Avengers: Infinity War – Review

When Marvel touts that their new film is 10 years in the making, they really mean it.  Sure, the actual filming of Avengers: Infinity War may not have started until only a short while ago, but the groundwork to make this movie happen has been what’s taken Marvel a decade or so to work out.  Think about the level of forethought it took to see this day come.  Back when the newly formed Marvel Studios was working on the first Iron Man all the way back in 2008, the idea of bringing a massive event story like Infinity War was probably just wishful thinking.  And yet, it was always something they held onto just in case this shared universe thing caught on.  When the first Avengers made it to the big screen, we got our first real taste of what a shared universe movie could look like, and yet there was an even bigger world yet to explore as Marvel began to put into place a plan that would make their wishes come true.  Starting with the second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), we began to be introduced to the concept of the Infinity Stones, which would be the connecting thread that would bring the many different heroes of Marvel Comics together on the big screen.  Each stone has it’s own unique power, which plays a different role in each of the different movies they appear in.  Their introductions have allowed us the audience to generate growing anticipation, knowing that the gathering of all these stones, some with incredibly destructive powers, is leading towards something cataclysmic.  And yet, Marvel has still miraculously found a way to show the blueprints behind their plan without loosing the interests of the fans.  While we know something is coming, we are still enjoying the fact that along the way we are becoming endeared to this world and the characters that Marvel has created.

What amazes me is that Marvel started down this road without even having all their pieces in place to do so.  First of all, they began their grand scheme with their properties still scattered between different studios.  Paramount held the rights to the key group of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man; Universal held onto the Hulk; Sony was still making use of Spider-Man; and Fox remained in control of the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.  There was early cooperation between Paramount and Universal towards collaborating for an eventual Avengers movie, as evidenced by the Tony Stark cameo at the end of The Incredible Hulk (2008), but Fox and Sony were still staying clear, meaning that if the Avengers were to happen soon, it was going to be a much smaller group than Marvel would’ve liked.  Then a sudden development changed everything.  Disney, which had not even attempted to enter the Super Hero field before, suddenly bought out the entirety of Marvel, including the Studios.  Though this looked to end the march towards a cinematic universe, surprisingly Disney secured the rights away from Paramount and Universal without a struggle, and Avengers opened to record breaking box office in 2012 right on schedule.  Eventually, Disney more than made up their investment as Marvel Studios became the most valuable brand at the box office over the next decade, and the Studio became more confident that they could make their move towards an Infinity War like event.  Eventually Sony relented and allowed Spider-Man to make an appearance in the universe and Fox is about to be brought into the Disney fold with all of it’s characters, though sadly too late for this event.  Even as the pieces fell into place, it is amazing that Marvel never lost focus and even managed to improvise as more options were made available to them.  Knowing the end game without even knowing exactly who would show up indicates some major risk-taking on Marvel’s part, and now it has finally arrived; the wish-fulfillment of 10 years of unprecedented world building.  But, the question is, did Marvel make Avengers: Infinity War  worthy of 10 years of planning and hype, or was it a whole lot of build-up for nothing?

Infinity War takes it’s title and story from comic book events that Marvel published in 1991 and 92.  Though many of the elements of those comics make it into this movie, the film is not a direct adaptation, instead choosing to make this a culmination of everything up to now in the MCU.  The narrative of the film takes place on two different fronts; on Earth, and in the cosmos.  Out in space, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is sent adrift after his ship is destroyed by Thanos (Josh Brolin), who has come to collect one of the Infinity Stones that is in the possession of Thor’s brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston).  Later on, the Guardians of the Galaxy find Thor unconscious and floating in space.  He is revived and seeks to find a way to avenge his people and destroy Thanos for good.  With the help of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), he sets off to the same place where his original hammer was forged in search of a weapon capable of killing the “Mad Titan” once and for all.  On Earth, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) has an encounter with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has been warned of the coming of Thanos by another survivor of the attack; Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), aka The Hulk.  But, the warning comes too late, as Thanos’ henchmen, The Black Order, have come to collect the remaining stones on Earth, one which Strange has.  They are whisked away on the Order’s ship, but not without gaining a valuable ally; Spider-Man (Tom Holland).  On the other side of the world, the other stone bearer Vision (Paul Bettany) is kept protected by what remains of the Avengers, led by Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and War Machine (Don Cheadle).  After encountering the Order, they take Vision and his companion Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) to the one place that can keep him safe the longest; Wakanda, where King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), aka Black Panther, is readying his people for a fight.  But the question remains if all the Avengers assembled are capable of stopping someone like Thanos, even as he gathers more and more Stones, granting him God-like power.

You can tell from all I’ve explained above that this is a pretty loaded movie, and I haven’t even gone that far in depth, mainly because if I said any more, it would start getting into spoiler territory.  The biggest danger that Marvel could have faced while making this movie was to overreach themselves.  So many characters and so little time to tell your story.  How could they fit it all into a 2 1/2 hour movie?  The answer is, remarkably well.  I’m happy to say that, for the most part, the movie with all these astronomical expectations put upon it manages to stick the landing.  This is absolutely Marvel firing on all cylinders and it creates what is undeniably one of their most satisfying films yet.  I hesitate to call it their best work just yet; I’m still processing what I just saw.  But it absolutely stands shoulder to shoulder among their best films.  And I think a large part of what makes the film work so well is the capable direction of the Russo Brothers, Joe and Anthony.  The duo started their time at Marvel with the well-received sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and then continued to impress the heads at Marvel and Disney with their first real test at assembling a movie with a larger cast with the incredible Captain America: Civil War (2016).  With those films under their belt, it was clear that they were the best successors to the Avengers franchise that Marvel could find after the departure of Joss Whedon in the directors chair.  To undertake such a massive film, with an army of iconic characters all at their disposal, probably would have been overwhelming for less adept filmmakers.  What made the Russos so ideal for this film was the fact that they are not filmmakers who try too hard, and instead bring a more measured approach to their storytelling.  They are not here to satisfy every comic book fan’s fantasy; they are here to service the story that needs to be told.  And with that, they manage to fit in just enough for every character without spoiling the audience with an overload of too many awesome moments.

One of the best parts of the movie is the way it uses the character dynamics of the MCU, both established and untried.  We see the remnants of the Avengers squad come back together in unexpected ways, and witness what long separations have left on the minds of each character.   We also explore more of the mentor relationship that Tony Stark has with Peter Parker, which delves even deeper than what we saw in Spide-Man: Homecoming (2017).  I also liked the dynamics of Doctor Strange and Iron Man having to work together, given their often competing mindsets, which lead to some often hilarious back and forths between the two.  But there are two brand new character interactions that really carry the movie over the edge for me.  One is Thor meeting the Guardians of the Galaxy.  Their moments together, especially when Star Lord (Chris Pratt) tries to alpha male Thor and fails badly, are among the film’s funniest and they never fail to entertain.  Even better, Thor actually shows incredible chemistry with Rocket Raccoon as they team up to create Thor’s new weapon; one of those friendships that you never thought you’d see develop in the Marvel universe ever, but you’ll be glad it exists now.  The other major relationship that drives the film is the one between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her adopted father Thanos.  The movie delves much deeper into their relationship than ever before, and we learn much more about what each means to the other.  While the Thor/ Guardians relationship brings the movie it’s greatest moments of levity, the Thanos/ Gamora relationship brings the film’s more somber moments, and both balance out the story in a very complimentary way.  Sure, some of the cast are given the shorter end of the stick (Black Panther fans shouldn’t be looking for too much of a continuation of the Wakandan story just yet), but a great deal of time is given to those who matter in this story, and it’s just the right amount spread amongst all.

The movie’s biggest triumph does belong to the character of Thanos.  This is a character that has been teased for quite a long time, first seen in profile at the end of The Avengers (2012) and then briefly in person in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  We’ve known of his coming for quite some time, which could have proved underwhelming in the end if Thanos was just your generic super baddie.  Thankfully, all that build-up allowed for Marvel to really hone in and find the character of Thanos, to make him fully rounded and in some shocking ways, a bit relatable.  Thanos is a man driven by obsession and not just blood lust.  In his mind, he is doing the right thing by bringing balance to the universe, by eliminating half it’s population one planet at a time.  He’s not a villain who stands over his victims and laughs maniacally at their pain.  He is cold, calculated precision and giving the power of the Infinity Stones to a mind like that makes him infinitely more scary.  I was fascinated by how the movie explored his mindset throughout the movie, showing that he is a monster of a different kind than anyone else we’ve met in the Marvel Universe.  To believably pull this kind of character off, it takes a capable actor to find the subtlety at it’s heart, and Marvel found the right actor in Josh Brolin.  Not only does the voice match perfectly with the character (deep and booming), but he even manages to find the little humanity that lies beneath the surface.  I also have to highly praise the animation used to bring Thanos to life.  Utilizing the same motion capture technology used on movies like The Hobbit and the Planet of the Apes series, they managed to include a remarkable amount of Brolin’s own on set performance into the final digital character that it almost feels like Thanos is really there in person.  Close-ups in particular really show off the incredible detail put into the model, and I could see Josh the actor even through the character in the tiny mannerisms that are distinctly his own.  Thanos gets his moment to shine, and the movie pulled out all the stops to make his arrival worth it.  By himself, he makes this a not to miss movie experience.

Knowing that this is Marvel’s most important movie to date, you can definitely expect that no expenses were spared in it’s making.  A reported $1 billion budget was approved by Disney to make this and it’s untitled follow-up for next year, which would even out to a record breaking $500 million per movie.  And every penny looks to have made it on screen.  Of course, paying this high price cast is one thing, but the movie also features some remarkable visuals as well.  We revisit the kingdom of Wakanda once again, sharing the same visual wonder that we experienced in Black Panther earlier this year, and it provides the setting for a climatic battle that stands on an epic scale equivalent to the likes of Lord of the Rings.  All of the space set stuff is also visually stunning, showing us worlds that we’ve yet to see in the Marvel Universe and still uniquely original compared to anything else we’ve seen in the movies.  There is one planet shown connected with one of the hidden Infinity Stones that presents this surreal quality that stood out from the rest and it left a very haunting effect on the experience.  It can get a bit overwhelming at times as we hop from one setting to another, but the Russos prove that their uncluttered approach is the right one.  They don’t try to force feed anything to us; they let each world develop into the story in a believable way that allows us to understand where we are and why we’ve moved to this place at each particular moment.  My only complaint about this is that the obligatory re-familiarizing that this movie has to undertake in order to set everything up does cause the first half of the movie to drag a slight bit.  All the meaty moments happen later on, and while the opening introductions take their time, it’s not enough to make you uneasy while you wait.  When this movie gets going it hits some big moments, and that helps to smooth out those early rough edges by the end of the film.

I would definitely say go out and watch this movie right now, but I feel that most of you are probably already doing that at this moment.  This is going to be another monster hit for a studio that has had nothing but hits for the last decade.  Marvel has set the gold standard for world-building in movies over the last 10 years, and have managed to not only bring all their characters together in one film, but also make that same film coherent and engaging as it’s own stand alone story.  No character goes un-wasted, and some get to shine brighter here than they have in any other movie before.  The Russos managed to take this seemingly impossible undertaking , and make it feel effortless by the end, purely by giving the right amount and nothing more.  This is not a movie made for fan service; this is a culmination of everything that Marvel has done in accordance with their ultimate goal.  And I do have to say, it is one of their boldest moves too.  I can’t say exactly what transpires, but this movie has one of the most shocking endings that you’ll ever find in a movie made by Marvel or anyone else.  It’s a drastic move that could only come from a company that has the confidence to see it through and not worry about how the audiences might react.  The audience I saw the movie with were left pretty stunned as the credits began to role, and I’m interested to see how this ending plays out in the rest of the world.  It’s gutsy, and I applaud Marvel for holding to their guns.  To say that it is world-changing would be an understatement.  No doubt it’s going to make us even more eager to watch the next installment.  Regardless, considering all the factors that this movie’s making had to be scrutinized under, I think that the basic fact that it flows together as well as it does is a real triumph on Marvel’s part, and perhaps the greatest indicator yet of why they stand unchallenged as the kings of Comic Book movies.

Rating: 9/10

The Movies of Summer 2018

You’re probably thinking that this is a little early for my yearly summer preview.  We’re in the middle of April and the official start to the Summer movie season is still two weeks away.  Well you can thank Marvel for that.  Probably as a precaution to stay ahead of spoilers as they roll out their movie worldwide, Marvel decided to move up their premiere date for Avengers: Infinity War a week earlier than their usual first week of May window.  So, the summer’s most anticipated film, and probably the most anticipated movie of the year (let alone the decade), is now scheduled for the last week of April, which is usually a dead zone for movie releases.  Of course, Infinity War will change that easily with what is expected to be a record breaking weekend, but unfortunately, it changes my own schedule for articles on this blog.  For one thing, do I even still consider Infinity War a Summer movie at all, or a late Spring one?  Considering that the whole month of May is considered part of the Summer season according to Hollywood, I guess one extra week doesn’t change much at all.  Regardless, Marvel is going to build upon a year that they have already dominated up to now.  Black Panther now stands as the third highest grossing movie of all time, as well as the highest grossing super hero movie in general, which is all the more remarkable considering that it opened in February.  It once again shows that with the right amount of planning and hype (and a little luck) any part of the year can produce a record setting blockbuster film.  Even as Black Panther’s run is starting to finally settle, other movies are filling it’s place with some solid box office performance.  Recent hit A Quiet Place is demonstrating once again the consistent working model of low budget, smartly crafted horror movies generating strong box office returns.  Really, the only disappointments so far have been sequels like Pacific Rim: Uprising and reboots like Tomb Raider, which doesn’t bode well for an upcoming Summer season chock full of the same.

Like previous years, I will be breaking up this preview into three categories; the movies that I believe are must sees, the ones that have me worried, and the ones to skip entirely.  I will give my thoughts based on my own preconceptions of the movies based on the effectiveness of their marketing, as well as just my overall enthusiasm regarding each one.  Remember, I don’t always have the best batting average when it comes to handicapping these movies, so some of these movies may turn out to be better than I anticipated, or worse.  My hope is for the better.  I will also embed trailers to each film to give you a little visual sample of what I’m writing about as well.  So, without any more delay, here is my outlook for the movies of Summer 2018.



Like I stated earlier, the decision to move this movie’s release up a week creates a debate as to whether it is a Summer release or not.  Because I still want to spotlight this movie, I’m going to still classify it as a Summer release film, one because it’s Marvel, and two, we were already pushing the boundaries before by including the month of May.  And this isn’t just any Marvel movie; this is “THE” Marvel movie.  The one that all the others before it were leading up to.  The whole purpose of having the shared Marvel Cinematic Universe was to eventually have that one day when all the various pieces would come together as one into a single, giant sized event.  We got part of that with the first two Avengers flicks, but those team-ups will seem small when compared to this.  This movie is going to have every single established character that has appeared in the last 18 films made by the studio all sharing screen time together, and that alone makes this a historic production.  Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and also the Guardians of the Galaxy, they are all here.  Needless to say, this is a movie that we’ve long awaited.  From the moment Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury showed up in Tony Stark’s compound and told him about the Avenger Initiative in the first Iron Man (2008), there has been a plan in place at Marvel Studios, further reinforced by the introductions of the all powerful Infinity Stones and the mad Titan searching the cosmos for them, Thanos (Josh Brolin).  Every Marvel movie up to now, even the recent Black Panther, has laid the groundwork for Infinity War to happen, and this comes as the culmination of 10 years worth of planning and execution that has yielded one of the most prolific franchises in movie history.  Let’s hope that this movie lives up to the unprecedented level of anticipation that proceeds it, and given Marvel’s record so far, it’s hard to think that they won’t have something special ready for us this year.  They are clearly confident enough to give it to us a week early so let’s assemble Avengers.


Speaking of Marvel super heroes, it’s time to revisit the “merc with the mouth.”  Deadpool 2 comes quickly on the heels of the surprise hit from 2016, with Ryan Reynolds once again returning to the role that he has made all his own.  The first Deadpool was a breath of fresh air in a genre that was starting to grow stale at the time, with it’s irreverant sense of humor and constant fourth wall breaks that really turned the super hero film on it’s head.  My hope is that the same crazy spirit that lifted the first movie will carry over into the second.  The trailers are already doing a good job of selling the humor in the new film, with jabs taken at everything from the X-Men franchise, to cinematic universes, to even The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005).  Creative differences led to the original director Tim Miller leaving this project, but the reigns were given over to the team behind the thrilling John Wick franchise, so hopefully the movie is able to maintain a level of fun that feels consistent.  One major plus for this movie is the inclusion of the character Cable (Josh Brolin once again, who’s about to have one hell of a Summer season), who looks to be a great foil for Deadpool to work his looniness off of.  As I’ve written about the movie before in past reviews, Deadpool was a shot in the funny bone that the superhero genre desperately needed at the time, and it’s success has been definitely earned.  A sequel is definitely not out of the question, since there is so much more to lampoon in the genre going forward, and DP is sure to have plenty more adventures to come, which should become interesting once Fox is incorporated into Disney, and Deadpool has the opportunity to finally mingle with all of Marvel’s other characters, whether they like it or not.


Sticking with this Summer’s notable streak of super hero movies, we finally have the long awaited sequel to Pixar’s Oscar-winning classic, The Incredibles.  Incredibles 2 comes to the big screen after a 14 year gap, the longest so far in Pixar history, narrowly eclipsing Finding Dory’s 13 years.  Pixar takes their time to revisit their past successes, but when they do, it usually is worth the wait.  The positive thing going for this sequel is that it sees the return of director Brad Bird to the world of animation, after a decade long side track into live action film-making which garnered mixed results; the thrilling Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) and the underwhelming Tomorrowland (2015).  Here he gets to revisit the narrative that turned him into a household name in the first place, and share the continuing adventures of the super powered Parr family.  A lot of fans have said for a long time that if there was ever a Pixar movie that was deserving of a sequel, this was the one, and thankfully the studio has finally got around to it.  The premise seems to be a worthy follow-up to the original, with both Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl trying their best to live a normal domestic life while at the same time trying to save the world as super heroes do.  This time around, we find Mr. Incredible left with the responsibility of running the household on his own, which should lead to some very funny situations, especially with baby Jack-Jack’s out of control powers becoming a problem.  Couple that with new villains and returning allies like Samuel L. Jackson’s ultra-cool Frozone, and this should be as thrilling a ride as the original was.  Let’s just hope that even after 14 years, this movie is still able to find the heart that made the first one so endearing, which shouldn’t be too hard as Pixar is renowned for it’s ability to constantly play to the best of our emotions.


Stepping away from super heroes for a moment, let’s take a look at another franchise that has shown some remarkable legs for so many years.  This sixth entry into the Mission Impossible franchise returns Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt back into another harrowing mission to save the world, only this one might be his last.  Cruise has always demonstrated a sense of fearlessness in most of his movies, often choosing to perform his own stunts most of the time, and the Mission Impossible movies are where he likes to show off his skills the most.  And Tom Cruise need to return to favorable ground after the disaster that was The Mummy last year.  The series has recently seen a bit of a resurgence thanks to the success of critically acclaimed entries like Ghost Protocol (2011) and Rogue Nation (2015).  Fallout seems to be closing up this second trilogy by picking up right where Rogue Nation left off, and seeming to hint that many of the dangling story-lines surrounding Mr. Hunt are about to be closed for good.  It’s hard to say if this is Tom Cruise’s last go around, but he certainly looks to still be in top form again here.  It’s clear that these Mission impossible movies are his favorites among all the action films he’s made, and in particular, he really likes to use them as a showcase for some truly insane stunt work.  It’ll be hard to top climbing the Burj Khalifa or riding on the outside of real plane on take off from the previous films, but Cruise notably did break his ankle for real on one stunt for this movie, showing that he indeed is not willing to slow down.  His regular team mates also return, including Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg, though notably the film is missing Jeremy Renner (who was probably busy on Infinity War).  Thankfully, Man of Steel’s Henry Cavill seems to be filling this gap effectively.  Let’s hope that even after 6 total films that this is still a mission worth accepting.


Now it’s back to super heroes again.  What can I say, Marvel is having a banner year with Black Panther and Infinity War, so it feels right to feel optimistic about anything they put out right now.  The first Ant-Man overcame a troubled production that saw the departure of it’s original director, Edgar Wright, and ended up becoming a modest success in the end.  Though far from Marvel’s best work to date, Ant-Man still managed to do just enough right in order to warrant a sequel.  It’s a bold move to make this their follow-up to Infinity War for this summer, but hopefully it’s a sign that Marvel has confidence in their little hero.  One notable thing about this sequel is that it finally introduces the Wasp into the Marvel universe, played here by Evangeline Lilly, who is a long time fan favorite from the comic books.  Paul Rudd of course returns as the titular Ant-Man, and his character was no doubt boosted by his very beloved cameo in Captain America: Civil War (2016), which introduced his Giant Man phase in spectacular fashion.  Not much else is known about this movie apart from what the trailer has shown us, but it looks like they are playing around with the size changing mechanics a whole lot more, which could be interesting to see play out.  I also like seeing Michael Douglas returning in the mentor role of original Ant-Man Hank Pym, and the revelation that the original Wasp is also going to factor into the story, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, is also something worth getting excited about.  Without a troubled production this time around to weigh the release down, Ant-Man and the Wasp is hopefully one more Marvel sequel that builds upon an already good thing.



What’s there to really worry about with a new Star Wars movie.  The world’s most popular film franchise is enjoying a Renaissance period right now, with The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi all becoming enormous box office successes.  And this new film is focused on one of the series’ most popular characters, delving finally into his mostly mysterious backstory.  So, why am I worried about this one.  Well, sadly this movie has been plagued by nothing but bad press for the last couple of years; pretty much from the time the movie started production.  The original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The Lego Movie), were let go after a creative dispute over the tone of the movie with Lucasfilm worrying that it strayed too far from the Star Wars formula.  The casting of relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich in the iconic role of Han Solo also left many people scratching their heads, since he doesn’t really look or sound anywhere close to Harrison Ford.  Couple this with many expensive 11th hour re-shoots and many people are worrying that this might be the movie that derails the resurgence that the franchise has enjoyed these last couple years.   The prospects don’t look good for the movie, but then again the Star Wars name will still help it make a lot of money.  It’s the worry that the movie may tarnish that same name in the process that still hangs heavy over it.  The plus side is that veteran director Ron Howard is helping to guide this movie past the finish line, and the film does have an impressive cast besides Ehrenreich that will be interesting to watch, like Woody Harrelson and Game of Thrones Emilia Clarke.  Most people are excited to see a return to the big screen for fan favorite Lando Calrissian, with Donald Glover filling Billy Dee Williams big shoes.  It remains to be seen if this movie can pull off a comeback and continue the Star Wars hot streak, but more than any film in this series before, this is the one that has to clear the most roadblocks.


The sad thing about sleeper hits in Hollywood is that it makes studios believe that they can turn what little success they got into bigger success by franchising something that wasn’t really built for a franchise.  The first Sicario (2015) was a brilliant and taut thriller that ended up making it’s way to the top of my best of the year list for that year.  But, it was a movie that was more about it’s characters than the subject matter and the setting, that being the border drug war between Mexican cartels and the Feds of the United States, and the movie concluded on such a perfect note that any more to the story would have diluted the power of everything that came before.  But, it appears that Sony believes there is more to mine out of this property, and have manufactured a sequel without the original director (Denis Villeneuve) and with far more emphasis on the action set pieces.  My worry is that the movie is going to forget what made the original so perfect, which was largely the level of restraint that Villeneuve utilized to maximize the impact of the brief action sequences, and instead just turn this into another generic and bloated action movie that contains lots of violence and no soul.  Then again, there are some positives that do still intrigue me about this sequel.  Despite loosing the director, the movie does retain the original screenwriter (Taylor Sheridan), who since writing Sicario has been on a role with other acclaimed scripts like Hell or High Water (2016) and Wind River (2017).  Stars Josh Brolin (again) and Benicio del Toro are also returning, and Del Toro’s return is crucial, because his character from the original is one of my favorite movie characters in recent memory.  Hopefully, this is more than just a studio cash grab and that it’s able to live up to it’s exceptional predecessor, but even still, we’ve seen Hollywood indulge too much in a good thing before, and ended up spoiling something special in the process.  I just don’t want to see that happen to Sicario too.


A couple years ago, I also included the first Jurassic World in my “worry” list, believing that it was going to be just another lame studio reboot of an already diminished franchise.  Surprisingly, I found myself actually liking the movie in the end.  While it was no where near as good as Spielberg’s 1993 original classic, it was still the best Jurassic Park sequel that we had yet seen, and it did spectacularly well at the box office, becoming one of the highest grossing movies of all time.  So, naturally there is going to be a sequel, as Universal is striking while the iron is still hot.  But, given how much Jurassic World was already stretching the franchise thin by rehashing already overused tropes that were already established in previous films, it really leaves you wondering what else the franchise still has left to offer.  The trailer unfortunately shows a whole bunch of story-lines being crammed together; a volcanic catastrophe, dinosaurs getting sold at auction, genetic experimentation gone wrong, and it just makes it look like this movie might turn into one confused and jumbled mess.  The already thinly drawn characters from World are returning, but Chris Pratt’s star power could help make his scenes at least enjoyable.  Also I cringe at the pandering inclusion of Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm as a means of tying this film in with the original.  At least the studio brought on a legit good director to guide this sequel with J. A . Bayona, who made my top film of 2016 (A Monster Calls).  My hope is that he can bring something worthwhile out of this, but considering that I’m getting some strong The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) vibes from this trailer (which is the worst film in the series), I am once again worried about where this franchise is headed.


This is an unusual Summer release.  If you’ve been reading my blog these last few years, you’ll know that I have mixed feelings with regards to Disney’s recent frenzy of live action remakes of their classic animated films.  I liked Cinderella (2015) and Pete’s Dragon (2016) quite a bit, and I tolerated most of The Jungle Book (2016), but I hated Maleficent (2014) and absolutely loathed last year’s Beauty and the Beast.  So you can understand why I might be a little weary of a live action movie centered around Winnie the Pooh.  Now, to be fair, this is less of remake and more of a re-imagining.  The story shows the titular Christopher Robin now fully grown up and with a family of his own being revisited by Pooh after who knows how many years.  There could be some interesting story possibilities to mine out of this scenario, especially with how different Christopher must seem to Pooh as an adult and how that might clash with the bear’s view of the world.  The danger is that, like most of Disney’s other recent remakes, the filmmakers might end up mining too much from the original animated cartoons hoping to capitalize on our familiarity instead of forging new ground and creating something original that can stand on it’s own.  The fact that this is a more or less original story is a positive sign, but there’s not much else that this trailer is telling us.  The movie can’t just rest on a saccharine sweet reunion between old friends; there should be some pathos there as well.  I’m not going into this movie expecting to hate it, but it’s got to show me that there’s a justification for a new take on Winnie the Pooh on the big screen.  Some reverence for the past is fine, and I like the fact that they retained long time voice actor Jim Cummings in the role of Pooh, but like most other movies, it’s best when we are treated to something new.



Seriously, a sequel to Mamma Mia (2008).  The original was already one of the most critically panned musicals to come out in the last decade; why bother making another?  Sure it has a fan base, but not a very big one.  Not only that, but the sequel leaves out one of the biggest drawing factors of the first movie, which was Meryl Streep in the headlining role.  Her character is deceased this time around, leaving a big hole in an already sunken pit.  If you can’t tell, I’m not a fan of this musical or movie.  What may have played well on the stage died horribly in a lamely executed film adaptation, even with Meryl’s participation.  Without her returning (at least in a lead role), what else is there to be excited for in this film.  The real kicker though is that it’s clear that the filmmakers are so devoid of new directions for this story that they are just going back in time and showing us the origins of Meryl’s character, played by Cinderella’s Lily James in flashbacks.   I was probably never going to see this movie at all to begin with, but my hope is that even those of you out there with any bit of curiosity will take a long look at this sequel and recognize that it is a studio cash grab and nothing more.  At a time when movie musicals are struggling and needing a La La Land (2016) like reinvention, the last thing we need is a franchise that’s just rehashing old tracks like an overused karaoke machine, which this movie very clearly is.


Not only does this movie have the disadvantage of having one of the most overplayed movie trailers in the last year, due to the fact that it’s release has been pushed back numerous times, but it also has to put up with the controversy surrounding it’s casting choices.  Hollywood is already facing backlash in many instances of white-washing their films by casting white actors in roles meant for minorities, and here we have a big budget studio film that again falls into that same misguided territory.  The movie is set thousands of years ago during the last ice age, and shows the beginnings of what would be the domestication of canines as companions for early humans.  The premise could be intriguing, but you can’t help but be distracted by the fact that the human characters, who are supposed to be indigenous tribal people, are all being played by Caucasian actors.  Now, the movie could get around that fact by placing their setting in a prehistoric Eurasian context, but the inclusion of creature that are native to North America like buffaloes indicates that this casting is clearly out of line with real history, and again shows Hollywood’s reluctance to extend representation to Native performers in many mainstream films.  Even apart from this controversy, the movie just looks bland, especially compared to other recent survival in the wild films like the more visually interesting The Revenant (2015).  The fact that the studio has had trouble finding an appropriate release date shows that there isn’t much to hope for with this one.


I originally thought that this trailer was a joke, like that fake Crocodile Dundee reboot staring Danny McBride that turned out to just be an ad for Australian tourism.  But, no, this is an honest to goodness real movie, and I honestly would rather watch another Crocodile Dundee.   We’re seriously so devoid of new ideas that Hollywood is now making an action comedy based around the game of tag.  Sure, the cast that includes Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, Ed Helms, and Hannibal Buress is impressive, but I just can’t get over the lameness of the premise.  It’s not a good sign when the movie’s tagline states, “we’re not kidding” showing that even they know that this is a hard sell.  The trailer doesn’t give me a lot of confidence either.  It seems like they are trying to aim for a Wedding Crashers (2005) or The Hangover (2008) kind of vibe here, but those movies had more of a grounded reality to them to make their hi-jinks funny.  Here, you have to swallow a lot of disbelief to think that a game of tag has these kind of stakes to it.  And yeah, I know that it’s supposed to be based on a true story, but even with that, this look less like a fun romp and more like a ploy for cheap laughs.  I’m far less inclined to believe that this movie will tag me with a surprising amount of laughs, and I’ll more than likely want to avoid the game altogether.

So, there you have my look at this Summer’s upcoming releases.  Surprisingly, this is kind of a soft field for what is typically a packed season.  It’s like everyone is steering clear of big hitters like Infinity War and Incredibles 2, with large gaps of several weeks filled with not much other than smaller indies and standard studio fillers.   The month of August in particular is devoid of any real buzz-worthy tent-pole films, which is surprising given how recent movies like Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Suicide Squad (2016) have shown it to be fertile ground too.  Is this a sign that Hollywood is not as enamored with the Summer months like they used to be, considering that blockbuster films are now appearing in all parts of the year?  It might be more likely that this Summer season is just a little less full than past years, as it’s been shown that packing a blockbuster into every week of the season isn’t going to necessarily generate record breaking results.  Next year could be very different, depending on what moves the studios make based on this year.  The unexpected success of Spring and Winter films is certainly having an impact, and parts of the year that looked like the only place to gain box office traction once may not be seen as such in today’s market.  But, even still, a monster production like Avengers: Infinity War is still going to set many Summer season box office records without any doubt, and several other films this Summer, like Incredibles and Jurassic World will also likely hit it big.  So, even though it starts earlier than usual, thanks to Marvel, this should still be a typically strong summer, and I’m happy to have shared my thoughts with you about it, even as they come earlier than normal.  Here’s to sun and fun at the movies these next few months.

Sink or Stream – How Hollywood is Responding to the Rise of Netflix and Streaming Content

If there is a single constant in the world of entertainment, it’s that it is ever changing.  Every new era we live in sees advancements in technology, and those advancements in one way or another will somehow change the way we live and in turn how we entertain ourselves.  We live in a world right now that has the most advanced access to communication that history has ever known, and it will only grow more sophisticated over time.  In addition to the abundance of online access as a way of communicating to others, we have also seen in the last decade the rise of online streaming as a way of sharing content with the world.  Whether it is through our own videos published online through places like YouTube, or streaming channels like Netflix, Amazon or Hulu, more and more people are finding their entertainment online rather than through traditional broadcasting.  And this is a change that the entertainment business is still trying to come to terms with.  Before the internet began to change the patterns of human behavior, Hollywood could easily gauge the pulse of their audience by following the box office returns in the movie theaters, or collect the ratings from the Nielsen programming charts with regards to television.  But today, streaming content lives by a different set of rules, where people have more choice in what they want to watch and when they want to watch it, with the actual numbers of viewership being kept a closely guarded secret within the different streaming corporation.  As a result, you have new giant players in the entertainment business taking advantage of their head start and inside knowledge of a new form of entertainment that Hollywood and the rest of the industry doesn’t quite understand yet.

What has really been shaking the film industry lately is the meteoric rise of Netflix in the last few years.   Started in Silicon Valley in 1998, Netflix grew from a simple website specializing in video rentals to a full blown movie studio in just a short 20 year span.  Their DVD rental by mail service of course is what got them on the map to begin with (and led to the eventual downfall of once unstoppable rental giant Blockbuster Video), but it was their introduction to streaming on demand content that really propelled them further.  First, it began with streaming movies that were already licensed out to them, but then Netflix took the bold step of deciding to create original content for their subscriber base to access.  They began with original shows, but later went on to producing original films, as well as buying up independent productions from festivals and the international marketplace.  All this has led Netflix to becoming a major player in Hollywood, with exclusive content being added to their platform on almost a daily basis.  They are now attracting the likes of Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, and many more high profile filmmakers to joining their roster of content makers, giving them the kind of prestige that normally is reserved for the biggest studios in the industry.  But, more than all that, they have effectively changed the way that we are consuming media today.  The Netflix model is now starting to become the norm in society today, as more and more people are choosing to watch their shows and movies from the comforts of their own home and on their own schedule.  It’s far more convenient for audiences to click and watch something immediately through their Netflix page, rather than having to look up the showtimes of their local theater or planning their day around the scheduled broadcast of their favorite show.  And by servicing this preferred way of watching media, Netflix has been able to prosper.  But, the question has also been raised questioning Netflix’s role in entertainment; if it plays online and never gets screened in a theater for an audience, should it still be considered a movie?

That is the question that is being raised right now in the industry, and one that has caused a rift between the traditional system of film distribution and Netflix’s online empire.  Just this last week (as of this writing), Netflix decided to pull several of their films from screening at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France.  This was in response to rule changes made by the festival that required the films in contention to have a scheduled release in French theaters within the same year.  This of course goes against Netflix’s business model, which is that everything they produce is exclusive to and can only be accessed through their site, which would be pointless if the film was also available elsewhere in a local theater.  Though Netflix was still allowed to screen at the festival, their streaming only rule prevented them from competition, so the company chose to remove themselves completely out of protest.  In the long run, this decision won’t hurt Netflix in terms of revenue, but it is a slap in the face to the filmmakers who were eager to have a presence at this year’s festival, including Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuaron, who was sad that his new Netflix produced film Roma was not being screened because of this boycott.  But the one point that Cannes’ decision is making with their new rules is to state a standard for what is considered a movie or not.  For the many years that the festival has run, movies have been screened for audiences in theaters, and this has been the norm of the industry for decades.  It’s something that Netflix can’t duplicate with their on demand services, because a theater experience is certainly a lot different than a home viewing experience, and some believe that this is crucial to how we judge the quality of a film in the end.  Steven Spielberg also recently put in his two cents, stating that if a movie is shown only on television through Netflix or other streamers, it is therefore a TV movie and should not be eligible for accolades like Oscars of Cannes’ Palme d’Or, which are given out to theatrical films.

Though there is validity to what Cannes and Spielberg are arguing about what constitutes a cinematic experience and what doesn’t, there is the counterpoint that states that the traditional way of watching a movie is evolving and that a theatrical experience may not be the norm in the future.  Netflix could indeed be positioning themselves for a New Hollywood of the future that will see more and more premieres of movies online than in regular brick and mortar movie theaters.  Though the shift hasn’t happened yet, as most theater chains are still seeing good business thanks to blockbusters like Black Panther currently, the gap between theatrical and home video releases are becoming shorter and it may be only a matter of years before the middle man is cut out completely and even big blockbusters make their premieres online instead.  From then on, theatrical experiences will turn into a novelty rather than the standard for entertainment, and many businesses that are reliant on the model as it is now will quickly disappear because they couldn’t adapt.  Remember, Netflix has crushed another industry before (Blockbuster) through their ability to read the signs of a changing culture, and they are very capable of rising above the heap of another un-adaptable industry in the future.  But, to take stock in what Spielberg and other skeptics have said, if the old standards mean nothing in the end, then what can we honestly call cinema as a result.  To be considered for accolades that have existed for several decades, these movies from streaming services must adhere to the same rules that all the other past winners have, and that puts places like Netflix at a crossroads.  Do they bend to the rules of the past, or do they make the rules bend to them?

The notion of a New Hollywood emerging out of this conflict is something that is causing a lot of friction in Hollywood today.  Some in the industry are going to fall behind, without a doubt, and those who adapt will find themselves in a far different position than when they started out.  The studios for instance are already going through some of those changes.  Everyone from Warner Brothers, to Paramount, to Sony, to Disney and Fox are expanding their online presence and working to increase their output to reach the new crop of online viewer, sometimes in partnership with places like Netflix and in other places in direct competition.  The recent and still processing acquisition of Fox by Disney may in fact play into this as well.  Disney recognizes that the business is changing, and that Netflix may not just be a producer of films in the future, but perhaps could be a mega-studio that dictates both what gets made and how people get to watch it in difference to what they themselves wish to make.  So, once the Fox Studio went on the market, Disney made their bold move to acquire it as part of it’s own media empire.  Some have speculated that this is Disney creating a Hollywood monopoly, but I personally believe that this is them and Fox preparing themselves for the New Hollywood that will emerge through the influence of Netflix.  Disney has already announced that they are ending their current partnership with Netflix and will launch their own streaming service in the near future.  Considering that this new Disney streaming channel will now have two studios worth of exclusive content tells me that this is their attempt to be prepared for this change in the industry, and indicates to me why Fox felt more inclined to merge with them than they would’ve a few years ago.  Better to face this new world as partners than to fend off the unknown all by yourself.

But, apart from joining forces to create a new mega corporation that can live longer in a reforming industry, there are other things that Hollywood can take into consideration in order to balance out the changing tide of streaming content.  What has helped Netflix to prosper in such a short time is their ability to draw top tier talent to their company.  The fore-mentioned Scorsese and Coen Brothers are also following in the footsteps of fellow prestigious talent like David Fincher, Noah Baumbach, Joon-ho Bong, and many other celebrated artists who have taken their new projects directly to the distributor, even with their insistence on streaming only presentations.  And this is largely due to Netflix more lasse faire and risk-taking attitude towards the content that is produced.  They are production company with deep pockets that allows for more creative freedom than most other studios are capable of giving.  With that in consideration, who wouldn’t want to go to Netflix with their new movie or show idea?  Even Spielberg stated that he’s still open to working with Netflix in the future on some project despite how he feels about their eligibility for Oscars.  Mainly the reason why Netflix allows for this kind of creativity is because they don’t have to follow the same rules as the rest of Hollywood.  They don’t have to focus group their movies to ensure that they appeal to the widest range of cinema goers across the country.  If they believe that a project is good enough, they will make it and put it on their channel and make it available to anyone interested, which often is helped when it’s got a big name attached to it.  For Netflix, it’s not a race to box office grosses or ratings, but instead about growing their subscriber base, which is helped out with a diverse set of exclusive content.  The beneficial result of this is to change the other studio’s preconceptions of what is popular with audiences and convince them to up their game and compete with more creative freedom within their own company.  Those who can’t see the benefit of Netflix’s risk-taking and only choose to play it safe will only isolate themselves further in the changing market.

But, Netflix can also box themselves in if they are too insistent on their platform becoming the new standard.  Because, even despite the change that the industry is going through, there will still be a place for the traditional cinematic experience.  Cinema has faced the onslaught of changing technology before, especially with the introduction and normalization of television in the 1950’s, and it’s continued to prosper ever since.  The reason for this has been the enduring appeal of an in theater experience.  When television began to challenge the theater business, they answered by widening the screen and making new films feel like an event worthy of leaving home and the TV alone for a couple of hours.  The era of blockbusters in the 80’s and 90’s also helped to counteract the rise of home video, which brought a whole new way of watching movies into the average household across the world.  Hollywood even managed to marginalize direct-to-video entertainment, showing that it was in no way the same as seeing a movie in the theater.  Netflix provides more of a challenge to the theater business than most other things before, but again, competition does spur on innovation, and I can see the theater business evolving in this new era as well.  In a way, it’s something that already distinguishes Netflix from it’s most direct competition.  Amazon Studios releases all of their movie theatrically before putting them on their streaming service and not on home video, which has helped them to gain an edge over Netflix in the accolades department, having more nominated films so far than the other thanks to films like Manchester by the Sea (2016) and The Big Sick (2017).  And with future competitors like Disney/Fox, Apple, and AT&T’s Time Warner conglomerate emerging, all of whom which have long standing partnerships with theater chains across the world, Netflix could find itself lacking in marketplace that might thrive well enough without them.  My guess is that Netflix could indeed enter the theater business itself if it wanted too, by buying up or starting their own theater chain; though this might run the risk of violating anti-trust laws that dismantled the studio system in the 1950’s.  As it shows, the advancement of a New Hollywood in the years to come could prove to be problematic, even with a leader like Netflix.

There is no doubt that we are right now witnessing the infancy of a new world order in terms of how Hollywood and the entertainment business will function in the future.  It may not be at the top just yet, but Netflix is quickly becoming the leader in this New Hollywood movement and it remains to be seen just how much of an impact they leave on the business as a whole.   Netflix is already making it’s case in Hollywood by gaining a strong foothold within the industry.  They have already moved their headquarters from the Bay Area to the heart of Hollywood; buying up the legendary Sunset Bronson Studio Lot on Sunset Boulevard and building a massive new tower that bears their name and looms large over the ever busy 101 Hollywood Freeway.  And you’ll be hard pressed not to find a picture online of Netflix CCO Ted Sarandos where he’s socializing with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.  This is company that clearly has it’s eyes on broadening it’s presence in Hollywood and emerging as the industry leader once the market moves closer to streaming exclusively over releasing theatrically.  Even still, Hollywood is changing alongside Netflix, and we are already watching that evolution take some dramatic steps.  Disney and Fox will soon become one entity and other major studios may either consolidate to compete and start their own streaming service, or fall off completely.  In a decade or so, the “Big Six” studios as we know them now could end up becoming the “Big Three”, with maybe even Netflix or Amazon becoming majors themselves.  This is all speculation, but there are clearly many things that Netflix is already changing about Hollywood that could lead them down this road.  They have the benefit of artists being attracted to their more lax restrictions and interference, and the convenience of their service is also appealing to audiences.  But, they’ll have to deal with the question of whether or not what they are making is considered a movie at all based on the standards that the industry has been built upon.  They may have to adhere to what Hollywood is now, but only until Hollywood becomes like them in time.  Then it won’t matter what screen it’s presented on; Netflix and it’s ilk will be our window into the world of cinema for the internet based age that’s going to shape all of us for generations to come.

Off the Page – The Great Gatsby

There are few other directors out there who can create such a divided opinion of his work than Baz Luhrmann.  The Aussie auteur either receives enormous praise for his lavishly made films, or is savaged by critics for his often indulgent tastes.  There is very little ground in between on most of his movies, and surprisingly enough those same critics directed at one of his films may end up switching allegiance on their stance towards the director based on the next film.  I think the strong feelings that Baz elicits from critics and viewers are due to the fact that he has an uncompromising style, which is certainly unique and all his own, but is also an acquired taste.  Starting off with his debut in the lavish Strictly Ballroom (1992), Baz has gone on to refine a style that emphasizes bold colors, quick paced editing, and an often operatic form of storytelling.  And when he uses his distinct style, it’s often used to challenge cinematic conventions by working it’s way into unexpected genres.  He re-imagined Shakespeare by putting a modern twist on Romeo + Juliet (1996), which was irksome to some Bard purists.  He also tried and failed to make a sweeping romantic epic centered around his homeland in Australia (2008).  However, his most highly regarded film, Moulin Rouge! (2001), is largely seen as the movie that revitalized the dormant movie musical genre, so while he may be divisive he at the same time has also proved to be highly influential.  I myself am mixed on his effectiveness as a filmmaker.  While I absolutely loathed Australia,  as I wrote in my scathing critique here, I do admire his bold visual style, especially in his earlier work like Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet (Moulin Rouge was borderline in my opinion).  But after the failure of Australia, Baz needed something to prove that he could balance style with substance again, and once again he made a bold choice in tackling a beloved literary classic; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Gatsby is not only a cherished classic in literary circles, but can also make a case for being the “Great American Novel,” taking that distinction away from the likes of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter.  Published in 1925, Fitzgerald’s novel is a snapshot of America in the Roaring Twenties, chronicling the decadence and greed that consumed the country at the time and dissecting the essence of the American dream that both drove the nation forward and also caused it to crack apart at the same time.  Fitzgerald drew heavily from his own experiences, having attended many lavish parties put on by the social elites of his day, and in particular, captured in his writing the types of characters that he would meet in many interactions.  Though Fitzgerald certainly observes the cultural awakening of the 20’s with an air of admiration, he casts a critical eye (through a quite literal metaphor even) on the class divisions that also define the era.  It’s a novel about dreaming, but also about the limitations of dreams, and it ultimately concludes on a very sour tragic note.  The bleakness of Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is largely what made the book a failure in it’s initial release, because nobody who was enjoying the decadence of the Jazz Age was interested in seeing the downside to all their fun.  Of course, the Depression Era that followed changed a few minds, and now The Great Gatsby is regarded as a masterpiece.  It is now considered essential reading for nearly all American school curriculum, because of it’s distinctly American themes and the way that it dissects the social issues and divisions that still resonate in modern society.  Though F. Scott Fitzgerald was disheartened by the lack of appreciation that his work received in it’s time, and also dying at the young age of 44 believing that his writing was lost to era, he may be appreciative of the fact that Gatsby’s legacy endures to this day; even when given up to new interpretations like the one in Baz Luhrmann’s film.

“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice. ‘Always try to see the best in people,’ he would say.  As a consequence, i’m inclined to reserve judgement. But even I have a limit.”

One big difference that can be derived between the book and the movie is the intent of each.  What F. Scott Fitzgerald envisioned as an examination of the world that he lived in, Luhrmann sees as a canvas for his lavish production design.  Baz is clearly fascinated with the era of the Roaring Twenties, and all the visual splendor that can be drawn from it; the fashion, the opulent art deco architecture, and even the striking contrasts between the have and have nots of the era.  In The Great Gatsby movie, Baz wants to play around in this era and use his film-making talents to do it.  The movie does take advantage of the many lavish parties that Fitzgerald describes in his book, and films them with the same over the top vigor that he brought to Moulin Rogue 12 years prior to this production.  The quick editing and glitzy cinematography make a return here, but the movie doesn’t stop there with the modern aesthetics added to this classic narrative.  The movie also adds a hip hop flavored soundtrack, with music that is quite obviously anachronistic to the era, although in some cases inspired.  It’s certainly a jarring thing to hear the rapping of Jay-Z (who also served as the film’s executive producer) butting up against the likes of Cole Porter.  But, it’s part of the clashing of cultural elements that defines a lot of Luhrmann’s style.  But even with all the cinematic flair that he adds to delight the eyes of the viewer, is it really possible for this Aussie director to capture the essence of this quintessential American story.  Surprisingly, he does, albeit with a few less than successful elements.  Though I despised Australia, I actually found that I had more positive feelings towards The Great Gatsby, which strangely feels more natural to the director’s sensibilities than the love letter to his home country.  And while I don’t think that Fitzgerald ever imagined the same kind of story that Luhrmann tells in his movie, I do believe that both find common ground on a very crucial element; the character of Jay Gatsby himself.

“My life, old sport, my life… my life has got to be like this.  It’s got to keep going up.”

For a lot of reasons, the success of an adaptation of The Great Gatsby rests mostly on how well cast the role of the titular Gatsby is within the movie.  Baz Luhrmann’s film is certainly not the first to hit the big screen, and probably won’t be the last, so there are many examples to draw comparisons with.  Robert Redford famously took on the role in a 1974 version, with a screenplay adaptation by Francis Ford Coppola.  And while Redford certainly looked the part of the dashing young man, he unfortunately doesn’t resonate too well because he made the biggest possible mistake with the character; he tried to make him too relate-able.  The key with the character of Jay Gatsby is that he must remain unknowable; an enigma with a face that you can never quite understand.  He is a man of ambition, charming as well as cunning, but apart from that, no one quite knows where he came from and how he got rich so fast.  There are explanations given as to his past, but they are described by Gatsby himself, so one still is left wondering if it’s the truth.  The only thing that defines the motivations of Jay Gatsby is his sole desire to be loved, and in particular, to reconnect with the one love that he let slip away; the enchanting Daisy Buchanan.  Gatsby’s pursuit is the heart of the mystery behind Fitzgerald’s tale; why would one man go to such lengths just to fill this one hole in his life.  That’s the soul of the character that Baz knew he had to match, and luckily he didn’t need to reach out too far.  He reconnected with his old cinematic Romeo, Leonardo DiCaprio, and tasked him with bringing the character to life.  DiCaprio’s performance turns out to be just perfect because he distills the character down into a man who is always in the middle of a performance.  There is not an authentic bone in Gatsby’s body, and Leo brings that cadence out brilliantly.  With blustery proclamations, grand gestures of showmanship, and a desire to ingratiate himself to others by greeting them as “old sport,” Gatsby comes through the screen exactly as the unknowable man that Fitzgerald imagined in his book.  What the author wanted was to connect the ambition of Gatsby the Man with the limitations of the American Dream, and show that a man that has everything may still in fact lack everything.  In getting a bombastic performance from a reliable actor like DiCaprio, the movie managed to find that essence.

The effectiveness of DiCaprio’s performance helps to ground the rest of the movie and makes Luhrmann’s flashiness actually serviceable as a part of the overall experience.  In many ways, it reflects the reputation that the book has managed to amass over the years.  A story this iconic should be given the most mythical of treatments, and Luhrmann treats The Great Gatsby with the same ethereal wonder as a grand opera.  This is clear in what is absolutely my favorite moment in the movie, which is the introduction of Jay Gatsby into the film.  Any other movie would have probably given Gatsby a more dignified entrance into a scene, but Baz wanted something grander.  During one of the party scenes, the character of Nick Carraway (played by Tobey Maguire) is trying to navigate his way through a ruckus party at Gatsby’s mansion, hoping to catch a first glimpse of the mysterious millionaire.  A one point, he crosses paths with someone who he believes to be a waiter at first, and one who remains out of sight while speaking to him on screen.  Then in one magnificent shot, the mystery man turns to face the camera and says to Nick “For you see, I’m Gatsby.”  The moment is then punctuated with fireworks in the background and a crescendo in the score courtesy of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” all with Leonardo smiling straight at us with champagne in hand.  It’s the kind of moment that only cinema can capture, and it’s the kind of moment that allows Baz Luhrmann to elevate the character of Gatsby in the most epic way possible.  For this, the over the top treatment seems appropriate, because it’s thematically in tune with the excesses of the era it’s depicting and it helps to bring new life into a story that audiences are probably overly familiar with.   But, despite it feeling appropriate for the time period for which it is depicting, does Baz still manage to connect us with the lessons of Fitzgerald’s tale, or does it get lost in all the director’s indulgences.

“I remember how we had all come to Gatsby’s and guessed at this corruption while he stood before us concealing an incorruptible dream…”

Though Baz Luhrmann is an expert craftsman when it comes to visualizing a story, the one thing he isn’t known for is subtlety.  While a lack of subtlety can help some of his movies feel entertainingly aloof, it does however minimize the effectiveness of moments that should carry more weight.  And this is where his adaptation of The Great Gatsby shows it’s cracks.  In particular, while the minimal development of Gatsby’s character is appropriate for his place in the story, the same can not be said about the others.  Most of the other characters are painted in very familiar tropes, which ignores the complexities that defined them in the book.  They instead are turned into archetypes, which leaves little mystery as to how their characters will function throughout the rest of the story.  In particular, the characters of Tom and Daisy Buchanan are short changed the most in this version of the story.  Tom, in one moment in the movie, cites the controversial work of an author named Goddard, which was a thinly veiled reference to white supremacist author Lothrop Stoddard in Fitzgerald’s novel, and his book called “Rise of the Colored Empires.”  In the movie, this is equivalent to having a sign over Tom’s head reading “I’m a Racist Bigot and you should hate me.”  There are already many negative things to dislike about Tom Buchanan (serial infidelity for one), but this obvious connection to racist ideology is hitting it too much on the nose.  Daisy is also thinly drawn, becoming little more than just the object of Gatsby’s desire, rather than the duplicitous, femme fatale that she is in the book.  It’s funny that in this movie, Gatsby has more chemistry with Nick Carraway than he does with Daisy, but it makes sense since DiCaprio and Maguire have been best buds since childhood.  I don’t fault the actors for these portrayals; in fact I do think Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton do the best they can with their roles as Daisy and Tom respectively.  I especially enjoy the Clark Gable-esque cadence that Edgerton added to his performance.  But it’s very clear that for these characters that Luhrmann wanted to spell things out for his audience rather than to let the characters form naturally as part of the narrative.

It sometimes extends into the thing that Baz Luhrmann s usually good at too which is his visual flourish.  In the book, the most vivid and reoccurring symbol for the story is this billboard off the side of the road in the gray landscape of the Valley of Ash, where all the coal plants are.  The billboard is for a long out of business optometrist, visualized as large, bespectacled eyes, faceless and plastered on a plain starry sky, which has deteriorated over the years due to lack of upkeep.  In the book, these eyes metaphorically act as the Eyes of God, watching over our characters and appearing to cast judgment.  It’s a powerful symbol, and one that has gone on to be the trademark image of the entire story; appearing on the cover of many reprints of the novel over the years.  But, in the book, it performs purely as that; a symbol, which only gains significance through interpretation.  In the movie, however, Luhrmann’s lack of subtlety does away with any pretense regarding the billboard.  When a climatic vehicular manslaughter happens at the end of the second act, Luhrmann cuts right to the eyes, gazing down on the event, pretty much spelling out what was in the subtext of Fitzgerald’s writing, that these are the eyes of God, and he’s watching these foolish mortals destroy one another.  It robs that symbol of it’s power in the process.  There is also another strange element that Baz adds to the movie which proved to be distracting.  In some parts, Baz seems to love the prose of Fitzgerald’s writing so much, that he literally puts it on screen.  In place of Nick Carraway’s narration of remembrance from the novel, Luhrmann creates a framing device of Nick writing the novel out as a means of therapy, and as he writes, particular passages of the text transpose over the images of the movie itself, making you very aware of their importance.  While an interesting idea, I think they too robbed the power of the words by making us too aware of their significance.  In these two instances, Baz’s indulgences pull you out of the movie and reduce the effectiveness of what Fitzgerald wrote on the page.  It’s not a bad thing for Baz Luhrmann to feel so strongly about the mythical qualities of The Great Gatsby, it’s just that he should have understood that it’s better to let those things speak for themselves.

“I knew it was a great mistake for a man like me to fall in love…”

Baz Luhrmann can be infuriating as a director sometimes, but you can’t help but admire the way he swings for the fences with every project in a way that few other directors do.  The Great Gatsby may not be a great film in total, but it does more right than wrong, and at the very least does an honorable job of trying to bring F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel to life.  The book is almost too esteemed a piece of writing to ever get a faithful adaptation that’ll please every one.  Despite it’s flaws, I seem to find this version the best that we are likely to ever get, just because of the unique spin that Baz put into it.  His version of the story presents an idealized world, where the characters and the setting are larger than life, and mythic representations of the character of America.  Perhaps with his outsider perspective, Baz Luhrmann found himself to be the ideal visionary to carry this story into a new century and re-contextualize a classic without loosing too much of it’s essence.  That being said, some of his indulgences also do minimize the narrative a bit, and to really get a grasp of the power of this story, it’s better to go back to the original novel.  I will say, The Great Gatsby is one of Baz Luhrmann’s more restrained works of film-making, and it certainly is a breath of fresh air after the mess that was Australia.   It also worked out well for him in his career, as the movie became a surprise hit at the box office, which no doubt was helped by the widespread familiarity that the story continues to have.  The one good thing that can come from a flashy, cinematic adaptation like this one is to bring the themes of the story into the present and remind audiences that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story still has a meaning today.  The American experience is still one of turmoil and prejudice, and The Great Gatsby reminds us of the struggle each of us goes through in order to pursue this fleeting thing that we call the American Dream.  In the story, we see through the persona of Gatsby that the hope of a dream causes us to cast aside too much of who we are deep inside, to the point that when we obtain a bit any bit of fame and fortune, we have to keep pretending to be someone else in order to keep up appearances.  That’s ultimately the tragedy of the unknowable man that is Jay Gatsby, and both Baz Luhrmann and Leonardo DiCaprio capture that element perfectly on film, which helps to make it a movie that honors the book’s long legacy.   As we see through their version, Gatsby becomes the face of America; broken and uncertain, but still beaming with a sense of hope for something better.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.  It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”