Ohana Means Family – 20 Years of Lilo and Stitch and the End of the Disney Renaissance

Like Marvel in our current day, and Pixar Studios through the 2000’s, Walt Disney Animation went through an unprecedented win streak that helped to revitalize them as a vanguard brand in Hollywood during the 1990’s.  This period in time is known as the Disney Renaissance, and it still is one of the most celebrated periods of creativity in the annals of Animation history.  After hitting a low point in the 80’s with the colossal failure of The Black Cauldron (1985) at the box office, there were many who were wondering if Disney would even be able to make animated features any more, and that they would always just be a legacy studio shepherding past glory.  That all changed once The Little Mermaid (1989), one last big Hail Mary by the struggling animation department, became an immediate hit.  As a result, the legendary animation studio that had given the world Snow White, Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty came roaring back to life, better than ever.  Building off of the success of Mermaid, Disney kept the momentum going with each film building off of the success before.  They released Beauty and the Beast (1991; their first Best Picture nominee), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994).  Lion King in particular broke every record imaginable at the box office, and proved that Disney wasn’t just a success again, but a force within the industry.  But, The Lion King’s success may have been too big, as it began to put too much pressure on what was to follow after it.  The next film up was Pocahontas (1995) which performed decently at the box office, but nowhere near the numbers that The Lion King managed.  This began a small decline in the years after, which saw both The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and Hercules (1997) making far less than their predecessors.  But, the Renaissance was not quite over, as Disney saw a bit of a bounce back with two hits in a row in the last half of the decade, with both Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999) delivery strong box office returns.  Though Disney still remained a strong brand going into the new millennium, it was clear that some of that sheen was wearing off.

Part of the decline of the Disney Renaissance also had to do with internal shake-ups that were affecting the flow of production at the studio.  The very public feud between Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Head of Production Jeffrey Katzenberg saw the latter’s departure after the premiere of The Lion King.  Katzenberg would then team up with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to form Dreamworks, which would directly challenge Disney as it formed it’s own Animation studio.  At the same time, Disney was also reaping the rewards of it’s partnership with a rising force within animation called Pixar.  Pixar of course created the first ever fully computer animated feature called Toy Story (1995), which out-grossed Disney Animation’s own film (Pocahontas) at the box office, and it began to spark the conversation of whether this was the future of the animation industry.  For Disney Animation, they were still sticking by their commitment to the tried-and-true traditional hand drawn form, but in all those years since The Lion King reached it’s peak and the emergence of computer animation as an exciting new venture, there was added pressure to justify it’s worth in the market.  Though traditional animation has it’s base support of fans, it was not enough to outshine the allure of computer animation.  So, Disney Animation began to look outside it’s comfort zone of adapting well known tales and fables into Animated epics and instead the focus became finding unique stories that would appeal to a broader audience, much like what Pixar was excelling at during that time.  This unfortunately led to a bit more disruption in the stability of the Disney Renaissance.  The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) went through a turbulent re-working as it’s previous incarnation (a dramatic epic titled Kingdom of the Sun) went through a disastrous production overhaul.  And the more grown up oriented Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) became perhaps too much of a departure for Disney.  But, as luck would turn out, a surprising little gift landed in their lap as a quirky, original story made it’s way through Disney Animation that had long been the pet project of a passionate but untried new voice at their studio.

Chris Sanders came to Disney Animation just before the beginning of the Disney Renaissance in 1987.  A graduate of the legendary CalArts animation program (the incubator of pretty much all of the most noteworthy names in animation over the last 50 years), he had previously done work for Marvel Comics and the television show Muppet Babies.  An accomplished draftsman, his primary expertise was storyboarding and character development, which helped to earn him a place in the rapidly expanding and revitalized Disney Animation.  He worked on various projects, including storyboards for both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, where he was very instrumental in helping to shape the characters of the enchanted objects in Beauty as well as the hyenas and Timon and Pumbaa in King.  Though he was widely celebrated for his stellar story artwork, Disney was also realizing that he was adept as a writer as well, and this then led them to giving him the chance to take a shot at drafting a screenplay for their next film, MulanMulan was a special project for Disney as it marked the first feature film produced entirely at their satellite studio at the Disney World in Orlando, Florida; a testament to the level of growth that Disney had enjoyed during the Renaissance years.  The California based Sanders made the move out to Florida to participate in the creation of Mulan.  In addition to co-writing the screenplay with Rita Hsaio, Phillip LaZednik, Phillip Singer and Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, he also was made co-head of story for the film.  His co-head of story was another rising star in the story department at Disney named Dean DeBlois, who would prove to be a valuable partner in story-telling for Christ Sanders.  DeBlois had been a layout artist for Don Bluth animation before moving over to Disney, and like Chris Sanders, he was also showing a lot of promise as a storyteller.  Mulan premiered to great acclaim and was celebrated for it’s deft balancing of sincere drama and charming humor.  Afterwards, the Orlando studio was looking for their next project after proving it’s worth, and both Sanders and DeBlois jumped at the opportunity.

Chris Sanders had been sitting on an original story from even before he started at Disney Animation.  It was about an alien creature named Stitch who comes to Earth and befriends a human child, who helps the creature abandon his destructive instincts.  First developed by Sanders right out of art school in 1985, it was pitched to no avail as a children’s book with original art that Sanders had drawn himself.  After Disney picked up Sanders as a talent, he stopped sending his manuscript to potential publishers and had it sitting in his portfolio for years while he rose up the ranks at Disney.  But even while he found success on other projects, Sanders still would return to this story from time to time, hoping to make it a reality someday.  When he began partnering with Dean DeBlois on story development, he looked to his new collaborator for help in fine tuning this long in development idea.  Together, they made changes to help flesh out the story and make it feel even more unique. One of the big changes they made in this time was the setting.  Originally, Stitch was to have crash landed in Kansas and befriended a farm girl who helped to smooth away his destructive path.  They later realized that the islands of Hawaii would provide a more interesting backdrop for the story; as it still allowed for Stitch to be stuck in an area without major population centers with the added element of being surrounded by water.  Stitch also went through a transformation during this time, going from a reptilian like appearance to more of a cuddly, puppy dog like look.  But even more importantly, they fleshed out the character of the child who befriends Stitch, eventually molding her into the young native Hawaiian girl named Lilo.  Lilo would end up having her own interesting narrative going on at the same time, struggling to cope with a shattered family where her sole means of support is her older sister Nani, who herself is on the verge of losing Lilo to child protective services.  Lilo is also a bit of a oddball herself, attracted to strange sights and sounds with a particular obsession towards the music of Elvis Presley.  Eventually, all these story elements came together to where Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois felt confident in pitching it as a film idea to Disney Animation.  And, even in the midst of a changing dynamic in the world of Animation, Sanders and DeBlois managed to received the go ahead from the head of Disney.

Lilo and Stitch managed to enjoy a relatively smooth production compared to it’s other contemporaries at Disney Animation.  With Sanders and DeBlois taking on directing duties for the first time, there was still pressure to prove that they could deliver a hit film for the studio, especially at a time when they needed one.  Sanders and DeBlois benefited surprisingly from some of the turmoil of the productions of other Disney films.  When Kingdom of the Sun went into it’s production hiatus to be reworked into The Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo and Stitch managed to pick up many of the animators and artists that were displaced suddenly by that troubled production.  This included legendary animator Andreas Deja, who had been one of Disney’s most celebrated talents during the Renaissance, animating characters as varied as King Triton, Gaston, Jafar, Scar, and Hercules.  On Lilo and Stitch, he was granted the coveted assignment of animating Lilo, which when you look at his other work was quite the departure for him, but one that he relished the opportunity to undertake.  The animation of Stitch was given to another longtime animator named Alex Kupershmidt, who exceled at frantic comedic action, which he showed in the animation of all three hyenas in The Lion King.  One of the most important aspects of putting the movie into production was in accurately conveying the look and culture of the Hawaiian islands.  The production team took many trips to Hawaii to get a sense of it’s natural beauty, but to also acquaint itself with the native population and it’s centuries old culture.  Numerous cultural and historical consultants were included in the development of the film, as the animation team wanted to be respectful to the traditions and characteristics of the native Hawaiians in their film.  Sure, Lilo and her sister Nani are contemporary characters dealing with modern day problems, but their cultural identity is also a strong part of who they are too.  It’s probably through the research into Hawaiian traditions that the concept of Ohana worked it’s way into the story.  Ohana is of course the Hawaiian word for family, and as this film is about finding one’s own family even out of unusual circumstances, it’s only natural that this would be the thing that drives the heart of the story.

The movie is an interesting mix overall of different, oddball concepts working together to create a very original film.  One of the most interesting out of left field ideas that the Disney animation studio brought to this movie was using watercolor to paint the backgrounds of the movie.  This was quite the departure for Renaissance era Disney which had invested in very hyper-detailed background art in many of their movies.  But, it’s not unprecedented, as watercolors had been used before by Disney on films like Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942), which helped give those films a very storybook like feel.  This naturally helps to bring to life the story that Chris Sanders had originally envisioned as a storybook for children in his original concept.  It’s especially effective in conveying the sun-kissed natural beauty of Hawaii, with the colors being especially eye-popping.  The movie also does a great job in conveying the voice of the Hawaiian people.  Though Lilo was voiced by a young Caucasian actress Daveigh Chase (who perfectly captures the spunkiness of her character), other actors in the cast included native Hawaiian performers like Tia Carrere as Nani and Jason Scott Lee as her surfer boy crush David Kawena.  And foregoing a traditional musical score like previous Disney films, the film does feature two original songs performed by Hawaiian artist Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu, as well as some interspersed Elvis songs.  In another departure for Disney, there is a wildly imaginative science fiction element centered around Stitch in the movie.  All the while Stitch is learning to cope with life on Earth, he’s being hunted down by his maniacal creator, a mad scientist named Jumba (voiced by Disney stalwart David Ogden Stiers) and his assistant Pleakly (voiced by Kevin McDonald) who may be the first implied trans character ever in an animated film.  Another interesting choice is that the voice for Stitch was provided by Chris Sanders himself.  It’s possible that Sanders had been fine tuning how Stitch would sound like over many years he had been working on the story, so when the opportunity came to give voice finally to the character, only Sanders was qualified enough to do the character justice.  It’s interesting that even 20 years later, and even after Sanders has long left Disney behind, he still returns to perform Stitch’s voice for various projects, showing just how much he is intertwined with the character.

Though Lilo and Stitch moved forward without any issue to it’s planned Summer 2002 release, there was one real world event that did cause them to make an eleventh hour change.  In the film’s original climax, Stitch chases after Lilo’s captor, a giant alien named Captain Gantu (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) in a 747 airplane he hijacks from a local airport (safely without passengers I might add).  During the aerial pursuit, Stitch has to pilot the massive plane through the high rise buildings of Downtown Honolulu.  Of course, as you might guess, this scene had unfortunate echoes of the real life attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, which happened during the last months of Lilo and Stitch’s production.  Despite having the scene fully animated and picture locked, the decision was made to rework the climax at the last minute, which the animation team managed to accomplish with impressive speed.  The 747 was changed into a giant alien spacecraft and the high rises were changed into a mountain range.  It worked so well that no one who saw the movie noticed anything off in the reworked climax.  As the film prepared for it’s summer release, Disney decided that this unusual film needed an unusual marketing strategy.  Deciding to focus on the character of Stitch, the marketing team came up with the idea of having Stitch invade other classic films and sabotage them.  This included him showing up in moments from Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King and naturally wrecking havoc, showing that he was a very different kind of Disney character that challenged the formula.  It was probably a strategy made in response to the challenge of Dreamwork’s Shrek (2001) which directly made fun of Disney.  Lilo and Stitch was therefore set up by Disney as a cynical repudiation of their own formula, which was not really reflective of the movie itself, which was honestly just a heartwarming story told with a lot of soul and passion, as many of the great Disney movies are.  Even still, the plan worked, as Lilo and Stitch became a box office hit for Disney, easily becoming the highest grossing animated film of the year.  However, the belief that this movie would help propel a second act in the Disney Renaissance was short lived.  The financial gains made by Lilo and Stitch were offset by the financial losses of it’s follow-up Treasure Planet (2002), which ended up losing Disney a lot of money and accelerated the decline of traditional animation afterwards.  What it ended up showing in the end was that Lilo and Stitch was the final hurrah of the once mighty Disney Renaissance, which had it’s days numbered.

Looking back 20 years, it’s interesting to see how Lilo and Stitch stands in the Disney canon.  It’s place at the tail end of the Disney Renaissance helps to mark it as a pivotal point in Disney’s transition going into the new millennium.  It became clear that Disney had to change and embrace a new way of making animated films as computer animation began to dominate the market.  With Lilo and Stitch, it showed that they didn’t always have to rely on familiar stories to reach an audience, but instead work with stories that were grounded and true to the human experience, even if it had fantastical elements within them.  The sincerity of the storytelling was also crucial.  But, with the failures that followed Lilo and Stitch, it was clear that there was not going to be much of a future for hand drawn animation.  Even Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois knew that, as they begun their follow-up film for Disney called American Dog, which was going to be their first computer animated movie.  Unfortunately for them, another shake-up at the studio in the post-Eisner era of Disney saw the team clash with the new head of animation, John Lasseter for Pixar, and they eventually left Disney Animation altogether.  American Dog was reworked into the film Bolt (2008) with different directors, while Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois landed new positions at Disney rival Dreamworks, where they later developed the soon to be classic film How to Train Your Dragon (2010).  You can definitely see the same creative force in the making of Dragon as seen in the making of Lilo and Stitch, showing that Sanders and DeBlois lost none of their talent in the transition.  There’s also a notable similarity in the design of the dragon Toothless, who bears a very Stitch like look, particularly in the football shaped head.  Despite all the behind the scenes turmoil that surrounds it, Lilo and Stitch has not lost any of it’s luster 20 years later.  It’s still a favorite for many, and Stitch in particular is still a widely used mascot for the Disney company.  You’ll still see many theme park appearances of the character as well as tie-in merchandise that sells pretty well to this day.  It’s a real testament to the longevity of the character and the movie, which stands alone outside of it’s era.  Sadly, the Disney Renaissance did not live much longer after Stitch’s success, but it certainly is not the fault of the film.  It was the kind of fun romp that audiences wanted, but was sadly too few and far between for an animation studio that collapsed under the weight of it’s own lofty goals.  Of course, Disney animation would find new life again in the Digital Age, but Lilo and Stitch stands as one final benchmark in one of the most storied periods in the medium of animation.  Consider it Disney’s one last great Aloha for it’s beloved era of Renaissance animation.

What the Hell Was That? – The Golden Compass (2007)

Let’s journey back to the early 2000’s.  As the world was welcoming in the new millennium and all the highs and lows that would come, cinema was likewise going through it’s own period of transition.  The digital age was blooming to a point where there was limitless potential to what could be made real on the big screen.  And in the the early 2000’s, we saw the newest advances in visual effects help revive what had long been a dormant genre in cinema: Fantasy.  Though fantasy films were popular through the blockbuster 80’s, they more or less dissipated going into the 1990’s, which seemed to favor action films and epic dramas.  That was until 2001, when two film franchises made their debuts and brought the fantasy genre roaring back to life.  They were the Harry Potter franchise and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Both premiere films, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) were smash hits, and all but secured the continuation of their narratives in subsequent follow-ups.  But even more importantly, it reawakened Hollywood to the fact that there was indeed big business in the Fantasy genre that they had too long ignored.  Even more than their box office performance, Potter and Rings proved to be highly marketable franchises as well, boosting book sales of their respective source material, as well as creating a whole market for tie-in merchandise the likes that Hollywood hadn’t seen since Star Wars twenty years prior.  With all this huge business driven by these two valuable properties, other Hollywood studios became very interested in finding their own fantasy property that they could mine for all it’s worth.  Thus began a decade that saw a frenzy over bringing beloved fantasy literature to the big screen, all with the hope that it would bring the same kind of riches that Potter and Rings had found.  But, as many Hollywood studios would find out, it was gold rush that ultimately reaped very few rewards, and in turn, it created this shockingly high number of incomplete movie franchises that ended long before they could even begin.

This is the other thing that defined much of the cinema of the 2000’s; the abandonment of failed franchises.  For a lot of the studios chasing after new IP, they ultimately found that audiences had little interest in obscure tales that often felt too much like the bigger franchises that they were more fond of.  There were several fanchises in those years that were either a Harry Potter clone; like The Seeker (2007) or a Lord of the Rings clone like Eragon (2005).  Mainly the studios were taking in the wrong lessons from those popular franchises, believing that anything that followed the same plot points would lead to the same success.  What really set Potter and Rings apart was the fact that they had richly developed worlds, and were also in many ways uncharacteristic of Hollywood formula.  Reading The Lord of the Rings, you would almost think that it’s an un-filmable story.  Or that Harry Potter’s tonal shifts might be too much for younger audiences to take.  But, it took passionate filmmakers on both franchises to bring out the best of those books and make them work on the big screen.  Most of the failed franchises of the 2000’s lacked that passion.  They were made more out of a mandate than out of love for the source material.  There were some unexpected hits during this time, like Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005), but even there you could feel the heavy influence of a studio mandate behind it.  Unlike Potter and Rings, many of these franchises, most of which were based on multi volume book series, ended up throwing in the towel after one failed film, which became even more awkward if that movie concluded on a cliffhanger.  And surprisingly, one of the worst offenders of this failed attempt at a new fantasy franchise was the same studio that brought The Lord of the Rings to the silver screen: New Line Cinema, with their catastrophically failed adaptation of The Golden Compass (2007)

The Golden Compass is the first in a three volume series of novels called His Dark Materials, written by English author Phillip Pullman.  Pullman published his trilogy over five years between 1995 and 2000, and won wide acclaim from the literary community.  What really set the novels apart in the fantasy genre was it’s very strong and pointed allegory.  Pullman, an unapologetic and outspoken athiest, made religious hypocrisy a central theme of his series, with the clash between faith and science being a crucial element in the narrative.  The His Dark Materials books have often been dubbed by some as “Narnia for Athiests,” which makes it surprising that any movie studio would take on the material, knowing that religious groups would possibly protest the movie upon it’s release.  It’s interesting that Pullman himself views the books as less fantasy and more as “stark realism,” but there is certainly a lot within the books that helps to characterize them as either fantasy or science fiction.  Talking animals that are the living manifestation of a person’s soul, witches, a kingdom of polar bears, and interdimensional travel.  There was certainly a lot of potential to mine from Pullman’s books.  Unfortunately, by the time Hollywood took notice of His Dark Materials as a potential franchise, it was very much beyond the point where studios cared less about doing right by the material and more about how much money they could make from it.  Not only that, but the His Dark Materials books fell into the hands of New Line Cinema, who at this point were embroiled in a series of controversies related to how they were handling the success of The Lord of the Rings.  Pete Jackson, the Oscar-winning director of Rings, quite rightly took notice of how inadequately New Line was dispersing the profits of The Lord of the Rings, especially with the final film, The Return of the King (2003).  Jackson soon took New Line Cinema to court to get the fair compensation for his company in New Zealand, which derailed plans from both parties to continue working on a possible adaptation of The Hobbit.  And that led to the interest in the Dark Materials series, as New Line decided to end partnership with Peter Jackson and Co. altogether, believing that they could make a hit franchise on their own without them.

What happened after with The Golden Compass is a text book example of studio hubris in action.  New Line Cinema not only intended to fill that Middle Earth sized hole with this new franchise; they intended to make it even bolder and grander.  The budget was estimated to be in the realm of $200 million, which was double the expense of just one of the Lord of the Rings movies, and almost 2/3 of the entire trilogy.  It would also feature an all star cast that included actors as diverse as Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Eva Green, and even Lord of the Rings alum like Ian McKellan and Christopher Lee.  And of course, there were millions poured into the movie’s extensive visual effects.  But, there was one problem.  Who do you get to steer the ship of this franchise.  New Line Cinema would end up bringing in Chris Weitz to write and direct the film; the co-creator of the American Pie (1999) series of movies.  Suffice to say, all the problems that followed could be stemmed back to this decision.  Weitz, while being a decent writer and a serviceable director, clearly was just a filmmaker for hire on this movie.  That made a big difference because you can tell he was just on board to do a job. This was not a grand artistic statement.  When Peter Jackson made The Lord of the Rings, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, which you could tell from the years of planning that Jackson put into that project.  There is passion in every frame of The Lord of the Rings that is visibly absent in The Golden Compass.  Chris Weitz didn’t have years of connection with the material like Jackson had with Rings.  It’s clear that New Line Cinema just gave him the book to adapt with an enormous budget and he tried to deliver the best he could, but ultimately ended up being overwhelmed by the task.

First of all, what ultimately sinks the movie as a whole is that it rushes through it’s narrative in order to meet a theater friendly two hour runtime.  When adapting a dense, multi-layered world like the one in the Dark Materials books, it’s clearly not enough time establish what we need to know.  It becomes clear what you’re in for when the movie dumps a whole lot of exposition on you in just the first ten minutes.  You suddenly have to accept the knowledge that this world is an alternate reality Earth, where people have souls manifested into animal companions named daemons, many of whom are capable of speaking human language.  And the movie never lets the world-building rest and allow itself to immerse the audience.  It’s just a collection of beautiful but ultimately empty set pieces.  Besides the extra length to allow for better world-building, The Golden Compass also lacks the gateway for audiences to connect with the world that’s being portrayed on screen.  The best fantasy films all have that special element that helps the audience grow acquainted with the world it’s showing, and that’s usually giving them a grounded entryway that the rest of the movie can build upon.  Think of the early scenes in the Shire from The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter’s pre-Hogwarts life living under the stairs in his Aunt and Uncle’s home, or Narnia’s WWII prologue.  Each of these moments helps us to relate to the world of those movies, before they begin to open up and show all the crazy wonders beyond those simple beginnings.  The Golden Compass doesn’t have that.  It just immediately drops us into an already alien world and hopes that we can catch on fast.  And with the rush to get from one plot point to another, it also excises some crucial things that would’ve help set the movie apart; in particular, it’s anti-theocratic allegory.  The removal of the novel’s harsher stance against organized religion is probably the clearest sign of this movie being driven by a studio and not a filmmaker, as New Line Cinema obviously did not want to push any buttons in fear it might alienate more religious movie goers.  But, in doing so, it also took the bite out of the source material, and left the movie without an identity other than just being another fantasy film.

The movie’s condensed run time also works as a disadvantage towards character development.  There are just far too many characters to get familiar with in such a short amount of time, that none of them end up endearing themselves to the audience.  The only character that comes close is the main heroine Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), and she barely resonates beyond any other child protagonist from a dozen other fantasy narratives.  We only get to see how her adventurous side plays into her desire to go on the journey, but she grows very little throughout the narrative and ultimately, you care little about what she has to do because she’s not a terribly interesting character as a result.  And this is the best the movie can muster.  What the movie really wastes are it’s big name stars.  Nicole Kidman is a bland antagonist, with her persona reduced down to icy cold stares.  Daniel Craig, who was heavily promoted in his first post-debut as James Bond role, is only in the movie for maybe a total of 10 minutes, if that.  Only Sam Elliott stands out in the movie, and that might be because he’s the one American in this mostly British ensemble.  What I also find strange about the movie’s characters is that there are large chunks of the film where a whole group of them will just disapper for an extended period of time.  Perhaps it’s close to how the novel’s plot progresses, but to have the film just forget a bunch of characters as it chases a whole different plot thread just feels awkward.  This is evident at the end of the second act in the film when we suddenly shift to this whole different sub plot involving the polar bears.  Suddenly, we ditch the main story and follow this one of a Polar Bear prince named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellan) who seeks to reclaim his birthright from a usurper king (voiced by Ian McShane).  Now, truth be told, it does lead to the best and most memorable moment of the whole movie, when Iorek smacks the jaw off his rivals face in a shockingly violent and gory moment for a PG-13 film, but even still, it’s connection to the rest of the story is meaningless in the long run.  It’s that lack of cohesion in the narrative and the little investment in the characters’ motivations and desires that ultimately sinks any investment that the audience has with the movie.

But, probably the most notorious mistake that the movie makes is it’s cliffhanger ending.  Here is where the hubris of New Line Cinema’s petty one-up-manship against Peter Jackson becomes especially embarrassing.  New Line seemed so sure that they had a winner on their hands, that they believed the best way to end the movie was to leave it open-ended and unresolved, believing that audiences would be excited for the next chapter.  Suffice to say, they weren’t.  More accurately, they were confused and upset by this movie not closing on a satisfying note.  And cliffhanger is a stretch of the term in this case.  The Golden Compass book actually ends differently, with a moment that clearly fits the definition of a cliffhanger much better.  In the book, Lyra sees one of her companions betrayed and killed while a portal to another dimension is opened up, which she passes through in the book’s final moment.  The movie just has our characters traveling to their next destination talking to each other about what to expect next.  It’s horribly anti-climatic, especially when you know how the story really ends in the book.  I don’t know why New Line Cinema went for the more ambiguous ending instead of the more exciting one.  Were they looking at the more open-ended conclusions of the Rings films and thinking that they should repeat that formula?  Whatever the case, it’s a choice that ended up blowing back in New Line’s face, because there never was a follow-up to The Golden Compass.  The movie made only a third back of it’s original budget at the box office.  The significant financial blow began a continued downward spiral for the studio that saw many more financial failures that was only exacerbated by the continued legal dispute with Peter Jackson.  After a few more box office flops, the once mighty mini-major ended up seeing it’s independence wane as parent company Warner Brothers assumed more control, leading to the exit of the executives who initially greenlighted The Golden Compass.  And wouldn’t you know it, Warner Brothers settled the dispute with Peter Jackson and put into action the long delayed Hobbit adaptation that New Line was certain they could live without.  In the end, Golden Compass’ awkward, unresolved ending is probably the clearest example of a studio believing too much into it’s own hype and setting itself up for embarrassment.  It’s just too bad for those involved in the production, for the filmmakers and cast, that their work is just left hanging there awkwardly for eternity because of a studio’s poor attempt to build a franchise and hitting the brakes after one film.

I distinctly remember being excited for this film when it was originally released.  I wanted another Lord of the Rings franchise out there, just out of my love for extensive and imaginative world-building, and The Golden Compass had all the makings of a fantasy film perfectly suited to fill that vacancy.  Unfortunately, because it lacked the heart of other great fantasy films, and was clearly just an attempt by a major studio to chase after a fad and show another filmmaker who’s the boss, it ultimately fell flat.  I think it’s just the pettiness behind it’s making, as a way of New Line to turn up it’s nose at Peter Jackson, that makes it such an unpleasant relic of that period in fantasy filmmaking.  And even more egregious, it wasted good source material as a result.  Thankfully, many years later, Warner Brothers saw the potential in Phillip Pullman’s novels and decided to take another chance on this story again.  Only this time, instead of limiting the narrative to a short theater friendly run time, they gave it a 10 episode series order.  The His Dark Materials series, made in collaboration with BBC Studios, has aired on HBO here in the states, and by all accounts does better justice to the novels, particularly when it comes to characterizations and plot.  It also succeeded in going past the original film’s end point and has been able to adapt the other two books in the trilogy as well, with a final third season premiering later this year.  That’s a whole lot better than having the story forever sit unfinished like the movie did.  In the end, of all the failed attempts to start-up new fantasy franchises in the 2000’s, The Golden Compass probably stands out the most as the biggest blunder of them all.  It’s substantial cost ended up burdening a studio that saw a meteoric rise and in the end cost them their autonomy as their parent company assumed more control.  And the fact that New Line Cinema banked so much of their certainty in the success of the film that they didn’t even bother to give the movie a proper ending just caused the film to become a punchline rather than a fantasy epic that helped to define a genre.  It’s movies like this that ultimately tanked the resurgence of fantasy films, which ended up slipping back into dormancy as comic book movies would dominate the following decade.  If The Golden Compass offers up anything, it’s a cautionary tale of the folly of petty one-up-manship in Hollywood, and trying to chase after success without heart and devotion put into the work.  New Line Cinema tried to count all the chickens before they hatched and The Golden Compass became the rotten egg that defined it’s reputation for many years after.

A Streaming Report Card – HBO Max’s Performance and Other Lessons from 2021’s Big Gambles

So, the year of 2021 gave us a few answers about the direction that a post pandemic world would take in the world of cinema, but it also ignited a few new questions as well.  We do know for a fact that the movie theater industry, though heavily bruised, will endure for at least the foreseeable future.  They may not be near where they were at pre-pandemic levels, but they have at least rebounded a bit enough from the lockdowns to keep their doors open.  And I’m sure that many experts didn’t expect that the year of 2021 would close out with a billion dollar grosser with Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), a movie that is defying all expectations in the face of a pandemic surge.  But, even though the darkest days for the theater industry may be over with the regards to the pandemic, they still have an existential threat that has persisted from even before the pandemic to now.  That is the growing streaming market, which had a major period of growth over the months of the pandemic.  Not only do movie theaters have to contend with one streaming giant like Netflix; now they have to deal with about 5 more, many of whom have recently launched amidst a lot of advance hype.  Disney+ and Apple TV+ both launched mere months before the pandemic turned into a global catastrophe, while Universal’s Peacock and Warner Brothers’ HBO Max took off right in the middle of the lockdown period.  And then last year, CBS All Access rebranded into Paramount+, making it the fourth of the 5 major to launch it’s own streaming service. In all their own ways, each streamer wanted to leave an impression that would define them in the marketplace, which became even more interesting after the theater industry went into lockdown.  While each of them pushed for a variety of different exclusive perks to boost their subscriber base, it was HBO Max that perhaps made the boldest move in response to the pandemic effected market.  And it’s their gamble that in many ways clues us into the state of where the movie industry might be headed.

Like all the other studios, Warner Brothers had their film calendar shaken up by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The closure of theaters worldwide forced many movies to delay their releases, most of them into the next year.  But, by doing so, it created a backlog of movies that if not released soon would cause productions to be delayed for other films down the pipeline, and that would endanger the careers of those who work within the industry who depend on a steady work flow to earn a living off of.  So, in order to not disrupt the movie production pipeline any more, many of the studios had to consider whether it served them well to release their film on streaming instead.  It’s certainly not an easy decision to make, especially when some of the movies in the pipeline cost anywhere from 50, to 100, to even 200 million dollars to produce.  A lot of those more expensive movies are especially dependent of a robust theatrical market to help them earn back their production and marketing costs, and that becomes a major problem when there is no box office revenue.  So, many within the accounting firms at the major studios had to take a look at if it was possible for studios to offset box office dollars with the money that would be generated through new monthly subscriptions.  It seems from the outside that this is not a 1:1 equivalent benefit, but to many of the studios had the success of Netflix to look at as an example of the gamble paying off.  Netflix has put billions of dollars into exclusive content for their platform, including some films that do cost in the same range as other Hollywood blockbusters. And as a result, the industry has seen Netflix grow to almost half a billion subscribers worldwide, which generates for them many more billions in revenue off of their monthly subscriptions.  In the end, that’s what mattered to the movie studios; that there was a model that guaranteed billions in revenue each month, something that especially appeals to stockholders.  For the movie theater industry, box office sales are an uneven generator of profit, because every film performs differently.  Thus it became a more logical prospect to release movies on streaming during the pandemic, as long as it boosted subscriber growth.  And that became the big threat to the theatrical industry in the face of the pandemic.  How would they bounce back when there was a proven alternative.

As much as many of the streaming platforms made a big deal about their arrivals in the marketplace; the outcome was not as evenly spread out amongst the other studios. Disney+ certainly made the biggest splash right off the bat thanks to their catalog of popular IP like Star Wars and Marvel.  Apple TV+ and Peacock struggled a bit at first, but managed to find their way with critically acclaimed titles that were available exclusive to their platforms.  And then there was HBO Max, which had probably the roughest of starts.  The big anchor around their waist was their questionable starting subscription price of $14.99 per month, which is nearly double what their competitors charge.  Not only that, but their exclusive content seemed a little thin at the start and their user interface was heavily criticized for being hard to navigate.  The only appeal it had was being a place to watch back catalog material from the Warner Brothers library as well as having content curated by HBO and TCM, both of which are part of the Warner Media entertainment portfolio.  There was interesting stuff to watch on there to be sure, but nothing that demanded the eyes of a broad audience, and certainly not worth the exorbitant high price tag.  So, with a pandemic affected backlog of movies affecting their release schedule and a struggling streaming platform affecting their bottom line, the WarnerMedia executives made a bold but also controversial decision at the end of 2020.  Starting with the release of Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), all of their movies in the next year would be available both theatrically wherever possible as well as on HBO Max at no extra cost on the same day.  This was a move that enabled them to relieve the pressure on their movie backlog as well as generate a renewed interest in their streaming platform, which certainly grabbed the attention of the industry as a whole.  Now, with 2021 behind us, and the entire Warner Brothers release calendar more or less back to normal, we have some answers as to if this gamble paid off.

Initially the move was met with mixed to negative reception from the film community.  One longtime Warner Brothers staple, Christopher Nolan, saw it as a betrayal of the theatrical experience and he left the studio that had been his home for the last 20 years, choosing to take his next film, Oppenheimer, to rival Universal instead.  He also famously labeled HBO Max as the “worst streaming platform” as well.  The movie theater industry was also not very happy with the news, but they were also in a sticky situation at the time.  None of them wanted to refuse to play a Warner Bros. movie, so they had to begrudgingly agree to the plan.  No one would argue that it was the necessary venue to take for Wonder Woman 1984, because it was coming out on Christmas Day 2020, when most of the theaters across the country were still closed due to the pandemic.  But, as situations changed going into 2021, this one size fits all approach to releasing all these movies would be tested to varying degrees.  In total, Warner Brothers had 17 films slated to be released under this 2021 plan, including a few that were pushed back from the year before in addition to those already planned originally for that year.  It’s a lot for one studio to put out in one year, and the backlog created is probably why Warner Bros. made the choice that they did.  Overall, the collection of movies spanned a wide range, from small dramas to big tentpoles, and some of the movies made far better sense as a small screen release than a big screen premiere.  But, it was the outcome of all the films in total that mattered to the WarnerMedia bottom line.  Would the subscription boost make the difference, or were they better off relying on the box office numbers, inconsistent as they may be.

A few things became pretty clear over the course of 2021 for the HBO Max gamble.  The big one overall is that despite having everything available theatrically, the measure of success could not determined by box office alone.  For a year filled with 17 individual releases, Warner Brothers only managed to crack the $100 million threshold twice, and even then just barely.  The highly anticipated Dune (2021) grossed a little over $106 million while Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) just barely managed to eek out past the 100 million mark.  Any other year beforehand, both of these movies might have managed to gross maybe twice as much.  In the case of Godzilla vs. Kong, it could be argued that the box office was still being hampered by the pandemic, as vaccines were only just being rolled out wide at that point, and getting to the $100 million mark in that environment is in itself a sign of huge success.  Dune is a different story, as it came out later in the year with the theatrical industry more or less in rebound mode.  At this point, it could be said that it had it’s box office depressed not by the pandemic, but by the availability on HBO Max.  With that being the case, we’d have to look at the numbers of viewers on streaming to determine if it was more of a hit on HBO Max, which unfortunately remains a closely guarded secret at the WarnerMedia corporate office.  We can only assume how it performed there based on subscriber growth, which is a publicly discussed metric, and while HBO Max did see some growth, it was not at the pace of it’s competitors.  Even old timer Netflix saw bigger growth in the last year.  It doesn’t initially appear that movies like Dune mattered that much at all, and may have had it’s box office potentially cannibalized for not much gain.  Even still,  Warner Brothers determined by what they saw from Dune’s performance based on their internal numbers, did greenlight a sequel, so maybe the private data proved more encouraging than what we’ve seen publicly.

But the overall question remains inconclusive with regards to how all the other films from Warner Brothers performed over the last year under this release plan.  For a lot of the smaller films, not much of a difference would’ve mattered.  Something minor like The Little Things (2021) or Cry Macho (2021) would have underperformed at the box office anyway, and it’s impact on streaming may have been very inconsequential to the overall subscriber growth.  But there was some noticeable issue with the box office performance with some of Warner Bros. more high profile films.  Case in point, the performances of In the HeightsThe Suicide Squad, and The Matrix Resurrections.  Each of these movies were highly anticipated and in any other year could have been big hits for the studios.  But, they all fell flat upon their releases, not even gaining much more than a fraction of box office that movies of their ilk usually do.  In the Heights, a big screen adaptation of a popular Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway hit had a prime summer release date, but disappeared within a matter of weeks, barely making a splash.  The Suicide Squad couldn’t muster any box office excitement despite critical acclaim, the prestige of director James Gunn’s name, and the popular DC brand.  And The Matrix Resurrections  put an extra nail in the coffin of a long dormant franchise.  While Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong defied the odds with their box office performance, these films indicated a sign that the best hopes for the HBO Max plan to be the best for all camps turned out to not be the case.  In all, out of the 17 films, getting only 2 to be a box office hit is not an ideal track record, especially when your streaming numbers don’t indicate a phenomenal amount of growth.  The only conclusion we can draw looking from the outside is that Warner Brothers left a lot of money on the table by splitting their release schedule across two markets, and not ensuring that they would get the maximum out of both alternatives.

Here’s where the problem lies with the HBO plan as opposed to all the other ones offered by their competitors; the danger of piracy.  People who stream content have the ability to also download that content for viewing later, whether offline or on the go.  HBO Max has that as a feature too.  Unfortunately for them, it makes it easier for their content to be downloaded and dubbed much easier to be exchanged person to person, or even worse, sold on the black market without Warner Brothers benefiting from that circulation.  When everyone can share their log in password to multiple people, it depresses subscriber growth, and yet the same number of people who would’ve bought individual tickets to a movie in a theater can just rely on that one generous subscriber to give them access to the same film at home.  The big problem is that HBO Max only relied on that upfront subscriber cost, and didn’t charge any extra on top of that.  It may seem like a generous trade off, having first run films at no extra cost, but it financially puts Warner Brothers at a disadvantage.  Their only hope was put into the overall subscriber growth, and nothing else.  Compare this with Disney, which also put their movies out on streaming during the summer in addition to theaters, but with an additional paywall for access.  The Premiere Access option had a steep price tag of an extra $30, but that equals about what a family usually pays to go to the movies.  Yes, the piracy problem becomes an issue, but for Disney at least, they still receive that $30 revenue no matter what.  And in the end, even Disney saw that this was an unreliable generator of money for their films, and they went for theatrical exclusive premieres for the rest of the year.  Warner Brothers unfortunately were stuck with their highly publicized plans, and couldn’t course correct midway, because it would reveal their plan to be an overall failure.  Their consequence is probably the most clear example of there being no conclusive answer to the state of film releases in the future.  Warner Brothers did manage to keep it’s word and put every movie they planned for 2021 into theaters and onto streaming concurrently, but in doing so, it probably hurt their bottom line for the full year, with all their movies making less then they should’ve, even in the face of problems caused by the pandemic.

Essentially, the state of film releases going into this year is determined mainly on the desire of what audiences are willing to risk seeing on a big screen.  That’s why movies from studios like Marvel still potent in a pandemic market.  You feel like you’re missing out if you don’t see a big movie shown the way it was meant to be shown.  That’s largely why of all the Warner Brothers movies released in 2021, the only strong performers on the silver screen were the ones made for the big screen; Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong.  From my own experience, I will tell you that I saw the majority of the Warner Brothers releases in theaters, just because that’s the person I am.  The only ones I chose to see on HBO instead were The Little Things (because theaters were still closed in my area at the time) and Reminiscence  (because I wasn’t going to waste my time going out to the theater for a movie that I knew would just be disappointing.  There were quite a few movies in that bunch that I wish had been theatrically exclusive like In the Heights and The Suicide Squad, because those films should have been given the chance to prove themselves in exclusive theatrical windows.  For now, it looks like Warner Brothers saw that the plan did not work for them, and their 2022 outlook appears to favor theatrical over streaming.  We’ll see if that works better for them, with the highly anticipated The Batman coming out in March.  In the end, was it worth the risk for Warner Brothers.  It certainly drew some attention to HBO Max, and the streamer did see a bit of growth.  But, with the year over, it looks like it was a gamble that didn’t pay off the way the studio wanted it to.  Warner Brothers is still a big enough studio to where it won’t hurt them too much in the long run, and the executives that greenlit the decision have already left the studio completely, as AT&T have given up their stewardship in the last year and WarnerMedia is imminently about to merge with Discovery Studios, which is going to create a whole different outlook for the future of Warner Brothers.  For some, having the availability at home for first run pictures at no extra cost was very generous, but it’s better in the long run for movies to have a robust theatrical option to generate the most return on their investment.  That’s not to say that there’s no value in going straight to streaming either.  It really depends on the individual title.  Overall, HBO Max’s 2021 plan was an ultimately unsuccessful from a revenue standpoint, but still noteworthy in it’s way, as it did put the struggling streamer into the headlines and garnered the attention of the audience.  It’s own topsy-turvy results more than anything reveals to us that the state of Hollywood is still one with a undetermined outcome even post-pandemic; one in which the years hereafter will tell us more conclusively how the industry will look in the future.

Top Ten Movies of 2021

From where the year 2021 started to where we are now is in many ways more of the same, but in other ways it was also a big change.  This is certainly something that has been felt at the movies.  When the year began for me, I was continuing the same pattern of film going that I had spent most of 2020 doing; mainly finding open theaters where I could.  Here in Los Angeles, movie theaters remained closed for the first two months, and it was also the case statewide, so even driving to a movie theater on a day trip was impossible.  All I had were the local drive-ins, which is where I went on almost a weekly basis to catch the last minute Oscar films that were slowly being rolled out, even in the wake of the pandemic.  Then, finally, after a full year of closure, my local area movie theaters reopened in early March 2021.  And since then, I’ve been making up for lost time like crazy.  Thankfully my AMC A-List membership is still valid, and I made good use of it all year long.  It took a while for things to actually look like normal again at the movie theaters, as many of the bigger films were holding off until the Summer, but once they did start coming, it was a deluge.  2021 was in fact a record breaking year for me as a movie-goer, as I saw more movies in a theater this year than I have in any year prior; which is quite remarkable when you consider this is coming right after a year long pandemic lockdown.  I think it’s probably due to my enthusiasm for being back in a theater setting, and also the fact that the theatrical schedule was very jam packed this year.  Not only were we getting the movies planned originally for 2021, but we were also getting all the exiles from 2020 that had found a new home on the schedule this year.  Suffice to say, I had a lot of movies to go through in order to make my end of the year list here.  It’s quite a year when filmmakers that I adore like Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, James Gunn, Guillermo Del Toro and Edgar Wright all had excellent movies this year and still didn’t make my list.  It’s just shows that this was a year full of riches, but in many ways, it was the experience of being back in movie theaters that made 2021 feel so rewarding.

Here are a few of the movies that I found noteworthy, but fell just outside my top ten: Annette, Benedetta, The Card Counter, Drive My Car, Don’t Look Up, The Father, The French Dispatch, The Green Knight, In the Heights, Judas and the Black Messiah, Last Night in Soho, Nightmare Alley, No Time to Die, Nomadland, One Night in Miami, Raya and the Last Dragon, The Suicide Squad, Spider-Man: No Way Home, The Tragedy of Macbeth, and West Side Story (2021).  And with that, let’s take a look at the movies that I believe were the Top Ten of 2021:



Directed by Sean Baker

The films of Sean Baker thus far have carried a consistent theme up to now.  He seems to be attracted to characters that live on the fringes of paradise, showing the underbelly of American society while also at the same time finding the beauty in those small stories that the rest of us often look the other way from.  In Tangerine (2015), we follow the story of Transgender hookers making it through a hard night on the outskirts of Hollywood.  In The Florida Project (2017), we follow the story of a little girl and her messed up mom living in a slum just beyond the boundaries of Walt Disney World in Florida.  With Red Rocket (2021), Baker turns his sights to the misfit denizens of Texas City, Texas; a tiny oil-refinery town that most people would drive right past and not stay a second longer.  Like those two other films, Sean Baker brilliantly brings you into this often ignored world with his authentic American neo-realism, making you forget that you are watching a movie and instead makes you feel like you’re ease-dropping.  And that at times can become uncomfortable, but still entirely fascinating.  What really carries this movie through is an unforgettable performance from a revelatory Simon Rex, playing a washed up porn actor trying to worm his way back into his past life.  Rex manages to walk that tight rope between making his huckster character thoroughly repulsive while at the fascinating to watch.  The movie also works a subtle political allegory into the story of Rex’s Mikey Saber, having the film take place during the rise of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, and drawing parallels between the dual sleazy con men; obviously one at a much smaller scale.  At the same time, Baker creates this remarkably charming pastoral of Americana on the fringes, casting his film with bright colorful sunshine and vibrant colors.  And it also makes surprising thematic use of N’Sync’s “Bye, Bye, Bye,” as a through line in the story.  Another strong American parable from one of our quietly subtle master directors.



Directed by Ridley Scott

2021 proved to be a surprisingly strong year for films about medieval times.  Some of that had to do with movies that were holdovers from 2020, but it was still a year of riches for the sub-genre.  We got the surreal The Green Knight (2021) from director David Lowry, which turned the classic poem into a surreal work of art.  Paul Verhoeven tapped back into his sensationalist provocative style with his film Benedetta (2021), which was about lesbian nuns in a medieval French convent, one of whom also lusts for Jesus.  And then the year closed out with Joel Coen (flying solo this time without his brother and longtime filmmaking partner Ethan) reimagining The Tragedy of Macbeth in an abstract, monochromatic art film.  All were interesting in their own way, but I feel like the one that stood out the most was the extravagant drama put together by the always bigger than life Ridley Scott.  The Last Duel has all the pagentry and epic scope you’d expect from the man who made Gladiator (2000), but there is surprisingly a lot more to this movie than production design.  It is also a provocative examination of justice with regards to the aftermath of a sexual assault.  Scott breaks from a conventional narrative structure and tells the story of a French noblewoman who broke her silence to accuse her rapist publicly and hold him accountable through three different points of view.  Borrowing from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), The Last Duel shows us the same story three time, but each one from a different perspective (the lady, the man who raped her, and the lady’s husband).  Each story offers up an interesting examination of what the truth really means, and it’s interesting how each character is viewed differently in each version.  Each of the film’s stars (Matt Damon, Adam Driver, and especially Jodie Comer) magnificently capture the different subtleties of character, while still keeping the through line interesting.  The movie also marks the first screenwriting collaboration between Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who also has a juicy supporting role) since Good Will Hunting (1997), with contribution from Nicole Holofcener as well.  It’s a remarkably strong statement of a film for the #MeToo moment in our society, and it shows that even into his eighties, Ridley Scott can still deliver a film that is both epic and provocative at the same time.



Directed by Edson Oda

Going from a big movie to a very small one, but still one with very big ideas.  I was probably one of only a handful of people who saw this movie during it’s brief run in theaters last summer, but I’m absolutely glad I did, because it became this unexpected discovery.  This small indie, which was picked up at Sundance in 2020 right before the advent of Covid, had probably the most original story premise that I saw all year.  It’s about a bureaucrat (played by Winston Duke) living in a stage of pre-life, and his job is to select from a group of a dozen candidates a person who will get to live.  All the others he doesn’t chose will cease to exist entirely.  And he must do so in the titular nine days.  It kind of treads the same ground as Pixar’s Soul (2020), but does so in a very stripped down and even more emotionally weighty way.  The focus is not on the potential souls waiting to be chosen for life.  It’s on the person who has to carefully make that decision.  It’s a real introspective film in the best possible way.  The movie asks us what the purpose of living is meant to be; are we using the time given to us to it’s fullest potential.  The movie’s most heartwarming moments come when our main character has to let each of the unselected souls go, but not before granting them one wish before they disappear.  The way he and his assistant (played by Benedict Wong) put together these wishes are especially imaginative and touching.  The movie also features some strong performances from the various and different candidates, including Bill Skarsgard, Tony Hale, and Zazie Beetz.  Beetz’s character is an especially interesting wild card who definitely makes the most of her nine days and even makes Duke’s bureaucrat reconsider his own outlook on life.  I love the little world-building that this movie undertakes, making this fantastical concept feel believable while at the same time feeling intimate in that kind of indie film way.  It’s a movie that really has a character all it’s own, and manages to grasp big concepts in a way that feels natural to it’s small scope.  Trust me, it’s a movie well worth seeking out and getting lost in.  It might even make you look at the world and your own place in it a very different way, and hopefully show you how much life and the time we spend should be valued.



Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

The forever daring P.T. Anderson returns to his San Fernando Valley roots with this new, personal ode to the Los Angeles of his youth.  It’s definitely a welcome departure from Anderson’s recent slate of heavier themed films like There Will Be Blood (2007), The Master (2012), and Phantom Thread (2017), and is more akin to his earlier work like Boogie Nights (1997) and especially Punch-Drunk Love (2002).  It also sees him returning to an episodic narrative as well like Magnolia (1999), except with a through line following an unconventional love story.  At the center is our destined couple, one a brash young child actor named Gary (played by Cooper Hoffman) whose hustling his way to his next big idea, and the other a dazed and confused young woman whose almost 10 years his senior named Alana (played by Alana Haim) who he has somehow has managed to coax into tagging along on his adventures.  And from there, Anderson takes us on an often comical journey through a bygone era in the Southland.  The different ups and downs of their relationship helps to fuel the film’s most memorable moments, and the movie offers a very comical look at youth in a community driven by opportunity.  Like most of Anderson’s movies, he puts an incredible amount of work into crafting a look and feel of the period in which his movies are set, and Licorice Pizza feels especially authentic.  From the use of time capsule locations, to the period costuming, to the perfectly chosen needle drops, this is a movie that really transports you back to 1970’s Los Angeles.  And being a San Fernando Valley resident, it’s especially rewarding to see places I’m familiar with show up in this movie.  Both Hoffman (taking over from his late father Phillip Seymour Hoffman as an Anderson leading man) and Alana Haim play their respective roles to perfection, especially the firecracker performance that Ms. Haim puts in.  The supporting cast of notable names are also on point as well, especially a scene-stealing Bradley Cooper as notorious Hollywood producer Jon Peters.  It’s definitely a movie personally connected to Anderson based on his own life, and it’s a joy seeing this loving tribute to the other side of Hollywood so lovingly brought to life.



Directed by Lee Isaac Chung

As a consequence of the chaotic year that was 2020, most of the movies that ended up being the front-runners for that year’s Oscars were not widely available to view until later in the awards season, spilling over into Winter of 2021.  Because the Oscars were delayed until late April, it extended the qualifying runs up to the end of February last year, and that’s when I was able to see most of the 2020 Best Picture contenders.  And it was a few: The Father, One Night in Miami, Promising Young Woman, and the eventual victor, Nomadland.  And while many of them were excellent films, the one that stuck with me all through the rest of the year was this delightful little drama about a Korean immigrant family trying to start a farm in rural Arkansas.  Though I didn’t mind the Chloe Zhao directed juggernaut of Nomadland winning the top award at the Oscars, this was without a doubt my favorite pick of the bunch, and I feel it’s worth spotlighting again as this was technically a movie that was released widely this year and should be on a best of the year list.  I just adored this family drama, and it’s mainly due to the wonderful characters that are a part of it.  Steven Yeun is fantastic in his Oscar-nominated role as the downtrodden patriarch of the family, trying his best to set roots for his family in a part of the country where they definitely stick out.  But the real stand outs in the film are the little boy and his mischievous grandma.  Alan S. Kim perfectly captures this precocious young kid stuck in between two worlds as a first generation Korean American.  And Yuh-Jung Youn absolutely shines in the role that won her an Oscar as the often vulgar old dowager of the family.  Lee Isaac Chung, who based the movie largely on his own upbringing, injects this beautiful humanity into the film, and manages to avoid sensationalizing the underlying politics of the film.  It could’ve been so easy to mishandle this kind of immigrant story and inject too much of a broader worldview into it.  Instead, Chung keeps the story earthbound, and that helps the themes resonate all the more.  It’s a real testament that even with all the many films that I saw this year, this contender from last year’s Oscars that I saw all the way back in February managed to still make my best of the year list after so many months.  That’s a mark of a really good film.



Directed by Pablo Larrain

Both a true life drama, and also a sort of anti-biopic, this interesting new film from the director of Jackie (2016) takes another historically fated iconic woman from recent history and creates an imagined look what a day in her life might have been like.  Showing a fateful Christmas weekend for the one time Princess of Wales, the movie creates this unforgettable and oftentimes harrowing examination into the personal life of Princess Diana.  While the movie is extraordinary in it’s lavish and yet earthbound visuals, what sets this film apart is the unconventional and outside the box casting of Kristen Stewart as Diana.  Going into this movie, Stewart would seem to be among the least likely choices to play such an iconic historic figure, and yet, she absolutely nails it in the end.  There are even some points where the resemblance is uncanny.  She get the voice right, the walk, and even the upward glance stare.  It’s without a doubt one of the best performances of the year (if not the best) and will almost assuredly net Kristen at least her first Oscar nomination.  But, even without that performance, the movie would have still been an excellent production overall.  I love the way that director Pablo Larrain uses very wide angle lenses to make the hallways of Sandringham Palace feel even more isolating for Diana.  There’s also this very interesting subtext throughout the movie, with Diana constantly being haunted by the spectral memory of Anne Boleyn, whose ultimate fate feels like an omen for Diana’s future, an idea which drives the current princess to some deep despair.  And yet, even through the sometimes oppressive gloom, the movie manages to surprise with moments of true joy, especially when Diana is with her two sons, William and Harry.  Even though we all know Diana’s full story, and almost every facet of her life has been examined throughout the media, this movie still manages to craft a story that shows a side of her as a character that we haven’t seen before, or at the very least never considered.  It also, despite all the gloom, manages to find a happy ending for this ultimately doomed figure, and even more surprisingly it involves KFC chicken.  One of the most surprisingly emotional character studies of the year.



Directed by Enrico Casarosa

Tragically, because of the on-going effects of the pandemic, most people were unable to watch this movie the way it was intended; on a big screen (a practice that sadly is still affecting Pixar films).  But, whether on a big or small screen, this was one of the most entertaining and delightful films of the year.  Pixar again delivers with this charming coming-of-age tale of two young sea monsters hoping to make their dreams come true in the human world.  The movie of course makes the most of it’s “what if?” scenario, which has been a thing that the master filmmakers at Pixar have always excelled at.  But even by their own high standards, Luca is especially effecting and inspiring in it’s narrative.  The friendship at the heart of the story, between Luca (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and his more adventurous companion Alberto (voiced by Jack Dylan Glazer), is what really drives the story to delightful ends.  The movie’s montages of them trying to emulate human activity, like riding a Vespa, and failing badly, are some of the film’s most charming moments.  At the same time, the movie also becomes surprisingly inspirational.  Whether it was intended this way or not, the movie works very well as an allegory for queer youth coming to terms with their identity and wanting to motivate the world around them to accept them for who they are.  Pixar may not have set out to make a movie like that to begin with, but they’re not opposed to that interpretation either and have in retrospect quietly given the idea their approval.  It is already being heralded within the LGBTQ community, so I think it’s only a matter of time before this becomes a future officially acknowledge queer themed movie.  Regardless, it’s another triumph for Pixar, with a genuinely charming story and imaginative visuals, which owe a bit of inspiration to the films of Hayao Miyazaki.  Hopefully, one day, this movie gets a big screen revival, but until then, for this year it’s another definite winner for Pixar Animation.



Directed by Michael Sarnoski

I may be a bit biased on this one, because this is a film that both takes place and was shot in my home state of Oregon.  But even if it wasn’t, I still would’ve loved everything about this surprisingly emotional and unconventional film.  It’s also surprising that I’m finding myself putting a film starring Nicolas Cage into my top 3 for the year, but that’s where we’re at.  This is a remarkably well crafted and unpredictable movie that manages to balance humor, genuine pathos, and even a little bit of suspense into a brilliantly observed character study.  It’s also a bit of an art-house John Wick (2014) in that Nicolas Cage’s character is a man with a past whose layers are peeled back as the plot progresses.  It doesn’t turn violent like the Wick movies do, but it does do the same interesting trick of introducing it’s main character as one thing and over the course of the movie reveal him to have had a whole different kind of life before hand.  The movie even throws some wild card, subculture surprises at us, including an underground fight club made up of waiters and dishwashers.  Nicolas Cage delivers what may be his most nuanced performance ever, and certainly his best in a very long time.  I love the fact that even as he ends up getting more beat up and bloody as the movie goes on, he still commands respect and authority from the culinary world that he once inhabited.  It’s a movie that also finds the absurdity of the high end culinary world to be a especially potent target, but at the same time, it also gives us an appetizing look at the art of cuisine.  The film could have easily been derailed by a less subtle approach to it’s world-building, and thankfully the filmmakers keep this movie grounded and maintain it’s humanity.  Like the character that Nicolas Cage plays in the movie, there are so many layers of this film to unravel, and I’m sure many are going to end up finding a movie they didn’t expect to see going into this film.  Who knew a movie about a feral wild man of the forest trying to find his stolen truffle pig would garner up one of the year’s most rewarding cinematic experiences.



Directed by Denis Villeneuve

A thankful return to the kind of provocative, big screen spectacle that we were sorely missing throughout the pandemic.  Denis Villeneuve had long wanted to adapt Frank Herbert’s seminal Science Fiction epic novel to the big screen, and boy did he not waste his opportunity.  Surely, the David Lynch directed 1984 adaptation has it’s fans, but this is the movie that really does the writing of Frank Herbert justice.  Denis Villeneuve does for Dune what Peter Jackson did for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which is bring it to it’s fullest cinematic potential.  You can tell that Denis had been planning the shots in his head for years, maybe even decades prior.  There is an ambition of vision here that really helps to make the story leap off the page like never before.  Once thought to be an un-filmable book, as evidenced by the messy Lynch film, Villeneuve has managed to make all the bizarre and surreal elements of Herbert’s novel work on screen here.  Or at least half of the novel, as Warner Brothers made the short sighted decision to let Villeneuve break the story into two films, but did not plan to shot both back to back; a foolish decision in light of the movie opening in a challenging pandemic marketplace.  Thankfully, it did well enough to greenlight Part Two, but it seemed uncertain for a time.  The movie has some of the most amazing visuals seen all year; perfectly capturing the awe inspiring sights of the world of Arrakis.  The all star cast likewise lives up to the hype; with Timothee Chalamet leading the film perfectly in the difficult role of Paul Atredes.  Josh Brolin, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac and Jason Mamoa are also stand outs.  More than anything, it’s seeing an ambitious cinematic treatment of an often mishandled source material done right that makes this film one of the years best.  And it makes me hopeful that studios will continue to treat these kinds of properties with respect instead of focusing on the marketability of these properties.  Hopefully, Dune does for science fiction what The Lord of the Rings did for fantasy on the silver screen.  More importantly, it showed that indeed there are some movies best savored on the biggest screen possible and that’s hopefully something that we’ll see more of, which will hopefully bring audiences back to the cinemas.

And now, my choice for the best movie of 2021 is…



Directed by Jane Campion

Jane Campion has not directed a feature film in over 12 years, but you wouldn’t know that after seeing this movie.  She steps back into feature filmmaking effortlessly with what is probably her most refined film yet, and certainly her best since her Oscar-winning The Piano (1993).  In this revisionist Western, she gives us an interesting examination into the nature of toxic masculinity.  Perfectly embodied through an incredible performance by Benedict Cumberbatch (probably his best work yet), we see a cowboy whose crafted this harsh masculine shell around himself to hide his own insecurities about his own identity, and this in turn make him a tyrannical presence in the lives of those around him, especially his put upon little brother (played by Jesse Plemons) and his new sister-in-law (played by Kirsten Dunst).  It’s only when he meets his new nephew-in-law (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who displays more feminine traits, that we seen the hard veneer start to crack around this character, which lead to some shocking confrontations along the way.  Of all the movies that I saw this year, none were as finely crafted from beginning to end as this was. Campion remarkably manages to substitute her native New Zealand for rural Montana, and you would never know the difference.  The movie is also perfectly edited, without an ounce of fat on the story at all.  It also features some truly memorable moments, like one of the most unnerving musical duets you will see in any movie.  The musical score by Johnny Greenwood is also one of the best of the year.  It’s just the movie that hit all the right notes for me this year, and even still offered up surprises that I wasn’t expecting at all.  It’s good to see Jane Campion continuing to mesh her provocative voice with these often sanctified genres.  Seeing her especially breaking down the mythic representation of a rugged cowboy and showing the dangers of masculinity without balance is a lesson that we especially need explored through cinema.  The film is a gorgeous, extremely well acted and shot ode to the Western genre that is not afraid to explain that the myths that were borne out of it are not something we should continue to idolize in modern society today.  A thorough and undisputed triumph.

So there you have my choices for the top ten films of 2021.  Of course, any examination of the best of the year is not complete without the counterpoint.  So, of course, I have my choices for the Bottom 5 of 2021 below.  Here’s a brief rundown of my least favorite movies of the year:

5. WAREWOLVES WITHIN – This uninteresting Edgar Wight-wannabe film from video game producer Ubisoft believes itself to be more clever than it really is.  Like I mentioned beforehand, the movies of Edgar Wright are far more witty and balanced as a mixture of comedy and horror.  This one just regurgitates a lot of obvious, low hanging fruit puns and sadly even descends into stereotypes of gay people and middle American rednecks.  You would think the bar would already be low for a movie based on a little known video game, but this one managed to find a way to sink even lower.

4. THE NIGHT HOUSE – Probably the single dullest movie that I saw all year.  What could have been an interesting twist on a haunted house storyline instead turns into a mediocre waste of talent.  I get the feeling that even the filmmakers didn’t know what the ultimate mystery was going to be either.  Is the house haunted by ghosts? Demons?  Is it all an elaborate hoax or just in the heroine’s head.  The movie’s frustratingly vague ending just seems to say that all the above are true, which shows that indeed nobody knew what this movie was supposed to be about.  It’s just spooky for spooky sake, and that in no way is scary.  Consider more effective scary movies from this year like A Quiet Place Part II or Malignant, and make a hard pass on this unsatisfying failure of a horror movie.

3. EARWIG & THE WITCH – This one is especially painful, because it comes from one of the greatest animation studios in the world; Japan based Studio Ghibli.  After becoming legends in the anime industry, this film marked their first ever foray into full computer animation.  And boy did it not work out.  There’s just something about the Studio Ghibli style that does not translate to 3D animation.  Couple this with a painfully mediocre and unimaginative story and one of the most insufferably annoying main characters ever as well.  The good news is that Studio Ghibli founder, the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, is once again breaking his retirement and making another film, and it will thankfully be hand drawn, traditional animation.  Maybe Studio Ghibli can one day make 3D animation compatible with their house style, but man oh man was this experiment an absolute failure.

2. SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS – Another failed attempt to launch this franchise off the ground.  Instead of going for a full G.I. Joe team-up, this one decides to focus solely on one of the most iconic characters from the brand.  And yet, they found nothing interesting at all with the character to justify a full length movie.  It especially seems like a wasted opportunity for actor Henry Golding, whose headlining a film for the first time here.  The usually charismatic Crazy Rich Asians star just seems lost and unmotivated here.  Not to mention that for the majority of the movie, his character is selfish and narrowminded.  Why should we be rooting for him?  Some shoehorned G.I. Joe lore thrown into the mix can’t do much to elevate this movie beyond genre clichés.  If the G.I. Joe franchise was on life support before, this was the flatline that almost assuredly doomed it forever.

And the worst movie of 2021 is…

1. DEAR EVAN HANSEN – The past year gave us some great examples of how to adapt a musical for the big screen right.  From Warner Brother’s In the Heights, to Spielberg’s West Side Story, to the double whammy of Lin-Manuel Miranda productions Tick, Tick, Boom, and Encanto.  This misguided adaptation of an award winning stage musical is a text book example of how not to adapt a musical.  For one thing, the movie made the wrong choice in casting the original Broadway Evan Hansen, Ben Platt, to reprise his role.  Platt is now way too old to play the part of a teenager and his presence here acting alongside more age appropriate actors just gives this movie an overall creepy feeling.  And then there’s director Stephen Chbosky’s matter of fact style of filmmaking, which removes any and all spectacle that a movie musical should have.  And then there’s the inherent problem with the musical itself in that Evan Hansen is just a very hatable character to begin with.  What he does over the course of the story is pretty much emotional terrorism, injecting himself into the loving arms of a grieving family based on a lie, just to make himself feel better.  Maybe the earnestness plays better on a stage, but in this film adaptation, it just feels creepy and infuriating.  An absolute disaster of a musical adaptation, and pretty much the most overall worst experience I had at the movies this year; and that’s saying a lot given that a pandemic is still making movie-going a hassle.  Bye, Evan Hansen.

So, there you have my choices for the best and worst of 2021 at the movies.  It was honestly a harder list to put together this year, just because of the quantity of movies that I managed to see this year, as well as the fact that my viewing habits changed dramatically as movie theaters were finally starting to reopen after a year of closure. In some ways, I feel like this is going to be one of those years where I’ll be reassessing some of these movies again as the year go bye, as some films probably left a different impression on me just because of the times we are living in.  My hope is that going into 2022 that we see continued stability in the theater going experience, which already is being challenged as new variants are keeping the end of this pandemic from being in sight.  Already we are seeing movies being pushed back again, or being sent to streaming, all because uncertainty is on the rise again.  Thankfully, with vaccinations and masking becoming mandatory in most places, I think we’ll avoid another theater shut down like we saw in 2020.  It’s just going to take a while to get audiences back to feeling comfortable again for all types of movies; not just the super hero ones which seem to be doing alright.  I think by the summer we’ll see more normal box office again, and hopefully the pandemic will have seen it’s final massive wave by that point.  In any case, it’s good to have a contentious year like 2021 behind us now, and more importantly, it’s nice to see a calendar that no longer is packed with the remnants of all the pandemic exiles that were clogging up the system.  This will likely be one of the most normal looking years at the movies that we’ve seen in a long while, and my hope is that it offers up plenty of worthwhile entertainment, as well as a few surprises along the way.  Anyway, thank you for reading and have a great 2022 at the movies.

The Movies of Early 2022

You couldn’t have asked for a more topsy-turvy year than 2021 for the world of cinema.  Still reeling from the effects of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the movie theater industry was pretty much on the ropes even as venues were beginning to reopen after a full year closure.   But, through some good fortune, and even some unexpected support from meme stock traders,  movie theaters managed to avoid the Armageddon that many experts feared would befall the industry.  Things slowly began to return to business as usual, but there were still roadblocks in the way towards normalcy.  Hollywood still hedged their bets for most of the year, choosing to release their movies simultaneously across multiple platforms in order to off-set depressed box office numbers.  But, as the year went on, movie theaters stayed resilient and managed to show their overall worth.  Disney, the studio with the most high profile stakes in the market having their streaming platform also performing very well, gained a surprise hit with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), which prompted them to abandon their hybrid release model in favor of the theatrical market for the rest of the year.  Warner Brothers, which made the boldest move of the year by releasing their entire 2021 slate on a similar release model on both streaming and theaters day and date, saw mixed results, with many of their film either underperforming or flat out bombing at the box office likely due to their availability on streaming.  And then the theatrical market ended the year on a triumphant note with Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) smashing records in a way that would be impressive even outside of a pandemic market.  There is a lot that the theater industry can feel happy about at the end of 2021, though business as normal hasn’t quite been achieved just yet.  It will be interesting to see what happens next in 2022, and which way the wind will blow after the previous year we’ve had.

It helps to take a look at what to expect in the months ahead in 2022.  For the first time in two years, the theatrical release schedule looks like it has settled in to a more stable outlook.  There’s no more uncertainty about if movies can make their release dates, even in the face of more Covid variants.  Like years before, I will be taking a look at the most anticipated movies of the early season of the year and give you my thoughts on which are the must sees, the ones that have me worried, and the ones that I believe are worth skipping.  Keep in mind, these are my first impressions based on the level of marketing these films have presented thus far.  I might be wrong about a few of these choices, and that has very often happened before.  Still, I’m confident about my choices here, and I hope they give you a good sense about what to expect in the upcoming months.  So, with all that, let’s take a look at the Movies of Early 2022.



Let’s start off with the usual super hero flick that always ends up on my must see lists.  With Marvel choosing to hold onto their next theatrical project for the summer, that leaves the Spring entirely for DC to launch their film free of competition.  What they have planned is yet another big screen reboot of their marquee comic book icon, Batman, marking the seventh big screen iteration we’ve seen to date (not counting the 60’s Adam West TV version).  Filling the cape and cowl this time is Robert Pattinson, a choice for the part that has received some mixed feelings thus far.  I have a bit more confidence in Mr. Pattinson, give his more risk-taking choices in roles as of late.  And the choice of him as the character seems pretty in line with the tone they are setting with this new version of the Batman story.  It’s clear that director Matt Reeves is channeling a sort of David Fincher aesthetic with this Batman, with the film looking very much like it’s pulled out of the same world as Se7ven (1995) or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).  The supporting cast looks really interesting as well, with actors like Zoe Kravitz, Paul Dano and Colin Farrell portraying very grounded versions of Batman’s rogues gallery as Catwoman, The Riddler and The Penguin respectively.  The big question will be if the movie can offer anything different with regards to the Batman character that we haven’t yet seen before.  The movie especially has to distinguish itself in comparison to the Christopher Nolan trilogy, which had it’s own grounded take on the Batman mythos.  Given how well Matt Reeves was able to revitalize and legitimize the Planet of the Apes series a few years back, he should be able to make a new version of Batman that can stand well enough on it’s own, and in many ways could end up surprising us.  Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for two long for this one, and given that Warner Brothers has ended their streaming experiment of 2021, this will definitely be the kind of blockbuster entertainment that will help their studio make a splash again at the box office in a big way.


Another sadly missing fixture in movie theaters over the last couple years has been Pixar Animation.  They unfortunately were saddled with having one of their movies open right at the beginning of the pandemic (2020’s Onward) and that ended up cascading into a whole shake-up for the studio as a whole.  The other planned 2020 release, Soul, skipped theaters entirely, receiving a streaming only premiere on Disney+.  And despite the fact that theaters were re-opened last summer in all the big markets, Disney still side-lined their next Pixar film Luca (2021) to streaming on Disney+, much to the chagrin of the people at Pixar.  Now, with the theatrical market stabilizing, Disney is allowing Pixar’s next film to play on the big screen finally, almost two years to the day since Pixar’s last big screen appearance.  The film they are making their return with looks like a nice light romp that will appeal to a broad audience.  Centering on a Chinese-Canadian pre-teen girl who succumbs to an ancient family curse that transforms her into a giant red panda seems to be in line with the kind of atypical storylines that Pixar is always attracted to.  It’s also interesting to see them take on a much more stylized, cartoonish style with this one, as opposed to some of their other films like Soul and Onward, which both opted for more grounded animation.  Turning red feels much more comic strip like in it’s style, and that feels like a nice change of pace for the studio.  Instead of focusing everything on the hyper details of the environment, this movie looks like it’s keeping things simplistic and focusing more on the complexities of the characters instead, which has always been a strong point for Pixar.  I feel like this is one of those movies that will probably offer up a lot more emotional depth than what we see in the hyperactive trailer, and in many ways, it’s something that we have sorely missed in a theater setting.  It’s been a long pandemic break for Pixar, but I’m hopeful that Turning Red brings them roaring back in a big way, and naturally with a big, red, roaring Panda.


Taking a break from the big studio entertainment, here we have a little indie film that is no less exciting as an upcoming attraction.  From the same team behind the equally bizarre movie Swiss Army Man (2016), we have this new film that centers around a Chinese immigrant in contemporary America that has some strange connection to a multiverse.  Swiss Army Man was a refreshingly original movie that managed to make it’s bizarre premise work for a full length feature, and I am very excited to see what the same twisted minds behind that movie can do for a follow-up.  I’m especially excited by what I see here, because this looks like a showcase for the amazing talent that is Michelle Yeoh.  The veteran Chinese actress has certainly been around for decades and always given stellar work on screen with everything from James Bond thrillers to Marvel comic book movies.  Here, she is front in center in a starring role that she far too often hasn’t been able to take advantage of.  This looks like a movie that is tailor-made for her, allowing her to play all sorts of different versions of the same character across multiple realities.  It even gives her a chance to show off some of her talents as a martial arts fighter, as she has shown before in movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).  I also find it interesting who she gets to act opposite with in this movie, with veteran actors like Jamie Lee Curtis and James Hong by her side.  But, even more surprising is the actor playing her husband, Ke Huy Quan.  It may surprise audiences to know that he’s Short Round from the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), as well as Data from The Goonies (1985), all grown up.  He hasn’t had a big screen role in years, so to see him here in a grown up role is quite a surprise.  But, this is certainly a movie designed to let Michelle Yeoh shine and I’m really excited to see what kind of weird and strange things this movie is going to give us.


Here’s another wild, bizarre cinematic offering from another celebrated outsider filmmaker.  Robert Eggers has made a splash in recent years with his very dark and cinematically daring horror films The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019).  Now, he is looking to take his unique voice into the realm of ancient world epics.  Here he is creating his own take on Viking sagas, with all the same bloody violent details and otherworldly connections to the spirit realm that you would hope to see in such a film.  Centered around a young Viking warrior seeking vengeance for his slain father, this looks on the surface to be a more conventional looking film from the guy who gave us something as unconventional as The Lighthouse.  And yet, the trailer still shows us that there will be indeed some wild, fantastical elements here as well, and that’s exactly what makes this movie so highly anticipated.  My hope is that Eggers manages to balance style with substance here, because it could prove to be a difficult tight rope to walk.  You definitely want it to be a rousing adventure film, but at the same time, you also want it to be a wild head trip as well, which Eggers has thus far excelled at.  It definitely helps that the cast is an interesting blend of unconventional players as well.  I’m going to be very intrigued to see how well Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman work as Viking royalty in this film.  The inclusion of Anya Tayor-Joy and Willem Dafoe are also exciting inclusions.  The success of the film will probably hinge on how well Alexander Skasrsgard   works in the lead role.  He certainly looks the part, thanks to his own Scandinavian roots, but it will be interesting to see if he can pull off the weirder Robert Egger elements of the story as well too in his performance.  My hope is that this movie fearlessly breaks out of conventionality and becomes the demented, ethereal Viking epic that we all hope it is.


Yeah, I know this movie is not for everyone’s tastes.  The second movie based on the long running TV series is very much a film made solely for those who were die hard fans of the show, and not much else.  But, I am one of those fans of the show and I am very excited for another big screen outing with this collection of characters.  Part of my excitement for this film is because of how well I thought the first Downton Abbey (2019) movie worked.  It didn’t try to break the formula too much to translate from the small to the big screen, and overall it did exactly what you would want a movie based on a show to do; extend the already storyline even more.  I’m glad to see that nothing has been wasted so far, with the same opulence of the show carried over, but with the added benefit of a widescreen canvas.  And the show’s creator Julian Fellowes has not lost sight of his ongoing narrative, justifying the continuing adventures of the wealthy Crawley family beyond what we saw in the show, without making the Series finale feel superfluous in the long run.  The always delightful ensemble cast has made their return, including some of the best character actors that have graced the big and small screens of Britain for decades, including Hugh Bonneville, Penelope Wilton, and Jim Carter among them.  And any reason to put Dame Maggie Smith back on the big screen is an opportunity that should never be wasted, ever.  My only hope is that this movie doesn’t waste the goodwill that was earned from the first successful big screen adaptation.  Sometimes a movie based on a TV show has maybe one good translation that it can possibly get away with; any more might seem desperate and unnecessary.  Still, enough was left open from the last film to justify more time with these characters, and a change of scenery as the family makes a trip to the French countryside could offer some nice new story opportunities.  As an unashamed fan of the show, I’m very much looking forward to yet another couple of hours in this world of Downton Abbey.



It’s been a rocky road for this film in wake of the pandemic.  Originally slated for a Fall 2019 release, it was pushed back due to the merger between it’s production studio Fox and Disney.  Then of course the Covid affected closures of the theater pushed the movie out of 2020, and then scandal plagued the film when one of it’s stars (Armie Hammer) was accused of sexual abuse, prompting a career backlash that has seen him lose numerous roles as well as his representation team.  Now, nearly three years after it wrapped filming, the movie is surprisingly going to make it’s way to theaters.  Some speculated whether it would see the light of day at all.  It would have been a shame if none of us had the chance to see it, as it is a star-studded follow-up to director Kenneth Branagh’s hit adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (2017).  Just to give a sense of how long this movie has had to sit on the shelf, Branagh has made and released two more films since wrapping photography on Death on the Nile; the Disney+ fantasy Artemis Fowl (2020) and the Oscar-hopeful Belfast (2021).  This is a troubled production all around, and my worry is that audiences won’t be able to judge the movie properly on it’s own merits.  It’s really a sad unfortunate series of events that shouldn’t have to weigh on the movie, and yet I feel like it’s going to suffer as a result.  My hope is that the movie is good enough to shake off the bad mojo that has fallen it’s way.  The stellar cast, Armie Hammer not with-standing, should be a benefit.  At the same time, Branagh’s track record as director is hit or miss, and he this is honestly his first ever attempt at a sequel.  This movie could end up being a pleasant surprise, or a forgotten troubled film best swept under the rug.  My hope is for the former.


Two years ago, I placed the original on my movies to skip list.  It looked like a movie just pre-destined to fail, especially after a highly talked about last minute re-working of Sonic’s design due to a fan backlash.  Surprisingly, the movie not only didn’t fail, it managed to succeed at the box office, just narrowly making a profit before the Covid shutdown.  One thing that really helped was the better than expected input of Jim Carrey as the villainous Dr. Robotnik, who really stole the movie away and elevated the film to make it better than it had any right to be.  So, for a movie that was doomed to be a laughing stock, it is now getting a sequel and people are excited for it.  I was a little more lukewarm on the movie, because it still was a formulaic waste of time, but I do acknowledge that it managed to avoid many of the pitfalls that should have tanked it entirely and I was pleasantly surprised by Jim Carrey’s hilariously demented turn as Robotnik.  It’s not out of the question for this series to have fans, and for them to be excited for a sequel.  I just am not entirely on board myself.  It is cool to see Jim Carrey returning, and leaning even more into the zaniness of the character.  It’s also nice to see the movie adding more elements from the video games into it’s story, including the introduction of Sonic’s rival Knuckles (voiced here by Idris Elba).  Maybe this movie can turn around my opinion entirely, and make me a fan of the series finally.  I’m far more intrigued by how the original managed to escape disaster and become a success given all the circumstances thrown it’s way more than I’m interested in the story itself.  Judging by the way the movie has been marketed so far, my opinion will probably remain the same afterwards.  Still, it is a step up from being on the Movies to Skip list, so that’s an improvement at least.


The only Marvel related property we are getting on the big screen this early movie season, and it’s not even from Marvel Studios proper.  Morbius is an off-shoot of what people have dubbed the Sony Spider-verse, which is all the Marvel characters that Sony Pictures maintains the rights to that are tied around the character of Spider-Man.  They are very loosely connected with the canon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and in many ways might not be in the same universal canon at all.  This includes the Venom movies starring Tom Hardy as well as this film based on the vampiric super anti-hero known as Morbius.  The movie Morbius has likewise suffered an uncertain future thanks to the pandemic, moving around multiple times until landing on this unceremonious late January release date.  That alone may seal the fate of this movie, but I hope it ends up being more than that.  The problem with the film is that it may get crushed under the expectations that people now have with Marvel films, especially in the wake of the huge success of Spider-Man: No Way Home.  It also doesn’t help that the character is much lesser known outside of comic book fans, and that he is being played by Jared Leto, whose become a bit of a polarizing actor as of late. Hopefully, Leto brings more balance to this role than he did with his unhinged version of the Joker in DC’s Suicide Squad (2016).  And my hope is that this movie makes the best effort to justify Morbius as a stand alone character worth devoting a stand alone movie to; something that the Venom movies have yet to achieve despite Tom Hardy’s best efforts.  Still, this one is going to be a hard sell, and my worry is that Sony does not have the same kind of focus and care with these characters that Marvel Studios proper does.  We’ll see if they can buck the trend and make a surprisingly effective film on it’s own merits that doesn’t have to rely on it’s connection to Spider-Man to work.


Another film that has succumbed to unfortunate off-screen turmoil.  Though not affected badly by the pandemic, this movie unfortunately has had to overcome scandals that have diminished some of it’s key players.  For one thing, Wizarding World creator J.K. Rowling has come under fire for comments she has made that many have deemed transphobic, which has alienated the author from many of the fan base of her previous work.  And then there is the cloud of scandal that has surrounded actor Johnny Depp, who played the villainous role of Grindelwald in the previous Fantastic Beast movies.  It became so troublesome for the makers of this movie that they decided to make the drastic decision to recast the part of Grindelwald with Mads Mikkelsen instead.  But there’s an even bigger problem working against this movie; that nobody really cares for this Fantastic Beast series.  There are some fans to be sure, but Fantastic Beasts has failed to take off in the same way that the Harry Potter series that shares the same universe had before.  This, the third film in this series, carries on the continuing  story, but it seems like it’s carrying itself forward on the crutch of the Potter series much more now.  With Dumbledore (played as his younger self here by Jude Law) becoming even more of factor in the story, as well as the characters making their way to the Hogwarts school, it just seems like the Fantastic Beasts team is going out of it’s way to try to appeal to all of those Harry Potter fans out there instead of working harder to define it’s own identity.  Maybe this movie can turn around it’s bad fortune thus far.  I honestly think the recasting of Grindelwald is an improvement; Mikkelsen should have been playing the character from the outset.  But, given Rowling’s dogmatic hold on the narrative drive of this story, and little to indicate a deviation from it’s set course, we are likely just going to see more of a downward slide for this unfortunate wannabe series.



If you’ve been reading my blog consistently, you’ll probably know of my disdain for the movies of Roland Emmerich.  He has very much emerged as my least favorite filmmaker as of late, and Moonfall looks like his dumbest movie yet.  The ludicrous premise involves the moon being pulled out of it’s orbit and headed towards a collision with the Earth, and it’s up to a rag tag bunch of scientists and hot shot astronauts to avert the disaster and save the planet.  What really grinds my gears about Emmerich’s movies is just his disdain for common sense explanations in his plots.  He is constantly known for pushing pseudo-science, conspiracy theories and the like in his movies, and often throws basic physics out the window as well.  Not only that, his characters often fall into wooden archetypes and even worse, sometime ugly stereotypes.  All of that seems to be right in place again with Moonfall, a ludicrous sci-fi film that seems to have every bad instinct Emmerich is known for in full display.  The way he treats science in his movies has been laughable, and has often undermined the attempts to educate about real scientific principles.  God help us if he ever decides to do a pandemic movie.  I’m not holding out for a lot of hope with this one.  It just looks like Emmerich desperately trying to find his next Independence Day (1996) and once again failing miserably at it.  A definite hard pass.


Movies based on popular video games are absolutely tricky to pull off.  Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) has been one of the rare exceptions of a hit movie that overcame the trend of terrible video game adaptions.  But, Sonic was a movie unburdened with having to adapt a deep, detailed storyline.  Sonic the Hedgehog the game is as simplistic as they come, so all they had to do was make a story that was just slightly more involved than a side-scrolling adventure.  It’s much harder to adapt a video game to the big screen that originally felt cinematic to begin with.  That’s the case with Uncharted.  The Uncharted video game series are very highly celebrated for their almost movie like quality of immersive storytelling.  They are often considered to be the Indiana Jones of video games.  Which is why it seems like a bad idea to make these films leap onto the silver screen.  A two hour movie can in no way compete with the 20-40 hours of gameplay that people devote to the narratives of these games.  And yet Sony (who conveniently also makes the PlayStation consoles that the Uncharted games play exclusively on) is banking on making that jump a reality.  They of course are utilizing their golden boy of the moment, Tom Holland (aka Spider-Man), to lead the film as the iconic hero Nathan Drake.  Though Holland is an impressively athletic and capable action star, he still comes off as a tad too young for the role, as the video game Nathan Drake has a few more years under his belt by the time we first meet him.  It also doesn’t help that Nathan’s beloved sidekick Sully is played here by Mark Wahlberg without the beloved character’s trademark mustache.  Sadly, what we are likely to see happen is a extraordinary, ground-breaking video game adventure be reduced to just an ordinary, run of the mill action movie.


Normally this kind of movie would just be ignored by me.  But for me, this one feels especially disappointing because of the inclusion of Owen Wilson here.  Last year, I saw Owen branching out as an actor and taking on more outside the norm roles.  He was especially effective in the Loki series on Disney+ and he also made a welcome return to working with his old friend Wes Anderson in The French Dispatch (2021).  Unfortunately, Marry Me finds him slinking back into the Rom Com trap that kept him from taking on good roles for many years.  It’s something that I think is really beneath him at this point in his career, and it’s sad to see him returning to that well once again.  The same can be said about Jennifer Lopez as well, whose coming off her best role in years with 2019’s Hustlers.  I don’t know why they want to go back to rom coms, when it’s clear that there’s a lot of still untapped potential for them as actors.  Hopefully, once they get this movie out of their systems, they’ll go back to more outside the box kind of roles, but for now, this is a movie that feels more like a step backward after a lot of forward momentum in both of their respective careers.

So, there you have my outlook of the early part of 2022.  For one thing, it’s nice to know that movie theaters are no longer on the brink of closure like they were this time last year.  A few movie theaters didn’t survive, but the vast majority managed to stick it out, and now there is no longer any uncertainty for at least the foreseeable future.  The theatrical industry still has a bit more rebuilding to do if it’s going to get back to it’s pre-pandemic levels, but the success of Spider-Man: No Way Home is still a positive sign that leaves us hopeful.  It definitely shows that the super hero genre is still a potent one for audiences, which is good news for something like The Batman.  Hopefully, in 2022, we see audiences gain a lot more confidence to venture out to see other genre films, especially with animated movies, musicals, historical epics, and the like which have all had a harder time regaining traction at the box office over the course of the last year.  2021 certainly brought some more life into the ailing theater industry, but it’s still not 100% back yet.  My hope is that we see movie theaters roaring back in 2022, as the pandemic continues to wane and become less deadly.  Movie theaters certainly need to up their commitment towards appealing to audiences.  The Netflix’s and Disney+’s of the world are not going away anytime soon, and they’re going to continue competing with movie theaters for years to come.  Hopefully, the adage of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger applies to the theatrical market as well, and that movie theaters will hopefully come out of this pandemic better than they were before.  In any case, this is where we are at the beginning of a new year at the movies.  Happy New Year and let’s make 2022 a prosperous and safe one at the movies.