The Movies of Summer 2023

The first third of the year is coming to an end with the hot summer months upon us in a weeks time.  So far, the late winter/early spring movie season has provided us with some answers about the state of the theatrical market so far in the year 2023.  Predictions about this year being one of booming recovery for the theatrical business has proven correct as ticket sales at the box office are booming.  They still haven’t reached the pre-pandemic heights of 2019, but they are very much on their way to getting back to where things should have been.  One of the most pleasing results has been many of the studios second guessing their exhibitions plans for their slate of movies, and films that were once slated for streaming, like New Line’s Evil Dead Rise (2023) that came out this month, or DC’s Blue Beetle (2023) releasing this summer, are now getting full blown theatrical roll outs instead.  Streaming studios like Amazon and Apple are even committing to theatrical releases now for the foreseeable future.  This is very good news for a market that only a couple years ago was on life support during the pandemic.  Certainly, streaming is not a dying market under these new circumstances, but when studios are seeing movies like The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023) grossing a billion dollars worldwide in less than a month, you can see why they are starting to believe there is money to be made once again on the big screen.  Sure, there are the movies that failed to live up to expectations this year too, like Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) and DC’s Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023), but the positive signs are out-numbering the negative ones, and the forecast looks good not just for a good Summer movie season, but a great one.

Like all the years past, I will be looking at the movies of the up-coming Summer movie season.  These include my picks for the Must Sees, the Movies that Have Me Worried, and the Movies to Skip.  My choices here are based on my own level of enthusiasm for the movies spotlighted here and are not a forecast for how I think these movies will perform in the months ahead.  My predictions have turned out to be wrong before, because movies often have a way of surprising us and that’s why I like discussing them here.  My choices on these previews basically stem from how well they are being marketed, as well as the general level of hype that has followed them through their journey towards their releases.  Keep in mind, there are a lot of movies coming out in the months ahead, and if I leave a bunch out, it’s because of the limited amount that I allow in this article, and not because the movie isn’t worth discussing.  So, with all that said, let’s take a look at the Movies of Summer 2023.



This will likely be the most discussed film of the Summer season.  Movies in the Indiana Jones franchise have been few and far between since their 1980’s heyday.  After a near 20 year absence, producer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg brought Indy back to the big screen in 2008 with the fourth entry Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  Unfortunately, Crystal Skull was a divisive film that left the fanbase very disappointed, though the movie has it’s defenders (which I’m not ashamed to say I am one of).  Longtime fans of the series lamented the fact that their beloved franchise ended on such a sour note, and the fact that Dr. Jones’ actor Harrison Ford was getting into his senior years made the likelihood of another film to correct the situation was very slim.  However, with Disney taking over Lucasfilm in 2012, they also inherited the Indiana Jones brand with it, and they were not just going to sit on a property that valuable.  Plans were already drawn up for another film, but the question remained; would Harrison Ford want to play Indy one more time?  To the delight of everyone, he said yes.  When this movie comes out, Harrison will be 80 years old, which is a pretty old age to be taking on a challenging role like Indiana Jones.  But it appears that the movie is accounting for that.  This is a movie centered around an aging adventurer who, to his misfortune, is being sucked into another adventure.  One positive sign is that the reigns of this franchise have been given over to director James Mangold, who has before delivered a poignant swan song to a long time cinematic icon with the movie Logan (2017).  If anyone can deliver a beautiful capper to the Harrison Ford era of Indiana Jones that can please all audiences, it’s him.  And Ford, despite his age, does look like he’s back in fine form for this film.  The return of series mainstay John Rhys Davies as Sallah is another good sign, as well as new additions to the cast like Mads Mikkelsen and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.  Let’s hope the final adventure for Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones is the stuff of legend.


There are few people who can drive audiences to the movie theaters solely on his name alone.  Christopher Nolan is one of those filmmakers, and this summer we are getting his latest big screen epic.  This is his first film since his departure from his previous home studio Warner Brothers after the public feud over the release of his last movie Tenet (2020) during the pandemic.  Universal quickly swooped in to get the rights to his next highly anticipated project, which is a movie that seems right up his alley.  It seems only natural that the filmmaker known for his big, IMAX screen sized spectacles would want to make a movie about the creation of the atomic bomb.  In particular, Nolan is interested in the man who made the atomic bomb, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, here played by Cillian Murphy, Nolan’s most frequently spotlighted actor.  One of the most exciting things about this movie is that it finds Nolan working with a historical event again, which he did a remarkable job of recreating with his movie Dunkirk (2017).  He also has assembled an impressive cast for this film.  One of the best things that after standing out in so many scene-stealing supporting performances in other Nolan movies, Cillian Murphy is finally taking the lead part, and so far he looks to be making the most of the assignment.  He’s also got plenty star studded support for the likes of Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr., Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, Gary Oldman, and so many more in this film.  But, the thing we will most likely be lining up for this movie for is in seeing the big IMAX screen moments that Christopher Nolan is famous for.  Supposedly, his team found a way to recreate an atomic blast solely through practical effects and without the aid of CGI.  That’s something I am dying to see how they pull it off.  The trailer is wisely leaving that explosive moment unseen for now, with teases towards what it might appear like.  For this one, you can bet that I am going to be watching it on the biggest screen possible; giving what can only be described as the closest thing to witnessing a real atomic explosion without the destruction that entails.


It has been said that over the last year that Tom Cruise is the man who saved the movie theater industry.  Though you can’t say that he did it single handedly, as James Cameron also had a hand with his blockbuster Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), but there is no doubt that Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick (2022) was an instrumental film in helping to bring audiences back to the cinemas in a big way.  The over a billion dollars made on that film alone was a huge boon for the Summer box office from last year, and remarkably, Cruise did it without what is considered his marquee franchise.  This year, however, we do get the next installment of Tom Cruise’s most prized franchsie, Mission: Impossible, and it does indeed look like he is continuing his track record of upping the ante with each new film.  Like Christopher Nolan, Tom Cruise is a stickler for capturing as much in the camera as he possibly can without having to rely on visual effects.  And in each of the Mission: Impossible movies, Cruise performs most of his own stunt work.  One thing that he tries to do in each movie is to have at least one stunt that has never been attempted before, and each one is more death-defying than the last.  He’s climbed the tallest building in the world, held onto the side of a plane as it takes off, and climbed under the body of a helicopter as it was hovering in mid air.  For this film, the standout stunt involves Cruise running a motor cycle off a cliff; a stunt so complex that Paramount Pictures released a theatrical teaser spotlighting the making of this stunt just on it’s own.  It’s a fair assessment to say that Tom Cruise has helped to save the movie going experience because every movie he makes now demands to be seen on the big screen; no exceptions.  While Top Gun: Maverick had it’s own impressive action sequences, I do think Cruise saves his best work for the Mission: Impossible franchise, and it will be interesting to see how big this new installment will be.  Considering that this is the first of a two part story arc, it would appear that this is a go for broke cinematic experience that Cruise is gearing us up for, and I certainly can’t wait.


Now let’s talk about the movie that is set to kick off the Summer movie season in a week’s time.  This highly anticipated movie almost didn’t happen, and it’s road to reality had to clear a few unexpected hurdles.  First off,  director James Gunn suddenly found himself fired from the project in it’s early days after right wing provocateurs tried to cancel him because of his left wing views with a revelation of decade old inappropriate jokes.  Marvel’s parent company Disney later realized their mistake and a few months later invited Gunn to come back to the project.  However, in that time James had already crossed over to rival DC Films, and had accepted the directorial reigns of their newest Suicide Squad film.  Still, Gunn did want to close the book on the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise that he shepherded to success his own way, so he did agree to return once his obligation to DC was complete.  However, things got delayed again because of the pandemic, and Gunn continued to develop more for DC as a result, including the acclaimed series Peacemaker.  Eventually, Warner Brothers and DC were so pleased with James Gunn’s work, that he is now being given the keys to the kingdom, masterminding the entire slate of projects coming up in the foreseeable future for DC.  So, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 will be something of a swan song for Gunn’s time at Marvel.  Thankfully, it looks like both Marvel and Gunn are making the most of it with a film that looks to close the book in an emotionally satisfying way.  It’s hard to tell if this is the end for any of these characters in the MCU, but it definitely looks like the end for this team, and hopefully the movie delivers on a satisfying conclusion to the journey that they have been on together.  I also hope that the movie still maintains that weird Gunn sensibility that helped to distinguish the movies from all the other Marvel films.  Avengers may be Marvel’s crown jewel, but Guardians has been a bright shining diamond right alongside it, and let’s hope the trilogy keeps that gem shining bright in it’s final chapter.


When Sony Animation released their film Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse back in 2018, it was a breathe of fresh air for animation.  In an era dominated by the likes of Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, and Illumination, Spiderverse was a massive game-changer because it was unlike any other animated movie we had seen before.  With this unique hybrid of 3D computer animation and a hand drawn, comic book aesthetic, Spiderverse was the most monumental shift in animation style that the industry had seen since Toy Story (1995) kick started computer animation.  Now, all the other studios are attempting to incorporate the Spiderverse style into their own films.  Most notably Dreamworks incorporated the style into their recent Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2002), and it resulted in the struggling studio’s best film in over a decade.  It also looks like the same style is being utilized in other upcoming movies like Nickelodeons’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem and Disney’s Wish.  But, amidst all that, it looks like Sony is continuing to build upon what they already accomplished with their first Spiderverse film.  The animation in Across the Spiderverse looks incredible and even more wild than what we saw in the first movie.  It also offers up an interesting continuation of Miles Morales’ story, as he finds himself in a whole world filled with other Spider-Men.  It’s great to see key mulitversal friends returning like Spider Gwen (Halie Steinfeld) and Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), and the introduction of an antagonistic Spider-Man 2099, Miguel O’Hara (Oscar Isaac) is an exciting addition.  My hope is that this section of the Spider-Man cinematic universe continues to surprise much like it’s predecessor did, maintaining the same level of humor and drama that made that film so special.  It will also be interesting to see if there is any crossover that happens in this film with it’s MCU counterpart, given that they are also playing in the Multiverse as well.



There are plenty of things that have me worried about this upcoming remake of Disney’s animated classic.  First, and most obviously, Disney has a pretty dismal track record with their live action remakes.  For every good one that they manage to make (Cinderella, Pete’s Dragon) they have a dozen more that are utter failures (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pinocchio).  It’s hard to tell which side The Little Mermaid will ultimately fall on, but the odds aren’t good.  Secondly, I worry about the backlash that may result from this film.  The movie already has created a firestorm because of the casting of an actress of color in the role of Ariel.  The racist comments that have surrounded the film online have been ugly thus far, and I worry that it will only get worse once the movie is out, especially if the movie ends up not being good like so many of Disney’s other remakes.  The last thing I want to see are racists and misogynists feeling emboldened because of a film staring a woman of color in a leading role failing to succeed at the box office.  So far, very little is giving me confidence that this film will break Disney’s losing streak with these remakes.  The most disturbing part are the realistic depictions of characters like Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle.  Didn’t Disney learn the lesson from The Lion King that photo realistic looking animals in their remakes don’t emote the same way that their cartoonish counterparts do, and it just ends up ruining the emotion of the story as a result.  The one thing that does give me hope is Halle Bailey in the role of Ariel.  It doesn’t matter what skin color she has; as long as she plays the part well, she can succeed in this role.  And from the trailer, she definitely has the perfect singing voice for the part.  Her powerful rendition of “Part of Your World” is prominently featured in the trailer, and boy does she sound fantastic.  Hopefully Disney can pull it off, but there are still a lot of factors working against them here.


Normally, this movie would have been a definite must see.  Not only is it the first big screen film centered around one of the most famous comic book super heroes, the Flash, but it also features plenty of nostalgia driven treats that many genre fans have been eagerly awaiting for years for.  So, why is there a big cloud of uncertainty around this film.  The issue has to do with the star of the film, Ezra Miller.  In the years leading up to this film’s release, Miller has been caught up in numerous scandals that have not only caused them to lose their position as the Flash as well as involvement in the DC comics plans in the future, but they are also likely going to be facing future jail time for a crime spree that perhaps sullied their name in the business forever.  Through all that turmoil, it’s any wonder that this movie is getting released at all, especially in light of Warner Brothers pulling the plug on Batgirl which wasn’t plagued by scandal.  It’s perhaps because so much money was poured into this movie beforehand (to the tune of over $200 million) that DC couldn’t just make up for cancelling it without suffering a huge loss (even after tax breaks).  At the same time, insiders within the industry who have seen it, including new DC head honcho James Gunn, have been singing it’s praises.  In all likelihood, this movie may end up being one of the best superhero movies ever made, but in getting it out into theaters, it may also unfortunately enrich the profile of Ezra Miller, who by all accounts we’ve seen so far is a fairly rotten person.  One plus for this film is that it marks the return of Michael Keaton into the role of Batman, 30 years after he last wore the cape and cowl.  That alone might make the movie worth supporting.  In any case, here’s hoping all the insider hype is real and that the whole Ezra Miller situation won’t end up ruining the experience.


One thing that can definitely be a mine field when it comes to the Summer movie season is the high concept comedies based on a popular brand.  Coming to theaters this year is a live action comedy centered around the Barbie doll.  It’s hard to tell so far if this is a concept that will have any legs (so to speak) as a blockbuster film.  The movie has a stacked cast behind it, with Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling leading the way as Barbie and Ken, and it even has enlisted acclaimed director Greta Gerwig to bring the concept to life.  The movie trailer gives off some Lego Movie vibes, which can be a good or bad thing.  The good thing is that we’ve seen something like this work before with Lego, where a movie managed to successfully take the toy brand and build a compelling story around.  The bad thing is that Barbie may not be a brand that is compatible with the kind of humor needed to make a movie like this work.  It’s colorful and seems to play around with the Barbie legacy to be sure, but can that be sustained through a full movie.  And my worry is that it might be too big of a swing for someone like Greta Gerwig to take.  She’s excelled so far with smart, female driven dramas like Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019), but with Barbie, she may have sadly been saddled with an unfortunate commercial driven project that might stifle her creative sensibilities.  I hope I’m wrong, and that her sharp witted creative voice comes through in this movie and elevates it beyond just the concept itself.  It certainly looks like the cast is committed to the act, especially Gosling who looks like an affably dim Ken.  Here’s hoping that this one is lively fun time, and not a waste of creative talent in the pursuit of easy money based on name recognition.


One thing I’ll say about this one is that it can’t do any worse than the horrible Eddie Murphy headlined original form 2003.  For a while, the failed Haunted Mansion adaptation put a stop to Disney seeking to build other franchises around their most popular theme park attractions.  Released mere months after the surprisingly successful Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), The Haunted Mansion bombed horribly, and afterwards Disney just put their efforts on expanding the Pirates franchise, until that inevitably ran it’s course too.  But, it looks like they are once again beginning to dip their toes again in more theme park adaptations.  An adaptation of Jungle Cruise (2021) did reasonably well enough in a pandemic effected theatrical environment to give Disney confidence in the potential, and once again they looked at giving the Haunted Mansion a second chance.  Now, it’s not the first time they’ve attempted a re-start to this franchise.  For years, Guillermo Del Toro wanted to do his own adaptation as he has been a big fan of the ride since childhood, and it’s clear it has left an impression on his own Gothic cinematic style.  But, for whatever reason, that version stalled and instead the job went to director Justin Simien.  Simien considers himself a devoted fan of the ride too, and he was once a Disneyland cast member during his college years, so he’s not coming at this material from an outsider position.  The only question is, can he faithfully adapt the ride into a film.  The thing that gives me pause is the jokey nature of this trailer.  Haunted Mansion certainly doesn’t need to be a serious film, as the ride itself features it’s own fair share of gags sprinkled within the spooky atmosphere.  But, go too far with the comedy, and you end up with what the original 2003 version gave us, which was neither scary or funny.  That being said, the film does have a strong cast including Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, Lakeith Stanfield, Danny DeVito and newly crowned Oscar winner Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota.  Here’s hoping it’s a swinging wake and not dead on arrival.



One thing that I hate to see is a franchise fall back into bad habits after finally getting things on the right track.  The Transformers franchise, after a long time, managed to finally shake off Micheal Bay as it’s chief creative force.  Under his watch, which stretched across 5 films, the franchise just became an incoherent mess, with nothing but loud, destructive mayhem as it’s chief characteristic.  But, once Bay left the series behind, the franchise decided to go a different route with the spin-off prequel Bumblebee (2018).  And the result was the best Transformers movie ever.  It was great to finally see a character driven movie made within this franchise that actually put one of the Auto-Bot heroes front and center as opposed to the obnoxious human characters and give him a heartwarming story to humanize him.  The movie also went out of it’s way to make the character animation of the Transformers look much better than the did before, with the character models of Bumblebee and Optimus Prime actually looking more like their original animated versions from the 80’s.  Sadly though, Bumblebee didn’t perform well at the box office, being outshined that holiday season by DC’s Aquaman (2018), and it looks like the Transformers franchise is going back to the Michael Bay style with their newest film, sacrificing character development for action set-pieces.  I hope I’m wrong, and that the Bumblebee effect managed to influence the franchise for the better, but given what the trailer is selling, it looks more like they are recycling more of the old Bayhem tricks in order to reclaim what they think made the franchise in the first place.


Truth be told, I’ve never gotten into the Fast and the Furious franchise, and the few attempts that I’ve made to give the series a chance have always left me cold and indifferent.  I don’t see anything about this 10th installment that convinces me that things will be any different.  The problem for me is that the franchise just seems to be bloated now with a packed to the gills cast that’s been built up through the whole franchise.  Not only are they not thinning the herd, but they are even bringing back characters once thought to be dead.  And I seriously don’t care about any of it at all.  The one thing that could be entertaining for me with this film is the addition of Jason Momoa as the new villain, because he has enough charisma to make things fun and interesting.  But given that the cast is so big at this point, even including legendary actresses like Rita Moreno and Helen Mirren in the mix, I don’t see how any of them can stand out and still leave room for anything interesting to happen in the story.  My guess is that this film will absolutely pail in comparison to what we are likely going to see from the Indiana Jones and Mission: Impossible movies this Summer, which are both master classes in action filmmaking.  Over the course of ten films in a twenty year span, I have yet to be wowed by this franchise and I don’t see anything thus far in Fast X that will win me over.


When I first saw this trailer, I thought that it must be from one of those fledgling, up-and-coming studios that try to make a name for themselves with quirky animation and bizarre concepts.  I was shocked to learn that this was the next film up from one of animations’ vanguard brands, Dreamworks.  I know Dreamworks has been struggling as of late, having fallen way off from it’s Shrek fueled heydays.  But, just this last holiday season, they delivered their best film in a long while, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, which gave hope that the studio was finding it’s magic again.  It is hard to believe that a sequel to a spinoff to a franchise that has long become dormant would become a box office and critical hit like that, but The Last Wish showed strong legs at the box office and showed that Dreamworks could still deliver the goods.  Sadly, this looks like a step backward for them.  I imagine that this is based on a popular YA series, but it seems like a project that is ill suited for a studio like Dreamworks.  They should be putting their efforts into bolder animation like that found in The Last Wish, instead of chasing after the tween market.  Considering that this is coming out weeks after the far more interesting Pixar film Elemental (which just nearly missed my Must See list), I worry that it’s just going to undermine Dreamworks reputation even further in comparison right at the moment when they seem to be finding their way again.  Hopefully it may be a surprise, but it looks so generic from watching this trailer that I don’t see a positive outlook for this one.

So, there you haver my preview of the Summer 2023 season at the movies.  Given that I left off something as big as the new Pixar film off of my shortlist of Must Sees tells you that this is going to be a stacked Summer season.  I’m certainly hoping for a lot of good things with the movies that are coming out this Summer, like seeing Indiana Jones and the Guardians of the Galaxy getting the royal send-offs they deserve as franchises.  I hope that The Little Mermaid manages to break the bad habits of Disney remakes and hopefully avoids the toxic backlash that I fear is coming it’s way.  I hope that Tom Cruise yet again wows us with things we’ve never seen before, nor dare try ourselves, on the big screen.  And I hope the promise of Christopher Nolan’s visual representation of an atomic blast on an IMAX sized screen is just as monumental that I hope it will be.  There are also a lot of other movies that I hope get some positive attention on the big screen as well this year that are the big blockbuster draws.  One of those is the new Wes Anderson movie, Asteroid City.  Also, my hope is that the predictions for this year at the box office prove true and that we will see theater business return to the levels we witnessed prior to the pandemic.  The last two years have seen sporadic box office highs, but this year we will hopefully see success across the board, with every studio (majors and minors) getting strong returns on their investment.  It’s safe to say that this is one of the strongest line-ups of movies we’ve seen in a while, so it’s likely that movie theaters will have one for the record books once the Summer season is over.  If the robust business seen so far in this first term of 2023 is any indication, bolstered by the likes of Mario, Ant-Man and John Wick, the forecast should prove to be true.  The theatrical industry was battered by the pandemic, but like a Phoenix from the ashes, it is alive again and will hopefully live strong for a long time to come.

Hollywood on Strike – Working Towards Labor Rights in the Ever Changing Film Industry

Hollywood has been dubbed the “dream factory,” because of it’s ability to craft an imagined reality for audiences to consume, but behind those dreams put on the big screen, there very much is a “factory.”  Despite the artistic pursuits that inspire many people to become filmmakers, one has to go into the business knowing that it’s just that; a business.  Movies, especially today, require a massive amount of money to make, and those who are financing these movies are adamant about seeing a return on their investment.  Most of what we know as the “business” of Hollywood is entirely unseen by the casual audience member, and the only indication of the massive amount of labor that goes into the making any movie is found at the long scroll of names during the credits that most people in the theaters often leave before seeing.  But each of those names are important, and even more crucially, their recognition at the end of the movie is something that had to be fought for by past generations of technicians throughout Hollywood history.  In the early days of cinema, screen credit was reserved exclusively for the top tier talent involved, like the director, the actors, and the writer.  Now, every aspect of the production is credited on screen, but this is a minor achievement for the technicians that work in the industry.  For them, it’s far less important that their name is listed on screen than it is that they earn the fair amount of what their labor is worth and that they will be continually protected while on the job.  Like all industries, the labor force in Hollywood has been represented by unions, which have been responsible for pushing Hollywood in the direction of fair treatment of their workforce many times, which has been a difficult task given the way that film industry changes so rapidly each new generation.  Though a lot of good things have come out of union representation within the film industry, it hasn’t been without struggles along the way.

Each branch of the film industry here in America has a union (or Guild) representing it.  Movie actors have the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) which is partnered with AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), and it is the single largest union within the film industry, which makes it the most powerful.  All it takes is a few credits in a film or TV production with SAG-AFTRA certification, and anyone can earn their Guild card and be an active member of the union if they so choose.  The other major guilds of the film industry would be the Director’s Guild (DGA), the Producer’s Guild (PGA) and the Writer’s Guild (WGA), which itself is broken into two East and West branches.  Though not as substantial, there are unions for most of the other positions in the film industry like Editing, Cinematography and Art Direction, as well as the powerful IATSE union which represents all the technicians responsible for putting together an maintaining the film sets.  These separate unions all operate independently of each other, but their goals are often intertwined, which is fighting for fair wages and safe work spaces for their members.  Because Hollywood, like most other industries, is profit driven, there are times when film productions will end up exploiting their work force in order to maximize their income.  This means cutting corners, breaking contracts, or deceiving the work force in order to get them to work harder for less reward.  Unions are necessary for keeping the studios and their cost-cutting shenanigans in check.  Thus far, the industry has managed to find ways to work in cooperation with the unions in Hollywood, but every now and then, the unions will push back when they see violations of their deals made with the studios.

Such a time is currently hanging over the industry right now.  The Writer’s Guild voted overwhelmingly, by a 97% margin, to authorize a strike.  The demands are fairly standard with what most labor disputes are about; fair wages and appropriate work hours, but what is behind the dispute is interesting.  The issue that the Writer’s Guild is disputing about today is with regards to residuals form streaming.  Because streaming has become a major part of the film and television market in recent years, the previously agreed to contracts with the guilds don’t quite apply to the revenue made from streaming subscriptions, so the film industry has been in some cases exploiting that loophole.  That’s why some projects intended for theaters or television have been moved to streaming instead, because it means the studios can save money on the back end without the profits that would’ve been applied based on receipts from the box office.  The same applies on the other end two.  Stuff that was made for streaming have in the last year or so been disappearing off of platforms, solely because the studios would’ve had to pay up more residuals from airing and re-airing those same programs into another contract year.  The end of the year purge on the HBO Max platform is a prime example of this, with shows like Westworld disappearing forever just so the Warner Bros. Discovery merger could take advantage of tax credits in their restructuring.  For the writers of these shows and movies, these kinds of extreme measures have been made without their input on the matter, and this has led many of them to rightly believe that they are getting shut out of their fair share of compensation by the exploitation of these streaming loopholes.  Right now, the focus of the Writer’s Guild is to form a new contract with the studios in which this loophole is addressed and make sure that all union writers are not being denied the wages that they owed, even if the studios change their minds about distribution.  This follows a long history of the Guilds in Hollywood having to shift gears whenever something changes in the business as a whole.

The Writer’s Guild of America, along with the other Hollywood unions, was formed in the 1920’s, during the rise of the studio system.  The aim of the union, like with most other industry guilds, was to ensure that the rights of the workers were protected.  As the studios were amassing power, they were also taking advantage of laborers that often had to work long hours for very little money in order to meet the high demand for new films.  There are several stories about people who died on film sets in the early days, mainly due to lack of oversight on set safety and inadequate services meant to cater to large crews of people, like first aid or craft services.  The unions were helpful in getting the studios to agree to these improvements, but it wasn’t without struggle.  And by struggle, I mean strikes, which often brought the industry to a stand still.  The good thing about all the unions in Hollywood is their strong commitment to solidarity.  When one union goes on strike, the others will stop work as well, making a statement of their own, even if they don’t actively strike themselves.  There have been a number of times that the industry has indeed reached this point, and it often comes at a cost.  The Writer’s Guild themselves have gone on strike five times, the longest of which lasted 22 weeks in 1988, a move that in many ways crippled the broadcast television market to the point that they still haven’t recovered 35 years later.  And why were the strikes necessary?  Because, in the 1988 case, the studios were unfairly singling the guild out of distribution deals that had been newly formed since the agreements on the last contract; in this case re-runs and foreign distribution.  When the Guild went on strike again in 2007, it was because of internet downloads, due to new video sharing websites like YouTube.  It’s always a constant battle between the studios and the guilds and that creates conflicts that extend far beyond the picket lines.

From an outsider perspective, it looks like a battle between elites.  Since most of the Guilds are made up of entertainers and storytellers, the most famous names and faces often become the voices we hear the most with regards to the strikes that happen.  And for many people, they have a hard time believing a person who makes $20 million a movie complain about unfair compensation.  But, what outsiders need to understand is that when these strikes happen, it’s not to protect the exorbitant salaries of the big celebrities, but rather to help out the professionals who don’t have the same means but still are affected by the cost-cutting measures made by the studios.  These include writers, actors, and technicians who work on small productions, outside of the Hollywood mainstream, who are very susceptible to exploitation.  If the studios can cut back the big salaries of the most famous people in the industry, the same can happen with producers of small budget films and shows too.  Only the small time workers on these projects will feel the burn of exploitation even more.  The goal of the Guilds is to make sure that everyone is held to the same standard, no matter the size of the production.  That’s why, with the solidarity of all the guilds involved, they can put the pressure on the studios by going on strike as a united front.  Any film or show that then uses non-union labor will as a result be scrutinized as a result, which can damage it’s reputation.  Sure, the celebrities won’t feel the sting, but they are valuable in the fight because they are the voices that ultimately get listened too, and thus, they become the face of the movements.  The studios can complain about any perceived “hypocrisy” they want, but the struggle for fair wages is far more universal than they think.  One recent example of the studios misjudging the public perception of labor rights came when actress Scarlett Johansson’s dispute over the residuals from the release of Black Widow (2021) pitted her against the top brass at Disney.  She rightly pointed out that doing a hybrid release of the movie on streaming diminished the potential box office of the movie, which would’ve determined her back end payday depending on the gross.  She sued Disney to demand compensation for what she felt owed due to the terms of the original contract, which has box office gross as a major part of her eventual payday.  Disney’s then CEO Bob Chapek tried to paint her as selfish, but audiences and outsiders mostly sided with Scarlett, because they rightly recognized a major employer was trying to back out of a deal they had made, which could happen in the same way to someone with less influence as Scarlett Johansson and would’ve been extremely unjust in that scenario.  She is a big name not just fighting for herself, but for all those who likewise could’ve been cheated out of a better payday.

Despite having achieved plenty of good things for workers across the industry, the track record of Hollywood’s unions have their bad history too.  One such moment was the House Un-American Activities committee in the 1950’s which eventually led to the blacklist.  While the Writer’s Guild’s leaders were more defiant than the other guild’s during this Red Scare witch-hunt, with then SAG president Ronald Reagan being a “friendly witness” to the committee who named names, they still nevertheless upheld the blacklist that followed thereafter, denying hundreds of their members screen credit and compensation for their work.  It was a dark time in the film industry, which saw many writers lose confidence in their guild.  Another point where the Writer’s Guild failed to deliver for their members was during the 2007 strike.  The Guild authorized the strike, which lasted 100 days, but did so without an exit strategy.  Basically, they were playing a game of chicken with the studios, with no clear definition over what the “new media” they were fighting over was supposed to be.  Some of the issues arising now that the Guild is yet again threatening to strike on is due to the unfinished business left over from the 2007 strike.  The deal, which was brokered through a similar contract made between the studios and the DGA, did grant the Writer’s Guild jurisdiction over residuals made over internet based distribution.  However, it was determined to be related to online media purchases, such as from iTunes.  YouTube, which was still in it’s infancy at the time, was not seen as a viable marketplace of content at the time, so the WGA missed a prime opportunity to protect their members with streaming declared as “new media,” and that’s an oversight that the studios have been exploiting ever since.  Sure, it’s hard for the guilds to have foresight over every market trend, but the vagueness of the 2007 settlement was a missed opportunity for the Writer’s Guild that made the 100 day strike a mostly wasted effort.

But, despite the problems that the Guilds in Hollywood have had, they have been an essential and needed part of the film industry.  The fight for much needed health coverage for many of the members has been especially beneficial for people within the industry.  Apart from medical insurance plans, the Guilds have also helped many technicians and performers gain beneficial retirement plans.  But, even these can fall prey to cut backs from the industry unless the Guilds remain strong and committed to their members.  Recent Oscar-winner Ke Huy Quan mentioned in his acceptance speeches that he was dropped by his insurance providers during the pandemic, due to his absence from acting in front of the camera for decades and the fact that the movies he was making, like Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) were considered too small to justify him retaining the benefits of his union membership.  A lot of people haven’t been as lucky as him where the success of the movie has helped him to regain a foothold in the industry again.  Many more fall by the wayside, and life-altering events like the pandemic can indeed lead to layoffs that affect the livelihood of people dependent on union work.  Hollywood is competitive to be sure, and just being able to gain a single credit to be eligible for union membership is a privilage that itself is hard to achieve.  But, unions are important for balancing the power structure in Hollywood, and giving the laborers themselves a say in the business, so as to not be exploited by the studios who are most concerned about their bottom line.  Membership is not mandatory, and there are some noteworthy filmmakers who have left their cards behind, like George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriquez, and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  But it should be known that they are in a different position where they can survive without the Guilds.  They’re departure is mostly because of creative autonomy, because Guild members must abide by rules when it comes to credits, and working with other Guild members as well.  It’s a better thing overall to be working on a Guild certified film, because independent non-union work comes with too many risks.

With another strike possibly looming on the horizon, what kinds of outcomes are we likely to see.  A prolonged shut down  could have a devastating effect on the industry, especially since it’s still in recovery from the pandemic.  Keep in mind, any project with a finished script can still move forward on schedule without violating the Guild’s rules.  Any project still in the development stage will be the ones that suffer the most, with many likely to get cancelled because the studios cannot keep paying writers and filmmakers for something that can’t be produced.  Scripted television that is produced on a daily basis, like talk shows, will also likely suffer, with hosts having to either write their own material or put their show on a costly hiatus until the strike is resolved.  As the 2007 strike showed us, things can be disrupted quite a bit the longer a strike goes on, and shows and movies that had a lot of promise beforehand will end up struggling or be cancelled outright.  Are we going to see a repeat in the days ahead?  We will know on May 1, which is when the current Writer’s Guild contract expires.  If nothing is brokered before then, you can bet the WGA will bring the industry to a standstill, given the overwhelming support for a strike amongst their membership.  It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially if you are a struggling writer just starting out in the industry.  A work stoppage can lead to a full stop in the progression in one’s career.  At the same time, too many people will find themselves disadvantaged by ill defined contracts that the studios can exploit, and it’s up to union solidarity to counterbalance that position of power.  Perhaps the Writer’s Guild may have an advantage this time around in the negotiations as the pandemic stricken industry is resistant to the idea of another costly shut down.  It might mean a quicker resolution to this labor dispute that hopefully avoids a strike, while at the same time granting the Writer’s Guild with a new contract that meets most of their demands.  We’ll see what happens, and one can hope for the best outcome.  Make no mistake, the main reason why Hollywood is still the “dream factory” today is because the workers who make it all happen have ensured that the movie industry is one that respects it’s labor force and doesn’t take it for granted.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2023 – Film Exhibition Report

It took a long while, but we are back to regular programming.  The TCM Classic Film Festival has been a yearly tradition for me and a major event that I cover for this blog each year, but the Covid-19 pandemic put the tradition on pause for two long years, until the festival returned last year.  Despite the gap in between, I was happy to see that little had changed with the festival and it was the same wonderful experience that I had enjoyed in years before.  Now, one year later, it is time to gear up for yet another TCM Film Fest.  Like many years past, each of the festivals have a theme to them.  For this one, their theme is tied in much more with the parent studio behind TCM.  The classic movies station is a part of the Warner Brothers Discovery company, which this year is celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Warner Studios.  As a result, the programming of this year’s festival is skewed much more heavily with films from the Warner Brothers library, spanning across their 100 year history.  The films date as far back as the mid 1920’s, and are as recent as Steven Soderberghs’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001), which gets a prestigious Friday night showing.  There are other studios represented in this year’s program, but the Festival is put on by a wing of the Warner Brothers Discovery company, so it stands to reason why they would indulge themselves a bit more this year.  Thankfully with movie theaters in recovery, the venues this year are just as vibrant as they have been in past years, though sadly the Egyptian and the Cinerama Dome are still M.I.A. because of ongoing refurbishments.  Hopefully those two will be back at next year’s festival.  This year, the Chinese Theater, the Chinese Multiplex, and the American Legion Hollywood Post are all back to thrill us classic movie fans with not just great movies but great atmosphere as well.  I will be chronicling all four days of the Festival with my own first hand experience.  My hope is to not only see a few new movies this year that I have missed up to now, but to also see some of the VIP guests that have often been the highlight of these Festivals, especially if they are very old-timers.  So, let’s take a look at my TCM Classic Film Festival 2023 experience.


Just like last year’s festival, I have limited time for movies on the first two days due to work, but it’s far less of a problem on the first day, as the festival itself doesn’t begin until the evening hours.  Heading to the festival central straight from work, I caught the earliest show that was available to me.  The main venue of the festival, the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theater, naturally was closed off to everyone except for passholders; and it was exclusive to a few even there.  I was able to get across to the other side of Hollywood Blvd. to catch a view of the red carpet set up they had for all their special guests.  There wasn’t too much to make out from a distance, but it certainly looked glitzy.  Every opening night showing in the Chinese Theater is reserved for a special premiere with especially high profile guests in attendance.  This night was no exception.  Before the film, there was a special sit down interview between TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and directors Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Warner Brothers CEO David Zazlev.  Their discussion was primarily about film preservation, and the importance it should have in the industry.  The subject tied in with the marquee showing of opening night, which was the movie Rio Bravo (1959), directed by Howard Hawkes, which Warner Brothers just recently completed a 4K restoration on.  That new 4K remaster was making it’s big first look premiere at this festival, playing on the giant Chinese Theater screen (the largest in North America as the festival hosts were constantly reminding us).  After the discussion with Spielberg, Anderson and Zazlev, Ben Mankiewicz then interviewed one of the stars of Rio Bravo, Angie Dickenson.  I was on the outside looking in, so there’s not much else I can say about the opening night premiere.  I had a different movie to catch.

The Chinese 6 Multiplex situated within the massive Hollywood & Highland complex (now re-christened as Ovation Hollywood) was also hosting a few screenings this opening night.  For my selections, I went with two different experiences for me; a film I have seen but not on the big screen, and a film that I hadn’t seen at all.  The first movie was the one I had seen before, which was Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Shadow of a Doubt (1943).  The movie was thankfully easy to get in for all, even for the standby guests.  Given that I am attending these festivals on a budget, I always have to use the standby lines, which means the last pick of the seats.  It’s a gamble seeing the movies this way, as the likelihood of being left out due to a sellout is much higher than with a pass.  But, off all the screens in the multiplex, this one was playing in the largest.  I got a seat closer to the screen than I normally do for most other movies mainly because it gets me close enough to having a close look at the special guest for the showing.  In this case, it wasn’t anyone involved with the film (which would be difficult for a now 80 year old movie) but rather a famous fan of the film.  The guest in question was actor John Hawkes, who was there to express his own longtime appreciation of this movie, and especially for it’s star Joseph Cotton; an actor that especially looks up to as a model for his own acting career.  Interviewed by TCM host David Karger, Hawkes discussed the subtleties of Cotton’s performance in the movies, and how he brought such effective menace to the villainous Uncle Charlie in the film.  For a movie it’s age, the film still looked remarkably good on a big screen, and it was nice to finally have the oppurtunity to see the film this way.  Immediately after the film was over, I got right back in line for the next movie of the night.

The second and last movie of Day One for me was a film that I had yet to see, which was the 1953 film The Wild One, produced by Stanley Kramer and starring a very fresh-faced Marlon Brando.  Brando had already debuted on the big screen as Stanley Kowalski in the classic A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), but The Wild One was his first true starring role, and it’s the first movie to really cement him with this bad boy, rugged image, which followed him for most of his career.  The film is pretty much a B-Movie with not much of a plot, but Brando definitely stands out, especially considering his more modern style of performance is so different from all the other actors in the movie.  This screening of the movie offered up an unexpected surprise for those of us in the room.  The listed guest who was going to introduce the movie for us was supposed to be the Archive VP of the Motion Picture Academy, Randy Haberkamp, but he was not present at this screening.  Instead, we got an unannounced special guest; famed movie director Joe Dante.  The man behind such classics as The Gremlins (1984) and The Howling (1981) offered up his own short introduction to the movie.  He discussed the impact that the movie had on Marlon Brando’s career, how well Brando and co-star Lee Marvin worked together(and didn’t work together), and various other little tidbits about the movie.  The fact that I was not expecting to see someone of Joe Dante’s ilk at this late night screening was a special surprise, and it marked a good start to my festival experience.  The following day was going to be especially challenging though as it had a movie that I believe would be the most difficult to get into out of all four days.

FRIDAY, APRIL 14, 2023

Because of work, I missed out on 3/4’s of the entire day’s offerings.  But, I had already planned on focusing on one movie in particular for this night, so I wasn’t concerned on missing out on the rest.  I made sure that I was very early in line for the 9:30pm showing in the Chinese Theater.  This particular showing was for the movie Ocean’s Eleven (2001), the all-star remake of the Rat Pack classic.  The reason why this was going to be a must see was because of who was going to be the special guests.  Initially the guest was listed as just director Steven Soderbergh, who would’ve been a great draw just on his own.  But, a last minute addition was announced just the night before, as Danny Ocean himself, George Clooney, had committed to joining his collaborator on stage to talk about the movie.  So, given the fact that a major star like Clooney was going to be there, I definitely had to try to make this show no matter what.  I showed up plenty early and got almost the front spot in the standby line.  Unfortunately, things got a little weird and scary during the waiting time for the movie.  Down the street from where I was waiting, a loud bang could be heard.  It seemed like nothing at first (maybe a car had made the noise.  But soon, police cars and an ambulance were racing down Hollywood Blvd.  Soon after, a security team for the festival were gathering all of us in the standby line and moving us indoors.  Then the alert came across on the Festival App, telling everyone to shelter in place.  A person had been shot near the festival venues, and the shooter was still at large.  It was a tense and scary moment, but thankfully brief.  The assailant was apprehended quickly in the nearby subway station and the alert was lifted no that the coast was clear.  I only saw the aftermath later, as police tape had roped off the area where the incident took place.  Thankfully, the quick resolution of the situation allowed the rest of the festival to go on uninterrupted, and I am very grateful for the resourcefulness of the security team to make sure we were all safe in line.

After all that drama, I was able to make it into the screening, as the massive Chinese Theater was able to accommodate just about everyone.  The theater did fill up fairly well, so it seems like word got out that Clooney was going to be there.  After a brief introduction from Ben Mankiewicz, who shared that the first Clooney/Soderbergh film Out of Sight (1998) is one of his all time favorite films, both George and Steven took the stage.  Their conversation touched on a number of things, namely their long time relationship in the business, being co-producers on a number of movies including 6 of which George Clooney starred in, and why they were interested in doing this remake of the Sinatra classic.  For Soderbergh, this was what he saw as the best avenue for him to make what he considered a “mainstream” studio film, which he commonly didn’t do.  And Clooney was interested in moving his career in a decidedly different direction, given that this was not too long after his disastrous stint as Batman.  The two also talked a lot about the movie’s late producer, Jerry Weintraub, who was quite the character in his own right.  They also talked about the assemblage of all stars that they had for their film, including long time vets like Elliot Gould and Carl Reiner.  George Clooney remained entertaining throughout the interview, offering up some hilarious stories and anecdotes, but he also did a great job of not taking the spotlight away from Soderbergh, who also got his fair share of time to talk about the movie.  Ocean’s Eleven is a movie that I missed the first time around on the big screen, and only finally watched it on home viewing later.  It is still a movie that is fun to watch and it holds up well over 20 years later.

The movie finished very close to midnight, but I wasn’t finished just yet.  Just like last year, I was interested in catching one of the midnight screenings at this festival, though this time I had it planned rather than doing it as a backup.  The choice for the midnight showing this second night of the festival was an interesting one, because it was a campy B-Movie from Mexico called “La Mujer Murcielago” or in English, The Batwoman (1968).  This movie, it would appear, takes heavy inspiration from the 1966 Batman series (especially in the color palette) but the similarities end there.  The heroine is no Adam West, as her costume is stripped down to just a two piece bikini with a cape and cowl.  The film is pretty ridiculous, but it does offer an interesting look into mid-century Mexican cinema.  The film does also present some stunning visuals of the port city of Acapulco throughout the movie.  The guests for the film were people involved in the recent 4K restoration of the film.  They were restorationist Peter Conheim, Restoration producer Charles Horak, and Viviana Garcia-Besne, the founder of Permanencia Voluntaria Film Archive, who were responible for the restoration of the film.  Viviana was especially focused on discussing the needed value of restoring films, as many of the movies made throughout Mexican cinema history have been damaged or lost over time given the lack of resources need to preserve them.  She and the others recommended to those of us in the audience to read more about the organizations that are working hard to preserve the vast library of Mexican films needing care, many of which are funded through generous donations.  It was very interesting to see a movie from a film industry that I still know so little about, and yet I’m learning a lot more about how important it has been.  Multi Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro himself considers The Batwoman one of his favorite films from his childhood, and given what we see in the movie itself, it stands to reason that he took quite a bit of inspiration from it as well.


Given that I went to the midnight showing the night before, I decided to arrive a little later to start my third day of the festival.  The earliest shows this day were nothing I was dying to see, and it gave me the opportunity to prepare for the one I did want to see with time to spare.  My first showing was at the multiplex; the 1984 Oscar winner Amadeus, which was a movie that I had seen many times before but not on the big screen.  My one gripe is that the screening was in one of the smaller venues of the festival and not on any of the more massive screens like at the Legion Theater or the Chinese.  A lavish period film like Amadeus calls for a larger screen, but that’s a preference that is out of my control.  Seeing it in a theater with an audience still helped to make the experience of watching it this way still worthwhile.  For this screening, the festival was also honoring a special guest; the film’s Oscar-winning Production Designer Patrizia von Brandenstein.  After playing a short career retrospective, she was brought to the stage to be interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz, and right away she pointed out that they got the pronunciation of her name all wrong.  The moment got a chuckle from the audience, as well as from Ben, who then went through all the many credits that Patrizia has had in the film industry.  Patrizia talked more about what it was like working on the film, as well as collaborating with director Milos Forman.  It was a fascinating talk and it’s nice to see an unsung legend in Hollywood get her due recognition for a lifetime of great work; including her historic Oscar winning work on this film.  Given the near three hour length of the film, there wasn’t much time I had afterwards to get to my next must see film.

After Amadeus, I made my way quickly to the line for Bye Bye Birdie (1963), which was being screened in the Chinese Theater.  Despite getting in line fairly late, I somehow managed to get a low enough number for the standby line that allowed me to get into the show.  I would have thought that this would be one of the harder shows to attend given that the special guest was one of the film’s stars, Ann-Margret. But, I guess the Chinese Theater is a more spacious venue than I give it credit for.  The theater still filled up pretty well, but everyone who wanted to see the movie and it’s star got in.  TCM host David Karger welcomed Ann-Margret on stage to discuss the movie, and it was an engaging interview.  Ann-Margret mentioned the funny thing that she did this film which pokes fun at the Elvis Presley craze, and then the next movie she worked on was Viva Las Vegas (1964), where she acted opposite the real Elvis.  She also talked about what it was like to work with her co-stars Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh, and Paul Lynde.  Once the interview was over, David Karger had a special surprise in store for Ann, since she has a birthday coming up this month.  A special birthday cake was made for her by chefs from the Food Network (a sister station of TCM under the Warner Bros. family tree) and on top it was decorated with dancing legs sticking out of the top; a nod to Ann-Margret’s own dancing legs seen in so many movies.  She was very happy to receive this surprise and all of us in the crowd sang her “Happy Birthday” before she made her wish and blew out the candle.  As for the movie, it was my first time seeing it.  I wouldn’t say that it’s among my all time favorite movie musicals, but it’s a cute enough movie to appreciate, and Ann-Margret is certainly the highlight with her then impressive dance and singing skills.

Halfway through my goal of 12 movies at the festival and I’ve been able to get into every movie I wanted.  That however came to an end when I arrived at the Multiplex for my next movie.  I decided I wanted to see the film Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), starring Barbara Stanwyck, mainly because it was another film that I had yet to see.  Unfortunately, this was where my winning streak ran out.  The film sold out without a single person from the standby line getting a chance to go in.  I heard that even some passholders got turned away too, which is shocking that this one movie would be so popular out of all at the festival.  Thankfully for me, I did have another option available starting at the same time.  It was the heist comedy How to Steal a Million (1966), starring Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn.  The reason why I passed on this film initially is because it’s a movie I had seen before.  But, given that my first choice was unavailable, I decided that this was the next best option, given that it was in the same location and it would still give me enough time to reach my next film, though less than I would have with Sorry, Wrong Number.  I got into the screening late, and the interview with the special guest was just winding down.  The guest in question was David Wyler, son of the film’s director William Wyler.  I caught too little of the conversation to get a sense of the whole interview, but I was able to catch the entire film itself.  While I had seen the film, watching it on a big screen was new to me, and it had been a while since I had seen it last, so the experience was still worth it and I didn’t mind that this was a back up movie in the end.

After the movie was over, it was time to head up the hill to see my first film at this festival in the American Legion Theater.  It was hard to know how busy this screening would be, because it was the late night showing, but it was also one of the marquee films of this festival.  It was a 50th Anniversary screening of the legendary Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon (1973).  The film was preceded with an interview conducted by the Director of the Academy Museum Jacqueline Stewart of the film’s screenwriter Michael Allin and hip hop performer and producer RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.  The interview was interesting from two perspectives, considering that we had one person involved with the movie as well as one whose career was heavily inspired by the movie.  RZA talked about how the movie Enter the Dragon was released the same year that hip hop started in the music scene, and that the film’s legacy runs parallel with that of the new breakthrough form of music.  Naturally, RZA took inspiration from Bruce Lee’s kung fu movies as a part of crafting the sound and character of the hip hop identity of Wu-Tang, and he sees Enter the Dragon as this major cultural touchstone for both Asian and African-American communities, particularly with how inclusive the movie was in showing martial arts masters of all races.  Michael Allin offered up some interesting personal stories of working with Bruce Lee and what he was like on and off screen.  The most remarkable story he shared was the quick turn around the movie had.  Allin wrote the screenplay in only three weeks and the movie from script to final cut was accomplished in as little as five months.  This was a first time viewing for me, and while I may not be a kung fu movie person, it was still good to finally see this movie that I’ve heard so many things about.  So, thus ended my full third day of the festival.  It was time to head home to prepare, with far fewer hours of sleep in between.

SUNDAY, APRIL 16, 2023

So, I have come to my final day at the 2023 TCM Film Festival.  There was no time to waste as I was starting early in the morning this time.  My first show ironically was in the same venue that I ended the night before in; the Hollywood Legion Theater.  Not only did I need to get to the venue early, I had to get there with an uphill climb.  Thankfully, early morning shows rarely sell out, and I was able to get into the theater without waiting.  This morning I was seeing the Henry Fonda/ John Ford military comedy Mister Roberts.  The main reason why I was seeing this movie was because it’s another that I had never seen before.  Here I was getting the chance to watch it on a big screen in a venue built for war veterans, so that gave the showing an extra bit of meaning.  Unfortunately, it was little more to it than that; no special interview or introduction.  Just one of the TCM hosts giving some pre-show backstory.  After the film, I made my way back down the hill to my next show.  In order to give myself some extra time before the big show of the day, which would come in the afternoon, I chose to see the comedy The In-Laws (1979), directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Alan Arkin and Peter Falk.  This screening, which was at the multiplex, did have a pre-show interview with two of the film’s co-stars; actresses Nancy Dussault and Penny Peyser.  Though he was unable to attend, Alan Arkin did write a letter for us attendees, which Penny Peyser read out for us.  It was a nice little talk about, where the two ladies discussed what it was like working with actors like Falk and Arkin.  They also discussed the way that director Arthur Hiller approached the comedy in the movie, which the director usually wasn’t too involved in having made movies in the past like Love Story (1970).  Though dated in some ways, the movie was still very funny for the most part, and it was an interesting discovery for me, considering that I wasn’t familiar too much with the movie before.

From that, it was off to the big draw of the day.  In the Chinese Theater for the afternoon show, they were screening the 1962 musical extravaganza The Music Man, with actress Shirley Jones as the special guest.  Unlike the other films I had seen at this festival, there was no interview before the movie, but instead the moment would be saved for after the film.  I had seen The Music Man before, but not on the big screen.  Just like Bye Bye Birdie the day before, there’s just something extra special about watching a lavishly staged musical film on the “largest screen in North America,” and The Music Man did not disappoint.  These grand widescreen movies splashed with color demand to be seen in this fashion, and it made the whole experience worth it just for that.  I even love the way that the audience I was seeing the movie with would applaud at the end of the musical numbers.  One thing occurred to me about this, that musicals made back in those days often had a moment of pause at the end of the songs where audiences could applaud.  That’s something that you just don’t see in movie musicals anymore, as modern musicals don’t pace themselves like stage productions but rather like other movies without a pause at the end of songs.  For a movie like The Music Man, it works well because an audience can applaud without missing anything in the movie; which makes me think that audiences back in those days must have been doing it too.  But, we had a good reason to be applauding, as Shirley Jones, the film’s star, was watching it along with us.  The appreciation must have been heartfelt for her, as she took the stage at the end of the show to a standing ovation.  The cool thing is that she brought all of her grandkids with her, and they all got to share the spotlight and take in her special moment by her side.  She didn’t stay long, but still made it known how much she appreciated the warm reception.  This was the last movie that I felt would be a challenge to get into, so I’m very happy to have checked it off my list and not have missed it.

The last show for my Festival experience was also in the Chinese Theater.  It was the 40th Anniversary screening of the Lawrence Kasdan movie The Big Chill (1983).  The screening was the official closing night presentation, so host Ben Mankiewicz started off the presentation by reading off the names of all the behind the scenes people who worked to make this Festival happen.  He especially noted the Security team, given that they were in the unprecedented situation of having to deal with an active crime scene near the center of the Festival.  The audience showed their appreciation with a very heartfelt applause to the Security staff.  For the movie itself, two of the film’s stars were there to talk about the making of it; Tom Berenger and Jobeth Williams.  They talked about having to live together during the film shoot in the single location that was the house in the movie, and how they passed the time playing games and other things.  They talked about their co-stars Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Meg Tilly, Jeff Goldblum, and the late William Hurt, as well as director Lawrence Kasdan.  Jobeth told the funny story of how she was mistakenly speaking with Berenger’s stunt double thinking that it was actually him, which Berenger found very funny.  Ben Mankiewicz also joked that they had a third cast member at this screening, Kevin Costner, but in the spirit of the film, they were going to keep him backstage and out of sight, referencing the fact that Costner was the one playing the corpse seen in the opening of the movie (of course he wasn’t really there).  After that, then it was time to see the movie.  It’s fitting that the night ended on another movie that I had yet to see.  Overall, of the twelve movies I saw this year, 7 were new to me, which is a pretty good tally.  After the movie, I slowly left the Chinese Theater, soaking in the waning moments of this year’s Festival before heading home.

This year had some high moments to be sure, but at the same time, I felt that there were some issues that concerned me as well.  It seems that this year that there was some downsizing compared to Festivals in years past.  For one thing, one of the things that I always keep with me as a souvenir from each Festival is a complimentary booklet that features descriptions of all the movies playing at the festival along with a flip out program schedule.  This year, they didn’t have those, instead choosing to have guests download the Festival app as their guide.  There was a program schedule available at info desks across the Festival venues, which was little more than pamphlet sized, but it just re-enforced a feeling of downsizing that I was getting from this year’s festival.  The reach of the festival’s footprint also feels lesser.  Yes, the Egyptian and Cinerama Dome are still unavailable in general, but other venues from past Festivals that are open like the Avalon and the El Capitan across the street were not a part of this year’s festival either.  My hope is that this is not another symptom of the budget cuts conducted by David Zazlev and the Warner Bros. accountants in their re-structuring of the company post-merger.  Hopefully next year when the Egyptian is re-opened we’ll see it as part of the Festival once again.  Apart from my gripes in these matters, the Festival still delivered when it came to the screenings and the interviews with the special guests.  I’m hoping that we’ll see a more robust Festival come next year.  Ben Mankiewicz said in his closing night remarks that this is his favorite week of the year, and for many of us classic movie fans, this is indeed something that we look forward to every year.  Hey, I can’t complain too much considering there was a point for two years during the pandemic when we didn’t have any Festival to go to at all.  So, I’m glad I was able to share yet another TCM Classic Film Festival adventure with all of you.  Here’s hoping for something special next year that will be just as good if not better than the one I was able to enjoy this last weekend.

The Super Mario Bros. Movie – Review

For the longest time there was one thing that was certain about Hollywood; that they couldn’t make a movie based on a video game.  There were many attempts to be sure, but many of them resulted in spectacular failures, both at the box office and with critics and audiences.  A poster child for the dismal record of video game movies was one that was based on the world’s most popular game: 1993’s Super Mario Bros.  The live action film starring Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo as the titular brothers was so removed visually from what the original 8-bit game represented that audiences didn’t know what to make of it.  The film would go on to be a cautionary tale of how not to adapt a video game into a movie and the industry for the longest time steered clear of going all in on video games as sources for their movies.  But, in recent years, something has changed.  Not only are movie studios starting to adapt video games into feature films and series, but in some cases they are actually succeeding in their adaptations.  The Sonic the Hedgehog movies for instance wildly exceeded expectations, especially considering that the first one went through an extensive eleventh hour re-design of the main character that many thought was going to doom the movie.  And on television, a series adaptation of the Playstation game The Last of Us is not only earning high viewership numbers, but it’s also being critically lauded as one of the best shows on TV in general.  I think one thing that has turned the tide with video game adaptations in film and television recently is the fact that we have finally have a generation of filmmakers working now who grew up playing video games.  This isn’t an older generation trying to figure out what these kids are liking any more; now the filmmakers are bringing a lifetime of knowledge about how to tell stories through the video game medium and giving them the admiration they deserve as they adapt them into a different medium.  With this change in the culture, it would make sense that Mario would get another chance on the big screen.

Super Mario Bros. started in Japan in 1985 before eventually making it’s way to North American markets in 1987.  Mario Bros. became what they call in the video game industry a “hardware seller,” because the appeal of the game was so immense that Mario was very much responsible that millions of households in America had a Nintendo Game System.  Often packaged with the console itself, nearly every Nintendo user played the game, and it’s presence in the pop culture spread like wildfire.  As a mascot for the Nintendo corporation, Mario was to video games what Mickey Mouse had become to cartoons; a character recognized all over the world.  Mario’s creator, game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, didn’t just rest on his laurels with the first game.  He would continue to refine the character and his gameplay through subsequent titles in the series, each one taking advantage of the advancing graphical capabilities of each new Nintendo console.  Every time new hardware was released, a new Mario game was to follow, and each game continues to build on what came before it, which has helped Mario to keep his relevancy nearly four decades later.  As the series has gone on, not only has Mario managed to stay popular, but so have all the other characters that appear in those games; some even getting their own popular spinoffs.  Mario’s brother Luigi has his own popular series called Luigi’s Mansion, where he goes ghost hunting, and there are games devoted to characters like Toadstool, Yoshi, and Mario’s doppelganger nemesis Wario.  Now, there seems to be a major attempt to capitalize on the multi-generational appeal of the Mario series, with a major film studio involved in the action.  This year, Universal Pictures is not only attempting another big screen adaptation of the game, but they’ve opened a new section of their Studio Lot park in Hollywood dedicated to the Mario franchise.  As a wise move, they’ve avoided going the live action route like the doomed 1993 film, and instead gave the project to their Illumination Animation division, with full blessing from Nintendo.  The only question is if they are able to make Super Mario Bros work this time as a movie experience.

The story begins with the two Mario brothers, Mario (Chris Pratt) and Luigi (Charlie Day) starting off their new careers as expert plumbers in present day Brooklyn.  They unfortunately suffer several setbacks on their first day on the job, and it leads to their family worrying about their futures, including their highly skeptical Father (Charles Martinet).  A local water main break in their area convinces Mario that they may have a second shot at success, so they take their gear and travel down into the lower maintenance levels of the New York City.  There they find a mysterious green pipe, which unexpectedly sucks them in and sends them on an interdimensional journey.  The brothers get split up, with Luigi being sent to a dark, foreboding place called the Dark Lands, and Mario ending up in the Mushroom Kingdom.  While exploring the strange new place, Mario runs into a talking mushroom creature named Toad (Keegan-Michael Key), who agrees to help Mario by guiding him to the castle of Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy).  Mario meets the Princess and learns of the dangers that faces her kingdom.  Across their world, the tyrannical leader of the Dark Lands, the Koopa King Bowser (Jack Black) is causing terror with his army and flying fortress.  Peach believes that Mario can be of some help, so she agrees to help him find his brother if he agrees to aid in their fight against Bowser.  She believes that the key to stopping Bowser’s army is by recruiting the help of the Monkey Kingdom, and that means having to challenge their mightiest warrior, Donkey Kong (Seth Rogen).  Meanwhile, Bowser advances towards the Mushroom Kingdom and learns that Mario has allied with the Princess, after Bowser’s wizard assistant Kamek (Kevin Michael Richardson) has captured Luigi in the Dark Lands.  Can Peach and Mario succeed in bringing Donkey Kong and his forces to their side to stop Bowser from destroying the Mushroom Kingdom?

Truth be told, there isn’t much to making a movie adaptation of Super Mario Bros.  The original game’s story is as simplistic as it can be (Mario saves the Princess from the depths of Bowser’s castle) and many of the other games deviate very little from that central premise.  The bar is already set low by the 1993 film as well, which is evident upon watching it that the filmmakers had no idea what they were adapting in the first place.  One of the things that worried me is the fact that Illumination Animation was involved.  Illumination is a studio that has yet to make a movie that I consider anything more than just okay.  They do have a quality animation team, but they also seem to do just the bare minimum when it comes to their stories.  Through their Despicable Me, Minions, and Secret Life of Pets series of films, they are a studio that is more geared toward broad entertainment rather than actually reaching their audience on an emotional or intellectual level.  That’s often why they never gain the critical reception that Disney, Pixar, or Dreamworks do with their movies.  On the other hand, their broad entertainment style is what has also helped them to make a killing at the box office.  Their films consistently play very well in theaters, mainly due to the fact that their target demographic is little kids and also because they aggressively market their movies months in advance.  I’m sure that Super Mario Bros. will do exactly the same, because the way I felt about this movie is the way I felt seeing every other Illumination movie; underwhelmed but aware of how big this movie will be with it’s target audience.  It disappoints me a lot that this kind of box office success is keeping Illumination from actually improving as an animation studio.  While other studios take chances, sometimes to the risk of failure, Illumination plays it down the middle safe and it results in their movies coming across as boring.  Sadly, Super Mario Bros. is another one of those movies, and it’s equally heartbreaking that they are doing so with such a legacy brand as Mario and Nintendo.

What I had the biggest problem with in this movie is the lack of focus.  It just seems like each scene was crafted to indulge the audience with references to the games, but none of it really adds up.  The thing that especially gets sacrificed the most in this movie is character development.  Not once in this movie do I ever fully get what Mario or any of the other characters wants; they are all just passively playing their role in the story that vaguely follows the progression of the games.  There seems to be kernels of character arcs set up early in the film, like Mario wanting to impress his family, but that goes by the wayside once Mario arrives in the Mushroom Kingdom, where the story just puts Mario through the paces of becoming the hero who will stop Bowser.  Mario’s family is all but forgotten for most of the movie, until the very end suddenly shoehorns the message back in at the last minute.  Also, most of the characters in the story never change throughout the progression of the plot.  Mario never gains the confidence to be a hero; he’s already the more confident of the two brothers in the beginning of the movie, and the film never advances beyond that.  The way the movie starts, with a lot of emphasis placed on the relationship of the brothers, also gets abandoned as the characters spend most of the movie apart.  Luigi’s screen time is also shockingly short in this movie too.  Like with so much of Illumination’s movies, it’s all about cramming in more time for humorous bits to please the younger viewers, and in doing so, character moments get pushed to the side.  The pacing of this movie is just a freight train of Easter eggs and sight gags, with no time to stop and center the story itself and actually find it’s core.  Yes, I know, the Mario games are simplistic too, but you got think that other animation studios would’ve tried a little harder to find purpose and meaning in the story they were telling.  Can you imagine what Pixar or Dreamworks would have done with the Mario IP.  Honestly, I don’t know why Universal didn’t take this film to Dreamworks, since they are also a part of the studio, and have a better track record of adapting already existing IP (Mr. Peabody and Sherman).

At the same time, this isn’t a complete failure of a movie, nor is it the worst video game adaptation.  For one thing, the animation is exceptional.  The direct involvement with Nintendo was a big help, because every character is on model with their video game counterpart, and the environments that they inhabit are beautifully realized.  I especially like the ominous appearance of Bowser’s floating fortress, which seems like a volcanic mountain suspended in the air and with Bowser’s face as it’s intimidating mast head.  If you’ve played the game, As I’m sure most of you from my generation have, you will see references galore throughout the movie, and most of them are true to the games from where they came from.  There’s even a clever reference to the Mario Kart games when Mario and his crew have to build their selective vehicles.  Even if you aren’t a gamer, you’ll still appreciate how colorful and imaginative the movie is.  As someone who has grown up playing these games since childhood, I can definitely say that they nail the visual look of what a Mario game should be.  It’s definitely a far cry from the grungy, dystopian world from the 1993 Mario Bros.  In particular, this movie draws a lot of visual inspiration from the 3D graphics Mario games; from the Nintendo 64 generation on.  Princess Peach’s castle is definitely inspired by the Super Mario 64 game, which has served as the basis of design for every Mario Bros. structure in the games ever since.  The movie also uses clever ways to re-imagine things that before only appeared in the 2D classic games.  The arena in which Mario Fights Donkey Kong features bright red steel beams, a reference to the retro arcade game from which both Mario and Donkey Kong both made their debuts in the early days of gaming.  The movie also does a neat perspective change to emulate the side-scrolling gameplay of the Mario games in a couple of moments.  Where the game has many shortcomings in it’s story, it thankfully still serves up a strong visual feast for the audience, and in a way that is respectful and in line with the legacy of the games.

One of the things that a lot of people were worried about going into this movie was how the celebrity voice cast would work out playing these iconic characters.  In particular, a lot of scrutiny fell upon the peculiar casting of Chris Pratt as Mario.  For many years, the voice of Mario has been provided by voice actor Charles Martinet, who has given Mario this very distinctive, peppy Italian-accented voice that is instantly recognizable the world over.  Chris Pratt is no stranger to lending his voice to animated movies (The Lego Movie, Onward), but given the iconic nature of the way Mario sounds, the news of his casting was not received well by most of the public.  The biggest worry is that like all the other characters that Chris Pratt has played in animated movies, his performance here was just going to be another variation of his own natural voice, which would not have fit the character at all.  But, the final judgment must come after seeing the finished film.  I do have to say that despite the casting of Chris Pratt not being ideal, he actually does an okay job in this film.  For one thing, he doesn’t do the Italian stereotype voice the whole movie, but instead emulates a Brooklyn accent which is closer to being in his wheelhouse.  After a while, the voice just sounds natural for this version of Mario, so at the very least the casting of Chris Pratt as Mario was not the worst case scenario.  He’s also well matched with Charlie Day as Luigi, who was the ideal choice all along for that character.  The voice cast overall does a fine job with the characters they have been cast as; it’s really just the script that let’s them down.  Anya Taylor-Joy is a perfect choice as Princess Peach and Seth Rogan is frankly the only choice for Donkey Kong.  The one who steals the film, however, is Jack Black as Bowser.  Black goes above and beyond with his performance as the villainous tyrant, being adequately menacing when he needs to, but also laugh out loud funny in the most unexpected ways as well, all the while remaining true to the character.  The movie even finds a way to work Jack Black’s musical background into the movie in what has to be the film’s finest moment.  I also do appreciate that the movie did bring Charles Martinet on board to provide a few other voices; an acknowledgement of his long time legacy with the series of games.  While a lot of worries surrounded how the voice cast would be used in this movie, I can definitely say that the actors did the best they could, and some were even better than we would have hoped.  I hope this especially pull the pressure off of Chris Pratt, who actually did alright by this character.

I do know that this movie is going to do very well no matter what I say.  A lot of anticipation has been built up for this movie, for both young audiences looking for something light and silly to watch, and also for their parents who grew up playing these games.  If they find this movie satisfactory, then good on them.  I on the other hand felt the movie fell short of it’s potential.  Typical of other Illumination Animation movies, the film is all style and routine, without a resonate story at it’s center.  I’ve seen many other animation studios take already established IP and develop films that not only utilize to properties to their full potential, but actually deliver a resonate and emotional story with it.  The Lego Movie for example is a film that could’ve turned into a shameless feature length commercial for it’s title product, but in the hands of the right people (in this case, the duo of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord) it became an instant classic movie with a lot of heart at it’s center.  Super Mario Bros. just doesn’t have that emotional center that it should have.  Not once did I feel like I got to know these characters, nor care what they were doing.  Even compared to recent video game adaptations the movie falls short.  While the Sonic the Hedgehog movies are no masterpieces themselves, I still was able to understand the character motivations and be engaged by their development throughout the story.  In those movies, they did a much better job of establishing what the character of Sonic wanted, which was a family and a purpose for being a hero.  In Super Mario Bros. the main character starts off special, and just remains that all the way to the end.  That makes his story boring by comparison.  Visually, this movie gets the look of Mario’s world right, but within that pretty shell is a hollow story.  So, it’s not quite a game over, but I feel that after so many years of waiting for a worthy Super Mario Bros. movie, it feels like the one we deserve is still hidden in another castle.

Rating: 6.5/10

The Director’s Chair – Mel Brooks

There are certainly quite a few filmmakers who have shaped what we know as American comedy.  From the silent era masters like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd to the current standard bearers of contemporary comedy like Adam McKay and Judd Apatow, there have been many great writers and directors who have helped us all to laugh over the last century of cinema.  One of the most prolific and influential filmmakers to have come out of this grand tradition is himself nearing the century mark, and not slowing down even into his late 90’s.  That director is the timeless Mel Brooks.  Brooks is universally beloved throughout the world of comedy, and his films are continuously ranked among the funniest of all time.  He also has made movies that have remained hotly debated even many years later, as he was the kind of filmmaker that wasn’t afraid to tackle some hot button issues with a satirical eye.  A lot of his style emerged out of his background in writing jokes and sketches for television.  There is a playfulness to his movies, straddling very much.  And even with his background in television, he surprisingly had a very cinematic eye, as his movies often go to great lengths to replicate the same kinds of movies that they are parodying.  Mel’s filmography remains very much the gold standard of modern comedy when looking at how best to find truth in mockery.  Though his movies are often farcical and perversions of genre conventions, they at the same time can be considered prime examples of those same genres and quite impressive film achievements in their own right.  But what exactly is it that puts Mel Brooks’ comedies in such high esteem.  For the most part, it’s about trusting in the audience and subverting their expectations; comedy in the unexpected.  Whether it’s with a funny line of dialogue, an elaborate visual gag that takes absurdity to another level, or just a general feeling of silliness through the whole movie, Mel Brooks seemed to have the instinctual knowledge of what would make every second of his movies the funniest it could be.

Born Melvin Kaminsky in Brooklyn 1926, Mel formed his comedic chops through working odd jobs in the Borscht Belt venues in Upstate New York.  Absorbing the influence of the entertainers and stand-up comedians that performed at these venues, he later gained the confidence to perform stand-up comedy himself; taking the stage for the first time at the age of 16.  Working in comedy clubs through the post-War years eventually helped him gain the attention of comedian Sid Caesar, who was about to launch a new career in television, with the program Your Show of Shows.  Mel was offered a position as a staff writer, where he met another writer and performer on the show, Carl Reiner, who would remain a lifelong friend of Mel’s for the next 70 years, up until Carl’s passing in 2020.  Mel would write several classic sketches Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour afterwards, and he even got to appear on screen a couple times himself, most notably as a character he dubbed the 2,000 Year Old Man.  In the 1960’s, Mel teamed up with another legendary comedy writer, Buck Henry, to create what many consider to be one of the greatest TV comedies ever; the spy spoof called Get SmartGet Smart ran for 5 successful seasons, earning Mel a few Emmy awards along the way.  But, he found himself being drawn more and more towards film, and he knew he had a story that would be his big breakthrough.  He wrote and directed his first feature The Producers in 1967, starring Zero Mostel and newcomer Gene Wilder, and it was a smash hit and cemented Mel Brooks as a force on the big screen in addition to the small screen.  Over the next decade, he would be known as the King of Spoofs, as he exceled at flipping different genres on their head, as well as mocking quite a few other conventions in the process.  While he began with general genre send-ups like Westerns with Blazing Saddles (1974) and sword and sandal epics with History of the World Part I (1981), the later part of his career would make fun of very specific popular movies like Spaceballs (1987) being a parody of Star Wars (1977).  His last film, Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) sadly paled in comparison to his earlier work, but Mel would indeed find a new creative front in live theater where he achieved record breaking success with a musical adaptation of The Producers, netting him a record 12 Tonys in the process.  This resulted in him achieving EGOT status, and there’s no doubt that he is deserving of that high honor.  Arguably he is the funniest person to ever become an EGOT.  But, it’s his cinematic work that we are focusing on here, so let’s examine the different elements that distinguish Mel Brooks as a filmmaker.



Certainly the first thing you think about when looking over Mel Brooks’ body of work is that he almost exclusively made parody movies.  It’s something that he didn’t set out to do initially, as his first two movies were either based on an original idea (The Producers) or a source novel (The Twelve Chairs).  The year that certainly pushed Mel towards the direction of parody movies was 1974, when he created two classics back to back.  Young Frankenstein (1974) and Blazing Saddles both released in the same year, and they both show Mel’s incredible knack for not only parodying the plots of certain movie genres, but also their visual aesthetic.  Young Frankenstein is a beautiful black and white recreation of the classic Universal Monster movie, even down to the shot compositions and mood lighting, which contrast very well with the absurdist shenanigans that Mel has his actors do in each of the scenes.  Blazing Saddles likewise is shot the same way that Western masters like John Ford and Howard Hawkes would’ve filmed a John Wayne vehicle.  In fact, Mel tips his hat a little to the history of Hollywood westerns by zooming out of a climatic fight scene to show that he’s making the movie on the same Warner Brothers Studio backlot that so many of those other Westerns were filmed on.  Subsequently, the raucous fight spills over into the other parts of the studio lot in a hilarious escalation, eventually ending in, of all places, the Chinese Theater.  One of his later films, Spaceballs, is probably the most elaborate spoof he’s ever undertaken, recreating even some of the groundbreaking effects from the movie it’s parodying, Star Wars, which helps to make the absurdity even more hilarious.  He one upped light speed with “ludicrous speed” and his special effects team managed to make even that look cutting edge on screen.  Though he is merciless to poking fun at these movies, you can also tell that Mel loves the films he’s spoofing as well.  Parody is often the highest form flattery, and his send ups of these genres demonstrates his general love for the movies as a whole.  Considering the care he puts into recreating the look of the movies he’s spoofing, it’s clear that he is an enthusiastic student of film himself.



While he always keeps his movies humorous and irreverent, Mel Brooks is also not afraid to take on some touchy subjects in his movies also.  This is definitely evident in his earlier films, which pushed quite a few buttons when they first came out.  The most obviously incendiary example of this was the movie Blazing Saddles.  The focal point of the movies is America’s rough legacy of racism, something that was even baked in to the Westerns made by Hollywood in it’s early years.  Mel came up with the novel idea of what it would be like if a small backwards racist town in the American West had to rely upon the protection of a black man as their sheriff.  Naturally, you would expect there to be tension, and Mel Brooks did not shy away.  Aided by a smart and fearless script co-written by legendary comedian Richard Pryor, the movie shows the ugly side of racism very blatantly, probably with the most uses of the “N-word” ever in a movie, but it’s all done with the purpose of mocking those same racist attitudes and exposing how absurd they are.  The untarnished examination of racism shown in this film still makes it somewhat controversial to this day, but Mel’s expert craftmanship still makes the overall tone of the movie hilarious and the message behind it all is still a potent one.  Likewise, Mel’s comedy helps to steer the mockery in the right direction, aimed at the people and things that deserve it.  After the horrors of World War II, most people couldn’t find themselves able to laugh at the aura of Nazi Germany anymore.  But, with The Producers, Mel showed us that we could indeed make fun of Nazi’s again.  As a Jewish man himself, he probably took great pride in finding the right way to mock Hitler and the Nazis again in his movies.  In the face of evil, sometimes the greatest weapon one could have is to be able to laugh right at it.



Though Mel often liked to work with some of the same people over and over again in his movies, with comedic icons like Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, Dom DeLuise and many others, the one frequent collaborator who left an indelible impression on his career was probably Gene Wilder.  Wilder only appeared in three of Mel’s movies, but they were the films that came to define the ascent of both of their careers, and it was a symbiotic creative awakening for both of them.  When Mel cast Gene in the role of Leo Bloom opposite Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock, Gene was still a relative unknown, but his scene-stealing manic performance quickly turned him into an instant star.  By the time Mel and Gene crossed paths again, Gene had gained even more notoriety for playing the part of Willy Wonka in the 1973 adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic.  But the next collaboration would be entirely different than The Producers.  It could be said that Gene Wilder was the one who directed Mel into the path of making genre spoofs, because their next film, Young Frankenstein, started off as Gene’s brainchild.  Gene clearly was attracted to the idea of playing a Dr. Frankenstein type character, as it fit with the manic over the top kind of performance that he exceled at.  The movie was certainly up Mel’s alley too, because it allowed him to make a cinematic love letter to the horror classics of the past, while also utilizing the opportunity to create some hilarious situations to have fun with.  Mel stayed in that same genre send-up mode immediately after with Blazing Saddles, but while developing the film, he struggled to find the right actor to play the key role of the Waco Kid (or Jim as they call him).  Mel went through a number of actors (including John Wayne at one point), before ultimately asking his friend Gene to help him on short notice.  Though hesitant at first, Wilder did eventually accept and he delivered yet again another stand-out and hilarious performance.  The neat thing about Gene as the Waco Kid is that it is a very different kind of performance compared to the other two he played for Mel.  The Waco Kid is stoic and quiet, whereas Dr. Frankenstein and Leo Bloom are loud and manic, and yet he still got the same amount of laughs.  Though it was a brief collaboration, and minimal compared to some of Mell Brook’s other regular players, this pairing of actor and director was perhaps the most monumental out of all of them, and one that left an indelible mark on both of their careers.



It was no surprise that Mel Brooks would find his way to Broadway eventually.  Hey, it’s what his first film was all about anyway.  But, one of the reasons Mel had a destiny with the Broadway stage is because all the movies he made up to his Tony Award winning The Producers had at least one elaborate music number in them.  None of his movies would be considered a musical, but they had at least one scene with song and dance in them.  Whether it was Madeline Kahn’s Dietrich inspired saloon show number “I’m Tired,” from Blazing Saddles, to the title number from High Anxiety (1977), to the can-can line of “Men in Tights,” each one of his movies took a moment to have the actors perform a little dance and song routine, but of course with a funny twist to them.  This is something that likely harkens back to the variety show days of You Show of Shows, which had musical performances woven frequently into the program.  Mel indeed is quite as good at writing lyrics to songs as he is writing jokes.  Of the big musical numbers found in his movies, there are two in particular that stand out.  One is the “Springtime for Hitler” musical performance that’s central to The Producers, a scene that perfectly encapsulates Mel’s style of comedy, with a ridiculously over the top Broadway number poking fun at a very taboo subject matter.  The other is one from Young Frankenstein, which may count as one of the funniest moments ever put on film.  As a demonstration of Dr. Frankenstein’s achievement in reanimating the dead, he and the monster (a hilarious Peter Boyle) perform a routine of “Putting on the Ritz” complete with top hats and tails.  The sight of the monster dressed so fancifully is funny enough, but when it’s his turn to sing the key part of the song, his mangled primal growl of the words “Putting on the Ritz” is enough to make you roll on the floor laughing.  Like with everything else with his parody movies, Mel is brilliant at spoofing the musical as well, and that scene in particular is proof of that.  Just like The Producers, Mel also brought Young Frankenstein to the Broadway stage, and though it was received well enough, I don’t think it could come close to matching the sheer absurdity of that moment in the movie.  You can definitely see their through line of musical theater in Mel Brooks’ movies, and they certainly contribute a lot to the overall hilarity of each movie.



Definitely the hallmark of absurdist comedy is crossing the line between reality and cartoonish logic, and that’s something that is found throughout the films of Mel Brooks.  One top of all the verbal gags, Mel also loves to incorporate elaborate visual gags as well, and some of them are quite ingenious.  There are some very elaborate set piece gags, like the toll booth in the desert that stops the marauding bandits from attacking  a town, to the scene in Spaceballs, where the bad guys are literally “combing” the desert.  But there are also hilarious character details that are visually hilarious.  Madeline Kahn’s character in High Anxiety color coordinates to the point where the paint job of her car matches the pattern of her dress.  And one of the funniest character visuals is seeing the villainous Dark Helmet’s absurdly oversized head gear sitting on top of Rick Moranis’ small frame.   Mel Brooks is also fond of his use of slapstick, which is prominent in most of his movies.  Some of the slapstick moments are crazy in of themselves, like football star Alex Karras punching a horse in Blazing Saddles, or Marty Feldman’s Igor (pronounced Eye Gor) telling Dr. Frankenstein to “walk this way.”  Mel made more use of visual gags in his latter films, to more diminishing degrees especially at the end, but there is definitely a sense of playfulness to how absurd he takes things to in his films.  In his latter movies, some of the more subtle visual gags are what works the best, like the fight in Robin hood: Men in Tights (1993) between Cary Elwes’ Robin Hood and Eric Allen Kramer’s Little John on a bridge spanning a tiny brook, which Little John later falls into and panics, because he can’t swim.  Not every visual gag lands, but Mel Brooks throws enough at you that one is bound to get a huge laugh.  It’s the same kind of manic energy that you would see from a Bugs Bunny cartoon, which Mel is better than most in bringing to real life on the big screen.

It is remarkable how even after a 70+ year career in entertainment, Mel Brooks is still out there creating.  Just this year, he made good on his promise and released History of the World Part II, a series sequel to his 1980 original film, streaming right now on Hulu.  Though he didn’t direct this new series, he still contributed as a producer and he even provides the narration himself.  For a man now at the ripe old age of 96, his continued creative drive is truly remarkable.  In a way, creating History of the World Part II as a series filled with individual sketches mocking historical events is kind of a full-circle return to where his career started as a sketch writer.  Though his impact on television and the Broadway stage are undeniable, I think it’s his collection of films that display his most genius work.  The trio of movies he made with Gene Wilder in particular (The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles) are almost universally considered to be among the greatest comedies ever made.  They also remain heavily influential so many years later.  The team of Zucker and Abrams probably wouldn’t have made their classic Airplane (1980) so wall to wall filled with visual gags had Mel’s movies not set the standard so high before.  And even more recently, Taika Waititi cited the films of Mel Brooks as a huge inspiration for his Oscar-winning comedy Jojo Rabbit (2019), especially with the way it mocks the Nazi regime and yet still finds the right tone to make the absurdity work with such a dark subject matter.  Taika was especially happy to have been given the seal of approval from Mel personally, which mattered a lot to him.  I would think that Mel must be especially blessed to have lived so long and see how much of an impact his legacy has made on cinema and comedy over the years.  The world would be a lot less funny had he not gotten out there and helped us all to laugh, even at the things we shouldn’t.  And thankfully, at the time of writing this, he’s still alive and well and ready to lighten out lives again.  It’s good to be the king.