Shazam: Fury of the Gods – Review

2023 is going to be an odd year for DC comic book movies.  For one thing it will mark the end of one era in the progression of movies they have put out, as well as the beginning of another era.  But, before the new can begin, the old must have it’s final say, and that’s what is happening with the DC films this year.  In a remarkable turn of events in the last year, the mega merger of Warner Media (DC’s parent company) and Discovery Entertainment caused a ripple effect across all projects in various levels of development.  One thing was clear as newly appointed CEO David Zaslev took over control of the company; changes had to be made.  For DC, this meant put a stop to the current flow of movies in the DC Expanded Universe (DCEU) pipeline and re-assessing the direction that they wanted to go with the properties that they had.  This is some ways was welcome, as the DCEU has been for the most part an un-focused mess.  Often dubbed the Snyderverse, because of the creative direction the franchise has followed built off of the movies directed by Zach Snyder, the DCEU for the longest time had been playing catch-up with their rivals at Marvel Studios, struggling to build a compelling interconnected universe on the same level.  While Zach Snyder’s vision can definitely be considered unique and in contrast with Marvel, the movies he made were often too dour and pretentious to be considered entertaining, and sadly it caused most of the other DC movies to feel lacking in entertainment as well.  There were bright spots like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017), but the DCEU overall never could get it’s footing right, and many felt that it wasted iconic storylines in a hopeless pursuit of besting Marvel.  So, a refresh was definitely called for, and that’s what Zaslev has ordered from DC.  Sadly, this action came with it’s own drastic measures, including the cancellation of a nearly complete, $90 million Batgirl movie.  But, the issue at DC was a lack of cohesion in it’s overall vision, and to try to change course on the shaky foundation of the past would’ve been too much of a hassle for the new regime, so a fresh start is what they chose instead.  And the new DC would also be giving the duty of uniting it’s universe through one creative mind: filmmaker James Gunn.

Gunn has taken over the role of Creative Director for the DC Comics film division with the unenviable task of restructuring the direction of the now dubbed DCU.  Having won acclaim from his time at Marvel, turning the obscure Guardians of the Galaxy comic book line into a billion dollar franchise all on it’s own, James Gunn is entering his new position at DC with a lot of high hopes resting on his shoulders.  A few weeks back, we saw our first glimpse at what his team has come up with for a fresh new direction for the universe, including a mix of familiar faces (Superman and Batman) alongside obscure characters from deep within the DC library; something that Gunn holds especially dear.  Some welcomed the news, while others were cautious in their optimism, knowing how they’ve been disappointed in DC before.  And then there are the Snyderverse stans who refuse to let the past die and are already grinding their axes to take down James Gunn.  Suffice to say, it is going to be interesting to see how Gunn and company manage to roll out their slate of projects after the turbulent ride that DC has been through.  One thing that is going to be interesting to see though is how the remnants of the old DCEU play out, knowing that their storyline is largely coming to an unceremonious end.  There are four DC movies releasing this year: the long awaited and controversial Flash movie, the little known Blue Beetle movie, the sequel to the Jason Momoa headlined Aquaman, and of course, the sequel Shazam: Fury of the Gods, coming out this weekend.  With the knowledge of the DCEU coming to an end, and the DCU rising from it’s ashes, is Shazam: Fury of the Gods a movie at all worth seeing, and is it a bright light on a dark road or an even clearer sign of what needed to change at DC?

Shazam: Fury of the Gods pretty much picks up where the last film left off.  Young orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) has been gifted super human power when ever he says the magic words “SHAZAM,” which turns him into an adult super being of the same name (Zachary Levi).  His foster family of fellow orphans that he shares a home with, including Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Glazer), Eugene Choi (Ian Chen), Pedro Pena (Jovan Armand) Mary Bromfield (Grace Caroline Currey), and Darla Dudley (Faithe Herman) have also gained the same ability to transform into super beings (Adam Brody, Ross Butler, D.J. Cotrona, Currey again, and Meagan Good respectively) and together they have formed a super hero team to protect their hometown of Philadelphia.  The only problem is that despite outward appearances, they are still kids and they make a lot of mistakes that other more experienced super heroes do not.  This has earned them the unflattering nickname of the ‘Philly Fiascos” by the fed up citizens of the city.  At the same time, Billy is beginning to feel unsure of his ability to lead the others and keep them together as a family unit, knowing full well that he’s going to turn 18 soon and age out of the foster care system.  Meanwhile, the wizard staff that gave them all their powers has been stolen by super powered being known as the Daughters of Atlas.  Two of the sisters, Hespera (Helen Mirren) and Kalypso (Lucy Liu) have also imprisoned the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) himself and forced him to repair the damage to the staff to bring it’s power back.  Their intent is to reclaim the power of the Gods that the Wizard has stolen from them, which now is possessed by Shazam and his family, and bring back the power to their realm.  There is also a girl who has befriended Freddy named Anna (Rachel Zegler) who may hold a few answers of her own about what is at stake.  Dealing with a threat of malevolent Gods in their city, the family of Supers must figure out a way to overcome their inexperience and rise to the challenge, and Billy must confront the thing that he has long been avoiding, which is the realization that he has to start growing up.

When the first Shazam movie came out in Spring of 2019, it was a breath of fresh air after the depressing Zack Snyder movies and the underwhelming DCEU movies that surrounded it.  It was light and airy, and also not afraid to poke fun at itself and other DC comic book characters.  Most of all, it had a sense of fun and was charmingly irreverent; a stark contrast to what the rest of the DCEU had to offer.  And it did all this, without feeling like a Marvel clone.  For the first time, it looked like Shazam had managed to crack the formula, and give us a DCEU movie that could indeed entertain while still staying true to it’s comic book origins.  Sadly, it’s reign at the box office was cut short as Marvel had it’s record breaking Avengers: Endgame (2019) hit theaters a few short weeks later, but it made enough to convince Warner Brothers to greenlight a sequel.  The only question was, could they capture the same kind of magic a second time around?  Fury of the Gods is coming out in a far different kind of environment.  The movie had to be made during the pandemic and of course the whole shake-up at the top of the company suddenly made the future of this series irrelevant.  So, it is at least a consolation that if this is the end of this series of Shazam movies, at least they are going out on a positive note.  It doesn’t quite surpass the original, but Fury of the Gods is a worthy companion to the first film.  It thankfully maintains the sense of fun and irreverence that made the first so likable.  I think that it’s a result of the same team returning for this production, picking up right where they left off.  Director David F. Sandberg just has a good sense of tone; knowing when to incorporate the humor at the right moments, while also making clear what the stakes are in this story.  He also does a great job of directing the action beats in each scene.  All the action is clear and visible (which really made the first film also stand out against the Snyderverse films) and there is a lot of creativity in how the scenes are staged.

If there is something that I feel like the movie falls short off it’s predecessor with in comparison, it would be some of the character development.  In particular, there is something lacking with the character of Shazam/ Billy Batson.  The first film created this compelling story about Billy’s desperate search for his birth mother, only to lead him towards accepting the family he chooses rather than the family that abandoned him.  It was a heartwarming aspect of his character development that helped to balance out more humorous aspects of his personality when he was in super-powered mode.  This time around, the movie leans more on the sillier side when it comes to Shazam, and that kind of robs the movie of the heart that defined the original.  Here Billy’s story is far less of a factor, with some of his adopted brothers and sisters taking more of the spotlight.  As a result, they stand out more and he’s more or less just present as a comical diversion.  Also, it seems like in the interval between films, Shazam has gotten somewhat dumber.  I understand that part of that is the fact that he still technically a kid and that Billy is fearful of growing up; but there is a level of immaturity with the character in this movie that seems like even more of a step backwards from the last film.  To me, it just seems like the filmmakers wanted to utilize Zachary Levi’s man-child schtick a bit more in this movie, and he carries most of the screen-time in this film.  Asher Angel, who had about equal screen-time in the last film is barely here this time, and there seems to be even more of a disconnect between how the two actors are playing the character.  Levi’s playing him more broad, while Angel’s more toned down, and it makes the conceit of the transformation feel far less effective.

The rest of the cast though feels more in tune with different roles they are playing.  I definitely buy the fact that Jack Dylan Grazer and Adam Brody are playing the same character, as they both are bringing the same fast-talking nerdy vibe to the character.  The even better match is Meagan Good and Faithe Herman as the different versions of Darla, as they both perfectly capture the sweet innocent femininity of the youngest member of the super family.  As far as the villains go in this movie, both Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu bring the right amount of menacing presence to the movie without undermining the overall lighter tone.  Helen  Mirren in particular really understands the assignment, as she uses her high thespian skills to bring sincerity to her portrayal of an all powerful goddess, while at the same time knowing how to have fun with it.  There is one scene where her character read a letter that has to be hands down one of the funniest moment I’ve seen in a movie in a long while.  Her delivery in particular makes the moment work perfectly, and I was cracking up in the theater.  And while I have my reservations about how his character development progressed in this movie, I will say that both Zachary Levi and Asher Angel still do a good job of playing the character of Billy Batson/Shazam.  Levi in particular really manages to put hilarious spins on his line readings that makes the character genuinely funny to watch.  But overall, it’s Jack Dylan Grazer that stands out the most in this movie.  He was clearly the scene stealer of the first Shazam and it makes sense to expand his role further here.  The movie definitely leans into his sense of comedic timing, but I was also impressed with how well he handled the more dramatic moments too.  There are parts of the climatic ending of this movie where he really puts in an emotional performance, and it’s really good to see how well he has progressed as an actor between movies.

The movie also follows in the footsteps of it’s predecessor by being visually pleasing as well.  I appreciate the fact that the movie takes place mostly in broad daylight, which helps to keep everything coherent visually.  Many super hero films, particularly the DCEU ones, cast their color palette in darker tones, probably as a means of softening the look of less than stellar visual effects shots.  Shazam on the other hand keeps things bright, even if it doesn’t help the CGI effects.  The CGI is about on par with most movies in the genre, but with Shazam, the filmmakers thankfully don’t worry too much if a few things don’t look 100% realistic.  As long as the special effects remain inventive and engaging, it doesn’t have to be photo-realistic.  This is definitely evident with the monsters in this movie, which very much look like digital creations.  The designs are unique enough and their actions inventive enough that it becomes acceptable having them appear a little off.  There are good visual effects here too.  One character in the movie has the ability to manipulate environments like they were on a turntable, and it’s a really neat looking visual.  There’s also a very cool looking dragon made out of wood that is beautifully designed and even looks good mixed in with the live action environments.  Sandberg’s direction also keeps the movie briskly paced even with so many characters and plot elements to juggle.  Considering how so many super hero films as of late feel disjointed and meandering, it’s refreshing to see a movie like this keep things simple and clear.  Essentially, the movie centers around a central McGuffin and it’s all about the heroes trying to keep the villains from gaining what they want; simple textbook story structure, but executed to near perfection.  Especially in comparison to the movie that this is most associated with in the DCEU, last year’s Black Adam (2022), this movie thankfully keeps it clear what it’s heroes’ motivations are, and that’s proving oneself worthy of great power; something this movie carries over from the first film.

The movie’s timing is unfortunate for a variety of reasons.  It’s coming at a time when DC is about to re-organize and start their connected universe from scratch, making this movie irrelevant.  On top of that, there seems to be a sense of Comic Book movie fatigue starting to set it with audiences.  This is evident by the recent disappointment of Marvel’s own Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023).  My worry is that this kind of environment is going to cast an unfair pallor over this film, which may sadly cause many people to overlook this very entertaining sequel.  It’s definitely got it’s own flaws, but those shortcomings are overwhelmed by the sincerity and sense of fun that Shazam: Fury of the Gods has.  I really hope that audiences don’t overlook this movie and give it at least a chance.  Whether it’s the lively performances of the cast of actors or the inventive and engaging action sequences, this is a sequel that at the very least matches it’s predecessor in many ways.  The big disadvantage that it has is that it’s not the introduction to the character and his story, taking some of the initial novelty away.  But, enough surprises keeps this movie from disappointing and the overall experience is one that I think that audiences will react to favorably.  It remains to be seen what Shazam’s fate will be in the newly laid out plans for DC’s future.  The end credit scenes don’t give us a definitive answer either (it honestly could go either way).  Hopefully James Gunn still will consider a place for Shazam in the future of the DCU, though it may have to be with different actors.  Asher Angel is growing up fast, and the novelty of a young boy turning into a full grown super hero won’t work as well as he himself ages more into manhood himself.  For a movie on it’s own, Shazam: Fury of the Gods delivers enough of the good things that made the original such a standout delight while adding it’s own special treats to the mix and if this is the end of the line for this story, it at least makes the most of it.  Definitely have a super time with this super hero sequel.

Rating: 8/10

The 2023 Oscars – Picks and Thoughts

The time has come again.  With 2022 standing as a recovery year for the film industry after the subsiding of the Covid-19 pandemic, the same sort of return to normalcy is also happening with the biggest Awards show of the season.  The Oscars, after spending the last couple years in a later to early spring time slot, is now settling back into it’s late winter placement, creating a much tighter frame for Awards season to build momentum for any certain movie.  But, apart from scheduling, the make-up of these Oscars are also looking more like Awards seasons of the pre-pandemic past, and then some.  For the first time in a long while, the year’s top grossing movies are contending in the Best Picture race; those films this year being Top Gun: Maverick (2022) and Avatar: The Way of Water (2022).  Neither has a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, but still it’s a good sign that the Academy is beginning to recognize that it’s in their best interest to acknowledge that blockbuster films beloved by the masses are deserving of these honors too.  Apart from those two films, the overall race this year is a very interesting collection of different kinds of movies that typically are overlooked by the Academy; a good sign of different attitudes taking hold within the Academy ranks.  It will remain to be seen if the actual award winners reflect those changing attitudes, or if the Academy will still default towards their safe bet choices.  Like in years past, I will be taking a look at the top eight categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, and Adapted Screenplay) and give you my thoughts as well as my pair of picks; those who I think will win, and those who I think should win.  Keep in mind, I’m an amateur when it comes to picking winners with a so-so track record, and my own biases certainly come into play, so don’t put any money on my choices here.  I will say that I make these picks having seen all the nominated movies, so I at least come to this with an informed mind.  With all that said, let’s take a look at the nominees for the 2023 Academy Awards.


Nominees: Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, All Quiet on the Western Front; Rian Johnson, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery; Kazuo Ishiguro, Living; Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie, Peter Craig and Justin Marks, Top Gun: Maverick; Sarah Polley, Women Talking

Pretty easy to dismiss off the bat is Top Gun: Maverick.  Even the most die hard fans of the movie will admit that the blockbuster film’s best asset was not it’s screenplay.  And there is no doubt that it will be well represented in the technical awards categories.  Usually every year, one of the blockbuster movies sneaks into a screenplay competition, and this was the one for this year.  Rian John follows up his nomination for Knives Out (2019) with another nod here, and his satirical sleuth sequel is definitely the kind of smart and twisty script that the Academy loves.  Unfortunately, being the only nomination for that film probably hurts it’s chances here.  Novelist Ishiguro gets his first nomination for screenwriting here, but it’s for a movie that many acknowledge is not as strong as the Japanese original made by Akira Kurosawa.  What I think has the advantage in this race is Sarah Polley’s Women Talking.  It’s a screenplay where the dialogue is the driving force of the movie, as the whole film is essentially a prolonged debate between women deciding whether or not to leave their Mennonite colony after years of abuse.  The themes of the film will probably resonate strongly with Academy voters as well, given the political climate and the reckoning over the last few years with regards to the #MeToo movement.  Polley is certainly deserving of the honor, but my own favorite in this category is the one film nominated not in the English language.  The screenplay for All Quiet on the Western Front breathes new life into the nearly century old anti-war novel and really brings the harrowing horrors described on the page to terrifying life.  But what is special in the movie is the way it expertly humanizes it’s characters and makes every moment they share on the battlefield all the more agonizing.  On top of that, it expertly weaves in the ticking clock of signing the armistice treaty that ultimately ends WWI.  I’m sure that Sarah Polley will be the victor here, given her victory already at the WGA awards, but if All Quiet has a good night overall in the other categories, it could be a surprise spoiler here, and one that I would be happy to see win as this was indeed one of my favorites of the year.

Who Will Win: Sarah Polley, Women Talking

Who Should Win:  Edward Berger, Lesley Paterson and Ian Stokell, All Quiet on the Western Front


Nominees: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once; Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin; Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner, The Fablemans; Ruben Ostlund, Triangle of Sadness; Todd Field, Tar

One of the big narratives that has emerged out of this Oscar season is the dominance of Everything Everywhere All at Once.  The film that came out in theaters in March, around the same time as the Oscars last year, and stuck around in people’s minds long enough to lead all other Awards nominees, is not only not loosing steam going into Oscar weekend, but it also seems to be gaining momentum.  The film, if it keeps this up, could be one of the biggest winners at the Oscars in recent memory and this could indeed be one of their pick-ups in an overall successful night.  The Daniels (Kwan and Scheinert), as they are known in the industry, have already picked up the WGA award (a strong precursor), so they are likely to do the same at the Oscars barring any surprise upsets.  It’s overall a strong category, as each screenplay is for a film nominated for Best Picture.  My favorite film of the year, The Fablemans, is recognized here, but it’s a screenplay that may be too middle of the road for the Academy this year; though it is interesting that this is Spielberg’s first screenplay nomination in 45 years, the last being for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  A possible spoiler here could be Martin McDonagh’s pitch black comedy The Banshees of Inisherin, which I would certainly agree is one of the cleverest scripts of the year.  But, it’s also very bleak compared with the rest, which is why the Academy may overlook it.  However, my pick here would be the screenplay that took the longest to write.  Todd Field supposedly worked on the script for Tar over a 12 year period, refining it multiple times until it became the intricate character study that the final film became.  Of the nominees here, it’s the least showy script, playing much more with subtleties of character, but like his two other films In the Bedroom (2001) and Little Children (2006), the brilliance of Tar is in the unexpected and ruthless turns it takes.  So, if Everything Everywhere has a big night, expect it to win here, but Tar for me would make for the most satisfying of upsets.

Who Will Win:  Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Who Should Win:  Todd Field, Tar


Nominees: Barry Keoghan, The Banshees of Inisherin; Brendan Gleeson, The Banshees of Inisherin; Brian Tyree Henry, Causeway; Judd Hirsch, The Fablemans; Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once

As we get into the acting categories, let’s get the most sure thing out of the way.  This one is Ke Huy Quan’s to lose.  All the way through Awards season, Quan has been the favorite for this award, not just for the great performance he gave in Everything Everywhere All at Once, but also because of the incredible narrative of his own real life comeback story.  He was a child actor in the 1980’s, best known for playing Short Round opposite Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), but he quit acting as a teenager because of the lack of good roles for Asian actors in Hollywood at the time.  After over 30 years out of the spotlight, working mostly behind the camera with stunt choreography, he was inspired to return to acting after having seen the hit film Crazy Rich Asians (2018), which was a movie that he believed showed him that there were better opportunities now for Asian actors in the business.  He miraculously landed a role immediately upon returning, and his return has been met with universal praise across the board.  Thus far, he has been a darling of the awards season, bringing people to tears with his heartfelt acceptance speeches, and there is little doubt that he’ll also be doing the same on the Oscar stage.  The Academy loves a comeback story, and his is one of the most inspiring in recent memory.  Are there any spoilers in this race.  The only ones I can think of might be the duo of actors nominated here from Banshees of Inisherin;  Barry Keoghan and Brendan Gleeson, who like Quan are first time nominees here.  They both give great performances, but they also don’t have the comeback story factor putting wind in their sails.  I for one will absolutely be happy to see Ke Huy Quan win, and not just because of my fandom for Temple of Doom.  His performance is clearly the standout in this category, and it will be a wonderful cap to an improbable comeback story that has defined his road to Oscar.

Who Will Win:  Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Who Should Win:  Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once


Nominees:  Angela Bassett, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever; Hong Chau, The Whale; Jamie Lee Curtis, Everything Everywhere All at Once; Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin; Stephanie Hsu, Everything Everywhere All at Once

We go from the surest thing to the category that is probably the most open-ended.  The supporting actress race is interesting for a variety of reasons.  One, the nomination of Angela Bassett is historic because it’s the first acting nomination ever for a film from Marvel Studios; a big feather in the cap for the brand which has been trying hard and coming up short over the years in getting the Academy’s attention.  For a while, Bassett also looked like the favorite in this race, but fellow industry veteran Jamie Lee Curtis is coming on strong in the last couple of weeks, buoyed by her win at the SAG awards.  Both Angela Bassett and Jamie Lee Curtis have storied careers over many decades working in Hollywood, and a win for either would be a strong acknowledgement of their contributions to cinema over the years.  But, neither are a sure thing either, as there is the opportunity for an upset here as well.  Jamie Lee Curtis’ co-star Stephanie Hsu may not have the same stacked resume, but her performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once is the one that stands out a bit more in the film, and is far more layered and experimental than many of the other nominees here.  But my own personal choice would be Kerry Condon for her tragi-comic performance in The Banshees of Inisherin.  Here clear-minded character in that movie is a wonderful counterbalance to the understated lunacy of her male co-stars, and she especially excels at making her character feel fully human and lived in as part of the film.  It’s hard to say which way the category will go, but if Everything Everywhere All at Once has a huge night, it might lift the tide in Jamie Lee Curtis’ favor, given her career up to now, and she’ll be deserving too.  It’s honestly better to be an established movie star in this category this year than a fresh newcomer, and that’s something that could put either Bassett or Curtis on top in the end.

Who Will Win: Jamie Lee Curtis, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Who Should Win: Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin


Nominees: Austin Butler, Elvis; Bill Nighy, Living; Brendan Fraser, The Whale; Colin Farrell, The Banshees of Inisherin; Paul Mescal; Aftersun

Interesting thing to note, everyone in this category is a first time nominee, which is surprising for some given that actors like Colin Farrell, Brendan Fraser and Bill Nighy have been around in the movies for decades.  As of right now, one of the fresher faces is carrying the momentum going into Oscar night.  Austin Butler is following in the footsteps of other past winners in this category who won for playing a famous figure in a biopic.  In this case, he is looking to be the odds on favorite for his transformative performance playing “the King” himself, Elvis Presley in the Baz Luhrmann directed film Elvis (2022).  Don’t get me wrong, he is amazing in the movie and clearly the highlight of that film by a wide margin.  But, like most awards given to actors for playing famous figures in entertainment, is the academy really rewarding the performance, or the transformation.  I honestly feel like Austin Butler will win her, but for all the wrong reasons.  The Academy are just suckers for performances that are imitations, and it sadly leads to more original performances that are more deserving getting overlooked in the process.  Case in point, I feel like the buzz around Butler’s Elvis transformation is going to take away from the absolutely groundbreaking work done by Brendan Fraser in The Whale (2022).  Fraser, like Ke Huy Quan in the supporting category, is having a triumphant comeback story unfolding this year, after returning from a long hiatus with a renewed sense of what he wants to be as an actor.  His performance in The Whale, completely disappearing into the persona of a dying 600 pound man, is one for the ages, and I would love it if it gone the due recognition from the Academy.  We’ll see if the Oscars can break out of it’s comfort zone and help give Fraser’s comeback story a powerful benchmark with an Oscar win, but we’ve also seen this scenario play out before, and it’s likely they’ll go with the safe pick of Austin Butler for his noteworthy but still standard performance as Elvis.

Who Will Win: Austin Butler, Elvis

Who Should Win: Brendan Fraser, The Whale


Nominees: Ana de Armas, Blonde; Andrea Riseborough, To Leslie; Cate Blanchett, Tar; Michelle Williams, The Fablemans; Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once

This category certainly drew some controversy immediately after the nominations were announced.  Andrea Riseborough’s out-of-the-blue nomination took everyone by surprise, and the unlikelihood of her inclusion in this category even drew speculation of unlawful campaigning on her behalf that led to her nomination.  The probe turned up no wrongdoing, but unfortunately Ms. Riseborough’s nomination is unfairly tainted by the controversy that surrounds it; with even more controversy surrounding it because it came with the exclusion of Actresses of color in this category, including Viola Davis for The Woman King (2022) and Danielle Deadwyler for Till (2022).  But, Riseborough has little chance of winning here, as the category is pretty much a two woman race going into the final stretch.  Cate Blanchett came into Oscar season as an early front runner, with her virtuoso performance as the titular figure in Todd Field’s Tar.  Her character, Lydia Tar, is a fascinating figure all the way through the movie and it’s an utterly original kind of performance from the legendary performer; fearlessly taking on a character that in many ways is hard to like as she sinks deeper into self-destruction throughout the movie.  But, in recent weeks the groundswell of support for Everything Everywhere All at Once has also lifted up it’s star Michelle Yeoh to being a potential spoiler in this race.  If Yeoh wins, it would be historic as she would be the first Asian actress to ever win the Oscar for a Leading Role, and that would be a landmark too good for the Academy to pass up.  Still, Blanchett is an icon in Hollywood, and many consider her performance in Tar to be her best yet.  She may still yet be the victor, but I would love to see history made with Michelle Yeoh this year.  I’ve loved her work since seeing her in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), and all the way through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and many other great performances.  We’ll see how mighty Everything Everywhere All at Once’s dominance is at the Oscars.  Despite having liked the movie Tar more, I still would love to see Michelle Yeoh win the Oscar here, just because her performance is the more dynamic of the two, and I also like seeing history made at the Oscars.

Who Will Win:  Cate Blanchett, Tar

Who Should Win:  Michelle Yeoh, Everything Everywhere All at Once


Nominees: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once; Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin; Ruben Ostlund, Triangle of Sadness; Steven Spielberg, The Fablemans; Todd Field, Tar

One would expect the Daniels to be triumphant here given that they have picked up the lions share of past Awards this season, including the indicative DGA award.  That’s quite the feat for a team that is only on their second feature film (the first being Swiss Army Man).  It’s also not unusual for the award to be shared by two individuals; it’s happened twice before in 1961 with West Side Story (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins) and 2007 with No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen).  If Everything Everywhere All at Once has a monster of a night, this will be an easy one to call.  Is it the one that I choose.  I do love what the Daniels have done and their win would be a great boost for filmmakers that work outside of the studio system with visions that cannot be so easily pigeon-holed within this industry.  But, given my own bias here, my own favorite runs contradictory to that idea as he is the most insider-y of Hollywood insiders; Steven Spielberg.  The Fablemans was my favorite movie of the year and Spielberg’s direction was the work that impressed me the most of any movie this last year.  It is amazing how well Spielberg’s style works so well in even telling the personal story of his own life.  All of Spielberg’s trademarks are there in the movie, and it takes on a whole different level knowing that the film is a self-portrait.  Another worthy alternative in this category is Todd Field, whose subtle work on Tar shows that he hasn’t lost any of his directorial talent in the 16 years he was absent behind the camera.  So, I do expect the Daniels to win here, but I also would love to see my favorite movie win something at this Oscars, and I feel Spielberg is the best shot it has in the ceremony as a whole, and I would indeed love to see a possible upset here, but it’s highly unlikely, and it’s not like Spielberg hasn’t won here before.

Who Will Win:  Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Who Should Win:  Steven Spielberg, The Fablemans


Nominees:  All Quiet on the Western Front; Avatar: The Way of Water; Elvis; Everything Everywhere All at Once; The Banshees of Inisherin; The Fablemans; Top Gun: Maverick; Triangle of Sadness; Tar; Women Talking

Some interesting developments this year in the Best Picture race.  Not only are the two highest grossing movies of the year represented, but this also shows a shift from trends in recent years that favored movies from streaming platforms.  Only one movie on this list (All Quiet of the Western Front) was made by a streaming producer; Netflix in this case.  All the others were made for theatrical distribution.  During the pandemic years, up to half of the nominees had been streaming exclusives, which shows just how much the dynamic has changed in favor of the theatrical model.  I personally think this is a strong field, mainly because 5 of the 10 nominees made it onto my list this year.  Of all of these, I of course would like to see my favorite movie of the year, The Fablemans, take home the top honor, though I do recognize that this is now a long shot prospect.  Everything Everywhere All at Once has had the strongest legs I’ve seen in the Oscar race in very long time.  Typically, the movie that earns the most nominations at the beginning of the race loses momentum by the time that the awards are given out, but that doesn’t seem to be happening with Everywhere, as it is sweeping up the precursor awards left and right.  A full guild award sweep is always a strong indicator that the same film will win Best Picture here, but stranger things have happened before to “sure things” in the past (La La Land for example).  We’ll have to see how much the Academy’s ranked choice voting system plays a factor, and if some of the older Academy voters are able to wrap their heads around the weirdness of Everything Everywhere.  I do expect that Everything Everywhere All at Once has enough goodwill behind it to get past the goal line, and the question will not be so much if it can will, but how big of a win will it have throughout the ceremony.  More traditional Oscar films like Fablemans or Tar, or even Elvis could play spoiler, but safe money is on Everything winning the night overall.

What Will Win:  Everything Everywhere All at Once

What Should Win:  The Fablemans

And now to quickly run down all the other categories with my picks for what and who I think will win:

Best Cinematography: All Quiet on the Western FrontBest Film Editing: Everything Everywhere All at OnceBest Production Design: ElvisBest Costume Design: Elvis; Best Sound: Top Gun: MaverickBest Make-up and Hairstyling: The WhaleBest Original Score: Everything Everywhere All at Once; Best Original Song: “Naatu Naatu” from RRR; Best Visual Effects: Avatar: The Way of WaterBest Documentary Feature: Navalny; Best Documentary Short: Stranger at the GateBest Animated Feature: Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio; Best Animated Short: The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse; Best Live Action Short: Le Pupille; Best International Feature: All Quiet on the Western Front

So there you have my picks for the 2023 Oscars.  In the Best Picture race, I can definitely say that I had a positive reaction to each of the nominees, with 5 in particular making my Top 10 for the year.  Those 5 will certainly be the ones that I’ll root for at this year’s ceremony.  One thing to look out for is if Everything Everywhere All at Once is picking up a lot of Awards early in some of the down ballot categories.  This will give an indication of how much momentum it took into the final stretch of the voting, and if it looks as good as it has in the last couple of weeks, we might see the biggest Awards winner in this ceremony in a long time.  It won’t be Titanic (1997) or The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) big, but given how light Best Picture winners have been lately (like last year’s CODA with just three wins) a night with a movie winning as many as 5-6 or more would be great to see.  Since it’s March release last year, Everything Everywhere All at Once has been the talk of Hollywood ever since, and it would be natural if it swept all the way to the top of the pack at this years Oscars, considering how much it stuck with so many people.  For the most part, I hope this is a year where the Academy Awards gains a bit of it’s respectability back.  The last couple years have been defined by missteps and controversy.  Sadly the only thing that people remember about the last Oscars was the slap that Will Smith gave presenter Christ Rock on stage; a disgusting act that sadly overshadowed the show overall.  It should be a ceremony that looks more like Award shows of the past, with Covid protocols no longer needed to keep people in the Dolby Theater spaced apart.  One thing I’m definitely looking forward to is how RRR‘s (2022) show-stopping dance number “Natuu Natuu” gets translated onto the Oscar stage.  If it’s even remotely like what we saw in the movie, we are in for a good show come Sunday.  Here’s hoping for a good Oscar ceremony that sees deserving and even historical wins, as well as a general positive improvement in the audience interest in the awards overall.  And of course, let’s look forward to seeing what may show up at the Oscars a year from now after all the movie premieres lined up in the months ahead.

Creed III – Review

Back in 2015, there was a lot of skepticism surrounding the release of the film Creed.  The film was a revival and continuation of the famed series of Rocky movies starring Sylvester Stallone.  It was a franchise that quite honestly had been in sharp decline over the years, though many fans will acknowledge the 6th film Rocky Balboa (2006) was a satisfying final note to leave the series on.  To keep going with not only another film, but another film without Rocky himself as the lead seemed foolish, but some brave filmmakers with a vision did come forward to take on the challenge.  Up-and-coming filmmaker Ryan Coogler surprisingly chose to take on a new Rocky movie for his sophomore project after getting positive notices for his first film, Fruitvale Station (2013).  But instead of making the movie about the famed former boxer, he instead chose to make it about the son of Rocky’s first challenger and eventual friend, Apollo Creed.  But, Rocky would not be forgotten either, and instead he would have the roles reversed this time, playing the part of mentor as he uses all of his years in the ring to give the younger Creed the kind of training he needed to become a champion just like his father.  As a result, this was exactly the kind of story the Rocky franchise needed to become relevant again.  Audiences, both long time fans and newcomers to the series, fully embraced this new twist on the Rocky franchise, and the movie became a box office hit, as well as a critical success.  It even helped to put Stallone back in the spotlight, with him earning an Academy Award nomination for the first time since the original Rocky (1976) forty years prior.  The movie also propelled it’s leading man Michael B. Jordan to new heights as a movie star, and it also helped director Ryan Coogler get the most ideal job in the world for a filmmaker of color at the time.

Building off his success with Creed (2015), Coogler was wooed over to Marvel to be the one in charge of bringing it’s ground-breaking Black Panther franchise to the big screen.  With his time now being taken up working on this massive new project, it seemed like Creed would stand as a one and done revival of the Rocky franchise.  But, the franchise’s stakeholders, MGM Studios, had other ideas.  Plans were immediately started for Creed II, but this time it would be made without Ryan Coogler at the helm.  Some believed that this was a mistake, since much of the reason why Creed worked so well in the first place was because of Coogler’s unique vision, and doing a sequel without him might end up spoiling the franchise as a whole, right after they had successfully brought it back to life.  Still, Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone committed to returning for the sequel, and despite not being in the director’s chair, Coogler still was involved as a producer.  Remarkably, in the hands of new director Steven Caple, Jr., they not only managed to make a sequel that didn’t ruin the franchise, but in many ways it actually was as good as the first Creed film.  Creed II (2018) worked as well as it did because it found the right angle to take in it’s story.  It very much involves Rocky even more in the story, as an adversary from his past, Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren making a return to the role) has been training his own son to fight and he now has his sights set on defeating the young Creed in the ring as a way of getting revenge on Rocky.  This battle of wits between the trainers gave this extra bit of weight not just to the film, but to the franchise as a whole, as it helped to bring the whole life and career of Rocky into the context of this new revival, making the whole series relevant again.  Certainly, the success of a sequel ensured that there would be more films down the line as well, but with Coogler still working within the Marvel family on his own sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2023), questions arose over who would be the one to keep the series going.  The answer, in many ways, was history repeating itself, as Michael B. Jordan would follow again in Stallone’s footsteps and step behind the camera himself for the sake of the franchise with this third installment titled easily enough Creed III (2023).

Not long after defeating Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) in the ring, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) further solidifies his status as the greatest boxer of his generation, becoming the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.  After reaching the pinnacle of his profession, Adonis decides to retire from professional boxing in order to focus on his family and business.  Managing his gym, he’s now the one bringing up the next generation of fighters, continuing the legacy that Rocky had instilled in him.  At the same time, he is supporting his wife Bianca’s (Tessa Thompson) music career, as well as being an involved dad in the life of his hearing impaired daughter Amara (Mila Davis-Kent).  One day at his gym, a face from his past makes an unexpected visit.  Damian Anderson (Jonathan Majors) was a one time close friend of Adonis’ back when they were both taking part in amateur matches in their youth.  However, their lives together parted ways after Damian was arrested for possession of a firearm and he was given a harsh sentence based on his prior record.  Now out of prison, Damian hopes to rekindle their dormant friendship and Adonis is very willing to welcome him back into his life.  He invites Damian to spar at his gym with the professional boxers that train there.  However, Damian fights far more aggressively than the other boxers, which alarms the head trainer there Little Duke (Wood Harris).  Sharing concern about Damian’s return is Adonis’ adoptive mother Mary-Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), who always saw him as a bad influence.  Still, Adonis keeps giving his friend second chances, but over time, Damian’s alternative motives are revealed, and Adonis realizes the only thing to stop Damian’s unethical rise is to step back in the ring himself.  But, have the years out of practice made Adonis too vulnerable and unable to compete at that level now?

Taking on the role of director for a franchise with this kind of legacy without any prior experience is certainly a tough job to undertake.  This is a nearly 50 year long franchise that is beloved by millions all over the world.  But, Michael B. Jordan has certainly had the best possible tutors around to teach him everything there is to know about making a movie like this.  Ryan Coogler, Jordan’s closet collaborator who has cast him in every movie he has made (including famously playing Killmonger in Black Panther) has no doubt been a heavy influence on him, both with his sense of story-telling and a visual eye behind the camera.  And Sylvester Stallone, who directed 4 of the original 6 Rocky movies, as well as writing the screenplays for the bulk of the series including Creed II, no doubt demonstrated to Jordan how to succeed at pulling double duty in front and behind the camera on these films.  And the results stand for themselves as this is a fantastic directorial debut for Michael B. Jordan.  There is a great deal of confidence in his direction here that is really impressive to see.  The movie feels very much in line with the previous two movies, hitting all the same notes that we expect perfectly.  Jordan’s direction is also measured and subtle.  He is not trying to show off like so many first time directors are apt to do in order to flex their muscle for attention.  There is an excellent control of pacing, tone, and style found in this movie, and it shows that Michael B. Jordan learned a lot of good lessons about filmmaking from both Coogler and Stallone.  He also knows when to take chances, bending the rules a bit for artistic license at the right moments.  This is definitely evident in the fight scenes in the ring, where Jordan brings in some flashy techniques like slow-mo at just the right time.

It should also be noted that the choice of story here is a worthwhile one to delve into for a continuation of Creed’s story.  I for one was very worried when I heard that Sylvester Stallone was not going to be in this movie.  My worry was that they were going to kill off the character and, even worse, do it off screen.  Thankfully, that was not the case.  Rocky is not in this movie, but his fate is also never brought up, indicating that in universe Rocky is still living; just not involved in this story.  It would’ve been a shame to dispose of one of cinema’s most iconic characters in such an unceremonious way, and I’m glad they didn’t go there.  My hope is that eventually they involve Rocky in the story again down the line, but for this film, it makes sense why they would leave him out.  This is first and foremost Adonis Creed’s story.  Rocky was a supportive player in the first Creed, and he had a much more central part to play in Creed II, but here, he would’ve just been in the way of the conflict that needed to happen in this movie, which is Adonis coming to terms with his past.  That’s why the introduction of Damian is a brilliant new direction to take Adonis’ story.  His meteoric rise certainly echoes that of Rocky Balboa, but what did he overcome to get to where he is.  Damian’s return brings back all the trauma of Adonis’ youth, his abuse in juvenile detention and the guilt of turning his back on Damian after the arrest.  The movie is much more concerned about having to overcome all that as it is about the fighting in the ring.  For the first time, we are really peeling back the layers of Adonis Creed as a person, and seeing more of his faults which helps to make him a much more overall interesting character.

The performances are certainly going to be the thing that people take away the most from this movie.  In particular, this movie features a, for lack of a better word, knockout performance from Jonathan Majors as Damian Anderson.  Majors is right now at a breakout point in his career, not just featuring as the antagonist in this movie, but also appearing in theaters at the same time in Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania as the new big bad of the MCU, Kang the Conqueror.  There’s no doubt that he has the acting chops to stand out as a memorable villain, but it may surprise a few just how well he does it here in Creed III.  He just commands the screen in every scene he’s in.  He masterfully handles the moments where we see his vulnerable side, like the scene where he reconnects with Adonis Creed after a long time away.  At the same time, when we see the sinister turn halfway through the film, he becomes quite a frightening presence on screen.  I honestly wish we had seen more of this kind of performance from Majors in Ant-Man, because in that movie he kind of toned it down too much.  Here, he gets to let loose as Damian, and it’s captivating.  Not to be outdone, but Michael B. Jordan also excels in his third time around as Adonis Creed.  In many ways, this is actually his best performance as the character to date, because we see more of the broken side of the character come out this time around.  There is vulnerability in his performance that is handled very well, and it’s nice to see Jordan directing himself into that zone fearlessly.  There are also great performances from the ever reliable Tessa Thompson and Phylicia Rashad, and a very special acknowledgement to deaf actress Mila Davis-Kent who holds her own in scenes with these seasoned professionals.  I also have to spotlight Wood Harris as “Little Duke,” who continues the franchise’s legacy of crusty, smack-talking trainers who steals every scene that they’re in.

The movie also is visually one of the more striking in the franchise as a whole.  If Creed II has a flaw, it was it’s more basic style of filmmaking; not bad but also a bit uninspired.  Creed III on the other hand takes some risks when it comes to the visuals, and that makes it far more akin to the original Ryan Coogler film.  In particular, the fights inside the ring are spectacularly well filmed.  Michael B. Jordan doesn’t get in close like Coogler did in the original Creed, but instead he weaves in and out of close-ups and full frame shots.  There seems to be a real effort to actually show the fight in full view for the audience.  For the most part, Jordan shows us the fight from the perspective of what the referee may see, which is both fighters in full view.  The visceral throws of the punches carry more weight as a result, and when a devastating punch is landed, Jordan goes in for the close-up and slows the film down to capture the full devastation of the hit in bullet-time.  There were several instances of watching these scenes with the audience in a theater where I witnessed people having a visceral reaction to the fights on the screen.  I heard a lot of people audibly go “Oooh” in my theater when a big hit was landed.  That’s a good sign that you’ve done a good job filming the fight scenes.  But, Jordan does something very brave with these fight scenes as well, which we’ve actually never seen in the franchise before.  He gets inside the headspace of these characters and imagines an almost dreamlike state in which they fight in.  A flight of fantasy like those moments could be a step too far for a series that has relatively remained grounded up to now, but the context of them here does make sense, and Michael B. Jordan is a capable enough filmmaker to make it work without going too far into the surreal.  And yes, of course there is your standard training montage sequence; a franchise staple.  The one here doesn’t disappoint, and it stands up well against all the others; though I do miss the underscore of Bill Conti’s original “Gonna Fly Now” theme from the original Rocky.

In total, this is the ninth film in the Rocky/Creed franchise that has spanned over five decades, and it’s amazing that it still hasn’t run out of steam yet.  From Stallone, to Ryan Coogler, to now Michael B. Jordan, this franchise has still managed to find new threads to pull in this story about overcoming the odds in the world of boxing.  Perhaps it is fitting that this is the first film that doesn’t feature the underdog boxer that started it all in the picture, because the cycle of change has now passed on to the next generation.  I think there’s still a chance that Rocky will be seen again, and that Stallone can have the chance to sunset the character in his own way.  But, that’s not the story that needed to be told now, as Adonis Creed had to make a major turn in this film in order to continue into his next phase.  There is an indication now that Adonis Creed will be stepping more into a mentor role in future film within this franchise, if there are any more (most likely there will be).  And as a result, the full legacy of Rocky and Creed’s purpose will be seen in the cyclical passing of the torch from one underdog story into another.  We’ll see how that torch is passed down in the future, but for right now the franchise continues to be in good hands under the direction of it’s star Michael B. Jordan.  If there is anything that could be improved upon from this movie it’s the need to handle the set ups better.  The movie does kind of take it’s time when it doesn’t need to and it also uses some narrative shortcuts that kind of undermine the drama a bit.  But, it’s still an impressive debut for a first time director, and he remarkably does a good job of directing himself on screen, as well as get some astonishing performances from his cast; in particular a standout Jonathan Majors.  Here’s hoping that if they ever make a Creed IV that it continues to build upon the insightful character development found here.  Creed III is another champion in this long running series and a match you definitely don’t want to miss out on in theaters on the biggest screens you can find.

Rating: 8.5/10

Top Ten Disney Songs

If you were to cobble together many of the greatest songs to ever feature in works of cinema, a pretty good chunk of them will likely have been from a Disney movie.  The Disney Company has assembled one of the most renowned songbooks ever, with newer hits being added to it’s catalog constantly.  On more than one occasion, Disney has been praised for saving the movie musical from irrelevance, and that’s in large part due to the fact that so much of their songs are written by many of the titans of musical theater.  From the early days of Tin Pan Alley songsmiths brought into the halls of Disney like Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace, to pop chart songwriters like the Sherman Brothers, and then later Broadway veterans like Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, Stephen Swartz, Robert Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda, the pool of talent that Disney has assembled over the years is staggering.  And with all that, we have been given some of the most memorable songs ever written for any medium.  For many people who grew up with Disney movies, every lyric is written into our hearts and we can sing-a-long at the drop of a hat without even having to look up the words.  How many people have gleefully clocked out at work while whistling “Heigh-Ho” or gone swimming while having the words “We’ve got no troubles, life is the bubbles, Under the Sea,” rolling around in their head.  Disney movies have provided us with the foundation for the soundtrack of our lives, and it’s a musical legacy that continues to build upon itself year after year.

With The Walt Disney company reaching it’s 100th anniversary, I thought it would be fun to mark the occasion with a series of lists throughout the year.  Piggybacking off my last list in October with the best Disney Villain Songs, I thought it would be worthwhile to look at my favorite Disney songs in general.  My choices will likely be different than others, so please don’t be offended if I left one of your favorites out.  There are a lot of great songs to choose from, and many that don’t make my list are still pretty valid choices for anyone else.  Before I begin my list, I do want to point out that I am limiting the choices to films made solely by Walt Disney Pictures.  That means any song written for another branch of the Disney company, such as Pixar Animation or the Disney Theme Parks, won’t be on this particular list (though they are noteworthy songs and deserving of their own separate lists which I may someday get to).  I will however consider songs from Disney movies that are outside of the Animation canon, including a couple of their live action entries.  To give a spotlight to some of the songs that nearly missed my list, here are some of the titles listed in chronological order: “Someday My Prince Will Come” from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah” from Song of the South (1947) “Bibiddi Bobbidi Boo” from Cinderella (1950), “Belle Notte” from Lady and the Tramp (1955), “Once Upon a Dream” from Sleeping Beauty (1959), “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book (1967), “O-de-Lally” from Robin Hood (1973), “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid (1989), “Beauty and the Beast” from Beauty and the Beast (1991), “A Whole New World” from Aladdin (1992), “What’s This” from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), “Zero to Hero” from Hercules (1997), “Reflections” from Mulan (1998), “Son of Man” from Tarzan (1999), “Almost There” from The Princess and the Frog (2009) and “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana (2016).  If many of those songs missed the list, then you know I’ve had to make some tough exclusions to get to the following ten.  With that, let’s take a look at my Top 10 Favorite Disney Songs.



Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; Sung by Tom Hulce

One thing to note is that you’ll be seeing quite a bit of the Disney Renaissance represented on this list.  This time period had a particular effect on me, as it was the era that I grew up with, which made me not just a passionate Disney fan, but a fan of cinema in general.  And it was also an era that was noteworthy for it’s revival of the Disney musical.  Long dormant in the post-Walt years, the musical came back with a vengeance in the Renaissance years, with movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin all adding dozens of new songs to the already legendary Disney songbook.  The latter Disney Renaissance years were a bit more spotty when it came to musicals, but a few films did stand out.  One of the most noteworthy films during that time, particularly for it’s music, was The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It was a big gamble for Disney to try to adapt Victor Hugo’s grim medieval novel into a G-Rated musical but somehow they managed to do it.  One thing that really helped in making Hunchback’s musical score work is that it leaned in to the darker tone of the story and went into a far more epic territory than past Disney musicals.  It’s a score heavy in choirs and pipe organs, and a much fuller orchestral sound.  The songs for the most part match the heaviness of the subject matter (except for the misplaced Gargoyles tune).  Included is one of the greatest villain songs, “Hellfire” which I already spotlighted in my last list.  The film also contains one of the grandest “I Want” songs in the Disney canon. “Out There” is the titular Hunchback Quasimodo’s expression of wanting to live out of the shadows and in the world like everyone else after being hidden away in the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral.  Longtime Disney composer Alan Menken builds the song from a quiet lamentation to a rousing crescendo by the end in a melodic journey that just hits with a powerful bang.  The lyrics, written by future Wicked creator Stephen Schwartz are heartfelt, and it’s remarkable that the voice of Quasimodo, Tom Hulce, had the kind of range to pull a song like this off.  Most famous for playing Mozart in Amadeus (1984), Hulce was not exactly known for his singing voice, so to hear him hit those high notes as gracefully as he does in this song was quite a welcome surprise.  For many Disney fans, this song has taken on a life of it’s own outside of the movie, becoming an anthem for marginalized people throughout society, especially the LGBTQ community.  That’s what makes this an especially important song in the whole Disney songbook overall.


LET IT GO from FROZEN (2013)

Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez; Sung by Idina Menzel

Apologies for putting this earworm back into your head.  When this song first landed during the release of Frozen in the Fall of 2013, it became a monster hit the likes of which we hadn’t seen since the heydays of the Disney Renaissance.  Much like how The Little Mermaid brought back the Disney musical for a long dormant period, so did Frozen; though The Princess and the Frog managed to be a mild success a couple years prior.  But Frozen was the movie that solidified the Disney musical in the Digital Age, as Disney’s computer animated films had yet to fully embrace the genre up to that point.  Calling upon Broadway vets like the Robert Lopez and his writing partner and wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez, who had achieved success prior on Broadway with shows like Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon, Disney had the kind of musical talent to really bring back that quintessential Disney sound into their movies once again.  Based on the Hans Christen Andersen fairy tale The Snow QueenFrozen by it’s very nature cries out to be a throwback to the Disney musicals of the past like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, but with the modern sensibilities of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.  A lot of the songs are peppy tunes, like “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” or “Love is an Open Door.”  But it’s the power ballad of “Let it Go” that put Frozen firmly on the map, and even someone like me who is lukewarm on the movie itself cannot deny the effectiveness of this tune.  I think the key to the success of the song is the one who performs it; Broadway vet Idina Menzel whose impressive voice takes this song to it’s fullest potential.  “Let it Go” much like Hunchback’s “Out There” is another passionate expression of self worth and the desire to live as one wishes without judgement, which is why it’s been embraced by modern audiences in a big way.  Sure, it may have been overplayed over the last decade, but it’s one of Disney’s biggest hits for a reason, and one that cannot be denied a place on anyone’s list.



Music by Sammy Fain; Lyrics by Sammy Cahn; Sung by the Jud Conlon Chorus and The Mellowmen Quartet

The post-War Disney Silver Age was a time period when Disney had finally found it’s groove again after years of making propaganda and package features during WWII.  In that time, they created a fair amount of classics, many with the same traditional musical qualities that put Disney on the map in it’s early years.  Cinderella was a grand emotional romance, while Alice in Wonderland (1951) was a whacky, surreal trip, each with songs that gave the story the needed melodies that they needed.  Sleeping Beauty even did the impressive trick of adding lyrics to the melodies of Tchaikovsky’s nearly century old at the time ballet score.  But perhaps the song that stuck out the most from this period was from the movie that was least like a traditional musical.  Disney’s Peter Pan featured a number of songs, but they are for the most part nondiegetic within the context of the story.  Case in point, the film’s most famous song “You Can Fly.”  The song isn’t even sung by the characters, but rather spoken word delivered in rhyme, that is until the characters actually begin flying.  Then the chorus takes over and the song properly begins.  What is so special about “You Can Fly” is that it perfectly captures the sensation of flight through it’s melody.  The tempo constantly changes from slow to fast, with peaks and valley, giving that feeling of gliding through the air.  It’s a wonderfully uplifting tune throughout, with the Sammy Cahn lyrics that feeling a nursery rhyme, like “Take the path that moonbeams make; if the moon is still awake.  You’ll see it blink it’s eye.  You Can Fly! You Can Fly! You Can Fly!”  This song is one that Disney still features prominently in their songbook, and it’s definitely one of those cross generational hits that still impacts many years later.  Whenever people go on the Peter Pan ride in any of the theme parks, most will get that special feeling of whimsy as the sensation of flight takes them upon hearing this song again during the ride.  One of the definite classics, and a good example of a great song coming from a movie that doesn’t have to adhere to the traditional musical form.



Music by Matthew Wilder; Lyrics by David Zippel; Sung by Donny Osmond

Mulan is another of those late Renaissance Disney movies that began to move further away from the traditional Disney musical formula.  It had songs, but they mostly seemed second tier to the story that was being told.  The songs in Mulan for the most part are pretty forgettable, apart from the ballad “Reflections” and the song spotlighted here, which may be one of the all time catchiest tunes in Disney history.  This training montage tune is a motivational work out song on the level of an “Eye of the Tiger” and something you wouldn’t expect in a Disney musical.  And yet, it’s perfect for a movie like this.  Mulan’s story isn’t a fairy tale like other Disney movies, but rather a ballad about a woman who impersonates a man in order to fight in the army in place of her ill father.  Making this into a musical meant Disney had to rethink what kind of songs would be here, and this Rocky style motivation song not only fits the movie perfectly, but it elevates the movie itself.  Anyone who was lukewarm on the movie before this song had to have been feeling juiced up by the end as this is a fantastic motivational song.  And to sing this Asian influenced song about a Chinese Folk Legend you of course turn to; Donny Osmond?  Truth be told, despite the mismatch in cultural representation, Osmond does deliver a spirited performance of this song, hitting all the notes perfectly.  One other major surprise is that this song was written by Matthew “Never Gonna Break My Stride” Wilder; a pop music obscurity who somehow managed to deliver an all time great tune for Disney.  I know a few Disney fans who have this on their workout playlist (I might be one of those people too).  Mysterious as the dark side of the moon, this is one of the unexpectedly greatest Disney songs ever.



Music and Lyrics by Robert and Richard Sherman; Sung by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke

You definitely can’t talk about the Disney Songbook without mentioning the Sherman Brothers.  The Boys, as Walt Disney affectionately called them, were responsible for a string of hits for the Walt Disney company during it’s peak period during the 1960’s.  The contributed songs to animated hits like The Sword in the Stone (1963) and The Jungle Book (1967), as well as famous theme park melodies like “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” and “It’s a Small World.”  But what they are most celebrated for is their collection of classic tunes from Walt Disney’s magnum opus film musical, Mary Poppins. Poppins is widely considered to be one of the greatest movie musicals of all time; in the same league as classics like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965).  The Sherman Brothers crafted a collection of unforgettable tunes based on the different adventures of the magical nanny created by P. L. Travers, and each one can be considered an all time great on it’s own.  There’s the Oscar winning “Chim Chim Cheree,” the elegant “A Spoonful of Sugar,” the rousing “Step in Time,” and the soulful “Feed the Birds” (Walt’s personal favorite).  But if I were to choose a favorite, it would be the song devoted to the longest word in the English language.  “Supercalifragilisticexpilalidocious” is Mary Poppin’s at it’s most playful, taking the extra long nonsense word and having fun with it.  This is the kind of song to easily put a person in a lighter mood, and it is quite amazing how the Sherman Brothers managed to make such a long word so easy to sing.  Add in the playfulness of Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke’s performances, each delivering infectious enthusiasm into their singing.  The staging of the song itself is also memorable, with the seamless integration of live action actors in an animated environment which still impresses to this day.  Andrews and Van Dyke’s synchronized dance routine also is perfectly matched in this sequence as well.  The Sherman Brothers made an indelible mark on Disney’s musical legacy, and this song is a great demonstration of their talents creating something practically perfect in every way.



Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman; Sung by Jerry Orbach and Angela Lansbury

The height of the Disney Renaissance in terms of classic musicals can arguably be found with Beauty and the Beast.  This is the Disney machine in full swing, with show tunes that can find a home easily on the Broadway stage, which did in fact happen a couple of years later with a Broadway adaptation of this film.  There are definitely a lot of great songs in this movie, including the fantastic opening number “Belle,” the hilarious villain song “Gaston,” as well as the Oscar-winning title number.  But for me, the highlight of the film is it’s biggest show-stopping number; a song that represents everything great about a Disney movie musical.  “Be Our Guest” is a song that feels very much like a throwback to the musical numbers of Old Hollywood, particularly the ones choreographed by famed musical director Busby Berkeley.  Most Disney songs tend to lend support to the action of the film, but this one definitely is here to put on a show.  The animation in this scene is spectacular, with very clear nods to the Busby Berkeley, as the plates and silverware dance and spin across the screen.  It’s also a tour de force for two legends of the Broadway stage; Jerry Orbach, who plays the Maurice Chevalier inspired candelabra Lumiere, and Angela Lansbury as the warm hearted teapot Mrs. Potts.  Also making this song a classic is the brilliant lyrics by Howard Ashman.  A master of word play, Ashman puts together some incredible lines in this song, including underscoring a can-can with phrasing like “Course by Course, one by one, til you shout ‘enough, I’m done.’  Then we’ll sing you off to sleep as you digest.”  it definitely brings new meaning to dinner and a show.  All the songs are great in Beauty and the Beast, but this was definitely the one that kids like me and I’m sure quite a few adults were humming as they left the theater.  As an adult, the familiarity with the classic Hollywood musicals of old adds even more delight to this musical sequence.  It puts it’s service to the test, and all of us are all very much happy to be a guest to this tune every time we hear it.



Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman; Sung by Robin Williams

You couldn’t ask for a more perfect marriage of song and performer.  People have tried to take on this song in other re-tellings of this story, including Will Smith in the live action remake.   But no one has come close to capturing the exuberant energy of Robin Williams performance of this song.  “Friend Like Me” is the song that showcases everything that the magical Genie is capable of as he tries to convince Aladdin of the potential of the wishes he can grant.  In typical Disney fashion, the song is a tour de force of what animation can do, which is boundless.  I do wonder what led to the all the imaginative transformations that the Genie undertakes; where they all conceived from the beginning, or did they take inspiration from the different voices that Robin Williams slips into in his performance.  I like to think that the animators were following Robin’s lead, because the man was so much of a real life cartoon himself.  I imagine that when they hear him put on the voice of a French waiter for one lyric, the animators had no other choice than to do exactly what the performance is telling them, and there’s the Genie on screen with a stereotypical stuffy French waiter complete with a pencil thin moustache.  The bridge of the song where Robin Williams does a Cab Calloway scat routine must have also been fun to animate to, especially with the oversized hands dancing along.  Again, Howard Ashman’s clever word play is put to amazing use, including finding a way to work the word Baklava in there.  Sadly, this was Ashman’s final project, as he passed away from AIDS during the making of Beauty and the Beast, with his work on Aladdin only half finished.  Thankfully “Friend Like Me” survived into the finished film, and it represents the master songwriter at the height of his talent.  Menken’s big band jazz infused scoring also brings a great amount of energy to this song.  If there ever was a song worthy of an applause sign, which the Genie comically flashes at the end of the song, this is definitely it.  It’s songwriting, animation, an vocal performance all working together to create a perfect blend of just unmatched fun.  A wish well granted.



Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman; Sung by Jodie Benson

That’s three in a row for team Menken and Ashman, showing just how influential they were to the Disney songbook.  An interesting backstory, before they came to Disney, the musical duo worked off Broadway on underground hit musicals like Little Shop of Horrors.  For a time, Ashman tried to make a Broadway debut with composer Marvin Hamlisch on a little musical called Smile.  In that musical, there was an “I Want” song called “Disneyland,” sung by an up-and-coming performer named Jodi Benson.  I don’t think anyone at the time knew that the songwriter of that tune would one day write songs that would actually play for real in Disneyland, and that the singer would become one of the most celebrated Disney princesses.  Smile was a Broadway flop, but Disney took notice and brought Ashman and his friend Alan Menken into their fold hoping that they would revive the long dormant Disney fairy tale musical.  They not only rose to the occasion, but they created one of the most beloved musical scores of all time.  “Under the Sea” may be the Oscar-winning tune, but I think the song that best embodies the spirit of this film the most is “Part of Your World.”  This is the gold standard of all the “I Want” songs in the Disney canon, which has become a staple in most of the musicals made since.  Much of the power of this song comes from Jodi Benson’s heartfelt performance as Ariel.  For a character described so much for having the most beautiful voice in all the ocean, she doesn’t disappoint.  Remarkably, this song almost didn’t make it into the movie, as studio exec Jeffrey Katzenberg almost excised it because he thought it slowed the movie down.  Thankfully directors Ron Clements and John Musker and especially Howard Ashman pleaded their case passionately to keep the song in and thank god it worked, because the movie wouldn’t have worked without it.  It’s a song about chasing a dream, and you can’t help but feel a chill as Ariel reaches out to the surface world as she hits that high note; a tour de force on Jodi Benson’s part.  Whozits and Whatzits galore, this song has everything that makes a Disney song great.



Music by Leigh Harline; Lyrics by Ned Washington; Sung by Cliff Edwards

A song that is so intrinsically linked to all things Disney that it’s the first thing you hear in everything Disney film, playing over the company’s opening logo.  This song has become the anthem of the Walt Disney Company and has remained so for over 80 years since the original release of Pinocchio.  Disney’s first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves had it’s fair share of classic tunes, but “When You Wish Upon a Star” is a song that carries so much universal meaning beyond it’s place in the film it came from, and it’s amazing that Disney found that kind of song in only it’s second feature film.  “When You Wish Upon a Star” in many ways is the Disney company’s mission statement, a call to keep dreaming even if that dream is far away like a star.  The Disney company has from the very beginning been focused on creative thinking, something that Walt Disney valued as essential to his company.  And it’s something that he wanted to inspire in everyone who watched one of his movies or visited one of his parks.  The cycle of creativity is what he saw as essential to building the future of his company, and it’s why he held up the message of a song like “When You Wish Upon a Star” as a key part of his company’s mission; wish upon your dreams, and make the impossible, possible.  There’s a little naivete in there to be sure, but it’s still something that resonates about the song itself.  Though it’s been covered many times over the years, I don’t think anything has matched the soulfulness of the original Cliff Edwards rendition.  Edwards, who voiced Jiminy Cricket in the movie, wasn’t typically known for soulful songs like this; often singing more light-hearted fare with a ukulele, which earned him the nickname “Ukulele Ike.”  But there is no doubt that his performance of the song is iconic, giving it the heartfelt weight it deserves.  If there was ever a song deserving of being the fanfare for all things Disney, this is it.  It’s a song of inspiration, and who knows how many of the other songs on this list were written by writers who were inspired to wish upon a star in their youths when they saw Pinocchio for the first time.  Like a bolt out of the blue, this song has an immeasurable legacy as part of the Disney Songbook.



Music by Elton John; Lyrics by Tim Rice; Sung by Carmen Twillie and Lebo M

If there was ever a song to rival, and perhaps even exceed the impact of “When You Wish Upon a Star” in the Disney library, it might be the song that kicks off the biggest film they ever made.  “Circle of Life” is a movie that stands for so much of New Disney as “Star” stands for much of Old Disney.  The movie The Lion King was mostly dismissed by much of the Disney brass at the time as a B-picture project worked on the side amidst it’s more ambitious projects like Aladdin, Pocahontas (1995) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).  It was the only movie of that era not scored by mainstay Alan Menken (with Hans Zimmer instead filling that role), and instead of turning to Broadway talent to compose the songs, they went to pop star Elton John instead.  Sure, Elton John had Broadway lyricist Tim Rice to guide him through, but for the pop singer writing musical numbers for an animated film (one set in Africa no less) was a uncharted territory for him.  Thankfully he rose to the challenge, creating some of the most memorable songs in the Disney library as a result.  Of the five main tunes in the film, there is no doubt that the most powerful one is the song that opens the film.  “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” may have netted the Oscar, due to it being a radio friendly love ballad that Elton John excelled at, but over time “Circle of Life” has become the song that’s been seen as the greater achievement.  So much so, that I don’t think it has any rival in the whole of the Disney songbook.  It’s a song that commands attention like the regal namesake of the film.  A large part of the song’s power comes from that spectacular opening note, provided by the choir director Lebo M.  That primal “Naaaaaaaaah” set against the rising of the sun is a hell of a way to open a movie, let alone a song.  The remaining part of the song keeps that spiritual feeling high, with Carmen Twillie’s passionate performance carrying the weight of the song through.  Once Disney executives saw the finished song in it’s entirety for the first time, I think they may have changed their mind about calling The Lion King a B-Picture.  I for one cannot find any other song from Disney that impresses me more than this one.  It really is the finest bit of music ever captured in animation.  “When You Wish Upon a Star” will certainly always stand as the company’s anthem, and it’s well earned.  But “Circle of Life” with all of it’s epic glory may be the high point of any musical sequence ever in a Disney movie.  Mighty as a lion’s roar, this is the song that demands and receives the respect that it deserves.

So, there you have my choices for the greatest songs from Disney Movies.  There are so many great ones out there and it was hard to thin the herd down to just 10.  Surprisingly, I left a lot of the Oscar winners off of my list.  Of the 10 I listed here, only “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “Let it Go” came away with the gold the year they premiered.  Some of these songs were instant hits, while others like “Out There” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” have had to build their esteem over time.  But, there is no doubt that they have contributed to an amazing assortment of songs that span across the 100 years of Disney’s history.  There are a lot of amazing songs even in forgotten movies from Disney’s past as well, as well as songs that may have been overshadowed originally by other tunes and have only come into their own over time.  If there is one thing that the great Disney musical songs have in common, it’s that they stick with you for years after hearing them.  More than just being unforgettable earworms, they are songs that are easily accessible to audiences of all ages.  You don’t have to work very hard to remember all the lyrics, because in some cases the songs utilize clever repetition of the main theme.  Songs like ‘Be Our Guest,” “Under the Sea,” “Hakuna Matata,” “Heigh Ho,” and “You Can Fly” are by design meant to be easy to sing along to.  I know a lot of children of the 80’s and 90’s like myself were introduced to these songs through Sing-A-Long video tape compilations.  Most re-releases of these movies on DVD and Blu-ray also include subtitled lyric tracks for just that purpose as well, and sometimes they’ll even put sing-a-long versions of the movies in theaters.  While there is definitely a commercial aspect of the perpetuity of the Disney Songbook, it cannot be denied that many of these songs are indeed masterful works of music.  The Disney musical has seen many different lives and faces, and there is little doubt that the catalog of songs to come from the century old company will continue to grow.  Hopefully I’ve spotlighted a few that will indeed bring back some memories for many of you.  Have a wonderful musical time with this playlist I provided for you, and hopefully your dreams will come true wishing upon that star.

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania – Review

The kind of spectacular run of success that Marvel Studios has enjoyed over the last decade is something quite miraculous and not very common in Hollywood.  The studio built up it’s brand from the launch of Iron Man in 2008 and saw the world come together in anticipation for every new film they put out.  With the connective thread found in each individual film, the Marvel Cinematic Universe became the most ambitious narrative ever undertaken in movie history, with each Avengers movie acting as a touchstone in the overall saga.  Built over what they called their phases, Marvel built towards a grand finale with their two part Phase 3 finishers called Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).  There was little doubt that Marvel had succeeded in their goals as Endgame for a time became the highest grossing film worldwide in history.  And with the story they had been building over those ten years finally complete, Marvel could now definitively call the entirety of that era The Infinity Saga, taking it’s name from the Infinity Stones that had been central to the connective narrative in all the movies.  So, with the Infinity Saga complete, what story was next for Marvel to tackle.  It seems like Marvel had the idea in mind of where to go next, as there were hints dropped about a mysterious new element that would soon come into play in the MCU; something called The Multiverse.  Starting with Phase 4, Marvel was set to take it’s universe into an exciting new direction with the concept of the multiverse central to it’s overall narrative.  Some of the Phase 4 movies have tackled it head on, like Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022), while others have remained more earthbound in their narratives, like Black Widow (2021) and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022).  Regardless of which films tackle it or not, this is the multiverse is going to be the centerpiece of Marvel’s master plan for the next few years, and hopefully they are able to get audiences on board like they did with the Infinity Saga.

However, Marvel is also going through an awkward phase, perhaps related to their expansion into streaming over the last couple years.  The Multiverse Saga is not just making it’s presence on the big screen, but on the platform Disney+ as well, with several series airing on there that tie in with the movies.  Shows like Wandavision, Loki, Ms. Marvel, and others have just as many connective threads tied into the Multiverse Saga as the movies do, and in some ways it’s making the overall flow of the storyline a little too complicated for the average viewer to follow along with.  In Phases 1-3 of the MCU, you might have gotten as many as three films a year from the studio.  Now, it’s up to four films plus just as many mini-series on Disney+ all within the same calendar year.  Phase 4 alone had 15 individual titles, which is 3x that of Phase 1.  That’s a lot of story to wrap your heads around if you’re trying to keep track of where the MCU is heading.  And for some audiences, it’s too much.  In the last couple of years through the roll out of Phase 4, a feeling of fatigue has set it.  The once mighty Marvel machine is now starting to show signs of fragility.  The box office, while still decent (especially in the middle of a pandemic recovery) is off from previous franchise highs.  Not only that, but critical reception has slipped as well, with Marvel films like Eternals (2021) receiving for the first time a net negative rating for the studio.  Phase 4 culminated last year with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and the overall feeling amongst Marvel fans is that the studio had lost a bit of it’s luster over the course of Phase 4, despite some high points along the way.  It’s a tough position to be in as Marvel now looks to begin Phase 5 in earnest.  And to launch their next Phase, they are turning to a character that in some fans minds is seen as one of the lesser Avengers; Ant-Man, who returns to the screen in his third solo outing, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

Quantumania takes place a couple of years after the events of Endgame, with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) enjoying his celebrity status as an Avenger.  He has published a memoir about his experience helping the Avengers reverse the effects of the “Blip” and saving the world from Thanos, and has been receiving honors across his hometown of San Francisco.  At the same time, he also is trying to repair a strained relationship with his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), who had to grow up for 5 years during the Blip without her family.  Unbeknownst to Scott, Cassie has been spending more time with Scott’s partner Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) aka The Wasp and hope’s father Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man.  Cassie finally reveals what she has been working on in secret with her two mentors, which is a special device that can probe into the sub-atomic Quantum Realm.  While Scott is certainly proud of Cassie’s invention, the same feeling is not shared by Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Hope’s mother who had been rescued from the Quantum Realm after being trapped there for decades.  Unfortunately, Janet’s concerns were warranted as the probing device malfunctions and begins to shrink everything around it down to sub-atomic size, including everyone in the room.  The family finds themselves separated and stranded in the strange universe within a universe that is the Quantum Realm.  Scott and Cassie find themselves captured by sub-atomic beings that call the Realm home, led by freedom fighters Jentorra (Katy M. O’Brian) and Quaz (William Jackson Harper).  Meanwhile, Hope, Janet and Hank try to find their own way back home.  For Janet, the goal is to get home quickly without being seen, because there is someone in the Quantum Realm who she is terrified of running into again; the fearsome dictator of the Quantum Realm, Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors).

Quantumania is the third film in the standalone Ant-Man franchise in the MCU.  But, apart from it’s predecessors, this film has far more influence on the greater narrative that’s being told in the MCU.  The first two Ant-Man’s were smaller scale adventures that only tied into the MCU storyline through the mid and post credits scenes.  This film on the other hand is launching the next Phase of the MCU, so it’s overall story is significantly more involved in the narrative built thus far and where it’s going next.  The same team from the other films returns for this third entry, with director Peyton Reed once again directing.  And while the new direction of this franchise is brave new territory for everyone involved, it’s also something that works against the effectiveness of the movie overall.  Peyton Reed as a director had carved out this niche for the Ant-Man branch of the MCU as being more light-hearted and comical; a welcome break from the more heavy films in the MCU line-up.  That tone is significantly changed in Quantumania, which is far more science fiction heavy than the previous Ant-Man movies.  The MCU has certainly delved into the weird and alien before, with the Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises, but shifting in that direction for Ant-Man is a big swing, and it’s one that I don’t think a filmmaker like Reed is comfortable working in.  A common complaint that has been rising about Marvel in Phase 4 has been that all their titles are beginning to become formulaic and carbon copies of each other.  This seems to be what’s happened with Ant-Man as well, as it’s ditched it’s fun romp through the city formula that served it well before in favor of looking more like the space operas of other franchises.  And that shift overall becomes awkward and unfocused when executed by a team that thus far has been comfortable working with a different style of movie.

There are still things to like about the movie, don’t get me wrong.  There are certainly individual scenes throughout that work very well on their own.  But all the ingredients put together leads to a meal that in some way feels very undercooked.  Peyton Reed is called upon to do so much universe building in this film, and it leaves him so little time to do the things he’s actually good at in this franchise which is comedic action.  The movie itself is very awkwardly paced, moving the story from set-piece to set-piece without every allowing the narrative to find it’s bearings.  You can sense a good version of this story within the film desperately trying to find it’s way out, but is continually denied by the break neck speed of the plot.  Perhaps the movie’s greatest sin is how it treats it’s central villain.  Kang the Conqueror is simultaneously the best part of this movie as well as it’s part.  There’s no doubt that a lot of people are going to be talking about Jonathan Majors performance as Kang in this film.  In just a handful of scenes he commands a foreboding and sinister presence.  Marvel definitely knew what they were doing when they cast him in the role, because this is a very demanding role that requires an actor that can literally play multiple variations of the same person and do so with the same intensity each time.  We first met a version of Kang in the Loki Disney+ series (also played by Majors), but this version is the Conqueror, the one that is feared above all the others, and Jonathan Majors does a magnificent job of capturing that terrifying power in his performance.  The only problem is Kang is very much misplaced in this movie.  The movie cannot quite figure out to use Kang as an adversary in this film.  Ant-Man is clearly out-matched in terms of power, so the film has to find ways to nerf Kang to make him less of a threat, and this very much robs the villain of his menacing nature.  Kang is supposed to be the next Thanos, and first impressions are everything, so if this is our first taste of what’s to come with Kang the Conqueror in the future of the MCU, it doesn’t exactly heighten our excitement.

There are definitely a few other things that help to keep Quantumania from becoming a complete misfire for Marvel.  One is the cast of characters.  With each new film in the franchise, as well as his guest appearances alongside the Avengers, Paul Rudd continues to reinforce his place as the perfect choice to play the role of Ant-Man in the MCU.  He is endlessly charming, and that continues to shine in Quantumania.  Even as the movie begins to lack the comical spark that defined past entries, Rudd is still able to find laughs in the best moments of the movie.  There is a spectacular scene midway where Ant-Man ends up in a realm where he keeps cloning himself exponentially until there are literally millions of him, and even here Rudd is able to find clever ways to make the interactions with himself hilarious.  The movie also does a good job tackling the father/daughter relationship between Scott and Cassie.  The character of Cassie is significantly aged up from the last installment, Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), due to the five year jump in the MCU from the Blip, and Kathryn Newton takes over the role.  While the years have certainly hardened the character, we still see some of the same spirited persona within the character, and Newton does a good job of playing up the childlike enthusiasm of the character.  The other characters have less to do, which is especially true of Evangeline Lily’s Wasp, who only seems to be in this movie because her name is in the title.  Michelle Pfeiffer’s role is expanded, and she does a good job of helping to delve into more of Janet’s past; particularly the trauma that she carries with her.  Of all the characters in the film, Janet seems to be the one who has the strongest arc, as she has to confront the guilt of her past (particularly when it relates to Kang) and overcome it.  The secondary characters are for the most part underdeveloped, but actors like Katy O’Brian and William Jackson Harper make the most of their time on screen.  One character in the movie who I think is going to divide audiences is M.O.D.O.K.  Marvel fans are either going to love or hate what they did to this iconic villain from the comic books.  For me, the character took some getting used to, but at the same time, I feel like this was likely the best we would ever get to having a live action version of this character in the MCU.  M.O.D.O.K., the giant faced, tiny limbed villain has always been weird looking in all variations of media throughout the years, so the fact that Marvel even attempted to make him work here at all was risky, and despite the weirdness of it all, he’s a character that still makes an impression and even gets a well earned laugh or two.

There’s also something to be said about the look of the Quantum Realm itself.  You would think that Marvel has already exhausted it’s share of different world to explore within it’s universe, but the Quantum Realm is visually interesting enough to stand on it’s own.  One of the interesting aspects of how the Quantum Realm is used in this film is that the movie does a good job of making the sub-atomic feel vast.  It’s supposed to feel like a universe on it’s own contained within an even more vast universe, and it’s how the visual spaces are used within the movie that helps to emphasize the different laws of nature that this Realm lives by.  Kang’s stronghold for instance exists within a curved space that appears to extend up and around like the interior of a sphere while still maintaining the urban sprawl of it’s metropolis.  The same alien elements of the Quantum Realm continue through the floating islands of rock that dot the landscape under a sky filled with swirling wormholes.  While the story itself is unfocused, the movie does keep the visuals interesting throughout.  A lot of the re-watchability factor of this movie may come down to catching all the details of the world-building, of which there are many little things worth catching.  Even the creatures are imaginative and different from anything that we’ve seen in other Marvel properties, or any film for that matter.  There’s one character that looks like it has a glass jar for a head with a light source inside.  That and other creatures found throughout the movie really help to give more character to the movie, even if a lot of it is superficial and offers little to the overall plot.  I saw the movie on a full sized IMAX screen, which helped to make the imaginative visuals stand out even more.  Despite all the faults of the movie, the overall visual presentation is definitely on par with Marvel at it’s best.

Truth be told, the Ant-Man franchise has never really been among my favorites in the greater MCU.  I do love Paul Rudd as the titular super hero, but I feel like he has been best used outside of his own franchise in movies like Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).  The first Ant-Man (2015) was a troubled production that saw it’s original director (the visionary Edgar Wright) removed over creative differences and the finished film feeling in the end like it was compromised; choosing to play it safe as a super hero origin story.  Ant-Man and the Wasp is probably the most cohesive film in the series, but it’s one that feels lacking in urgency and meaning; remembered more for it’s shocking cliffhanger mid-credits scene.  Quantumania is definitely the messiest of the three films in the franchise; unfocused and underwhelming on the story end, but at the same time daring in it’s big swings.  I think what ultimately made me upset about the movie is the missed opportunity it had with Kang as the villain.  The movie’s whole purpose it seems is to introduce us to the next Avengers level threat in the MCU, and it in many ways undermines the importance of that mission by diminishing the character’s power.  Kang never really comes off as scary as he should be, and I feel that’s where Quantumania fails the most as a movie.  That being said, when the movie does deliver something good, like the visuals and the father/daughter storyline between Scott and Cassie, it really hits the mark.  My hope is that when Kang re-emerges in the MCU plot thread that he’ll be far more menacing than he is here and live up to the promise of the character that we know him to be from his history in the comics.  For a third chapter entry in a franchise that honestly has been one of my least favorite in the MCU, Quantumania could have been a lot worse, and I do give it credit for trying something new.  But, given that Marvel’s Phase 5 is starting off with this underwhelming sequel as it’s launch pad, it’s already putting Marvel’s already shaky status into further uncertainty, and hopefully it’s not a sign that Marvel’s mojo has been drained completely.  Thankfully, next up for them is the promising Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, director James Gunn’s Marvel swan song before he takes over DC.  Quantumania is a decent enough adventure in it’s own way, but for it’s place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s memory is likely going to remain quite small in the long run.

Rating: 7/10

Collecting Criterion – Malcolm X (1992)

As we reflect on the important figures that come into focus during Black History Month, it is important to also look at the many Black voices that have made an impact in cinema as well.  The Criterion Collection, for their part, have made an effort to spotlight filmmakers of color in their library.  Sure there are the iconic Blacksploitation films of the 60’s and 70’s in the collection, including a Box Set of the films of Melvin Van Peebles, as well as Shaft (1971, Spine #1130).  But, the collection runs through so many genre types that it gives diverse look into the many different ways that Black filmmakers were able to tell their stories throughout film history.  In there you’ll find Westerns like Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher (1972, #1140), Noirs like Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1995, #1135)  and comedies like Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987, #1173).  The collection also has films directed by Black women, like Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball (2000, #1097), Dee Rees’ Pariah (2011, #1083), and Regina King’s One Night in Miami (2020, #1106).  But, when we are talking about the history of Black cinema, one of the most obvious names to come up is Spike Lee.  Lee has been one of the most prominent faces of African-American cinema over the last 30 years, and he continues to bring his sharp-edged social commentary to the big screen with recent celebrated films like BlackKklansman (2018) and Da 5 Bloods (2020).  He thus far has 3 films that have become selected as part of the Criterion Collection.  One is his blistering media satire Bamboozled (2000, #1019).  Another is a movie that many consider to be his masterpiece, and the one that put him on the map in world cinema; the iconic Do The Right Thing (1989, #97).  Most recently, however, they have added to the collection what may be the most ambitious movie of Spike Lee’s career; the epic scale biopic Malcolm X (1992, #1160).

Spike Lee, apart from being known as one of the most accomplished and skilled filmmakers out there, is also known for being one of the most opinionated too.  From the moment he started rolling film on his first ever movie he was adamant about using the art of cinema as a platform for spotlighting the Black experience in America.  In particular, there is a very charged political outlook in almost all of his movies, and he is not ashamed of the bluntness that he addresses those issues either.  As a result, he has become somewhat of a divisive figure in the world of cinema, though more recently he has been rightly celebrated for his accomplishments by a broad consensus within and outside of the film industry.  While some may be turned off by Spike Lee’s abrasive style, there can be no doubt that he is a one of a kind filmmaker and someone whose daring choices often always makes his movies pop with life and passion.  It’s rather surprising that given the subject matter that he often tackles in his movies, typically regarding the systemic racism that pervades our country, that he has managed to maintain a steady career in Hollywood, even with the support of some major studios.  His movies up through Do The Right Thing were produced independently and with modest budgets, but for his follow-up to Do The Right Thing he was given the full backing of Warner Brothers.  Malcolm X was a major jump for the still young filmmaker.  He was going from a contained, single location drama like Thing to a massive 3 1/2 hour epic story about one of the most divisive figures in the Civil Rights movement.  Convincing a major studio to invest in an epic biopic about the firebrand “by any means necessary” civil rights leader was not going to be easy.  But, with the celebrated Do the Right Thing lifting his profile, Warner Brothers believed it was a risk worth taking, and thus Spike Lee was granted the chance to bring his long time passion project towards reality.  The only question was, would audiences be willing to see it, especially those unfamiliar with the large swath of Black History and the cinematic voices that Hollywood often had pushed to the side for many years.

For his film, Spike Lee would focus on the formative years of Malcolm Little (X)’s life, from his time as a petty gangster, to his imprisonment and conversion to Islam behind bars, to his activism as part of the Nation of Islam, and then eventually to his departure from the same organization that led to his assassination.  All told through a first hand testimonial from Malcolm’s own perspective, we see the many different life moments that shaped the man into the crusader that he eventually became.  One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is that the man we meet at the beginning of the film is so far removed from the man we come to know by the end.  Malcolm Little (Denzel Washington) starts off as a zoot suit wearing gangster in 1940’s Boston, working for a gangster running a numbers racket named West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo).  After running afoul of Archie, Malcolm and his friend Shorty (Spike Lee) begin committing robberies to settle their debts.  Unfortunately they get caught and end up serving 8-10 years for their crimes.  While in prison, Malcolm befriends another convict named Baines (Albert Hall) who mentors the troubled youth and helps him convert to Islam.  Once his sentence ends, Malcolm pursues a more active role in the Nation of Islam organization, eventually rising up the ranks to be in the company of the organization’s leader, Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.).  Through his activism within the NOI, Malcolm emerges as a powerful orator and a lightning rod figure in the growing Civil Rights movement.  It also puts him under the scrutiny of law enforcement, who frequently targets Malcolm and his follows as a means of suppressing Civil Rights movements in America.  As he grows older, Malcolm’s activism goes through it’s own transformation, as he begins to retreat from some of the supremacist rhetoric of the NOI  and instead he desires a more humanistic view of civil rights.  This ultimately makes him a target of NOI hardliners, who begin threatening him and his family, including his steadfast supportive wife Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett).  Eventually Malcolm has to put his own life on the line to continue his crusade for Civil Rights, and this ultimately leads to his assassination from hitmen sent by the NOI.  Though his life is tragically cut short, he leaves behind a lasting legacy which in typical Spike Lee fashion is spotlighted through a montage of civil rights movements that have grown ever since.

It cannot be understated what a monumental piece of filmmaking Malcolm X is.  Spike Lee clearly was inspired by epic biopics made by Hollywood over the years, and this was his opportunity to show that the same ambitious storytelling on a grand scale could be accomplished by a Black filmmaker for a Black audience as well.  In all of it’s 3 1/2 hours, Spike Lee commands a huge multifaceted epic tale of race in America without it ever sagging under the weight of it’s ambition.  It’s frankly remarkable that he made this movie (his sixth overall) at the age of 35.  Most filmmakers often have to work a lifetime in order to make something this grand in scope, and he did it almost fresh out of film school.  What is equally impressive is that he brought along all the same crew that he had worked with before on his other films from She’s Gotta Have It (1986) to Mo Better Blues (1990); cinematograhy by Ernest Dickerson, costumes by Ruth Carter, and music by Terence Blanchard, all of whom working for the first time on a period set drama.  The movie shows him and his crew growing by leaps and bounds with their craft, and making a statement for their own place as people of color working in their respective fields within the Hollywood machine.  But what is especially impressive is that they were able to make the subject of Malcolm X, one of the most divisive figures in Civil Rights history, and give him mainstream recognition in a big Hollywood.  For many reasons, Spike Lee needed to be the filmmaker to tell Malcolm X’s story, because most filmmakers would’ve been too afraid.  Given Malcolm X’s violent rhetoric towards whites in the past (something which he later retracted in his last years), filmmakers had largely been reluctant to tell his life story on film, with the Civil Rights movement largely being framed on screen through more peaceful figures like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Spike Lee was the one and only filmmaker who could form a nuanced portrait of the controversial figure and show us, especially White audiences, that Malcolm X was much more than the firebrand activist with the violent racial rhetoric that he characterized with.

Above all else, what was crucial towards making the movie work as well as it did was the casting of Denzel Washington as Malcolm X.  By this time, Washington had risen to leading man status in Hollywood, with an Oscar win for Glory (1989) already on his resume.  There was no doubt that he would take a meaty role like this and run with it.  What makes his casting so perfect is that he nails every aspect of the character through his transformations over the course of his life.  From his gangster days to his firebrand activism to his late stage self-reflection, Denzel captures so much of Malcolm X’s journey through his performance.  What he really brings to the character is soul; you feel the weight of history that informs the person that Malcolm X is, both as a black man in America and also through just the personal trauma that he has had to go through.  He is definitely supported with a dynamic ensemble cast around him, including Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo, and Al Freeman Jr., but this movie is first and foremost a showcase for his talents as an actor.  Naturally, this would lead to a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards, though he would lose out to industry veteran Al Pacino who finally won for Scent of a Woman after losing for so many other iconic performances.  Though the movie was well received in critical circles, it did only modest business at the box office.  This sadly caused Spike Lee to no longer have the unfettered studio support that he once had, and he returned to more low budget fare for a while, with many believing that he peaked too early as a filmmaker.  His more recent resurgence has proven that he still has it as a filmmaker.  But it’s hard to know for sure if he has another movie on the scale of Malcolm X   in his future.  For what it’s worth, he is fortunate to have made the most of the short window that was open to him in order to make that kind of movie with the support that he was afforded at the time.

The Criterion Collection has included Malcolm X in their library with a special 4K UHD release.  Started in 2021, Criterion has entered the 4K market with a few of their high profile releases, and Malcolm X is one of the beneficiaries of this move towards high end home presentation.  The film’s original negative was taken out of the Warner Brothers Archive and was rescanned in 4K resolution.  A team of restorationists worked with cinematographer Ernest Dickerson to clean up the film’s picture and sound, and the new digital master was given approval by both Dickerson and Spike Lee for this UHD release.  The film’s 4K presentation is given it’s own UHD disc in the set and features full Dolby Vision HDR picture quality.  Several DVD and Blu-ray releases have done the movie justice in the past, but this new 4K presentation is remarkable in it’s fidelity.  Spike Lee for one thing is a filmmaker known for his bold uses of color in his films, and while Malcolm X is more subdued and muted compared to some of his other movies, the colors that are present definitely pop off the screen with the HDR support.  The fine detail of the picture really stands out in 4K resolution, which really makes you appreciate the period details that went into this movie; especially the costumes from Ruth E. Carter.  The film’s soundtrack is also something to admire too.  It’s almost identical to the 2012 5.1 mix that was conducted for the film’s original Blu-ray release from Warner Brothers, but it does sound even better with the uncompressed UHD disc.  The Criterion set also includes a Blu-ray copy of the movie which was sourced from the same 4K restoration master.  No matter what version you watch, you will be seeing this movie in the best possible version that has been on the market to date, helping to keep the movie looking just as good as it did when it was first released in theaters 30 years ago.

There is also a healthy helping of bonus features here as well, some from previous Blu-ray releases of the movie, as well as some made just for this release by Criterion.  The 4K UHD disc features just one bonus feature and that’s an audio commentary track.  Recorded in 2005 for the movie’s DVD release by Warner Brothers, this track features Spike Lee himself alongside comments from Ernest Dickerson, editor Barry Alexander Brown, and Ruth E. Carter.  Though all were recorded separately, the track is edited together to create a very insightful conversation about the making of the movie from their first hand experiences.  The same commentary track is also found on the Blu-ray version of the movie.  A third disc includes all of the remaining bonus features.  First, there is a featurette called Spike Lee in Conversation, which was made just for this release by Criterion.  It’s a conversational interview with Spike conducted journalist Barry Michael Cooper.  You can tell these two are long time friends as the conversation remains casual as they reminisce about the early years of Spike’s career when they first knew each other, and they eventually touch upon the turbulent times that surrounded the making of Malcolm X.  In addition, Criterion also film two separate interviews with two of Lee’s longtime collaborators, actor Delroy Lindo and composer Terence Blanchard.  Both of them offer their own interesting anecdotes about working with Spike and being a part of Malcolm X.  The bonus disc also carries over some of the features from the Warner Brothers Blu-ray, including the making-of featurette called By Any Means Necessary: The Making of Malcolm X as well as nine deleted scenes and the film’s theatrical trailer.  The most substantial feature, however, is a feature length documentary from 1972 about Malcolm X, narrated by James Earl Jones.  The documentary helps to give more historical insight into the person that Malcolm X was, and it’s a valuable document considering it was made within only 5 years of X’s assassination.  Like most other Criterion titles, this is a bonus collection that does justice to the movie it is complimenting, and any Criterion collector will be please by what they are given here, both with the old and the new features.

There are several movies that should be considered essential viewing when learning about the fight for Civil Rights here in America, and I think Malcolm X is one of those titles.  It is an exceptionally well crafted movie made on a grand scale that bravely puts a controversial figure at the center of it’s story and shows his important contribution to the struggle with nuance and intelligence.  With Denzel’s iconic performance and Spike Lee’s fearless direction, they managed to make a movie that expertly breaks down what kind of a man Malcolm X was, and why it is important to share his story.  You may not have liked everything Malcolm X stood for, but you cannot deny that part of the reason Civil Rights had been achieved to some extent in America is because of his contribution to the movement.  Spike Lee uses his own unique style to drive home Malcolm X’s message in a way that connects with modern audiences, while at the same time drawing upon cinematic inspirations of the past.  You can see echoes of other epic biopics like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Patton (1970) and Gandhi (1982) in Spike Lee’s film, with it’s attention to period detail and the generation spanning nature of it’s narrative.  There’s no doubt that Spike was making this film as a statement for black audiences, but the style of movie also appeals to audiences of all races with it’s epic filmmaking, and that seems to be the ultimate intent of Spike’s purpose for making this movie.  He wanted to put Malcolm X into the same league as these iconic figures that shaped history, and in a sense he had to do that by making his story appear as mainstream Hollywood as it could.  But, at the same time, Spike Lee is not selling out and going Hollywood.  Malcolm X is still a Spike Lee Joint to it’s core and only has the added benefit of it’s grand scope and mainstream appeal to help it endure with audiences of all kinds, black or white.  It’s an ideal choice to join the Criterion Collection and they’ve given it a worthy presentation to boot with insightful bonuses included.  For those who haven’t seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, please do yourself a favor and carve out some time to give it a watch because Malcolm X’s activism is an essential chapter to learn in the course of Black History and Spike’s movie is a cinematic event that puts the perfect mythic spotlight on this larger than life figure.

No Ordinary Film – How A24 Made the Oddball Oscar Worthy

Since the rise of the independent cinema over the last 30 or so years, there have been a number of labels that rise up from obscurity to become major players in the market of films, especially when it comes to awards and acclaim.  These independent movie houses often start out as distributors for films that make a lot of noise coming out of the film festival circuit, and over time they have established themselves well enough to become a mini-major studio in their own right, capable of producing films in house.  Each decade sees a significant rise in brands that suddenly become staples in awards season, though their rise often is followed up by a steep fall.  In the 80’s, Orion Pictures became the most successful distributor of award winning films, including Best Picture winners Amadeus (1984), Platoon (1986), and Dances With Wolves (1990), only to go bankrupt while their fourth Oscar winner The Silence of the Lambs (1991) debuted in theaters.  Emerging in the 90’s was the Weinstein Brothers backed Miramax, with their awards favorites like Pulp Fiction (1994), The English Patient (1996) and Shakespeare in Love (1998).  At the turn of the millennium emerged Dreamworks, a new studio formed by industry heavyweights Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen, with movies like American Beauty (1999) and A Beautiful Mind (2001).  And though it was bankrolled by a mega corporation, Netflix as a film producer also emerged in the 2010’s to change the game within the industry.  And that’s what unites all of these independent producers together; they were the ones changing the direction of the industry by their curating of rising talent and fresh ideas.  These studios also built their brands to be synonymous within the industry with a certain level of quality, and this was often what led to the choices of films they sought to either make or distribute.  Other independent studios have followed in the same steps as those of the past, but as we go further into 2020’s, one independent studio has remarkably emerged in a way that few industry insiders may have expected, and it’s leading Hollywood into a very peculiar new path.

A24 stands out amongst all of the independent studios both past and present mainly due to the kinds of films they have chosen to attach their name to.  The “A” in their name could easily stand for atypical because that’s often the best way to describe their catalog of movies.  They are not producers of gritty realist dramas like Orion, or a mixture of auteur driven statements like Miramax, or socially conscious historical epics like Dreamworks, or expensive passion projects like Netflix.  A24’s brand is about finding the most unique films out there and getting them seen, no matter how outside of the box they are.  When you see that A24 logo pop up on the big screen, which often appears in clever movie specific variations during the trailers, you just know you’re going to see something new and different, and even a little strange.  That has been the brand they have developed for themselves over their last decade of existence and it has worked out pretty well so far.  So much so, they are now finding themselves not only awards contenders, but the overall leaders in the race this year, with more nominations for this year’s Oscars than any other producer.  Though the decade is still young, it can be safe to say that they are the most valuable brand in the industry right now, and the ones that are beginning to shape the direction of the industry.  This is evident by the dominance of their top awards contender this year, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022); a movie that likely would’ve flown under Hollywood’s radar if it came out 10 years ago or more, but now is garnering unparalleled attention for a movie that is quite frankly outside of the Hollywood norm.  But, how did A24 manage to achieve this while still maintaining their mission to seek out the strange and genre-bending in both their in house productions and in their acquisitions.  In many ways, it all comes down to the awareness of what an audience is looking for.

A24 was founded in 2012 by the trio of Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges.  The industry professionals had all worked in various other positions within the industry, but they joined together with the goal of finding movies that fell outside of the norm and give them a spotlight with their collective expertise in marketing and distribution.  Initially, they were just a distribution label, collecting films from festival circuits, often the ones that other independent distributors found too strange to spend their money on.  For A24, these outsiders were the movies that they were confident they could find an audience for, and all it took was connecting the right audiences to the right movie.  In their first year, they managed to find surprising success with the Harmony Korine film Spring Breakers (2013).  Korine’s movies have often been too controversial for Hollywood or mainstream audiences, like Kids (1995) and Ken Park (2002), but Spring Breakers ended up finding a mainstream audience thanks to A24, because they successfully marketed the movie to the right audience; namely college kids.  Korine’s art house film suddenly became a must see movie for college audiences who, as you would guess, identified with the culture that was depicted in the film, even if it was showing the darker side of Spring Break festivities gone awry.  Though modest, it still showed that the A24 model of seeking the weirdest movies and targeting them to the right audience could be a profitable model to base their studio’s mission on.  And it was something that helped them to quickly rise in esteem within Hollywood.

Perhaps the year that marked A24’s arrival as an important player in Hollywood would be 2017, because that was the year that they pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Academy Awards history.  Only two years into the game, A24 did manage to gain Oscars attention right away.  In 2015,they had a nominee for Best Picture with their Toronto International Film Festival champion Room (2015).  The movie would go on to win a Best Actress award for Brie Larson, but it lost out to Spotlight (2015) for the top award.  The story would be different a year later.  A24 would again be in the Best Picture race with their critically acclaimed queer themed drama Moonlight (2016), but that film was up against a juggernaut called La La Land (2016).  As the latter kept sweeping up awards throughout the night, the inevitable seemed certain.  But, when the final award of the night was announced, even a mix-up passed by without raising an alarm.  Of course what ensued was one of the craziest moments in Oscar history as the wrong card was read for Best Picture, and Moonlight had indeed pulled the biggest upset in Oscar history.  In a way, A24’s first Best Picture win seemed destined to be as chaotic as it was, because it is on brand for them.  But indeed, Moonlight put A24 on the map in Hollywood, and they have been a fixture at the Oscars almost every year since, with movies like Lady Bird (2017) and Minari (2020) being some of the standouts.  But now they have gone from Oscar spoilers to Oscar front-runners with their latest Everything, Everywhere, All at Once leading all other contenders.  Whether or not it can translate into an Best Picture win is still yet to be seen, but it’s definitely another sign of how far A24 has advanced over the year.

So what has turned A24 into this success story.  One thing that has worked in their favor is having the right kinds of movies and getting them to the right audiences.  Their awards bait fare certainly has the right ingredients to grab the attention of voters, but their other movies that fall outside of Awards season also do their part to connect with the ideal kinds of audiences.  Where A24 has really built their brand the most successfully is with horror movie audiences.  They emerged at the right time when horror fans were growing tired of the slasher flicks and gore fests that were flooding the market over the last few decades.  Most horror films during that time were pandering and often regurgitating old franchises that had long worn out their relevance.  Horror fans wanted to see movies that were challenging and unique again.  A24 found this as a perfect avenue to seek out strange and unsettling horror flicks that could fill that need for new ideas into the genre.  One thing that really distinguished A24 horror flicks was their often more tempered pace.  Their movies didn’t rely on jump scares or buckets of blood, but instead built their horror around atmosphere and unsettling themes.  One of their most famous horror flicks to date is also one for their first in-house productions; the Ari Aster directed Hereditary (2018).  Hereditary showed that a horror movie could be terrifying without cheap tricks like jump scares, and instead have building tension, disturbing imagery, and unforgiving atmosphere be the driving force behind the horror; not to mention incredible performances helping make all that believable as well, including the criminally overlooked Toni Colette.  Aster continued that atmosphere driven horror with his follow-up, Midsommar (2019), another A24 production, and you can see a lot of the studio’s other horror movie output following the same pattern.  Other unconventional horror movies like Gasper Noe’s Climax (2019), Robert Eggers The Lighthouse (2019), and Ti West’s Pearl (2022) have all shown many different faces of horror that has greatly helped to diversify the meaning of horror in recent years, and similar to their like minded horror competitors Blumhouse, they have shown you don’t have to throw a ton of money towards horror movies in order to make them more horrific.  Like with all of A24’s movies, it’s about making movies that are unique, and that drive for uniqueness has helped to make A24 one of the drivers of contemporary horror.

One of the keys to their success has also been in their dedicated working relationship with some of the most unique filmmakers in the business today.  Here is also where their rise in the horror genre has been valuable to their overall brand.  People like Ari Aster and Robert Eggers continue to return to A24 because they know that the studio will gladly put their money behind their oddball ideas for movies.  I’m sure that Robert Egger’s The Lighthouse would’ve been a very hard sell to any other production company in Hollywood; a black and white character study set on a remote island with two loners growing increasingly insane as they tend to a secluded lighthouse.  And yet, it’s a movie that is on brand for A24.  It’s not just among horror filmmakers that they have found committed creative partnerships.  Another auteur filmmaker that has collaborated frequently with A24 is David Lowery.  Lowrey’s filmography is interesting because of how frequently he changes up genres.  His two films with A24 are A Ghost Story (2017) and The Green Knight (2021) and they couldn’t be more different in genre and story, and yet fit very much in the director’s own style.  It’s also interesting that Lowery’s time with A24 coincides with another unexpected creative relationship he has with Disney, as he’s directed Pete’s Dragon (2016) and the upcoming Peter Pan & Wendy (2023) there, again while still maintaining his own unique voice.  A24 is a film company where a little bit of risk is welcomed on the creative end, and that’s what’s helped to attract filmmakers who want to work outside of the Hollywood norms to their label.  They are definitely finding out that curating talent with outside the box ideas is a good strategy for them right now, as The Daniels (Kwan and Scheinert) have presented them with their biggest hit ever in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.  And it was a wise choice to keep them involved with A24 after their first film, which was also unusual; Swiss Army Man (2016), which featured Daniel Radcliffe playing a farting corpse throughout the whole movie.  A24 managed to miraculously connect that film with an audience, and they reaped the reward of that investment as they secured The Daniels as an exclusive partner in what may now be an awards season juggernaut.

So, can A24 manage to continue staying on top like they are now, or will they inevitably decline like Orion, Miramax, and Dreamworks behind them.  For the first year ever, their output of in-house productions exceeded their distributed titles that they acquired in the festival market.  They are now not just a seeker of unique movies, they are the makers of them from the ground up.  But, growth is difficult to maintain long term.  It’s going to really depend on how much bigger A24 plans to get.  What kinds of movies do they plan on making in the years ahead.  Thus far, their movies have remained relatively modest in terms of their budgets.  Even movies like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once that are ambitious in concept have been made on relatively small budgets.  Is A24 ready to make bigger films; some in the range of $100 million per budget?  No plans for those kinds of movies are in the pipeline now, but A24 is planning on broadening their reach into a variety of different genres, each reaching a different kind of audience.  Last year, they put out their first ever G-Rated movie with Marcel, The Shell With Shoes On, and while it may be too weird of a movie for young audiences, it nevertheless shows that they are willing to make a movie appropriate enough for all audiences.  They are also starting to develop more documentary films as well, lending their brand to a selection of non-fiction filmmaking that likewise also fits outside of the norm.  One thing that has also benefitted them over the years is their forward thinking distribution deals with big streaming platforms.  They started off with DirectTV and Amazon as their go to streamers, but an exclusive deal with Apple in 2018 marked a new phase that has helped them secure funding for a number of projects, including co-productions with Apple just for the Apple TV+ platform.  Things could certainly change, and A24 may lose out their status as a driver of the industry, but there is no doubt that they know what they are doing in this moment, and that’s building an expectation when you see the name A24 on a new film or television show.  They have curated a brand, one that is an indicator of quality built the atypical, and it’s something that they are hopefully going to try to live up to in the years ahead.

What is really interesting about A24 in the grand scheme of things with independent filmmaking is that they’ve managed to build a brand for themselves with the kinds of movies that normally wouldn’t survive elsewhere in the market.  There are some movies out there that are just hard to sell to executives and even more difficult to market to a wide audience.  And yet, A24 has managed to make these types of movies work for them over and over again.  Sure, they’ve wisely avoided movies that are way too big for their modest budgets, but the movies that they have put forward are still no less ambitious in their own way.  The A24 marketing team seems to be especially skilled in knowing exactly how to market the unmarketable, and get people excited for things as strange and challenging as Swiss Army Man, The Lighthouse, or The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems (2019).  There are up and coming filmmakers out there that are crafting what they see as an A24 style film in the hopes that the open-minded studio will consider their project.  Perhaps the fact that there is a concept of an A24 film buzzing around the industry that may help to keep the studio relevant for some time.  A24 doesn’t need to grow beyond their means like Miramax and Dreamworks have in the past.  Their brand is being atypical to the Hollywood machine, and that enables them to remain defined by modest films as long as they still exhibit a sometimes unusual quality.  To A24’s benefit, the rest of the film industry is taking notice of this, and rewarding the studio with a whole lot of accolades and awards.  It’s also making studios reconsider what an Oscar-worthy movie is now; it’s no longer the star-studded serious minded drama, but rather the movie that demands recognition for defying the standard conventions.  It might just be A24’s time right now, and their style is clicking with both the industry and audiences, but if they continue a commitment towards curating new and fresh voices for years to come, it might be the key to their longevity.  We’ll see how well that plays out at this year’s Oscars, but for now we know that when that A24 logo shows up on the big screen, something bold and unusual is about to follow, and that’s helping to set an example that hopefully changes Hollywood for the better.

Off the Page – Rebecca

The Gothic Romance has long been a popular genre in Western literature.  We often pass by the bookstands at our local stores and see these often laughable looking book covers of two impossibly beautiful characters embracing against a stormy skyline.  As omnipresent as these kinds of titillating novels may be in book stores across the world, they nevertheless have been instrumental in shaping literature as we know it.  The gothic fiction has it’s origins in early 19th century literature, which helped to cement the very Victorian era elements in so much of the novels we see today.  It was in this literary movement where authors like the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley flourished.  In their works, they used Gothic imagery (such as dark castles, forests, or hidden passages) to inject a bit of forbidden anger into their stories, which in it’s own way turned into subversive escape for female readers.  For the writers themselves, it was a way to break away from the standard male centered marriage stories that often defined Victorian literature at the time.  These kinds of novels helped to elevate the voices of women in literature, as gothic romance often were the only outlets that allowed women to voice outrage over violence committed against them by framing it within these darker themed stories.  These were stories by women and for women, but even beyond that connection, these kinds of novels would have a profound effect on the presentation of gothic themes overall in storytelling over the next century.  As the genre evolved into the 20th century, more authors found ways to adapt the genre to more modern readers, and in turn, refresh the Gothic genre with even more taboo elements in their stories.

One such author who modernized the Gothic romance for 20th century readers was Daphne Du Maurier.  Du Maurier was an English author who worked primarily within the genre, often taking the gothic elements to near supernatural levels in her writing.  She was greatly influenced by the Bronte sisters, as many literary scholars see parallels with her stories and those of the legendary writers like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.  She wrote almost continuously over a 40 year period, including novels, short stories and plays.  But it’s her earlier work in the 30’s and 40’s that she is most remembered for.  Novels like The Loving Spirit (1931), Jamaica Inn (1936) and My Cousin Rachel (1951) often involved young heroines who have their lives upended by tragedy, mystery and even a little bit of spectral haunting.  She was a master of creating a sense of dread throughout her novels, with the oppressive melancholy of the often gloomy English weather being a pervasive element.  A critique of many of her works was that she often made her stories too depressing, with her novels often denying the reader a happy ending.  But, even as her writing was frequently dreary and foreboding, she also remained a very popular author.  Critics didn’t warm up to her novels initially, but the average reader loved her subversive style and the way that she challenged their sensibilities.  Of all of her books, the one that undeniably remains her seminal work is the novel Rebecca (1938).  The novel was an immediate success upon publication, and naturally gained the immediate interest of Hollywood.  A movie adaptation was begun even as the first edition of Rebecca remained on book shelves, and it would begin an interesting story all of its own, as it would launch a whole new chapter in the career of one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers, which also led to a tumultuous behind the scenes clash in it’s own right.  The film adaptation of Rebecca also shows an interesting experiment in Hollywood could work around it’s limitations in order to do justice to a challenging source material.

“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

The film rights to Rebecca were bought up immediately after publication by one of the biggest personalities in all of Hollywood; David O. Selznick.  The “take no prisoners” producer was already in the middle of his magnum opus film adaptation of Gone With the Wind (1939) when development began on Rebecca.  The latter may not have been as epic in scale as the former, but Selznick was still determined to turn Rebecca into his next big hit after Wind.  Being another sweeping romance that was a hit with readers, there was no doubt that Rebecca would be an ideal production for Selznick to take on, but it would require a different kind of filmmaker in order to get the more Gothic elements of Du Maurier’s story right.  That filmmaker would turn out to be a rising star out of the British film scene.  Alfred Hitchcock had been making a name for himself across the pond with critically acclaimed thrillers and mysteries such as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and The Lady Vanishes (1938).  And for years, Hollywood had been calling for him to cross over and bring his talents to Tinseltown.  But, given that many of the offers that came Hitchcock’s way were just standard Hollywood dramas, the more Gothic minded filmmaker often refused to make the transition.  But, once Selznick secured the rights to Rebecca, the offer could not be passed up.  For Hitchcock, Rebecca was exactly what he was looking for, with it’s taboo subject matter, Gothic setting and themes, and tension filled mystery.  He not only agreed to make the film, but Selznick also managed to talk him into a multi-film contract at his studio; a decision that Hitchcock later would regret.  But, there’s no denying that the marriage of Hitchcock’s direction and Du Maurier’s writing was perfect match.  Indeed, the finished film does display the standard Hitchcockian brilliance, though you can also sense the intrusive meddling hand of Selznick at play as well, and it lead to some interesting changes to the story in contrast to what appears in the book.

“Why don’t you go?  Why don’t leave Manderley?  He doesn’t need you.  He’s got his memories.”

Certainly one of the most important things that Hitchcock and Selznick needed to accomplish to do justice to the novel was the casting of the characters.  In particular, they needed to pick the right actress for the never-named protagonist.  One of the most interesting choices in Daphne Du Maurier’s novel was that she tells the whole story as a  first person testimonial from her female protagonist, and never once shares that character’s name.  The heroine, whose credited in the movies as just “I,” is meant to be the audience’s surrogate for this tale, and leaving her unnamed is an interesting bit of experimentation on the part of the author.  The film carries that over, but apart from opening narration, the character must be able to stand out without having an identifiable moniker.  For casting, the movie found it’s ideal heroine with Joan Fontaine.  The English actress, and sister of fellow Hollywood legend Olivia de Haviland, is a perfect embodiment of Du Maurier’s protagonist.  She is strong willed but also effectively haunted in her performance, able to make the character resonate within the movie.  She is also a perfect match for the brooding presence of Laurence Olivier as the dashing millionaire widower Maxim de Winter.  Olivier had already become a household name a year prior with his star making turn in the Hollywood adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1939), but Maxim’s tortured persona would be a big difference for the actor after the strong willed Heathcliff.  Olivier very much welcomed the role, seeing the hapless Maxim as a great contrast to his other noteworthy role, which showed Hollywood that he had more range, which would help the Shakespearean trained thespian break free from typecasting that so many actors would fall into during those studio system days.  For both Olivier and Fontaine, this was a good risk taking opportunity that helped to strengthen their opportunities as performers, rather than just as actors, something common in British cinema but not so much in Hollywood.

But what made it necessary to have someone like Hitchcock on board was for presenting a presence on screen for someone who is never actually seen; the titular woman.  Maxim de Winter and the protagonist waste no time falling in love and they marry before the first act is even over.  Where Du Maurier’s story really kicks into high gear is when Maxim brings his new bride home for the first time, to the mighty manor house known as Manderley.  The Manderley manor is a character within the novel and the film in it’s own right, an ominous Gothic mansion full of history that in time comes to overwhelm the new bride.  And in particular, the mansion bears the omnipresent memory of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca.  While there is no actual ghostly presence described by Du Maurier within the story, the way she describes the cold, oppressive feeling of Manderley often gives the reader a feeling of the place being haunted.  Hitchcock perfectly captures this as well in his direction.  Drawing upon his history of making tension filled thrillers back in England, Hitchcock gives Manderley this foreboding feeling, using the contrast of light and shadows to great effect.  Working with a Hollywood sized budget, he even gets to work on a scale he hadn’t been able to have before.  The actual Manderley house in the film doesn’t exist, and was created through highly detailed models, which was necessary given how the needed to have the mansion destroyed by the end of the movie.  But the sets themselves also go far in helping to accentuate the ghostly feel of the setting.  The great halls have this domineering castle like feel to them, but when you see the bedroom that once belonged to Rebecca, it’s ethereal like with it’s billowy see-thru silk drapes.  It all helps to reinforce the idea from Du Maurier’s novel that even though Rebecca is dead and gone, her presence still dominates the house that Maxim’s new bride must now live in.

“I watched you go down, just as I watched her a year ago.  Even in the same dress you couldn’t compare.”

One of the other things that Hitchcock also perfectly translated from the novel, and perhaps even improved upon, is the character of Manderley’s domineering housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.  Mrs. Danvers is one of the most memorable villainesses in 20th century literature, and she seems to have been a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock’s too.  Played magnificently in the film by Australian actress Judith Anderson, Mrs. Danvers is the figure in the story that most actively allows the memory of Rebecca to endure.  Her intent from day one is to make the new “Mrs. de Winter” felt like an intruder into Manderley, but she does so with carefully applied gaslighting under the guise of being a good caretaker.  She reinforces in the mind of the protagonist that Rebecca is and will forever be the love of Maxim’s life, and that the best course of action for her is to leave Maxim and break his heart or take herself out entirely.  It’s through the character of Mrs. Danvers that both the book and the movie approach it’s most taboo and challenging subject matter.  Many scholars have theorized that Mrs. Danvers devotion to the memory of Rebecca has more to do than with just what’s on the surface.  Though it was has never been substantiated, it was thought that Daphne Du Maurier was bisexual, and had same-sex love affairs in her past.  If true, it might have been something that informed her writing with regard to Mrs. Danvers’ motivations in the story.  A same sex attraction, and even a hidden love affair, is hinted at very much between her and Rebecca in the story, and it carries over into the jealousy that she holds for the protagonist.  In some ways, the gaslighting done towards the protagonist carry a little bit of grooming as well, which for a story like this was very taboo for it’s time.  Naturally, Hitchcock had to tread lightly with this subject matter, as censors would not allow for any hint of same sex relationships mentioned in any movie at the time.  Of course, for a filmmaker like Hitchcock, and even Selznick to some extant, boundaries are there to be tested, and they certainly took it as far as it could go.

The movie does stick pretty close to the novel, until it does clash with the Production Code standards that all of Hollywood had to stand by.  The code forbade any explicitly sexual material, even in innuendos, and made especially strict guidelines in how acts of violence should be depicted in movies.  Apart from censoring the implications of queer subtext with some of the characters, the movie also had to gloss over the moral shades of gray when it comes to the characters.  In the novel (spoilers), we learn that Maxim’s haunted demeanor over the thought of Rebecca is not because he loved and misses her, as the protagonist suspects, but because he in reality hated her and was responsible for her death.  In the book, Maxim confesses to shooting Rebecca in a secluded fishing cabin by the beach and throwing her body out into the sea afterwards.  The Production Code wouldn’t allow for film to have it’s male lead responsible for killing his wife in cold blood, so in the movie, the death was changed into an accidental death, with Rebecca implied to have smashed her head open on the exposed end of an anchor during a physical fight with Maxim.  Both incidents do push Maxim towards his guilty conscience, but the movie version definitely makes the moment feel more sanitized and ludicrously convenient.  We of course learn in both cases that Rebecca was already dying from a terminal illness, and she coaxed Maxim into killing her as part of her death wish, but the moment feels much darker in the original book.  Du Maurier’s penchant for tragic endings also gets changed in the movie as well.  Manderley is set ablaze by Mrs. Danvers, but the novel treats it as shocking final act that ruins the lives of all.  In the movie, both Maxim and the protagonist live, but Mrs. Danvers receives her comeuppance in the inferno; a victim of her own obsession.  To Hitchcock’s credit, he makes this tacked on ending memorable in it’s staging, with a haunting final look on Judith Anderson’s Danvers face as the inflamed ceiling of Manderley comes crashing down on top of her.  But, the more bitter finale of Du Maurier’s novel does a lot more towards creating a haunting final note to leave the story on.

“It wouldn’t make for sanity, would it, living with the devil.”

The confluence of Du Maurier’s writing, Hitchcock’s direction, and Selznick’s showmanship led to a brilliant cinematic adaptation of this classic novel, even in a compromised state.  The gamble definitely paid off, but unfortunately it was David O. Selznick that took all the glory.  Rebecca would go on to win the coveted Best Picture award at the Oscars that year, the only film of Hitchcock’s to ever achieve that honor, though he himself never received the award for Best Director throughout his career, despite frequent nominations.  Sadly, because of the success of Rebecca, Hitchcock was further locked into his contract with Selznick, leading to a contentious decade ahead where both director and producer clashed frequently.  The upside, however, is that it firmly established Hitchcock as a force in Hollywood, where he would go on to create some of the greatest movies of all time like Rear Window (1954), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and of course Psycho (1960).  Hitchcock would even revisit the writings of Daphne Du Maurier again when he adapted one of her more supernatural short stories into a classic thriller known as The Birds (1963).  Unfortunately due to his contentious working experience with the domineering Selznick, he would later dismiss Rebecca as one of his lesser works towards the end of his career.  Du Maurier didn’t feel the same way, and over time she celebrated Hitchcock’s adaptation as one of her favorite adaptations of her novels, even with all the alterations.  To this day, Rebecca the novel and the movie still represents one of the best examples of Gothic romance from the 20th century.  The atmosphere, tone, and risk-taking elements all work together to make it a story that has stood the test of time and can still leave it’s audience captivated.  As a piece of woman’s literature, it’s also ahead of it’s time, and it’s interesting how this story is driven first and foremost by the women within it.  The protagonist doesn’t have a name, and the woman whose name makes up the title is only mentioned in the past tense, and yet, they drive the narrative more than the male characters, who this time are cast as the passive players in this story.  A full 80 years after it’s original publication, Daphne Du Maurier’s novel and the Hitchcock film it inspired are still feminist narratives that feel as relevant today as they ever have been.

“Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?”

Hollow Gold – The Decline of the Golden Globes and When Awards Lose Their Value

In case you didn’t know, the Golden Globes were handed out last week.  It wouldn’t be your fault if this event had passed you by without notice.  The Golden Globes, to put it bluntly, has been going through an existential crisis lately; one in which may eventually lead to it’s complete and total demise.  At one point, the Golden Globes was seen as second to only the Oscars in importance within Hollywood.  It bridged both the theatrical and television side of the industry, and for a time gained a reputation for being the looser, more hip awards show in comparison to the stately Oscars.  But, that shine has diminished in the last decade.  Combined with a general decline overall with televised awards ceremonies and internal politics that have spilled over into public view, the Golden Globes are now seen by many to be irrelevant as a part of the Awards season.  Other awards, such as the Guild honors as well as the Critics Choice have become more reliable bellwethers for the Oscars in recent years, and the Globes track record for picking winners has grown ever more shoddy, mainly due to the untrustworthy way that winners and even nominees are selected.  And with the society of publishers and journalists that make up the voting body called the Hollywood Foreign Press becoming ever more scrutinized for their poor judgement and lack of reform, does Hollywood even need to acknowledge the Globes anymore.  In many ways, the Golden Globes are both an incredible Hollywood success story (managing to stay around for 80 years) and also a cautionary tale of the industry at it’s worst.  And the decline that it has seen recently begs another question as to what value should we culturally put into Awards ceremonies that are increasingly insular and out of step with the industry as a whole.

It helps to understand what the Golden Globes are and how they evolved over time in the history of Hollywood.  Founded in 1943, the Hollywood Foreign Press was a collection of Los Angeles based foreign journalists that were looking to bridge the gap between Hollywood and non-U.S. markets.  As a sign of their desire to court favor within Hollywood circles, they created the Globes as a special honor recognizing the yearly achievements within the industry.  It was risky, adding another Awards ceremony in the shadow of the firmly established Academy Awards, but the Golden Globes managed to succeed, with the first ceremony taking place in 1944.  One of the traditions that helped to distinguish the Globes apart from the Oscars was that it retained the banquet style of the presentation; something that the Oscars had once had, but eventually abandoned as they moved into bigger LA venues like the Shrine Auditorium and the Pantages Theater.  The Globes, on the other hand, has continually maintained their commitment to smaller ballroom settings, moving around to venues like the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Hollywood Roosevelt, and then eventually to the Beverly Hilton where it has remained a fixture since 1961.  In the 1950’s, the Globes expanded to include honors for achievements in television, and the ceremony has remained more or less unchanged since then.  Because of the banquet aspect of the ceremony, guests have indulged themselves with the offerings of alcoholic refreshments available, which has led to the Globes feeling much more like a free-wheeling party than most other Awards.  It wasn’t uncommon for winners to come up on stage after having a few and saying stuff in their acceptance speeches that they normally wouldn’t at any other awards show.  The sometimes bawdy nature and unpredictability of the Globes for a time helped them to look like the cooler Awards in comparison to the Oscars, although it could never quite break free from the latter’s shadow.  And as the years rolled along, the Globes began to experience it’s own internal drama that unfortunately turned ugly as the years rolled along.

One of the main problems people have with the Hollywood Foreign Press itself is that it is an increasingly insular voting body that up until recently hadn’t faced any accountability for it’s sometimes questionable practices.  As of today, the Hollywood Foreign Press is made up of only 105 members, and they are the sole voting block that picks the nominees and winners for the Globes.  Compare this with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the voting block behind the Oscars, which has a membership that numbers in the thousands.  With a small group of people voting on these awards, you can see how there can be the danger of manipulation from studio influence.  For many years, The Hollywood Foreign Press has been accused of taking bribes as a favor for awards recognition, whether or not the movies themselves were any good.  And there are plenty of instances in the past that have given fuel to those accusations.  One was the award given to Pia Zadora as “New Star of the Year,” in 1982.  It was revealed that Zadora’s multimillionaire husband had flown members of the HFPA to Vegas on an all expenses paid trip, and had set up private screenings at his mansion with lavish dinners, which made it appear that the members were being purposely wooed towards giving the award as a favor.  Similar accusations arose in 2011 when a Johnny Depp film called The Tourist received numerous nominations despite being a box office flop and was panned by critics.  It turns out that a movie studio this time (Sony) had also been wooing HFPA members with trips, and it was speculated that the movie only got nominated so that the stars Depp and Angelina Jolie would attend the awards that year.  Studio influence, to be honest, is nothing unusual in Awards season, as the Oscars themselves have seen incidents of questionable campaigning practices that cloud the eventual awards given.  But, the instances at the Globes have been so brazenly obvious, that it has given the HFPA the unfortunate reputation of being suck-ups to the stars and one of the least trustworthy in deciding the best achievements in entertainment in the course of a year just based on merit.

But there have been even far greater problems with the Golden Globes that have recently come to a head with a reckoning within the last couple of years.  The number of members in the Hollywood Foreign Press used to be even smaller than the 105 that make up it today.  And as many pointed out a year or two ago, that small voting body was noticeably lacking in diversity.  The foreign body that makes up the HFPA is mostly journalist from Europe, along with a couple from Latin America and Asia.  Until recently, not one black journalist was within the ranks of the organization.  In the wake of Black Lives Matter and the racial discussion that arose out of the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and many other incidents like his, the attention to the racial make-up of the HFPA began to gain focus and scrutiny.  People were rightly concerned that the lack of a black voice within the organization creates an unfair blind spot when it comes to movie and shows from black creatives.  It’s something that all the awards ceremonies have had issues with, but it seemed especially egregious that up until now, no one in the HFPA had been a person of color.  The recent growth of membership has thankfully added more diversity to the HFPA ranks, but for some it’s a remedy that still falls short of addressing racial attitudes within the HFPA as a whole.  The slow change at the HFPA came to a head in 2022, as major studios bowed out of the ceremony altogether, and celebrities joined the boycott as well, saying they would not attend the ceremony unless significant change was demonstrated.  This resulted in the ceremony being untelevised for only the second time in it’s history; the first being in 2008 because of the months long Writers Strike.  Strangely, the ceremony had managed to survive the Covid-19 pandemic, with a virtual presentation keeping it alive as presenters and winners remained at home, but only a year later the Golden Globes were facing the reality of annihilation if they did not make serious change quickly.

It’s hard to say if the Golden Globes has righted the ship in the year since the boycott.  They managed to get back on the air this year, with NBC carrying the broadcast (which normally gets passed along to each of the networks except ABC, which hosts the Oscars exclusively).  But this year’s Globes seemed oddly desperate on the part of the HFPA.  It seems like they are fully aware of their issues and that they need to appear contrite.  But, with this year’s host Jarrod Carmichael calling the HFPA out on their hypocrisy on the Globes stage itself in front of the Hollywood elite, it seems that the HFPA is trying to present the image of contrition while at the same time desperately trying to get things back to the way that it used to be.  But, the issues with the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Globes themselves extend far beyond just the reforms made within the past year.  There is a general lack of trust that exists now between the industry (particularly with talent) and the HFPA.  One of the biggest problems that the Globes has right now is that fewer people within the industry see any value in winning one now than they did years ago.  Case in point, to protest the lack of reform with the HFPA, actor Tom Cruise gave back the 3 Golden Globes that he has won over the years.  It’s not a good sign when one of the biggest names in Hollywood no longer values the award you gave to him and seems so willing to depart with all of them.  Obviously it’s a statement on Crusie’s part towards his disgust with the HFPA, but it’s also a reflection of the Globes diminished value.  It’s also not surprising that even with the Globes back on TV this year, there were quite a few no shows who were still boycotting the awards, and with good reason.  Oscar hopeful Brendan Fraser has an especially justifiable good reason to never attend the Globes ever again, as he has accused past HFPA president Philip Berk had sexually assaulted him at an awards luncheon in 2018.  It was an incident that led to Fraser’s years long exile from Hollywood which he has only just now returned from with his Awards contender The Whale (2022).  Fraser, despite a nomination, didn’t attend this year’s Globes, stating in an interview, “my mother didn’t raise me to be a hypocrite.”

Despite making a return to live broadcast, the Golden Globes still has to contend with another existential factor, in that all awards ceremonies are on the decline; even the prestigious Oscars.  People just aren’t that interested in the glitz and glamour of the Awards season like they have been in the past.  Awards shows have always been a bit of indulgent self congratulation on the part of Hollywood.  It’s a bunch of rich celebrities all dressing up fancy and handing each other gold statues; something that seems very much detached from the actual issues that society deals with today.  Overall, Hollywood rewarding itself is taking on a more trivial place in the minds of audiences around the world.  But, it’s actually always been trivial.  The Golden Globes and even the Oscars for that matter have never exactly reflected what ends up being considered the greatest movies and shows of all time.  Some of the best films recognized today never even got anywhere close to recognition from awards like the Globes.  So, why should we as an audience put any value into Awards shows?  Well, for many decades, apart from the movies themselves, the Awards ceremonies have managed to distinguish themselves as entertainment in their own right.  There was a time when the Oscars, and even the Golden Globes were appointment television, even in the same company as events like the Super Bowl.  And this was due to the fact that these shows knew back then how to grab the attention of the audience.  They were spontaneous and grandiose spectacles.  What unfortunately has happened is that the Awards ceremonies have tried to play it safe and conventional, which has made awards shows feel more like manufactured chores to get through rather than major events to be astounded by.

What the Awards shows need to do is to make the ceremonies feel as rewarding for those watching at home as it does for those watching live in room itself.  The shows have increasingly felt like ceremonies for elites rather than shows worth tuning in for, and it needs to strike that right balance between glitz and spectacle.  In this case, the Golden Globes has historically had an advantage.  It’s more spontaneous moments have been the highlights of Awards season throughout the years, with slightly intoxicated celebrities breaking loose a bit more than they would elsewhere.  But, there are cases when then anything goes approach can back fire.  You want your awards ceremony to be remembered for the people who won, and not for one celebrity smacking a presenter across the face on live TV like what the Oscars experienced last year.  In the end, the thing that people want to see is their favorite celebrities be rewarded for their achievements and given the chance to speak from the heart on stage.  The moment the names inside the envelopes are read to the acceptance speeches that are given are always the highlights of any awards show, especially if it’s a surprise.  Unfortunately, the producers of these awards try to micro-manage these moments too, by playing the person off with music to cut their speech short.  And when audiences recognize they are watching something that is trying way to hard to be pleasing to everyone, they begin to grow less interested, because of the artificiality of it all.  For the Golden Globes, they are facing these kinds of headwinds within the industry as well as renewed competition.  When the Globes were off the air last year, the Critics Choice awards took it’s time slot and increased it’s own televised audience, helping to make it’s own case for being the number 2 awards show of the season.

A lot of the woes facing the Golden Globes are certainly self-inflicted.  Years of shady practices and unlawful activity on the Hollywood Foreign Press’ part has justifiably made Hollywood lose trust in it.  And the unusual way it chooses it’s nominees and winners still leads to questionable choices as well.  The ceremony has split awards between Drama and Musical/Comedy for years in several categories, but when a film like Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015) is nominated in the Musical/Comedy category, it definitely becomes a head scratcher.  But the problems it faces are also problems systemic with the industry as a whole.  Awards only have value if there is an understanding across the industry and among the general audience that the certain award is worth winning, and the Globes are beginning to falter in justifying it’s value these days.  It’s always played second fiddle to the Oscars, but the gap between them seems even more pronounced now.  The Oscars has the benefit of being the original industry award, and the one that stands as the gold standard nearly a century later.  We aren’t at the point where even the most passionate industry insider will give back their Academy Award in protest.  Some have refused Oscars (George C. Scott and Marlon Brando) but no one has actually picked up their statue and then returned it after a dispute with the Academy.  And yet now, we are at the point where celebrities have no qualms about returning their Golden Globe.  The Globes may have meant something in the past, and the ceremonies at one point were must see events on television, but those days may be coming to an end faster than the HFPA would like.  Can they turn things around, or is the end inevitable?  Somehow they have survived for 80 years, despite all the scandals, two cancelled ceremonies due to a strike and a boycott, and a pandemic.  They have been under-estimated before, but with an industry becoming far less trusting in a historically corrupt organization like the HFPA, it might be time to let the Globes sunset and fall out of the orbit of Hollywood’s increasingly competitive Awards season.

Crossing the Penciled Line – Why Live Action Remakes of Animation Lead to Bad Results

There seems to be a clash in entertainment when it comes to classifying what an animated film is.  Many people consider animation a genre onto it’s own, which when you look at all the animated films that have been made, seems like a very reductive classification.  Like film director Guillermo Del Toro, who himself has made an animated feature this last year, has recently said, “animation is a medium; not a genre.”  And that’s true, because there are so many examples of other genres like science fiction, fantasy, and horror that have been represented in the form of animation.  Animation is no more different than any other tool of storylelling that has been used in cinema, and yet the animation medium has long had to shake off the unfair distinction that it is just “kids stuff.”  True, the biggest names in animation (namely Disney, Warner Brothers, Dreamworks) have made movies that can be watched by the youngest of audiences, but the same studios will tell you that they don’t make their movies solely for kids.  Walt Disney himself scoffed at the idea that he made cartoons solely for children, saying that his movies were both “for the young, and the young at heart.”  The snobbish attitude towards animation has changed over the years, and you will find that today some of the most ardent fans of animated films are not so much kids but rather adults.  Sure children will still get a lot out of animation, but there is an ever growing market out there for grown up animation fans, who are far more likely to indulge in the lucrative collectible merchandise market.  What has definitely emerged out of this growing fan base of animation aficionados is an awareness from Hollywood that animation is one of the most valuable mediums within the whole industry.  Unfortunately, the industry can also take the wrong lesson from this and fall into bad judgments about how to exploit success without addressing the pre-conceived biases.

One problem that Hollywood still has within it’s perception of animation’s value is that it still places a superiority onto live action filmmaking that unfortunately perpetuates the idea that animation is less than in the business.  This is certainly reflected in the way that Hollywood honors animation in their awards season.  To this day, only 3 animated films have been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  And to make the struggle for the honor even harder, there is a separate category just for Animated Features, which in a way sequesters animated films from ever getting traction in the race over the live action films; much in the same way that Foreign Language films had to struggle to break out of their own category before Parasite (2019) finally broke through the glass ceiling.  But, Hollywood cannot deny that Animated films are among the most lucrative in the industry.  Studios often are helped by their animation wings to bring them within the black thanks to the broad audience support from all ages that consistently show up.  Pixar, Dreamworks, and Illumination for the better part of the last decade have accounted for billions of dollars of profits for their respective studios alone, and that’s just based on the box office.  Merchandise is a whole other industry that can benefit the movie studios that makes these movies.  And yet, there is this belief in the industry that for the stories told in these films to truly be considered worthy in Hollywood, they must be as close to live action as possible in terms of how close they adhere to reality.  There’s this tendency in animation studios to try to reign in their styles in order to be taken more seriously by the industry, or to forego more entertaining characterization in favor of ones that could be more closely connected with a familiar name.  But, Hollywood even goes a step further by taking a hit animated film and reworking it completely so that it can become a live action film.

Now animation to live action remakes is not an impossible venture to undertake.  In some ways it can be done, but more as a demonstration in how different mediums can be used to tell the same story.  Disney for instance has made movies based on fairy tales, mainly because they are public domain so it’s easy to adapt, and secondly because they are already familiar stories that people know going in.  All they have to do is offer their own spin on the story and make it entertaining.  When a movie from the same studio, like Disney, adapts the same story for a different medium, they can have a bit more free reign to adapt the story differently.  This is certainly what Disney did with what can be considered their first live action remake; 101 Dalmatians (1996).  The live action version tells the same story, but does so in a different way that works within the limitations of live action filmmaking.  Unlike the animated film, the dogs and animals never speak, and the focus is shifted more to the human characters and their story; particularly when it comes to the villainess, Cruella De Vil, played memorably by an over-the-top Glen Close.  Sure for many the live action remake doesn’t replace the original animated film, but the “remake” did enough to have it feel like it’s own movie, divorced from it’s animated origins.  And that’s because the filmmakers never intended to replace the original, but to merely offer up a different take on the same story, one that uses it’s medium just as well as the animated medium uses it’s own.  But, one thing that did result from that experiment was big box office for Disney.  The results were so good that the studio began to examine other titles within their library that could potentially be given the live action treatment.  Initially, the plan was to update classic stories with more contemporary approaches, utilizing the kinds of cinematic advancements that could allow live action movies to do things that only animation could pull off before.  As animation itself began to wane in the post Renaissance years at Disney during the 2000’s, live action began to seem like a more worthwhile investment for the studio.  Less time consuming and often easier to alter mid-stream, live action was viewed as a safer bet.  And thus began a decade of ever more pervasive animated remakes.

What was troubling about the glut of animation to live action remakes that pervaded the 2010’s was that they became increasingly meaningless over time.  Unlike the 1996 101 Dalmatians, the more recent Disney remakes seem very reluctant to head off script.  They are sometimes nearly shot for shot reproductions, but the results don’t work as well.  How can that be?  I think what it comes down to is that Disney seems to be under the suspicion that if they stray away too much from their formula, it will turn away audiences, but they don’t understand that by just repeating the same actions also exposes their lack of creativity in the same case.  They work their best when they are aware they are adapting a story rather than repeating a scene.  Of the remake era movies, the best ones are movies like Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Cinderella (2015), and that’s because those movies do enough differently that you don’t even think about the original movies that they are based on, offering up a better comparison.  By contrast, you cannot help but think of the animated versions when watching Beauty and the Beast (2017) and The Lion King (2019), because they are pretty much exactly the same, with only minor changes.  And the comparisons favor the live action versions very poorly.  To call 2019’s The Lion King a live action remake is actually false, because it’s an animated film still, but one that’s trying way to hard to make you think it’s live action.  Sadly, these movies did spectacularly well at the box office despite terrible reviews, and that only led to Disney feeling more emboldened to raiding their own library.  In the process, they look less like a company striving for artistic merit and more like one cashing in for a quick buck.  It’s however increasingly hard for Disney to continue to build off of this.  They only have a finite amount of movies to remake before they scrape the bottom of the barrel, and they aren’t making them any better.  Even classic era Disney is un-spared, as a Tim Burton directed remake of Dumbo (2019) and Robert Zemekis directed remake of Pinocchio (2022) have proved.  The charmlessness of the Pinocchio remake particularly highlights the needless exploiting of these classic titles that has been going on.

But, Disney is not alone in their misguided attempts to adapt animation into a live action medium.  There is another market of animation that has unfortunately succumbed to some terrible adaptations from Hollywood.  That market would be Anime, the animation style originated and popularized in nations like Japan and South Korea.  Japanese anime in particular has found a strong cult following here stateside, with rabid fandoms as strong as those found on the opposite side of the Pacific.  And Hollywood has take notice too.  Unfortunately, like with the success of Disney animation, the industry takes the wrong lessons, and mistakenly believe that what these anime properties need is a live action adaptation.  Thus far, most of the anime remakes fall way short of their original predecessors.  Some change so much that they are unrecognizable in comparison, like the failed Dragonball: Evolution (2009), or are so shot for shot faithful that they look like a cheapened rip off, like Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop series.  Netflix in particular has struck out multiple times in trying to make anime properties work in live action, including their Death Note (2017) remake.  And try as they might, Hollywood can’t seem to let go of making a live action Akira (1988), despite over 20 years of development with names like Leonardo DiCaprio and Taika Waititi attached to it at various times.  Like the Disney remakes, all of these remakes make the same mistake in thinking that the name recognition alone will carry the production through.  It doesn’t matter how glossy you’re film effects are or if you get a big name like Scarlett Johansson to play the lead part.  Nothing can replicate the work that went into crafting the same world by hand.  This is especially true with anime, because of the style of the animation, which utilizes limited frames per action.  The same action just doesn’t look the same when it’s done in the 24 frames per second that live action produces.  There is just something about animation that cannot translate perfectly into another medium, without that other medium also having to bend itself more towards animation.

Strangely enough, the reverse often has the opposite effect.  Animated renditions of live action worlds have sometimes turned out to be really interesting experiments.  This is especially true with anime projects that use big studio IP.  This was the case with The Animatrix (2002), a compilation of anime shorts that were loosely connected to the storyline and world of the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy.  The result was a beautiful animated collection that some would argue were better as a whole than the live action sequels that they were meant to promote.  Hollywood still hasn’t overlooked the value of using an animated medium to find added avenues to cross promote their live action properties.  After the success of Tim Burton Batman movies, Warner Brothers launched an animated series that took it’s visual style cues from the Burton films, and the result is one of the most beloved animated shows of all time.  That animated series in fact was so popular that a character created just for it, Harley Quinn, has been spun off into many different mediums including comic books and live action movies, where she is played by Margot Robbie.  Star Wars also has managed to build it’s lore equally across both animation and live action, with The Clone Wars series being just as popular with fans as the movies are, and characters created in the Star Wars animated properties are also now finding themselves being worked into hit live action shows like The Mandalorian and Andor.  Essentially, that’s where the happy medium is found between live action and animation; when both are treated as valid entryways into a larger story, and can be connected together without losing connective tissue.

What Hollywood seems to think wrongly is that these are competing modes of storytelling, rather than different tools that can both be effective in carrying a narrative.  In some cases, a first impression is often to difficult to overcome with an adaptation, and that’s something that is true for both mediums.  I think a lot of studios can’t succeed at taking chances on stories like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid because Disney’s adaptations are so iconic.  Any studio is within their rights to make their own because of public domain laws, but they hesitate because of the unfair comparison they would face against the beloved classics from Disney.  But, the same also applies with stories that were perfectly captured in live action.  I have yet to see an animated film that succeeds at being as magical as MGM’s original The Wizard of OZ (1939), an example of a classic fairy tale that was definitively captured through live action.  Basically, it comes down to what you are able to bring to a story that gives your movie value, and the best ability to stand on it’s own.  This last year, we saw a perfect example of a live action remake failing to justify it’s existence, while a different re-telling of the same classic story succeeded, all at the same time.  Disney’s Pinocchio (2022) is a textbook example of little effort put into a remake, leaving the movie to feel like a blatant cash grab that’s supposed to capitalize on the good will built around the original film that it’s trying to emulate.  Audiences could see the shallowness of the film with little effort, and the movie was justifiably rejected by both critics and audiences alike.  Meanwhile, Guillermo Del Toro released his own animated Pinocchio.  Made using stop motion, the film distinguishes itself through an art style based around Del Toro’s own designs and with a decidedly darker tone that is closer to the original literary source than either of the Disney version.  While the 1940 Disney version is still arguably the best cinematic version of the story, Del Toro’s Pinocchio is vastly superior to the remake, because it does the crucial job of creating it’s own identity and justifying it’s existence. It’s the story we all know, but done in a way that we haven’t seen.  Ultimately, that’s what audiences want in the end, to have the familiar feel like something new again, and that’s something that both animation and live action can accomplish in their own way, without having to undermine the other.

There are indeed some things that animation can do better than live action, and vice versa.  Animation for instance has been better used to make a person appear like they are flying, like the original Disney Peter Pan (1953).  When you see Christopher Reeve fly as Superman or Robin Williams fly as Peter Pan in Hook (1991), you can still get a sense of the wire work.  On the other hand, animation is a medium that can’t quite convey the subtlety of stillness in a movie.  It’s a medium that is built around continuous movement, so it can’t quite pick up the same subtlety of an actors performance the same way a live action film can with a locked down, in focus camera close-up can.  Imagine if animation tried to replicate the jail cell interrogation scenes from The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  It could try, but the little details of Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Fosters facial expressions would be lost, as animators would try to add more movement to those facial expressions.  It’s just the different natures of how the mediums work, and they both have their strengths and limitations.  There are great subtle acting moments found in animation, as well as great cartoonish found in live action.  Performance is also different across the spectrum, even with the same actors.  A live action movie could not replicate what Robin Williams brought to the Genie in Aladdin (1992), but animation would also have a hard time replicating the physical comedic timing of his work in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).  So, I find it strange why Hollywood seems so insistent on trying to replicate animation into live action.  The critical failure and rejection from fans to everything from the Disney remakes to the anime adaptations should prove that.  Sure, you can make a quick buck on name recognition alone, but it’s a short term gain that does not have a long life span, and may in fact be doing damage to the brand overall.  Hollywood should recognize that these are both equal mediums and should both be used when it’s best in service of the story.  The current state of Star Wars is a prime example of how best to blend the two, with different mediums being used to tell different sides of a singular story.  For right now, it would be best for Hollywood to see that animation is not inferior to live action, but is in fact a valuable medium perfect for exploring stories of all kinds.  In the end, it’s the story that matters most, and more importantly, it’s got to be something that feels new and fresh.  Don’t try to reinvent the wheel when you have the ability to fly.

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