All posts by James Humphreys

Paramount’s Decision – The Future of a Legendary Studio and Balancing Business With Legacy

It’s a strange time for the movie studios that defined the identity of Hollywood.  We know them as the Big 5; Warner Brothers Discovery, NBC Universal, Sony, Disney, and of course Paramount.  For the longest time, it was known as the Big 6, but the studio previously known as 20th Century Fox ceased to be independent after a merger with the Walt Disney Company that finalized in 2019.  It’s fate was one of the most revealing signs of an industry that was in flux and about to change forever.  The rise of streaming caused a disruption in the normal business model that Hollywood had been running over the last half century.  With the studios wanting to get in on the lucrative new distribution model, they went through a busy period of content consolidation, cementing stronger holds on the properties that they had acquired over the years.  This also led to several mega mergers like the Disney and Fox one, where combined catalogs of movies and shows would help boost the content library for these new streamers.  However, this streaming arms race led to several financial problems down the road.  Hard cuts have had to be made to these newly expanded studios like Disney/Fox and Warner Brothers Discovery, but no studio had a more dire outlook in these latter days of the streaming wars than Paramount Pictures.  Paramount, the last remaining studio actually located in Hollywood itself, was facing some economic shortfalls this year that forced it’s parent company, National Amusements, to pursue a sale.  The industry was watching this development closely, because depending on who ended up owning Paramount in the end could either signal a new era for the century old studio, or be a sign of the end of yet another storied brand within Hollywood.  History is important to the identity of Hollywood, but this is also a business that sometimes can steamroll over the past in the name of progress.

Throughout Paramount’s history, it has seen the studio pass through many different hands, but all the while it has still remained one of Hollywood’s most legendary studios.  Founded in 1914 by Adolph Zukor, it is the second oldest studio in Hollywood still running today after Universal Pictures.  Funny enough, Paramount started it’s history off with a merger between Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company and producer Jesse L. Lasky’s Feature Play Company.  They began to make silent pictures out of a small barn on what is now Sunset and Vine in Hollywood, giving their directorial duties to an inexperienced stage manager at the time named Cecil B. DeMille.  The barn still survives today, though it has been moved to Highland Avenue across from the Hollywood Bowl and is now the Hollywood Heritage Museum.  In the 20’s, they used the profits from their movies to establish a larger facility located on Melrose Boulevard and that’s been their home ever since.  In 1927, Paramount adopted it’s now iconic logo of a mountain top ringed by an arch of 22 stars.  The meaning behind the stars has been lost to time, but the logo has remained fairly unchanged in almost 100 years; merely upgraded graphically with the advancements in filmmaking over time.   At Paramount, the key to their success were it’s stars, and they were the home to all the silent greats like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Rudolph Valentino to name a few.  In the meantime, Paramount was also growing itself into one of the titans of exhibition as well, being the owners of numerous movie theaters across the country.  Unfortunately for them, their rapid growth in the exhibition side of the business would back and bite them, and the result would change Hollywood forever.

Paramount created a practice called “block booking” which made it so that any theater that wanted to screen a film starring one particular star would also have to buy a year’s worth of other Paramount movies.  Paramount wasn’t alone in this practice in Hollywood, but they were the most prolific studio owned theatrical distributor too, which gave them close to a monopoly in the business.  This practice of “block booking” made it impossible for independent theater owners to rise up in the business because it limited the amount of movies that would have been available to screen.  So, anti-trust lawsuits were filed, which were argued all the way up to the Supreme Court.  This led to the landmark United States v. Paramount Pictures decision of 1950, which effectively broke up the movie studios ownership of movie theaters and brought an end to the movie studio system as we knew it up to that point.  All of the studios in Hollywood were effected, but none more so than Paramount.  It lost a significant share of it’s yearly income after being forced to sell off it’s theatrical division, and it spent much of the 1950’s and 60’s struggling to regain it’s past glory.  Meanwhile, a corporate manufacturing conglomerate named Gulf+Western was beginning to pivot into the entertainment business.  They acquired two major Hollywood players in 1966, one was the television studio Desilu Pictures and the other was of course Paramount.  The combination of the two would prove fortuitous because Desilu happened to be the rights holders of a popular shows like  Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, two brands that would over time become some of the most valuable franchises under the Paramount umbrella.  Under Gulf+Western, Paramount would see a revival in the 1970’s, especially under the supervision of their new head of production, a young executive named Robert Evans, who would be a hit making machine, greenlighting beloved classics like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Love Story (1970), Chinatown (1974) and The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974) during his tenure.

The success continued through the 80’s and 90’s, and Paramount would also become the starting off point for some of the biggest power players in the industry.  Both Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg would capitalize on the success of their launch of the Indiana Jones franchise at Paramount by jumping over to the leadership at Disney.  Paramount also became the original home of the mega successful producer team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and they would deliver a huge hit for Paramount with the Tom Cruise led Top Gun (1986).  Cruise himself would also set up shop as a producer within Paramount, working almost exclusively with the studio for most of his career.  But, a pivotal moment came in 1993 when billionaire Sumner Redstone’s media conglomerate Viacom decided to add Paramount to it’s portfolio.  In a deal worth $9 billion at the time, Redstone’s National Amusements, the parent company of Viacom, became the primary shareholder of Paramount Pictures and all of it’s properties.  A few short years later, Viacom would also acquire the television network CBS, which now put all three Big 3 TV networks now under the control of movie studios (NBC and ABC were already owned by Universal and Disney respectively).  With the combination of it’s movie library, it’s valuable franchises from the old Desilu studio, and now a whole TV network under one roof, Viacom built Paramount into one of the most powerful studios in Hollywood.  Viacom would continue to expand into the cable television market, acquiring channels like Comedy Central, MTV, BET, and Nickelodeon.  As time went on, Viacom was looking to take it’s vast library of movies and shows and use it to make a foothold in the new streaming market.  Initially, they tried to make their launch under the CBS name, calling their platform CBS All Access.  It became clear that this wasn’t a strong enough brand to make a difference in the face of competition with HBO Max and Disney+.  So, Viacom decided to undergo a whole rebrand with the Paramount name being their flagship.  CBS All Access would become Paramount+ and Viacom would be renamed Paramount Global.

With over a hundred years of experience in Hollywood, you would imagine that the Paramount name would help bring fortune to this new era of streaming.  But even though they had some modest success, mainly helped by showrunner Taylor Sheridan and his hugely popular drama Yellowstone, Paramount+ has fallen well short of expectations.  Like much of the other studios in Hollywood who jumped on board the streaming craze, Paramount is learning the hard lesson that streaming wasn’t going to be the bottomless well of fortune that they all thought it would be.  For Paramount, their lack of growth in streaming combined with the enormous amount of debt they acquired in order to grow and acquire assets over the years, suddenly put them in a bind they haven’t experienced in a long while.  This all came to a head this year, as Shari Redstone, the CEO of National Amusements after the death of her father Sumner in 2020, was looking to offload the company and it’s assets.  This led to a lot of worries within the industry as to what would happen to the legendary studio.  Would it be swallowed up by another studio like Fox had under Disney.  Or would it be bought by a Wall Street backed corporate raider who would break it up and sell off the scraps of what the studio once was, effectively killing it completely.  It all depended on who would meet Shari’s asking price.  The bidding war itself became a bit of a fiasco, as what looked like done deals quickly fell apart as agreements would change seemingly every day.  All the while, Paramount Global’s stock value sank to it’s lowest mark ever, being traded at only a fraction of what it’s competitors Warner Brothers and Disney were trading at.  Thankfully, powerful indie producer Skydance Media, which has had a long history working in collaboration with Paramount, including being a part of the most recent Star Trek and Mission: Impossible films, offered a merger deal with Paramount Global valued at $8 billion.  Skydance CEO David Ellison would effectively become the head of Paramount under this new agreement and National Amusements would no longer have the controlling interest in the studio moving forward, ending their 30 year control over the studio.  For Shari Redstone, and most of the industry, this is the most ideal outcome as it keeps the studio as we know it intact, securing Sumner Redstone’s legacy as the head of the company, and prevents it’s assets from being sold off separately.

While it looks like Paramount is getting a happyish ending out of this, their struggle is still very much a clear example of how fragile legacies can be in Hollywood.  For a lot of Hollywood’s history, we’ve seen many film companies come and go, and when one ceases to exist, their library of titles suddenly hang in limbo.  If this were to happen to one of the remaining Big 5 studios, it would have a profound ripple effect across the industry.  With Paramount spending a few months of uncertainty during the bidding war, it made a lot of people worried that we were in fact seeing the last days of this storied studio.  At one point, Sony expressed interest in acquiring Paramount, which would reduce the number of big studios down to just 4.  Another merger on the level of what we saw with Disney and Fox would have been devastating for Hollywood as it would have put a whole lot of people out of work due to redundancies.  And then there was the possibility of the studio being dismantled in a fire sale of sorts, splitting all the different properties of Paramount apart and selling them to interested parties all across the business, making the former Paramount brand itself worthless.  This is something not uncommon in Hollywood.  Other once powerful studios like RKO were dismantled over the years and sold off in pieces to other studios.  These kinds of things happen in Hollywood usually due to movie productions that go way over budget, to the point where no amount of box office success will save them.  United Artists, the studio formed by the combined forces of former Paramount contracted stars Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplain, was once a powerful force in Hollywood and even made huge profits off of their American distribution of the James Bond franchise.  Then came the disaster that was Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), a box office bomb so costly that it put United Artists into bankruptcy.  They were eventually acquired by MGM, which itself fell into hard times and today is now owned by Amazon.  Smaller companies fare even worse as they lose control over their libraries of films, and those that can’t find a home in another studio end up getting lost in vaults over time and forgotten to the world.

So what does the Skydance and Paramount merger mean.  It’s still uncertain, as the deal won’t close until 2025.  But what likely will happen, as is the case with most mergers, is that there will be layoffs in both companies.  Paramount may need to offload some of it’s assets in order to meet Skydance’s offer price.  In the entirety of the Viacom era, Paramount saw massive expansion that saw their assets grow to a point where it may be too big to manage.  In all likelihood, where Paramount may make their cuts is in the struggling cable division, as streaming has become a bigger concern of theirs.  There are already interested parties who want the BET Network, so that is likely going to be one of the channels that will leave the Paramount portfolio.  Speaking of streaming, there is talk of Paramount+ either being completely overhauled, sun-setted, or merged with another streamer, as it currently is one of the key contributors leading to Paramount’s dire financial situation.   There’s talk of Paramount+ combining with Warner Brother’s MAX in what would likely be one of the biggest mergers yet to come in the streaming market, which itself will affect the industry as a whole.  But whatever move it makes, the goal is to preserve Paramount’s history as best it can be saved.  That was what Shari Redstone was so adamant about.  Her father built the company up over 30 years and she didn’t want that legacy to disappear.  Unfortunately, the nature of the business is not kind to legacy.  Shareholders were likely not happy with the prolonged and ever-changing process it took to reach a deal.  Some shareholders likely would’ve been happier if Shari Redstone had just started selling off the assets of the studio for short term profits.  Hollywood is first and foremost a business, and what it takes to make a studio like Paramount run is the confidence in investors that the company can continue to make money.  Too much effort put into preserving the past can make investors warry because they are more concerned about the future, and that’s what makes it so hard for studios to maintain their stature over time.  There’s no room for sentimental attachments in Hollywood.

One good thing about the Skydance/ Paramount merger is that it will give Paramount the chance to maintain it’s identity into the future.  And one of the biggest things that will remain as part of the company is the legendary studio lot itself.  Remaining in it’s same footprint over nearly 100 years, and the only studio to stay in Hollywood after all the others moved to the San Fernando Valley or Culver City, the Paramount Studio lot is a living monument to the history of cinema.  Walking under those iconic white arches you know that you are walking in the footsteps of giants, seeing soundstages where classics like Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Ten Commandments (1956), The Godfather, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Forrest Gump (1994), and many more were filmed.  Even today it’s a bustling, alive studio lot, with recent hits like Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) and Top Gun: Maverick (2022) keeping Paramount well positioned amongst the Big 5 studios.  Hopefully under new management with Skydance we’ll see a renewed energy at the studio that will help it survive for many more years as it currently is.  It’s just unfortunate that so much drama had to occur during the process of the company changing hands.  Paramount, for it’s whole history has had to overcome a lot of hurdles.  After being crippled by the dissolution of the studio system with the Paramount Decision by the Supreme Court, they managed to bounce back thanks to their pursuit of making quality entertainment.  They helped to revitalize old properties like Star Trek, Mission: Impossible and Transformers and turn them into billion dollar franchises.  They helped to take CBS from last place in network ratings to first place with well targeted programming like CSI and NCIS for the older crowd and The Big Bang Theory for the younger crowd.  Time will tell how Paramount+ will fare, but hopefully it doesn’t sink the future of this long time studio.  Both literally and figuratively, Paramount is Hollywood.  It’s a living reminder of what the industry has stood for, and hopefully the sun doesn’t set on the other side of it’s lofty mountaintop.

Tinseltown Throwdown – South Park vs. Team America

The Colorado born and raised duo of Trey Parker and Matt Stone have become two of the most unexpected influential filmmakers of the last quarter century.  As humorists, they are drawn to often sophomoric, low brow gags about flatulence and excessive vulgarity.  They are also some of the most astute satirists of their era, managing to perfectly mock their targets with some of the sharpest jabs known in comedy.  They are very much a combination of contradictions that in one way or another have managed to change and re-shape the worlds of filmmaking, politics, humor and animation over the years.  But, of course when you try to pin them down to one thing, Parker and Stone will refute your assesment of them.  As filmmakers, they have always strived to do one thing, which is to make movies and shows that they themselves find funny.  Their body of work reflects that well, especially the program that they are most well known for: the long running animated series South Park, which continues to run on Comedy Central after over 25 years.  Parker and Stone first connected while attending college at the University of Colorado in Boulder and found that their interests in cinema aligned perfectly.  They collaborated on a number of short student films while Trey Parker was also refining his skills in an animation program.  Parker’s animated thesis project titled American History (1992) became an unexpected hit and surprisingly earned him a Student Academy Award.  This helped to propel him quickly to Hollywood, and his friend Matt Stone was there by his side.  They spent years trying to develop projects that would get noticed in the industry while still adhering to their oddball sensibilities.  They managed to successfully get funding for their first feature, Cannibal: The Musical (1994), and had it play at Sundance, though it languished soon after without a wide distributor.  Meanwhile, Parker animated another short in the paper cut-out style that he used on American History.  This short called The Spirit of Christmas was a satirical play on upbeat Rankin Bass style holiday specials, but it introduced something more that would go on to define the rest of Parker and Stone’s careers; the town of South Park and it’s quirky inhabitants.

While The Spirit of Christmas special never got picked up by a TV station, a bootleg copy did manage to get out into the wild.  It got passed along to multiple A-listers in Hollywood, all of whom thought that it was one of the funniest things that they had ever seen.  Soon after, Parker and Stone, who had been languishing on the outskirts of the industry for a few years, were now in demand and getting meetings across the industry.  Naturally, they leaned into the success of The Spirit of Christmas and pitched a show completely about the town of South Park.  The show was picked up by the newly re-branded cable channel, Comedy Central, and South Park made it’s debut in the summer of 1997.  The show was an automatic hit, though it also stirred up quite a controversy too.  For those who thought The Simpsons was risque for it’s time were absolutely appalled once South Park arrived on the scene.  South Park was crude, vulgar, and unforgiving with it’s satirical edge.  What also made people take notice was how quickly South Park could comment on current events, as their newly adopted computer enhanced animation allowed them very short turnarounds on their episodes.  This, as a result, made Parker and Stone very influential political satirists as well, though the very centrist filmmakers would balk at being tied to any political ideology.  Nevertheless, their most monumental contributions to cinema have been movies that do address politics in a significant way.  While the duo has created a number of projects over the years, their biggest cinematic achievements are a big screen adaptation of their hit show, slyly titled South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999), and a War on Terror satire starring puppets called Team America: World Police (2004).  While there are major differences between the movie, the also are similar in that they represent Parker and Stone at their most pointed when hitting their satirical targets.

“I’m sorry I can’t help myself.  That movie has warped my fragile little mind.”

It should be noted the times in which the two films were made, as the political climates were very different (even in the span of 5 years) and they would be very influential on the themes of each film.  South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut was made in the tail end of the Clinton era in U.S. politics.  It was an era defined by peacetime and economic prosperity, but also about political division domestically as well.  The political opposition in America, defined by the Republican Party, tried to make a big deal about President Bill Clinton’s extra-marital affairs, both inside and outside of office, and this ended up turning into a debate about morality in American culture.  The arguments Republicans made about appropriate behavior would at times turn Puritanical, and this made people in the arts worried about a cultural backlash that would lead to more censorship.  This was also on the mind of Parker and Stone, as they centered the story of their South Park movie on this question of the limits of free expression.  In the movie, the South Park kids (Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman) begin to use more bad language than usual after seeing their favorite cartoon characters, Terrence and Phillip, in their newest movie. As a result, the parents of the kids go on a crusade to censor Terrence and Philip and everyone like them, which spirals out of control into a war between America and Canada which in turn could trigger the Apocalypse.  Of course, it’s Parker and Stone taking the situation to a hilariously extreme place, but you can’t help feel that they are drawing from the same censorship pressures that they have faced over the years in creating the story for this movie.  But, the world would be much different when Team America was made.  Not only would the Republican Party be back in power under President George W. Bush, but America was also hit by the worst terrorist attack in history with 9/11.  The response would find America once again on a war footing, and even more divided than before politically; with unfair questioning of patriotism leveled at those who opposed the war.  With Team America, Parker and Stone again take a critical eye towards the divisiveness of American politics and poke fun at both the callousness of unchecked patriotic fervor, as well as the impotent rage of those trying to combat it while not providing a clear alternative.  With regards to both films, they are very much perfect snapshots of the cultural mood of America in the times that they were made, and it’s fascinating to see just how different the country had changed in five short years.

“Remember, there is no ‘I’ in Team America.”  “Yes there is.”

What is interesting about Parker and Stone is how they have changed up their styles as filmmakers over the years.  They are not filmmakers who want to be tied down to just one style.  Before South Park, their filmography was certainly within the realm of comedy, but their targets were very different.  Cannibal: The Musical took traditional Hollywood musicals in the vein of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Oklahoma (1955) and added the gruesome aspect of cannibalism to the mix.  Their follow-up was a satire of the adult film industry with Orgazmo (1997), which again brought their absurdist sense of humor into a different kind of genre.  Even after their success with South Park and Team America, they would try their creative talents in a whole different kind of artform, creating the smash hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.  The same approach they have used for every film and project of theirs is well illustrated in the different ways that South Park and Team America are made.  South Park uses the same cut-out style of the show, but with the assistance of their computer animation, they are able to take the show’s style ever further thanks to the expanded budget of the movie.  The movie is also free from TV regulations and it leans hard into that R-rating with language.  And yet, it is a perfect continuation of the show on a grander scale.  Team America is definitely a different kind of movie altogether.  Instead of animation, they used marionette puppets on elaborate miniature sets.  It was inspired by the Sunday morning marionette show, Thunderbirds from the 1960’s, but they wanted to do that same kind of show with a Jerry Bruckheimer action flair to it.  The result is a hilarious riff on both, as the movie is a bombastic action film, but the characters are all still limited by the physicality of marionette puppetry.  One definitely has to marvel at the craft of it. as some of the miniature sets are insanely well detailed and the puppets are surprisingly expressive given their limited movement.  But, in typical Parker and Stone fashion, the comedy strives to reach the limits of what they are allowed, including having the puppets engaged in a very graphic sex scene mid-way through the movie.  With the South Park movie and Team America, you really see the filmmaking duo at the peak of their creative powers.

Where the films do deviate a bit is in terms of how well they have held up over the years.  In truth, they both still work as comedies and cinematic achievements in craft, but they are also limited by the fact that they are both products of their time.  In terms of how well these over twenty year old movies still play in the 2024, the times have been a bit kinder to South Park.  The ongoing debate about censorship and morality has morphed into a sadly never-ending “Culture War,” where conservatives and liberals have spilled over their political disagreements into the realm of pop culture, and has polarized the discourse even more.  Even South Park continues to be a battleground to this day, with right-wingers latching onto the critiques of major studios like Disney made in the recent special South Park: Joining the Paderverse, while at the same time misreading the more nuanced take that Parker and Stone are putting forth condemning people who only complain about stuff being “woke” while missing the point about corporations who just pander to marginalized groups and do nothing worthwhile to help them.  You can definitely see the beginnings of the “Culture War” crusade in the South Park movie, with the parents shirking responsibility for their parenting by blaming outside influence; in this case the nation of Canada.  You can see the same kind of scapegoating happening today, especially targeting the LGBTQ community.  Parker and Stone definitely saw the dangers of a mob mentality that sought to suppress creative expression and it’s terrible that this movie is just as relevant today as it was then.  On the other side, Team America unfortunately is weighed down by it’s War on Terror era identification.  With America largely out of their costly foreign wars today, the World Police aspect of the movie no longer feels relevant.  What unfortunately ages the movie even worse is the needless crude jokes aimed at the LGBTQ community.  Some are still funny, like how the Team America leader Spottswoode requires oral sex from the new guy Gary as a trust building measure of good faith, but other jokes really don’t age well.  The worst one would have to be the abbreviation for the Film Actors Guild, which of course turns into a derogatory slur for gay people; a joke that Parker and Stone thankfully have removed themselves from over the years.  By contrast, South Park has a surprisingly mature take on a gay relationship in it’s film, albeit between Satan and Saddam Hussein.  Even still, the jokes about the surface level, jingoistic patriotism of Bush-era America still hit pretty hard, especially in a time when it’s reached a scarier, fascistic level under Trump.  Also, the jokes at Alec Baldwin’s expense have aged like fine wine.

“Hey Satan, don’t be such a twit.  Mother Theresa won’t have shit on me.”

There’s another thing that connects the movies together, which also is something that makes them very different as well.  Continuing their tradition of incorporating music as a fundamental feature in their filmography, ever since they started with Cannibal: The Musical, both the South Park movie and Team America can be classified as musicals.  The label is more appropriate for the South Park movie, but given that every song in Team America is original, it can’t be dismissed as anything other than a musical.  The songs in Team America definitely feel like a compilation of songs that you would hear in the soundtrack of a Bruckheimer action film, ala Top Gun (1987) or Armageddon (1998).  A lot of rock music, country music, and any sort of red, white and blue tinted American styling that fits with the tone of the comedy.  What is amazing is that most of the songs are sung by Trey Parker himself, doing his best Springsteen imitation.  The majority of them are hilarious send-ups of action movie rock music, but the most hilarious one would have to the central theme called “America, F#$k Yeah.”  This song alone is one of the funniest things that Parker and Stone have ever written, as it is just takes jingoistic patriotism to the extreme, resulting in just a laundry list of things America has followed by “F$%k Yeah” from the chorus.  The other songs are good, but this is definitely the high point of the soundtrack.  The South Park movie by contrast is a much more standard musical film, and it also shows a more collaborative effort on the soundtrack than what they had on Team America.  For South Park, the duo worked with an actual Broadway and film score vet, Marc Shaiman, to develop the musical score.  The collaboration works as each song is well integrated into the story, including songs originally made for the show, like “Kyle’s Mom is a Bitch” and “What Would Brian Boitano Do?”  The highlight of the newer songs is definitely the Oscar-nominated “Blame Canada.”  While they did ultimately lose their Oscar to Phil Collins for a song he wrote for Disney’s Tarzan (1999), they team still had one of the greatest Oscar ceremony performances ever, with Robin Williams getting to sing the song in a lavish stage performance worthy of Broadway.  While both movies have great, hilarious songs in them, the music is just a more important factor in the South Park movie and as a result it enriches that movie more.

When it comes to be a technical achievement, I don’t think anything tops Team America with regards to Parker and Stone’s body of work as a whole.  The team spent years crafting the movie, all the while still working on new seasons of South Park.  Trey Parker described the experience of making Team America to be the most grueling thing he or Matt Stone have ever done; something that holds true to this day.  They went into the project with no experience in puppetry, and they were now tasked with not only perfecting it but also pushing the artform into a scope and scale unheard of before.  The film was only greenlighted by Paramount Studios in the first place because the executives were under the impression that a puppet movie would be cheap to make.  But when you look at the film, it’s ambitious in a way you would never think that a movie with marionette puppets would ever be.  The scale of the sets are incredible, especially the ones set in Cairo, the Panama Canal, and at Kim Jung-Il’s palace in North Korea.  One of the biggest assets to the making of the film was getting a veteran cinematographer on board who would shoot this fabricated world in the same way he would a true live action film.  They found that man in Bill Pope, who among other things has shot films like The Matrix (1999) and Spider-Man 2 (2004).  While South Park was just the show with an expanded budget, Team America was a true cinematic experiment that really paid off.  You can see the care put into the crafting of the movie, where it even gets to the point where you forget that you are watching puppets instead of real people on screen.  It’s a perfect execution of a vision that Parker and Stone set out to make a reality.  It’s unfortunate that they haven’t really done anything as uniquely different as this since.  Their focus probably got diverted to Broadway with Book of Mormon, where they saw that as their next mountain to conquer.  But in the last decade, it’s largely just been South Park and not much else.  One would hope that they have something unique in the cards like Team America still in them.  Perhaps the difficulty in making the movie has prevented them from trying it again.

“You are worthless, Arec Barrwin.”

Both South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Team America: World Police have held up remarkably well over the years, but the former certainly feels more prescient than the latter.  South Park’s take on “culture war” anxiety boiling over just shows how far ahead of it’s time it was, with the “blame Canada” fanatics not feeling that much dissimilar from the anti-woke culture warriors of today.  Team America’s look at the recklessness of the War on Terror and the resulting jingoistic patriotism that spawned from it  also helps it to stand out as a political satire, though it’s a lot more tied to it’s era than South Park is.  For the most part, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done well to not tie themselves down to any particular ideology.  If anything, their critiques are aimed at the extremes of both the right and the left, and that is exemplified by these two movies.  They are not agenda driven movies, but really they exist primarily to point out the absurdity of politics in general.  That being said, there are times when their critiques get overshadowed by their desire to shock their audience.  For the most part, they are very good at poking fun at the targets that deserve the ridicule, but times do change values and some of the jokes that would have been funny in the past unfortunately don’t translate as well to the present.  That’s where South Park seems to benefit the most, because of it’s more universal theme about censorship and self-expression.  Also, by being the more heightened world in animation, South Park can get away with a bit more than the more grounded Team America.  As a filmmaking achievement, it can definitely be said that Team America represents Parker and Stone at the height of their craft, but as a cinematic experience, South Park is just the more complete package, and it’s clear why to this day the show remains the duo’s favorite child.  Even still, Team America is still far more cutting and relentless than the majority of political satires out there.  It is especially much better than any partisan political satire made in the year’s since, particularly from those on the right.  While they do have flaws, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and Team America: World Police are still lightyears ahead of most modern satires, and that is something that definitely puts Trey Parker and Matt Stone in a class all their own as a filmmaking team.

“It seems that everything’s gone wrong since Canada came along.”

Your Movie Doesn’t Exist – The Importance of Analog Film Preservation in a Digital World

A lot of work goes into the making of a film.  A lot of money too.  And by the time it has reached the public, the hope is that audiences will not only enjoy what they see, but will want to see it again and again.  The life cycle of a movie is an interesting one to observe.  For the longest time the way a movie exists out in the world is that it first is experienced in a movie theater with a crowd of other people.  Then if the person in the audience felt a real connection with the film, then they may end up purchasing it, either as a physical copy or as a digital download online, after the film has ended it’s theatrical run.  The final stage for a movie afterwards is the licensing of the film to outlets likes television or streaming where the movie can be available to watch for the casual watcher to enjoy again or even discover for the first time.  There are even the movies that go full circle and end up getting theatrical releases again, for anniversaries or as part of a selection of titles for a festival presentation.  But it should be noted that only a select few films ever make it to this stage in their life cycle.  Sure, you would think that once a movie is made it should exist for all time.  But this sadly is not the case.  Film is a bit more finite than many of us realize and in a world that is dependent far more on digital media, we are actually seeing an acceleration of movies that fall through the cracks and are lost to time.  There are many reasons this happens, but one of the primary factors is the fact that film preservation is a costly and time consuming procedure, and the industry is just not as concerned about investing in the past.  But there is a lot of films from the past that are absolutely worth saving, even if they aren’t all classics.  It’s important because every film made, bad or good, is a record of cinematic history and that’s worth preserving.

The biggest problem that affects most films, particularly old ones, is the way that time deteriorates our physical media.  Film stock in particular is especially volatile and requires special attention.  This is especially true with older movies, some of which were filmed on highly flammable nitrate film stock.  It is said that up to 80% or more films from the silent movie era are completely lost, and of the 20% that do survive, they may be fragmented due to parts being damaged beyond repair.  That is the nature of cinematic history, that the industry wasn’t really thinking about long term preservation of their work, because it was all about getting the movies made and out into the theaters.  As we look at film preservation today, the best that we can do to recreate the way an old movie looked in it’s original state is to have a digital scan of the original camera negative, and sadly, this is the thing that ends up deteriorating first.  To compensate, the next best option is to work from a print (and the older the better).  A pristine film print is helpful, but it also is not the best quality source either, because the duplication process used to create a print from the camera negative results in a downgrade in the image, and the results are worse if you end up making a copy from something that is already a copy.  And then comes the clean-up in film restoration, which itself is time consuming and costly, which is why only the films that are deemed worthy of preservation manage to get saved.  Basically, what we know about our film history is formed around what has managed to survive all these years.  And there are several factors that can still come into play with regards to what survives.  Films have been lost forever due to fires, floods, willful destruction, and just plain old apathy.  It’s a truth about all art in general as well, as great works of literature, sculpture and illustration all have to endure the flow of time, which isn’t very forgiving to physical works.

But, certainly with the limitless ability to store data in a digital realm, works of art such as film should be able to last forever, and defy the ravages of time that have caused so many works to be lost.  Even here there are some worries.  One, even though data is not finite it still is not indestructible.  Movies that are preserved as a digital master must exist somewhere, and that somewhere is on servers computing for the digital space you are accessing the movie from.  At this point, you are dependent on that digital platform for keeping the film in their library, and this is not always a guarantee.  Streaming has changed the game quite a bit when it comes to gaining access to a movie.  In some ways, it has helped to increase exposure for a lot of movies that otherwise might have been forgotten, as streaming is dependent on having deep libraries of content to entice subscribers to join.  But, with the movie studios being far more protective of their IP, this also has led to a decrease of the flow of movies across platforms that used to define the streaming market.  When it was just Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, the studios would be paid handsomely for the license to air their movies, much like how it worked on airing for television.  This would help to give more movies a longer lifespan outside of theaters, especially if there were long-term agreements set up for airings before a movie’s initial release.  But, the consolidation of IP into each studios’ in house streaming service is having the effect of a lot of these pre-release agreements not materializing anymore, and from that point it is left up to the studios to decide what they want to do with their movies.  You might think that it benefits movies to have a secure home on a streaming platform, but that really isn’t the case as the studios are also neglectful of even their own movies.

One of the biggest problems with the consolidation of IP for the purpose of streaming is that it takes the ownership away from the consumer.  Without the licensing model being put in place, movies are locked away within the vaults of the studios more strictly, and they ultimately determine what we are going to see.  Take the example of Disney, and their Disney+ streaming service.  Sure, you have easy access to all the familiar films that we know from the studio, with the big pillars of Disney Animation, Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel being the brands easily browsed on the service.  But, sadly, Disney is putting the value in their marquee titles and not on the deeper reaches of their catalog.  One thing that especially feels underutilized on their service is the library of films they acquired from their merger with 20th Century Fox.  A whole studio’s worth of movies and television shows that spans nearly a century, and only a small handful of their classics are found on Disney+, like The Sound of Music (1965).  Sure the further integration of Hulu onto the Disney+ platform is helping to expand the roster of Fox films on the service a little, but there are still literally hundreds of movies that are out of the public view because Disney is not fully integrating the Fox library onto streaming.  The same kind of limited library access is also affecting the other studio streamers as well, with platforms like Max and Paramount+ being very selective about what is available to watch on their platform.  These streamers are also governed by algorithms that determine what should be pushed towards their audience attention, which could also lead to a decrease in exposure for some movies.  There certainly are some benefits to be sure for streaming, especially with studios beefing up their investment in new digital masters for all their titles on there, including new restorations.  But, even with the vastness of potential on digital platforms, some movies are going to be lost.

And then there’s also the more insidious action taken by the studios to remove movies and shows from their platforms entirely.  We saw not too long ago where studios like Warner Brothers and Disney were removing content from their platforms purely in order to collect a tax write-off.  That means that these movies, many of which were exclusive to the streamers, just cease to exist.  Tax write offs only work if the studio promises to never profit off their removed content ever again.  That means they will never reappear on the streaming platform, nor be available to purchase anywhere else.  And it’s not just small films or shows that are getting this treatment.  Disney removed their expensive TV spin-off of the movie Willow (1988) and if you missed it the first time you are out of luck as the show was yanked for a tax write off.  On Max, Warner Brothers pulled the Doug Liman directed pandemic movie Locked Down (2021) which starred Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor for the same purpose, and I’m sure none of those A-Listers would ever have thought that one of the films on their resume would just cease to exist.  It’s a disturbing trend that movies and shows can just so easily be thrown away and kept from viewing eyes.  It really upends the life cycle of a movie, which for many movies still allowed audiences a longer time to discover a film as it went from theaters to home entertainment.  Locked Down didn’t even get a full year.  But, some people still feel that their access to movies are safe if they bought them through a digital retailer.  That unfortunately was challenged during a recent merger between two Japanese anime streaming providers.  Crunchyroll and Funimation were the leading online retailers of anime content, and late last year, they began the move to merge into one single platform.  Unfortunately, it was decided by Crunchyroll that none of the previous catalog purchases on Funimation’s site would carry over in the merger.  That means that people who paid to buy a digital copy of the movies on the Funimation website would no longer have ownership of their movies.  Understandably, people were upset that their purchases were basically voided out so that Crunchyroll could generate their revenue purely through subscription.  While this is not a widespread case in the industry yet, it could still easily happen elsewhere.  Sadly, the streamers have too much say in what is considered ownership of a film.

That’s why so many cinema fans out there are feeling more impassioned to put their money towards physical media.  When you own a physical copy of a film, it is yours to watch forever.  But sadly, with streaming still dominating the minds of studio executives at the moment, it is leading to a decline of the once prosperous home video market.  Disney earlier this year completely shuttered their own in-house physical media distribution wing and are now outsourcing their future releases to Sony instead.  We’ll still see some Disney movies released on physical media, but it may be determined solely on what they deem worthy.  In truth, far fewer movies are going to be released on physical media in the future; a privilege given to just a chosen few.  Other small movies may just only be lucky to get a special release from a third party publisher like Shout Factory or Criterion, but only if they somehow maintain exposure in the public eye.  Like so many works of art throughout the years a lot of movies may not survive this new world of home entertainment.  The studios iron grip on what gets put onto their platforms coupled with the decline of physical media production as well as the threat of streamers not honoring the ownership of past purchases all creates a great worry that we are going to see an acceleration of lost media in our lifetimes.  And that creates a lot of anxiety for cinephiles who worry that a huge chunk of our cinematic history could fade into oblivion.  Cinema may be only a bit more than a century old as an artform, but it has also become a crucial part of our heritage as a global community.  We let a big chunk of it fade into obscurity, or worse get deleted from the world based on the whims of the studios, we lose a bit of ourselves in the process.

So, what can be done.  We as individual collectors certainly can’t save every film; we don’t have the shelf space nor the money to make that happen.  What I have found to be a good way of preserving what we can of film history is to diversify our personal collections.  I for one make an effort to have all of my movies in both physical and digital form.  Most physical movies on the market from first parties do include a redemption code for a digital copy of the movie.  While not all of the studios allow you to redeem from all digital retailers (Paramount and Lionsgate are notorious for this), the codes are good pretty much anywhere digital movies are sold.  What I recommend is setting up an account with Movies Anywhere.  On this particular service, they do allow you to purchase off of their platform, but they are also valuable as a service that links your account with them to most of the other digital retailers.  By redeeming your code through them, your digital copy will be available to watch on iTunes, Fandango at Home (formerly VUDU), Google Play and Amazon.  Having accounts synced up like this ensures that your movie will be available to watch across multiple platforms, and that will help to safeguard your access to that movie in case one of those retailers decides to cut the film out of their library.  Back-ups are the key to helping keep a movie available to watch.  Physical media is the preferred format to watch a film, since you’re movie is being sourced locally from the disc itself and not through the internet.  But, physical media does deteriorate over time, so upgrading to better formats are ideal if it’s affordable and available.  I’ve gone through multiple purchases of the same films many times, from DVD to Blu-ray to 4K UHD, but if you only need that one time purchase, make sure to take good care of your films.  Safeguarding your movies in their original packaging is ideal, and make sure you avoid scratches and environmental dangers like extreme heat when the movie is outside of it’s package.  Downloading your movies and storing them in multiple Hard Drive back-ups can also ensure you have a movie preserved.  You may not help every movie survive, but if enough diligent collectors take the right steps, collectively we may all be able to safeguard enough movies to help most of them survive long term into the future.

I think a lot about how so much of our collective understanding about our culture is based what has managed to survive through the centuries.  I remember in my college English literature classes a lecture about the different tragedies that led to the destruction of key written works that gave a clearer picture of the times that they were written.  Think about what was lost in the fire that destroyed the Library of Alexandria, or the art that was sacked and mishandled during conflicts like the Crusades or the Mongol Invasions, or the Cotton Library Fire that destroyed many medieval manuscripts.  As my English professor made clear, out of all this historical chaos, it’s a miracle that something as ancient as Beowulf managed to survive into modern times and helps us to understand the role of literature of in the times of the Vikings.  The same goes for monuments such as the Pyramids of Giza, or the Parthenon in Athens.  What we know of our history comes from what has survived all these centuries.  We can only piece together from fragments in order to create an understanding of the whole.  While cinema is still a young art, it is nevertheless prone to the same destructive forces of time like the rest of what mankind has created.  Time has already taken it’s toll on some of our cinema history.  And the increasingly short-sighted moves made by studios to give them more control over what we are allowed to see is making it increasingly possible that we are going to lose a lot more.  We can do something about it.  Hold the studios accountable whenever they deem your purchases voided.  Make demands on what movies you want to see preserved.  Do what you can to diversify your library, especially when it comes to physical media.  An analog collection of movies may be prone to the ravages of time, but it also ensures that you have ownership of that movie, and it can’t be taken away by a studio.  Movies should have long lifespans after they are released, because not everyone gets to see a movie the first time around and there are many cases where it took years for a film to truly achieve classic status with it’s audience.  Movies ranging from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) to The Iron Giant (1999) only became classics because they were given the chance to be discovered in other other mediums over a long period of time.  Now the are no longer cult hits, but rather mainstream masterpieces, and the current climate of short term success in the overcrowded streaming market would not let that happen.  The hope is that there are enough passionate movie lovers out there who will not allow for movies they love to fade away.  We owe it to ourselves to try all we can to help keep the movies immortal and last for generations to come.

The Lion Roars – 30 Years of Disney’s The Lion King and How a B-Picture Became a Blockbuster

In the annals of Disney Animation, and for all animation for that matter, no other film looms as large as The Lion King (1994).  The movie has become a global phenomenon that continues to be as widely popular now as it was when it first released 30 years ago.  In addition to conquering the box office, it has gone on to spawn numerous other properties that themselves become enormous hits on their own, such as tv spin-offs and an award winning Broadway show.  Even a “live action” remake from 2019 would go on to gross over a billion dollars on it’s own.  It seems like everything that this movie touches turns to gold, and it has been one of the primary engines of Disney’s success over the last quarter of a century.  But it may surprise you that Disney only viewed this movie as a major success after it was released in theaters.  Before that, it was viewed as the studio’s “B-Picture.”  The Lion King was developed in the middle of Disney Animation’s Renaissance period; a time when the studio was ramping up again in success after a long period of failure in the post-Walt Disney years.  The Little Mermaid (1989) is credited for kickstarting this new era and bringing Disney back to their former glory, and that success continued to build with Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) soon after.  At this time, it seemed like the Disney formula of action adventure mixed with fairy tale magic was what was helping them win back audiences.  The Lion King on the other hand was a bit of an odd fit, so it progressed along under the radar of the Disney brass.  But to the surprise of everyone, the little “B-Picture” would be the movie that would transform the studio forever, both in good ways and in bad ways.  But how did this unexpected hit manage to take it’s place in the Circle of Life at Disney Animation.

In the late 1980’s, right before Ariel and friends would make their first splash on the big screen, the top brass at Disney Animation were brainstorming their next move at the studio.  Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin were no-brainers of course, fitting with the fairy tale background that had worked for Disney in the past.  But Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg was interested in exploring an animated feature that was set in Africa.  This idea interested his colleagues, Roy Disney and Peter Schneider, and together they sought out ideas from the filmmakers at their studio.  Director George Scribner, who was just coming off of the minor success of their latest film, Oliver & Company (1988), managed to pitch a story idea that appealed to the executives called King of the Jungle.  The story revolved around a coming of age tale of a lion cub named Simba who is separated from his pride, raised by a family of baboons and does battle with an evil band of hyenas before eventually reuniting with his pride and becoming their king.  Katzenberg referred to it as “Bambi in Africa” as some of the coming-of-age elements were similar to the Walt era classic.  Scribner would refine the story more throughout the years after, adding in more Arthurian and Shakespearean elements to Simba’s story that gave it more gravitas.  But, unlike the other films being developed at Disney at the time, King of the Jungle was not intended to be a musical fairy tale.  It was very grounded in nature, treating the African setting as something more akin to a nature documentary.  After a year into development, the Disney team hired Roger Allers to assist Scribner with direction, hoping to give the story more focus as Allers had did as the Head of Story on Beauty and the Beast.  Allers would bring in his own of story artists, including Brenda Chapman and Chris Sanders, both of whom were rising stars at the studio.  The team worked on the story for a good 2 years, all the while Disney Animation was growing by leaps and bounds.  All of this new change at the studio would have a profound effect on the development of the film, and for a time, it was not moving the movie in the right direction.

Under George Scribner’s guidance, the story lacked an emotional core, and the executives at Disney were growing nervous.  Amidst the success of their mega hit animated musicals, King of the Jungle’s non-musical approach was just not working anymore.  There was worry that the movie would soon be scrapped completely, which prompted a lot of the top talent at Disney Animation to jump ship and join a more sure-fire project that was in development at the same time; an animated musical about the Native American icon, Pocahontas.  For most of the animators, Pocahontas was going to be the next Disney classic, while King of the Jungle was going to be the studio’s “B-Picture;” a minor film tossed through the production line like so many forgotten films of the post-Walt era.  To change the fate of the film, Roger Allers and his team decided to pitch a version of the story that was friendlier to musical numbers.  This did not sit well with George Scribner, who soon left the project entirely.  The movie had lost it’s original director, but was on track to becoming something better.  The title was changed to The Lion King, which was welcome because King of the Jungle made no sense for a movie where there is no jungle.  Producer Don Hahn, an enormously successful talent at the studio who helped to shepherd Beauty and the Beast to it’s success was brought on board to guide this new direction for the The Lion King, and soon after animator Rob Minkoff was promoted to director to take Scribner’s place.  For the team that stayed with The Lion King, being on board this “B-Picture” became something of a badge of honor.  They were now the underdogs, and just like with most underdog stories the ability to overcome the odds stacked against them helped to drive their belief that they could make something really special.

The story definitely became more Shakespearean in tone over time, becoming less like Bambi and more like Hamlet.  Simba would be betrayed by his uncle Scar, witness the murder of his father Mufasa, and live in exile until he reached adulthood where he would challenge his usurping uncle for the throne.  The direction of the movie would also visually take inspiration from great Hollywood epics from filmmakers like David Lean and Cecil B. DeMille, helping it to feel grander and more in line with the true vastness of the open Serengeti where the movie is set.  Producer Don Hahn stated that there were three pillars in particular that define the movie above all else and helped to make it the masterpiece that we all know; three sequences in fact.  One is the opening scene that introduces us to the world of this story; second is the wildebeest stampede scene that the story pivots on; and the third is the most magical scene in the movie where Simba confronts his father’s spirit, speaking to him from the great beyond.  Each of these moments are what sets the movie apart from all the other Disney films, and each was groundbreaking in their own right.  The wildebeest stampede for example took the still primitive tool of CGI animation to the next level, creating an epic scale sequence that would’ve been impossible to pull off only a few years before.  It was a bold sequence to pull of visually, but it also needed to land with the audience emotionally.  Simba’s father, Mufasa, the great Lion King, is murdered by his treacherous brother Scar and young Simba is given his first brush with death.  The sequence recalls a similar scene with Bambi after he loses his mother; but this time, Disney chose to not shy away from confronting death.  Bambi’s mom is killed off screen and we never see her again.  In The Lion King, Simba finds Mufasa’s lifeless body and grieves over it.  It’s an emotional sequence, beautifully animated, that was key towards helping The Lion King feel more momentous than the average Disney animated flick.

The next big factor in The Lion King’s success of course was the music.  No other Disney film sounded like Lion King, with it’s sweeping score infused with authentic African melodies and instrumentation.  Hans Zimmer, an acclaimed composer of note in Hollywood, was brought on board to score his first animated feature.  His work was a welcome departure from the work of Alan Menken, who had successfully scored most of the Disney Renaissance movies.  Menken’s work is brilliant, but his melodies would have been out of place in this African set story; plus he was already deep into working on Aladdin and Pocahontas during that time, making him unavailable.  Zimmer was a much better match, given that he had been working African influence into a number of his film scores before Lion King, including one particularly influential film called The Power of One (1992).  On that film, Zimmer collaborated with a South African musician named Lebo M who he wanted to work with again on Lion King.  Lebo M would prove instrumental in helping to shape the authentic African sound of the score; helping to find the right collection of musicians and instruments, as well as coaching the choirs whose voices would become key parts of the overall score.  Lebo even can be heard in the film itself as the very first voice we hear, with his iconic “Naaaaaaah” sung over a rising sun in the opening shot.  The songs would also need to be special as well.  Lyricist Tim Rice was brought on board at Disney to help complete the song score for Aladdin after the tragic passing of Howard Ashman.  He then moved over to working on The Lion King, and he proposed the bold idea of getting Elton John to write the melodies for the songs in the film.  No one believed that a pop star of Elton’s stature would want to work on a Disney animated musical, but to everyone’s surprise, he said yes.  In total, Elton John  and Tim Rice wrote five original songs for the film; the upbeat “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” the traditional villain song “Be Prepared,” the silly comical song, “Hakuna Matata,” and the pop friendly love ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” among them.  But, if there was one song that mattered more than the others, it was the one that opens the movie, “Circle of Life.”  One of the pillars that the movie rested on, there has never been a grander opening number found in any animated film before or since.  It was the perfect tone setter, a magnificent showpiece for this ambitious epic, and it probably stands second to “When You Wish Upon a Star” in the pantheon of monumental Disney tunes.

The third pillar that mattered to the film is the climatic moment where Simba must confront his past and take his place as king; a responsibility he had been running away from.  The message becomes clear to him after he sees the image of his father reaching out to him from the heavens.  If there is one sequence that defines the movie above all else, it’s this moment.  The image of Mufasa silhouetted in the sky by storm clouds, creating this heavenly visage, is a work of pure art that stands among the best at Disney; especially in the Renaissance era.  Apart from the stunning animation, it also mattered who got to speak for the character of Mufasa, because he demanded a voice of authority.  Luckily, Disney was able to cast the iconic voice of James Earl Jones in the part.  No stranger to voice over roles, Jones brings such a dignified presence to the character Mufasa; very much embodying the identity of a Lion King.  To bounce off of the power of James Earl Jones’ powerful voice, Disney perfectly cast actor Jeremy Irons in the scheming, slimy role of the villainous Scar, who provided the perfect counter to Jones’ performance.  A duo of teen heartthrobs from different eras, Matthew Broderick and Jonathan Taylor Thomas, were cast in the role of Simba at different ages in his life, and both managed to give Simba the right amount of boyish charm while at the same time giving him the right amount of emotional pathos in the heavier moments of the movie.  Thomas’ performance in the death scene of Mufasa really feels authentically heartbreaking, and Broderick likewise gives a powerful turn during the pivotal conversation with Mufasa’s spirit.  The rest of the cast is also filled with perfectly matched voices.  Broadway vets Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella were auditioning for roles as wisecracking hyenas, but the filmmakers realized they worked so well as a team that they instead got cast as Simba’s comical sidekicks, Timon the Meercat and Pumbaa the Warthog, both of which they were perfectly matched for.  And for the key role of the wise baboon shaman Rafiki, Disney cast legendary TV and stage actor Robert Guillaume, who really helped to ground the film with a dignified African sensibility.

Visually, musically and vocally, The Lion King had everything going for it by the end of it’s production.  Even the Disney execs were realizing that their “B-Picture” may be more special than they first thought.  But there were still some uncertain factors still in play.  One, the 1994 Northridge Earthquake that struck the Los Angeles area disrupted the workflow of the animation studio, so a lot of the animators had to bring their work home in order to get the movie done on time.  An eleventh hour change was also made to the “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” sequence after Elton John became upset that his love song was being sung by the characters Timon and Pumbaa, butchering what he had intended for the lovely ballad.  But probably what was most disruptive to the closing days of Lion King’s production was the simultaneous implosion of the Disney corporate level team.  CEO Michael Eisner had lost his right hand man, CFO Frank Wells, in a tragic helicopter crash, and had slighted Jeffrey Katzenberg who was seeking to fill that spot at the Disney company, making him the next in the line of succession at the company.  Eisner and Katzenberg’s relationship, which had always been contentious before, became un-reparable after that and just days before The Lion King was to premiere in the Summer, Katzenberg parted ways with Disney, leaving a major vacancy at Disney Animation.  Though the behind the scenes drama didn’t affect The Lion King at the box office too much, it did spell the beginning of the end of this monumental era known as the Disney Renaissance.  Despite all that, The Lion King not only started strong after it’s premiere on June 24, 1994, it would go on to break every record in the books that year for an animated feature.  By the end of it’s run, it was the then 3rd all time top grossing movie domestically at that time, right behind Jurassic Park (1993) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  It would also collect two Academy Awards that year; Hans Zimmer for his score (his first) and one to Elton John and Tim Rice for the song  “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”  But the legacy of The Lion King wouldn’t stop there.  A couple years later, Disney tasked Avant Garde stage director Julie Taymor with adapting Lion King for Broadway.  The result was another smash hit that won the Tony for Best New Musical and continues to be performed on the Great White Way to this day, over 25 years later.

The success of The Lion King would still be a double edged sword for Disney despite all the great fortune it has brought them.  In a way it became too popular, raising the bar too high for Disney to match or even surpass in the years after.  It’s ironic that the movie that the top Disney talent thought was going to be the superior film, Pocahontas, ended up underperforming the following year in 1995.  To critics and audiences, Pocahontas just didn’t wow them in the same way that The Lion King did.  There would be a steady decline of Disney Animation in the years after Lion King, with some modest hits here and there like Mulan (1998) and Lilo and Stitch (2002).  Disney Animation would go through some drastic changes during this time as well, with Pixar Animation pushing the industry towards computer animation and also more competing animation studios outside of the Disney company also making their moves, including Jeffrey Katzenberg’s newly formed Dreamworks Animation.  The Lion King really was the crest of a wave that helped to revitalize a dying artform at Disney Animation and then inevitably also lead to it’s downfall again.  Even still, the film remains an all time classic and one of Disney’s crowning achievements.  It also proved to be a great launchpad for a rising crop of talent at the studio.  Rob Minkoff would later find success as a live action filmmaker, working on the blockbuster Stuart Little films for Sony.  Chris Sanders would become a successful animation director in his own right, making a big splash with Lilo and Sitich before heading over to Dreamworks where he would create hits like How to Train Your Dragon (2010), The Croods (2013) and the upcoming The Wild Robot (2024).  Brenda Chapman would make her way over to Pixar and create the first ever fairy tale adventure over there with Brave (2012).  That’s an incredible legacy for a team that were considered the underdogs at one time at Disney.  The Lion King has so many iconic moments that still have the power to amaze even 30 years later.  It’s not surprising that this was one of the films Disney selected for special IMAX presentations in the past, as the canvas for the film genuinely earns that enormous screen.  Eventually Disney Animation would find it’s footing again post-Renaissance with hits like Frozen (2013) and Zootopia (2016), as they always seem to do after down periods, but The Lion King still remains a high water mark for Disney.  Whether it’s the catchy songs, the unforgettable characters, the compelling story, or the majestic animation, there’s something for everyone in this movie that makes it special.  And the behind the scenes story of the movie defying the odds to become a reality is itself an inspirational tale.  As they say, “Hakuna Matata means no worries” and that belief in being true to yourself has helped this lion continue to roar all these years later.

Inside Out 2 – Review

It’s been a tough few years for Pixar Animation.  Towards the end of the last decade, the animation giant had two of the highest grossing animated movies of all time with Incredibles 2 (2018) and Toy Story 4 (2019).  It was an era of great success and massive expansion for the studio.  And then the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020.  The theatrical run of their latest film Onward (2020) was cut abruptly short as theaters across the world would close for an indeterminate time.  But even as the pandemic raged across the world, Pixar adjusted by moving their work out of the Emeryville, CA campus and into the homes of all the digital artists from the studio.  The offices would be empty, but the show would go on.  Delays in the re-opening of theaters would later prompt Pixar’s parent company Disney to ultimately make the decision to release the next Pixar film, Soul (2020), straight to streaming during the holiday season.  It would be the first ever Pixar film to not get a theatrical release, but sadly it wouldn’t be the last.  With the streaming wars heating up in the post pandemic world, then Disney CEO Bob Chapek made the decision to release the next two Pixar films in development, Luca (2021) and Turning Red (2022), as Disney+ exclusives, causing them to skip theaters as well.  Unfortunately, Disney+’s gain was Pixar’s loss, as the straight-to-streaming method had the unintended effect of diminishing the Pixar brand as a force at the box office.  And what’s worse, Pixar was being pushed to streaming while other parts of the Disney company were still allowed partial or full theatrical runs, including Disney’s own animation studio.  So while Pixar films were still being generally well received, they were not being given the proper debut on the big screen that they were intended for.  Once it was decided finally to give Pixar a chance to prove themselves again on the big screen, the damage to their brand value sadly became apparent.

The first Pixar film to be released theatrically post-pandemic was the Toy Story spin-off titled Lightyear (2022).  There was hope that familiarity with the character of Buzz Lightyear would help boost the box office back to levels of Pixar at it’s peak.  But, the film did not receive a warm welcome from fans.  While nowhere near the worst thing that Pixar has made (I’m looking at you Cars sequels), Lightyear nevertheless left audiences confused and underwhelmed and that was reflected in the disappointing box office.  While the opening weekend was strong, the movie fell back to earth and ended up being one of Pixar’s lowest grossing films ever; a rare money loser for the studio.  Due to the double blow of the pandemic diminishing the Pixar brand and the mismanagement of the Chapek regime at Disney, the once mighty studio looked like it had lost it’s magic touch and was quickly becoming a shell of it’s former self.  But then a miracle happened.  Despite opening to a catastrophic low box office opening weekend, the next Pixar film Elemental (2023) managed to ride a wave of positive word-of-mouth towards achieving a healthy final gross that turned a small profit for Disney; one of the few films from the studio that actually succeeded in that difficult year.  It did thankfully show that the Pixar magic was still alive and that even with all of the struggles laid at their feet, they were still capable of delivering movies that connected with audiences.  But, what Pixar really needs is a major box office hit, one that can show that they can still reach the astronomical heights of their glory days.  While some critics may see it as a selling out move, the best option right now for Pixar to build back it’s box office muscle is to work with an already established property that’s done well for them in the past and build upon it with a sure fire sequel.  One of the most popular film’s of theirs from the last decade was the imaginative Inside Out (2015), and this week we welcome the newest chapter to that beloved story with Inside Out 2 (2024), a film that Pixar is hopeful will put them back on top again.

Inside Out 2 picks up where we left off from the first movie.  Young Riley Andersen (Kensington Tallman) has become a teenager, and with that milestone now here, changes are beginning to happen to her physically and mentally.  The emotions that have helped Riley become the person she is through her younger years, Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Tony Hale) and Disgust (Liza Lapira) suddenly find their workplace disrupted by new construction.  The switchboard console that they use to steer Riley’s emotional state has been updated, mainly to accommodate the new emotions that are about to move in; the ones that are brought on board once puberty starts.  They include Anxiety (Maya Hawke), Envy (Ayo Edebiri) Ennui (Adele Exarchopoulos), and Embarrassment (Paul Walter Hauser).  Anxiety immediately asserts herself in the “head” quarters, believing that the older emotions are incapable of adequately protecting Riley from all future threats.  So, she has the original five bottled up and locked away in a vault.  Not wanting to be suppressed emotions, Joy and the others break out and seek a way to get back to headquarters and restore Riley to her right state of mind.  As they navigate their way through the labyrinth of Riley’s increasingly more complex mind, the effects of Anxiety’s plan begin to affect Riley both emotionally and physically.  While attending an all girls Ice Hockey summer camp, Riley’s emotional mood swings begin to take their toll, and Anxiety and her team begin to realize that there are no simple solutions towards helping Riley become a better person.  The question remains if Joy and the other original emotions can get back in time to help settle Riley’s mind before too much damage is done.

The original Inside Out is widely considered to be one of the top tier films in the Pixar canon.  It was a massive box office success and would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature that year.  So, making a sequel to a film that beloved is certainly a risk, but it’s also one that Pixar has successfully pulled off many times in the past.  One thing that worried people was that the original creative team from the first movie would not be returning for Inside Out 2.  Director Pete Doctor has since risen in the ranks at Pixar to become the head of studio, and he has entrusted the future of his baby to longtime animator and first time director Kelsey Mann.  Thankfully, Mann has proven to be the right person for the job as Inside Out 2 does not miss a beat in following in the footsteps of it’s predecessor.  Truthfully, if there ever was a Pixar movie that perfectly lent itself to a sequel, it was Inside Out.  The original movie even had the right set up, with the Puberty Alarm making an appearance at the end of the film.  Like all the best sequels, Inside Out build upon what has been built before but also doesn’t feel like it’s repeating the same beats.  The movie wisely takes the story in a more mature direction, as the complexities of changing emotions are very crucial to the narrative.  The movie ultimately is about emotions competing with each other, something that anyone can relate to as we’ve all experienced times when our emotions have gotten the better of us.  It really does appear that Pixar is aware that their audience has grown up since the time the original film was released (which has been 9 years) and it is choosing to address it’s story with that added complexity and not dumbing things down in order to reach a younger demographic.

At the same time, it still remains incredibly funny, just like the first film.  There certainly are the same puns and slapsticks moments that will keep the younger kids happy and entertained, but the movie also nails the more grown up jokes as well, especially the ones related to the awkwardness of becoming a teenager.  I also really appreciate the direction that the story takes.  While the original movie was an emotional journey to be sure, it was also one where the stakes weren’t terribly high.  In Inside Out 2, the stakes are a bit higher, and for the first time it includes a character that fills an antagonistic role.  The character of Anxiety is the best new addition to this franchise, because of the obstacle that she places in front of the characters that we love from the first movie.  She’s not exactly a villain per say; her motives are paved with good intentions (mainly wanting to protect Riley from potential threats), but she just takes things too far, and that’s a really engaging angle to take with the story.  It also makes her a good foil for Joy, who’s the other principle character of the story, and one whose personal journey has been about accepting that her place in Riley’s development may be diminishing for good.  The one fault this movie has is that with the expanded roster of characters, there is less room in the story to have all of them have their moment to shine.  One of my favorites from the original film, Sadness, unfortunately gets pushed more into the background, which is disappointing after seeing her play such a pivotal role in the first movie.  And while there are some brilliant, powerful moments in this movie, it doesn’t quite have that emotional gut punch that the original movie had where it left the audience in tears.  There’s no Bing Bong level moment to break your hearts, though some moments do come close.  Other than that, the movie is as satisfactory as a narrative as the original, and in some aspects it improves on the original.

The voice cast, as is usually true with most Pixar movies, is uniformly excellent.  Amy Poehler returns to voice Joy and doesn’t miss a beat.  Lewis Black and Phyllis Smith likewise perfectly re-settle into their iconic roles as Anger and Sadness respectively.  For whatever reason, the original voices of Fear and Disgust (Bill Hader and Mindy Kaling) did not return for this film, but thankfully their replacements Tony Hale and Liza Lapira are perfect in the roles.  I dare say, they may actually be even better as Fear and Disgust, as those characters shine a bit brighter in the way they are used in this story.  The newest cast members are also excellent.  Of course Maya Hawke is the standout as Anxiety.  She finds that perfect balance of making her the personification of an anxiety rattled mind, but having the restraint to also keep the character from being a one dimensional archetype.  Hawke’s performance also helps to bring out the complexity of the character, making her sympathetic all the while she is spreading chaos.  I also just love the design of the character, with Anxiety having this Muppet like profile with a giant grin that makes up like a third of her body, topped by bulging crazed eyes.  The other new cast members don’t quite get the same attention, but they still manage to perfectly round out the emotions that they are embodying.  I especially love Adele Exarchopoulos aloof performance as Ennui, who gets some of the best one-liners in the movie.  I also should point out the excellent performance of Kenisington Tallman as Riley, as she a great job of projecting all of the emotional strain that this experience with her battling emotions is having on her.   The movie does an excellent job of making all the scenes outside of Riley’s mind feel just as engaging as the one inside.  There’s a harrowing coming-of-age story playing out for Riley, as we see her grapple with all of her changes and getting to a point where she pushes herself too hard.  She becomes a well-rounded character in her own right, and not just the setting in which the more fantastical story is taking place.

The original film was widely celebrated for it’s beautiful animation, and time has only helped to improve what Pixar is capable of with regards to animation.  While  a lot of the movie still has a familiar aesthetic, it’s enhanced with the latest animation tools at Pixar’s disposal.  All the returning characters have upgraded models that look even more stunning, especially in close-ups where you can see the individual particle beads that each of them are built out of.  The same advancements goes for the character animation too.  Each of the characters are wonderfully expressive in ways that feel perfect to their respective emotion.  In particular, Anxiety is animated with quick, speedy actions that really fit the hyperactive persona she embodies.  On the opposite end, Ennui has this body that’s almost wormlike, and when she isn’t lounging on a chair, she appears to slither her way into a standing position, which the animators hilariously put into motion.  The visual aesthetic of the movie is also beautifully vibrant, with the inside of Riley’s mind being awash in this multi-color rainbow of a color spectrum, which extends into the characters.  And to balance that, the outside world is more subdued and naturalistic, which provides a nice contrast.  The original film also included much of the same beautiful contrast, but this film really extends the palette and goes bigger.  It’s interesting that Inside Out 2 goes with a wider frame of 2.40:1, compared with the original’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  It really helps to make the film feel a bit more epic despite covering a lot of the same environments as the first film.  The scope aspect ratio is definitely called for with some of the set pieces, especially in the climax.  One thing that especially benefits from the bigger frame is the added element of a personality tree that grows underneath headquarters.  This beautiful set piece feels like something out of the world of Avatar (2009), and I love how the animators make it look like something that is organic in nature.  It’s another wonderful addition that adds to what we’ve already seen in this world and makes the story richer.  While the story certainly is a fine return to form for Pixar animation, this movie also shows that they are still at the forefront of visual artistry as well.

The hope is that Inside Out 2 is the movie that will hopefully re-establish Pixar as a force at the box office after so many years of struggle and neglect that has diminished their once dominant brand.  The movie certainly earns any rewards it gets.  It was a daunting task for the filmmakers to pull off as the original Inside Out is hailed by many as a masterpiece.  If I were to compare the two, I’d still give the slight edge to the original, just because of the brilliance of that Bing Bing scene that we all remember cry over.  But Inside Out 2 comes ever so close to edging past it because it pretty much equals the original in almost every single way.  It’s emotionally involving, it’s incredibly funny, and it does a great job of taking the story into it’s next chapter without missing a beat.  As far as sequels to Pixar movies go, I would absolutely count this as one of the best.  It’s not quite at the level of brilliance as all three of the Toy Story sequels we’ve seen, but compared to all the ones that came out in the 2010’s, like Monsters University (2013), Finding Dory (2016) and Incredibles 2 (2018), this is the one that has come closest to matching it’s predecessor in quality.  And of course it is astronomically better than either of the Cars sequels.  It’s interesting to think of how kids who grew up with this movie over the last 9 years will respond to this sequel.  Many who were 5 or 6 when the original came out are probably the same age as teenage Riley in this film, so the movie may be extremely relatable to them.  The thing I love about these two Inside Out movies is that they treat their audience intelligently no matter what age they are.  There’s enough for the littlest of kids to be entertained with, but adults will also find a lot to think about with this movie.  These movies are incredible meditations about emotional intelligence, and they probably work as great tools for the psychological community to help explain complex concepts around therapy and emotional well being to the average lay person.  Pixar once again shows that they are at the top of their game with Inside Out 2, a sequel that is every bit as entertaining as it’s predecessor, and the hope is that it will also bring back good fortunes for the studio after a rough couple of years.  Especially in a year where people are worrying about the state of movie theaters, the best outcome would be for Pixar to come out looking like the savior of the Summer with a strong box office showing.  Now that would be something to be joyful about.

Rating: 8.75/ 10

The Director’s Chair – John Waters

Hollywood has in the last several years come to embrace the significant role that Queer Cinema has had to play in film and the culture at large.  But, Queer Cinema is not as easily definable as you’d might expect.  It certainly would encompass movies that tackle LGBTQ issues, but it might also be used to classify movies made largely by LGBTQ talent in front and behind the camera.  As has been shown, there are movies that tackle Queer themes, but are made by well-meaning heterosexual, cisgender filmmakers.  And then there are Queer filmmakers who don’t tackle queer subjects in their movies.  And yet, there are valid reasons to identify all these types of movies under the umbrella of Queer Cinema.  The label gained prominence under the New Queer Cinema movement of the 80’s and 90’s, which helped to give queer themes and filmmakers more mainstream recognition in Hollywood.  While many of the films that tackled queer themes tended to be made outside of the industry, due to still lingering social taboos around the subjects, they would gain an audience in this period that helped to elevate many of them to cult status, and in turn they would help to reshape the industry into what we know today.  And there certainly is no other filmmaker that emerged from this movement that looms larger, both literally and figuratively, than John Waters.  Waters is undeniably as much of a Queer icon as he is a cinematic icon.  But it should be noted, he is also one of the filmmakers who only is associated with Queer Cinema by the fact that he has spent his whole career as an outspoken, openly gay man.  His personal advocacy for gay rights has certainly been a defining thing for his public image, but as a filmmaker, it’s not necessarily what he made movies about.

Waters was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland; a city that would have a profound impact on his body of work.  Though raised in a traditional Catholic home, Waters demonstrated very early on that he was an outsider and he expressed himself in very provocative ways as he grew older.  Influenced very much by films such as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the technicolor soap operas of Douglas Sirk, Waters, Waters would spend his teenage years making short films with his group of friends.  One friend in particular named Glenn Milstead would be a very crucial collaborator over the years, especially as Glenn would later adopt a drag persona that he would name Divine.  Divine and John Waters would be an inseparable team for many years as Waters began in earnest to become a professional filmmaker.  But, it was very clear that John was never going to be any standard filmmaker; he was going to strive to make the kind of films that he wanted, and in many ways he has spent his entire career making films so extreme that it’s like he’s daring Hollywood to make him stop.  And yet, the opposite has happened.  The more outrageous Waters made his movies, the more it garnered him the attention he needed to become a successful filmmaker.  Dubbed the “king of filth” by many, Waters has managed to create cult classics that push the boundaries of bad taste and it’s turned him into a cinema icon in defiance of the norms of Hollywood.  From his early grungy, shock value early films like Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974), to his later more mainstream but still boundary pushing hits like Hairspray (1988), Cry-Baby (1990) and Serial Mom (1994), John Waters filmography is one defined by artistic integrity, in that only those movies could have been made by a man like him.  And because of that, he is celebrated as a true original, and an important trailblazer for the Queer cinematic movement.  While his movies are wildly varied, he is a filmmaker that certainly has many trademarks to his name, and it’s not just the pencil thin moustache he’s always had.

1.

THE POPE OF TRASH

Waters has self-described himself as the “Pope of Trash” and it’s an apt moniker.  His movies very much push against the Hollywood standards of beauty, and he seems to really relish the uglier side of society.  He’s very much attracted to characters that exist in worlds of extremes, where there is nothing beneath them with regards to sexuality, beauty, or good manners.  In many ways, Waters emerged as a filmmaker at a very good time within the film industry, as his button pushing weirdo surrealism fit well with the counter-culture pushback that was happening in both Hollywood and the culture at large.  Waters managed to find his audience through the film goers that were looking for anti-establishment statements made on the big screen, and John Waters was delivering on that front.  The abrasiveness of movies like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble were unlike anything else that people had seen before, and they certainly weren’t for everyone, even in the Grindhouse cinema scene.  Part of the uniqueness of John Waters’ worlds on the big screen was due to the miniscule budgets that his film’s had, but that was something that he embraced as a filmmaker as well.  His movies took place in what can only be described as filth, with rundown trailer parks and seedy bedrooms being common locations.  And the people who lived in them were as nasty as what you’d expect the odors of these places to be like.  The entire plot of Pink Flamingos involves the characters fighting over who is the “Filthiest Person Alive,” which Divine wins hands down with a stunt involving a dog that is best not described any further.  Even as John Waters toned down his “Pope of Trash” status in his more mainstream films, there still was a bit of grunge found in his worlds, such as the state of the Turnblad home in Hairspray.  There certainly has not been a filmmaker that has earned more X or NC-17 ratings in his career outside of porn, and Waters seems to wear that distinction as a badge of honor.  Most filmmakers would not have made it far after making a movie like Pink Flamingos, and Waters just happened to luck into being the right man at the right time.

2.

NOSTALGIC CAMP

Even as there was an intention to embrace the ugliness of his films early on, John Waters still wanted to emulate the kinds of films that he was reared up with.  In particular, you can really feel the influence of the movies of Douglas Sirk in his body of work.  Sirk’s melodramas of the 1950’s, including Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life (1959) had a heightened cinematic flavor to them with their bold color palettes and melodramatic performances.  In time, these kinds of movies would fall into parody as Hollywood changed, but to people like John Waters, these movie were still a thing of beauty.  The idea of camp arose out of this love for outdated artistic styles.  For John Waters, he wanted his movies to be camp by design, with his actors intentionally performing like they were in a soap opera, and having this be the driver of the humor in his films.  This is something that very much defines Waters’ first mainstream film, Polyester (1981), which is an obvious parody of the Douglas Sirk style.  Polyester plays exactly like a soap opera movie of the 1950’s, but the big difference is that Divine is filling the leading female role.  The film then becomes a critique of the stringent conservative values of that time period with the Divine upending the role of the idealized woman at the center of the story, but at the same time Waters is indulging in the camp value of the cultural hallmarks of that era.  He even tried to bring back a failed gimmick of that time period called Odorama with some screenings, though I believe the smells he chose were not the same kind of pleasant ones that would’ve been used back in the 50’s.  While he was still pushing buttons, you can definitely tell he still had a soft spot for the campy relics of the past, whether it was the wild fashion styles or the music of the early days of rock and roll.  Hairspray goes even further in being a celebration of both, with the girls all dressed in their poodle skirts and sporting beehive hairdos.  Waters may have broken new ground, but there was still a sense of looking back and celebrating the past as well, especially if it was something that didn’t fully get the love it deserved the first time around.

3.

DIVINE

Nothing, or in this case no one, had more of an impact in shaping John Waters into the filmmaker that he is today than his longtime muse Divine.  Starting off as childhood friends, they both emerged as artistic soul mates with Waters determined to turn his flamboyant partner into a movie star.  It’s easy to see why John Waters was drawn to Divine as a performer; she was a character that easily fit into the filthy worlds that Waters imagined and would stand out as a queen within.  Glenn Milstead just had a knack for commanding the screen as the character Divine, and even after doing some shocking things on camera for Waters’ movies, it only increased his level of popularity.  Divine remained a staple of the drag queen cultural scene, and in total she would appear in a total of six films for director Waters.  Pink Flamingos of course is widely seen as the movie that put her on the map, with the gun totting, red dress wearing image of her being a particularly iconic.  But, she probably reached the pinnacle of her popularity with her role as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray.  The great thing about roles like Edna Turnblad for a performer like Divine is that they are not written for her as drag or transgender role.  These were female characters that could have been played by any woman, but were intended solely for Divine alone.  Though Glenn/Divine was not trans himself (identifying as a gay cisgender man his whole life) he nevertheless broke a lot of barriers for performers in the trans community by playing these female roles and doing so without pretense of them being a role for a drag performer.  Sadly, Divine’s time on the big screen was short lived as Glenn Milstead passed away from heart failure at the too young of age of 42 in 1988; only three weeks after the premiere of Hairspray.  John Waters would try to fill the void left by his muse and friend in his later films by centering his movies around larger than life female figures, but none would have the same impact as what Divine brought to his films.  Divine may have been the most unconventional leading lady in cinema history, but the fact that she managed to make it to the big screen at all in her own way is pretty historic in of itself.

4.

CELEBRATING THE NON-CONFORMISTS

If there is a common thread in all of John Waters movies, it’s the celebration of people who refuse to conform to societal standards.  The non-conformist is the purest kind of hero in Waters’ movies; something that was especially true in his earlier films with Divine.  Waters celebrates the trashy, the over-weight, and the socially oppressed in his movies, and much of the fun of his films is in seeing how his characters rise above prejudice to be their authentic selves and be celebrated for that.  Perhaps the truest expression of this trope in a Waters movie can be found in the movie Hairspray.  The film centers around a fat girl named Tracy Turnblad (played by a young Ricki Lake) who wants to be a dancer on her favorite show.  While she breaks down the unforgiving beauty standards of the 1950’s in order to give herself a fair shot at achieving her dream, she also inspires others around her to do the same, especially the local Baltimore African-American community that has been trying to de-segregate their place on television as well.  This parable about tolerance and racial justice still fits very well within John Waters’ style of storytelling, because his whole career has been pushing back against the “norms” and celebrating the things that make us all different.  Hairspray may be a silly, oddball comedy with unconventional leading ladies, but it’s a crowd pleaser in the way that it has an easily relatable underdog story to tell.  And throughout Waters’ career after, with movies like Cry-Baby, Pecker (1998), and A Dirty Shame (2004), the non-conformist is always the ideal hero he celebrates, even if they remain a bit too extreme for people.  And it is through the propping up of these kinds of heroes that his movies may have even inspired many more outsiders to speak up for themselves and stand up for their rights, especially within the same LGBTQ community that he represents.  Thanks to his ability to portray his band of outsiders with a strong sense of personal dignity, we have seen more and more people have the courage to define who they are and not be just what society tells them to be.

5.

SHOCKING SUBURBIA

To coincide with lifting up of voices of the non-conformists, John Waters’ movies also take aim at shocking the system of the breeding ground of oppressive conformity; American Suburbia.  While Waters celebrates the kitsch of of a bygone era of American society, he certainly has no love for the values; especially the kind that suppresses one sexual identity.  While Waters does poke fun at the sexual repression of mid-century America in many of his movies, especially in Polyester, some of his movies also take things to violent ends as well.  The movie Serial Mom features Kathleen Turner playing a unassuming traditional housewife who we learn over the course of the movie is a secret serial killer.  And it’s meant to be a dark comedy, with the deaths played up for laughs.  With this, Waters is dissecting the notion of traditional marital standards that were pushed upon Americans in the post-War era, and shows that the quaint life of Suburbia hides dark secrets just under the surface.  John Waters always showed a level of violence that existed on the fringes of society, like he did in his early movies with Divine, but his later movie would show us that violence is present in just about every part of society, and that the people on the fringes are just more honest about it.  Waters certainly likes to use violence and sexual awakenings as tools to break down facades that society puts up around itself to make things seem more civil than they really are.  At the same time, he’s not a nihilist either.  Violence is more of a system shocker in his movies used to expose the hypocrisies that society is built upon.  You see this too with his critique of Hollywood in Cecil B. Demented (2000), a movie about terrorist filmmakers.  It fits within his desire to celebrate the non-conformity of society with the knocking down of the falsehoods that we perpetuate to create some sense of “civil society.”  Waters recognizes that there is a little bit of a freak in all of us, and that this is something that should freely be out in the open.

So while most of John Waters films may not per say be about LGBTQ issues exactly, there is little doubt that he is one of the most influential voices in Queer Cinema.  I think that the reason why so many queer themed films made over the years have a retro aesthetic to them is primarily because of his own influence, with his celebration of retro kitsch and campy cinematic tropes.  There are many queer filmmakers today who emulate the Waters’ style, with recent examples like Dicks: The Musical (2023) and The People’s Joker (2024) taking a page from the Waters School of Camp.  It’s also interesting to see the legacy that John Waters’ movies have had on cinema in general, especially in surprising places.  I don’t think anyone would’ve expected a Disney animated musical to be the place that pays homage to a John Waters film, but there is one very prominent one in the 1989 classic The Little Mermaid.  The late and beloved lyricist Howard Ashman came from the same Baltimore Avant Garde arts scene as John Waters and Divine, and he specifically used Divine as the inspiration for the villainous sea witch Ursula.  The Disney animators went a step further, and gave Ursula a spiky hair style similar to the iconic one Divine was wearing in Female Trouble.  And there of course was the hit Broadway musical based on Hairspray which in turn was adapted into a new musical film which Waters didn’t direct himself but still participated in, cameoing as a flasher of course.  Unfortunately, Waters hasn’t had as much luck getting financing for his films as he once did before and he has directed a new film in over 20 years; the last being A Dirty Shame.  Still, he maintains an active public profile and has been heralded as a crucial pioneer in queer cinematic history.  Perhaps the proudest he can be as a filmmaker is seeing that his body of work made a difference, both in shaking up the film industry as well as elevating new voice within the business.  And he did it without having to sacrifice his artistic integrity.  Instead, he went mainstream on his terms, making movies that he wanted to make that could also reach the mainstream target audience.  He still wants to continue making movies, and hopefully Hollywood grants him at least one more chance to step behind the camera once again.  As we celebrate another Pride Month, we definitely need to recognize just how important someone like John Waters was in getting us to the point where we could express that pride openly.  And if he had to do that in some shocking and often grotesque ways, well, thank goodness he did so without shame and with a whole lot of courage; and some sick, twisted ideas as well.

Let’s All Go to the Movies – Things That Hollywood Can Do to Help Save the Theatrical Experience

It’s hard to think of what the theatrical experience was like 10, 20, or more years ago.  The theater experience has been an ever evolving thing with the times, with multiple changes made by the theater chains done in order to boost the amount of people coming through their doors.  But one thing is for sure, this century old industry has never had a easy road to success.  It takes a lot to get people to leave the comforts of their home and pay money to sit in a dark room with a bunch of strangers.  To make that happen, movie theaters need to be special places and not just a place to see a movie.  That’s why so many movie theaters today are trying very hard to make their venues more than just a theater.  With the increasing standard of lounge style seating in every theater and in some places interactive features like the 4DX experience with motion seats and in theater effects, movie theaters are making the effort to lure audiences back after several years of struggle.  When the competition is the living room, people need to be reminded that movie theaters offer a far better experience that immerses you better into the movies.  But, not every movie theater can change so quickly with the times, and that has led to a bit of a contraction within the industry.  Thankfully, the movie theater industry is not dead yet, but they have been barely hanging on after it’s near Armageddon during the Covid-19 pandemic.  And hopes of a huge bounce back post-pandemic have largely faded due to a variety of factors, but mostly the lack of event worthy films in the market.  There certainly have been some incredibly successful films in this post-pandemic era, but they have been coming few and far between compared to how they performed in the last decade.  It seems increasingly like the box office may never in fact reach the same highs of the 2010’s ever again, as the future looks increasingly less favorable to the theater business.  But, is that something that Hollywood wants to see happen?

To understand the state of the movie theater industry, we have to examine what is ailing it.  First of all, the under-performance of movies at the box office.  Box office is a tricky barometer for gauging a movie’s success, because it’s the most immediate information we get about how a movie is performing.  Movie studios pay very close attention to the box office receipts, because it’s a definable number that they can gauge their economic outlook on, which is helpful for getting the attention of investors.  But because box office numbers are public record, this can be a double edged sword as a movie’s failure can also be a visible thing.  Unfortunately, too much has been made about these immediate box office numbers as a defining factor in a movie’s success.  There are many cases where movies became bigger hits outside of their initial runs in theaters like The Big Lebowski (1998), Fight Club (1999) and The Iron Giant (1999) due to success in home video.  Sometimes it’s not about how well a movie opens, but rather about how long it’s remembered that helps to separate the successes from the failures.  Sadly, Hollywood over time put too much value in theatrical performances, especially in how movies do in their opening weekend, and it unfortunately leads to many films getting abandoned before they actually have a chance to build momentum.  It was definitely a true thing for movies before the pandemic, but the economic bind that the market disruption has put the studios through has made this reality even worse.  Unless a movie delivers on expectations, some of which may be unrealistic, the studios are likely to abandon it and leave movie theaters hanging with a movie that has to perform all on it’s own.  You see this now even with big movies; a less than stellar opening weekend, and the marketing for that film immediately dries up.  There isn’t even enough time to wait and see if word of mouth can help turn the fortunes of a movie around.  Studios are more willing to throw in the towel opening weekend and focus on what’s next than giving a movie a chance. and it increasingly gives movie theaters a hard time as more and more movies are shuffled through.

Of course the changes in the streaming market have changed the dynamic.  A lot of the movies that once used to give audiences a variety of choices at the movie theater have since moved to streaming, leaving the theaters with far fewer choices as a result.  The mid-ranged budget movies like comedies and action thrillers no longer are believed to be competitive with the likes of mega franchises like the MCU.  So, these movies have gone over to streaming instead, mainly because they don’t have to feel the pressure of showing strong box office numbers once they release.  Twenty years ago, comedic movies were seen as some of the strongest performers at the box office.  Even bad comedies like Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill (2011) were still capable of pulling over $100 million at the box office.  Now, those kinds of broad comedies are absent at the box office.  Sandler himself even abandoned theaters all together, as his Happy Madison production company now makes everything exclusively for Netflix.  It’s crazy to think that in the last five years the only Adam Sandler film released in theaters was the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems (2019).  But this is where Netflix and other streamers have made a huge difference in the variety of movies that make it to the big screen.  Now, movie theaters can only depend on big studio tent-poles to bring audiences in, as well as small, low risk independents to fill in the rest.  The middle range that helped to give movie theaters an extra boost is all but dried up.  No more $50 million movies capable of grossing $200 million.  For most tent-poles now, $200 million has now become the minimum needed to turn a profit, and some movies now even require more.  With the bar for profitability now so high, it’s easy to see why more studios are opting for the streaming option, because if no one watches their movie, they won’t get that stigma of a public box office failure attached to their film.

The current problems for the film industry stem from these long in the making disruptions, but a lot of the problems they face are also self inflicted wounds that could’ve easily been prevented.  For one thing, the lagging box office of this Summer in particular is very much attributable to the needlessly prolonged strikes that occurred last year.  In the end, the studios ultimately acquiesced to the demands of the unions, showing that they could’ve easily reached a deal early on, but chose to string things out in the hopes that they could make the unions cave, which they didn’t.  So, Hollywood has no one else to blame for a work stoppage that went 6 months longer than it had to, and we are only now a year later beginning to feel the cost of that blunder.  The Summer 2024 movie season has not been on fire thus far.  So far, we’ve seen two movies perform well under expectations (Fall Guy and Furiosa) and another that is meeting expectations but not exceeding them (Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes).  Some worry that this is a sign that the Summer season will be one of the worst ever, which is going to put pressure on a movie theater industry that is still reeling from the pandemic.  We’ve already seen a record low Memorial Day weekend, and given the lack of overall films due to the gap made by the strikes, there’s few films on the horizon that look to reverse the trend.  Also the lack of restraint on the way movies are budgeted is making it near impossible for for the theatrical market to pull it’s wait in showing that it can turn a profit for these movies, so many are trying to compensate by raising the prices of a ticket.  But, raising ticket prices is having it’s own negative effect on the movies, as cash strapped customers are more willing to stay home than spend a whole bunch of money on a movie.  It’s this combination of ticket inflation and the underwhelming product coming out of the studios that has led to this perfect storm of problems plaguing both the studios and the movie theater business, though it’s especially harder on the theaters.

The thing is, there are movies that still are managing to drive business to the movie theaters.  Since the re-opening of the theaters post-pandemic, we’ve seen record shattering runs for movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), and Top Gun: Maverick (2022).  Even this year, movies like Dune: Part Two (2024) and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (2024) have managed to demonstrate strong box office holds over multiple weeks.  It’s just that Hollywood is looking at all these examples of success, and not absorbing the lessons.  The thing that all of these movies had in common was that they were events.  They were the kinds of movies that demanded the attention of the audience, and were clearly movies that were meant to be experienced and not just watched.  Unfortunately, there’s no organic way to manifest a larger than life movie event that will generate the kind of box office that these movies did.  The Barbenheimer phenomenon was the biggest story in movies last year precisely because it was so unexpected.  The movies Barbie (2023) and Oppenheimer (2023) were expected to do well, but not to the tune of over $2 billion dollars collectively at the box office.  Movie theaters very much needed that Barbenheimer effect, but it’s something that could only have manifested in that particular moment, so it’s not something that can be conjured on demand.  But what Hollywood can do is to try to make movies that that are distinct from one another.  When the studios try to play things safe, all their movies will tend to just look the same, and audiences will eventually grow tired of that.  It’s something that is especially plaguing the super hero franchises at the moment.  The problem though is that Hollywood takes it’s time to adjust course and try new things.  Sequels and prequels are more likely to get the greenlight before any new intellectual property is ever gambled with by the industry.  And given that the examples I gave of the movies that performed spectacularly well in the last couple years were also franchise movies, the chances of anything new coming out of Hollywood anytime soon seem pretty remote.  But, the fact is that Hollywood has the capability of bringing audiences out to the theaters if they focus on the appeal of these movies and making them worthy of the big screen.  What ultimately draws audiences out of their living rooms is knowing that a theater gives them something more.

There are many ways to make the movie theaters more of a destination to be sure.  Going back to the early days of cinema, the medium of film was a place to experiment with many different techniques.  The introductions of sound and color made movies a whole lot more special, and when televisions started to challenge the superiority of the movie theaters in terms of exhibition, a new type of experience called widescreen began to emerge.  There were also gimmicks that didn’t quite take off as well as people hoped, like 3D and Smell-O-Vision, but these two had the effect of making going to the movies more than just “going to the movies.” There were also mad wizards like William Castle who went so far as to install buzzers into the theater seats to make his horror movies that much more electrifying for his audiences.  One wishes that kind of showmanship extended out into movies today.  In some places, you do see movie theaters that do cater to more to their audiences than just screening a movie.  There’s the Alamo Drafthouse style of Dine-In theaters that give you restaurant service within a theater setting that goes well above just popcorn and soda.  Also, one thing that has been consistently growing in success in the theatrical market in the last few years has been IMAX.  The company that produces the film stock has seen their business grow at a time when the rest of Hollywood has been either stagnant or shrunken.  More audiences are interested in seeing movies in premium formats rather than the standard presentation.  It was a big reason why movies like Oppenheimer and Dune: Part Two were able to be as successful as they were is because the IMAX format was essential to the experience, and audiences were willing to pay the premium ticket price to see these movies in the most ideal way possible.  They were also movies shot specifically for the format, meaning you are not truly seeing the true version of the movie unless you were watching it in IMAX.  True, IMAX is not ideal for every kind of movie, but what is ideal is for more movies that are made with the intent of utilizing their place on a big screen.

One other big thing that Hollywood should consider is to expand the exclusivity window for their films in theaters.  One of the unfortunate outcomes of the pandemic on the theater industry is that the theater chains gave up ground to the studios to allow for movies to go to digital platform earlier than they did before.  Before the pandemic, movie theaters had a 90 day window of exclusivity that allowed them to generate as much revenue as possible from a theatrical run before the movie would be available to buy digitally on places like iTunes or Vudu.  With theaters closed during Covid, the studios began demanding that the chains loosen that restrictive window to allow them the freedom bank off of these movies without having to wait three months.  The exclusive window was cut in half and has remained that way ever since, even with things large back to normal.  This change also allowed studios to begin a day and date style of release in both theaters and on streaming.  Unfortunately for both the theaters and the studios, this has caused a change in audience behavior that has caused movies in general to make less money in the long run.  People are no longer running out to see a movie when they know that it will be streaming within a matter of weeks.  This is especially true for family films, as parents are finding that it’s much less expensive for them to wait for the movie to appear on streaming than to spend tons of money on tickets and snacks from concessions.  The studios need to realize that there is no economic advantage to closing that exclusivity window tighter.  What is fascinating to see is that the movies that actually perform the best on streaming platforms are the ones that had full theatrical runs.  Disney’s Moana (2016) has consistently been present in the top ten streaming charts every single week, making it the most streamed film ever, even eight years after it first appeared in theaters, where it also did well.  It seems that movie theaters are still the ideal way for a movie to have it’s first good impression and that streaming is better used for the residual success that a movie experiences in the years after.  The big flaw of streaming is that the algorithms that they run on are geared to the viewers tastes, and for a movie to be seen on the platform it has to come with some built in awareness on the part of the viewer.  Otherwise it just becomes yet another thumbnail that we scroll past.

A lot of people are trying to assess what is going on with movies in theaters, but I don’t think anyone has the answer to how to fix it.  Even I don’t know, and my suggestions are just based on a handful of historic examples.  But, the sad truth is that movie theaters may never recover to where they were before.  We may be in for a period of decline that ultimately will lead to a significantly reduced theater market.  That doesn’t mean that it will go extinct.  There will always be a demand for the theatrical experience; it’s just that this kind of group of movie fans will have to be catered to with fewer options.  It saddens me when I see any movie theater closing, but it’s something that we are probably going to see much more of in the coming years.  Demand is not meeting up with the supply, so a contraction is inevitable.  But those theaters that do survive will be all the more cherished.  I worry most for those small town, mom and pop movie theaters as they are sometimes the only outlet for rural communities to have that cinematic experience, especially the ones that program an art house selection of movies.  But, the movie theater industry did face one of the worst shocks to it’s system during the Covid-19 pandemic and most movie theaters are still here, which is a hopeful sign.  Now Hollywood just needs to figure it’s own self out and actually see the value in making the kinds of movies that drive people to the cinema.  Not everything needs to be an IMAX sized event, but we do need a reminder that any type of movie is better seen on a bigger screen.  Whether it takes gimmicks like 3D, exclusive merchandise like custom popcorn buckets, or viral marketing like AMC’s Nicole Kidman ad, there are many ways to get people to come back to the movies. There’s also the great sense of community that comes from laughing and cheering with a room full of strangers during a great cinematic experience.  Streaming offers a lot of nice things, but it can’t replace the aura of a theatrical experience.  In this regard, the Nicole Kidman ad says it all: it makes movies better.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – Review

It’s been a wild ride through the wastelands for the Mad Max franchise.  Began in 1979, Australian filmmaker George Miller created an icon with his shoestring budgeted original film.  And every movie since, he has upped the ante, making his world more dystopian and mythic in process.  The franchise helped to make a star out of Mel Gibson, and both he and Miller would continue to build their world with the even zanier sequels The Road Warrior  (1982) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985).  After Thunderdome, Miller spent a long while figuring out where he wanted to take the adventures of Max Rockatansky next.  It would be another 30 years before the Wasteland would be seen once again on the big screen.  In that time, Miller spent his years dabbling in more family friendly fare like Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and Happy Feet (2006), but all the while he was continuing to brainstorm his next move with Mad Max.  Entering the 2010’s, he finally found the road he wanted to take, and he got Warner Brothers to bankroll his bold new vision for this classic action franchise.  But, there were going to have to be some changes.  For one, Mel Gibson had aged out of the part over the 30 plus years, in addition to a number of scandals that had diminished his star power.  In addition, the story would be less focused on continuing Max’s ongoing story and instead would be geared more around building the world around him into something far more epic and surreal.  It would still be a Mad Max movie, but it was about far more than one man’s journey.  And in particular, George Miller found himself becoming more intrigued about the possibilities involving a wholly new original character named Furiosa.  As we would soon discover, this new heroine would be the shining star of a new future for the Mad Max franchise.

The 30 year wait proved to be worth it, as Mad Max; Fury Road not only made a healthy gross at the box office but was also critically acclaimed as well.  Many even began to herald it as one of the greatest action films of all time, and it accomplished the unexpected task of earning 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, of which it ended up winning and impressive six total.  As far as action films go, Fury Road became a new high water mark for the industry, with audiences being wowed by it’s impressive stunt work and practical effects, as well as just the overall creative world-building throughout.  To create the film, Miller and his team spent months filming in the remote Namibian desert, which allowed them to create these massive scale stunts in a remote and desolate environment on a scale unseen before.  It very much invigorated the franchise in the way that George Miller had hoped for.  In addition, audiences loved the performances from the leads, with Tom Hardy filling the role of Max adequately and easily helping audiences get over the replacement of Mel Gibson in the role.  Charlize Theron brought an intensity to the role of Furiosa that made the character an instant favorite for both longtime fans and new ones as well.  It’s very clear that Furiosa and Mad Max are both the main character’s of Fury Road’s story and that Miller spent as much time figuring out her narrative as much as he had his iconic hero.  During all those 30 years in the process of making Fury Road, Miller had also spent years developing Furiosa’s backstory, including going so far as to writting a full draft of a movie that would have centered around her.  In his words, he wanted to fully understand her character before he made her such a central part of his new direction in the franchise.  After seeing Fury Road succeed as well as it did, Miller decided it was time to take another look at his script for a Furiosa movie, and he suddenly became interested in bringing it to the big screen as well.   It would take nearly another decade for that project to also become a reality, but now we George Miller making his return once again to the franchise that define his directorial career with this prequel adventure, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga.

The story begins many years before the events of Fury Road, where we find a young Furiosa (Alyla Browne) living in the peaceful oasis known as the Green Place.  Outside of the Green Place is a vast desert known as the Wasteland, where the remnants of human civilization are scattered across as warring nomadic tribes.  One such tribe of motorcycle riding marauders invade the Green Place and kidnap Furiosa.  They take her back to their camp, where she meets their fearsome leader, Dementus (Chris Hemsworth).  Her mother, Mary Jabassa (Charlee Fraser) tries to save her from the camp, but the valiant attempt at a rescue ultimately fails, and Dementus ends up executing her in front of Furiosa, an act that the young girl would hold a grudge over for many years after.  Eventually, Dementus and his gang arrive in a part of the Wastelands that is lorded over by a man named Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme), who resides in the fortress called The Citadel.  Immortan Joe’s forces, including the cult like faction know as the War Boys, prove too overwhelming for Dementus, but the ambitious madman decides to make more trouble by capturing the important stronghold known as Gastown, which supplies The Citadel with all it’s fuel.  Dementus and Immortan Joe strike a truce, but part of the deal involves Furiosa remaining within The Citadel as a future bride for one of Joe’s sons, Scrotus (Josh Helman) and Erectus (Nathan Jones).  Furiosa initially escapes her new captors, and lives anonymously in The Citadel, eventually becoming one of the mechanics.  Grown up Furiosa (Anya Taylor-Joy) eventually develops a partnership with The Citadel’s top rig driver, Praetorian Jack (Tom Burke) who helps her gain the skills she’ll need to survive in such a dangerous world.  But in all this time, her heart is set on two main goals, to get her revenge on Dementus and return home.

There’s no doubt that following up the success of Mad Max: Fury Road was going to be hard, even with George Miller still firmly holding the reigns.  Fury Road is considered an all time classic and one of the most celebrated movies of the last decade.  Still, you can feel the desire with George Miller to tell this story in particular, leaving out the namesake action hero we all know in favor of exploring someone else’s tale in this same world.  It’s a risk to be sure, but also one that does fit within the greater narrative that Miller wants to tell.  Furiosa was undoubtedly the breakout star of Fury Road, and many fans agreed that she was a character capable of carrying a film all on her own.  So, with the work already done before cameras even rolled on Fury Road, Miller had the story he needed to deliver on the promise of Furiosa’s own movie.  Now, going into this film myself, my expectations were perhaps a bit different than most other people.  It may shock you, but I’ve been a bit more lukewarm on my opinions of Fury Road.  I certainly liked it a lot, but I fell a little short of believing it to be this unassailable masterpiece that stands among the greatest movies of all time.  To me, it was an above average action film that certainly impressed me with it’s creativity and craft, but not much else.  For me, I found it a bit light on story, or at least lacking in a story that I could latch onto and make me want to revisit it countless times after.  So, heading into Furiosa, my expectations were certainly not low, but were also hedge a bit, and after seeing the movie, I’d say that it hit about where I thought it would.  Just like Fury Road, I found it to be an impressively mounted and fairly entertaining movie, but nothing that is going to stand out to me as a masterpiece of cinema either.  It is neither a step down from Fury Road, nor does it exceed expectations.  It accomplished what it needed to do and nothing more.

It will be interesting to see the overall reactions that will follow this movie.  I imagine most people will react to it the same way that they did with Fury Road, because if there is one thing that George Miller certainly hasn’t lost his touch with it’s his ability to film an engaging action sequence.  But, there may be many out there that will come away disappointed and that’s solely because they hold Fury Road in such high regard and expected too much out of this follow-up.  One thing that may drive some of the division on this movie is that it is very much a different kind of movie than Fury RoadFury Road by all accounts is one long action sequence stretched across the entire length of the movie, which was the most thrilling aspect of the movie for many people, but for others like me it was what made the story feel a little flimsy.  In this regard, I feel like Furiosa improved on it’s predecessor a bit, because here we actually get a deeper storyline that actually explores the world of the Wasteland much more, including telling us more about the cultures that have formed in this dystopian world.  There are still some impressively mounted action set pieces, but they are supported by more character developing moments.  We even get more involved back stories with Fury Road characters like Immortan Joe and his followers, making them much more interesting as a result.  Though strangely enough, while so much more of the world gets richer detail in Furiosa, the main character herself kind of gets overlooked in the story.  I feel like George Miller used all of his best character development for Furiosa in Fury Road, and gives little to work with in this film.  She really has nothing more to her character than just acting tough and being a survivor.  We know her motivations, but Miller doesn’t give us any time to see what’s going on inside her mind; at least not as much in this film as he did with Fury Road.

Despite the lack of character in the way that Furiosa is written, she still manages to make an engaging protagonist thanks to Anya-Taylor Joy’s intense performance.  She certainly has big shoes to fill, as Charlize Theron was so iconic in the role.  But what makes Ms. Joy’s performance work so well is how she acts non-verbally in the movie.  Furiosa is actually a character of very few words in the movie, but with the expressions that Joy can deliver through her very expressive face, as well as cold-dead stares through those large distinctive eyes, she makes Furiosa a very intimidating presence.  She also holds her own in much of the film’s complex action set pieces.  You can tell this was a demanding role for her physically, even with the aid of stunt performers.  Going back to the early days of Mad Max, Miller always wanted his actors to be as involved in the action as much as possible, from Mel Gibson all the way up to Tom Hardy.  It’s a testament to Anya-Taylor Joy that she does as much on-screen stunts as she does on this film.  She also is backed up by an excellent ensemble of the best Aussie character actors in the business, many of whom have been in George Miller’s circle for years and have appeared in a number of his other movies.  Credit certainly is due to Lachy Hulme who took over the iconic role of Immortan Joe from the late Hugh Keays-Byrne, and doesn’t miss a beat.  But, the whole film truly belongs to Chris Hemsworth who creates a scene-stealling iconic performance as the villainous Dementus.  He delivers one of the most cartoonish villains in recent memory and he is just a blast to watch through the entire film.  It seemed like George Miller just told him to ratchet up Chris’ Australian accent to 1000% and he went to Crocodile Dundee and beyond.  Dementus is such a great character to watch and Hemsworth’s performance is worth the price of admission alone.

One other thing that I liked about this movie is that Miller is expanding upon the world that he has built for this franchise.  His Wasteland feels even bigger and more epic than we’ve ever seen before.  We do revisit the iconic location of The Citadel from Fury Road, which we see slightly more of in this movie.  But, Miller also finally shows us locations that were hinted at in the previous movie, but are now fully realized here in Furiosa.  In this movie, we finally see Gastown and the Bullet Farm, which are incredible set pieces in their own right. They also help to give the film a grander sense of scale that seems to find George Miller at his most ambitious level to date.  Fury Road was certainly big, but not particularly expansive in it’s world building.  The one thing that I do think Fury Road does have over Furiosa is that the action sequences had a bit more authenticity to them.  There was a lot of DIY action filmmaking going on in Fury Road, with the film accomplishing a lot in camera.  In Furiosa, in order to create this more expansive view of the world, Miller also makes more use of CGI to create the action set pieces.  Most of it still looks good, but you do still lose some of that remarkable practicality in the process.  I do like however the way that Miller’s style comes through in the editing of the film.  There are several moments where Miller will suddenly speed up the film itself on certain shots, which creates this fun disorienting effect.  He uses this a lot especially with zoom in on his characters when they are behind the driver’s seat of the the many different hot rod vehicles in the film.  It’s something that he carried over from Fury Road, and it’s nice to see it still being utilized well here.  It definitely shows that Miller has a lot of trust in his crew, as many of them are returning from their work on Fury Road, including Oscar winners like costume designer Jenny Beavan, production designers Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson, as well as the nominated Visual Effects team and composer Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL), all of whom once again deliver the goods here.  Even while a lot of things still look and feel the same, I do appreciate that this movie is not simple retread of the Fury Road formula.  Many people returned to work with George Miller again on this film, but they also did their best to add something new to the mix too.

Overall, like Fury Road there is a lot to admire about Furiosa, but it also doesn’t rise to the level of all time greats, at least in my opinion.  In general, I see Furiosa as a slight improvement, but it’s also a movie that feels less focused than it’s predecessor.  Furiosa comes pretty close to feeling a bit bloated at times with it’s lengthy 2 1/2 hour run time, making it by far the longest movie in the franchise.  Fury Road’s story may not have been a deep one, but it was a tightly constructed 2 hour story.  At the same time, I do appreciate that George Miller uses that extra time to give us a bigger scope of the world itself.  There are some spectacularly mounted sequences in this movie that Miller gives the right amount of time to.   The movie also features one of my favorite villainous characters in quite a while with Chris Hemsworth’s gloriously demented role as Dementus. Again, the movie is worth seeing just for him alone.  Anya-Taylor Joy does a pretty great job too in the title role, though I feel like the best Furiosa moments still belong with Charlize’s performance in Fury Road.  While it may not be what I consider to be the peak of action filmmaking (honestly I’ve been more impressed recently with the John Wick and Dune movies in that regard) it is still something that I would recommend seeing, just for the big screen spectacle of it all.  If you were a huge Fury Road fan, I would imagine that this film will deliver what you’re looking for.  Just don’t go in expecting the same kind of movie.  Furiosa is a different animal of a movie, one focused more on character and world-building than action set pieces, so hedge your expectations around that.  For me, it delivered about what I was expecting.  For a more lukewarm appreciator of the Mad Max franchise, I generally was pleased by what I saw, but it’s not going to be one of those movies that I’m going to necessarily revisit over and over again.  But one thing that I do find enormously impressive is that at the age of 79, George Miller is still delivering massively entertaining action films on this kind of scale without losing any of his edge.  He’s continuing to hold action film-making to a high standard, and even teaching the younger generation a thing or two.  For a veteran filmmaker like him, it’s inspiring to see him continue to be a fury road warrior at a time when most other filmmakers fall off into the far horizon.

Rating: 8/10

What the Hell Was That? – Les Miserables (2012)

Movie musicals can be very much a coin flip at the box office.  Many times some of the biggest flops in Hollywood history have been stage to screen adaptations, while at other times they have been a box office savior.  We’ve seen cases where a musical gone wrong can destroy a filmmakers reputation, like how Gene Kelley stopped directing after the disastrous production of Hello Dolly (1969).  But then you have The Sound of Music (1965), which helped to pull 20th Century Fox out of the financial hole they dug for themselves after the loses from Cleopatra (1963).  A lot of the time, movie musicals are susceptible to the ebbs and flows of audience tastes more than any other genre in film-making.  For the longest time, movie musicals had been considered box office poison after the late 60’s crash in the genre, and it wouldn’t be until the new millennium when it would start to come back in a big way.  The return of musicals came about with the box office and awards success of both Moulin Rouge (2001) and Chicago (2002), with the latter earning a Best Picture win at the Oscars, the first since 1968’s Oliver.  This sudden renewed interest in the genre stirred Hollywood to look to Broadway once again for musicals that were ripe for adaptation.  Even as Hollywood had abandoned the musical for decades, Broadway was in it’s heyday, churning out mega-hit shows that became famous the world over, without ever needing to make the jump to the big screen like they had in Hollywood before.  Once it became profitable to make movie musicals again, the floodgates were finally opened up to get these popular stage musicals translated to the big screen.  But, as we’ve seen many times before, what played well on the stage may not necessarily translate the same way on film.  The quarter century has seen a few Broadway shows successfully get the big screen treatment, including the aforementioned Chicago, as well as Dreamgirls (2006) and Sweeny Todd; The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).  But at the same time, we’ve also seen many examples of musicals that fall flat when they make the jump to cinema.

Perhaps one of the harshest falls from stage to screen is the long anticipated 2012 translation of the musical Les MiserablesLes Miserables should have been a no-brainer adaptation for a movie musical.  The source material is one of the most famous works of literature, the 1862 novel of the same name by Victor Hugo, which on it’s own has spawned numerous non-musical film adaptations.  It was translated into a musical in France by the team of lyricist Herber Kretzmer and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, before eventually being picked up by musical theater mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh for the London West End, and then eventually on it’s way to Broadway.  Once it made it’s way to the Great White Way, it became a smash hit, eventually running continuously for over 16 years, plus numerous revivals.  It’s also got one of the most profitable touring productions in musical history, having been seen by audiences all over the world.  So, why did it take nearly 30 years for there to be a movie adaptation for this legendary Broadway show?  It wasn’t for the lack of trying.  The musical languished in development hell for decades, being passed around from studio to studio and through a slew of interested directors, including Alan Parker and Bruce Beresford.  What caused so many pauses in development was due to struggle to fill the extensive ensemble with the right actors.  Cameron Mackintosh, who was in charge of the movie rights, wanted the musical to feature a cast worthy of the epic material.  But considering the fact that movie stars and Broadway performers don’t always align given the different kinds of disciplines, it was difficult to get a cast of actors who could do justice to the material and bring in the box office appeal as well.  It also mattered who was going to be behind the camera as well.  It took a while, but the musical eventually got the momentum it needed thanks to the renewed popularity of the genre in the 2000’s.  But, once cameras got rolling, the dreams of a perfect translation to the screen would ultimately prove fleeting.

One of the most baffling decisions in the film’s development was in giving the directorial reigns to Tom Hooper; a filmmaker with no background in music whatsoever.  Hooper had made a name for himself as a television director, first on the BBC and then eventually on HBO, with acclaimed mini-series like Elizabeth I (2005) and John Adams (2008).  He won accolades for his cinematic debut The Damned United (2009), but it was his follow-up that would truly put him on the map in Hollywood.  The King’s Speech (2010) became a surprise powerhouse during it’s awards season run, and would eventually take home Best Picture at the Oscars, as well as a surprise Best Director win for Hooper.  With his Oscar darling now on his resume, Hooper was prime to take on any prestige project he wanted.  And at this time, the team in charge of the current development for Les Miz was looking for their director.  Hooper, for all accounts, is a competent director.  He delivers his movies and TV episodes on time and up to that point on budget.  Given that he had this workman quality about him, it seemed to the producers that he might be a good choice to undertake this grandiose project, given that he had the prestige without the baggage.  But, despite having some critical success, nothing about his background would tell you that he could make a musical.  Hooper’s style is very grounded in reality, which has made him a success at directing historical dramas, because of his ability to capture the look and feel of a bygone time period.  You could say that would work for a strait forward adaptation of Les Miserables, akin closer to the source novel.  But he was being assigned to that kind of movie; he was going to be making a musical.  And musicals are far from grounded.  By the very nature of characters breaking out into song musicals exist in this kind of heightened reality.  And as a result, you can’t just film it like another period drama.  That is where the fault in the hiring of Tom Hooper lies; he was a wrong fit for the material.

The big problem with Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Miserables is that it feels small.  On the stage, the musical takes on this operatic magnitude, with the actors signing to the rafters and set design, as abstract as it may be in some productions, evoking the grandeur of the story it is telling.  Now, you can see that plenty of money was spent on the production.  There are lavish sets built to replicate France in the 1820’s and the costume design is period accurate as well, and owing very much to the inspiration of the original musical and the original book illustrations.  But, Hooper never gives us a good look at any of it.  His camera is held in tight on his actors, shot low and handheld like he was making a documentary.  It may be that he is trying to give the movie a visceral feel by putting the audience in the middle of the action, but it robs the story as well as the musical numbers of their impact.  Movie musicals should have a grandiosity to them, as by their nature they are meant to be spectacles.  That’s why musical numbers are often referred to as show stopping moments, because they stand on their own as big showpieces.  Hooper doesn’t seem to get that, and all of his musical numbers are filmed in this same actor focused way.  That may well work for one or two numbers to help set them apart.  Many have praised the one-shot take of the iconic “I’ve Dreamed a Dream” number within the film, but that song would have had an even bigger impact if it didn’t look like every other song in the movie.  The best movie musicals make all their songs feel distinct, with different stylistic choices used to set them apart.  But, Hooper’s direction doesn’t give the songs a chance to stand out.  And the lavish set pieces just kind of blend into the background as the actors are focused on with all their close-ups.  Most of the movie is really demanding wide angle shots, allowing the audience to see how epic this story really is.  The most absurd missed opportunity is with how the barricades are visualized.  Once one of the most mind-blowing set pieces on the Broadway stage just feels puny and insignificant when realized in the movie.  The barricades should feel imposing and instead it looks like it could come crashing down without much effort.  It’s a perfect example of how much Hooper missed the mark in bringing the musical to the big screen.

Of course, another make or break element of any movie musical is the effectiveness of the ensemble cast.  Les Miserables is not a musical that you should casually fill with any movie star.  The roles are demanding and require actors with powerful voices to carry the complex tunes.  For the movie, the casting in general is a mixed bag.  In some cases they found the right actors; mainly the ones they pulled right off the Broadway stage like Aaron Tveit as Enjolras and Samantha Barks as Eponine.  But these are usually the ones who have the minor roles.  The headliners are in general more hit and miss, with one in particular being a big miss.  One thing that does the actors a disservice in the film is Tom Hooper’s insistence on live recordings of each song.  Musical films are typically not filmed that way, as songs are usually per-recorded by the actors beforehand and they are played back on set so that actors can focus on their performance without having to concentrate on their singing.  Once again, it points out Hooper’s lack of experience when it comes to filming musical numbers, so the actors’ performances feel constrained as they are having to both act and focus on their singing.  It’s doable, but it also works against the way the songs sound in the end.  This is very much evident with actors like Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Amanda Seyfried as Cosette.  Sure they are capable of singing, but the pressure to get the melody right often causes their performances to feel flat.  The only one who seems to rise above this limitation is Anne Hathaway in the role of Fatine.  This is one of the most demanding roles in all of musical theater, and she seems very aware of that and took it as a personal challenge.  Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” was filmed in a single unbroken shot, and with the fact that it was a live recording as well, it mattered that she get it right.  It probably took a number of takes, but they got what they wanted out of her performance and she has the Oscar win today to show for it.  But in general, the pressure of recording the song live stifles the actor’s ability to improvise, as what they sing will also be what’s given over to the soundtrack.  It may work when the actor feels they do their best singing on set, like Rex Harrison wearing a hidden microphone in his tie during the making of My Fair Lady (1964),  but to impose that on the whole cast is putting up an unnecessary barrier for their style of performance.

And then you have the cases of actors who are just not right for the roles.  Unfortunately for this version of Les Miserables, the worst choices in casting were the two leading stars.  First off, there’s Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean.  Jackman is undoubtedly one of the most talented musical performers the world has seen in quite sometime.  He already had numerous runs headlining on Broadway leading up to being cast in this film, which gave a lot of people confidence that he was going to shine in this film as well.  But here’s the thing, Jean Valjean is not the kind of role that plays to his strengths.  Jackman is at his best when he’s a song and dance man, showing off his physicality just as much as his vocal range.  Jean Valjean does not give him as much to work with other than just standing and singing.  And the kind of singing is also a bit out of range as well.  Hugh’s typically a baritone, but the role of Jean Valjean requires a tenor, so when you hear him try to sing these songs, you can really hear the strain in Hugh’s voice.  You’ve got to give him the credit for trying, but it might have served the movie better if they could’ve given the role to a more natural sounding tenor.  Overall, Hugh Jackman just feels miscast and that the performance just does not use his skills as a musical performer to their fullest.  But his misplacement in this film is nothing compared to Russell Crowe in the role of Inspector Javert.  Javert is one of the most coveted roles in musical theater, with some of the most powerful songs in the entire musical.  So, why did the filmmakers think that Russell Crowe was the guy for the part.  He doesn’t have the bass-baritone range required for the character and his only musical experience is having his own rock band.  This was clearly a case where the studio wanted a well known name in the part, and the Oscar-winning Gladiator star fit the bill.  His performance is the thing that is pretty much universally panned across the board with this movie; even amongst the film’s defenders.  He’s the one actor where the live recordings did an especially big disservice, as he just sounds like a high school drama student trying too hard to hit every precise note.  It’s embarrassingly stilted performance where you’re aware of every sour note Crowe delivers.

While the performances themselves have many unfortunate limitations, there’s inherent problems within the musical itself that pretty much makes a translation to the big screen impossible.  Les Miserables is different from a lot of other Broadway musicals in that it’s not a heavily choreographed show.  For the most part, Les Miz is noteworthy for it’s actors not doing acrobatic, intricate dances on stage, but rather for standing still in the glow of spotlight and singing.  With the right light design and an actor capable of singing to the rafters, you can make that compelling on stage.  But, translating that to the screen just creates too much stillness.  There isn’t a whole lot of physicality in the film, just a lot of actors standing in a room and singing.  And that just makes a film like this boring.  There’s no spotlight to draw the audiences eye.  Again, Hooper’s docu drama like approach just makes every shot look exactly the same, so these songs that are supposed to be emotionally wrenching just are not.  That in the end is the most glaring failure of Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables; it a crushing bore.  And the failure is all the more crushing because you could see how this movie could’ve been great.  It’s based on one of the all time most celebrated musicals, adapted from one of the great books of western literature.  It has an all-star cast with actors who do have the ability to sing (mostly), and it clearly had a lot of money put into the production.  To me, the movie musicals that have a lot going for it and end up squandering it all are the worst kind of musicals.  Even among other bad musicals this one really falls below the standard.  In all honesty, I would rather re-watch another disastrous movie musical directed by Tom Hooper named Cats (2019) over this one any time.  Don’t get me wrong, Cats is an absolute disaster as well, and on the surface much worse in every way compared to Les Miz.  But, it’s also never boring.  Part of the appeal for some with the movie Cats is the train-wreck aspect of it all, and it shockingly has gained a bit of a reputation as a camp classic.  The same cannot be said about Les Miz, which is just a depressing experience that is not worth revisiting.

My hope is that this is not the definitive movie version of this musical.  Maybe someday we might see another filmmaker come in and try to do justice to the material.  This musical definitely demands a grander scope to it; something like the grand 70mm musicals of the mid-century Hollywood period, and not the flattened down version that we got here.  In general, what hurts the movie the most is the wasted efforts of all involved.  Tom Hooper is clearly out of his element here, and is far better suited for simple, elegant historical dramas, like the movie that was his follow-up, The Danish Girl (2015).  Of course, Hooper did make the mistake of going back to musicals with Cats, but that production strangely showed some growth in him as well as it didn’t have the same boring aesthetic that he gave Les Miz.  The problems with Cats extended well beyond Hooper’s direction, so he’s not the reason that it failed as much as he was the problem with this movie.  Overall, Les Miserables is just a poorly staged production, with uninspired musical numbers, awkward performances, and no sense of the enormity of the story it is trying to tell.  To be frank, I do know that my feelings about the movie are not shared by the whole of the critical community.  The movie in general did receive a lukewarm reception from critics, and it was a box office success, and did walk away with some Oscar gold.  But, over the years, it also has lost a lot of it’s luster.  No body celebrates it as one of the all time great movie musicals, and the only times it is discussed is with the things that people remember hating about it, particularly the whole Russell Crowe of it all.  For critics like me, it’s the missed opportunity that hurts the most.  It should have been great and instead it’s less than average.  All the performers in this movie have thankfully gone on to bigger and better things.  Hugh Jackman just finished an acclaimed run on Broadway in a Music Man revival, and his co-star Eddie Redmayne just began one for Cabaret.  Russell Crowe thankfully has kept his singing career off the screen and on the stage with his band.  And the genre of the musical still thrives and has seen better adaptations over the years; and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down with something like Wicked on the horizon.  For experiencing the musical Les Miserables, you’re still better off catching it on the stage, because for once the big screen turned out too be too small.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes – Review

The Planet of the Apes franchise has had one of the most interesting histories in Hollywood.  When the original 1968 film that launched the series first premiered, it was heralded as a landmark in science fiction, famous for it’s groundbreaking make-up turning human actors into simian characters as well as it’s infamous twist ending.  But, what was groundbreaking in it’s time would lose it’s luster the longer the series went on.  The studio behind the Apes franchise, 20th Century Fox, continued to release more movies throughout the 70’s, and each one saw diminishing returns and dwindling budgets, before ultimately being shelved after the mediocre box office of the fifth movie, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973).  As the films began to feel antiquated in the blockbuster era that followed, Planet of the Apes became something of a punchline of how not to make a science fiction movie.  But the original film remained an untouchable classic to many, and it would remain an influential film for a new crop of filmmakers coming into Hollywood.  One such filmmaker, the visionary Tim Burton, tried to give the Planet of the Apes franchise a refresh in 2001.  Unfortunately, despite having some fairly impressive and more realistic looking make-up for his cast, Burton’s remake couldn’t hold a candle to the legacy of the original.  It would take another decade before there was another serious attempt at bringing the franchise back to it’s former glory.  With the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Fox managed to find renewed life in the series with a much more effective tool at their disposable; motion capture computer imaging.  The technology could effectively mimic an actors performance into a CGI sculpted model and have that digital creation feel authentically lifelike.  The rubber masks of the old Planet of the Apes were now obsolete, because an actor could now embody their characters fully within the skin of a real looking ape.

Of course, it also mattered who was in the digital monkey suit.  One of the reasons why the newer Planet of the Apes movies worked as well as they did is because they featured a standout performance from an actor who has made his whole career through excelling in motion capture performances.  Andy Serkis, who had also famously brought the creature Gollum to amazing life in The Lord of the Rings trilogy through the same motion capture process, helped to push the boundaries of this technology even further.  Each film in the most recent batch of Apes movies keeps improving on the technology to where the seams between the digital characters and the live action environments are pretty much seamless, and Andy Serkis is so comfortable performing with the technology that every subtle gesture gets perfectly translated.  And it helps that the story and characters are compelling enough to get us invested in the movie’s narrative.  For Andy Serkis, he couldn’t have asked for a better character to embody than the ape Caesar.  While Rise certainly laid the groundwork for a strong return of the franchise, it wasn’t really until director Matt Reeves took the helm that the franchise found it’s core strength and achieved it’s greatest success.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) were critically acclaimed epic adventures that really showed off the potential that this franchise had long promised.  With Serkis’ passionate performance, outstanding visual effects work, and intense action film-making, the Caesar Trilogy as it is now called has helped to bring Planet of the Apes  back to the high place it once had in the annals of great science fiction.  But, the Caesar trilogy also was a story with a definitive end, as the franchise also put to rest it’s central character in War with a heartfelt heroes exit.  For the franchise to continue, things were going to have to start fresh, especially after the Fox/Disney merger has shaken up things even more.  Still, 20th Century Studios knows the value of one of the marquee franchises, and a new era begins this weekend with the release of Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes.

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes takes place many generations into the future.  The remnants of human civilization have been reclaimed by nature, and the memory of Caesar has now evolved into the legend of Caesar.  Various tribes of Ape cultures now roam the planet, all with their own customs and beliefs that guide their internal societies.  We meet a young ape named Noa (Owen Teague) who belongs to a tribe of apes that have trained and domesticated eagles.  As part of a rite of passage, Noa must care for an unhatched eagle egg, but through an accident he has ended up smashing the one that was in his care.  Hoping to retrieve a replacement, Noa leaves his village in the middle of the night.  But on his way to the nesting grounds, he stumbles upon an ambush from another ape tribe, who are heading for his village.  He returns to find his home set afire and his whole family taken away as hostages.  With nothing left, Noa leaves his smoldering village behind to track down the marauding apes in hopes of rescuing the rest of his family.  Out in the wild, he stumbles upon the encampment of an old sage ape named Raka (Peter Macon), who devotes his life to spreading the teachings of Caesar to any civilized ape society that he can.  He agrees to help Noa on his quest, using his knowledge of the wider world to give them a better sense of where they must travel.  On the road, they discover that they are being followed by a human girl (Freya Allan).  Roka names the girl Nova, as he does for all humans, and Noa observes that she is smarter than most of the other humans that he has encountered.  Human kind has turned feral after the same virus that gave apes intelligence also took away their ability to speak, but Nova seems more aware of what the apes are saying to one another.  The trio of travelers soon find where Noa’s tribe has been taken.  They are being held at a makeshift fortress made out of old tanker ships, which is lorded over by a tyrannical ape lord named Proximus Caesar (Kevin Durand), who keeps an intelligent human companion by his side named Trevathan (William H. Macy).  Can Noa save his family and stop Proximus from seeking more ultimate power as the ape lord attempts to open up an ancient human bunker?

One of the smart things that this movie does is that it doesn’t try to give you too much homework to digest upfront.  If you have never seen any Planet of the Apes movie before this, you’ll be able to catch on pretty quickly.  This is a complete refresh of the franchise, putting it somewhere in between the Caesar era where the origins of the Planet of the Apes started from and the far futuristic era of the original classic, allowing this movie to exist as it’s own thing.  Sure, if you have followed along with the franchise from the beginning, there are plenty of legacy call outs in the movie that will be fun Easter eggs for longtime fans, but they never take away from the story that this one is telling.  And as far as both a continuation of what’s come before as well as a kick off for what’s to come next, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes does an excellent job accomplishing it’s mission.  What I especially love about this movie is the world building.  Director Wes Ball previously worked on the Maze Runner series, and despite what you may think about the storytelling of those YA adaptations, the one thing that Ball does excel at is giving his worlds a very lived in feel.  In particular, he is excellent at blending the natural world with a mechanical one.  Here, this style is used effectively to convey a world where human civilization has fallen and all the infrastructure that we left behind has turned into ruin.  The way that Ball visualizes this is striking, with things like skyscrapers and bridges appearing as these silent sentinels in dense jungles the same way that we view the Mayan temples and the Pyramids of Giza today.  A lot of it is subtly placed in many scenes, as what looks like a cliff face at first glance reveals itself to be the wall of what once was a tall building.  The mix of the natural world and the crumbling remains of the modern world is effectively immersive in this movie and the overall effect helps to make the story all the more engaging.  It does make me excited about what director Wes Ball has next for us, as his next project will be a live action adaptation of The Legend of Zelda video game series; a job that I believe he is well suited for given what he has done here.

The film’s narrative is also effectively told, if at times a bit predictable.  One thing that I do like is that the movie keeps the focus small, even though the setting is epic.  Like the Caesar movies before it, Kingdom doesn’t try to telling a grander, global story and instead focuses on the the journey that our central characters take.  The previous films gave us a sense of the greater world conflict through just the eyes of Caesar, and this movie does the same with Noa.  It is ultimately his story, and the movie works best when it allows the world to unfold through his experience.  What I thought was especially surprising in this movie was the fact that it had some interesting things to say about religion.  We see both the good and the bad influences that religion can have on a society, especially one that is still in it’s infancy like those of the apes.  In this movie, Caesar has become something of a Christ figure to the apes, and their attempts at proto civilizations on the foundations of their newly enlightened consciousness seem to circle around their creation of a new faith.  In some cases, there are apes like Roka who take the teachings of Caesar and try to use them to seek peaceful ways of life.  Then there are others like Proximus who use the name and words of Caesar to justify his own evil deeds.  You can see the hallmarks of early Christianity in these different followers of Caesar, and I thought that it offered a very interesting subtext to the movie.  It also plays well into Noa’s story, as his journey begins without him being aware of this new religion to begin with.  By movie’s end, he soon learns that the apes view much of Caesar’s example through his own growth as a leader.  The movie also delivers this subtly, as it doesn’t try to hit you over the head with any obvious Christ allegory.  This is still a Planet of the Apes movie after all, and most of the film still centered around a lot of action, which can sometimes feel like overkill as it’s just adding more run time.  Still, allegory has also been a trademark of the Apes franchise, so it is still in character for the franchise.

With the story starting fresh, it is definitely important to create engaging characters for us to follow along with.  The issue that this movie had to overcome was that it was going to be missing the character of Caesar, who has been one of the most captivating characters in recent cinema history.  Andy Serkis also set a high bar when it comes to how to act through motion capture, as his performance was so nuanced and powerful even through the CGI transfer.  Thankfully, the cast of this movie manages to rise to the challenge.  It really shows how far this motion capture technology has advanced to where the filmmakers can confidently fill nearly all the roles with actors performing through CGI avatars.  As the newer Planet of the Apes movies have come along, the ratio of live action to motion capture characters has completely flipped.  Now the humans are greatly outnumbered by the apes, with only two major roles given to the humans this time around.  The most daunting assignment was to have a character to stand out in the place of Caesar as the new protagonist.  Thankfully, Noa is a compelling enough character to carry this movie.  It helps that he’s a bit more juvenile than Caesar was, only just reaching manhood and not as confident in his abilities from the start.  He’s a character with a lot of room to grow and that he does throughout the movie.  Owen Teague also does a fine job of making him a well rounded character as a result, and he perfectly picks up from where Andy Serkis left off in creating that balance between simian and human.  Peter Macon also brings some wonderful levity into the story as Raka, the one character who’s able to bring optimism and humor into an otherwise bleak world.  And though he doesn’t factor in until late into the movie, Kevin Durand is an effective menacing presence as Proximus.  Sadly it’s the human characters that feel the least fleshed out.  Freya Allan does the best she can as the human girl Nova, and she does convincingly shares her scenes with her digital co-stars, but the script sadly makes her character a bit too much of an enigma.

The film’s visual are also impressively realized.  I already talked a bunch about the world-building, but the reason why it works so well is because the film balances it’s visual and practical effects to perfection.  The practical elements work because there are actual actors interacting in natural environments.  The motion capture technology allows for actors to still perform their scenes on set with special tracking suits, and the technology has improved to the point where they can actually do this effect outdoors without the need for a controlled digital environment.  That’s why these Planet of the Apes movies have been the best showcase for this technology, because it’s been the best testing ground for every new challenge for the digital artists.  The CGI models for the apes are also becoming more impressive with each movie.  At times, even in fully sunlit scenes, the ape characters hold up really well and maintain their integrity to the point where you really believe that they are there.  The visual effects also do a great job of giving this movie an epic feel.  This movie definitely feel like the grandest we’ve seen so far in this series, and this is a movie that demands being seen on the biggest screen possible.  There’s also a lot of other things to like about the presentation of the movie, including the musical score.  Longtime Planet of the Apes fans will appreciate the call backs to past musical scores in the franchise, including an especially noticeable reference to the original film’s theme written by the legendary Jerry Goldsmith.  The new composer John Paesano clearly is familiar with the soundscape of this franchise, and this is one of the most ambitious sounding scores we have heard yet.  Overall, it elevates the Planet of the Apes  into a different register, and it’s a clear sign of the new direction that the series wants to take in the future, going from the camp of the original movies, to the grittiness of the Caesar Trilogy, to what is likely going to be a more epic adventure in what is anticipated to be a whole new trilogy.

Regardless of where the franchise goes next, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is still a great stand alone movie on it’s own that both honors it’s legacy but also lays the groundwork for something special yet to come.  It shows that this half century old franchise still has a few tricks up it’s sleeve left to play.  What has really worked to the franchises favor is it’s embrace and practical use of motion capture technology.  The series knows how to make the best use of this tool by having it be no more than just the extension of the actors performance.  If the character and the actors portraying them weren’t compelling, no one would care and it would be just a gimmick.  But actors like Andy Serkis have shown that you can not only give a captivating performance through motion capture, you can even make it Oscar worthy, and it’s characters like Caesar that have proven how best to work with this kind of technology.  Kingdom shows us that we can now fill a whole cast of characters with actors performing through this technique, and that indicates some very promising new horizons that could be possible in the future for cinema.  Even still, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes is still a worthy addition to this long running franchise, and it is well worth seeing, especially on a big screen.  It’s lush world building and surprisingly philosophical story also make it a richer film experience than you would expect.  It may not consistently reach the emotional heights as some of the Caesar Trilogy movies, but there are still plenty of exciting and memorable moments to help make this more than just your average popcorn flick.  I certainly am excited to see where the series goes from here.  Will it actually dove tail into the events of the original classic? Imagine if all of this is going on while Charlton Heston’s astronaut is still lost in deep space.  I’m happy that this movie is dependent on trying to tie all the lore together, but rather is more interested creating new bits of lore to expand upon.  In any case, we have an exciting future to look forward to with this new chapter in the Apes franchise and Kingdom is an adventure worth taking this summer at the movies.

Rating: 8/10