All posts by James Humphreys

True Self – How Hollywood Has Evolved on it’s Portrayal of Transgender Issues

One of the great gifts of cinema is that it helps to give voice to people who ordinarily will have a hard time reaching the attention of a broad audience.  Hollywood has often valued the underdogs in society, because they are naturally the ones with the most interesting stories to tell.  This is especially true with movies based around characters that represent marginalized groups.  Like so many parts of society, mainstream Hollywood often takes it’s time to grow and evolve when it comes to embracing more progressive attitudes towards marginalized people, because it’s often looked at as non-commercial generally.  But, the art of cinema itself is powerful enough tool to change minds in a compelling way, and eventually, Hollywood and the rest of the film industry recognizes that it’s better to embrace social awareness rather than resist it.  That’s been true throughout the history of cinema, as the Civil Rights movement and Women’s Liberation of the mid century helped to shape the movies that were being made in the years that followed, allowing for more representation in front and behind the camera to flourish and help break down social barriers.  Soon, it became clear that having people of color headline a movie, as well as be involved in the filmmaking process, was not only good business, but also necessary as it meant tapping into a growing demographic that for the longest time had been ignored.  There is still progress to be made, but in looking back on the early days of Hollywood, it’s very clear that the direction towards diversity has been a beneficial one for the movie business overall.  In recent years, Hollywood has had to reckon with the need to improve their representation of the LGBTQ community.  Queer people of course have long been a part of the entertainment business, but more recently the stigma of being out as a performer or filmmaker has begun to shift in a more positive direction.  Again, the art of cinema has been instrumental in allowing people within the LGBTQ community to tell their own stories and bring about mainstream acceptance.  But, there are still plenty of areas where the industry should move towards allowing other marginalized voices to be heard.

One group that particularly needs the help of cinema to help push back against societal stigma is the transgender community.  Trans issues are, to put it lightly, becoming a hot button issue right now in America; stirred up as a wedge issue to drive up outrage in an election year.  The trans community has recently been marginalized in fields such as sports and in education, being condemned by hard right agitators as indoctrinating children and also being slanderously labeled as “groomers.”  The campaign against the trans community has even slipped into Hollywood, as any voice of support for trans rights has been condemned by a loud, vocal minority as being an agenda to destroy the fabric of society, which they are continuously fear-mongering about in an attempt to solidify their own dogmatic views on gender.  Anyone from the LGBTQ community, or any other marginalized group that has gone through their own struggles for representation, will recognize what is going on with the trans community right now.  How they are being scapegoated for society’s woes, and how they are being “othered” as a way of justifying their exclusion from certain rights.  It’s an unfortunate cycle that society has yet to break; the way we go out of our way to find something or someone to hate.  Because there has been progress made on gay rights in recent years, and bigotry towards gay and lesbian citizens is now no longer an accepted norm, people looking to hate have shifted their focus on the trans community specifically.  It’s an all too easy act to hate the things that we don’t understand, and for a lot of people, they can’t quite wrap their heads around what it means to be transgender.  That’s why in this crucial time, it is more important than ever that Hollywood recognizes that trans rights matter, and that it is crucial to allow their stories to be told to a mainstream audience.  Of course, because Hollywood is a business, it’s easier said than done, and over the course of time, Hollywood has struggled to really grasp the how trans issues should be depicted on the big screen.  They go where the audience is, and right now, audiences have a mixed view of what gender identity means in general.

Hollywood, in many ways, has been instrumental in reinforcing the gender norms that have permeated into our collective culture.  Look at the majority of movies made over the years, and the dominant narrative you’ll find is the hero’s journey, where a strong-willed man wins the heart of a fair maiden, and they live happily ever after.  It’s a tried-and-true formula, but in the end, it just perpetuates the gender norms that we as a society have adopted.  Men are strong and women are the fairer sex; and thanks to the movies, that how we believe that it has always been.  Of course, there has always been people who have existed across the gender spectrum.  They just haven’t been able to tell their stories.  The closest that Hollywood could ever get to portraying any representation of trans identity was through cross-dressing, and even here it was limited to comedy.  A man wearing a dress was only acceptable if was drag, and played for laughs.  The movie Some Like it Hot (1959) is a prime example of how Hollywood could get away with putting male stars in drag, while at the same time getting around censors with some stealth acknowledgement of a marginalized trans community.  The movie even closes with the now iconic line where Jack Lemmon’s character confesses to his smitten beau, played by Joe E. Brown, that he is indeed a man and not a woman, and the reply is “Well, nobody’s perfect.”  It’s a funny punchline, but with special extra meaning.  He knew that he was falling in love with a man in women’s clothing, and he doesn’t care.  Still, most other movies didn’t have the wit of Billy Wilder to sneak in a forward thinking line like that.  B-movie director Ed Wood, who was a closeted transvestite himself, attempted to create a compassionate portrayal of character experiencing gender dysphoria in his movie Glen or Glenda (1953) and he was laughed out of Hollywood as a result; though the movie has become a cult favorite to some.  There was no doubt that any positive portrayal of gender bending in Hollywood was very restrictive in the early days of cinema, and it wouldn’t get any better for a long time, even as Hollywood was making baby steps towards more inclusion elsewhere.

In addition to perpetuating gender norms throughout it’s history, Hollywood also marginalized trans people through very negative and unflattering depictions.  Take Hitchcock’s Psycho for instance, where it is revealed that the real murderer is Norman Bates, who has been cross-dressing as his deceased mother.  Despite it’s rightly regarded status as a cinematic masterpiece, Psycho also unfortunately carries with it the outdated view of trans people being predators intent on terrorizing the “normal” people out there.  If the movie were made today, who knows how a movie like Psycho would deal with the crossdressing element of it’s story, but it would likely be different.  Still trans identity on film went through the difficult trial of having to break free of Hollywood’s increasingly rigid depictions of gender identity.  If you wanted to see movies that took a more progressive view of gender fluidity, you either had to seek out international films from places like France or the Netherlands which had more Lasse faire attitudes towards sexuality and gender identity, or find independently made films in the U.S. that spoke for the trans community, like those of director John Waters.  Still, many films, even into the counter-cultural 60’s and 70’s, still explored the issue of trans rights with a sense of it falling within the outrageous.  If characters were exploring gender fluidity and dressing in drag, it was often as an act of defiance rather than being truthful to one’s identity.  You see this with movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), where the character of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (memorably played by Tim Curry) is the very definition of gender fluid and loving it.  The character is also there to shock, rather than inform the audience about trans identity.  Even as attitudes were beginning to change regarding the queer community, trans people were still seen as too abnormal for society to accept.  But, trans people did begin to speak out and demand some change from the way they were depicted in Hollywood movies.  Another classic horror film, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), received some backlash from the trans community over it’s depiction of the film’s cross-dressing villain, Jame Gumb (Ted Levine).  Director Jonathan Demme was thankfully receptive to the criticisms and sought to find a way to make it up to the LGBTQ community for his insensitive portrayal of a trans character in Lambs.  This led him towards choosing the queer-rights storyline of his AIDS drama Philadelphia (1993).

The interesting thing about how depictions of trans characters in movies has changed in the years since is that it still breaks down along the same accepted binary gender norms that are part of the mainstream culture.  In particular, it seems that it’s easier to find a positive story of a female to male transition story than to find one about male to female transitions.  Case in point, it wasn’t all that long ago when a story about a character in transition from female to male was celebrated enough to win an Oscar.  Hilary Swank, a straight cisgender actress, won the first of her Oscars for Best Actress in the role of Brandon Teena from the movie Boy’s Don’t Cry (1999).  The movie, based on a tragic true story, was a breakthrough for Hilary Swank and it was an important milestone in telling a story through the point of view of a trans character.  A year prior, the Best Picture award went to Shakespeare in Love (1998) which involved the female protagonist played by Gwyneth Paltrow having to dress as a man in order to perform in plays during the patriarchal “Golden Age” in England.  In the years after, there came an interesting mix for movies related to the issue of trans rights, but with casting choices that remain perplexing.  Take for instance, the movie Transamerica (2005), which had cisgender actress Felicity Huffman playing a trans woman.  So essentially, she is a woman playing someone born a man who transitioned into a woman.  One thing that you’ll notice about these casting choices is that not a single one is played by an actual trans performer.  Most of the noteworthy movie roles for a trans character have been filled with actors and actresses who are cisgender.  Thus far, the argument has been that there aren’t enough trans actors out there with the kind of clout and box office pull as there are cisgender actors who can fill the same kind of role.  I can understand the argument as a gay man myself.  I wouldn’t want to limit queer actors to just queer roles, because that is limiting to the talent of those actors and actresses who can play both gay and straight parts equally.  But, there is the strong argument that giving more opportunities to trans performers to play trans role is crucial to their crusade for visibility in our culture.

To the great credit of the trans community, they have made their voices heard.  There was an uproar when it was announced that actress Scarlett Johansson was going to be cast in the role of a trans man for a movie.  Johansson made the argument that she should be allowed to play any part she wants to, but this was an argument that seemed a little tone deaf, especially to a marginalized community desperate to have better opportunities in Hollywood.  She eventually bowed out and the movie ended up dying in development after losing it’s bankable star.  It’s the unfortunate thing about the business of Hollywood, that movies only get made if there is somebody with clout attached to it, and for a marginalized group like the trans community, they don’t quite have that someone yet who can get a movie into production without having to face any hurdles.  Still, more and more actors who do have that clout are putting their support behind trans actors and are trying to ensure their visibility in future projects.  Even cisgender actors who have won awards before for playing trans characters are changing their attitudes about who should be offered the roles first.  Eddie Redmayne went on the record that he feels ashamed now that he played the role of trans icon Lili Elbe in the movie The Danish Girl (2015), a part that he earned an Oscar nomination for.  Indeed, there seems to be a shift in the industry that cisgender actors are stepping away from trans roles in order to let transgender actors have their shot first.  If the movie is good enough, it can help a trans performer gain more notoriety and eventually there will be enough trans performers with clout who will be able to accurately fill those role of trans gender characters.  One thing that is helping is the encouraging support that up-and-coming as well as established actors who go through transition in the middle of their careers are receiving from the industry in general.  The Wachowski sisters, Lana and Lily, went through their transition and managed to maintain enough support in Hollywood to get another Matrix movie made.  Elliot Page’s transition has also been heralded by the industry, and his role on the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy was reworked to fit with his new identity.  As the industry itself begins to accept the idea that roles for trans characters can be filled with trans performers and still be a hit, it will do a lot of good to help elevate the voices of trans characters into the larger culture as a whole.

That, more than anything, is what is most important about giving trans performers and filmmakers more of an opportunity to tell their story on a larger stage.  The fight for equal rights has been difficult for people across the LGBTQ spectrum, but this moment in time has been particularly hard for the trans community.  With many states across the country actively passing legislation to restrict trans people from everything from sports to just basic healthcare needs, the urgency for elevated voices in the trans community is more crucial than ever.  Right now, there is an effort to silence any talk of trans rights in the United States, with trans people being slandered as “groomers” as well as those who consider themselves allies of the trans community.  Even film companies like Disney are being attacked after they voiced their support for trans and gay rights, after states like Florida (where Disney has a crucial business stake in) have moved to ban discussion of gay topics in schools as well as cut off access to healthcare for trans students.  There’s the mistaken belief that gay and trans people are indoctrinated into their identity by the culture at large, but that is an absolute falsehood.  People are born queer or with gender dysphoria just as much as they are born straight or cisgender, and it’s through the support of family as well as the culture they grow up to love that young people who feel different from others are able to better accept themselves for who they are.  That is why it is important for there to be affirming media to help young people who fall within the LGBTQ spectrum, because it allows them to understand that the way they feel does not make them a broken person.  For too long, these groups have been pressured into silence, and many LGBTQ people from past generations have been forced to live closeted live.  Suicide was always a big problem in the LGBTQ community, especially among trans people.  What made things change was seeing more and more positive and affirming portrayals in the media.  As people saw themselves reflected more in the movies and TV shows they watched, it greatly boosted their confidence to come out and be seen themselves.  This is what scares the people out there that want to legislate queer people out of existence; that their carefully cultivated and restrictive ideals of social norms will no longer apply, and that people will be harder to control through their idea of morality.  But the truth is society works much better when the people within it are not forced into being something they know in their heart that they are not.

There is certainly a long way to go in the fight to protect trans rights.    What is especially important is help protect the very young who experience gender dysphoria.  For them, it’s especially crucial that they see themselves portrayed positively on the big and small screen.  Hollywood still has some work to do in allowing trans voices to be heard, but with more performers such as Elliot Page and Laverne Cox becoming more visible in the movie industry, there is hope that their voices will become more mainstream in the culture.  Of course there will always be those out there who refuse to accept anything other than the rigid gender norms that they have seen perpetuated in society since they have been born.  The fact that there is just the slightest change in the culture on the aspect of gender identity is too much for them to handle, and the loudest among them are crying the loudest to push back.  But, what we should be doing is listening to people when they say they feel like they were born the wrong gender.  There are a lot of stories that could and should be told about the trans community.  And those stories can help many more people feel happy about who they are, and encourage them to live without shame.  Even though they were made without authentic trans voices, it’s still worth checking out movies like Boy’s Don’t Cry and Transamerica, and The Danish Girl.  They are movies that help tell a story about the trans experience and, more importantly, they humanize trans people in ways that can hopefully change people’s minds about the community as a whole.  One certainly hopes that the big Hollywood studios are genuine when they say that they will work to protect the rights of the trans community, both in their work place as well as with their audience.  It would certainly help if they acted more to give more roles to trans performers than they do now.  Progress has been made, but there is still work to be done.  Minds can be changed.  I have even found myself evolved on this issue, and I owe that to being able to see more informative media related to trans issues.  As we celebrate Pride this year, let’s all make an effort to hear the voices of those being actively silenced now like those in the trans community.  You’ll find that their stories are probably among the most interesting of all.

Lightyear – Review

Well, it’s been over two years, but Pixar is back on the big screen again.  As an effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Walt Disney company had to make the tough decision to either postpone most of their upcoming movies, risk putting them out in a diminished theatrical market to little box office returns, or take them directly to their streaming platform, Disney+.  Some movies were easily handed off to streaming, but there were some that were tougher to take away from the big screen.  The big tentpole features under the Disney umbrella were held off to wait for better conditions post-pandemic, like Black Widow (2021), Jungle Cruise (2021) and Raya and the Last Dragon (2021).  But, for whatever reason, Disney didn’t seem to want to wait with their roll out of movies from the Pixar Animation studio.  Long held as the vanguard of computer animation, Pixar has been one of the strongest performers in the Disney studios.  Unfortunately, they were also burdened with bad timing during the pandemic.  Their film Onward (2020) had a very brief theatrical run that was cut short by the pandemic lockdown, forcing Disney to cut their losses quickly and take the movie and bring it almost immediately to streaming.  Pixar also had another film scheduled a few months later, the Pete Doctor directed Soul (2020), and as the days rolled along into the midst of the pandemic, it became clear that theaters would not be open in time, or for many months after.  As a result, Soul became the first ever Pixar movie to not receive a theatrical release, instead making it’s debut on Christmas Day 2020.  One hoped that this would be a one off choice based on difficult circumstances, but Disney had other plans.  Despite Raya and the Last Dragon receiving a hybrid theatrical and streaming release in Spring 2021, it was decided that the next Pixar film planned for the Summer, Luca (2021) would also go straight to Disney+, even though most theaters by that point would be open.  After that, most Pixar fans hoped that the following year would be different, but no.  Even with movie theaters more or less back to normal business in 2022, Disney decided again to release the next in line Pixar film, Turning Red (2022) exclusively on Disney+.  And this led to some justifiable grumbling in the halls of Pixar Animation.

Thankfully, this run of streaming exclusives seems to have come to an end, and the next Pixar film, the Toy Story spinoff Lightyear (2022) is premiering first in theaters.  It would make sense that Disney would feel more confident in the theatrical performance of this film, given that it centers on a well known character like Buzz Lightyear.  What is interesting however is that this is not exactly the same Buzz Lightyear that we know from the Toy Story movies.  Those films featured Buzz Lightyear the toy.  Lightyear is about the man that the toy is based on.  And to differentiate the two a bit more, Pixar also cast a new actor in the iconic role; Chris Evans of Marvel’s Captain America fame.  This sparked it’s own bit of controversy, as many fans of the original Buzz Lightyear voice actor, Tim Allen, voiced their displeasure of him being replaced.  Some even conspiratorially said that Allen was “cancelled” by Disney for his political views, without showing any evidence of that being true.  This movie was in the works with  Chris Evans attached at the same time Tim Allen was voicing toy Buzz again in Toy Story 4 (2019), so they clearly were not pushing Tim Allen aside.  Allen is even returning for a Santa Clause spinoff series on Disney+ in the near future, so you can’t say that he’s been cancelled by Disney at all.  Pixar has made it clear, this is a very different version of Buzz Lightyear, and if you were to ask Tim Allen himself, I’m sure he would give his seal of approval to the casting of Chris Evans in the part.  Unfortunately, this isn’t the only thing that Lightyear has become a lightning rod for.  The inclusion of a supporting character in a same-sex relationship has also sparked up controversy, despite the fact that it’s an inconsequential factor in the story and is treated respectfully and appropriately for all ages.  Clearly, some people just want to complain about the whole inclusivity of it, as a means of erasure of queer people in the guise of “family values.”  I think it’s fair to say that those complaining the most about this movie are also judging something they haven’t seen, and are probably too afraid to confront the issue of queer inclusion in media as well.  It’s sad that something as innocent as a simple kiss unjustly warrants censorship in other.  But, thankfully, Lightyear is still getting the opportunity to be seen by a large audience on a big screen, which Pixar has not had the privilege of since the pandemic began.  The only question is, does Lightyear go to infinity and beyond, or does it fail to launch?

The movie introduces us to Captain Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) as he commands the travel of a space module, which he dubs the “Turnip” because of it’s shape, through it’s intergalactic journey.  After landing on a mysterious new planet, him and his crew discover that the planet has hostile lifeforms that put it in danger, and they try to make an escape.  Buzz makes a daring escape, but his recklessness also causes them to be stranded on another part of the planet.  Buzz feels like he let down the mission, but his fellow space ranger Captain Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) convinces him that he can help save the mission through helping them discover the right formula to create the fuel that allows for warp speed.  Buzz undertakes the test flight himself, and while he manages to achieve incredible speed, he falls short of warp drive.  Unfortunately, he learns that when he does the flight tests, the faster he goes he’ll experiences a phenomenon known as time dilation. As a result, what seems like a couple minutes to him will actually be 4-5 years for everyone else.  Still, he doggedly pursues his mission and conducts more test runs.  In a short amount of time for him, he sees Alisha get engaged, marry her wife, raise a family and grow old.  After he conducts yet another test run, he learns that Alisha has passed away from old age, and that her replacement, Commander Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who was raised on this planet, is putting a halt to the remainder of the mission.  Buzz, still determined to complete the mission, and with the help of his robotic cat companion, SOX (Pete Sohn) he finally finds the right formula and achieves warp speed.   Unfortunately, another significant chunk of time has passed, and he returns to the planet to find it under siege by a robot army, commanded by a hostile robot overlord named Zurg (James Brolin).  The colony has walled itself off behind a laser shield, and only a scant group of survivors outside remain.  Among them is Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Kek Palmer), as well two recruits named Morrison (Taika Waititi) and Darby (Dale Soules).  Together, they must find a way to bring the warp speed formula back home and stop the Zurg army from destroying the colony.  Of course, as Buzz soon learns, not all plans go the way the way they should, and sometime even he can be his own worst enemy.

There is a great thrill seeing that hopping lamp Pixar logo grace the big screen again, though I’ve been privileged enough to be in Los Angeles, which saw exclusive theatrical showings of Luca and Turning Red in one theater that I got to attend.  But, having this movie widely available is thankfully a return to form for Pixar Animation, and hopefully it will continue on in the future.  But, despite the welcome return, how does this movie compare with the other films from Pixar, which is a studio that has set a very high bar.  I will say that this is a movie that is better served if you hedge your expectations.  On the surface, it’s a very serviceable, well-made action based sci-fi adventure.  But the fact that this movie came from Pixar, which is supposed to be the home of movies that go, for lack of a better phrase “to infinity and beyond,” this movie may end up being a tad disappointing.  It doesn’t exactly push any boundaries, and is more or less just an exercise in seeing the different ways they can explore the Buzz Lightyear character.  At the same time, I can’t say that I disliked much about the movie either.  The only disappointing thing I can say about it is that it plays things very safe; which is ironic considering that it’s at the center of so many controversies.  For a studio that creates so many imaginative worlds in films like Inside Out (2015), Coco (2017), and Soul (2020) as well as deep emotional stories like Up (2009) and Wall-E (2008), Lightyear comes across as far more conventional than their average film.  I think that Pixar may have unfortunately set their bar a little high as well.  Before the movie begins, title cards appear stating that “in 1995, a little boy named Andy received a toy action figure based on the main character of his favorite movie,” followed by “This is that movie.”  Unless the movie rises to the standard of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings after making that statement, then you are clearly going to set yourself up for disappointment.  It becomes a little hard to swallow afterwards that this particular movie, as conventional as it is, left such a resounding impact on one child’s life, even if he is himself a fictional character.  This really comes down to a marketing mistake.  It seems like Disney and Pixar didn’t fully trust that the audience would catch onto the conceit that this is an entirely different character from the Buzz that we know and they added the disclaimer to make it clear.  Here’s an idea, don’t assume that your audience is dumb and can’t figure the difference out.  The movie might have been better served if it was allowed to define itself without having to re-establish a connection to Toy Story.

That being said, there are definitely things to like about the movie.  One of which is the character development that they do with Buzz himself.  I like the fact that they showed him to be a flawed individual, who has to grow and mature into the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command that we all know him to be.  It kind of parallels the character development that the Buzz in Toy Story went through, where he went through his own self discovery, accepting that he was a toy and that he needed to take his mind off the mission instilled in him to better function in his new reality.  The Buzz in Lightyear also has that same deluded sense of self worth that makes him  culpable in some catastrophic mistakes.  What we see is him being a hero to a fault.  His devotion to the mission causes him to become isolated, and he loses those close to him as a result.  The sequence of him experiencing time dilation, as he watches his best friend go through a full life while he’s stuck in his short amount of time (a moment that feels very similar to one found in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar) is particularly heartbreaking, and it’s especially poignant because it’s a punishment of Buzz’s own making.  Though you can feel some of the action sequences just going through the paces and having the film just spin it’s wheels, it’s others like the time dilation sequence that do carry a lot of poignancy that helps to elevate the movie beyond just the average animated film.  I also liked how this element of Buzz’s character development ties into his confrontation with the villainous Zurg, whose presence in this movie puts it’s own interesting spin on the established good vs. evil showdown between Buzz and his arch-nemesis.  In many ways, this movie explores the character of Buzz Lightyear in far more detail than you could ever do in the Toy Story movies.  Buzz’s development in those movies is more or less shaped by his contentious but ultimately mutually respectful relationship with Woody.  Without Woody present, as well as the existential realization of being a toy, what else is there to know about Buzz?  I like the fact that Pixar deconstructed the character in this film, showing that heroes are not born, but rather shaped by the choices that they make, and that sometimes the best course to becoming a better hero is to recognize your flaws and not be burdened by failure.

One of the best things about this movie is the casting of Chris Evans as Buzz.  All of you complaining about the absence of Tim Allen will be silenced almost immediately upon watching this, because Evans slips into the role effortlessly.  Like I said, this is very much a different Buzz, but Evans still brings the smooth mixture of gravitas and stoic humor that Allen has given to the character.  There’s a nice little running joke about the mission logs that Buzz records, despite being told that no one actually listens to them, which eventually just becomes Buzz’s way of thinking out loud during the course of his story.  Evans does a good job of channeling the boy scout wholesomeness that he utilized so well during his time as Captain America, but he also manages to capture the sillier side of Buzz Lightyear very well, especially when he tries to remain stoic in moments of absurdity.  There are plenty of other good performances from other members of the voice cast as well.  James Brolin brings a surprisingly menacing tone to his performance as Zurg, even if it’s not quite as terrifying as his son Josh’s villainous performance as Thanos in the Marvel movies.  Uzo Aduba and Keke Palmer are also quite good in their roles as two generations of the Hawthorne family that Buzz befriends over time.  You also get solid humorous performances from Taika Waititi and Dale Soules as their misfit recruit characters.  But, if there is a character that easily steals the show, it’s SOX, the robotic cat companion to Buzz.  Voiced by veteran Pixar director and animator Pete Sohn (The Good Dinosaur), SOX is far and away the funniest character.  The animation of the character itself is hilarious, with Sox behaving very much like a toy cat robot, but he also has some of the most dryly hilarious lines in the film.  It’s probably likely that he was a character that Disney wanted in the movie to sell toys, and I have no doubt that SOX will be a highly in demand character when tie-in merchandise hits the shelves.  But, Pixar makes him much more than a cynical cash-grab ploy, and he is a large part of the entertainment value of this movie.  All around, this is a strong collection of voice actors who really enrich the characters that they are playing, especially with Chris Evans who had some big shoes to fill.

The film also has a lot of strong visual to back up the story as a whole.  Of course it’s expected that a movie like Lightyear would be visually up to the high Pixar standard.  What really impressed me with this movie is just how good they are with the lighting of the scenes.  This movie has some of the best atmospheric lighting that I’ve ever seen in any animated film.  There’s some moments in Buzz’s apartment in the early morning where the lighting is so subtly subdued that you would think that it’s live action and not animation.  The movie also knows when to go wild with the color and lighting as well.  The sequence when Buzz finally achieves warp speed in his test flight, which I’m pretty certain was very much inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is a breathtakingly beautiful moment of animation.  I’d say that the only let down by the movie visually is the lack of diverse locations.  The entire movie takes place on this one deserted planet, which is not much unlike any other alien planet we’ve seen in countless other Sci-Fi movies.  Considering this is Pixar, which has shown boundless imagination when it comes to world building, the lack of exploration in this Sci-Fi world is a tad bit disappointing.  Sure, there are different corners of the planet they come across, but it still feels like the movie is needlessly grounded when it should be intergalactic.  This is Buzz Lightyear we are talking about.  He should be able to venture from planet to planet in a grand adventure.  This movie keeps things pretty much grounded for the most part, with the only variety coming from when they head into Zurg’s fortress like ship.  That being said, the movie is not a slouch when it comes to the animation.  What really makes Pixar stand out as a studio is the subtlety that they put into their character animation.  You see the broad range of emotions perfectly captured in the facial animation of Buzz, and it goes a long way in helping to enrich his character’s emotional journey.  At the same time, I love the stilted robotic animation that they put into a character like SOX, which in itself is part of the humor in the film.  So, in the visuals sense, you can definitely say that this rises up to the high Pixar standard, and shows that they are definitely not falling off as a standard bearer in that field.

In the end, it really comes down to expectation.  With a legacy like what the Toy Story movies have, one might feel this movie is a let down, because it doesn’t quite have the same heart as those films do.  But, it’s also not trying to be a Toy Story movie either.  I myself was able to understand the gimmick of this movie, and disassociate it from it’s previous roots to judge it as it’s own thing.  The biggest fault that it has is it plays things a bit too safe.  Pixar could take us to endless worlds of possibilities, and yet here they tell a pretty standard Sci-Fi story.  It’s not poorly told by any means, but you get the feeling like Pixar undermined their own ambitions.  I get the feeling that the concept came first before a story was even thought up, and in the end it was treated as an afterthought.  It would have been much better if an interesting story had been conceived first and then worked into the Buzz Lightyear mythos, because then you’d have something to better grab the attention of the audience beyond the name recognition of the main character.  At the same time, Pixar does find some interesting angles within this story, particularly surrounding Buzz’s own self discovery.  Thanks to a very strong vocal performance by Chris Evans, you still find a lot to like about the character of Buzz Lightyear without it ever overshadowing the work that Tim Allen put into the character for so many years.  Combine that with solid animation and an enjoyable supporting cast, especially scene-stealer SOX, and you’ve got a film that still finds plenty of ways to entertain audiences of all ages.  I know that many Pixar fans will be happy that the studio finally has a movie on the big screen again.  Honestly, this should have happened a while ago and it’s kind of unfortunate that Lightyear is the movie to break that cycle.  Pixar during the pandemic has been on a roll, with Soul, Luca, and Turning Red being among their best films in years, so the fact that they weren’t given the same privilege as Lightyear, an objectively less interesting movie, is pretty unfair.  Still, I hope Lightyear does well enough to keep Pixar on the big screen, because it’s the best way to watch the kinds of films they make.  To infinity and beyond all you magicians over there at Pixar; keep reaching for those stars.

Rating: 7.5/10

Off the Page – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Just like the same movement in cinema, American literature also changed significantly during the rise of counter culture in the 60’s and 70’s.  Rising out of the Beat generation and it’s poetic forbearers like Allen Ginsberg, the hippie movement brought it’s own wave of groundbreaking, socially conscious writing to the forefront of attention in the minds of young American.  Tackling everything from social taboos, to the rights of the oppressed, to psychedelic philosophizing, to just plain old “sticking it to the man,” there were many books both fiction and non-fiction that helped to define that turbulent era.  One prominent voice to emerge from that time period, whose writing particularly evoked all the rage, restlessness, and free-spirited thinking of the hippie movement, was novelist Ken Kesey.   Kesey was not your stereotypical hippie.  He was broad shouldered, had a horseshoe haircut that he often hid under a beret, and was also an avid outdoorsman who hunted. He often viewed himself as a bridge between the beat generation and the hippies, as he embodied the enduring spirit of one into the other.  He founded the hippie collective known as the Merry Pranksters, who travelled across the country aboard their psychedelically painted school bus and hosted “happenings” in numerous cities where they would share their art as well as psychotropic drugs with new people.  These “happening” were immortalized by fellow novelist Tom Wolfe in his 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid  Acid Trip.  He was also an early mentor of a little band known as The Grateful Dead.  But, it’s through his writing that we best know him.  He didn’t write much throughout his career, often spending most of his time as a cultural ambassador as well as a teacher, but the stuff he did write are touchstones of the era that he participated in.  He often considered his second novel, 1964’s Sometimes a Great Notion, to be his magnum opus, but the novel he is better known for is his debut, which of course spawned it’s own Oscar-winning adaptation; 1962’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Kesey had it in his mind to be a writer very early on.  After earning his English degree at the University of Oregon, he continued onto a graduate creative writing program at Stanford.  While there, he worked part-time on a graveyard shift at mental health facility.  At the same time, he also earned a bit of extra cash volunteering to take psychoactive drugs as part of Project MKUltra.  Both of these side gigs during his formal education no doubt inspired him with the subject of his first novel.  He completed his manuscript almost immediately after graduation, and it was published not long after in 1962.  It was a controversial book to say the least in it’s time, with it’s very anti-authoritarian message, and it was even banned in some parts of the country.  But, in general, it caught on with young readers, especially those of the beat generation and in the burgeoning counter culture.  Also surprisingly, it caught the attention of some big names in entertainment.  Actor Kirk Douglas optioned the book almost immediately for a stage adaptation, which was brought to Broadway by playwright Dale Wasserman.  The play was likewise also a hit, and it’s been revived and staged many times over the years since.  However, a film adaptation took a bit longer to come together.  Douglas maintained the film rights as well, but no studio would finance the project, often objecting to the tone and message of the story.  After a decade, Kirk Douglas had grown too old to play the lead part of Randall McMurphy anymore, and he was starting to look for other parties interested in taking the project off his back.  Well, that interested party turned out to be his son Michael Douglas, who was eager to prove himself as a movie producer.   Michael eventually landed a deal with Warner Brothers, with a script adaptation by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman.  Czechoslovakian filmmaker Milos Forman was tapped to direct, this being only his second English language film after Taking Off (1971).  Kesey largely remained hands off during the making of this movie, but the production did honor his native Oregon roots by filming the movie at a real asylum in the city of Salem.  Indeed, comparing the book with the finished movie, one will find an almost faithful adaptation, though with some very crucial difference.

“I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.”

One thing that the movie gets almost exactly right in it’s adaptation is the core theme of the story.  The book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel about individualism, and how institutions are built to break down the free will of those within it and why it’s necessary to fight back against it.  At the heart of the story is the clash between two different mindsets; that of the revolutionary fervor, embodied in the character of inmate Randle Patrick McMurphy, and that of rigid conformity, embodied in the caretaker of the facility, Nurse Ratched.  The brilliant thing about the story is that neither character is purely good or evil.  McMurphy enters the mental asylum feigning illness as a way to receive what he thinks to be lighter incarceration than prison, which he’s been sentenced to for statutory rape.  Nurse Ratched is by all accounts well liked outside of work, but in the asylum, she is a manipulative, passive aggressive tyrant.  There are a lot shades of grey with these characters, which is what makes Kesey’s novel such a richly layered narrative.  McMurphy is likewise manipulative, but his challenging of Ratched’s authority and refusal to comply, even if it’s sometimes for selfish needs, is an inspiring shake-up of the established order.  What Kesey celebrates in McMurphy is the refusal to just let the system grind down the individualism of the people within it.  As demonstrated through scenes where we meet the individual patients at the asylum, they are often kept under control through rigorous routine, harsh rules for stepping out of line, coercion through rewards and public shaming.  McMurphy, unlike Ratched, sees the individualism in each of the different inmates and treats them like they should be treated; as human beings.  The other inmates suddenly gain a sense of their own self worth once again, and one by one begin to rise together with Randle in pushing back against Ratched.  The rebellious spirit of course doesn’t last long and McMurphy pays the price.  But, in a very important line of dialogue, he implants the seed of rebellion in all of them, after failing to lift a hydrotherapy console in the washroom he says, “But I tried, didn’t I?  Goddamnit, at least I did that.”  Even if rebellion leads to destruction, as it does by the end of the story, the idea itself endures and thrives.

“Mmmmm, Juicy Fruit.”

It cannot be said enough how well this movie is cast across the board.  After Kirk Douglas had outgrown the role that he originated on stage, there really was only one logical choice for Randle McMurphy.  Jack Nicholson was at the time of this film’s making hitting a career highpoint.  He had already won acclaim for roles in Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Detail (1973), and of course Chinatown (1974), all three which earned him Oscar nominations for Best Actor.  He was steadily becoming the movie star of the moment in the mid-70’s, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a movie that was just tailor made for him.  When you read Randle McMurphy on the page, you can think of no one other than Nicholson in the role.  Fast talking, abrasive, and irreverential, you would almost think Ken Kesey wrote the character with Nicholson in mind; which I doubt was the case as Nicholson was just a bit part actor back when Cuckoo’s Nest was first published.  It’s honestly a good thing that the movie adaptation had to wait ten years just so Jack could be ready to play the part.  He nails every part of the movie, capable of being laugh out loud funny but also sincere in the more dramatic moments as well.  But, he is pretty much matched in every way by the breakout performance of Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched.  Fletcher in many ways improves upon the character as she is written in the novel.  The way that she exudes menace through such a cool demeanor and controlled voice is remarkable.  She is the perfect embodiment of every stuffy bureaucrat who dehumanizes people down to pawns in their own little power play.  The way she breaks down her patients, especially Billy Bibbit in the film’s finale, with her cold hearted use of shame is a very chilling portrayal of institutional evil put on screen.  Fletcher won out the role after performers like Angela Lansbury and Anne Bancroft passed on it, and like Nicholson as McMurphy, it’s a part that seemed to be made just for her.

What I find the most interesting about the remainder of the characters is how they are fleshed out by the movie in a way that they aren’t in the book.  The biggest example of this is the thing that is most different between page and screen.  That would be the character of Chief Bromden.  The tall, silent Native American patient at the asylum, played in the movie by Indigenous actor Will Sampson, is a secondary but still very important character in the film.  However, in the book, his role is fleshed out because he is actually the point-of-view character through which we witness the story unfold.  We get much more insight into Bromden’s mindset, and it’s interesting seeing how someone like McMurphy is observed through someone else’s eyes.  In the movie, McMurphy is the focal point character, and Bromden grows into an important part of the story the more that McMurphy interacts with him.  Even with the different POV’s on which the book and movie hinge around, the story still effectively gets it’s themes across.  It kind of works a little more interesting in the film, as Bromden remains an enigma for much of the first half, being a stoic mute.  It helps to raise the surprise level even more when he does break out of his shell, demonstrating the McMurphy’s influence on him.  Even as McMurphy succumbs to the limits of his rebellion, it’s Bromden who in the end carries his spirit on, as he smashes the window open with the hydrotherapy console that couldn’t be lifted up before, leading the the movie’s bittersweet but uplifting conclusion.  The book allows the reader to understand the thought process of one taking in the lessons of defiant rebellion, but the movie also makes that transformation feel rewarding as well, because we are able to see what the spark of rebellion is like when found in the unlikeliest of places.

“You know Billy, what worries me is how your mother is going to take this.”

I will also say that the thing that also brings out the authenticity of the adaptation is the choice of location as well.  The insane asylum that we see in the movie is the real deal, and probably not that unlike the one that inspired Kesey in his writing.  An interesting side note, the role of the asylum’s director was played by the actual director of the Oregon State Hospital where they filmed.  Milos Forman and his team did such a remarkable job turning the asylum itself into a character.  The way that Kesey describes the interiors of the hospital in his novel, with it’s cold sterile feeling, comes across perfectly in the movie.  Not only that, but Forman also utilized the local Oregon flavor of the setting as well.  Being an Oregon native myself, I can tell you that this movie is a source of pride among Oregonians.  No where does the movie show off the beauty of the state of Oregon better than in the scene where McMurphy hijacks the asylum’s field trip and takes the patients on a fishing trip off the coastline.  This is another moment in the movie that perfectly captures the spirit of Kesey as a character, since he himself was an avid fisherman, and often spent many trips fishing up and down the coast.  My hometown of Eugene, Oregon was ground central of Kesey’s Merry Prankster movement.  To this day, many of Kesey’s disciples still live in the Eugene metro area and are continuing to contribute to the counter culture flavor still found there.  Kesey remained a fixture in the local arts scene until his death in 2001, and the city honored him with a statue in the town square.   Kesey’s home state of Oregon was just as big of a muse in his writing as anything else, and though it’s as integral to the plot of Cuckoo’s Nest as it is to Sometimes a Great Notion, it’s still nice to see that the movie went the extra mile to bring it’s location shoot to the Beaver State.  That’s a major contribution brought to the film by director Milos Forman, whose style was very much shaped by his years working in documentaries for Czechoslovakian television.  He knew the importance of having his movie set in real places rather than on a soundstage.  It’s something he would apply on even larger scales later on, including the Oscar-winning Amadeus (1984).

It’s interesting to see how differently both the book and the movie were received in their respective times.  The book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was in many ways far more subversive in the early sixties than the movie was in the mid-seventies.  For the book, the country had yet to go through traumatic experiences like the Assassination of President Kennedy or the Vietnam War, so it’s plea for rebellion was not as widely accepted in it’s time.  It was subversive to challenge authority, something that was only valued by the beatniks and counterculture, and not the mainstream.  But, of course, there was plenty to be rebellious about in that time.  Marginalized groups like African Americans, the LGBTQ community, and Indigenous Tribes were beginning to march for their rights in the time period that Kesey was writing his novel.  Though he used the allegory of patients within an insane asylum, the same theme of demanding dignity in a world built to suppress them still rang true through in Kesey’s writing, and so many activists found inspiration in the way Randle McMurphy created what the late congressman and activist John Lewis called “good trouble.”  By the time the movie was released a decade later, the world had changed dramatically.  The psychedelic 60’s gave way to the rebellious 70’s, and when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest reached theaters in 1975, the counterculture was not only thriving, it had become the culture.  The war in Vietnam was in it’s final, miserable days and the hard fought for Civil Rights Act was the law of the land.  But, this was also the era of Watergate, and America was still facing a crisis of authority pushing down on the oppressed.  However, in that expanse of time, people now knew to spot the flaws in the system, and call out those who were abusing their power for their own satisfaction.  In that respect, Nurse Ratched changed from a symbol of the system to a much more defined monster, reminiscent of the would be authoritarians like President Nixon who were trying to put the counterculture back into the shadows of society.  Across it’s different eras, the story remarkably maintained it’s resilience, but as we saw, it also gained new and interesting layers between book and film.  Even almost 50 years later, there are still many other elements to the story that gain new significance in perspective with the times.

“You’re not an idiot.  Huh! You’re not a goddamn looney now, boy.  You’re a fisherman!”

As a movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s remains a landmark in cinema.  It was only the second movie ever to sweep the top five honors at the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay) after It Happened One Night (1934), and the only other movie to do that since has been The Silence of the Lambs (1991), putting Nest in an exclusive club.  Nicholson of course finally walked away a winner after so many nominations, and honestly, of all his performances this was the right one to honor him for.  His work as Randle Patrick McMurphy is just iconic, and so full of energy.  Ken Kesey gave his protagonist the initials R.P.M. for a reason, and Nicholson is the one and only actor to truly bring that character to full potential on screen.  Louise Fletcher likewise delivers an iconic performance as Nurse Ratched, turning her into one of cinema’s most unforgettable villains.  The supporting cast, many who came from the Broadway and Off-Broadway stagings, also includes an incredible group of up-and-comers from that era like Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif.  But, it’s also interesting to see how much of the book is maintained through the translation.  Every moment of the book makes it on screen and the only real big difference is whose eye’s the story is seen through.  Speaking of the character of Chief Bromden, you couldn’t ask for a more emotionally stirring finale than what happens between him and Randle in the closing minutes.  There you see the true power of rebellion manifest.  As the spirit is destroyed in one person, the lobotomized Randle, it is carried forward through Bromden, the one he inspired the most.  And as Bromden runs off into the horizon after making his breakthrough, we are left feeling optimistic about the future, even through a moment of despair.  The will to fight for a better world is greater than one man.  Ken Kesey saw injustice in his world, and it’s interesting that he chose to spotlight those deemed broken by society as his champions in a cry for humanity.  To this day, that is what has kept One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest such a powerful and relevant story.  We still see people treated unfairly in uncaring engine of our society.  For Kesey, the purpose of his story was to help convince the reader that no one is helpless and doomed to a life within walls.  We just need to be convinced that we matter in the world, and that it’s worth demanding better of the system that is built to look over us.

“One flew East. One flew West.  One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”

Bearing Fruit – How Apple TV+ Became an Underground Champion in the Streaming Wars

We are now almost two years into the thick of the streaming wars.  After a long period of domination on the part of Netflix and Amazon controlling the lion’s share of viewership on this new mode of film and television distribution, the 2019-2020 season promised to be a moment of shake-up that would redefine the streaming market altogether.  Every studio in Hollywood was now ready to jump on the bandwagon and launch their own platforms, as well as a couple other ambitious parties willing to carve out their own niche.  And as we’ve seen in the last couple years, the streaming wars certainly have shown who the winners and losers are.  Disney+ was expectedly going to be one of the strongest right out of the gate, based on the strength of their library and valuable IP, and that prediction proved right as they cleared the 100 million subscriber mark in just a little under a year (which is mighty impressive).  There were also some very noteworthy losers, chief among them Quibi, which didn’t even last a full year before calling it quits.  And as we have come to learn recently, the true “Netflix killer” in the end proved to be Netflix itself, as they fell victim to their own inability to see the unsustainability of their naïve business model.  Across the streaming world, there are successes and losses in every platform, as many of them are learning as they go along and figuring out what lands and what does not with audiences.  In the last two years, we’ve witnessed what a competitive market looks like, as each streamer has fought hard to promote their content as aggressively as possible, and some of the results have been unexpected.  Launching during a pandemic also became a fruitful testing ground for how the new streamers would perform, as it eliminated the theatrical market from competition for a while, as audiences had no other choice than to watch their entertainment at home.  But with all the noise made by the streaming wars since it began, one thing that has been unexpected in the long run is the out of nowhere triumphs of one particular streamer: Apple TV+.

It would be difficult to describe Apple TV+ as an underdog in the streaming wars, as it is a subdivision of the wealthiest corporation in the world right now.  Apple certainly doesn’t need to be a part of the filmmaking process.  It makes most of it’s money anyway on hardware, being the maker of computers and smart phones among other things.  But like it’s other mega corporation brother, Amazon, being a content creator is beneficial for the value of the brand itself, and that’s why both companies are willing to invest money in exclusive films and TV shows that will bring traffic to their respective platforms, thereby reinforcing themselves as a quality name in the business.  Before they began to make themselves into their own film studio, Apple had established themselves as a platform for streaming.  Through their iTunes store, users would be able to buy or rent movies and seasons of shows onto their account and either stream or download them anywhere on their computer or mobile devices.  This was largely a way to sell more MacBooks and iPads, but the store itself was a good source of revenue itself.   Naturally, this also led to Apple creating hardware specifically designed to watch all the programing on their user’s iTunes account as well as access other streaming platforms like Netflix as well; a product they called the Apple TV.  Like other streaming hardware such as Roku or Slingbox, the Apple TV allows for a internet linked interface that can play content on any television with an HDMI connection, and for many people, this became a great alternative to the standard cable box and DVD player that would usually be attached to the average television.  With this small little piece of hardware, Apple was able to help lead the revolution of cord-cutting against the long dominant cable providers, and were able to help the likes of Netflix and Amazon reach households across the world with their easy to use hardware.  So, with all their knowhow in helping make the streaming market reach the mainstream through their hardware, it seems only natural that they would start looking at entering the creative end of the streaming market itself.

Around the same time that Disney and Warner Brothers were discussing the launches of their own platforms, Apple likewise jumped out to announce that they too would be launching their own streaming platform.   And in those early days before the launch, Apple was quick to assemble elite talent to draw attention.  And boy did they spare no expense.  They managed to secure big names like filmmakers Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, and M. Night Shayamalan as well as stars like Chris Evans, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Jason Mamoa to first year projects on their platform right away.  And there were many more to follow.  It all looked promising, but what really shocked people was the price point for their platform.  At $4.99 a month, Apple TV+ was the lowest subscription price of any streamer, and it continues to remain low to this day.  It helps that they are backed by a mega corporation with enough capital to spend on exclusive content, but Apple chose to be conservative on their entry fee as a means of giving their potential audience an easy to swallow price that wouldn’t be too unreasonable.  For an amount not much more than a Venti Latte at Starbucks, viewers would have unlimited monthly access to the exclusive shows and movies made available through the Apple TV+ platform.  I believe that part of the reason that Apple started off low is because they knew that on Day 1 they still wouldn’t have the same volume of content as the others streamers, especially the studio run ones with the decades worth of library titles.  So, playing it safe in the beginning was perhaps wise.  It also meant that Apple TV would have a more subdued launch than it’s competitors.  In the first year, it was all about building awareness, and driving people to their platform based on the recognition of the Apple brand itself.  That’s why they took the even more dramatic measure of actually giving away subscriptions in it’s first year.  If you bought a piece of Apple brand hardware in the launch year of the platform, which a lot of people were doing anyway with a brand new iPhone model release, you were given a free year of Apple TV+ automatically.  It’s a risky promotional move, given that Apple was forgoing having a clear revenue number based on subscriptions to show off to investors right away.  The true sign of the success for the platform would only be seen a year later as the promotion eventually ends.

What Apple TV needed to do in that first year was to convince their subscribers that they were a necessary platform to have in comparison to all the rest.  With people having to chose between one or the other among the many different platforms available in order to fit them within their budget, Apple TV+ had to make their case quickly as they had relatively much less to offer than the other streamers.  The low price point and the free year promotion helped to bring traffic to them right away, but what was going to matter the most a year later was how well they would maintain their audience. Once everyone’s free year was over, Apple had to run into the inevitable wall of subscription churning that would decide their future.  The churning refers to the level of audience percentage that leaves or stays on a monthly basis.  There will inevitably be months where the numbers of new subscribers will fall and the numbers of cancellations will rise, and the churning rate helps investors see the strength of a streaming platforms growth as one is ratioed against the other.  If a streamer sees more new subscribers per month than cancellations, and that number grows wider and more steadily over time, than that is a sign of a healthy platform.  What we’ve seen from Netflix recently is for the first time in their history, the churn rate slipped into negative territory.  Netflix still has far more subscribers than any other platform, but the strength of their brand was built upon the idea that they would continue to keep growing exponentially without fail, always keeping them in positive territory.  They’ve had rises and falls of subscribers before, but never to the point where cancellations outnumbered new subscriptions before, even by a slight number, and that has shaken confidence in Netflix to the core.  For Apple, they would be running the risk of a catastrophic collapse once people would have to start paying for something that they had for over a year for free.  It all depended on the strength of their small, but still quality collection of exclusive titles.  And that in the end would prove to be the biggest difference.

The promotional year, plus a extended grace period granted because of pandemic related hardship, came to an end late last year, and Apple TV+ were eagerly awaiting to see how well their gamble paid off.  And to many people’s surprise, and Apple’s relief, the gamble paid off.  The churn rate held steady for Apple, as most of the subscribers who joined under the free year promotion kept their subscriptions once they were required to pay.  Apple wisely kept the subscription rate unchanged, so that the price remained reasonable for most people.  And not only that, it has steadily kept rising as the year went on.  Studies found that among the chosen streaming services of average households, a plurality of those who chose Netflix, Disney+ or Amazon as their primary streaming service also had an Apple TV+ account too.  Apple TV+ is still far behind in the total number of subscribers from the industry leaders, but it’s steady growth and lack of negative audience churn is a strong sign of a streamer with plenty of growth potential in the long run.  It’s in 6th place now, behind Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, Hulu, and HBO Max, but it’s been ahead of studio platforms like Paramount+ and Peacock, as well as kept pace with HBO Max, so there is a lot to be pleased about with Apple TV+’s performance so far.  Still, it has a long way to go before it actually can be considered a giant in the same vein as Netflix.  That would take another decade’s worth of building it’s library of exclusives.  But, given the deep pockets of it’s parent company and the ability to forge creative partnerships with some of the industry elite, Apple may have an advantage in the industry that the others do not.  What has been particularly advantageous to Apple so far is that they’ve been able to connect with their audience well.  No doubt the sleek Apple aesthetic handed down to them from the Steve Jobs days has given the users of their platform an easy to navigate and visually pleasing interface.  But the quality of the material itself has in many ways also been Apple’s greatest triumph in the streaming wars.

People want to know that they are getting their money’s worth when they sign up for a streaming platform, and Apple has quickly established themselves as a place for quality entertainment.  I think what has surprised people is that the best that Apple has to offer are the projects that slipped under the radar.  The highly hyped shows See starring Jason Mamoa, For All Mankind, and The Morning Show with Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carrell were relatively well received by subscribers in the early days, but what ended up being the surprise juggernaut for the platform was a feel good comedy about English Football called Ted Lasso.  In all honesty, this was the show that put Apple TV+ on the map, and what was probably the thing that helped to keep people watching after the end of the promotion.  What Apple TV+ needed was that one must see title, and they found it in the unlikeliest of champions with this Jason Sedakis headlined comedy.  Hollywood took notice too as in the following year, the show swept through the Emmys, winning all the big awards, including Best Comedy Series.  And that good will built up helped Apple to feel confident in the upcoming projects that they had lined up.  The highly ambitious Foundation,  based on the iconic book series by Science Fiction legend Isaac Asimov, launched soon after to critical acclaim, and a slew of highly anticipated awards season movies were about to be launched as well, including Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021).  However, it was a little Sundance acquisition that would prove to be Apple’s biggest triumph yet as it allowed their platform to make industry shaking history.  The small indie film CODA (2021) rode an unexpected wave to a surprise Best Picture win at the Academy Awards; a first for any streamer, which must have really shaken Netflix.  For the last several years, Netflix has spent billions of dollars worth on film projects specifically geared toward winning coveted awards.  And despite numerous noble attempts, including Roma (2018), The Irishman (2019) and The Power of the Dog (2021), they have come up empty.  Which make it all the more earthshattering that little upstart Apple TV+ managed to beat them to it.  That more than anything has put Netflix on it’s heels for the first time, with Apple actually managing to claim a victory in direct competition with the giant.

This in the long run could be key to Apple TV+’s long term fortunes.  What we are seeing now with Netflix is a large reorganization of priorities, which includes the cancellation of numerous passion projects they had greenlighted for many unique voiced filmmakers in the business.  Netflix, as they begin to tighten their belts, are going to become less of a safe haven for projects deemed too risky for the mainstream theatrical market.  For the last decade, Netflix had been the home for movies that filmmakers couldn’t get financing for anywhere else, because they weren’t beholden to a movie’s box office potential.  So that’s why Netflix became such an ideal place to work, because it allowed filmmakers the creative freedom to make the movies their way.  With Netflix shaken by a sudden blow to their finances, this may no longer be the case.  They are no longer going to be greenlighting projects with the same wild abandon like they used to.  And that may in turn lead some of the same filmmakers who once hoped Netflix would finance their dream projects to look elsewhere.  And that, in the end, may be where Apple TV+ benefits the most.  They are not bound by the same necessity for continued growth in subscribers as Netflix is; Apple Studios has the backing of their parent corporation with almost an endless amount of capital behind it, which they can easily invest in film and television projects.  And the fact that they are also inclined to take on the same risky projects as Netflix, they could indeed become the new home for passion projects in cinema.  They already are financing the next Martin Scorsese epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, and they also have projects lined up with the likes of Ridley Scott, Adam McKay, Antoine Fuqua, and many others.  It’s the mantle that they are picking up from Netflix, that their platform will be the place for original, creator driven projects that will be both challenging and rewarding, and they are hoping to pick up what Netflix is beginning to lose.  That could indeed make Apple TV the game changer in the long run.  They are not beholden to established IP like the big studio streamers, nor to an unsustainable business model like Netflix.  They could indeed become the haven of artistic integrity without the financial shortcomings that Netflix has only dreamed of becoming.

Of course, whose to say what will happen over the next decade.  As of now, Apple TV+ has cleared a big hurdle in their survival during it’s early days, and is primed pretty well to take advantage of a market that is about to shift with what’s happening recently with Netflix.  Whether or not Apple takes advantage of that in the long run remains to be seen.  But, thus far they have been an underground success story in the field of streaming.  They certainly have a nice collection of trophies along the way, including the historic Oscar win.  And their commitment thus far to delivery quality content at a not too unreasonable price has been thus far been fruitful in helping them grow over time.  It sometimes helps not to overdue it in your first year out, and actually play the long game to your benefit; being the tortoise rather than the hare in the metaphorical race.  As we saw in the start of the streaming war, going big is not without it’s downside.  Warner Brothers took the risky gamble of putting their entire theatrical film slate from 2021 onto HBO Max day and date.  The end result saw little to no change in overall subscriber growth, which was still hampered by the costly $15 a month fee, and it may have even ended up undercutting the box office grosses for each film in the still recovering theatrical market.  Peacock’s free tier hasn’t done much to greatly increase growth either, nor has Paramount+’s rebrand.  Apple TV+ on the other hand maintained it’s small but crucial subscriber base with a fair rate and the must see content that has steadily seen them grow even as the market begins to get a little shaky.  With Netflix’s recent woes, who knows how well the others may respond, but thus far Apple has been the beneficiary of the changes going on.  What they do with all that remains to be seen, but their cool and methodical plans thus far have given investors confidence in their long term prospects.  It’s a small but quality library of exclusives on Apple TV+ thus far, and the future should give us plenty more to make us subscribers feel satisfied in returning.  Certainly they were never exactly the underdogs in the world of streaming, given all that Apple money behind them, but by acting like a small player at first and not going too far outside of their means in the early days, they may have proven to be the streaming wars unlikeliest underground success.  Netflix was the movie industry leader of the last decade; Apple TV+ may have poised themselves to become the leader of the next decade, and that could lead to some interesting new developments in the history of cinema as a whole.

Top Gun: Maverick – Review

How do you describe the success of a movie like Top Gun (1986).  The Tony Scott directed original is objectively not a very good movie.  The characters are one dimensional; the plot is razor thin and cliché; and the movie is rightfully view as nothing more than a fluff piece of Reagan era propaganda for the Air Force.  So, why nearly 40 years later is this movie a beloved classic for so many.  Despite all of it’s many flaws, there is one thing that Top Gun has that gives it appeal to so many; character.  It is a corny movie, but in the best possible way.  There is so much personality put into the story that even if it is poorly written and constructed, it still captures the imagination of it’s audience.  And a large part of that goes to the undeniable star factor that was and is Tom Cruise.  Cruise had been around for a while before, becoming a rising star in Hollywood through films like Taps (1981) and Risky Business (1983), but Top Gun is the movie that propelled him to super stardom.   His performance in the original movie is just magnetic in every possible way, and it elevates everything else about the film.  His co-stars, including Tom Skerritt, Kelly McGillis, Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer also saw their careers boosted from the success of this movie, and the late 80’s wouldn’t be the same without the Hans Zimmer score and Kenny Loggins infused soundtrack that became omnipresent after the film’s premiere.  Since then, the movie has remained one of the key benchmarks of Tom Cruise’s stellar film career, and it’s a testament to his skills as an actor that he didn’t let this one movie role to overshadow everything else that he’s made.  Still, Tom Cruise is not above revisiting old roles, even after many years in the game.  The Mission: Impossible series is still going strong after over a quarter of a century, with two more set in the next couple years.  But, even more surprisingly, he’s now looking to return to the role that turned him into a star and revisit his story now, 35 years later.  After nearly half a lifetime away, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is coming back to the big screen.

The journey to get there though was not without it’s own complications.  The first trailer for the film premiered all the back in January 2020, aired during that year’s Super Bowl.  With an expected June release, Top Gun: Maverick was going to be one of the big tent-poles of the Summer season, and the marquee title of that year for Paramount Pictures.  But, like every blockbuster film of 2020, it had to be pulled off of the calendar because of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown.  The movie by that point had been too costly to push to streaming, with both a production and marketing budget well above $200 million, so Paramount had to wait a year to plan for a theatrical release that they hoped would be more favorable to them post-pandemic.  Even though theaters did eventually reopen, the following summer still did not have ideal audience numbers to warrant the film’s release just yet, so Paramount decided to let the movie sit on the shelf for yet another year, likewise also pushing back the release of the next Mission: Impossible movie with it.  Though it was a very costly measure on Paramount’s part, it still might have been the best possible move to make.  Now in 2022, while it still hasn’t recovered 100% just yet, the movie theater industry is finally on the rebound and more importantly, the audiences who have been most reluctant to return to the theaters are now starting to finally return.  And what better way to bring older audiences back to the theaters than with a fresh piece of cinematic nostalgia.  Top Gun: Maverick certainly has a lot of weight to carry on it’s shoulders.  The original is an iconic film to those who were raised up on it, and the expectations are extremely high.  Not only that, but the world has changed quite a bit since the original movie.  Would audiences today still go for old fashioned Cold War patriotism?  Can the movie overcome the cheeseball elements that have been often ridiculed over the years, through parodies like the Charlie Seen spoof Hot Shots (1991) and a queer reading rant by Quentin Tarantino?  Well, now almost 2 years after when it was supposed to originally been released, we can finally judge for ourselves just well the Top Gun jets still burn.

The movie brings it’s iconic characters up to the present day.  Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) now flies test missions for new experimental aircraft; often against the wishes of his superior, Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris), who ends up grounding him after an unauthorized speed test.  For his subordination, Maverick is reassigned to be an instructor for an elite squad tasked with undertaking a near impossible mission.  Maverick arrives at his old home base in San Diego, where he meets an old flame, Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), who now runs his old favorite bar.  He reports to his new commander, Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm) who wonders why Maverick hasn’t risen above the rank of Captain in over 30 years.  Maverick meets with the new pilots who are now under his tutelage, including Lieutenants Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro), Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell), Robert “Bob” Floyd (Lewis Pullman), Rueben “Payback” Fitch (Jay Ellis), and Mickey “Fanboy” Garcia (Danny Ramirez).  All of them are top of their class pilots, but this is a mission that requires far more off the books training, which is what Maverick is there to teach.  All of the recruits are unaware of Maverick’s history, but one in particular does carry some baggage related to Maverick’s past; Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s long departed co-pilot and best friend Lt. Nick “Goose” Bradshaw.  Maverick begins putting his students through the paces, pitting them in combat exercises that event the elites are unprepared for.  And sparks of conflict immediately start flying between Maverick and Rooster.  Rooster blames Maverick for holding his career back, as Maverick had made a promise to his mother that he would keep Rooster out of harm’s way.  Maverick is torn whether or not to hold onto his old promises, or to let the past go and allow Rooster to determine his own way in life, a choice that an old friend of Maverick’s, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) tries to convince him to do.  With the clock ticking, Maverick must have his team ready to take on a miracle of a mission, and that requires finding common ground and trust with Rooster, who he knows he’ll inevitably have to rely upon to save the world.

Regardless of the outcome of the movie in the long run, you’ve got to admire the fact that Tom Cruise is taking a chance in reviving this title at all after so many years.  The original Top Gun wasn’t something that demanded a sequel, and indeed it stood alone for 35 years.  So for Tom Cruise now to revisit it, there had to be a creative pull that demanded a revival.  Cruise is not one to lend his clout to unnecessary sequels.  The only reason why we’ve gotten so many Mission: Impossible movies is because Tom Cruise pushes the envelope with each new film, justifying each entry as an essential part of that series.  For Top Gun, the stakes are much more grounded than those of Mission: Impossible.  It’s essentially a movie about life on an Air Force base, and all the intermingling relationships found amongst crew and company.  For Top Gun: Maverick, Cruise managed to find the angle he needed to justify a sequel after so many years.  Here he asks the question, what happens when Maverick grows older and goes from hot shot to mentor.  He’s still the same Maverick, impulsive and often insubordinate, but he’s also got the baggage of his years in service to give him perspective on the right and wrong ways of using his skills in a new world order.  And in many ways, reconnecting Maverick with the demons of his past, namely the fate of Goose that still haunts him many years later, as he has to confront working with his son Rooster is a pathway into the story that I think very much appealed to Cruise.  In that sense, the movie does elevate well above the original Top Gun in terms of story, because there is actual exploration into Maverick’s character here.  He’s not just the star pilot here; he is a character that needs to go through a the arc of redemption in order to feel whole again.  I think a lot of people are going to really be moved by a lot of what Top Gun: Maverick brings to the table.  And it indeed takes a very dated piece of 80’s cheese, and makes it feel fresh and surprisingly deep in a lot of ways, improving very much on the story while at the same time not feeling too out of character.

At the same time, it does have the same faults as the original movie; just not to the same embarrassing extant.  Top Gun: Maverick is still pretty thin on story, and you can set your watch to the predictability of the plot points in the film.  At the same time, the movie does actually make up for the short-comings of the story by giving so much more weight to the action scenes themselves.  Cruise, who also works as the film’s producer alongside Jerry Bruckheimer who also returns behind the scenes here, wants to push the envelope with every movie he makes now; not just Mission: ImpossibleTop Gun: Maverick is the beneficiary of that raised bar, as this film takes things to a level that the original wouldn’t have been able to accomplish with even the best equipment at the time.  The late great Tony Scott managed to pull off the combat scenes of the original movie through well constructed editing.  He would take second unit footage of fighter planes in the air and intercut them with close-ups of his actors in the cock-pits, taken while they were all safely on the ground.  With the editing doing most of the work of creating tense, heart pounding action, you could believe that the actors were really in the air flying those planes.  In Top Gun: Maverick, there was no make-believe going on.  When you see Tom Cruise and his fellow actors in the cock-pits of these aircraft, there is no green screen trickery afoot.  His team found a way to have all the actors film their scenes aboard the planes in the actual sky.  Now that we have cameras small enough to produce IMAX quality picture in such a confined space, Cruise and his team can now put the camera POV inside real fighter planes and put the audience right in the middle of the action like never before.  Certainly, the actors didn’t actually fly the planes themselves, but the real pilots are hidden away so well that the effect of seeing the actors really up in the air helps to give this movie a level of authenticity that the original movie never had.  And that in turn helps to make the action sequences work so much more here than before.

It can be argued that the most important creative force now in Tom Cruise movies is Tom Cruise himself.  He is very much a hands-on producer and the reason he is able to take as many risks in his movies is because he has surrounded himself with a team who rise up to the challenge of matching his ambitions.  In his stable of collaborators, he’s managed to develop a good working relationship with Christopher McQuarrie, who has directed the last couple Mission: Impossible films (as well as a draft of the screenplay for this film too), as well as director Joseph Kosinski, who previously directed Cruise in the movie Oblivion (2013).  Kosinski sort of directs out of his wheelhouse in Top Gun: Maverick, changing up from the often muted color palette of his past films like Oblivion and Tron Legacy (2010), in favor of the Magic Hour glow in the style of Tony Scott.  Despite the shift, Kosinski’s handling of the assignment is still commendable.  Not only does he manage to get remarkable footage out of the real airborne photography, but he also managed to cobble it all together into coherent and well edited action sequences.  Honestly, the real appeal of this movie are the combat sequences, particularly the climatic one at the end, which will probably go down as one of the greatest dog fight scenes that has ever been committed to the film.  I’m sure the likes of Howard Hughes, John Ford, and Tony Scott would look at the air battles in this movie and be blown away themselves at how immersive they are.  More than any reason to revisit the story, this is probably why Tom Cruise wanted to make this movie.  He really wanted Maverick to be in a real airborne plane, and doing the kind of daredevil flying that could only have been hinted at before.  At the same time, the movie is respectful to the work of Tony Scott, and there is even a very nice memorial note at the end of the movie in his honor.  Cruise only pushes the envelope here now because technology has finally caught up to what he envisions this movie to be like, and give audiences the full experience.  More than anything else, this is why the movie must be seen, and seen on the biggest possible screen you can find.  When you see the actors doing barrel roles and knifes edge turns in mid-air, you can almost feel the G-Forces yourself because it’s that immersive.  It’s certainly enough to make you forget all the shortcomings the movie has in story, when the action is at this high a level.

At the same time, you also can’t dismiss the sheer magnetism of Tom Cruise in this movie.  He picks up this character 35 years later and doesn’t miss a single beat.  In many ways, given the extra decades of baggage given to this character, I think that Cruise has made Maverick an even better character in this movie now than he did in the original.  Like I said before, the original Top Gun is very light on character development, and Maverick is far less a standout character on the page than he is through Cruise’s performance.  Cruise has certainly improved as an actor over the years and his performance here is proof of that too.  It’s still a character of not much depth, but Cruise does his best to give some weight to him finally.  This is especially clear in a poignant moment when Maverick reconnects with Iceman in the movie.  Knowing the history of these characters, as well as Val Kilmer’s real life battle with cancer that has robbed him of his speech, the scene that they share is far more impactful alone than anything found in the original movie, and it remarkably moving enough to bring a tear to one’s eye.  Cruise naturally delivers in that moment, and it’s great to see Kilmer not left behind as well, also rising to the challenge.  Miles Teller is also very good in this movie, bringing the right amount of intensity to the role, and doing his best to invoke the memory of Anthony Edward’s performance of Goose, without turning it into an impression.  He also does a good job sharing the screen with Cruise, and their moments together are among the best in the movie.  The other new additions to the cast are more of a mixed bag.  I do like what Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm bring to their roles, with Hamm doing his best to be the one antagonistic person in the movie while at the same time remaining likable.  The other young pilots are fine, but the fact that they are written in a cliched way is kind of a negative in this movie.  Glen Powell’s Hangman for instance should just be called Iceman 2.0, because that’s essentially what he’s meant to be here in this movie and not much else.  At the same time, none of the performances are embarrassingly bad and character development is not what this movie hinges on anyway.  Still, even if you liked the corny soap opera plot elements of the original, there is still enough in this movie to satisfy, and in many ways, it serves it’s cast of characters much better than before.

It is always hard to make a sequel to a movie so many years after the original, especially after a few decades.  It probably helps that Tom Cruise gave this project over to a director who had experience breathing new life into an old property, which Joseph Kosinski managed to do with Tron Legacy a decade ago.  Both Cruise and Kosinski managed to go above and beyond with their Top Gun sequel because this movie is very much an improvement in every way to the original movie.  The combat sequence in the film’s climax alone is worth the price of admission, and will probably be one of the greatest things that you will see on a big screen this year, without question.  It’s still not a perfect movie.  I could still predict every plot point that was going to happen because it’s a movie that still falls back on cliché likes it’s predecessor, and the same can be said about the characters in the movie as well.  But, there was certainly a lot more heart put into the making of this movie this time around.  Tony Scott did the best he could with what he had available to him back in the late 80’s, and this movie in many ways is an attempt to bring the style of Scott up to the level of filmmaking that we see today, and perhaps fully realize what he wanted to do but couldn’t.  It’s a movie that is respectful to the past, and more importantly, is respectful to the fans who have kept a special place in their heart for the original movie, as corny as it was.  Those who especially enjoyed the shirtless volleyball scene from the original will be happy to know that it too is given a homage here.  And while the Top Gun brand is certainly not my own cup of tea, I do appreciate filmmaking that pushes the envelope, and Top Gun: Maverick is really a true wonder on that front.  I can’t wait to go through the making-of documentaries that I’m sure will be on this movie’s home video release, just to see how they were able to pull off this kind of production.  It certainly makes me even more anxious to see the next Mission: Impossible movie, because every movie that Tom Cruise makes seems to be made as a challenge to outdo the last.  For now, whether Cruise revisits Maverick or not, Top Gun: Maverick is an excellent exercise in filmmaking and proof once again that Cruise is a movie star without peer.  Thanks for taking us into the “Danger Zone” once again.

Rating: 8.5/10

Evolution of Character – Hamlet

If you look at the great breadth of legendary characters to have come from the writings of William Shakespeare, probably the most famous of them all would be the Danish prince himself; Hamlet.  Written in the latter half of Shakespeare’s career and first performed on stage circa 1600, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is widely viewed as one of the Bard’s seminal works.  Over the many centuries since it was written, it could also be said that it is the most widely staged of Shakespeare’s plays, with only Romeo and Juliet being anywhere near the same category.  And the impact that this play has had on the history of theater is immeasurable.  The lines, such as “To be or not to be”, “The lady doth protest too much”, or “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” are so omnipresent in our society that anyone who hasn’t seen the play itself will still know instantly where it comes from.  Apart from being endlessly quoted, there are elements of it’s themes, plot points, and characters that have slipped into many different parts of the culture at large.  How many theater troops out there have a prop skull in their collection?  How many stories of revenge have we seen in movies involving a son going after their uncle for the death or crime committed against their father?  Hamlet is perhaps the reason why Shakespeare has endured throughout the years.  Sure he has many other plays that are still beloved to this day, but there is something about Hamlet that throughout the years has kept it relevant to audiences across the generations.  It probably has to do with the character himself, a young man filled with rage who will go to great lengths to avenge the memory of his father, but in carrying out his plot, he only ends up destroying many more lives as a result, including his own.  It’s a universal tragedy that transcends it’s time in place, because we ourselves come to identify so much with the tragic hero at the heart of the story, and recognize from it the ways that unchecked anger can also endanger ourselves in the process.  It’s a tragedy that resonates, because it’s a tragedy that we so often see repeated time and time again.

One thing that has been interesting over the years is seeing how every generation finds a new spin to take on the tragedy.  Hamlet is a surprisingly malleable story to many different interpretations, without losing it’s core identity.  I think it’s interesting that some people may not realize that they are watching a version of Hamlet right away, but only come to realize it later.  One example of this is Disney’s The Lion King (1994).  Often dubbed “Hamlet in Africa”, the plot of The Lion King does owe a lot of inspiration to Hamlet.  An exiled prince returns to take his kingdom back from his uncle, who usurped the throne after murdering his brother.  Rings a bell doesn’t it, though Disney refrained from doing an exact translation; their movie has a happy ending after all.  More recently, director Robert Eggers put out his Viking epic The Northman (2022), which supposedly is based on the ancient saga that was the original inspiration for Shakespeare’s play.  Like so many have done over the years, Shakespeare also took this well known story from ancient texts and provided his own spin on the age old story, reflecting it’s events within his own time.  It’s just neat to see the story come full circle with a new movie now re-contextualizing the original narrative for today, in a world now that is so familiar with Shakespeare’s play.  Still, to this day, the play is a highly regarded piece, and in particular, the role of Hamlet is one that’s coveted by some of the most talented actors working today.  Stage productions in the past have included such legends as John Gielgud and Christopher Plummer, and Ian McKellan while more recent versions have been staged with the likes of Jude Law, David Tennant, and Benedict Cumberbatch.  Certainly watching Hamlet is an opportunity not to pass up, but the character has also left his mark on the silver screen as well.  It’s interesting to look at how many different actors and directors have taken their own crack at the play and the central role, and see how varied all of them are.  Below are some of the more noteworthy screen portrayals of the Danish prince, including some performances that could be seen as among the finest ever committed to celluloid.  So, let’s see how to be or not to be all of these cinematic Hamlets have been over the years.

LAURENCE OLIVIER from HAMLET (1948)

Of course, it helps to start out by spotlighting a man whose name in the annals of film history is synonymous with that of Shakespeare.  Laurence Olivier of course became a popular movie star in Hollywood with roles in hit movies like Wuthering Heights (1939) and Rebecca (1940).  But when Europe was plunged into war in the 1940’s, Olivier returned home to England to help boost the morale of his fellow countrymen in the best way he knew how; through the work of Shakespeare.  He took the tricks of the trade he learned from Hollywood and made a big screen adaptation of Henry V (1944) that was not only critically praised, even by Shakespeare purists, but was also a great booster of patriotic pride for the war plagued Britains, which helped them to feel more determined in the fight against the Axis powers.  After the war, Olivier now found himself an accomplished film director on top of being a respected performer, and he naturally looked for more plays to adapt to the big screen.  It’s only natural that he would choose Hamlet as his next piece.  But what he proved with his adaptation of Hamlet was that he was not afraid of changing his cinematic style either.  Where Henry V was a vibrant, Technicolor wonder, Hamlet was a stark, black and white melodrama, more befitting it’s tone.  Still, Olivier still lavished the film with incredible spectacle and he poured all his refined talent into the role too.  Sure, Olivier by that point was a little old for the role (Hamlet is described as being in his early 20’s and Olivier was pushing 40 at the time).  But still, Olivier gives it his all, and he was rewarded for it.  Olivier won the only Oscar for Best Actor of his career for playing Hamlet, and the film itself would go on to win Best Picture; the only adaption of Shakespeare to date that has done so.  That in itself is quite the achievement and befitting for someone with a legacy like Laurence Olivier’s.  Not only that, but he would set the bar high for all the Hamlet’s that would follow after him.  Olivier would go on to adapt many more films based on the works of Shakespeare, but there is no doubt that among the roles that he will be most remembered for, Hamlet will be among the best.

TOSHIRO MIFUNE from THE BAD SLEEP WELL (1960)

Of course, the impact of the works of Shakespeare is not just limited to Western culture.  Honestly some of the most interesting adaptations of the Bard’s plays have been from other parts of the world, especially in places where the same themes found in those plays resonate on a whole different level.  One noteworthy international filmmaker who was very fond of the works of Shakespeare was Japanese autuer Akira Kurosawa.  Over the course of his legendary career, he adapted a number of Shakespeare’s plays and re-contextualized them into his own nation’s cultural history.  His movie Throne of Blood (1957) is an unmistakable re-telling of the Tragedy of Macbeth, and his late career masterpiece Ran (1986) is a definite adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, both set against the backdrop of feudal Japan.  Of course, Hamlet was also a source of inspiration for Kurosawa, but unlike the other two, he chose to adapt the well know tragedy to a modern day setting.  Set in contemporary post-war Japan, The Bad Sleep Well takes the well known plot points of Hamlet, but reimagines it into the cutthroat world of corporate politics, with the Hamlet stand-in taking on a corrupt industrialist that was responsible for driving his father to suicide.  Kurosawa’s favorite leading man Toshiro Mifune brings his incredible natural intensity to the role, and it’s a perfect match for the character.  Hamlet’s character is defined by impulse and fury, and Mifune does all of that brilliantly.  Though the movie doesn’t use the same text as Hamlet’s play (not even in translation), the story itself is still vividly translated into it’s new setting and time period.  Kurosawa wasn’t the first to reimagine the story for a modern setting, but he demonstrated how well the story can be adapted to pretty much any time and place while still maintaining it’s core elements.  With Mifune’s intense performance and an excellent vision of how to update the story, The Bad Sleep Well really shows how universal the story of Hamlet is across the world, and it provided a look into how Shakespeare’s global appeal would influence so much of the different artforms throughout the decades that followed.

NICHOL WILLIAMSON from HAMLET (1969)

Since the days of Laurence Olivier, the landscape of British cinema changed very dramatically.  As the stately dramas of the past began to fall out of style, a new breed of filmmakers cropped up and began to take the artform in more experimental territory.  This was an era known as the British New Wave, and one of the noteworthy filmmakers to emerge from this field of new talent was Tony Richardson.  In 1963, Richardson rose to prominence with his fourth-wall breaking period comedy Tom Jones (1963), which won him both the Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture.   After a few more Avant Garde films that shook up the traditional standards of British filmmaking, Richardson decided to tackle Shakespeare as well, but in his own way.  Gone was the opulence of Olivier’s big screen classic, and instead the filmmaker utilized a style that felt more like versions one would see on the stage.  The sets are sparse, suggesting grandeur, but through minimalist set design.  It feels very reminiscent of a recent Shakespeare adaptation, The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) from Joel Coen, which likewise stripped it’s images down to stark impressionism.  Apart from that, the film feels very much like a traditional staging of the play, albeit in an abridged version.  What does strike the film as odd is that the role of Hamlet is filled by Nichol Williamson, who again feels a bit old for the part.  Now, there has been a history of actors playing Hamlet that were much older than Williamson when he did (he was 33 at the time), but maybe it’s the beard that he’s wearing that makes him look and feel much older, which only becomes more distracting by the fact that a younger actor is playing his uncle Claudius (a then 30 year old Anthony Hopkins).  Apart from that, his performance is perfectly suitable, and fits well within the vision that Tony Richardson is trying to display in this movie.  This may be a movie version that either is too much of a departure stylistically, or one that actually feels closer to the roots of the play for some audiences.  In any case, it does reinforce how well Hamlet is able to remain relevant across many different generations of storytellers.

MEL GIBSON from HAMLET (1990)

For a long time, some of the most noteworthy adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet have been made outside of the Hollywood system.  But, Hollywood would also tackle the famous play from time to time.  This lavish Warner Brothers production from Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli (who also brought Romeo and Juliet to the big screen in 1968) brings Hamlet back to it’s pre-Renaissance roots in a very medieval setting.  It also has a blockbuster cast, including Mel Gibson in the title role.  Regardless of what one thinks of Mel Gibson today, his casting as the Danish prince does make sense.  He was a big movie star at the time and was still youthful looking enough to believably take on the role.  He also had a strong history of giving intense performances in his movies, with this movie in particular seeming to be a warm-up for what he would eventually do in his award winning Braveheart (1995).  At the same time, you can also clearly tell that Mel is a movie star with not a whole lot of experience with Shakespeare.  He plays the role of Hamlet much in the way that he would also play William Wallace; very cinematically.  But, it becomes distracting when the text of the play is also being used, and Gibson’s grasp of the iambic pentameter isn’t as refined as some of his co-stars like Glenn Close or Ian Holm, who have more stage experience with Shakespeare.  Even still, the performance is serviceable enough, because this isn’t a stage set version of Hamlet; it’s a lavish Hollywood spectacle, to which his performance is arguably more naturally attuned with.  At the same time, it’s not at all surprising that Gibson hasn’t revisited Shakespeare since.  Obviously he’s got a lot of other issues to deal with, and Shakespeare clearly is not his style.  But, compared to other Hamlets in the past, this is also one of the performances that does stand out as being more naturalistic in comparison, and less stage bound.

IAIN GLEN from ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1990)

Hamlet’s characters are so universally well known that you can imagine what the lives they have outside of the roles they play in the story.  That was the particular idea that playwright Tom Stoppard stumbled upon when he wrote his own meta examination of the story of Hamlet.  Instead of writing his play around the most famous characters in the story, he instead focuses on the throw away side characters; in particular Rosencrantz & Guildenstern.  The two characters are just bit players that occasionally are present to be the recipients of Hamlet’s rambling soliloquies, and are eventually unceremoniously disposed of off stage, with the titular line “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” being their one noteworthy addition to the play itself.  Stoppard’s farcical play hilariously reimagines how the events of the famous play would appear when seen through the eyes of characters who are not meant to be the center of attention.  In the film, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are played by Gary Oldman and Tim Roth respectively, and both off them hilariously portray the central conceit of the play perfectly, as they awkwardly wait for their turns to come in the story.  One of the best examples of this is when they find Hamlet talking to himself alone in a room.  We of course know this as Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, but from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet looks like a crazy person rambling off to no one.  And that’s what actor Iain Glen (most famous recently for his performance as Jorah Mormont on Game of Thrones) perfectly realizes in his performance; that demented insanity that was always beneath the surface with Hamlet that to him seemed deep and introspective but to others would be viewed as lunacy.  Glen also very much looks the part; youthful and full of energy, which makes his underlying insanity also that much more unsettling.  It’s a brilliant dissection of the underlying themes of Shakespeare’s work, and it gives the character and his tragedy a whole different context.  The movie of this play really captures the idea that the best way to see the absurdity of the world is to look at it through the eyes of those who are purposely pushed to the side.

KENNETH BRANAGH from HAMLET (1996)

Perhaps the most comprehensive adaptation of Hamlet ever undertaken for the silver screen, this version comes from someone who many consider to be the successor to Laurence Olivier in movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays.  Like Olivier, Branagh carried his experience of performing the Bard’s works on the stage and married them with a strong expertise of the cinematic arts, and perfectly reimagined these classic works for a modern day audience.  He naturally followed in Olivier’s footsteps by making his directorial debut with Henry V (1989), and he followed that up with a colorful adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing (1993).  However, when it came time to consider taking on Hamlet, as I’m sure most devotees of the Bard do eventually, Branagh was committed to doing something that shockingly had not been done up to that point, which is film the full complete text of Shakespeare’s play unabridged.  As a result, we receive the full unedited version of Hamlet, which on film clocks in at a staggering 4 hours in length.  To match that epic length, Branagh also lavished his production on an epic scale, shooting it on 70 mm film with extraordinary set design and costuming, as well as a star studded cast including Oscar winners like Julie Christie and Charlton Heston, legends of the stage like Derek Jacobi and Brian Blessed, and Billy Crystal for some reason.  The movie may be a lot to handle for someone not used to a full adaptation of every line of Shakespeare, but you definitely have to admire the audacity of Branagh’s vision.  His style is very operatic and gives the true weight of the play the epic grandeur that it deserves.  He also manages to capture the character quite well, perfectly balancing the manic insanity of his character’s outbursts with the harrowing quiet self-reflection during his soliloquies.  He also surprisingly captures the youthful spirit of the character, despite also being a bit older like so many actors have been in the role.  Surely the best way to get the full experience of Hamlet is to watch it performed on stage, but as far as film adaptations go, this is definitely the best that has been done so far, because it’s the only one that leaves nothing out.  With this, Branagh more than earns his reputation as this generation’s Olivier, and when it comes to Hamlet, he may have even outdone the old master.

ETHAN HAWKE from HAMLET (2000)

Like Kurosawa many years prior, director Michael Almereyda also say a vision of how to bring the story of Hamlet to the modern day.  But what is interesting here is that he did so without changing a single word of Shakespeare’s text.  Perhaps inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s modern re-imaging of Romeo+Juliet (1996), this is a version of Hamlet that does retain the same language, but sets it in the world we know today.  And remarkably, it all still works.  Like The Bad Sleep Well, the story fits very well into a social drama of corporate greed and maniacal devotion to family legacy.  It feels very much like the recent HBO series Succession in that way.  Naturally, to make this version of the play work, the actor playing Hamlet has to feel like a contemporary modern man, while at the same time believably capable of handling the rhythm of Shakespeare’s words.  Thankfully, Ethan Hawke rose to the challenge, and gives a very strong performance.  It’s surprising how well the character of Hamlet fits into the style of a 90’s era angsty youth, and Hawke captures that perfectly.  He especially brings out the intensity of the character, while also feeling natural and not too showy in his performance.  Of course, Shakespeare purists might find some of the choices of setting and character a little too strange in this movie.  The movie does feature Hamlet delivering his “To Be or not To Be” soliloquy in a Blockbuster video store, which I’m sure is a far cry from what Shakespeare had intended.  But at the same time, it’s a looking at what this story means for our time and place, and the interesting thing about this version of Hamlet is that he’s also obsessed with the artform that has kept his narrative alive for centuries; the movies.  This gives that soliloquy a whole different context as a result, as Hamlet weighs what he plans to do against what he has seen happen in the movies themselves.  It’s an adaptation that may be a little too revisionist for some, but it is nevertheless a fascinating experiment in seeing how a modern day Hamlet would exist in our world.

No doubt Hamlet will continue to grace the silver screen in many more adaptations, but thus far, his screen presence has been marked not just by some great performances by some legendary stars, but by movie adaptations that try very hard to reimagine the character and his story in new and interesting ways.  Hamlet is very much a challenge for any actor, as you often have to memorize and deliver pages of dialogue without end, and if the actor can pull that off and make it feel natural, it can stand as a genuine achievement.  Most actors relish the chance to play Hamlet because of that challenge.  He is one of the most complex characters ever to come from the mind of William Shakespeare, full of contradiction and self-doubt.  The tragedy of Hamlet really comes from the fact that he becomes his own worst enemy in the end, by letting his emotions get the best of him and for not realizing the own folly of his plan, as noble a cause it may be.  Certainly when it comes to the greatest cinematic adaptations of the play, Olivier and Branagh are at the pinnacle.  Olivier achieved the impressive feat of winning the Oscar for his efforts, and Branagh’s version is probably the most complete version of the play that we’ll ever see put on the big screen.  But there are plenty of great performances over the years that have marked the character as well.  Even a parody of the character as seen in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990) is it’s own special contribution, as it points out the inherent lunacy of the character and his not very well thought out plan.   There honestly is so many ways to tell this story and still have it work, based on it’s universal themes.  That’s why you can have the characters played by lions in an animated Disney film, or have it set in a corporate boardroom like the 2000 Ethan Hawke adaptation.  With or without the text of the play, it’s a universal cautionary tale about the way people consume themselves with revenge and how that only leads to a cycle of destruction in it’s wake.  The ultimate tragedy of Hamlet is that he is too blinded by his ambition to see that he’s sowing the seeds of his own destruction and in turn the destruction of his own kingdom as well.  At the same time, there is a nobleness to his character, in that he wishes to punish those who took power through their own ill intentions.  It remains a powerful work that continues to be both strong on the stage as well as on the screen.  And with that I say, “Goodnight sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to they rest.”

The Subscription Wall – The Future of Netflix and How Losing Subscribers Will Change the Game in Streaming

Let’s have no doubt that for the last decade, Netflix had become the most influential media company in the last half century.  Not only did they contribute much to the cultural zeitgeist through their exclusive content over the years, but they also changed the way that media is distributed to audiences, and how audiences consume their entertainment as well.  Already having caused the collapse of the movie rental industry with their conquest over Blockbuster Video in the early part of the decade, Netflix soon began to make waves through the new advances in streaming movies and TV shows online.  Netflix’s dominance in the early days of streaming made them a force to be reckoned with, as both the movie theater industry and the studios themselves began to fret over the rapid growth they were seeing from the Silicon Valley based tech giant.  Netflix certainly grew rapidly thanks to on demand entertainment options, which brought in many subscribers as well as lucrative contracts with the studios to be the online home for an extensive catalog of movies.  And the growth over that time not only turned Netflix into a multi-billion dollar behemoth in the tech and entertainment industry, but it also sparked their Hollywood division to expand into exclusive content, essentially making them not just a distributor, but a studio in it’s own right.  And invest they did.  Billions of dollars was poured into production of new shows and movies, exclusive to their platform.  This included investment of mega-budget productions that were comparable to tent-pole productions from the major studios; sometimes costing in the ballpark of $200 million.  And those budgets were allocated without the guarantee of box office returns to off-set them.  What Netflix justified the massive spending towards content on was the sustained annual subscriber growth and retention that guaranteed them revenue in the billions on a monthly basis.  But, while subscriptions as part of a company model has often been a favorable thing to tout to stockholders and capital investors, there is always the risk when a company reaches a point when that growth just stops.

That’s what has happened to Netflix recently.  After more than a decade of sustained new subscriber growth, the last quarter revealed a stunning new reality; that for the the first time, Netflix actually lost subscribers.  Now, the numbers do need to be put into perspective.  The total number of lost subscribers was around 200,000 in the first quarter.  Compare that to a total subscriber base of over 250 million worldwide, and the loss was a fraction of a percent, and yet this was enough to sound the alarms.  It didn’t help much that this sudden negative growth came after Netflix forecast as much as 2 million more subscribers in the last quarter.  Missing the forecast by that much was enough to shaken investor confidence in Netflix’s overall value.  The stock price, which had been trading a year ago at almost $700 a share has been in free-fall over the last month.  Now worth just over $100 a share, the stock is still trading comparable to other media companies like WarnerMedia and Disney, but it’s a nearly 700% drop from it’s peak.  Some speculate that this is a much needed correction, as Netflix may have been overvalued in the stock market and that this crash was inevitable.  But, even if Netflix manages to make up some of it’s lost value over the next year, there is one thing they may have lost forever, and that’s their dominance over the streaming market.  Streaming will almost assuredly still remain a key part of entertainment in the years ahead, but the idea that it is Netflix vs. Everyone Else has been obliterated.  In truth, one of the reasons Netflix likely hit this Subscriber wall all of a sudden is because the competition is greater now than it was in past years.  Since 2019, Apple, Disney, WarnerMedia, Universal and Paramount have all launched their own platforms, and in turn have consolidated all of their library material there as well.  Netflix has been preparing for this new eventuality for some time, given the billions of dollars spent on original content.  But, the effect may not have shielded them fast enough, and this has shaken people’s confidence in Netflix’s ability to perform in a more competitive field.

The news of Netflix’s sudden misfortune could not come at a worse time, as Disney themselves have managed to see higher than expected new growth on their platform, Disney+.  Of all the new streamers, Disney+ has seen the biggest rise in subscriber growth since it’s launch, clearing the 100 million mark in little over a year since launch.  The big advantage for Disney is that unlike Netflix, it doesn’t need to rely solely on subscriber growth to offset the cost of production on their movies and shows.  Disney+ is part of a larger company portfolio that includes theme parks, television networks, consumer goods as well as luxury cruises and resort hotels.  While Disney stock likewise has seen decrease from record highs, it’s fall was not as sharp and it’s prospects for growth still give it long term value.  There’s also the fact that streaming channels are also available from companies with nearly endless resources at their disposal like Amazon and Apple.  Apple in particular has been aggressively pursuing prestige projects from the industry’s most valued talent in the same way that Netflix had in the last decade, and it’s paying off for them much faster.  In little over 2 1/2 years since it’s launch, Apple TV+ has already picked up coveted awards like Best Picture at the Oscars (CODA) and Best TV Comedy at the Emmys (Ted Lasso), which Netflix has been pursuing for nearly ten years and has thus far come up empty.  One other disadvantage that Netflix finds itself in is that the more desirable library content has all been re-consolidated back to the studios that made them.  One of the things that made Netflix such a big hit with audiences before was that bingeable shows like Friends, The Office and Seinfeld had all their seasons readily available on it’s platform.  Since then, the shows have been pulled off Netflix as studios like Warner Brothers and Universal wanted to make those shows available to watch on their own streaming channels; HBO Max and Peacock respectively.   So, while Netflix still has a library of their own critically acclaimed, easily bingeable, it’s still not as extensive as the other big studios, which have had a decades long head start.  That’s where a lot of the confidence in Netflix has run out; the other platforms have managed to grow much more quickly, because they had the rights to the things people wanted to see.  Netflix has been doing their best to convince people that they weren’t loosing anything, but instead gaining much more, but sadly, that excuse had it’s limits.

One thing that probably affected Netflix’s staggering drop the most is the fact that their monthly subscription cost became too high for many people.  Once available year’s ago for the low price of $8 a month, Netflix now chargers subscribers over $15 a month, making them now the most expensive streaming service.  Now, subscription cost increases are nothing new, and Netflix is not alone among streamers that have gradually raised their prices over time.  But, at some point, audiences begin to wonder if they are getting their money’s worth when the prices keep going up.  With Netflix raising their monthly subscription at the same time they were losing licenses to shows people wanted to watch on their platform, that question became more and more on people’s minds.  At the same time, Netflix has also cracked down on password sharing, which they believe was affecting their subscriber growth.  That’s honestly one of the disadvantages of having content behind a paywall; the draw for subscribers is determined by the desirability of what’s inside those said walls, and a lot of people were for the longest time being content to leech off of their friends or family who had an account in order to access their shows they wanted.  Because it was easy to do, people just password shared for the longest time, so Netflix would still see a large amount of traffic to their site, but not as many sign ups.  This didn’t seem like a concern when subscriptions were still fairly low, but as concern over competition began to grow, and the need for more costly exclusives grew with it, Netflix could no longer just passively overlook the password problem.  However, by closing the loopholes, it also loses them a growing audience.  Sure, they can save themselves from piracy, but a lot of those people suddenly losing access are not guaranteed to start subscribing for real as a result.  At this point, the higher cost of streaming becomes an issue, as a lot of the people suddenly cut off are probably those who can’t afford the new high rate, and that creates a loss in engagement with the expensive new programing they want people to watch.  Also, subscribers who have been connected for a long time, suddenly are not seeing the value of what they’re buying either, especially when the other streamers have better rates and more interesting content.  And with economic hardship setting in post-pandemic, it becomes a perfect storm for Netflix to all of a sudden handle right now.

Now, at the same time, it has to be stated that Netflix is not going away the same way that Blockbuster Video did in it’s wake.  Despite seeing much of their content moved over to other streamers, they still have their own in-house content that is very much still popular with a lot of people.  This includes hit, awards winning shows like The Crown, Stranger Things, Ozark, and Bridgerton, as well as acclaimed original movies like Roma (2018), The Irishman (2019), and last year’s The Power of the Dog (2021).  And just last year, Netflix enjoyed the success of it’s biggest hit yet; the Korean import Squid Game.  These shows and movies will ensure that Netflix will still have content of value on it’s platform.  But these programs were made in a flurry of when Netflix seemed to be unstoppable.  As they’ve hit the wall now in subscriber growth, what does that mean for all the projects that they have still in the pipeline, as well as the projects that they might have been interested in.  Already, there seems to be some belt-tightening going on at Netflix, as many projects have suddenly been announced as scrapped or being put on hold.  A lot have cancellations had preceded the news of Netflix subscriber miss, which indicates that Netflix may have been well aware of their precarious position before.  But, now the problem is compounded.  I’ve heard a lot of bad takes related to why Netflix is suddenly vulnerable and beginning to downsize.  Among them is the completely false criticism by anti-SJW critics that Netflix’s commitment to inclusivity and social awareness is at fault for the declining result; trying to work the news into their “get woke, go broke” narrative.  The reason this is false is because the projects getting cancelled are not the ones that are described as “woke;” because those shows are actually popular and well regarded.  What Netflix is especially cutting out of their programming outlook are overly expensive projects that are more about the flashy name recognition than the actual quality of the show.  Think needless cash grabs like the Cowboy Bebop live action remake series which was cancelled fairly quickly once the audience numbers came.  If anything, it’s probably a good thing that Netflix is learning to tighten it’s budgets now and invest more wisely, because what they had been doing in the past had been a bit reckless.

But what needs to be addressed more with regards to Netflix’s future is how they’ll be able to grow with regards to subscriptions.  The fact that this business model was their sole driving source of revenue was always going to be a problem.  Eventually, you run out of new people to sign up for your service.  Even by cracking down on password sharing you can only grow your subscriber base so much.  For a lot of people, the cost to content ratio just isn’t enough to make them jump on board.  So, if Netflix needs to prove it can raise it’s total subscriber base, they may have to resort to that dreaded A-word: advertisements.  Such a move wouldn’t be unusual in the streaming market.  Other platforms like Hulu and Peacock already have ad-supported tiers available to their subscribers.  The one problem that Netflix would face from this is loosing their appeal for having add free content.  Putting ads in the middle or at the front of their shows and movies would change a lot of the dynamic of their programming, and some subscribers may see it as selling out.  But, on the other hand, such criticisms would be moot if they still maintained that ad-free tier that currently sits at $15.  There are two benefits to an ad supported tier.  It allows potential subscribers another option that might better fit within their budgets.  And, Netflix would have a secondary source of revenue selling space to advertisers.  Sure, it would mean that some people would have to get used to annoying ads during their programming, but as we’ve seen, some streamers have managed to make it work for them.  At this point, Netflix really has no other choice.  This is the only way to lower the rate of subscription for them without having it cut into revenue, which will help reinvigorate investor confidence.  But, no doubt about it, Netflix will be a much different company as a result.  The question is, how soon will Netflix begin rolling out this option to the public.  We’ll likely see add supported Netflix tiers before the year is over, and maybe even much sooner.  But, Netflix more than anything, wants their audience to have access to the content they make while at the same time maximizing the benefits to them.  And there certainly will be a lot of people out there who won’t mind enduring a couple adds if it means being able to access Netflix content as a more reasonable price.

But, what does the recent struggles for Netflix mean for every other streaming platform out there.  Does the sudden stop in growth raise concerns for the other streamers as well, as they try to also rapidly grow their base.  One thing that has really changed the game recently is the increase in competition.  With more than one player in town, that means that there are multiple choices to chose with regards to what people want to sign up for.  And in most cases, some of those platforms are going to be passed over in favor of others.  That’s likely another reason for Netflix sudden subscriber loss; because audiences favored subscribing to another streamer over them.  The cost piles up the more streamers you subscribe to, and for many, the choices are tough.  This is true for all of them, beyond just Netflix.  That’s why the competition is fierce over all the content being created and all the talent that is being drawn in.  Every one of the streaming platforms needs to make their case to become part of the maybe 2 or 3 streaming channels that the average consumer signs up for.  And this is even in a market where YouTube also exist for free, making the competition for attention even greater.  The entire streaming market is in a balancing act of justifying billions of dollars worth of investment in high profile projects, while at the same time keeping the consumer cost justifiable in an increasingly competitive market.  Again, the ones who are best equipped to handle this are companies where the media side is still just a sliver of the company’s overall operation, like Amazon or Apple.  Amazon has spent a billion dollars alone on their upcoming Lord of the Rings series for Prime Video.  In the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing compared to the money they make annually, and if no one ends up watching the show, it’s not going to hurt them in the slightest.  Certainly Amazon would love people to watch their shows, but they are not really dependent on people watching them either.  With the other streamers, who solely operate as media companies like Netflix, it is crucial that they make wise choices in what they choose to make and how they wish to present it to their audiences.  And when it’s possible to lose out in being chosen as a chosen platform in any individual customer’s preferences, the choices made have to be much more carefully thought out.

So, for right now, Netflix is at a crossroads that a mere year ago was seen as improbable.  They have taken a beating at the stock market and consumer confidence in them has been broken for the first time.  Are they doomed to continue that spiral downward or are they going to be able to pick themselves up again.  My money is honestly on the latter, because some may forget, they’ve been in this boat before.  Back in the early part of the 2010’s, Netflix suddenly raised their subscription rate after they decided to split their services into two separate categories, each with their own subscription rate.  One was for their original disc rental through the mail service that first put Netflix on the map, and the other was for the brand new streaming service they just launched, with a third bundle tier to do both.  People thought that Netflix then had shot themselves in the foot by splitting the services like they did, but what we soon realized was that Netflix was actually looking to the future with streaming.  And they were right, as most people abandoned the rental service and chose the streaming service instead, creating a boom for Netflix for this cutting edge platform that they were very much the forerunners for.  Over the next decade, they continued to ride that wave, and forced Hollywood to confirm in response.  But, Hollywood has indeed caught up, and Netflix now must look at the options they have in front of them in order to find that special spark again.  It’s going to be hard, because when they embraced streaming in the first place, they were filling a void that hadn’t existed before in entertainment.  Now, that revolutionary action has become the industry standard, and they are no longer the market mover that they once were.  At this point, Netflix may even need to resort to following the other streamers lead and adopt ad-support as a part of their business model.  It obviously will be a big blow to the esteem they had as the trendsetter in a changing Hollywood.  But, as long as they continue to make movies and shows that people love, continue to make smart bets and refrain from costly gambles, and reinforce their esteem as a quality brand that cares just as much about the artists as it does about the product, they will continue to prosper.  Netflix made streaming what it is, and their days are far from numbered.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – Review

When Marvel began developing all the possible adaptations of their comics for inclusion in their massive cinematic universe, I’m sure that one of the hardest sells they were going to have to make to their parent company Disney was a movie based around the character of Doctor Strange.  Strange holds a special place in the Marvel comics library.  Unlike other characters in the assemblage of earth’s mightiest heroes known as the Avengers, Doctor Strange is not someone who fights threats with super powers or state of the art gadgetry, but rather with magic.  Basing a big budget action film around a magician casting spells doesn’t immediately scream out as smashing success, but Strange did have champions in high places.  There was of course Stan Lee, one of the men who created Doctor Strange in the comics, who certainly held sway over the Marvel brain trust in much of his later years.  And then there was also Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, who has long been an outspoken fan of the Sorcerer Supreme.  One of the things that certainly helped to make Doctor Strange’s presence on the big screen possible was the fact that he was a crucial member of the Infinity War storyline that was the backbone of the first three phases of the MCU.  Being the guardian of the Time Stone, known as the Eye of Agamotto, Strange was not just an important figure in his own franchise, but also a key character in what would ultimately be the epic showdown with Thanos in the climatic Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).  At the same time, Marvel took extra special consideration to not just make Doctor Strange another super hero like all the rest.  They wanted him to be a flawed but inspiring hero in his own right, with a character journey that was just as complex as any of the others.  It’s not just about the ability to master the mystical arts; it’s about overcoming the problems with oneself that defines becoming a hero in the first place.  That’s what was essential in establishing in the first Doctor Strange (2016) film, and even more so in his continuing adventures.

A lot of time has passed in between our first outing with Doctor Strange.  The Infinity Saga wrapped up with Endgame, and it was time to launch the MCU into it’s next big chapter.  So where does Marvel go in a post Infinity War universe.  To the Multiverse of course.  The Multiverse has been an especially popular tool for comic book writers both at Marvel and DC, because of the seemingly limitless possibilities it offers.  The multiverse allows storytellers to not just have one version of a character in their story, but many all at once.  And it also allows for many different variations of the same character to all be considered canon.  Before Marvel became the power house studio that they are now as part of the Disney company, they had previously been relying upon multiple studios to bring their heroes to the big screen, spreading their licenses across all of Hollywood.  Now under one tent, they’ve been establishing the MCU as a connected universe built on continuity, which excludes everything made before Iron Man (2008).  But, the multiverse concept actually gives Marvel a chance now to say that indeed, all of it is canon.  It’s exactly what they did with last winter’s Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), which combined all the Spider-Man franchises of the past and present into one, and legitimized every cinematic iteration of the character up to now as part of the MCU’s greater story-line.  And naturally, Doctor Strange was also along for the ride in that film.  Further development of the multiverse storyline has been built into the MCU through the limited series runs on Disney+, especially in the shows Wandavision and Loki.  Now, the Doctor Strange series itself brings the threat of what the multiverse means for the greater MCU to a head, and it helps to firmly establish where Strange’s story is about to head in this, lack of a better word, “strange” new world.  With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) we get our best look yet at the next big threat of the MCU, and the question we find is it a bold new direction for the franchise or is it too much, everywhere, all at once.

The story picks up right after the events of No Way Home.  Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is having re-occurring nightmares where he dies after trying to help a girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who is being hunted by demonic creatures.  While he has these dark dreams, he is also living out his life dealing with the aftermath of the even in the MCU known as the “Blip.”  Having been absent during the five years of the Blip, he has lost many things in the process.  He no longer has the title of Sorcerer Supreme, which has been passed on to his one time assistant Wong (Benedict Wong), with whom he now has been butting heads with.  Also, his one time romantic partner Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) had found a new love of her life in the intervening five years, and is getting married.  All of this makes Stephen begin to wonder what saving the universe cost him personally.  Yes, Thanos had been vanquished, but losing five years has also made him alone and less powerful.  Then, in the middle of Christine’s wedding, a disturbance grabs Strange’s attention.  The girl from his nightmares, America Chavez, is being chased through the streets of New York City by a horrific looking monster.  Strange and Wong together manage to save her, but they soon learn that she has been on the run from many other demons just like it, and will likely be hunted down again.  She reveals that she has the special ability to travel across the multiverse, which Strange believes might be what the one who sent the monsters is after.  America Chavez is initially hesitant to trust Doctor Strange, because other Strange’s that have helped her in the multiverse ended up betraying her.  To seek a solution, Doctor Strange decides to go to someone who might know a bit more about the limits of the multiverse than he currently does; Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who has been in self-imposed exile after the events of Wandavision.  However, Strange is unaware that Wanda has been growing her power in secret, reading from the forbidden book known as the Darkhold, which has elevated her to a higher level of power and turned her into an entity known as The Scarlet Witch.  As Strange and America Chavez venture deeper into the depths of the multiverse, they run into a Sorcerer Supreme variant of Strange’s old adversary, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is also in league with a powerful organization in charge of surveilling the multiverse; the Illuminati.  With all this madness going on around him, can Doctor Strange manage to set things right without leaving more destruction in his wake.

During the development of this movie, a lot of issues began to rise up.  First, the director of the original Doctor Strange, Scott Derrickson,  bowed out over creative differences.  This alarmed many fans because a director leaving a project is usually a sign of a movie that is falling apart and likely to be ruined.  But, fears of disaster for the franchise were alleviated once it was announced that Sam Raimi would be taking over the reigns of the production.  Raimi is a legend in the world of horror filmmaking, as well as in the genre of super hero movies, having been the guy who brought Spider-Man successfully to the big screen with Tobey Maguire in the 2002 original.  The prospect of him taking on the weird and wild world of Doctor Strange seemed like a match made in heaven, given Raimi’s knack for perfectly mixing humor and genuine terror together in movies like The Evil Dead (1981), Army of Darkness (1992) and Drag Me to Hell (2009).   But, Raimi has not been behind the camera in almost a decade, and his last film was a safe, corporate product called Oz, The Great and Powerful (2013), made for Disney.  A lot of people were wondering if Raimi would still be allowed to make a movie in his own style, or would he be hamstringed by the studio in order to work all the Marvel mandated elements into the film so that it would fit into their expanding continuity.  I can thankfully say that all those worries about what kind of Sam Raimi movie we would end up getting didn’t come true.  Even though the movie still fits well within the whole MCU continuity, Marvel still allowed Raimi to make the movie his way.  This is very much a Sam Raimi movie, with all the zaniness kept in tact.  If you love the creative camera work seen in the Evil Dead movies, it’s here too.  If you love the almost cartoon like visual flair of the Spider-Man movies, it’s here too.  There are a lot of treats here for long time Raimi fans but at the same time it doesn’t lose the focus of what it needs to be as part of the MCU storyline.  Honestly, his direction is easily the best element of this movie, because otherwise the movie might have lacked an identity apart from what he brought to it.

If the movie has a major flaw, it would be that it asks the audience to accept a lot of plot elements that otherwise won’t make much sense without prior knowledge of what has been going on in the larger MCU universe.  The movie not only includes backstory from previous MCU films, but also the Disney+ series Wandavision, so if you haven’t been following along up to this point, you might be lost.  At some points, particularly early in the movie, the film kind of loses some momentum as it attempts to catch everyone up to speed.   The movie also tends to not go deep enough on certain story elements, particularly related to America Chavez, who mostly serves the story as a human MacGuffin.  Which is why the Raimi touches are so crucial in picking up the slack of the movie.  It’s a lore heavy film, and that might turn off some viewers.  Even as someone who has watched every MCU connected title up to this point, I could feel the strain of this movie trying to make all the in universe connections service the story, and it becomes cumbersome.  As a result, the movie is best when you look at it as a Sam Raimi movie, and less as an MCU film.  I will attest that none of the shortcomings of this movie ever spoil the entertainment value of the film as a whole.  I do appreciate that it moves along very fluidly.  Those two hours go by in flash, and though I am sure some people would’ve liked a longer cut to savor all the “madness” of the multiverse, I do appreciate Sam Raimi and company showing restraint as well.  They could’ve gone crazier, but knew in the end that what mattered most was finding the core of this particular story.  That should be the goal of any stand alone MCU project; finding the reason why this particular story should be told in the midst of the larger story that it is set against.  When it doesn’t get bogged down in the larger universe implications, this is actually an interesting character study of it’s hero, as he examines what it takes to be the best version of himself, after seeing all the failures of his multiversal variants as well as the consequences that his actions have left in their wake, both good and bad.

One thing that is pleasing about this movie is the cast itself.  Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t miss a beat in his role as the no longer Sorcerer Supreme.  One thing that has been interesting in his character arc over his presence in the MCU is watching him go from an arrogant playboy doctor to a duty bound protector of the cosmos, and here in this movie, we see him become more introspective than ever before.  Like I mentioned before, this is a Doctor Strange that is coming to terms with the personal cost of doing the right thing, and how that has ripple effects of its own.  In this movie, he learns what it means to be trustworthy, as he must find a way to protect America Chavez after many other versions of himself have failed to do so, and Cumberbatch manages to play that vulnerable side to the character perfectly.  Returning stars Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Rachel McAdams also all manage to deliver more solid performances as well.  I was actually surprised to see how well McAdams is used in this movie.  Her character was largely an afterthought in the original movie, but here she actually has a purpose to fulfill in the plot other than being the love interest.  But, if the movie has a true stand out, it’s Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda.  Now in full Scarlet Witch mode, she is a terrifying presence in this movie, and her performance is also on another level.  There are moments in this movie with Scarlet Witch that rank among the most unsettling ever put in a comic book movie, let alone from the MCU.  And her performance runs the gamut as well, going from heartbreaking in one moment to foreboding in the next.  Seeing her progress this character from her first appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), through the Infinity War storyline to her limited series Wandavision, has been one of the best things that has come out of the MCU as a whole, and we see much of the culmination of all that rich character development here in this movie.  Olsen is delivering awards caliber work here, making Wanda creepy and sinister while at the same time sympathetic and letting us know exactly where she is coming from.  If anything, it’s her story that is the element that lifts this movie up the most.  There are also some genuinely pleasing surprises in the cameos found in this movie.  Without giving anything away, these cameos will please those of you who are fans of the MCU, fans of the comic books, fans of Sam Raimi films, and fans of all the above put together.

One thing that is particularly with this movie is that despite being called the Multiverse of Madness, the movie never really goes all in on the madness part.  Sure, there are a lot of crazy elements to be sure, but the movie surprisingly shows a lot of restraint as well.  This is largely due to the fact that we never really get a full multiverse experience on the level that one might expect.  Most of the crazy extent of the multiverse is limited to an incredibly imaginative but short montage that I’m sure nerds are going to picking apart for Easter eggs for many years to come.  But, for the majority of the movie, we spend most of the story in at most three separate universes; the mainline MCU, an alternate utopian universe run by the Illuminati, and a dystopian universe that an alternate Strange is responsible for ruining.  Some fans may be disappointed that more wasn’t done with the concept of a multiverse, but I feel like this was the best route to take in service of this one story.  Doctor Strange needed to end up in these specific universes in order to make the crucial choices that he does.  Much like how Spider-Man: No Way Home  wisely held back on the amount of Spider-men that could’ve populated that movie, limiting it to just the ones we’ve seen up to now (Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland).  Given where the movie ends up, I feel like it best fulfills what it needs for a multiverse story.  The Illuminati world is especially well constructed, being just slightly off from our own world without feeling too alien.  Of course, when the movie goes full Raimi it also doesn’t disappoint either.  He perfectly blends a gothic sensibility into this universe without it feeling too out of character for the MCU.  I especially like when Strange starts to mess around with spells related to the undead, which feels very much like Raimi in Army of Darkness mode.  Despite the seemingly limitless possibilities, I think it works well to this movie’s advantage that it remains grounded.  I’m sure that given Marvel’s larger MCU plans that this is far from the last we’ve seen of the Multiverse in the MCU, especially given what projects lay on the horizon for Marvel.  It’s an appetizer, but an enormously satisfying one that is especially enriched with the flavor of a filmmaker as unique as Sam Raimi.

So, overall Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t as top tier as say something groundbreaking like an Avengers level film, but as a sequel to the original Doctor Strange, it is more than adequate and I would say it even tops it’s predecessor by quite a bit.  For one thing, the whole Sam Raimi element of it all is great to watch alone.  Given that he was able to pour so much of his own voice into this movie is pleasing enough, especially given that he hasn’t been able to do that on this kind of scale in a long while.  One hopes that he’s not a one and done director for this franchise, because I think Marvel is better off with giving him more to do moving ahead in MCU.  Like other filmmakers who have managed to pour their own voice into the individual projects of the MCU, like James Gunn and Taika Waititi, Raimi has the chance of cementing his own unique corner of this massive cinematic universe if he is granted the oppurtunity moving forward with the further adventures of Doctor Strange.  But, if he choses to move on to something else, that is understandable too, given the rather shaky history he’s had in the past with studios.  As of now, it’s great to see this kind of movie in the pantheon of all of Marvel’s movies so far.  There are shortcomings with the story itself, but plenty to love when it comes to the style and the performances.  Elizabeth Olsen in particular is further cementing her presence as one of the best things to ever come out of the MCU with her amazing work here.  And Benedict Cumberbatch further reinforces why he was the best choice to play this iconic character on the big screen.  There are of course plenty of surprises throughout, but I should warn all the speculators online out there to hedge your expectations a bit.  Not every rumor that we’ve been ruminating on since this film was announced proves true, though a few did manage to become a reality, and there are even some that no one will see coming.  Overall, despite some minor misgivings, I would highly recommend seeing this on the biggest screen possible.  It’s really assuring to see Marvel taking some chances with their universe, including breaking convention and going into some truly terrifying moments.  They promised their first scary movie, and despite the PG-13 rating, it does live up to that promise.  You can imagine that a studio as monumentally successful as Marvel could easily rest on their laurels and just deliver the same old stuff over and over again.  So it’s nice to see them at this moment put so much trust in a filmmaker known for pushing boundaries and hopefully they continue to find new ways to make their remaining adventures into their expanding multiverse stay as “strange” as possible.

Rating: 8/10

The Movies of Summer 2022

After a couple of years of unclear outlooks on the once mighty pillar of the cinematic calendar, the Summer movie season is finally starting to settle back into a more of what remember them being like in the past.  The summer season is once again launching in the first week of May, which of course Marvel Studios has planted their flag on.  There are also big releases planned for Memorial Day and Fourth of July weekends, which have also been big draws for the box office.  That isn’t to say we are 100% back to where we were pre-pandemic.  Some movies are still finding themselves being pushed back; a residual after effect of the backlogged calendar that we’ve had from the pandemic delays.  One film this summer in particular has been waiting two years to be released, which is the Tom Cruise action sequel Top Gun: Maverick; a movie that premiered it’s first trailer all the way back to Super Bowl 2020.  This all leads to a summer movie season that does look a bit better and more traditional than those during the pandemic, but is still pretty light in terms of the numbers of high profile tent-pole movies being released.  This is probably due to the fact that even though movie theaters are doing much better now, they still haven’t brought back all audiences back.  The older crowd as well as art house film fans have still been reluctant to return, as evidenced by the softer box office numbers seen for more grown up, R-Rated fare.  Thus far, the only types of movies that have managed to carry their weight at the post-pandemic box office have been the ones that cater to the key 18-45 demo: in particular, the still dominant super hero movies.  We saw just this spring Warner Brothers and DC’s The Batman (2022) have a stellar debut, and that was largely due to the genre’s resilience and it’s strong connection with the demographic it’s appealing to.  What should be encouraging to Hollywood right now is the return of healthy box office for family entertainment, as evidenced by the success of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (2022).  That gives hope that we’ll see continued growth at the summer box office over the next few months.

Like years past, I will be spotlighting some of the upcoming summer movies that I think will be impactful, for better and for worse.  Of course I’ll be breaking them down into the movies that I believe will be the must sees, the ones that have me worried, as well as the ones that I believe are worth skipping.  Keep in mind, these are based on my own level of interest in these movies, mainly due to the effectiveness of their advertising as well as my own pre-existing preferences, so I may not get a lot of these movies right by the end of the Summer.  But, I stand with my choices here, and my hope is that the ones I’m most excited for live up to the hype and that the one’s I’m less enthusiastic for end up being better than I expected.  So, let’s get underway and take a look at the Movies of Summer 2022.

MUST SEES

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (JULY 8)

Unequivocally the movie I am most looking forward to this Summer, and perhaps for the entire year as well.  When he took the reigns of the Thor franchise with the game-changing Thor: Ragnarok (2017), director and writer Taika Waititi managed to finally find the full potential in the character of Thor within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The Thor movies up to that point had been heavy and melodramatic, but Taika completely flipped the script and turned the “Strongest Avenger’s” narrative into a far more humorous one; and it worked brilliantly.  I feel like Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios realized midway through the creation of the MCU that Thor actor Chris Hemsworth had this natural knack for comedy, and that it was best to lean more into that for the future installments of his cinematic adventures.  That’s why they brought in a comedic genius like Taika to lend his own unique voice to their Cinematic Universe and it was a match made in heaven.  Now after the success of Ragnarok, and the subsequent Avengers films that followed it, we are getting the fourth Thor solo film, and it looks like Taika is picking up right where he left off.  What’s especially interesting here is that the movie is bringing back Natalie Portman to the franchise, reprising the role of Thor love interest Jane Foster, who was benched unceremoniously in Ragnarok.  Her return is very welcome, especially given that she’s going to follow the comic book story-line of her character here, and gain the power of Thor herself.  For one thing, it’s good that they are finally resolving that story thread and two it’s a beloved plot from the  comic books that fans are excited to see realized here.  It’s also nice to see Tessa Thompson return as Valkyrie (a fan favorite), and the inclusion of the Guardians of the Galaxy is also exciting.  But the most intriguing for me is something that the trailers haven’t shown yet and that’s the presence of the villainous Gorr, The God Butcher, whose going to be played by Oscar winner Christian Bale.  Seeing Bale, yet another Batman in the MCU is especially exciting and I cannot wait to see how his performance fits within the tone of the rest of the movie.  Also, this is Taika Waititi’s first project after winning his Oscar for writing Jojo Rabbit (2019), one of my favorite movies in recent memory.  I have high hopes for Taika and company to deliver a rollicking good time this Summer with Love and Thunder.

LIGHTYEAR (JUNE 17)

It’s unthinkable to think that there hasn’t been a Pixar film that has played in theaters since the pandemic began.  Onward, which had it’s box office window cut short by the lock down, was the last one and that was all the way back in March 2020.  Pixar has still been releasing movies, but they have been going straight to Disney+ as streaming exclusives.  I feel bad that movies like Soul (2020), Luca (2021) and Turning Red (2022) were not seen the way they were meant to be seen by the majority of audiences.  Thankfully, The Walt Disney Company, Pixar’s parent company, seems to have regained confidence in the Pixar brand on the big screen, as Lightyear marks the triumphant return of the cinema.  It probably helps that this is a movie that is a spin-off of sorts from the most prized series in the Pixar library (Toy Story) and this movie can benefit from name recognition to bring in audiences.  This movie follows a re-imagining of the Buzz Lightyear character.  As Disney has stated, this is not the same character from the Toy Story movies.  This is the “real life” character that the toy Buzz was based on.  It’s a roundabout way of justifying the existence for this movie, but I’m still interested.  With a different Buzz comes a different voice actor, and here he is played by none other than Captain America himself, Chris Evans.  What I’m hopeful in seeing with this movie is an adventure that uses known elements of the Buzz Lightyear lore and fully realizes them in a way that allows for this movie to stand alone apart from Toy Story.  I’m happy to see a re-imagining of Buzz Lightyear’s in universe arch nemesis Emperor Zurg making an appearance, and looking appropriately menacing.   The film does look like it’s leaning far more into the action adventure side, with of course the typical humorous bits that we all love from Pixar.  After a long absence from the big screen, it makes sense that a film like this, with it’s ambitious scale and bombastic action, would be the ideal movie to bring the studio back where it belongs.

DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (MAY 6)

Kicking off this summer season (less than a week from this writing in fact) we of course have the usual Marvel Studios entry.  The slot this time goes to the Sorcerer Supreme himself, Doctor Strange, once again played by Benedict Cumberbatch.  Given that the MCU is now deep into it’s multi-versal phase, this movie is primed for big things after the spectacular success of Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) last December, which also touched on the multiverse, as did the Disney+ shows Wandavision and Loki.  This movie in particular has a lot of potential, because for the first time, a Marvel character is venturing across the borders of the multiverse, and there’s been a lot of speculation and excitement about what or who we may see.  The trailer has already given us one confirmation with the unmistakable voice of Patrick Stewart being heard, who of course could be no one other than Charles Xavier, making him the first X-Men character to appear in the MCU continuity.  There are so many rumors about potential cameos beyond that, most of which may not even be close to true in the end, but we already have seen Marvel bring together three generations of Spider-Man on screen together, and we’ll be getting Charles Xavier in this film, so who knows what they have up their sleeve.  One thing that has me excited is that this film is being directed by Sam Raimi, whose history with this genre is pretty monumental, having been the guy who first brought Spider-Man to the big screen with Tobey Maguire.  He’s also an iconic filmmaker when it comes to the horror genre, and this is definitely the tone that Marvel seems to be leaning more into with this sequel.  My only hope is that whatever crazy, fan service  stuff Raimi and Marvel have geared up for us, that the story-line itself isn’t sacrificed along the way.  I feel like there’s going to be some strong emotional elements throughout, especially with Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch.  And seeing each actor bringing many different types of differences to their characters across the different universes will be pretty exciting.  Let’s all hope the Doctor still manages to remain strange.

NOPE (JULY 22)

You know whenever Jordan Peele has a new movie coming out it is bound to start up a conversation.  He did so magnificently with his directorial debut, the Oscar-winning Get Out (2017), which used the horror genre as a brilliant examination of race relations in America.  He also turned the home invasion sub-genre on it’s head with his follow-up, Us (2019).  Now it looks like he’s about to bring his own unique voice to the alien invasion genre.  And where he’s going to go with it is anyone’s guess.  I get the feeling that the less we know about this movie going into it the better.  One thing that will be interesting to see is Jordan Peele re-uniting with his Get Out leading man, Daniel Kaluuya, himself now an Oscar winner for Judas and the Black Messiah (2021).  Also, a first time collaboration with Keke Palmer will be interesting to watch.  More than anything, I’m interested in seeing how Peele works his voice into this kind of movie.  Will it be yet another examination of race like his previous work, or is he going to be doing something much different with Nope.  Visually the movie looks very haunting in it’s imagery.  There’s a lot of interesting uses of silence and lighting to delivery a spooky quality in what we see in this trailer.  Also the location is an interesting choice, on the outskirts of Los Angeles within a horse ranch used for movies.  It seems like Peele is not only tapping into his inner Hitchcock with this film, but also his inner Spielberg, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind I would imagine being a heavy influence.  But, whereas Spielberg’s film was hopeful, this one seems pretty ominous.  Regardless if you are into these kinds of horror movies or not, there’s no doubt that Jordan Peele taps into some really provocative material whenever he puts a movie out, and it’s something that really helps to elevate the horror genre as a whole.  It’s rare when you see a movie a movie with a message that still appeals to a mass audience in the way that his movies do.  We don’t quite know what to expect with this movie just yet, but not knowing is honestly it’s best selling point right now, so let’s hope Jordan Peele makes the wait worth it.

BULLET TRAIN (JULY 29)

One thing that you always hope for in the summer movie season is an original film not tied to any franchise that breaks out and becomes a fresh new hit.  If there was ever a movie this Summer that had the best shot at accomplishing this feat it would be Bullet Train.  The latest from director David Leitch, who has directed many recent classic action movies like John Wick (2014), Atomic Blonde (2017), and Deadpool 2 (2018), this action film brings together an impressive cast of actors to do exactly what audiences would love to see them do; beat the shit out of each other.  Given how brilliantly Leitch’s films are choreographed when it comes to the stunt pieces in his action scenes, you can expect to see some pretty inventive, adrenaline infused moments throughout this movie, especially with the new gimmick of staging them on a high speed bullet train in Japan.  But it’s not only the stunts that this movie is looking to spotlight.  The all-star cast is one of the most impressive to date in one of his movies, featuring the likes of Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, and Michael Shannon to name a few; all of whom have action movie credits, but not to the very hands on degree that Leitch has his actors involved in the stunts.  Much like what he did with Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron before, David Leitch tries to put as much of the real actor in the action scenes, only resorting to body doubles when absolutely necessary.  It’s going to be interesting to see how well this cast works with that kind of level of personal involvement.  I also like the setting of this film, set in the neon infused, sleek and colorful Japanese backdrops.  Given that Leitch’s movies have tended to skew darker in the past, this change in light and color should be an interesting exercise for him.  I’m just hoping that the movie maintains the same kind of blend of action and humor that we’ve seen in the likes of John Wick.  Given that this movie is not a franchise film and is taking on an original idea, lets hope that it does it’s best to stand out and hopefully become that original, stand-alone hit that studios really need right now.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

JURASSIC WORLD: DOMINION (JUNE 10)

When Universal revived their dormant Jurassic Park franchise in 2015 with Jurassic World, a lot of people were rightfully skeptic.  The two sequels to the 1993 original were panned pretty much across the board, and it became pretty clear then that nothing could really come close to topping that.  However, Jurassic World proved to be a surprising entry into the franchise.  Though still nowhere near as good as the original, it was still monumentally better than the other sequels, and it launched to record breaking box office as well.  A large part of that was due to Jurassic World’s star Chris Pratt hitting a career high-point immediately following the success of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  This of course led to a follow-up sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), which unfortunately did not carry over the same kind of success in story-telling that it’s predecessor did.  In fact, Fallen Kingdom may very well be the worst film in the entire franchise so far.  Dismantled by some of the lamest and most bafflingly bad story choices anyone’s ever seen in any of these film, a lot of people thought this might be the end of this franchise.  But, strong box office in it’s opening secured another film, and in this one, it looks like Universal Pictures is pulling out all the stops.  In addition to the Jurassic World cast being carried over, including Pratt and co-star Bryce Dallas Howard, they are also linking this movie back to the original series by bringing back the original trio of stars: Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum.  Now, I love all three of those actors, and I am excited to see them playing these iconic roles again, but I’m also worried that by having them all there in a movie that might be just as bad as Fallen Kingdom that it could end up tarnishing the legacy of the original.  I’m hoping that’s not the case and that returning director Colin Treverrow actually manages to put the franchise back on track again.  But, if Dominion doesn’t deliver, it might finally be time to let this franchise go extinct.

ELVIS (JUNE 24)

You never know what you’re going to get with a director like Baz Luhrmann.  He’s made a career out of making flashy, stylized movies that have often polarized audiences.  I’ve been known to both hate (Australia) and admire (The Great Gatsby) his movies, so I too am not sure what to think when I hear of a new project of his.  I will say he is choosing an interesting subject for his new film, and it’s one that actually fits within his tastes as a director.  Because his style is often akin to the kind of filmmaking that we see in music videos, it makes sense that he would want to tell the life’s story of one of the most legendary musicians that ever lived; Elvis Presley.  Given Elvis’ famously flashy style on stage, the match with Baz Luhrmann makes sense.  What I still have reservations over with this film, however, is the fact that it looks like Luhrmann is trying to fit the whole life and career of Elvis into one movie.  To me, this is always a problem with failed biographies; that they try to span such an extensive length of time and the story just becomes a bullet points presentation of a famous person’s life without ever finding the character underneath that made them the special person that they were.  The best biopics  are the ones that zero in on a specific, defining chapter in one’s life, and that helps them to stand out as the subject of the story.  My hope is that Luhrmann never loses sight of the humanity of his subject, and there are good signs to be found here.  One of them is the casting of Austin Butler, who very much looks and sounds the part of the music icon.  If anything helps to make this movie soar, it will be the strength of his performance.  I don’t know quite what to make of Tom Hanks performance as Colonel Tom Parker just yet.  Between the fat suit and the southern drawl, this could either be a colorful performance from Hanks, or an embarrassing one.  This is Tom Hanks we are talking about (who became celebrity Covid patient zero during the making of this movie) and his track record gives me hope.  This could indeed be one of the most crowd pleasing movies of the summer, or another over-stuffed mess from a very unsubtle filmmaker.  My hope is for the former and that those blue suede shoes dance to box office success.

TOP GUN: MAVERICK (MAY 27)

This has been a long road to the big screen for this Tom Cruise headlined sequel.  Not only is it coming out a lengthy 36 years after the original, but it also had to endure sitting on the shelf for two extra years since it’s original release date was cancelled because of the pandemic.  Paramount clearly wanted to wait on this one until the conditions were right for it to have the best opportunity for maximum box office.  They may have been right in doing so, but there are still some lingering question marks related to this film.  One is the question of whether or not this movie needs to exist.  Like I said, the original movie was nearly 4 decades ago, and yes, Tom Cruise has held up pretty well over the years, but what ever audience this movie clicked for back in 1986 has probably aged along with it, and I don’t know of too many younger audiences clamoring to see this.  Two, the fact that the original movie isn’t exactly a masterpiece itself.  Sure it’s got a dedicated fanbase, but it’s more because they love the movie for how dated and lightweight it is.  When your most famous scene is the shirtless beach volleyball sequence, it’s probably a sign that your movie is not a particularly deep film.  That being said, this is movie sequel that seems to be more geared to who Tom Cruise is now, which means it’s a lot more focused on the on screen action.  Picking up from what he’s been doing with the Mission Impossible franchise, Cruise is upping the ante with Top Gun: Maverick as well.  Instead of cutting between grounded close-ups of his actors in the cockpits and second unit aerial coverage shot separately, Cruise is putting himself and his fellow actors in the air with real fighter planes.  These moments in the movie, shot with IMAX cameras to boot, have an air of authenticity now that the original movie didn’t, and that in itself could be the movie’s best selling point.  I just hope that the story surrounding it is an improvement as well.  There’s a lot of years in between these movies, so Cruise has a lot to improve here.  Thankfully, he’s a risk taker, and my hope is that it leads to this being an adrenaline rush of a movie that stands up to his increasingly higher standards.

DC’S LEAGUE OF SUPERPETS (JULY 29)

When translating comic book stories to animation, there could be many bad ways to go, but also plenty of great opportunities.  One of the best examples is Sony Animation’s Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018), which was not only a great comic book animated movie, but probably one of the greatest animated movies of all time.  Surprisingly, DC has not really delved into animation very much with their extensive catalogue of characters to chose from.  They also belong to Warner Brothers which once upon a time had one of the most storied animation departments in all of Hollywood.  Now we finally have an animated movie from DC Comics and the subject they chose was the Justice League’s pets.  Honestly, not really the most exciting choice, as it seems that this movie is gearing itself more towards the family audience rather than the typical super hero genre fans.  That’s not to say that it could end up being bad.  It’s just that I don’t think there is too much enthusiasm for a movie based on Superman and Batman’s pet dogs.  That being said, the animation is colorful if a tad bit on the generic looking side.  And the movie has an impressive voice cast behind it, led by Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart as Krypto and Ace, the pet dogs of Superman and Batman respectively.  The heroes themselves are also being voiced by John Krasinski and Keanu Reeves, and the prospect of Reeves voicing Batman is enough to get me in the theater.  We’ll have to see if this movie is too cute for it’s own good or if it does justice to it’s comic book origins.  Hopefully there are more creative bits in this movie that help it stand-out, because when Into the Spiderverse has raised the bar as high as it is, you can’t just pander to the general audiences tastes, you’ve got to make something that truly is “super.”

MOVIES TO SKIP:

MINIONS: THE RISE OF GRU (JULY 1)

Speaking of lackluster animated movies that fall well under the bar, I have to confess that I have never really cared for the Despicable Me franchise at all.  Even more so, I find the minions characters to be obnoxious and pointless.  I know I’m not the target audience for these movies, and that little kids really love the minion characters.  It’s honestly been the thing that has propelled the franchise to billion dollar success at the box office.  Even still, why do we need to keep rehashing this franchise over and over again.  It’s just a cash grab at this point, as the minions franchise really has no other artistic value.  While the Pixars, Disneys, Laikas, and Dreamworks of the world diversify their libraries with new and fresh ideas i between all their sequels, Illumination has just done two things for most of their time in existence; Dr. Suess adaptations and Minions movies.  There are Secret Life of Pets and Sing as well, but that’s only four franchise in the span of 15 years for Illumination.  Pixar had nearly 10 distinctively original movies made in that same time frame.  I’m just expecting more of the same from this Despicable Me spin-off.  Illumination certainly knows how to target their demographic, but they do so in sacrificing any real diverse growth in their output.  Between Lightyear and Super-Pets, there will be much better choices to take your kids to this summer.

FIRESTARTER (MAY 13)

We seem to be in a period of time where Hollywood wants to revisit the catalogue of titles from the mind of Stephen King and update them to modern day.  Some have turned out better than the original, like the two adaptations of IT, but there have been some that turned out pretty forgettable (Pet Cemetery) or downright terrible (The Stand mini-series).  My worry is that this will be one of the latter.  The one good thing is that Blumhouse is making this one; a first for them with regards to Stephen King adaptations, though I may be wrong.  At the very least you know that it won’t be too over done with visual effects or pandering jump scares.  At the same time, they are adapting one of the lesser King novels, which was also the basis for a rather not-scary adaptation from 1984 starring a very young Drew Barrymore.  And it looks like time still hasn’t helped the story out.  It still feels pretty ridiculous and not at all scary.  One hopes that Blumhouse, which has a pretty solid track record of updating old horror titles in interesting new ways, but this I think might be one fire that doesn’t ignite for them.

PAWS OF FURY: THE LEGEND OF HANK (JULY 15)

What has me worried about this movie is more than just the lackluster looking animation.  It’s the fact that this seemingly innocuous, low budget animated movie for kids is a loose adaptation of one of the greatest comedies ever made; Blazing Saddles (1974).  You heard that right.  Apparently done with the blessing of Mel Brooks (who also lends his voice to the movie), this movie takes the same premise and transposes it to feudal Japan with a cast of animal characters.  What I don’t understand is why the movie is not called Blazing Samurai like it is in other parts of the world.  It probably has to do with the fact that it’s merely taking the story of it’s famous comedy origin, but is not including any of it’s hard edged humor.  How could it?  Blazing Saddles is beloved for it’s irreverent and raunchy comedy, which does not fit well in a family film.  The only thing I think crossed over is the famous farting scene, which I guess is ageless.  But, while Blazing Saddles was sharp witted in it’s commentary on racism in the old west, I get the feeling that Paws of Fury is going to play it safe and not touch upon the harder edges that gave it’s predecessor the perfect level of raucous laughter.  And given the need for that film’s original message in today’s age, it’s not a good thing to see an animated movie water it down to appeal to all audiences.

So, there you have my outlook on the movies of the upcoming Summer movie season.  There are of course the usual suspects arriving, like more from Marvel, as well as big franchises like Jurassic World.  It’s also going to be nice to see a Pixar movie available in wide release in theaters again.  But, there is also room for an unexpected hit out there as well.  One hopes that movies like Elvis and Bullet Train are able to defy expectations and prove that a non franchise movie can stand out even amongst the bigger names.  Still, compared with previous years before the pandemic, the Summer 2022 calendar is a bit lighter than where it was before.  There’s still a bit more rebuilding to do to get the movie theater industry back up to it’s pre-pandemic levels, and we are certainly closer now than we were since this time last year.  The delays seem to have died off and the competition from streaming isn’t quite as tough as it was before.  With the recent troubles facing Netflix, it seems like the theater industry may possibly be back in competition with pulling in audiences in their direction.  More people want to venture out now and feel more confident in their safety now that the worst of the pandemic is over.  It’s being reflected in the growing box office totals that we’ve seen so far this year.  In 2021, we didn’t have a single movie gross over $100 million until after Memorial Day weekend with A Quiet Place Part II (2021).  So far this year, we already have three, and there are plenty more to come just in the next month, with Multiverse of Madness and Top Gun: Maverick just around the corner.  What I imagine happening over the course of the next few months is a big return by audiences to the movie theaters, delivering the kinds of numbers we have seen in years before, and that will hopefully spill over into the Fall, as well as into the following year.  So, I hope my preview has been helpful and that everyone has a good and entertaining Summer at the movies.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2022 – Film Exhibition Report

One of the sad things that was lost almost immediately in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic was the annual Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival.  Usually set in the month of April, the planned 2020 Fest was well in the planning stages and advance passes were already being purchased.  But, as it became clear that the spread of Covid across the country was imminent and that movie theaters were going to be forced to go dark to help stop the spread, the team at TCM had to make the terrible but unavoidable choice to cancel the imminent festivities.  Passes were refunded of course, and as I’m sure was the case with everyone worrying about the future, fans of the festival were worried about what the state of the festival would be in the future.  TCM tried to make up for the disappointment by holding a “virtual” festival across their media platforms.  It was not the same, but it’s all that TCM could do in the era of social-distancing.  As the pandemic stretched into a second year, and movie theaters were still in the early days of re-opening, TCM decided to also put on hold plans for returning in 2021, and they again took their festival virtual last year, adding the HBO Max app as an extra platform to share their programs on.  But now, with the worst of the pandemic hopefully behind us, TCM is finally returning to the heart of Hollywood with an actual in-person festival, another thankful sign of life returning to normal; at least for us LA based movie theater fans.  And, as it appears, TCM is picking up right where it left off, not making any drastic adjustments to their festival format and instead giving us fans exactly what what we’ve loved from them in the past.

There are, however, some things that the pandemic has unfortunately changed about the festival.  Most prominent of them is the loss of two of the festivals most beloved venues.  Both the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd. and the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Blvd. have not reopened since closing for the pandemic lock down two years ago.  Now, the Egyptian is planned for a future reopening after it’s current renovation is compete in celebration of it’s 100th anniversary and it’s new ownership under Netflix.  Unfortunately, the Cinerama Dome doesn’t have as hopeful of a future as the Egyptian does, as it’s previous owners (Pacific Theaters) effectively went bankrupt.  There are hopes of a possible return of the legendary venue in the future, but there has been little news to go on to say when or how it will happen.  As a result, both of this beloved theaters are not a part of this year’s festival.  For many people, the Egyptian was an especially popular place to screen a movie, because of it’s exclusively film based projection.  The prospect of getting to see a movie in a rare nitrate print presentation has been in recent years one of the festival’s most interesting attractions.  That, unfortunately will not be a part of this year’s festival, and that is a shame.  Thankfully, all the other venues of the past in this festival are open and welcoming guests this weekend.  Among them, the crown jewel of the TCL Chinese Theater, the adjoining Chinese Multiplex Theaters, and the American Legion Post Theater, which made it’s Festival debut in 2019.  In addition, the legendary Roosevelt Hotel (host of the first Oscars) is ground central for all Festival activities, as well as the host of Poolside screenings at it’s rooftop swimming pool.  Being a long time fan of this festival, I’m of course taking this opportunity to once again attend and revive my long dormant report to all of you.  My goal is to take in as much as I can across all four days of the festival.  So, without further ado, here’s my report of the TCM Classic Film Festival 2022.

THURSDAY APRIL 21, 2022

Given that I have a 9-5 job during the weekdays, my first two days of the festival are going to be truncated in comparison with the weekend.  Thankfully, the Festival doesn’t begin until the afternoon on the first day, so I’m not missing much.  Like most festivals in the past, the opening night begins with two major events held in the Chinese Theater that is only available for those with only the highest level event passes.  One of those events is the presentation of the Robert Osbourne Award, which is sort of their lifetime achievement honor given to a particular noteworthy individual within the film community.  It can be a filmmaker, or a film historian, or technician of note.  This year, the recipient is famed film critic and historian Leonard Maltin; a frequently seen face at these annual festivals and an absolute deserving choice for the Osbourne Award.  What I’m sure is also a great honor for Mr. Maltin is that he’s getting the honor on opening night from none other than actor and director Warren Beatty.  In addition to the Robert Osbourne presentation, the Opening Night of the festival is also being marked by a 40th anniversary screening of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982). Held in the massive Chinese Theater, this is a marquee event, almost like a film premiere, and just like most film premieres, the festival also rolled out the red carpet just for this event.  The reason this screening in particular is so exclusive is that in addition to having it played on the big screen, it will also be preceded with an exclusive Q and A with director Steven Spielberg and select members of the cast and crew.  Joining Spielberg are producer Kathleen Kennedy (now head of Lucasfilm), and actors Dee Wallace, Robert Macnaughton and Drew Barrymore.  Unfortunately for me, the price level for passes into this event are still way out of my price range, as I am once again using the standby option.  So, my best look at this year’s opening night event was from across the street, behind the barricades.  Still, it’s nice to see the Festival once again kicked into high gear, even from that vantage point.

I arrived a little after 5:30pm to the Roosevelt Hotel to check in at the vaccine validation desk.  This year’s festival is taking no precautions for granted and is only allowing in guests who have proof of Covid vaccinations and are requiring everyone wear a mask inside the venues.  Thankfully, once you show your proof of vaccine at the table, you receive an armband that can be worn through the rest of the fest.  So, I got my armband and immediately made my way to my first film.  Unfortunately, my first choice was at the American Legion Post Theater, which was a half mile walk up the hill from the rest of the festival.  It’s not a terrible walk, but a hassle if you’re in a hurry.  I thankfully had enough time to spare and got there a good hour before show time.  Because I wanted to focus on movies I haven’t seen yet, I chose this venue first, because it was playing an Oscar winning movie that I have missed until now.  That film was Tender Mercies (1983) which is noteworthy for being the movie that Robert Duvall finally won his Oscar for.  It was a nice, easygoing movie to start out the festival with, and it made it especially special that it’s one of the movies screened at the festival with one of the stars in attendance.  Duvall’s love interest in the movie was played by actress Tess Harper, and she was at this screening, interviewed by TCM host Eddie Mueller.  She was a delightful interviewee, discussing how this movie was her big breakthrough as a movie actor, what it was like working with Robert Duvall and director Bruce Beresford, and what it was like shooting on a small budget in rural Texas.  She had some really funny stories, like how she bit into her screenplay when she first got it just so she could make sure it was real.  She also gave a nice perspective of the film’s quiet but respectable legacy over the years.  For a first show of the night, I think this ended up a good choice for me.  Like Eddie Mueller jokingly said, “Who needs to watch E.T. again anyway.”

After the movie at the Legion Post, I made my way back down to the Chinese Multiplex for what I was hoping would be my ideal second film of the night.  That movie was going to be Topkapi (1964), an Oscar-winning heist film from Jules Dassin.  The reason why I wanted to see that film in particular was because it was the only one that evening playing in 35mm, and at this festival, if I can watch a movie on actual film, it’s an opportunity not worth passing on.  Unfortunately, this was my first strike out of the festival.  The screening sold out before any of us in the standby queue were even let in.  So, the option was to go home disappointed or stay and watch something else.  Not wanting to end the night on disappointment, I opted to watch a Preston Sturges comedy instead.  The movie was Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), starring Eddie Bracken.  To introduce the movie, the festival invited producer Michael Uslan; most famous as the executive producer of the Batman franchises at Warner Brothers.   Uslan is certainly a fan of Sturges’ comedies and he detailed for us the historical context of this film, which was set in and made within the midst of WWII.  The patriotic fervor is palpable throughout the movie, but at the same time you can see where Sturges managed to find the humor in it all.  The movie is certainly a product of it’s time, and perhaps doesn’t hold up in certain ways like other comedies of the era, but it’s certainly entertaining for it’s madcap energy.  At least watching this movie helped me to get a good start to my overall count for the festival.  In a rare oddity for the Los Angeles area, I exited the theater to find it pouring down rain, and because I left my car at home, I had to brave the elements just to get home by subway.  A certainly odd start off to my festival experience, but, the forecast was good for the rest of the weekend, so it would hopefully make the rest of the festival a pleasant experience.

FRIDAY APRIL 22, 2022

Returning late because of work, I missed out on the morning screenings, which has been the case before at past festivals.  But, I arrived at the Hollywood and Highland complex ready and hopeful to have two more screenings complete that night.  For my first choice, I ended up going with the movie The Letter (1940), a Noirish drama starring Bette Davis and directed by William Wyler. I chose this because it was another movie that I hadn’t seen before and it peaked my curiosity.  However, I wish I knew what I was passing up, because screening at the same time in the Chinese Theater itself was a brand new 4K restoration of George Stevens’s classic Giant (1956).  Now, I have seen Giant before, but never on the big screen, and I only realized later that there was a surprise unannounced guest at that screening.  Apparently, Steven Spielberg showed up to help introduce the movie alongside previously announced guest, George Stevens, Jr.  Both were interviewed by Festival Master of Ceremonies Ben Mankiewicz, and if I knew that this was part of the screening, I would’ve absolutely been there instead.  However, The Letter itself was not a bad movie to pass on either.  The movie was introduced by TCM host Alicia Malone, who was there to interview the co-founder of the Bette Davis Foundation, and author of her biography, Kathryn Sermak.  Ms. Sermak gave a nice insightful look into the latter years of Bette Davis’ life as she had once worked closely with her as an assistant, all of which she details in the book.  It was interesting to hear how Davis could be a handful if she felt she was being disrespected and Kathryn managed to win her respect strangely through silence, which Ms. Davis characterized as intelligence.  It was an interview that definitely helped to shine a light on the iconic status of Bette Davis’ stardom, and after watching the movie itself, you really see how she embodied every bit the ideal of a movie star.

Leaving The Letter, I immediately got into line for my next preferred film, which was I, The Jury (1953).  Now, why would I want to watch an obscure detective movie from the 1950’s. That’s because this one was being screened in 3D.  Any chance to watch an old 3D movie in the way it was intended is definitely an experience not worth passing up.   Unfortunately for me, this was strikeout number two for this year’s festival.  Some standby guests did manage to get a seat, but my place in line was too far back, and after about 5 people, they had the show sold out.  Because this was around 10pm at night, there were no other options left; except for the midnight show.  Every festival, they save slots past midnight for edgier movies that probably are contrary to the tastes of some of the older classic movie fans.  Because I again didn’t want to end a night on disappointment, I stuck around for a couple hours, taking in the sometimes chaotic nighttime atmosphere of Hollywood Boulevard, before getting in line for that night’s midnight showing.  Thankfully, getting into this one was easier, as there were plenty of available seats.  The movie screening that night was a movie best described as meet-cute romance combined with post-apocalyptic thriller.  It’s called Miracle Mile (1989) and it’s a movie that clearly had escaped my radar before because I had never heard of it.  But, one who had was TCM host Eddie Mueller, who really was championing this movie.  Joining Mueller in the introduction was the film’s director, Steve De Jarnatt.  De Jarnatt gave an interesting backstory for his movie, saying that he wrote the script right out of film school at the American Film Institute in 1979, but he didn’t get around to filming it until ten years later.  The movie is interesting for it’s clever use of limited budget and locations to tell this big story about the end of world through nuclear war.  For anyone familiar with the geography of Los Angeles, they’ll get a kick out of recognizing that all the locations used in the movie are just in small block radius of the Wilshire and Fairfax intersection, which of course is dubbed, “The Miracle Mile” like the movie’s namesake.  I have been hesitant in the past about doing a midnight showing, because of the time constraints because of work and the options of the festival, but I’m glad I finally gave myself the opportunity to try it this year.

SATURDAY APRIL 23. 2022

Because of my choice of going to the midnight show the night before, I opted to skip the morning screenings on day three of the festival.  Thankfully, none piqued my interest, either because I wasn’t interested in the movie, or it was one that I had seen before.  So, I gave myself a couple extra hours of sleep and made my way back to the festival venues for Day 3.  For my Saturday start, I chose to begin in the crown jewel of the Festival venues; the TCL Chinese Theater.  Though the theater has been re-opened since the end of the lock down last spring in 2021, this marked my first actual return into that theater since the last TCM Film Fest in 2019.  And it is such a treat to be back in such an iconic place again.  Unchanged since my last visit, the Chinese Theater is majestic as always.  My first movie here is a screening of the musical Annie (1982) which is another movie having an anniversary; 40th, just like E.T.  I’ve made it known here before that movie musicals are not particularly my thing.  Still I wanted to check this out because I’ve never seen it before and it is a cinematic rarity being the one and only musical ever directed by the legendary John Huston.  The movie itself is a little too sweet for my tastes overall, but I do adore the supporting cast which includes a few of my favorites like Albert Finney, Tim Curry, and the always amazing Carol Burnett in a scene-stealing role as Miss Hannigan.  For this screening, the Festival gave us a wonderful introduction by little Annie herself, the now grown-up Aileen Quinn.  Interviewed by host Alicia Malone, Ms. Quinn talked about working at such a young age with  these icon, and she held John Huston up in very high regard, seeing him as very grandfatherly to her.  Despite my feelings about the movie, it was still a majestic experience watching it play on the undisputed largest screen in town.  Next up, I went to the multiplex to catch a quick little over an hour long Western called The Tall T (1957).  This Western, starring Randolph Scott and Richard Boone, just received a brand new 4K restoration, and the results are pretty outstanding.  It’s a slight Western, but was beautifully shot, which the restoration really highlights.  the movie was introduced by historian and author Jeremy Arnold, who talked extensively about the work of director Budd Boetticher and where this movie stands among his body of work.

Having two movies complete in quick succession, I made my way to stand in line for the next big show, which was a screening in the TCL Chinese Theater of the film Heaven Can Wait (1978).  The reason why I was determined to attend this screening was because the special guest in attendance was going to be the movie’s co-director, co-writer, and star Warren Beatty.  One of my goals at each of these festivals is to take the opportunity to see at least one of the old timer screen legends live in person while they’re still here.  It’s what introduced me to the festival in the first place, back in 2012 when I made my way there to watch a screening of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with a then 95 year old Kirk Douglas in attendance.   At this year’s fest, I had two both excellent options, of seeing either Beatty or the also very iconic Bruce Dern, who was one of this year’s spotlight honorees.  I elected to go with Beatty ultimately, and hopefully I can have another chance to see Mr. Dern another time.  For Warren, this was one of the rare instances of the discussion happening after the conclusion of the film.  This was a first time viewing of the movie for me, so I’m glad that the interview followed afterwards, just for the context.  Warren is certainly up there in years now, but he’s still very insightful about his experiences working on the film.  It’s interesting that only two people have ever nominated for an Oscar for acting, directing, writing and producing for the same film; one is Warren for this film, the other was Orson Welles for Citizen Kane (1941).  And Mr. Beatty accomplished that feat twice, doing it again for Reds (1981).  It was interesting to hear Warren talk about working with the legendary James Mason in the film, as well as sharing directing duties with Buck Henry.  Interviewer Ben Mankiewicz also noted that Warren was also working again with Julie Christie, who he’d worked with before on movies like McCabe and Ms. Miller (1971) and Shampoo (1975), while also being romantically involved at the time.  By the time they made Heaven Can Wait, their relationship was over but they remained on good enough terms to continue acting together, which Mankiewicz observed as being well reflective of both of them.

The audience of course was very pleased to see Warren Beatty, and he received two standing ovations from the crowd in the Chinese.  Once that was over, I made the trek up Highland Boulevard to the Hollywood Legion Post again for hopefully my last show of the night.  The showing was the Barry Levinson movie Diner (1982), another movie celebrating it’s 40th anniversary at this festival.  This was going to be a high demand movie, because the special guests at this show were four of the film’s stars; Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, Steve Guttenberg, and Paul Reiser.  I really had to hustle, because it’s a half mile walk uphill between the Chinese and the Post, but when I got there, the standby line was already 20-30 people deep.  I took my place in line and as expected, strikeout number three.  The venue completely filled up with pass-holders alone, and everyone in the standby queue had to look at their other options.  For me, I wanted again to find an alternative.  So the best possible choice in that moment was to go back to the multiplex and pick one of the late 9:30pm showings.  What I ended up choosing was a screening of the Jackie Chan kung fu action flick, Drunken Master II (1994).  I missed the opening introduction by TCM host Jacqueline Stewart, but I arrived just as the opening credits were concluding.  What I’ve learned about this movie since watching it was that this was sequel was made 16 years after the original and it was Jackie Chan’s first tradition martial arts movie in nearly a decade.  Naturally, after that long of a gap, Mr. Chan was going to pull out all the stops and really take things to the next level with this movie.  And that includes many death defying stunts that Jackie himself performed.  Some of them are pretty crazy, like Jackie falling on real inflamed coals or being actually set on fire multiple times.  Suffice to say, the audience I was with was eating all that up, and were having a uproarious time watching this movie.  I was certainly impressed with the movie as well, just given the level of work that went into all those stunts, and how relentless they are throughout the whole movie.  What I thought was interesting was the fact that this was the North American premiere of the original uncut Hong Kong version of the film, as only the poorly dubbed English version had been available before.  Suffice to say, I salvaged my night with an uplifting choice.  Now it was time to get ready for the final night.

SUNDAY APRIL 24, 2022

After a very short turnaround to get as much sleep in as I could, I made my way to the heart of the festival again the following morning, starting off with another of my must watches of the festival.  At the Hollywood Legion Post, they were going to being screening a brand new 70mm print of the classic historical epic Spartacus (1960).  It’s a movie that I have seen many times before, but never on a big screen.  It was something worth getting up bright and early in the morning, no doubt.  I managed to make it there just as the standby seating was beginning, and thankfully for me, it wasn’t a sell-out (morning screenings at the festival rarely are).  There was still a fair amount of people in the quite large venue, but I still got an ideal seat in the middle of the row, fairly close to the screen.  Jacqueline Stewart, the TCM host and curator for the Academy Museum on Wilshire Blvd. (my review here ), told us that this print came from a new 4K master and that it would be presented in it’s Roadshow format, complete with Overture and a 15 minute Intermission.  I can’t tell you just how majestic it is to see a film screened in 70mm.  It just has a texture when projected that is unlike any other format, and it’s especially wonderful to see a classic film like this presented in that way.  It was also neat to see the Legion Theater recreating the way Roadshow films were presented back in the heyday of Hollywood, with the curtain drawn closed over the screen as the Overture plays, opening once the studio logo appears on screen and closing once again over the Intermission title card.  There was a little hiccup in the middle of the show, as the screen went dark in the first half; something that’s unfortunately is a common hazard with screening film, as the projector can sometimes not work properly.  They resolved it within minutes and the movie played on without incident thereafter.  What really stuck me about the movie this time is how breezy the film feels with it’s 3 and 17 minute runtime.   And, it’s the first time seeing this movie after Kirk Douglas’ passing in 2020 at the age of 103, and it just reminds you of how much of an icon he was on the big screen.  This is the kind of cinema that just demonstrates what’s great about the movies, and seeing the magnificent epic grandeur put on screen by director Stanley Kubrick in the way it was meant to be seen.

Because of Spartacus’ epic length, the run time extended well through the morning, and by the time I got out of my screening, the next round of movies that morning had already begun.  This was planned for on my part, and thankfully, it didn’t interfere with my remaining plans for the day.  So, I had a lengthy break in between movies, which I used for grabbing lunch and to visit some of the other attractions in the area.  I took a look at the work in progress renovation of the Egyptian Theater.  The preexisting, 1922 structure looks like it’s being retained, but the whole courtyard out front is torn-up and filled with dirt, so it looks like there’s still a lot of work left to do.  Hopefully, it’s all done in time to have this as a venue at the next festival; complete with it’s capabilities of screening nitrate film like in past years.  After my break, it was back to the Chinese Theater to watch my next film; 1973’s The Sting.  The Best Picture winning film, best known for reuniting Robert Redford and Paul Newman after their iconic pairing in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), was being presented here with a discussion after the film with the film’s two producers, Michael Phillips and Tony Bill, as well as the screenwriter David S. Ward.  Seeing David Ward at the festival was especially cool to see, given that he’s someone I’ve personally interacted with as a student in his thesis screenwriting class at Chapman University.  The remarkable thing about the trio was just how young they were when they made this movie; Phillips and Bill were just a little over 30 at the time, and Ward was 28 when he wrote the script.  And they were collaborating at that young of an age with established icons like Redford and Newman, as well as director George Roy Hill.  They had a lot of interesting stories, including the intriguing alternate casting of Peter Boyle in the role played by Paul Newman.  There was also a lot of talk about how tricky they had to be to make the twist at the end land as well as it does.  As they said, the key was to keep the audience as much in the dark about what was going on as the mark of the grift in the movie, played marvelously by Robert Shaw.  The movie itself still manages to hold up almost 50 years later, and it was great to see these three important players from the movie get a major honor of seeing their movie playing again at the Chinese to a pretty large and entertained audience.

So, coming to the very end, where would I go for my final film of this year’s festival.  Well, the clear choice had to be the Chinese Theater, despite the fact that I had just been there one movie ago.  There was a good reason to be there though because it was the closing night presentation, and thankfully standby tickets were available.  For this special showing, the movie selected was the 1992 Penny Marshall film A League of Their Own.  The movie, marking it’s 30th anniversary, is one that I certainly remember seeing in a theater when it first came out, and I enjoyed it quite well.  Seeing it on the big screen again is something that I certainly wouldn’t want to miss, and at this festival, we get the added bonus of seeing the movie with many of the film’s original cast.  Sadly no Tom Hanks, or Geena Davis, or Madonna.  But, the ones there were quite a great assortment.  In attendance were actresses Lori Petty, Megan Cavanagh, Ann Cusack, Anne Ramsey, Patti Pelton, as well as comedian Jon Lovitz, who played the part of the talent scout in the movie.  Ben Mankiewicz was there to moderate, but the panel pretty much was a conversation between long time friends sharing memories than it was an interview.  Lovitz of course offered his own humorous anecdotes throughout.  They of course touched upon how much they appreciated working with Penny Marshall, what it was like working with Tom Hanks and Geena Davis, and of course the surreal aspect of sharing the screen with Madonna, the biggest pop star in the world at the time.  There was also a very welcome surprise for us at this screening, because another guest of honor was one of the actual Women’s League baseball players that were the subject of the film.  Her name is Maybelle Blair, and though she wasn’t a participant in the panel itself, she did get a shout out and a standing ovation from the audience.  It was also pretty adorable that she was supporting herself with a walking cane shaped like a baseball bat.  That special connection to history helped to make this a very special screening, and in deed, the audience was really into this showing.  There were quite a lot of cheering and clapping at several points in the movie, especially at Tom Hanks now iconic line, “There’s no crying in Baseball!”  Overall, a good choice to close out the festival experience on.  I left the theater exhausted from a long four day stretch but at the same time a little sad that it was all done.  Sticking around for just a couple more minutes of atmosphere, I headed to the subway and made my way home, with another TCM Film Fest experience complete.

I think what really made this festival different from others in the past was the feeling of relief that it was finally here again.  It was one more thing that the pandemic took away from us that we finally got back and of course absence makes the heart grow fonder.  Though the festival was still affected by the absence of some past venues, it still felt like old times again for those of us who have made multiple trips throughout the years.  I for one managed to get the most out of my experience.  I saw 11 films in total (one short of my record in 2019) which is still quite an accomplishment, even with my three strikeouts.  I don’t feel like I wasted any opportunities, though that Giant screening with Spielberg is one that I wish I had prepared better for.  It was also wonderful being in these different venues again and having the chance of watching these classics in the way they were meant to be seen.  I got to see Warren Beatty live in person which was a nice experience, and I also watched a beautiful new print of Spartacus be screened in stunning 70mm.  Also, I managed to add a first to my festival experience and watch one of the midnight showings for the first time.  That’s a side of the festival that certainly differs from any other.  My hope is that this return of the festival proves as successful as years before and that it will be back in full force next spring.  The level of attendance seemed pretty strong so I think it’s a definite probability.  Hopefully the refurbished Egyptian will be added back to the roster of venues and also (fingers crossed) the Cinerama Dome as well.  After a two year absence, I am so happy to be sharing these experiences will all of you again.  It was a rough pandemic for the movie going experience, but the level of popularity in this festival that I saw over the weekend makes me hopeful for the future of the movie theater experience.  There is nothing better for a cinephile like me than to be able to watch so many classic movies in the heart of Hollywood in the most famous movie theaters in the world.  Thank you for bringing this back to us TCM Classic Film Festival.  Hope to see you again next year.