The Movies of Fall 2022

In the summer of 2022, we saw what a tentpole movie season could look like in the aftermath of a pandemic.  The result was positive, but still a mixed bag in many places.  For one, we saw healthy box office across all the months of this Summer thanks to some high profile releases, as well as from some unexpected indie hits.  One thing I’m sure no one expected was the gravity defying success of the movie Top Gun: Maverick (2022), which easily became the biggest success of Tom Cruise’s lengthy career as well as the undisputed champion of this summer.  One of the holdovers from the pandemic, the movie finally released two years after it’s initial planned release date, performed well from the start, and then just stuck around after many others faded over the Summer.  Even right now, there are still showings of Top Gun: Maverick available all over my local market, and it’s the last full week of the Summer.  Apart from Top Gun, which now stands as one of the highest grossing movies of all time domestically, Marvel continued it’s win streak with solid returns on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) and Thor: Love and Thunder (2022).  Baz Luhrmman flexed his cinematic muscles with his Elvis (2022) biopic, carrying it to a solid $145 million gross.  And other franchises like Jurassic World and Minions continued to show solid strength even in a pandemic effected market.  But, there are still signs of worry for theaters.  While the big blockbusters performed well, there was a severe lack of diversity in the amount of movies available to see in the theater.  Animated movies like Pixar’s Lightyear (2022) and DC’s League of Super Pets struggled against heavy competition, and once reliable genres like horror and comedy were almost non-existent.  And with uncertainty about the economy and inter-studio shake-ups like the one that’s going on at Warner Brothers right now, with dates being pushed back again, you can see how movie theaters know that they aren’t out of the woods yet, even with a re-bounding summer season.

Now we come to the Fall movie season, which presents to us a whole different kind of crop.  The kind that is put up for end of the year awards.  We’ll still get our usual big budget blockbusters coming out around the holidays, including stuff from Marvel and DC, as well as highly anticipated sequels, like the long awaited return of director James Cameron to the world of Avatar.  But what usually ends up defining the months ahead are the movies that we don’t know that much about yet; the ones coming out of the film festival circuit.  Sundance and Cannes have already seen some of their honorees make it to the local film markets, but in the next month we also have the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals about to commence, both major bellwethers for what may become the Awards season favorites.  Overall, there is indeed a lot to look forward to in the next few months.  Like my previews in the past, I will be looking at the movies that I believe are going to be the must sees, the ones that have me worried, and the ones that I say are worth skipping.  Keep in mind, I have been off in the past, so my bets are not ones that should be banked on.  These are first impression takes, ones that I have going into the months ahead based on my feelings with regards to how well the movies are selling themselves to me.  My opinions on these movies could change and often have.  But for now, let’s dive in and take a look at the Movies of Fall 2022.



There are quite a few movies to be excited for this Fall season, but I don’t think there will be as many eyes on them as this one.  The follow-up to the groundbreaking Marvel super hero film Black Panther (2018) has had to contend with a lot of problems over the last couple years.  Chief among them is the tragic and devastating loss of actor Chadwick Boseman, the Black Panther himself, from his tough and private battle with cancer.  His death sparked an outpouring of grief and support from fans across the spectrum of the comic book fandom across the world.  Though Marvel was left with a difficult circumstance, they nevertheless chose to honor their fallen hero Chadwick and decided against re-casting the part.  Though it’s understandable, it does raise a big question; how do you make a Black Panther sequel without Black Panther in it?  Thankfully, writer/director Ryan Coogler returns to answer that question.  He may have been one of the beneficiaries of the pandemic related delay in production, because it may have given him the time necessary to figure out the next chapter moving forward in this story.  As we can see in the trailer, the movie will take time out to properly honor the memory of King T’Challa and the actor who played him, but it also promises that another big adventure is about to unfold.  As we see, all the other familiar faces are returning, including Lupita N’yongo, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Winston Duke, Danai Gurira, and Martin Freeman.  But the inclusion of a well-known adversary known as Namor, The Sub-Mariner is especially exciting for comic book fans, as Namor is a long time fan favorite who has yet to make his big screen debut until now.  And it seems like Coogler is indeed doing with this movie what a great sequel should do, which is expand the world of this story.  It’s not just a story about the Black Panther, but of the Kingdom of Wakanda itself, and all the rich tapestry of people and places it entails.  That’s likely what awaits us with Wakanda Forever, but as the final frame also promises, at some point someone will don the Black Panther mantle and bring the Vibranium claws out.  The mystery of who that will be is one thing I’m sure all of us will be eagerly awaiting.


You’ve got to hand it to Netflix some times, they know when to grab a hold of a valuable property when they see one with potential.  In this case, they managed to secure the franchise rights to a brand new series that took the movie world by storm.  Released during the holidays in 2019, Rian Johnson’s modern day update of the Agatha Christie whodunit formula became a surprise success, and really the last great sleeper hit in the pre-pandemic era of the box office.  Made on a relatively small scale but nevertheless featuring an enviable all-star cast, Knives Out (2019) went on to gross an impressive $300 million worldwide, and all but guaranteed Johnson a chance to spin-off his mystery into a franchise.  What shocked many in the industry was the fact that Netflix managed to become the ones granted the opportunity, with Rian Johnson getting a big payday out of it, with the option to make not one but two sequels.  Like adaptations of Agatha Christie mysteries in the past, Rian Johnson is keeping the tradition of a rotating casting familiar faces in the roles, including Edward Norton, Ethan Hawke, Kathryn Hahn and Dave Bautista to name a few, while still having his eccentric sleuth being the one connecting thread; in this case, Daniel Craig as Detective Benoit Blanc.  Given that Craig has ended his legendary tenure as James Bond with last year’s No Time to Die (2021), it’s good to see him carry on with yet another successful franchise in which he can flex his acting chops.  What is special about this series is that Rian Johnson manages to perfectly take an old fashioned formula, mix it with his own unique irreverent voice, and transforms it into a witty and relevant satire that helps to breath new life into a genre that otherwise would have died out.  It’s a great counter to the increasingly formulaic comic book movies that dominate the big screen today.  One hopes that Netflix possibly will see the box office potential in this too.  Netflix needs to fix their own economic woes, and that hopefully will help lead them to puts this movie out in theaters on a much wider release than we usually see from them.


Walt Disney Animation has usually done quite well over the lucrative Thanksgiving holiday weekend.  From classics like The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992) to recent hits like Frozen (2013) and last year’s Encanto (2021), they’ve managed to string together quite a few wins in this part of the release calendar.  Now, their latest film shows them taking their animation tools into a story that really is quite different from anything that we’ve seen from Disney before.  Strange World is not a fairy tale musical, but rather a full blown sci-fi adventure.  That could be a risk for Disney, given that their pedigree is much stronger with the former, but it looks like they are treating this new film with a great amount of care and attention; at least when it comes to the visuals.  It’s hard to describe what this movie is supposed to be about, other than our central group of explorers find themselves in a trippy, alien world.  Not much information is given apart from that.  Is the world intergalactic, or is it on the microscopic quantum scale?  At the very least, it looks like Disney wants to keep that part of the movie a mystery, and instead they are choosing to sell us on the imaginative visuals.  I think that it also helps that they open a trailer with a retro callback to B-movie science fiction of years past, which may give us a good sense of the tone that Disney wants to set with their film.  I for one really am intrigued by what I’ve seen so far.  There is a lot of imagination put on screen thus far, with an alien ecosystem that feels unlike anything that I’ve seen in any other movie.  The one thing that I hope delivers even more in the final film is the character story itself, which hopefully doesn’t get overwhelmed by the visuals.  Given that Disney Animation has been on a hot streak lately, even with their pandemic affected releases like Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) and Encanto, it wouldn’t surprise me if they continue to deliver the goods here as well.  The only question is, will audiences used to fairy tale musicals from Disney go for something completely out of the ordinary.


Now for something a little bit more outside the blockbuster landscape.  Writer/Director Martin McDonugh has over the last decade or so become one of the unique storytellers on both the screen and the stage.  He is a master at dark comedy, and that is evident through his three films as a director so far: In Bruges (2008), Seven Psychopaths (2012) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017).  With his fourth film, he returns to his Irish roots with a deep black comedy that seems to feels Irish right down to it’s bones.  Reuniting his two In Bruges co-stars, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, the movie shows the break-up of a lifelong friendship that happens for no discernable reason.  What makes McDonaugh’s dry humor work so well is the full committed sincerity of his actors, and the fact that the laughs come from an unexpected mean spirited place.  These characters don’t know that they are funny, but the circumstances of their narrative are absolutely absurd.  I love how much Colin Farrell’s character is distressed by the fact that his best friend doesn’t like him anymore, and how that pushes him to an almost infantile demeanor.  McDonugh is also great at writing cutting insults, something that he especially likes giving to an actor as deadpan hilarious as Brendan Gleeson.  What I’m especially interested in seeing is how unpredictable this movie may end up being.  Adapted from a play that McDonugh failed to bring to the stage, this story may in fact be better suited for the screen, because it allows the genuine Irish locales to give even more weight to the film.  Thus far, McDonugh has made my end of the year Top Ten with all three of his movies, so I’m hoping for a four-peat.  In any case, I just like a movie where the screenplay itself is just as much of a star as the talent that performs it, and that’s something that I’ve found consistently true with Martin McDonugh’s work.


It’s a common occurrence to see similar movies release in short succession of each other.  Very rarely do you see two adaptations of the same exact story made at the same time.  But this Fall, we are getting not one, but two versions of Pinocchio, released to streaming by two of the market’s biggest giants.  One is a live action adaptation by Disney of it’s classic 1940 animated film, starring Tom Hanks in the role of Geppetto.  The other is a stop motion animated film from the creative mind of Guillermo Del Toro, who brings his own unique style to the age old story.  No surprise which one I’m more excited for.  While I am a life long fan of Disney, I don’t like everything they make, and in particular I’ve been pretty down on their live action remakes of their animated classics.  While what I’ve seen so far of their Pinocchio remake is far from the worst I’ve seen, it also convinces me that it will be vastly inferior to the original classic.  Guillermo Del Toro on the other hand is doing something much different with his version of the story.  For one thing, it features stylized animation done through stop motion animation that is greatly more appealing than the photo-realism that Disney’s version is trying to capture.  It also looks like Del Toro is exploring the themes of the original story more deeply, which the cricket character (here voiced by Ewan McGregor) tells us that it’s a story that we think we know, but really don’t.  You can always count on Guillermo Del Toro to not shy away from some of the darker elements of the story.  It will definitely be an interesting experiment because it’s the visionary director’s first ever foray into animation as a filmmaker.  And unlike the Disney film, which is going straight to Disney+, this one is getting a brief theatrical run from Netflix, so that will be welcoming as Del Toro’s work really deserves to be seen on the biggest screens possible.  So, while I do hope Disney’s version is better than advertised, I’m pretty certain that the little wooden boy that is going to be more worthwhile to see bright to life is this one.



A few months ago, I may have been a bit more optimistic about the prospects of this film.  Now, given the recent drama that has been going on with DC parent company Warner Brothers Discovery, there is a bit of a dark cloud surrounding this movie.  Even the looming October release date could be called into question.  We are in the midst of a time when a studio will just flat out cancel a nearly $100 million movie just for the tax right off, and that has created a bit of chaos behind the scenes over in the DC wing of the studio.  We were also supposed to be getting the Shazam sequel this Christmas, but that has now been pushed back to March of next year, and the Aquaman sequel has been pushed as far back as December of 2023.  So, right now, DC’s future is in limbo as a new regime begins to reassess it’s direction, which could very easily render this film irrelevant in the grand scheme of DC’s bigger picture.  What this movie has going for it is that it is done and in the can and ready to hit cinemas.  It also doesn’t have the behind the scenes baggage that is plaguing the also ready for release Flash movie, which doesn’t even have a release date currently.  The other saving grace is the film’s star Dwayne Johnson.  Having a marquee star like him, currently one of the most bankable in the world, at it’s center is definitely going to help bring in audience once it’s released.  It’s also a positive sign that Dwayne is very much invested in this project as well.  This has been a passion project for him for years, as he’s been wanting to play Black Adam on the big screen for well over a decade.  That dream is now a reality, and hopefully it translates into the actor giving even more weight to his performance.  The only question is can Black Adam carry a film all by himself apart from all the other well know DC heroes.  Also, in the comic books, Black Adam is mostly cast as a villain, so it will be interesting to see if they smooth out any of the darker elements of his character to make him the star of his own movie.  Let’s hope that things do work out for this film, as there are a lot of unknowns going on right now at Warner Brothers.  With a charismatic star at it’s center and an earnest committed approach, we can certainly feel some hope for this roguish super powered anti-hero.


Sometimes there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  While on the surface this movie looks like a slam dunk of a cinematic treat, it may also be far lesser than the sum of it’s parts.  The movie comes from David O. Russell, his first feature in seven years, and it features his usual slew of eccentric characters played by some heavyweight talent.  What’s interesting about this film is that it finds Russell working in a period story.  It’s not is first time making a period film, as American Hustle was set in the 1970’s, but here he’s going nearly a century back to Prohibition era America, which will make it interesting to see how Russell’s typical witty banter plays in this setting.  He certainly has put together a stacked cast for this film, including some of his favorites like Christian Bale and Robert DeNiro, as well as newcomers to his stock company like John David Washington and Margot Robbie.  The trailer certainly highlights the irreverent tone of the movie, but it also reveals what may be some of the film’s weakness.  I’m concerned that the story at the center of this movie may not be interesting enough to carry this cast and David Russell’s dialogue.  To boil it down, David O. Russell has all the ingredients to make a hefty meal, but perhaps too much thrown into the recipe may end up spoiling the taste.  I could be wrong, and this movie may end up being one of the most enriching experiences of the year.  I’m just concerned because in the past, Russell has often been at his best when he’s reigned in and telling a smaller focused story, like The Fighter (2010) or Silver Linings Playbook (2012).  Overall, the cast does look good and pretty game for the story they are telling.  I’m especially liking the kind of performance that Christian Bale is putting into this movie, as humor has not exactly been something that he’s had the opportunity to showcase in many films.  I hope for the best, but I’m also hedging my expectations on this one.


Another film where the results may fall short of ambition.  This, the second film from actress turned director Olivia Wilde, is very much a different kind of film to undertake as a sophomore effort.  Wilde’s first film was the high school comedy Booksmart (2019), which was well received by audiences and critics alike.  Here she’s taking on a psychological thriller with social commentary undertones as her follow-up.  While nothing about her work thus far tells me that she can’t also succeed at making a film like this too, I worry that this movie may be one that falls into the style over substance category.  The movie definitely carries a lot of mid-century period detail with it, and it looks visually sumptuous.  But the story itself seems a bit more elusive, at least from what I’ve gathered from the trailers so far.  I know that movies like these like to keep things close to the chest with regards to potential plot twists, but from what we’re being sold so far, the movie just comes off a little derivative.  We’ve seen too many thrillers like this before, where the tranquil suburban life is not what it seems and hides a darker underbelly, from The Stepford Wives (1975) to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).  My worry is that this movie is going to squander a potentially thought provoking theme with a less than enthralling story.  That being said, there could be things about the movie that may end up being surprising.  My hope is that there is a worthwhile mystery at the center.  And the positive thing to take from the trailer is that there is likely going to be some solid performances throughout, including the ever reliable Florence Pugh and an especially creepy Chris Pine.  Olivia Wilde is a filmmaker that still has time to prove herself beyond just her first film, and hopefully this movie shows that she has a varied and versatile voice.


It’s unfortunate to see a name in animation like Dreamworks fall off like it has.  Once the mightiest competitor to animation champions Disney and Pixar, Dreamworks now isn’t even the most valued animation studio within it’s own conglomerate, as parent company Universal seems to be favoring Minions creators Illumination Animation more these days.  Still, Dreamworks is continuing to churn out more films each year.  Sadly, most of them are sequels or spin-offs of past glory, themselves also seeing diminishing returns over time.  It’s unfortunate for the studio that gave us instant classics like Kung Fu Panda (2008) and How to Train Your Dragon (2010).  This holiday season they are releasing yet another sequel that itself was spun off from a spin-off.  Puss in Boots (2011) carried on where the Shrek franchise left off, focusing entirely on the scene stealing feline voiced by Antonio Banderas.  What is interesting since the original film was released is that animation as a whole has stylistically very much changed.  It’s diverted away from the more photo-real look of what the Shrek movies were trying to accomplish back in the 2000’s and early 2010’s.  Now, animation has steered much more into more hyper-stylization, and that seems to be reflected in the animation found in this sequel.  While the character models still feel the same as before, the animation style seems to have adopted this paint-like look.  In many ways, it looks like Dreamworks is using this as a test to see if they can do this kind of computer animation style that looks hand drawn and story-book like.  It reminds me very much of the revolutionary animation found in Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018), which while computer animated still made the movie look like a comic book come to life.  It will be interesting to see how this works for Dreamworks with this Puss in Boots sequel.  It may cry of desperation of a studio trying to play catch up, or it could be the shot of adrenaline that they desperately need.  My hope is for the latter, because Dreamworks firing on all cylinders, making new original films, is a good thing for all of animation.



It’s hard for me to look so negatively on a movie that will likely be one of the biggest hits of the season, if not the whole year.  But, there are a lot of red flags I see awaiting the release of this long awaited Avatar sequel.  For one thing, I think the long gestation cycle that James Cameron goes through when making his movies may have worked against him this time.  It’s fine when the big gaps between his films are with films as varied as Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009).  But this time, he waited 13 long years to make a sequel, and one has to worry if that was to long of a wait.  For a sequel, it helps to strike while the iron is hot, and that may have passed a long time ago for Avatar.  People aren’t really talking about it anymore like they used to.  When the first film arrived, it was at the right time, because it was revolutionary with it’s performance capture animation for the alien Na’vi and 3D photography that sparked a short lived revival of the format in cinemas.  But, in the 13 years since, the nature of the business has changed.  Sadly, it looks like James Cameron hasn’t as the new trailer reveals a return to the same world and story that feels not unlike what we’ve seen before.  From a storytelling standpoint, screenwriting has never been Cameron’s strong suit, as he’s excelled much more behind the camera.  But, with the sequel doing really nothing as groundbreaking as the first, are audiences going to care at all.  I honestly think that this could turn into one of the year’s biggest flops, as Avatar fever likely has died down over the last decade.  And yet, then again, we just saw a Top Gun sequel 35 years in the making dominate the summer box office, so who knows.  Still, I was lukewarm on the original Avatar, and I’ll likely stay that way with the sequel.


You want to see two A-list stars make assess of themselves in order to get a free vacation.  Well this is the movie.  It’s unfortunate that the reuniting of two big name actors like Julia Roberts and George Clooney, last seen sharing the screen in Ocean’s Twelve (2004), comes in this mediocre and derivative romantic comedy; a genre that in itself is on life-support in the cinemas.  You just know that these actors could do a lot better than to play bickering divorced parents, but somehow they are here.  The only explanation for this movie being made with these two big names is because it allowed both actors to have what is essentially a paid vacation to the tropics.  I get it.  The pandemic was rough and actors will take any reason to get out into the wild, even if it means taking part in a subpar comedy.  But, you would expect this of the likes of Adam Sandler and company, and not actors who we know can do a lot better.  Even Adam Sandler is challenging himself more now as an actor post-Uncut Gems (2019).  One hopes that the natural charisma of these two stars can get something out of this tired premise.  Otherwise we’re basically paying money to watch millionaire vacation videos.


There is certainly a story to be told about the beginning of the #MeToo movement and how it brought down serial rapists and harassers in the highest levels of power over the last few years.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this is the movie that is going to do it justice.  The movie follows the New York Times reporters that broke the Harvey Weinstein scandal.  While the expose was crucial to the beginning of the movement, I feel like this movie is going to sadly whitewash the things that led to people like Weinstein to be able to get away with their crimes for so long; mainly the compliance of the media and the Hollywood establishment in covering up the scandals.  There have been other key stories that have emerged from Me Too, with the more insidious story being the cover-ups over the course of decades.  With this movie taking the All the President’s Men (1976) approach to this story, focusing on the journalists, I feel like it’s going to unfairly minimize the people who really should be at the heart of the story, which are the victims themselves.  Using the outsider perspective of the journalist piecing together the conspiracy behind the scandal I worry will diminish the horrific nature of what went on, which is the story that really should be told, or even a look at the inner-workings of the multi-faceted machine that Hollywood employed to keep scandals out of the spotlight.  The nature of the fact that Hollywood is crafting it’s own spin on this time in history is to be taken with a lot of salt because it would appear that they are trying to soften their own complacency in the culture that created the likes of Weinstein.  What I hope the movie does is use it’s narrative wisely and shed light on the power structures that seeped into the culture of Hollywood, and is still present in many other avenues of power like corporate boardrooms and in the halls of government.  Unfortunately, this looks like a procedural that is mostly just going to give us surface level drama.

So there you have my outlook at the movies of Fall 2022.  It may seem pretty light generally because most of the really anticipated movies that we are likely going to see this fall don’t even have set release dates or trailers yet.  We probably won’t have a clearer picture of the Awards season until after the Film Festival circuit has wrapped up.  But what we do know is that there are going to be some big releases in the future from some of the most prestigious names in the business.  Steven Spielberg is wrapping production on his auto-biographical film The Fablemans.   We also have new films from Oscar winners Sam Mendes (Empire of Light), Damien Chazelle (Babylon) and Alejandro G. Innaritu (Bardo).  And while the general box office is still in recovery mode, the upcoming months will likely see theaters filled with more movie choices than most of the previous months of the year put together.  That’s one thing that the theater industry is hoping for, which is a refreshed crop of more movies to choose from.  It’s not really coming from Hollywood so much, as the studios are struggling right now to assess the shaky future of streaming in the wake of less than stellar numbers of new subscriber.  Not to mention, we’re also going to be seeing the fallout of Warner Brother’s chaotic re-alignment under new management, which has put the calendar over the next few months into an unstable blender.  It will be interesting to see what plays out.  Can James Cameron indeed reclaim the box office crown again?  What will be the sleeper movie in this year’s Oscar race?  Can the box office finish out 2022 strong?  That’s all to be seen in the months ahead.  The one thing that we can feel good about is that the movies on the big screen look like they are here to stay, and one hopes that they will reach the same heights again.  I hope you have found this preview helpful.  So, go out, watch a movie, and have a fun fall season.

What the Hell Was That? – Godzilla (1998)

I’ve made no illusions to the fact that I am not a fan of Roland Emmerich’s work as a director.  Is everything he has made been terrible? No, but the vast majority of the films he’s made have been some of the worst things I have ever seen on the big screen, and his track record as of late has been especially rough to witness.  What is especially frustrating is the fact that he’s a filmmaker that has shown no growth as an artist over the course of his career.  Some directors like to re-invent themselves as they enter their later years, or they try a variety of different styles and genres and then apply their own unique voice to them.  Emmerich only does one thing; he makes big loud action movies with a lot of apocalyptic, environmental destruction thrown across the screen.  He’s a director that has chosen to make simplistically plotted crowd pleasers that often don’t even hit that mark.  But, why is he still allowed to make movies even though they are often seen in retrospect to be terrible.  One could say that he knows his audience and has managed to laser focus hit that target on a regular basis.  That, or he’s been coasting very much on the goodwill that he had built during his first few years in the business.  Working with his creative partner, producer/writer Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich started off as a science fiction director.  Emmerich and Devlin managed to secure a modest hit with the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Universal Soldier (1992) and then they won raves for their ground-breaking follow-up, Stargate (1994).  But it was their third film that really put them on the map; the mega-blockbuster Independence Day (1996).  If anything, Independence Day is the sole reason Emmerich really still has a career at all, because that record breaking film is the movie that propelled him to the attention of all the studios in Hollywood.  But, with that meteoric rise, it’s only inevitable that something would bring a filmmaker like Roland Emmerich back down to Earth.  But, what kind of disaster would be the first crack in the armor for Roland.

Following up right after the historic success of Independence Day (1996), which was the most popular film of that year by a long shot and at the time was in the top grossing movies of all time camp alongside the likes of Star Wars (1977), E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) and Jurassic Park (1993), Emmerich and Devlin were seeking their next project.  Instead of crafting a film off of their own fresh idea, they decided to next work on an already established IP that Hollywood was seeking to re-boot.  Columbia Pictures had for many years been trying to get an American adaptation of the classic Japanese monster movie Godzilla (1954).  They had been trying to coax some of the biggest directors in Hollywood, including Steven Spielberg, who was very much against the idea, stating the nothing could replace the original.  Eventually, they got cinematographer turned director Jan de Bont to sign on, fresh off his success on the Keanu Reeves thriller Speed (1995).  However, de Bont eventually realized that he couldn’t pull off the vision necessary for the film, and Columbia was once again left to shop the project around.  The timing proved fortunate as Emmerich and Devlin were just leaving their contract with 20th Century Fox and were open to signing with a new studio.  Emmerich initially wasn’t that interested in directing an adaptation of Godzilla (1998), but he later agreed to take the job after Columbia granted him creative license.  With Emmerich and Devlin in place, the multi-million dollar Godzilla remake was underway.  But, as the studio would soon learn, the creative license granted to a director that was initially indifferent to the prospect of directing a Godzilla feature would prove in the end to be a recipe for disaster.  Unfortunately for the studio, failure on the part of the team of Emmerich and Devlin had yet to materialize and they had no insight into what was to come next.

The original Godzilla is a renowned classic the world over.  Despite it’s primitive effects at the time, basically a guy in a dragon suit stepping on a bunch of model buildings, it nevertheless managed to successfully convey a sense of terror for audiences upon it’s release. The movie played upon Cold War anxieties about nuclear war and annihilation, which especially rang true in it’s native Japan, the only country in the world to this day that suffered an atomic bomb attack.  The gigantic terror that is the King of Monsters, Godzilla is very much a metaphor for the uncontrollable chaos brought on by a nuclear attack.  That’s why the original movie resonates so much still, because of the earnestness of it’s message, and how much the movie maintains that tone of terror.  Because it was a hit both in Japan and abroad, there were demands for further tales of Godzilla on the big screen.  So, Toho Productions, the creators of the character, put him in many more films in the years that followed, not just terrorizing humanity, but also fighting a whole variety of monsters, which in time became known by their Japanese moniker; kaiju.  Joining Godzilla were foes like Rodan and King Ghidorah, as well as allies like Mothra and Gamera, who themselves would spin-off into their own series of films.  During that time, Godzilla even evolved from a malicious terrorizer of humanity to an eventual protector of humanity.  And though the movies themselves were popular in the states, despite the often awkward voice dubs and the weird shoe-horned clips of Raymond Burr, they still remained a uniquely Japanese import on American cinemas.  But, with visual effects improving greatly in the 80’s and 90’s, Hollywood believed that the time was right to finally take their shot at Godzilla movie.  Though Toho was reticent to the idea of a Hollywood studio using their iconic character in one of their movies, they did eventually grant Columbia Pictures the chance to make their own film version.  Of course, once the film finally did get made, they probably should have trusted their initial cautious instincts from the outset.

On paper, the movie has promise.  Godzilla let loose in the middle of the concrete jungle that is Manhattan Island; seems right up the alley for the director that had an alien ship blow up the White House in Independence Day.  But there is one thing that was key to the success of Independence Day that becomes very apparent when watching Godzilla (1998); the lack of a compelling story.  Though Independence Day lacked subtlety and was full of cliches, it still had a well constructed through-line built around it’s very high concept premise that made the shortcomings feel inconsequential by the end.  But, in Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, you get very little in the way of a compelling plot.  Basically Godzilla finds his way to New York, wrecks havoc for two hours, the “characters” do their best to survive and then roll credits.  While Independence Day knew that you had to hang the interest of the audience on the sense of peril, the same never applies in Godzilla.  Honestly, the threat of Godzilla the Monster feels small compared to the city sized space ships that destroy everything in their path.  There are shots that Emmerich tries to convey the sense of scale that feels comparable to Independence Day, like seeing a Godzilla sized hole in the middle of the MetLife Building.  But, that’s the unfortunate thing about how Godzilla ends up being used in this movie.  The only sense of awe that we get is when we see the aftermath of what he has done.  The more we actually see of the monster in the movie, the less scary he becomes.  And there is a reason for that.  The design of Godzilla, let’s just say, is not very good in this movie.  The iconic design of the original creature, with his small snake like head on top of a bulking body with massive spikes running down his spine, is very much missed in this movie.  The new Godzilla looks like an escapee from Jurassic Park.  The head of the new Godzilla is unique, but you can’t tell me that the rest of his body was not stolen from a model of Tyrannosaurus Rex.  In fact, the DNA of Spielberg’s blockbuster can be felt all throughout this movie, and not in a good way.

There is no doubt that part of the reason this movie was greenlit in the first place was because of the monumental success of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.  And in particular, it was the groundbreaking visual effects that spurred a revolution across the industry.  Jurassic Park not only had stellar practical effects, but it also showed the world for the first time what computer animation could really do.  Even 30 years later the computer animation in that film remarkably still holds up, even though it was done large with primitive software compared to what’s available today.  The same cannot be said about Godzilla, even though it’s basically using the same level of effects.  One big difference is how the director utilizes the visual effects.  Spielberg is a master of set-ups, and he manages to move his camera around in a way that compliments the computer animation and makes it feel natural.  The sweeping introduction of the brachiosaurus, the first full shot of a dinosaur that we get in the movie, is a perfect example of this.  But in Godzilla, Roland Emmerich moves his camera around a lot, never really allowing us the time to soak in the visual effects.  Not to mention that most of the movie is cast in nighttime darkness with an extra layer of rain, which no doubt was there to cover up the seams of the less than spectacular computer animation.  Even the practical stuff looks cheap.  The miniature models used for the buildings of New York City all look flat and texture-less, which really breaks the illusion.  Not only that, but the marquee attraction of the film, Godzilla himself, is seen as briefly as possible in this movie.  Instead, most of the film’s climax is spent with the human characters being chased by baby Godzillas, which are essentially velociraptor rip-offs.  All together, it makes this movie feel smaller than it should be.  It’s no wonder that when future Godzilla movies were made at other studios, they returned to that traditional bulky Godzilla look that resembles a man in a dragon suit.  That, strangely enough, feels more true to the character than this oversized hybrid of a Tyrannosaurus and an iguana.

But, lackluster visual effects can be forgiven to a degree if there is a compelling story and likable characters that drive the rest of the film.  Godzilla sadly did not have any of those things.  The story is pretty much just a cat and mouse chase through New York, as the main characters try to coax the monster out of hiding and bring him into the open, hopefully to exterminate him.  And the characters themselves are sadly the typical Roland Emmerich mix of archetypes and stereotypes.  He resorts to his favorite trope once again in this movie, with the awkward nerd managing to save the day with science, which we saw previously with James Spader in Stargate and Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day.  Like some sliding scale, we go from those actors to Matthew Broderick, playing yet another awkward nerd who seems to know all the right things necessary to take on a 200 ft. tall giant lizard.  And if his character wasn’t portrayed weird enough, Emmerich and Devlin gave him the needlessly complicated name of Dr. Niko Tatopolous.  Unique name does not equal unique personality.  On top of Matthew Broderick in the lead, the rest of the movie’s cast is just, shall we say, weird.  The movie features not one, or two, but three different actors who are part of the voice cast of The Simpsons: Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, and Nancy Cartwright.  Of those three, only Hank Azaria has substantial screen time, but seeing all three here does take one out of the movie.  One even more distracting bit of casting in the movie are character actors Michael Lerner and Lorry Goldman playing Mayor Ebert and his aide Gene respectively, in a clear and obvious parody of film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.  Why Emmerich and Devlin would throw this kind of satirical characterization into a movie about Godzilla makes absolutely no sense, and it almost feels like a petty move on the filmmaker’s part, either taking revenge on bad reviews of the past or perhaps doing it as a bit of pandering.  Suffice to say the real Siskel and Ebert were not amused and they predictably gave the film two thumbs down.  The one bit of casting that is borderline acceptable in the movie is Jean Reno as a military man lending his expertise in stopping the rampaging monster.  The renowned French actor isn’t particularly well-used here, but out of all the actors in the movie, he’s the one that comes closest to maintaining his dignity by the end, mainly due to a suitably subtle performance.  Overall, when most of your sympathy is with the giant monster, and barely even that, you know that you’ve centered your movie around some pretty bad characters.

Besides the production and story problems themselves, this movie also put a strain on the creative relationship between Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich.  This was the last screenplay that they collaborated on, and after their next film, the Revolutionary War epic The Patriot (2000), they stopped producing movies together.  Though Godzilla is not explicitly the movie that caused the filmmaking duo to pursue different paths, but you can definitely see how it started forming the cracks.  Roland Emmerich’s free reign on the project created more than enough headaches for the executives at Columbia.  Strangely enough, the problem with this movie was not constraints made by budget cuts, but rather the opposite.  The budget expanded significantly during production, which Dean Devlin later stated that it caused him to be overwhelmed as a producer, and caused him to neglect fixing the script during production.  For Roland Emmerich, he was working with a large canvas on a subject that he honestly didn’t have that much interest for in the first place.  As a result, we get all of the different Roland Emmerich elements (massive destruction, hollow archetypal characters, and sophomoric humor) all thrown into a Godzilla shaped blender, where it all feels like the creation of it’s director, but not anything like what a Godzilla movie should be.  Columbia/Tri-Star executive Robert N. Fried even stated that, “the team that took over Godzilla was one of the worst cases of of executive incompetence I have observed in my 20 year career.”  It’s been told that studio heads didn’t even see footage of the movie until it was months away from release, realizing too late that they had a mess on their hands, making this a rare case where a movie might have benefitted from studio interference.  But alas, the movie released in theaters in the summer of 1998, and quickly faded.  What was especially unfortunate for Roland Emmerich is that his poor performance with Godzilla came in the same summer season where Michael Bay released his new hit, Armageddon (1998), thereby taking the crown away from Emmerich as the King of Disaster Movies.  That, probably more than anything is what spurred on the career path that Emmerich carved for himself in the years after.  Spending the next 20 years making one disaster movie after another, including The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 2012 (2009) and most recently Moonfall (2022), Emmerich has been trying to take that crown back.

For a time, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla effectively killed off the giant monster movie for many years.  In the decade that followed, only Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) remake was able to be made, and that struggled to break even on it’s own, even with Jackson riding the wave of clout after The Lord of the Rings.  There was a bit of a revival when Guillermo Del Toro made his critically acclaimed action thriller Pacific Rim (2013), with giant robots fighting giant monsters.  But for Godzilla himself, the rights to the character landed with Legendary Pictures, who began to devise a series of films featuring the King of Monsters as well as all the many other different kaiju creatures made famous from the original Toho run of movies.  They enjoyed modest success with the first Godzilla (2014), which took a far more serious tone with the character than what Roland Emmerich brought to his film.  Though the movie’s plot was still a bit undercooked, there was a lot of praise thrown the movie’s way with regards to Godzilla himself.  For old and new fans alike, these new Godzilla movies felt truer to the character.  For one thing, this Godzilla could actually breath fire, or more accurately atomic breath.  The human characters in these movies are still hollow archetypes, but they are far more likable than the ones that Emmerich put in his film.   Ultimately, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla is a perfect case study in how not to reboot a legendary character.  It’s especially a good lesson to note that when you hire a director for a movie reboot, make sure that he actually has enthusiasm for the idea of bringing new life to an old character.  Otherwise, he’s just going to do whatever he feels like with the character and in the end, your Godzilla doesn’t look or act at all the way he should.  This was clearly an example of a studio wanting to capitalize on a growing trend in filmmaking, which was monsters brought to life through computer animation, and having a director more interested in his own quirks failing to deliver on that fundamental action.  Today, Godzilla ’98 is more of an unintentional comedy of errors given how almost none of it’s elements work together.  But, the fact that the movie doesn’t even take itself seriously to begin with makes the enjoyment factor of it’s failure feel disappointing as well.  Godzilla deserved much better than this, and thankfully with his more recent string of movies, the King of Monsters has managed to have the last laugh in the end, or more appropriately, ROAR.

As Time Goes By – The Dramatic Actions Taken by a Post Merger Warner Brothers

There’s so much to say about Warner Brothers as an institution of the movie making machine that is Hollywood.  Founded in 1923 by the namesake brothers, Albert, Harry, Sam and Jack, Warner Brothers grew out of it’s humble beginnings as a small production outfit in the San Fernando Valley outside of Hollywood to become one of the biggest names in entertainment.  Though Warner Brothers made movies of every type, they were best known for their Westerns and Gangster flicks, and for curating a stable full of some of the biggest movie stars in the world, including Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHaviland.  They were also famous for their animation department which created the popular Looney Tunes characters, including Bugs Bunny who was second only to Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse in popularity around the world.  As the years rolled on and the Warner brothers themselves began to leave the business, the WB studios would carry on building their portfolio with numerous successful intellectual properties.  One of their most lucrative acquisitions was DC comics, which gave them exclusive rights to the characters of Superman and Batman, both of whom have appeared in a number of Warner projects over the years.  In addition, Warner Brothers has expanded to acquire the properties of Hanna Barbara Animation, as well as expanding their reach in distribution through the development of cable services like HBO and Cartoon Network.  Add to this recent high profile franchise like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and Warner Brothers has continued to maintain it’s foothold as one of the giants of Hollywood.  But, even through the years of building up their library with noteworthy titles, the studio itself has gone through growing pains that have been pretty dire.

Like most other studios in Hollywood, Warner Brothers has had to rely upon survival through ownership by larger corporate conglomerates.  Jack Warner, the last of the brothers to have ownership of the studio, sold to the production company Seven Arts Productions as part of a merger upon his retirement.  The partnership continued under the name Warner Communications, and achieved success during the 60’s and 70’s with popular edgy films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Th Exorcist (1973) to name a few.  In 1989, media mogul Ted Turner put in a bid to merge his Turner Communications empire, with brands like TBS, TIME, and CNN involved, with Warner Brothers and thus began the era of Time Warner.  The nearly 12 billion dollar deal at the time was seen as alarming to many, including other rival studios.  Viacom, the owners of Paramount Pictures, even filed a complaint to the SEC in order to stop the merger.  But, the lawsuit failed and the Time Warner merger was finalized.  This helped Warner Brothers gain a foothold in the growing market of cable television, allowing Ted Turner to distribute all the numerous titles in the Warner library across his many networks.  He even created Turner Classic Movies as a way of giving fans of the classics a place to watch their favorite films without commercial interruption.  But, as time went on, we would see that this wouldn’t be the last time that Warner Brothers would become part of another merger.  In 2018, Time Warner was bought by communications giant AT&T, who became the new stewards of the vast library of Warner Media.  During AT&T’s tenure, the focus went into following the rise of streaming services, with the goal being to create a streaming platform based on all the Warner Brothers properties that could compete with established titans like Netflix and Amazon.  That big push itself became a costly venture that in many ways led to the very next merger in Warner Brother’s future.

The streaming wars began to heat up in the fall of 2019, with the launch of Apple TV+ and Disney+.  Warner Brothers still had a bit more time to get their platform ready to compete, but they were hopeful that they had the library material that could immediately draw in subscribers.  Utilizing their very valuable HBO brand, the platform HBO Max debuted in May of 2020, right in the midst of the Covid pandemic lockdown that was forcing most of the population to stay at home.  Though there was no doubt that the Warner Brothers library, which included everything throughout their history from movies to television shows, would give subscribers plenty of viewing options to choose from, the entry price itself became a bit of a hard sell for many.   At $15 a month to start, HBO Max was far and away the costliest streaming platform in the market, even higher than Netflix.  This in many ways hampered growth on the platform in it’s early months, which shouldn’t have been the case given the circumstances of it’s launch.  To gain a foothold in the pandemic effected streaming wars, then WarnerMedia president Jason Kilar made a rather drastic decision about how to use HBO Max going into it’s second year.  For the whole of 2021, every Warner Brothers theatrical film would be released day and date simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max at no extra cost.  This in the beginning was necessary, as most theaters remained closed in big markets like New York and Los Angeles due to pandemic restrictions, but as the year went on and theaters began re-opening, the 2021 strategy began to look a bit more short sighted in the long run.  Warner Brothers movies performed far below their competitors at the box office that year, and though the day and date release did boost subscribers over the same time frame, it was not at the pace WarnerMedia was hoping for, with Disney+ far out-performing them in the same time frame.  In the process, it started to look like following this strategy resulted in Warner Brothers leaving a lot of money on the table as box office saw steady improvement over the course of the 2021.  This was especially unfortunate for their tentpole films like James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (2021), Denis Villenueve’s Dune (2021) and Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections (2021).  Village Roadshow, the production company behind the Matrix franchise has even filed a lawsuit against Warner for what they see as suppressed revenue that they view as violation of their contract with the studio.  I’ve written about this before here, but suffice to say this plan did not pan out like Warner Brothers hoped, and it possibly is what compelled AT&T to make the move that happened next.

Wishing to divest WarnerMedia from their corporate portfolio, AT&T began to speak with interested parties seeking to take on management of the studio and it’s library.  Out of those talks emerged Discovery Communications.  The cable channel giant Discovery has expanded over the years from it’s original network to encompassing multiple channels across the cable line-up, all with a focus on producing reality television.  This includes channels like HGTV, the Food Network, and Animal Planet.  It’s massive expansion over the last decade has been under the management of CEO David Zaslev, who is now the man at the center of this new merger with Warner Brothers.  Like WarnerMedia, Discovery themselves were dipping their toes into the streaming market, with Discovery+ also hitting the market within the last year.  Now, with this multi-billion dollar merger, the Zaslev regime at Discovery is now taking creative control over one of the biggest and most storied studios in Hollywood, and that is causing quite a big disruption in the industry.  Like all big mergers, including the recent Disney and Fox one, there will be a large change in the labor force at the studio.  Because of redundancies, most of those who worked at the Warner Brothers offices under the AT&T regime will now have to compete with their counterparts from the Discovery side in order to stay in their position.  Both Warner Brothers and Discovery are going to lose a lot of talent in the process, which may end up changing the culture around the studio over the next several years.  And this will no doubt impact the streaming end as well, as you have two platforms now under the ownership of one company.  Does Warner Brothers Discovery continue to maintain both at enormous cost, or do they merge the two together into one?  Right now, this is a story that is still playing out before our eyes, and it’s one that we still don’t know the outcome of.  But what we do know is that already there have been some severe moves made by the Zaslev regime at Warner Brothers that have left many outsiders wonder how bad are things really inside the Warner Brothers studio at this time.

Since taking the reigns of the Warner Brothers empire, David Zaslev has been pretty ruthless in shifting the direction of the studio away from where his predecessors left it.  For one thing, the day and date release model has been scrapped, with theatrical once again taking precedent.  This has certainly come at an important time for Warner Brothers, as big tentpoles like The Batman (2022) and Elvis (2022) saw their releases this year and jumped to healthy box office totals.  This even convinced the Warner Brothers theatrical team to expand their release windows beyond the 45 day window that they negotiated the movie theaters into during the pandemic.  But what has been especially dramatic during these early post merger months has been the dramatic cuts made to production.  Numerous shows have been either cancelled or scraps across all of the WarnerMedia platforms, with talk of even the CW broadcast channel being wiped from the airwaves completely in favor of expanding the streaming business.  The most controversial moves however have happened on the DC comics side.  Seemingly discontent with the output of Warner Brothers cinematic adaptations of their DC comics properties, which over the years has been dubbed the DCEU, David Zaslev is looking to press the restart button as she sees them falling way behind their Marvel counterparts over on the Disney lot.  As Zaslev has stated, he’s looking for a Kevin Feige like figure to oversee the direction of their comic book properties, giving them the same care that Marvel has shown theirs.  At the same time, he is slamming the brakes hard on the current direction of the DCEU.  Numerous projects like a proposed Wonder Twins movie have been cancelled before they moved any further than the development stage, but that’s nothing as drastic as cancelling a nearly complete movie.  Over the last year, a Batgirl movie has been rolling camera, with Leslie Grace playing the titular hero, as well as Brendan Fraser in the villain role and even more remarkably, Michael Keaton reprising his legendary role as Batman.  But, just in the last couple of weeks, Zaslev has not only halted production on the film, but he’s also cancelling it’s completion, stopping it from even releasing despite $90 million already being spent on it.  In the end, Warner Brothers will write off the expense on taxes, but that’s a lot of money drained for a movie that no one will ever see.  And this has left many people wondering exactly what is the deal with Zaslev’s ruthless surgical change to the studio he’s now in charge off.

It certainly is a rash, and possibly short sighted  move to cancel a $90 million dollar film without letting the public decide if it’s something that they would want to watch.  The move is especially insulting to the hard work being done by the cast and crew involved.  But, there is the other argument to be made that this was a necessary evil to be made in order to give the studio a better future.  One thing that is clear is that the DC side of the Warner Brothers empire was already in trouble before David Zaslev took over.  The studio very much took the wrong direction in building their brand based around the Zack Snyder directed Justice League movies.  Even as Zack Snyder was making his Justice League (2017), the studio had buyers remorse and took advantage of his absence during a family tragedy and wrestled creative control away from him, bringing in Joss Whedon from the Marvel camp to complete the film the way they wanted, which was cheap and crowd-pleasing.  Instead, the end result ended up alienating all audiences, which in turn sparked an internet campaign to restore Zack Snyder’s original cut.  In this example, we see a short-sighted studio move leading to more costs later on, as an extra $70 million in reshoots were made to finish Snyder’s cut of Justice League.  But, the troubles didn’t end there for DC.  Both Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill left their roles as Batman and Superman respectively, and a whole slew of scandals began to erupt around Flash actor Ezra Miller, who now is at the heart of numerous felonies that has abruptly led to the end of their time in the role of the Flash.  This is overall something that Zaslev needs to gain a hold of in order to save the brand itself and make it competitive with the juggernaut that is Marvel.  A fresh start may be what’s best for the DCEU, but the question remains why Batgirl needed to be the sacrificial lamb and not say the still on the calendar Flash movie.  No one involved with Batgirl has problematic baggage like Ezra Miller.  Why are we not seeing the movie made by good professionals but are being allowed to watch a movie starring a pariah?  It probably comes down to the cost in the end.  It’s easier to write down a $90 million production on taxes than it is to do the same with reported $200 million plus production like The Flash.  The studio apparently has more faith in The Flash making it’s money back theatrically than it does with Batgirl.  Business wise it makes sense, but Warner Brothers does have the unfortunate appearance of playing favorites with the wrong projects, especially when  the unfortunate one stars a woman of color in the lead role.

The problems that people see going on at Warner Brothers right now post merger is that the new regime is being too careless with it’s hatchet towards all the studio excess that it sees.  Comedian John Oliver joked on his HBO show Last Week Tonight that it appears that David Zaslev is burning everything down for the insurance money.  Going off this point, for many, the dramatic cuts seem to be too much blood-letting at a time when Warner Brothers really needs to play catch up to it’s competitors in the growing streaming market.  But, there is an argument to be made for the moves that Zaslev and his team are making at Warner Brothers.  Zaslev has stated that the goal is to invest more in a smaller number of important projects, and far less on a gluttony of programming that doesn’t have a guarantee of success.  It’s basically the quality over quantity approach.  It’s a motivation that honestly has merit in the wake of Netflix’s own recent troubles.  Netflix has been billions on original programming, and the seemingly careless way they’ve gone about greenlighting new projects has resulted in stagnant growth for their company.  They are no longer generating enough new subscribers in order to justify their excessive spending.  Zaslev’s cautious approach to approving the creative output for Warner Brother’s streaming footprint seems to help better position Warner Brothers for what is likely to be a slowing down of the streaming boom.  If you can be ahead of the curve with regards to a shift in the market, it will definitely help in the long run and better position the studio competitively.  Zaslev is concerned about making the streaming brand worth the value, though some say that part of the reason he’s making the choices he’s doing now is because unlike most others in the industry, he’s not a huge champion of the streaming model.  He opened up very late to the idea of taking Discovery into streaming, and right now the fate of both Discovey+ and HBO Max is up in the air because of Zaslev’s largely disinterested favor towards streaming.  Most likely, the two will merge like their parent companies and become one platform, but what that will end up looking like is a mystery right now.  There are a lot of uncertainties going forward post merger, but David Zaslev’s drastic moves may in the end be the thing needed to build a better future for the studio.

One thing for sure is that Warner Brothers will still remain a powerhouse in Hollywood.  It has one of the most enviable portfolios of brands in the industry, which will likely help to carry the studio through in the coming years.  But, for the moment we are witnessing  the process in which a major company goes through a drastic transformation once it’s ended up in a merger with another company.  The same scenario played out when Disney and Fox became one company, though the merger there was a bit more one sided in Disney’s favor, as everything changed on the Fox side.  A lot of anxieties are being fueled by the unknowns about what the long term effects will be of the cuts made by Zaslev in these early days.  One worry is that Zaslev comes from the world of reality television, and that he might not be the right kind of visionary to head one of the most heralded studios in Hollywood, at least on the storytelling end.  For one thing, it’s incredibly disheartening when so much work goes into the making of a movie, only to have that movie not see the light of day.  This leads many to believe that David Zaslev is not looking out for the best interest of the creatives, and is more concerned with protecting the bottom line.  But, there is merit to the idea that he sees a shift in the marketplace as the streaming wars has cooled off and the market is looking more and more likely to stagnate for a while.  In the long run, he may be proven right in investing money not in broadening the scope of the studio’s output but instead putting more effort into building up the brand and restoring it’s reputation.  That was certainly something that defined AT&T’s brief tenure as stewards of the studio, where they were far more concerned about chasing the competition.   With the chaotic direction that the DC properties were headed, as well as diminishing returns from other areas like the Wizarding World brand and it’s aimless Fantastic Beast franchise, the regime at the top of Warner Brothers really needed to take a look at what was best for the future of their studio, and it looks like it’s one where they play things a bit more subtly.  We’ll find out in the end how well these changes play out, but there is no doubt about it that Warner Brothers Discovery’s birthing pains as a new conglomerate in Hollywood has been one of the most controversial in recent memory.

Bullet Train – Review

Whenever a major action movie shakes up the formula and becomes a major hit with audiences, it will suddenly become the touchstone for a whole new generation of movies just like it.  That was certainly the case after Die Hard (1988) unexpectedly shook up the industry upon it’s release.  Suddenly, the studios were looking for the next Die Hard, and it often led to a lot of sub-par copycats.  Then in the mid-90’s, the movies of Quentin Tarantino began to shake up the action genre in their own way.  Now there were a lot of action movies where the heroes were speaking with quippy dialogue and making pop culture references.  But, through them all, most of those movies couldn’t match either Die Hard‘s perfect pacing or Tarantino’s sharp wit.  Mostly, the action genre is about peaks and valleys.  There are icons that rise up and stand strong, but they are surrounded by a lot of junk that falls flat and becomes forgotten to the ages.  And there really hasn’t been much change to that cycle.  The only thing that has really changed is that action movies more or less are now dominated by comic book adaptations and sequels.  There are original ideas making their way into action films today, but they are often either outside of the Hollywood system (mainly in the foreign market) or they are the passion project of a famous movie star or film director.  One particular action film that brought some fresh new life into the genre was John Wick (2014) starring Keanu Reeves.  John Wick brought back an emphasis on choreographed stunt work into a genre that had long been diminished by fast editing and CGI.  The John Wick series is all about in camera stunt work and long takes, stripping the genre down to it’s fundamentals and having fun with them.  Naturally, this too has led to a proliferation recently of action movies in that same Wick style, which is not all together a bad thing.  If a movie is going to inspire a bunch of copycats, at least it should inspire the kinds that are grounded in reality like it is.

One of the men behind the success of John Wick is director David Leitch.  Leitch had been a long time stunt man in Hollywood before getting behind the camera.  Among performing and coordinating stunts in films as varied as Fight Club (1999) and Ocean’s Eleven (2001), he also worked on the incredibly complex stunts involved in the Matrix trilogy.  That’s where he met and bonded with Keanu Reeves.  Leitch would continue to work with Reeve on many other films like Constantine (2005), but all the while the two were collaborating on a dream project that appealed to their collective creative tastes.  That film eventually became John Wick and it not only helped to revitalize Keanu’s film career, but it also began Leitch’s second career as a movie director and producer.  He was uncredited for his work on John Wick (Chad Stahelski had the sole credit even though it was a shared position between the two), but his follow-up really demonstrated his talent for putting his actors right in the thick of the action.  He cemented Charlize Theron as an action star with Atomic Blonde (2017), which again involved another actor performing a lot of her own stunts for authenticity.  Afterwards, David did a couple of franchise jobs, jumping aboard Deadpool 2 (2018) and Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019).  Now he finds himself back making another original action film, this time collaborating with another actor whom he once performed as the stunt double for: Brad Pitt.  Their new film Bullet Train takes the Leitch style of stunt heavy action and sets it within the titular high speed location.  The question that remains is, does Bullet Train live up to the standard that a filmmaker of David Leitch’s career has set for him, or does it quickly come off the rails.

In present day Tokyo, we meet a small time assassin code-named Ladybug (Brad Pitt) as he is assigned to steal a case full of ransom money from another bunch of assassins working for a rival player in the criminal underworld.  Ladybug, who is renowned for his bad luck, follows the case full of money to a bullet train bound for Kyoto.  On board, he runs into a pair of assassins known as Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), who are delivering the case to their boss, a Russian criminal overlord named the White Death (Michael Shannon), along with his delinquent son (Logan Lerman).  At first, Ladybug manages to snatch the case away undetected, but he soon learns that there are many other high profile assassins on board the same train.  He first runs into The Wolf (rapper Bad Bunny) a Columbian hitman who seeks revenge against Ladybug, though Ladybug barely remembers what the transgression was in the first place.  There is also a young British girl named Prince (Joey King) who also turns out to be a trained assassin while sneakily posing as an innocent bystander.  She herself has another job to perform on the train, which is to hold the man who originally brought the case on board the train, Kimura (Andrew Koji).  Kimura’s father, a crime boss known as the Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada), is a rival of the White Death, and Prince’s motives involve stirring up this rivalry between the two.  In addition, another assassin named the Hornet (Zazie Beetz) is taking out additional targets on the train with her own specialty; injecting victims with the venom of a highly toxic snake.  Ladybug quickly finds himself in over his head and continually complains about his situation to his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock) over the phone.  What was suppose to be a simple snatch and go has now devolved into a full blown gang war on this high speed train.  What follows is a crazy string of events that involves the briefcase full of money itself, a venomous snake let loose on the train, as well as a bottle of water with it’s own journey to take.  The only question that remains is who will be left standing once the train reaches the end of the line.

Needless to say, the plot to Bullet Train is a complicated one.  It wouldn’t surprise me if the movie ends up being pretty divisive for critics and audiences.  One’s response to this movie will probably hinge on the viewer’s tolerance level for quirky dialogue and plot contrivances.  And for someone like me, I found that my tolerance is pretty high.  Overall, I found Bullet Train to be a generally fun ride of a movie.  Sure, it’s a bit of a mess that screams indulgence on the part of the director, but it’s never dull and left me having a good time.  I’d say where the movie may be a problem for many is that the movie has wild swings in tone.  For the most part, it does have an over the top quirkiness that works in it’s favor, but the movie also has moments that are meant to tug at the heartstrings or feel terrifying when the stakes are raised.  At some points, it doesn’t really capture those other kinds of moments as well as it does the more humorous parts.  There’s a tragic backstory given late in the film that is emotionally wrenching, but a second later it gets undercut by a quippy remark delivered by either Brad Pitt or another star.  It’s hard at times to know exactly which kind of tone David Leitch is trying to land on, and it leaves parts of the movie uneven.  But, at the same time, when the movie wants to be clever and give us an unexpected surprise, it usually generally works.  There are some really clever twists on the trope of establishing a long tragic backstory for some of the characters, and even for just an object sometimes.  In those moments, the movie does manage to turn the genre on it’s head a bit, and have some fun with what we are expecting the story to go.  And I’ll give the movie this credit, it keeps things moving along, like the titular train itself, and part of the entertainment value was in seeing how all the new complications build up to take the story into avenues that you don’t see coming.

There is a John Wick aspect to the way that the movie is filmed, with stunt work taking precedent over every other effect.  The movie offers up some pretty clever moments, like a fight between Pitt and Taylor-Johnson’s characters in the train’s snack cart station.  The way that the motion of the train is used, particularly with it’s speed is also a strong component of the action scenes, including some of the harrowing moments when the characters are on the outside of the train, which can reach speeds of over 200 mph.  There are moments though when CGI does have to be used, and thankfully they are at the points where the movie intentionally goes cartoonish.  It’s at the points where the characters must do battle in close up combat that you see the work put into the choreography of the scene.  And, like Leitch’s other films, they try to use as much of as they can with the name actors.  It helps that when the movie does try to freshen things up with the action sequences, they use the train itself and different parts of it to make each scene unique.  Another good example of this is when Brad Pitt and Brian Tyree Henry get involved in a fight in the train’s Quiet Car.  At that point, the fight is about hurting the other opponent without you or them making a sound, and this helps to make it a humorous while also brutal action sequence.  The diversity of the fight scenes help to make the 2 hour runtime not feel burdensome, because apart from them, the story itself is fairly flimsy.  It’s mainly about following each scene up with what had happened before, and not much else.  There aren’t any deep character evolving scenes, though characterizations do remain strong.  The plot is essentially just there to stitch it altogether in the end.

One thing that is impressive about this movie is the pretty solid cast that’s been brought together.  The movie is especially serviced well by a very funny and charming lead performance by Brad Pitt.  What I especially like about Pitt’s performance in this movie as Ladybug is that he creates a character who’s not exactly great at his job.  A John Wick this character ain’t, but that’s not to say that he doesn’t prove himself to be heroic by the end.  I like the fact that Ladybug is just a lower level assassin caught up in something that is far outside his level of expertise, and that part of his finding his way out of a predicament is just a result of dumb luck.  Pitt brings a nice folksy relatability to the character, and he is delightfully oblivious to the heavy drama that the other characters bring into the story.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry also bring a lot of extra humor to the movie, as well as some surprisingly sincere dramatic moments.  Their characters, Tangerine and Lemon are comically referred to as “The Twins,” despite the glaring differences in skin color and physique.  Their working class London East-ender accents are also a fun aspect of their personalities.  I also found the performance of Hiroyuki Sanada as the Elder to be very effective, especially given that he’s the only character in the story that brings about some dramatic gravitas.  He’s also pretty remarkable with a sword in the movie.  The film’s one weak spot in the cast sadly is Michael Shannon as the villainous White Death.  Shannon is great actor, and he does leave an impression in this movie, but the character shows up very late in the movie and has such little time to define his presence, perhaps robbing the character a bit of his menace during the closing of parts of this movie.  I also should give a special note of praise to Sandra Bullock for her mostly vocal performance here.  I like how her line reading perfectly balances off of Brad Pitt’s in-over-his-head novice.  In some ways she plays it as part high stakes supervisor par psychiatrists, helping Pitt’s Ladybug work through his insecurities during the job.

One of the most important characters in the movie though just happens to be the train itself.  The majority of the film takes place aboard this one train, and the movie does a great job of helping situate the viewer into understanding the geography of this one train.  Each car features it’s own defining features, which in turn give character to the different action set pieces that happen within them.  There’s the aforementioned Quiet Car, the dining car, the bar car, as well as one car that is meant for kids complete with it’s own mascot character walking around.  The plot of the movie involves the characters moving back and forth across the trains cars, often either bumping into one another or chasing each other down.  The movie does a good job of allowing each new location to be defined before letting the characters start wrecking havoc inside them.  There’s some especially wild moments that involve the mascot character getting in the way.  Even while the movie does take place in a singular location, the film crew did a fantastic job with making the viewer feel like they are aboard that same train.  cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who’s worked with David Leitch on all of his past movies, paints every scene in these vibrant colors, befitting the neon glow of modern day Japan.  It’s probably safe to say that not one scene in this movie was filmed on a real train in the vicinity of cities like Tokyo and Kyoto.  Instead, it was all film in front of blue screens in stages across Hollywood.  The fact that we the viewers still are able to imagine the train as being real and the environment outside the windows shows just how well the production and post-production teams were able to bring this setting to life.  If you’re going to name your movie after the setting where the majority of the story takes place, the filmmakers better make sure that it looks great on screen, and that indeed seems to be the case here.

It’s overall not David Leitch’s strongest work, but still, there is a lot of entertainment value to be had.  It’s one of those turn your brain off movies where you just go along for the ride.  The characters are fairly simple, but at times the actors bring out some surprising depth to the roles they are playing.  Brad Pitt is especially enjoyable in this movie, with a character exhausted from all the bad fortune that has fallen his way and yet still manages to find a way out of a predicament.  I imagine that for most involved here, the movie is just a fun bit of exercise, allowing them to make something crowd-pleasing without overextending itself in order to be profound.  It’s pure popcorn cinema, and indeed a good example of this movie being done right.  Given how so many action movies end up feeling like copycats of something else, it’s just pleasing to see a movie that wears it’s uniqueness proudly.  The script can get a little overly indulgent, but Leitch’s direction is solid and inventive.  It will be interesting to see if his career continues to centered around making movies on this scale with an original idea or gimmick around them.  Is he going to continue on as a director for hire for most of his time  in Hollywood, sticking mostly to movies guaranteed to have positive box office.  Perhaps making those corporate financed movies every now and then is what helps to finance the riskier movies that he wants to make more of.    Hopefully, the personal movies that he wants to put out into the world are worth it.  Bullet Train, like I stated before, offers up the bare minimum that summer blockbusters require but at the same time has a bit more interesting quirks to it that help to make it unique and much less of a copycat of other hit action movies  Hop aboard this train, preferably on a nice big screen, and just check your cynicism at the door and indulge yourself in a slight but still satisfying summertime action flick.

Rating: 7.5/10