Argylle – Review

Matthew Vaughn’s career has been a turbulent one as a filmmaker.  He first made a name for himself as a producer, specifically as the one who guided the early films of Guy Ritchie.  After the success of Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), Vaughn believed that it was time for his own foray into directing.  Staying within the comfort zone that he was familiar with through his collaboration with Guy Ritchie, he debuted as a director with his own take on the British gangster film genre; 2004’s Layer Cake.  Starring a pre-007 Daniel Craig, Layer Cake was generally well received by audiences and critics.  And while many would have thought Matthew Vaughn would’ve followed Guy Ritchie’s continued success within this gangster film genre, Vaughn surprisingly went in a much different direction and spread his wings out into the realm of fantasy filmmaking.  His follow-up would be the fantasy adventure Stardust (2007), which while being a big departure from Layer Cake it still showed Vaughn’s talent for mixing action and comedy together, something that he would continue to expand upon in his later films.  Those skills would especially propel him to further success as he extended into the comic book genre.  His next film, the hyper-violent super hero send-up Kick Ass (2010) would be the purest expression of Matthew Vaughn’s cinematic style yet.  The cartoonish excess of his action scenes would become the staple of his directorial style, and it would be the thing that guided his career as a director through the next decade.  Almost a year after making Kick Ass, he was called upon by Marvel and 20th Century Fox to help revive the ailing X-Men franchise, and he managed to succeed there as well, giving that franchise the reboot it desperately needed with X-Men: First Class (2011).  But where Matthew Vaughn would take his talents next would be a turning point for him as a filmmaker.  He would soon launch a franchise that both gave him the best showcase for his talents yet but also would end up holding him back and begin a decline in what had been a momentous career up to that point.

Working again with source material from comic book writer Mark Millar (Kick Ass), Matthew Vaughn set out to bring the comic series Kingsman to the silver screen.  Kingsman: The Secret Society (2015) was all of Vaughn’s best cinematic tricks put together in one fun romp of a movie.  The mix of cartoonish action and excessive violence mixed in with a cultured English aesthetic was a winning formula, and the film became Matthew Vaughn’s biggest success to date.  The church massacre scene in particular, where Colin Firth’s secret agent character takes out an entire congregation of crazed zealots in a brilliantly choreographed oner is seen by many to be one of the greatest action scenes ever filmed.  The success of this film led Vaughn to undertake a first in his booming career as a director; he was going to direct a sequel.  Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) was quickly churned out in two years, and anticipation was high given the beloved status of the original.  Sadly, lightning didn’t strike twice as the reception of The Golden Circle was not as warm, making this the first misfire of Vaughn’s career.  What had been his strong suit up to this point was now starting to become his weakness; namely the irreverent comedic tone of his action scenes.  When Elton John, in an extended cameo, is doing obvious wirework fight scenes in the movie, the humorous tone begins to fall apart.  Add to this a lot of plot contrivances and a bloated 2 1/2 hour run time, and many Kingsman fans came away disappointed.  You would think after this disappointment that Matthew Vaughn would want to move on, but shockingly he remained committed to this franchise.  He chose to next direct a prequel to the Kingman franchise by showing the origins of the organization in the awkwardly titled The King’s Man (2021).  The film suffered from the affects of the Covid-19 pandemic, delaying it over a year, and while it was more consistent in tone than it’s predecessor, the film still failed to generate renewed interest in the waning franchise.  Cut to now and Matthew Vaughn is still finding himself in the espionage genre, but he’s hoping to begin again with a new potential franchise launch with the film Argylle (2024).

Argylle follows the life of a lonely espionage novelist named Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose Agent Argylle books are international best-sellers.  Though she is immensely popular for her writing, she chooses to live a solitary life in her secluded Rocky Mountain getaway with her beloved feline companion Alfie.  Occasionally she’ll receive feedback on her books from her mother Ruth (Catherine O’Hara), who tries to needle her into being more outgoing.  While she writes her newest novel, she vividly pictures in her mind how it will look, with Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) being a dashing super spy who is assisted by his tech wiz Keira (Ariana DeBose) and his musclebound back-up man Wyatt (John Cena).  When she hits her writers block moment, Elly decides to travel cross country to visit her mother and father in Chicago.  While taking the train, she ends up sitting across the aisle from a stranger who just so happens to be reading her book.  He introduces himself as Aidan Wilde (Sam Rockwell) and bluntly tells her that he’s in the business of espionage, which she dismisses as a joke.  However, the two are approached by another fan seeking an autograph who suddenly tries to attack Elly.  The attack is thwarted by Aidan, who disposes with a dozen or so would-be assassins, and the two manage to escape by parachuting off of the moving train, along with Elly’s cat Alfie in a carrying pack.  Once safe, Aidan confides that Elly’s Argylle novels have predicted real events in the past, and a shadow organization is trying to get to her because they believe her oracle like senses will lead them to a black book of secret files.  The leader of the shadow organization named Director Ritter (Bryan Cranston) is hell bent on getting to Elly before Aidan can bring her to his own director, also named Alfie (Samuel L. Jackson).  Elly embarks on a harrowing mystery that turns up many surprises along the way, all of which makes her realize that Argylle is more than just a character she made up for her book.

It is certainly nice to see Matthew Vaughn pull away from the Kingman funk that he has fallen into over the last few years, but it leaves us with the question as to whether he has something new to offer as a director.  Sadly, Argylle is not the revitalizing tonic that he needed as a filmmaker.  Even worse, this movie is actually the worst film he has made so far.  While the Kingman films became a little scattershot over time, they still displayed a strong sense of style that at least kept them watchable.  Argylle on the other hand doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.  This movie is one of the most unfocused films I have seen in a long time, as it tries to be so many things all at once.  It wants to be a comedy, but it tries way too hard to be shocking with it’s twists and turns; it wants to be cartoonishly violent, but seems to be undermined by it’s PG-13 rating; and it wants to be grandiose and operatic in it’s scale, but just looks artificial most of the time.  I think that the problems with this movie stem mostly from the screenplay itself, written by Jason Fuchs, whose credits to date include Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012) and notorious box office bomb Pan (2015).  Fuch’s script tries way too hard to be a Romancing the Stone (1983) style action romantic comedy, with plot twists that think they are clever but are telegraphed way too clumsily that you can see them coming a mile away.  While Vaughn’s flashy style can overcome shortcomings in the script, it sadly becomes it’s own problem simultaneously as the excesses become more obnoxious than engaging and the film brings out Vaughn’s worst tendencies as a filmmaker.  Every problem that started with his sequels in the Kingsman franchise are amplified here.  As well choreographed as the action scenes are, they just don’t land as well when you don’t care about much else from the movie.

That’s not to say that the movie gets everything wrong.  While the movie is a failure in most places, one thing they do get right is the chemistry between the two leads.  What helps to keep this movie from becoming a total disaster is the performances of Sam Rockwell and Bryce Dallas Howard as Aidan and Elly.  They are not awards worthy performances, but they do help to ground the movie and give it a bit of redeeming power; particularly with Rockwell.  Sam’s performance as Aidan is the clearest high point of the whole movie, as he seems to be the only actor that understands the assignment.  He’s charming, funny, and surprisingly adept in the action sequences which he gets quite a few moments with before he’s replaced with the stunt double.  You can definitely see a Bruce Willis in his prime quality with Sam Rockwell’s work here, as he perfectly balances the humor with the sincerity of his duty as a figure within an action movie scenario.  Bryce Dallas Howard does the best she can with a character whose whole story gets more and more convoluted as the movie goes, and it’s in the moments she shares with Sam Rockwell on screen where her performance shines the most.  Honestly, it’s in the brief moments where the two characters are aloud to actually connect on a human level that the movie actually finds it’s brief footing.  I wish the movie was more about them working off each other and solving the mystery together rather than series of plot detours and action set pieces that it ends up devolving into.  The ingredients are certainly all there, but Vaughn just refuses to pick a lane and decides to go for the loudest and most insane trek possible.  And it ruins what otherwise would’ve been a fun romp of a spy action comedy.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag.  The imaginings of the Agent Argylle books give very little for the actors to do, but that seems to be the point as the characters are meant to be archetypes.  Still when you have a trio as talented as Henry Cavill, John Cena, and Ariana DeBose together on screen, you’d like to see them emote just a little bit.  Cavill’s part in the movie is especially confusing, as Matthew Vaughn doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with the Agent Argylle character.  He flashes in and out of Elly’s imagination throughout the movie, as if Vaughn wanted to keep Cavill in as much of the movie as he could beyond just a cameo.  But for someone who is supposed to be the movie’s namesake, Argylle is such a throwaway character and Cavill’s whole participation just comes down to looking literally like an action figure.  I feel bad for Henry Cavill as he is very much a talented actor, but he sadly gets dumped into these failed action franchises that end up wasting his talents.  There’s a bit more gained from the inclusion of veterans like Bryan Cranston and Catherine O’Hara.  O’Hara especially gets to shine here, taking her comedic chops and working them surprisingly well into a more action packed movie.  Cranston has a nice menacing presence, though his villainous character is sadly underdeveloped and is fairly bland overall.  Strangely enough, it’s really just the cat that comes across as the most sympathetic screen presence, and half of the time he’s a visual effect, given the dangerous situations that they put him through.  Overall, the movie has an enviable all-star cast that it ultimately just ends up wasting.  It’s not surprising that the movie was bankrolled by a mega-corporation like Apple, as they clearly had the money to cast big names in all the parts.  But none of that promise with this kind of cast translates as they are all just lost in the shuffle of Vaughn’s excessive direction and the unfocused story that values shocking twists over actual character development.

Another big problem is the visual degradation of Matthew Vaughn’s style that this movie seems to demonstrate.  Vaughn, for most of the early part of his career, was able to balance his excesses as a visual story-teller with a clear sense of vision that was cohesive.  But through the Kingsman sequels and Argylle, the style is clearly overwhelming the substance.  One of the big issues is that he seems to be relying too heavily on CGI to get the style he wants for his action scenes.  The reason why movies like Kick Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Society worked is because they had a lot of thought put into the fight choreography first and foremost, and then later used visual effects to accentuate.  This was definitely evident in the church fight from Kingsman, which had the visceral mayhem of a handheld shot, but was aided by CGI to help add the blood and cover up the edits in the quick pans.  This is also why The King’s Man worked better than The Golden Circle, because there were more scenes involving real stunts than visual effects.  Sadly, it’s all too obvious that most of Argylle’s big stunts were constructed using computers.  There’s two visually operatic action sequences late in the movie that might have worked better had they not felt so artificial.  It’s where Vaughn’s instincts are working against him, as his need to go big are robbing the movie of it’s impact.  It’s the unfortunate desire on his part to go further than he had in the Kingman movies, but using a shortcut to get there.  He went from cartoonishly violent to just a cartoon by the end of this movie.  It’s also laughable that this is supposed to be a globetrotting movie, but it’s obvious they never left their London area soundstages as most of the movie is reliant on greenscreen for all the locales.  It’s a sad result for a film director like Matthew Vaughn who for the longest time was one of the most inventive and exciting filmmakers of the moment.

Argylle is sadly another step down for Matthew Vaughn as a filmmaker.  It’s like everything from Kingsman: The Secret Society on has been one big audition reel for a James Bond movie, but it just keeps getting sloppier the longer it goes on.  While James Bond has it’s own excesses, it does know how to play by it’s own rules and also it’s a franchise that knows when to revitalize itself with fresh blood.  Matthew Vaughn for some reason seems to be chasing his own bad instincts and letting them undermine the work that he does.  He has a creative eye for action, but he seems to be losing the confidence to make that work in a realistic way.  Argylle shows a director at odds with himself, unable to reign in a big project with the same kind of focus that he used to.  Perhaps he needs to step away from the spy stuff for a while and find a different kind of movie to make that his talents would be best suited for.  It was certainly interesting when he stepped into the fantasy genre with Stardust; I wonder if he still has that kind of movie in him.  He’s also been pretty vocal about what he’d do with a property like Star Wars as of late.  Perhaps he should get a shot at a sci-fi film like that.  He basically just needs to have a reinvention of some kind, because his creative juices are just not flowing anymore as a spy film director; or even as a comedy director.  As someone who was very much on board with his first five films, I found Argylle to be yet another crushing let down for a director that needs to do better.  In the end, all the flashy style and many twists and turns do nothing to resurrect a bare bones effort and it just ends up being a bore by the finale.  It’s a waste of top tier talent and will likely not be the franchise starter that it’s aiming to be.  The best it could do is to wake up Matthew Vaughn from his career stagnation and help him see the shortfalls that he’s been mired in for far too long.  Hopefully then, we can get back to the fun, inventive action packed material that we got excited for in Matthew Vaughn’s earlier work and hopefully forget Argylle as a footnote in the grand scheme of his cinematic body of work.

Rating: 5/10

The Beauty is Gone – How American Beauty Went From Oscar Champ to Forgotten in 25 Years

There’s one thing that is interesting about the growing list of Oscar winners over it’s 96 year history.  That thing is how each year’s selection of winner becomes a bit of a time capsule of their era in film.  Of course there are some winners that do remain timeless and feel just as fresh and entertaining today as they were when they first premiered in theaters, such as Casablanca (1943), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), or both The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974).  But then there are some winners that don’t quite translate as well over the years as the tastes of movie audiences change.  For some of them, historical context is necessary towards understanding why this particular film rose to the top of the Oscar field.  Some are just due to studio politics, such as the dated and cliché The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) beating out the timeless High Noon (1952).  But other times a winner is just the product of it’s era and just doesn’t translate well over time.  It doesn’t always mean that the movie is bad, but it is clear that some movies age poorly.  By all accounts How Green Was My Valley (1941) is a charming little family drama, but the only thing we seem to know about it today is that it’s the movie that beat Citizen Kane (1941) for Best Picture.  For their time, honoring these kinds of movies would’ve made sense, because they reflected the mood of Academy voter, who have more than not favored the more uplifting film.  But, there are times when you see the Academy choose a winner that feels like a breakthrough film at the time which unfortunately over the years begins to look more and more like an out of touch exercise with hindsight.  And I don’t think that I have ever seen a Best Picture winner fall of the pedestal harder than the 1999 champion American Beauty.   25 years ago, American Beauty looked like it was going to be the herald for a new era in cinema.  Nowadays, it comes across as naïve and pandering, and even more surprisingly, almost completely forgotten.

I remember the way that Hollywood fawned over this film when it first came out.  This was going to be the movie that shaped a new era in Hollywood with it’s tackling of then taboo subjects of suburban malaise, teenage sexuality, and homophobia.  It also had a high pedigree of talent behind it.  With the backing of Hollywood rising star Dreamworks and it’s trio of super producers Katzenberg, Geffen and Spielberg, this movie was design from the get go to dazzle the Academy.  West End stage director Sam Mendes was called upon to make his big screen debut after dazzling the theater world with his acclaimed re-imagining of Cabaret for both London and Broadway.  Veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) was hired to shoot the picture and Thomas Newman was given the duties of scoring the film, and in each case they were breaking the mold of a Hollywood prestige picture.  Then there was the cast, which included established stars like Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning as well as young newcomers like Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, and Mena Suvari.  And it was all centered around a screenplay from longtime sitcom writer Alan Ball that Spielberg was said to have fallen in love with immediately.  Overall, this was a movie that came together with all the right ingredients at the right time, which is the case with most movies that end up collecting multiple awards.  But for it’s time, this movie was believed to be something else entirely.  Understanding the context of it’s release, American Beauty was coming out at the tail end of the 1990’s, which at that time had seen high budget period dramas dominate at the Oscars, including Braveheart (1995), The English Patient (1996), and Titanic (1997).  The year prior, the very safe pick of Shakespeare in Love (1998) had upset Saving Private Ryan (1998), so the Academy was beginning to be criticized for being out of touch, which may have been what prompted the turn that benefitted American Beauty in the eyes of Academy voters.  And boy did it, as it not only took home Best Picture, but it was one Best Actress award short of completing the Oscar Hat Trick, which is winning the top five awards (Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Director, Picture), a feat only three films have ever achieved (1934’s It Happened One Night, 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs).

So what was it about the film that cast this spell on the Academy.  The movie looks at the lives of two suburban families going through various crises.  The Burnhams are a nuclear American family on the verge of implosion after years of sexual frustration on the part of the depressed patriarch Lester (Kevin Spacey).  Living next door are the Fitts family, which is lorded over by a disciplinarian and homophobic father named Frank (Chris Cooper) who clashes constantly with his artistically inclined son Ricky (Wes Bentley).  Both in many ways represented the ideals of the nuclear American family that so many in conservative media like to push forward, and this movie takes a sledgehammer to that image and exposes all the cracks underneath.  Lester is depressed by his lack of urgency over his life, and then is “awoken” after being aroused by his daughter’s “sexy” best friend.  From that moment, he disrupts all of the routines that have governed his life and begins to do things his way, much to the chagrin of his career driven wife (Annette Benning), whose got her own subversive issues going on.  And of course the kids are going through their own hormonal awakening throughout the movie.  And then there is the Colonel, whose external homophobia we learn is a mask for his own self-hatred.  It’s in general a critique of the societal masks that we impose on ourselves to function in a modern society, and the movie examines if those masks themselves are part of the problem we face everyday.  After a long line of safe, studio driven fare, I can see how the Academy believed that American Beauty was this subversive gem that would start a new era of filmmaking in Hollywood.  In some ways it kind of did, but not in a way that would put American Beauty as the touchstone film that they thought it would be.  In general, 1999 was a year full of movies that would shake up Hollywood, and some have held up much better over time than American Beauty did like Fight Club (1999), The Matrix (1999), Magnolia (1999) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).  Those films continue to inspire filmmakers to this day, but I can’t think of any other movie that strived to be the next American Beauty.

So, why is it that 25 years later American Beauty has fallen off people’s radar despite being such a big winner at the Oscars.  It’s been out of print as a physical media release for nearly a decade now, and you’d have to dig pretty deep to find it on streaming (currently it’s on Paramount+ along with most Dreamworks catalog titles).  I think the primary reason that people no longer talk about this movie these days is pretty obvious, so I’ll just get to the elephant in the room.  The depiction of Lester Burnham in the movie seems to diminish the pedophiliac nature of his character.  He is the main protagonist of the story (the whole thing is framed through his post-death narration) so we are observing the movie through his perspective.  And Lester’s main motivation is that he wants to have sex with an underage girl.  25 years later this element of the character cannot in any way be justified.  Now truth be told, he doesn’t go through with it, but the movie does comes as close to the edge as it can with the subject matter and at the same time, this sexual drive is seen as a positive thing for his character development because it’s what pulls Lester out of his mid-life funk and let’s him feel alive again.  The implications of that are just icky in today’s culture, especially in a #MeToo world.  But if it was just the character development in the movie, maybe you could just dismiss it as out of touch for it’s time.  Unfortunately, we have learned of Kevin Spacey’s real life sex crimes, and it make the character of Lester Burnham almost unbearable to watch now.  Unlike Lester, we know Spacey actually went through with his molestation of underage victims, by his own admission.  It’s a disgraceful revelation that in many ways has clouded the reputation of American Beauty more than anything else.  With things hitting pretty close to real life, I wonder if Alan Ball has any regrets in letting his main character be let off the hook for almost committing statutory rape.  I get that exposing the cracks underneath polite American society was the aim, but some things need to be called out as unacceptable and this movie just seemed to forget that.

Before the exposure of Kevin Spacey as a perverted monster, American Beauty faced another backlash over the years since it’s release, and that was the perception that it was a pretentious movie.  American Beauty rides that fine line between the naturalistic and heightened sense of reality.  While the movie is grounded in a contemporary (for it’s time) American setting, the film also takes several turns into flights of fantasy, mainly as a way of looking into the minds of the characters.  We especially see this with the moments that Lester lusts after the character Angela (Mena Suvari), with deep red roses being a heavy metaphoric presence.  Sure, those moments are beautifully shot by the late Conrad Hall, but in the end they are more style over substance given how heavy handed these moments are.  Still, those are the moments that helped to sell the movie and remain the most memorable to this day, so that’s a credit to the craft of the movie.  Where most of the pretention lies is with the dialogue found in Alan Ball’s script.  Originally, American Beauty was originally conceived as a stage play, and that helps to make the heightened dialogue feel more within context.  The characters in this movie do not talk like real human beings, but more like they are characters within a play whom the actors must imbue with heightened emotions.  For the most part, the lines that are supposed to be profound just become annoyingly cloy.  This is especially true with the character of Ricky, whose artistic sensibilities come across as particularly hollow.  The notorious trash bag scene over time has become the poster child moment of this movie’s pretentious reputation.  What was supposed to sound deep and poetic in it’s day now in today’s eyes just looks like a privileged white boy’s low effort attempt at filmmaking.  There are stronger moments in the movie that do still work, like the escalating tension of the dinner scene where Lester throws the plate of asparagus at the wall, but for the most part you can tell a lot of this script would’ve hit a bit harder if performed on a stage, instead of being awkwardly translated for the screen.

There is one thing about the movie that I do think has subtly worked it’s way through the culture at large since it’s premiere.  The character of Lester Burnham in many ways started the trend of “difficult men” on both the small and little screen in the 20 years since it’s release.  This is particularly the case on television, where you see characters like Tony Soprano and Walter White emerge in pop culture in the 2000’s and beyond.  While Lester Burnham was not the first of these kinds of characters (a main protagonist that is interesting to dissect while at the same time hard to sympathize), he certainly helped to popularize the type.  As problematic as Lester is, his character evolution is in itself an interesting catalyst in examining the subversive fractures of American society, particularly when it comes to masculinity.  You see many more characters of this kind post-American Beauty than before, which in the 80’s and 90’s leading up to it kind of presented a more idealized portrayal of the modern American male.  Lester Burnham was a deeply flawed individual, but that ascension of his own worst instincts bubbling to the surface made him a far more interesting character as a result, and it changed the perception of what constituted a portrayal of masculinity in movies thereafter.  But, at the same time, the movie does have it’s own dated portrayals of masculine/feminine dynamic that haven’t aged very well either.  What is surprising is that Alan Ball, who is a queer writer himself, seems to perpetuate the antiquated idea of deep in the closet resentment being the driving force behind homophobia.  We learn that Colonel Fitts’ virulent homophobia is it’s own mask for his own closeted feelings, but this feels like a story element that minimalizes the horrific nature of violence towards the gay community.  Yes, there are cases where homophobes have been exposed as having secret gay affairs, but for the most part violence committed against the gay community has just been the result of pure bigotry.  To pin internalized homophobia around Colonel Fitts’ motivations is a very reductive approach to a very serious problem that still affects the queer community in American society today.  I feel that with hindsight, this is a part of Alan Ball’s script that likely would be much more nuanced today.

The movie primarily has the problem of just being too tied in with it’s era.  It is a very Clinton-era movie, made back in a time when the worst that this country was going through was the scandalous thought of an American president being unfaithful to his wife.  In some ways, I kind of see what may have inspired this movie to begin with.  American Beauty definitely feels like a cry out into the dark abyss of modern American malaise.  It was a post-Cold War world where we as a society were growing comfortable with the idea of being the world’s sole super power.  American Beauty was very much a wake up call to remind us Americans that society is not as candy colored as it seems.  America is a complex society of many divisions, and trying to mask over that with an unrealistic picture of polite, suburban values is doing more harm than good.  Now, the delivery of that message in American Beauty is undermined by it’s own pretentions, but the underlying idea behind it is still sound.  One thing that I think unravels the movie as a whole from achieving it’s goal is the way that it handles the ending.  Spoiler Warning, but the movie closes with the murder of Lester Burnham.  The death has been telegraphed throughout the movie, as Lester is speaking in narration beyond the grave (an inspiration from the classic Sunset Boulevard).  What I think would have made the movie much more of a masterpiece is if it left the identity of the murderer ambiguous.  We see fully who pulled the trigger on Lester (Colonel Fitts) and it kind of robs the movie of it’s most profound moment.  There are several culprits who may have wanted Lester dead by the end, and the mystery it left behind would’ve been a great thing to leave the audience with.  This moment would’ve felt even more poignant years after, because in the context of the movie, Lester’s murder is the catalyst for destroying any remaining perception of the perfect American idealized world left in the lives of these characters.  Honestly, there’s a story to be told about what happened to all these characters afterward, because just like the families in the movie, America itself was on the verge of it’s own traumatic upheaval.  American Beauty was the first Best Picture winner of the new millennium, and in the 25 years since America has seen the 9/11 attacks, decades of war, economic upheaval, a rise in Fascism, and a crippling pandemic.  American Beauty warns us of how we grow too complacent sometimes, and the years since have only reinforced how much we take for granted with our own comfort.

American Beauty unfortunately is undermined with it’s own dated sense of values from the time it was first written and filmed.  The world has changed considerably in the last 25 years, and a pretentious examination of suburban malaise just doesn’t have the sting that it used to.  The fall from grace that Kevin Spacey has gone through hasn’t helped either.  Still, there are many things about American Beauty that still hold up very well.  One is Annette Benning’s incredible performance as Carolyn Burnham.  Her career obsessed matriarch driven to the extreme to uphold her place in society is still a potent character portrayal.  The scene where she has an emotional breakdown after having a terrible Open House showing for her clients, with the backlighting of the closed blinds perfectly captured by Conrad Hall’s camera, is a definite highlight of the movie.  And unlike Spacey, her career is still in top form as Ms. Benning has just been nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars again for the movie Nyad (2023); he fifth overall.  Sam Mendes, who is only one of three directors to ever win for a debut film, has only gotten better in the last 25 years as a filmmaker.  His follow-up to American Beauty was in my opinion his masterpiece with the amazing Road to Perdition (2002), and he’s made many other astonishing films such as Skyfall (2012) and 1917 (2019) since then.  Conrad Hall would sadly deliver his swan song with Road to Perdition as he passed away before it’s release, and he won a posthumous Oscar for his work.  Both that and American Beauty represented a fantastic late career resurgence for one of the master cameramen of Hollywood.  And Alan Ball’s sensationalized style of writing would find a better place back on television with hit shows like Six Feet Under and True Blood.  For the movie American Beauty, it remains a film today that’s both infuriating for it’s pretentiousness but admirable for it’s artistry.  Given the crazy quarter century that’s we’ve been through, I honestly think it would be interested to revisit this kind of story.  Perhaps Alan Ball and Sam Mendes should consider a stage version like it was originally was supposed to be, but with a more contemporary context, especially when addressing Lester Burnham’s problematic underage lust.  It is fascinating how in 25 years, this movie went from the peak of Hollywood glory to a cinematic footnote.  It’s both deserving of scorn, but also much more interesting than that.  At the very least, it’s worthy of a re-watch.  Times change, but cinema is forever, and this may be a plastic bag caught in the wind of a movie, but that in a way is it’s own beautiful little time capsule.

Focus on a Franchise – DC Extended Universe (DCEU): Part One

Roll back the clock to the mid 2000’s and the cinematic landscape was very different for movies based on comic books.  DC was still trying to find it’s footing again after the disastrous implosion of their Batman franchise with Batman & Robin (1997) while at the same time Marvel had their many characters scattered around Hollywood at multiple studios.  Then in 2005, Christopher Nolan launched onto the scene with his grounded re-imagining of the Batman character with Batman Begins.  The movie was both a financial success as well as a critical darling, which made Hollywood realize that comic book movies could be so much more than just standard popcorn entertainment.  Which then led to the year 2008, which was a touchstone year for the genre as a whole because it not only saw the premiere of Nolan’s monumental second film in what would be his Dark Knight trilogy, the iconic The Dark Knight, but it was also the year that Marvel premiered Iron Man, the first film in the ambitiously planned Marvel Cinematic Universe.  While Christopher Nolan’s trilogy was winning praise from audiences and critics alike, Marvel was also gaining attention for their attempt at a connected universe through multiple franchises centered around their different characters, and with the acquisition of Marvel by Disney, the comic book giant now had a home base to put that plan together without too much intereference.  This plan culminated in the team up film called The Avengers (2012), which broke multiple box office records, including those set by The Dark Knight.  Hollywood had now seen the concept of a cinematic universe work on a massive scale and many of the studios were eager to repeat the magic that Marvel had managed to conjure up.  It would seem that DC would be in the best position to match what Marvel had achieved, given that they had their own stable of iconic super heroes and were also riding on the high of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy at the time.

But, as many would find out, it was almost impossible to repeat the same formula as effectively as Marvel had been doing.  Even as many of the studios were trying to form their own cinematic universes, Marvel continued to build with every new phase.  Universal failed in spectacular fashion with their “Dark Universe” based on their stable of movie monsters.  Sony, clinging heavily to their rights to the Spider-Man franchise, have put out numerous failed projects centered around as many superfluous characters in the Spider-Man orbit as they can, with only the Venom films being mildly successful.  But no other studio tried harder to compete with the likes of Marvel than their rival DC.  Under the corporate umbrella of Warner Brothers, the DC Comics Studio was given a significant spotlight in the wake of the success of the MCU.  The pressure was on to have the DC characters to have a cinematic universe of their own that would be on par with Marvel.  But the question remained, who would be the one to lead the charge.  At Marvel, the reigns of the cinematic universe were not held by one film director, but rather by the head of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige, who delineated with his inner circle what stories would be told and how all those story thread would be woven into a larger story.  Who would be DC’s Feige then?  After completing his trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Christopher Nolan was ready to move on and work on other projects he was interested in like Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2017).  DC and Warner Brothers instead turned to another one of their rising star filmmakers to help set the tone for their planned universe.  That filmmaker was Zack Snyder, who just a few years prior made a statement for himself with faithful adaptations of graphic novels such as 300 (2007) and Watchmen (2009).  With Marvel leaning more into the colorful and comedic, it was decided that DC would lean more into the dark and dramatic in order to differentiate their universe, which Snyder was a good match for.  And so, the beginning of the DC Extended Universe was set.  But, as we would see, Cinematic Universes don’t always go as planned.

MAN OF STEEL (2013)

Directed by Zack Snyder

There are many factors that went into making the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) the runaway hit that it was, but one of the undeniable factors of it’s success would be the solid foundation it was built upon with the success of it’s first film, Iron Man.  Had that movie not worked, it would have poured water on the whole plan moving forward.  So, a lot was resting on the results the movie that would launch the DC Extended Universe (DCEU).  It’s only logical that the starting point for this multi-year, multi-film plan would have to involve the most iconic super hero in the entire DC stable; Superman.  Superman of course already had a strong cinematic background before, with the classic Richard Donner directed/ Christopher Reeve starring 1978 original being seen as the film that launched this genre in the first place.  But, after the disaster that was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), the “man of steel” had been on a lengthy hiatus on the big screen.  The well-intentioned but ultimately dull Superman Returns (2006) likewise cast doubts on Superman’s box office viability.  But, his story does offer a great starting point to launch a cinematic universe, given that Superman is the world’s most recognizable super hero.  What DC wanted to do this time was to ground Superman in the same way that Christopher Nolan had with Batman.  Zack Snyder could certainly bring that grittier style that was needed, but is that a good fit for the character of Superman?  There are a lot of questionable choices made in Man of Steel, chief among them would be what was seen as gratuitous violence that felt out of character for Superman.  The film was controversial for it’s time given that the resulting fight between Superman and the villainous General Zod leaves the city of Metropolis in a smoky ruin, with uncomfortable echoes of the devastation of 9/11.  Also, Superman ends up stopping Zod by killing him, which according to comic book lore is very much the antithesis of Superman’s pure hearted character.  To many people, Snyder’s approach to the character seemed to more self-serving of the director’s style and less in line with who Superman should be.  But, the movie still managed to succeed at the box office, no doubt riding the crest of the wave made by the success of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises a year prior.  The movie also won praise for it’s casting of Henry Cavill as Superman, who most considered to be a strong choice, along with the casting of Michael Shannon as Zod.  But, the true test of the longevity of the DCEU would depend on what Snyder would do next as a follow-up.

BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)

Directed by Zack Snyder

Despite there being mixed opinions about the Man of Steel’s treatment of the Superman mythos, people were still thrilled to find out that the next film in the DCEU would see Superman going head to head with the Dark Knight himself in his next film.  Not only that, but this would be the clearest indication yet that were on our way to seeing the first true assembling of the Justice League on the big screen.  Plus, we would be getting our first post-Dark Knight version of the Batman, which it turns out would be heavily influenced by the famous Frank Miller run of the character in the comic books.  There were a lot of naysayers at the time when it was announced that Ben Affleck would be playing the caped crusader, but as it turns out, it would be the best choice Zack Snyder made for the whole movie.  While Snyder had the ingredients to make one of the most iconic comic book movies of all time, he sadly didn’t have a compelling story to center his movie on.  The key problem with BvS is that the whole plot to get his super heroes to fight one another is convoluted and non-sensical.  All of the story problems that plagued Man of Steel are amplified here, and the biggest problem of them all is the horrible mismanagement of the character Lex Luthor.  Luthor is one of DC’s most iconic villains, and most well known as Superman’s arch-nemesis.  Here he is played by Jesse Eisenberg who from the get go you can tell was horribly miscast.  His personality type is not at all like the cool, calculating super genius of the comic books, and it almost seems like Eisenberg’s direction with the character was to make him closer to the Joker with his out of place manic outbursts.  You can also see the flaw in DC being too heavy-handed with their expanded universe plans, as too much of the movie feels like a set up for future movies, especially in a painfully mediocre sequence where we see our first glimpses of Ezra Miller’s Flash, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg, and Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman.  At least Wonder Woman does get something to do in this movie, as the heroine (played by Gal Gadot) joins the other two heroes in the final battle; and I won’t lie, the money shot of DC’s holy trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all standing together on the battlefield is pretty incedible.  Sadly, all the other potential is wasted as Snyder’s style over substance tendencies undermine any connection we have with the characters.  That’s why there was significant doubt about the future of the DCEU moving forward after this, as the movie was critically panned across the board.  It also didn’t help that Marvel released Captain America: Civil War (2016) a few short months after, showing the same concept of super heroes battling each other, but done much better.

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)

Directed by David Ayer

If the heroes weren’t going to save the DCEU from floundering, than how about the villains.  Before the Justice League assembled on the big screen, we were presented with this team up of villains from across the whole DC rogues gallery.   The concept of the Suicide Squad from the comics is that when the government deems a situation too dangerous to risk the lives of their strongest heroes, they send in a team of criminals who lives they don’t mind sacrificing for the sake of the greater good.  It’s a fun concept that offers DC a chance to make use of the deeper bench of their collection of characters, many of whom would be making their big screen debuts.  This also being the first film in the DCEU not helmed by Zack Snyder also offered people the chance to see what a different directorial vision would look like in this cinematic universe.  David Ayer, who previously won acclaim for the films End of Watch (2012) and Fury (2014) seemed like a good choice, as his style matched the grittier tone that DC wanted to continue, but was different enough from Zack Snyder to show more diversity of vision within the cinematic universe.  Again, like the movies that came before, DC had done a good job with their casting.  Will Smith gave a devilishly charismatic portrayal to the sharp-shotting Deadshot.  Margot Robbie seemed to have been born to play Harley Quinn.  And perhaps the most outstanding casting choice of them all, and the sole actress from this era to outlive the DCEU in this role, Viola Davis as the ruthless Amanda Waller, the squad’s agency handler.  But, not everything seemed to work out as planned; the common refrain of the DCEU thus far.  While the movie does work better than the Zack Snyder films in general, it also is frustratingly all over the place in tone.  Apparently during post-production, David Ayer had the film taken away from him and re-edited by the studio to give it a more comedic tone.  This was due in part because of the competition with Marvel, which had achieved enormous success with the mix of humor and action in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).  It’s sadly ironic that years later, DC would tap James Gunn himself to direct the Suicide Squad sequel instead of David Ayer, who to this day insists on having his original cut see the light of day.  This was yet another example of DC’s inability to adequately build a cinematic universe, mainly due to them continually playing catch-up to Marvel.

WONDER WOMAN (2017)

Directed by Patty Jenkins

Three movies in, and the DCEU’s future was on shaky ground.  Their movies were performing well at the box office, but critically they were far behind where Marvel was.  And there seemed to be a lot of doubt whether their next film could pull them out of the slump, given that it centered on a heroine that up to now had never carried a film on her own before.  Wonder Woman carried a lot of uncertainties, given that no super hero movie before had centered on a female super hero, nor had been directed by a woman.  And Patty Jenkins, the director, had never attempted a film on this scale before, with her only film prior being the small independent flick Monster (2003).  And yet, with all of those factors weighing against it, Wonder Woman defied all expectations and became a critical and commercial success.  Many people point to this as the film that saved the DCEU (at least for a while) and it’s clear to see why.  For one thing, it is the first DCEU with a consistent tone and a cohesive story.  Set during WWI, it finds the Amazonian princess Diana brought into the human world in a quest to stop all wars by defeating the God of War, Ares.  Accompanied by her human guide Steve Trevor (a perfectly cast Chris Pine) we see Diana grow into the hero that we know as Wonder Woman, which Gal Gadot brings so much charm into, and that proves to be the key to the film’s success.  For the first time in the DCEU, we finally see a hero take action and use their powers in an unselfish way.  Patty Jenkins apparently fought to keep the No Man’s Land sequence in the film against the wishes of DC and Warner Brothers, and it’s wonderful that she did, because that’s the part of the movie where we see the super hero become who she was destined to be.  That’s what the DCEU had been missing before; the reminder that these heroes are larger than life and worth being inspired by.  It also helps that Patty Jenkins seems to have that reverence for the character as well, in a way that never feels artificial and surface level like it does with Zack Snyder.  And it also not only marks the first time that DC not only matched Marvel in their quality, but in some ways even surpasses them.  It would be two more years before Marvel had it’s own female led super hero movie with Captain Marvel (2019), so DC can proudly claim that they were the first to reach that benchmark.  Thankfully, it was also a benchmark that finally was worthy of the character and fulfilled the long awaited promise of seeing Wonder Woman brought to cinematic life.

JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)

Directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon

But, just as quickly as Wonder Woman was able to put the DCEU on the right track, the Justice League pretty much immediately derailed it once again.  This film is notoriously known as one of the most troubled productions in movie history, and all of that misfortune is clear to see in the theatrical cut that we saw in the Fall of 2017.  Still reeling from the inability to compete with Marvel year after year, Justice League went through numerous rewrites and reshoots throughout it’s production, with DC constantly second-guessing itself.  Originally planned as a two part event, DC decided to take the full four hours of content that Zack Snyder had assembled in his cut, and demanded it be whittled down into a theater friendly two hour cut.  Unfortunately, a family tragedy prevented Snyder from being available to restructure the film according to those new demands in order to meet the deadline, so it was decided to give the film over to someone else.  That someone would be Joss Whedon, the man who delivered a monster hit for Marvel with The Avengers.  If he could assemble the Avengers successfully on screen, surely he’d do the same with the Justice League, right?  It turns out Whedon’s magic touch couldn’t save the sinking ship of the Justice League; if anything he made things worse.  Costly re-shoots didn’t give any added coherence to the story, but instead only added awkwardly shoe-horned jokes into the mix.  And in the years since, stories have come out about how bad of an experience the re-shoots were for the actors involved.  Ray Fisher and Gal Gadot pointed out the abusive and belittling behavior Whedon directed toward them on set, with Fisher pointing out how his Cyborg character (who was the main focus of Snyder’s cut) seemed to be diminished in the story completely in what seemed like retaliation from Whedon.  Joss Whedon’s reputation has never recovered from this disastrous production, and DC and Warner Brother’s bad decisions on this film would have a ripple effect across the remainder of the DCEU, particularly with fans.  I didn’t even get to the other problems with the movie, from Henry Cavill’s awful CGI upper lip to the bad animation of the villainous Steppenwolf.  Snyder still received sole directorial credit, but it’s unfair to call this his movie as it is more DC’s and Joss Whedon’s mess.  Of course, Zack Snyder would have his final word in the end, but that will have to wait for Part Two.

AQUAMAN (2018)

Directed by James Wan

If you were to make a guess as to which DC super hero would emerge as the box office champion in the DCEU from the outset, I don’t think anyone would’ve picked Aquaman.  But that’s exactly what happened.  Aquaman was the only DCEU film to ever cross the billion dollar mark at the worldwide box office, which was a welcome result for DC and Warner Brothers after they saw Justice League flame out the year before.  One thing that probably helped Aquaman get to a billion dollars was because it came out in the year that you could say was the peak of the super hero genre; 2018.  This was the same year that saw the record breaking success of Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War from Marvel.  But it wasn’t just Marvel Studios making a killing.  Sony was also making a killing with their Spider-Man villain spin-off Venom, starring Tom Hardy, as well as their critically acclaimed animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  It was just the best time possible to have a super hero movie in theaters, and Aquaman was in the right place at the right time.  It also helped that Jason Mamoa was a genuine magnetic star who was more than capable of carrying a movie like this on his huge shoulders.  The film was definitely a big departure for director James Wan, who was better known up to this point for his work in horror, being the architect of the Saw and Conjuring franchises.  In my own personal opinion, I felt that Wan’s vision was a little scattershot in bringing the world of Aquaman to life, as the story feels overstuffed with too many elements.  It’s like Wan thought he was only ever going to get one shot at making an Aquaman movie, so he was determined to put it all into this movie.  There’s one too many villains in this film, with Aquaman battling both of his comic book nemeses, Oceanmaster and Black Manta.  The finale is also a CGI overload that is often hard to follow.  But, I know my opinions are in the minority as audiences still ate this movie up, and helped to elevate Aquaman into the upper tier of cinematic super heroes.  It also helped to secure the survival of the DCEU for a bit longer, especially in the wake of Marvel hitting it’s own mighty crescendo.

SHAZAM (2019)

Directed by David F. Sandberg

If I were to select a film out of the DCEU that would be my own personal favorite, it would be Shazam.  I think that this is the movie where DC finally hit the right note with their cinematic universe.  The movie was grounded yet still magical, funny without feeling forced, and more than anything represented what a DC film could be without living in the shadow of the Marvel.  This was what the DCEU should have been from the beginning.  It doesn’t hit you over the head with the heavy metaphors and symbolism of Zack Snyder’s films, nor has the awkwardly laid in humor of what Joss Whedon brought to Justice League.  It’s just a charming story told with enough visual imagination to make it feel like a true comic book come to life. The character of Shazam was always going to be a tricky one to pull off, so it mattered a lot in how they would cast the character, in both forms.  Teenage actor Asher Angel brings enough likable charm to the role of Billy Batson, and even manages to do well in the dramatic moments as he frantically tries to discover who he is after being orphaned as a child.  When he transforms into the super being Shazam, Zachary Levi takes over and does a magnificent job of portraying a teenager in a grown man’s body, with often hilarious results.  Helping to bridge the performance between the two actors in the role is the perfect chemistry both have with the character Freddy Freeman (played with perfect comedic chops by Jack Dylan Grazer).  What especially helps this movie to soar unlike so many of the other DCEU films is that it doesn’t feel as labored as the others.  This movie seemed to be detached just a bit more from the DCEU master plan, so it was able to stand out more and be it’s own thing, which helps the movie as a whole to feel more like a complete vision rather than just a cog in the machine.  This is what also helped Wonder Woman to stand out too, with the greater vision of the cinematic universe not getting in the way of telling a stand alone story.  The fact that they could do this with a character as obscure in the DC pantheon as Shazam just goes to show that when done correctly, any super hero can work on the big screen.  You just need to combine comic book action with a compelling story, especially one that’s an inspiring coming of age narrative like in this film.  At this point in time, it also looked like DC was set to compete with Marvel on relatively strong common ground in terms of tone and story.  But, the turn of the decade would bring it’s own challenges.

BIRDS OF PREY AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN (2020)

Directed by Cathy Yan

The mouthful that is this movie’s title gives you a bit of an indication of the whirlwind of mayhem that this movie ultimately ended up being.  It follows up the events of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, but also goes out of it’s way to indicate that this is very much not a sequel.  The movie was mainly produced to be a showcase for Margot Robbie in the role that turned her into a star.  Most people just refer to this as the Harley Quinn movie, and that’s an apt description.  She is undeniably the centerpiece of the movie, with the titular super girl team being the background players.  Margot Robbie makes the most of this film, as she is a hilarious delight playing Harley Quinn in all of her madcap madness.  Of all of the DCEU films, this is the one that is undeniably a comedy first and foremost; with the Deadpool films being the closest spiritual inspirations to this movie in the genre.  Unfortunately, this tone made the movie receive a mixed reception from fans who were not fully on board with this kind of cartoonish shift in tone for the DCEU.  It was also the first DCEU film released theatrically with an R-Rating, which also was a major shift in strategy for DC.  If you take it on it’s own outside of it’s place in the DCEU, this movie is a fun subversion of the super hero genre, with Margot Robbie’s game comedic chops delivering a lot of laughs along the way.  But, this was at a point when the DC fandom itself was greatly fractured, with the “Release the Snyder Cut” movement hitting it’s highest point and Zack Snyder stans angrily rejecting the sillier tone that this movie was starting to put forward.  Sadly, a lot of factors worked against Birds of Prey’s favor, especially the looming disaster that was the Covid-19 pandemic that ultimately cut it’s time at the box office short.  Of all the official DCEU films, this is the one that most people forget about, and it’s too bad because on it’s own it’s a funny little film with a hilarious performance by Margot Robbie as Harley.  I would like to think that the confidence she built as a comedic performer in this film and the Suicide Squad movies would eventually help her deliver the iconic work she did in Barbie (2023) a few short but arduous years later.

At this point, we break this overview of the DCEU into separate halves.  These first few years show DC struggling to find their way into getting a cinematic universe to gel together on the big screen with a lot of bad choices in the beginning leading to some gradual successes.  The second half of this retrospective, which I will get to later this year, will show how the DCEU inevitably came apart in a post-pandemic world, leading to what now will be a complete overhaul and reboot.  You may wonder why I didn’t include the Oscar-winning Joker (2019) starring Joaquin Phoenix in my retrospective.  This is because DC themselves have classified that particular film as an “else-worlds” story disconnected from their cinematic universe storyline; so it doesn’t count as an official DCEU film.  The same will still apply to the Matt Reeves directed The Batman (2022), which opened alongside the second half of movies in the DCEU slate.  What is definitely clear from the overview of movies in this article is that DC was consistently running from behind in the race against Marvel, and they never quite caught up to their rival.  Though there were certainly bright spots with Wonder WomanAquaman, and Shazam, the fact that the build-up and failed execution of a Justice League movie clouded so much of their reputation just showed that the DCEU was always doomed to fail.  More than anything, it was  the mess that was the Justice League movie that dragged everything down with it.  But it can also be said that the lackluster results of Man of Steel may have caused the ripple effects of failure from the very outset.  The Hall of Justice could never stand on a faulty foundation.  Even with all that, the DCEU still gave us some individually strong movies that are still worthwhile to watch on their own.  This, as I’ll point out in Part Two, is even true of some of the movies in the back half of the DCEU, even if they failed to deliver at the box office.  I will always be entertained by the charming innocence of Shazam, and the inspiring heroism displayed in Wonder Woman.  The latter’s No Man’s Land sequence I would argue stands up as one of the greatest scenes ever in a super hero movie, right alongside iconic moments like the train fight in Spider-Man 2 (2004) or the Airport fight scene from Marvel’s Civil War.  The story of the DCEU still has more stories to tell, but from these first eight films, the definite impression left behind is one of valiant efforts made to work with a flawed plan that was never going to pan out like it was intended to.

Making Movies Fresh – Modern Film Discourse and the Flaw With Rotten Tomatoes

Looking at the state of film criticism in our social media driven world, I feel like there has developed a disconnect over what people actually think a film critique really is.  In the last few years, film discourse has very much opened up to allow more voices into the conversation, with social media amplifying opinions across the spectrum.  This democratization of film criticism, which has allowed fans and casual viewers to have a voice that reflects back towards Hollywood, has certainly helped to change things for the good in the industry.  Instead of having the trades and large media conglomerates dominate the discourse around film, groups that otherwise never had a voice before with regards to media are able to deliver their own takes about Hollywood that break through the wall of insider talk.  Minority groups can voice their criticism about representation in various forms of media, and their critiques can now lead to a new re-examination on Hollywood’s part in order to rectify that disparity.  But, there is a downside to the increased input of the casual film criticism out there in the media, and it has had it’s own negative effect on not just the media, but the culture as well.   Part of the problem is that we’ve reduced film criticism down to a mathematical formula, which itself is a reductive action done to what should be a personal experience.  And it’s a problem that Hollywood has only themselves to blame, because they have put too much stock into scoring their outputs in a way that is more friendly to their data driven work flow.  While it may help to cover their bottom line by getting quantifiable numbers to base their actions on, it also belittles the art of filmmaking itself as everything becomes standardized.

Of course, the current media trend that I am talking about is a thing called Critic’s scores.  These are accumulated numbers based on published film reviews that are put together to create an average percentage that quantifies a movie’s overall score.  There are numerous sites that offer this kind of ranking, but the most well known of these is a site called Rottentomatoes.com.  Rottentomatoes.com was started in 1998 by a group of undergraduates from the University of California, Berkeley.  The site was simply a statistics site that used movie reviews as the catalyst.  Interest in the site grew over time, and they eventually were bought by larger media conglomerates; first IGN in 2004, then to Flixster in 2010, and then finally by movie ticket retailer Fandango in 2016, who have been running it ever since.  Rotten Tomatoes gained their notoriety through their distinguishable ratings system, which much like a school grading system offered up a pass or fail metric to base a movie’s reception on; only by their branding based on tomatoes, movies either fell into fresh or rotten categories.  Anything above 60%, and the movie would be fresh.  Anything below that, and it would be rotten.  A few years in, once Rotten Tomatoes gained more notoriety, they began to give movies a certified fresh ranking, meaning that the movie statistically could never fall out of fresh territory based on the ratio of the number of reviews and their aggregate score.  With certification like this, Rotten Tomatoes scores became marks of quality for films, and film companies began to use their Tomatoes score as part of their marketing.  If Rotten Tomatoes deems it fresh, then you will hear of it.  Other sites like IMDb and Metacritic also have developed their own ratings systems that in some way or another grab the attention of movie executives.

While seeing how well a movie performs on Rotten Tomatoes can be informative, the statistical aspect of their ratings system can also be misleading.  Film criticisms are often multifaceted and nuanced, and it can’t just be summed up in binary fresh or rotten ranking.  Sometimes, critics find themselves in the middle, neither loving nor hating a movie, but find the good and the bad in movies that are often hard to fully sum up.  Sometimes, critics even change their mind about a film after a sitting on it for a while, giving it a re-consideration after a second or third viewing.  But that kind of nuance is just not acceptable in a business that requires immediate feedback.  While Hollywood is able to get a quantifiable score out of places like Rotten Tomatoes, they are also getting a snapshot of that movie’s response.  And sometimes, that can actually have a negative effect on itself.  Something of that order happened happened to Disney with two of their films this last summer.  Disney decided to gamble big on the releases of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023) and Pixar’s Elemental (2023) by having them premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.  The reception from the festival was tepid to say the least, and it resulted in both of the films sitting with Rotten scores on RT.com for almost a month before their wide releases based on the few, high brow reviewers who saw it at Cannes.  This had a negative effect on both film’s box office, as they performed well below their expected openings.  But, over time, Dial of Destiny and Elemental did pull themselves out of the Rotten territory and ultimately ended up fresh at 70% and 76% respectively, with Elemental even earning a very late Certified badge.  The movies’ overall response in the end turned positive, but the damage had already been done by those low numbers and both movies struggled at the box office.

We are at a point where audiences are very well aware of the Fresh vs. Rotten metric, and it’s affecting their choices in what movies they go out to see.  This is largely due to the fact that movie tickets today are quite expensive and the customer is very discerning about what they want to spend their money on.  The Rotten Tomatoes score has become a powerful metric within the film business because it’s an easy to understand rating that all audience can look towards.  Much like all consumer ratings out there, people just want to look at the score and determine if it’s worth it to them to invest in it.  This is nothing new for film criticism.  For most people, when they look at a movie review, they don’t want to waste time reading through the critic’s every well thought out analysis; they just want to see the score.  That score of course varies from critic to critic.  Critics either use a letter grade, or a star rating, or in my case on this blog a number grade.  Some critics even just uses a simple binary rating system in the positive or negative.  It’s all based on how the critic wishes to quantify their overall response in a simple way to sum it up for the reader.  This of course is what fuels the scores of sites like Rotten Tomatoes, which takes those scores and creates an aggregate number.  But there is a flaw in the way this score is put together.  Quantifying a review in many ways is subjective.  There are plenty of film critics out there who don’t even give a score.  How does Rotten Tomatoes take their critiques into account.  At this point, we see where the binary system becomes a bit flawed, as a review that sounds negative in certain areas and positive in others without giving out a score messes with the algorithm of the site’s metric.  As a result, a guess is made as to where the movie falls, and that can have an effect on the overall score of a movie.  This of course becomes even more of an issue because these are numbers that matter a lot right now to Hollywood and has an influence on how they market a film as well as how what they greenlight in the first place.

Published film critics’ scores being aggregated into a number is one thing that becomes a problem when that number doesn’t reflect nuance.  It’s also another thing when there is also a user rating in play.  Rotten Tomatoes and other sites do offer a secondary number based on input from their own users, which on it’s own is a worthwhile service that allows the casual user to have a say as well.  The unfortunate thing about user ratings is how open they sometimes are, which can sometimes lead to abuses of the ranking system.  There is this practice that has arisen on places like Rotten Tomatoes called “review bombing,” which is where a coordinated effort is made to load a bunch of negative reviews all at once onto a websites user rating in order to purposely drive the overall score down.  Most often, this is done with the purpose of damaging the public perception of a movie, which the organized group can point to as proof of their own slanted opinion.  You definitely see the effect of this with movies that have very polarized critics’ and users’ scores on Rotten Tomatoes, such as Captain Marvel (2019), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and The Little Mermaid (2023).  What makes review-bombing a suspicious activity is that it usually happens before a movie comes out, as most of the user reviews seem to have been purposely negative without even having the context of seeing the movie.  As observed, the most often reason for these review bombs happen is because a group is attacking a film for it’s content rather than artistic merit, such as if it is focuses on a marginalized group or contains a message that they object to.  The intent of the review bombing is to get Hollywood’s attention and make them believe that these often small minority opinions are much bigger than they really are and try to force the industry to conform to their own narrow-minded worldview.  It may be dishonest, but it has had an effect before.  I would argue that Lucasfilm took the review bombing of The Last Jedi too seriously and it caused them to do too much over-correction which resulted in the mess that was Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019).  Rotten Tomatoes even recognized the damaging effects of these trolling review bombs and they changed their metric to only reflect certified user reviews.  Sadly, we are in a place where valid criticism and baseless trolling get mixed together, and it unfortunately becomes even harder to allow genuine non-professional voices into the mix without having to gatekeep free speech.

So, how do we look at fair film criticism in this kind of environment where opinions are too often hard to take seriously.  I try to look at what I value in film criticism.  When I was developing into a burgeoning cinephile in my formative years, I took the opinions of film critics seriously.  My childhood overlapped with the rise of film criticism as entertainment, as part of my weekly routine was to watch Siskel & Ebert’s syndicated review show on TV.  Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert may have unfortunately also contributed to the reductive binary rating metric that place like Rotten Tomatoes emulate; famously popularizing the thumbs up or thumbs down rating on their show.  Truth be told, that’s what made their show a draw for me as a young film lover, as I eagerly wanted to see which way the thumbs would fall for each movie on their show.  But having gone back to look at some of their old reviews on YouTube, another thing occurred to me about what they brought to their show; something that I probably didn’t rightfully appreciate as a teenager.  Their reviews were simply not just about the binary thumbs rating; it was about how they expressed their thoughts about the movie.  That was the key to their success as film critics.  They could articulate why a movie was good or bad.  That’s the art of criticism that you just can’t put into a numeric score.  Film criticism is about engaging with a work of art, and stating what effect it had on you.  That’s what makes being a film critic worthwhile; it’s a art form within itself inspired by the response that we have to any type of media.  Some can deliver a succinct opinion within a strongly worded paragraph while others can spin a thesis’ worth of thoughts across multiple pages, and any one of these criticisms can be just as valid whether positive or negative because it is genuinely coming from an honest place.  It’s that kind of personal touch that in more and more ways is getting buried down in the discourse of film criticism as movie ratings are becoming more of an impersonal metric.

As it has become increasingly clear over time, the perceptions of Hollywood’s highs and lows are becoming increasingly manipulated into becoming part of larger narratives about culture and the arts.  People want to draw their own conclusions about Hollywood and they use simplified metrics like those found on review sites like Rotten Tomatoes to define their narrative.  People attacking Hollywood for going “woke” for instance cite user ratings from Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb as proof of Hollywood being out of touch with the audience, though as I stated before those ratings can be heavily manipulated.  At the same time, certified ratings can also be skewed in favor of a positive response for a movie.  Sony Pictures got caught red handed with having a fake film reviewer submit positive reviews of their movies, and this may have juiced the numbers for some of their films on these ratings sites.  As we’ve seen, systems that can be easily manipulated should not have this kind of influence over an industry, and yet they are increasingly getting the notice of Hollywood who desperately want to use that Fresh rating in their marketing.  Those abusing the privilege of contributing to a film’s overall ranking are doing so with the intent of manipulating Hollywood, and that could lead to some dangerous consequences, like the silencing of disenfranchised groups who don’t have the same obsessive drive as internet trolls to hijack the narrative.  In the end, though site like Rotten Tomatoes have an immediate impact on a movie, it at the same time is not a long term one.  You’d be surprised how many movies receive a Rotten rating on RT.com and then years later develop into cult classics.  I can think of a dozen movies even in the last year which I think were rated too low or too high for my opinion.  A movie I liked, Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023), received a rotten 53% from critics, which shows that I fell outside the majority consensus on that movie.  But at the same time, it doesn’t motivate me to change my opinion either.  Those critics ratings on Rotten Tomatoes or any other site are not a monolith, and if you disagree with the overall ratings, that’s fine.  Movies are a subjective art and we should all like what we like and not feel pressured to accept the “narrative.”

And while I do point out a lot of the flaws of the Rotten Tomato critical metric, there are some positive things that the site has done for movies in general that are worth celebrating.  The site does spotlight movies that otherwise would’ve gone unseen and it does function as a genuine entertainment new site, though one that is imbedded with the industry itself.  The same goes for IMDb, which is an invaluable resource for film information of all kinds.  People just need to look beyond the surface level of those Fresh or Rotten ratings and they’ll see the added worth of the sites they visit.  That’s something that is true about all film criticism in general.  Don’t just skip ahead to the final rating; read through and engage with the opinion that the film critic presented to you.  You may not agree with it, nor should you be obligated to, but taking into consideration the arguments made by a critic will allow you the view to have more nuanced reactions of your own.  When visiting Rotten Tomatoes, look through the blurbs of each critics reviews; you’ll find that sometimes there’s a caveat to a positive review or a silver lining to a negative one.  Maybe use those blurbs to seek a link to the original review itself if you are compelled to read more.  Some movies generate some very clear cut, one-sided opinions, but you’ll find a lot of other movies that often leave people conflicted.  One thing that I do like about the Certified Fresh label given to movies on Rotten Tomatoes is that they are often almost always won by small movies that normally would go unseen by mass audiences.  If the Rotten Tomatoes metric carries that much weight in the industry, it’s best that movies that should be spotlighted are the ones that receive the best responses with critics, and they are able to float to the top thanks to Rotten Tomatoes Certified label.  That’s ultimately what we want as film critics, to help get something that meant a lot to us seen that otherwise would be ignored.  We use our voices to articulate the love we have for film, and some of us do so in writing.  That’s why I created this blog site.  You may not agree with every opinion I have to say here, but I tell you that every word I write is my own and I am happy that it inspires any engagement from any of you, even if it’s in conflict with my opinion.  While Rotten Tomatoes and other sites like it are valuable as an aggregate collector of film critiques, just know that movies are more than just Fresh or Rotten; they are experiences that defy being just a number.

Top Ten Movies of 2023

The year that shook up Hollywood has come to a close, and the movies that defined it were certainly a far different band than usual.  The year of 2023 will probably be less remembered for it’s movies and more for the behind the scenes drama that played out for all of us to see.  The labor strikes that brought the industry to a halt were undoubtedly the defining moment of the year, with Hollywood having to confront the realities of it’s future, with the creatives asserting their concern over the disproportionate wealth distribution based on the profits made from streaming as well as the threat of AI taking over the work done by real people in the cinematic arts.  The studios dragged their feet on the negotiations, and the results of that refusal to meet the reasonable demands of the guilds will ripple through the industry for years to come.  As a result, the usually jam packed late season Awards push feels a bit lighter this year than in the past, as many films got pushed back into the next couple years in order to fill that void created by the strikes.  Even still, a lot of movies still managed to make it to the theaters, and overall box office was up compared to last year (though still lagging behind the pre-pandemic numbers).  A large part of that was due to some unexpected hits, like the unusually high response to video game movies like The Super Mario Bros Movie and Five Nights at Freddy’s and of course the whole “Barbenheimer” movement.  This year also showed us that once dominant box office brands like Marvel, Fast And the Furious, and Transformers are not so quite as resilient as we thought.  To mark the start of 2024 at the movies, it is time to close the door on the year before as I share my picks for the Top Ten movies of the year, as well as my bottom Five.  This was a difficult year to be honest, as I did have a good sampling of movies to choose from, but there wasn’t that one that rose above all instantly like I had seen in past years.  The race to number one for this year was honestly a photo finish, as a couple films made solid arguments to be up there.  But, I have compiled my final numbers based on some last minute re-watches.

Before I make my countdown of the Top Ten, here are a few movies that nearly made my list, and I strongly recommend that you see them too because they are all worth watching: American Fiction, Air, All of Us Strangers, Creed III, Dumb Money, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, A Haunting in Venice, The Iron Claw, Killers of the Flower Moon, John Wick Chapter 4, The Little Mermaid (2023), The Marvels, Priscilla, Shazam: Fury of the Gods, Showing Up, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and Wonka.  So, with all that, let’s take a look at my picks for the Top Ten Movies of 2023.

10.

ORIGIN 

Directed by Ava DuVernay

It’s a very difficult trick to turn an essay into a drama.  But Ava DuVernay managed to make that work in her new feature adapted from the book “Caste:  The Origin of Our Discontents” by journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson.  Part biography, part video essay, DuVernay’s wide-reaching film is a captivating exploration of the roots of everything from racially motivated murders, to the rise of fascism, to the class divisions that still exist today in places like India.  DuVernary has a strong background in documentary filmmaking, with her Oscar-nominated 13th (2016) standing out as a great example of a non-fiction film that had the immediate visceral impact of a narrative film.  Here she does the opposite just as effectively, showing a dramatization of real peoples lives all weaving together to feel as informative and provocative as a documentary would.  The movie takes us through the steps of building a thesis and finding the facts to support that argument, and does so in a grounded and un-sensationalized way that you really feel like you are on this road of discovery with the author herself, piecing the truth together with her.  Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor gives a fantastic performance as Isabel Wilkerson, perfectly conveying her curiosity and intelligence on screen.  Ava DuVernay also does an incredible job of weaving together multiple vignettes of all the historical evidence that Isabel uncovers along the way, with strong attention to period detail from multiple time periods and varying cultures.  I was lucky to have caught this on a brief awards qualification run here in Los Angeles before it goes nationwide in a couple weeks.  For someone like me interested in history and the dots that are connected with the present that help us to understand the issues of our time a lot better, this movie was an eye opening experience.  It is also a strong reminder of how good Ava DuVernay is at making thought provoking cinema, with this being her strongest and most original effort yet.

9.

BLACKBERRY

Directed by Matt Johnson

One of the most unusual film trends of the last year was the surprisingly robust number of movies based on the history of corporate brands or products.  There was the movie Air, which showed how Nike landed Michael Jordan and changed the history of sportswear.  Apple released the movie Tetris, which showed how the game of falling blocks was able to escape the clutches of the Soviet Union.  And Flaming Hot, showed how a janitor was able to introduce the most popular flavor of Cheetos to the world.  While each one had their own interesting story to tell, the all still had one thing in common; it all lead to a happy outcome.  But there was one movie based on the history of a product that worked a little differently and in the end tells a much more compelling story.  Blackberry of course shows the history of the rise of the famous handheld device that at one time was the most widely used electronic accessory in the world.  But what makes the movie Blackberry so great is that it also shows the flip side of that story, chronicling the inevitable downfall of the corporation that was ahead of the curve until it wasn’t.  The standout in this movie is Glenn Howerton of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame, playing one of the most explosive corporate sharks ever on screen.  His magnificently unhinged performance is dynamite in this film, and much of the thrill of this movie is seeing just how far off the deep end he will go.  His volcanic performance is perfectly balanced off of Jay Baruchel’s understated performance as the mechanical genius who built the original device, but lacked the foresight to help him pivot when the market shifted.  It’s nice to see success stories play out on film, but it’s also fascinating to watch a company implode and fall off based on a series of terrible decisions.  The movie as directed by Matt Johnson, who also plays a key supporting role in the film, does a fantastic job of showing each and every bad choice that these corporate figures made, and it’s a captivating and often funny fall from grace, especially going in with the hindsight of where Blackberry ultimately ended up.  And in a year where these corporate brand stories wanted us to feel inspired by the adversity of their success, it was nice to see Blackberry remind us that corporate failure is another story worth telling, and in many ways is a far more honest look at the way the world works.

8.

BARBIE

Directed by Greta Gerwig

The movie that saved the Summer 2023 box office, along with a certain 3 hour drama based on a nuclear physicist.  We are going to be studying the peculiar phenomenon that was “Barbenheimer” for years to come, but regardless of how unexpected the moment was, there was one thing that certainly played a part in making the unlikely double feature as big a deal as it was; both movies were very good.  In fact, they were among the years best, and were deserving of their box office riches.  The biggest movie of them all, Barbie, could be considered yet another brand based movie to go along with the others that I mentioned, but it’s different because this was wasn’t a movie about the history of the doll.  Director and co-writer Greta Gerwig used the iconography of the Barbie doll line to tell a much different kind of story.  Through this high-concept fantasy story where Barbie journeys from Barbieland into the real world, Greta crafts this surprisingly nuanced exploration of themes about feminism, patriarchy, the corporatization of gender ideals, and identity itself.  And she does so with an incredible sense of humor along the way.  I absolutely love the way that Greta and her co-writer and real life partner Noah Baumbach dissect the “battle of the sexes” attitude that prevails through much of our culture and explains how Barbie herself has played a factor in it, while at the same time having fun with the whole Barbie “pink-colored” iconography.  Margot Robbie really shines as “stereotypical” Barbie, with a surprisingly heartfelt character exploration along the way.  She is also matched perfectly with Ryan Gosling’s hilarious take on Ken, easily the funniest performance of the year.  Ken’s show-stopping musical number may be the best single cinematic sequence of 2023.  And what I also love is that this movie really silenced the annoying “go woke, go broke” chorus, as this undeniably “woke” movie ended up being the biggest moneymaker of the year.  And for that alone, Barbie  is a genuine winner.  Greta Gerwig, with only her third feature as a director, made history this year, and did so without compromising her voice or her courage to speak her mind.  And the fact that she made it so much fun along the way shows that she will be a filmmaking force to reckon with.  And that’s good Kenough.

7.

MAESTRO

Directed by Bradley Cooper

Perhaps the most Oscar-baity of all the movies on this list, this sumptuous biopic of famed composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein is nevertheless a magnificent cinematic experience.  The movie has been in the works for over a decade, initially started as a directorial vehicle for Martin Scorsese, then passed along for time to Steven Spielberg, before eventually being picked up and completed under the direction of Bradley Cooper, who also plays Bernstein in the film (Spielberg and Scorsese still contributed as producers).  Working behind the camera for the second time after 2018’s A Star is BornMaestro is Cooper’s more audacious effort as a filmmaker, showing him taking more creative chances and playing around with form to create a truly dynamic portrayal of his subject’s life.  The movie is beautifully shot, almost re-creating with perfect detail the look of the kinds of movies that would have been made during the time periods in which the movie takes place.  The movie showcases 3 different time periods in Bernstein’s life and they all feel like time capsules of cinematic style; the formative years of the 1950’s in beautiful black and white, the transformative 1970’s in a muted color palette, and the twilight 1980’s in bold, primary colors.  Bradley’s performance as Bernstein may take some getting used to, because it’s definitely a more caricatured part for him, but he does a fine job of creating Bernstein as this creative force on screen.  The highlight of the film, however, is Carey Mulligan in the role of his wife, Felicia, in yet another performance that shows everyone just how transformative Mulligan can be in any role, proving she is one of the best of her generation.  Seeing where she takes this character in the movie is profound and at times heartbreaking, and she commands every moment.  I also love that Bradley Cooper forgoes any original musical score, and instead uses Bernstein’s own music to carry the film.  I saw this movie at the newly remodeled Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and the acoustics of that storied venue made the music used in the movie all the more magnificent.  Hopefully people are able to get that same feeling on their own home system, as this Netflix made film is not widely screened in theaters.  It may be old fashioned in an Oscar bait kind of way, but it is the best kind of Oscar bait as well.

6.

ASTEROID CITY

Directed by Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson is, and continues to be an uncompromising filmmaker.  His films have become increasingly stylized with an aesthetic that can definitely be said is all his own.  But, this kind of artistic styling also makes him an acquired taste for many audiences.  Thankfully, I enjoy most of his work, though my opinion of his films varies more so on the strength of his storytelling than his visual flair, which I like consistently in every film.  I’m very happy to say that Asteroid City is one of his best narrative films in years on top of being one of his most visually inventive.  The movie has this Inception like structure where the narrative plays out for us in different layers of reality.  We see the story of a quiet desert town that has a peculiar encounter with extra-terrestrial life, which Anderson casts in a bright, colorful, almost story book like palette.  And then we see that the whole thing is a stage show, which it’s own creation is being dramatized through a TV recreation.  This Russian doll style of layered storytelling makes for a compelling experience and it’s one of Anderson’s richest films to date because of that; almost like he’s dissecting the very art of storytelling itself and examining how experiences in life find their way into art.  All the while, Anderson makes the whole thing charming and more importantly hilarious along the way, in his typical dry sort of way.  He brings back a lot of his frequent stable of actors (though noticeably absent one Bill Murray), and he even perfectly incorporates some first timers into his weird little world, like Tom Hanks, Maya Hawke, and Matt Dillon.  And of course as typical with the best of Wes Anderson movies, the best entertainment to be found is seeing all the little details that he throws into the backgrounds of each scene; some of which may take extra viewings to catch.  It’s refreshing to see Wes Anderson still finding new interesting ways to tell his stories, while at the same time maintaining his unique visual style.

5.

POOR THINGS

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Like I said in my preview of the Fall 2023 movies, the arrival of a new film from Yorgos Lanthimos can often be a flip of the coin depending how you respond to it.  For me personally, I have experienced both extremes.  I have found myself hating one of his films (The Lobster) as well as loving one of his films (The Favourite).  Thankfully with his newest film Poor Things, I found myself in the latter camp.  Yorgos created what might be very well the most unique movie of the year.  Honestly, I don’t think there has been any movie that looks like this one, or is even thematically like this one.  It really is in a class of it’s own.  Yorgos re-teams with his Favourite leading lady Emma Stone and creates this wonderfully quirky spin on Frankenstein with a visual flair that defies explanation.  Stone is remarkable as a new brain in a woman’s body experiencing life anew, and creating chaotic results in her wake.  One of the things that I think has really helped Yorgos Lanthimos as a filmmaker has been teaming up with screenwriter Tony McNamara, whose writing style meshes with Yorgos’ visual style perfectly.  McNamara, who also wrote The Favourite as well as the Hulu series The Great, just has this way of making shocking and vulgar statements in his script sound as classy as an English garden party, and there are some laugh out loud whoppers that come out the mouth of Emma Stone in this movie.  I was worried about the odd visual style of the movie, thinking it looked a little too close to terrible AI generated art, but seeing it in context makes it all feel more appropriate for the movie.  The art direction is meant to have this dream like quality, like how a child would perceive the world they have barely begun to experience.  Yorgos’ trademark fish eye wide angles also perfectly encapsulates the weirdness of the visuals.  The whole thing has a very Kubrickian sense of detachment that really helps to spotlight the world-building.  Couple this with Emma Stone’s fearless work as well as some wonderfully goofy supporting performances from Mark Ruffalo and Willem Dafoe, and you’ve got another winner for the increasingly interesting Yorgos Lanthimos.

4.

THE ZONE OF INTEREST

Directed by Jonathan Glazer

In stark contrast with the flights of fantasy of some of the other movies I’ve spotlighted on this list, this newest film from Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin) is shockingly earthbound in a way that will haunt you long after.  The movie shows us the day to day life of a family in an observational kind of way.  Only this family happens to be that of the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Rudolph Hoss (played in the movie by Christian Friedel).  We experience the lives of the people living near the worst horrors of the Holocaust, and the most shocking thing about the movie is how closed off their world is from the one we know is just over the walls.  We see the Hoss family having normal family dinners, walking through their garden, or playing in their pool.  What Jonathan Glazer brilliantly showcases in his film is the banality of evil that the Nazis were capable off.  We know what is going on beyond the walls, but the movie never shows us, completely staying within the bubble that the Hoss family has created for itself.  Their world is quiet and calm, but you get this un-ceasing sense of the horrors that go unseen.  Smoke is constantly rising over the horizon; there are faint gunshot blasts in the distance; every morning the gardeners blow ash off of the flower beds; and then there is the unsettling faint roar of a furnace chimney that can be heard constantly throughout the film.  It’s amazing how Glazer is able to convey the horrors of the Holocaust without us seeing it.  It’s a bold artistic statement that really speaks to us in the present day, as so many of us willfully close off ourselves to crimes against humanity even though we know it’s still happening.  Glazer uncomfortably reminds us that it’s all too easy to pretend that these things aren’t happening, even when it’s literally right next door.  The movie is masterfully crafted, especially with it’s sound design, and features unsettlingly real performances, with a special shoutout to Sandra Huller who plays Commandant Hoss’ wife, who was also great this year in the Palm d’Or winning Anatomy of a Fall.  The Zone of Interest is an unsettling experience, but one that is essential to understanding the depths of evil that any human being is capable of.

3.

SALTBURN

Directed by Emerald Fennell

With her sophomore film, Emerald Fennell has crafted one of the most twisted movies in recent memory, and it’s a theatrical experience that I certainly will never forget.  Initially, Emerald lulls the viewer into believing that the movie she is making will be a satire about the idle rich who make up what remains of the British aristocracy, as a commoner named Oliver Quick (an unforgettable Barry Keoghan) is brought into their good graces.  And then, Emerald turns the movie on it’s head and it becomes something else completely.  Honestly, this movie goes into some wild left turns, and I admired the audacity of Emerald Fennell for taking this movie into places that I feel most other filmmakers would’ve been too scared to go.  Just when you think the movie has reached the limit of good taste, Fennell will leap across that line and relish the chaos that comes after.  What really helps this movie from going too far off the deep end is the stellar performance of Barry Keoghan, who is proving to be one of the most interesting, and as this movie proves, one the bravest actors out there.  He creates this fascinating character in Oliver Quick who becomes this vampiric presence in the halls of the titular manor house, Saltburn; bringing a whole new understanding to the rebellious phrase “eating the rich.”  The actors playing the naïvely rich Catton family are uniformly perfect, with Rosamund Pike and Richard E. Grant being especially memorable as these upper class twits who nail every line of Fennell’s wonderfully playful script.  The movie is also a visual wonder, shot in the claustrophobic Academy aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (which has surprisingly made a comeback in recent years), giving each frame this almost portrait like quality.  I definitely understand that this is going to be a movie that will divide audiences, with a lot of people likely turned off by the gross excesses Emerald Fennell throws at us.  But for me, it was an experience that I was on board for.  Watching this movie with an audience also enhanced my experience, especially when it gets to the most shocking moments.  I’m certainly intrigued to see what other twisted tales Emerald Fennell will be spinning in her next film, because this was definitely something of a second feature.

2.

OPPENHEIMER

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Yes, no shock that a Christopher Nolan movie would make my end of the year Top Ten, given that he shows up here so frequently.  The other half of the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, Nolan’s epic biopic of the “Father of the Atom Bomb” is also one of the unlikeliest box office successes in recent memory.  A three hour long, R-rated biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer was not something that you would instantly say would be a near billion dollar grossing movie at the worldwide box office, but that’s the miracle that was pulled off this summer; with a little boost from Barbie.  This is the highest grossing movie of Christopher Nolan’s storied career not connected to Batman, and it shows that Nolan can indeed deliver box office success purely on his name alone.  This now puts him in the same league of the likes of Spielberg, Tarantino, and Scorsese, and that’s a good club to be in.  As a film, Oppenheimer may be in fact the most purely impressive directorial effort of the year.  Nolan uses every trick he has learned up to this point to create a vast epic that honestly shouldn’t have worked as well as it does.  We don’t just merely get the story of the creation of the atomic bomb itself, which does make for a harrowing middle section.  Nolan creates this complex narrative structure that plays around with his favorite narrative tool (time) and intertwines Oppenheimer’s greatest achievement with the ups and downs of his life before and after.  Carried by a stellar lead performance by Nolan’s favorite actor Cillian Murphy and supported by a mind-blowing all-star cast and Ludwig Goransson’s fluctuating heartbeat of a music score, the movie never lags in all of it’s 3 hour run time.  I remember writing a lukewarm review back in July, stating that I would need to simmer a bit longer on the movie to fully appreciate, including getting a second or third view.  That second view, which thankfully was still in IMAX, made the difference, and it probably was because I wasn’t sitting too close to the screen this time around.  I now consider this to be in the league with Nolan’s best movies, including Dunkirk (2017) and Inception (2010).  Especially on the technical merits alone, this is Christopher Nolan at his finest and possibly the movie that finally earns him the long overdue Oscar.

And finally my number one movie of 2023 is…..

1.

THE HOLDOVERS

Directed by Alexander Payne

Quite the change in pace from Oppenheimer and Saltburn.  It was honestly a close three way race for the top this year, but ultimately I was warmed over by the cozy charm of Alexander Payne’s latest.  The director behind About SchmidtSideways, and The Descendants makes a triumphant return to form with this easy going comedy about a couple of lovable losers who are stuck with other over the holiday season.  What I think this movie has above all the others on this list for the year is what I think is the year’s best screenplay, a feature writing debut for longtime TV writer David Hemingston.  On top of being a great comedic script with some of the year’s best one liners, it also has some of the best character driven moments of the year, which makes the talented cast really shine.  Paul Giamatti gives a career best performance as the cranky history teacher Paul Hunham, which is saying quite a lot given his remarkable career.  He is also perfectly matched with newcomer Dominic Sessa as the troublesome student he has to share his lonely days with at a snowed-in private New England boarding school.  And they are of course accompanied by a heartbreaking performance by Da’Vine Joy Randolph as a grieving school cook in what I think is the odd on favorite performance to win Best Supporting Actress at this year’s Oscars.  But this movie is special specifically because of the care Alexander Payne put into his direction.  This movie is not just a throwback to it’s time period; Payne even made it to look like a film of it’s time period.  You could swear you were watching a long lost classic of the 1970’s if it weren’t for the contemporary actors in it.  From the way that Payne blocks his shots, to the soft dissolves in his scene transitions, to even the subtle hint of dust and scratches on the film stock (which is remarkable for a digitally shot film).  Given that the film takes place during Christmas time, I can definitely see this becoming a Holiday classic over time.  But it earns my top spot for this year because of all the movies that I saw this year, this had the best re-watch value, with Oppenheimer obviously being the closest match.  I just love a movie that I know right away I will be seeing again and again for years to come.

And now that we’ve gone through the best of the year, it’s time to go through the worst.  Here are my bottom five Worst Movies of 2023.

5. FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDYS – While the video game that this movie is based on has some genuine value as a horror experience, none of that managed to translate over into film.  This adaptation is a bland and ultimately non-scary experience that just looks goofy adapted to live action.  I didn’t find the animatronic characters frightening and the jump scares were too telegraphed to be effective.  Plus the twist ending is one you could see coming miles away.  Sadly, because this movie was a huge box office success, we are doomed to endure a bunch of sequels in it’s wake.

4. THE FLASH – This was overall a bad year for comic book movies in general, with only the Guardians of the Galaxy and Miles Morales defying the downward trend.  As bad as Marvel’s box office results were, they were nothing compared to DC’s historically bad run.  But, even though all their movies flopped, it didn’t mean the movies themselves were garbage; except one.  The Flash was the poster child for everyting wrong with the DC Universe, with a muddled adventure into the multiverse that makes Marvel’s looks coherent by comparison.  All of the off screen troubles of star Ezra Miller were no help to this movie, but even divorced from that, they were still bad and at times unwatchable as the titular hero.  Michael Keaton’s return as Batman was welcome, but ultimately wasted.  And then there was the messy CGI multiverse finale that did not sit well with me over time, and it just felt unethical in the long run considering it’s low bar pandering and questionable use of deceased actors.  It’s the kind of movie that definitely justified the end of the DC Snyderverse.

3. REBEL MOON: PART ONE – A CHILD OF FIRE – Speaking of Zack Snyder, here we have his lame attempt at launching a brand new franchise of his own.  At times, Snyder can create a neat looking visual, but he has just gotten worse as a storyteller over time.  Rebel Moon is pretty much exactly the same as every other space opera you’ve seen before, and almost a borderline plagiarize of Star Wars at times.  Even the die hard Snyder stans are having a hard time warming up to this film, because it just has nothing to latch onto.  Snyder has in many ways overcome Michael Bay as the most style over substance filmmaker in Hollywood, and this is the clearest example of his shortcomings as a filmmaker.  I don’t see how Part Two, which premieres in the Spring is going to improve on any of this.  I hate the worldbuilding.  I hate the characters.  I just wonder if Netflix feels that they got their money’s worth.

2. EXPEND4BLES – Why anyone thought this was a good franchise to dust off is beyond me.  All of the charm of the Sylvester Stallone led team up of classic action movie stars is gone.  In fact, of the main set of all stars, only Stallone returns here.  Schwarzenegger having the good sense to say no is not something I’d think would have happened, but there you go.  Jason Statham is clearly in paycheck mode, and somehow this movie thought adding Megan Fox to the team was exactly what the franchise needed in order spice up the box office, which by the way hit a new franchise low.  Very likely this will be the end of this franchise, which had it’s promise in the early run, but very much well over-stayed it’s welcome.

And the worst movie of 2023 is…..

1. HYPNOTIC – Unquestionably the dumbest movie I saw all year, and a very tragic low point set by director Robert Rodriguez.  In what I assume is Rodriguez’s attempt at an Inception like plot, Hypnotic tries to make a villain (played by William Fichtner) who uses hypnotism as a weapon intimidting.  Later on, the movie takes some left turns that just become increasingly stupid, and the movie isn’t helped out at all by some of the worst CGI effects of the year.  Rodriguez likes to do a lot of his filmmaking in house at his Austin, Texas based studio, but here we see him try to pull off a little more than he can handle and it shows the limitations of his home base operation.  What’s worse is the waste of talent on screen, including Ben Affleck giving a noticeably disinterested performance and the usually reliable William Fichtner playing the lamest of movie villains.  Rodriguez can and has done better, and it’s sad to see him wasting his time on a Christopher Nolan wannabe project like this.  I’ll even take another Machete sequel over this any day.

And there you have my choices for the best movies of the year.  It was a competitive year, as I didn’t immediately have that one movie that just leapt to the front immediately like in years past, such as Jojo Rabbit in 2019 or The Fablemans from last year.  Ultimately, I’m satisfied with the placements that I made, and The Holdovers and Oppenheimer were pretty much 1a and 1b in the running.  What I found to be especially pleasing is that three of my choices this year were films directed by women; a best yet showing on my annual list.  While none of them reached the top, having three a near third of my list represented by women (Emerald Fennell, Greta Gerwig, and Ava DuVernay) is a strong sign of the growing impact that female directors are beginning to have in Hollywood.  In fact, the year’s box office crown was won for the first time ever by a female directed movie (Barbie of course) and Greta Gerwig has the distinction of being the first woman to solo direct a billion dollar grossing film.  There’s certainly a lot more ground to make up still in the gender disparity in Hollywood, but this year gave us some very important milestones that hopefully leads to some real change in the industry.  Overall, despite all of the problems that Hollywood has had in 2023, it still left us with some great and important movies.  I just hope that the ripple effects of the labor strikes don’t lead to a relatively empty 2024.  For the sake of the theatrical industry, which is still in recovery mode post-pandemic, we really need movies that really motivate audiences to go out to the cinemas.  Apart from March’s Dune: Part Two, it’s hard to see ahead to any big movies that will serve that purpose.  Hollywood’s likely going to be going through some things in 2024 as it readjusts.  Overall, I just hope that the movies we do get are worthwhile.  We may even luck out and see something out of the ordinary like Barbenheimer happen, though that’s a phenomenon that Hollywood just can’t manufacture.  In any case, let’s all have a good time at the movies in 2024.

The Movies of Early 2024

2023 was a strange year for the movies.  I don’t think anyone saw the outcome of this year coming, especially not myself.  This year saw many once dominant forces at the box office fall off hard; from Marvel, to DC, to Indiana Jones, to Fast and the Furious, to Mission: Impossible.  This summer would have been one of the most disastrous on record had it not been for the unlikeliest of saviors; the unexpected box office power duo of Barbie and J. Robert Oppenheimer.  But the biggest story of the past year was undoubtedly the behind the scenes labor battles that shook up the industry for nearly half a year.  The Writer’s Guild of America went on strike in early May and the Screen Actors Guild followed them to the picket line soon after in July, creating the largest strike period in Hollywood history.  For six months, Hollywood was ground to a halt as the studios and the unions dueled over the direction of the industry’s future.  Thankfully, the unions came out victorious, receiving fair deals that achieved most of the goals that they desired to have on their new contract, chief among them protections from AI and revised residual compensation reflective of the growing streaming market.  However, because the studios unnecessarily dragged their feet on making this new deal with the unions, it created a six month backlog in production that unfortunately is going to be felt throughout Hollywood for years to come.  The studios as a result are pushing back even more of their upcoming releases because of this delay, which is already giving more headaches to film distributors and theaters, who themselves are still in recovery mode post-pandemic.  It was a year overall of a lot of pain for the industry, as studios had to reconcile with the fact that their big push into streaming was not panning out like they expected and that they had neglected to fairly compensate their talent with fair share of that expansion, leading to an overall downturn in quality across the industry.

2024 is expected to be a year of re-building for many of the studios as they re-assess their futures.  Disney for the most part is taking the first half of the year off as they moved their Spring releases of Snow White and Pixar’s Elio to 2025.  Given how their 2023 went, with a string of disappointments, it’s probably for the best that they hedge their bets in order to regather their strength.  Warner Brothers and Paramount are even considering a merger in order to salvage their fortunes after wasting billions on chasing fortunes on streaming.  Because of last year’s strike, we are seeing a much less robust Spring season this year, as most films that were supposed to come out in the months ahead have been pushed back to accommodate for the backlog created by the strikes.  Some of the movies coming out in Early 2024 are even movies that were supposed to come out in 2023, but were unable to meet their release because the strike prevented the cast from assisting in the promotion of the films, which did have an effect on the overall box office of this Fall’s slate.  Still, there are enough movies to talk about in the early part of this upcoming year.  Like always, I will be discussing the must sees, the movies that have me worried, and the movies to skip of the early film season.  These previews are purely my own takes based on the level of buzz and effectiveness I see with the marketing, and my predictions can be off sometimes when all is said and done (and oftentimes have).  So, with all that said, let’s take a look at the Movies of Early 2024.

MUST SEES:

DUNE: PART TWO (MARCH 1)

Without question the must see movie of Early 2024, and possibly all of the year itself.  This is a movie that we should have already seen already, but because of the strike Warner Brothers decided they couldn’t have this movie make it’s November 3rd release date without the all-star cast there to help with the marketing.  Sadly, this took the highly anticipated second chapter to the Oscar-winning original out of awards contention for this year.  If this movie released on schedule, who knows how different the Awards season chatter would be right now.  Still, thankfully it’s a movie that we are still getting anyway and hopefully the extra four months will be worth the wait.  Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (2021) was an unexpected triumph of cinema when it first released, managing to gross over $100 million at the box office even in a still pandemic affected market and despite Warner Brothers misguided day and date theatrical and streaming release strategy at the time.  The film also managed to snag an impressive four Oscars in the technical categories, and was nominated for Best Picture, which thankfully ensured that this second part would be greenlit.  It seems short-sighted now that the studio didn’t film these movies back to back ala Lord of the Rings, as the first film only covers half of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi masterpiece.  But, Villeneuve now gets to complete the story, and it looks like he’s done so in spectacular fashion.  The movie definitely demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, and I’m sure it’s going to dominate like no other in IMAX.  What I’m looking forward to are the newest additions to the cast, including Florence Pugh as Princess Irulan, Austin Butler as Feyd-Ruetha, and the legendary Christopher Walken as the Emperor.  And with Wonka doing well at the box office right now, Timothee Chalamet has some box office wind in his sails leading up to the release of this film.  Here’s hoping Denis Villeneuve sticks the landing with his monumental sci-fi epic.

CIVIL WAR (APRIL 26)

Alex Garland is without a doubt one of the most unique voices to emerge in science fiction writing over the last couple decades.  Starting off with writing films like 28 Days Later (2002), Sunshine (2005) and Dredd (2012), Garland in the last decade has started to work behind the camera as a director and has shown equal prowess as a visionary filmmaker as well.  His unique voice has tackled common sci-fi tropes in interesting new ways, like examining the dangers of AI run amok in Ex Machina (2015), or looking at an alien invasion unlike any we’ve seen before on the big screen with the trippy Annihilation (2018).  His newest film is much less out of this world science fiction and more of a speculative, future history story that sadly feels all too relevant to our time.  Civil War showcases what a wartime conflict would look like in modern times if it broke out in the United States.  This is certainly the most ambitious project that Alex Garland has taken on to date (same with the studio making it, A24).  But the interesting angle that Garland is going with in this movie is seeing the conflict through the eyes of war correspondents.  This angle is a smart one to take because it allows the movie to remain grounded in a believable reality as it puts the audience right in the middle of the conflict.  It’s not a movie concerned about the sides being taken, but rather gives us a look at the ugliness of war, transposed into a place that hasn’t seen conflict on it’s soil since the last Civil War.  Having war correspondents be the witnesses of this conflict is also smart, because it helps the movie remain focused on it’s story rather than getting bogged down in world-building, which most other Hollywood blockbusters would fall victim to and get cluttered.  Hopefully Garland is able to deliver on the promise of this premise.  It will be interesting to see the responses to this film, considering that we are about to enter another contentious and divisive election cycle that by all accounts will be ugly.  Perhaps Alex Garland is giving us the wake-up call that we need to understand the dark path we are headed towards, given who we might put into office.

GODZILLA X KONG: THE NEW EMPIRE (APRIL 12)

I know this is a weird one to pick, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to include a little junk food in the diet.  Legendary Pictures’ Monsterverse has gone through a bit of an evolution over the last decade, and one that I think has worked out for the better.  The big problem that I had with the Gareth Edwards directed Godzilla (2014) that launched this franchise was that it took itself too seriously.  The best part of the movie was always when the titular King of the Monsters showed up, but sadly those moments were few and far between.  Instead, the movie had us following the human characters, who were all sadly generic and uninteresting, despite being played by some great actors.  The introduction of King Kong into this franchise with Kong: Skull Island fared better because it gave us the audience more of what we wanted; more time with the central monster and more definable personalities among the human characters.  When we finally got the team up film we were promised with Godzilla vs. Kong (2021), Legendary seemed to finally have the winning formula, and that was to embrace the sillier side of this franchise.  What matters at the end of the day with these films is that we get to see the two iconic monsters share the screen and that the movie knows to let all the other stuff like character development and plot melt away.  In other words: just let them fight.  Godzilla vs. Kong was a nice bit of cheesy fun that we desperately needed after the worst of the pandemic.  Thankfully, it looks like the people at Legendary Pictures are sticking with the formula and still leaning into the sillier side of this franchise.  You can tell that by introducing a new pink color power set for Godzilla that this franchise is in no hurry to get this franchise grounded back into reality, and that is a bit refreshing.  I know Godzilla purists are going to complain, especially after the release of Toho’s acclaimed Godzilla Minus One.  But, given the lack of true entertainment in this early part of the year, it will be nice to have at least one movie that understands it’s limits as pure popcorn entertainment and rolls with it.

MICKEY 17 (MARCH 29)

This movie releases in a mere matter of months, and yet we still know so little about it, or seen anything other than a 30 second teaser released over a year ago.  But, there is still a lot to be excited about with this upcoming film.  For one, it’s the first film directed by Oscar-winner Bong Joon-ho after his history making Parasite (2019) became the first film ever not in the English language to win Best Picture.  Also netting a Best Director win for himself, Bong Joon-ho garnered a lot of attention in the last couple years with regards to what he would do next.  Interestingly, he has decided to not make another film in his native Korean language like he did with Parasite.  Instead he’s making a film in English, which is not new for him, considering that he’s done it before with Snowpiercer (2014) and Okja (2017).  What is especially exciting is that his newest film is also a return for him to the science fiction genre.  His last foray into pure science fiction was Snowpiercer, which was in my opinion one of the best sci-fi films of the last decade.  What we know of the plot is based on what we know of the source material; the novel of the same name by Edward Ashton, which involves cloning and deep space exploration.  But, what isn’t known is what Bong Joon-ho will bring to the story with his own vision.  It’s also a good sign that he is working with a very outside of the box thinking kind of leading man with Robert Pattinson.  Pattinson has taken on many quirky roles in the past, so it will be interesting to see how well he works under Bong Joon-ho’s direction.  Hopefully more information and another trailer releases for this movie soon, because it will be interesting to see what a unique filmmaker like Bong Joon-ho does with the confidence that a fresh Oscar win gives him going into his next project.

THE BOOK OF CLARENCE (JANUARY 12)

When you attempt to satirize religion and scripture in any way, you better be prepared to walk through a gauntlet of eggshells.  But, if you manage to find that right balance, you can come up with some truly legendary comedy, as Monty Python and Mel Brooks have shown us in the past.  Writer and director Jeymes Samuel takes aim at the time period of Jesus Christ, but it looks like he wisely avoids turning Christ into the target of his punchlines.  Instead, what it looks like he’s doing with The Book of Clarence is to make a statement about modern day Influencer Culture by putting it within the context of a biblical time period.  Here we see the titular Clarence become jealous of Jesus’ clout, and he attempts to scam his way into becoming the Messiah so that he can emerge beyond Christ’s shadow.  It’s an interesting angle that could also extend a critical eye towards organized religion, which itself is built upon the show boating and scamming that is synonymous with influencer culture.  It’s uncertain exactly what angle Jeymes Samuel is going to go with in his film, but it certainly looks like there’s going to be some hilarious situations that satirize the things we know from scripture and that time period.  It definitely looks like Samuel is drawing inspiration from Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) with some of the tone, and I hope he’s ready for some of the firestorm that may erupt in response to this movie.  Jeymes already delivered an interesting deconstruction of the American Western with The Harder They Fall (2021), framing it through a Black American perspective (and it features one of the most hilarious visual gags I’ve seen in recent memory).  Hopefully he delivers the same kind of intelligent satirical eye to this story with a biblical center.

MOVIES THAT HAVE ME WORRIED:

GHOSTBUSTERS: FROZEN EMPIRE (MARCH 29)

Try as they might, Hollywood has yet to match the one of a kind magic that was the comedy/horror masterpiece called Ghostbusters (1984).  Over the last 40 years, there have been sequels and multiple reboots, but nothing has yet to come close to the original, and it’s probably the case that nothing ever will.  The 1989 sequel has moments, but lacks the same novelty and focus.  The 2016 remake is a textbook example of how not to re-start a franchise as it courted controversy that it was not prepared to tackle, and sadly it negatively impacted the chance to bring true inclusivity into the casting of the franchise.  Jason Reitman, son of the late Ivan Reitman who directed the original classic, decided to bring his own voice to the franchise and pick up where his dad left off.  His 2021 reboot was different in tone, taking the lore and story a bit more seriously than past efforts, which is honestly closer to the original vision of the franchise’s co-creator Dan Aykroyd.  But, even though it was a marked improvement over the 2016 version, it still was a movie that relied too heavily on nostalgia for the past.  Seriously, we’re just going to rehash Gozer again as the main threat?  Jason Reitman’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife still did well enough to get a sequel greenlit by Columbia.  Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire does earn some points by trying something different; with the Big Apple being threatened by an ice storm brought upon by a supernatural force.  It’s also interesting that they managed to get everyone back, not just from the last film, but even the legacy actors as well (even the always elusive Bill Murray).  Still, I feel this is a franchise that still has a lot to prove in order to find it’s way out of the shadow of the original classic.  It’s been 40 years and still nothing so far convinces me that Frozen Empire will be the movie that will justify a whole new generation of Ghostbuster movies to get excited about.

ARGYLLE (FEBRUARY 2)

Talk about over-exposure.  The above trailer seems to be attached to every movie playing at the multiplex at this very moment, so if you are someone like me who visits movie theaters on a regular basis, this trailer has been played ad nauseum for several months now.  Now, that doesn’t mean that the end result could end up being terrible, but the fact that Universal and Apple Studios are flooding the market with advertisement for this film is not a good sign either.  The latest film from Matthew Vaughn comes as new territory for the director, but still working within a genre he has a lot of experience with.  Vaughn has spent the last decade building up the Kingsman franchise and this is his first original film in a long time.  There are positive and negative signs for this movie based on Vaughn’s recent track record.  For one thing, he has demonstrated a knack for taking actors not typically known for appearing in action movies and giving them a stand out action set piece that changes everything you thought you knew about them.  The now famous one shot church fight scene with Colin Firth in Kingman: The Secret Service (2015) was a perfect example of this.  In Argylle, it looks like he’s doing the same with his leads, Sam Rockwell and Bryce Dallas Howard, both of whom you wouldn’t expect to see in elaborate action set pieces.  At the same time, Vaughn’s track record has been a bit spotty.  His sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) was a disappointing mess that sqaundered all of the goodwill of the first movie, and though it was a bit better, the prequel titled The King’s Man (2021) still couldn’t course correct well enough to salvage the waning franchise.  Hopefully Matthew Vaughn is able to get his mojo back with Argylle, but given the zealous marketing campaign so far, I’m not seeing a lot of positive signs.

KUNG FU PANDA 4 (MARCH 8)

At least one thing works in Dreamworks Animation’s favor this spring.  They no longer have to share the box office with their indsutry rival Pixar, Disney has moved their previously planned Spring 2024 release of Elio to Summer of 2025.  Still times are troubled for Dreamworks Animation.  The studio has failed to generate the same kind of energy at the box office that it once did in the last decade.  2023 was an especially rough year for all of the Animation titans.  Disney’s Wish (2023) failed to ignite over the Thanksgiving weekend, and Dreamworks saw it’s two 2023 releases, Ruby Gilman: Teenage Kraken and Trolls Band Together both underperform expectations, the former becoming the lowest grossing film in the studios’ 25 year history.  It’s a sad result given that they ended the previous year on a high note with their best film in years with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022).  Thankfully for Dreamworks, their next film on the release calendar is the fourth film in one of their most resilient franchises.  Jack Black returns as the lovable Po the Panda and in this adventure he is facing off against a shape-shifiting villain voiced by Viola Davis.  While the Kung Fu Panda films have always been well-animated, they’ve been a little inconsistent when it comes to story.  In my opinion, I thought the first one was alright, I loved the second one, and thought the third one was bland and forgettable.  Thus far, this fourth film really lacks anything new or interesting to hook me back in.  Maybe long time fans will be more interested than me, but for me a film franchise on it’s fourth round needs to have something more interesting than a new villain of the week to justify it’s existence.  Puss in Boots: The Last Wish was a movie sequel that really went above and beyond what was called for with it, and to see Kung Fu Panda just revisiting the same routine just feels uninteresting to me.

LISA FRANKENSTEIN (FEBRUARY 9)

This is one of those movies that could honestly go either way.  We could be witnessing the birth of a new cult classic in horror comedy, or it could be an embarrassing dumpster fire that bodes ill for all involved.  One of the red flags is that it’s written by Diablo Cody.  Cody, an Oscar-winner for Juno (2007) has in the past had a bad habit of using cringey slang words in her dialogue that make her scripts sound way out of touch with the age groups that she’s trying to connect with.  But, when used well, she can write some very funny and excessive genre films, particularly in this horror comedy mode.  One of the interesting things about Lisa Frankenstein is that it marks the directorial debut of Zelda Williams, daughter of the late great Robin Williams.  A movie like this is a big swing for a first time director, but it looks like a bold statement as well to signal that Ms. Williams is ready to put her voice out there as a filmmaker.  One thing that might be a plus for the movie is that it looks like the kind of film that Tim Burton used to make but no longer does, and thankfully Zelda Williams is coming in to fill that void.  The whole tone of the movie also seems to be refreshingly tougne in cheek, which hopefully doesn’t spoil the movie as a whole, as some horror comedies sometimes lack the right amount of laughs or scares to work as well as they should.  One thing that I do like in the trailer is that the main lead, Kathryn Newton, is really aiming for the fence with her performance; vamping it up in a deliciously comical way that could go a long way in making this movie work.  It all comes down to the execution, and hopefully all of these talented ladies pull it off and knock ’em dead.

MOVIES TO SKIP:

MADAME WEB (FEBRUARY 14)

Given the disappointing year that they experienced, Marvel is sitting out most of the next year with only one official MCU title getting released in 2024; the eagerly anticipated Deadpool 3.  While disappointing to fans, this is honestly a much needed break that Marvel desperately needs in order to recalibrate and get their mojo back.  Sadly, it seems like Sony Pictures didn’t get the memo with their own licensed Marvel films in the Sony Spider-verse.  In 2024, Sony is set to release at least 3 films all connected to their fledgling Spider-Man adjascent cinematic universe, all mostly centered around some of the webslinger’s rogues gallery of villains.  In the summer we get a movie devoted to Kraven the Hunter (2024), which was pushed back from a fall release this year during the strike, and in Fall 2024 we get the third film in the Venom franchise, starring Tom Hardy.  But before all that, we get this movie devoted to one of the most obscure Spider-Man characters in the Marvel canon.  Madame Web tells the origin story of the mystical being central to the multiversal storylines of which Spider-Man is a part of.  There’s not much to say about this movie other than it representing Sony really scrapping the bottom of the barrel in order to fill out their, I guess you can call it “Venomverse.”  Sadly, apart from Tom Hardy’s quirky performance and the stellar animated Spider-Man films, nothing about the Sony produced Spider-verse films have stood out.  Madame Web’s agressive blandness is not going to convince anyone that Sony is on their right track with their franchise, and considering that it’s the same studio responsible for the train wreck that was Morbius (2022), it’s highly likely that this movie is only going to compound the already dire state that comic book movies are in right now.

MEAN GIRLS (JANUARY 12)

Truth be told, this was never my kind of thing to begin with, but even still, a movie like this feels doomed and unnecessary.  Basically it is adaptation of a Broadway musical version of the original 2004 film.  While I’m sure that long time fans of the original will be excited to see this, I also think that it’s likely going to disappoint a lot of people too.  For one thing, it’s just rehashing a story we already know, but doing so 20 years after the fact.  A lot of the things that felt fresh and relevant in the original are going to feel dated in 2024.  Also, the movie is attempting to adapt a musical made for the stage, but still film it like the original film.  I have a feeling it’s going to take away some of the pagentry of live performance that most musicals benefit from, and make the dance and song numbers feel awkward.  That’s what happened with the very unpleasant Dear Evan Hansen (2021) film, and I am already getting the same uncomfortable vibe from this trailer.  Can pros in the cast like Jon Hamm and Tina Fey pull this movie out from that unfortunate association, or are we looking at another Evan Hansen fiasco.  Unfortunately, I’m seeing a lot of parallels so I imagine we are in for another bad musical experience.

THE BEEKEEPER (JANUARY 12)

What the hell happened to David Ayer.  The action movie director was on the rise in the early 2010’s with two acclaimed movies back to back; the cop drama End of Watch (2012) and the WWII action flick Fury (2014).  When he was next given the offer to direct Suicide Squad (2016) for DC, it appeared that David Ayer was on the track for big things.  But even despite seeing Suicide Squad earn a healthy box office return, many thought his adaptation of the comics was severly lacking and uneven.  It didn’t help that his follow-up, the critically panned Bright (2017) for Netflix, also failed to live up to expectations.  Since then, David Ayer has sunk down to being a B-movie director once again, with his 2020 film The Tax Collector performing poorly even by pandemic standards. His next film looks to be continuing his slide down into further irrelevancy, as he is working on yet another Jason Statham vehicle that looks nothing more than another paycheck movie that the star can sleepwalk through.  One would hope that David Ayer can find that special project that can once again help him climb back into the upward career trend that he once enjoyed, but sadly this movie does not look the kind of movie to reverse those fortunes at the moment.

So, there you have my preview of the movies coming out in Early 2024.  It’s going to be a quiet start to the year, with very few studio driven releases of note.  Definitely Dune: Part Two is the movie that is going to dominate most of the conversation this Spring if it lives up to the high expectations that we have for it.  It’s just a shame that a grandiose movie like that had to be a victim of the studios’ mismanagement of their response to the strikes.  A lot of the missing presence of big films during these next few months is largely due to the studios misreading the situation and thinking that they could wait out the unions in order to squeeze them into negotiating towards lower terms on the deal.  It didn’t work, and now the studios have few films to show off and boost their quarterly profits in the early part of next year.  The only ones who seem to be moving forward into the next year without disruption to their schedules are the indie producers like A24, because they did the right thing and negotiated fair deals with the unions independent of the big studios, allowing them to continue production while the rest of the industry was shut down.  So, it’s going to be an overall quiet season where the movies that really shine will likely be the smaller, independent films.  Still, there are bigger movies that are certainly out there to see.  Because they’ve decided to take a time out to regroup throughout this opening part of the year, Disney is actually using this time to right a cinematic wrong and allow the three Pixar films that went straight to streaming during the pandemic (Soul, Luca, and Turning Red) to finally have full theatrical releases as a make-up to the one division in their company that defied the slump and overcame a bad start to become a sleeper hit with last year’s Elemental.  My hope is that 2024 is a healing year for Hollywood, which has gone through a rough couple of years both through circumstances they couldn’t control (the pandemic) and through a force that they should’ve handled better than they did (the strikes).  And then hopefully after that, we’ll see the industry booming again in 2025.  For right now, I hope my preview has given you a good sense of what to expect in the next couple of months.  Here’s hoping for a good start to 2024 at the movies even with all the turmoil that the last year has carried over into it.

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom – Review

2023 is going to be looked at as a turning point year for the super hero movie genre.  The genre was undeniably the dominant force at the box office over the last decade, led by the unprecedented success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Following Marvel’s lead, rival DC Comics began their own expansion of their cinematic presence with the creation of the DCEU.  And for several years, it was a mutually beneficial competition that looked to be unstoppable in creating big bucks for the studios.  For many years, especially in the later half of the 2010’s, putting out a super hero movie into theaters was almost guaranteed to make money.  What was especially surprising was how even the most obscure, B-list super heroes were succeeding at the box office.  A large part of this was the success of Marvel’s interwoven cinematic universe, which made every one of their movies, even the one’s with lesser know characters, essential to the over-arching narrative that they were building up.  For them, the culmination of all those story threads was the monumental team-up films under the Avengers banner.  For the DCEU, it was the Justice League that their universe building would culminate around.  This was very much a box office engine that was unlike anything else that Hollywood had seen before, and it seemed like there would be no end to that money train.  However, gravity does inevitably catch up, even with the most astronomical success stories.  This year, we saw the inevitable collapse of the once sure thing that was the super hero genre.  While it’s too early to say that the genre is dead, it certainly has stopped being a sure thing in the business now.  2023 was a year of staggering box office disappointments all around, but the super hero movies were the ones that suffered the most.  Even the mighty Marvel didn’t escape the implosion.  There were 8 super hero films put out into theaters this year, and only 2 could even be considered to be profitable; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023) and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023).  All the rest failed to justify their enormous budgets which in turn led to a catastrophic collapse across the board for the genre; some even considered to be among the biggest box office bombs of all time.

While Marvel is hurting with the low box office returns of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) and The Marvels (2023), the story is even more dire for DC.  DC perhaps benefitted the most from the rising tide of the super hero genre of the 2010’s, as their movies saw a surge in success in the latter half of the decade.  The DCEU had a strong start on the back of the Superman film titled Man of Steel (2013), and they continually produced movies that grossed in the neighborhood of $300 million domestic for several years.  Perhaps the most surprising result was that it was neither Batman or Superman that achieved the highest grosses of this era, but rather Wonder Woman (2017) and Aquaman (2018) that ended up on top.  Because DC felt confident in competing with Marvel at the box office during this period, they began to greenlight movies for some of their lesser known characters, such as Shazam, Black Adam, and Blue Beetle.  But while box office was strong, the DCEU had one deficiency that prevented them from reaching the heights of Marvel.  One of the reasons why the DCEU is often nicknamed the Snyderverse is because of the filmmaker who helped launch the franchise from the beginning; Zack Snyder.  And like most of Snyder’s movies, the most common critique that the DCEU faced was that it was built on style and not substance.  DC rarely reached the same critical acclaims that Marvel enjoyed and over time that began to take it’s toll on the box office that the series enjoyed.  The DCEU was plagued with a lot of second guessing from the executives at the Warner Brothers offices that were bankrolling the whole venture.  This led to the especially messy shake-up that doomed the Justice League (2017) movie, and the residual turmoil soured the rest of the DCEU as a whole.  Since then, the only DC movies that have succeeded commercially and critically have been the ones not tied to the Extended Universe; 2019’s Joker and 2022’s The Batman.  The ultimate collapse began with the disappointing returns on Black Adam (2022), and with the shake-up of the Warner Brothers and Discovery merger, the writing was on the wall for the DCEU.  Unfortunately, they still had four films in the pipeline, set for a year where the audience no longer had interest in a dying franchise.  Thus, we got the back to back flops of Shazam: Fury of the Gods, The Flash, and Blue Beetle.  Only one movie is left of the now defunct DCEU, and the question remains if Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom can sink or swim?

Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom takes place a few years after the events of the last film.  Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman (Jason Mamoa) has taken up his birthright as the King of Atlantis, a powerful underwater kingdom unknown to most of the surface world.  He has found the job a bit tedious as he has learned that his powers are limited and kept in check by a council of high households, pretty much making him a figure head.  He desires to use his power as king to enact reforms to help his kingdom prosper, but at the same time he understands that taking power is not in his DNA, as that was the folly of his power hungry half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), who is now in prison for his crimes.  In the meantime, Arthur is balancing being king with living life on the surface world as a father.  Arthur Jr., barely a year old, lives on land with his grandfather Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison), and Arthur and his Queen Mera (Amber Heard) ensure their child is safe whenever they are away from their duties on the throne of Atlantis.  However, trouble is brewing in the ocean and on the surface world.  Rising global temperatures are creating chaotic storms above the waves, and is causing sickness in the sea life below.  The source of this imbalance is coming from the use of ancient sea tech discovered by Aquaman’s nemesis, Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).  Black Manta is intentionally polluting the land, sea and air in order to melt the polar ice caps as a means of unleashing a dark evil onto the world.  And equipped with a dangerous magical trident, Manta is far stronger now than the last time Aquaman fought him.  In order to defeat Black Manta, Arthur needs the help of an old enemy who once used Manta’s power for his own ends; the fallen King Orm.  Arthur and Orm are now in a position where they have to have to put their differences aside in order to save the world together.  But, can past rivalry be forgiven so easily?  And can Aquaman still succeed against the new power that Black Manta wields that is unlike anything he has face before?

The whole team that worked on the last Aquaman returns for this sequel, including most of the returning cast, director James Wan and screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick.  Considering that Aquaman (2018) is the highest grossing DCEU film of all time (the only one to gross over a billion worldwide), it makes sense that a sequel would be greenlit right away for the continuation of Aquaman’s stand alone franchise on the big screen.  But a lot has happened in between when the first Aquaman movie came out and now, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom’s release on the tail end of truly the worst year ever for the genre could not have come at a worst time.  It’s unfair for Wan, Mamoa and company to be the one’s given the task of closing out the DCEU, because it’s very clear that this particular movie was never intended to be the end point.  The decision by DC parent company Warner Brothers Discovery to cut their loses and start over from scratch has only happened within the last year.  As a result, audiences were all too aware that the DCEU no longer had a future beyond 2023, so interest in the ongoing narratives suddenly disappeared.  That’s why the box office for DC was so abysmally low this year, because there was no point to any of these movies now.  Still, it was possible for them to stand on their own as an entertaining movie.  Sadly, for many, that didn’t work either.  I myself enjoyed the charm of Shazam: Fury of the Gods enough to recommend it, and Blue Beetle has it’s strong points too.  But The Flash was a colossal mess of a movie that definitely spelled the doom that the DCEU was about to face, and sad to say, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom just continues that downward trend.  With all things considered, Aquaman is not the worst thing that has come from the DCEU, but it’s too unremarkable to take the DCEU out with anything other than a whimper.  Considering where I myself come from, I was not much of an Aquaman fan to begin with, as I disliked the first film too.  If there is any positive thing to take, I’d say that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is just slightly better than the first film because it’s shorter and feels less bloated.

In general, I think Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is a perfect distillation of all the things that have plagued the DCEU from the very beginning.  DCEU movies, for the most part, are heavy on spectacle but light on character.  The movies within the franchise can certainly look like they were made with the GDP of a small nation, but very rarely will you see any critic or fan praise the films for their richly textured characters.  The reason why Wonder Woman and Shazam (2019) were able to rise above the formula and win critical praise is because those films did a much better job at allowing us to understand why their heroes want to be heroes.  Wonder Woman has that wonderful moment where she declares “It’s what I’m going to do,” before she storms into No Man’s Land after being told that it’s not what they came there to do.  That is a quintessential hero moment, and it’s something that strangely feels absent from most of the DCEU movies, especially the Aquaman films. I was often frustrated with how aimless the first Aquaman was, as it tried to be too many different movies all in one, and in none of them do they ever make you care about Aquaman’s journey towards becoming a hero.  It’s strange that the best character building moments we ever get of Aquaman come from the Zack Snyder cut of Justice League; you know, the version that never made it into theaters.  There was enough flashy spectacle in the first Aquaman to make audiences forget how shallow the story was, but the same unfortunately cannot be said with this movie.  It becomes very clear watching Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom that there was little to no heart put into it.  I don’t know if everyone saw the writing on the wall or not, but the whole vibe of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is that it feels like a movie made out of obligation.  Everyone involved in the movie was under contract to make a sequel, but the circumstances surrounding the making of that sequel caused the whole thing to become irrelevant by the end.  So, we have a director and a cast pretty much just giving the bare minimum so that they can fulfill their contracts and move on.  There’s just this overarching “let’s get this over with” detachment to the whole movie, which I’m sure is going to feed into the already low expectations audiences have with this movie.  The sad thing is, there are pieces in the narrative, had they been nurtured under a different environment , that could have contributed to a much better movie overall.

The movie very much rests on the shoulders of the cast, because it certainly gets nothing from the story.  And even there, we have a mixed bag.  The strength of the Aquaman series, and honestly the DCEU in general, has been the perfect casting of Jason Mamoa as the character.  Mamoa can carry so much of the movie just from his charming presence on screen alone.  Out of all the Justice League characters we’ve seen over the last decade, Mamoa’s Aquaman is really the only one with a distinct personality.  Despite so many good actors cast in the roles, only Jason Mamoa has been able to feel like he belongs in the role, and that no one could do it better.  And thanks to that ability to feel comfortable in the role, he’s able to make Aquaman fun to watch even when he’s horribly written, which happens a lot in the DCEU.  The same applies here as well, because while the script gives him almost nothing to work with, Mamoa still is able to play the character affably enough to make you smile when he’s on screen.  Another character who rises above the bland writing is Black Manta.  While the plot involving the character in this movie is pretty convoluted, Yahya Abdul-Mateen still gives him an effectively menacing presence that does work for the most part.  Kudos to the character design team to make the Black Manta helmet look as cool as it does in this movie; which is admittedly difficult to do given it’s cartoonish origins with those giant bug eyes.  There’s also some nice sincere moments with Temuera Morrison as Tom Curry, giving the movie a much needed earthbound character to help deliver some essential heart into the movie.  Sadly, very few other actors stand out.  Amber Heard and Nicole Kidman, two actresses with very important roles in the first film have barely anything to do here.  And Patrick Wilson is even more wooden in the role of Orm here than he did in the first movie.  He’s required to work a lot more with Jason Mamoa in this movie in a sort-of “buddy cop” way, and it falls flat because neither actor has chemistry with each other.     Mamoa’s charm on screen can go a long way, but there’s only so much heavy lifting he can do, and sadly most of the movie squanders the best efforts that he makes to get you to care about Aquaman’s story.

Another aspect of the low effort in this movie is the general way that the movie looks.  I hope that audiences are fine with looking at actors composited into CGI environments, because there is a lot of that in this movie.  To be fair, there really was very little choice in that manner, considering how much of the movie takes place underwater.  There are touches of decent CGI work in the movie, such as in how the characters’ hair is animated in the underwater scenes to give them a weightless flow.  But for the most part, you’re going to be looking at a lot of unrealistic looking fight scenes that are too cartoonish to ever be grounded in reality.  Much of the action is buried underneath too much visual mayhem to ever give the audience a grasp on the scenes they are watching.  The only action moments that work are the ones where Aquaman and Black Manta are dueling one on one, because it’s the only time where the movie isn’t relying on any trickery to liven up the scene.  As this year has proven, audiences are tired of action scenes loaded up with excessive CGI effects.  Movies like John Wick have shown that in camera stunt work is what audiences are finding more impressive these days.  This is a problem that really is plaguing super hero movies in general, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is just the latest example of it.  The genre has been dying because the market has been flooded with too many movies that all look and feel the same.  And what’s worse is that the budgets for these movies have ballooned to unsustainable levels.  A decade ago, a super hero movie costing over $200 million was indicative of a major event.  Now, it has become the norm, and it’s costing the studios too much.  That’s why we’ve seen a sudden re-assessing of the genre as a whole this year, with even Marvel starting to second guess their priorities.  It’s clear that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom was more of a symptom of an already ailing industry, and not nearly the worst offender.  But, considering that it is the final note on this horrendous year, it’s probably going to also be the movie that most people point to as the poster child for everything wrong with the super hero genre as a whole.

As I stated before, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is certainly bad on many counts, but it’s not by any means the worst we’ve ever seen from the genre.  By being such a low effort this time around, I think it has fewer faults than the first film.  It doesn’t have much to offer, therefore it didn’t have far to fall from my already low expectations.  In the end, I think that it’s just going to stand as a minor footnote of a film in the greater picture of the super hero genre as a whole, and I think that’s the best that can be said for it.  Better to be remembered as a minor failure than a colossal one.  Sadly, the fact that this is the movie that the DCEU goes out on is likely to bode poorly for the film in the long run.  I think it’s unfair to have put so much weight upon the shoulders of this movie that it clearly was not intended to hold.  James Wan and his team never intended to be the ones to write the final chapter of the DCEU.  They just wanted to keep Aquaman’s story going strong, but other circumstances got in the way.  The fact that they got any movie completed and released at all is it’s own kind of triumph.  But, what it certainly shows is that there needs to be a clear change in the direction of the super hero genre as a whole.  DC is certainly doing it’s part, re-launching their cinematic universe with the guidance of filmmaker James Gunn at the helm.  Marvel is also slowing things down to re-organize, with only Deadpool 3 being their sole film release in the next year.  Despite the best efforts of a lot of good filmmakers and actors, the DCEU was always handicapped by a lack of direction and interference from the studio, so it’s best that it be put to rest.  It’s just too bad that Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is such a minor film to go out on.  I should note that even though 2023 was the year of super hero movies bombing at the box office, it doesn’t also mean that each of those movies was terrible either.  I strongly recommended the films Shazam: Fury of the Gods and The Marvels as both of them were genuinely a lot of fun to watch, and Blue Beetle had a lot of charm as well despite being a bit cliché.  Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and The Flash on the other hand were deserving of their box office failure, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom falls closer to that camp as well, though it’s fall feels less steep than the others.  If you were a fan of the first Aquaman, you might enjoy it well enough, and it does benefit from being less cluttered than the original, but that’s about all the praise I can give it.  Otherwise, it and now the entirety of the DCEU, sleeps with the fishes.

Rating: 6.5/10

A Hallmark Channel Christmas – Going from Greeting Cards to Holiday Movie Titans

We all know the kinds of Christmas movies we prefer to watch every single year during the holidays.  Speaking for myself, I’m partial to Christmas themed comedies, like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1988) or Home Alone (1990).  For others, old classics like Holiday Inn (1942) or It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) are what they prefer, or some like to indulge in the dark side of Christmas with horror themed holiday movies like Krampus (2015).  But if there is a particular subgenre that has emerged as the most dominant among Christmas movies, it’s the romantic comedy.  Rom Coms are by far the most prominent, and some would say over-represented of genres during the Christmas season.  But the reason they are so omnipresent during the holidays makes a lot of sense.  No other genre of Christmas themed movies knows their audience better than the rom coms, and the people who make them target that audience with laser like precision.  For many people, the holidays is all about family and home based comforts, and that’s what these movies deliver on every single time.  Some would complain that the Christmas rom com has become the most cookie cutter of subgenres in all of cinema, because the vast majority of them pretty much recycle the same formula with only minor tweaks to differentiate themselves.  But, this is where the appeal lies for many.  The predictability of Christmas rom coms can sometimes be it’s asset because it helps them to go down easier for the tastes of it’s audience, many of whom prefer the same and comfortable over the challenging and unexpected.  Though many studios have contributed to the vast library of Christmas themed rom coms, there is one producer that not only has cornered the market, but has over time created a huge money making machine based around this genre of film.  Of course it makes sense that a company specialized around warming peoples hearts through greeting cards over the last century would also do the same on the small screen as well.

The Christmas card maker Hallmark has spun off into many different branches of holiday themed merchandise over the years, which includes gift wrapping and tree ornaments on top of their base production of greeting cards.  In the 1990’s, they began their first steps towards a whole different avenue of business, which was entertainment.  Since the 50’s, Hallmark had lent it’s branding towards film and television productions under the banner of “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” basically using it’s wholesome name to steer people towards media that shared the values the company wished to promote.  In 1991, Hallmark formally created Crown Media Inc., which would be the official media wing of the Hallmark corporation.  From this point on, Hallmark would be in the business of not just giving their name to other people’s productions, but would be in charge of making their own.  Over the 1990’s, Hallmark would co-produce several made for TV specials, films, and mini-series.  One of their favorite partners to work with was the Jim Henson company, whom they collaborated with on the ambitious mini-series Gulliver’s Travels (1996) for the NBC network.  The partnership with the Jim Henson company led to the next big extension of their media empire, as the two companies acquired major stakes in the faith based cable channel called the Odyssey Network.  Eventually, the duo of shareholders re-organized the network, creating more secular programming and reducing the religious content to a minimum four hour block.  Finally in 2001, the Odyssey Network was officially re-branded as the Hallmark Channel, which would be the official home of all past and future Hallmark branded programming.  The channel proved to be an enormous success and the network has grown since then with Hallmark Movies and Mysteries being spun off in 2004 and Hallmark Drama launching in 2017.

Of course Hallmark Channel carries a variety of programming throughout the entire year, but it’s the holiday season where the channel really sees a spike in viewership, and they are quite aware of that fact.  Christmas time is Hallmark’s bread and butter, so it’s only natural that they would go all out for the holiday season.  The network premiered it’s first original Christmas themed movie during it’s inaugural year with The Christmas Secret (2001), starring Beau Bridges and Richard Thomas.  In the 22 years since, the Hallmark Christmas movie library has grown to nearly 500 titles.  That’s an average of 20 new movies a year, and we’re only talking about the Christmas ones Hallmark releases.  To say that Hallmark Entertainment has been prolific over these last several years would be an understatement.  But, it’s not particularly surprising either.  Hallmark Christmas movies are not expensive to make, and they usually run a breezy 90 minutes in length (2 hours with commercials).  They don’t require extensive post-production, as most of their films are grounded, with the only magical films falling into a modest magical reality.  In many ways, the Hallmark Christmas movie machine runs much like the way old Hollywood did in the studio system days, including the fact that they usually draw from the same stable of actors and actresses for many of their movies.  Some would say that Hallmark Christmas movies is the last resort of has-beens churned out by the Hollywood machine, but there are a fair amount of actors who have willingly pursued being a part of the Hallmark Channel stable of stars, and they have managed to thrive on that platform as Hallmark’s popularity has grown.  The current queen of the Hallmark Channel is former Mean Girls and Party of Five star Lacey Chabert, whose been the star of over 30 Hallmark Christmas movies as of 2023.  And by starring in, I don’t mean any small part; she is the leading lady of that many films, something that you don’t normally see in Hollywood over that short amount of time.  The movies may all be the same re-packaged fare re-released ad nauseum, but Hallmark certainly knows what it’s doing with the business model they’ve set up.  Their Christmas programming is now so vast that their entire programming block between late October and the end of December has been dubbed the “Countdown to Christmas,” and it is consistently their highest rated period of the year.

So what makes these Christmas movies so appealing to audiences.  For the most part, Hallmark has worked the rom com formula down to a science.  For the most part, the movies are centered around a central romance; often between polar opposites.  A lot of the time, the central character (mostly the leading lady) is career obsessed and alone during the holiday season, and through a series of holiday centric events, they find true love and live happily ever after.  In a Hallmark Christmas movie, it’s the holiday traditions that bring the people closer together.  Sometimes it’s through meeting the family of the loved one for the first time during the holidays that does the trick.  Sometimes it’s helping that special crush finally achieve success in their Christmas time competition.  There’s also quite a few of these movies that end up with one of the fated lovers having to chase down the other to tell them that they love them; most often it’s at an airport, because you know the holidays.  Along the way, there’s a colorful cast of side characters, including the sassy co-worker, the warm-hearted mother and father, and the precocious little kid.  What I’ve described is pretty much 2/3’s of all the plots of the Hallmark Christmas movies.  Even the marketing of the films features very little deviation, because it often shows the two love birds embracing in front of a Christmas tree under a starry sky or in a field with freshly fallen snow.  You pretty much know what you are going to get when you tune in to watch a Hallmark Christmas movie.  It is not high art cinema, but rather comfort food, and Hallmark is very well aware of the kind of media they are producing.  Their movies are more life-affirming than mind-opening and the fact that they continue to make the same kind of movie year after year is because they know that their audience is not expecting any more or less than what they’ve had before, and that’s a formula that is in no need of changing.

The one thing that probably defines Hallmark movies more than anything else is that they propagate the idea of traditional values.  Hallmark is by all accounts politically neutral, but their programming does very much stick to a sense of old time ideals.  The world of Hallmark Christmas movies is very much an aspirational one; where there is no violence or vulgarity, and everyone is polite to one another.  There is definitely a sense of competing values in Hallmark movies, but it often cuts down the line of complicated lifestyles versus the simple joys.  Often the countryside is portrayed as the idealized place to be, where time moves more slowly and the worries are millions of miles away.  There are people out there who point to this aspect of the Hallmark movies as being agenda driven.  Given that the Hallmark Channel started off as a Christian based network before it’s re-branding, it can be expected that some of the residual religious influence carried over into Hallmark’s mostly idealized worldview.  The romances in Hallmark movies are extremely chaste compared to most other rom coms.  For many years, it would’ve been even unusual to see a kiss longer than a few seconds in most Hallmark movies.  Though Hallmark Channel movies are for the most part extremely tame in general, they are also at the same time not pushing any particular agenda other than just wholesome Christmas tidings.  I think the critique of containing an agenda stems from the fact that religious propaganda over the years have in many ways been co-opting the Hallmark style, seeing it as an effective tool to spread their more overt agendas to the same kind of audience that watches Hallmark films every Christmas.  Hallmark for it’s part has tried to avoid dipping it’s toes into the culture war, hoping to appeal to all audiences with it’s simple greeting card messaging of hope and love.  But, unfortunately, their idealized sense of the world doesn’t always mix well in an environment that has grown more polarized.

There have been a variety of controversies that have arisen over the years with regards to Hallmark’s place in the so-called “culture war.”  In 2020, Hallmark found itself in the cross-hairs of right wing critics who protested an ad run on the channel by the wedding planning app Zola, which featured testimony from a same-sex couple who used it’s services.  The backlash prompted an immediate pull from the airways by Crown Media’s then CEO Bill Abbott.  The censoring of the ad then led to a counter protest from the LGBTQ community, who also made a point of the lack of representation on the Hallmark Channel.  This led to a quick reversal by the Hallmark Corporation, who stated that their aim was not to offend anyone by either airing the ad or pulling it from the air.  Despite their best efforts to avoid getting into the political conversation, Hallmark was unfortunately now right in the thick of it.  Given the fact that the year 2020 forced many new conversations to open up about diversity and representation in general, Hallmark began to listen to the complaint that their programming was lacking in representation across the spectrum, especially with people of color as well as the LGBTQ community.  Unfortunately, the head of Hallmark’s media division, the ultra-conservative Bill Abbott was not receptive to these changes he called upon now had to enact, so he promptly resigned after a decade in charge of the Hallmark Channel and it’s subsidiaries.  In the following year, he launched the new network Great American Country (GAC) which would now be the right-leaning alternative to the diversified Hallmark Channel.  This move then led to a very publicized departure from one of Hallmark’s biggest stars, Candace Cameron Bure, who like Abbott also objected to Hallmark’s move for diversity.  The fundamentalist Christian actress (sister of far-right actor and filmmaker Kirk Cameron) signed an exclusive deal with the GAC channel and Hallmark suddenly found itself facing competition not just for it’s wholesome image but for it’s hold on traditional value audiences.

It can definitely be said that while Hallmark wasn’t political in itself as a broadcaster, it’s audience nevertheless was made up of primarily right-leaning baby boomer generation viewers.  It was the premiere channel for middle aged to elderly women across America, many of whom gravitated to Hallmark’s simpler, idealized view of American life.  But, there is another block of audience members that has been growing over the years for the Hallmark Channel.  Believe it or not, the Hallmark Channel, and in particular their Christmas movies, are very popular in the gay community.  Of course, these two blocks of audiences are watching Hallmark movies for different reasons; the older audiences for the affirmational traditional values espoused by the films, and the gay audiences for the camp value.  But that’s a generally nice thing to think that conservative mothers and their queer children can have something to bond over during the holiday season as they watch the Hallmark Channel together.  Thankfully, this is something that the Hallmark Channel has embraced in the last couple of years.  After Bill Abbott’s departure, Hallmark has held true to it’s promise to expand representation on it’s network.  While Hallmark movies remain fairly chaste with their romances, there is a decidedly stronger mix of color amongst the couples, including far more interracial relationships.  Actress Holly Robinson Peete has emerged as one of the top stars on the channel in the last couple of years, marking a strong presence for people of color on the channel.  But, the biggest sign of Hallmark’s progression into a more inclusive studio was in Christmas 2020 with the premiere of the movie The Christmas House, the first Hallmark movie to feature a same-sex couple prominently in it’s story.  While performers of color and different sexual orientations were always a part of Hallmark movies in the past, they were now being allowed to take center stage and have their own stories told by the same studio that had shepherded their careers for so long.  And the last couple of years have shown us that embracing diversity has not hurt Hallmark one bit.  In fact, their influence on the holiday season has only grown over time.

The Hallmark Christmas movie model has expanded beyond just Hallmark’s reach.  You now can find the same kind of wholesome holiday entertainment premiering on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon each year.  There are literally hundreds of new Christmas rom coms to choose from each holiday season, and this is largely due to the fact that Hallmark’s formula has been such an effective one.  They are not expensive to make and they already have a reliable, built in audience to capitalize on.  Hallmark itself has taken advantage of the rise in streaming with an exclusive deal struck with Peacock.  Hallmark also has it’s own VOD service where people can purchase their movies directly through their app.  Despite the controversies that caused an uproar in the Studio City production offices a couple of years ago, Hallmark is finding that change is good for business.  Sure they lost a big name talent like Candace Cameron Bure, who was the face of Hallmark through most of it’s formative years in the 2010’s, but as we’ve seen there are many other talented actresses waiting in the wings ready to take the spotlight at Hallmark that don’t share her toxic aversion to diversity.  It’s also pleasing to see that longtime queer stars from many past Hallmark movies, like Luke MacFarlane and Jonathan Bennett, no longer have to remain in the closet on screen and are now able to be romantic on film truer to their own experiences.  Hallmark Christmas movies are certainly not for everyone; I myself tend to steer way clear of them.  But, despite their simple, cliched nature, the Hallmark Christmas movie experience definitely delivers for the audience that it appeals to.  What is pleasing to see is that Hallmark is growing bolder over time with how they approach growing their audience.  They rightfully recognize that their films should be more representative of the way that America looks today, which is not something that should ever been dismissed as “political.”  The reason I think a channel like Hallmark has a brighter future than a more agenda driven one like GAC is because they see that the broadest audience appeal will be the key to long term success.  GAC only appeals to a very narrow audience block of fundamental traditionalists, which is not a demographic that organically grows over time.  Hallmark knows that appealing to younger, more diverse viewers is the key to their future growth, and they are able to grow that reach without breaking out too much from their tried and true formula.  The stories remain the same familiar re-treads, but the players are changing, and for the better.  In the end, a Hallmark Christmas movie is very much the embodiment of that sweet, saccharine poetry that they’ve been putting on a card every Christmas for the last 113 years.  They may be manipulative and corny, but on a cold Christmas Day, they can be as comforting as a cup of hot cocoa while resting under a warm blanket by the glow of a twinkling Christmas Tree.

Tinseltown Throwdown – Fatman vs. Violent Night

There are a variety of flavors when it comes to holiday themed movies to choose from to watch this time of year.  There are your wholesome traditional religious themed classics, your subversive comedic classics, countless animated classics, as well as the warm hearted romantic classics, all of which will be filling your airways over the course of the weeks leading up to Christmas Day.  But, in some cases, there are Christmas movies that cross over into the less wholesome entertainment and add a bit of spice to the holiday cheer.  Specifically, these are movies that use the holiday aesthetic, but add a bit of horror and action to the mix.  This is why the debate over Die Hard (1988) being a Christmas movie is such a passionately argued one this time of year.  Not every movie about Christmas needs to be for all ages, and Die Hard is certainly the movie that proves that point.  But, at the same time, Die Hard isn’t inherently about Christmas either; it’s just a story that takes place during the holiday season.  Remove the holiday overlay, and Die Hard would be hardly different.  But, even still, many fans choose to make Die Hard part of their holiday watch list every year, and it’s without question a great movie to watch regardless of the time of year.  The interesting thing is that Die Hard has become such an influential film over the years that it has inspired filmmakers to resolve the Die Hard Christmas question by actually taking the same premise and fully making it about the holiday.  And that is accomplished by swapping out John McClane for Ol’ Saint Nick.  It’s such a no-brainer idea for a Christmas themed action movie to make Santa Claus an action hero, so it’s surprising that more movies haven’t attempted it over the years.  There have been two noteworthy attempts in recent years that work with this premise to varying degress of success.  And comparing them together, we see what it takes to make Santa Claus an action hero worth rooting for.

During the pandemic year of 2020, a low budget action movie centered on Santa Claus became available for video on demand just in time for Christmas.  Fatman (2020) features Mel Gibson as a world weary version of Santa, less motivated by holiday cheer and more about keeping his operation afloat in a changing economy.  His Santa is more factory foreman than a jolly old elf.  While he devises a plan to save his North Pole operation from foreclosure by agreeing to a military contract with the U.S. Government, a spoiled rich kid named Billy (Chance Hurtsfield) hires a hitman (Walton Goggins) to assassinate Santa after being slieghted on Christmas for being naughty.  The hitman has had a longtime vendetta set on Santa, and he goes to the North Pole with deadly force.  What results is a deadly attack on Santa’s compound with plenty of military and elf blood spilling on the new fallen snow.  The movie garnered a bit of attention over the lockdown affected holidays, especially given the silly premise and the casting of Mr. Gibson as Santa.  A couple years later, another action movie centered on Santa was released, only this time it’s one that unmistakably leans more into the Die Hard formula.  Violent Night (2022) involves Santa (played by David Harbour) finding himself embroiled in a home invasion scheme by heavily armed burglars.  Like with Det. McClane in Die Hard, the burglars are unaware of Santa’s presence until he begins to use his ancient Viking warrior skills to pick them off one by one.  He also becomes aware of the situation by being in contact with one of the hostages; a young girl named Trudy (Leah Brady) who communicates with him via a toy walkie talkie.  And of course all of the mayhem ensues in bloody excess, fitting the title of Violent Night.  Despite taking on the same premise, Santa Claus being an action hero, both films are thankfully very different in narrative, and actually do interesting things with the character of Santa in general that isn’t too out of character for the Christmas icon that we know.  The only thing is, which film did a better job of achieving that goal.

“Damn chickenshit reindeer left me here to die.”

Probably the most important thing to compare between each film is how well they portray the character of Santa himself.  Santa Claus has been portrayed many different ways over the years, but in these two cases, Santa has to be believable as the central character of an action movie.  Both Mel Gibson and David Harbour are no strangers to working in action oriented filmmaking, but it is interesting to see how differently they approach their combat scenes in their respective movies.  Mel Gibson’s Santa is much more grounded and serious.  Despite the absurdity of the premise, Gibson plays the role very straight-forward, making his Santa grizzled old man whose doggedly protective of his territory.  Think of the Santa in Fatman as a Christmas version of a doomsday prepper, ready to take up arms if he finds his home base threatened by outsiders.  Basically, Mel is playing Santa not unlike his own grizzled, society shunning self, just minus the closed-minded bigotry.  In a sense, this fits the movie he’s in, given that the action scenes are brutal and not played for laughs.  Fatman surprisingly plays the action straightforward, with the violence at times being fairly brutal.  Violent Night by contrast is unmistakably an action comedy, with the violence played up to far more absurd levels.  And David Harbour matches that tone perfectly.  His Santa is not the most skilled action hero; part of the time he clumsily gets himself bruised up before he’s able to get his own licks in.  A lot of the movies best laughs come from the fact that Harbour is able to sell the sloppiness of Santa’s response to the situation just as well as he does with Santa fighting at his most competent.  And in general, his Santa is just a far more endearing character in that aspect.  The biggest problem with Mel’s Santa depiction is that he never elevates the persona beyond just that gruff center of his performance.  He does get a few great tough guy moments, but they are few and far between.  Harbour is consistently entertaining as Santa, from beginning to end; from his boozy, lackadaisical introduction to his bad ass final battle, his Santa Claus finds that perfect balance between fierce and funny, which helps to make his film much more fun in general.

“Some kids with a deer rifle put two holes in the sleigh and one in me.  All I have is a loathing for a world that’s forgotten me.”

There is also a major distinction in the films with regards to the threats that Santa faces.  In this regard, Fatman is the one that does a better job of breaking the mold.  Violent Night has a fun batch of baddies, led by John Leguizamo’s increasingly frustrated ringleader.  At the same time, the movie perhaps borrows a bit too much from it’s Die Hard inspiration, as most of the henchmen are little more than archetypes, with Leguizamo’s Scrooge being not much more than a discount Hans Gruber.  Fatman on the other hand has a fantastic villain in the form of Walton Goggin’s Skinny Man.  Skinny Man is a refreshingly different spin on the kind of hired hit man character that you would see in a action film of this type.  He takes the job of killing Santa Claus not just because of the money, but because he has devoted his life towards hunting Santa Claus down out of vengeance, making him the most qualified for the job.  We learn that he was slighted out of receiving a present as a kid because he was on the naughty list, and this was the tragic event that sparked his vengeful spirit.  Absurd, yes, but the great thing is that Walton Goggins plays the character completely straight.  He understood the assignment and he turns the Skinny Man into a legit intimidating presence in the movie.  What also makes the character work within the movie is that his deadly serious take on the character is balanced off of that of the kid playing the spoiled rich Billy; who seems to be a thinly veiled parody of Donald Trump, with the loose fitting suits, childish temperament, and malignant narcissism.  The kid definitely plays more into the absurd side of the premise, which helps to give Goggins the leeway to play more into the darker aspects of the character.  And between both this and Violent Night, the Skinny Man is without a doubt the most interesting character to have been imagined through this kind of premise.

One other thing that works in Fatman’s favor is that it is far more interested in worldbuilding around it’s premise than Violent NightViolent Night runs primarily on the belief that most of the audience will already be aware of the mythology surrounding Santa Claus.  All of the Santa related stuff is more or less there to satisfy the punchline of Santa being out of his element in this Die Hard scenario.  The movie does add the interesting aspect that Santa started out as a mercenary Viking with a high kill count in his past, and his weapon of choice was a sledgehammer named Skullcrusher.  But, apart from that, the movie sticks fairly closely to the Die Hard scenario and doesn’t build on any lore from there.  In Fatman, the movie goes much more into conforming the mythology of Santa Claus into a grounded, real world setting.  Instead of being at the geographic North Pole, Santa’s base of operations is actually in a rural Alaskan town called North Peak.  On the outside it looks like any other farm, but underground is where you’ll find the cavernous workshop, which looks not unlike most Amazon distribution centers.  It gives the Santa mythos a very 21st century aspect, but even still, the movie includes some of the fanciful elements.  His workshop is still run by elves and his sleigh is still led by flying reindeer.  The modern trappings of the workshop does a decent job of reinforcing Santa’s disillusionment with the work that he does, as he grows more weary with the increasing corporatization of the holiday season.  While I have a feeling some of the grounded look of the film was due to the movie having a very miniscule budget, I do give the movie credit for working around that and making it an integral part of the worldbuilding of it’s story.  It certainly makes it a different version of Santa’s workshop that we haven’t seen on film before, and it also makes for the right kind of setting for the violent confrontation that the movie ultimately leads to.

“Skullcrusher’s my hammer.  My favorite hammer.  I was a surgeon with that thing.  Used to be able to take three heads.  Line ’em up…”

There’s definitely one thing that the two movies have in common, which is that both genuinely earn that R-rating for violence.  With Fatman, the movie remains fairly blood free until the very end, with only short bursts committed by the Skinny Man until he eventually makes his way to Santa’s compound.  Then the blood spilling begins.  Violent Night by contrast gets to the violent stuff pretty quickly, but it does a fine job of maintaining the escalating violence throughout and even manages to one-up itself the further it goes.  Apart from the Die Hard influence, it’s clear that Violent Night was also inspired by another Christmas classic; Home Alone (1990).  Santa Claus not only fights off the bad guys in Violent Night with his bare hands, but also with whatever Christmas themed decorations he has on hand; much in the same way Kevin McCallister would’ve.  Though of course Kevin never impaled one of the Wet Bandits in the eye with a Star tree topper before.  There is a scene where the little girl Trudy even gets in on the action as she lures some of the bad guys into the attic, with traps that are pulled straight out of Home Alone, only taken to the fullest gory ends (and you guys thought the nail in the foot part was cringe inducing).  The violence in Fatman is played much less for laughs as they are in Violent Night, with the film leading to a very intense shoot out at Santa’s compound.  If you ever wanted to see a gun-touting Santa Claus duel it out in tactical combat, this is the movie.  The degree to which the audience responds to each film depends on the level of violence that they are willing to accept.  Violent Night is over the top and hilariously gory while Fatman is gritty and intense, and the two films pretty much deliver on what they promise.

But there’s one other question, which is whether one film works better as a Christmas movie than the other.  In this regard, I feel that Fatman falls a bit short.  It is more of a action movie wearing the skin of Christmas, while Violent Night brings in a lot more of the feel of the holiday season.  I think this is largely due to the way the secondary plot works in addition to the one involving Santa.  The family at the center of the home invasion function very well as an element of the Christmas style story being told, because they are a perfect distillation of a dysfunctional family trying way too hard to have a normal Christmas gathering.  I’m sure that it’s no accident that Beverly D’Angelo was cast as the matriarch of this family, since she famously played Ellen Griswold in the classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), the ultimate dysfunctional Christmas comedy classic.  The way that this family plays cutthroat with each other is just as hilarious as all of the Santa bits in the movie, and probably hits close to home for some people who have tried to soothe troubled waters over the holidays.  At the same time, the family does come together through the ordeal, though they still maintain toxic elements of their personality, and helping out Santa Claus beat back the bad guys does give them a renewed belief in the holiday spirit.  This helps to make Violent Night feel more like a seasonally appropriate movie.  Apart from the mythic Santa Claus elements, there really isn’t much that makes Fatman feel like a holiday film.  The movie could have just been about a lonely farmer fighting off an intruding assassin and the story would have been roughly the same.  There’s no, shall we say, Christmas magic to it.  Violent Night by contrast definitely wants to leave it’s audience with a sense of the holiday spirit by the end, even after seeing a man get violently ripped apart after being pulled up a chimney.  That’s probably why it’s the film that likely will be re-watched more often as part of a Christmas watchlist.

“You messed up big time, fat man!”

One of the pleasing things about the attempt to officially work the Die Hard formula into an authentic Christmas story is that it feels so natural.  It makes sense that it would fit, given that Die Hard was about disrupting a festive moment with a violent threat.  Only seems fitting that Santa Claus would be the one to save the day in the end.  As far as Fatman and Violent Night go with their takes on Santa Claus as an action icon, they both fit within the rules set by their respective films.  Fatman is a grounded, gritty film, and Mel Gibson does fit that version of Santa pretty well.  Violent Night on the other hand certainly plays things out in a sillier way, but to a point where it doesn’t do a disservice to the action, and David Harbour perfectly embodies that aspect of his Santa Claus.  You can definitely look at Harbour’s Santa as being the more Bruce Willis like of the two, while Mel Gibson’s Santa is more Clint Eastwood.  Out of both movies though, the best character still remains Walton Goggins Skinny Man, who is a genuinely effective and intimidating action villain.  The two movies more or less succeed in what they set out to be, but I feel like I’m going to be revisiting Violent Night more often as a Christmas re-watch.  It’s got a lot more wild moments that manage to make me laugh out loud, while Fatman just worked out as a serviceable action flick.  Violent Night also is the one that seems to celebrate the season a bit more, while Fatman is a tad more cynical.  But, what both movies do prove is that you can indeed turn Santa Claus into an action hero.  It’s definitely a sign of the versatility of the character, where his persona is not tied to any traditional bounds.  That’s why he can remain a relevant symbol to changing times and attitudes while still being distinctly Santa Claus.  I certainly like seeing a Santa that can hold his own in a mano y mano fight as these two films managed to show.  There’s a lot of stories that you can tell with Santa Claus, but in the end, he still has to represent that spirit of the season.  As long as a movie can do that, it doesn’t matter if Santa is also packing heat or cracking a few heads as well.  Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fight.

“Ho, ho, holy shit.”

Abandoned Cinema – How the Decline of Physical Media Could Lead to More Lost Movies

When you watch a movie, it can have a multitude of life spans in your memory beyond that first viewing.  Whether you saw that movie in a theater or at home, your degree of reaction to that film will determine how you continue to treat that movie in the future.  If you didn’t like it, you’ll probably never see that movie again and that will be the end of that relationship.  If you do like a movie, you’ll probably seek it out and watch it again, whether in the theater like before or whenever it is on TV.  And if a person really likes a movie, and would want to watch it on demand whenever they would like, for the longest time the best option in that case would be to buy the film on home video.  For the longest time, the release of a movie would reach it’s final stage with it’s premiere in the home video market, though some films over time would be so popular that several re-printings over multiple years would be necessary.  Several media publishers would even entice collectors with limited edition sets for select films, particularly if they were celebrating an anniversary.  For many people, there’s something special about reaching the point where they can purchase the film for home viewing, making the movie they love a tangible thing that they can shelve alongside all of their other favorite movies.  But, this market has recently been hit with a existential threat through the rise of streaming.  Much like how the internet transformed the music industry, with digital downloads of songs greatly eclipsing the sales of CD albums, the web based streaming market has diminished the once mighty home video market to a fraction of what it once was.  Before, it was quite easy to go to your local big box store and find a wide selection of movies from all types of genres available prominently on their shelves.  Now, what was once a huge anchor section of these stores has since been reduced to at best one small shelf tucked away in the back of aisle.  For some people, this is no big deal as they find the streaming market much more convenient, but for long time collectors this is a potential unceremonious end to decades long passion, and even worse, it could lead to a disastrous loss in the record of our cinematic history.

The dire outlook on the future of physical media came from the news this year that electronics retailer Best Buy was going to cease the sales of DVD’s, Blu-rays, and 4K UHD discs in the next year.  Up to now, Best Buy was one of the last holdouts in selling physical media with an expansive inventory.  The news was tragic for many film collectors out there, but not entirely surprising.  Best Buy’s home video sections have been steadily shrinking over the last decade, much in the same way that similar sections in stores like Walmart, Target and Costco have been shrinking or just have outright disappeared altogether.  At least Best Buy has given their customer base the heads up, as most stores just unceremoniously remove their movie sections without warning.  Still, many people who have used Best Buy as their go to retailer are now in the position of having to look elsewhere in order to find the physical copies of the movies they want to own.  Online retailers like Amazon will still likely offer physical media sales, but very discerning media collectors may be dismayed with having to deal with issues related to mail order purchases, rather than being allowed to pick it off the shelves themselves.  What the elimination of physical media sales in retail stores also means is that publisher will be less likely to ship the movies out in bulk, which in turn will increase the cost of manufacturing.  Physical media will likely cost the consumer more as a result, with the supply being so low and the demand so high.  This situation would also likely lead to a decreased interest from the movie studios themselves in continuing the practice of home video releases, seeing it as far less reliable of a marketplace than streaming.

But what makes this shift especially troubling for many is that it may lead to an increase in lost media.  The thing with streaming movies and shows exclusively through online platforms is that the consumer is at the mercy of the publisher with regards to that media’s availability.  Streaming content’s value comes from the amount of viewership that they generate, and as we have learned from the streaming wars of the last couple of years, the movie studios have no qualms about pulling content away that doesn’t perform well.  There have been several instances from Disney+, Max, Peacock, Paramount+, and even Netflix of movies and shows that have been pulled off the services for whatever reasons, simply because they weren’t getting the desired viewership compared to the rest of the programming.  Sometimes the media is moved off temporarily for licensing reasons (such as how Max and Peacock seem to trade off showing the Harry Potter films), but there are cases where a movie and show is pulled off the streaming platform so that the studio can collect a tax break for the cost of production.  The conditions of that tax break means that the studio can never profit off that select media ever again, which means that the show or film is just lost completely.  If there was a coinciding physical media release of these films or shows they could’ve still survived beyond their lifespan in streaming, but without it, those movies and/or shows are just lost forever.  This is an especially terrible situation for both audiences and the creatives who made these programs.  A lot of love and care goes into making any piece of media, and regardless of the limited viewership they may have initially, a long lifespan through home video almost always allows for audiences to discover something and grow to love it.  The recent trend of studios abandoning their body of work eliminates that potential for long term growth and worse, it increases the likelihood of that same media being lost forever.

There’s a lesson from Hollywood’s past about the dangers of losing our records of cinematic history.  A lot of that certainly has been attributable to the negligence towards physical media in the past, though physical media has also enabled us to rediscover treasures as well.  It is said that almost 90% of all the movies made before the advent of sound have been lost to time, and that’s due for the most part to a lack of care when it came to preserving the film.  Most film negatives either rotted away in terribly run storage facilities or were destroyed in fires either accidentally or intentionally.  The fact that we do have some records of the early days of cinema at all is fairly miraculous, and it’s been due to dedicated preservationists who have carefully maintained and cleaned-up these older films over the years.  But, even as the worth of film increased, there was still several instances where lack of foresight caused the loss of historic pieces of media.  The early days of television saw broadcasters re-using old tapes of now classic shows, as concepts of re-runs and home video weren’t even thought of yet, which means that entire original recordings were just wiped clean for the sake of recycling to cut down on the cost of film stock.  That’s why we have lost many legendary early episodes of now beloved TV shows like Doctor Who, or Johnny Carson’s earliest Tonight Show airings, and even the original broadcast of the Moon Landing (which we only have a record of now thanks to a lower quality dubbed copy).  Home Video saved many shows and movies that otherwise would’ve been erased over time.  The demand to have these available at home was key to getting them preserved.  But in the case of streaming, the programs have only existed in a digital format, and once the streamer deems it to have no value on their platform, that’s it.  The only record of that movie or show’s existence is whatever you have in your memory.

Thankfully, this kind of practice is creating it’s own kind of backlash.  There has certainly been backlash from fans of these cast away movies and shows that have voiced their anger at seeing them disappear, as well as from the filmmakers who worked hard to make them.  But the practice itself is drawing it’s own fire.  This was one of the key sticking points in the strikes earlier this year.  The studios were removing programming from their platforms without being transparent about the actual viewership numbers these movies and shows were generating.  The Writers and Actors Guilds wanted the studios to be upfront about how well these programs were performing, because it’s their art that’s at stake in the situation.  They wanted to know if the studios were collecting tax breaks because they were losing money on the underperformance of their work or if the studios were unfairly scapegoating their work to collect a quick buck off of tax breaks regardless of the programs performance.  Thankfully, it appears that the guilds will have that information given to them, albeit with confidentiality to keep the true numbers out of the public view.  But still, the way that the studios have gone about dealing with their streaming exclusive productions is dangerously cavalier with regards towards the long term health of their brands.  The choices of what gets the axe and what doesn’t is not as random as it appears, and it seems the more unique movies and shows without marketable franchises behind them are the ones getting abandoned.  But it’s these very outside-the-box projects that benefitted the most from physical releases in the past.  Imagine if studios had done the same thing to home video phenomena like The Big Lebowski (1998), Fight Club (1999) and The Iron Giant (1999), all because they bombed in the movie theaters.  If they started their lives on streaming and were cancelled so the studios could profit off of a tax break, we would have no record of these now recognized masterpieces.

So, with physical media in a dramatic decline, are we likely to see more media lost due to the whims of streaming.  For the moment, it appears that studios are more content in collecting out $15 dollars a month than manufacturing and shipping out physical copies that may not even get sold.  But, this way of thinking has gained it’s own wrinkles as of late.  The decline in subscriptions from Netflix last year, a first in their decade long streaming history, ended up spooking the rest of Hollywood, which had dove head on into the deep end of the streaming wars over the last couple years.  All of the studios that now were operating their own streaming platform suddenly began to second guess their aggressive growth into the market, as streaming turned out to not be the golden goose that they all thought it would be.  True, Netflix did rebound thereafter (by embracing advertisers), but the industry that was going full speed ahead had to immediately slam on the breaks and consider it’s future.  And this made a lot of them consider if it was worth causing an upheaval in the way business had been done over the last several decades.  Home video may not have been lucrative all the time, but when the movie was popular enough and the demand was there, you could just as easily make more money off of selling a physical copy of a movie than in any other way.  Some movies that flopped in theaters would later make up for it on video sales, and that’s a revenue generator that the film industry sadly has forgotten about.  There are signs that some of the studios are taking another look at the home video market as a possible revenue stream to coincide with their online platforms.  Disney is starting to put out physical copies of their Disney+ exclusives, including The Mandalorian, Wandavision, and Loki.  There’s also been a drive by Disney and Warner Brothers to open up their catalog titles for re-release during their respective 100 year anniversaries this year.  But even with these measures, it hasn’t reversed the decisions to shut down sales of physical media at some of the big chain retailers.  With that particular marketplace closed off, the likelihood of physical media becoming a large priority for the movie studios again seems pretty slim.

So what does the future of physical media possibly look like.  The market will not go away entirely, but will likely evolve into something else.  It helps to take a look at how physical media survived in other forms.  The music industry still is primarily dominated by digital downloads through platforms like iTunes or Google Play, as well as through streaming on Spotify.  But, there is still a market out there for physical media when it comes to music and the demand resulted in one of the most unexpected comebacks in media history.  Collectors were not seeking out highly compressed CD albums anymore, but were instead buying Vinyl records, a format long thought dead after the advent of cassette tapes and CDs.  In the mid 2010’s, a surprising resurgence of vinyl sales began to take over, and you can still find a vinyl record section in any music store, and even big retailers like Target.  The failure of digital readers to catch on is also another sign that many people out there are just more comfortable purchasing something that they can physically hold in their hand; a book in this case.  Whether or not that happens to film has yet to be seen.  But there are some third party publishers that are doing an amazing job of seeking films worth preserving and making them available for purchase through their own websites.  This includes valued labels like Kino Lober, Shout Factory, Arrow Video, and one that I talk about all the time on this blog, The Criterion Collection.  These publishers are still committed to making movies available on physical media and they are an invaluable blessing to both collectors and casual fans alike.  Individual movie studios are also seeing the value of this specialty market.  A24 sells copies of their movies on their own site, some not available anywhere else, and they give their movies these beautiful box art packaging that is also exclusive to their store as well.  That’s where I see the future of physical media going in the future; becoming more niche and catered to the collectors out there.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Disney, Paramount, Warner Brothers and Universal all started launching their own legacy labels similar to Criterion and Shout Factory to get collectors to buy premium priced physical copies of their films and shows over the next decade or so.  At least that’s the hope.

For something to survive the changing patterns of the movie industry, it helps to have a champion in high places.  For physical media, such a champion has emerged in the form of filmmaker Christopher Nolan.  His most recent film Oppenheimer (2023) became the summer’s most unexpected box office hit, and just this last week it was released on Blu-ray and 4K UHD.  Before the release, Nolan was out promoting the physical sale of the movie saying that he put a whole lot of love and care into making the physical disc version of the movie just as special as the theatrical presentation.  But his most telling statement to members of the press before the film’s release was that he hoped people would buy the physical copies of Oppenheimer saying, “So no evil streaming service can come steal it from you.”  It’s a very pointed statement, but it comes from a very real concern that both he and so many others feel.  Once you have a copy, it’s yours and it can’t be taken away.  You, the customer now have control over when and where you can watch the film, without the streamers dictating if it’s available or not.  And it looks like Mr. Nolan’s words rang true for many.  As of this writing, Oppenheimer is completely out of stock in both 4K and Blu-ray formats; even on Amazon.  That’s a staggering result in the streaming dominated world of today.  The demand is so high right now that Universal is now promising to fast track a second round of orders in order to restock their supply.  Did Nolan completely save the physical media market with the record breaking release of Oppenheimer?  Probably not, but it is a clear sign that the market is not dead just yet.  There still is demand out there for select movies.  Hollywood just needs to figure out how best to balance the long standing physical media market with the newer streaming one.  It may be too late to convince retailers to reverse their decisions to cut back, but things could always change again.  What matters is that some form of physical media record should remain so that movies and shows are not lost to time based on the whims of the studio.  Media should have a chance to be preserved, and a widely available record through the physical copy marketplace is the best possible way to keep movies alive long after they first premiere.  As someone who is an avid collector of physical media myself, my hope is that I’ll still continue to fill up my shelves with all the movies I love for years to come.  It may become harder to seek these movies out now, but a library of movies stacked neatly on my home shelf is far better to look at than an endless scroll of thumbnails on a digital streamer.

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