All posts by James Humphreys

Disney’s The Little Mermaid (2023) – Review

You’ve got to give credit to Disney, they’ve always found a way to make a boat load of money no matter the circumstances.  Sometimes, however, their money making ideas come at a cost of damaging their brand.  Take the later part of the Michael Eisner era at the Disney Studios.  The Disney Renaissance that heralded the return to glory for the Animation Studio at the core of the company was beginning to wane in momentum going into the new millennium, with many films like Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Treasure Planet (2002) and Brother Bear (2003) all performing well under the average of what films like Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) took at the box office.  Couple that with the rise of computer animation from places like Pixar and Dreamworks, and Disney’s once mighty money making machine was just not able to compete anymore.  Unfortunately, the way that the Disney Team saw as a lifeline through the hard economic times was to turn towards the home video market.  Disney Television animation was in the middle of creating a weekly series spinoff for the film Aladdin, and their epic two part series pilot included a return of the film’s villain, Jafar, as part of it’s central plot.  Disney, seeing the potential appeal of the television event, decided to repackage the pilot into a direct to video movie release, declaring it the official sequel to the original film.  The Return of Jafar (1994) had none of the glossy animation, nor the popular songs, nor even Robin Williams as the Genie, and yet it still made a lot of money for Disney in home video sales; even rivaling the original film with it’s video release.  With the waning box office for their movies happening at the same time, Disney saw this as a lucrative new market for them, so the focus in the early 2000’s shifted away from spending money on new expensive movies, and instead towards raiding the Disney library to make cheap direct to video sequels to their classic films.  They found their way to make money, but at what cost?

From Walt Era classics to Renaissance era new masterpieces, no original Disney film was spared from getting a sequel treatment.  Most of the films made of course were lazy retreads of what had worked before with most of the original magic missing.  If you ask most Disney fans, none will consider any of the movies made in this era canon.  The direct to video craze was thankfully short lived as there was a renewed drive to revitalize the Animation brand with the arrival of Bob Iger as CEO of the Disney Company.  Disney went so far as to close the DisneyToon studio that had been set up specifically to churn out these low grade film and consolidate everything back to it’s roots; even bringing Pixar Animation fully into the fold.  And this led to another bright era for Disney, with films like Tangled (2010), Frozen (2013), Zootopia (2016), and Moana (2016) all performing magically for Disney.  But, while the direct to video era had come to an end, there were still minds within the studio who wanted to find ways to make money off of all the legacy titles they still had in their library.  In 2010, director Tim Burton created his live action version of classic story Alice in Wonderland with the Disney company.  The film became a surprise hit at the box office, grossing nearly a billion worldwide.  The results suddenly made Disney look at what other movies they had that could be given the live action remake treatment.  Suddenly, the new money making machine for Disney became taking their classic animated titles and giving them the live action treatment.  And the results, unfortunately, feel reminiscent of the direct to video craze at Disney.  Yes, they are making a lot of money off of these films, but in doing so, they are stripping away the things that made the original movies so memorable in the first place.  Thus far, they have gone through most of the biggest titles in the Disney canon, with less than stellar results.  This year, they have gotten to he film that launched the Disney Renaissance era itself, The Little Mermaid.  The big worry for many long time Disney fans is that this film will for the best pale in comparison to the original and at worst, stain it’s legacy by being a soulless money grab.  What kind of movie did the new Little Mermaid end up being.

The story of course is familiar to anyone who has either read the original Hans Christian Andersen story or seen the original Disney animated classic.  The ocean is ruled over by the mighty King Triton (Javier Bardem) who welcomes his daughters home for a festival celebrating what they call the Coral Moon.  Unfortunately, he finds his youngest daughter Ariel (Halle Bailey) is missing, so he sends his majordomo, a crab named Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) to go out and find her.  Ariel has secretly been collecting artifacts from the human world with the help of her friend, a fish named Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) and has consulted with a seagull named Scuttle (Awkwafina) to know what humans use those artifacts for.  Ariel’s collection is part of her obsession with life above the ocean surface, which Triton has forbidden her from reaching.  However, one evening she is drawn to the surface when she sees peculiar lights flashing above.  There she sees fireworks being fired from a passing ship, and on board the crew of humans are celebrating the birthday of their highness, Prince Eric (Jonah Hauer-King).  Ariel is immediately smitten with the young prince, but the celebration is cut short when a storm hits.  Eric ends up nearly drowning when the ship is destroyed in the fury of the storm, but is rescued by Ariel.  He is too weak to see Ariel’s face, but he can hear her siren song and it sticks with him, leading him to vow to find her anywhere on his island if she is real.  Meanwhile, Triton learns of Ariel’s infatuation with the humans and punishes her by destroying all of her artifacts.   Ariel is left heartbroken, which then leads to a intervention from a sinister force that has been spying on her the whole time; Ursula, the Sea Witch (Melissa McCarthy).  Ursula promises Ariel that she can make her human for three days, allowing her to finally reconnect with Eric in the surface world.  However, Ursula’s spell is purposely meant to entrap Ariel, with Ursula intent on using her to get Triton’s crown and trident.  Can Ariel find her true love before the witch’s spell ends and become a part of that world?

There is no doubt about it; the original Little Mermaid is a landmark classic in the Disney canon.  It’s the movie that jump started the Disney Renaissance and brought back Disney Animation back from the dead.  To this day, it is a beloved film to a generation of Disney fans who came of age during this era; myself being one of them.  So, you can expect me to be a tad bit worried about how a live action remake would reflect on a movie as beloved as the original animated film.  Disney’s track record as of late with the live action remakes isn’t great.  Some are definitely genuine good films (Pete’s Dragon, Cinderella, Cruella) while others are just average (Aladdin, The Jungle Book, Peter Pan and Wendy), while sadly most are just downright awful (Maleficent, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Pinocchio).  Given that, I was anxious about what might happen to The Little Mermaid, but at the same time, I have to go in with an open mind and just accept the movie on it’s own merits.  And after having seen it, I am grateful in saying that the new Little Mermaid is one of the better Disney remakes I’ve seen.  I even dare say it’s worth seeing, even if you are against the idea of it existing in the first place.  To be clear, it’s not without it’s flaws.  The novelty of the original is not here, but there is a lot of creativity still on display that it still kept me engaged as I was watching it.  While most of the other Disney remakes feel like pale imitators, made I might add without passion, The Little Mermaid does what I hope for all the Disney remakes to accomplish, which is to justify it’s reason for existing.  Sadly, too many of the Disney remakes feel like the direct to video sequels, which are just movies existing solely as a product rather than a work of art.  There are times in this Little Mermaid where you do feel the pressure of corporate mandates, but there’s also a sense from the people who made this movie that they are trying their best to give us something special, and that helps to elevate it above the other remakes.

The first great thing I’d like to highlight about this movie is the thing that I’m sure most people are going to be talking about the most with this film, and that’s the performance of Halle Bailey as Ariel.  Bailey is transcendent in her performance as the titular Little Mermaid, giving far and away the best performance that I have ever seen in any of these Disney remakes.  From the first moment she appears on screen, she commands this film and elevates the movie as a result.  Throughout the movie, she exudes this infectious charm on screen, even in the moments where she has to act without her voice.  And man, what a great singing voice.  If there was anything that needed to translate directly from the original to this new live action version, it’s that Ariel had to have the most beautiful voice in the world.  Ariel’s original voice actor, Jodi Benson, is a tough act to follow, but Halle more than meets the challenge.  This is definitely evident in Ariel’s iconic “I Want” song, “Part of Your World,” which Halle performs to absolute perfection.  The audience I saw the movie with were spellbound during that scene, and even applauded at the end, demonstrating just how well she nailed the performance.  I am extremely happy to see her shine so brightly in this movie, given the controversy that surrounded the news of her casting in the film.  Because Halle Bailey is a different skin tone than the animated Ariel, there arose a racist online backlash towards the movie.  Sadly, many attacks were levied at her specifically, and she had to weather a firestorm of negative attention from people were pre-judging the movie before a single frame had been shot.  To see Halle rise above all that and give the kind of heartfelt performance that she did is the best outcome out of all this, and I hope that the undeniable power of her performance silences all the trolls and haters online as a result, especially if it leads to Halle becoming a major star because of this role.

Thankfully, the rest of the movie for the most part rises to the level of Halle’s performance as Ariel.  One thing that I think helped is that the film is directed by Rob Marshall.  Marshall has a mixed record as a film director, but where he has done his best work is in adapting musicals, and more importantly, staging musical numbers.  Drawing from his Broadway experience, the guy knows how to make visually interesting musical numbers for the big screen, something that he demonstrated very well in his big screen debut; the Oscar-winning Chicago (2002).  In The Little Mermaid, he’s working with a very different kind of musical, dependent on a lot of visual effects, but to his credit, he managed to make those musical numbers just as visually inventive as the ones he does with no visual effects.  The “Under the Sea” sequence in particular is perfect example of what Rob Marshall managed to bring to the movie.  Every shot is choreographed well to the song itself, and at the same time it doesn’t merely just copy the original film either.  That’s the one thing that made the Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King remakes so frustrating for me; the lack of creativity in the musical sequences.  They either were copy and paste jobs of the original animated sequences, or they lacked any visual stimulation at all.  With the Little Mermaid, Rob Marshall wants to make these songs feel special, and that thankfully carries through in all the classic Howard Ashman/ Alan Menken songs carried over from the original, as well as the new ones written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Not only that, but the movie benefits from a cast that can actually sing.  While I was worried about the more realistic depictions of the animal characters of Sebastian, Flounder, and Scuttle, the voice cast helped me to get used to them, and they turned out to be entertaining on their own.  Daveed Diggs’ performance as Sebastian especially works well, making the character just as entertaining as his classic counterpart (voiced by the late Samuel Wright).  The only actor that I wished had gone a bit further with her performance is Melissa McCarthy as Ursula.  She’s not bad by any means, and thankfully exceeded my dire expectations, but at the same time her performance seems too grounded and more of an imitation of the late great Pat Carroll’s vocal performance in the original.  At the same time, I did like McCarthy’s overall look as the character, especially with the bioluminescence they added to Ursula’s tentacles.

The one area where I think the movie may fall behind the original is it’s depiction of the ocean world.  The visual effects are not the worst that I’ve seen in these Disney remakes, but you still get this unfortunate artificiality that encumbers many moments within the movie.  For one thing, the underwater sequences still feel too murky, which dilutes some of the colors.  Coming right off of the heels of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), which revolutionized the ways digital water scenes can be filmed, doesn’t help.  The effects to turn the actors into merpeople is also mixed.  I feel like most of the resources for the mermaid effect went into the characters of Ariel and Ursula, both of whom come off as convincing as the iconic characters.  Other merpeople look unfortunately not as great, which is especially true for poor Javier Bardem as Triton, who often looks awkward in the role, buried under too many layers of effects both for his tail fin as well as for his beard.  The above water scenes fare much better, and the production design team did a great job of crafting Eric’s kingdom into this colorful, vibrant place, complete with a Caribbean flavor to it.  One thing about the visual effects that I really think helped out a lot was actually giving expressions to the animation of the animal characters.  After seeing the cold, lifeless faces of the household objects in Beauty and the Beast as well as those of the animals in The Lion King, it’s refreshing to see the digital animators make an effort here to be less adherent to limitations of live action and actually make the animals a bit more cartoony.  There’s also a lot to be said about the structure of the movie as well.  At 135 minutes, the movie is nearly an hour longer than the original, which ran a tight 83 minutes.  But, even with all that extra length, the movie never feels padded with unnecessary scenes.  All the extra time instead is devoted to extra character development, particularly with Ariel and Eric, whose courtship is fleshed out much more here.  Too often Disney chooses to fill their remakes with plot elements that either add nothing or effectively ruin the story as a whole (the idiotic teleportation book from Beauty and the Beast for example), and that’s thankfully absent here.  This is essentially the same story, but just with more meat on the bone.  And to director Marshall’s credit, it flows just as well as the original.

Out of all the Disney remakes, only Pete’s Dragon is one that I would say exceeds the original, which frankly didn’t have that high of a bar to clear.  In the case of all the Disney remakes, none of them ever have been better than the original animated versions.  But, with The Little Mermaid, I would say it joins the likes of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella remake, which doesn’t exceed the original, but at the same time compliments it.  After so much disappointment, it’s nice to actually say that about one of these Disney remakes.  The film is especially worth your time just for Halle Bailey’s performance as Ariel alone.  I can’t think of a better live action embodiment of one of these iconic Disney characters than her version of Ariel.  She really rose to the challenge, taking on a difficult role, and shone through magnificently.  Thankfully, the rest of the movie is worthwhile as well.  It’s not perfect, and sometimes suffers whenever it has to adhere too close to the original, including some unnecessary shot for shot imitations.  But, there’s a lot of care put into this film that feels absent from so many other Disney remakes.  Somehow, Rob Marshall managed to succeed in a way that other acclaimed directors like Tim Burton, Bill Condon, Robert Zemeckis and Jon Favreau have all failed to do, which is to make a movie that doesn’t feel like a hollow cash grab.  Don’t get me wrong, this movie is still a cash grab, and I worry that Disney will take the wrong lesson from it if it becomes a success.  But, for the first time in a long time, they got the remake formula right.  Much like Cinderella, it changes enough to make it feel like it’s own thing, while still fulfilling the expectations of what we remember from the original.  Despite it’s success, I do wish Disney would get out of this trend of remakes and get back to making original films again.  They’ve got a valuable brand and they are doing no favors for themselves by rehashing their glories from the past.  At least with The Little Mermaid they didn’t stain the legacy of that beloved classic, and at the very least gave it a deserving companion; one where you can definitely say both are worth watching, even though the original is still the top choice.  Thank you Disney for not spoiling your lovely Little Mermaid and letting her be part of our world once again.

Rating: 8/10

The House That Iron Man Built – 15 Years of Marvel Studios and Where It’s Going Next

Roll back the clock to the 2000’s.  The state of Comic Book movies in the mainstream was in a much different situation than it is now.  The 90’s came to close with the genre in it’s worst state, following the box office and critical failure that was Batman & Robin (1997).  While the  DC Comics properties were firmly in the control of a single studio, that being Warner Brothers, their comic page rival Marvel was not so lucky to have a sole proprietor making decisions over it’s cinematic fortunes, both good and ill.  Marvel was coming out of near bankruptcy in the mid-90’s, and to salvage their financial status, they freely spread out the cinematic rights to their characters and storylines to whomever was interested in them.  As a result, the rights to Marvel properties were spread around to most of the major studios in Hollywood.  Sony took Spider-Man and his associated company of heroes and villains.  Fox won the rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.  Meanwhile, fitting of their history of monster movies, Universal became the home of The Incredible Hulk.  The rest, who many believed at the time were second tier characters like Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, went to Paramount, who for a while did little with their Marvel properties.  In the early part of the 2000’s, the studios that did have Marvel characters in their possession did quite well.  Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) broke box office records for Sony Pictures, while Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) was hailed as a refreshingly mature take on the often silly genre.  There were, however, some disappointments as well, with Ang Lee’s Hulk (2002) becoming a convoluted mess, and Tim Story’s Fantastic Four (2005) feeling like an undercooked portrayal of Marvel’s first family.  Sequels to the X-Men and Spider-Man movies also fell off for fans in later years, and many were wondering if Marvel was even capable of competing with the likes of DC in sustaining long lasting franchises.  The ante was upped even more after Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins premiered, a critically acclaimed revival of the Batman franchise that put DC back on firm ground again.  Marvel would answer, but the way they would do would change everything we thought we knew about comic book movies.

The Spider-Man franchise over at Sony Pictures was spear-headed by a powerful Executive Producer named Amy Pascal.  To this day, she still retains exclusive rights to produce Spider-Man movies, but her time in the comic book world left a much different impact than that.  One of her assistants that she mentored during the making of Spider-Man was a up-and-coming producer named Kevin Feige.  Feige was very much a person who lived and breathed comic books, and he was eager to change the way super hero movies were made by pushing them to adhere closer to what was on the page.  There seemed to be a feeling in Hollywood that comic book movies needed to be more like action movies.  Storylines were more grounded and simple.  Gone were the tights and in were the dark leather suits.  It’s almost like the industry was ashamed that these popular characters came from such a colorful and imaginative source such as the comic book page.  Feige didn’t believe any of that.  He wanted to see the characters pop right off the page in all their colorful and sometimes cheesy glory.  He understood that these characters were larger than life, and that the movies needed to embrace this aspect about them in order to do the characters justice.  You can feel that a bit in the Spider-Man films from Sam Raimi, which definitely embraced more of the charming quirkiness of the comic books, and it wouldn’t be surprising if this is what Feige imagined for all the other characters as well.  By the time Spider-Man 3 (2007) came out in theaters, Feige was already working a plan to change the future of Marvel on the big screen.  He convinced the leadership of Marvel Comics to invest in a new in-house production company that would supervise the creation of all future Marvel movies at all the studios, insuring a consistency across all their properties that would define them first and foremost as a Marvel film.  Thus began the existence of Marvel Studios.

Marvel Studios would work with all the different studios on their selectively held properties but all the creative choices, such as casting and which stories to tell, would be run through Marvel Studios offices.  As a result of this change in creative leadership, the decision was to abandon most of the franchises that had been developed up to that point and instead reboot many of the characters.  This, however, was easier said than done, as Fox was insistent on continuing on with their popular X-Men franchise as it was; especially since they had a bankable star like Hugh Jackman still going strong as Wolverine.  The other studios were more inclined to rethink the future, and at this point, Paramount was ready to finally begin using the Marvel properties they had been sitting on.  It was with Paramount that Feige saw a really golden opportunity to try something that hadn’t been done before ever with the super hero genre.  Instead of having each character exist within their own stand alone franchise, Feige and company theorized the possibility of having all their comic book characters share a single connected universe.  Not only would they have their own stand alone movies, but the characters would be able to meet each other and crossover; even forming a super team.  Kevin Feige knew this would be an ideal thing for Marvel to undertake, because it’s exactly what the comic books had been doing for decades before.  It’s not a novel idea; DC had been trying to jumpstart a Justice League film for years before, and both the Superman and Batman franchises featured Easter eggs referencing the different heroes in their films many times; same with early Marvel films too.  But the stars had not aligned until now.  With Marvel Studios now assuming creative control, they were ready to give it a try, and the starting point would be with the trio of heroes that the industry had before believed were second tier.

Paramount announced that they were greenlighting new films based on the Marvel super heroes Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.  These were untried properties, with only Captain America having one cheaply made for TV movie in the past.  But, Marvel Studios believed that this was the right batch of characters to begin plans for a bigger universe.  But, the all important question was who would be the one taking on the responsibility of starting this new era on the right foot.  The answer came with Iron Man (2008).  There had been attempts to bring Iron Man to the big screen before.  For a while, Tom Cruise was attached to play the role of Iron Man and his alter ego, billionaire playboy Tony Stark.  However, Cruise’s busy schedule conflicted with Marvel Studios’ plans, and the team decided to go in a much different direction than what he was planning to do with the character.  For Iron Man, Marvel Studios needed to not just make the actor look good in the suit, but they also needed to make him interesting outside of it as well.  The task of adapting the character to the big screen fell to actor/filmmaker Jon Favreau, who was coming off of a successful stretch of films such as Elf (2003) and Zathura (2005).  He too was an avid comic book fan who was eager to do justice to the character of Iron Man on the big screen.  But, who other than the unavailable Tom Cruise would be ideal for the role.  Favreau’s first choice was a rather surprising one.  Robert Downey Jr., a long time character actor in Hollywood, was not what many would consider to be a bankable star.  His career was nearly destroyed by his drug addiction and the time he served in prison.  He had recently earned high marks for a comeback performance in Shane Black’s Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2004), but many still thought he was too much of risk to headline a major studio film.   But, Favreau saw in Downey’s persona exactly what was needed for the role of Tony Stark, and he convinced Marvel and Paramount to take a chance by giving him the role.  The rest of course is the stuff of legend.  Downey was the perfect Tony Stark and his presence on screen carried the film to remarkable commercial and critical success.  But Iron Man the movie also offered up another surprise for audiences.  A post-credit scene introduced another famous comic character named Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who was there to introduce what ultimately would be the future of Marvel films for the next decade and beyond; the Avenger Initiative.

Marvel Studios had proven itself with the crazy success of the first Iron Man movie, and they were ready to continue with the next phase of their plans, which was to get the other films in the pipeline going.  They got a strong assist that same summer with Universal successfully rebooting The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton playing Dr. Bruce Banner.  They were even able to tie that film in with Iron Man by giving Robert Downey Jr. a surprise cameo at the end before the credits.  But, a surprising development happened in the wake of Iron Man’s success.  In 2009, Disney, which had up to this point been out of the super hero game entirely, decided they were ready to get in on the action.  Unfortunately for them, the other Hollywood studios had already licensed all of the prime properties that Marvel had to offer.  So, what did they do?  Well they decided to buy up Marvel outright, to the tune of $4 billion.  This purchase included Marvel Studios in the package, so now Kevin Feige and company had a new set of overlords to answer to.  Thankfully for them, Disney CEO Bob Iger was willing to be hands off as long as they could deliver the same way they did with Iron Man.  Surprisingly, Disney was also able to secure back the licenses from Paramount without struggle, which meant that they would be the ones in charge of the upcoming Thor, Captain America, and Avengers releases, as well as an Iron Man sequel.  Universal maintained their Hulk license, but were willing to work with Disney in adding the big green guy to the Avengers team up, which became necessary because Edward Norton left the franchise after one film.  Sony and Fox remained defiant in holding firmly to their exclusive rights and keeping them out of Disney’s hands.  Still, Disney was able to work with what properties they had.  Then unknown Australian actor Chris Hemsworth was given the role of Thor, while actor Chris Evans (who previously played The Human Torch in Fox’s Fantastic Four) was cast as golden boy super soldier Captain America.  Mark Ruffalo replaced the absent Edward Norton in the role of Hulk, and lesser know heroes like Hawkeye and Black Widow were added to the mix, played by Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson respectively.  This was the original team assembled for The Avengers (2012), and again Marvel changed the world of comic book movies forever.

It became clear after The Avengers that Marvel Studios was not just a Hollywood success story, they were a force to be reckoned with.  Now that they finally had a home studio base with deep pockets like Disney to finance all of their future plans, they could indeed create that shared comic book universe that Kevin Feige had long dreamed would be a reality on the big screen.  The first four years of Marvel Studios output was deemed Phase One, and that every collection of films thereafter that would ultimately culminate in another Avengers team up would be another new phase.  Over time they introduced a whole lot more of the Marvel family to the big screen, including long anticipated debuts of fan favorites like Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, The Vision, and Captain Marvel.  They even managed to turn a very obscure comic property like Guardians of the Galaxy into a smash hit with audiences and critics alike.  Sony even decided it was in their best interest to play nice, and they granted the use of Spider-Man in their Avengers team ups.  At that point, only Fox remained the lone hold-out; but Disney and Marvel were still able to build their universe without the presence of the Fantastic Four or the X-Men.  The question however was where it was all going to lead.  Audiences had become invested in this cinematic universe to the point where they were following it like it was the biggest serialized TV show ever made.  But in every narrative, there had to be a purpose to it, and for Marvel’s endgame, they turned to the comics for inspiration.  Typically, comic books lead their ongoing storylines to major events, and one of the most famous in Marvel comics history was an arc known as the Infinity War.  In the first three phases of what had become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) there was this connecting thread of powerful gems known as the Infinity Stones being discovered by the characters.  The stones were coveted by a powerful being known as Thanos (played by Josh Brolin), who ultimately used its’ power to reshape the universe.  Marvel Studios masterfully wove in this storyline across 20+ films, and it resulted in two monumental films Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), both of which wrapped up the decade long arc in perfect fashion.  The MCU managed to achieve the unthinkable, which was to successfully tie in all of their many franchises into a satisfying conclusion to an epic storyline.  Kevin Feige had achieved his dream of bring the comic book universe completely to life.

But, where do you go after you’ve conquered the world.  By the time Avengers: Endgame had been released, Marvel had become the most valuable entertainment brand in the world.  Not only did Disney make back their $4 billion investment; they were able to use their gains to acquire Fox itself, thereby bringing in the last holdouts of the Marvel properties still out in the wild.  With no more roadblocks in their way, they really could do anything they wanted post-Endgame.  So, what were they ready to do in Phase Four.  This new phase was something of a reboot for Marvel.  The storylines that led up to the Infinity War were now complete, with legacy characters like Iron Man and Captain America getting their farewells.  Now it was time to look towards the next event.  For the new phase of Marvel, Feige and company decided the new direction would focus on what is known as the Multiverse.  And once again, Marvel is finding itself in uncharted territory with this new undertaking.  The multiverse is a concept that’s a bit harder to sell to audiences than easy to identify McGuffins like the Infinity Stones.  The plan has offered up some fun ways to explore the multiverse, like current Spider-Man Tom Holland getting the chance to appear alongside his predecessors in the role, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, in Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021).  But other uses of the concept feel underdeveloped like with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) which didn’t go far enough into the multiverse.  Plus, you see the struggle Marvel is having with establishing their new big baddie for this long arc saga; the multiversal menace Kang the Conqueror (which isn’t helped by Kang actor Jonathan Major’s on-going, at the time of this writing, legal troubles).  For the first time in it’s 15 year history, Marvel seems to showing some growing pains; like the level of success that they have managed to achieve is now starting to weigh down on them and undermining their focus.  One thing that could be affecting this shaky ground that they now stand on is the fact that Marvel is also devoting part of their master plan to Disney’s aggressive expansion into the streaming market, with Marvel Studios creating long form series and specials for Disney+.  Where in past years there was room to build anticipation between each new Marvel film, now Marvel is releasing new properties throughout the entire year.  And for audiences, it’s proving to be too much of a good thing.  That’s why Marvel’s Phase Four has had the most mixed response to date of any of Marvel’s MCU plans.

Now, looking back in all the fifteen years of existence of the MCU, has Marvel finally lost it’s golden touch?  In many ways it’s still relative.  Compared to it’s own past success, Marvel is underperforming a tad bit in it’s recent offerings.  Earlier this year, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), the film meant to launch Phase Five of the MCU, became the first film widely accepted by both the fans and the critics as the least successful film from Marvel to date.  It’s not the biggest money loser, which goes to Eternals (2021), but it can’t blame it’s poor box office on lingering effects of the pandemic either.  Even still, most of their movies are still out-performing competitors from other studios.  Sony’s non-MCU Spider-Man character movies have not performed as well, with last year’s Morbius (2022) being a pretty embarrassing flop for them.  And the whole last decade for Marvel’s rival DC Comics has been defined by Warner Brothers desperately trying to play catch-up, with some pretty disastrous results.  The failure of their Justice League (2017) movie is a particular case study in how studio interference can ruin a franchise, and it took a grass roots effort on line to get a better director’s cut released to finally satisfy the fans.  Even the less successful Phase Four projects still perform well when compared to the rest of the market; I’m sure DC wishes they had Quantumania’s over $200 million take in domestic box office.  Honestly, Marvel has been in this boat before.  Phase Two had it’s shaky moments too before things finally revved up in Phase Three leading up to the Infinity War.  For any studio to maintain this kind of level of success this long is pretty miraculous, and Kevin Feige, Disney and everyone who worked on these movies should feel a sense of pride that they are still doing fairly well even as audiences are a bit mixed lately.  You definitely have to credit all the things they have done right to make themselves the juggernaut that they are.  Having the strong foundation of Iron Man was a key part of that.  It was risky trusting the future of comic book movies with someone of Robert Downey Jr.’s reputation, but he persevered and his career resurrection is one of the greatest redemption stories in movie history.  15 year later, Marvel is on top of the world and it still has more stories to share, which will hopefully continue to fulfill the hopeful vision that Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios set out to accomplish.  As the legendary Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee always said: “Excelsior.”

Tinseltown Throwdown – Henry V: Olivier vs. Branagh

Of all the plays written by Shakespeare, the one that many believe to be the most inspiring is his historical play Henry V.  Written in 1599, Henry V touches upon the life of the famed English monarch.  The play itself is actually part of a tetralogy of historical plays written by Shakespeare that all combine into a singular narrative, those other plays being Richard II, Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II.  The character of Henry V actually becomes the central character of the duo of Henry IV plays because those are less about the titular king and more about his rebellious son, Prince Hal, who will one day take his place as king.  Prince Hal of course is crowned king by the end of Henry IV and the play Henry V shows us the key moment that defined his rule; the war against the French.  While Shakespeare’s other historical plays were about coming of age and the makings of kings, his Henry V is very much an epic showing the glory of kingship and has long been seen as the most rousing of patriotic statements by the Bard with regards to presenting the English monarchy as a powerful force in the world.  Given that his patrons were the English aristocracy, most notably Queen Elizabeth, it’s clear that Shakespeare knew his audience.   But, the masses also loved Shakespeare’s take on history, as Henry V is a rousing piece of theater representing the Bard at his most bombastic.  With the inspiring centerpiece of the Battle of Agincourt as the defining moment within the play, Shakespeare gives us action and suspense on the stage that is far more alive on the page than the usual Shakespearean text.  To this day, Henry V remains one of Shakespeare’s most beloved and often re-staged plays, with many actors relishing the chance to take on the pivotal role of the inspiring boy king.

For many Shakespearean trained actors, the role of Henry V is an especially good one to undertake as a young performer.  A lot of the great actors of the stage and screen that we know of throughout the decades have at some point played Henry V on stage.  Multiple generations of actors, from Richard Burton to Timothee Chalamet have at some point donned the bowl cut and played the boy king.  For many, it’s an ideal launching point to show their skill not just with the Shakespearean text, but also with their ability to command the stage or the screen.  Henry V is a play about a man showing strength and courage beyond his years, and a kind of role like that demands attention from it’s audience.  If the actor pulls off the role perfectly, it can be a star making performance.  That’s probably the reason it’s a coveted role by so many actors.  The play of course has translated to the screen a number of times, but there is little doubt that the most substantial adaptations are the ones from the two men whose film careers are inexorably linked to Shakespeare; Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.  Olivier and Branagh both came into the film business pretty much in the same fashion.  They began as actors in the Royal Shakespearean Theater before eventually transitioning into film acting, and then they later took their experience in film to undertake their own cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, and in the process both fundamentally changing the ways these plays are presented on screen through their own unique styles.  You can see many parallels between both Olivier’s and Branagh’s approach to Shakespeare on film, though often with focus on different plays.  Olivier was more focused on Shakespeare’s more stately plays centered around kings, while Branagh often looked for more of a mix, adapting some of the Bard’s comedies like Much Ado About Nothing (1993).  But they did overlap a couple times, including with Henry V, which coincidently was the movie that marked both of their film directing debuts.

“We would not seek a battle as we are, yet as we are, we say we will not shun it.”

It is interesting to examine the differences between both Olivier and Branagh’s versions of Shakespeare’s Henry V.  Despite using the same text, the approaches to the play are very different, which in many ways is reflective of the different eras that they were made in.  The production of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) is significant specifically because of the era in which it was made.  When Olivier returned to England after his years in Hollywood, his homeland was deeply embroiled in the midst of World War II.  This was the “Keep Calm and Carry On,” moment in English history, as the nation tried it’s best to press through, even while German bomb raids became ever more frequent.  It’s not any surprise that Olivier chose in this moment to bring Henry V to the big screen.  Taking advantage of the play’s patriotic fervor, Olivier very much intended for his screen adaptation to be a rallying cry for his fellow countrymen; to inspire them to fight as well as they can to defend their country, much in the same way that Shakespeare’s Henry V did.  Sure, it’s turning the centuries old piece of theater into wartime propaganda, but honestly isn’t that what William Shakespeare intended with his original also.  Regardless, Olivier’s plan worked.  The movie was an inspiring piece of cinema that was warmly received by war time audiences, many whom were also inspired to live out the example of the historical king and do what they could to fight the good fight abroad and at home.  At the same time, it satisfied Olivier’s desire to adapt Shakespeare’s play onto the big screen that he felt honored the vision of Shakespeare himself.  Many filmmakers before Olivier had adapted the play before on film, but they were often tied closely to how they were performed on stage.  Olivier broke that mold and showed how Shakespeare could be cinematic without being unfaithful to the text.  This included being creative with how shots were blocked and how the camera moved, making the whole thing less stagey.  It boosted Olivier into a prosperous career behind the camera as well as in front, and inspired a whole new generation of filmmakers who would present Shakespeare in a whole new way on screen.

“Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own.”

One of those inspired filmmakers to come after Olivier of course was Kenneth Branagh.  Branagh likewise chose to undertake Henry V (1989) as his directorial debut, but his approach was very different from Olivier’s; one that was far more reflective of the time in which it was made.  In Olivier’s time, England was engaged in a very clear cut war where the good and bad sides were clearly drawn.  In that spirit of the times, a rousing patriotic statement without contradiction is far more understandable.  But, by the eighties when Branagh made his Henry V, the world was a much different place.  It was the Cold War era, where the lines between good and bad were not so clear cut.  In the years since Olivier’s adaptation, England went through many different political upheavals, with future generations becoming far more cynical about the idea of patriotism and national identity.  In that time, the effects of the Vietnam War and smaller skirmishes like those in the Falkland Islands led many English youth to look less favorably on the power of the English empire that was in heavy decline.  So, in the midst of this, Kenneth Branagh took this traditionally rousing patriotic story and deconstructs it in a way that would appeal to a more cynical audience.  His Henry V is a far grittier take on the play than Olivier’s technicolor wonder.  And within it, he creates a version of the character that is far more nuanced and complex.  His Henry V is not the saintly monarch of past adaptations, but rather a fierce warrior that can both inspire the men around him, but also inspire fear in them as well.  Branagh is far more interested in the flaws of Henry V, and wishes to make them a crucial part of his version of the story.  Even with that, his adaptation is remarkably faithful to Shakespeare’s original text; almost using every word, as opposed to Olivier’s which abbreviated several parts.  It’s clear upon seeing both versions of the play that both filmmakers knew the kinds of audiences they wanted to reach with their adaptations, and in both cases they achieved what they wanted.  Olivier wanted to inspire, while Branagh wanted to examine.

The different approaches they took in presenting the character of Henry V through their performances reveals a lot about what they saw in the character and why it was important to re-tell the play in their own different ways.  For Olivier, his approach to the part of Henry V is very much a regal one.  Olivier’s style of performance is very direct and commanding.  He plays Henry with the authority of a noble king, unwavering in his duty and one who commands attention in every moment.  It’s the same kind of performance that Olivier honed throughout his career, whether he was doing Shakespeare or not.  And it is a style of performance that is effective in his version of Henry V.  The command of his voice brings out the power of Shakespeare’s words, and you can see why many war time audiences were inspired by his portrayal in the film.  In contrast, Branagh’s fluctuates far more with the way he portrays the role of Henry V.  Depending on the scene, Branagh’s Henry can go from fiercely growling his lines at his most angry to gently speaking his lines at his most intimate.  His performance commands in the same way as Olivier’s, but while Olivier presents more the idea of a king, Branagh presents us more of a depiction of a human being.  His Henry is complex, and full of a wide ranging array of emotions.  It definitely is reflective of a different kind of school of acting that Olivier and Branagh come from.  For Kenneth Branagh, his generation came up in a time where acting Shakespeare on film was more commonplace, so actors like him needed to find ways to make performing Shakespeare feel more natural.  This is definitely evident in the ways they both perform the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech, the most famous monologue from the play, and perhaps one of the most rousing speeches ever written in the English language.  Olivier delivers the speech like a great orator at a podium would; clear, commanding and easy for everyone to hear.  Branagh’s version is a calming speech delivered from the heart like a passionate declaration of love, making it feel like Henry is opening himself up to the men under his command and even trying to inspire himself as he speaks to them.

“Customs curtsy to great kings.  We are the makers of manners.”

While the performances are distinctive, it can be said that both Olivier and Branagh take the same approach to adapting the play to the big screen with their direction, which is to be very creative with how they stage everything.  Olivier, out of the two, surprisingly takes the more experimental approach.  He starts his film with a recreation of how the play would’ve been staged in the original Globe Theater.  Starting off with an amazingly well shot descent from the rooftops of Renaissance London, across the different levels of the theater, and down to the stage itself, the movie begins with a narrator asking the audience to imagine the spectacular sights that only the stage production can hint at with it’s limitations.  For the first few scenes, Olivier begins the movie showing us just what the play itself would have looked like in the Globe.  The subsequent scenes move us into large interior sets that feel lest like they are on the stage and more like they were constructed on a soundstage.  And then once we arrive at the Battle of Agincourt scene, the movie has now moved outdoors onto a real field in the English countryside.  It’s as if the further into the play we go, the movie is reflecting what the audience would’ve imagined seeing the play performed on stage.  Through this clever staging, we see Olivier literally bringing a Shakespeare play to life before our eyes, blurring the lines between the stage and the screen.  Branagh by contrast keeps the staging consistent throughout his adaptation, while at the same time being creative with many of the shots in his film.  He dispenses with the whole stage conceit and just adapts the play straightforward like it’s a historical epic.  But, at the same time, he does some daring things on film, particularly with lighting and editing.  The more gritty tone is carried through in this adaptation through the visuals, with Branagh utilizing real castles as a part of his staging.  Combine this with very violent recreations of the Battle of Agincourt’s skirmishes and you’ve got an adaptation that definitely de-mystifies the shiny image of the original play.  Branagh’s gritty portrayal of medieval times would prove to be highly influential beyond the film, inspiring movies like Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and Braveheart (1995) in it’s wake.

But what ultimately separates the two films is in how well it actually remains true to Shakespeare’s play.  The different eras in which these plays were written again determine how well the adaptations hold up compared to what Shakespeare wrote.  In that regard, Olivier’s version for the most part is a film for it’s own time for a specific purpose, while Branagh’s version is more timeless and faithful to the story and character of Henry V.  That’s not to say that Laurence Olivier faulted in his adaptation.  His film is a spectacular piece of cinematic art, and a film largely responsible for ushering in a whole new way of adapting Shakespeare for the big screen.  But, it is clear that he was using Shakespeare’s text for a different purpose altogether.  With some very noticeable omissions in the adaptation, it’s clear that Olivier wanted to present a version of Henry V that was a bit more sanitized.  England needed a war time hero to inspire them, and that’s why he made his Henry much more regal and saintly.  This kind of approach is understandable given that time period, but it’s a far cry from the complex character that Shakespeare put down on the page originally.  In many ways, Olivier’s Henry V is contained more within a bottle of it’s own specific narrative, with the intent of making us aware of it’s purpose to present heroism in it’s purest form.  Branagh by contrast brings the character of Henry V back to what he is on the page, which is a king with a complex past.  It’s clear that there is an awareness of the background of Henry’s character in Branagh’s adaptation based not just on the original play itself, but from the real historical account of King Henry V, as well as the story that had been built up through the past Shakespearean plays in which Henry was the focus.  Branagh demonstrates the more modern idea that leaders are not born, but rather made through adversity, and that’s why his version of Henry is flawed and yet still worthy of his sacred place within English history.  His film far more seeks to get to the truth of who Henry V was rather than just make him a symbol.  That’s why he’s a better fit for a more complex time in which morality and honor are not so easily defined in a world that sees things more in shades of gray.

“We charge you in the name of God, take heed how you awake our sleeping sword of war.”

In either case, both Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh created incredible adaptations of the same source Shakespearean play.  What is most important from either version is that they show us the ideal ways to adapt Shakespeare for the big screen.  Their films are not merely straight from the stage adaptations, but instead versions of Henry V that take full advantage of the language of cinema.  Olivier’s version in particular is remarkably ahead of it’s time with it’s unique framing, and it showed many filmmakers thereafter exactly how to take Shakespeare’s words and make them come alive on film.  Kenneth Branagh picked up the mantle set by Olivier and modernized the Bard even more with his version of Henry V, getting back to the complex character of the original text, while at the same time grounding the style in a very lived in depiction.  While both actors do their best to make their heroes stand out, they are at the same time supported by other Shakespearean trained talent that likewise rise to the challenge.  Branagh’s film in particular is filled with a who’s who of some of the greatest British character actors from that time, including Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Brian Blessed, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, and even a young Christian Bale.  What is really interesting about comparing the two versions of Henry V is how the context of the times in which they were made are reflective in the presentation, even as the text itself is still eternal and true to Shakespeare’s words.  Olivier’s version was a clear statement of war time resolve with the complexities of the play smoothed over, while Branagh’s version embraces the complexities and is not afraid to create a grittier version of the story for a more cynical time.  Overall, I feel like Olivier’s version is more of the time capsule, looking far less timeless than Branagh’s more earthbound version.  In a more complex world, Olivier’s unvarnished Henry V feels far less realistic.  But, that’s not to say it’s not worth viewing.  Despite it’s datedness, it’s still a great cinematic achievement and is enormously entertaining.  The crown goes more to Kenneth Branagh’s more complex and interesting version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, but Laurence Olivier’s Henry is still a movie fit for a king.

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.  For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 – Review

What an extraordinary route it took for this movie to finally make it to movie theaters.  When it was first announced at Comic Con 2012 that Marvel was indeed going to adapt a film based on the Guardians of the Galaxy line of comic books, people thought that they had lost their minds.  It made sense in those early years of the MCU to create movies centered around Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, but the Guardians of the Galaxy?  Still, Marvel believed in what they had and more so they believed in the talents of a rising star filmmaker named James Gunn.  The resulting film in 2014 not only proved everyone wrong, but the original Guardians of the Galaxy quickly became regarded as one of the best comic book movies ever made.  The film was a hit, and it quickly sired a sequel in 2017, which also was a box office hit with critical acclaim.  With the Guardians cast also playing a major part in the culmination of Marvel’s Infinity Saga with the record-breaking Avengers: Endgame (2019), these once obscure character known only to die hard comic fans were now part of the Marvel elite.  And they were about to continue the win streak beyond Endgame, with a third film in their franchise meant to be the launching pad for Marvel’s Phase 4 in the summer of 2020.  But, alas, plans went astray.  First off, James Gunn was fired suddenly by Marvel’s parent company Disney in a short sighted response to years old offensive jokes that an online provocateur uncovered as retaliation for disliking Gunn’s left wing political stances.  Disney later realized their mistake and re-hired Gunn a few months later, but by that time he had already been hired to direct The Suicide Squad over at rival DC.  Gunn still accepted the offer to come back so that he could complete the story he created his own way, but it would be some time before he could start production.  The shut-down caused by the pandemic also complicated things, so by the time cameras finally started rolling on this third Guardians film, 5 years had passed since the last one and the world was a much different place.

Still, James Gunn is keeping his promise and we are now finally getting Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.  So many different scenarios could’ve played out between Vol. 2‘s release and now, including having this threequel having a different director appointed during the time that Gunn was out at Marvel.  The movie certainly no longer is the launching pad for a new Phase of the MCU.  In fact, it no longer is even part of Phase 4, which ended last year with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022).  While it’s placement in the continuity of the MCU has changed, the goal of the movie seems to have remained the same.  This is James Gunn’s final hurrah with this franchise and these characters.  It may not have been conceived that way, but the way things have played out over the last few years, the movie has taken on a very definitive significance that will certainly define it’s place in the Marvel canon overall.  And it comes at a time when Marvel needs it.  While Marvel is not financially hurting right now, there are many who are observing the fact that the once unbeatable box office juggernaut has been appearing a little soft lately.  Most of their post-Endgame movies are being received more lukewarm compared to the ones that came out before, both by critics and general audiences.  None of their movies have bombed, but they are performing well under the high expectations that have been placed on the Marvel brand.  Many believe that we’ve now reached a point of super hero movie fatigue, which is not only affecting Marvel, but their rival DC as well, given the box office failure seen with Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023).  Given the shaky ground that the genre now sits on, the pressure is definitely high on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 to break the current losing streak.  It’s not going to be easy as both of it’s predecessors grossed higher than $300 million at the domestic box office each, and this film is coming off the heels of Marvel’s first ever money loser with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023).  Is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 the movie Marvel needs to save the day, or is it continuing the trend of diminishing returns in a post-Endgame world.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 finds the rag tag bunch set up in their new headquarters, the skull shaped sanctuary known as Knowhere; a place once ruled over by The Collector.  There they’ve helped to set up a community for refugees from across the galaxy.  Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) has taken charge for the most part, since Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) aka Star-Lord is wallowing in his depression and drinking his sorrows away.  Their peaceful existence is shattered however when a super powered being known as Adam Warlock (Will Poulter) breaks into Knowhere, intent on capturing Rocket.  The Guardians manage to overpower the intruder, but now before Rocket ends up being mortally wounded in the scuffle.  Normal methods of healing him don’t work as they find that there is a kill switch device implanted on his heart; a leftover from the horrible animal experiments that made him who he is.  Peter vows to find a way to save his friend, so he musters his fellow Guardians, including Nebula (Karen Gillen), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Groot (Vin Diesel), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) to join him in a search across the cosmos for a way to save Rocket.  Their journey involves breaking into an ultra secure laboratory called the Orgosphere, which they receive help from the Ravagers, Quill’s old gang, to infiltrate.  Among the Ravagers ranks now is Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who is the alternate time line variant of Peter’s murdered ex-girlfriend and has no memory of their past relationship, making their team up a little awkward.  While Rocket remains invalid, he flashes back to memories of his days when he was experimented on by a demented mad scientist named the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who may be the only person capable of saving Rocket’s life.  Unfortunately for the Guardians, The High Evolutionary is behind the attempted abduction of Rocket and he’s adamant about continuing those experiments further, which will endanger more than just Rocket’s well-being.  Despite all their harrowing adventures so far, this is definitely the most personal battle for them so far, and one that will make the team members confront more of their tortured pasts.

Going over the story of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, it’s pretty clear that this is not as much of a fun little romp that the past films in the series have been.  It will become apparent from the opening of this movie right away that James Gunn is aiming for a much different tone with his trilogy caper.  The movie does open with a thematic needle drop like the past films; but whereas the original opened with the upbeat “Come and Get Your Love” from Redbone and Vol. 2 opened with the equally light-hearted “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra, Vol. 3 starts out with Radiohead’s “Creep.”  That upfront statement tells you that this is going to be a much different movie than what we’ve seen before, and to be honest, it’s actually a refreshing change.  After several movies in a row from Marvel that felt more formulaic and tethered to a bigger franchise continuity, Vol. 3 is a movie that immediately throws out expectations and does something refreshingly different for a change.  Don’t get me wrong, it still feels like a James Gunn directed Guardians of the Galaxy movie, but Gunn proves here that he’s not afraid to make things a little darker and more serious.  The experiment works for the most part.  It’s clear that James Gunn was intent on pushing a few more boundaries with this movie, as far as he could go with the Marvel mandated PG-13.  This movie even has Star-Lord uttering the MCU’s first unbleeped F-bomb.  And despite it being a harsher story than we usually get from Marvel, it still hits the right emotional notes and it feels in-line with what Gunn has led his story up to now.  I wouldn’t say that it’s my favorite of the Guardians movies, that is still reserved for the nearly flawless first film.  But this may be the one that impresses me the most with it’s handling of riskier material and it’s epic scope; showing how accomplished James Gunn has gotten as a filmmaker.

The thing that really elevates the movie is the way it treats all of the character arcs in this film.  Each character, even some of the minor ones like Sean Gunn’s Kraglin and Cosmo the Telepathic Dog (voiced by Maria Bakalova) get these wonderful side stories with satisfying pay offs.  Certainly the Guardians themselves have the most important story beats, but one doesn’t overshadow the other.  Of the Guardians characters, Groot may be the one with the minimalist character development, but he’s still a welcome presence throughout the movie, and there is some resolution to his overall character arc by the end.  They continue to build upon Drax and Mantis’ peculiar courtship as well, which provides the movie with some wonderful comedic moments.  I also love how they have continued Nebula’s arc from villain to hero as she has continued to soften her rough edges, while still at times struggling to control her temper.  One thing I was curious about was how they would deal with the whole Star-Lord and Gamora ordeal.  It picks up from where things left off with Avengers: Endgame, where a different Gamora has emerged whose separate from the team she used to belong to.  In the wrong hands, Star-Lord’s desire to rekindle a romance between them would’ve come across as creepy, but thankfully James Gunn handles the relationship in a delicate way that doesn’t cast poorly on either character and feels organic as part of the story.  But, even with all this, the movie is first and foremost Rocket’s story.  His storyline, part of which is told in flashback, is the most powerful part of the movie, and I can tell you without spoiling anything that his moments were the ones that hit the hardest when comes to the emotional weight.  I saw quite a few people wiping away tears at my screening.  A few of the Rocket scenes may be among the bleakest ever put into a Marvel movie since the “snap” from Infinity War, but James Gunn didn’t put them in here for shock value.  He wants us to understand the hardship that his characters had to overcome, and it’s something that needed to be faced head on.  To make those moments work in a film franchise that up to now had been on the lighter side, with a character mostly known as a comedic sidekick is something really impressive, and one of the main reasons why this movie works as well as it does.

The movie is not without it’s faults though.  Chief among them is the villain, The High Evolutionary.  Given how so many of the characters in this film get these rich story arcs, it’s a shame that the villain they face is so one note.  We don’t learn much at all about the High Evolutionary other than he’s extremely powerful and a egomaniacal scientist trying to play God with his experimentations.  Even by the film’s end he remains an enigma; who is he, where did he come from, why is he experimenting on animals?  The movie just never gives us any answers to those questions.  To be sure, actor Chukwudi Iwuji is swinging for the fences with his performance; giving scene chewing ferocity in every moment he is on screen.  But as hard as he is trying, the movie just never quite makes him as interesting as he should be.  It’s a step down from the impact that Vol. 2′s villain , Ego the Living Planet, had.  At least with Ego and even the first film’s Ronan the Accuser there was a feeling of imminent danger to the lives of the Guardians.  High Evolutionary is only a major force of evil in one character’s story, Rocket’s, and no one else’s.  There are also some pacing issues with this movie that hamper it a bit.  At 2 1/2 hours it’s the longest in the franchise, and while much of the epic scale of this movie supports the increased run time, there are plenty of moments, particularly those devoted to comedic bits, that feel like padding.  There are two extended comedy moments, one related on how to properly use a couch with another about how to open a car door, that on their own are funny enough, but when put back to back of each other makes the film feel like it’s wasting time.  Overall, these moments certainly don’t ruin the movie, but about 10-15 minutes could’ve been shaved off of this movie, and I don’t think it would have harmed any of the story telling at all.

Now there are still plenty more things to praise about this movie.  One is definitely the cast.  It’s clear that these actors knew that this was going to be a film that ends an era, so they are giving it their all to make this movie feel like a worthy culmination of the story.  The most impressive work comes from Bradley Cooper in his vocal performance here as Rocket.  He’s called upon to take Rocket into some very dark places in this story and he really finds the heart and soul of who Rocket is in order to make the movie’s darkest moments carry an emotional wallop.  Christ Pratt naturally continues to make Star-Lord a lovable rogue, which he’s consistently done across all three movies, plus the three other MCU films the Guardians have appeared in.  The same goes for Karen Gillen as Nebula, Dave Bautista as Drax and Pom Klementiff as Mantis.  One of my favorite performances in this film, though, is Zoe Saldana as Gamora, as she is playing a very different version of this character; one who’s a bit more blood-thirsty than we’ve seen before, which leads to some wild moments in the movie.  Newcomer Will Poulter’s introduction as Adam Warlock may be not what comic book fans were expecting or wanting, as it’s a bit of a departure for the character, but how James Gunn uses him in this movie makes sense for this story, and Poulter is perfectly suited for the role.  The movie is also on par with the others in the series when it comes to the visuals.  The Guardians of the Galaxy franchise has always been one of the more imaginative visually within the MCU, paving the way for the studio’s more celestial bound adventures, and this movie continues that tradition.  There are some bold visual ideas in this film, like the organically grown structure of the Orgoscope or the oppressive jagged-ness of the High Evolutionary’s fortress.  Even individual scenes are crafted to stun, like a stand-out fight scene set to the Beastie Boys late in the film.  As I said before, despite the change in tone for this movie, it still holds up the high quality craftsmanship that has set this franchise apart in the MCU.

One of the unfortunate things that comes to mind while watching this movie is knowing that we’ll likely never see another movie like it again in the MCU.  James Gunn was a singularly identifiable voice in the whole of Marvel’s pool of talent, and sadly his time at the studio is coming to an end.  He’s about to take the big job over at DC, assuming a similar role over there that Kevin Feige holds at Marvel, and he’ll be responsible for spear-heading the development of all the new DC films and shows coming out over the next decade.  Had Disney not acted as drastically as they did and not fired him over something that turned out to be nothing, who knows if things may have turned out differently.  As far as I’m concerned, James Gunn is in a good position where I think he is going to do an outstanding job.  He clearly has an un-shakable love for comic books and wants to do them justice on the big screen.  He’s already amassed a great track record at DC with the very underrated The Suicide Squad, as well as the spin-off series Peacemaker.  Thankfully, he was able to close the chapter on the Guardians of the Galaxy series his own way, and give it the proper closure that it deserves.  I won’t spoil where all the characters end up by movie’s end, but this movie is definitely a swan song for the team we knew.  Who knows what futures Marvel has in store for them, if at all; we only get the promise of one character’s return in end credits.  But the way that the movie culminates their story after three films is enormously satisfying.  I’ll need to consider more of where I would rank it in the greater MCU, but I can definitely say it’s up there with it’s predecessors in the upper echelon of Marvel Studios movies.  The Rocket Raccoon moments alone I would rank among the best of any Marvel movie.  It’s a movie that I highly recommend for both die-hard and casual fans.  James Gunn did not disappoint, and I’m glad to see that he left Marvel on good terms with one final gift worthy of the franchise’s legacy.  Is it the kind of movie to change Marvel’s fortunes.  That remains to be seen, but it is great to finally spend some time again with the “freakin’ Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Rating: 8.5/10

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.


What the Hell Was That? – The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (2003)

Cinema right now is being driven by a creative indulgence in expressing a vast knowledge of other media with the stories we are telling now.  Movies today are playing to an audience that is very much savvy about existing canons and continuing storylines across multiple stand alone projects, something that has definitely been driven by the rise of comic book movies in the last decade.  What were once Easter eggs in movies have now become seeds for future narratives, with even the most obscure of references blossoming into feature attractions.  Certainly Marvel Studios and their cinematic universe has executed this kind of long form storytelling to it’s fullest potential, creating the most successful franchise in movie history.  But the same kind of connected universe storytelling extends into even more surprising places in our current cinematic environment.  Recently christened Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards, Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), also plays upon the pop culture knowledge of it’s audience to imagine different creative universes within it’s multi-versal story that includes references to the movies of Wong Kar-Wai and Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007).  But while cinema is only just now beginning to dive into this craze of combining universes together, the same thing has already been going on for decades in the comic books.  Not only have Marvel Comics and DC Comics been bringing their vast collections of characters together in event comics centered around the Avengers and Justice League teams respectively, but the two rivals have come together a number of times and had cross-over comics where their respective heroes and villains join forces.  Imagine what that would look like on the big screen.  But, what works on the comic book page doesn’t necessarily work all the time in movies.  Often when you are pulling multiple different characters together, all of whom are the centerpiece of their own stories, you also have to bring in the baggage of their continuing narratives as well, and it can sometimes make the story a tad bit messy.  There was a case back in the early 2000’s where Hollywood did try to create a shared universe super team, based on another comic book as it so happens, and it not only bombed, but it nearly killed the comic book movie genre in general and ended the careers of several industry veterans as a result.

That infamous movie was the 2003 adaptation of the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.  The movie was based on a series of comic books written by the legendary Alan Moore.  Moore is an interesting figure within the comic book industry.  As a writer, he is often critical of the conventions of comic book storytelling while at the same time participating in that same medium.  His work often subverts the tropes of comic book stories, like his most famous work Watchman, which deconstructs super heroes and their place in society.  His work has been so well received by the comic book community over the years that even big publishers have given him the chance of writing stories for their most iconic characters.  And, he has taken those opportunities to craft some of the best storylines in comic book history as a result.  Working primarily with DC Comics, he is responsible for one of the greatest Batman stories, The Killing Joke, and one of the best Superman stories, For the Man Who Has Everything.  But perhaps his most divisive work has been one that has deconstructed the idea of super teams like the Avengers and the Justice League, which is The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.  The league in question is not team up of various comic book heroes, but is instead a collection of characters from literary sources of all eras.  This is a comic book series where Captain Nemo teams up with Dr. Jekyll and the Invisible Man, and several other characters from famous literary works, forming yet another society of heroes to take on evil forces, which again, are also from various works of literature.  While this does seem like a fun idea for a comic book series, in Alan Moore’s hands, it is anything but that.  The League of Extraordinary Gentleman is very much a subversive novel, and definitely not for kids, as graphic violence and sexual situations are litter very liberally throughout the pages of the comic book.  At the same time, Moore is deconstructing the meaning of these classic characters, with a critical eye for how literary canons have shaped society in general.  Of course, the series that Alan Moore envisioned with his take on super hero team-ups doesn’t exactly lend itself generously to cinematic adaptation, but that didn’t stop Hollywood.

The early 2000’s was an interesting time for comic book movies.  On  the one hand, you could see a falling out with audiences who had seen the genre fall flat on it’s face due to ridiculous commercialized fair like DC’s Batman and Robin (1997).  At the same time, we were also seeing the emergence of more mature movie adaptations that would go on to influence what the Marvel Cinematic Universe would eventually become, like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) and Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000).  In the midst of this came the movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s first two volumes of his League of Extraordinary Gentleman.  20th Century Fox held the rights to the comic book series, which Moore had published independently through ABC Comics, and they were intending to turn it into it’s own franchise to compete with the likes of the DC’s and the Marvel’s (though Fox was also stewards of the X-Men and Fantastic Four as well).  Though the movie does retain the core concept of Moore’s comic book series as well as some of the core characters that make u up the team, the similarities end there.  The film just fall into the same stock action tropes of every other other comic book movie at the time and leaves out the sharp witted commentary of Alan Moore’s writing.  It basically betrays what Alan Moore intended by becoming the very thing that it was meant to critique.  But that’s not exactly new for comic book movie adaptations.  And it is not the worst thing about the movie either.  It was obvious that Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman would be Hollywood-ized to oblivion, but the way it was makes it even more of a colossal failure than anyone would’ve expected.

It is very clear from the get go that the movie League of Extraordinary Gentleman focuses way too much on trying to appear cool without ever earning it.  The term that is most used to describe the style of this movie is Dieselpunk, which is retro-futuristic.  Think the image of the future that was imagined in the early 20th century, with diesel-based locomotion being the basis for aesthetics in everything from architecture to apparel, much like it’s spiritual cousin Steampunk.  As a result, the whole movie is murky and drowned out in this silvery sheen that makes the whole movie visually unappealing.  There are a lot of scenes that take place at night or in dark spaces, likely to hide the lackluster CGI effects, which definitely have not aged well.  And in addition to having the visual aesthetic and effects being hard to look at, the movie also dispenses with logic in order to make their ridiculous ideas work.  Case in point, a whole section of the movie that takes place in Venice, Italy.  We are introduced earlier in the movie to the Nautilus, the massive submarine transport of one of the league members, Captain Nemo.  In the movie, we are shown that the Nautilus is over a hundred feet in height when brought to the surface, and yet we also see the vessel traveling the canals of Venice, under it’s many bridges, which anyone with a brain knows is a city built in a lagoon with very shallow water.  The Nautilus being able to navigate like it does in the movie through Venice makes absolutely no sense.  Even more ridiculous, the heroes in the film also are involved in a car chase in the very same location.  I’ll excuse the movie for having Captain Nemo inventing the car long before Henry Ford created his first Model T; that’s an acceptable creative license.  But to have the car chase take place in Venice, a city without roads is far too absurd and illogical.  It’s clear that the filmmakers of this movie just wanted a car chase in their film and they didn’t care how they would make it happen.  They put it in there, because it’s a standard trope of comic book action movies.

There are a lot of other instances where it’s clear that the filmmakers are more interested in pandering to an audience rather than delivering a more interesting story.  This can also be found in the casting of it’s characters.  The movie does retain some of Alan Moore’s core characters, including Alan Quartermain (played by the legendary Sean Connery), Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), Mina Harker (Peta Wilson) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both played by Jason Flemyng).  In some cases, the casting of these characters is fine; Flemyng actually gives the film’s best performance in his dual role and I give credit to the movie for casting an actual Indian actor in the role of Nemo, which is true to Moore’s comic and also to the original text from Jules Verne.  But, some of the changes made to the team seem more in line with demands for what was expected for a comic book  movie at the time; which sadly meant more sex appeal.  One of the additions was the character of Dorian Gray, based on the character from the Oscar Wilde novel of the same name.  The character is not too dissimilar from his literary persona, but he’s kind of worthless as an element of this story, and it’s clear that he’s just here so they could hire an attractive actor in the role; in this case Stuart Townsend (who ironically took this role after being removed from the cast of a more beloved production called The Lord of the Rings, with Viggo Mortenson taking his place as Aragorn).  The even more cynical addition is the inclusion of Tom Sawyer as a character in this story, clearly as a means to include a character familiar with American audiences and make the team less Euro-centric.  Tom Sawyer’s inclusion here is ridiculous to say the least, and it again goes against Alan Moore’s intention of the story.  Tom Sawyer is far from his roots as the Mark Twain imagined scheming adolescent, and here is a secret agent trained by the American government; a literal Captain America.  Moore’s comic doesn’t glorify the characters by giving them these glow-up heroic arcs.  He’s critiquing the roles that these characters inhabit and examining what imagined encounters between them would be like.  For the movie, they clearly wanted to appeal to American audiences, plucked a character out of American literature, cast an up-and-coming American heartthrob (Shane West), and felt that it would do the same thing.  It clearly didn’t work.

What this movie is especially notorious for, and is rightly condemned for in general, is that it ended the legendary film career of Sir Sean Connery.  The man who turned Ian Fleming’s James Bond into a cinematic icon and gave us memorable roles in films as varied as John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975) to Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), to Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996), called it quits after playing the role of Allan Quartermain in this film.  Despite having the marquee role, Connery would later describe the shoot for this film demoralizing and the thing that convinced him that he couldn’t do this act in a movie any more.  So sadly the last image we have of Sean Connery on celluloid is this mess of a movie that is clearly beneath his talent.  At the same time, Connery himself is partly to blame for ending his career on such a sour note.  He chose to do this movie over more interesting roles that were offered to him, like the Architect in the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy and Gandalf the Wizard in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.  Sadly, many attempts to coax Connery out of his retirement failed; including Steven Spielberg trying to coax him back into reprising his role of Dr. Jones Sr. in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008).  And what made this role so bad for Connery.  Honestly his performance is not bad, but it also lacks weight.  Quartermain in this movie is never interesting in the slightest, just a grizzled old veteran being called into one last fight.  Essentially he’s here to be the Obi-Wan Kenobi to Tom Sawyer’s Luke Skywalker; showing the level of originality on the filmmakers part.  And the un-original take that these characters inhabit again goes against what Alan Moore wrote.  In an interesting twist, Moore actually makes Mina Hartley the leader of the league, because of all the characters she has faced the worst kinds of evil (Dracula) and lived, making her a bolder leader.  Mina in this film is just there to be the girl on the team, and that they made her a vampire on top of that (she isn’t in the comic) is another failing of the adaptation.

It wasn’t just Connery’s career that was prematurely ended because of the experience of making this movie.  The film’s director, Stephen Norrington also stepped away from Hollywood afterwards, with this being his last film to date.  Norrington likewise has his own self to blame too, as his directing style (which was ill-suited for big studio driven films) made the shooting of League of Extraordinary Gentleman chaotic for everyone involved.  In particular, him and Connery never got along on set and at one point an argument during the shooting almost ended with fists flying.  This definitely was a clear sign that a movie like this should never have been attempted in this way.  It was not something to cater to the expectations of the genre, but rather to critique it.  The movie overall lacks an identity, utilizing it’s familiar name and characters but doing absolutely nothing original with them.  This whole experience pretty much ended up badly for everyone.  Connery’s early retirement, Norrington’s bruised reputation, Stuart Townsend and Shane West falling quickly into obscurity after turning down better roles in order to be a part of this one.  Alan Moore himself even chose to distance himself even more from Hollywood after the failure of this movie.  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the last film to credit Alan Moore as a creator of the source material.  Even the better received Zack Snyder adaptation of Watchmen (2009) doesn’t include the name Alan Moore in any of the credits; which was Moore’s request.  I don’t blame Alan Moore for his cynicism over this.  This was very much a case where Hollywood took a project that the author took great pride in and completely trashed it, robbing it of all meaning and making the extraordinary just ordinary.

But, strangely enough, it didn’t deter Alan Moore from continuing on with his series of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics.  He would continue writing the comics for another 16 years after the movie, all the while making it even more subversive and weird.  It could be argued that the failure of the movie adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen fueled his creative flames even more, as he took his critical eye towards even more subject in pop culture, including more recent ones from literature and, yes, even the movies.  And he doesn’t hold back in his cynical takes either.  There are some absolutely insane ideas in those later books in the series, including one where Harry Potter is the Anti-Christ and is defeated by God, who appears in the form of Mary Poppins.  Honestly, I think a cinematic adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen happened way too early in the history of these books, because some of the most out there ideas from Alan Moore have appeared on the page post-movie.  I can only imagine what an adaptation of this would be like now, if Alan Moore could trust anyone with it.  The movie adaptation in comparison now feels so small and insignificant, more valuable now as an example of how not to adapt a comic book into a movie.  Could another adaptation happen today?  Should it happen?  Given Alan Moore’s frosty relationship with Hollywood, I would definitely say no, but it would be interesting to see maybe a series adaption on like HBO or Netflix, with the intent of capturing the original subversive nature of Alan Moore’s narrative.  It would never happen given the sprawling nature of Alan Moore’s series, and the fact that there are references to so many things that still fall under copywrite law.  As it stands, it is far better to read the weird and demented League for yourself to get the true experience and to avoid the movie all together.  In a time where we see the combination of universes becoming these big cinematic events, it’s worth checking out a twisted version of that same kind of story which in many ways critiques the very nature of pop culture itself as well as the extraordinary stories that we tell within it.