand.  While I will gladly agree that The Last Stand is a terrible film and also much more incompetently made than Origins, it doesn’t quite make me upset as Origins does, and that’s because of the lowered expectations.   To understand how I respond to the direction of a franchise, I should probably state the point of view that I had on these movies as they came out.  The first two X-Men movies did a fairly good job of bringing the popular Comic Books to life, under the guidance of director Bryan Singer.  Singer in fact really helped to bring the Comic Book genre back to life with these films in the wake of the failure of Batman & Robin, which nearly killed it.  But, he left the franchise in the midst of developing the third film in order to make Superman Returns for DC, leaving The Last Stand without direction.  Instead of refocusing their efforts, Fox just hired a hack director named Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) who was not a good fit for the series and told him to finish what Singer had started, which he was ill equipped to do.  The Last Stand is a convoluted mess of a sequel, but knowing all this did manage my expectations and made me more prepared for the failure of that film.  X-Men Origins:  Wolverine on the other hand looked more promising, given that it was being directed by an Oscar-winning filmmaker, Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) and was being scripted by a great writer named David Benioff (who later created a little show called Game of Thrones).  Not only that, but the film was also going to introduce some fan favorite characters from the X-Men series that had yet to make it to the big screen; namely Gambit and Deadpool.  But, none of this panned out the way it should’ve and it’s because of this waste of talent and potential that Origins feels like the bigger failure overall.

It’s hard to explain exactly what went wrong.  The story does follow the comics, but does so in such a step by step way, that we feel like we’re watching a stage play rather than an immersive adventure.  The film does start out with a surprisingly effective opening credit sequence, showing Logan (aka Wolverine) and his brother Victor/ Sabertooth (Liev Schreiber) fighting in every American War fought over the last 200 years, from Civil to Vietnam, surviving because of their regenerative mutant powers.  But from that point on, everything becomes convoluted and hard to follow.  And that’s mainly because the villain, Colonel William Stryker (Danny Huston) never has a clear motive for his actions.  At first, he commands mercenaries with mutant powers for his own ends, then he wants to start exterminating them, but to do so he has to create even more powerful mutant warriors; and you can see why this movie is all over the place.  Sadly, this reduces one of the best villainous characters from the series, who was so vividly portrayed by actor Brian Cox in X2, to a very one-dimensional character.  He’s gets no character development; he’s just there as a plot device to provide conflict for the character of Wolverine.  But, this becomes a problem when there’s another villain present in the person of Sabertooth.  Here you have an interesting adversary to Wolverine, possessing every same attribute he does as well as the bond of blood but lacking the moral center to do good, and the movie wastes that potential.  Sabertooth has no place in the movie because of Stryker’s presence, and he’s merely there to get into fights with his brother, allowing little time for character development.

Which gets me to the most problematic part of the film, and it’s the fact that it tries to cram too many characters into a movie that doesn’t need it.  The problem with many Superhero movies of this era was that they tried to capitalize on too many characters too soon and all at once, without giving them the right amount of development.  Multiple villains were common and shoe-horned together to less effective results in many films, like The Riddler and Two-Face sharing screen time in Batman Forever (1995).  At least with X-Men (2000), this ensemble approached was built into it’s DNA, so it didn’t feel too out of place.  But, when this is supposed to be a movie focused on a single central hero like Wolverine, it made less sense to fill the screen with fan favorites who were deserving of their own films (and ultimately got them).  Because they were forced into this story-line purely for fan service, we merely got bland, characterless stand-ins for what should’ve been amazing characters.  Take Gambit for instance.  In the comics, Gambit is one of the most colorful and charismatic members of the X-Men team; a ragin’ Cajun hotshot with a heart of gold.  His appearance here was long overdue; it unfortunately just never lived up to that potential.  You could imagine someone of Matthew McConaughey’s ilk bringing great life into the character, but instead they cast Canadian-born Taylor Kitsch who sounds nothing remotely close to Cajun.  Also, his performance is lazy in the movie, mistaking aloofness for swagger, and it sadly ruins a beloved character.  Still, that’s better than what happened with Deadpool.  Strangely enough, they cast the right actor in Ryan Reynolds, but the movie wastes him in bland action sequences and saddles him with unfunny one-liners.  Seriously, how do you make Deadpool not funny?  That’s kind of miraculous.  The biggest insult from the filmmakers is thinking that the character was going to be so obnoxious that audiences would applaud them for sewing his mouth shut for the final climax.  That right there shows you that this was a movie made by people who knew nothing about comic book heroes and were merely just making your average, run of the mill action film purely for the money.

But, you’re probably wondering why I’m forgetting about the titular hero himself.  Well that’s because the movie forgets about him too.  For the most part, Hugh Jackman remains the only good thing about this film, and that’s only because he is pretty much the complete embodiment of the character.  Really, no other actor is as synonymous with a superhero as Jackman is to Wolverine; with the possible exception of maybe Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man.  From 2000’s X-Men to the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse, Jackman has been the face of this franchise and it’s going to be quite a daunting task to replace him after he hangs up the claws for good.  Unfortunately, his first solo go at the character leaves him with nothing to do other than to just look aggressive and/or amazed all the time.  This is the most passive version of Wolverine that you’ll ever see.  He accepts offers without challenge, runs into fights without thinking, and by the end of the movie, he’s knocked unconscious and loses his memory, making all the little character development that he had in the movie useless.  You can clearly see the disinterest in Jackman’s eyes as the movie goes on, as if he’s waiting for something exciting to happen too and yet will never see it.  The movie also suffers from some very terrible CGI effects, especially with regards to scene where Wolverine discovers his atom-antium claws for the first time.  The disinterested look on his face in that scene says it all, like he’s asking the filmmakers, “What was wrong with the physical claws I wore in the last movie?”  But, at the very least, Hugh does still embody the part in the moments that allow him to.  But, when the movie doesn’t add anything to the mythos of the character, it just makes you wish that he deserved better overall.

As a result of all this, Fox abandoned their planed line of Origin films for some of the other X-Men characters, the next in line being a Magneto origin story.  So, in a way you can say that Origins: Wolverine did the same exact thing that Spiderman 3 and Batman & Robin had, which was kill a franchise.  But, unlike the others, X-Men did survive the double whammy of The Last Stand and Origins by retaining all the good things about the series and just refocused them in a soft reboot called X-Men: First Class (2011).  Like Origins, it turned back the clock on the story-line, but did so in a fun and more faithful way to the comic source, and as a result, it revitalized the franchise.  In fact, it seems like all that the X-Men series has done in the last few years is make apologies for their worst movies; Days of Future Past even wipes the events of The Last Stand completely out of the continuity.  Hugh Jackman also took a more active role in the development of the character since then and the Origins follow-up titled The Wolverine (2013) was a vast improvement, taking full advantage of the character and building a worthwhile story around him.  Ryan Reynolds would also get the last laugh when he finally brought Deadpool back in a big way earlier this year with his own solo effort.  Many of that film’s best gags were even directed at Hugh Jackman, and there’s a clever dig at the Origins version of Deadpool as well, if you caught it.  Jackman’s own swan song to the character also looks to be promising in the next few years as it’s rumored that it will be tackling the beloved “Old Man Logan” story-line from the comics.  Origins is the lowest point this series ever got and thankfully it was all uphill from there.  But, it still stands as the most blatant, and pathetic example of getting the formula wrong in adapting a comic book movie.  When you make a Superhero film, make sure it’s one that you care about making and don’t just put it out purely to make money.  Fan reactions matter in this genre.  It’s what separates the X-Men Origins: Wolverines and Batman & Robins from the Deadpools and Dark Knights.

A Big Short – How Some Movies Become Overwhelmed by Their Own Bloated Budgets

wild wild west spider

One thing that you can always use to describe a summer movies is big.  Big action, big names, big effects; all that.  But, what most audiences tend to ignore as they watch a movie in the theater is the big cost attached to making a big movie.  Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for most film companies.  It works to a films advantage sometimes when no one is taking notice of a movie’s budget, because sometimes filmmakers don’t want the public to know.  It’s not that they want to hide something shady in a films budget; it’s just that depending on the movie that’s being made, it’s better for the film to not look like it was over-budgeted for the necessities of their story.  There’s a stigma in the film industry related to movies that are too expensive, and it’s a kind of bad press that filmmakers would like to avoid.  It’s a kind of bad press that may not affect an audiences perception, but it does affect one’s standing in the industry.  But, this is a worry that is becoming increasingly prevalent in Hollywood as the nature of the business is changing.  Cinemas are now having to compete with streaming services and alternate forms of entertainment and that has caused many film studios to up their game by taking bigger gambles.  Some gambles pay off, but many others don’t, and those failures tend to overwhelm the rest because they generate negative press, which industry journalists love to report on and dissect.  Even still, investing in large scale film-making has it’s rewards alongside it’s faults, but few if any people in charge of investing in film view that as worth the risk.  The only thing that actually keeps the industry going at all is when expectations are exceeded, and that’s a result that only comes about through chance.

The very fact is that film-making is an expensive art-form.  Even a modest budget film today sports a eight digit figure price tag, and that’s seen as responsible.  But anyone who doesn’t work outside of Hollywood doesn’t see how movies can become so expensive.  Paying the salaries of the cast and crew takes up a significant amount, even when those salaries can sometimes be obscene based on the talent involved, but the vast majority of a film’s budget goes into the visual development and physical construction of a movie.  When a film calls for extravagance, it will be costly.  Now, if the studio believes in the project well enough, they will approve of the budget, believing that it’s worth the risk because they have faith in their audience.  But, a lot of factors can also cloud the judgement of the filmmakers and it ends up leading to movies that don’t match their expectations, becoming instead money traps that are out of their control.  Things like unforeseen accidents, clashing egos, and even the very fact that some filmmakers are out of touch with what their audience wants can all lead to films that fail and underwhelm at the box office, and it’s only then when the bad press about an out-of-control production begins to take hold.  That’s why so many film companies fall back on the safe and predictable; because they are more reliant.  However, for the film industry to survive, it cannot solely survive on small pieces; it needs to take risks in order to stay ahead in the game.  Unfortunately for them, risks are not an easy sell when you’re in the need for more money.

Perhaps the thing that causes the industry to take pause more often than not is when they see one of their own suffer a loss even in the face of overwhelming success.  Disney, for instance, just recently announced their quarterly earnings for the first quarter of the year, and they shocked the industry by declaring less than expected profits, even despite having a great start to 2016 season with successful movies like Zootopia and The Jungle Book, as well as the carry over box office of last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Yet, that’s what happened; even Star Wars couldn’t stop Disney from losing money.  Now, of course the blame for this can’t be solely put on the film division alone.  Disney is a wide-spread multi-national corporation with their hands in all kinds of different industries; not just film.  What other media company do you know of that has their own cruise ship line?  Yet, when some part of the company begins to suffer, it drags the rest of the company down with it, and I’m sure that this is what will be happening to Disney in the short run.  They have already gutted their Interactive games division, and I’m sure their Motion Picture department will also see dramatic cuts.  At the same time, I don’t think that Disney will be stuck in the mire for long; I just hope this one bad quarter doesn’t lead them to doing something drastic.  In the long run, it has actually benefited Disney to take risks.   From Snow White to Pirates of the Caribbean, they have gambled and won many times over.  Even Disneyland looked like a foolish idea in it’s development, and now it’s the most visited theme park in the world.   But, at the same time, they are also the company behind Tron (1982), The Black Cauldron (1985), John Carter (2012), The Lone Ranger (2013), and Tomorrowland (2015); extravagant movies that even despite their quality all lost a huge amount of money for them.  In order to be the biggest media company in the world, you have to take big risks and in turn, your failures will look bigger as a result.

But, given their deep pockets and the strength of their brand, Disney will still prosper.  It doesn’t quite work out as well for smaller companies when they suffer a crushing box office failure.  There’s a long history in Hollywood of flash in the pan upstart companies that fell victim to their own success.  The independent market especially sees this a lot, when one company suddenly sees one gamble pay off big and then they squander their profits chasing after a chance to compete with the big studios.  This has been the case with companies like Orion Pictures, Miramax, and Revolution Studios.  You see a pattern with these companies where they start of big and then fade into obscurity or non existence; usually gobbled up by larger studios.  Golan/Globus’ own Cannon Pictures in fact still own the record for biggest money loser in Hollywood history with Cutthroat Island (1995), a costly gamble you can only find from a company working outside of the Hollywood system.  But, perhaps the biggest fall from grace ever witnessed in Hollywood would be the collapse of New Line Cinema.  New Line looked like it would be the first mini-major studio to climb to the next level in decades after huge, record-breaking success in the early 2000’s with the Austin Powers franchise as well as The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  But, some poor corporate choices, including not paying Peter Jackson his full share of the Rings profits which then led to a lawsuit, as well as costly gambles like The Golden Compass (2007) and New Line quickly fell into the red, eventually becoming swallowed up by Warner Brothers for a fraction of their initial worth only a few years prior.  It’s a sad reality when failure becomes more pronounced when you can less afford to tolerate them.  It takes a history of gambles paying off to let the occasional ones that don’t work go by unnoticed.  Sadly, independent companies remain in the position of having to suffer a loss in order for them to have any real shot.

But, why do so many films fall victim to bloated budgets.  Competition is the key factor.  When Hollywood smells money in the water, they chase after it feverishly, despite many of those same players being ill equipped to take on the challenge.  This is the case with many copycat films that arise after a breakout success.  But, for every Titanic (1997), there’s a Pearl Harbor (2001).  For every Gladiator (2000), there’s a Troy (2004); and so on.  The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) was a rare copycat that succeeded in the wake of The Lord of the Rings, but it was a lucky one amid so many failures, and it too saw fleeting success in it’s follow-ups.  Suffice to say, just because one film achieved success doesn’t mean that it will translate across the board.  And yet, so many failures come out of this sometimes foolish attempt to make success repeat itself.  If there’s one thing that Hollywood has never been able to figure out is how to manage a fad.  Audiences tastes change rapidly, and what once looked like a sure bet a year ago will be old hat by the time the film is ready to be released.  The smart thing for Hollywood to do is to not look at one success and view that as the wave of the future.  There are few constants in Hollywood, one being adaptations of already established materials, hence why Comic Book movies have remained popular.  If Hollywood chooses to throw caution to the wind and try to capitalize too much on what’s popular now, then they run the risk of a short shelf life for their movies.  One risk that currently could prove troublesome for future films is the belief that R-rated content in a Superhero movie equals big money.  It may have worked for Deadpool, but that film was an exception.  What worked for it may not work for Superman, or Iron Man, or any other beloved superhero, and yet some naive studio exec will try to force the same formula into where it doesn’t belong and it will end up spoiling something good as a result.

Apart from competition, some films end up going over budget purely due to conflicting egos behind the scenes.  Sometimes it becomes too easy to point the finger at the director himself for letting a production get out of control, but it’s not always the case.  Sometimes it comes down to a lack of substance in the overall production, and the inability to recognize the problem early on.  There are some movies that you look at in retrospect and wonder why they went forward at all when they are flawed to their very core, and it’s usually because there were people involved who refused to pull the plug despite all the problems.  A movie like this usually starts out fine, but inadequate oversight by the producer or too many notes by the studio heads or a lack of control on the set by the director, and you’ve got a overblown mess that just hemorrhages money.  And where the egos compound the problem is when nobody wants to accept a share of the blame, preventing any of these problems from getting resolved.  A perfect example of this would be the comedy sequel Evan Almighty (2007).  The Jim Carrey comedic hit Bruce Almighty (2003), turned a profit and it was only natural for Universal Studios to want to explore sequel options.  Unfortunately, the premise was weak from the beginning (using Noah’s Ark as a reference point instead of the clever “power of God” premise of the original) and Jim Carrey refusing to return didn’t help as well.  The film eventually wrapped with a whopping $220 million price tag (the most ever for a comedy), and there was no way for it to possibly make up that budget, even if it matched the grosses of the original.  Egos got in the way of Wild Wild West (1999) as well.  We all know of producer Jon Peters’ obsession with giant spiders (thanks to Kevin Smith’s own insight after working with him), but why did it need to show up in a Western of all places costing untold millions in CGI effects.  It eventually tanked at the box office and became another in a long line of cautionary tales in Hollywood.  But, this was also a case where an ability to take some blame and cut losses early on could’ve saved some headaches down the road and instead, the egos of those involved just compounded the problem and turned what should’ve been simple films into monumental disasters.

A movie being too big for it’s own good can also be a factor in crating an unnecessary bloat of a film’s budget.  Now, Hollywood has benefited from showing off scale before.  Whether it be the sweeping vistas of a David Lean epic, or the majesty of James Cameron’s full-scale recreation of the Titanic, or the wonder of Peter Jackson’s visual extravagance in the special effects in The Lord of the Rings, going big has often paid off at the box office.  However, it also takes smart money management to make sure that these extravagances don’t overwhelm the rest of the budget, or at the very least get accounted for ahead of time.  It usually takes the most expert filmmakers to pull off extravagance without going over budget.  People like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan have managed to deliver films that constantly put their budgets to work without worrying their studios, and the results speak for themselves.  As long as their projects are on time and on budget, then the studios that make them won’t balk at $150 million to make War of the Worlds (2005) or $190 million to make Inception (2010).  But, there are other cases where going big only led to unnecessary risks.  The floating atoll in Waterworld (1995) is a perfect example of throwing too much money behind a film that didn’t need it, because it was a costly set that was featured very briefly in a long movie, allowing the audience to see very little of the actual work put into it.  The same goes with the extravagant sets of Cleopatra (1963).  The money is there on screen, but are we engaged enough to even care.  If there is a risk to take, the filmmaker must ensure that it is worth every cent, and not every filmmaker has that ability.  Sometimes knowing the best way to use the money helps to keep the budget from going overboard.  Christopher Nolan has managed to do that by trying to capture as much as he can in camera before it’s handed over to visual effects.  Peter Jackson manages to do it by working almost entirely in house and shooting close to home in his native New Zealand.  Unfortunately, that’s a luxury that few other filmmakers are capable of having.

In the end, is it worth the risk of investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a movie.  In many ways, it’s very beneficial.  The higher budgeted a movie, the more likely it creates a lot of jobs for the crew and post production team.  A big budget is also beneficial for spurning innovation in the industry.  Would you believe that the single most expensive movie of the last decade wasn’t from Marvel, or Michael Bay, or from Christopher Nolan.  It was the movie Tangled (2010), an animated fairy tale from Disney which cost them $260 million to make.  The reason for that huge budget came from building the infrastructure needed to support it’s creation, like an updated and expanded animation facility, which has since been responsible for huge hits like Frozen (2013) and Zootopia (2016).  That’s an investment that paid off in the long run.  But, as we’ve seen, a failure to control an expanding budget causes some fractures that can’t be mended in the Hollywood system.  And this usually results from inexperience of people who are way in over their heads or from people who let their own egos get in the way.  When the fault falls on you for a failed, over-budget movie, it can even damage your future in the business.  The fall of filmmaker Michael Cimino after the failure of Heaven’s Gate (1980) is a perfect example.  The collapse of the visual effects industry also proved that cost overruns had long reaching consequences, as many of those studios shut their doors after pricing themselves too far.  In the long run, we do love it when Hollywood takes a risk and doesn’t rely too much on old tricks.  But, knowing the expense that each studio has to deal with every year with their entire slate of films, some of which they know ahead of time will fail, it does become understandable why some studios choose to be more careful with their money.

Captain America: Civil War – Review

captain america civil war

The start of the Summer Season is quickly becoming the domain of Marvel Studios.  Just like how Will Smith once dominated the Fourth of July weekend during the late 90’s, or how Memorial Day weekend was once traditionally owned by the Star Wars franchise, Marvel’s track record of late has allowed them to become the most reliable team necessary for kicking off each summer in a big way.  Each of the Iron Man films have claimed this weekend, as well as most of the Spiderman movies, and of course, the Avengers who broke all sorts of records upon their opening release.  Now, Captain America is given the prime spot, with this the third entry in his successful standalone series.  It was also a release date that they had to contend for.  Warner Brothers and DC had already staked a claim on this weekend for their big new release, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but Marvel, perhaps in one of the most blatant alpha dog moves we’ve ever seen play out in Hollywood history, claimed the spot as well and dared DC to challenge them for it.  Eventually, DC relented, probably sensing the increasing influence that Marvel now holds on the industry, and Batman v. Superman was bumped up two months into a mid Spring release.  Of course, having now seen both, it’s pretty clear why both DC and Marvel made the moves that they did.  The movies are surprisingly similar in both concept and theme, but what really ends up setting them apart is the execution.  The consensus now is that Batman v. Superman was in all respects not a good film.  Sure, there were good things in it, but the overall sum of it’s parts ended up being a convoluted mess.  Civil War on the other hand takes the same kind of story and delivers it much better.

Civil War benefits from the already solid foundation that has proceeded it in all the previous Marvel films leading up to now.  At this point, audiences understand that everything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is connected and that we are basically here to watch what’s essentially a new episode in an ongoing series.  This is what was lacking in what DC did with Batman v. Superman.  DC is rushing itself into the prospects of having their iconic characters share screen-time together, without the foundation to support that venture.  The image of Batman and Superman together alone is pleasing, but without having time invested in understanding why they are together, the meeting has no weight.  DC, and more pointedly Zack Snyder, are just throwing things together without purpose.  Marvel has now made a dozen films leading up to Civil War, and it’s only the beginning of a build-up to something bigger.  Essentially, we are at the point now where we know who these characters are and what makes them tick, and the interactions between them are what drive the story.  This allows Marvel a little more leeway in presenting the stories they want to tell, because everything is driven by the personalities of their characters as opposed to being forced to fulfill certain obligations of the plot.  The Marvel films never feel forced, and that’s why audiences love them.  With Civil War, Marvel is given the opportunity to tackle one of the most intriguing story angles available to them, and that’s what happens when the heroes turn against each other.

Captain America: Civil War takes place in the immediate aftermath of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).  Captain (Chris Evans), Tony Stark/ Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsen), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) are called to the Pentagon by General “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) after a failed mission in Nigeria causes significant collateral damage.  Ross tells the Avengers team that the United Nations has drafted a new law called the Sakovia Accords (named after the tiny nation that was destroyed by Ultron) which mandates that the Avengers must submit to oversight by the multinational body instead of functioning independently.   The plan receives a mixed reception from the heroes, with some being for the plan (including a guilt racked Stark) and others being against it (especially Captain, who distrusts government agencies after the fall of SHIELD in The Winter Soldier).  Things get more complicated when a terrorist attack disrupts the passing of the Accords bill, with the prime suspect being The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).  The hunt is on for the suspect, but Captain (who was friends with the Winter Soldier back in the War years) believes he might have been framed, so he hopes to get to him first.  Unfortunately, another disguised vigilante is on the hunt too; T’challa (Chadwick Boseman), the king of the African nation of Wakanda, who takes on the guise of Black Panther.  Unbeknownst to everyone, the strings of this plot are being pulled by a vengeful mercenary named Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) who seeks to split the Avengers up and have them destroy one another.  Captain tries to search for answers and save his friend, but Iron Man develops a coalition of his own to stand in his way, which includes new allies Vision (Paul Bettany) and Spiderman (Tom Holland).  But, Captain receives assistance himself from Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and this all leads to an inevitable Battle Royale between all of our favorite heroes.

As you can tell, this is a pretty jam-packed film, but what makes it so pleasing is the fact that Marvel knows how to maintain a balance with all it’s story elements.  They’ve gone through two Avengers flicks already, so now it’s elementary for them to have a movie with a cast this big.  It’s any wonder why they didn’t just call this another Avengers film anyway, since all of them are here minus Thor and The Hulk, who will be appearing together in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.  At the same time, I can see why the Civil War story-line was given over to the Captain America franchise.  This movie is a logical continuation of Captain’s own story arc, as the optimistic, patriotic superhero is having to re-adapt to a changing political world that no longer has clear-cut good vs. evil alliances.  The Captain America movies are the most politically charged ones in the Marvel Canon, and Civil War is no exception.  The movie touches on political themes like the necessities of regulation versus individual freedom, as well as more universal issues like the corrupting power of vengeance.  In this story, the heroes are confronted with the idea that they may be doing more harm to the world than good, and that things may better if they weren’t working together.  It’s a movie that is much more than just watching heroes fight; it’s got a philosophical underline to it that helps to make the stakes much more relevant to us.  That’s what Batman v. Superman lacked; the moral dilemma that drove these heroes apart.  Civil War is also much more focused on it’s purpose than it’s DC counterpart.  The characters aren’t just posturing for dominance.  In fact, they spend much of the movie trying to avoid fighting each other and they try to resolve their differences peacefully.  It’s only when things go horribly haywire that they finally come to blows.

And, without a doubt, that ultimate confrontation is the highlight of the film.  When Team Captain and Team Iron Man trade blows near the end of the second act, it becomes one of the absolute best things that Marvel has ever put on screen.  What I love so much about it is the fact that the scene plays upon all the strengths of the characters.  Everyone’s super powers give them advantages over some participants, while at the same time they create disadvantages against other participants.  Spiderman’s web-slinging for instance gives him an advantage over air based opponents like Falcon, but his lack of physical strength makes his fight against Captain more of a challenge.  The verbal barbs they throw at each other are also entertaining, especially between Black Widow and Hawkeye (“We’re still friends right?” “Depends on how hard you hit me.”).  And Ant-Man nearly steals the scene alone when he takes full advantage of his powers.  It’s a brilliantly executed scene that manages to take full advantage of the potential of the situation.  Every interaction is creative and well executed, and it will probably answer many comic book nerd questions about who would win in a one-on-one fight.  That being said, the movie wisely doesn’t let the scene get out of hand, and the focus remains squarely where it should be, and that’s on the opposing conflict between Captain and Iron Man.  The plot centers around these two, as it should, and the rest thankfully doesn’t feel like a distraction or filler.  I especially liked how they handled the smaller story arcs; such as Vision trying to learn his place in the world, Scarlet Witch doubt her own existence, and especially the coming of age arc that Black Panther goes through, which perfectly compliments the theme of vengeance in the movie.  Once again to compare, Batman v. Superman seemed more concerned with filling screen-time with a mish-mash of action scenes followed with fan service, and none of it melded together.  In Civil War, everything is given a causality and a consequence and that makes all the different elements feel more cohesive as a whole.

The reason Marvel is able to make these huge casts work so well is because they’ve allowed their library of films to build the necessary groundwork for these character’s motivations beforehand, which allows Civil War to feel like a more natural progression of these character arcs.  This has been greatly helped by the performers, who not only take their roles seriously, but also seem to embody every aspect of these characters on-screen and off.  Chris Evans continues to prove exactly why he is the perfect choice for Captain America, filling him with both wide-eyed innocence and the strength to never give up.  Robert Downey Jr. of course is the embodiment of Tony Stark, swagger and all, and though he’s a little subdued here, he’s still endlessly charming, especially in his brief scenes with young Spiderman.  Speaking of which, one of the best parts of this movie is the new re-imagined Spiderman.  After finally getting the character back from Sony, Marvel is able to relaunch the character their way and this may be the closest we’ve ever gotten to the having the character exactly as he’s portrayed in the comics.  Not that Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield were terrible (despite their lackluster movies), but Tom Holland’s Spidey is exactly what he should be and that’s an upstart kid trying to find his way in the world.  It’s great that Marvel is now finally able to explore that angle with the character and he’s a great addition here.  Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther is also welcome, and his performance as the character makes you eager to see what more will be explored when he gets his own film next year.  The biggest surprise however is Daniel Bruhl as Zemo.  This is a very different take on the character than we’ve seen before (sorry comic fans, no purple sock mask this time) but it’s one that surprisingly fits this film very well.  He’s a normal person with no powers, and yet with undying vengeful fervor and a well laid out plan, he’s able to take down a team of super heroes without ever getting caught in the crossfires.  It’s a very different kind of villain for Marvel and it made sense to have him be behind all this.  Actor Daniel Bruhl’s understated performance also works really well here too.  Given how Captain’s rouges gallery has been pretty weak thus far on screen, it’s nice to see this film utilize one with complex motivations and a dangerous death wish mission that feels shockingly real.

But, despite all the movie’s strengths, I do have some minor nitpicks that prevent this from being an outright masterpiece.  For one thing, I felt that the visual style of the movie felt a little flat.  Not that the movie looks horrible; it’s just that it felt uninspired, like the filmmakers didn’t make any effort to let the visuals stand out.  There are some nice visual touches here and there, but the overall aesthetic feels very weak.  The first two Captain America films featured very drastically different aesthetics; The First Avenger (2011) was glossy and colorful, invoking Wartime films of the 1940’s, while The Winter Soldier (2014) was washed out and gritty, like spy thrillers of the 60’s and 70’s.  Civil War is not a huge artistic jump from The Winter Soldier, remaining effectively very similar visually, so maybe I’m being a little too critical expecting something different, but even still, it was a visual choice that I felt was wasted on this film.  The only other thing that I want to complain about is some of the pacing.  The film has definite highlights to be sure, but there are stretches where the constant globe-crossing done by the characters prevents the plot from gaining any traction.  For the most part, it’s not distracting, but the biggest pacing issue comes in the third act.  This is mainly due to having the best scene in the movie, the Civil War fight itself, not being the climax of the story.  That scene is so good that it overshadows everything that comes after, and that becomes a problem.  Not that what follows is necessarily bad; it’s just anti-climatic.  The movie unfortunately feels like it’s deflating for the remaining 25 minutes up until the credits, and that’s an unfortunate way to go out.  Even still, the movie still takes some nice dark turns in the last act, and has a decent fight scene, but it’s an ending that doesn’t sustain itself as well as it should’ve given the high bar that had been crossed before it.  But, none of this makes this a bad movie by any means, and it’s overall a very well executed movie.  It just has some unfortunate blown opportunities that can’t be ignored.

I would still highly recommend this movie to any Marvel fan out there who’s probably going to be watching this anyway.  All comic fans in general will like this to be honest.  Is it the best Marvel movie ever made?  It’s one of the better ones to be sure.  It hasn’t replaced Guardians of the Galaxy as my personal favorite, because that 2014 film is the one Marvel movie that I felt transcended it’s place in the genre as well as in the Marvel Canon and became a classic on it’s own.  Civil War is without a doubt the best we’ve seen from the Captain America franchise, and it actually works as a better Avengers sequel than Age of Ultron, though I’m still fond of that movie too.  As a piece of the MCU puzzle, it’s perfectly acceptable and the places it leaves our characters at by the end opens up many exciting opportunities going forward as Marvel gears up it’s Phase 3.  The one thing that is without question, however, is the fact that this is how DC should’ve made Batman v. Superman.  Unlike that film, Civil War actually gives motivations to it’s characters and a moral dilemma that is much more believable.  One wishes that Batman and Superman actually had something worth fighting for other than to gratify their egos, and that their fight wasn’t so forced on us by a studio mandate.  Marvel made Civil War a natural progression of their larger story-line, and it’s great to see that nothing story wise was wasted.  Though some of the visual and tonal shortcomings do rob the film of some of the power that it could have otherwise had, it’s still endlessly entertaining.  It also shows that Marvel still hasn’t lost it’s edge, and hopefully they continue to deliver strong in the remainder of their Phase 3, which includes the returns of Spiderman, Ant-Man, an origin story for Black Panther, as well as the introduction of Doctor Strange to the universe.  There may be no victors in this Civil War for the Avengers, but Marvel has clearly shown both DC and Hollywood who’s the winner, and let’s hope these winners continue to deserve their victory.

Rating: 8.5/10