Down Stream – Why the Hollywood Streaming Wars Have Turned into a Headache for the Studios

In the late 2010’s, it seemed like the next revolution in entertainment was upon us.  Streaming was the way of the future.  The models of distribution for movies and television were seen as primitive in a world that was now more interconnected than ever thanks to the internet.  On demand entertainment was preferable to a whole new audience that wanted to consume their content on their own schedule.  So, the movie industry, seeing the potential for billions of dollars in revenue that was there for the taking, began to dive head on into this new mode of distribution.  Though they weren’t the first to dip their toes into the uncharted waters of streaming online, Netflix did take the platform to the next level.  They shifted from their lucrative business model of by-mail video rental (which had previously killed Blockbuster Video), and began to invest heavily in online streaming as the new primary focus of their business.  Many analysts at the time called them crazy with their plans to invest billions of dollars annually into content creation for their streaming service, which initially caused their market value to plummet.  But, as people began to see the results of this investment, Netflix streaming not only became a success story, it became a juggernaut in the film industry in general.  Netflix shows and original movies became essential viewing, and Netflix made their imprint in Hollywood at a rate that caused the establishment studios to take notice.  With their films and shows becoming international successes within their own insulated platform, and without the need of distributing through theatrical or network television intermediaries, Netflix changed the industry’s idea of what entertainment could be.  Movie studios could bring their films and shows directly to their audience without paying the costs associated with distribution.  It seemed like Hollywood had the answer to a brighter, productive future.  But as time went on, it may have been more of a false hope than a true revolution.

What is it that got Hollywood’s attention in the first place about streaming.  To access Netflix’s library of films and shows, users must set up an account and agree to pay the service a monthly fee.  Those who had signed up for Netflix’s previous by-mail service were automatically signed up for streaming in the early days, until they eventually split that service off into an add-on and then eventually sun-setted it altogether.  Netflix makes it’s money through the subscription fees much in the same way that people use their gym membership; the value remains the same each month no matter how frequently you use it.  As the membership numbers grew into the millions, it provided Netflix with a guaranteed monthly income that over time became billions of dollars in capital.  Even though they had this income in the billions, Netflix still remained a company with significant debt, because they were taking out loans not just to build out their infrastructure (including server capacity and expanding their office footprint in Hollywood) but to also invest an insane amount into original movies and shows.  It was a gamble, but it overall worked out for them as they eventually grew to become a major Hollywood studio on their own, competitive with the Big 5 (Disney/Fox, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal, Sony).  Even today Netflix has a market value greater than any of the other movie studios, though they still are not as widely spread out into other divisions as them.  Still, the Netflix model was envied by the other studios, and it was determined industry wide that this was the model for the future.  Though many studios worked initially with Netflix to air their catalog of films and shows on their platform, it was only a matter of time before they got the idea that they should try it themselves.  And thus began the streaming wars.

Each of the Big 5 studios (except Sony) put into action a plan to begin their own streaming platforms.  Paramount would re-brand their fledgling mini-streaming service (CBS All Access) into a company wide platform.  Warner Brothers would piggyback off of their HBO streaming app and expand it into their own legacy streamer.  Disney and Universal meanwhile, who were the most involved with Netflix from the outset, were looking to build up platforms from scratch.  Not only that, but tech giants and start-ups were also looking to cast their sails into the streaming market.  Apple was intent on putting their name into the streaming world.  And there was also the ill-fated Quibi, which was hoping to make a splash with shorter formatted shows.  All the while, Netflix expanded their reach into bigger and more prestigious exclusives for their platform, seeing as they would have to rely upon them in a more competitive market.  They got filmmakers on board like Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers and David Fincher, heralding themselves as the more friendly home to celebrated creatives within Hollywood.  In turn, the movie studios promised that their own platforms too would see investment into prestigious and epic exclusives rivaling what Netflix was making.  For a lot of Hollywood creatives, this was an exciting time because it meant a huge surge in new productions, meaning a lot of jobs created within the industry.  At least that was the hope.  Hollywood certainly was thinking this way, as there were plans to increase the number of production facilities across Hollywood and it’s surrounding communities.  Netflix had already bought up space at the old Sunset Bronson Studios, with additional facilities across Los Angeles.  Apple and Amazon both leased out soundstages in nearby Culver City.  Warner Brothers currently is in the process of expanding their production space near their Burbank lot.  And Disney’s entire acquisition of Fox possibly was motivated by the need to have a more robust library for their platform.  Beginning in 2019, the culmination of all this planning was set for it’s premiere.  This was to be the big test for the future of the film industry; seeing if that Netflix model of subscription based streaming would be the cash cow to deliver a new Golden Age for Hollywood.

There were some things that Hollywood unfortunately didn’t factor in with their plans for streaming.  One was of course a global pandemic.  The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic created a shockwave across the industry.  With movie theaters closed across the world, and production brought to a halt, the movie studios only had their newly launched streaming services to rely upon.  Now this may have looked like a fortuitous moment for streaming, as they were now the only game in town.  But, because so many of them were brand new, they were far more reliant upon what they had ready for their launch dates, which in the beginning was not that much.  Unlike Netflix which had the benefit of building up their library of originals over an extended period of time, these newly launched streaming platforms had to knock it out of the park right away.  Considering that the original plan for many of these new streamers was to gradually build up their exclusives over the first few years, their new pandemic effected time table suddenly becoming accelerated put a heavy amount of pressure on each of them to perform more strongly.  Projects that were supposed to be held for later suddenly had their releases moved up.  Movies that were originally meant for theaters now had to shift to streaming, despite promises made to theaters.  It was all a desperate jumble to ensure that investors would be happy with the performance of the streaming platforms and to show that Hollywood was filling in the vacuum of a pandemic stricken market.  Initially it looked like streaming would be the savior of the industry, though it wasn’t a universal result for everyone.  Disney+ benefitted from buzzworthy content on their platform like the Mandalorian series.  Universal’s Peacock and Warner Brothers’ HBO Max inherited the binge worthy shows of The Office and Friends respectively that were huge hits on Netflix.  But, little upstart Quibi failed to launch and quickly fizzled out before the pandemic year of 2020 was even over, complete with a huge shortfall of their billion dollar investment.  Though the shift during the pandemic was beneficial for the time, it would create bigger problems down the road.

Once the world began to re-open again post-pandemic, the theatrical business began to show signs of life again, and as a result, streaming faced renewed competition that it hadn’t dealt with in over a year.  And this led to some not so well thought out plans in order to keep the growth of streaming going.  Perhaps the biggest blunder of this period in time was the plan by Warner Brothers to release their entire 2021 theatrical slate day and date on streaming and in theaters.  This might have been wise for say some of their smaller films that would’ve struggled at the box office anyway during the post-pandemic days, but no, Warner Brothers was doing this with all of their blockbuster films too.  What ended up happening was all of their films in that year underperformed at the box office, including the Oscar-winning Dune (2021), which resulted in Warner Brothers having one of it’s worst financial years ever.  It’s primarily the reason why the executive who came up with the idea, Jason Kilar, is no longer with the company and it probably accelerated the eventual merger with Discovery the following year.  But, they were not the only company to make questionable decisions post pandemic.  Disney themselves continued to move projects to streaming despite them originally being intended for theatrical, which in turn affected the way that their audiences watched their films.  Pixar Animation, one of Disney’s vanguard brands, had three of their films in a row released straight to streaming; Soul (2020), Luca (2021), and Turning Red (2022).  You could make an argument for the first two, but Turning Red was planned for release at a time when movie theaters were fully open.  There was no logical reason for that movie to get short-changed like it did, as movies like The Batman (2022) were doing quite well at the box office at the time.  As a result, Disney Animation in general has failed to light up the box office in the same way it used to, while other studios like Illumination Animation is enjoying record breaking profits from the likes of the Minions and Super Mario.  This is a sign that the need for aggressively building up the streaming market is negatively affecting the industry’s performance in other departments.

The big problem with so many of these studios in the streaming wars is their belief that they have to keep “feeding the beast” as it were to survive in this new streaming based battlefield.  Netflix has grown to the point where they can release a new original film or series every week in the year.  The studios, not to be outdone, want their platforms to have that kind of output as well.  So, the studios have invested billions of dollars into content in order to keep pace with Netflix’s output.  This unfortunately has consequences of it’s own.  One is the loss of quality control.  The movie studios over the last couple years have spread themselves a little thin in order to both satisfy their theatrical output as well as their streaming.  Divisions within the studios are struggling to keep up with that amount of demand.  Take Marvel Studios for example, who have been one of the prestige brands gracing the line-up on Disney+.  Many have pointed out that the shows and movies of the most recent phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe don’t feel as cohesive as they were before the launch of Disney+.  Some have speculated that because Marvel Studio chief Kevin Feige has had his workload doubled because of streaming that he is unable to have the same quality control over each project like he had before.  Whereas prior to the launch of Disney+, every Marvel project was a big collaboration towards a singular goal.  Now, those communications feel broken and the MCU is now a bit rudderless, despite there still being bright spots (Wandavision, Loki, Wakanda Forever).  The need to continually fuel the fires of the streaming wars is in turn leading to a lessening of an impact for each project.  Nothing feels special like it used to; it’s just another item on the menu.  And that doesn’t bode well for the long term health of these brands that the studios need to keep valuable.

And then of course comes the cost.  In order to keep the output going at that pace, billions of dollars need to be spent.  It takes thousands of creative talent to make these shows and movies happen, and keeping that many people employed is expensive.  One looming problem remains hanging over the heads of the studios that are going so all-in with this streaming revolution.  There are only so many people out there that are willing to pay month after month for streaming content.  Even Netflix found themselves hitting a wall at some point, and their unexpected loss of subscribers a couple years back sent shivers across the whole industry.  Netflix’s exceptional growth in the 2010’s was due to they had a huge head start and were able to dominate a market that was mostly theirs all alone.  With increased competition now, the subscriber base is more discerning about what they are willing to pay for.  Few people can afford to subscribe to every platform, so it becomes about being good enough to be favored above the rest.  Some streaming platforms are not going to get the crossover attention that others do.  So, not only are the streamers in competition for attention from subscribers, but they have to continually reinforce their content in order to justify the need to spend $15 a month on their platform.  This is causing all these streaming platforms to turn into money pits with an unreliable generator of income to offset that investment in spending.  So, the studios are reassessing where their money should be going with regards to supporting their streaming output.  This is the reason why since the beginning of the streaming wars you’ve seen so many shows get cancelled after one season orders.  Even worse, these shows are being pulled off the service altogether in order for the studios to collect tax write-offs for the expense of making them.  And all because they weren’t buzz-worthy enough to increase the count of new subscribers.  This is sadly creating a whole new collection of what is considered “lost media” as none of these deleted movies or shows received physical media releases.  They are just gone forever, because the studios can no longer make any money off of them unless they forfeit that tax credit.

So, the streaming revolution, which looked like the next big thing in the world of entertainment, is not shaping out to be what we all thought it would be.  The studios in Hollywood are now feeling the pinch, as their billions of dollars in investment has only resulted in modest results for their streaming business.  Not only that, but the up-ending of their business model has disrupted all of the other markets that had been the backbone of the industry for decades.  Theatrical and Home Video have suffered with the competition, and it’s uncertain if they may be able to bounce back to what they used to be; though theatrical has seen hopeful signs as post-pandemic audiences seem eager to leave the confines of their home once again.  Also, the uncertain geometrics that the streaming business measure their success by is causing a lot of people out there to question the true benefit that streaming has provided for the industry.  That’s one of the reasons why so many labor unions are pushing back on the studios right now, because they want to ensure that they are being fairly compensated for the extra work that is being done to build up the catalogs for these streaming platforms.  The biggest bone of contention is that residuals have remained at pre-streaming levels, but the unions have no insight into the actual viewership numbers that streaming content generates, which is crucial to determining the fair amount, which leads many to believe that the studios are purposely using streaming as a way to undercut them.  Visual effects workers, many of whom have been overworked and underpaid for a long time due to the glut of projects need to be worked on for streaming, are also pushing back and unionizing as a result.  What seemed like a blue sky promise for a Golden Age of filmmaking has turned into a perfect storm of messy missteps by the studios, an underwhelmed audience base, and a resentful, overworked labor force demanding a change.  Streaming will indeed need to take some time to readjust itself.  One thing the studios need to do is to slow down and emphasize quality over quantity.  Even Netflix is taking things more slowly now.  They also need to be serious about negotiating a fair deal with their creatives, because they are going to be essential for the future of this process.  Streaming may yet prove to be a crucial arm of the industry, but it needs to evolve from the wild, untamed beast that it is now into something that can be a sustainable medium for the industry going forward, and that might mean being something much less than we all thought it was going to be.

A Haunting in Venice – Review

There’s something about a good murder mystery that fits in well with this time of year.  The whodunit mystery is a tried and true narrative that plays well off of spooky elements like murderers lurking in the shadows, paranoia, and grisly death.  Not all mysteries though are dark in nature.  The Queen of the whodunit mystery, Agatha Christie, was never one to create a spooky mood in her many novels, but rather she roped in her readers with the procedural elements of solving a murder and entertained them with the clever way that the clues come together to reveal the truth.  For atmosphere, she left that up more to the people who adapted her work to figure out.  The globe-trotting nature of her Hercule Poirot mysteries have often led to film adaptations of those novels to have an exotic adventure element to them.  In those novels, such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, the setting has just as much to do with the tone of the mystery as the actual crimes themselves.  But, Agatha Christie would still indulge a darker side to her stories to help create a more spooky tone to the mysteries she wrote.  One of her stories in fact uses the Halloween holiday as a backdrop to a murder that Poirot must then investigate.  The appropriately named “Hallowe’en Party” does not take the world famous detective to some distant local, but instead finds him at a stately English manor house where someone ends up dead during the Halloween festivities.  It’s not a spooky story per say, but the added element of Halloween does fit in well with the whodunit mystery at it’s center.  Of all the Poirot novels that Agatha Christie wrote, “Hallowe’en Party” is seen as one of the lesser one in the series, and it’s largely been the reason why it has not been so quickly adapted into a feature film or any other adaptation.  But, surprisingly, a film director who has been lately interested in the works of Ms. Christie has decided to take on the challenge, and even more surprisingly, he’s also giving it a spooky makeover that fulfills the promise of what the original premise of the story calls out for.

Kenneth Branagh has been very active recently in creating a modern take on the Poirot novels; hoping to make the character franchise worthy over multiple films.  Thus far, he has now managed to get three of these movies to the silver screen, which is quite the achievement, though it’s been somewhat of a rough road.  Branagh launched this franchise off with the most well-known of the Poirot mysteries, Murder on the Orient Express (2017), which was received with modest success.  Like many other adaptations from the past, Branagh was keen on having an all-star cast for his adaptation, and he managed to get an impressive cast on board including Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, and Leslie Odom, Jr; with of course himself in the role of Poirot.  He tried to repeat the success of that film with a follow-up based on the novel Death on the Nile (2022).  Unfortunately, Nile would turn out to be a problematic film for a whole variety of reasons.  The film went massively over-budget, crossing into the nine figure range, and it unfortunately was pushed back many times due to both the merger of it’s production company 20th Century Fox with Disney and also the Covid-19 pandemic.  On top of those delays, one of the films stars (Armie Hammer) was exposed in a career-ending scandal that further cast a cloud on the picture.  It eventually limped into theaters in February of 2022 with almost no fanfare and was received with lackluster reviews and audience indifference.  Shockingly, after the Nile debacle, Disney greenlit a third film for the series, with Branagh looking to continue the series with a much darker reboot adapting “Hallowe’en Party” into the newly titled A Haunting in Venice.  It probably helped that while Death on the Nile failed to launch, Branagh was also flying high with his Oscar-winning Belfast (2021), which gave Disney confidence that he could salvage this franchise.  The only question is does A Haunting in Venice inject new life into this little franchise that could, or is it as lifeless as the bodies at that heart of it’s mystery.

A Haunting in Venice finds Hercule Poirot living in a self-imposed exile in the city of Venice.  He no longer accepts clients seeking his expertise to help solve their mysteries, and instead chooses to live in peace and quiet in his villa, guarded by a local bodyguard named Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio).  Poirot’s solitude is broken by the arrival of an old acquaintance, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), an American crime novelist who has based many of her books off of Poirot’s exploits.  She entices Poirot with a challenge; seeking his help in exposing what she believes to be a fraudulent medium named Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) who’s performing a séance for a Halloween night party at the villa of a local socialite named Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly).  Poirot reluctantly accepts, knowing full well that he’ll expose the fraud with little effort, and in the meantime will get to enjoy some of the food and wine available at the party.  In attendance at the séance are Poirot, Ariadne, Ms. Drake, as well as Drake’s close friend Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and his son Leopold (Jude Hill), Drake’s housemaid Olga (Camille Cottin), and Mrs. Reynolds’ assistant Desdemona (Emma Laird).  The purpose of the séance is to gain contact with Rowena’s recently deceased daughter Alicia.  Before they begin, an unexpected visitor arrives; Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), Alicia’s fiancé who has returned to expose more of the truth on his own about her death, since he doesn’t buy into the idea that she committed suicide.    Poirot effortlessly exposes Mrs. Reynolds’ façade, but Rowena is still convinced that contact was made with her daughter’s spirit.  Soon after, an attempt is made on Poirot’s life, nearly drowning him in a bobbing for apples bucket, and a moment after that, one of the party guests is found dead.  Now that things have turned personal, Poirot has his man Vitale lock all the doors in the creaky old villa so that he can get to the bottom of this mystery and find out who at this party was the one who committed the murder.  But as he soon finds out, the villa may have a few ghosts lurking about getting in his way.

So far the Poirot films from Kenneth Branagh have been a mixed bag.  Murder on the Orient Express is a well-crafted if a tad dull exercise, which rides high on the talented cast assembled for the film.  Death on the Nile, by all accounts, is just a mess.  All of the problems of Murder on the Orient Express are magnified tenfold in Nile, and despite Branagh’s best efforts, he’s unable to reign in the film to make it a workable adaptation.  What became Nile’s biggest problem is that it feels bloated and artificial.  It’s like Branagh was being forced to up the ante to justify the film’s production to the studio.  The movie is brought down by excessive visual effects, an all star cast that lacks any cohesion (never mind all the scandals) and just a general sense that Branagh couldn’t reign in this out of control film.  While nowhere near his worst film, it nevertheless was a huge disappointment.  Which makes one wonder why he would try again so soon.  He clearly likes playing Poirot, and there is an enthusiasm behind his direction that tells you that he is definitely putting his personal touch into this and is not a hired hand for the studio.  A Haunting in Venice definitely feels like a re-set for this franchise, with Branagh rethinking his approach.  It’s much smaller in scale, centralized in one location for most of the movie and featuring a smaller cast, though still with a couple of noteworthy names.  On top of that, he is completely changing the tone of the series, getting away from the adventurous tone of the first two movies and instead adapting this story in the style of a horror movie.  It’s a bold choice, but surprisingly, it does work.  A Haunting in Venice is not just a well-executed reboot for this series of Poirot mysteries on the big screen, it is by far the best one yet.  Branagh has stripped the Agatha Christie whodunit down to it’s most essential parts and added a strong sense of spooky atmosphere and it makes for a perfect mix of the best elements of each to make this an excellent addition to the series.

What I was especially impressed with was how well the horror movie elements actually worked in this series.  Branagh has work in a whole variety of genres over the years, but horror hasn’t been one that has been his strong suit.  His only attempt before was the clumsy re-make of Frankenstein (1994), which in no way was scary at all.  Since then, it’s clear that he did his homework and learned a lot about horror filmmaking and how to make it work on screen.  In the movie, he makes good use of extreme angles, moody lighting, unsettling close-ups, and especially sound to generate a spooky tone throughout.  All the while, he still remains faithful to the Christie formula, with the talent of deductive sleuthing being central to the entertainment of the movie.  Like his successors in different media afterwards, from Columbo to Benoit Blanc, the fun is watching the master detective find the clues and piece them together and then reveal his findings in a climatic final report at the end, exposing the killer red-handed.  While it’s not exactly the most shocking turn out by the end, Branagh still builds the films expertly to the point where not every clue is obvious in plain sight, and some of the reveals do end up being surprising.  But the horror film elements also don’t feel out of place.  There are jump scares and grisly violent occurrences, but Branagh knows well enough to not overdue them, and make them work towards maximum impact when they are needed.  That being said, anybody expecting something along the lines of a Stephen King horror movie might be a bit underwhelmed, because the film doe rightly stick closer to it’s Agatha Christie roots.  But it is nice to see Kenneth Branagh bring in a different kind of flavor with nods to horror to give new life to this kind of murder mystery that we have seen too many times before.

One of the movie’s best elements to be sure is the cast.  Of all the Poirot movies from Kenneth Branagh so far, this is the first time the whole cast has felt universally well cast for the parts they are playing.  The past films has had one or two cast members who just felt well out of place for this kind of movie, and only seemed to be a part of the films because they came with a built in recognizable name.  Here, while there are a handful of famous faces, there are also a fair amount of unfamiliar talent in this film, which helps out the film a lot.  The lesser known actors help to make it less distracting seeing them in the film so that we can better concentrate on the performance and be reminded of their off-screen baggage.  Two of the more well known faces, Tina Fey and Michelle Yeoh, are both well cast for their individual parts.  Fey, while a little out of character for her usual contemporary characteristics as a performer, fells right for the role of the brash, ahead of her time novelist Ariadne Oliver.  She also provides the movie with some much needed levity without it feeling too out of it’s time period.  Michelle Yeoh, fresh off of her historic Oscar win for Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), perfectly portrays the mysterious Mrs. Reynolds, expertly delving into a somewhat sinister side in her performance.  Of course, Kenneth Branagh himself shines as Hercule Poirot himself, and it feels like his grasp on the character is improving with every film.  It’s definitely his best work yet in front of the camera as the character.  He also clearly had a good experience working on the film Belfast, as he has brought along two of that film’s stars, Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, once again playing a father and son pair, only the dynamic is flipped around a bit in this movie, and the two actors play their roles perfectly.  A particular standout in the cast is French actress Camille Cottin as the housekeeper Olga.   Cottin plays her character so effectively that you really can’t tell if she’s truly innocent or guilty, much more so than the other actors.  There is a lot of subtlety in the way she performs her moments where you really get a sense of the pain that her character has experienced over the years.  What really helps out the movie a lot is that there aren’t a whole lot of characters present for us to keep track of, so most of them don’t get lost in the shuffle and it allows the whole cast to shine as a result.

The film also has another strong asset and that’s the setting as well.  The city of Venice, and in particular the creaky old villa where most of the movie takes place, are characters in their own right.  One of the things that clearly is an improvement for this film over it’s predecessors is that it’s the first one that actually was made on location in the place within it’s title.  Both Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile were for the most part filmed on blue screen sets with visual effects added later to create the exotic environments.  This was a much bigger problem with the film Death on the Nile, because it made the whole movie feel artificial, with shoddy CGI never once making it feel like the actors were really on the actual Nile River.  But, it is very clear in this movie that the film did indeed shoot on location in Venice, Italy.  The centerpiece villa’s interiors may have been recreated on a soundstage, but when we are out on the streets and canals of Venice in the daylight, it is clear we are looking at the real deal.  Branagh even includes some beautiful aerial shots to show off the city as well.  The villa itself is a wonderfully constructed location as well.  The whole location just retains this unsettling, decayed atmosphere which really lends to the spooky tone.  The way the scenes are lit also give this sickly feel to the location, perfectly underscoring the unsettling nature of the mystery.  It’s an impressive job done by the production design team, managing to bring so much detail and character into the location, without it feeling too unnatural and out of place.   I was also impressed with the cinematography for the film, done by Branagh’s regular DP Haris Zambarloukos (who also shot the other two Poirot films).  Instead of using the usual 70mm format that Branagh has preferred for his other Poirot film, this one was shot in the more claustrophobic 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which fits the unsettling atmosphere needed for this story.  He even makes good use of extreme wide angle lenses to give the shots an even more off kilter look.  Needless to say, this is a gorgeous looking movie, and one that thankfully shows Branagh returning to a more naturalistic feel for his movies rather than the over-produced artificiality of his other Poirot films.

A Haunting in Venice is not a perfect movie by any means.  There are times when Branagh’s grasp on the horror elements get a little out of hand, and become more clunky than scary.  But, it is a far better effort than what we’ve seen him do before.  I feel like the movie Belfast was a great refresher for him as a filmmaker.  The semi-autobiographical Belfast had him working with a more personal story and with a stripped down style of filmmaking that had him working without special effects and more with what he could do in camera.  Belfast may have come out before the muddled Death on the Nile, but it was the film that he had completed most recently, so A Haunting in Venice is really the truest beneficiary of his re-focused talents as a filmmaker.  This is the kind of approach that he should have been giving these Poirot movies from the very beginning; don’t try to make them spectacle, make them interesting and realistic.  A Haunting in Venice, even with the added horror style, feels much closer to the spirit of Agatha Christie’s work than what we’ve seen before, and it’s nice to see Branagh finally find the right tone to make these movies work.  With a smaller cast filled with a mix of familiar faces and a few unknowns, we are better able to buy into the story and not be distracted by the celebrity status of who’s playing who.  The movie as a whole feels a lot less distracted, with Branagh feeling less pressured than before to build a franchise around the character of Hercule Poirot.  It’s a smart move to pivot to a horror movie style for this kind of story, given that horror tropes can often accomplish a lot more on a smaller budget.  It remains to be seen if Kenneth Branagh continues on with these Poirot films in the future.  He clearly got the formula right this time around, so I would hope that they can keep these movies going in the future.  It probably will depend on the box office performance of this film, which thankfully is a smaller financial risk that the past two films.  It may also depend if Branagh wants to keep going with it too, or if he wants to focus more on smaller films in the vein of Belfast.  As a continuation of this series of Agatha Christie adaptations, A Haunting in Venice is by far the best we’ve seen so far in this series, and it’s a smart, spooky whodunit murder mystery that makes for a engaging Halloween time entry that hopefully will do well this season.

Rating: 8.5/10

Collecting Criterion – On the Waterfront (1954)

We are going through a moment here in America where Labor rights have come back to the forefront.  And nowhere is that more apparent than in Hollywood right now.  The Writer’s strike has now entered it’s fourth month, making it the longest labor stoppage in the industry’s history.  The Actor’s strike is not that far behind, now entering it’s third month.  The rights of workers has always been an important issue for most of the creatives within Hollywood, and of course it’s been reflected within the art of cinema.  You can find movies making the call for unionization as far back in Hollywood to classics like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941), to more films like Norma Rae (1979), 9 to 5 (1980), and even the Disney musical Newsies (1992).  Pro-labor films more often than not are ideal underdog movies that appeal to the mass audience, many of whom would no doubt identify with the heroes of the story as they take on the fat cats representing Capitalism gone too far.  The Criterion Collection has naturally spotlighted some important films that have stood out over the years as some of the most profound pro-labor movies ever to make it to the silver screen.  There’s the aforementioned Modern Times (Spine #543), which is significant given Chaplin’s involvement in creating the first labor unions in Hollywood during the Depression years.  There’s also John Sayles’ Matewan (1987, #999) which chronicles a coal mining town coming together to form a union.  The Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County USA (1976, #334) which was an unflinching in the thick of it account of a tumultuous coal miners strike in Appalachian Kentucky is also in the Collection.  And more recently, the collection added Martin Scorsese’s sprawling crime epic The Irishman (2019, #1058),  which centered around notorious union chief Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino.  And while most of the films that Criterion has chosen to be a part of their collection take a firm pro-union stance, they also included a film that runs contrary to the messaging of those films, and surprisingly, it too is deserving of inclusion in the Criterion Collection.

On the Waterfront (1954, #647) is a paradox of a film.  On one hand, it is an apologia for anti-union activities that over time feels highly contrarian and indulgent.  And on the other hand, it is also one of the greatest films ever made.  There is some context that needs to be understood regarding the movie.  The film’s director Elia Kazan was one of the hottest names in Hollywood in the post-War years.  Having made a name for himself on Broadway, Kazan effortlessly transitioned into Hollywood, becoming especially valuable in directing a new type of acting style that was starting to emerge which was method acting.  Where some filmmakers struggled with the new method style and it’s sometimes temperamental performers, he exceled.  He immediately hit it strong with the Oscar-winning Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), which garnered him his first Best Director honor.  He followed that up with a screen adaptation of a Broadway play he had staged earlier called A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which is where he and actor Marlon Brando first crossed paths.  During this time, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was a government led witch hunt to weed out all suspected communists in America was in full swing.  Hollywood, with it’s strong history of pro-labor sentiment, was naturally targeted by the Committee and many within Hollywood were called to Washington to name names.  Kazan, a lifelong liberal, was initially critical of the Committee’s overreach, but when the threat of blacklisting started to come his way, Kazan shockingly ended naming names.  Friends and colleagues felt betrayed by Kazan, and though he escaped the blacklist which destroyed the livelihood of countless professionals in Hollywood, it came at a steep cost to his reputation.  Still, he defiantly tried to explain why he did what he did, and he channeled that passion all into a film that over time has been considered his masterpiece.  On the Waterfront’s  origins may be controversial, but there is no denying that it is a master work of cinema from one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers.

The movie tells the story of a former prizefighter turned longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando).  Malloy also has been running errands for the union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a man suspected of mob ties who has been using his position as a shield for illegal activity.  One night, Malloy witnesses a murder believed to have been orchestrated by Friendly’s thugs.  Terry minds his own business like all the other workers under Friendly’s thumb, but things change when Terry meets the sister of the slain man, Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint).  The two strike up a courtship, which in turn makes Terry feel guilt over not standing up for men like her brother.  A wedge begins to grow between Terry and Friendly, and the boss man tries to get Terry back in line by making casual threats.  Meanwhile, a strong critic of Friendly’s corruption, Father Barry (Karl Malden), tries to appeal to Malloy’s growing dissatisfaction with the union leadership, and asks Terry to help him by providing information to the courts that could finally hold Friendly and his men accountable.  Friendly ratchets up the heat on Terry by even send his associate Charley (Rod Steiger), Terry’s own brother, to make the final threat to him.  But, Terry eventually breaks and delivers his testimony to the courts, implicating Johnny Friendly to a number of crimes.  While Terry may have alleviated his conscience and done the right thing in the end, the testimony he gave ends up ostracizing him amongst his fellow longshoremen, who all begin calling him a “stool pigeon” for speaking out.  Despite being left abandoned by his fellow workers, all of whom still fall in line behind Friendly despite knowing about his criminal activity, Terry defiantly tells the union boss that he’s proud of what he did, because Friendly is corrupt and needed to be held accountable, stating no man should be above the law.  After being roughed up one more time by Friendly’s thugs, Malloy still finds the strength to stagger up to the docks seeking work, showing that his will is still not broken, and soon all the other workers begin following him in to, showing that in the end, it’s he who the workers respect more and not the corrupt boss that they’ve been too afraid to challenge before.

It’s clear to anyone familiar with Kazan’s history that Terry Malloy is a self-insert character for the director.  Kazan believed at the time that naming names at the HUAC hearings was the right thing to do, and he is using the narrative here to justify what he did.  It’s the only thing about the movie that over time hasn’t aged well, since the HUAC hearings and the McCarthy trials that followed after it are seen today as a black mark in American history.  Thousands of performers and filmmakers lost their careers because of the Black List, including many who were never able to make it back once the blacklisting ended in the 1960’s, and all because they were suspected of being something that many of them weren’t.  Their only crimes were not cooperating with the farcical witch hunt and refusing to expose their friends and colleagues.  Apart from that aspect of the movie, everything else about On the Waterfront is a master class in filmmaking.  The atmosphere of the film is particularly striking, with Kazan really doing an amazing job of presenting the gritty world that these characters inhabit.  There’s this overall lack of artificiality throughout the whole movie, as the world feels completely lived in.  The authenticity largely comes from the film’s use of actual locations as opposed to studio sets.  Most of the movie was shot in and around Hoboken, NJ at the real dock yards.  Most of the extras in the film are real longshoreman, which adds even more to the level of authenticity.  Kazan even required his actors to wear little to no make-up and wear off the rack clothes instead of being dressed by the studio wardrobe department, helping to strip artificiality even more.  All of this comes across beautifully in Boris Kaufman’s striking black and white cinematography.  Despite what Elia Kazan’s intentions were with making this movie, there is no doubt that he poured all of his artistry and talent into this film, and the end result is a film that certainly stands the test of time visually and narratively.

One of the things that really makes the movie soar is the incredibly humane story at it’s core.  Budd Schulberg’s screenplay matches the grit of Elia Kazan’s direction perfectly, creating characters that have rich histories and personality.  It’s that richness of character that really helps to make viewers forget the real life associations that precede the film.  In particular, the movie creates a compelling protagonist in Terry Malloy, a down on his luck “joe schmo” who has this one opportunity to do something right in his life.  Initially, Marlon Brando refused to be a part of this film since he felt betrayed by his former friend Elia Kazan after his “friendly witness” testimony to HUAC.  But, when Brando learned of other actors being considered for the role like Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift, and then newcomer Paul Newman, Brando begrudgingly said yes to the role, with conditions of course.  Kazan was glad to accommodate, because he only ever saw Brando in the role, and it’s fortunate for everyone that Marlon said yes.  This is easily one of Brando’s greatest performances, matched possibly only by his other iconic work in The Godfather (1972).  He just embodies this character heart and soul, and you find yourself easily captivated by him on screen.  He’s also backed up magnificently by a legendary supporting cast, with Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, and Lee J. Cobb all giving magnificent performances.  Of course, one particular stand out is Rod Steiger as Charley Malloy.  The scene in the back seat of the taxi cab with Brando and Steiger is one of cinema’s most iconic moments, and both actors play the moment perfectly.  It was also one of the most difficult scenes to shoot as well, as the two “alpha dog” actors notoriously hated each other and refused to share the set most of the time.  Kazan was able to get just enough shots of the two of them on screen together in the end, with their close-ups all shot separately alone.  You would never know the difference as it is a seamless edit, and the scene is one of the most often imitated in movie history, especially with Brando’s iconic line, “I coulda been a contender.”   Kazan was often known to be an actor’s director, and this movie is a wonderful example of getting the best out of his performers.

The Criterion Collection naturally put a lot of effort into preserving this classic Hollywood masterpiece.  For the blu-ray release, the film received a brand new 4K transfer scanned from the original camera negative.  On the Waterfront, since it’s release, has always been considered an important film, and it’s studio Columbia Pictures has long kept the camera negative well preserved.  Even still, extensive restoration work was done to clean up the original elements and clear out all the scratches and conduct an accurate color correction on the black and white palette.  What is interesting about the restoration for this Criterion release is that the movie doesn’t just restore one version of the movie, but it in fact a restoration of three versions.  The movie’s original release came at a transitionary time in Hollywood, as widescreen filmmaking was beginning to take hold.  Fox’s The Robe (1953) had popularized the widescreen process a year prior, but it was too late to make the same adjustment for On the Waterfront.  Cinematographer managed to find a compromise by filming the movie in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio.  This enabled the film to retain it’s necessary framing for the new widescreen theater screens at a ratio of 1.85:1, while also being compatible for theaters not equipped for widescreen at the previous standard full frame of 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  While the wider version is the one that played in theaters for many years, the full frame version has been the one that more people have seen on home video releases, as it matched the old television aspect ratio of 4:3.  Criterion has now finally given us the chance to see Kazan and Kaufman’s original 1.66:1 version for the first time on home video, but the other two versions are also included, making this the most complete presentation that this movie has ever received on home video.  The restoration is quite remarkable, bringing out the beautiful authentic detail in every frame of the movie.  The blu-ray also features a restored presentation of the movie’s original mono soundtrack, though an alternate 5.1 mix is included as well.  Given that Criterion went above and beyond in giving us all the different versions of this movie in one set is another reminder of just how great Criterion is at giving movie collectors the best of all worlds.

Most of the blu-ray’s bonus features accompany the 1.66:1 version of the film, with a second disc devoted entirely to the other two versions.  The primary feature is a feature audio commentary by film scholars Richard Schickel and Jeff Young.  Together, the two authors break down the film’s history and themes, share behind the scenes tidbits, and present a very scholarly breakdown of the movie that tells you everything you need to know about the film.  There is couple of new interviews conducted just for this Criterion release.  One is a conversation between director Martin Scorsese and critic Kent Jones, both long time fans of this film and the discussion talks a lot about the influence this movie has had on them and many other filmmakers over the years.  There’s also a new interview with actress Eva Marie Saint, who as of writing is the last living member of the cast.  There’s also a brand new documentary detailing the making of the film, with new interviews with scholars like Leo Braudy and David Thomson.  Some legacy features are also included, including a feature length documentary called Elia Kazan: An Outsider (1982) about the director, as well as a documentary called Contender: Mastering the Method (2001), which is about the famous taxi scene.  There’s also an enlightening archival interview from 2001 with Elia Kazan himself.  There are also a handful of video essays about the real life locations and people used in the film, another about the iconic musical score by the legendary Leonard Bernstein, and another about the different aspect ratios and the effort to restore them.  Lastly, there is the film’s original theatrical trailer.  There is a wealth of content included in this Criterion release, including a healthy amount of new material.  The aspect ratio essay is fascinating for people like me interested in the history of widescreen formats in film.  There’s also a great amount of material devoted to the film’s historical context, particularly with regards to the director.  It’s a definite must have for fans of the film, as it really covers all the bases, and anyone coming to the film for the first time will get everything they need to understand everything about the movie.

Elia Kazan would continue to have a modestly successful career after On the Waterfront, directing movies like East of Eden (1955) and America, America (1963) in the years that followed.  But there is no doubt that On the Waterfront was the peak of his career.  The film would go on to win an impressive 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Kazan’s second directing honor, a first Oscar win for Brando for Best Actor (the only one he accepted), and a Supporting Actress win for Eva Marie Saint.  In the years that followed, however, Kazan couldn’t shake the cost of what he had done even with his statement in On the Waterfront.  His attempt to compare himself to defiant bravery of Terry Malloy seems selfish in hindsight.  Malloy was standing up to bullies in order to expose deep seeded corruption that was crippling the labor movement in America.  But in reality, Kazan was the one who gave into the bullies and helped to prop up corruption in the American government.  Over the years, this specter of selfishness followed Kazan to his last days.  When the Academy Awards gave him an honorary award in 2002, it was a controversial moment.  Half of the audience rose to their feet in a standing ovation, while the other half sat on their hands and spoke loudly with their silence.  Not all wounds were healed it seemed.  Still, it is undeniable that Kazan was a master filmmaker and On the Waterfront is an undeniably great film on every level.  Divorced from it’s history, the movie is a great underdog story of overcoming your personal demons to stand for something good.  It can even be interpreted as being pro-labor in the end, as the longshoremen in the finale do fall in line behind the purer Terry Malloy rather than the corrupt Johnny Friendly, showing the importance of solidarity.  In the end, workers rights is dependent on being a united front for the benefit of all union members rather than a generator for one person’s self-interest.  Regardless of what you think about the movie’s message, On the Waterfront is filmmaking at it’s finest, and a worthy inclusion into the Criterion Collection.  In the grand history of cinema, it is undeniably a contender.


The Tale of Barbenheimer – The Unexpected Box Office Savior and What it Means For Hollywood

When people were giving their predictions for how the Summer 2023 box office race would go, I don’t think that many had this scenario playing out on their radar.  Warner Brothers’ Barbie and Universal Studios’ Oppenheimer not only beat expectations, they together combined to produce the one of the biggest theatrical weekends ever upon their openings in mid July.  And not only did they both start strong, they have shown strong legs at the box office week after week.  As of this writing, Barbie should have grossed by now over $600 million domestically and $1.3 billion worldwide, while Oppenheimer stands at a not to shabby $300 million domestic and $800 million worldwide.  That’s exceptional for both films, but it is confounding the whole industry, because these were not the kinds of movies that should be putting up these kinds of numbers.  For the last decade, brands like Marvel, Star Wars, Fast and the Furious and Transformers have been the ones that have populated the billion dollar club.  But, in a year where those same franchise have submitted their own entries into this year’s box office race, it’s these two unlikely films that have managed to dominate.  It’s just such an unexpected outcome, and it’s making executives and analysts re-consider if all of their box office data from the last decade is all wrong.  You’ve got a meta feminist satirical comedy centered around a toy doll and a three hour long, talky biopic about the inventor of the atomic bomb, and they are performing better at the box office than Indiana Jones, Mission: Impossible and Fast and the Furious; and not just by a little, by a lot.  There are so many factors that went into the phenomenon that is “Barbenheimer,” but the whole outcome is also revelatory of all of the continuing problems that are plaguing Hollywood today, and that the success of the two movies are shining a spotlight on what needs fixing to help bring the box office back to where it should be.

It helps to know how the whole “Barbenheimer” thing got started in the first place.  Both Barbie and Oppenheimer were set for Summer 2023 releases, but people took notice when the individual studios behind the movies planted their flag on the same exact date; July 21, 2023.  The disparity between the titles couldn’t be more night and day.  Barbie was awash in bright colors and it’s sense of humor was broad and cartoonish.  Oppenheimer by contrast was muted and heavy and very serious in tone.  People on social media began to poke fun at the yin and yang differences between the two films, making bets on which one will give up their post on the release date first.  To a lot of people’s surprise, neither film budged, which led a lot of box office analysts to believe that this kind of counter-programming would end up canceling both films out.  That’s why advance box office predictions for both films remained on the low end for much of the summer.  But social media wasn’t overlooking the two films.  If anything, there was anticipation rising.  Suddenly, there were two rival camps rising up in internet circles representing Team Barbie or Team Oppenheimer.  The speculation about who was going to be the champion of this opening weekend began to grow into something viral.  Memes were shared, slogans were prepared.  And then the viral movement evolved into something different entirely.  The different factions decided that they were going to join forces and turn the opening of both films into an event of it’s own.  No longer were people rooting for one film over the other, but instead they were going to support both films together.  There was a healthy chunk of people who were even committed to watching both movies back to back in one night.  Once opening weekend approached, the studios were shocked to see that their modest predictions for these two movies were going to be completely blown up.

What became known as Barbenheimer was a completely grass-roots effort that blossomed at just the right moment.  Neither Warner Brothers nor Universal had a hand in creating this phenomenon in their marketing.  Their best decision was to not get involved at all; allowing the grass roots movement of Barbenheimer to flourish on it’s own.  They of course were the big beneficiaries of all of this, achieving record breaking box office as a result, which was especially needed for Warner Brothers who have otherwise had a terrible year at the box office.  But, the fact that the grass roots effort culminated in such a success for the two films is something that absolutely should challenge the common wisdom that the industry has relied upon for quite a long while now.  Coming out of the pandemic, Hollywood has been struggling to figure out how to bring audiences back to the theaters in the same kind of numbers that they did before the outbreak.  Unfortunately, a lot of the executives believed that business would return to normal like it had been before and that the same kind of movies released in the past decade would be the ones to save the box office.  This was true with a handful of cases (Spider-Man: No Way Home, Avatar: The Way of Water), but the overall box office performances for many films were just not reaching the levels they had in the past.  What seems to have lit the fire of “Barbenheimer” was a feeling amongst audiences that they wanted something that was worth rushing out to the theater for; something that couldn’t be replicated in home viewing.  So, in the absence of such an event at the box office, audiences instead created one itself.  The peculiarity of the Barbie and Oppenheimer counter-programming made it something that audiences had to see for themselves, and that’s why the opening weekend of those movies ended up being so huge.  Hollywood had been denying audiences a worthwhile experience, so something had to fill that void and that’s why the phenomenon happened.  This makes “Barbenheimer” such a game changer because it’s the clearest example yet of an audience driven statement for the rest of the industry.

To the individual films’ credit, they managed to hold onto those audiences beyond the opening weekend.  The two films are both critically acclaimed and beloved by fans, so even though a meme generated online movement worked to inflate opening weekend  numbers, it was thankfully for two films that were strong enough to maintain those captured audiences.  I’ve already talked about Oppenheimer in my review here but it’s still pretty incredible to see it have the box office stamina that it has.  It’s been a while since a three hour film that was not part of a franchise and is a historical drama has made this kind of money at the box office.  You’d have to go back decades to find any movie that had the kind of box office performance that it has had.  It is a Christopher Nolan film to be sure, but Oppenheimer is the least action packed movie that the director has ever made.  It’s a film that builds tension to be sure, but it still sticks to the kind of genre trappings that historical biopics usually have, which is a lot of talking in small rooms.  And yet, it’s performing even better than Nolan’s more bombastic films.  It helps that it’s clutched to the coattails of Barbie by virtue of it being counter-programming.  There was little doubt that PG-13 rated Barbie would have the bigger box office, but given the resulting numbers that came in, it seemed like Barbie also was boosted by Oppenheimer’s presence and vice versa.  Barbie itself is definitely not the kind of movie that should have this result at the box office either.  Director Greta Gerwig is not a filmmaker you would associate with billion dollar movies.  Her first two films, Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019) did pretty well at the box office, with Little Women getting an awards season boost to a $108 million gross.  Even still, Warner Brothers was gambling giving this possible franchise builder to a filmmaker with just indie cred.  But, Gerwig’s outsider sensibilities gave Barbie exactly what it needed to stand out.  By tackling some meaty issues like feminism and social hierarchies within this film centered around an iconic brand, Greta made a movie that transcended it’s name brand and appealed to audiences through it’s unique voice.  For both Barbie and Oppenheimer to succeed like they are, it’s making a huge statement for films that are distinctly filmmaker driven.

Which gets to how the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon is exposing some of the problems that have plagued the movie studios recently.  The fact that two filmmaker driven films are dominating the box office puts the pressure on the studios who are currently at odds with their talent as both the writers and actors continue their ongoing strike.  Sure, the box office numbers are good now, but with the strike continuing to put a halt on all productions, there’s not much the studios can do to capitalize on the success of these movies.  Both Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig, who are members of the Writer’s Guild of America, are on those picket lines too, refusing work in solidarity with their fellow creatives.  As a result, neither them nor the studios can strike while the iron is hot with this “Barbenheimer” moment.  Certainly Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig can survive on the strength of their names alone and they’ll be highly coveted creatives once the strike is over.  But they know that it’s more important to stand with the rest of their communities and not put any work yet into their next projects, which puts all the pressure on their studios.  They are collecting the strong box office now, but it’s the long term success that they are jeopardizing by refusing to give the unions what they want.  And “Barbenheimer” marks a strong transition point in the industry, where audiences are making it known that they’d like more movies like these two instead of the movies that Hollywood thought that audiences wanted.  So, with the inability to pivot because all of their talent is on strike, the studios are slowly realizing that they are letting a prime opportunity slip away, and that it is something that they can’t get back unless they swallow their pride and meet the demands of the writers and directors.  Barbie and Oppenheimer are showing the industry the powerful box office effect of movies succeeding because of the clear sighted visions of their filmmakers, and that audiences want films that are unique within their own voice.

One of the other things that “Barbenheimer” has shined a light on is the growing sense of franchise fatigue that is setting in amongst audiences.  People for a long time have been complaining that Hollywood is out of ideas and that they are over reliant on franchise power to drive box office.  That feeling of fatigue is now starting to set in for the vast majority of film goers now, as the Summer of 2023 has been littered with one disappointment after another.  Mainstays like Indiana Jones, Mission: Impossible, Fast and the Furious, and even mighty Marvel all saw diminished box office despite a huge amount of hype leading into this Summer season.  In the the last decade, these franchises were all sure fire winners, and for a lot of people it looked they were going to perform on par with their averages.  With Covid now in the rear-view mirror, and no restrictions in place to affect ticket sales, this should have been a record-setting Summer.  But it never materialized; at least not as predicted.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 did about as well as expected, but didn’t over perform.  Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Fast X, and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One would have had decent box office numbers if their astronomical budgets weren’t so high.  And the less said about The Flash, the better.  Audiences made their voices clear; they just weren’t interested in these old franchises anymore.  That’s why Barbie and Oppenheimer stood out so much; they were refreshingly new; not bound by deep lore or multi-year cinematic universes, just easy to digest singular stories told very well.  This is another reason why the ongoing stalemate with the studios and the unions is going to make things difficult for the future of Hollywood.  What has been working in the past no longer applies.  There is an appetite now for new things and the ability to coast on franchise power is waning.

At the same time, it should be understood by everyone in Hollywood; you can’t manufacture a phenomenon like “Barbenheimer.”  This thing grew up in spite of the goings on within the industry, built completely by the fans themselves.  There certainly have been attempts to campaign for a film with viral marketing, but “Barbenheimer” wasn’t manufactured out of some publicity department.  It started as a joke, and the fact that it grew into the movement that it became was more of an organic reaction to all of the things I discussed above.  These movies became a success because audiences chose to make them a success.  They wanted an event to get them excited, and to everyone’s delight what started off as a silly internet game became a moment where we actually appreciated the theatrical experience again.  That’s probably what is at the heart of Hollywood’s troubles; they’ve lost the ability to make movies feel special.  The over abundance of franchises diluted what had made the original movies special in the first place.  The diversity of films has also diminished, as the market is now flooded with super hero films and explosive action movies (the ones that produce a big opening weekend) while other genres like romance and comedy have been exiled to streaming.   Gone are the days when something unbound to a known franchise name like Forrest Gump (1994) or There’s Something About Mary (1998) could open strong and then just stick around week after week for a full season.  Barbie and Oppenheimer are anomalies to be sure in this landscape, but they are not unusual in the whole history of Hollywood.  In the Golden Days of the industry, movies were events that people used to line up around the corner for.  The early days of Star Wars saw people dressing up as their favorite characters as a way of participating in magic of the event itself.  Is that any different from all the people wearing pink to the multiplex when they are seeing Barbie?  “Barbenheimer” is filling a void, and Hollywood needs to reconcile with why that void exists in the first place.

I knew this thing was going to be something big the moment that I saw someone wear a custom made Barbie and Oppenheimer T-Shirt to the screening of Barbie that I was attending; featuring both movie posters cut right down the middle like one of those custom divided loyalty jerseys you see at sports games.  That’s a level of commitment to a movement that I realized was much more powerful than the silly internet game that it started as.  “Barbenheimer” was a real deal moment that people just had to be there for.  And remarkably, it continued on through the rest of the summer and has not dissipated yet.  This is the magical element that the movie theater experience has lost not just through the Covid years, but over the last decade as well.  The ability to make the movies feel like a communal experience worth having again.  I felt like I was missing out on opening night being one of only a handful in the theater not wearing pink for Barbie.  Sure, there was going to be a flash in the pan outcome once both films made it to theaters because of all the viral excitement that was built up, but the fact that the movies turned out to both be very good and re-watchable shows that it is important for the theatrical ecosystem to have unique, creative movies with their own voice be integral to the future plans of Hollywood.  Which means, Hollywood needs to treat their talent with respect, because filmmakers and actors who are fairly compensated will be better able to repeat this kind of success in the future.  And it shows that nothing beats the movie going experience when it’s something worthwhile to see.  Even with this strike still lagging on, it’s important to support your local theater, as they are also affected by the on-going strike and they need us the audience to continue returning.  “Barbenheimer” was a godsend for theaters everywhere, and it’s up to us to convince Hollywood that we want them to make movies special again, and not just an endless stream of product.  Barbie and Oppenheimer showed that one film didn’t have to stand out as special amongst the rest, but in fact any film big and small could flourish together and lift up the theatrical experience as a whole.  These two were an odd pair, but audiences found that opposites do attract and that by giving both of them our love it helped change the movies for the better.

The Movies of Fall 2023

We are near the end of another Summer movie season, and it’s one that had an outcome that I don’t think anyone expected.  At the top of the summer season, I’m sure many prognosticators of the movie industry believed that the Summer season was going to be dominated by tried and true franchises that have carried Hollywood to glory in the past.  These included of course new movies from Marvel, Pixar, Transformers, Fast and the Furious, DC, Mission: Impossible, and Indiana Jones.  From the beginning of the Summer, it seemed like Hollywood was going to hit it big with their heavy hitters.  Unfortunately for most, it was a season flooded with disappointments.  The performances of this Summer’s box office was defined by a string of movies that either performed well under expectations to just downright flopping.  Marvel did about as well as expected with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, and their co-production with Sony Animation, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse outperformed expectations.  But, other films like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Fast X, and Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning – Part One, could not make up for their extravagant costs with sub-par box office.  And then there is the case of DC’s The Flash, which is going to go down as one of the biggest flops in box office history, possibly costing Warner Brothers to suffer a quarter of a billion shortfall on that film alone.  But, the summer was also defined by another odd occurrence that actually proved to be a savior for movie theaters.  The “Barbenheimer” phenomenon will absolutely go down as one of the craziest “out-of-nowhere” things to happen in Hollywood ever.  Both Barbie and Oppenheimer were entering the Summer season with no one expecting much of them, but online communities took notice of the odd counter-programming that each offered with the same release date and decided to turn it into an event.  Thanks to this, both films are now set to become the biggest box office successes of the year, with Barbie now well above a billion globally, and Oppenheimer likewise is climbing the charts in a way that a three hour R-rated biopic shouldn’t.

One other unfortunate thing that has also defined this summer season is the ongoing strike by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA unions.  Even after 3 months of picketing, it looks like neither side is willing to budge, and it is beginning to deeply affect the industry as a whole.  It’s likely that some of the soft box office numbers for this season is due to the lack of publicity that the studios is missing out on with their actors joining the picket lines.  The lack of traction in the negotiations are also affecting the upcoming release schedules in the near future, as movie and show productions right now have been put into a months long freeze.  Because of this, the studios are pushing back movies into next year, much to the frustration of movies fans.  Believe me, when I was gearing up to write this preview for the Fall Movie season, it was going to look a lot different, as one of my most anticipated Must See films, Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two, was suddenly pushed back to March of next year by Warner Brothers.  It makes me wonder if any of the films that I still have on this preview will be bumped to next year as well.  Hopefully, a fair deal is struck soon and the films we still have set for this Fall still make it to theaters on time.  In any case, here is my preview of the films of Fall 2023, broken into my Must Sees, the Movies That Have Me Worried, and the Movies to Skip.  Keep in mind, these choices are just based on my early impressions based on the film’s marketing and general advance hype.  My predictions don’t always pan out (I really underestimated Barbie this summer), but I hope it’s helpful for all of you for what to expect in the upcoming months.  So, let’s take a look at the Movies of Fall 2023.



If there has been a streaming provider that has navigated the waters of the streaming “gold rush” wisely, it has been Apple.  The entertainment wing of the tech giant is not as financially strained as the other major Hollywood studios, given that they are funded by the biggest corporation in the world.  But, Apple has also chosen their projects wisely; opting for quality over quantity.  The Apple TV+ library of content may not be robust, but they have thus far gained notoriety for award winning productions, including the first ever Best Picture win for a streamer (2021’s CODA).  This year, Apple Studios is making it’s biggest push ever into mainstream success with a pair of highly anticipated epics from two Hollywood legends.  Not only that, they are giving these movies wide theatrical runs before they move to streaming; a strategy that I hope catches on.  First, there is Martin Scorsese’s new epic based on the best-selling historical novel of the same name from author David Grann.  Killers of the Flower Moon looks like another ambitious exercise for the legendary filmmaker; taking his expertise in exploring the seedy underworld of organized crime, but filtering it through the lens of the American Western.  This film about the Osage Nation murders in 1920’s Oklahoma looks to be gritty and multi-layered exploration of greed and violence that Scorsese is the undeniable master of.  Given the already strong buzz out of the Cannes Film Festival where it premiered, it looks like Scorsese has another winner on his hands.  The director unlike many of his other contemporaries has been more embracing of streaming, as his last film The Irishman (2019) released through Netflix, and I think it’s because streaming platforms have allowed him more creative wiggle room than the established Hollywood studios have given him.  Hopefully the near 3 1/2 hour runtime doesn’t scare off audiences; maybe Oppenheimer’s success could be a good sign.  But with a cast that includes two of Scorsese’s favorites (Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro), plus a potentially star-making turn for Lily Gladstone, and supporting performances from heavy hitters like Jesse Plemons, John Lithgow, and recent Best Actor winner Brendan Fraser, this should very much be a movie that is going to light up the screen and show that Scorsese in deed is not losing any of his edge.


Here we have Apple Studios other big epic gamble for this Fall season.  It’s quite the flex that not only are we getting a new Scorsese film from Apple this year, but also a new Ridley Scott film as well.  Scott has been hit or miss over the last decade, but when he’s got a project that works to his strengths (lavish period production values and epic scale battles) he definitely delivers.  His last historical epic, The Last Duel (2021), while not a financial success still was a winner with critics and it showed that he indeed has some of the old Gladiator magic left in his arsenal.  For his lavish biopic of the notorious French general turned emperor, Scott re-teams for the first time in over twenty years with his Gladiator star, Joaquin Phoenix.  Phoenix has been on a roll lately with his Oscar-winning turn in Joker (2019) as well as a collection well received notices in indie films from A24 like C’mon C’mon (2021) and Beau is Afraid (2023).  Phoenix is certainly the ideal choice to take on this larger than life historical figure and it will be interesting to see what he and Scott bring to the film in telling his story.  Naturally, you can expect this movie to have some incredible visuals, which is expected of a filmmaker with the resume that Ridley Scott has.  Apparently, this has been a long in the making project for Scott, who has been circling this project for decades.  It’s probably why he was intent on working with Apple on this, because they were likely less concerned about the cost than other studios.  That way Scott could make the film grittier and harder hitting than the usual PG-13 he’s been required to deliver in the past.  And thankfully like Killers of the Flower Moon, Apple is giving Napoleon a full theatrical run, partnering up for distribution with Sony Pictures (Moon is released through Paramount).  That way, we’ll be able to still see good old fashioned Ridley Scott directed epic battles on a huge screen, like we always should.


Marvel Studios managed to hold it’s own in a very unforgiving Summer for most franchises.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.3 did about as well as many people hoped, though it wasn’t anything record-shattering.  And despite being looked at as a box office disappointment, this February’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania’s $476 million worldwide gross is something that I’m sure most other studios wish they had right now.  Even still, there are troubling signs for Marvel that they are still grappling with.  The Phase Four line up that wrapped last year with Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) didn’t sizzle at the box office like past Phases of Marvel, and critically the studio is suffering from far less enthusiasm than before.  The box office numbers are solid, but not exceptional, and it seems like Marvel is becoming a victim of their own astronomical success.  At the core of their problems seems to be that they are over-stretched, with too many plates being served with not enough ingredients; something that is only being compounded with the multiple projects exclusive to Disney+.  Even still, Marvel movies are still events that warrant attention, and this sequel to the hit movie Captain Marvel (2019) has an interesting element that helps it to stand out.  This film is the first to incorporate central characters that were already established in the Marvel Disney+ series line-up; in this case Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) from the show of the same name, and Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris) from Wandavision,  joining to team up with Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) herself.  Thankfully for Marvel, these two characters are from two of the more successful and critically acclaimed Disney+ shows, so their inclusion here is likely more of a benefit than a hinderance.  Captain Marvel is certainly a divisive film amongst fans, but with so much of the world and character building out of the way, this sequel has the benefit of actually letting the story stand on it’s own.  Director Nia DaCosta has stated that her film is going to be more geared toward a looser, more emotional character driven side, which might be a good change of pace for Marvel after a string of formulaic exercises.  And given that Dune: Part Two’s move has opened up a bunch of large format screens for the movie, it might be the box office hit that Marvel needs to recharge it’s momentum.


The animation landscape has shifted pretty dramatically.  Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks, once the hallmark brands of the industry have struggled post-pandemic to gain back the family audiences that once turned them into reliable box office power houses.  In the meantime, upstart Illumination has enjoyed back to back monster hits like Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022) and The Super Marion Bros. Movie (2023), and Sony Animation hit both critically and at the box office with Across the Spider-Verse.  Some are saying that these once powerful brands days are numbered, but I don’t think it’s the studios that are the problem, but more that family audiences are more inclined to go back to the theaters for something they know will entertain their kids than something they are not sure about.  Minions, Mario and Spider-Man all succeeded because they already had built in audience awareness.  Original animated films unconnected to built in franchises are what audiences are struggling to embrace.  Disney’s Encanto (2021) was thought to be a box office disappointment, but a few months later, we were all signing about not talking about Bruno. This year, Pixar’s Elemental (2022) likewise also found it’s audience slowly over time, turning around their box office fortunes from costly flop to sleeper hit.  The films aren’t the problem, it’s getting audiences confident in the studio brand again to make them take their kids to the theater instead of waiting for streaming.  Disney’s Wish is such a movie that could achieve this by having the studio return to their strengths from past films.  It’s a musical fairy tale, which has always been Disney’s strongest suit.  It’s also experimental in it’s art style, emulating hand painted cel animation in 3D computer animation, which owes a bit to the Spider-Verse influence.  Having recent Oscar-winner Ariana DeBose on board voicing their new Disney princess is another plus.  And given that this is their release for the 100th anniversary, Disney is also likely to put in some meta elements centered around the story point of the wishing star in the film, like a cameo or two.  Disney’s had mixed results post-pandemic with their string of original films, but Wish might have the right mix of originality and familiar elements to help make it a new animated classic that brings the legendary studio back to the top.


Taika Waititi has been one of the most prolific comedic filmmakers as of late, with a very enviable track record to back that up.  One of his movies, Jojo Rabbit (2019) was in my opinion not just one of the best comedies of the last decade, but also one of the best movies period.  He’s also been a key voice in the Marvel Studios stable of directors, having re-invented the Thor franchise with Thor: Ragnarok (2017).  His follow-up, Thor: Love and Thunder (2022) was much more divisive, though I found myself not minding it too much.  His next upcoming film, however, finds him returning to his roots as an early comedy filmmaker.  The common thread through most of Waititi’s films is an appreciation for lovable losers, and that’s the theme at the core of this film.  In Next Goal Wins, he is telling the story of the Samoan National Football team, which historically had the worst score ever in international competition; losing 31-0 to Australia.  Despite mining all the comedic potential of how bad this team can be, there is a warm human story to be told here as well, about a community often looked down upon by the rest of the world and how they manage to remain bonded together through adversity.  It’s also a lot about how an outsider, namely the new head coach played by Michael Fassbender, learns more about the essence of the game by seeing the literal worst players in the world find so much fulfilment by being on that field as a team.  Taika is so masterful at balancing those moments of hilarity with heart and hopefully this film carries over some of that great mix of both that he so expertly weaved into Jojo Rabbit.  From the trailer alone, we can definitely see that at the very least there will be some pretty hard laughs in there.



Well, with Dune: Part Two off of the 2023 calendar, this is actor Timothee Chalamet’s one and only chance to deliver a hit this season at the box office.  This film is going to be fairly controversial in many ways.  It is taking a beloved literary and film classic and attempting to tell a back story that I don’t know if anyone was clamoring that much for.  Here we are getting the story of how Willy Wonka came to be the eccentric “candy man” that we all know from the classic Roald Dahl tale, delivered as a big musical extravaganza.  It’s not the first time that this story has been revisited before on the big screen.  Tim Burton famously brought his own vision to the famous story, but unlike this film, Burton’s version was it’s own thing, acting more as a unique adaptation of Dahl’s novel, and less of a re-make of the beloved 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder.  This film, however, is deliberately tying itself to that original film version, and that may be a risky thing to do correctly.  First of all, Chalamet has some very big shoes to fill, as Gene Wilder’s performance as Willy Wonka is viewed by many as iconic and without comparison.  Johnny Depp’s version of Willy Wonka very much fell short compared to Wilder’s performance, and that’s the same kind of harsh scrutiny that is about to come Chalamet’s way.  Chalamet is also not known as a song and dance performer, so he is going to have to disprove a lot of naysayers out there.  On the plus side, this film is being directed by Paul King, the man behind the beloved Paddington films, and this kind of movie is something that very much plays to his strengths.  Hopefully the team behind this film can make it stand well on it’s own, but given the pedigree of story they are working with, the bar is going to be set pretty high.


You’ve got to hand it to Kenneth Branagh; he is a persistent filmmaker.  His adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries has become a little franchise that could on it’s own despite some heavy obstacles along the way.  2017’s Murder on the Orient Express became a modest hit at the time, but it’s follow-up Death on the Nile (2022) was a pandemic and scandal plagued production that limped into theaters in early February and was quickly dismissed.  It’s surprising that after all that Branagh was still able to keep going with the continuation of these films, and do so as quick as he did.  At least this time around, his film is not being dogged by pandemic delays or one or two problematic actors in the cast.  A Haunting in Venice, the third film in this Poirot franchise, seems to be playing it more safe after Death on the Nile; modest in scale with less of an all-star cast than previous movies.  Even still, Branagh is still making some surprise choices in his casting of this movie, with performers as diverse as Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, and newly crowned Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh in the cast, alongside with himself returning as the “world’s greatest detective.” What is interesting though is the big shift in tone.  For this movie, Branagh is far more leaning into horror movie tropes, which is a departure from the tone this series has had up to now.  Is it something that may breathe new life into this series of movies, or is it a doomed “hail mary” play that likely won’t capture any cross over appeal.  I certainly don’t think that Branagh’s making a straight up horror movie here, but then again it could end up being surprisingly dark comparatively for this kind of movie.  Thus far, this Poirot franchise has been a mixed bag, and never quite as exciting as the trailers have made it out to be.  But, I’m willing to see if a fresh approach actually does something good here.  Branagh has demonstrated his capability of being an experimental and venturous filmmaker before.  Maybe it might be interesting to see him explore a darker side.


This is the kind of movie that honestly go either way for me.  I have in the past responded to films from Yorgos Lanthimos in very opposite ways.  I distinctly hated his 2015 film, The Lobster, but I loved his 2018 film, The Favourite.  It seemed to me so unbelievable that I could have such polar opposite opinions to movies from the same director like that, but I guess he’s just that kind of filmmaker.  I feel like this new film of his will likely drive me to either extreme as well.  It is certainly a movie that is going to take some risks, and likewise challenge it’s audience.  It’s hyper-stylized, and I almost think that this might be a bad thing, especially considering that production design on this film feels a bit too much like AI generated art for some tastes.  One thing that could indeed be the film’s best element is the cast.  Emma Stone, who worked well with Lanthimos in The Favourite, takes the spotlight here and seems to be relishing the opportunity to go weird with this Frankenstein-like origin to her character.  Mark Ruffalo also seems refreshingly oddball, which is a nice departure for him, and I do get a laugh out of his awkward reading of the line “Oww” in the trailer.  And of course, if you are going to go weird with your movie, casting Willem Dafoe is always a good choice.  One other thing that I think works in Lanthimos’ favor is that he’s once again working with another writer’s script (The Favourite’s Tony McNamara) which I think is the winning formula.  I find Lanthimos’ own screenplays to be too self-indulgent, so I think he works better adapting a screenplay that is not his own, because his strengths better lie in his direction.  We’ll just have to see if this film falls on the Best or Worst list by the end of the year.


Most of the major film studios are having a bad year, but DC is having an extraordinary bad year.  The aforementioned The Flash is a box office flop for the history books, and the other entries from the DCEU franchise that includes Shazam: Fury of the Gods and Blue Beetle have not faired any better.  Before James Gunn takes the reigns of the future of the DC cinematic universe, there is one film left from the old regime that is still in the pipeline.  Aquaman (2018) was surprisingly the biggest box office success of the DCEU era, becoming the only film of that franchise to gross over a billion worldwide.  One thing that worked to it’s advantage was that it was able to coast on the wave that was the peak year for the super hero movie genre, 2018, which also saw the likes of Black PantherAvengers: Infinity War, and Ant-Man and the Wasp all making big money at the box office.  Sadly for Aquaman, the heydays of that money train are over, and it’s been especially rough for DC.  It also feels like the movie is doomed even before it hits theaters, not just because of the shake-up in management of DC, but also from the news that the movie has had to go through multiple re-shoots, all of which have ballooned the already high budget of this movie.  Is there anything that can help this Aquaman sequel avoid the same terrible fate of the rest of DC’s 2023 slate.  On the plus side, Jason Momoa is still a generally liked movie star, as opposed to the “star” of The Flash, and his star power could still conceivably help carry the film.  Also, Warner Brothers is remarkably as of right now still sticking with the Christmas holiday release date for this movie.  If Dune: Part Two was acceptable to push to the Spring but Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom was not, it must show a level of confidence that Warner has in this film; at least that’s the hope.  We’ll have to see if DC is going to close this chapter right, or if it’s the final pathetic nail in the coffin of the doomed DCEU.



If there is something that the last Summer season has shown us, it’s that reviving long dormant film franchises is not a winning formula anymore.  Indiana Jones and Transformers learned that the hard way, and I think that the same is likely going to happen to The Hunger Games franchise as well.  In the early 2010’s, Hunger Games was certainly a force to be reckoned with, but once it got into the latter entries in the series, the fuel was definitely starting to run out, and now The Hunger Games no longer feels culturally relevant anymore.  Still, the people at Lionsgate seem to think that there is more to mine from this property and that’s why they are adapting this prequel to the original series.  This to me seems like a big mistake because one, Hunger Games is no longer the power house that it used to be, two, just by knowing the events of the original films we know how this movie will end, and three, the series’ central heroine Katniss (whom was the main thing that hooked in fans from the beginning) is not involved in any way.  Basically, this movie is trying to lure audiences back on the concept and the world alone, which I don’t think is enough to bring audiences on board.  For the original films it was the characters, and in particular Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Katniss that became the big draw.  There are some heavy hitters on board here, like Viola Davis and Peter Dinklage, but I don’t see them drawing back any of the series’ past fans.  For a series that already had a short shelf life, I feel like this will be a quickly forgotten chapter.


I mentioned before that Dreamworks, along with Disney and Pixar, have had a rough time lately at the box office.  But, unlike the other two studios which has bright spots on the horizon with original concepts and experimentation, Dreamworks’ future slate looks pretty unremarkable with more formulaic sequels for the foreseeable future.  This is even despite having their best film in years last Winter with Puss in Boots: The Last Wish.  This summer, they had their biggest failure with Ruby Gilman; Teenage Kraken, and up next on the slate is the third film in their tepid Trolls franchise.  The first Trolls (2016) was a modest if unremarkable box office success, and their follow up, Trolls World Tour (2020) got sidelined from theaters altogether by the pandemic, sending it straight to streaming.  This film looks like it’s just a repeat of the formula and not adding anything substantial artistically or thematically to the franchise, which is something that the best sequels should do (Puss in Boots; The Last Wish being a shining example).  Like the other movies, this film seems more geared towards selling an album than making a memorable film, and it’s unfortunately another sign of Dreamworks losing it’s edge as one of the hallmark names in animation.


Speaking of another franchise that has lost it’s potency over the years, we are now getting another Expendables movie, nearly 9 years after the last one.  The original concept when this franchise was started was fun enough, with Sylvester Stallone assembling a team made up of some of the most legendary action movie stars all in one movie; including having himself, Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Willis share the screen for the first time.  Two more sequels added even more star power like Jean Claude Van Damme, Mel Gibson, Antonio Banderas, and even Harrison Ford to the roster.  But, time eventually ran out, and a lot of those movie stars either fully retired, or became less interested in returning.  So now it’s just Stallone, Jason Statham and whatever C-Lister they can rope in left.  Part of the appeal of this series is now gone, and it just looks like a tired retread of a now irrelevant series.  Of the cast, only Statham has any real star power left, and even here it seems like he’s phoning it in.  Probably better to have left this team retired.

So, there you have my outlook of the Fall 2023 movie season.  Given the uncertainty brought on by the ongoing stalemate of the dual strikes hitting Hollywood right now, I fear that this will be a movie season that will see a lot of movies struggle at the box office.  Given the dramatic move of Dune: Part Two this week, it seems worrying that no breakthrough is expected anytime soon.  The studios are shamelessly trying to shift blame to the striking talent, but the writers and actors don’t have the power to move movies off of their release dates; that’s entirely on the studios.  I don’t know if they are intentionally doing this as a ploy to weaken the union’s position in the eyes of the audience, or if they are that dependent on star power to sell a movie to audiences.  None of this is deterring the solidarity of the unions, and if anyone is hurt in the crossfire, it’s the movie theaters themselves.  They have had to fight tooth and nail to keep afloat through the pandemic era, and now they are once again in a panic by the effects of strike.  Unlike the pandemic which was a global crisis, the economic impacts of this stalemate in the strike negotiations is entirely a self-inflicted wound for Hollywood.  Had the studios just come forward with a fair deal that took into consideration the things that are important to all their creative workers, they wouldn’t be in the precarious position they are in now.  The unions are not asking for a whole lot (less than 1% of the studios yearly profits) and yet the studios’ greed has ended up costing them billions.  I hate to go off on a rant like this, but sadly we are seeing pettiness on the part of Hollywood executives spoiling what could have been a stellar year at the box office.  Hopefully the whole thing gets resolved soon so that we don’t see any more of our most anticipated movies get pushed further back.  Hopefully there are some good surprises that come out of the Fall festival circuit that helps to make the upcoming awards season interesting.  And with all this considered, let’s hope the Fall Movie season of 2023 makes us happy and eager to go back to the movies again.

Blue Beetle – Review

DC to say the least has had a rough time of it lately.  The last decade they have been playing catch up to Marvel, which has dominated the landscape when it comes to comic book movies.  There have been bright spots to be sure in their output, like the box office success of Wonder Woman (2017) and Aquaman (2018), but their reputation has been more defines by their failures more than their successes.  The controversial Justice League (2017) release proved to be a tipping point for the fledgling cinematic universe, as it just exposed all of the faults of the DC Extended Universe’s lack of cohesion.  The pandemic also effected the success rate of DC, as the highly anticipated sequels Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) and The Suicide Squad (2021) both failed to deliver on the same level as their predecessors, though Warner Brother’s misguided plan to do day and date streaming releases for these movies was probably a bigger factor in their struggle.  Still, the DC brand took a big hit in popularity, and with the Warner Brothers Discovery merger, the powers that be saw that it was a better option to scrap the future of the DCEU and just start anew.  Director Zack Snyder was the chief creative force of the original cinematic universe, which gave the DCEU the nickname of the Snyderverse, but for this new era of DC under new management, Warner Brothers appointed filmmaker James Gunn to chart the course of the DC Universe.  Gunn, coming off of his tenure at Marvel with the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, is now in charge of giving DC the shot in the arm it needs to re-find it’s footing.  Unfortunately for DC, there are some remaining projects in the pipeline that still needed their release.  The last of the DCEU has been released throughout this year, and much to the dismay of Warner Brothers execs, the films are showing that the DCEU is not going out with a bang, but rather a wimper.

Things did not start off great, with the sequel Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023) performing well under what the original film did; grossing a mere $133 million worldwide compared to the 2019 original’s $367 million.  But that lackluster result was nothing compared to the disastrous results of the release of The Flash (2023).  This notorious troubled production underperformed so badly, making only $260 million worldwide against a $250 million production budget, that it looks like Warner Brothers is set to lose $200 million alone on just this one film.  If it wasn’t for the phenomenon of Barbie (2023) right now in theaters, Warner Brothers’ accounting team would be sweating pretty hard right now.  What is likely happening with DC and these back to back failures is that audiences have already lost interest in the DCEU.  With the collection of Justice League heroes now about to be rebooted in the James Gunn DCU, why would anyone care about these relics of a now doomed universe.  This also doesn’t bode well for the last remaining DCEU film, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023), which is scheduled for this Christmas has it’s own set of production woes that are ballooning it’s already high production budget.  And then there is this little oddity in between called Blue Beetle (2023).  Blue Beetle is a film based on the comic book hero that has gone through many different personalities since his debut in 1939.  The film, a first time adaptation for the comic book hero on the big screen, introduces us to the third and current iteration of Blue Beetle, whose alter ego is Mexican-American Jamie Reyes.  Initially, this film was developed to be a straight to streaming film for Warner Brothers’ MAX app, but after being screened for James Gunn and other studio executives, they felt confident that this could be a theatrical release instead.  Strangely, Gunn has stated that this is separate from the established DCEU continuity, but he has also declined to commit this film as part of the new continuity that he is establishing.  So, the question remains, is Blue Beetle enough to reverse DC’s bad fortune at the moment, or is it going to circle the drain along with the rest of the DCEU.

The story takes us to the bustling metropolis of Palmera City, where young Jamie Reyes (Xolo Mariduena) is returning home from college.  He is greeted warmly by his family, including his father Alberto (Damian Alcazar), his mother Rocio (Elpidia Carrillo), his abuela Nana (Adirana Barraza), his sister Milagro (Belissa Escobedo) and conspiracy nut uncle Rudy (George Lopez).  Unfortunately, he learns that the family has suffered hard times in his absence, due to his father’s health problems and the increased gentrification of the neighborhood, known as the Edge Keys.  Jaime hopes to help give his family a boost by putting his degree to work by finding a job in the big city.  Things don’t quite work out the way he planned, as the best he can do right away is get a service job cleaning up a beachfront house owned by the wealthiest woman in town, Victoria Kord (Susan Sarandon).  While on the job, Jamie runs into a young woman named Jenny Kord (Bruna Marquezine), Victoria’s niece and her chief adversary at the omnipresent Kord Corporation.  Jenny responds well to Jaime’s assertive chivalry and offers to give him a meeting at the corporate office at a later date.  Believing that this is a breakthrough for him, Jaime arrives at the Kord headquarters hoping Jenny will give him a job offer.  Unfortunately, he finds her on the run from security.  She eventually runs into Jaime, and asks him to protect something she has hidden in box.  Jaime takes the box home with him, and sees what’s inside.  What he finds is a weird metal scarab, which suddenly comes to life and immediately latches onto Jaime.  Jaime suddenly finds his whole body getting covered in blue colored armor.  Afterwards, the armor, which has it’s own computerized voice (Becky G) takes Jaime for a ride out of his control, demonstrating all of the power the suit holds; including the ability to fly.  Jaime wishes to get rid of the scarab, but it has already been imbedded into his body.  He seeks out Jenny, but she’s being hunted by her Aunt Victoria’s henchmen, led by the fearsome Lt. Carapax (Raoul Max Trujillo), who has a super suit of his own.  Jenny reveals to Jaime that her father Ted was the previous host of the alien scarab, and he used it to become a vigilante hero known as the Blue Beetle.  Jamie can’t get rid of the scarab, but he can learn to master it, and with his family and Jenny Kord’s help, he is determined to set things right and accept his destiny as a hero.

The situation for this movie coming out at this moment is pretty dire for comic book movies.  As mentioned before, DC right now is flaming out as it releases the remainder of it’s DCEU output, but the year hasn’t been kind to comic book movies in general.  The disappointing box office of Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023) began a trend of diminishing returns for this once mighty force in the global box office.  Despite that, the Marvel brand still has had bright spots, with both Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse both doing well enough at the summer box office, albeit not to record-shattering numbers.  Nothing this year has gone DC’s way, with Shazam: Fury of the Gods and The Flash becoming two of the biggest box office bombs ever in the genre.  That’s a lot of pressure to put on Blue Beetle’s shoulders, and it doesn’t look like the movie is going to turn the ship around for DC at the box office based on early predictions.  The upside is that Blue Beetle isn’t as big of a risk compared to the other two, costing a more reasonable $100 million to make; and honestly what it makes at the box office now is more than what was initially planned with it’s original streaming plans.  Still, DC needed a win, and for a lot of longtime fans of the character from the comic books, this is a movie that needs to succeed.  So, does it?  Yes, and no.  As a standalone movie, it does what it needs to do; creating a likable hero worth rooting for and delivering fun and colorful spectacle to please audiences.  But, it’s also nothing that we haven’t a dozen times before in so many other comic book movies.  It comes in with low expectations, performs above average, but does little to actually leave a mark on the genre as a whole.  It’s good enough, and sadly that’s not enough to reverse course for a studio much in need of finding it’s footing right now.

The problem with the movie is it’s familiarity.  We know all of the beats that this movie is going to hit before they happen.  Plot wise, the movie does exactly what you know it’s going to do.  It’s following the same super hero origin story plot that has been done to death over the last several decades.  It’s why Marvel wisely decided to dispense of origin narratives for some of their franchises like with Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Black Panther (2018) and Captain Marvel (2019) as it worked better to drop into their heroes storylines already in progress.  In a way, DC also did that too with Aquaman, and it resulted in their biggest box office hit.  It frees up a lot of unnecessary time wasted on world building, which this movie does quite a bit of.  The character of Jenny Kord in particular unfortunately suffers quite a bit from being the exposition deliverer for most of the movie; filling in all the Blue Beetle lore that the movie needs to deliver to the uninformed audience.  The film definitely feels like an early, Phase One Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, where it has to lay down some very heavy handed world building, as opposed to allowing the audience to just absorb the world through the experience.  That being said, it’s not delivered in too clumsy of a way.  While the message may be old hat, the delivery still comes through in an effective way.  The story is very much better handled here than the messy Flash movie, which didn’t really know what it wanted to be.  Blue Beetle may be cliched, but it’s got it’s heart in the right place.  One of the things that is refreshing is that it keeps the stakes small compared to most other super hero movies.  It’s not a fate of the universe story, but rather a simple hero looking out for the ones who matters most to him and stopping a greedy tycoon from causing more trouble.  For a genre that in recent years has gotten lost in the need to keep topping one another in spectacle, it’s kind of refreshing to see a story that just delivers on the basics and nothing more.

The best part of this movie which really helps to put it above average is the winning cast.  In his first starring role, Xolo Mariduena (best known for his work on Netflix’s Cobra Kai series) is really charming as Jaime Reyes.  For one thing, he really nails the reluctant hero aspect of the character; not jumping into his role right away, but over time learning to accept his duty as a super hero.  Given his martial arts background, he also does a good job of selling the fight scenes in and out of the suit.  It’s a physically demanding performance, which sometimes requires the actor to go mask off for close-ups, and Xolo does his best, while at the same time making the character endlessly likable.  He is also surrounded by an exceptional ensemble.  The Reyes family is just as important to this movie as it’s hero, and they get involved in a surprisingly large amount of the action too.  The movie does a surprising job of making each of the family members an important part of the story, and each one a distinctive personality in their own right.  The standouts are definitely Uncle Rudy, who obviously is the movie’s most comedic character given that he’s played by legendary comedian George Lopez, and Nana Reyes, played wonderfully by award-winning Mexican actress Adriana Barraza (Babel) who shows a few surprising skills of her own.  Susan Sarandon does the best she can with a rather cookie-cutter villain, and Raoul Trujillo likewise brings surprising depth to his big bad that otherwise would’ve been missing in a lesser performance.  But, the most pleasing aspect of this movie is that it is unapologetic with it’s cultural representation.  This movie proudly displays the Mexican heritage of it’s main hero and wears it like a badge of honor.  From the way the movie is cast, to the cultural references found throughout (Guillermo Del Toro films, telenovelas, and a very Latin flavored soundtrack) to the very frequent use of Spanish throughout the movie; the filmmakers definitely wanted it’s audience to know that they were taking the introduction of the first Latino super hero on the big screen seriously and it really helps to give the movie a strong identity as a result.

Visually, the movie carries those cultural inspirations over too.  The location of the fictional Palmera City is very much meant to be the DC universe equivalent of Miami, Florida, and the flashiness of that city’s identity really carries over into this film.  The movie is awash with a bright neon color palette, which recalls the visual look of shows like Miami Vice.  This is very evident in the depiction of the city, but the filmmakers also did a fine job of creating the look of the Edge Keys where the Reyes family call home.  It definitely feels like an authentic Latin ethnic neighborhood that you find in most big American cities, with the Reyes home feeling like it has been lived in for generations.  It’s not a Hollywood depiction of what an inner city neighborhood looks like, but something that clearly feels closer to reality; rough around the edges because it’s a poorer part of the city, but still warm and inviting because it’s built out of love for the community.  You can tell that the film’s director, Angel Manuel Soto, wanted that authenticity to come through and help dispel the outdated view of Latinx communities that Hollywood has perpetuated over the years.  At the same time, the movie also does well with the visualization of it’s titular hero.  The Blue Beetle suit itself looks pretty sleek, without deviating too much from the comic book.  Obviously, it’s trading in tights for more metallic looking armor, but the design sticks pretty close to how the character currently looks in the comics.  I like how it continues the trend of allowing expressiveness in the eyes through the mask that we’ve seen in other recent comic book movies like Deadpool (2016) and the MCU’s Spider-Man.  The way that the Blue Beetle powers work also is well utilized, even if it at times feels a little too similar to Iron Man.  One thing that is refreshing is that it looks like the filmmakers made an effort to incorporate more live action stunt-work into the movie, using CGI more as a tool to support the action on screen rather than replace it.  It helps to give the action scenes more of a tangible feeling of ferocity, knowing that in quite a few moments it’s real stunt men on the set rather than digital rag dolls.  It’s not a particular game changer on the graphical front, but the movie does have a flavor all it’s own that serves it well.

Overall, the movie’s biggest weakness is that it largely plays it safe.  It tells us an over-familiar story with not a whole lot of surprises.  But, at the same time, it does so with an earnest approach with a cast that is irresistibly likable.  Putting so much emphasis on Jaime Reyes place within his culture and more importantly his family is what helps to lift this movie up above what would’ve otherwise been more super hero mediocrity.  I still think the two Shazam movies were better executed comic book adventures, but Blue Beetle is infinitely better than the messy Flash.  For one thing, Blue Beetle is a character worth rooting for, and he doesn’t spend the movie making obnoxious low brow comedy.  The movie, despite the familiarity, does remain engaging throughout, with it’s faults only coming when the movie has to set up the rules of it’s world.  Thankfully, the movie knows when to kick into gear, and it leads to a very engaging and satisfying finale.  It’s hard to know how well this movie will do in the long run.  It already seems like the film will not reverse DC’s box office woes at the moment; which may hurt it’s chances for a sequel, or a future in James Gunn’s re-launch of the DC Universe.  That’s too bad, because the star of this movie, as well as the people who play his family, are delightful enough to make me want to see more adventures with them.  And there was one other thing that made me appreciate the film as well.  Because I live in Los Angeles, there was a strong chance of me seeing a Latinx family at my screening, and sure enough one such family was seated right next to me.  They were really digging the movie, especially the young boy who must’ve been so delighted to finally see a super hero on screen that had a family just like his.  That’s the kind of impact a movie can have that goes beyond just the nuts and bolts that I was analyzing.  The movie may not have been speaking the same way to me, but to a kid like the boy at my screening, it was speaking a whole lot louder.  That is something that I can really appreciate beyond just the movie itself.  Like Wonder Woman and Black Panther before him, Blue Beetle can be another super hero icon that can transcend culture and help give a face to an underrepresented group of people within the most powerful box office genre in the world and help break down more barriers as a result.  Blue Beetle is a decent enough entry into the overly crowded super hero field at the box office, but it’s impact could lead to some very, much needed changes in the halls of Hollywood if it manages to successfully find an audience.

Rating: 7.5/10

Off the Page – A Clockwork Orange

Stanley Kubrick is no stranger to literary adaptations in his body of work.  In fact, the bulk of his filmography is sourced from previously published works of literature; from best-sellers like Stephen King’s The Shining (1980) to obscure novellas like Arthur Schnitzler’s “Traumnovelle” which was the basis for his final film Eyes Wide Shut (1999).  And all of those adaptations range from faithful, to completely divorced from the original text.  For Stanley Kubrick, it’s always been the stories that have captivated him the most, or to be more exact, how the story can be shaped through his vision.  Kubrick was always a visual filmmaker first and foremost, so the appeal of these stories more or less based on how they formed within his own imagination.  That’s probably why he was so drawn to the futurism of Arthur C. Clarke, or the unflinching war stories of Gustav Hasford, or the class critiques of William Makepeace Thackery.  More often than not, Kubrick’s stamps on these stories become so iconic that the stories become more identified with him than with their original authors (such as with The Shining, much to King’s dismay).  But if there was one film where the author’s voice still manages to shine through even with Kubrick’s vision, it is with Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1971).  It was a bit shocking when Kubrick decided to adapt Burgess’ 1962 dystopian novel about violent street thugs and authoritarian regimes as his follow-up to his massive space opera 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  It wasn’t unusual for Kubrick to adapt controversial novels to the big screen, like he had with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1962), but A Clockwork Orange had since it’s original publication been known to be a notoriously hard to adapt to the screen as well as controversial for it’s content, which was scandalous for it’s time.  Still, Kubrick saw something in the story that appealed to his tastes as a filmmaker, and with the surprising backing of a major studio like Warner Brothers, he set to make the un-filmable filmable.

Anthony Burgess, the author of A Clockwork Orange, never saw himself primarily as a creative writer.  He was foremost a musician and a scholar, finding vocation in linguistics, where he would provide translations for various literary and musical works from around the world.  In his time as an academic, he would write satirical works, which often ran afoul of the social establishment in England at the time.  In the early 1960’s, Burgess suffered a health scare, where he was misdiagnosed with having a brain tumor.  Worrying that his time would run out soon, he frantically put his writing skills to work to create a novel that he hoped to sell before his death in order to give his wife support after he was gone.  The tome was completed in a remarkable three weeks, and not soon after, Burgess learned that he was not in fact dying.  Still, he had a book now that he could sell and it would end up becoming the the novel that he would be forever known for; A Clockwork Orange.  Based on a real event that occurred to Burgess and is wife during the London Blitz, where they were robbed and assaulted in their home by deserters from the American army in the blackout, Clockwork Orange was a dark, satirical look at the extremes of society.  Those extremes would of course be the fanatical violent indulgences of an un-disciplined population of youth and the authoritarian over reach of law and order trying to pacify it.  Essentially it was a novel examining the exercise of free will, and the fine line that society walks between freedom and order.   Burgess ultimately had written a novel that would cause controversy, but to what extant he didn’t know.  Many critics believed that his novel, with it’s frank depictions of sex and violence, were almost endorsements of those kinds of actions.  The novel is entirely told through the eyes of it’s young “ultraviolent” protagonist, who for long passages in the novel relishes in the horrific actions that he undertakes.  But, with Burgess putting us in the POV of such a violent character, he is also asking us to consider what the best course of action would be right to deal with such a character.  As we watch his re-habilitation through his perspective, Burgess is making us consider the idea that the solution may be even worse than the problem.

“Real horrorshow! Initiative comes to thems that wait.  I’ve taught you much, my little droogies.”

It is interesting to examine Kubrick’s take on the writings of Anthony Burgess in the film A Clockwork Orange, because out of all his adaptations, this is the closest Kubrick has ever gotten to making a film exactly like the source novel.  Initially, Anthony Burgess was commissioned by Warner Brothers to draft a screenplay for Kubrick, but the director ultimately declined to use it.  Apparently, Burgess’ screenplay was even more violent that the novel.  Ultimately, Kubrick would adapt the book himself, and some would argue that he barely even followed his own script on set.  Sometimes he would just show up on set with the novel in hand, and plan his scenes based on that.  That’s why when you read the book and watch the movie, you will see almost complete parity.  There are of course some minor tweaks that Kubrick made to get the source material to a point where it met his vision.  One of the very obvious changes was in the ages of his characters.  The protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, a hoodlum teenager named Alex, commits horrific acts like violent assaults, robbery, rape, and even murder, and all at the age of 15.  This, of course, wouldn’t fly with any film studio, so Kubrick made the choice to age up Alex to a young man on the verge of adulthood.  The same goes for his victims, as some of them are also underage in the book.  But, even with that, the film maintains nearly every other aspect of the novel; from it’s first person narrative point of view, to it’s near futuristic setting, to the graphic depictions of sex and violence which in it’s day earned the film the ever dreaded X Rating.  Yet, even with it’s risky nature, the film was success in it’s time, and probably to an extent that worried both Kubrick and Burgess in the years to come.


One of the aspects of the movie that wins praise from the literary community is the incredible realization of the character of Alex.  Alex DeLarge, as he is named in the film, is one of the most fascinating characters to have ever been put on screen.  The success of the film largely is due to how well the character works on screen, considering that it all revolves around him.  One of the things that mattered in the casting of the character was finding an actor who could embody the entire arc that the character goes through, from the out of control delinquent that we literally meet in frame one to the broken down reformed young man who struggles to adjust in a world that he had a hand in making worse.  For the part of Alex, Kubrick found his ideal performer in young actor Malcolm McDowell.  McDowell, who was in his mid-twenties at the time of filming, managed to embody the anarchic teenage fury of the character to perfection.  What probably helped McDowell land the part was his breakout performance in English filmmaker Lindsey Anderson’s If…(1968), where he played a rebellious student at a stuffy English boarding school.  McDowell would proved to be not just right for the part, but he even brought elements to the character that made him stand out from the page even more.  Apparently, the now iconic white uniforms with bowler hats black boots, and codpieces that Alex and his gang of “Droogs” wear in the film were inspired by Cricket gear that McDowell would come to the set wearing.  Another thing that Malcolm is famous for bringing to the film is an entirely improvised scene where Alex and the Droogs attack an author (played by Patrck Magee) and his wife.  The moment from the book is clearly inspired by the real life incident that Anthony Burgess endured, but Stanley felt it needed something more, so he asked Malcolm to do a little dance while he was in the middle of the attack.  Malcolm, as a result broke into a rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain,” making the already horrifying moment all the more darker with the inclusion of such a cheerful song.  After shooting the scene, Kubrick got on the phone and called Warner Brothers to secure the rights for the song, knowing that Malcolm had made the perfect subversive choice.

One other thing that is remarkable about Malcolm’s portrayal of Alex in the film is that he was able to master the unique language of Burgess’ novel.  Anthony Burgess invented a special dialect spoken by Alex and his gang called “Nadsat,” which is a combination of Russian and Cockney slang.  Not only did the Yorkshire born and raised Malcolm have to wrap his mind around this unusual new accent, but he had to do so as part of the character’s inner monologue as well.  The effect works out really well, as it makes Alex even distinctive within the film amongst the other characters also speaking this new dialect.  Malcolm gives Alex’s inner monologue this eerily sinister tone, which shows that even as his violent tendencies are suppressed by his reform, the dark aspect of his character is always still there underneath.  A lot of the Nadsat dialogue that is found in the novel is something that may given the novel the reputation of being un-filmable, so it is interesting to see Kubrick not only embrace it in his adaptation, but also keep it intact word for word.   In many ways, the dialect is key to the satire of the story, as it is representative of the social divisions between generations that drive the people in the story to their extremes.  The authoritarian government types that mean to suppress Alex’s violent tendencies speak with an authoritative and refined tone, much in contrast to Alex’s free-wheeling slang.  But of course as we see in the novel and the film, civility is not necessarily defined by the manner in which the character speaks. The upper class and highly educated types in the novel, from the government officials to the doctors conditioning Alex during this treatment, to even the radical political writer all have their own evil ends on which Alex finds himself in the middle of.  For Burgess in his writing, he is showing that no one is blameless in the story; Alex is more a product of the evils of polite society rather than just an anomaly within it.

“The pain and sickness all over me like an animal.  Then I realized what it was.  The music coming up from the floor was our old friend, Ludwig Van, and the dreaded Ninth Symphony.”

One of the interesting aspects of the novel is seeing how the extremes play against each other.  We see Alex for the monster that he is from the beginning, and know from the start that he is a character beyond redemption.  But, Burgess also challenges the idea of how we must as a society respond to such a monster.  In the story, Alex undergoes a treatment called the Ludavico Technique, which is a form of behavioral modification done through aversion therapy.  Mainly, it involves Alex being subjected to images of violent actions while being administered a drug that induces sickness, thereby causing him to revert to sick feelings whenever he feels a tendency to act in a violent manner.  Unfortunately for him, while they are administering the treatment, he recognizes the background music as that of his favorite composer Beethoven (“Lovely Ludwig Van”).  As as result, the same treatment now renders him docile with his favorite music as well; which is even more torturous for him.  Both the novel and the movie do an effective job of portraying the benign evil of this experimental treatment, and the de-humanizing aspect of it.  As much as Alex is deserving of punishment for his crimes, the Ludavico Technique is portrayed as an especially gruesome form of torture.  It for one is especially shocking to see actor Malcolm McDowell strapped to a chair with his eyelids clamped open, and have it not be a special effect.  McDowell really put himself through that, and the clamps at one point did really scratch his eyeball, which he thankfully recovered from.  But one can’t help but watch that scene and feel unease about what is being done to Alex.  As bad as he is, the solution should not be equal or worse to the crimes committed.  And this is what Anthony Burgess intended his readers to think about.  He must of thought of horrible things that he wanted to see done to his attackers, and then he began to self-reflect on what that reveals about him.  A society too comfortable with violence as a response to violence is one that he saw as especially perceptible to authoritarian leanings.

What may be the most monumental difference between the book and the film is the famous “missing chapter.”  Anthony Burgess’ original novel is comprised of 21 chapters.  Broken into three parts, the 21 chapters show the progression of Alex’s character from out of control youth, to pawn of the state’s response to the problem of violence, to ultimately a victim himself.  The book’s title comes from the cockney phrase, “queer as a clockwork orange,” which provides an even deeper meaning as the main argument of the novel itself.  The idea of a “clockwork orange” is the absurd idea of taking something that is supposed to grow organically and force a mechanical working upon it.  Mainly, a “clockwork orange” is something, or someone, who has been forced to change their own nature in order to conform to society.  The movie follows this aspect from the novel, except for the end.  In Burgess’ original novel, the final 21st chapter finds Alex returning to his old ways after the treatment wears off.  But, as he has a run in with one of his old Droogs, who has changed on his own to live a better life, it makes Alex reconsider his own choices.  And the novel concludes with Alex finally choosing to change; with his own free will and not through the influence of social pressure or forced treatment.  In this final chapter, Burgess states a hopefulness for humanity, where even the worst kinds of people are capable of change, if they are allowed to naturally grow up.  Kubrick on the other hand leaves out this final chapter, which was also excluded in the published version in the United States.  Kubrick’s interests were more geared towards the corruption of the society that forced it’s morality on Alex while not addressing it’s own evil inclinations.  The movie concludes with Alex reverting back to his old ways, but not with the hopeful note of personal growth.  In a way, it makes the movie more cynical than the book with regards to it’s view on violence, showing that the opposite sides of Alex’s anarchy and the oppressive government meaning to eliminate him are in for a never-ending cycle.  In some ways, the oppression possibly made Alex even more inclined to villainy, as he sinisterly claims “I was cured alright.”

“Goodness comes from within.  Goodness is chosen.  When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”

Despite winning acclaim upon it’s release, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange proved to be a little too potent for society at the time.  A string of gang violence took off in the months after the film’s release in Great Britain, with some of the thugs imitating the likes of Alex and the Droogs in their crimes.  Kubrick was so worried about the effect that his movie was having, that he took it upon himself to have it pulled from exhibition in Britain, and the film would remain out of print in the U.K. for the rest of his lifetime; though it still was widely available in the U.S., where it developed a classic status.  Anthony Burgess did praise Kubrick’s work on the film adaptation, but in later years he tried to distance himself from the film and the novel, believing that it unfairly painted him in a scandalous light.  Over time, people have come to recognize the film less as a dangerous, exploitational film and more as the darkly comic satire that Burgess intended it to be.  There will still be debates over whether Kubrick was right to excise the more hopeful final chapter, but there is little doubt that he created a masterpiece that has greatly withstood the test of time.  From that unforgettable first opening shot (one of the greatest in cinematic history) in the Korova Milk Bar, to the anarchic energy of the film’s opening act, to the way that Kubrick uses music in his story telling (both in the classic renditions as well as the synth modified recordings by composer Wendy Carlos), the movie is a film that continually surprises in every scene.  Of all of the adaptations that Stanley Kubrick put onto film, Antony Burgess’ writing feels more in line with his tastes as an artist than anything else he has made.  It’s like the two were meant to be; Kubrick needed a story with a voice as unique as Burgess’ and Burgess needed a visionary eye like Kubrick’s to make his world come to life.  And of course the unforgettable performance by Malcolm McDowell helped to make Alex an icon of cinema that will forever be remembered.  You just know that you’re in for a wild ride when the first thing you see after the titles is the main actor staring creepily right down the barrel of the camera lens.  Kubrick’s artistry makes a statement to be sure, but the message from Burgess about the need for free will in the human experience also shines through, even with all the extremes.  Viddy well, little brother.  Viddy well.

“Great Bolshy Yarblockos to you.”

The Summer of Strike – What’s At Stake with the Dual SAG-AFTRA and WGA Strikes

As a society, we the audience have been overwhelmed with an abundance of entertainment over the last few years.  The streaming revolution of the 2010’s began a flurry of investment in new tv shows and movies on a scale unseen before.  While it was fortuitous for us the consumers, who were witnessing what we saw as a Golden Age of Television and a mega-blockbuster period at the box office, all of this unfortunately came at a cost.  The talent behind these shows were working doubly hard to meet the high demand of the new order of things in Hollywood, with streaming becoming the newest platform for distribution, but they were doing so under an outdated compensation standard.  Contracts for all the actors, writers and directors over the last decade have been made under the standard that was set after the 2007-08 Writers’ Strike, which had an ill-defined definition of what streaming content would be.  Back in 2007, YouTube was still in it’s infancy and Netflix was still sending out disc rentals in the mail.  What we know now as streaming wasn’t even on Hollywood’s radar at the time, so the deal made to end the writers strike in 2008 was based on the idea that internet based entertainment was experimental and work done on the platform by Guild talent needed to be compensated differently from the model of residuals for television and home video.  Since then, the streaming platforms, which have grown to become a major part of the Hollywood ecosystem in the 15 years since, have exploited this outdated system of compensation, paying their talent a fraction of what they normally would get through the old residual model for television and yet they were expecting the same talent to work double time to meet the high demand for new content on their platforms.  Of course, the Guild recognize this is a problem and they are now exercising their right to demand a new deal.

The Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) made the first move at the start of this summer, initiating a strike for the first time since the monumental 2007-08 strike.  While the original strike 15 years ago was rough on the industry and ultimately fruitless, this strike has been much differently received, not just within the Hollywood community but on the national stage as well.  The vote to authorize this strike was approved by near unanimous consent in a vote by both wings of the Guild, and without an eleventh hour deal struck by May 1st of this year, the strike would proceed with all members stopping work.  Now, the immediate effect may not have been felt too far and wide in the industry, at least to the outside consumer.  Movie deals made before the strike would continue.  Movie premieres would go on as scheduled.  The only noticeable immediate effect was the abrupt halt on production of daily and weekly talk shows on television (your Jimmy Kimmels, your Steven Colberts, you Drew Barrymores, your Saturday Night Live’s, etc.)  But, the longer the strike runs, the more projects in the pipeline for the studios dries up, and at this point, it becomes a waiting game to see who feels the pinch first; the writers or the studios.  Thankfully for the WGA, the widespread support from across the industry has been tremendous.  One thing that the WGA has this time around that they didn’t in the last strike was the backing of not just the other Hollywood Guilds, but also the Teamsters and IATSE unions that provide the crews for so many productions in the industry.  These incredibly powerful unions have pledged to not cross any picket lines on productions that have not received a waiver from any of the Hollywood guilds, which helps the WGA union out greatly with putting the pressure on the studios.

The WGA also received another boost this last month as they were joined on the picket lines by The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA).  The 160,000 member strong guild has comparatively much bigger pull over the industry than the 25,000 in the DGA, and having them marching alongside the writers for the same cause at this crucial time is a big deal.  Hollywood hasn’t seen a double strike like this since 1960, when SAG and the WGA fought to get residual compensation from the then burgeoning industry of television.  Ironically, the SAG strike at that time was led by their then president Ronald Reagan, who in later years would become a notoriously anti-union President of the United States.  This time around, actress Fran Drescher of The Nanny fame is leading the charge against the studios, and her resolve to get a fair deal for her union thus far seems to be genuine and passionate.  One thing that the two unions have done well so far is taking control of the narrative of the strike.  Utilizing social media to spread the message (something that they didn’t quite have to their benefit during the last strike), both the actors and writers have made their case very well to the public at large.  One of the smartest moves has been for the individual members of the guilds to post on their social media pages an image of their most recent residual checks that they receive for their work on some of the biggest shows and movies on streaming, and spotlight just how little they are actually getting paid for their hard work.  This is to counter the typical argument made by the arbiters of the studio side of the negotiations, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), that the Guild members are rich ungrateful prima donnas; essentially millionaires fighting against billionaires.  The idea that this fight is to make the already wealthy even wealthier is absurd, as the vast majority of Guild members would be considered working class, and these social media posts of the residual checks are a great way of showing that they are indeed paid much lower than you would expect.

The AMPTP has tried in vain to paint this strike as a ploy for publicity for the elites, and as a result they have foolishly shown their hand in the game.  Disney CEO Bob Iger made a huge mistake early on in the strike by publicly calling the guild demands unreasonable; a statement that resulted in the Guild becoming even more emboldened.  Another anonymous member of the AMPTP also was exposed by a statement where he or she said that the aim was to see the Writers and Actors loose their homes and Apartments before they would be willing to negotiate.  This rather ruthless statement was probably put out there to strike fear in the other Guilds to prevent them from striking out of concern that it would ruin their careers, but the opposite effect actually occurred; solidarity is stronger than ever.  There is concern about how long each side can endure, however, because the longer that the two side refuse to negotiate, the more it puts pressure on the rest of the movie industry as well as all of the other industries that rely upon them.  Movie theaters, which have been on shaky ground since the end of Covid, were hoping a return to normal business would’ve occurred by now, and instead they are anticipating another round of movie release delays and fewer films to fill their screens.  And there are of course the local economies that depend on having their populations of guild members receiving steady income to help boost their local businesses.  With the two sides at a standstill, it may come down to the state and local governments to intercede to help mediate a fair deal.  The 2007-08 Writers Strike cost the California economy billions of dollars, and that’s something that the government and tax payers across the southland don’t need right now.

So, what is the thing that has caused the stalemate in this season of striking.  The primary sticking point would seem to be the residual part.  Residuals are an extended payments to people who worked on a film or television series based on the re-airings of those programs after their initial release.  If a show like Friends gets to play multiple times in re-runs on a variety of different stations, the cast and crew of that show will get a piece of the profits made from that re-airings, based on the frequency of airings and the percentage that was agreed upon in their contracts.  This was a revolutionary deal made after the 1960, which insured that no actor or writer would lose out on the extra money that was being made off of their work long after it was complete.  This helped to make both acting and writing a lucrative profession that could help support a robust work force in Hollywood with strong living wages.  Then, alone came streaming.  Streaming for the most part has been exempt from the residual standards made after the last deal in the pre-streaming era.  Because the income for streamers is subscription based, the money made is not based on things that had become industry standards before like total viewership and ad revenue.  Instead, the total viewership on streaming has been kept a closely guarded secret, which some believe has been the streamers way of exploiting a residual loophole.  The disparity of what the actors and writers make in residuals versus how the shows are performing is becoming very apparent.  Actress Kimiko Glenn spoke about her experience of overhearing Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos gloating about the high viewership of a show she was on called Orange is the New Black (which according to Sarandos was being watched more than Game of Thrones on HBO) and yet she was not seeing any of that success reflected in her residuals for the show.  From what we are hearing from the Actors and Writers on strike, it is much more the streaming side of the AMPTP that has refused to budge when it comes to the residual side of the contracts, because to meet the Guilds’ demands would be opening themselves up to more transparency on the actual viewership numbers of their programs, which I don’t think they are keen on exposing.

One other troubling aspect is how the studios are abusing the hard work that has been put into these movie and shows in the streaming era.  As stated before, the industry has been operating under contracts made with the Guilds that pre-date the standards of streaming.  As a result, the different studios have been able to undermine Guild guidelines under the definition of this being “new media,” therefore able to be more flexible when it comes to staffing and compensation.  When streaming was more experimental and something of a start-up, this was more acceptable under the standards set by the Guilds, but now that streaming has grown to encompass nearly half of all the theatrical and television markets, upending the previously recognized network and cable package standards, it can no longer be acceptable to call streaming a start-up.  Almost every studio has jumped on board the streaming craze, with Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal, and Paramount all launching their own platforms in the last five years, competing with mega-corporate competitors like Amazon, Netflix and Apple.  Sure, this has led to an insane amount of new movies and shows to watch in that time, but at the same time, the studios are also exploiting the work of their creative talent in order to meet that high demand.  This includes the elimination of extensive writers rooms that helped to deliver quality scripts in a timely manner.  Now, the streamers are favoring what is called “mini-rooms” which is the practice of having big shows made with fewer writers.  If you’ve noticed a lower standard of writing on many streaming shows in recent years, this is a direct result of these small teams of writers being stretched too thin.  In some cases, entire seasons are now being written by a mere handful or even just one writer, which is not helpful in creating a well-balanced show.  But even more troubling for creatives in the industry is that because of streaming being a digital based distribution model, the studios have more control over the lifespan of a film or show put on their platform.  If the movie or show doesn’t perform well, the studio can choose to pull it off the platform completely and collect a tax write off for the loss.  If the media didn’t get a physical copy release to coincide along with their streaming premiere, then that program is just gone, because in order to get that tax write off, the studio cannot profit off of it ever again.  We are now seeing a disturbing rise in what is called “lost media” and it should anger the creatives in the business that the studios are cashing in by eliminating their hard work from existence.

And then of course there is the increasing existential threat that is hanging over the heads of creatives on all sides of Hollywood; the rise of AI technology in filmmaking.  While AI hasn’t quite reached the level of creating a whole movie or show whole cloth out of nothing, the emergence of AI platforms like ChatGPT which can replicate informative text based on user prompts has rightfully raised concerns amongst many creatives in Hollywood.  Like most unionized industries, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are concerned that Hollywood will someday replace man power with robots and computers, and that that day is coming sooner rather than later.  If “mini-rooms” was a concerning result of the streaming era, than the threat of AI eliminating writers rooms altogether is even more alarming.  One argument that the writers do have in their arsenal against this is that while platforms like ChatGPT can produce a lot of text very quickly, it can’t create something new.  It is basically advanced plagiarism; scouring the vast amount of information on the internet to form something resembling a new script, but is really just a jigsaw puzzle of things that have already been written.  One of the best picket line signs that went viral on the internet at the start of the strike read “ChatGPT does not have childhood trauma,” which is a good way of stating that AI cannot replicate the lived in experience that writers put into their own work.  Sure, Hollywood can just keep repeating old and tired gimmicks ad nauseum and AI would help churn those projects out quickly, but what really keeps the industry going are new and surprising things.  Could AI create something like the Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)?  I doubt it.  The threat of AI also extends to the concerns of SAG-AFTRA too.  It’s been discovered that some background actors in the Guild had been offered a fee to have their likeness scanned into a database and then the studios that own those scans could use them in perpetuity in whatever they want without the consent of the actor to decide what it’s used for.  This is a disturbing abuse of technology to move more creatives out of the process of filmmaking, and making it more possible for studios to have their entire creative output become more automated.  The Guilds are rightfully using this opportunity while this technology is still in it’s infancy to put up guard rails and ensure that the studios do not misuse this technology, and more importantly, ensure that ordinary actors and writers have the power to consent to how this technology based on their input is used.

Much more than perhaps any other strike to hit Hollywood, this one represents an inflection point that will determine the future of what the movie industry will be for generations to come.  This is much more important than pay raises; this is about preserving the ability to make filmmaking a career pursuit worth striving for.  People want to be in the movie-making business because they are story tellers and have been inspired by the films and television shows that ignited their creative flames.  But, the way that the streaming era has upended the previously agreed upon standards of the industry, we see a Hollywood that seems less concerned about pleasing their creatives and their audience, and more concerned about pleasing their shareholders.  The streaming wars have grown into this unsustainable arms race to have the most robust subscriber base in the market, while at the same time undercutting the compensation for the creatives that worked hard to deliver this glut of new content for the streamers in order to keep costs down.  The Guilds are rightly raising the alarm and showing that they are increasingly being pushed out of the creative process as studios are driving the creative decisions more and more, and even looking to AI technology to eliminate the human factor altogether.  It’s become less about what stream has the best shows and movies and more about who has the most.  The studios have felt the strain as well, as the Big Five studios are all seeing their investments into streaming turning into a money pit, while the mega-corporate giants like Apple and Amazon can endure the strain of this increased competition longer.  Those streamers as we learned are the big holdouts and it’s likely that the executive who was cheering on the financial woes of the striking writers and actors probably came from from one of them.  What matters now is that the WGA and SAG-AFTRA continue to stay strong in solidarity.  The WGA strike is now over 100 days old and the SAG-AFTRA is over 20, and the studios are no closer to getting the unions to their breaking point.  In fact, support has only increased.  The picketers are braving a heat wave here in California, and their spirits have not been deterred.  Hopefully, for everyone’s sake, a fair deal is reached soon and that it will hopefully lead to a brighter future for the industry.  SAG-AFTRA and WGA Strong!!!

Top Ten Moments From Disney Animation… So Far

The Walt Disney Company is unlike the other big studios that make up Hollywood.  While the likes of Universal, Warner Brothers, and Paramount built up their brands with their stables of stars and filmmakers, Disney came to prominence a different way.  They had their own stars, but they weren’t dashing leading men or entrancing leading ladies; they were cartoons.  Begun a century ago in the back of a tiny law office in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, The Disney Brothers studio was born and out of that tiny back room grew one of the most powerful media empires the world has ever known.  Now the Disney Company has expanded to include other valuable brands like Star Wars, Marvel, 20th Century Studios, as well as having a major foothold in theme parks and even it’s own cruise line.  But, even with all that growth, Animation is still at the core of the studio.  The character of Mickey Mouse undoubtedly was responsible for making Disney what it is, but what has also come to define Disney over it’s 100 years are their historic milestones that pushed the medium of animation further.  Not every invention in animation can be credited back to Disney, but they are responsible for mainstreaming innovations.  It was going to be inevitable that someone would attempt a feature length animated film, but it took the initiative of Walt Disney and his artists to actually take that first step, even when many in the industry thought he was crazy.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), their first feature film, sparked a revolution in the art of animation, and all that followed for Disney can be attributed to that success.  In the 85 years since Snow White, the Disney Animation Studio has produced 61 feature films, with the upcoming Wish (2023) marking their 62nd this November.  This group of films has come to be known as the Disney Canon; an official grouping of films linked  back to Snow White and meant to stand apart from all the rest of the films made at Disney.

In the Disney Canon, there are six distinct eras; the Golden Age (1937-42), the War Years (1943-49), the Silver Age (1950-67), the post-Walt Dark Age (1968-88), the Disney Renaissance (1989-2004) and the Digital Age (2005-present).  From all of these names, you can imagine the different shifts the Disney company went through, and the movies released in these eras are very much reflective of that.  The Golden, Silver, and Renaissance years were times of incredible growth and prosperity for Disney, whereas the War Years and the Dark Age were very disruptive.  But even during those disruptive years, Disney still produced a lasting classic every now and then, like The Three Caballeros (1945) in the War Years, and Robin Hood (1973) in the Dark Ages.  Looking over all of the Disney Canon films, it really is interesting to see the evolution of animation playing out before you as each film is it’s own time capsule.  And in many of the films, there are moments that remain iconic no matter what age it is.  These are the moments that stick with us for years afterwards and they are also the moments that have come to define the Disney name in the pop culture.  What follows is what I think are the Top Ten Moments from Disney Animation that have appeared so far throughout the years.  I’m drawing solely from the Disney Canon and at 9 decades and 61 films worth of material to go through, there are some tough choices about what to leave in and out.  So, with all that said, here are the Top Ten Disney Animation far.



Disney is most well known for their lavish, Broadway style musical numbers and slapsticky cartoon hijinks.  What they are less well known for is staging epic battle scenes.  Sure, there have been climatic one-on-one battles, but a harrowing battle featuring armies numbering in the hundreds is something very out of character for them.  That’s not to say they couldn’t do it; all they needed was the right story.  They eventually found such a story with the Chinese legend of Mulan, the girl who impersonated a man in order to join the army.  The movie Mulan does an admirable job at building a captivating story around it’s heroine, but where the film really excels as a work of animation is in it’s staging of it’s more epic moments.  The film made use of the studio’s new innovative computer enhanced animation tools, which included the ability to fill a scene with literally hundreds of characters with a crowd simulator.  The most amazing use of this tool is found in a harrowing battle scene on the slop of a mountain.  Drawing inspiration from filmmakers such as David Lean and Akira Kurosawa, this battle against the Huns showcases a level of scale and scope never seen before in a Disney animated film, or any animation up to that point in fact.  You really get the sense of the overwhelming odds on screen, as the villainous Shan-Yu leads the charge down the slope, followed by all of his soldiers spilling over the crest on horseback in a seemingly unending horde.  Impressive as the effect is, the movie also gives us a surprising twist as Mulan uses her quick witted thinking to defeat the enemy single handedly, by launching a cannon at the mountaintop, causing an avalanche.  To this day, even with all the advances in computer animation, this scene still manages to wow, mainly because of the epic way it is staged.  You really get the sense of scale that Disney’s animators were trying to go for, and as a result, it shows that they could do so much more than just the cartoon stuff.



The movie that sparked the beginning of Disney’s Silver Age is also one of the more grounded of the era.  Sure, talking mice is a fanciful touch, but Cinderella’s dilemmas are much more grounded in reality than the typical Disney fairy tale narrative.  Our heroine is not under some curse, or is the key to solving a magical riddle.  She is a poor soul being tortured and humiliated in her own home by a wicked Stepmother and her vain step-sisters.  Where the fairy tale element of the story comes in is at the moment Cinderella hits her lowest point; after the step-sisters have torn her dress to shreds, preventing her from attending the Royal Ball.  As she loses all hope for happiness, that’s when the Fairy Godmother arrives and works her magic.  The whole scene that follows is pure Disney magic, as the Fairy Godmother gifts her a full royal entourage out of all the animals in the garden and a magnificent carriage out of a pumpkin.  Set to the memorable tune of “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo,” the whole sequence is a delight, but it reaches it’s high point when the absent minded Fairy Godmother finally remembers that Cinderella is in need of a dress.  And the moment Cinderella’s dress forms out of the rags of the old one may just be one of the most iconic single moments in animation ever.  Drawn by the iconic animator Marc Davis, one of Disney’s notable Nine Old Men, this moment really shows you what animation is capable of in contrast to any other form of filmmaking.  Any live action effect, especially in that time, couldn’t effectively do the same as what animation was capable of in realizing that moment, from the swirling of magic dust all around her to how the dress itself forms fluidly from the rags that Cinderella is wearing.  And it’s an iconic dress as well, complete with the all important glass slippers.  It may not be one of Disney’s flashiest moments, but it is one of the most magical.



The Digital Age of Disney Animation is one that is still trying to find it’s identity compared to eras of the past, and for many die hard Disney Animation fans, they have a harder time finding things to love about computer animation when contrasted with the hand drawn films.  But there are certainly moments that are too good to ignore from this period in time, and one of the most iconic naturally comes from the biggest hit of this era.  The movie Frozen is noteworthy in the Disney Canon for a lot of things, but the moment that everyone remembers in the film is the show-stopping musical number “Let it Go.”  After fleeing her kingdom and finding herself in exile in the chilly mountains that border those lands, Queen Elsa resolves to cast aside the fear and self-loathing that caused her to hide her ice-based power for so long.  In doing so, she finally gives herself the motivation to “let it go” and take her power to the extreme without any inhabitations.  The song itself is quite the uplifting number, but the sequence definitely reaches it’s high point when Elsa begins to create a palace of ice on the mountain peak.  Shown in an incredible one shot, we see the foundations of the palace rise right out of the snowy slopes, followed by the cathedral like walls and then finally in a magnificent snowflake chandelier.  The way the virtual camera floats through this whole sequence is what really makes the scene special, putting us right in the middle of the magic.  And even after that breathtaking tracking shot, we get another magical moment as Elsa uses her power to change her royal garb into a icy blue and white gown.  Out of all the movies of the Disney Digital Age, this is the moment that still rings out as iconic almost a decade later, and it easily stands as one of the most memorable in the Disney Canon.



It would be wrong to overlook an iconic moment from the movie that started it all.  When Walt Disney first proposed to make a feature length film at his studio, many in Hollywood thought he was crazy.  “Disney’s Folly” is what they called it, and there were several in the industry that believed it was impossible to hold an audience’s attention for more than the average 7-10 minutes when it came to animation.  But, Walt Disney persisted, believing quite rightly that this was the future of the medium.  His team of animators pushed themselves to innovate and take animation in a direction that could believably support such a monumental project.  In the end, they managed to go above and beyond, with Snow White not just showing that a feature length animated film was possible, but that it’s story could rival anything told in live action.  The animators really got a sense of how successful they were when they attended the film’s premiere at the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles.  At the climax of the film, Snow White is put into a death like sleep by a poisoned apple given to her by her step mother, The Queen, in the disguise of a hag.  The Seven Dwarves eventually chase down the Queen, who receives her comeuppance falling off a high cliff, but they return home believing their beloved Snow White is slain.  They chose not to bury her, instead placing her in a glass coffin in the forest, where the Prince pays her a visit to share his own grief.  He gives her a kiss, and this act magically revives the sleeping Snow White, leading to a triumphant celebration.  What struck the animators at the premiere was that they were seeing members of the audience, including A-List stars, openly weeping in the theater.  One of Disney’s animator’s, Ward Kimball, recalled the moment in amazement, realizing that what the audience was crying at was just a stack of drawings.  This showed that Disney transcended the medium of animation and could tell a story as captivating as any other made in Hollywood.  These were no longer just drawings; they were fully fleshed out characters whose stories could make you forget that you were watching a cartoon.



Sometimes the most magical moments in Disney movies don’t have to have actual magic.  Sometimes it can be something as simple as a Spaghetti and Meatball dinner.  That’s the case with this iconic moment from Lady and the Tramp.  The movie is one of Disney’s more grounded films, with a simple love story told from the point of view of dogs.  Lady is a cocker spaniel from a nice neighborhood, while Tramp is a mangy mutt from the rough side of town.  Circumstances bring them together, as Tramp helps Lady remove a muzzle forced on her by a  cruel new caretaker.  Still far from home and afraid to return, Lady needs some guidance, so Tramp agrees to show her around town.  Eventually they arrive at Tony’s Restaurant, one of his favorite haunts where the namesake owner is always happy to give him a handout.  Upon seeing that Tramp this time has company, Tony has the idea to give the two more than just scraps.  Tony gives them a full spaghetti dinner, complete with candlelight ambiance and Tony and his assistant Joe giving them a musical serenade.  In the real world, this would all be absurd, but in the hands of Disney’s animators it becomes one of the most romantic moments in cinema history.  The song, “Bella Notte” is itself a beautiful tune, and it perfectly sets the tone for the scene.  Of course the iconic moment that everyone remembers is when Lady and Tramp both start to chew and swallow the same strand of spaghetti, causing their heads to be pulled closer together until they lock lips.  Lady bashfully looks away and Tramp gallantly pushes a meatball closer to her.  The moment is so subtle and beautiful, and one of the most sublimely romantic moments ever put on film.  And it’s all the more remarkable that they are doing this with dogs as the main characters.  It’s a far more mature take on finding love than the standard fairy tale love at first sight.  Here, we see love bloom in the most unexpected way, and it’s a moment that still continues to delight many years later.



The Disney Renaissance marked a high point for Disney Animation.  After languishing in the Dark Ages of the post-Walt Disney years, Animation made a triumphant return with the release of The Little Mermaid (1989).  Of the Disney Renaissance films, none was bigger than The Lion King, a film that truly showed that Disney had grown bolder in it’s storytelling during this transformative era.  The Lion King was epic in scale, showcasing the vast wilds of the African savannah in a majestic tapestry of beautiful naturalistic animation.  It very much was a Disney film in the grand tradition that came before, but it also was innovative in a lot of other respects.  Computer animation had been coming a long way through the other films prior in the Renaissance Era, but in The Lion King, they created one of the most complex scenes that had ever been done in animation.  With the intent of killing both the king and his son in one fell swoop, the deceiving villain Scar lures his nephew Simba into a trap, unknowing of the peril he’s about to get into.  Simba is brought into a canyon where a huge herd of wildebeests are forcibly chased into, creating a stampede in which Simba is right in the path of.  The moment is truly terrifying, as the Disney animators used for the first time a duplication software that allowed them to create a limitless amount of wildebeests, making the horde heading Simba’s way to be an overwhelming force.  It’s the same software used in the battle from Mulan, but here it’s even more impactful.  When the wildebeests begin to crest over the ridge of the canyon, you get the feeling of dread of an oncoming storm, and the filmmakers punctuate that moment with a simulated smash zoom onto Simba’s terrified face.  Simba’s father Mufasa does eventually save him, but he’s overwhelmed by the sheer force of the wildebeest’s size and numbers.  Scar of course sabotages Mufasa’s escape, and it leads to one of the few on screen deaths in a Disney animated movie.  Though The Lion King has it’s fair share of iconic scenes, this is the one that has come to define the movie as an all time classic.



The Lion King may have been the most epic scale film of the Disney Renaissance era, but for the most action packed scene of this Age, you’d have to watch the movie that preceded it.  Aladdin is a magnificent ode to Golden Age Hollywood, with it’s incredible mix of high adventure, iconic music, and a general sense of campy fun.  In the most harrowing part of the film, Aladdin, deemed the “diamond in the rough,” is sent to retrieve a magical lamp from the Cave of Wonders.  The cave itself is vast and treacherous and Aladdin eventually finds the lamp high on a pedestal above a subterranean lake.  He takes the lamp, believing the worst is over, until he sees his monkey companion Abu trigger the self-destruct trap of the cave.  Massive boulders fall from the ceiling and the lake turns from water to lava instantly.  With the help of the Magic Carpet, Aladdin and Abu have a means to escape, but the lava lake magically follows after them in a fearsome tidal wave.  The flight through the cave itself is the moment that sets this scene apart.  While Aladdin and Abu are still hand drawn, their environments were completely rendered in computers, creating a 3D environment so complex it became immersive.  Sure it looks graphically primitive today; coming across just slightly more complex than a CD-ROM era video game, but in the early 90’s, this was ground-breaking.  Disney’s CGI team apparently looked to flight simulators, such as the one found in the Star Tours ride at Disneyland, for inspiration for this sequence, and it shows.  The flight through the cave definitely feels like you are on a ride with the characters, and it was a brilliant way to use computer graphics in a traditional animated film, helping them to do things that never had been seen before.  And it also fits well within the film’s whole general sense of fun.  Aladdin is a film full of moments that boldly pushes the limits of animation, and the Cave of Wonders sequence is where you especially see the film take things to it’s wildest and most edge of your seat potential.



Moving to a completely different tone in Disney Animation, there is one other thing that the studio has excelled at and that’s pulling at the heartstrings of it’s audience.  There are some definite heart-breaking moments in their movies, like the aforementioned death of Mufasa in The Lion King, or the reunion scene of Dumbo and his mother in Dumbo (1941).  But, if there was ever a moment in a Disney movie that left a scar on the hearts of generations of children, it’s the fate of Bambi’s Mother in the film Bambi.  Throughout the movie we are told of the ominous threat of “man” in the forest.  The incredible thing about the film is that you never once see a single human being, at yet their foreboding presence is felt throughout.  The only trace they leave in the film is the sound of a gunshot.  And that sound itself plays a very key role in the moment that defines this film.  On a seemingly normal morning, Bambi’s mother leads him to a fresh patch of grass they can feed on in the midst of a snowy field.  As they feast, the “man” theme begins to creep into the score.  Bambi’s mother’s sense flare up, and she tells her son to quickly run to shelter.  Bambi runs ahead, with his mother motivating him onward, and then “bang.”  Bambi makes it to the shelter unharmed, but he made it alone.  He heads back out just as a flurry of snow begins to fall, calling for his mom.  After a fruitless search, Bambi runs into the Great Prince of the Forest, his father, who sadly confirms his worst fear, that he won’t be seeing his mother anymore.  This was a shockingly harsh moment for a Disney film to have, especially in it’s early days.  Unlike so many of their other films, this one delivered a harsh truth about the real world.  Bambi’s mother was not going to come back through any type of magic; she was just gone and never coming back.  A lot of children probably learned a lot about mortality and dealing with grief from this moment in the film.  Disney has a history of tugging at heart-strings, but none broke our heart as much as this moment did.



The Silver Age of Disney came at a time when Hollywood was changing as a whole, embracing big widescreen epics as the answer to the rise of television.  Disney likewise embraced the widescreen medium as well, applying it to animation in innovative ways.  Lady and the Tramp was the first official widescreen film for Disney, but it was shot in that format in a last minute change-up, with much of the compositions on screen not really designed for the full wide frame.  Their follow-up, Sleeping Beauty would on the other hand be designed for widescreen from the get go.  And there are some incredible moments that beautifully utilize the full dimensions of the wide frame.  Of course, the one that stands out the most is the climatic battle at the end of the film, between Prince Phillip and the Mistress of All Evil herself, Maleficent.  The movie’s climatic battle, which sees Maleficent transform into a massive fire-breathing dragon, has become something of a gold standard for epic climaxes in other Disney movies.  You can see the battles against Jafar as a giant cobra in Aladdin and against Ursula as a giant version of herself in The Little Mermaid having been inspired by the battle against Maleficent’s Dragon in this movie.  It is a harrowing climax to a sequence that had already seen Phillip and the good fairies escape from giant rolling boulders, fireballs from the sky, and a forest of razor sharp thorns.  And the widescreen frame makes it feel even more grandiose, especially if you see this on a big screen.  The use of color in this scene also helps to heighten the tension, as the sky turn from somber grey to bright yellow as Maleficent’s inferno engulfs the whole scenery.  The dragon is only on screen a short while, but every second she’s there it is memorable.  The image of Prince Phillip tossing sword against a lunging dragon across the bright yellow sky is by itself a still image as great as any medieval work of art, and a perfect showcase of Disney Animation at the peak of it’s power.



All of the moments on this list left a lasting impression in it’s own way on both the film they were in as well as the era that they represented.  But there is a moment in Beauty and the Beast that exemplifies all of the tricks of the trade that Disney had built up to that moment in time all working together to create a truly pure cinematic moment that just stands above all in animation.  Set to the melody of the title song, Beauty and the Beast brings the film to another level as the two characters make their way to the ballroom.  Aladdin and The Lion King both had incredible moments that showcased incredible integration of CGI into traditional animation, but none were as sublime as what they accomplished with the ballroom scene in this film.  The way that the camera sweeps across the floor with Belle and the Beast and then shoots up into the ceiling is breathtaking, as is the spiral downward from the chandelier back down to the floor.  The moment is both complex and subtle at the same moment.  The computer animation team knew they could create even more dynamic camera movement, like they would eventually with the Cave of Wonders in Aladdin, but here it’s restrained enough to wow us, but also feel natural in it’s sweep.  The scene after all is meant to be romantic.  The camera’s trek in a way mirrors the balletic movement of the dancing duo.  And the integration of the traditionally animated characters into this three dimensional space is impressive, even by todays standards.  Here we see animation taken to it’s cinematic power.  It’s interesting to note that the filmmakers were unsure that they could pull the scene off, and even had a back up plan called the “ice capades” version, where Belle and the Beast would dance in complete darkness with a spotlight following them.  Thankfully the rendering of the 3D Ballroom worked out, and we have this iconic moment presented in it’s full glory.  Beauty and the Beast was the first ever animated film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and it probably helped that this iconic wow moment left so many audiences so enchanted by the film.  It may not have been the most exciting scene in a Disney film, but it is definitely the scene that showcased the animation studio working all of the knowledge of their long history of innovation into a pure cinematic moment.

So, there you have my picks for the most iconic moments in the first 100 years of Disney animation.  There were certainly many other moments that I wish I could’ve included, like the “Hellfire” sequence from The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), the Wizards Duel from The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice casting his first spell in Fantasia (1940), the Pink Elephants from Dumbo, Ariel hitting her high note with a wave crashing behind her in The Little Mermaid, the Big Ben fight in The Great Mouse Detective (1986), the flight to Neverland in Peter Pan (1953), and the escape from Monstro the Whale in Pinocchio (1940) to name a few.  Suffice to say, there is a proud legacy of iconic cinematic moments that have come out of the Disney Animation studio.  The moments that stand out the most however are the ones that surprise us the most, like the Ballroom from Beauty and the Beast, or the Spaghetti Dinner from Lady and the Tramp.  The death of Bambi’s mother is also one where the sheer brutality of that moment hits incredibly hard, making it memorable in a way that transcends the artform and makes us consider the morale meaning behind what we saw in that moment.  And of course, there are those moments that we remember because they just felt magical, like the moment when Cinderella gets her stunning ball gown.  Disney Animation just has that special ability to connect with their audience, and it’s managed to stay strong through a tradition of excellence and imagination that goes all the way back to when Walt and his tiny team of animators were working out of that back room in Los Feliz.  Hopefully that spirit of innovation and imagination continues to remain strong going into their second century.  For now, we have a long legacy of exceptional animated art from the most storied animation studio in the world, with a canon of films 61 one strong and growing.

Oppenheimer – Review

I know that you’re clicking on this to hear my thoughts on Christopher Nolan’s new big screen epic Oppenheimer, but before I get to that, I really want to delve into the strange phenomenon that is surrounding the release of this movie.  Back in 2020, Nolan was set to release his highly anticipate film Tenet (2020) into theaters; specifically in large format venues like he has for many of his previous films like The Dark Knight (2008), Interstellar (2014), and Dunkirk (2017).  Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic upended those plans, as theaters across the country were closed, especially in the big markets of New York and Los Angeles.  This made it impossible for Tenet to get the kind of roll out that Christopher Nolan preferred for his movies.  Being a champion for large format filmmaking, with 70mm IMAX being his go to choice in film stock, Nolan wanted to be sure that his movie would be getting the ideal release in theaters in the preferred format.  Unfortunately for him, Warner Brothers (the company behind the film) didn’t see eye to eye on his plans for the film.  They seemed more willing to release the film on streaming to help boost subscriptions for their then struggling launch of the HBO Max platform than sitting on the film for another year once theaters were ready to re-open.  Eventually, the movie released in theaters right in the midst of the pandemic, with Nolan unable to have the ideal roll out on large format screens, and as a result the film had a measly result at the box office.  This in turn soured relations between Nolan and Warner Brothers, which had been his home for the last 20 years, and Christopher Nolan soon cut ties with the studio, seeking a new distributor for what would be his next film, Oppenheimer.

Universal Studios wound up taking Christopher Nolan into their wings and granted him the chance to make his ambitious new project at their storied studio, ironically just across the street from Warner Brothers in the San Fernando Valley.  With the pandemic now in the rear view mirror, Nolan finally had the opportunity to make a large format film that could connect with a mass audience once again, and with movies like Top Gun: Maverick (2022) and Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) helping to revitalize the IMAX experience, the timing couldn’t be more ripe for this movie to succeed.  Unfortunately, Nolan’s plans ran into a roadblock with his former studio.  Warner Brothers decided to release a big blockbuster film on the same weekend as Oppenheimer; that being their big screen film based on the Barbie doll line.  The colorful Greta Gerwig directed film starring Margot Robbie as the titular icon couldn’t be more different tonally than Nolan’s Oppenheimer, and many saw this move as a petty move on Warner Brother’s part to undercut Nolan at the box office.  WB had the mass appealing, toy brand film and Universal had the introspective historical drama about the creation of the atomic bomb.  Surely, Nolan didn’t have a shot at succeeding, and many believed that Oppenheimer would budge from it’s release date first so it wouldn’t have to compete.  Only it didn’t.  Both Warner Brothers and Universal decided to keep their release dates, and this in turn led the internet to create a faux rivalry about these two polar opposite movies.  It became Barbie vs. Oppenheimer; a joking battle that sparked a lot of discussion about this inevitable showdown.  But then, a funny thing ended up happening.  Instead of two warring factions forming, people on the internet began to create a new faction that was in favor of celebrating both films together.  The “Barbenheimer” phenomenon was born, with many people deciding to turn the release of both films into a cinematic event, committing to seeing both back to back.  So ironically, if Warner Brothers did mean to undercut Christopher Nolan by releasing Barbie opposite Oppenheimer, it ended up backfiring as the Barbenheimer craze ended up inextricably linking both film’s fortunes together.  No matter how well each film performs, which early estimates point to being very strong, this phenomenon is something that will probably go down as one of the most peculiar in movie history.  With that, let’s now finally talk about the movie Oppenheimer itself.

The movie is a look at the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the physicist who oversaw the development of the first atomic bomb; a pivotal moment in scientific and human history.  The film itself looks at Oppenheimer’s life from several different points; his early years as a student in quantum physics, his development of the nuclear research program that would lead to the creation of the bomb, and then the years afterwards when his distress over the rise of the atomic age led to him being suspected of treasonous activity by the US government.  In his early years, we see him gain prominence in the field of physics based science, earning recognition from esteemed peers in the field, such as Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) and Albert Einstein (Tom Conti).  While working in the same laboratory as prominent American physicist Ernest Lawrence (Josh Harnett), Oppenheimer is approached by Army General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon), who is seeking to enlist Oppenheimer into the program to develop nuclear powered weapons for the military.  Though Oppenheimer is opposed to war, he knows the dangers of allowing Nazi Germany to gain a nuclear capabilities before the Allied Powers, so he accepts the position.  In a short amount of time, Oppenheimer and the military personal under Groves command achieve their miracle and develop the first successful atomic bomb test.  In the years after, Oppenheimer feels guilt for the destruction his work caused, and he begins to become a vocal critic of American nuclear policy.  This puts him at odds with the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.) who works secretly to discredit Oppenheimer  and ruin his reputation.  Dirt is dug up around Oppenheimer, including his ties to people who were members of the Communist party, including his own brother Frank (Dylan Arnold) and a woman named Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh) whom he had a multi-year affair with.  The turmoil of this period also puts a strain on his relationship with his wife Kitty (Emily Blunt).  Facing both internal turmoil over the guilt of his actions and the severe attacks to his moral character in the public eye, Oppenheimer’s story turns into one of tragedy after he had gained immortality for changing the world; a distinction that has gained him the nickname of the “American Prometheus.”

There is a lot going on in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer.  It is to date the longest movie that the director has ever made, running an even 3 hours, which is quite something, given that the average Christopher Nolan film typically clocks in at 2 1/2 hours.  And even in those 3 hours, Nolan does not let off the gas once.  This is a movie that covers so much ground and doesn’t waste a second.  Like he did with Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan tells his story in a non-linear way, moving back and forth in time to different points in time.  This is a bit disorienting, and it actually is one of my nitpicks about the film, as Nolan doesn’t give us much time to ground ourselves into the story.  In some ways, it is kind of refreshing that he doesn’t hand hold us through the movie; there are no texts printed on screen to give us historical context, nor to tell us where we are, or who the people we are seeing are.  It’s a good sign that Christopher Nolan is trusting his audience to keep up, but one thing that I think undermines the effectiveness of this mode of storytelling is that the story being told is a tad too complex for it to work as well as intended.  Dunkirk played around with non-linear storytelling much better because it kept things simple; three specific storylines with easily definable characters, which made the whole through-line more consistent.  Oppenheimer doesn’t exactly fail in this regard, but it comes up just a little short too, because the different parts of the story don’t completely line up as well as he planned.  That being said, the individual story elements are still exquisitely constructed and are very impressively put together.  This certainly is the most ambitious film in Nolan’s oeuvre and that is saying something.  As I am writing this review, I am only separated from my first viewing by 24 hours, so I am still trying to process everything, and subsequent viewings may indeed allow me to see the film as a more complete whole.  For right now, my most nagging feeling after seeing this film is that as impressive as it is, I feel like I’ve seen Nolan do better before, but at the same time it’s a movie that I am still processing and may appreciate more over time.

It’s perhaps the fact that this movie is working on a much different level than other Christopher Nolan films and it wasn’t the same visceral viewing experience that I got from my first time viewings of Inception (2010) and Dunkirk, which to this day are still my #1 and #2 favorite Nolan films.  Oppenheimer is Nolan’s first ever biopic, and that is kind of uncharted territory for him.  Instead of developing larger than life conceptual films like Inception and Tenet, or an original story set in backdrop of a real historical event like Dunkirk, here he is applying his filmmaking skills to telling the story of a real man who achieved one of the most monumental actions of not just the 20th century, but of all human history.  The story of Oppenheimer fits well within the filmography of Christopher Nolan, as he has always been fascinated with the perils of human beings who play around with the extremes of science.  That’s a trademark of most of his work, including even some of the Batman movies he made.  Certainly the IMAX loving filmmaker that Nolan is would be drawn to the idea of making a movie about the first atomic bomb test, which would certainly be epic enough for the larger than life format.  But, strangely enough after seeing this movie, I feel like it’s the man who drew Nolan in more than the event itself.  The vast majority of this movie is devoted to examining the life of Oppenheimer, and the firestorm of controversy that surrounded it.  It is far more of a drama than a spectacle, though the movie does have it’s sweeping moments too.  As a dialogue writer, Nolan does have some shortcomings.  There are some oddly written moments that seem a little too poetic for a grounded film like this.  At the same time, Nolan’s sweeping narrative never lags, as he covers a lot of ground and manages to keep the pacing consistent, which is impressive for a movie this length.

One of the most striking things about this movie is it’s cast.  Despite being centered around one man’s journey, the film features a stacked cast of hundreds, and a hefty chunk of them are all played by familiar faces.  A lot of people have likened this to Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), which had all the parts, no matter how big or small, filled with a famous actor.  Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) also comes to mind.  Watching Oppenheimer, you’ll be struck by just how many well known actors suddenly pop up throughout the movie, even for just one scene.  But, out of all that cast, there are certainly standouts, and chief among them is Cillian Murphy in the title role.  Murphy has been a long time favorite of Nolan’s, first appearing as the villainous Scarecrow in Batman Begins (2005), Murphy has subsequently been cast in five more films that Nolan has directed.  But here, for the first time, he gets to play the lead, and he does not disappoint.  Cillian appears in almost every scene in this movie, and he commands every moment.  It’s not a showy performance; J. Robert Oppenheimer didn’t exactly have an outsized personality.  But, Murphy does get across the humanity of the character in a profound way, with the pained look in his eyes as he is constantly having to balance the science in his head with the realities of his life.  Of the supporting cast around him, there are certainly some great stand outs.  Matt Damon brings some much needed levity to the film as the tough as nails general whose personality style clashes with the quiet, methodical Oppenheimer, which leads to some of the film’s more amusing character interactions.  Emily Blunt also brings some fiery sparks to her character of Oppenheimer’s opinionated wife Kitty.  But perhaps the most astounding commanding performance other than Murphy’s Oppenheimer is Robert Downey Jr. as the vindictive government power player Lewis Strauss.  Downey’s Strauss is another fascinating character, a person who feels threatened by the shadow that Oppenheimer casts, and RDJ does an amazing job of portraying this character without turning him into an overt, base villain.  There’s a lot of other surprisingly deft work from a variety of actors; including a couple of Nolan’s favorites like Kenneth Branagh, Tom Conti, and even Gary Oldman in a surprise role; and there are great performances from Nolan first timers as well, like Benny Safdie, Josh Hartnett, David Krumholtz, Florence Pugh, and Jason Clarke.  For a cast as monumental as this one, you never feel at all like Nolan wasted any of that talent.

Of course, the thing that most people are going to talk about with this movie is the craft behind it.  Nolan is working again with Hoyte Van Hoytema, the Dutch cinematographer who specializes in large formats that he has worked with consistently since Interstellar.  They once again deliver a stunning display of the 70mm IMAX film format, though the strengths of their work here are not what you would expect.  The movie has some amazing sweeping shots of the Los Alamos testing site, but just as impressive are the IMAX close-ups of Oppenheimer himself during his most intimate moments of self-reflection.  Perhaps the most brilliant moment of the movie is not the actual bomb test itself (which to be honest was a tad underwhelming), but instead it is a moment in the movie where Oppenheimer gives a speech.  What Nolan and Hoytema do in this scene, holding the camera uncomfortably close to Cillian Murphy’s face in the scene, really emphasizes the isolated state of mind he is in and it is a captivating moment, especially given how the scene plays out.  Another incredible thing about the cinematography in this film is that the team actually coordinated with the people at IMAX to essentially invent black and white IMAX film; something that had never been done before.  Those black and white moments in the movie are quite something too; especially with the amount of clarity the image has.  It’s also thematically inventive as well, as black and white alerts us to when we move away from Oppenheimer’s POV, and shift to the POV of his rival, Lewis Strauss.  And while I did state I felt the actual atomic blast looked a bit underwhelming for what could have been the most impressive IMAX image ever (what we got sadly lacks scale), the use of sound in that scene was still inventive and interesting.  The sound mix in this movie alone is a work of art, with much of the sound effects helping to lift the sense of bigness to this film.  It is also impressively underscored with a largely experimental epic music score by Ludwig Goransson, who returns to team Nolan after working on the score for Tenet.  Couple all that with exceptional era detail that really helps to drop you into the time period and you’ve got an epic drama that truly lives up to the word.

It will take me some time to figure out where I would rank it with Christopher Nolan’s other films.  I did like it more than Interstellar and Tenet, but it also didn’t hit me with the same visceral first time reaction that I had with The Dark Knight, Inception, or Dunkirk.  Those are among my favorite films of all time, so it’s an extremely high bar to overcome, but that’s my tastes.  Overall, Oppenheimer is a mostly successful work of cinematic art that just falls a little short of perfection for me, but at the same time I feel like this will be a movie that grows on me.  After a day to let the movie simmer in my mind, I am still processing what I saw and that’s a good sign that it’s a movie that is sticking with me well after I’ve first seen it.  Given that we’ve had a summer full of movies that have failed to leave much of a lasting impact, it’s refreshing to finally have a movie come out that I actually think will leave an impression on cinema in general for this year and beyond.  For one thing, the Barbenheimer phenomenon is something that I think is going to be studied and analyzed for years to come.  For something to start off as little internet joke to actually manifest into a full blown real cinematic event that actually mutually benefitted both movies involved is one of the most unexpected cultural outcomes that I have ever witnessed.  On the plus side, these are two movies deserving of the good fortune that fell into their laps; as an aside, I do also recommend Barbie as well.  After a lackluster summer so far that saw longtime franchises like Mission: Impossible, Indiana Jones, and Transformers fail to light up the box office, it’s great to see audiences rally around these two movies that somehow by virtue of sharing the same day have become spiritually linked.  One other added pleasure is that the overwhelming success that these two films are likely to have really breaks the back of the “get woke, go broke” narrative about Hollywood that so many annoying internet trolls have been proclaiming all summer.  Because of the “Barbenheimer” craze, the two most “woke” movies are about to be the summer’s biggest successes; the gender conformity breaking social commentary of Barbie and the compassionate biography of the unambiguous leftist J. Robert Oppenheimer.  In the end, it’s not about politics, but about making personal stories that connect with a broad audience, and offer something new and fresh, and that in essence is what is making Barbenheimer the event that it is.  We are finally getting movies that actually have ambition behind them, and don’t just feel like an obligation to keep entrenched franchises going.  This is an especially lucky moment for Oppenheimer in particular because a 3 hour historical drama about the creation of the atom bomb is not the kind of movie that should be riding the wave of a grassroots internet driven phenomenon.  “Barbenheimer” is a rare beneficial good thing that has gone viral in our often toxic internet culture, as it is helping not just to make hits out of two deserving and provocative movies, but it’s helping to boost business for movie theaters that have been struggling with the lackluster summer we’ve had so far.  Despite some flaws, Oppenheimer is a genuine big screen event not to be missed (preferably on the biggest screen possible), and if you so choose to make it a double feature with Barbie, all the better because both films are great reminders of why the cinematic experience matters.  Here’s to Barbenheimer, savior of cinema.

Rating: 8.75/10

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