All posts by James Humphreys

E.T. Phone Home – Spielberg’s Personal and Powerful Masterpiece 40 Years Later

Spielberg’s career as a filmmaker is without parallel in the history of Hollywood.  Ever since emerging onto the scene in the early 70’s, Steven Spielberg has continued to remain the most powerful name in cinema, without ever losing his footing in all the decades since.  He’s one of the men responsible for creating the blockbuster era in Hollywood, as well as an acclaimed director who has been nominated for an Academy Award in that field at least once every decade since the 1970’s.  He’s capable of creating big crowd pleasing spectacles like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Jurassic Park (1993), and West Side Story (2021), but is also capable of creating intimate and gut-wrenching dramas like The Color Purple (1985), Schindler’s List (1993), and his newest feature film The Fablemans (2022), releasing this week.  But, with a resume as packed as the one he has, how do we we narrow all those movies down to what can be considered the quintessential Spielberg flick?  Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker that puts his very being into each movie he makes, but there are certainly those films that hit especially close to home for him.  He has tackled movies that appeal to his left-wing political beliefs, movies that address his roots in the Jewish faith, and movies that speak to the things that meant most to him in his childhood.  He’s often been criticized for being too sentimental in his movies, but it’s the movies that he makes that are the most sentimental that often are considered among his best.  And there is one movie of his in particular that checks all the right boxes, and can be best described as the movie that is the most quintessentially Spielbergian.  That movie is of course 1982’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.

The story of how Spielberg came to be involved with the story of E.T. is interesting in itself, and it finds Spielberg at a crucial cross roads in his life and career.  In the 1970’s Spielberg was the hottest name in the industry with two back-to-back box office hits.  Those movies were, of course, Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  Jaws is considered by many to be the first true Hollywood blockbuster, and alongside Spielberg’s friend and fellow filmmaker George Lucas with his film Star Wars (1977), the movie industry began to make a monumental shift.  With Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg proved that he wasn’t a fluke in the business, and he also demonstrated his skill tackling a more mature and daring subject on screen.  At this point, Spielberg looked like he would be the King of Hollywood for many years to come.  And then, reality came crashing into his world.  His follow-up to Close Encounters was the broad, slapstick WWII comedy, 1941 (1979).  While the movie does have it’s defenders, 1941 is considered to be Spielberg’s first flop, both critically and financially.  Steven took this blow hard and for the first time began to doubt his own talent as a filmmaker.  Today, Spielberg looks back on the disappointment of 1941 as the make-or-break turning point in his life; either he was going to weighed down by the embarrassment of his first failure and give up on Hollywood completely, or he was going to brush it off and try better the next time while sticking it out in the business.  Thankfully, Spielberg was pulled out of his slump by an old friend, George Lucas.  Lucas was eyeing a project based on old adventure serials of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and he wanted Spielberg to direct.  That action adventure project would turn out to be Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it would be the movie that introduced an icon known as Indiana Jones to the world.  This was exactly the movie project that Spielberg needed to pull himself out of his depression, because like Lucas, this was the kind of movie he grew up idolizing.  It allowed him to make something that was fun but also artistically pleasing.  And not only that, but it would offer him an unexpected bridge towards the next movie that he would work on; a movie that ultimately would be the defining movie of his career.

The star playing Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford, became good friends with Spielberg during the shoot, and through their interaction Spielberg also got to know Ford’s then girlfriend and future wife, Melissa Mathison.  Mathison was a screenwriter who had already achieved success with her script for the film The Black Stallion (1979).  Spielberg discussed with her the idea he had for a science fiction horror movie called Night Skies, and in those talks, he mentioned this concept of an alien that forms a friendship with a young child.  Mathison was so taken with the concept that she began to write a draft for a movie with that idea central to the story.  In less than two months, she had her first draft complete, just in time for Spielberg to see as he was wrapping up the shoot on Raiders.  The script, then titled E.T. and Me, completely enchanted Spielberg and was immediately interested in making it his next project.  He shopped the script around Hollywood, and eventually Universal Studios bought it for a hefty $1 million.  It took no time at all for Spielberg to move on.  Even while he was in the editing room for Raiders of the Lost Ark, he was simultaneously doing pre-production on E.T. and MeRaiders performed very well at the box office, which helped to put Spielberg back on the map as a filmmaker, and it also put him in demand in Hollywood as well.  Numerous projects were being pitched to him, perhaps the biggest one being his friend George Lucas offering him the directorial reigns of Return of the Jedi (1983).  But, Spielberg passed on all of them, because he knew there was something special about this one movie about a boy and his extraterrestrial friend.  Cameras began rolling in September of 1981.  The movie was comparatively modest in scale compared to films like Close Encounters and Raiders; shot in the relatively nearby L.A. suburb of Porter Ranch and with a cast of relative unknowns.  But, in the hands of Steven Spielberg, he would make this small little film into something grand.

For one thing, you can’t really talk about a movie like E.T. without discussing the little alien himself.  The creation of E.T. is a masterclass in utilizing visual effects to create the illusion of life.  There have been plenty of creatures created through visual effects that have managed to garner emotion from an audience, whether it’s King Kong, or the many stop motion creatures brought to life by Ray Harryhausen, or the masterful puppetry from the Jim Henson Workshop, including the incredible work done to create Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).  But the creation of E.T. took creature effects to a whole other level.  To create E.T., Spielberg had a team led by effect wizard Carlo Rambaldi build an animatronic character that would be capable of a wide range of expression.  Rambaldi had already created the aliens for Spielberg in Close Encounters, but E.T. would be a far more challenging assignment.  They needed to have a creature that looked very alien, and yet was non threatening and in a way could be considered adorable.  And given the fact that he would be on screen for much of the movie’s run time, he had to be as lifelike as possible.  The head rig for E.T. alone featured dozens of individual functions in order to make E.T. come alive.  The hard work payed off as the E.T. animatronic not only moves in a very lifelike way, but it’s even remarkably capable of expressing emotion through performance.  This is crucial in the long run because you need to fall in love with E.T. just as the characters in the film do, and through the expert puppeteering of Rambaldi’s team and Spielberg’s careful direction, E.T. managed to steal all of our hearts.

Of course, where the heart of the story lies is with the bond that is built between E.T. and the boy who befriends him.  That role in itself was just as crucial to get right as it was to make E.T. come alive.  The role of Elliott needed to work with a young actor who could pull off all the emotional highs and lows that the story needed.  Spielberg managed to find that in a then 9 year old Henry Thomas.  Thomas compliments E.T. so perfectly in the film, managing to act with complete sincerity opposite what is essentially an animatronic machine in an alien suit.  Perhaps what drew Spielberg to casting Henry Thomas in the role was the expressive, wide-eyed wonder in his face.  There was a lot of Elliot that was drawn out of Spielberg’s own childhood, and it would stand to reason that Steven saw a lot of himself come through in Henry’s performance.  It’s in the most emotional beats, when Elliot has to shed some tears that Henry shows skills beyond his years, delivering emotional weight that leaves so many people in the audience balling tears themselves.  The remaining cast are also perfectly assembled in this movie, including Dee Wallace as Elliot’s over-burdened but well-meaning mother, Robert MacNaughton as his older brother Michael, and in her screen debut, a six year old Drew Barrymore as Elliot’s baby sister Gertie.  But, apart from the cast, the incredible E.T. animatronic, and Spielberg’s deft direction, there is one other major star of the film; the music.  Composed by Spielberg’s longest and most celebrated collaborator John Williams, the musical score for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is what makes the film feel complete, and perhaps it’s what elevates it into legendary status.  Considered one of the greatest musical scores of all time, the music of E.T. takes this small, intimate story and gives it almost operatic weight.  The emotional beats feel all the more powerful with William’s score underneath it.  The emotional finale in particular will take your breathe away, as the orchestra swells up in an epic fashion, hitting those emotive beats hard.  Everything really worked together to make this not only a marquee film for Steven Spielberg in his early career, but also a movie that would forever cement his legend in the industry.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial released in the Summer of 1982, which as I’ve written before here, was one of the most competitive summer seasons in movie history.  Going up against the likes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Blade Runner (1982), and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) was not going to be easy, but Universal was confident in what they had with E.T.  Released in June, the movie not only excelled in competition, it dominated.  E.T. became the little movie that could and would end up smashing all box office records at the time.  E.T. ultimately even surpassed Star Wars as the box office king, and held that spot for 15 years, until James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) surpassed it.  The movie also went on to become an award season darling, garnering 9 Oscar nominations and winning 4, for the visual and sound effects and William’s score.  The success of the film also launched Spielberg into a different phase of his career, one where he began to branch out into different kinds of projects.  He would direct big crowd pleasers like a couple more Indiana Jones sequels, but he also began looking to more grounded dramatic stories as well; ones less tied to a supernatural element.  He created movies like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun (1987), both of which helped him to mature towards the kind of filmmaker he needed to be in order to make movies like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (1998).  Even still, there is a bit of that sense of wonder that’s found in E.T. that permeates all of his films to a certain degree.  Spielberg’s gift as a filmmaker is to take his audience for a ride, often through the flow of his shot compositions, but also through the emotional journey of his characters.  When watching E.T., you see a filmmaker who already had the skills to be great story-teller figure out exactly how to use his talents to the fullest.  The Spielberg of the 70’s was a director caught up in the pressure of trying to prove his worth.  With E.T., he discovered what kind of director he wanted to be going forward for the rest of his career, and that was someone who could bridge two worlds together; the epic and the intimate.

When looking back on E.T., 40 years after it’s release, you can’t help but see it through the lens of everything else that Spielberg has made.  It becomes an even more interesting film in his filmography now after the release of his most recent movie The Fablemans.  Up until now, many have considered E.T. to be the closest thing to a self-portrait for Steven Spielberg.  Like Elliott, Steven was a child of divorce and he had to learn to grow up very quick as his life was turned upside down by the break-up of his family.  This is reflected in the story of E.T., as much of Elliott’s character is defined by his desire to have more control over his life.  That’s why he takes such a nurturing approach to helping E.T. find his way back home, because he wants desperately wants to help E.T. not lose his family after being left behind.  It certainly starts as an escape, but ultimately Elliott learns that he bears responsibility to be there for his family too, leading him to the heart-breaking reality that he’ll ultimately have to say goodbye  to E.T.  Spielberg of course never met an alien himself, but he found his own escape in those tumultuous times through his movies.  He not only spent a lot of time watching movies, but also making them with his friends.  That was his adventure as a youth, and it helped to shape him into the master director he is today.  This is far more explored in The Fablemans, which while it’s a fictionalized account of his life story, it nevertheless delves into the kinds of experiences that shaped him as a person.  After seeing The Fablemans, it’s interesting to examine it’s story in comparison to E.T., which shares a lot of parallels.  It’s clear to see that E.T. was the most personal movie for the longest time for Spielberg, and the one where he let us in to his soul for just a little bit.  It comes far more into focus now with The Fablemans giving us a more in depth look into Spielberg’s life.  It’s kind of fitting that this more auto-biographical film is making it into theaters just as E.T. is hitting this important milestone.  They are not exactly linked narratively or thematically, but you can feel the heartbeat of E.T. pumping throughout The Fablemans, making it feel like a spiritual successor, minus the alien.

Now 40 years later, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial continues to a cinematic classic celebrated the world over.  Even as the world has changed significantly, E.T. still has the power to enchant.  It’s a real testament to Spielberg’s abilities as a filmmaker that the movie does not feel dated at all.  Sure the outfits and appliances in the movie are definitively early 80’s, but the pace of the story and the emotional beats it hits makes this movie feel just as fresh as the day it was released.  The E.T. animatronic still manages to impress, even as we are still in an age of CGI dominance.  And I don’t think there is a more iconic image ever committed to the silver screen than that of Elliott’s bicycle flying across a full moon with E.T. sitting in the front basket.  It’s to this day the image used for the logo of Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s own production company located on the Universal Lot.  It’s a movie that is often imitated, but rarely matched, with maybe a movie like Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999) coming a little close.  But, more than anything, it is the movie that forever positioned Spielberg into the direction that most satisfied him as a filmmaker.  He was always a filmmaker torn between wanting to stay young at heart, while also setting out to prove he could be taken seriously as a director.  E.T. The Extra Terrestrial proved that he could do both at the same time.  The story is an innocent modern day fairy tale, with a boy becoming friends with an alien, but it’s told with absolute sincerity and emotional weight, taking on serious subjects like divorce and the perils of life and death.  Grown adults can still cry when watching this movie alongside their children, and it’s an experience now that has passed on to multiple generations.  That’s definitely true in my case, as I was born only a month after it was released in theaters, meaning it was likely still playing to audiences as I came into this world.  I have only known a world where E.T. has existed, and like a lot of my generation, it’s a movie that has followed us as we’ve matured over the years, helping to define us as well.  Spielberg has gone on to define himself with many more movies both big and small, bombastic and serious, but as great as most of them are, I don’t think they will be seen as the most quintessentially Spielbergian film as E.T. has become over the years.  It’s that personal mark that sets the movie apart amongst his other films, showing us how well he can blend the fantastical with the personal, and deliver a movie unlike anything we have seen before.  As E.T. says to Elliott as the two say their goodbyes, “I’ll . . .be. . .right. . . here,” and he has continued to be there for all of us for 40 years, and hopefully for many more to come.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Review

Out of all the success that Marvel Studios has had in the last decade, perhaps the most monumental contribution it has brought to the culture at large is the film Black Panther (2018).  Despite being a cog in the mighty Marvel Cinematic Universe machine, Black Panther transcended into a historic, full blown cultural phenomena.  This was a touchstone movie for African-American filmmaking, with director Ryan Coogler granted a large budget and creative freedom to present black culture on the big screen on a scale never dreamed of before, with a mostly black cast and crew in tow.  Coogler was able to present the cultural influences that shaped him into this mighty fictional world called Wakanda, the Afro-futuristic utopia from the Black Panther comic books, and bring a very African sensibility to the art and geopolitical themes of this world and mainstream it with the full blessing of Marvel Studios.  Suffice to say, of all the movies Marvel has made, none have impacted the culture as much as Black Panther has, as it elevated black voices in cinema to much higher degree, as the movie became one of Marvel’s highest grossing films ever.  It also in turn made it’s lead star, Chadwick Boseman, into an A-list star.  Boseman would continue to shine as the Black Panther in the subsequent appearances he made in the Avengers films, and he also began to shine in movies made outside of the Marvel banner as well.  But, in the summer of 2020, the world received the shocking news that Chadwick had succumbed to his private battle with cancer at the age of 43.  A life cut tragically short right when it was taking off into the stratosphere.  Chadwick Boseman’s loss left the world a much emptier place, especially in a year full of tragedy like 2020, and the question quickly arose about what it meant for the future of the character that he will be forever celebrated for: King T’Challa of Wakanda, the Black Panther.

Before anyone knew of Chadwick’s condition, plans were already set in place for a Black Panther sequel.  Ryan Coogleralready had his script written and a release date was announced at the D23 Expo in 2019.  But, plans were inevitably thrown into blender the following year.  Boseman was gone, and the world was reeling from a catastrophic pandemic, which delayed the film’s start of production.  Inevitably, the entire Marvel calendar had to be moved back a year, which had it’s silver lining for Ryan Coogler as it now gave him more time to work out how he would continue with this project without his leading man.  Working with the Marvel team on what to do, the decision that came forward became a surprising one for many.  The role of T’Challa would not be re-cast.  This led many to speculate how Marvel and Ryan Coogler were going to move forward with the franchise.  Could you make a Black Panther movie without Black Panther?  From the promotional materials surrounding the movie, it looked like the solution was to focus was to put the world of Wakanda front and center this time, with all the supporting characters from the original movie now being the focus of attention.  Also, the new threat facing the nation of Wakanda would also be a major factor in the story; an ocean based race of super-beings led by a mutant king named Namor.  The inclusion of Namor is significant because he is one of Marvel’s oldest and most iconic characters, dating all the way back to Marvel Comics Issue #1, but here he will be making his big screen debut into the MCU.  Despite the challenges put up against this movie, which included a struggling production shoot in the middle of a pandemic, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever managed to finally come together and is now ready to be brought before an eagerly awaiting fan base.  The only question is, does the movie manage to overcome the obstacles that were placed in front of it and rise up to the level of it’s predecessor or does it struggle to find it’s way without it’s mighty king.

The film opens with Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) frantically working in her lab to synthesize medicine for her brother T’Challa who has suddenly fallen deathly ill.  She tries as quickly as she can to do all that is possible, but soon her mother Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) enter the lab to deliver the terrible news; her brother has joined with the ancestors.  Wakanda enters a period of mourning, now finding itself vulnerable without their king.  Despite T’Challa’s sudden death, Queen Ramonda asserts that Wakanda remains a strong and independent nation, still closely guarding it’s most valuable resource, Vibranium, the super strong metal that among other things has been used to create things like the Black Panther armor and Captain America’s shield.  However, scientists exploring the Atlantic Ocean discover another deposit of the precious metal beneath the waves.  Their discovery unfortunately brings attackers from the ocean itself to disrupt the excavation of the Vibranium from the sea.  Among them is the sea people’s leader, a wing-footed flying super being named K’uk’ulkan, or as he is known to his enemies, Namor (TenochHuerta).  Namor, equally protective of his claim to Vibranium, approaches Queen Ramonda and Princess Shuri to offer an alliance, uniting Wakanda and his underwater kingdom of Talokan against the rest of the world.  As part of this offer, he wishes for Wakanda to help him seek justice against the scientist that invented the Vibranium finding machine that was illegally used in his kingdom.  Ramonda and Shuri don’t want to wage war with the rest of the world, so they decide to seek out this scientist in the hopes of guarding them from Namor’s wrath.  They soon discover that the scientist is in fact an MIT student named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne).  With the help of Dora Milaje general Okoye (Danai Gurira) Shuri manages to track Riri down, but not before the Talokan warriors working on behalf of Namor get to them first.  Both Shuri and Riri are captured and taken beneath the waves, with Okoye left to explain the situation to an already grieving Queen.  Ramonda, through her power and influence, seeks help from other allies, including American agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and Wakandan agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).  With multiple forces bearing down on the nation of Wakanda, from Namor and the Talokans to hostile intentions from people working within the governments of other nations, can Wakanda manage to survive what is coming without their “protector.”

What I just described is merely the set up for the movie Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, as this is a very plot heavy film.  There is no question that this movie, due to the circumstances surrounding it’s production, had to do a lot of heavy lifting in order to ground itself again not just as a follow-up to the original film but also as a continuation of the MCU as a whole.  In the end, the movie does a commendable job of pulling things together under the harshest of circumstances, but it also suffers from some issues as well.  One of the things that it does absolutely perfectly, however, is honoring it’s fallen hero.  T’Challa’s presence is still felt throughout the film, and in a way that feels respectful to Chadwick Boseman’s memory.  It doesn’t go too far in dwelling on the tragedy, but does an adequate job of using that feeling of loss as a motivating factor within the story.  Each character has their own different way of dealing with the loss, whether it’s in Shuri’s distractions or Ramonda’sdefiance.  Each reaction to the tragedy informs how the story can progress in a variety of directions.  It also establishes how Wakanda itself finds itself in a position that it didn’t know it would be in; vulnerable.  This is also a Wakanda that has lost their king twice, first to Thanos and now to this sudden illness, and unfortunately there is no coming back from the latter.  It’s in looking at the degrees of grief that Ryan Coogler really finds the heart of this story.  He is very good at getting emotion out of his stories, so given the harsh hand he was dealt with, he thankfully had the skill and the imagination to weave that grief into his art without losing any of the magic that made this world work in the first place.

Where the movie struggles unfortunately is in it’s plot.  The movie is a beefy 2 hours and 41 minutes, the second longest film Marvel film overall (behind Avengers: Endgame’s 3 hours and 1 minute run time).  to Ryan Coogler’s credit, the movie never feels that long, but there are points in the story where the movie does come up a little hollow.  I think that this is due to having to juggle so many plotlines all at the same time.  Not only is he having to continue the story he set up with the first Black Panther, but he also has to incorporate what has happened in the larger MCU as well (especially with a 5 year time jump established in Endgame), as well as establish important new characters like Namor and Riri Williams, and the entire nation of Talokan and it’s entire history as well.  It’s a lot on his plate and despite Coogler’s best efforts not all of it manages to geltogether.  The Talokan part of the plot seems to suffer the most.  It feels like we merely get the cliffs notes version of their cultural history as the plot desperately needs to move forward, which is in contrast to how immersed we were able to be in the world of Wakanda in the first Black Panther.  Namor and the Kingdom of Talokan needed their own movie’s worth of development to really grasp the significance of their place in the world, but the movie unfortunately does not have time for that, even at it’s extended length.  The Wakandan side of the story also suffers because of that, as we don’t really see anything new from that world in this movie.  It’s been said the thing that unfortunately works against this movie is that we can no longer be re-introduced to the Kingdom of Wakanda again.  One of the most magical moments of any Marvel movie was that first glimpse of Wakanda’s mighty capital from the first movie.  Such a scene doesn’t exist this time around as now we are all too familiar with this world.  Not to mention there are side plots a plenty involving how Agent Ross is dealing with protecting Wakanda from hostile intentions within his own government, as well as the internal politics of Wakanda also coming into play, as Shuri has to confront more of her role in the future of her country.  Needless to say the movie buckles under the weight of it’s plot, but Coogler does manage to keep it from collapsing completely.

One of the movie’s best strengths is the performances of it’sactors.  Everyone, probably with the knowledge of the film’s significance in honoring the high bar set by Chadwick Boseman, brings their A-game to the film with some emotionally charged acting.  Though working outside her strength built up in previous appearances in the MCU, playing a mischievous supporting character at Black Panther’s side as Shuri, Letitia Wright does her best to bring emotional depth to the character now that she is front and center in this story.  Shuri thus far has been one of the more comic relief characters, being a carefree quartermaster to her brother with a slight proclivity towards mischief.  But this movie now has to put that character into the position of picking up the emotional weight of this journey with Wakanda and it’s connection with the Black Panther.  It’s not an easy shift to make, and you can’t help but miss the version of Shuri that was more comical in nature.  But, Letitia Wright picks up the challenge and manages to shine despite the obstacles.  She is also equally matched with Tenoch Huerta who brings the mighty Namor to life.  Namor of course comes with this long history behind him, but thus far he has yet to appear on the big screen, mainly due to some rights issues where Marvel had initially granted them to Universal Studios but the purchase by Disney made it impossible for Universal to make any use of their rights.  So basically, Namor can appear in a MCU film, but cannot star in one, similar to the deal regarding the Hulk.  So, this movie managed to work Namor into this story by making him the villain, as opposed to the anti-hero that he is in the comics.  Tenoch does a great job of making Namor this threatening presence but at the same time making him relatable given his tragic backstory.  In the end, they do the iconic character justice, even though he has to piggyback on the shoulders of another Marvel property.  Dominique Thorne thankfully brings some much needed comic relief as RiriWilliams and she steals every scene she is in.  It’s good that she stands out as well as she does given that she’ll be back in a spin-off series called Ironheart on Disney+.  Great performance come from many of the supporting cast as well including returning stars like Lupita N’yongo, Danai Gurira, and Winston Duke, who also brings some wonderful comic relief as M’Baku.  Of course the performance that most people will talk about is Angela Bassett as Queen Ramonda.  Ramonda has a more important role to play in this film and Angela brings some of her most powerful acting chops to her performance here, with some especially electrifying moments of Oscar-worthy acting.  In a series already known for stand-out acting, Wakanda Foreverraises the bar even more for powerful performances in the Black Panther franchise.

The production quality has also translated over from the original movie.  It makes sense as most of the same production team has returned.  Oscar winner Ruth Carter, the costume design genius who created the look of Wakanda with her award-winning designs is back and not only is she working with more of the look of Wakanda, but she also has the unenviable task of imagining the look of Talokan as well.  She has come up with some incredible designs for this underwater kingdom, taking cue from Mesoamerican influence.  One of the especially incredible designs she has accomplished in this movie is the re-imagined look of Namor.  In the comic books, Namor is merely defined by a green speedo and red boots.  For Namor in this  film, Carter has added an incredible metallic bead collar that hangs across Namor’s chest that really defines the majesty of his character.  In addition, when he sits on the throne in his kingdom, he wears a majestic headdress that really invokes this image of a Mayan god come to life.  Carter’s costumes also updates the look of the Wakandan citizens as well, including some truly majestic dresses that Angela Bassett gets to wear throughout the movie.  It’s stuff like Ruth Carter’s costumes that really help to set the world of Wakanda apart in the MCU.  Also returning to deliver even more incredible work is Ludwig Gorranson, who also won an Oscar for his work on the last Black Panther.  Gorranson, who has been busy as of late in other major franchises like Star Wars delivers the same Wakandan sound that we’ve grown to love, but also adds to it the unique sound of Talokan as well.  Remarkably he manages to capture Mesoamerican melody just as well as he does with African sounds and the mix of the two cultures really helps to underline the theme of that clash within the movie.  What I especially love about Gorranson’s work this time around is how he uses silence in his score.  Whenever memories of T’Challa come up in the movie, the music suddenly goes silent as if it too was showing it’s respect to the dead.  It’s an emotional wallop when you hear that wall of sound from Gorranson’s score suddenly go silent, understating the loss that’s felt by both the characters and those of us watching the movie.  The only thing that I think doesn’t work as well this time around is the cinematography.  Rachel Morrison, the DP of Black Panther was not available this time around, so the duty fell to Autumn Durald Arkapaw, who previously shot the series Lokifor Marvel.  Autumn is a capable cameraperson, but her sense of color schemes is less refined as Morrison’s, who managed to bathe the original Black Panther in a gorgeous palette.  Arkapawdoes competent work, but it makes the movie feel more in line with the generic Marvel film look that feels a bit too repetitive.  Otherwise, this is a solidly mounted production that mostly falls in line with the high standard of the Black Panther franchise.

Given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe reached a high-point with the original Black Panther, you would think that the bar would be set very high with the newest entry in the series.  This film, given it’s shortcomings, may end up being a let down for some, but in this critic’s case, I feel that some of those expectations were set a little too high.  I for one admire the first Black Panther quite a bit, but it’s not one of the all timegreats for me.  In my original review here, I stated that I had some reservations about the story while at the same time praising it highly for it’s world building.  Though I loved Chadwick Boseman’s performance, I thought the original movie lacked character development for T’Challa, as most of his character arc happened in Captain America: Civil War (2016).  It was the world around him that stood out more to me in the original movie, something that gets more of the spotlight this time around.  It’s sad that T’Challa’s story ends so abrubtly for us, but it can’t be helped.  We can’t bring Chadwick Bosemanback, and Marvel and Ryan Coogler made the choice to not recast the part.  It will remain to be seen if that was the right choice in the long run.  It wouldn’t have been the first time Marvel has recast a major character (Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, Don Cheadle as War Machine) nor will it be the last time (Harrison Ford replacing William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross).  Coogler decided for his story that Boseman alone was going to be his T’Challa and that for the franchise to progress it fell upon the rest of Wakanda to become future of the series.  I won’t spoil how the Black Panther itself is worked into that story, but there is a reason why this is still a Black Panther movie.  For the most part, it’s a commendable sequel that I think is pretty close to being on par with the original, but doesn’t exactly exceed it.  The performances are amazing, as is the production design.  And Namor is an absolute stand out villain that does justice to the iconic character from the comic books.  Perhaps with the difficult task of moving on from the tragedy of the past out of the way we may see a bright future ahead for this franchise.  It remains to be seen what that will actually mean, but the end credits promises “Black Panther Will Return.”  For now, Marvel and director Ryan Coogler have done a magnificent job of honoring the memory of Chadwick Boseman with this emotional tribute of a film and hopefully the future remains bright for Black Panther in the years ahead.  Indeed, Wakanda Forever.

Rating: 8/10

Focus on a Franchise – Planet of the Apes: The Caesar Trilogy

Back in the 1960’s, as the world became embroiled in a number of on-going tragedies, from the ongoing war in Vietnam to numerous assassinations of political and social movement leaders, there was also a major shift going on within Hollywood.  The mega-budget, opulent and airy musicals and epics that dominated the early part of the decade were suddenly out of flavor with audiences who now wanted what they saw on the big screen to better reflect the harshness of the world that they were currently living in.  One of the places that best represented this shift in a microcosm was 20th Century Fox.  In the latter part of the 60’s, Fox began to hit hard times as their expensive old-fashioned musicals like Doctor Doolittle (1967) and Hello, Dolly (1969) ended up flopping at the box office.  To better connect with a newer, more cynical audience, they had to adjust quickly and find a new type of movie to help salvage their brand into the future.  Strangely enough they found that film in a strange little science-fiction thriller called Planet of the Apes (1968).  Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, written by The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, and starring the king of epics himself Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes was a cultural phenomenon, becoming one of the biggest box office hits of it’s time.  The story itself is pretty simple, an astronaut lands on a planet where apes have become the dominant species, but it’s execution on all fronts (writing, direction, performance and especially score) that helped to make it resonate even more.  And then of course there is that legendary twist ending which has been parodied relentlessly over the years.  The success of the movie led to a series of sequels, though none made the same impact as the original film did.  For a while the franchise went dormant, though the first movie remained a mainstay in Science Fiction circuits.  Eventually, Fox believed they could do something once again with the property, which led them to greenlight a remake in 2001, under the direction of Tim Burton.  Unfortunately, that film turned out to be a colossal mess, neither capturing any of the cinematic wonder of the original, nor showcasing any of Burton’s trademark weirdness.  And once again, the Apes franchise was abandoned.

But, in the early 2010’s, a new team at Fox decided it was time to undertake another chance at rebooting the Apes franchise for a new generation.  This time around, the filmmakers would be utilizing the latest in motion capture animation to bring their apes to life. Fox approached Weta Digital, the New Zealand based visual effects studio behind the Oscar-winning CGI of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and sought their expertise to pull off a different way of creating life-like apes that evolve to be more human like.  With The Lord of the Rings, the Weta Digital team made ground-breaking use of motion capture to make their digital creations come to life in a way never before imagined.  The most astonishing achievement from those films was in the remarkable creation of the creature Gollum; a digital character so lifelike that it proved to Hollywood that yes, even a visual effect could carry a dramatic performance on screen.  Seeing how well the Weta team brought Gollum to life, Fox believed that this would be the best way to take their Apes franchise in a whole new direction.  In the original films, the way that the filmmakers were able to bring these humanized apes to life was through ground-breaking make-up effects, courtesy of Oscar winner John Chambers.  But, as impressive as the make-up was, there was still the tell-tale signs of the actor underneath the make-up that made the illusion work only to a point.  Now, with motion-capture, the filmmakers could take the movements of real actors and fix a photo-realistic digital skin of an ape on top of their performance.  Thus, Fox could have a Planet of the Apes movie where the apes indeed looked like the real thing.  But, as good as the animation would be, it would still be dependent on the actor who was performing the role.  Thankfully for Fox and the new Apes franchise filmmakers, they managed to get the actor who had plenty of experience performing within the confines of motion capture technology; the man who brought Gollum himself to life, Andy Serkis.  And as we will see, his contribution would launch a whole new era for the Planet of the Apes franchise with a trilogy centered around his character; the Ape known as Caesar.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)

Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Instead of following immediately after the last canonical film in the original series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), or after the terrible Tim Burton version, this new reboot wisely rolls things back to the beginning.  And by beginning, I don’t mean back to when the original film started.  For Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the story actually brings us to where it all began; before the Apes evolved into their humanized form.  We all know from the original movie that the Planet of the Apes itself is our own Earth after a cataclysmic even caused most human life to die off, with Apes rising up to become the dominant species.  With that knowledge in hand, we get to see how that apocalyptic future came to happen.  At the heart of the story is a chimpanzee named Caesar.  Caesar is discovered to have been born with unnaturally high intellect as a result of experimentation from the lab he was born into by doctors seeking a cure for dementia related illnesses.  Caesar is capable of communication with his caretakers through sign language and he displays evidence of critical thinking and human like emotion.  But, corruption at the lab leads him to be sold to a zoo, where he begins to turn resentful of the mistreatment of his fellow simian-kind there.  Eventually, he steals the drug made his brain more human-like and uses it on the other apes, leading them to revolt en masse.  Eventually Caesar does lead his band of apes out of the city and into the wild, but his actions also came at a steep cost.  The pathogen that increased the apes brain activity also unleashes a deadly virus on the human population, leading to a catastrophic global pandemic that plays out in the end credits.

For a reboot of this longtime franchise, this was a pretty successful end result.  The thing that really helps this movie stand out is the stellar performance of Andy Serkis as Caesar.  The actor, of course, disappears into the character as it is a digital overlay over his physical pantomime, but even still there is such skill in how he is able to bring so much personality into the role even through that digital skin.  It’s the subtleties of his performance that really sells his work here, especially in the facial acting.  Andy Serkis, when not performing in motion capture, is a very expressive actor physically, and the command that he has in his facial action is particularly on a different level.  Often the Lord of the Rings animators had to exaggerate the Gollum model in order to have it rise to the level of what Serkis gave them in his original on set performance.  Naturally, he refined this skill working within the confines to motion capture, and Caesar is a testament all those years of experience.  The one downside to his strong performance in this movie is that it outshines everything else.  Caesar is almost too strong of a character, as most of the human characters are flat or uninteresting.  James Franco is fine as the scientist that helped raise Caesar, but his character is more or less just a function of the story and has little in the way of an arc.  The one other downside is that despite the motion capture animation looking quite impressive throughout, the compositing to Caesar and the other apes into the scenes is still not as good as it could have been.  You are still very much aware that you are looking at visual effects, as the seam lines between digital characters and the real world environment still don’t quite blur.  Even still, for a franchise reboot that had a lot prove to audiences, it’s a commendable starting point.  And as we would see later, this franchise would not only survive into the new millennium, but thrive as well.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

Directed by Matt Reeves

While Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a general, by the numbers action flick that did it’s part fairly well, Dawn would see the franchise not only reach it’s potential, but it would even supplant the original series as the most ideal telling of this story.  This was the Planet of the Apes movie that every dreamed about but was only now fully realized.  Andy Serkis returned once again to continue Caesar’s story, and this time the rebooted series would have Matt Reeves behind the camera.  Reeves made a splash a few years prior with his ground-breaking found footage film Cloverfield (2008), which showed his mastery in making digital effects feel incredibly real and life-like.  While the compositing of the apes didn’t quite work as well as intended in Rise, the animators thankfully were able to refine their tools to make the animation of the apes look better this time around.  The hard work paid off, because Caesar and the other apes are astonishingly well animated here.  The compositing is so good that it indeed looks like they are occupying the same space as the live action actors, with the seams basically gone.  Matt Reeves style of filmmaking is particularly well used here.  He does a great job of making the world look bleak and wild in this pandemic affected not too distant future.  The tone is especially set up perfectly in the opening scene of the movie as we observe the Earth from space, watching the lights go out on the power grid and the chatter on the radio frequencies growing quieter and quieter; a chilling representation of mankind’s downfall.  This is not the campy, minimalist version of Planet of the Apes that we’re all familiar with from the 60’s.  Reeves take on the franchise treats the premise with absolute sincerity and seriousness, and with the visual effects being as good as they are, that serious side to this story actually works.

Striking that more serious tone in turn elevates the concept of the story even more.  Before the franchise thrived off of it’s weirdness and campy elements.  Reeves took this franchise in a different direction, treating it more like a war movie, but with intelligent apes.  What’s interesting is that the movie manages to find even more character development to give to Caesar as part of his ongoing narrative.  In the last movie, we saw him lead a revolt.  Here we see him be a pragmatic leader, choosing to avoid conflict with the surviving humans as a means of protecting his community.  He’s fully aware of his status as a leader and here we see him use that title responsibly.  It’s very much in contrast with another ape named Koda (Toby Kebbel), who is very much out for cold-blooded vengeance, and thus he becomes the antagonist of the film.  Kebbel does a fairly good job himself in portraying Koda, especially with the gnarly character model put onto his motion capture performance.  It’s interesting that a couple year later, Kebbel would play another motion capture animated ape named King Kong in the film Kong: Skull Island (2017), a role that Andy Serkis also filled in 2005 remake by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson.  The one downside to the movie is that the live action human characters are nowhere near as compelling as the apes are; a problem that the first film also shared.  Even a great actor like Gary Oldman feels wasted in a thankless role that means little to Caesar’s own story.  Had the conflict mainly stayed on the rivalry between Caesar and Koda, the movie might have been less uneven.  Even still, it’s an incredible tonal reformation of this series, and one that really delivers on what a Planet of the Apes movie should be.  Where Matt Reeves really excels the most is in his portrayal of the action scenes, which have the intensity of a fully immersive war movie.  As we would see moving ahead, this kind of style would continue to build into an even more compelling portrayal of Caesar’s story.

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)

Directed by Matt Reeves

Both Matt Reeves and Andy Serkis return to pick up right where Dawn left off, and not only do they match the high standard left by the previous Apes movie, but they also managed to improve upon it.  This concluding chapter in what would be known as the Caesar trilogy brings his story full circle to a satisfying conclusion.  What is left of humanity has grown hostile to the Apes who are rising in power, and now Caesar and his community finds themselves being hunted.  Leading the blood-thirsty band of mercenaries is a man known simply as the Colonel (Woody Harrelson).  In confronting the Colonel, Caesar is tested like never before, seeing so many of kin falling victim to the Colonel’s cruelty while trying to maintain his own restraint in rising above his own animal instincts.  What makes War work so much better than the other films in this reboot comes down to one important thing; compelling human characters.  Woody Harrelson makes the Colonel a terrifying villain, and one that especially raises the stakes of this series even more.  His introduction into the movie, where his troops invade the Apes sanctuary and begins to slaughter them is a particularly harrowing scene, especially with the eerie shadows they cast in the moonlight reflecting off a waterfall.  The movie also shows the great advancement that has been made in motion capture animation in the years since the reboot began.  The uncanny valley has been fully crossed and there is no visible seams that manifest that makes the apes look anything other than fully physical characters.  The subtlety of acting from Andy Serkis is fully on display through the Caesar model, making his performance all the more compelling.  The intensity of the performance also comes through, especially in the moment when he’s at gunpoint.  You see everything read through Caesar’s face in that moment, which is something that I don’t think would’ve been done without manipulation a decade prior.

The movie also closes the chapter of Caesar’s story in a satisfying way, while also at the same time setting the stage perfectly for what will inevitably be the beginning of the setting for the original movie.  Caesar doesn’t know the direction that the planet Earth is going to go with Apes now in charge, but his whole story has been about finding a safe place for his kind to call home, and the story concludes with Caesar in his final action, walking his fellow apes into a safe haven where they can build their future.  I think the reason why these movies succeed as well as they do is because of the focus they all have in telling the full story arc of this one central hero.  We don’t see much outside of Caesar’s own internal environment.  The vision of a decaying world is entirely through his own local community; mainly around the San Francisco Bay area.  There’s no intercutting to ape uprisings across the globe; none of that matters at all because it’s Caesar’s control.  This is his story, and it’s a credit to the filmmakers that they found such universal themes salvation, humanity and courage in just the story of this one important ape, and that they could maintain that story across a three film arc.  Sure, the setting of a decaying world is bleak, but there is hope in that story too as Caesar proves to be an aspirational figure of clear-minded civility in an increasingly uncivil world.  It is also interesting that this movie legitimizes the trajectory of the story into what would be the original film, and at the same time ret-cons the sequels it spawned out of canon.  Clearly Matt Reeves and company wanted to honor the movie that spawned the series to begin with, but with the skills they have now, they are clearly showing that this is by far the more fully realized version of this concept.  Regardless, for an exploration of just one character’s journey through this apocalyptic world, it is a triumph of a complete narrative, with Serkis’ performance being the key ingredient.

The Planet of the Apes franchise has an over 50 year legacy in Hollywood, but I think that it can be argued that the Caesar Trilogy of the 2010’s is the pinnacle of the franchise when it comes to storytelling.  With state-of-the-art visual effects making it possible for human actors to fully act within the skin of the apes they are playing, the artificiality that came from the original series goes away and we see the franchise brought to us in the most earnest way possible.  The trilogy started off solidly enough, but Rise was just an average action flick compared to the two Reeves film, which really elevated the Apes movies to the compelling epic dramas that they are.  They take the basic premise of these movies and strip all cynicism and campiness away, treating the Apes’ stories with the same level of seriousness that you would get from a war flick.  It of course is not just the director’s vision that makes that take on the concept work.  Andy Serkis, digging into all the acting expertise he has while wearing his motion capture suit, just brings Caesar to devastating life, complete with all the emotion shown across his face rendered in remarkable detail.  You really wouldn’t expect any less from the man who made Gollum leap off of the computer screen and into cinemas in a stunningly life-like way.  This trilogy is honestly a text book example of doing justice to a backstory in a prequel to the story that spawned it.  We know where the Earth is headed, with it being ruled by “damn, dirty apes.”  But what the team behind this reboot, and especially director Matt Reeves, showed us is that how the Planet of the Apes came to be is a compelling story in it’s own right, and one that features a surprisingly complex character at it’s center.  Is there more to explore with the world of the Planet of the Apes?  Time will tell what Fox and their new parent company Disney plan to do with this title in the future, but regardless, the Caesar Trilogy is a full and complete story that on it’s own proved that this was more than just popcorn entertainment; this franchise could indeed be a strongly themed, character driven drama on par with some of the best to ever come out of Science Fiction.

Top Ten Disney Villains Songs

Like many other Halloween seasons, I’ve spotlighted some of the best villains to have graced the silver screen over the years.  I’ve been especially interested in examining the rogues gallery of Disney Animation in particular, mainly because these are the bad guys that I grew up watching as a child and they for me, and a lot of other children like me, left a major impression.  I was especially fortunate to have come of age during the heralded Disney Renaissance of the late 80’s and early 90’s, and with this new crop of instant classic animated features, we were also treated to a whole new group of iconic baddies.  That’s not to say the old timers were forgotten either; they just had more bad company.  But what really sets the Disney Villains apart from most other great movie villains is that they often come with their own theme song.  The Disney Villain songs are often among the best in the whole Disney Songbook.  And I’m sure that they are especially fun for the songwriters to pen, given that you can finally let loose and indulge the dark side a bit to bring some vitriol into the lyrics.  When at their best, a Disney Villain song can be operatic and foreboding but also at the same time subversively campy.  Over the years, Disney has collected quite a few great tunes that are perfect examples of this formula.  Not all of them have to be dark; quite a few are actually quite silly and fun to sing along to.  But what makes the great Villain songs iconic is in how it best sets up the persona of the villain.  It’s in these songs that we learn what makes these characters tick; what motivates them.  We also see how they view themselves, often with vanity and lack of self-awareness.  And the best villain songs are also the ones that firmly establishes these characters’ place within the story and why they will be such a major obstacle to our heroes.

For this article, I’m listing my choices for the Top Ten Disney Villain Songs.  For this, I’m not just limiting it to the canonical animated films; some of the other Disney properties small and large are eligible too, including animated films from other studios within the company.  The only rule is that it has to be a song original to the film that it is in.  What is interesting is that not every villain song is sung by the villain.  It can be sung about them by another character, and those count as well.  Unfortunately some of the greatest Disney villains like Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty (1959) and Lady Tremaine of Cinderella (1950) never get their own songs despite their respective movies being musicals.  And then there are others like Sher Khan from The Jungle Book (1967) and Jafar from Aladdin (1992) who do both get to sing, but only as a part of another character’s song.  There are quite a lot of villain songs to choose from, but what I picked here is what I think represents the best examples of what a Villain song should be, and how much importance it has in the grander history of Disney Animation.  So, let’s sit back and listen to the Top Ten Disney Villain songs.

10.

THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN from THE ADVETURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD (1949)

Music and Lyrics by Don Raye and Gene de Paul; Sung by Bing Crosby

Here’s a case of a Villain song that’s sung about the said menace and not by him.  Honestly, how could he sing, he has no head.  What is interesting about the Headless Horseman song is that it was rarity for it’s time in Disney movies.  Villain songs weren’t a mainstay of Disney movies yet.  The Wicked Queen didn’t have a song in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), nor did any of the trio of villains in Pinocchio (1940).  But, as Walt Disney was beginning to reinvent his studio in the Post War years, he was much more inclined to make music an important feature in his story, even with the villainous characters.  The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) was the last of the package features of Disney’s post-war period; a cost saving measure that allowed Disney to release feature length films without having the expense of making feature length stories.  As the title would suggest, this film contained adaptations of the classic stories The Wind in the Willows (with it’s lead character Mr. Toad) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (with the character of Ichabod Crane).  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving is one of the foundational texts of American Fiction literature, so it was going to be interesting to see how Disney would adapt this gothic tale in it’s own style.  When it comes to the iconic Headless Horseman himself, Disney did a pretty remarkable job in bringing him to life, because he is genuinely terrifying.  What helps to set up his memorable presence at the conclusion of this film is the song that establishes his terrifying mythology.  For a story set in colonial America and with a terrifying monster as it’s subject, it’s odd that the Disney songwriters would use contemporary swing music for the style of this song.  And yet it works.  It probably helps that one of America’s most iconic singers, Bing Crosby, was tasked with giving the tune it’s unique sound.  It’s got a catchy beat, but there is kind of a spooky undertone to the whole song which guides it and makes it work as a pretext to the ghostly Horseman we meet later.  This song is one I would see presented on Disney Channel Halloween specials all the time, so I especially associate it with this time of year.  So don’t try to figure out a plan, you can’t reason with a headless man.

9.

WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG BAD WOLF? from THE THREE LITTLE PIGS (1933)

Music by Frank Churchill; Lyrics by Ted Sears; Sung by Dorothy Compton, Mary Moder and Pinto Colvig

We of course can’t talk about Disney Villain songs without mentioning the original.   During the early 1930’s, Walt Disney helped to grow his burgeoning studio with a series of one-shot short cartoons to run alongside his enormously popular Mickey Mouse series.  These were called the Silly Symphonies.  They were short stories often centered around music, but also based on familiar fables and fairy tales.  These shorts were often more ambitious in their artistry, and it’s where Disney had his team experiment and refine the tools they would need to eventually make feature length films.  Without question, the most popular of these Silly Symphonies was a short based on the fable of The Three Little Pigs.  But even more famous than the short itself was the song that was written for it about it’s memorable antagonist, the Big Bad Wolf.  In another example of a song about a villain and not sung by him, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” is a very simple song about facing down the menace in front of you and staying strong, though with a sense of naivete.  The titular pigs first sing the song as a taunt, shirking off the danger of the wolf and devoting themselves to oblivious playtime.  But, as the wolf blows down both of the first pigs’ homes of straw and wood, they eventually escape to the third pig’s house of bricks.  Then they sing the song again but this time, it’s a song of defiance.  This resonated with audiences who were going through the Great Depression at the time.  As much as the Big Bad Wolf of the Depression was going to push them down, Americans were going to pick themselves up again.  “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” transcended it’s place in the story and became a rallying cry of resilience in a hard time for this country.  Because of that, it became Disney’s first ever chart topping hit.  It’s especially remarkable that a villain song would be the first tune to actually do that for the Disney Company, which of course would not be the last.  No matter how small or simple a villain song may be, if it connects with it’s audience, it can become a part of the culture itself.

8.

FRIENDS ON THE OTHER SIDE from THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2009)

Music and Lyrics by Randy Newman;  Sung by Keith David

One of the more recent classic villain songs comes from this noble attempt by Disney to restart up their traditional animation unit in an era of computer animation dominance.  Naturally, they turned to the formula that worked so well during the Renaissance years; classic fairy tales with Broadway sized musical numbers.  With The Princess and the Frog, they shook things up a bit, setting the famous fairy tale of the Frog Prince in 1920’s New Orleans, and centering around their first African American princess, named Tiana.  Because this was a New Orleans set story, naturally the music had to be jazz influenced.  Bringing over Pixar mainstay Randy Newman to write the score and songs, they found that unique Cajun country sound and worked it into every melody in this story, including of course for it’s Villain song.  The antagonist for this version of the story is a Voodoo practicing Witch Doctor and conman named Dr. Facilier, played with gusto by veteran actor Keith David.  He makes his grand entrance into the story by ensnaring Prince Naveen into making a devil’s bargain and thereby turning him into a frog.  And his introduction is of course through song.  The jazz influence is especially felt in this tune, feeling very much in the same class as the big band music of Cab Calloway.  The song “Friends on the Other Side” really does feel like a spiritual cousin to the jazz music of old time cartoons, like the Fleischer studios shorts that were often dark and creepy in their own way; which Calloway in fact contributed music to as well.  Keith David, who’s not really known as a singing performer, manages to belt out this complex song with remarkable skill.  The animation also does a great job of making this a big show stopping number, even working some of Cab Calloway’s swaying and strutting into Dr. Facilier’s dance moves.  With this, Disney showed that even though the Renaissance era formula was not as resilient as it once was they could still deliver a Villain song that stood up well with the best of them.

7.

WE DON’T TALK ABOUT BRUNO from ENCANTO (2021)

Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda; Sung by Carolina Gaitan, Mauro Castillo, Adassa, Rhenzy Feliz, Diane Guerrero, and Stephanie Beatriz

Is it possible to write a Villain song for a character that isn’t a villain.  Furthermore, is it possible to make that same song a record-breaking hit.  Well, that’s what actor and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda found out when he wrote this latest Disney mega-hit earworm.  In the story of Encanto, we follow the story of the magical Madrigal family.  They are a family celebrated for their gifts and are closely knit unit, but there is one part o f their family history that they wish to erase; the eldest son of the family, Bruno.  As we learn in the film, Bruno is not malevolent figure but rather misunderstood outcast who is sadly shunned by his own family for no good reason.  But, we learn that later on in the story after the Madrigal family air their grievances in this ensemble tune.  They each share their bad experiences that resulted after hearing the oracle like prophecies that Bruno gathered through his powers.  It all makes Bruno seem like this mischievous agent of chaos, but in reality it’s a projection of their own anxieties coming to the forefront and they are just scapegoating the messenger for making them miserable.  But, in the tradition of great Disney Villain songs, this song establishes a more foreboding tone and does so with one of the catchiest beat in a Disney movie in quite some time, thanks to the talents of the award winning Miranda.  This song became a surprise hit for Disney, even surpassing the record-breaking success of Frozen’s “Let it Go.”  Sure Disney can still make a hit song, but it rarely these days is it the film’s ‘villain” song and even much less a ensemble one at that.  But, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is that rare exception and it’s easy to see why.  It’s catchy, it sets the right tone, and it’s a great centerpiece to the message to the story, which is to not judge something on it’s surface level.  With all that it’s a hard thing to say no to Bruno, no, no.

6.

GASTON from BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991)

Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman: Sung by Jessi Corti and Richard White

Proof that not all Villain songs need to be dark and menacing.  Like this one, it can be a fun, foot tapping romp of a song.  We don’t see the darker, murderous aspects of Gaston’s character until the latter half of the movie.  Up to this song, Gaston is just a town jock who mistakenly believes that he’s the right person for the most beautiful girl in town; our heroine Belle.  After being rejected by her, Gaston sulks in his tavern, and is only uplifted once his lackey LeFou begins to sing his praises.  The whole song basically one big ego trip for the villain, but like all the other songs in the movie, it’s exceptionally catchy and well-written.  You really have to admire the creativity on lyricist Howard Ashman’s part to fill so many funny lines into every part of the song.  It’s especially a special trick to work the word expectorating into a song, but he managed to do it.  And I’m sure everyone has repeated the most laugh out loud line, “Every last inch of me is covered with hair.”  Still, the song does a good job of establishing Gaston as a foe worth fearing.  He’s vain and he’s strong, which is a dangerous match.  After the light hearted part of the song finishes, the movie takes a turn when Belle’s father warns of her imprisonment in the Beast’s castle, coming across as a raving lunatic in that tavern setting.  After Maurice is kicked out, Gaston begins to contemplate a plot to incarcerate the old man as ransom for Belle’s affections, and the song starts up again with a whole different context to Gaston’s character in it’s reprise.  This is a perfect example of character building within a villains song, where a villain’s true nature emerges through how the song is used as part of the story.  Before we see Gaston as a local town hero; afterwards we see him as the schemer he really is.  Even still, it remains that rare jovial villains song, and a perfect fit for the character himself.  Broadway performer Richard White does an especially great job of belting out this song with the gusto that a blowhard like Gaston would want to be heard with.  In the pantheon of memorable Disney villain song performances, no one sings as hard as Gaston.

5.

OOGIE BOOGIE SONG from TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)

Music and Lyrics by Danny Elfman; Sung by Ken Page

Looking outside the canonical Disney animated films for a moment, there is one unmistakable classic villain song from this stop-motion film about the collision of two holidays.  From the mind of Tim Burton, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a story about the denizens of Halloweentown, a community of creatures associated with the holiday, who all decide that they want to participate in Christmas time as well, all spear-headed by their ruler the Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington.  Though scary on the outside, the citizens of Halloweentown are not mean spirited and cruel.  That is except for the boogie man who has been exiled out of town, Oogie Boogie.  When Jack Skellington believes he has granted Santa Claus an overdue holiday of his own, he in actuality has sent him off to be tortured by the malicious Oogie in his underground dungeon.  Oogie Boogie is a very minor character in the story overall, appearing for the first time very late in the film, but boy does he make the most of his limited screen time.  Composer Danny Elfman’s score for the film is distinctly within his style, similar to the work he had done for other Tim Burton films like Beetlejuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1989), only now as a full blown musical.  And though the Elfman sound is present in every song, he still manages to experiment a little with style, especially when it comes to Oogie Boogie.  Given the giant sack of bugs’ proclivity towards gambling, Elfman gave his song a speak-easy jazz club sound, and it’s a perfect match for the character.  It also helps that St. Louis-bred Broadway performer Ken Page gives a boisterous performance as the character, very similar to the Cab Calloway sound that Dr. Facilier was also inspired by.  Of the songs that Danny Elfman wrote for the film, you’d have to imagine that this was one of the more fun ones to write.  And for a villain with very little to do in the movie as a whole, you couldn’t have asked for a better villain’s song to announce his presence in the grandest way possible.

4.

CRUELLA DE VIL from 101 DALMATIANS (1961)

Music and Lyrics by Mel Leven; Sung by Bill Lee

The classic 101 Dalmatians is not a musical, but it still contains two original songs.  One of those songs just happens to be about the movie’s iconic villainess, Cruella De Vil, and naturally just like it’s subject, it is one of Disney’s all time greats.  Another one of those songs that’s about the villain and not sung by her, “Cruella De Vil” is a great example of using a song to establish everything that makes your villain as memorably mean as they can be.  Worked into the story by the fact that the titular Dalmatians’ owner, Roger Radcliffe, is a songwriter by trade, this song is a perfect accompaniment for the scene that introduces Cruella into the movie in a memorable way.  Roger makes no illusion about his distaste for Cruella through all the devious, venomous lyrics of his impromptu song, probably as a means of teasing his beloved wife Anita who is still associated with the fashion diva, but the subject matter does manage to live up to song that’s about her.  The introduction scene has the song as bookends to Cruella’s introduction, with the melody playing throughout, and it’s one of the great Disney villain intros of all time.  Cruella flies through the scene in a smoke filled fury, like a hurricane sweeping through the Radcliffe home and it perfectly establishes her chaotic nature right away.  And with the song there as part of that scene, the character and her tune are linked forever.  It’s a nice representation of post-War British pop music as well, the kind of sound that would define the culture of that period before Beatle-mania would shake things up again.  Even so many years after it was first heard, this song is still a favorite, often re-mixed and performed anew by musicians and singers of all ages.  Cruella De Vil is a character that remains one of the all time great Disney villains and it’s fitting that the song that follows her legend around also remains popular to this day.

3.

BE PREPARED from THE LION KING (1994)

Music by Elton John; Lyrics by Tim Rice; Sung by Jeremy Irons and Jim Cummings

The Lion King has one of the most iconic and ground-breaking musical scores of any Disney film, so it’s only natural that it’s villain’s song would be among the best too.  Scar, the power-hungry uncle of our main hero Simba, is certainly one of the darker villains in the Disney canon.  It’s not exactly easy to write a song for a character whom we know has murder as an intent in his master plan.  You can’t make the song too entertaining because it might make the character too likable.  In the movie, they manage to give the right tone to Scar’s villain song, “Be Prepared.”  It’s catchy, but also foreboding.  You can’t really get much darker than bringing in fascist style imagery as Scar’s army of hyenas march past him like it’s out of a Leni Riefenstahl film.  But it works perfectly in establishing just how much of a threat Scar would be as a king.  Elton John and Tim Rice do a perfect job of making the style of a villain’s song work in the African-influenced sound of the entire film’s score, especially with the percussion beat.  They are also not afraid to bring a little bit of camp into Scar’s performance of the song as well; this is a Disney villain song after all.  It is also a song that is perfectly matched with the vocal performance of Jeremy Irons in the role of Scar.  The actor is a talented singer, but he’s not really known that well for that talent as an actor.  Here, he was allowed to show how much rhythm he could get out of that natural gravelly voice of his, and it’s perfectly attuned to this type of song.  It’s especially effective the way he growls out the title “Be Prepared” in the way a lion would roar it.  Unfortunately, Iron’s range couldn’t quite hit the high notes in the final part of the song, so veteran voice actor Jim Cummings (who also played the hyena Ed in the film) was called upon to match Irons performance as best as he could to complete the song.  It’s honestly pretty seamless, and I didn’t even know that the voices change in the song until many years later.  In the movie, the staging also reaches very Broadway levels of spectacle, with the green glow of the geysers giving the whole number an eerie feel.  It’s a great match of voice, music and staging put together for one of the quintessential Disney villain songs in the whole songbook.  So, be prepared for this classic to be talked about for a long time.

2.

HELLFIRE from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1996)

Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; Sung by Tony Jay

By far and by a mile this is the darkest villain song Disney has ever had in one of their films, and probably the darkest in the songbook as a whole.  It’s only fitting that it comes from one of Disney’s darkest villains; Judge Claude Frollo.  For a lot of people, it seemed like a fool’s errand to try to take Victor Hugo’s medieval gothic tale and turn it into a musical with a happy ending.  But Disney managed to do their best with it, and still maintain some of the book’s darker elements in tact.  Frollo is the one character that feels most aligned with the original tone of the novel in this adaptation, and remarkably the team of Menken and Schwartz were able to give him a song that fit with his character.  The pious, unforgiving and deviously minded tyrant is certainly not an easy character to write for, so what do you have him singing about.  What Menken and Schwartz stumbled upon was a crisis of faith that roils inside of the character, as he believes he is doing God’s work on Earth, and yet he lusts for a woman who is from the gypsy race that he has deemed to be unholy in the eyes of God.  In the movie, we see his inner turmoil boil over into some heavy demonic imagery as faceless red robed figures encircle him in a dark room illuminated by fire.  This haunting imagery goes beyond what we’ve seen in most other Disney movies, descending into a really gothic and macabre vision of what Frollo’s hellscape may be like.  “Hellfire” really stands out as a song not just for that kind of imagery, but also for the tour de force vocal performance of Tony Jay.  The veteran voice actor manages to achieve remarkable range with that deep baritone of his, even hitting that killer of a high note at the end.  His vocal performance as Frollo beforehand was already an iconic one for a Disney villain, but this villain song takes him immediately into legendary status.  You can tell that the filmmakers were really testing their boundaries with this villain song, and they probably ended up being surprised by just how far the Disney execs actually let them go.  And like all the best Villain songs, it firmly establishes the soul of the character it’s about, and with Frollo we really reach as close to the depths of darkness as Disney has ever gone before.  “Hellfire” is Disney at it’s very darkest, and that is something that truly makes it’s presence in this movie, and as part of the Disney songbook as a whole, truly iconic.

1.

POOR UNFORTUNATE SOULS from THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989)

Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman; Sung by Pat Carroll

If you are looking for just that one song that encapsulates every that is great about a villain song, look no further than the one that comes from the dastardly sea witch, Ursula.  “Poor Unfortunate Souls” has it all; a great melody, genius lyrics, a killer vocal performance and an important place with the story it’s a part of.  This really is the gold standard of great Disney villain songs, and it’s fitting that it came as part of the movie that helped to launch the Disney Renaissance.  Alan Menken and Howard Ashman had refined their talents on Broadway before coming to Disney, but even before that they belonged to the same Baltimore area art scene that produced the likes of edgy, maverick filmmaker John Waters.  And by being in that circle, they became friends with drag performer Divine, who would end up being a major influence on the character of Ursula.  While Ashman was writing the lyrics to this song, I wonder if he was imagining how Divine would look singing this same tune on stage.  Divine passed away before the movie completed, so she never got that opportunity, but this tribute does live on.  Not only is is operatic and Broadway like in it’s sound, but you can hear Menken and Ashman working a bit of burlesque into the song as well, which is perfectly suited for a show off character like Ursula.  But what really makes this song iconic is the vocal performance by the late, great Pat Carroll.  The actress and comedian was not a natural singer, but you wouldn’t know that by the absolute commitment she brings to her performance here, much of which she imitated from Ashman’s own rendition in his demo tape, including the ad-libs like “innit.”  But what is amazing is how the song goes from quiet and sultry in the beginning to big and operatic by the end, and Pat does not miss a beat.  It’s a song that like all the others in the movie The Little Mermaid announces that Disney is back with a vengeance.  “Poor Unfortunate Souls” remains a popular tune 30 years later, and it’s a special favorite for drag performers who understand the song’s history and inspiration behind it.  And it of course does what all the best villains song do; shine a spotlight on it’s villain.  Ursula is obviously the kind of villain who deserves the best, and it didn’t cost much; just a voice.

So, there you have the ten best Disney villain songs in my own opinion.  I definitely tried to weigh how much each song meant to the films they come from, and how well they stand out in the whole history of the Disney songbook.  It’s surprising to see how some songs from the early days of Disney still resonate so many years later.  The song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” is not just an icon of Disney movies, but of the culture as well, as it became a rally cry for Depression effected Americans.  The songs for Cruella De Vil and the Headless Horseman have also withstood the test of time, with the Headless Horseman song even being a Disney Halloween staple.  But of course, it’s the Renaissance era songs that resonate the most, as the Broadway influence became much more intertwined with the music of Disney Animation.  Ursula, Gaston, Scar and Frollo have each been elevated in the Disney rogues gallery not just by their dark deeds but also by these iconic songs that shine a spotlight on them within the story.  It’s just too bad that as Disney has moved away from the musical formula, it has also made the Villains song less of a presence as well.  I think one of the reasons “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” became such a big hit as it was may have been due to the drought of memorable villain songs that had come before it.  There are other interesting villain songs that I left out of my list, like “The Elegant Captain Hook” from Peter Pan (1953), “The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind” from The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and “Shiny” from Moana (2016), and Disney has produced many other spooky themed song that don’t necessarily categorized as a villain song, like the Haunted Mansion’s “Grim Grinning Ghosts.”  Needless to say, Villain songs are a valuable category all to themselves in the great Disney songbook, and these tunes are especially popular during this spooky time of year.  I hope you found my choices interesting and well placed.  I hope some of your favorites are here as well.  So, have a festive Halloween this year and like the tunes sung on this list put a little spell on you.

Black Adam – Review

DC comics is well known for it’s collection of Super Heroes, but it can be said that they are just as well known for it’s rogues gallery of dastardly villains as well.  As often as we talk about Batman, Superman, and Aquaman we are just as likely to be talking about the Joker, Lex Luthor and Black Manta respectively.  In general, this is because DC Comics has been just as good at making their villains interesting characters as they do with their heroes.  And because of the complexity of character development that have put into their comic books over the years, they have managed to create characters that straddle the line between hero and villain.  These anti-heroes also share a special place within the DC pantheon.  Too dark and violent to be considered a hero, but not quite evil enough to be considered a villain.  The character within DC comics that probably embodies this type of personality the best is Black Adam.  Making his first appearance in 1945, Black Adam initially started off as the main antagonist to the DC super hero Captain Marvel, later known as Shazam.  Embodying the same power set as Shazam, Black Adam uses his nearly god-like abilities in a far more morally degenerate way; often having no objection to killing his enemies or anyone else who gets in his way.  This runs contrary to the heroes of the DC universe, who make it their duty to protect the innocent.  Black Adam often falls on the dark side when doing battle against Shazam or many other super heroes, but when something far more dangerous threatens his world, he will put aside his grievances and assist in saving the world as well.  Through his nearly 80 years in the comics, he has remained a very complex character and has become a favorite amongst comic book readers.  However, until now he has yet to be featured on the big screen.

Enter Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is bringing to life the classic comic book anti-hero on the big screen for the first time.  This has actually been a passion project for the wrestler turned actor.  He’s been in talks with Warner Brothers and DC to make a Black Adam film for over 15 years.  Even before there was a Marvel Cinematic Universe, Dwayne Johnson has been eyeing this role for himself.  A lot of things have put the project into limbo many times over the years, often due to change over and restructuring going on at Warner Brothers.  This movie, now that it is finally complete, comes again at yet another crossroads in the drama that is Warner Brothers history.  With the merger between WB Pictures and Discovery Entertainment, the new regime has been ruthlessly cost cutting across the empire in order to secure year end tax breaks, and DC falls into that turmoil as well.  Just a couple months ago, the entertainment world was stunned by the news that a $90 million Batgirl film was getting cancelled without ever seeing the light of day as a measure of the new Warner executives drive to get a tax write-off.  In addition, many of the upcoming Warner Brothers projects still in development were pushed back significantly; almost a full year for the Aquaman sequel.  Even amidst all this, the Black Adam (2022) premiere date stood firm, and it seemed like this would be DC’s one and only hope to deliver for the back end of this year.  Of course, it helps that Dwayne Johnson in those 15 years has become one of the biggest box office draws in the worldwide market, which bodes well for Black Adam.  And considering this is a passion project of his, you’d hope that he’s going to give a bit more to this performance than many of his other roles.  The question is, can Black Adam deliver on the same level of the titans of the DC universe?  Can Dwayne Johnson make a heroic stand for DC at this tumultuous time in it’s history on the shoulders of this iconic anti-hero?

The story is set in the fictional middle eastern kingdom of Khandaq.  Legends speak of a hero who protected the kingdom from mad king who sought to use the power of demons to rule with ultimate power.  The hero, Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson) confronted the king, who forged a crown with demonic power called the Crown of Sabbac, and stopped him before the king could wield it’s dark magic. However, after defeating the king, Teth-Adam vanished without a trace.  Nearly 5,000 years later in modern day, the kingdom of Khandaq is occupied by foreign interests who are robbing the small nation of it’s natural resources.  A brave archaeologist named Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shani) believes she may have found the hiding place of the Crown of Sabbac.  With fellow archaeologist Ismael Gregor (Marwan Kenzari) and her brother Karim (Mohammed Amer), she discovers the cave that house the crown and manages to retrieve it.  However, something else is trapped within that cave.  After being ambushed by the criminal organization Intergang, which is one of the occupying powers in Khandaq, Adrianna reads the spells carved into the floor of the cave temple.  Suddenly, a robed man in black appears and effortlessly destroys the whole troop of Intergang soldiers.  Adrianna and Karim manage to escape, but they end up running into the robed man, later learning that he is Teth-Adam reawakened.  They try to help him out, and Adrianna’s son Amon (Bodhi Sabongui) becomes immediately attached to what he thinks is his country’s own super hero, even giving him the name Black Adam.  But, the re-awakening of Black Adam also alerts a watchdog group of super heroes known as the Justice Society of America.  The JSA includes the winged hero Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), the mystical sorcerer Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan), the wind-controlling Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and the size-changing Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo).  Their goal is to stop Black Adam before he has a chance to cause immense damage with his still unchecked powers.  But their adversarial confrontation may have to wait as they are forced to align their strength in order to keep the Crown of Sabbac out of the wrong hands.

As far as DC movies have gone in this era of the DC Expanded Universe (DCEU), my opinions have strangely gone against the grain with the general consensus.  Sure, I love the movies that everybody loves like James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (2021) and the first Wonder Woman (2017), and hated the movies that everyone hated like the original Justice League (2017).  Those were never controversial opinions.  But, there have been a few of my reviews that didn’t match up with everyone else’s; contrary opinions that I actually still stand by.  I did not like the first Aquaman (2018), which everyone seemed to love but me, and I ended up liking Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) quite a bit, which I found myself being well in the minority on.  So, where do I fall on Black Adam?  Well, it’s not by any means the worst film in the DCEU; not by a long shot.  But, it is far from being among the best films either.  It is a very middle of the road film, for good and bad.  Let me get the bad out of the way first.  The movie is very rushed and unfocused, and seemingly uninterested in filling in detail to important things like character development and coherent plot.  A well-written movie this is not.  I think the thing that is going to upset most audiences is the fact that the movie packs in a whole bunch of different things, but never gives them enough time to really sink in; favoring spectacle above all else.  Characters are introduced with backstories only hinted at but never truly explored.  I think the writers wanted to cram in a whole bunch of DC comic book lore just because they could, but it distracts away from the fact that this is a Black Adam movie first and foremost.  Black Adam’s story is drowned out by so many different plot elements thrown into this movie’s 2 hour runtime.  What’s more, the JSA gets especially short-changed with very little time devoted to their character development.  If you are fans of the individual heroes of the JSA, and have been waiting years to finally see them on the big screen, you may come away very disappointed, because they are little more than plot devices here.

The visual effects of this movie are also a mixed bag.  In some instances, there are some pretty good visual effects in this movie.  The body swap effect that makes a de-powered Black Adam look like an average sized man is pretty convincing.  I never thought it looked weird seeing Dwayne Johnson’s head on an average built body, and the effect is actually pretty effective.  The moments when we see Doctor Fate’s power in full effect are also pretty imaginative.  I can tell that the effects team behind the movie were trying hard to differentiate how Doctor Fate’s powers would look compared to Marvel’s Doctor Strange, considering the similarities between the two.  Watching the movie, I feel like they were able to make it just different enough to where I don’t think they were doing a copy and paste of the effects in Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016), though there were a couple that were borderline.  The same cannot be said however with the super hero powers of Cyclone and Atom Smasher.  Cyclone’s whirlwind power is so weirdly conceived that I had no idea what she was able to do and how she was able to do it.  She just floats around with multi-colored smoke and spins really fast, which I guess the effects artists thought would look cool in slow motion, but instead it just looks cartoonish in a bad way.  And speaking of distractingly cartoonish, whenever Atom Smasher grows to his giant size, he stops looking realistic and becomes essentially a walking-talking special effect.  In this regard, it has a negative comparison to a similar effect found in the Marvel universe.  Whenever Ant-Man would do the same size change, like he did in Captain America: Civil War (2016), those movies made his presence within the scene feel believable.  Not once in this movie did I feel like it worked to the same degree, and it’s one of the most glaringly subpar visual effects in a movie that goes back and forth between the believable and the unbelievable.

So, what is good in this movie?  Well, despite working with a very poorly written script, the cast of this movie actually does a pretty good job with what they have to work with.  First and foremost, Dwayne Johnson does not disappoint as the titular anti-hero.  It took him 15 years to make this movie a reality, so you know he was going to pour a lot more effort into his performance here.  You can tell that the years of researching and rehearsing the essence of Black Adam paid off, and Dwayne Johnson captures the character perfectly.  Naturally, being the main character, he gets the lion’s share of the character development in the film, and I appreciated how well he built the layers of this character into his on screen persona.  You honestly have no idea which way this character is going to fall; either to the side of good or the side of evil, and I think that’s a testament to how composed Johnson was able to make the character.  He keeps the character an enigma until the very end, and even still after he has helped save the day, he’s remains a character with ambiguous moral backbone.  I also appreciated what the actors playing the JSA bring to their roles, as bare bones as they may be.  Aldis Hodge especially shines as Hawkman.  His character is paper thin on the page, but Hodge brings emotional weight to his performance which helps to elevate the character throughout the film.  His performance is so could that you wish he was given a movie of his own instead of being shoehorned into a Black Adam origin story.  Pierce Brosnan’s Doctor Fate also warranted a movie’s worth of development too, but Brosnan likewise makes the most of his brief screen time.  His contribution to the climatic battle is especially awe inspiring, and it makes me happy that they brought in an actor of Brosnan’s caliber in to bring this iconic character to life.  And though they have even less impact on the story, Noah Centineo and Quintessa Swindell are likable enough as their respective characters.  The remainder of the cast are pretty forgettable largely, and the movie suffers from have a very weak villain; one that pretty much here as an afterthought.  Still, where it mattered the most, they did get the character of Black Adam right, and that is a testament to a movie star who took the role seriously and was determined to not mess it up for the sake of the fans.  If anything, hopefully this movie will establish the character as an important part of the DCEU moving forward, because it would be worth it to see Dwayne Johnson in this role again.

Apart from the performances, what else is there to keep the movie from becoming an incoherent disaster?  There are action sequences that do work, and I do have to say that the movie does finally gain some footing in it’s latter half.  The movie, when it’s languishing in it’s exposition heavy first half, can be a pretty heavy slog to get through.  Even the early action sequences, featuring some Zack Snyder-esque slow-mo, feel fairly derivative and uninspiring.  But, as Black Adam and the JSA begin to clash about half-way through the movie, the film begins to find some life.  There is an exciting high-speed chase through the streets of Khandaq, where future-tech hover bikes and Black Adam are literally crisscrossing at the speed of a bullet in the air, and it is an action sequence that is actually well staged and feels unlike any other action sequence I’ve seen in a super hero movie before.  The action sequences also balance out the darker elements of the movie with just the right amount of humor.  There is a running gag where Black Adam tries to deliver a witty catch phrase but ends up killing his adversaries too quickly for them to hear it that actually gets a laugh.  The final battle scene, even though it’s up against a rather throw away villain, is also well done, and it does a fairly passable job of making the stakes in the moment feel pretty dire.  The only thing that could have been better handled with these action scenes is if they didn’t make up such a large part of the story as a whole.  There really is too much focus put on spectacle in this movie, with no time at all given to let the story breath and introduce more character building moments.  Instead, the movie just jumps from one set piece to the other, and it makes the whole movie feel like a mess as a result.  A lot of stuff is going on to be sure, but you the audience are given little reason to care, unless you are coming to the movie with a lot of prerequisite knowledge of DC lore as a whole.  You may know these character from the comics and various other media, and the movie probably hopes you already know them well enough too, but it ends up leaving the average fan with little to latch onto because the movie never gives us enough explanation about anything in the movie; not the characters, not the plot details, nor the world these characters live in either.  It’s a movie meant for fans, pure and simple, and even there it seems to take the fandom for granted.

So, was it worth the long wait to finally see Dwayne Johnson play Black Adam on the big screen.  It’s going to depend for a lot of different people, but ultimately it’s a fine performance in a movie that honestly falls short of reaching it’s goal.  Dwayne Johnson is the ideal actor to play this role, and I’m happy that after 15 years he finally got his wish granted.  The movie, however, is created more as an afterthought.  It’s by no means an absolute disaster.  There are good to great performances throughout, and the occasional battle sequence that is fun to watch.  But the lack of any detail in the story and the character development ends up making this movie feel pretty hollow as a whole.  The JSA especially feels wasted here, and it might have been better if they were either left out of the movie completely, or were reduced to just one or two characters.  I think it would’ve worked better if Cyclone and Atom Smasher had been left out of the movie, and that it was just Hawkman and Doctor Fate facing off against Black Adam.  At least then there would have been more time to develop those characters and give them the screen time that those iconic characters deserve.  These are characters deserving of their own movies, and the actors playing them are giving it their all.  It’s a problem with many of the DCEU films, where they try to pack too much into their movies, probably due to the worry that the films may never do well enough to warrant a sequel.  I will say that this was one of my biggest problems with Aquaman, where it felt like they were trying to tell every Aquaman story ever written in one movie.  It was way too overwhelming in that movie, and it’s a problem here in Black Adam too, though I feel it fares a bit better.  Between my controversial picks of a negative review of Aquaman and a positive review of Wonder Woman 1984, I’d say that Black Adam skews closer to the failure of Aquaman, but is only redeemed with better battle scenes and a better rounded cast.  I’m sure we’ll see more of Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam, and the mid-credits scene hints at a very exciting future ahead.  I just wish his place in the DCEU’s big master plan was laid on a much stronger foundation.

Rating: 6.5 / 10

Tinseltown Throwdown – The Mummy 1999 vs. The Mummy 2017

It’s interesting to look at the placement of the Mummy within the context of the movie monster pantheon.  Unlike it’s fellow monsters, the specter of the Mummy does not come from a literary source or folkloric tales.  Instead, he (or in some cases she) is a monster pulled right from the headlines of the day.  In 1922, around the golden age of silent cinema, renowned Egyptologist Howard Carter made an astounding discovery in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.  His archeological dig uncovered the burial chamber of King Tutankhamun.  Before this discovery, the world was already well aware of ancient tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs, and the practice of mummification.  But what made the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb so monumental was the fact that it was left untouched for thousands of years.  Left undiscovered by grave robbers and unspoiled by the elements of the Sahara Desert, King Tut’s tomb was a treasure trove for archeology and the best record yet of how the Egyptian people prepared their dead for the afterlife.  But, just as much as the discovery of King Tut’s tomb captured the imagination of the world, so did the aftermath.  In the years following the unearthing of King Tut’s tomb, several people involved in the discovery would die of mysterious causes.  Of course, the deaths once investigated have shown to have easy explanations, including pre-existing ailments that preceded the discovery of the tomb.  But, it was still suspicious enough at the time to lead people to believe that the Tomb of King Tut was cursed.  The idea of the curse continued to flame through the popular imagination, with even a renowned author like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame even giving credence to the idea.  This of course led Hollywood to pick up on the idea of Egyptian curses as concept to exploit in their films.  But they of course would imagine something far more physically iconic that a phantom curse silently poisoning those who have disturbed the tombs of the kings.  They would imagine the curse of the pharaohs as the dead literally coming back to live to seek revenge on the living.  And thus, we saw the emergence of Mummies as a monster within the movies.

Typically, when we think of a mummy as a movie monster, we think of a figure wrapped head to toe in burial cloths.  It’s pretty much how we see the mummified remains unearthed after thousands of years.  The impression of a person wrapped in tightly in a lying position, placed in a stone sarcophagus ornamented with gold and jewels and an artistic rendering of the person inside.  But, in the movies, the haunting image of a corpse come to life made that already foreboding image of mummified remains even spookier.  The movie that really cemented the image of a mummy as a cinematic monster was the 1932 film The Mummy.  Made by the masters of Hollywood horror, Universal Studios, The Mummy (1932) defined what would eventually be the iconic lore behind the Mummy and his curse on the big screen.  The film brought the actor responsible for bringing Frankenstein’s monster to life a year prior, Boris Karloff, but as Hollywood would see, Karloff would not repeat the same tricks he used for creating the other vocally impaired creature.  Playing the Imhotep, the mummy of the film is not a mindless monster but rather a sophisticated high priest seeking a lost love, or what he thinks is the re-incarnation of his lost love.  Karloff, though playing an Egyptian high priest, tapped more into his English sensibilities to play the Mummy here.  Still, Karloff distinctive facial features translated well into the spooky personage of the walking dead.  And with some still impressive make-up work, he presents a version of the mummy that still elicits scares, showing us the corrupted flesh that lies underneath those decaying cloth scarves.  Karloff’s original is still the archetype for all movie mummies that followed.  And like with Frankenstein, it’s not uncommon to hear a mummy speak with a classy British accent as a nod to Boris.  But over the years, many filmmakers have tried to put their own spin on the Mummy; with many attempts hoping to make the creature scarier and sinister.  Universal Studios of course have done their part too, bringing the character back multiple times in order to breathe new life into this legacy monster in their studio.  Two noteworthy attempts at reviving the Mummy on the big screen stand out, mainly due to the things they get right about the character and it’s legacy, and what they get wrong.  To see how the Mummy stacks up in different eras of a studio’s history, let’s take a look at the big differences between The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy (2017).

“I only gamble with my life, never my money.”

In the late 90’s, the digital revolution was beginning to become a dominant force in filmmaking.  Thanks to computer animation technology, movie studios were able to be unbound when it came to making the impossible look real.  Movies like Jurassic Park (1993), Independence Day (1996), and Armageddon (1998) were pushing the limit of what could be done on the big screen when it comes to thrilling action.  In the midst of all this, writer and director Stephen Sommers came to Universal with a pitch to reboot their Mummy franchise.  It was perfect timing because Universal could see the potential for using CGI technology to bring as creature like the mummy to life like never before.  Instead of an actor under layers of make-up, this mummy could instead look like an actual rotting corpse brought to life; accomplishing what filmmakers in the past could only dream of doing in bringing these creatures to life.  But, what was interesting about Sommers approach to the story was that while it was using the latest in cinematic technologies, his film was also gesturing to the past.  The 1999 Mummy very much is a throwback to Golden Age Hollywood, mainly in it’s characterizations and dialogue.  Far less scary and more of a swashbuckling action adventure.  You can easily see any of the characters in the movie being played by cinematic icons of the past; swap out Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz with Tyrone Power or Deborah Kerr and the movie would still feel the same.  The performances are cornball but earnest and the dialogue cheesy but pleasing, and 1999’s Mummy would find it’s place easily within the company of Hollywood classics like The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and Gunga Din (1939), and even the original 1932 Mummy.  It’s the CGI effects that set it apart, with some effects that hold up well over the years while others don’t.  Even still, the movie still has it’s fans over 20 years later, and it was a strong hit upon release, leading to two sequels in 2002 and 2007.  Still, like the original movie it took it’s lead from, 1999’s The Mummy was a product of it’s time and Universal wanted to keep it’s stable of movie monsters in line with the changing times.  So, another reboot came on the horizon.

“Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters.”

In 2017, Universal was looking to bring not just their movie Mummy back to the silver screen, but all of their monsters as well.  While they were planning this, another cinematic factor was coming into play.  The Walt Disney Company was enjoying enormous success with their Marvel Cinematic Universe, a multi-film franchise built upon each movie having a connection to a grander narrative.  This led to other studios wanting to establish cinematic universes of their own to exploit.  Naturally, Universal looked at their classic stable of movie monsters as their entry point into their new cinematic market.  They would take their stable of monsters, build new franchises around them, and sell audiences on the idea that all these characters would combine together just like Marvel was doing with theirs.  They would call this the “Dark Universe,” and Universal was eager to exploit their master plan.  In a textbook case of putting the cart before the horse, Universal’s Dark Universe tried a bit too hard to get people excited for this new phase in their movie monster legacy.  They announced plans for new films centered on Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, and of course the Mummy.  Going even further, they even announced casting choices for their various franchises, which included Johnny Depp as the new Invisible Man, Javier Bardem as the Wolf Man, and Tom Cruise as the hero of their Mummy franchise.  It was all very ambitious, but there was one problem; they needed a movie to prove themselves first.  The first planned movie to launch this Dark Universe fell on The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella as the titular villain.  Your ambitious plans for a cinematic universe are only as strong as the foundation that you build it upon, and 2017’s The Mummy is no Iron Man (2008).  It barely even is a Mummy movie, choosing instead to be a film derivative of so many other films and completely lacking in it’s own identity.  It’s just more or less a film formed out of a studio mandate and nothing more.  Suffice to say, the Dark Universe withered away quickly on the box office failure of The Mummy, making it a rare misfire for Tom Cruise as well.  All the planned Dark Universe films were scrapped and the actors were released from their commitments.  Now the Dark Universe stands as a cautionary tale of mismanaged studio hype, and it’s unfortunate that the sacrificial lamb that made Universal learn that lesson had to be the Mummy.

There is no doubt that 1999 The Mummy is the vastly superior film, but it’s interesting to see how the two stack up to each other, particularly in how it carries on the legacy of it’s titular monster.  Let’s take the depictions of the Mummy itself.  In this case, the 2017 version fares a bit better in comparison.  The movie does stir things up a bit in an interesting way by gender swapping the Mummy creature.  Instead of the rotting, cloth wrapped walking corpse found in other mummy movies, the character in the 2017 film brings a far more ghostly presence as the creature.  Pale skinned and covered in hieroglyphic tattoos, this is a very different mummy than what we’re used to, on top of being female.  Sofia Boutella’s background as a trained dancer also helps with her physicality in the role, as she contorts her body in unnatural ways.  I also give the movie credit for casting an actress of North African descent in the role as opposed to white European like past versions, although she Algerian and not Egyptian.  Still, her character is pretty limited in the film, which favors over-produced action in place of actual scares.  There is a neat visual with her eyes, as they divide into two pupils, but that’s about the extant of the creepiness with the character.  In the 1999 version however, there is more of an effort to make the Mummy appear more scary.  Though the CGI looks dated now, the effects were ground-breaking at the time in making the Mummy in his most rotten form look real and believable.  The most eerie version of the mummy appears later in the film, when he is halfway through his transformation back to his original self; with flesh on some parts of the body but not others.  In a sense, the character becomes less scary as he becomes more human, with actor Arnold Vosloo perhaps being too handsome a figure to be believably menacing.  At least there was a bit more menace in Sofia Boutella’s Mummy even as she appeared more human.  The general result is that while the physical, human Mummy in the 2017 version is still unique, the 1999 version that appears through the help of primitive CGI still feels closer to what the character should be, and perhaps shows the ideal way to portray the character overall; the one furthest away from looking human like as possible.

“Death is only the beginning.”

One of the biggest assets that the 1999 version has is that the story never takes itself too seriously.  It is a movie that understands what it needs to be and has fun with that.  The throwback to classic Hollywood storytelling is easy to get across to the viewer; with the characters not just dealing with the threat of the Mummy, but also finding themselves in pursuit of the classic Hollywood tool known as the MacGuffin. In this case, it’s the Book of the Living, a spell book that is key to Imhotep’s quest of unlocking his immortality.   In the midst of fighting the Mummy, there is romance and slapstick humor abound, much in the same way old Hollywood adventures would give audiences a little bit of everything in their movies.  You can see a lot of influence that 1999’s The Mummy had in revitalizing the swash-buckling adventure film, eventually leading to like-minded movies in the next decade like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean films.  But what ultimately makes the story work is that it knows what it wants to be.  The same cannot be said about the 2017 version.  That version of The Mummy is merely meant to be a cog in the gears of a much bigger machine, which ironically never managed to be built.  It especially gets frustrating in the movie when the character of Dr. Jekyll is introduced into the story, played by Russell Crowe.  He brings the Mummy as well as Tom Cruise’s character Nick Morton to his laboratory, where Easter eggs alluding to other monsters are found everywhere.  It’s here where the goal of the movie becomes so blatant and transparent.  This is a movie meant for no other reason than to set up other movies.  The thing that makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe work so well is the fact that most of their movies are able to stand on their own outside of their place within the greater continuity of the the MCU.  Because The Mummy (2017) lacks it’s own identity, it’s use of Easter eggs and future foreshadowing just feels like the cheap gimmick that it is , and just further illustrates the outright failure that the Dark Universe was.  What’s even more insulting is that The Mummy (2017) just outright steals moments from better movies.  Throughout the film, Tom Cruise’s Nick is haunted by the ghost of his dead comrade, played by Jake Johnson.  The scenes where he communicates to Nick what is happening to him, while appearing as a half rotting talking corpse, is stolen directly from similar moments in An American Werewolf in London (1981).  Audiences know when they are being cheated and pandered to, and 2017’s Mummy is a clear example of a studio mistakenly thinking that the gimmick will carry the film through on it’s own.

One other thing that you can see working against the 2017 Mummy is the fact that it doesn’t have faith in the strength of it’s own titular character.  The movie first and foremost focuses on Tom Cruise’s character, and Cruise very much looks lost in this film.  The normally charismatic box office powerhouse just looks lost in this role, giving his character Nick zero personality.  What’s even more frustrating is that it seems like the movie was treating his journey here like a superhero origin story because (not that you guys would care for spoilers for a movie like this) by the end of the movie, he somehow ends up with the powers of the Mummy, which you would presume would factor in more in future films that were planned.  And though Cruise can play action heroes that are worth rooting for, from Ethan Hunt to Maverick, his Nick is so devoid of redeemable qualities in the film that you honestly don’t care if he lives or dies by the end.  He is a mercenary who becomes cursed because he sought to enrich himself out of raiding an ancient tomb, and honestly he’s the kind of person who deserves the bad fortune that comes his way.  He’s no Iron Man, Captain America, or Batman for that matter, whose origins involve personal growth as they accept their responsibilities as super heroes.  Tom Cruise could play that kind of character, but the movie never allows for that kind of growth, because it’s far more interested in franchise building.  By contrast, 1999’s The Mummy fares better with their characters by keeping it simple.  The main hero and heroine are simple archetypes and are dependent on the actors playing them to fill out that personality.  Thankfully the parts are well cast.  Brendan Fraser perfectly fills the role of the affable, dashing hero Rick O’Connell, whose just got the right balance of roguish swagger and cheeky buffoonery.  Rachel Weisz perfectly compliments this as the resourceful, bookworm Evelyn Carnahan; the lady you can rely upon to explain all the lore to the audience in an informative way, while at the same time holding her own in the thick of a fight.  They are not deep characterizations, but the movie doesn’t require them to be.  All they need to be is likable, and worth rooting for, and the movie does this well by emphasizing the chemistry between the characters and endearing us to them through humor and harrowing action.  It also helps that Fraser and Weisz look at home in a throwback style movie like this one.  You could easily see their same performances working in a movie 40-50 years prior to this one.  In contrast, the 2017 Mummy feels even more like a cheat, because it took one of the most charismatic actors ever in Hollywood, and made him absolutely boring as a result in their movie.

“Sometimes it takes a monster to fight a monster.”

I think that the one thing that both movies fall short on in the long run is that they failed to make the Mummy into a scary force within their stories.  The classic monster movies of the past did a brilliant job of scaring audiences with perfectly spooky atmosphere and ambitious monster make-up and effects for their time.  One thing that we learned from these Mummy reboots in the digital era is that CGI does not make mummies any scarier.  To 1999’s Mummy’s credit, it did at least try.  The largely decayed mummy in that film does look like what a scary version of this is supposed to be, and is only undermined by the limitations of computer animation at the time.  While the 2017 mummy is unique, the last thing you can call it is scary.  One would hope that a bolder horror filmmaker out there can figure out a better way to create a realistic looking mummy that does manage to scare it’s audience.  It could be done, but it’s likely going to come from an outsider attempt and far less likely to come out of Hollywood.  The Mummy movies we are more familiar with from the movie industry tend to be more in the realm of action adventure and less from the realm of horror.  It probably has to do with the limitations of characterization when it comes to the Mummy itself.  Most of these movies focus more on the human characters either hunting down the mummy or being hunted by it.  From the two movies contrasted here, the 1999 film better understood the assignment.  It’s not trying to scare it’s audience, but rather bring new life into an old cinematic property while still appealing to a broad audience; and in that regards it succeeded handsomely.  The 2017 Mummy was just a blatant cash grab and nothing more, wasting the talents of not just those involved in the movie, but of all the people who placed their bets on that failed Dark Universe master plan.  But, if you want to experience a movie that genuinely captures the spooky aura of a Mummy adventure done right, watch the original 1932 version starring Boris Karloff.  It may be quaint by today’s standards of horror, but it does the best job of capturing the atmosphere of what this kind of movie is supposed to be, and Karloff’s take on the character is appropriately menacing.  A mummy movie doesn’t necessarily need to be spooky, but it does help if the creature at it’s center is chilling enough put him in the same league with other iconic movie monsters.

“For the record, if I don’t make it out of here, don’t put me down for mummification.”

 

Amsterdam – Review

The movies of David O. Russell can best be summed up as a mixed bag.  For the most part, he has delivered a track record that is more on the good side than the bad.  But when he misses, he misses spectacularly.  Mainly, he is a director that swings very hard for the fences, and that can sometimes lead to decisions that may end up working as a detriment to his films.  One of the most noteworthy cases of his roller coaster style of directing shifting from film to film was in 2004, when he made the movie I Heart Huckabees, a movie that very much missed with both audiences and critics, mainly due to it’s self-indulgent nature, and this was coming off of a movie that won him universal acclaim as a director; the Iraq War dark comedy Three Kings (1999).  The lows of I Heart Huckabees eventually led to another high, with the Oscar-winning The Fighter (2010).  And for a while, he enjoyed a decade of relatively successful hits afterwards, with The Fighter being followed-up with Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013), but even that string came to a halt with the underwhelming Joy (2015).  There’s no doubting that David O. Russell is a filmmaker with considerable talent, but sometimes he can be his own worst enemy too.  He has notoriously battled with actors on his sets.  He got into a physical fight with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings and a tape of him shouting obscenities at actress Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees leaked to the public, casting a very negative image on the director.  And yet, he still manages to be one of the most in demand filmmakers in the business, probably due to the fact that he can on occasion deliver a massive critical hit for a studio.  It’s possible that the reputation that follows him around is the reason why he takes long breaks in between projects.  It’s been 7 years since his last theatrical film (Joy) and to make his return he has put together what may be his most ambitious film to date.

Amsterdam has one of the most stacked casts in recent memory, with even small parts being filled by A-list talent.  He reunites again with Christian Bale, making his third David O. Russell movie after The Fighter and American Hustle.  Joining him are co-stars John David Washington and Margot Robbie, as well as a dozen other recognizable faces from Mike Myers to Taylor Swift.  But what is interesting here is that Russell, who typically works with contemporary storylines, is going way back in time for this period piece.  The furthest that he went back in time before was the 1970’s with American Hustle, which didn’t seem too alien a time for him to plant his sardonic style within.  But now he’s taking it into a time period nearly a century ago.  If balanced well, it could work, but as I’ve said, he’s got a track record that can verge either way.  Still, the movie comes as the Awards season starts to heat up, and a star studded epic with high production values is something that movie studios are always happy to put their money behind.  The fact that he has delivered multiple performances to Oscar wins and even more to a nomination, it’s easy to see why so many actors are more than happy to jump on board his films, though some may end regretting it later.  Amsterdam sees Russell return after a long hiatus and with a pedigree of talent on his side that is far grander than anything else he has made in the past.  The only question is, are we getting peak David O. Russell in this roller coaster of his film career, or are we heading into another treacherous valley.

The movie covers over 20 years of the lives of a group of misfit friends in the tumultuous early 20th century.  During World War I, Lt. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is put in command of a regiment of mostly black soldiers after many other officers had refused the role.  During battle, he builds a close friendship with one of the soldiers, Harold Woodman (John David Washington).  The two end up in an army hospital together after being hit by a shrapnel bomb, with Burt even losing an eye.  There they meet a nurse named Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) who not only helps them get back to good health, but forms a deeper and sometimes romantic relationship with the duo.  The three form a pact to protect one another and they move to Amsterdam to live a carefree Bohemian life.  But, Burt is called back home to New York where he wants to return to his upper class wife Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough), and his medical practice.  After a couple years of practicing medicine for veterans in alleyways and drinking himself into the gutter, Burt eventually reconnects with Harold, who tells him that Valerie left him behind without a trace.  The two rekindle their friendship and begin working together, with Harold now practicing law.  However, their quiet life is disrupted when they learn that their commanding general Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.) has died, and his daughter Liz (Taylor Swift) suspects murder.  What follows is a journey down a rabbit hole of conspiracy involving a bird watching society run by British glass salesman Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers) and his American associate Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon) who both may be spies for their respective governments, a wealthy but suspicious couple Tom and Libby (Rami Malek and Anya-Taylor Joy), and a retired General who has turned into a popular orator for Veteran’s rights named Gil Dillenbeck (Robert DeNiro), who may be the target of a fascist organization.  Despite being clueless about what they are getting into, the friends are determined to get to the bottom of this wild conspiracy gearing to attack the very fundamental pillars of democracy in America.

As you can see, this is a loaded movie with a lot of puzzle pieces involved and even more familiar faces that I didn’t even mention yet.  One would think that with a plot this dense and an all-star cast this massive that it may fall out of the grasp of the director to reign it all in.  And sadly, that’s the case with Amsterdam.  This is definitely one of the lesser David O. Russell movies.  I wouldn’t go as far to say that it is the worst film that Russell has made (I Heart Huckabees takes that crown easily) but it is definitely a frustrating movie to watch.  What’s most disappointing with this movie is that you can see all the elements of a really good movie there, but the pieces don’t fit together well at all in the way that Russell has set them up.  Tonal shifts are a major problem with the flow of this movie.  You can’t tell if David Russell wants this to be a raucous comedy or a taught political thriller.  It seems like he wants to have it both ways and it really undermines the flow of the film.  The movie has scenes individually that are well shot, acted and paced, but they’ll conflict with the scene that follows after or before.  It’s like he wrote a bunch of scenes separately then threw them in a hat and picked the order of his movie randomly.  Yes, there is a through-line, but you’ll be in the position of having to re-center yourself from scene to scene as there are so many tonal and plot shifts back and forth.  There is a story in there, and one that is deserving of telling, but Russell’s style gets in the way, favoring quippy dialogue to motivate the flow of the movie rather than a sense of building tension.  By the end of the movie, the big climatic revelations just feel hollow, because Russell hasn’t given the weight of the situation the time to build to make it more shocking.

And the  most frustrating part is that it’s a story that really deserved to be told.  It’s plot involves the characters uncovering a conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States and replace it with a fascist one; a tact that had proven effective in that time with Italy and Germany.  Not exactly new, but in Amsterdam, you see how fascist powers are given backing by corporate interests in America, which is a story that sadly remains relevant even today.  There are some connections there that I see Russell trying to get at, but the message just gets drowned out by all the other nonsense in the movie.  Any scene where we see the characters putting together the pieces of the conspiracy in an interesting way will then be followed-up by another scene where Christian Bale’s Burt will collapse to the floor at the most inconvenient moment due to the hard drugs he is experimenting with.  It can be funny, but it’s placement in the story clashes to much with the rest and breaks any momentum built up for the story.  The movie also has one of my least favorite screenwriting tools, and one that I think shows Russell’s weakness as a writer.  That tool being where a character monologues their entire backstory to the audience.  It’s a sign of lazy screenwriting, because it’s forcing development on a character rather than letting that build through the plot of the movie itself.  One such scene is delivered by Christian Bale in such an awkward way early in the movie; like he is just reading strictly from the character bio.  There’s a lot of scenes like that in Amsterdam, where characters catch up the audience on the plot by explaining what’s happening in monologues.  It shows that Russell has too much plot to detail, and he is impatient getting to it.  His strength primarily rests with character interactions, which there are scenes in the movie where Russell writes clever back and forth with the different characters.  But he builds up those moments in sacrifice of moments that drive the plot forward.  That’s why there is a lot of talking in this movie and not a whole lot of action; because David O. Russell is focusing on his strengths here in detriment to everything else.

The performances of the actors in the movie also reveals a rift between the two kinds of movies that Russell is trying to tell with Amsterdam.  Christian Bale is definitely trying to do character work in this movie, while John David Washington and Margot Robbie more or less playing things straight.  That ends up making the movie feel schizophrenic, because Bale’s flashy performance clashes with everything else in the movie.  That being said, I do think Christian Bale is the best part of the movie, because he at least is doing something to bring the film to life.  If only the rest of the film was on the same page; I would’ve appreciated the movie more if it was as quirky as Bale’s Burt.  I do like how he works the battle scars and glass eyeball into his character’s posture and facial expressions.  If anything, I think the character of Burt embodies more of the tone that David O. Russell was trying to attempt.  The remaining performances seem a little lost in comparison, though Rami Malek and Anya-Taylor Joy do a pretty good job of reaching Bale’s oddball level, with perfect parodies of the idle rich in their performances.  The biggest disappointments are Washington and Robbie.  We know how talented these actors are, but they bring none of that charisma into this film and have even less chemistry with one another.  One of the other big problems with a large star-studded cast like this is that you get distracted by all the familiar faces.  Some of them successfully disappear into their roles, including an unrecognizable Timothy Oliphant as a hitman.  But others like Taylor Swift and Chris Rock become a distraction because they just play their characters much like their own personas, and it feels really out of place in this period setting.  I don’t know if Russell intended for a star studded cast as packed as this one, or if it was forced upon him by the studio, but it’s clear that he does not spread out his attention evenly to all of them, and the movie ends up wasting a whole lot of big names in meaningless roles.

But, the movie does have saving graces about it and it’s largely found in the visuals.  The movie was shot by three time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki, who brings a beautiful filmic quality to the movie.  He gives the movie a nice earthy glow that feels very appropriate for the time period that the film is set in.  In particular, he captures some very well composed close-ups of the actors.  Sometimes the close-ups have an uncomfortable feeling about them, with the actors looking right down the barrel of the lens of the camera, which helps to build up some of the tension of the movie.  Where the script lets down the story so much the visuals help to pick the movie up again.  Apart from the beautiful cinematography, the movie also does a fantastic job with period details.  It does a great job of invoking the time period, with the grimy streets of Depression Era New York City to the pristine Victorian era mansions that many of the story’s elites occupy.  The only downside is that Russell’s unfocused vision doesn’t allow for too much time to soak up the atmosphere of these settings.  You can really see the work and care that was put into the crafting of the costumes, the sets, and the on location shoots.  It feels timeless, but Russell’s direction is not.  He is very much a contemporary filmmaker, better equipped to tell personal everyman stories in modern or recent society.  The trouble with period films is that it takes a lot of work to make the past come alive again, and ultimately it falls on the skill of the director to make us believe in the this dramatization of the past.  For Russell’s sake, he should be happy that his unfocused vision is at least pleasing to the eye, which helps to make it at the very least watchable and at times very entertaining.

For David O. Russell’s career in total so far, you can’t help but feel disappointed in a movie like Amsterdam.  So much talent is involved behind the camera and in front of it; many whom you could say are at the tops of their fields.  And yet, it’s all wasted for a movie that barely functions as a narrative.  The grasp of what David O. Russell is trying to say in this movie (which is the threat of rising fascism in the free world, sponsored by multi-national corporations) get lost in the detours into absurdity that Russell seems to like putting into his movies.  You would think after a long hiatus that Russell would have crafted a more balanced piece, but in the end it seems like he has lost some of that creativity over time.  Still, you could do worst, and it is admirable that a filmmaker like Russell swings as hard as he can, even if it leads to a strike or an easy  flyball out.  I still think Russell is a talented filmmaker; it’s just that Amsterdam is the wrong vehicle for him to work with.  The performances are mixed, the script is a meandering mess, the cinematography is strong but could have been better served with a more cohesive narrative.  I think if the movie had just Christian Bale’s eccentric performance at it’s center, it could have been something more than what we got.  It’s frustrating to sit through, but at the same time not unwatchable.  Some people in my theater quite enjoyed it, but there was clearly not enough laughs to justify the goofier tones in scenes throughout the rest of the movie.  Hopefully for David O. Russell  takes on another project after this  that better plays to his strengths.  For now, Amsterdam is a movie that cannot rise to the ambition that it’s director was hoping to get out of it.  It’s epic, but also hollow; an exercise more in period film aesthetics rather than the taught conspiracy suspense thriller that it should maybe aim better for.  Still, it’s good to know that David O. Russell is still a risk taker, and some of his cinematic choices in Amsterdam bear fruit of that.  Time will tell if he’s able to return to a  worthwhile project where he is able to deliver cinematically in a sense different than how Amsterdam landed.

Rating: 5/10

Keep Them Scary – The Evolution of Scary Monsters in the Movies

The time for scary movies is upon us once again as we enter the ever expanding seasonal reach of Halloween.  Naturally the cinemas are gearing up their roll out of haunting new scary movies, but this is also a time when people return to their favorites for a good frightening re-watch.  And throughout the history of movies, cinema has developed so many different flavors of horror movies to satisfy audiences of all types.  There’s your usual monster movie subgenre, as well as haunted house tales, stalker movies, psychological horror as well as gruesome body horror.  There’s also plenty of crossover with other types of genres like science fiction and action adventure, and in some cases comedy as well.  But there is no doubt that the best horror movies out there are judged primarily on how well they are able to scare an audience.  A horror movie doesn’t always need to make it’s audience scream with fright; it can achieve the same feeling of terror with just a pervasive atmosphere of terror.  For the most part horror movies need to do their best to firmly establish the level of threat that the evil threat in their movie poses.  The greater the threat, the scarier the horror element will be.  That’s why so many horror movies put so much work into making the embodiment of terror in their movies effectively creepy and terrifying.  It doesn’t always work out sometimes.  Sometimes the threat in these movies is either limited due to budget constraints or is either lazily assembled.  Which is what separates the classic horror movies from the forgettable ones.  All of the great horror movies have that one thing in common; a truly unforgettable monster at it’s center.  Sometimes these monsters can elevate the movie they inhabit if they are iconic enough.  Since horror on the big screen began, there has been a never-ending challenge given to filmmakers to try to one up the level of terror in their movies by making increasingly terrifying monsters, and over time this has led to some rather interesting ideas added to the pantheon of horror movie classics and a fascinating progression of increasing terror upon audiences over the years.

In the early silent days when filmmakers were testing the boundaries of what their craft could accomplish, people quickly realized that some of the best reactions they could get from their artform was in scaring their audience.  Look back at one of the earliest pieces of film from the Lumiere Brothers in 1895, a train arriving at a station.  To audiences seeing this for the first it was reported that many of them ducked and screamed in the screening rooms because they thought that a real train was heading for them, not realizing that all they were looking at was film projecting through light.  Quickly, people realized that terror was an effective way to engage an audience reaction, because people kept coming back to experience that sensation again, knowing that they were perfectly safe in the end.  There are quite a few examples of horror in early cinema, as the smoke and mirrors tricks of the macabre lent themselves perfectly to the art of cinema.  Though primitive as many of those early horror films are, they still carry an eerie aesthetic that still chills over a hundred years later.  However, towards the late stages of silent cinema, the artform progressed to a point where filmmakers could indeed bring truly terrifying imagery to the big screen.  Some European filmmakers like Benjamin Christiansen and F.W. Murnau developed dynamic uses of light and trick photography to make the contrast between the light and dark on screen all the more eerie.  But, at the same time, they brought more terrifying monsters to the big screen; many which had their roots in European folklore.  These moved beyond the simple ghosts and ghouls of early cinema.  Now the movies were inhabited by witches, demons, and of course vampires.  Now 100 years later, the first truly recognized vampire movie, Nosferatu (1922) by F.W. Murnau, still is one of the most terrifying movies ever made, and that is in large part to it’s unflinching and vividly imagined vampire at it’s center; the terrifying Count Orlock, played by Max Schreck.  It’s here that we see the monster itself become the star attraction of the movie, and his legacy would lead to another generation of iconic movie monsters that still have a presence in cinema today.

Carrying on from the European masters, Hollywood themselves began to delve into more horror themselves.  And no place made a better effort at scaring their audiences than Universal Pictures.  Universal really became a power player in Hollywood primarily on the backs of their stable of memorable monsters.  One of the interesting things they were able to do which their European counterparts could not was secure the film rights to famous monsters of literature.  Murnau had to change the name of his titular vampire because the Bram Stoker estate wouldn’t grant him the right to use the name Dracula in his film, despite the fact that he was telling the same exact story.  But, Universal Pictures was granted the right and they were the first to officially introduce Dracula to the big screen.  Though Universal had done well in it’s early years with monsters brought to life by the “man of a thousand faces” Lon Chaney, like the Phantom of the Opera and the Wolf Man, it was in the early talkies that they cemented their reputation as the masters of horror, and they did so with two particular films that are still considered masterpieces to this day.  In 1931, filmmakers Tod Browning and James Whale brought the horror icons Dracula and Frankenstein to vivid life in their respective films.  These films took heavy inspiration from the German Expressionist techniques introduced in the late Silent Era, but they brought a unique Hollywood spectacle element to them as well.  The still young Universal backlot grew by leaps and bounds as they built more soundstages to house the enormous castle sets to make not just these monsters larger than life, but the settings in which their movies take place as well.  But it wasn’t just the craft behind the creations of these monsters that made them so memorable, it was the actors performing the parts as well.  One can’t imagine a more iconic Count Dracula than Bela Lugosi, or a more imposing Frankenstein than Boris Karloff.  Even to this day, depictions of Count Dracula always include a Hungarian accent, because that’s what Lugosi brought to the character.  You may even see depictions of Frankenstein with a refined British accent, which is often a nod to Karloff’s real voice.  And though the movies themselves may seem quaint in comparison today, there is still a strong sense of eeriness that still carries over so many years later that keeps these classic horror flick relevant so many years later.

Though Universal moved beyond just a being factory of horror movies from it’s early years, they nevertheless still maintained it as a cornerstone of their business.  This was true in the post-War years as well, as they continued to contribute even more memorable monsters to their roster.  Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) introduced yet another unique monster to the Universal stable, one that was less humanoid and more alien, which made him a perfect iconic monster for a whole new era in filmmaking.  The 1950’s became the Space Age era, where monsters no longer descended from dark castles or out of dark alleyways, but instead were coming to us from outer space.  This was period when Aliens became the new iconic monsters of cinema.  The benefit of using alien lifeforms as the monstrous threat to mankind in the movies of this era was that their was limited creativity in depicting these new monsters.  You could be as realistic or surreal as you wanted in imagining these alien threats.  You can definitely see the creativity of filmmakers in making aliens that were very abstract in design, like in the classic 1953 adaptation of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds.  There were also scary alien creatures that had human like traits that still managed to terrify, like The Thing From Another World (1951), a creature that would inspire other memorable monsters in the years ahead.  This was also the Atomic age, as fears of what radioactivity was capable of led to a whole variety of terrifying new monsters.  This included giant sized versions of normally small creatures like the giant ants from Them (1954) or giant spiders in Tarantula (1955).  This was also the era when the B-movie craze erupted, so a lot of weird creatures started to inhabit the silver screen, often coming off as more cheesy than terrifying.  What you definitely saw in this generation was a redefining of what kinds of monsters could be seen that would terrify general audiences, and it would be evolution that again would change with the times.

During the Vietnam years, attitudes towards what was scary to audiences changed significantly.  The out of this world monsters of the Space Age years fell away as horrors became far more grounded and human in scale.  We were witnessing terrible atrocities on a regular basis from the coverage of the war in Vietnam, and were confronting the fact that human beings alone could be capable of unbelievable evil.  So, worrying about ghosts, vampires, and aliens became less appealing to audiences in those years, as real life became scarier.  But, horror adapted to these attitudes and a new crop of movie monsters began to emerge; ones that were much more human than before.  The late 60’s and early 70’s gave us the beginnings of the slasher era.  From these years, we got serial killers who preyed on victims from the shadows and terrorized communities in the dark of knight.  These new monsters often were killers hiding behind a mask; human and yet faceless terrors.  Some of the most famous movie monsters to emerge from this time were icons like Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Michael Myers from Halloween (1978) and Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th (1980).  These characters were initially not supernatural beings, but rather imposing humans bent on destruction, with a lust for killing their victims in the most gruesome way possible.  These kinds of monsters brought a far more chilling identity to horror because it brought the sense of terror closer to home.  These were the kinds of monsters that could be lurking around in your very own neighborhood, which had a chilling effect on audiences at the time.  These kinds of movies brought out much of the anxieties of a population far more conscious of the evils within a society, and making movie monsters far more grounded and real was a reflection of how society was changing in that time.  Of course, as eras shifted once again, even these monsters would become larger than life as a whole new set of tools became available to horror filmmakers.

The 1980’s saw an explosion in new types of visual effects techniques, and those found it’s way into the horror genre as well.  You saw more realistic creature effects, like those from the ground-breaking Stan Winston studio.  Stan Winston even reimagined terrifying monsters of past cinema, like the terrifying “Thing” from John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of the 50’s classic, entitled simply The Thing (1982), as well as a monstrous make-over of slasher icon Jason Voorhees.  You also saw creature make-up make great advances in those years, as artists like Rick Baker came into their own.  Baker of course re-imagined a horror icon like the Wolf Man and brought him to even more realistic life with his award winning work in An American Werewolf in London (1981).  In general, there became a far bigger effort to take all the elements of horror from the past and re-invent them again with more advanced visual effects.  For the most part, it worked spectacularly well.  Many of the horror movies of this era still manage to terrify.  The Tobe Hopper directed, Steven Spielberg produced Poltergeist (1982) brought back the haunted house concept in a big way, with one of the most terrifying depictions of spectral activity ever brought to the silver screen.  The sci-fi horror genre even got a major boost from the new technologies of the day, with Ridley Scott’s Alien (1978) and James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) putting terrifying new spins on aliens and robots as iconic cinema monsters.  And, as CGI matured in those same years, filmmakers began to have another tool set to imagine gore and terror on levels that practical effects wouldn’t have allowed in the past.  For many this was a boom for horror filmmaking, as there became less constraints on how far one could go in making monsters more fantastic than ever and the horror they inflict far more grotesque than ever.  But, a certain segment of the audience also made it be known that they wanted their horror to feel less big and far closer to what it should honestly be; personal and up close.

In more recent years, there has been a move toward making movie monsters less tactile and more ethereal.  For many, the less we see of the monster, the more terrifying it becomes.  Some brilliant examples of this in recent years has been in movies like The Babadook (2014) and It Follows (2014).  These movies brilliantly withhold showing their central monsters, to the point where a monster is only merely suggested and not seen fully.  The terror is not in how scary the monster looks like, but rather in the sense that it’s omnipresent in the atmosphere of the story; that feeling that it is always lurking around and could strike at any moment.  That feeling of unease is where the true terror in the movie comes from.  The movies are able to make that work by playing around with sounds in The Babadook or with camera POV in It Follows, so that we are never feeling robbed of not seeing the monster, because of the effective amount of terror built up around fearing that it’s always nearby.  There are other films that manage to effectively show us their monsters by using them sparingly.  James Wan has managed to successfully build his career around expertly crafted movies that show us terrifying images at just the right moment.  His films like Insidious (2010), The Conjuring (2013), and most recently Malignant (2021) all manage to work effectively by using atmosphere to build the terror within the movie and withholding a full glimpse of the monsters within it until they are absolutely needed.  There’s also been a move towards more Avant Garde horror, thanks to studios like A24, where some of the old tricks of classic horror seem to be in favor again.  We are also getting horror that is far more human, with the terror that we do to each other becoming far more prevalent in the kinds of horror stories we tell.  The death cult in Ari Aster’s Midsommer (2019) being a strong recent example, or a dance troupe’s party gone horribly wrong in Gasper Noe’s Climax (2018).  Those are some prime examples of horror movies that don’t normally look like horror movies still manage to have the power to terrify, just through the horror we do to each other.  What it really shows us is that throughout the history of cinema, there is an increasingly changing definition of what constitutes a movie monster, and it’s one that will likely change in the years to come.

The great thing is that even as attitudes towards what is scary changes, it still doesn’t diminish what has come before.  People still value the horror icons of the past, and a few of them still have the power to scare so many decades later.  Certainly the Universal Monster movies remain popular and are still an essential institution of this time of year.  The great thing is that with changing standards of horror over time, some things that were once old can become new again, if delivered with the right amount of skill.  We’ve seen new re-imaginings of the story of Dracula over the years, with many depictions moving in a different direction than the original Bela Lugosi version.  Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is a particularly memorable version, with Gary Oldman doing a spin on the Count that feels very different from the classic version that we know.  There are bad ways of revitalizing these characters too.  Universal’s embarrassing attempt of doing a Marvel style cinematic universe with their stable of monsters, named the Dark Universe, fizzled out pretty quickly after the notorious flop that was The Mummy (2017), starring Tom Cruise.  But, a couple years later, Universal did manage to revitalize one of their monsters successfully with the update to The Invisible Man (2020) which they partnered with Blumhouse to make.  The Blumhouse approach, smaller and more personal in scale, proved to work much better for re-imagining this famous H.G. Wells creation for the big screen, and one would hope that Universal considers doing the same with their other famous movie monsters.  Great monsters don’t fade into obscurity as we’ve seen throughout the history of cinema; they manage to endure and advance with the times.  Even Nosferatu, a character whose only existence is due to a filmmaker not being able to use the name Dracula in his movie, has been given more than one extra lives on the big screen; first in a Werner Herzog remake from 1979, and soon once again in upcoming re-imagining from The Lighthouse’s Robert Eggers.  We don’t forget these movie monsters; we add to their ranks.  People love to be frightened in the right kind of setting that is a movie theater, and it’s a great thing that filmmakers are finding new ways to invoke that sense of terror, even with monsters that we are all too familiar with.  So, as we begin this Halloween season in earnest, remember how important these iconic monsters have been to the history of cinema as a whole, and hopefully take into consideration new ways to make them retain their terrifying presence as we re-tell their stories for new generations.

The Director’s Chair – Billy Wilder

One of the most common titles that you’ll see in many movies is that of writer/director.  What normally can be two jobs held by two different people on any given movie will also sometimes be a role held by a singular person.  And as is the case with writer/directors, they are far more in command of the film’s narrative and vision.  We see a lot more people today that direct films from their scripts; some of whom I have spotlighted in this series.  And it is true that film directors have existed throughout Hollywood history that often wrote the screenplays themselves.  The only difference today is that the writer/director was less commonplace in old Hollywood than what we see in the film industry today.  There were some noteworthy directors who wrote the bulk of their own filmography.  There was John Huston, Preston Sturges, and of course Orson Welles (though his authorship of the screenplay of Citizen Kane is challenged somewhat, as many believe it was mostly Herman Mankiewicz who wrote the bulk of that movie).  But, there hasn’t been a filmmaker before or since who mastered both crafts of scripting and directing with such versatility and with his own unique voice intact as Billy Wilder.  Wilder was unlike most other double threat filmmakers, as he carved out his own cynical, satirical voice while working in so many different genres.  He effortlessly went from making film noir, to psychological drama, to hard boiled political satire, to elegant romance, to wacky screwball comedy without losing that special Wilder touch.  That’s why even in today’s Hollywood  he’s celebrated as a true original, and he remains one of the most consistently successful filmmakers of any era.  What is also interesting is that he managed to create movies with a distinctly American sensibility, both in his movie’s sense of humor and their observations of American society; a remarkable achievement considering his immigrant past and the fact that English was his second language.

Samuel Wilder was born in Austria-Hungary in 1906 to a Polish Jewish family just outside of Vienna.  His family moved around a lot, including a brief time in New York City, which left an indelible impression on him as his latter career would attest.  As he grew older, he sought a career in journalism, with a special interest in the field of entertainment.  He found himself visiting night clubs everywhere between Vienna and Berlin interviewing jazz musicians and the like.  Unfortunately, the rise of Nazism in Germany and Austria forced Billy Wilder to relocate.  He settled in Paris, where for the first time he was commissioned to write for the movies.  He contributed a number of screenplays to many films made by his fellow German ex-pats as they were in their Parisian exile.  In that time, he also got to make his debut as a director with the French language film Mauvaise Graine (1935), which he also wrote.  However, as Nazi occupation of France inched closer, Wilder knew he would have to uproot once again. Thankfully, by this time, Hollywood finally came a calling, as he was granted the chance to write the screenplay for Ernst Lubitsch’s next comedy, Ninotchka (1939).  Billy Wilder’s brilliant comedic mind translated perfectly into Hollywood and his work on Ninotchka was wildly celebrated; a film that famously was sold on the tagline “Garbo Laughs,” a reference to the out of character turn in the movie from the mostly stoic Scandinavian leading lady at it’s center.  Building off of that success, Wilder would go on to have one of the most successful runs of any filmmaker in Hollywood, both as a writer and director.  His filmography is full of movies that are still celebrated as essential American classics, like Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945), Sunset Boulevard (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Some Like it Hot (1959), and The Apartment (1960).  And while all his films are very different in tone and subject, they nevertheless feature the same distinctive voice that was unmistakably his own; which was often slick, irreverent, and sharply critical while at the same time maintaining a sense of playfulness.  So, let’s take a look at what made the movies of Billy Wilder the works of cinematic wonder that they are.

1.

LUST & GREED

If there was ever a common thematic element found throughout the movies of Billy Wilder, it would be these human failings.  The characters within Billy Wilder’s movies are often motivated to do the dark deeds that they do by one or the other, or even both.  The movie Double Indemnity, one of the films scholars cite as one of the grandfathers of Film Noir as a cinematic style, is a movie where both sins come into play within the narrative.  Fred McMurray’s Walter Neff falls under the seduction of lonely housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), who sees an opportunity to scam the insurance company that Neff works for while also getting rid of her husband, thanks to knowledge of the double indemnity clause in her husband’s insurance plan that Neff clues her into.  In the movie, Wilder explores the depths that people will go to satisfy their greedy intentions while at the same time falling under their lustful inclinations against their better judgment.  Wilder liked to explore this aspect within the human condition, how desires cloud our better instincts and often lead to ruin.  While Double Indemnity takes a salacious and dark view of the complications of dark desires at play, he also knows how to make fun of society’s underbelly when it comes to seeking power and sexual gratification.  The film The Apartment also takes a look at scandalous behavior behind the veneer of “normal” domestic life, but does so with a bittersweet sense of humor as well.  To get ahead in life, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) lends him apartment to his bosses from work so they can have their extramarital affairs in secret, until he suddenly finds himself in love with one of the girls caught up in the affairs, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).  Here, Wilder finds sweetness in the same kind of story that more often would turn sour in the past, showing that he could indeed tackle the same thematic elements with a great amount of nuance and intelligence.  More importantly, in both cases, he’s confronting the fact that both lust and greed are very human traits that often carry a degree of consequence for his characters, and he’s allowing the audience to confront these same issues to in a way that was quite daring in Hollywood for that time.

2.

DIFFICULT MEN . . . AND WOMEN

Billy Wilder had a special knack for creating iconic characters that go on to become among the most famous in movie history.  But what also makes his characters interesting is the fact that most of them are very much morally compromised.  Most of his characters fall very much in the moral gray zone, and there are genuinely very few pure souls in his movies.  But it seems he especially is interested in the most depraved characters of them all; the ones who have fallen off so sharply that there is no hope for redemption for them in the end.  He seems to find these characters the most fascinating, because their falls from grace are often when his satirical voice finds it’s sharpest edge.  More often than not, his flawed characters are men who grow increasingly corrupt as the movie goes along, but he has also created fascinating female characters that also ride that moral line in the darker shadows.  Phyllis Dietrichson for instance can be viewed as one of the original femme fatales of American cinema.  Particularly in his earlier films, it’s hard to find a person to root for, as pretty much all of his characters have some irredeemable flaw.  In Sunset Boulevard, we hear the story from the point of view of William Holden’s Joe Gillis, who as we learn ends up exploiting the connections of a delusional aging movie star named Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) to get himself ahead, only to find out too late that Norma’s delusions drive her to enact bloody revenge.  One predator falls victim to his prey once she feels betrayed.  That’s a common thread in Wilder’s movies; bad people trying to overcome the situations they got themselves into with worse people.  And then there are the characters whose spirals are predictable and the story becomes awaiting to see how far they will go before the fall.  In the ahead of its time Ace in the Hole (1951), Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a sleazy journalist who exploits local tragedy for his own gain, until it turns into a literal circus.  We know that a man as bad as him will eventually meet his fall, but the harsh indictment that Billy Wilder makes, as he does in most of his movies, is showing just how far society is willing to indulge the bad behavior of these characters.

3.

MARILYN MONROE AND FRANKNESS WITH SEXUALITY

If there was one thing that especially marked Billy Wilder’s career in the latter half, it was way that he turned Marilyn Monroe into a cinematic icon.  Ms. Norma Jean was already well known for her musical comedy work like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), but it was once she began to work with Billy Wilder that she catapulted to the height of her onscreen career.  You know that iconic moment where her skirt is blown up by the updraft of a subway vent, the most famous image of Marilyn Monroe that is replicated everywhere?  That was from Billy Wilder comedy called The Seven Year Itch.  Indeed, Wilder was able to get the best out of Monroe, far more than any other filmmaker had before or after, and that is most evident in what was their most celebrated collaboration; the screwball comedy Some Like it Hot.  Monroe gives without a doubt her best and most effervescent performance in that movie, and it’s the one that absolutely plays to her talents the most.  She of course excels in the musical numbers, but her ability to handle the comedy is also admirable, especially working with heavyweights like Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.  The movie itself is also one of the best examples of another trait of Wilder movies; the more open, frank discussions of sexuality in film.  Though Wilder still worked within Code era guidelines, he was able to address sex in a more frank and direct way that few other filmmakers would even dare to address.  The extramarital affair at the heart of Double Indemnity is evidence of that, as is Sunset Boulevard’s implied sexual history with regards to it’s two leads.  In Some Like it Hot, sexual attraction is a major part of the plot and humor.  And long before it was acceptable in society, Some Like it Hot even addresses same sex attraction, as Jack Lemmon’s cross-dressing character becomes the object of affection for a rich playboy (Joe E. Brown).  Even when confronted with the information that the woman he adores is really a man in drag, Brown delivers the now immortal phrase, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”  Only Billy Wilder would dare to put that in his movie and get away with it, and Some Like it Hot is now celebrated by LGBTQ fans for it’s groundbreaking stance, even if it’s played up for a laugh.  It’s one of the most endearing parts of Billy Wilder’s filmography; not being afraid of addressing underlying issues of sexuality in society in an honest fashion, while also solidifying and legitimizing Marilyn Monroe as an icon, something that the gays are also grateful to Billy Wilder for.

4.

AMERICA UNDER A MICROSCOPE

Billy Wilder was often viewed as a cynical man based on his movies, though that can be a misleading thing to characterize him with.  What ended up leading many to this conclusion is the fact that he often didn’t give his characters a satisfying conclusion in the end.  There is no redemption for his flawed characters; no riding off into the sunset for his heroes.  Often, his characters end up dead or in prison by the end of the movie, or in William Holden’s case in Sunset Boulevard, dead from frame one.  But, he doesn’t share these bleak endings as a comeuppance alone for his characters sins.  Often these characters are caught up in societal evils that they willingly participate in, but only too late learn the perils that they have put themselves into.  The descent of Norma Desmond is a particularly potent example of Billy Wilder indicting a segment of society; ironically the one that took him in during his wartime exile, Hollywood.  In Sunset Boulevard, we see the madness that Norma Desmond has fallen into, living within this delusional bubble inside her Beverly Hills mansion, but there is a sad reason for her isolation.  Hollywood has deemed her too old to be relevant anymore, but she’s too stubborn to accept that unfair reality and it sinks her even deeper into madness, something that Joe Gillis shamefully exploits.  There is few indictments of Hollywood as harsh as the closing of Sunset Boulevard, as Norma poses for her “close-up” as she’s being dragged to the asylum, having lost all touch with reality and can only react the only way she knows how, by performing for the camera.  It’s not the only thing that Billy Wilder examines with a sharp satirical eye in his movies; Ace in the Hole examines sensationalized tabloid journalism, Double Indemnity looks at the greediness of insurance brokers, and The Apartment takes a stab at soulless corporate culture and the sexual harassment that arises from it.  Wilder would have examined these assets of society no matter what country he was making movies in, but he especially found America fertile ground for finding these darker aspects of society.  He was by no means anti-American; he remained a grateful émigré to the United States and lived out the rest of his days here, thankful for the creative freedom it gave him.  But, he was also not afraid to call out the darker sides of American culture in his movies, and that made him a very crucial and fearless voice in Hollywood for many years.

5.

SHARP WITTED DIALOGUE

It’s hard to believe that Billy Wilder didn’t speak a word of English before the age of 10.  Circumstances of world politics led him to come to America in his latter years, but German still remained his first language.  So it is amazing that his screenwriting style feels so attuned to an American sensibility.  His sense of humor and style of writing, which he cultivated during his years of covering Jazz club life in pre-War Europe, translated into English without losing any bit of wit in the process.  He managed to capture the language of American culture perfectly once he settled into Hollywood.  Just listen to the frantic paced back and force exchanges in Double Indemnity, innuendos and all.  Billy Wilder could write in English better than most native born speakers who were writing movies around the same time, both in quantity of dialogue and in quality.  Sure, he had co-writers through much of his career, such as Raymond Chandler (Double Indemnity), Charles Brackett (Sunset Boulevard), and I.A.L. Diamond (The Apartment), but if you listen to him in any of his late career interviews, as he speaks in that charming Austrian accent that he never quite lost, a lot of the wit of those movies definitely came from him.  He had a knack for writing character interactions with dialogue that sounded natural yet still clever when you listen closely.  From the Code challenging sexual tension of Double Indemnity, to the charming small talk in an elevator ride from The Apartment, he could write any kind of mode for his stories.  Not only that, but he’s responsible for some of the most quoted final lines in movie history, like Norma Desmond’s Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” to Fran Kubelik’s perfectly succinct, “Shut up and deal,” to the already mentioned iconic and daring closer of Some Like it Hot.  It’s a testament to Wilder that he also exceled behind the camera as a director, because he could have stayed a screenwriter and still would have been considered one of the greatest of all time.  The fact that he was a master of both crafts really cements him as a Hollywood legend, and probably one of the best examples ever of what it means to be a writer/director.

One of the best things about Billy Wilder’s life and career is that he endured long enough to benefit from the impact that his movies had on Hollywood.  He passed away in his home in West Los Angeles at the ripe old age of 95 in 2002.  Though he hadn’t made a movie since the 1980’s, he still maintained a presence in Hollywood, being a vital bridge between old and new Hollywood.  Though he became a naturalized American citizen over the years, he nevertheless held a special place in his heart for the home he left behind.  One of his last cinematic contributions was offering uncredited script contributions to a project he hoped to direct one day called Schindler’s List (1993).  Ultimately he passed on directing, believing himself too old at the time and not a good fit in the end, eventually leading to Steven Spielberg taking on the project.  Still, Billy Wilder was instrumental in getting Schindler’s List off the ground and he remained slightly involved in helping Spielberg shape the final story.  It was important for him to be a part of the movie, because he himself lost family members to the Holocaust, and he felt this was his way of honoring them after so many years.  One of the benefits that he probably had in his long lived life was seeing how so many filmmakers aspired to make the same kinds of movies that he made; especially when it came to the more subversive stuff.  In his whole career he managed to spark the beginnings of film noir, helped to shed a light on the darker aspects of cultural institutions like Hollywood, the media, and capitalism itself, and even pushed the boundaries of sexuality for his time.  What he left behind were what many consider to be among the best films in cinema history, and it is astounding how varied all of them are as well, ranging across multiple genres.  He was recognized in his time for his cinematic contributions, with The Lost Weekend and The Apartment both taking home Best Picture in their respective years, as well as Directing and Screenwriting honors for Wilder.  But the real reward for his long career is how well his movies hold up even today.  Some Like it Hot still gets a laugh, Sunset Boulevard still manages to be chillingly relevant, and Ace in the Hole is eerily prophetic in it’s account of what the media would end up turning into.  Few can command the roles of writing and directing a film with equal measure, and Billy Wilder is one of those few that really made Hollywood what it is today, and he’s got the sharp-witted iconic masterpieces to back that up so many years later.

Going Rotten – The Rise and Weaponizing of Toxic Fandom

Last week, Disney held it’s bi-annual D23 Expo, a fan driven convention held to celebrate all things Disney, as well showcase the upcoming projects that the company has in the works for the future.  I myself was there, as you can read in my report here, and I can say that there was a general positive feeling of community across the entire convention; something that represents the best of fandom in society.  But, once the convention concluded, and Disney’s many announcements were made available to the public at large, other elements of fandom began to emerge.  In particular, sectors of internet discourse began to pick apart all of the news to come out of D23 Expo, and one particular thing really became a lightning rod for many opinionated reactions.  During the D23 Expo, the Disney company released the first look of their “live action” remake of The Little Mermaid.  Those of us who were in the convention center for the premiere were treated to an exclusive presentation of an entire scene from the movie, while the trailer was released worldwide online at the same time.  The reactions ranged from positive to indifferent at the convention itself, but online, the story was very different.  A firestorm erupted immediately about the movie not because of how the film looked, nor the fact that we were getting yet another remake of a beloved animated classic that probably would pale compared to it’s predecessor.  No, the uproar was over the fact that Ariel, the little mermaid at the heart of the movie, was being played by an actress of color named Halle Bailey.  For some reason, this was too much for people to handle, and it led to a furious response from YouTubers, to bloggers, to even political pundits to voice their displeasure at nothing more than a movie trailer.  It’s not the first time a firestorm like this has erupted over a piece of media, and it certainly won’t be the last, but what I find so particularly insidious about this particular level of outrage over the premiere of a trailer is how much it appears coordinated and done on purpose for what seems to be a larger agenda.  What the backlash against The Little Mermaid remake trailer reveals is a way in which fandom has turned into a weaponized tool for division in our polarized society.

Fandom, for the most part, is not a toxic thing in society.  There are a lot of examples of people from varying backgrounds being able to come together and put aside their difference over a shared love of something that matters to them, whether it be a sports team, a favorite film or TV series, or public figure that inspires them.  Fan conventions are a great place where you see the best of fandom on display, such as D23 Expo, or San Diego Comic Con, or Wondercon, and countless other fan gatherings across the globe.  In particular, you see fan creativity come out in these places, with attendees often putting in a lot of work into dressing up in cosplay.  Free expression of one’s fandom is not a bad thing to have in any case.  But, there are areas in which fandom can be a negative, and in many cases, it can turn quite ugly.  The worst kind of fandom, in my opinion, is what can be called “gate-keeping.”  The gate-keeping side of fandom is one way in which fandom can turn toxic, because it leads individuals to discriminate within the fanbase itself.  For some, they believe that true fanhood is it’s own hierarchy, and if you don’t achieve a certain level of minimum appreciation of their particular beloved piece of media or esteemed public figure, than you are in their eyes not a “true fan.”  Now, gate-keeping fans largely are not reflective of the majority of most fanbases, but in the age of the internet, more and more gate-keepers are putting themselves into positions of power where they can become arbiters of the discourse around any particular subject in the pop culture.  And this has in more recent years led to a toxicity within the culture that has percolated into much more than just fandoms.  We are now in a time when pop culture and politics are becoming more intertwined and that’s having a very scary effect on how the outrage over particular types of media are being used to push forward an agenda of a different kind.

This is mainly what makes the outrage over the release of the Little Mermaid trailer so alarming.  The focus is not on the look of the film, nor the purpose of why it needed to be made.  It’s entirely on the skin color of it’s main character.  In the original animated movie, Ariel is white skinned, but in this remake, she is being played by a woman of color.  For many people, this change in skin color is a cinematic sin, but I have to ask, why?  Mermaids are fictional creatures, so it shouldn’t matter what their skin color should be.  There are legit critiques to be made about the movie.  I for one am not particularly looking forward to the film, and that’s mainly because of my own feelings about past Disney remakes like Beauty and the Beast (2017) and The Lion King (2019).  Like those, I worry that the movie is going to be another soulless remake that is going to greatly pale in comparison to the original classic.  But, that’s a worry, not a conviction.  I’m not going to pass final judgment on the film until I actually see it, and I may end up being surprised in the end.  The movie has to overcome past disappointment that is on my mind, but it still must be judged on it’s own merits.  That is how film criticism works.  What we see in the discourse over the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel based on the trailer is not fair criticism at all, but rather an orchestration of an insidious agenda being pushed in the guise of film criticism.  It can’t be said in any other way; the outrage stirred up over the reaction to seeing a woman of color in the role of Ariel in The Little Mermaid is not over any artistic integrity, but purely because of racism.  It upsets a certain segment of people that a role predominately played by white performers in the past, is not being filled by someone who is not 100% white.  This isn’t a complaint levied against The Little Mermaid alone.  Diversity in casting has been greatly scrutinized as of late in the social media age and it is more and more revealing how fan discourse has been turned into a tool of sowing bigotry into the larger culture.

While there has been toxicity in cultural discourse for a long time, it has very much intensified in recent years thanks to the internet and social media.  Before movies even come out, there has to be a million thought pieces about who’s getting cast in the movie, who’s making the movie, and ultimately why you should or should not see the movie.  We are engaged in a never ending stream of fan discourse that often can turn nasty when certain avenues of the internet becomes fixated on something.  In the era of internet discourse, there has been a rise in new media that is determined to shape the narrative of a cultural event in the way that they want.  If there is an objection to a type of casting or a story point that challenges a so-called “fan’s” stringent expectations, then they will then use their platform to complain.  Now, making a lot of noise on one’s YouTube channel or blog is not unethical and perfectly within one’s freedom of expression, even if it comes from a toxic place.  But, as we are seeing more and more lately, these toxic fans are organizing their own audiences to sabotage the very tools used to gauge audience responses to all types of media.  Certain websites like RottenTomatoes.com and IMDb have open forums on their pages that allow everyday users to rate movies and TV shows on a scale, and then that is averaged into a grade for that property.  YouTube likewise includes up and down votes to gauge responses to their videos.  But, these open forums have been victims lately of a practice known as review-bombing.  Basically, a movie or TV show that is seen to have a have a socially conscious message or features a bit of diverse casting will experience a deluge of negative reviews, sometimes from newly created accounts, right at the point when the movie or show is released, with the sole purpose of driving down the audience score.  That’s why you often see Rottentomatoes scores from critics and audiences that are wildly divergent.  The fact that some recent shows like Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power series and Disney+ She Hulk: Attorney at Law have nearly identical negative audience ratings with almost the same number of user accounts involved, which coincidently outnumber all other show reactions by quite a margin in total reviews submitted, kind of tells you that these audience ratings were probably fixed by a manipulation of system itself.

What this practice of review bombing essentially does is that it allows the people behind the campaigns, mainly fire brand agitators with blogs and YouTube channels, to point at the negative reviews on Rottentomatoes.com and other sites and have it confirm the narrative that they are trying to push.  And the narrative that many of them have built their reputations around is the specter of “wokeness” that they say has corrupted fan culture.  The definition of “woke” is described as an alert to injustice in society, especially racism, according to the Dictionary.  It’s a term that has created a lot of fervor in the cultural discourse, and in particular, it has riled up a lot of reactionaries who see “wokeness” as a threat.  Because of the loose meaning that “woke” still has for many people, it can be interpreted as many different things, and for those who consider themselves anti-woke, like the agitators behind the review bombing of popular movies and shows, the term can be applied to pretty much anything they don’t like.  For some, being anti-woke is a crusade, and they must use their time and effort to push forward an agenda that they hope can pressure the powers that be in media to stray away from anything they deem as “woke.”  Unfortunately, this is where a lot of bad things can happen, as fandom and politics end up colliding in this atmosphere, and dissatisfaction over a piece of media can end up shaping the worldview of those caught up in this anti-woke rabbit hole.  Of course, the agitators don’t care about the negative effects that their toxic fan discourse has on the society at large nor the negative effects it puts on the psyche of their followers.  Negative discourse creates more engagement, which the algorithms of social media rewards greatly, and the more it gets people interacting with their channels, the better it is for them and they’ll continue to use their platform to spread more bitterness into the world.

There are consequences to this, as we have seen many times.  The toxicity within the Star Wars fandom in particular has had a troubled history.  It is argued that the kind of fandom that we see today across all avenues of society, began with Star Wars in 1977.  The monumental success of that film changed the culture of fandom and spurned a fan base that achieved cult like fanaticism that runs across all avenues of society.  Eventually, the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, decided to revisit the franchise after 20 years, and expand the universe of his franchise with a whole new trilogy of prequel movies.  However, many people were not satisfied with the results once they finally got to see the new films.  Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) was so derided in fact by the fanbase, that some people were complaining that George Lucas “ruined their childhood” by making the movie.  Though George Lucas took much of the brunt of the fan backlash, there were other attacks made at members of the cast.  The most heartbreaking example of this was young actor Jake Lloyd who play Young Anakin Skywalker in Phantom Menace, a character who grows up to be Darth Vader in continuity.  The backlash from fans haunted Lloyd through much of his childhood and even led to him having a hard time adjusting to growing up; eventually leading him to turning his back to the industry despite having the promising beginning he had as a child actor.  Ironically today, the prequel trilogy is now celebrated by a Star Wars fan base that grew up with them, and elements of that fan base now attack the sequel trilogy for the same petty reasons that their fore-bearers in their fanbase did for the prequels; because it was doing something different.  The anti-woke element in particular really was unkind to the new wave of Star Wars movies, as many of them complained how the series was being take over by “forced diversity” because the main characters were a woman and a black man.  This too has led to some negative consequences, as Daisy Ridley who play Rey in the sequel trilogy has largely abandoned social media since playing the part to avoid harassments, and John Boyega who plays Finn in the movies no longer wants to be involved in the franchise, despite growing up as a big fan.  It can be argued that toxic fandom even led to the uneven mess that the final film in the saga, The Rise of Skywalker (2019), turned out to be as parent company Disney took too much stock in trying to appeal to all fanbases; even the negative ones.  Outrage is an easy emotion to express, and it is often how we display our feelings about things that matter a lot to us.  But, outrage can bring a lot of raw and hurtful things to the forefront, and it especially can have a negative effect on people whose job it is to entertain.  Harassments in the guise film criticism and cultural discourse is not something that should define fandom at all.  You may not like a person’s performance, fine, but personal attacks are beyond the pale and reveal a side of fandom that should never be encouraged.

The good news is that people are getting wise to the fact that people are manipulating fan culture for dubious reasons and are beginning to push back.  In many ways, these elements are in no way reflective of fan communities as a whole, and they’ve only garnered attention because the nature of social media has given negative voices a blow horn within the discourse.  But, people are getting wise to the grifting that is going on.  If you see a YouTube channel that continues to reuse the same talking point week after week, like say posting the word “woke” on their video thumbnail over 100 times in their feed, it will be pretty easy to spot what kind of agenda they are trying to push in their commentary.  Studios are also no longer taking stock in review bombs like they may have in the past.  Case in point, the Marvel movie Captain Marvel (2019) was review bombed upon it’s release, and even to this day the movie still has a rotten audience score on Rottentomatoes.com, despite a positive critical score.  The reason Disney has not been troubled by this is because the movie performed extremely well at the box office, making over a billion worldwide, and it has led to the follow-up sequel coming out next year.  I’ve seen first hand audience reactions at the theater and at D23, everyday people love Captain Marvel, as seen by cheering audiences at the screening, and people dressed up as the character at the Expo.  The fact that so many young girls are inspired by the character and have become more interested in comic book stories likewise is something that I feel is a strong net positive about the movie.  It’s also becoming apparent that the anti-woke crowd’s pre-emptive strategy of review bombing movies and shows is starting to blow up in their face.  This was evident in the reaction to the movie Prey (2022) this summer, as that movie proved to be a massive hit and the review bombers revealed themselves to be the racist bigots that they mostly are for attacking the movie too early solely for the reason of diverse casting.  The same has again happened with HBO’s new hit series House of the Dragon from the Game of Thrones franchise, as the show has been embraced by the fandom, and the agenda driven anti-woke agitators have had to embarrassingly roll back their criticism after giving up their blatant agenda.  Amazon certainly saw the firestorm coming for it’s Lord of the Rings series, and they dismantled their ratings system pre-emptively before it could be misused.  It is unfortunate that these bad apples have made it difficult to differentiate fair criticism from bad faith criticism, but too much abuse of the discourse has led to these extreme measures and led to studios taking less stock in what the fans have to say.  It’s honestly upon the fan culture itself to call out those who are leading bad faith arguments against popular media and hold them accountable for the bad takes that they make which poison the discourse of fandom as a whole.

The reaction to Halle Bailey as Ariel, the little mermaid, is just another sad chapter in what seems like a never ending culture war.  The sad thing is, toxic fandom is sometimes seen as a desirable path for people who want to hold the contrarian position in the public discourse of pop culture.  And it’s usually the grifters within the toxic fandom media that prey upon these contrarian opinions to serve their own agendas.  Politics and culture are not far divided and appealing towards an individuals intense feelings towards a particular part of fan culture is an effective way of recruiting them for another extreme position.  There is a lot of cross-over appeal between intense fandom gate-keeping and anti-democratic authoritarianism, which is seeping more and more into the political discourse.  How many people have we seen in recent years go into the ballot box because they want to stop a “woke” agenda?  When pressed to define their anti-woke positions, it often stems from them disliking the perceived political message they saw on TV or in a movie.  Fandom can be weaponized to push a larger political agenda that can definitely have some dire consequences for society in general.  What I hope is that none of that noise made from segments of the internet dissuades anyone’s artistic expression.  As I have experienced consuming media of all kinds (movies, television, internet videos) diversity in voices is a good thing and makes for a more interesting and ultimately entertaining experience overall.  And as I have seen, fandoms are for the most part welcoming of all kinds of diverse voices.  It’s those that try to close off fandoms and manipulate it for their own ends that are not representative of fandoms as a whole.  The only reason why they get so much attention is because they are often the loudest voices in the room thanks to algorithms that govern the social media space.  But, when you watch a movie with other fans in a theater or attend a fan convention, you see the other side and how broad and welcoming it can be.  It’s up to that side of fan culture to stand up for the things they love, encourage and not harass those who work in the creative arts, and help critical discourse move things forward and not backward.  I understand that my role as a critic is to give judgment, but my wish is to allow everyone a fair chance to prove my worries wrong and stand on their own merits.  I can’t say how Halle Bailey’s turn as Ariel may turn out, but just on the basis of what her casting means I think it is bold and a worthwhile change that could indeed serve the movie well.  Just take a fair, objective look at what you are seeing and not the implications of what it means for the culture as a whole.  In other words, leave your individual prejudices at the door.  That’s what constructive criticism should be and judging a performance based on race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or creed of the actors or filmmakers involved with the movie is the kind of criticism that gives fandom a bad name.