Falling for the Fall Guy – The Underappreciated Art of Stunt Work in Film

The stunt man is often looked at as the most thankless job in the movie business.  To perform a stunt on film involves a person literally putting their health and safety on the line to make an action beat feel authentic, and yet we don’t know the names of those who perform the stunt and we hardly ever see their faces.  And yet their work may end up being the most impressive thing that we see in any given movie.  Some of the greatest moments ever put on film are due to the work that these men and women do, and they are completely invisible.  At the same time, the stunt teams know that their job is to mainly make the movie stars look better.  The reason stunt teams exist at all is because movie studios will not risk endangering their actors, unless the actors do want to get more involved, which then will add more to the budget due to the insurance costs.  But there is little doubt that stunt work is an invaluable part of the making of a movie and more and more today we are seeing audiences becoming more appreciative of the work that these invisible men and women do.  After many years of tiresome CGI enhanced mayhem being overused by the industry, there is starting to become a growing appreciation for actual physical stunt work once again.  And this is due to the fact that people who have come up through the stunt departments in movies are now making their own movies and revolutionizing the action movie genre once again.  In the past couple decades, we’ve seen people like Michael Bay and Gore Verbinski become the leading action filmmakers, but these guys rose up into the director’s chair through visual effects and camera departments, making their action movies more visually oriented.  Today, the most celebrated action movies are the ones directed by former stunt performers like David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, who have brought action movies back to it’s grounded roots.  And as a result, the last few years have been something of a golden age for stunts in cinema.

Stunt work is a profession as old as the movies themselves, and even further back than that.  Stage craft as far back as the days of Shakespeare required performers who were skilled in combat and capable of feigning a realistic fight in front of an audience for the purpose of the drama.  That profession continued on and evolved as theater performances became grander spectacles over the years, incorporating elements that we still see today as part of the movie making business like wire work and acrobatics.  Once cinema arrived on the scene, performers who had trained their skills on the stage were necessary for making the illusion of life on screen feel authentic.  The first verified stunts captured on film were the of course in what is recognized as the first action movie, The Great Train Robbery (1903).  As primitive as the art of film still was in the dawn of the 20th century, The Great Train Robbery still had it’s actors acting out fights on real moving locomotives, which even today is something that requires a lot of risk taking.  That groundbreaking work of cinema paved the way for many more spectacles to come.  The silent era of film is one full of some death defying stunt work that honestly could never happen the same way today due to the fact that much of it was un-regulated at the time.  In those days, the actors themselves were required to do the stunts themselves because that was just the nature of filmmaking at the time, and some of their stunts involved falling from very high places or having something very heavy fall on their heads.  As movie stars emerged, it was recognized that these actors perhaps needed someone skilled to take their place for the more dangerous stunts.  And out of that, the stunt profession was born in Hollywood.  Movies from the great silent movie auteurs like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille would certainly not have made as much of an impact had there not been a dedicated stunt team there to make those battle scenes feel as brutal as they possibly could be.

But the silent era also showed us a different way that stunts could be performed in film, and that was in the service of comedy.  If anything, the stunts of the silent era that still astound audiences to this day are the ones found in comedic silent films, particularly those of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.  Charlie Chaplain had the occasional impressively choreographed stunt in his movies, but his comedic genius was more present in the small bits that he performed to perfection.  Lloyd and Keaton on the other hand went very big with their comedic stunts, often to the point where you feel they were tempting death in order to get the perfect shot.  Harold Lloyd’s most celebrated film, Safety Last (1923) involved the comedian hanging off of the side of a skyscraper, with the most famous image of the film being his clinging onto life by the hands of a clock face.  That moment was made possible before there was ever such a thing as rear projection or green screen, so to get the shot just right, Lloyd and his crew built a façade wall on the roof of an actual skyscraper.  Though he really wasn’t hanging right off the edge of a building, he was still very high up to get the real street scene below into the shot, so the stunt was still a huge risk to take.  In Buster Keaton’s movies, the gags were so elaborate and dangerous that there are several instances where if his timing was off by mere seconds, he would truly be dead.  The famous wall collapse in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) is a great example of this, as Buster had to hit his mark perfectly or else he wouldn’t have been in the safe zone as the needle point poking through the window hole in the side of a whole building coming crashing down.  And there’s of course The General (1926) where Keaton is working with full size moving trains as his props, which could’ve spelled disaster if one mistimed stunt led to a derailment.  But as much as these comedians nearly killed themselves for the sake of comedy, the hard work still paid off, and you can see the inspiration they had on comedies thereafter, with stunt work playing crucially into the comedy of films like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), The Naked Gun (1988) and so many more.

As the movies got bigger in the mid century, so did the stunts required to make the movie scenes feel more epic.  Two genres in particular began to advance the art of stunt work in this period; Westerns and Biblical epics.  For a lot of these movies, the ability to ride a horse (and more specifically to fall off one) became an essential skill for stunt performers.  This even led to an invention specifically made to help stunt actors, which was the L stirrup, which allowed horse riders to fall off a horse without getting their foot caught in the stirrup.  A lot of other inventions were created to also help enhance the stunt work performed on film, including air bags for falls from high places, air rams that were used to catapult performers into the air, and when censorship standards for on screen violence began to lessen, the introduction of squibs made gun shots all the more realistic on screen.  With the stunts becoming more complicated in these mid-century movies, the duty of a stunt coordinator became all the more important.  The stunt coordinator in many ways is a director of a film within a film, as their responsibility is to make sure the stunts are performed perfectly in conjunction with everything else on screen.  One of the most valuable stunt coordinators of this era was a man named Yakima Canutt.  Yakima was one of the most skilled horsemen in Hollywood in it’s early days, famous for having the first horse transfer ever put on film, which is to jump from one galloping horse to another.  Naturally, he was the go to guy for staging some of the most complex horse riding stunts in the movies, mostly in Westerns.  But his crowning achievement as a stunt coordinator can be found in the biblical epic Ben-Hur (1959), where he was the coordinator and second unit director of the legendary chariot race scene.  The chariot race in that movie is a monumental piece of filmmaking that still is unmatched over sixty years later and it’s due to the instinctive skills of a veteran stuntman who knew exactly what was required to work with horses in a big action sequence.

During the later part of the century, the profession of stunt work began to evolve again, stepping away from swords and sandals and heading more into the streets of modern society.  Stunt driving began to come into it’s own as vehicles became more streamlined and powerful on the road.  The most impressive stunts captured on film no longer were the kind that could be done on horseback but rather with horse power.  The Steve McQueen action thriller Bullitt (1968) revolutionized stunt driving with an extended chase scene in the middle of the movie, with real cars driving through the hilly streets of San Francisco.  The scene would go on to inspire many like it in movies like The French Connection (1971) and Vanishing Point (1971).  But that was not the only revolution in stunt work that was going on at the time.  In many ways, 1970’s was the first time where stunt performers were beginning to become appreciated and recognized by the average viewer.  Some former stunt men would go on to become movie stars themselves like Burt Reynolds.  But what really began to take hold in the 70’s was the influence of martial arts in movie stunts.  Audiences began to be wowed by more than one actor throwing punches at another; now they wanted to see high kicks, somersaults, and back flips added into the mix.  The martial arts master turned movie star that defined this shift in stunt work the most was Bruce Lee.  Lee, like many other stunt performers, was a trainer for movie stars for years before breaking out into starring in his own movies.  His life was tragically cut short right as his most famous film, Enter the Dragon (1973), was in theaters, but his legacy still remains strong to this day.  The Hong Kong based film industry that Lee rose out of itself would go on to revolutionize action films over the later part of the 20th Century, producing a impressive array of action film stars who were capable of performing their own stunts, like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, and Michelle Yeoh.  In many ways, the Hong Kong action movie industry harkened cinema back to the early days where the spectacle of death defying action was the draw for the audiences, seeing just how far the performers could push themselves.

It should be noted though that despite there being a healthy amount of performers out there ready to use their skills to make stunts look all the more spectacular on screen, as well as plenty safety precautions put in place to safe guard if something goes wrong, the risk factor still results in some unfortunate events.  There are many instances of actors and stunt performers who have been killed on set when a stunt goes horribly wrong.  There are many instances where the death of a stunt performer or an actor can cast a pallor over the movie.  Brandon Lee tragically follow his father Bruce Lee to an early grave after a prop gun discharged a loaded round into his chest during the making of The Crow (1993).  Actor Vic Morrow also met a grisly fate when a helicopter fell right on top of him during the making of a battle scene in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983).  And these are the names we know; sadly too few people will ever know the names of the stunt performers who gave their lives for film.  There is also the residual impact of stunt performers who survive but are forever crippled by the experience of a stunt gone wrong.  A recent documentary spotlights one such person whose life was forever turned upside down after a catastrophic on set accident.  David Holmes: The Boy Who Lived (2023) tells the story of the stunt double for actor Daniel Radcliffe on the Harry Potter movies who was crippled by such an accident.  Because Daniel Radcliffe and David Holmes worked side by side for so many years on the Potter franchise, they developed a special connection, and the accident deeply affected Daniel, who spear-headed the making of this documentary as a way of drawing attention to David’s story and why it’s important to help out the stunt workers when their lives are forever changed.  David Holmes story is tragic but also inspirational, because of how he’s been able to bounce back and go on living, but he’s lucky to have people like Daniel Radcliffe in his corner who can provide him with the support he needs.  Too often stunt performers are unable to get the health coverage that they need in order to continue performing stunts for a living, and in some cases on smaller budgeted movies, they can also be dangerously exploited.  As we learned from the tragic shooting on the set of the Western Rust, which took the life of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, movie sets can still be dangerous places to be, even for seasoned professionals.

The positive thing is that in recent years, the work of stunt professionals has become far more appreciated by audiences.  It’s probably a response to the tiresome overuse of CGI in action movies that people want to see gritty, unfiltered in camera action again on the big screen.  And that’s why so many of the biggest action movies today are the ones directed by people who have emerged from the stunt departments of Hollywood.  One of the film franchises that has particularly led the way here is the John Wick series.  Star Keanu Reeves worked for years with his stunt double on the Matrix movies, Chad Stahelski, as well as the stunt coordinator David Leitch, on this passion project that was fully centered around stunts rather than visual effects.  The experiment worked and it has spawned a whole new generation of stunt heavy film in it’s wake.  This also coincides with the work of another movie actor who likes to do his own stunts, Tom Cruise, who has made stunts a center point for his Mission: Impossible franchise, as well as the blockbuster sequel Top Gun: Maverick (2022).  In the last couple of years, you’ve seen a bit of a return to the basics of stunt performance on film, but what is different this time is that the stunt teams are having more of a say in the creative process.  These guys want to show off their skills, and part of the thrill of watching movies in the Mission: Impossible or John Wick franchises is just seeing how creative these stunts can be.  And it’s a showcase built upon years of knowledge about the art of cinema dating back to the silent era.  When you see Tom Cruise climbing on the outside of the Burj Khalifa in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), it’s not all that far removed from Harold Lloyd clinging to that clock in Safety Last; the only difference is the size of the building.  But there is a trust and an appreciation there on those Mission: Impossible sets between the stunt performers and the filming crew that makes all the difference.  Hollywood is no longer taking their stunt teams for granted and we are seeing audiences really taking notice of the astounding work that stunt performers are doing too.

It’s fun seeing the promotional tour of David Leitch’s newest film The Fall Guy (2024), which has involved actor Ryan Gosling bringing along his team of stunt doubles to every talk show and movie premiere appearance along the way.  It’s a very deliberate attempt to give the stunt performers their due with a movie that’s clearly a love letter to the profession.  But across the whole industry, there is a growing consensus that the stunt profession has been undervalued for far too long.  There has been a growing call for the Academy to add a category at the Oscars for stunts, which to many is a no brainer and it’s a wonder why it’s taken this long for the Academy to even acknowledge the profession.  Given the longevity and essential nature of stunts in movie history, it’s long overdue for the profession to be recognized by the highest honor in Hollywood.  But, some elitists in the movie industry still see stunt work as the hallmark of more low brow entertainment, and it’s something that they want to resist recognizing at the Oscars.  There may be a case where a critically panned movie might receive an Oscar nomination solely because of their stunts, but there are a lot of great movies that use stunts brilliantly as well, and it’s a shame that the stunt performers on those films don’t get their due recognition.  Wouldn’t the chariot race in Ben-Hur have been worthy of an Oscar?  Or the car chase in Bullitt?  Movies like John Wick and Mission: Impossible are showing us that there is an art to stunt work that is as impressive and integral to a movie as any other element of filmmaking.  We won’t be getting a Best Stunts Oscar next year, but I feel like it’s closer to becoming a reality than it has ever been.  And it will be long overdue.  At the very least now stunt performers are finally getting recognized as more than just a fall guy meant to be faceless and there to make the movie star look better.  They are now being seen as some of the hardest working people in the film industry.  It’s also helping to get them the attention they need to receive the care from the industry that is essential for helping them heal from the wounds of their profession.  Whether they are getting blown up, blown out, tumbled around, or tossed from a high place, these brave men and women are the reason why movies feel as magical as they do.

The Movies of Summer 2024

This upcoming summer season is likely going to be very different from the last couple we have had.  Coming out of the pandemic affected years, the summers of 2022 and 2023 looked pretty close to the kinds of Summer movie seasons that we were used to in the decade before.  The big movie studios were lining up their tentpole features once again in a big way, with all the Summer months booked with the kinds of movies that were ideal for bringing in audiences.  Or at least that’s what the studios were hoping for.  While the selections of movies felt like Hollywood was back in the Summer season groove, the box office results were not indicative of a return to normal for the industry.  Some would say that audiences were still hesitant about going back to the theaters post-pandemic, but there was also the effect of the push towards streaming.  Things had changed drastically in the last couple of years, and this year has shown that Hollywood is beginning to readjust somewhat to the new norms.  There are decidedly fewer large tentpoles coming out in the upcoming months, which shows that Hollywood in general is slowing things down.  Of course, the sparsity of this Summer’s tentpoles also has to do with the months long delays in production due to last year’s labor strikes.  We are getting fewer movies because Hollywood either had to push back a number of films or cancel them all together, and it’s a situation that the studios only have themselves to blame.  The ones who unfortunately suffer the most out of this situation are the exhibitors, who unfortunately may have to lower their expectations about having a big Summer season this year, or find clever ways to draw more people into the cinemas during the next few months.

Even still, there are some movies worth getting excited about in the days ahead.  With the competition being less fierce week to week, there’s a good chance that a lot of these Summer movies may take off and become big hits with strong legs at the box office.  Like I do every year, I will be breaking down the Summer movie season with the movies that I think will be the Must Sees, the ones that have me worried, as well as the Movies to Skip.  These picks are solely based on my own level of interest in each movie based on my reactions to the buzz surrounding the film and the effectiveness of it’s marketing.  My track record has been hit and miss over the years, as some of my good picks have turned out to be bad, and vice versa.  I do feel confident about the movies I’m about to discuss below, and my hope is that it provides you the reader with an informed guide of the movies that will be talked about over the Summer movie season.  So, with all of that said, let’s take a look at the Movies of Summer 2024.



Easily the most eagerly anticipated movie of the Summer season.  Things have changed a lot since the last time Ryan Reynolds has suited up as the “merc with the mouth.”  The former studio that was the home of the Deadpool franchise, 20th Century Fox, has since been merged into The Walt Disney Company, which is the home of all the others Marvel characters.  Now, Deadpool no longer has to exist on an island separated from the rest of the MCU due to franchise rights; he now has free reign to play in the same sandbox as the Avengers.  This will be the third Deadpool movie, following up on 2018’s Deadpool 2, and the first with Marvel Studios now in creative control.  A lot of people worried that Marvel, and by extension Disney, were going to ruin the character by cleaning up his act to make him more presentable to family audiences who watch their movies.  But thankfully Kevin Feige and the other Marvel heads understand what has been Deadpool’s appeal and they have come to the conclusion that if it isn’t broke, than don’t fix it.  This will be the MCU’s first ever R-Rated film, and it definitely looks like Deadpool’s penchant for edgy material is making the transition intact.  Even more exciting is the fact that Ryan Reynolds is bringing another friend from the Marvel/Fox films to come and play with him.  Hugh Jackman is once again donning the Adamantiam claws as Wolverine, a character he has now played over a 24 year period.  A lot of the excitement for this movie is no doubt do to seeing the two icons finally sharing the screen together (especially after all the teasing that Deadpool made at Wolverine’s expense in the first two movies) and also due to the fact that both are finally making their debuts in the MCU.  We only have hint in the trailer as to how the characters are going to factor into the greater MCU storyline, and I feel like Marvel is still holding many surprises close to the chest.  We’ll definitely have to watch the movie to find out what all that will be, but the fact that we get more of Deadpool and Wolverine on the big screen is enough to get us all excited for the Summer to start.


I feel like Disney has been trying to pay an apology to their Pixar Animation wing over the last year.  Last year’s Elemental (2023) was one of the few Disney tentpole films that actually exceeded expectations, managing to build on word of mouth and turn a modest profit at the box office, as opposed to other movies from Disney last year like The Marvels (2023) and Wish (2023) which crashed hard at the box office.  Disney recognized that their Pixar brand was still one of their most valuable assets and that it was time to stop neglecting it.  After pushing many of Pixar’s films onto streaming during the pandemic, this Spring they finally put those films out into theaters for the first time.  It may not have been much as the number of screens were limited, but it was a message from Disney that they recognized that Pixar’s films do indeed belong on the big screen.  Elemental made a big difference in changing the perception of Pixar’s value at Disney, and this year it looks like Pixar will indeed be roaring back to the top of the box office with their sequel to one of the biggest hits ever.  Inside Out 2 picks up right where the last film left off with the emotions that live inside the head of a young girl about to head into uncharted waters of puberty.  This new film expands the roster of characters with more complex emotions moving in and taking things over very quickly, including Anxiety, Envy, Ennui, and Embarrassment.  The first Inside Out (2015) did a remarkable job of taking complex concepts like emotional psychology and brilliantly wove it into an engaging and funny story that represented Pixar at their best.  It will be nice to revisit this world again, and the next stage of this concept should be interesting as it explores how emotions change as we grow older.  It’s great to see Pixar regain it’s valued state in the Disney company, no longer as the easily tossed aside brand shipped off to Disney+, and my hope is that Inside Out 2 puts Pixar back on top of the box office as well.


One of the best franchise resurrections to have occurred in recent years has to be the return to prominence of the Planet of the Apes series.  Once revered as a classic science fiction franchise, the series became more and more irrelevant and mocked for it’s often cheap look, with the apes merely being actors in cheap masks rather than the impressive make-up effect that once set the series apart.  Since then, technology has caught up and has gone beyond what make-up effects can do.  The Caesar trilogy as it is now known pushed the boundaries of motion capture performance, allowing the acute mannerisms of an actors performance be fully translated into the highly detailed model of a realistic looking ape.  Thanks to the incredible talents of an actor like Andy Serkis and the digital wizards at Weta Digital, Caesar was one of the most impressive CGI characters to have ever been put on the big screen, capable of carrying the franchise on his own and re-inventing it.  This new film in the franchise seems to be carrying on the franchise to the next level.  The motion capture technology looks to have been improved upon even more, with the apes now able to speak and having it look impressively natural.  It’s great to see the Planet of the Apes franchise actually take what they’ve built before and push it even further.  What is especially exciting with this new film is that it’s going even further with the world-building.  This film takes place many years after the death of Caesar and shows us the world of humanity completely overtaken by the natural world, with the apes building up their first attempts at an advanced civilization.  Director Wes Ball, who previously worked on the Maze Runner franchise, has a knack for blending the natural world and the mechanical world in a visually beautiful way.  This film could definitely be one of this Summer’s most epic adventures and it will be interesting to see if this is another big step for the Planet of the Apes franchise as it begins a new generation.


George Miller shook up Hollywood in a big way when he unleashed his long anticipated fourth film in the Mad Max franchise; 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road.  Hailed as a masterpiece for it’s impressively mounted action sequences, many of which that were done with real practical stunts, the movie propelled the veteran Australian director back into the spotlight and had many fans eagerly anticipating what he would do next.  Apart from a detour into a smaller scale fantasy flick with 2022’s Three Thousand Years of Longing, Miller very much was eager to return to the desert for more adventures in the world of Mad Max.  But, instead of focusing on the Road Warrior himself, Miller was interested in exploring more of the story of the other hero who stood out in the mayhem that was Fury Road; the one armed heroine known as Furiosa.  Played by Charlize Theron in Fury Road, the character Furiosa became an instant fan favorite, and it definitely felt like she was a character capable of carrying on with her own series.  Well, Miller believed that was the case too, and we now have Furiosa commanding her own film.  Because this movie tells us Furiosa’s backstory, she needed to be played by a younger actress, so Anya Taylor-Joy has stepped into the role, doing her best to live up to what Charlize laid the groundwork for.  She looks up to the task, but what I think may be the even bigger draw for this movie is the larger than life villain she is going to face off against.  Her adversary is a mad man named Dr. Dementus, played by Chris Hemsworth who seems to be going full blown Australian in his demented, off-the-wall performance.  It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch Taylor-Joy and Hemsworth working off of each other, and the trailer shows a lot of the crazy, intense action that Miller has already demonstrated himself as being the master at.  Can it live up to high bar of Fury Road.  Let’s hope so, because it’s been a while since we’ve had a crazy ride like that worth taking.


So, Yorgos Lanthimos has finally made the cut into my “must see” category.  After being a little cautious going into his last couple of movies based on the bad experience that I had with The Lobster (2015), I can now say that I am now excited to see what Yorgos has cooking for us next.  And he is not wasting any time either.  Right on the heels of his multiple Oscar winning feature Poor Things (2023), he has this new film heading to theaters right in the middle of summer.  What’s interesting with Kinds of Kindness is that it finds the director working again with contemporary set story, after spending his last couple films in period settings with Poor Thing and The Favourite (2018).  Even still, it looks like he’s still applying his odd ball sense of humor based on the trailer.  We don’t really get much of an idea about what the story will be in the teaser, but I imagine it will be some kind of darkly comic narrative with echoes of the Coen Brothers mixed in.  One of the big pluses for this film is that it is the third collaboration in a row between Yorgos and actress Emma Stone, who is also coming fresh off an Oscar win for Poor Things.  Emma has become something of a muse for Mr. Lanthimos as his best work in the past decade has been with her in the cast.  Both of them are coming off of the high of their recent Oscar success, and will be interesting to see the encore they have with this feature.  At the same time, the movie also has a few other alum from Lanthimos’ other films, including Poor Thing’s Willem Dafoe and The Favourite’s Joe Alwyn, plus an impressive cast of newcomers like Jesse Plemons, Margaret Qualley, and Hong Chau being brought into this weird mix.  Of all the counter-programming, art house fare being mixed in this Summer, I feel like this one will be the stand out and hopefully it’s one that hopefully continues to help me become more of a Yorgos Lanthimos fan.



It’s hard to know exactly what kind of movie we are going to get with Twisters.  It seems odd that Universal would be making a sequel to their 1996 blockbuster after almost 30 years, but here we are.  The original, which was little more than a two hour demo reel for cutting edge for the time environmental CGI animation, isn’t exactly screaming out for a second chapter.  But, that’s exactly what we’re getting, and the only thing that seems to have been upgraded is the visual effects now catching up to the present day.  Other than that, it looks like we are getting the same story all over again, just with new actors.  The original film was notoriously corny and one dimensional, but over time that became part of it’s charm as audiences look to it now as an unintentional comedy.  I don’t know how much this sequel is going to lean into that, because it could go either way.  It could play things loose and have a little fun with itself, or it could take itself way too seriously and become something of a joke.  One thing that could be a negative for this movie is that it doesn’t have quite the same level of star power as the last, with the likes of Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt and Phillip Seymour Hoffman bringing some personality into the film.  None of the actors in this new one look bad per say, but I don’t think there is anything to really hook onto with their characters, except maybe the one played by Glen Powell, who is clearly stepping into the same type of role that the late Bill Paxton filled in the original.  Powell is on a career upswing right now after appearing in Top Gun: Maverick (2022) and the surprise rom com hit Anyone But You (2023), so that might be something working in the movie’s favorite.  I think it’s safe to say that much like the orginal Twister, this is going to end up being a pretty dumb movie.  Let’s just hope that it’s the fun kind of dumb that can at least make it an entertaining ride at the cinema.


When Kevin Costner makes a movie, it seems like it’s go for broke every time.  The Actor/Director is a passionate filmmaker, and that is something to be admired.  However, he is someone known to be his own worst enemy on set; often being fatally self-indulgent.  His passion has paid off before in some of his movies, such as the Oscar winning Dances With Wolves (1990), but also at the same time his name has been connected to some of the most notorious flops in movie history, such as The Postman (1997).  His next film will indeed be a major test for Mr. Costner, as he returns to the Western genre that loves.  This two part epic saga is releasing less than two months apart from each other this Summer, which is going to be quite an experimental release strategy.  The last time I recall two interconnected movies being released in the same year, it was for the Matrix sequels, and it didn’t work out so well for those movies.  Really, any Western is going to be a hard sell for audiences, given that it’s not a huge money making genre at the moment.  So this movie is indeed going to be a gamble, and that could prove disastrous for Kevin if it doesn’t work out, because he apparently has a significant amount of personal investment put into this project.  There is no doubt that he’s going to make a beautiful looking movie with impressive panoramic shots; you can see that from the trailer.  But, the worry is that Costner’s penchant for self-indulgence could turn this into a fairly dull experience too, with too much time padded with unnecessary subplots and repetitive pacing.  Hopefully it’s more engaging than that.  One of Costner’s more underrated films was the Western Open Range (2003), which had a very memorable shootout in the finale.  My hope is that both parts of Horizon carries that same kind of engaging action, and that all of Costner’s better impulses as a director are utilized, with the indulgences kept in check.


At first the instinct is to roll your eyes at the aspect of there being another film in the Alien franchise.  The series honestly hasn’t found it’s footing since James Cameron’s action packed sequel Aliens (1986).  This new movie on the other hand does show some promise.  From the looks of this teaser, it does appear that the series is returning to it’s horror movie roots.  In a sense we are getting the old school haunted house of horrors style Alien, the kind that director Ridley Scott brilliantly realized in the 1978 original.  Of course, that’s what the trailer is having us believe will be the case, and it could end up being a misdirect.  We’ve been tricked before into believing that Aliens was redefining itself with a new direction, including a couple directed by Ridley Scott himself.  But other than James Cameron’s beloved sequel, none of them panned out.  One thing that does show promise with this movie is that it’s being directed by Fede Alvarez who made the thriller Don’t Breathe (2016), which is a film that plays upon surviving in claustrophobic situations.  Perhaps he’ll make that work well in this movie too, which indeed would be truer to the spirit of the original Aliens.  We’ll have to see if the new direction works out in the end.  It’s been too long since an Alien movie has truly felt scary.  The image of a swarm of facehuggers attacking the crew of the ship certainly is an unsettling image.  Plus this movie looks dimly lit and filled with steam, which is a definite call back to the original film’s mood setting environments.  There’s always the worry that these franchise revivals are just more empty promises, but here the desire to bring this series back to it’s roots is something worth holding out hope for.


It’s a good time right now to be in the business of adapting video games into film.  The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023) broke all sorts of box office records, while Sonic the Hedgehog has been enjoying a surprisingly successful run of it’s own with his franchise.  On the television side, we’ve also seen acclaimed adaptations of The Last of Us and Fallout hit the airwaves.  Now this Summer we are getting a big screen adaptations of one of the most popular shoot-em-up games from the last decade; Borderlands.  The movie has some promise to it, with an all-star cast attached to it, including a couple Oscar winners like Cate Blanchett and Jamie Lee Curtis.  The movie also looks to be faithfully recreating the look of the video games, which had a sort of comic book art style to it.  The one thing that worries me about this film is that it seems to be trying to hard to be another Guardians of the Galaxy rip off.  Maybe that’s just the way it’s being marketed, but there definitely seems to be a Guardians vibe in the movie’s sense of humor.  And yeah Eli Roth is a talented filmmaker, but he is no James Gunn.  The reason Guardians of the Galaxy works so well is because James Gunn’s unique voice comes through so well in the incredible balance between the humor of the movie and the emotional resonance beneath the surface.  This movie just seems to be aping the humor of the Guardians  movies, but is missing the heart.  I hope I’m wrong, and that the movie is more substantive than that.  But if it is just another copycat, it will be a huge waste of a beloved video game IP that certainly has the potential to be the next big action movie franchise.  Let’s hope what ends up saving this movie is a harder, possibly R-rated edge that eschews close to the game itself, and that it’s not watered down for general audiences.



In an environment where comic book movies are universally on the decline, the Sony Spider-Verse is easily scrapping the bottom.  Apart from the successful animated projects they have going on and the Tom Hardy led Venom movies, the Sony Spider-Man adjacent movies have been the laughing stock of the industry.  2022’s Morbius seemed to have set a new low for the franchise, but that was until we were subjected to the mind-numbingly bad Madame Web this Spring.  Things don’t look too much better going into this Summer with their next film based on the famous Spider-Man adversary, Kraven the Hunter.  The movie was actually due to premiere last Fall, but it was pushed back almost a full year partially due to the on-going strikes, but also because the overall field was just too oversaturated with comic book movies.  I don’t feel like the delay is going to help this movie either, because the look of it still has that cheap, low effort feeling that we got from Morbius and Madame Web.  The only upside is an R-Rating, which will make the violence a bit more brutal.  But it’s becoming increasingly sad watching Sony desperately trying to stretch out their stranglehold on the Spider-Man IP by making sub par films based on characters only loosely connected to the webslinger.  They are itching to get another proper Spider-Man movie into production again, and it’s sad that we have to suffer through this cynical cash grabs in the meantime.  The next animated Spider-Verse movie or MCU connected adventure can’t come soon enough.


Speaking of low effort, here we have yet another horror movie trying to bank off of an already known property.  This one uses Tarot cards as the basis for it’s horror elements, and the whole thing just looks like more of a gimmick than an actual movie.  The trailer pretty much is showing us the standard jump scare fare we see from a dozen other horror movies, but the things that the characters are supposed to be scarred by seem especially unimaginative.  When you make movie monsters that are supposed to be iconic, they have to be distinct and I don’t see creatures like The Magician or The Hermit catching on with audiences.  I know that there was a successful horror movie based on the Ouija board game, but that one only worked because it had a visionary in the horror genre like Mike Flannagan behind the camera.  I highly doubt that Tarot is going to be any more than the movie we have here.


It sadly has become the case in recent years.  Illumination Animation has consistently put out subpar movies that are light on story and heavy with sophomoric humor, and they never seem to strive to be any better than what have become.  And even still, appealing to the lowest common denominator, they still make a billion dollars with every film they make.  I just don’t get it.  I understand that these movies are not meant for me, but I’ve seen so many other animation studios branch out and try to do bolder things.  Illumination just sort of sticks in their lane, which I guess has worked out for them, but they are creatively inert as a studio.  And lo and behold, we get yet another entry in their flagship Despicable Me franchise, with of course those cash cow Minions playing a central role.   I haven’t watched anything in this franchise beyond the first film and nothing about the marketing of Despicable Me 4 makes me want to jump back on board either.

So, there you have my preview of the upcoming Summer movie season.  It’s going to feel much different this year with the smaller sampling of tentpoles that we’re used to.  Marvel, which usually puts out multiple films a year, is giving up their entire calendar year solely to Deadpool and Wolverine, which is a telling sign about the changing dynamics of the industry at this moment.  We probably would’ve had a different Summer this year had the studios not wasted so much time trying to wear out the striking workers to no avail.  And the sad thing, it’s the already struggling theatrical market that bears the burden of a slower year at the box office.  It’s unfortunate, but at the same time, there needed to be a shift made in the way movies were being distributed.  The old way was just not working anymore in a post-pandemic environment, and 2023 say many potential blockbusters crash at the box office because too many of them were underperforming because of their massive budgets and lack of interest from audiences.  2024 will hopefully be a year of healing, and perhaps we may find in this year a better sense of what the future may hold for the industry as it starts to find it’s footing again.  I doubt this Summer will see another Barbenheimer phenomenon, but there could be some fun surprises at the box office.  My only hope is that the movie theaters are able to weather what will likely be another depressed year at the box office, and hopefully there will be enough strong performers at the box office to drive up business.  I can imagine Deadpool being a big draw, and sadly yes even the Minions in Despicable Me 4; I still don’t like them, but I know movie theaters owners do because they’re good for business.  And hopefully the ratio of box office successes is parallel to what movies are actually good this year.  With Barbenheimer, we got two great movies that could also make a lot of money for their studios.  My hope is that the movies this Summer follow that lead and are able to be great movies themselves.  So, I hope my guide has been helpful.  Have a wonderful Summer and a good time at the cinema.

TCM Classic Film Festival 2024 – Film Exhibition Report

Turner Classic Movies went through quite a year since the Festival held in Hollywood in the spring of 2023.  In the midst of all the cost cutting going on at offices of Warner Brothers Discovery, the parent company of the beloved cable channel, there were rumors that TCM may have been on the chopping block as well.  This was thought to be the case when a massive round of layoffs were passed down in the TCM offices.  It lead many to speculate that the channel itself was on it’s way towards shutting it’s doors completely, or perhaps be merged into another channel under the WBD umbrella.  This worried many fans of the network, and it lead to an unprecedented intervention on the part of high profile figures like Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson personally imploring Warner Brothers CEO David Zaslev to spare TCM.  With TCM shedding so much of it’s staff, there was also the worry that some of the collateral of that shake-up could include the end of one of TCM’s greatest yearly traditions; it’s annual Film Festival in the heart of Hollywood.  Thankfully, the worries of an end to TCM and it’s Film Festival were relieved when it was announced that the network was going to live on, as well as the Festival.  And it’s a great thing that both survived into the next year too, because 2024 happens to be a landmark celebration for both TCM and the Film Festival.  This year marks 30 years since TCM first hit the airwaves in 1994 and for the Festival, this is it’s 15th year (though not the 15th edition, since 2 years were cancelled due to Covid).  For many classic movie fans who come to Hollywood every year from all over the country (as well as the local ones like myself) this is an especially welcome thing to see happen given how close we all thought it might be coming to an end.  I of course have my Festival coverage below, broken up by each day I attended, and I will give you my movie by movie breakdown of this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, including all the special guests I saw, the experiences of seeing these classics on a big screen, and just my general overall thoughts about the vibe of the Festival.  So, let’s get started.


Like with the last couple of years, I have had to work my day job during the festivals first two days.  This limits me being available only to see the evening and nighttime showings at the fest.  Thankfully, the Festival doesn’t actually begin until 6:00pm on Opening Night.  So, right as I got off work, I made my way cross town quickly to get to the Hollywood and Highland complex, now called Ovation Hollywood.  Here is the home of all the main venues of the Festival; the legendary TCL Chinese Theater as well as the Chinese Multiplex.  Thankfully, this year’s Festival marks the triumphant return of another iconic venue to the Festival that has been missing the last couple years; Grauman’s Egyptian Theater.  The Egyptian had been closed since 2019 in preparation for a massive remodel to the century old structure, and it’s construction had been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.  Finally, the theater re-opened last November and it has now been returned to the stable of venues for the TCM Fest.  The American Legion Hollywood Post, which had filled the vacancy these last couple years was retired as a venue this year, with no word on if it may be brought back in future Festivals.  The Legion is a fine and beautiful theater and it’ll be missed this year to be sure, though I feel a lot of Festival patrons are happy this year that they don’t have to make the half mile trek up the hill any more to get there, with the Egyptian being refreshingly closer.  And like year’s past, the Egyptian is also bringing back one of the Festival’s most unique attractions; screenings of ultra-rare Nitrate prints.  For this first night, My focus was on some of the smaller screenings in the multiplex.

The first film I chose to start my Festival experience with was a bit of  last minute choice.  Basically, I needed to pick a movie that started at a time late enough for me to get to from work on time, but not too late to make it harder to fit in another movie after it.  So, what I ended up choosing was the Rock Hudson and Doris Day romantic comedy Send Me No Flowers (1964).  Thankfully, it worked out on my schedule and I was able to find a seat for this film fairly easily, given that it was playing in one of the Chinese multiplex theaters.  The film was introduced by TCM personality Alicia Malone, who gave us some context for the film we were about to watch.  This was the third and last collaboration between Hudson and Day, and it was also an early film for one of the rising star filmmakers who would help define the next generation of cinema in the decades ahead; the late Norman Jewison.  To conclude her introduction, Malone called on four members of the audience to share any trivia about Doris Day that they’d like to share.  One of the four just so happened to be in the middle of writing a book about Ms. Day and he shared his own personal experience about meeting her for an interview.  Each person called up was given a TCM Festival pin as a prize, and after that it was ready to get the Festival rolling with the first movie of the night.  This was the first movie of this year’s festival that would be a first time viewing for me.  I can tell you it’s not my type of movie, but it was interesting to see this very specific era of film in the way it was intended to be seen on the big screen.  It’s also neat to see the versatility of Norman Jewison on display, especially comparing this to his later work like In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971).  So, a low key but nevertheless successful start to this year’s festival.

While my first movie was playing, the Festival was having it’s official opening night kickoff in the iconic Chinese Theater.  Those opening night shows in the Chinese are limited to just the highest level pass holders, and even among them it’s a hot ticket event.  Being someone who solely goes through the standby lines, I of course go in knowing those shows will be closed off to me.  I can, however, take a look at the pre-show red carpet for that screening, albeit from the opposite sidewalk across Hollywood Boulevard.  I didn’t see much in the way of famous faces, though I did find it interesting that this year they included a spectator bench to the Chinese Theater courtyard for a select number of fans to watch the celebrities as they arrive; ala what they do in a similar way at the Oscars.  For this year, the big event is the 30th anniversary screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994), with John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Harvey Keitel as the special guests.  But, I needed to quickly make my way to the next and final show of my night.  This one was going to be tricky, because it was playing in the smallest of theaters at this festival; Chinese Multiplex Auditorium #4.  Capacity in this venue is only 150 seats, so a standby ticket is hard to come by.  Remarkably, I was able to get one of the very few available.  Once inside, I could see that the room was nearly full, and I grabbed the closest single seat I could find.  The pre-show discussion was already started, which for this movie included a sit down interview between TCM host Jacqueline Stewart and character actor Stephen Tobolowsky.  Tobolowsky was there to talk about the movie we were about to watch, the Oscar winning Grand Hotel (1932), and more specifically about it’s star, Greta Garbo.  As a self-professed Garbo fan, he talked at length about what the movie meant as part of her legendary career, including giving her the most famous quote of her movie career, “I want to be alone.”  One of the other perks of getting a covet seat in Theater #4 is that it is one of only two venues playing film prints at this festival, the other being the Egyptian.  It was a first time viewing for me, and though the print was very scratched up, I am grateful that I saw it with fresh eyes the way it was meant to be seen, on celluloid.  This was a great way to start off this year’s fest and there are still three more to look ahead to.

FRIDAY, APRIL 19, 2024

After another work day, I planned to spend the following evening trying to catch at least another two movies.  Instead of heading straight to the venues from work, I decided to focus on the late night showings on my second festival day.  Unfortunately, I missed out on a lot of great movies on this Friday, including a screening of 101 Dalmatians (1961) at the El Capitan Theater across from the Chinese (the only use of that venue for this festival), a screening of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) at the Chinese with Jodie Foster as the special guest, and another Chinese Theater screening of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) with Steven Spielberg as the special guest.  A lot of sadly missed opportunities that I had to skip because of work, but this Friday night still offered some important screenings that I was eager to attend.  Chief among them was a 9:45pm screening of the horror thriller Se7en (1995), with director David Fincher as the special guest.  I made sure I got myself in line early for this one, because even though it’s a late night show, a big ticket attraction like this one still could turn into a sold out show.  Thankfully, being prepared worked out and my placement in line was early enough to get a standby ticket for the show.  What I found interesting was that the Chinese Theater’s IMAX screen was fully opened up without masking, meaning we were going to get this film shown in an IMAX format.  I didn’t even know that there was an IMAX version of Se7en, but apparently there is.  Though there was a good amount of people in the theater, it turned out not to be a sell-out, and I was able to get a good seat not too close to the massive screen (the largest in North America according to the festival’s fact sheet).

There was a little hope in me that we would get a surprise special guest from the movie to join David Fincher on stage, similar to how George Clooney joined director Steven Soderbergh in the last minute at the screening of Ocean’s Eleven (2001) at last year’s festival.  Actor Morgan Freeman was scheduled to be at the Festival for the Saturday afternoon screening of The Shawshank Redemption (1994), so I thought there might be a chance he’s show up to this one too, but alas it was not the case.  Still, our screening still had David Fincher who was definitely worthy of the wait in line to see this night.  He talked about how this movie helped to save his directing career after the disaster that was his debut with Aliens 3 (1992).  He also talked about the difficulty of convincing the studio to keep the identity of the actor playing the villainous John Doe a secret in the marketing, so that it would be a surprise when it’s revealed to be Kevin Spacey.  It was an interesting interview, conducted by Noir Alley host Eddie Mueller, and helped to give us some interesting insight into the movie we were about to watch.  In IMAX format, I can definitely say that Se7en looked pretty incredible.  Even after nearly 30 years, the movie look pristine and the IMAX presentation really made the film feel even more engrossing, which could be very spine-tingling given the subject matter of the film.  Unfortunately, because the movie started so late into the night, I had to make a tough choice; do I stay and watch the whole movie and have it be my one and only movie for the day, or do I duck out early to catch the midnight screening happening in the multiplex?  It was not easy, but I wanted to get another movie in before I left for the night, so I chose to leave with ten minutes left in the movie.  Unfortunately, those are the most famous ten minutes of the movie Se7en, the “what’s in the box?” scene, which turns the film into a tragic masterpiece.  But, I’ve seen the movie before so I knew what I was going to miss and was fine with my choice.

So, leaving the main show behind, I made my way quickly to the Chinese Multiplex Auditorium #6, which was hosting the midnight show for this evening.  The movie selected was a pre-Code era sensationalist film called The Road to Ruin (1934).  This was one of those cautionary tale movies to teach audiences about the evils of a debaucherous lifestyle, while at the same time indulging in it for the shock value on screen.  The movie was introduced by Quatoyiah Murry, an author for the TCM Underground and a former channel manager for TCM’s YouTube page.  She gave an interesting rundown about the movie’s history, and how it skirted the restrictions of the Hays Code by positioning itself as “educational.”  Thus far, I have to say since I started attending the midnight showings at the TCM Film Fest in these post-pandemic years I’ve had the most interesting mix off films.  In 2022, I watched an 80’s apocalyptic thriller and last year I saw a Mexican sexploitation super hero movie.  This pre-Code film era film is another interesting choice for a midnight show, and it is a fascinating relic of it’s time.  I was shocked to see a movie, made just shortly after sound became mainstream in Hollywood, that had a scene where a woman is shown topless.  That kind of moment in a film of that era is shocking to see, knowing how much the Hays code cracked down on anything deemed remotely sexual in any way.  It really gives you a sense of just how much the art of film was allowed to go in it’s early days before things changed and censorship became the norm.  The movie itself kind of reminded me of Reefer Madness (1936), with the way it exploits it’s subject for shock value, while also lecturing the audience with it’s heavy handed morals.  And with that, a second day is finished.  The next two will be where the bulk of my Festival experience will take place as I have the weekends off from work.


Day 3 is typically where my TCM Film Festival experience really ramps up, and this year was no exception.  I began the morning later in the day after sleeping in because of the midnight show from the night before.  One of my goals this year was to attend one of the few screenings using a nitrate print.  These rare and fragile film prints made on the highly flammable film stock are always an interesting thing to see screened, and I’m very happy they have returned this year, along with the theater that hosts them; the Egyptian.  This isn’t my first time back in the Egyptian Theater.  I paid a visit back when it first re-opened in November 2023 and saw a screening of Bradley Cooper’s Maestro (2023) there.  Suffice to say, the remodel is spectacular and the Egyptian finally looks the way it should with it’s interiors finally restored to their original ornate glory.  The seating has been greatly improved as well, with more space and cushioning.  Eye levels are also much better, and the theater’s acoustic levels are amazing.  This year’s festival only has their Nitrate screenings on Saturday in the Egyptian, so I had to choose the later to fit in my schedule.  The nitrate movie I ended up seeing was the 1950 musical, Annie Get Your Gun, starring Betty Hutton and Howard Keel.  Before the movie started, host Eddie Mueller brought up the manager of the theater to speak about the safety precautions we needed to know before the start of the screening.  Essentially she reassured us that the film was in the hands of trained professionals, but in the case of a fire breaking out, she pointed to the nearest exits.  It was good to know that they were adamant about letting us know the risks involved in screening these rare, volatile prints.  The screening itself was interesting, given the condition of the print.  It’s definitely an old copy, likely from it’s first run in theaters, and it’s got all the scratches and stains to show for it.  In some ways, this improved upon the experience because you are in a way going back in time watching a movie this way.

With the first show of the day complete, and one of my must sees scratched of the list, it was time to head over to the Chinese for my second show.  This one would be a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), a movie that I’ve seen a dozen times, but never on the big screen before, so it was something I was looking forward to.  The problem at the same time is that many other people also had the same goal.  When I got in the standby line, there were already 50 other people in front of me.  There was a chance that this would be my first sold out show of the festival.  Thankfully, I was able to get in, but it took quite a while to funnel us standby ticket holders inside the Chinese Theater, because there were so many pass holders getting in there first.  I found my seat pretty close to screen and off to the side.  The auditorium was close to the fullest that I have ever seen, which is pretty remarkable for the 912 seat venue.  Given the lengthy amount of time it took us to get in, the pre-show discussion was already in full swing.  TCM host Alicia Malone was present and her guest was writer/director Nancy Myers.  She was there to mainly talk about the film’s star Cary Grant.  While I missed most of her interview, I was able to catch perhaps the highlight at the end.  Myers talked about her early days as a writers assistant, and one of her jobs was working with legendary film critic Gene Siskel.  Siskel just so happened to be granted a sit down interview with Cary Grant and somehow Nancy Myers got roped in to assist, and she recounted how she was able to spend a whole weekend in the company of Cary during the whole interview process.  That’s quite a story to hear, and I’m glad that I was able to catch at least this part.  Of course, seeing North by Northwest on the giant Chinese Theater screen was worth it too, and it’s definitely the kind of movie that was made for this kind of venue.

From there, I had my eye on one of the more unique programs at this festival, which was a special presentation called Back from the Ink: Restored Animated Shorts.  Apparently the UCLA Film Archive and The Film Foundation have collaborated on restoring old animated shorts from the 30’s and 40’s that had deteriorated into poor condition and this festival was going to premiere the results of their efforts.  Most of the shorts were from the now defunct Fleischer Animation studios and were languishing in the public domain, so quite a few of these have been largely forgotten and unseen by audiences.  This special program was going to be hosted by animation historian Ben Model and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane.  It was something that I was looking forward to seeing, but alas, this became my first sell out of the Festival.  Probably should have seen it coming given the near sell out that I experienced at the Chinese.  This was in the smaller Multiplex screens, so it makes sense that high demand among pass holders made this a hard to get into program.  So, I went with my back up showing, which was in the same multiplex.  It was a screening of Ernest Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940) which I chose as a back up because it was yet another movie I hadn’t seen yet.  No special guests, other than an intro by Eddie Mueller.  For the final film of the night, I chose to see Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954), mainly because it was the next earliest screening available.  The screening was the easiest to get into, as the 300 seat Auditorium #1 only got half full.  Thankfully, we had a special guest for this screening; British film director Mike Newell.  Newell is famous for movies as varied Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) which had anniversary screening at the Festival, as well as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2004).  He had an interesting talk about Fellini, as well as noting that his wife once acted in one of Fellini’s films, which is where he managed to encounter him.  While the movie played, we unfortunately had a mishap as the fire alarm started blaring.  The movie was paused and everyone had to evacuate.  Thankfully, it was a false alarm but it made for a odd finale to my third night of the Festival

SUNDAY, APRIL 21, 2024

So, here’s the conundrum that I found myself in on my final day of the Festival.  My favorite movie of all time, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was being screened in the morning, inside the magnificent Egyptian Theater with a pristine 70mm print.  How could I pass up an opportunity like that.  Well, I did.  It was very tempting to see Lawrence in the best imaginable presentation, but given the movie’s 3 hour an 40 minute run time, it would’ve left me with very few other options for the rest of the day, and I wanted to spend that day watching as many movies as I could.  So, I chose to use the same amount of time watching two other films that I hadn’t seen before.  My first show of the day was a 9:00 am screening of the movie National Velvet (1944) starring Mickey Rooney and a then 12 year old Elizabeth Taylor.  The special guest for this screening was Ms. Taylor’s personal assistant during her last several years, Tim Mendelson.  It was interesting to hear him talk about being in the legendary actress’ inner circle towards the end of her life.  One of his main duties was to help her with the management of her perfume line, White Diamonds, which he generously brought free samples of for the whole audience.  Of the never seen before movies that I saw at this year’s festival, this may have been the best discovery.  I found it to be an especially charming little film with incredibly beautiful Technicolor cinematography.  It was also crazy not just to see Elizabeth Taylor so young, but also her co-star, the late Angela Lansbury, who was a teen when she made this.  My second movie of the day was in the Chinese Theater.  It was a 70th anniversary screening of Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954).  The special guest of this screening was not anyone associated with the movie, but more so a famous fan.  Actor Kin Shiner of General Hospital fame was there to introduce the movie, and mainly to talk about actress Audrey Hepburn, whom he had gotten to meet on several different occasions during his career.  Again, it was great to have my first experience with this movie on a screen as big as the Chinese, and while it isn’t exactly top tier Billy Wilder like Double Indemnity (1944) or Sunset Boulevard (1950), it was still a fresh and funny little romantic comedy.

The next movie that I had planned for the day was a 70mm screening of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) at the Egyptian.  My hope was to get in one more screening at the festival inside the returned venue, and to also get the opportunity to see this classic in pristine 70mm.  Unfortunately, this was another extremely popular event at this year’s festival.  The pass holder line pretty much filled up the entire Egyptian courtyard, which has also been beautifully restored.  My place in the standby line was number 69, so it was going to be a miracle if I got in.  Not only did a miracle not happen, but not a single person in standby made it into the screening.  I believe even a few pass holders were even turned away.  So, my number of sell outs numbered 2 this year.  But, there was one more goal that I had yet to complete, and this was perhaps priority number one for the entire Festival itself for me.  The closing night show in the Chinese Theater was going to be a screening of Spaceballs (1987), and director Mel Brooks was going to be attending.  I knew this was going to be a big deal showing, given that Mel is now 97 years old and you don’t really know if he’ll ever come to one of these Festival screenings ever again.  I could fit another movie in between as a back up for my sell out at The Searchers, which might have likely been the current screening of Chinatown (1974), also in the Chinese Theater.  But, seeing that would mean getting into the standby line for Spaceballs too late.  So, I decided to cut my total number of movies short at 11 total instead of 12, and I took my place in line a full 3 hours before showtime.  There were already two other people there before me with the same idea.  We ended up killing our time in line by talking movies, so thankfully I wasn’t standing there bored.  That’s one of the great things about the TCM Festival is that it’s easy to find strangers in line with the same passionate love for movies as I do, making small talk easy to participate in before the movie starts.  Despite what looked like an impossibly long line of pass holders giving us the impression that we might be in for another sell out, they did thankfully let in standby guests, and my lucky number 3 paid off.

The theater looked as full as the North by Northwest screening the day before, and there were plenty of people seated close to the front, likely in anticipation of seeing Mel up close.  I was seated a few rows back, with a good enough view of both the stage and the screen.  Before the start of the interview, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, who I realized was absent from every one of my screenings at this festival until this one, came up to the podium and gave shout outs to all of the behind the scenes staff who put the festival on this year.  Of course, the moment of the evening was here and Ben brought out Mel Brooks to thunderous applause from the 900 strong in the Chinese Theater audience.  Mel, for someone of his advanced age, still looked fantastic and in great spirits.  And most importantly, he still has the power to make us all laugh.  During the interview, he mentioned how he got his first role by having a great impression of a cat, which he hilariously demonstrated.  The he said he also does a great Hitler too, to which he pulled a comb from his pocket and held it up to his nose making it look like the dictator’s distinct mustache.  The interview was a blast to listen to, especially with all of Mel’s hilarious tangents.  I especially liked his summation of the Star Wars movies, saying it’s got a lot of “zaps.”  I’m sure the interview could have gone on for as long as both Ben and Mel wanted, and Ben seemed almost emotional as he thanked Mel for being there, but they had to end the interview so they could start up the movie and bring the Festival to a close.  It was my third time seeing Mel Brooks at the TCM Film Festival, the other times being for screenings of The Twelve Chairs (1970) and High Anxiety (1977).  I’m grateful for every time I get to see one of my heroes like Mel Brooks live in person, and I feel that this one will be especially monumental, because it could very well be the last time.  The movie of course was great, and though I’ve already seen it many times before, this was a first on a big screen.  It’s also always great to end the TCM Film Festival on a comedy, because of that high of laughing together with a crowd of other film lovers in an amazing cinematic venue like the Chinese Theater.

So, there you have my chronicle of my experience at the 2024 TCM Classic Film Festival.  Though I was disappointed that I missed my record goal of 12 movies in total, I still got up to 11 movies overall, and even better, I got into my top priority events as well.  I was especially happy to be back at the Egyptian this year.  The Egyptian was very much missed over the last couple Festivals.  While it’s too bad that a great venue like the Legion Theater was left out to make way for it’s return, I don’t feel like the shuffling up of locations deterred the overall experience.  I also managed to catch at least one movie in each of the venues at this year’s festival, including the elusive Auditorium #4 at the multiplex.  I was also able to see some great special guests at the Festival this year, with Mel Brooks and David Fincher being the highlights.  One thing that I still wish was available are the program books.  Those always made great souvenirs from each festival.  Sadly, all they give out now are fold-up schedules that don’t tell you anything about the movies.  Instead, you have to look up the details on the app.  Even still, there is little to complain about with this festival and I commend TCM on their organization and flawless presentation.  It’s just such a great experience spending four days out there in the heart of Hollywood mingling with other die hard cinephiles and sharing our love of cinema.  It’s also a great way to make new discoveries with movies that are new to me at each festival, helping to keep my love for classic cinema burning brightly.  I hope the big wigs at Warner Brothers Discovery are taking note and seeing the value of the TCM brand and how beloved this Festival is to so many.  I will definitely be looking forward to next years Festival, and I feel confident that the TCM Classic Film Festival will remain an essential part of Hollywood’s annual festivities.

Civil War – Review

It’s no mystery that we are in polarizing times.  With online discourse fanning the flames of mundane disagreements into profound cultural wedges, it’s as difficult as it has ever been to discuss anything civilly anymore.  This is especially true when discussing media, as too many people are quick to project their own prejudices upon any new TV show or film without ever having seen one second of it.  Sometimes you’ll get a film that can rise above the “culture war” attacks, like last year’s Barbie (2023) did, but too often a new movie that tries to shake up the normal formula will be subjugated to attacks from purists, or people who are just looking to stir up controversy just for the clicks.  While online discourse is tiresome when it delves into “culture war” discussions, there is also the growing anxiety that is rising from the lack of accountability in our media coverage.  We are at a point where accountability can not keep up with the quickness of viral social media, and misinformation has become rampant in our culture.  Before the truth wills out, the misinformation will sadly have taken hold with too many people, and this has led to the rise of radicalization which leads to increasingly tense situations in our society.  Worries about rising violence in our communities are becoming ever more a concern in today’s age, and that makes many people wonder if our union as a nation is heading toward a cataclysmic end.  With that worry circulating in our culture, it makes one wonder how movies of this era will document the moment we are living in.  Given how “culture war” discussions have become so toxic in recent years, any movie or show that tries to take it head on is likely to face a heavy bit of scrutiny and resistance.  And stirring up controversy is something that the major movie studios are keen to avoid.  Luckily there are risk takers out there like A24 who are willing to stick their necks out and make a movie that at the very least tries to put some perspective on what a moment like this could lead us towards.

Into this tumultuous time comes a new film from Writer and Director Alex Garland.  Garland first gained notoriety for his gritty and grounded screenplay for the zombie flick 28 Days Later (2002), which was directed for the screen by Danny Boyle.  Garland would contribute a number of other celebrated screenplays before ultimately stepping behind the camera himself.  His directorial debut, Ex Machina (2015) was lauded for it’s subtle, grounded portrayal of the perils of unchecked A.I. implementation, and how it could wreck havoc by blurring the lines between reality and artificiality.  It also won a surprise academy award for it’s visual effects, which did a remarkable job of transforming actress Alicia Vikander into a humanoid robot.  Garland’s follow-up, Annihilation (2018) was even more of a mind-trip, bringing a new twist to the alien invasion subgenre of Science Fiction.  He left his Sci-Fi comfort zone with the horror thriller Men (2022), which is his most divisive film to date, as well as his least successful at the box office.  Coming off of that, he is embarking on his most ambitious film yet as a filmmaker with a scenario that feels eerily timely.  Civil War (2024) imagines a scenario where the United States of America has broken out into a second civil war.  It’s a risky type of movie to make  because in this kind of climate, especially in an election year, too many people are going to try to project their own political views upon the movie, which could either drive people away or be misinterpreted as something it is not.  Before the movie even was released, some pundits were poking holes in the premise of the movie, noting that the U.S. government in the film is at war with an alliance of the states of California and Texas, which of course is not something that could happen today given that both of those state’s governments are polar opposites in their political make-up at the moment.  But, Alex Garland is not telling a story about America as it is now, but is instead imagining an America that could exist and telling us a story about the people who would be caught up in the chaos that a modern Civil War could bring.

The subjects of Alex Garland’s Civil War are not the main players in this nation at war with itself, but rather the people who are risking their lives trying to capture the memory of it.  It’s a story about a rag tag group of journalists who risk their lives in order to capture the brutal reality of the war as it happens.  We meet Lee (Kirsten Dunst) and Joel (Wagner Moura), two Reuters affiliated documentarians who are partnered up as they cover rioting in the war torn city of New York.  Lee is a celebrated veteran photographer who has seen one too many wars in her lifetime, while Joel is an interviewer who craves the adrenaline rush of combat.  While they make rest in their hotel, they have a conversation with a veteran New York Times journalist named Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who was once a mentor to the two.  They let it slip to Sammy that their next goal is to head to Washington D.C. and get an exclusive interview with the President of the United States (Nick Offerman).  Sammy tells them it’s a suicide mission, as the Western Forces of California and Texas have advanced far into the Government’s territory and are now encircling the Capital.  And if they even make it past the frontlines and into D.C., the President’s army has been ordered to shoot all intruders, including journalists.  Lee and Joel still remain determined, and they even offer Sammy a ride knowing that he has the same goal that they do.  Before they make their treacherous trip southward, the team takes on another passenger, a young freelance photographer named Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) who looks up to Lee and wants to get her first taste of combat coverage.  The four passengers head out on a Heart of Darkness like journey through the depths of the once prosperous nation now brought to ruin through conflict.  Through it, they experience the extremes of both sides of the battle, and even have run ins with psychopaths who thrive in the chaos of war.  And as they get closer to Washington, D.C., the more violent and dark the world becomes.

Suffice to say, Alex Garland’s Civil War is not an easy movie to watch.  The film is very blunt about the atrocities of war and how it is often impossible to decipher who are the good and bad guys in the moment of battle.  It’s a very smart move on Garland’s part to not make the movie about the politics of the the two warring sides, but instead center the movie on the journalists who put their lives on the line in order to document the events that take place.  Now the movie is not entirely apolitical; the film does portray the President as a despotic dictator who has committed atrocities in the past against the American people as a means to hold onto power, and the timing of the story puts the conflict in it’s final days where the Government is on it’s last legs, showing definitively who the victors in this war will be.  But that’s all background noise.  Garland’s movie doesn’t try to hold up a mirror to our current political climate, but rather makes us the audience understand the gruesome nature of war by showing us an all too realistic portrayal of modern combat in a setting which hasn’t seen combat on it’s soil since the first Civil War.  The movie’s message is that there’s nothing glamourous about fighting in a war, and that the hard work of wartime journalists is terrifying but also essential.  And that’s what makes the movie such a profound experience that really needs to be experienced.  If anything, this is a more essential movie than anything that would have carried a more pointed political argument.  Anyone who trivializes the nature of war and thinks that another Civil War fought in this country would be an ideal outcome in order to silence those who disagree with them should be required to watch this movie and see what a folly that would be.  It’s a profound statement that I’m happy to see Alex Garland make.

Despite working with a bigger canvas and budget, Garland’s Civil War is still just as grounded as most of his other movies.  Garland’s directorial style is not flashy and remains centered and precise, giving us a very you are there feel.  This helps very much with the world building of the movie.  The America in this film is not some post-Apocalyptic hellscape, but rather a country that still looks familiar and somewhat in tact, but has been scarred by battle.  One of the things that this movie reminded me of is the recent Best Documentary winner at this year’s Academy Awards, 20 Days in Mariupol (2023), which was a movie compiled of footage from real war journalists who captured the early days of the Ukraine-Russian war in 2022 in the titular war torn city.  Having seen that documentary and the horrible things that it shows, you see the desperate ways that people try to hold their cities together even as war is trying to tear it apart.  Places that were once peaceful suddenly become devoid of life and littered with the reminders of war, like the wreckage of a helicopter in a mall parking lot, or an apartment high rise turned into a swiss cheese like ruin through constant shelling.  In Garland’s film, he juxtaposes those images in profound ways that constantly reminds you of how fragile peacetime can be, and how things we just take for granted can be taken away suddenly.  Suddenly, a routine gas station stop could turn into a life or death situation depending on how you interact with the locals.  There are times in the movie where I do feel Garland’s imagination does exceed the limitations of his budget, as some of the rendering with the visual effects do look a little cheap and it breaks the illusion, but thankfully these are rare as the movie presents the majority of the action in ground level depictions of combat.  And this is definitely a movie that benefits from a robust sound system as the battle scenes are loud and intense.

The staging of the battle scenes are definitely the highlight of the movie, as Alex Garland puts you right on the ground in the midst of it all.  You really experience the battles in this movie the way that the war journalists would.  One thing that I really liked in this movie is the emphasis it puts on capturing moments in combat that will inevitably be what the war leaves behind and frames it’s history.  This is shown in the film as snapshots taken by the characters of Lee and Jessie.  As the battle scenes play out, you see the characters aim their cameras and then the movie pauses for a second and displays the still photo that they just took, with the sound also being paused in that scene to emphasize the singular documentation that has been made.  It makes you think of the war photographs that have survived throughout history and how those brief moments have shaped our understanding of what the wars were, from something triumphant like the flag raising in the Battle of Iwo Jima to something horrific like the pained faces of the survivors of the My Lai Massacre.  A picture can say a thousand words, and this movie puts an emphasis on what it means to capture a moment that matters in a battleground photograph.  Jessie even uses an older model camera that runs on film, and she is able to capture her subjects in an even grittier black and white image.  While the movie is limited in budget, it nevertheless feels big when viewed through the eyes of the characters in this movie.  This is especially true in the climatic battle in Washington D.C. at the end of the film.  The movie doesn’t try to be epic in it’s depiction of a fortified D.C., but rather shows us what it likely would look like in a realistic sense, meaning crude barricades quickly built in an urban setting.  The battle scenes are still shot in an impressive way by cinematographer Rob Hardy where you do feel the scope of the conflict as it’s happening, and it’s definitely the type of movie that benefits from the biggest possible screen.

A lot of the success of the movie comes down to the authenticity of the performances in the film.  We know very little about the characters other than what their jobs are, and they only give us the briefest of backstory.  Mainly, it’s up to the actors to define these personalities, and the cast assembled does an outstanding job.  Kirsten Dunst does an especially great job of conveying a person who is just numb to all the violence that surrounds her.  There’s a great moment in the movie where she is just silently staring off in the direction of a battle that is glowing in the distance under a night sky, and her face just reads this hardened, jaded lack of optimism that tells you so much about her character.  But Kirsten also does a great job of showing those brief moments of warmth, especially when Cailee Spaeny’s Jessie manages to crack through that wall with her more upbeat personality.  Spaeny also does a great job of portraying that spunky, novice personality within Jessie that you watch get broken down as she gets into increasingly hairier situations.  Wagner Moura provides the movie with some of it’s brief moments of levity with his gun ho adrenaline junkie portrayal of Joel, who often is the one that has to break the ice in tense situations.  Veteran character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson also does a wonderful job of rounding out the quartet with his soulful portrayal of the seasoned and wise journalist Sammy.  Nick Offerman, who only briefly appears in the movie, still leaves a strong impression as the lightning rod of a President at the center of the conflict, wisely choosing to not emulate any specific familiar political figure and instead making him one that eerily feels too normal, hiding the fact that in the context of this movie that he’s committed horrible atrocities.  What the movie also does a great job with is make all of the minor characters stand out as well.  Each new encounter the characters make along the way adds to the tension of the movie, and all the supporting actors do a great job of creating these civilians who are barely hanging on, often through brutal and desperate means.  One particular standout is a cameo from Jesse Plemons as a white supremacist mercenary that becomes an especially terrifying obstacle for the main characters.

I don’t know if this is the kind of movie that will change hearts and minds with regard to the divisive cultural situation we are in right now.  But, as a cinematic experience, it’s an exceptional piece of work that know doubt will leave an impression on it’s audience.  There will be some who will try to frame the movie in a way that fits their own agenda; you would have to think that the movie is courting that a bit by calling itself Civil War.  But, upon watching the movie, you’ll see that there is a universal story about survival in here and also about fighting to capture the truth in the moment so that it can be preserved and remembered for future generations to learn from it.  Alex Garland and the actors in the movie have said in interviews that this movie is meant to be a love letter to journalism, and specifically to front line journalists who put their life on the lines to document the truth.  At a time when so many politicians and media personalities are trying to gaslight people into believing an alternate reality that suits their fortunes through misinformation, the work of these independent, battlefront journalists is even more essential than ever and Civil War does an excellent job of showing us the important role that they play.  We are seeing the important work of these journalists making an impact right now with conflicts happening in both Ukraine and the Gaza Strip.  What makes Civil War feel so impactful is that it is bringing that unimaginable situation home and showing us how fleeting our domestic peacetime situation can be.  We trivialize the idea of a domestic civil war, and in some grotesque cases even fantasize about it, but if one were to break out here in America it would have devastating effects that ruins the lives of everyone involved, and this movie does an effective job of communicating that bleak scenario.  Hopefully it makes audiences more aware of how devastating modern warfare is on those countries that are living through today.  It’s not a perfect war film; some of Garland’s creative choices do undermine the impact of the harshest scenes, especially some needle drop choices that feel a bit out of place.  But as an overall experience, Civil War is harrowing and thought provoking in all the right ways, and in many moments hauntingly beautiful to look at.  And to see wartime journalism at it’s finest, please also seek out the Oscar-winning 20 Days in Mariupol, though prepare yourself first for some harsh, graphic content as part of the experience.  Civil War may be a dramatized depiction of war through a scenario very much separated from our current political situation, but there is a lot of truth in the story that it is telling with regards to the people who live through such times as depicted in the movie, and it hopefully acts as a cautionary tale for us as we grow more and more closer to having our own petty conflicts flare up into something much worse.

Rating: 8.5/10

Collecting Criterion – Mulholland Drive (2001)

There are some filmmakers out there who are best described as acquired tastes.  These are the auteurs; movie directors who unique style is uncompromised in the final product of their films, which may be off-putting to some people who find that style a little dense and impenetrable.  But, these types of filmmakers are also the kind that develop a dedicated following from audiences who are drawn to that kind of bold, un-compromised type of filmmaking.  The Criterion Collection understands the appeal of unique voices in cinema, and they have served these kinds of niche fanbases with excellent home video collections from a select number of auteur filmmakers.  These include movies from Canadian director David Cronenberg, whose body horror features certainly are meant for a certain discernable audience.  There’s also Terrence Malick, whose visual poem style features can sometimes test casual audiences who are looking for more linear storytelling.  And then there is the most notoriously cerebral filmmaker to have made it through the Hollywood machine; David Lynch.  Lynch’s style is very much an acquired taste for many, given his often dark and disturbing directorial vision, but that has been the thing that has turned him into an icon for many die hard cinephiles.  There really is no one else that makes movies the way that David Lynch does; often visually daring and just plain weird from concept to the final shot.  Many say that no one captures the feeling of a dreamlike state, often a nightmarish one, on film better than he does.  Criterion has included seven of Lynch’s most noteworthy films in their collection, including his daring debut Eraserhead (1977, Spine #725), two of his most famous deconstructions of Americana with Blue Velvet (1986, #977) and Lost Highway (1997, #1152), as well as what many see as his most personal film, which is a deconstruction of the myths of Hollywood itself in Mulholland Drive (2001, #779).

The making of Mulholland Drive has a unique story on it’s own.  In addition to making his name well known as a filmmaker, Lynch also managed to break through on the small screen as well.  In 1990, he produced the mystery thriller series Twin Peaks for ABC Television, which became a massive hit for the network.  Lynch’s dark and bizarre trademarks were very much present in the show, and it made the show stand out as very much a departure from the standard network television fare at the time.  However, meddling from the network with regards to the direction of the story and also with it’s time slot placement caused the show to lose much of it’s audience in it’s second season, and ABC pulled the plug soon thereafter.  Still, the 48 episodes that it managed to air on TV left an indelible impact, and it is the thing that cemented David Lynch as a household name.  Lynch tried to put Twin Peaks to rest with a prequel movie that is also included in the Criterion Collection, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992, #898), and twenty years later he would even get to make a third season revival on the cable channel Showtime.  But after the disappointing short run of Twin Peaks, Lynch wanted to try his hand again at creating another television series.  Initially, he imagined a spin-off of Twin Peaks, centered around the character of Audrey Horne.  But, over time he devised a new idea that centered around the dark side of the film industry.  This concept would become the basis for a 90 minute pilot titled Mulholland Drive.  The show would center around several characters living on the periphery of the entertainment industry, with the main character named Betty Elms played by a then unknown Naomi Watts.  Unfortunately, the pilot was never picked up and Lynch was left with another incomplete vision that this time audiences would sadly never see.  That was until he received financial assistance from French based production company Studio Canal to shot more scenes and turn the open-ended pilot into a fully realized feature film.  The resulting completed film is pure Lynchian madness, as it deviates from the straight-forward mystery of it’s original vision and becomes on of the director’s most cerebral head trips in it’s new form.

The film introduces us to the titular road that crisscrosses the peaks of the Hollywood Hills in the dead calm of night. A woman emerges as the only survivor of a deadly car wreck, and she seeks shelter in a nearby apartment complex.  The following morning, an aspiring actress named Betty Elms (Watts) arrives in Hollywood with dreams of stardom.  She takes up residence in an apartment loaned to her by her aunt.  When Betty enters the apartment, she is shocked to find another woman there already; the same woman from the crash.  Suffering from amnesia, the woman goes by the name Rita (Laura Harring).  Betty tries to help Rita remember who she is, and to also find out why she has so much cash in her purse as well as a mysterious blue key.  While having dinner that night, Rita suddenly remembers a name; Diane Selwyn.  They track down an apartment address listed to Ms. Selwyn and shockingly find a rotting corpse inside.  Meanwhile, a film director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is struggling to cast a lead role in his film, and is being pressured by the mafia connected Castigliane brothers (Dan Hedaya and Angelo Badalamenti) to chose a girl named Camilla Rhodes for the part over everyone else, including Betty.  After the trauma of finding the corpse, Betty and Rita return to their apartment.  The grow more intimate and end up making love.  In the middle of the night they are awoken and drawn to mysterious theater down the road called Club Silencio.  The performance they watch puts both girls into an intense hallucinatory state.  Afterwards, we meet the woman Diane Selwyn, who looks just like Betty, who is a struggling actress having a secret affair with a movie star named Camilla Rhodes, who looks like Rita.  We watch their relationship crumble and Diane takes increasingly more dark turns in her life before things ultimately fall apart for her, becoming yet another casualty of the broken dreams of Hollywood.

It’s clear when watching the movie where Lynch shifted gears and turned his pilot episode into a fully realized feature film.  The first half of the movie plays out in a Twin Peaks sort of mystery soap opera.  But once the Club Silencio scene begins, the movie pivots and becomes something entirely different.  Lynch dispenses with the story that he had been telling for the last hour and he even makes you question whether any of it was real by the questions posed in the final half of the film.  The theory posed by the second part of the film is that the story we were being told was an imagined dream of the doomed Diane Selwyn, creating a different reality where her life isn’t in shambles and where she is the heroine of her own story.  That’s why Betty comes across as the more traditional heroine, because it’s the kind of cinematic role model that Diane always wished she had been.  Rita, on the other hand, is an imagined version of Diane’s lover Camilla, one in which she is more easily controlled by the possessive Diane.  It’s interesting that Lynch takes this dramatic turn with his film, especially with the knowledge knowing that it was being developed as a TV series.  Instead of completing the story that he envisioned when he originally developed the pilot, Lynch stops the narrative dead in it’s tracks and deconstructs it completely.  The movie as a result becomes far more of a commentary on the nature of the cutthroat movie business.  By showing us the contrast between Diane’s lonely, bitter existence and the imagined heightened reality of the soap opera that Betty lives within, we see how so much of the entertainment business is built upon the tragic rejection of so many people who get used and abused all in the pursuit of the fleeting promise of stardom.

It’s the main reason why David Lynch chose for his title Mulholland Drive.  The street is a winding road that sits atop the Hollywood Hills and marks a bit of a boundary between the rich and glamourous opulence of Hollywood itself and the drab and lower rent San Fernando Valley.  In a way, Mulholland Drive becomes a bit of a metaphorical dividing line between the have and have nots, which becomes central to the theme of the movie.  Mulholland Drive often gets compared with another classic movie named after another famous thoroughfare in Tinseltown; Sunset Boulevard (1950).  Billy Wilder’s acclaimed satire about the broken dreams of the film industry certainly had a big influence on what David Lynch intended for his look at Hollywood, but where the two diverge is in how the depths of humanity are focused on in the story.  In Sunset Boulevard, we witness the madness of Norma Desmond through the eyes of another, but in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, we are brought into the madness itself.  In typical Lynchian fashion, the lines between what’s real and what isn’t is blurred and through that contrast, Lynch is able to deliver his portrayal about the dark side of show business.  There’s also another interesting wrinkle added to this move when you learn about Naomi Watt’s own history with the movie industry.  She has said in interviews that her own experience trying to make it in Hollywood was very much reflected in the characters of Betty and Diane.  She struggled for years trying to break into acting, and even fell into deep depressions during that time.  Right before David Lynch cast her, Naomi was facing eviction from her apartment and had lost her health insurance.  She nearly quit acting before her friend and fellow Aussie Nicole Kidman talked her into staying, and sure enough Mulholland Drive would indeed be her big break.  She knew all too well the kind of part she would be playing and that personal experience really carries through in the film.  The role may have hit close to home, but Naomi Watt’s authenticity in the role really helps to elevate the film beyond just it’s eccentricities.

The Criterion Collection edition of Mulholland Drive is an interesting exercise in preservation.  David Lynch shot the movie like most of his films on celluloid.  However, the parts of the film that were supposed to be part of the TV pilot are shot on a different kind of stock than the parts that were filmed a year later to make the movie.  Most people won’t know the difference, but when it comes to restoration, the difference in film quality can be substantial.  Luckily for Criterion, Lynch and his director of photography Peter Deming were deeply involved in the production of this new 4K digital master, making sure the color correction and fidelity of the picture remained consistent throughout.  Lynch’s movies are often very saturated in color, often for thematic purposes and in many cases intentionally antithetical to the tone of the scenes.  The color blue is an especially important thematic element in the movie, and the 4K restoration really helps to make the blue tones stand out in this movie.  The film is available in both Blu-ray and 4K UHD formats, and those looking for the highest quality experience should definitely go with the 4K version.  One of the interesting things about the film’s transfer is that it reflects the preferred framing that David Lynch wanted for his movie.  Film made for television usually runs at an aspect ratio of 1.76:1, but on cinematic screens, films are formatted for 1.85:1 in the same widescreen format.  To account for the difference between screen and TV formats, Lynch actually gave theaters specific instructions on how to show Mulholland Drive, by having the frames manually lowered so the actors’ heads wouldn’t get cut off.  In the restoration for Criterion, Lynch was able to supervise the framing so that it will play in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio with the image centered the way he wants it.  The film’s 5.1 surround sound track is also boosted with a new DTS restoration that helps to make the film sound exceptional, especially in the more cerebral moments late in the film.

In terms of the special features, this edition of Mulholland Drive is a bit light compared to other films in the Criterion library, including the other ones directed by David Lynch.  The most substantial bonuses are the collection of interviews conducted with David Lynch as well as assorted cast and crew.  These were all filmed specifically for the movie’s original debut in the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray in 2015.  One involves both David Lynch and Naomi Watts looking back on their memories of the filming.  Watts, in particular, recounts the aforementioned struggles she faced before she got the role.  Another collection of interviews includes actress Laura Harring, actor Justin Theroux, and casting director Johanna Ray, all talking about what it was like shooting specific scenes.  Other interviews include composer Angelo Badalamenti, cinematographer Peter Deming and production designer Jack Fisk, all of whom are frequent collaborators of David Lynch and they share their different experiences working with the man on set and off.  Another substantial feature is a vintage featurette showing on set footage during the making of the film.  It’s an interesting look at what went into the making of the movie, and it gives us insight into David Lynch’s process behind the camera as well.  A short deleted scene is included, set within a Hollywood police station.  It’s an interesting inclusion, but ultimately the scene is nothing substantial and it’s easy to see why it made the cutting room floor.  Finally, the film’s original theatrical trailer is included.  Overall, it’s a light collection of bonuses, but each one is still interesting on it’s own and well worth pouring through, especially the one’s that give you a good look behind the scenes of the movie.

For a lot of people, David Lynch’s movies may be a bit too weird to fully appreciate.  I myself will admit that I don’t really get him either. He’s not anywhere near the top of my favorite filmmakers, and I am mostly mixed on a lot of his films.  Even still, I do recognize the artistry behind his filmmaking and I do admire his originality a lot.  No other filmmaker makes movies the way that he does, and that certainly is something worth celebrating.  The Criterion Collection understands that too, and that’s why they have been eager to make his movies celebrated additions to their ever expanding library.  Mulholland Drive may not be his greatest work, but it certainly is his most interesting.  Given the backstory of how this movie got made, it is remarkable how he was able to turn lemons into lemonade by repurposing an abandoned TV pilot into a daring cinematic achievement.  The way it shows the bitter downside of the Hollywood dream machine and how it contrasts the dream against a crushing reality is quite a poignant statement to make, especially for someone who has been an integral voice in cinematic history.  Though David Lynch has had his share of success in Hollywood, he’s also experienced his fair share of frustration as well; from the studio meddling that prematurely killed Twin Peaks to the nightmarish production that he endured to make the movie Dune (1984).  It wasn’t an easy road to maintain the purity of his unique style throughout his career, and there was a point where Mulholland Drive wasn’t going to survive either.  For those who find their ideal cinematic experience in the weird hallucinatory worlds that David Lynch creates for the big screen, they will undoubtedly be please with how Criterion treats his filmography.  Mulholland Drive, even after over 20 years, is still one of the director’s latter films.  He hasn’t directed a new feature since 2006’s Inland Empire (#1175), and is spending most of his days recently just working on increasingly bizarre short Avant Garde projects on his website, including delivering weather reports for some reason.  While many would like to see him return to feature films, he seems content in his own creative atmosphere for the moment, and upon seeing Mulholland Drive, it’s easy to see why Lynch is keen on avoiding the cutthroat world of Hollywood.  For the film itself, it gets a beautiful and richly textured 4K restoration via Criterion that will certainly please fans of the film, as well as a nice collection of features included on the disc.  When Criterion is spotlighting a filmmaker of David Lynch’s ilk, they are catering to a very specific and niche audience, but their work on the the restoration of these films is so pleasing to the eye, that they even will please those of us who find David Lynch just a tad bit too weird to fully love.

Criterion.com – Mulholland Drive

Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire – Review

It’s not an easy time for a franchise like the Legendary Pictures “Monsterverse” to be around in theaters.  Audiences in general are growing tired of interconnected movie “universes” are are more interested now in movies that feel fresh and diverse.  Hollywood is having to adjust accordingly to this shift after spending much of the last decade milking audiences with promises of mega-franchises based on interconnected IP.  Marvel certainly was the trend-setter with their massively successful Cinematic Universe (MCU), but even they are seeing the writing on the wall and are reigning in their universe expansion in order to make their films more successful.  Other franchises are either re-booting completely, like DC, or were just abandoned completely before being fully matured, like Universal’s Dark Universe.  But unlike all of those, the Monsterverse, a franchise built around iconic kaiju beasts like Godzilla and King Kong, has managed to defy gravity and keep growing with every new film.  It helps that the franchise didn’t exactly explode right out of the gate.  2014’s Godzilla, a modern day reimagining of the iconic monster’s debut directed by Gareth Edwards (Rogue One) was a bit of a disappointment for many.  It was visually impressive, but ended up taking itself far too seriously and as a result became something of a bore.  What a lot of critics rightly pointed out as the strengths of the movie were the brief moments where we actually saw Godzilla fighting other monsters, and that this should have been the focus of the movie all along and not the bland human characters.  While the sequel, Godzilla: King of Monsters (2019) basically fell into the same trap of boring subplots with cool looking monster fights, it was clear that Legendary Pictures were taking in the feedback and were looking at different ways to make their franchise work.

One of the answers came in the response to their debut of their other marquee movie monster; King Kong.  Kong: Skull Island (2017) was radically different in tone from the first two Godzilla movies; with a more relaxed and comical flavor to the human storyline.  It showed that the franchise worked better when it didn’t take itself too seriously and actually leaned on it’s more absurd elements.  This shift in strategy came an an opportune time because what awaited next for the Monsterverse was the highly anticipated crossover of the two icons.  Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) was a matchup that everyone had been eager to see happen, in many cases for decades.  The last time these monsters shared the big screen together, they were played by guys in rubber suits.  Now, with the full arsenal of CGI tricks at their disposal, Legendary was able to create a showdown between these titans that could truly feel as massive as the monsters themselves.  But, at the same time, Godzilla vs. Kong was a movie that demonstrated the lessons that Legendary had learned in building their franchise, giving the monster fights the spotlight, and keeping everything in between light and entertaining.  In the end, the movie accomplished it’s goal.  Released into theaters and on streaming at a time when the pandemic was still raging was risky, so it’s a real testament that Godzilla vs. Kong flourished even in those conditions.  It was the movie we really needed in that time, a good old-fashioned crowd pleaser that was worth taking the risk to see on a big screen.  Another smart move made by Legendary in their franchise plan was to accompany their new phase of the Monsterverse with a world-building spin-off series on Apple TV called Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, which gives back story to the in universe agency that monitors and sometimes protects these colossal monsters.  Overall, Legendary has successfully managed to maintain steady growth in their franchise while so many others have fallen off in recent years.  And the next chapter of their story comes in the second film teaming up the franchise’s two marquee stars with the awkwardly titled Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire.  The question remains whether the Monsterverse continues to reign supreme, or is it going to crumble like so many other cinematic universes.

The movie picks up shortly after the events of Godzilla vs. Kong.  After Godzilla and King Kong put aside their rivalry to defeat the more dangerous Mecha Godzilla, they agree to settle with both remaining as from from each other as possible, ensuring harmony for the human civilization that has continually been in their crosshairs.  Godzilla will live on the surface world and ensure his dominance over other titans there, while Kong will live in the freshly discovered hollow earth world beneath the surface of the planet.  Meanwhile, the Monarch agency keeps tabs on both of these rivals and watches their activity closely, with bases even set up in the Hollow Earth.  On one particular observance, the Monarch team picks up mysterious electro-magnetic signals coming from deep within the planet, even beyond Kong’s domain.  The signals even trigger the young tribal girl Jia (Kaylee Hottle) who had befriended Kong on his Skull Island home.  Jia has been in the care of Monarch agent Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall), and Jia is worried that the signals are going to trigger another war between Kong and Godzilla, as both monsters are again converging on the surface world.  Andrews seeks additional help in trying to understand what may have triggered this mysterious event, so she seeks the advice of conspiracy theorist and hollow earth expert Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), who figures out that the signal seems to be a distress call; but from where?  Andrews enlists Hayes’ assistance, as well as the help of an old colleague and current titan veterinarian named Trapper (Dan Stevens) as they embark on a journey into Hollow Earth to see where the signal may be coming from.  Meanwhile, Kong digs deeper into a deeper part of Hollow Earth that has been revealed from an earthquake.  There he finds an unexplored country with even more diverse wildlife.  And as he soon finds out, he is not the only titan sized ape in existence.  Is the signal meant to warn of an even greater danger hidden deeper under the surface of the Earth, and is it a big enough threat to make King Kong and Godzilla reluctant allies once again.

The thing that made Godzilla vs. Kong work so well is that it knew exactly what it needed to be and delivered.  We paid to see those two monsters fight, and the movie did not disappoint on that front, not wasting any time getting to the nitty gritty with the matchup happening as early as the first act of the film.  It had to live up to that title and director Adam Wingard understood the assignment.  Was it silly and ridiculous, yes, but that was part of the charm.  Godzilla vs. Kong was not afraid to lean into the absurd, especially when it came to the human characters and their part to play in the movie.  It was refreshing after the misplaced pathos of Gareth Edwards’ depressing Godzilla.  Did Adam Wingard, who returns to direct A New Empire, manage to repeat that balancing act with this new movie.  Well, let me just say that when it comes to the plot and character writing of this movie, this is probably the dumbest film in the franchise to date.  There are so many plot contrivances and non-sensical motivations on the part of the characters.  The dialogue is also heavy handed and loaded with exposition.  But, is the movie still a load of fun to watch even with all those shortcomings?  Absolutely.  What ultimately works in the movie’s favor is that it still understands what the big draw of this movie is, and that is getting to see giant monsters fighting each other, and director Wingard rightly puts the emphasis on that first and foremost.  The only thing that works against that this time around is that the movie takes a bit more extra time to get started.  The first act of the movie is honestly hard to get through, as it focuses primarily on catching up with the human characters, which as we know are the weakest element of this franchise.  But once the movie shifts it’s focus towards the monsters themselves, the movie does pick up and thankfully keeps building.  Unfortunately, the sluggish first act does keep the movie from truly being a great film and makes it a lesser follow-up to Godzilla vs. Kong.  But, if you can make it through that opening, the rest of the movie is one wild and entertaining ride.

What I found to be especially effective are the moments when the human characters are away and we just focus on the kaiju themselves.  The title of this movie is a bit misleading because this is primarily Kong’s movie.  Godzilla is little more than a supporting player, only playing a major part towards the end in the film’s climatic battle.  Thankfully, Kong himself is able to carry the movie on his own.  The movie is at it’s best when we focus on his story.  In fact, there are a surprisingly abundant sequences of this film where we follow along with Kong on his journey and there is no dialogue throughout those scenes.  The movie becomes a bit of a silent movie at this point, with Kong entirely conveying character non-verbally through pantomime.  We see him encounter the other giant apes in the underground world, and though we can’t understand what they say through their grunts and screams, we still are able to read the scene through their gesturing.  Honestly, it would be a neat cinematic experiment to have a kaiju movie done entirely like these moments, without a single word of dialogue.  Something tells me that the thought has crossed Adam Wingard’s mind, and this movie seems to be a test of sorts for if they could do a Monsterverse movie entirely through the perspective of one of the titans, with no human characters at all.  There’s no doubt that these are the most captivating moments of the entire movie, and it’s a real testament to the effectiveness of this Monsterverse franchise that we actually care that much about a character like King Kong at all.  The only thing that would’ve made it better is if more attention was paid to the character development of Godzilla as well.  Godzilla is no more than the brutish, atomic breath spewing monster that we are all familiar with, and not much else is made of his, which is probably why the filmmakers chose to sideline him for most of the movie.  Thankfully when he does enter back into the story it’s a triumphant moment.  But, it’s understandable that Kong is given the lion’s share of screen time, because he is the one grounded mostly in the human world.  He has that connection to civility, and that helps to make him a highly expressive and even introspective character.

So, what about the troublesome human characters.  Well, the script of course doesn’t do the cast any favors.  It’s to the actors credit that they can make the most out of the often clunky dialogue that they are given.  I think another plus of the Monsterverse movies is that they don’t clutter up their films by focusing on too many characters.  It is interesting how many times they establish new characters to this ongoing franchise and then just abandon them without much explanation.  None of the characters from the original 2014 Godzilla made it very far in this franchise.  The only carry overs to the sequel were the Monarch agents played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins.  Watanabe’s character does die on screen, but Hawkins’ character has been dropped completely out of the story.  In King of the Monsters, it looked like actress Millie Bobby Brown was being set up as the new main character, and while she did play a minor part in Godzilla vs. Kong, she is now completely absent in The New Empire with no mention of her character anywhere.  Instead, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry and Kaylee Hottle are the sole carry overs.  In a way, that works to the movies benefit having a smaller cast because it allows for the human story to be as brief as possible so that the parts with the monsters can take center stage.  The actors are fine, and though he’s a bit of a cheesy character overall, Dan Stevens does make for a colorful addition to the series.  It’s not really necessary to include a continuation of the human storyline at all, as these monster movies have never really been about continuity before.  But it definitely works towards making Monarch a constant fixture in this franchise, one in which all of the world-building revolves around.  While the human characters will come and go, Monarch as an organization will be the thing that connects this whole universe together across all the films.  Again, this movie knows where to put it’s focus with regards to balancing the human and monster storylines.

One of the other elements that really shines in this movie are the visuals.  Hollow Earth has been one of the best creations of this franchise so far, and The New Empire does a great job of expanding on what we’ve seen so far.  The movie also has a sense of scale that is impressive, making the titan creatures feel appropriately massive.  I also commend the CGI animators for bringing so much character into the character of Kong.  He is incredibly expressive throughout the movie and that helps to make the lengthy sequences of just him without the humans around all the more captivating.  He is a fully rounded character and given that we can only get that through non-verbal communication with Kong is a pretty good indication of the strength of the animation that was used to bring him to life.  Godzilla is a bit more limited when it comes to expressions, but the movie does a fine job of making Godzilla a believable presence as well.  What I also think is a key factor in this movie is the excellent sound design as well.  I watched this movie in an IMAX theater with the loudest sound system possible, and this movie definitely makes great use of it’s soundscape.  Every time you hear Godzilla’s iconic screech of a roar, it is something to be feared.  The sound design also helps to give you a sense of the scale of these creatures, as there is a weight to their presence, especially in the heavy uses of bass in their actions.  Even just listening to Godzilla sleep is chilling as every breath he takes in slumber sounds like rolling thunder.  Kong’s massive presence also benefits from the sound design, especially in the punches he dishes out as well as the ones he takes.  There’s also a beautiful use of color in the movie, especially when the film ventures deeper into the lost world found within the chasm discovered in the Hollow Earth.  Also, Godzilla sporting a pink color scheme after an atomic power up is a nice visual idea that really helps to set this movie apart from others in the franchise.  It’s a sign that the Monsterverse is a franchise willing to take some creative risks and more importantly not be afraid to get a little weird as well.

The one downside to this movie is that it doesn’t have the same beginning to end level of fun as Godzilla vs. Kong had.  The sluggish first act does weigh it down unfortunately.  But, one it finds it’s rhythm and manages to let loose, The New Empire can actually be a lot of fun.  It’s just the right amount of stupid without crossing into the insufferable.  The movie could’ve easily have been mishandled, especially if it took even more time trying to catch up with everything that has gone on with the human characters.  The movie knows that the humans are the true B-plot, and it just gives us enough about them to care a little about their journey while not letting it distract from the main attraction which are the monster fights.  There are some great battle scenes in this movie, with Kong especially showing of some incredible moves.  The movie also rewards audiences who have followed along with the whole Monarch linked elements of the franchise, while at the same time not making it confusing for audiences coming to this with fresh eyes.  The movie may unfortunately fall prey to changing audience tastes, especially after long time monster movie fans fell in love with last year’s Godzilla Minus One.  That film, made by original Godzilla creators Toho Studios, showed us what a monster movie could be when the human story is actually made to be captivating on it’s own.  It’s a rare example where a studio managed to make a prestige film centered around Godzilla of all characters.  That movie also won critical acclaim (and even a Visual Effects Oscar) in a way that this Monsterverse movie will fall well short of.  But, I really do feel that both of these can stand out well on their own.  Godzilla Minus One and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire are intended to be different kinds of animals.  One takes the franchise back to it’s original roots as a dire reminder of the trauma placed on the nation of Japan after a nuclear bomb was dropped on them.  The other is just popcorn entertainment done very efficiently and with some really engaging monster mayhem on screen.  Both kinds of movies are valid in their own way.  So, yes Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire is a dumb action movie, but those have value too just as long as they remember to be fun, and this one is indeed fun.  I was dreading sitting through the full movie if it continued to be as lanquid as the opening act, but by the film’s end, I had a smile on my face, and that’s what a good action movie should leave you with.  Whether you are Team Kong or Team Godzilla, this movie offers just enough thrills and fun to make it worth seeing.

Rating: 7.5/10

Top Ten Movies Based on TV Shows

When television first emerged onto the scene in the post-War years, it shook up the entertainment world in a big way.  While it did pose an existential threat early on to the theatrical model of film distribution, it also in many ways made movies a whole lot better.  The mid-century disruption of television led the movie studios towards an era of innovation, hoping to coax away people from their TV sets with the spectacles of widescreen film and surround sound speakers; the kind of things that at the time you could only experience in a theater.  Eventually, a balance was struck where movie theaters were able to thrive even with the competition of television.  What television brought was the opportunity for studios to tell long format stories through serialized programs.  Over time, television shows had just as much of a cultural impact as the movies, and became a mighty pillar of the industry that generated enormous profits along the way.  The proliferation of media went even beyond that with the advent of cable television and the emergence of the likes of HBO, FX and AMC on the scene; creators of shows that very much feel cinematic.  But, the movie industry would continue to prosper, and in some cases they would inspire hit television series spin-offs, such as The Odd Couple or M.A.S.H.  What is definitely fascinating is the flip side of that; when a show inspires a film.  There are several instances when a series makes the big leap from the small to the big screen, and how much of a stylistic change that can be.  Working with a bigger canvas, sometimes the story or aesthetic of a series transforms the property into something very different than what we are used to.  There have been many failures in that translation to the big screen, but sometimes the marriage of cinema and television does work out and creates a film not just worthy of it’s place alongside the show that inspired it, but also is able to stand on it’s own as a great movie.  What follows are my top ten picks for what I think are the best movies based on television shows that have been made so far.


21 JUMP STREET (2012)

Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

It should be noted that before this movie came out, nobody had any interest in seeing it.  We had been bombarded with a ton of bad movies based on television shows in the years leading up to this, most of them just nostalgia bait that never justified their existence on the big screen.  On the surface this just looked like another one, re-worked into a comedy vehicle for actors Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill.  So it was surprising once we saw the actual movie that it turned out to be a smart and hilarious meta commentary on the very notion of cheap nostalgia cash ins.  It helps that the movie was made by the same guys who turned what could have been a lazy toy commercial into one of the best animated movies of the decade with The Lego Movie (2014).  The team of Lord & Miller are just masterful at making movies that shouldn’t exist work extremely well.  21 Jump Street really bears very little resemblance to the more dramatic show that it is based on, basically just using the premise as a springboard for the comedy, but the movie goes above and beyond just easy fish out of water jokes about two undercover cops posing as teenagers at a high school.  It is very self aware that it is a nostalgia cash grab, and it leans into that meta aspect to some hilarious results.  Jonah and Channing also have incredible comedic chemistry in the film.  Given that the movie had a lot of things going against it, especially with the fact that it was based on an early 90’s drama that most audiences today have little knowledge of, it is refreshing to see how well Lord & Miller subvert our expectations at every turn.  But, even fans of the series do get some shout outs, especially given that two of the original cast members of the show, Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise, have surprise cameos (which the movie also puts a hilarious subversive spin on).  Given that too many TV shows to movie translations miss the mark by just banking on their nostalgia, it’s nice that one such movie calls that out and has some fun with it in the process.



Directed by Trey Parker

One of the most common small screen to big screen translations that we see are from the medium of animation.  If an animated show is popular enough in the pop culture, it almost certainly makes the leap to the movie theaters.  Some of the times, it’s a show that gets translated from animation to live action, such as with The Flintstones (1994) or Transformers (2007).  But more often we’ve seen animated shows cross over with their animation style in tact, just beefed up with a cinematic budget.  In most cases, the movies just are just another episode taken to cinematic length.  This includes movies based on popular properties like Rugrats, Spongebob Squarepants, or The Simpsons.  Most of the time, these movie adaptations come out after the original run of the show is over, but a couple of these movies will make it to theaters even while they are still on the air on television.  And in the case of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, it came out very early in the show’s run.  South Park was a mere 3 seasons into it’s run when show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone created this movie based on the show.  And yet even with that brief amount of time under their belt, they managed to create one of the best TV to cinema leaps ever.  The movie is far more ambitious than anything they had ever done on the show up to then (or even since), becoming a full blown musical with an epic scale story line, and all the while still maintaining the same raunchy, subversive appeal that the show was beloved for.  The movie is a prime example of how a TV series adaptation brings out the full potential of what it can do on the big screen.  And even 25 years later, with the show still running on the air to this day, this is still the pinnacle of South Park for many.  Most of the jokes still hit today, and some feel even more relevant than ever.  Also, you’ve got to love any movie musical that brought out classic tunes like “Blame Canada” and “Uncle F$%#a” to the world.  There are a lot of great movies based on classic animated shows, but none hit quite as hard as South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut still does all these years later.



Directed by Penelope Spheeris

One of the most prolific shows to have spawned countless movie adaptations over the years has been Saturday Night Live.  The long running sketch comedy series has shepherded the rise of many comedic talents over the years, and with them they have also popularized many of the characters that these comedy actors have created.  Unfortunately, Saturday Night Live’s track record of success has been spotty.  It’s hard to take something that worked in a 5-7 minute sketch and expand it out into feature length.  And a lot of time it becomes a bridge too far, as you can really feel the premises stretch to their breaking point in so many of these SNL movies.  There are three adaptations that did buck the trend and became comedy classics in their own right.  One is the underrated MacGruber (2010), another is the classic The Blues Brothers (1980) which the first such SNL sketch to jump to the big screen, and the last one is what I think is the best of the bunch, Wayne’s World.  While so many of the SNL movies seem to be dragged down by too much adherence to back story, Wayne’s World in many ways was more free to develop into whatever it wanted to be.  The original sketch was just a parody of a low budget cable access show made in a basement.  The appeal wasn’t so much in who these characters were, but what they were.  Mike Myers and Dana Carvey perfectly maintain the appeal of their characters Wayne and Garth, and the movie builds around them and their show, allowing freedom to tell a story that doesn’t have to stick so strictly to formula.  As a result, we get a movie that is clever and creative, with fourth wall breaking jokes, hilariously cartoonish situations, and a surprising amount of heart as well.  What’s more, it’s a movie that actually feels like it adds something to the world of these characters, rather than just resting on the laurels of their familiarity from the show.  It’s something that sadly far too many other Saturday Night Live movies have forgotten to do.  It’s a movie that knows it’s playing in a bigger sandbox, and it makes the most of it while giving the characters the chance to grow along the way.  Party on.



Directed by David Zucker

Sometimes a movie adaptation becomes so popular that it will even eclipse the TV series that it was based on, to the point where you even forget that the TV show existed in the first place.  The comedy team of Jim Abrahams and Jerry and David Zucker created a short lived comedy series called Police Squad after their success with the movie Airplane (1980).  The show ran a short 6 episodes i during the spring of 1982 before getting prematurely cancelled.  Though it’s run was short, the episodes that did air were given critical acclaim, as the show maintained the same hilarious visual gags that made Airplane an all time classic comedy.  A few year later, Abrahams, Zucker and Zucker re-pitched their Police Squad brand as a movie, retaining their star Leslie Nielsen and fleshing out the premise into a feature length story.  The result was a smashing success, leading to what many consider to be a comedy classic on the same level as Airplane.  Leslie Nielsen is in his best element as Lt. Frank Drebin, perfectly accentuating the hilarious sight gags with his no nonsense stoicism, something that he also brilliantly applied in Airplane.  The movie also fleshes out the cast with some talented supporting players that also nail the right tone; including George Kennedy, Priscilla Presley, Ricardo Montalban Nancy Marchand, and yes even O.J. Simpson (back when he wasn’t on trial for murder).  The comedy in these movies works is because everyone plays things straight amidst all the absurdity, with Nielsen hitting the mark exactly.  In the end, the failure of the Police Squad series proved to be a good thing, because it inspired this comedy classic into being, though I strongly recommend seeking out the original show too, which surprisingly still holds up even against the movies.  For Leslie Nielsen and the team behind the movie, this would be a hard act to maintain, as their comedic formula lost it’s potency over time.  This original Naked Gun is still the best the best of them all as it hits the right notes with the greatest frequency.



Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld

While a lot of the show to movie translations tweak with the formula a bit, a lot of them still maintain a familiarity with what we already know from the original source.  Then there are movies based on television shows that completely reimagine them entirely.  Though the movie adaptation of The Addams Family owes a fair bit to the original comic strip that the series was based on, you can’t help but notice the DNA of the television show in the movie as well; especially with the use of the catchy theme song complete with the snapping fingers.  The movie is a wonderful re-imagining of the spooky themed comedy series, maintaining it’s tongue-in-cheek macabre sense of humor, while at the same time taking advantage of the cinematic medium to up the visual aesthetic.  Visually, the movie owes a lot of inspiration to the movies of Tim Burton, who surprisingly was not involved in the making of this film, with cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld making an impressive debut as a director.  Ironically, 30 years later Burton would take his own shot at adapting The Addams Family by turning it back into a series with his hit spin-off Wednesday for Netflix.  What makes this adaptation really shine is the perfect casting of all the classic characters.  Raul Julia and Angelica Huston are just the ideal choices to play Gomez and Morticia Addams respectively.  Christopher Lloyd also makes for a wonderfully manic Uncle Fester.  But the movie’s absolutely dead on casting choice was a very young Christina Ricci as Wednesday Addams.  Her chilling deadpan delivery has left a lasting mark on the character, and her performance is the reason why the character has become so popular over the years.  The movie definitely ups the ante of the macabre aesthetic that never quite felt as spooky in the show, but it still remembers to stay true to it’s comedic roots, and it is a hilarious movie throughout, owing a lot to the talented cast that understood the assignment.  It’s definitely a case where the movie really took the full potential of cinema to deliver something new, mysterious and spooky with this familiar family.



Segments Directed by John Landis, Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg, and George Miller

This adaptation of the classic anthology series unfortunately has a dark cloud of controversy hanging over it.  The film was a combination of four different stories adapted from individual episodes of the award winning anthology from acclaimed writer Rod Serling, with each segment given to some of the biggest movie directors of the time.  The segment that sadly has the bad reputation is the one directed by John Landis, who was fresh off of his success with comedies like Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers.  His segment features actor Vic Morrow playing a bigoted businessman who is transported into the middle of several crises where he must suffer through the same injustices that the people he professes to hate have gone through.  One such moment involves a recreation of a battle in the Vietnam War, and Morrow’s character must help two young Vietnamese children to safety.  Sadly, during the filming of this scene, a malfunction with a prop helicopter caused it to crash on Vic Morrow and the two children he was carrying with him, killing all three instantly.  It’s one of the most notorious on set accidents in movie history, and it’s something that has clouded Landis’ reputation ever since, given the lax safety standards on set that were discovered later.  They were able to finish the film without the star, and it is an otherwise dark side note to an otherwise excellent big screen adaptation.  Fittingly, the Landis portion is the least interesting of the segments, and Spielberg’s is wonderfully whimsical but perhaps a bit too bright for this kind of movie.  Where the movie really shines is in the more horror themed segments from Joe Dante and George Miller.  Dante’s re-imagining of the “It’s a Good Life” episode is especially weird and disturbing in all the right ways and is definitely the highlight of the movie.  And George Miller’s re-make of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is elevated by an incredible unhinged performance by John Lithgow in the role famously played by William Shatner in the original series.  The movie had the unenviable task of taking one of the most iconic and influential shows on television and giving it a cinematic make-over, and thankfully these talented filmmakers were able to bring their own imaginative spins to help make it worthwhile.



Directed by Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma was no stranger to adapting a hit series  into a movie before he tackled this movie based on the classic spy thriller show.  In 1987, De Palma put his own spin on the acclaimed Prohibition Era set crime show The Untouchables.  And while that movie was an excellent adaptation on it’s own, his more longer lasting legacy in translating a show for the big screen came with this adaptation of the show Mission: Impossible, which ran from 1966-73.  The interesting thing about this movie is that it is in the continuity of the show, integrating the main character from the show (Jim Phelps), but putting him in charge of a new team.  Out of this, a new lead character was created in Ethan Hunt, a character molded specifically for a movie star named Tom Cruise to play.  The great twist with this movies is that (spoilers) Jim Phelps, the previous main character, is revealed to be the villain this time around; an interesting subversion on the original premise.  That twist is probably why the original actor who played Phelps (Peter Graves) refused to appear in this movie, but award winning actor Jon Voight fills the role perfectly in his place.  There’s no denying, this was a vehicle first and foremost for Tom Cruise to shine, which is not surprising given that he’s also the producer of the film.  Brian De Palma does do a great job of taking the iconic elements of the show (the gadgetry and the famous face masks) and giving them a cinematic flair.  He also does a masterful job of staging the action scenes as well, with the break-in to a sensory security room via rope suspension being one of the most iconic ever put on screen.  Though Brian De Palma left after one film in the series, he still left a strong foundation on which Cruise and his team have continued to build over the years, creating one of the greatest action franchises in history.  It’s definitely a case where the movie takes the premise of the show and brings it to it’s full potential, and is even not afraid to take some creative risks in order to rewrite the history of the show itself.  It’s definitely a mission worth choosing to accept.



Directed by James Frawley

The Muppets throughout the 1960’s and 70’s were a television institution.  The felt made puppets created by Jim Henson and his company had two hit shows airing at the same time, with The Muppet Show being a primetime hit on network TV, as well as Sesame Street being a beloved program for younger audiences on public broadcasting.  So it wasn’t at all surprising that the Muppets would eventually make it to the big screen.  The only question was, what kind of movie would they make.  The Muppet Movie in some ways is an origin story of how the characters got their start in showbiz.  We start off with Kermit the Frog (played by Henson himself) and his friend Fozzie the Bear (Frank Oz) taking a road trip cross country to make their break in Hollywood.  Along the way, they meet up with all of the familiar faces we know from The Muppet Show.  In a nice meta joke, they also run into Big Bird, whose heading in the opposite direction to New York to start his own show on public television.  It’s a great way to build a movie story around familiar characters without having to adhere to the format of the show they came from.  One thing that the movie does carry over from the show is the many celebrity cameos sprinkled throughout the movie, with icons such as Mel Brooks, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, and even Orson freaking Welles showing up at the end.  By the movie’s end, we see the Muppets given their big break, and it’s easy to see how the famed Muppet Show would have been a continuation of their story.  The movie is itself very iconic, with the Paul Williams penned song “The Rainbow Connection” becoming something of an anthem for the Muppet brand.  And of course this would lead to a series of loosely connected Muppet movies over the next several decades.  Most of them are excellent in their own right, but the fact that they made it to the big screen is because of how well this movie set the standard going forward.



Directed by Nicholas Meyer

If there is a brand that can definitively say it’s the most popular brand to have even come from television, Star Trek can make a very strong claim.  The sci-fi series created by Gene Rodenberry may have lasted only 3 seasons, but it’s legacy is enormous in the history of television.  It has created one of the largest and most devoted fan bases in pop culture and has spun off a whole bunch of hit television series based within the same universe.  About a decade after it’s original run, the series had grown so popular through years of re-runs that it convinced Paramount Pictures to pursue a big screen adaptation of the series.  Bringing back the full original crew of the starship Enterprise, the movie was a big budget spectacle, intended on giving the sci-fi brand the same cinematic appeal as other classics of the genre like Star Wars (1977) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Unfortunately, director Robert Wise didn’t understand the fundamental basics of what made the show work in the first place, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was a disappointing bore that alienated fans and turned away audiences.  Still, Paramount was eager to still make it work.  Nicolas Meyer was brought in to re-work the franchise for a sequel.  What he ended up doing was create a movie that indeed lived up to the legacy of the show while at the same time giving it a worthy cinematic upgrade.  What’s even better is that it picks up as a continuation of an on-going storyline from the series, bringing in Ricardo Montalban to reprise his role as the villainous meta-human Khan, with a performance now considered iconic to most Trek fans.  The Wrath of Khan really does feel like the true successor to the original series.  It rewards long time fans with a return of a classic villain and at the same time delivers moments that elevate the Star Trek franchise as a whole, including Shatner’s iconic guttural scream of  “Khaaaaan” and Leonard Nimoy’s tear-jerking final moments after Spock’s sacrifice.  This was the movie that truly resurrected Star Trek and helped to turn it in not just a force on television, but on the big screen as well; a legacy that continues to this day.



Directed by Andrew Davis

While a lot of hit movies have been inspired by television series, only one can lay claim to have been so good that it got a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.  The Fugitive is a classic in every sense of the word, taking the premise of the original hit series that ran from 1963-67, and updating it with a pulse pounding adaptation.  The story of wrongfully convicted Dr. Richard Kimble became one of the must see event shows of it’s time, and the final episode is still to this day one of the most seen in television history; on par with the finale of M.A.S.H.  It took nearly 30 years for a big screen adaptation to happen, and by that time there was enough separation from the source series to help make this film feel like a fresh new thing.  The movie wisely cast Harrison Ford as Richard Kimble, a role that perfectly utilizes his intensity as a performer while also feeling different enough from his work as Han Solo and Indiana Jones in the past.  It was the kind of meaty dramatic role that Harrison Ford really wanted to show his acting chops with, and he delivers a great performance overall.  But, the movie is made even better with the scene stealing performance of Tommy Lee Jones as Samuel Gerard, the top cop in charge of hunting Richard Kimble down.  Jones strikes the perfect balance between intensity and absurdity, with a whole movie’s worth of great one-liners.  The role would even win Tommy a well deserved Oscar for Supporting Actor.  Of all the movies based on television shows, this one feels like the one that strives the most to be a great movie, and for the most part it succeeds.  It’s another case where the film is so iconic it eclipse the show it was based on, and that show was an icon in it’s own day too.  There are moments in this movie that are just thrillingly cinematic, including Ford’s dive off of the top of a dam, which is the movie’s most iconic scene.  So many adaptations of television shows try perhaps a little too hard to break free of their small screen roots.  This adaptation is definitely a case where the story was calling for a great big cinematic re-telling and the filmmakers managed to craft a film that transcends any size screen.

One of the things that I noticed in putting this list together is that the success rate of creating a big screen adaptation of a television series is found more often on the comedy side.  It would seem that comedies lend themselves better to a feature length expansion.  It’s probably because comedies tend to be more stand alone stories with every episode, meaning that a movie fits in better with the continuity of a show by just being a longer episode.  Dramas on the other hand are serialized for the most part, which can be difficult to condense into a two hour length for the big screen, or to expand upon in a re-imagining.  The best dramatic adaptations of television shows are the ones that usually just take the premise and start with a fresh new take, kind of like what we saw with The Fugitive.  Because telling stories for television and for cinema are so different, it is often difficult to make that transition work.  Movies don’t break for commercial, and television shows have to adhere to more standards and practices than movies do.  They very much are two different formats for telling a story, so a lot of things are going to have to change in translation.  Still, there are a number of cases where it has worked and payed off immensely well.  Star Trek and Mission: Impossible are both cinematic franchises that have stood well on their own even with the television shows still standing out within the pop culture.  And in some cases, great movies can rise out of even the most trivial of inspirations seen on television, like Wayne’s World managing to become a hit comedy movie based on a short sketch from a weekly variety show.  The continuing blurring of the lines between television and cinema in the age of streaming is making the definitions of a small screen to big screen adaptation change as well.  At some point, a cinematic adaptation of a television series will not seem as much of a reward as it has been in the past, but more of an inevitability.  Even still, as seen with some of the examples on this list, there have been some great films that owe a lot to their success to the foundation that was made for them on television beforehand.  Great stories always find a way to capture an audience, and as we’ve seen it’s not so much the size of the screen that matters, but rather the strength of the story that comes through and entertains us and makes these classics endure in any format.

Off the Page – Winnie the Pooh

One of the strongest contributions that merry old England has contributed to world literature are the books that have been written specifically for younger readers.  Popularized specifically in the turn of the 20th Century, children’s literature began to blossom and leave it’s mark on the publishing world, and many of the most well known authors were coming from the English literary community.  What really distinguished English children’s literature were the memorable characters that came from these imaginative stories.  Whether it be the maniacal Mr. Toad from Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, or the boy who never grew up in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, or the practically perfect nanny in P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, these were characters that lept off the page and captured the imagination of children not just in their native England, but all around the world as well.  But the most popular of these characters may have come from the unlikeliest of authors.  That character of course would be the little stuffed bear known as Winnie the Pooh.  Pooh Bear is a character known the whole world over, rivaling even Mickey Mouse in overall awareness across cultures.  But what is it about the character of Winnie the Pooh that has managed to transcend multiple generations and cultural barriers.  In essence, there is a simplicity to the world of Winnie the Pooh that connects with our imagination at a very young age.  As children, we see our own little worlds as being much grander than they really are, and out of that we develop an imagination where that small little world is the place for a great adventure of our making and the toys we play with are our companions.  That’s at the core of the Winnie the Pooh stories, and it’s also where their creation began.  Winnie the Pooh was born out of a real place and the imagination of a real child, which itself evolved into an interesting story on it’s own.

Alan Alexander (A.A.) Milne was a mildly successful playwright in England during the earlier part of the 20th Century.  He served his country in World War I, and the experience left severe mental scars.  His writing post-War became more harsh and bleak as he was passionate to express his anti-War feelings to the world.  The toll of the war led him to retreat from the social life of London, and he spent much of the 20’s at a country estate near Ashdown Forest in East Essex.  Most of these exile years were spent in the company of his young son, Christopher Robin Milne.  Hoping to start fresh with his child that he neglected because of his seclusion due to triggering war flashbacks, the peaceful countryside allowed Milne to settle down and give more attention to his son.  He observed how Christopher Robin would create his own adventures in the woods outside their home, and always with a stuffed bear at his side named Growler.  This inspiring scene would spark the creativity in Milne’s mind once again and he began to write about Christopher Robin’s adventures in the 100 Acre Wood that was Ashdown Forest.  And though Christopher Robin was indeed a part of his stories, the name of the bear needed to be more distinct than Growler.  At the time, the London Zoo had just welcomed a Canadian bear cub with the name Winnipeg, or Winnie for short.  And though the Milne had changed the name of his stuffed bear, Christopher Robin contributed the addition of Pooh to the name, as it was what he called a swan that lived in the nearby pond on the property.  Christopher’s names for all of his other stuffed toys also made it into the story, including the tiny little Piglet, a tiger named Tigger, and a donkey named Eeyore.  Over the course of two years, A.A. Milne wrote over two dozen Winnie the Pooh stories, and they were published collectively in two volumes, the titular Winnie the Pooh (1926) and The House on Pooh Corner (1928) soon after.

“Pooh, for a bear of very little brain, you sure are a smart one.”

The two Winnie the Pooh books were enormous hits all over England and they managed to make a huge impression across the pond as well in North America.  The impact of that success unfortunately was not all that good for Milne and his family.  One of the things that really captured the imagination of young readers were the many illustrations that were included in the books, taken from pencil sketches by Milne’s longtime collaborator and friend E.H. Shepard.  Shepard’s depiction of Winnie the Pooh and his critter friends would become iconic and influential for years beyond, but when it came to drawing Christopher Robin himself, Shepard and Milne made the mistake of basing his likeness on the real Christopher.  As a result, the very young boy became a bit of a celebrity, with many people clamoring to meet the real Christopher Robin.  Christopher would go on a whirlwind tour helping to promote the book, with A.A. Milne unable to stop the frenzy surrounding his son.  There was even a reckless marketing ploy where Christopher participated in a photo shoot with the bear Winnipeg at the London Zoo.  That’s right, a barely 8 year old child was made to stand next to a live bear that could’ve easily attacked him without warning.  Thankfully nothing happened, but it is shocking to think how poorly Christopher was treated during these promotional days.  Naturally it led to some resentment in Christopher’s later years, as he grew to hate the bear that made him famous and thus denied him a simple childhood.  A.A. Milne also resented the success of his Winnie the Pooh books because they overshadowed his other work and weren’t reflective of his true passions.  Winnie the Pooh would be a sore spot in the Milne family for many years, as Christopher became more estranged from his father, whom he blamed for exploiting him.  Towards the end of his life, A.A. Milne chose to distance himself from his most popular creation, refusing to have it dramatized in any form, both on screen and on the stage during his lifetime.  Eventually he and Christopher did reconcile in later years, but they together chose to disown the cuddly little bear.

“The only reason for being a bee is to make honey.  And the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it.”

After A.A. Milne’s death in 1956, the rights to his Winnie the Pooh stories were passed on to his publisher’s widow, as Christopher Robin Milne had no interest in claiming the character for himself.  A couple years later, the widow of the publisher would put up the rights for a film version for the first time ever.  There of course was one filmmaker who had his eyes set on the Winnie the Pooh stories for a long time and jumped immediately at the opportunity.  That person of course was Walt Disney.  Disney gained the exclusive rights to the Winnie the Pooh stories in 1961, and he was intent on putting his own spin on the world renowned stories.  But, instead of crafting a full length feature based on the books, Walt opted to make short subject adaptations of select chapters of the Winnie the Pooh books.  Given that the Winnie the Pooh books are just a collection of self contained short stories, it made more sense to have a series of shorts made rather than a singular film with a feature length narrative.  And so, Walt Disney and his animators would begin their work on Winnie the Pooh with an adaptation of the first two chapters of the original 1926 book; one with a story of Pooh using a balloon to fly up into a tree in order to reach the honey found in a bee hive and other involving Pooh getting stuck in the entrance hole of the bunny hollow of his friend Rabbit.  This first short would be called Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966), which sadly would end up being the last animated project that Walt Disney would see to completion.  After his death in 1966, Walt’s animation team began work on the second featurette, entitled Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968), which among other things introduced the character of Tigger into the series.  Blustery Day would prove to be even more popular than the first short, and it ended up winning an Oscar as well for Animated Short.  A few years later, the third short Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too (1974) was released.  The three shorts were then combined into a package feature film called The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) with new animated interstitials and a finale added.  This package feature is how most people are able to view the original run of Disney’s take on Winnie the Pooh, but it’s not the last we would ever see of the little bear.  Indeed, Winnie the Pooh would be around for quite a while, appearing in Saturday morning cartoons, holiday specials, and he would even get another animated feature film from Disney in 2011, simply titled Winnie the Pooh.  Not to mention, he would become a gold mine in merchandising for Disney, making billions of dollars for the company.  Remarkably, what A.A. Milne chose to cast aside, Disney would embrace and make their own, and it would be one of the most lucrative acquisitions they have ever made.

Though for fans of the original books, it’s that Disneyfication of the character that has become controversial over the years.  Many people in the UK are especially resentful of how Americanized the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh is.  The Disney shorts very much lack the English identity that is so crucially part of Milne’s writing.  A.A. Milne was a poet first and foremost, and his Winnie the Pooh stories were full of the kind of flourish that he excelled at as a writer.  Some of the moral lessons learned by Pooh and Christopher Robin show how Milne himself was trying to process his own outlook on life, with Pooh acting as both a companion to Christopher as well a bit of a therapist.  Much of that  flourish is minimized in Disney’s versions, as Winnie the Pooh and his friends speak more or less like other American cartoon characters of the time.  Even though the characters themselves may be missing some of that distinct Milne dialogue in favor of a more straightforward American style sense of humor, Walt Disney and his team still found a clever way to work some of Milne’s style of prose through the inclusion of a narrator.  Voiced in the original run of shorts by English actor Sabastian Cabot, the narrator plays an important function within the adaptation.  He not only brings Milne’s own voice into the film, but he even interacts with the characters as well.  One of the more inspired choices of the Disney adaptation is to have the characters actually interacting within the pages of the book itself, including treating the text as actual physical objects.  They’ll even address the narrator directly, aware of his existence.  It’s an interesting aspect that Disney added  and it helps to both pay homage to the original text while at the same time allowing for creative flourish on the part of the animation itself.

“Heffalumps and Woozels are very confusal.  A Heffalump or Woozel’s very sly.  If honey’s what you covet, you’ll find that they love it.  Before your eyes you’ll see them multiply.”

Even with the changes Disney made, the shorts still maintains a reverence for the source material.  It is clear that the Shepard illustrations were key inspirations for the visual style of the 100 Acre Wood.  Disney Animation was going through a transitional period in the mid to late 60’s, as they embraced a newer, sketchy style look thanks to a Xerox process that translated pencil drawings directly onto animation cels.  It worked well on some projects, like the more modern day 101 Dalmatians (1961), but looked a little too course on films that should have had a softer, classical look like The Aristocats (1970).  For Winnie the Pooh, the Xerox process was a perfect match, because of it’s similarity to the Shepard illustrations.  The backgrounds in particular really feel like they were pulled right off the page, and given the short’s gimmick with the living manuscript that the characters interact with, it’s clear that Disney really wanted to capture that simple beauty found in the original texts.  The character designs take heavy inspiration from the Shepard drawings too, though with noticeable differences to help make them easier to animate.  Disney’s Winnie the Pooh is a bit more rotund than his book counterpart, though Disney still keeps the shape of his bear head very similar to how it is in the book.  Piglet is almost a direct translation, while other characters are embellished a bit more.  Tigger is especially more dynamic in the Disney version, being both animalistic, but also capable of human like behavior.  Disney’s choices in voices also go a long way towards making the characters come alive.  Veteran actor Sterling Holloway, a favorite of Walt’s, was brought on to give Winnie the Pooh his voice, and it’s a perfect match.  While literary purists may bemoan Holloway’s American accent on this very British bear, there’s no denying the soft tone on his voice is delightful to listen to and feel natural for a stuffed bear named Winnie.  Ventriloquist and comedian Paul Winchell delivers a rousing performance as Tigger, especially in developing the distinctive laugh of the character with his “hoo hoo hoo hooo.”  Character actor John Fiedler brought his distinct high pitched voice to the part of Piglet, and he would continue to voice the character for another 40 years up until his passing in 2005.  One key change that the Milne family probably would’ve approved of are the changes to Christopher Robin.  In addition to also giving the character an American accent (provided by a number of young actors), they also changed the look of the character to help distance him more for the real Christopher Robin.  His function in the story is also less direct, with him passively being a part of stories that Winnie the Pooh is more independently motivated in.

“Wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in the enchanted place on top of the forest, a little bear will always be waiting.”

Though Disney made several changes to the characters, they still remarkably remain faithful to the stories themselves.  All of the shorts that made up The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh were adapted from Milne’s own stories.  The stories themselves get mashed together to create bigger narratives, but each one translates original ideas from Milne’s own imagination.  Disney clearly knew that many in the audience would’ve been familiar with these stories, especially the iconic Honey Tree and Flood stories.  Where Disney saw their chance to bring their own flourish was in expanding upon concepts that are limited when described on the page.  One of the biggest moments that Disney contributed to Winnie the Pooh is found midway through the Blustery Day short.  In it, Winnie the Pooh learns about the concept of Heffalumps and Woozels from Tigger, fearing that they will steal his honey.  This leads to a nightmare sequence when Disney creates some truly surrealistic imagery.  I would make a guess that this was the segment that helped the short win an Oscar because it is a one of the most tripiest moments found in any Disney movie.  The “Pink Elephants” sequence from Dumbo (1941) seems to have been an inspiration, with Winnie the Pooh finding himself caught up in a weird place surrounded by Heffalumps and Woozels that shapeshift into anything.  It’s definitely the thing that deviates the most from Milne’s original vision, which is far more grounded in a magical reality.  Apart from that detour, which makes sense in the scheme of the story as part of Winnie the Pooh’s nightmare, the stories play out just as Milne wrote them.  The stakes never grow too dire; the only real conflict overall in the arc of these stories is the contention between Rabbit and Tigger, which the characters are too good natured to ever take too seriously.  Disney showed with the Heffalump sequence that they were capable of deviating far from Milne’s vision, but they wisely kept Winnie the Pooh characteristically simple and direct in line with how the books told their stories.

As Winnie the Pooh inches closer to his Centennial anniversary, it is remarkable to see how his influence has not waned but instead grown stronger.  After the character entered the public domain a couple years ago, it didn’t take long for opportunistic filmmakers to exploit that freedom and use the iconography of Winnie the Pooh as the basis for a horror movie.  Thankfully, Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey (2023) came and went and was widely panned by everyone, so it’s existence shouldn’t cast a bad rep on the character going forward.  What has been one of the stranger legacies of the character, however, has been his influence on global politics.  At some point, many people pointed out the visual similarities between the Disney design of the character and Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jingping.  President Xi has been aware of this, as the comparison to Winnie the Pooh is often used as a way of mocking the controversial leader, so what has come as a result has been a crackdown on all Winnie the Pooh related imagery all across China.  The only exceptions allowed are select pieces of merchandise, as well as costumed appearances at Shanghai Disneyland.  Other than that, no one in China is allowed to distribute anything not approved by the Chinese government with Winnie the Pooh on it.  Now Winnie the Pooh has been turned as a symbol of rebellion in China, which I don’t know how an anti-Fascist pacifist like A.A. Milne would feel in response.  As of now, the Disney version of the character remains the face of the character that most of us know today, and Disney is not likely to be slowing down with their presentations of the character.  He is now as big of a driver of the Disney brand as Mickey himself, with Pooh being especially popular with the youngest part of Disney’s audience.  Has it taken away from some of the appeal of the character that Milne first imagined.  The original shorts did an admirable job of staying true to their literary source, but in the years since, with Disney going way beyond the books with countless spin offs on television and home video, it can be argued that Disney has been a little overkill with their hold on the property.  Still, Winnie the Pooh remains more or less the same honey loving bear we all love, and like his original literary companion Christopher Robin, he has been a guiding role model for kindness in much of our childhood memories.  If Winnie the Pooh’s legacy in the end is to encourage a lot more kindness in the world, than perhaps A.A. Milne was able to fulfill his intent for seeking a more peaceful world after all.

“The most wonderful thing about Tiggers is that I’m the only one.”

The 2024 Oscars – Picks and Thoughts

The time has come again to hand out the gold in the heart of Hollywood as we arrive at the industry’s biggest night.  Though we are well into the new year now, the Academy Awards do feel like the final curtain to the year prior when it comes to the movies.  It’s the Awards ceremony that definitively gives us the snapshot of where the film industry is at the current moment, and this year’s Oscars certainly marks the end of one of the most tumultuous in cinema history.  What defined the year of 2023 more than anything else was the months long Writers’ and Actors’ strike, and while it did result in much needed beneficial gains for the creative community, it also shook up the release calendar on the back end of the year, when Hollywood puts out it’s Oscar contenders.  There were many films garnering for attention that still got released during the strike, but without the benefit of having the cast out in the circuit promoting them a lot of those potential contenders ended up getting no attention at all and were mostly forgotten by year’s end.  Some distributors even decided to give up and pushed their movies to the following year.  Who knows how different this year’s award season would’ve been had the strikes not happen.  While that may be a question to speculate in the years ahead, this year’s Oscars definitely reflects the affect of 2023’s other major event which was the “Barbenheimer” effect at the box office.  Not only did the two high grossing saviors of last summer dominate the box office, but both Barbie and Oppenheimer ended up with a healthy amount of awards recognition too from the Academy, with one in a pretty good position to take Best Picture.  It’s fitting that the Academy recognized the importance of what “Barbenheimer” did for the industry.  The Academy has been seen as very out of touch with the average audience for a long time, and that has been reflected in the dismal ratings for the ceremony on television in recent years.  Hopefully they learned this year that a movie being a blockbuster doesn’t always mean it’s unworthy of an Oscar, and the hope is that this year the Oscars ceremony will also get that “Barbenheimer” bump.

What follows are my in-depth breakdowns of all the top categories, as well as my quick list of all the others.  For these top ones, I will provide my commentary and reveal not just who I think will win, but also who I would like to see win, which sometimes diverges.  My track record is not 100%, but I do observe the trends and momentum leading up to Oscars night, so I try to make the best educated guess I can on these picks.  I even go out of my way to see as many of the nominated films as possible, including the short subjects.  So, with all that said, here are my picks for the 2024 Academy Awards.


Nominees: Cord Jefferson, American Fiction; Greta Gerwig & Noah Baumbach, Barbie; Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer; Tony McNamara, Poor Things; Jonathan Glazer, The Zone of Interest

Perhaps the most stacked category of the night.  Any one of these nominees would be the hands down favorite in any other year, and the fact that they all have to compete against one another is unfortunate.  In one case, the Oscars made a misstep, putting the screenplay for Barbie in the Adapted category, when it is far from an adaptation.  The explanation was that Barbie is a pre-established IP before the movie, but anyone who has seen the film knows that it’s story was purely from the imagination of Greta Gerwig, as well as her co-writer and real life partner Noah Baumbach.  This is also one of the many categories pitting the two “Barbenheimer” films against each other.  While Oppenheimer‘s script is an excellent one, with Christopher Nolan adapting a 700 page biography into a compelling and intense three hour film, it’s also clear that the film’s better strength is in it’s direction, so this is a case where Barbie actually has the edge.  But, it’s looking like that it too will come up empty handed.  A lot of the momentum in this category seems to be shifting in Cord Jefferson’s direction.  Jefferson’s cinematic debut is winning raves across the board, and in particular for it’s witty and satirical screenplay, poking fun at the way race is addressed in the publishing world.  His screenplay is sharp tongued, but also has a great deal of subtlety in it’s character building moments.  While it likely will be the winner, I do find myself more drawn to the more risk taking scripts.  Tony McNamara’s Poor Things script has some of the most hilarious “WTF” lines of the year, and it does a great job of mixing the absurd with the profound.  Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest is also a brilliant example of writing through subtext, as he perfectly captures the banality of the evil found in the casual conversations from the Nazis he observes in the film; finding the power in the things not said.  But honestly out of the bunch, I found Greta and Noah’s examination of the dynamics of femininity and masculinity through the famous toy brand to be the most impressive writing achievement in this field of nominees.  Who knew that Barbie would end up being the best statement film of the year?

Who Will Win: Cord Jefferson, American Fiction

Who Should Win: Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, Barbie


Nominees:  Justine Triet and Arthur Harari, Anatomy of a Fall; Bradley Cooper and Josh Singer, Maestro; Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik, May December; Celine Song, Past Lives; David Hemingson, The Holdovers

Here we have a category with far more clear favorites.  While Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik’s May December may have gotten a lot of buzz going into awards season, the fact that this is the sole nomination that the film received pretty much tells you that it’s not favored to win.  Bradley Cooper and Josh Singer’s Maestro is a charming love letter to a legendary artist, but it’s also fairly formulaic as far as biopic screenplays go, which hurts it’s chances as well.  With those two flashy Netflix movies out of the way, the remaining nominees are representative of the strong year in independent cinema we had in 2023.  Celine Song’s understated Past Lives was a critical darling that stuck with critics and Academy voters all year.  But it’s modest showing in the other categories shows that a nomination is about as far as the movie is likely to go in this category.  For right now, the momentum seems to be behind the Palme d’Or winner from Cannes, Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall.  Triet’s crime drama showing the process of a murder trial unfolding from investigation to ultimately the verdict is a captivating watch, and the screenplay is very precise in the way it uses language as a part of the mystery.  It certainly is the movie that makes you think the most while watching it, and it’s satisfying that Justine Triet doesn’t give you an easy answer as to what actually happened either.  As good as Anatomy of a Fall’s script is, my favorite in this category has to be the script for the movie that I named as my favorite for the year.  David Hemingson’s screenplay for The Holdovers is this beautiful throwback to the subdued character driven comedies of the 1970’s, fitting perfectly with the visual aesthetic that director Alexander Payne gave the movie.  It is the perfect blend of drama and humor with just the right amount of edge to keep it from growing schmaltzy.  And he should get the award for some of the best written insults of the year, which Paul Giamatti delivers to perfection.  While it’s chances are fading, I would like to see The Holdovers make an upset win here.

Who Will Win: Justine Triet and Arthur Harari, Anatomy of a Fall

Who Should Win:  David Hemingson, The Holdovers


Nominees:  Mark Ruffalo, Poor Things; Robert DeNiro, Killers of the Flower Moon; Robert Downey, Jr., Oppenheimer; Ryan Gosling, Barbie; Sterling K. Brown, American Fiction

For all the comic book movie nerds out there, it is funny to see this as a competition between Iron Man and the Hulk, with Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo both nominated here.  While Ruffalo’s performance as a petty womanizer in Poor Things was certainly a delight and deserving of awards recognition, it seems he is likely to see his fellow Marvel alum take home the gold this year.  Robert Downey, Jr. has had one of the best redemption arcs of anyone in movie history, coming from a near career destroying set of scandals and drug addiction to eventually headlining in the biggest movie franchise ever.  Winning an Oscar would be yet another distinction to help cement Downey’s remarkable career resurrection.  Playing former Atomic policy chief and later adversary of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Lewis Strauss, Downey’s performance is big and memorable, and it demonstrates all the best qualities we’ve seen out of him as an actor.  This is his third nomination, and all signs show that he is likely to win.  But, as much as I loved Robert Downey’s performance in Oppenheimer, the performance that impressed me the most in this category was Ryan Gosling as Ken.  Comedy roles are often overlooked by the Academy, especially with the broad, cartoonish type of comedy that we see in Barbie, so it’s a real testament to Gosling’s comedic chops that he managed to get nominated for his performance.  It is far and away one of the funniest performances we’ve seen in years, with Ryan Gosling commanding every moment and being absolutely perfect in the role of the insecure Ken doll that messes up the harmony of Barbieland in the film.  His “I’m Just Ken” musical performance may in fact be my single favorite scene in any movie of last year.  As hard as it is to be nominated for a comedic performance, it’s even harder to actually win.  Still, I think that Gosling is the closest competition that Downey has in this category; a true “Barbenheimer” showdown.  But, like what is expected for this upcoming Oscar night, Oppenheimer has the edge in this category.  And it will be a deserved win for Robert Downey, Jr. whose career turnaround really is a remarkable story in itself.

Who Will Win:  Robert Downey, Jr., Oppenheimer

Who Should Win:  Ryan Gosling, Barbie


Nominees:  America Ferrera, Barbie; Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers; Danielle Brooks, The Color Purple; Emily Blunt, Oppenheimer; Jodie Foster, Nyad

Here we have the most locked down Award of the night.  From the beginning of the Awards season to now, Da’Vine Joy Randolph has dominated this category, winning pretty much everything.  Her role as the warm-hearted boys academy cafeteria cook Mary Lamb in The Holdovers has been celebrated across the board and it’s the kind of nuanced performance that really grabs the attention of Academy voters.  I couldn’t agree more.  The moment you first see her character in The Holdovers, you instantly want to know more about her, and Ms. Randolph delivers a tour de force performance that perfectly aligns with the overall tone of the film.  I’m happy she’s getting all of this due recognition as it means that The Holdovers is guaranteed at least one Oscar this year.  I don’t see any of the others in this category denying her the Award.  The only one who might have the most outside chances of an upset might be America Ferrera for Barbie, who was the surprise nominee this year.  There’s an outside chance that her surprise nomination could lead to an outside win, but it seems unlikely.  I think one of the reasons that America got the nomination was because of that viral moment in Barbie where she gives the big speech about the pressures of being a woman today that pretty much spelled out the main thesis of the film.  It’s a deserving nomination to be sure, as are the other nominees.  Danielle Brooks was a bright spot in an otherwise unnecessary remake of The Color Purple.  Emily Blunt stole the show in her brief scenes as Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, leading to a first ever nomination.  And Jodie Foster was an expected stand out in the inspirational Nyad.  But Da’Vine Joy Randolph clearly stood out the most this year, with a performance that is equal measures devastating and inspiring, while also filled with charming humor.  You can count on her making the Awards season sweep, with an almost sure thing Oscar becoming the jewel in her crown.

Who Will Win:  Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers

Who Should Win:  Da’Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers


Nominees:  Bradley Cooper, Maestro; Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer; Colman Domingo, Rustin; Jeffrey Wright, American Fiction; Paul Giamatti, The Holdovers

This is a tough category for me, because it involves pitting my two favorite movies of the year against each other.  Two favorites have emerged in this category since the nominations were read, and in the last couple weeks, the race has actually flipped a bit in favor of one over the other.  Initially, Paul Giamatti looked to be the favorite, with his win at the Golden Globes (and his subsequent after party trip to In-and-Out Burger that went viral).  But, in the last few weeks, Cillian Murphy has been racking up wins at the BAFTAs and the SAG Awards.  As of right now, it looks like Murphy is benefitting from the overall momentum behind Oppenheimer going into the Oscars, and he seems to be pulling away right now.  I do indeed like Cillian Murphy’s performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer.  It would be fitting that Murphy earns his Oscar for a Christopher Nolan film, as the two have been frequent collaborators on multiple movies.  And given how so much of the film’s success is dependent on his performance, given that he’s in nearly every scene of the three hour epic, the fact that the movie was the box office hit that became shows just how well his performance hit it’s mark.  It certainly wouldn’t upset me if Cillian Murphy wins the Award.  But, my favorite performance here comes from my favorite movie of the year.  Paul Giamatti’s career has been made up of a remarkable string of memorable, quirky characters, and sadly this is only the second nomination he has ever gotten (and first for a Lead role).  Winning here would really be a great acknowledgement for a career of outstanding character roles, but it’s also just a recognition for a phenomenal performance that achieves the right balance between hilarious and heartbreaking.  And man does he put some punch into those intellectual sounding insults.  At this point, I feel that some of that goodwill within Hollywood that Paul Giamatti has built up over the years could lift him to the top, but right now Oppenheimer is looking to have a big night and that will likely be the tide that lifts Cillian Murphy over the edge as well.

Who Will Win:  Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer

Who Should Win:  Paul Giamatti, The Holdovers


Nominees:  Annette Bening, Nyad; Carey Mulligan, Maestro;  Emma Stone, Poor Things; Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon;  Sandra Huller, Anatomy of a Fall

Again, this is a category where it looks like two favorites have emerged.  And this one is a bit more competitive than Best Actor going into the home stretch.  Overall this is a strong category with deserving nominations for all.  A special shout out to German actress Sandra Huller, who is nominated here for Anatomy of a Fall, but also delivered another standout performance in the Best Picture nominee The Zone of Interest; a breakout year for her for sure.  Right now, this is a race between Lily Gladstone and Emma Stone, and it’s hard to say who has the edge.  Both won the Golden Globes in their respective Drama and Musical/Comedy categories, but since then Lily has picked up the SAG award and Emma has picked up the BAFTA.  If I were to put my pulse on the race right now, I would say this is going to go to Lily Gladstone.  Hollywood loves to make history at the Oscars ceremony, and a win for Lily would give them that moment as she would be the first Indigenous actor to ever win an Oscar.  It would be a deserving honor too, as she was definitely the standout in Martin Scorsese’s expansive Western epic, outshining even big heavyweights like Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro in the film.  But, as much as I liked Lily Gladstone’s performance and would cheer a historic win for her on Oscar night, I do feel the best performance this last year belonged to Emma Stone in Poor Things.  Her performance in this oddball re-imagining of Frankenstein is a performance unlike anything I have seen before, and it really takes a committed and fearless actress to convincingly put it off.  Emma Stone, reuniting with director Yorgos Lanthimos after making The Favourite together, makes the character of Bella Baxter one of the most unique big screen protagonists I seen in a long while, and where she takes this character in the film is a wild journey.  And yet, she manages to nail even the more dramatic parts as well alongside the goofy moments.  It’s my favorite performance across all categories at this year’s Oscars, so I definitely am rooting for Emma Stone to prevail.  But, a win for Lily Gladstone wouldn’t upset me either, and it would be a long overdue Award for the Native Indigenous community who have long deserved recognition for their contributions to cinema.  Her win will also likely be the sole Award for Killers of the Flower Moon at this year’s Oscars, so it’s hard to completely count out the Scorsese effect as well.

Who Will Win:  Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon

Who Should Win:  Emma Stone, Poor Things


Nominees:  Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer;  Jonathan Glazer, The Zone of Interest;  Justine Triet, Anatomy of a Fall;  Martin Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon;  Yorgos Lanthimos, Poor Things

This is another one of the easy to call categories.  That not to say that the other nominees here are slouches.  It’s remarkable that Martin Scorsese is still being recognized in this category this late into his career, showing that he hasn’t lost his magic touch at all, having now been nominated in 6 different decades.  Yorgos Lanthimos made perhaps his biggest leap yet as a visual storyteller with his dreamlike aesthetic placed upon the world of Poor Things.  And Jonathan Glazer delivered one of the most chilling Holocaust films ever with a movie that remarkably shows very little carnage but conveys the horrors instead brilliantly through atmosphere and sound.  Justine Triet delivers a brilliant dissection of the French legal system in action through Anatomy of a Fall, though I feel her nomination should have been filled by Greta Gerwig for Barbie.  But, it’s been clear to anyone going into this Awards season that this is going to be Christopher Nolan’s year.  The Holdovers topped my list this year because I thought it was the best written movie of the year, but Oppenheimer was my number two and it was undeniably the best directed movie of the year.  Nolan has always been pushing the boundaries of the cinematic artform, creating these monumental films that are more than just a movie; they are events.  A huge proponent of IMAX photography, he made Oppenheimer as must see film in theaters, and that helped to contribute to it’s nearly $1 billion box office.  There has been a groundswell for years for the Academy to honor Christopher Nolan for the advancements in cinema that he has made.  The reason we have 10 nominees for Best Picture is because the Academy overlooked Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), so that’s a profound legacy he has left right there on it’s own.  Thankfully, Oppenheimer is one of those undeniable achievements that no one can argue isn’t deserving of the Oscar for Directing.  It may have taken a while, but Christopher Nolan should finally get that long overdue recognition from the Academy.

Who Will Win:  Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer

Who Should Win:  Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer


Nominees: American Fiction; Anatomy of a Fall; Barbie; Killers of the Flower Moon; Maestro; Oppenheimer; Past Lives; Poor Things; The Holdovers; The Zone of Interest

Thankfully this was another year where I managed to see all 10 nominees in a theater; even the one made for Netflix (Maestro).  And I was happy to see that 6 out of the 10 were movies that appeared on my own Top 10.  In fact, 4 of my top 5 are present in this category, and each makes a good case for being Best Picture.  However, from the looks of it, Oppenheimer is coming into the Oscars as a heavy favorite.  It has swept through all the Guild awards (except the strike delayed WGA) which is a tell tale sign of a big night at the Oscars.  It just remains to be seen how big of a night.  It might be a big winner like last year’s Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), or it could be a case where the Academy likes to spread things around.  Are there any movies that could challenge Oppenheimer for the night’s top prize.  With the second most nominations, it would seem that Poor Things could be in the best position.  There’s also Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon to contend with as well as Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, both of which tackle issues that appeal very much to the tastes of the Academy.  The other half of “Barbenheimer” could even arguably muster a surprise win as Barbie was the undisputed box office champ of last year, and is credited for saving the theater industry during the contentious strike period.  Right now, Oppenheimer feels unstoppable with all the bellwether awards in it’s pocket, but at the same time I don’t feel it’s locked down as much as Everything Everywhere All at Once had a year ago.  Weirder things have happened before at the Oscars.  I of course would love to see The Holdovers come out on top, but it’s Best Picture chances faded pretty early, and it’s got a better chance anyway in the acting categories.  In the end, I feel that Hollywood is keen on honoring the phenomenon that was “Barbenheimer” in some way, and Oppenheimer is the movie that best represents what the Academy is looking for.  It’s the kind of movie that the Academy used to love in the 90’s, that being the “prestige blockbuster;” a lavish prestige film that manages to have crossover with audiences and become a huge moneymaker as well as an Awards contender (Forrest Gump, Titanic, Gladiator).  Oppenheimer hopefully re-sparks that trend as the business really has missed that kind of movie for a long time.  Oppenheimer should be the big winner of the night; the only question is how big?

What Will Win: Oppenheimer

What Should Win:  The Holdovers

And here we have my quick rundown of all the remaining categories with my picks to win in each:

Best Cinematography: Oppenheimer; Best Film Editing: Oppenheimer; Best Production Design: Poor Things; Best Costume Design: Barbie; Best Sound: The Zone of Interest; Best Make-up and Hairstyling: Poor Things; Best Original Score: Oppenheimer; Best Original Song: “I’m Just Ken” from Barbie; Best Visual Effects: Godzilla Minus One; Best Documentary Feature: 20 Days in Mariupol; Best Documentary Short: The Last Repair Shop; Best Animated Feature: The Boy and the Heron; Best Animated Short: Ninety-Five Senses; Best Live Action Short: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar; Best International Feature: The Zone of Interest

There are a number of things that I hope we’ll see happen at this year’s Oscars.  One, I hope there is acknowledgement of the hard fought for changes that the strikes brought to the creative community this last year.  It seems unlikely, given that the guild members would like to move on and the studio heads would like to forget.  But this was a monumental thing that happened in 2023, so so mention of the progress made in the industry would be ideal.  The Academy also needs to understand that the ceremony is about the people and the movies that they make.  Don’t try to turn the Oscars into it’s own spectacle.  The Oscar winners will provide that for the ceremony itself.  The Academy has been tinkering with the format too many times in recent years, and every new gimmick they try just does not work; especially the one where they cut out and pre-taped the “lesser” categories before the start for the show.  What people want to see are the movies and celebrities they care about getting the highest recognition from the industry and that’s all the Oscars need.  I’m seeing a trend in recent Awards shows like the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards where they’ve trimmed the fat and just presented the Awards without needless sketches and montages to pad out the run time.  Last years Oscars was another example of a well paced awards that felt trimmed down without having to cut out any of the categories from the broadcast, and sure enough that was reflected in the ratings.  It should also help that two of the nominees this year were the highest grossing movies of the year.  “Barbenheimer” saved the box office last year, so let’s see if it can do the same to the Oscars as well.  I’m hopeful for a more positive direction with the Academy Awards, where prestige and blockbuster don’t have to be relegated to separate camps.  Last year revealed a significant change in what audiences want to see and it’s reflected in the nominees this year.  It looks like the theatrical comeback is becoming more and more cemented as a reality in Hollywood, as streaming was far less represented at the Oscars this year.  So, while it appears that Oppenheimer is the movie to beat at this year’s awards, there still could be plenty of surprises, and it should make for an all around exciting Awards presentation this year.  Here’s hoping for a great show at the 2024 Academy Awards.

Dune: Part Two – Review

It has not been an easy road to the big screen for Dune.  The beloved sci-fi epic novel from author Frank Herbert was once thought to be un-filmable.  Within it’s nearly 700 pages of text is a densely plotted narrative filled with political intrigue and deep philosophical questions.  Oh, and there’s giant sand worms too.  Many filmmakers flirted with adapting the text for the big screen.  Avant Garde Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky famously made a valiant attempt in the 1970’s to get Frank Herbert’s vision to become a reality, but sadly it never got past the development stage.  It’s considered by many to be one of the greatest films that never got made, and the details of it are spotlighted in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013).  In 1984, the task would be given to rising star filmmaker David Lynch, who brought his own bizarre directing style to the project.  While he was able to complete the film, it would end up being a compromised project, condensing the vast expanse of Herbert’s novel into a compact 2 hour and 17 minute run time, making it a somewhat messy adaptation.  Audiences were generally unimpressed and the film performed poorly at the box office, though over time it would gain a cult following.  David Lynch himself swore off ever attempting another big budget project like Dune ever again, instead focusing his energy on smaller, more auteur driven projects in the decades after, and he has largely disowned the movie as well, even taking his name off of extended cuts.  It would take another four decades for Hollywood to seriously take another shot at adapting Herbert’s monumental epic, with many more filmmakers flirting with the prospect before ultimately passing it by.

Enter Denis Villeneuve, a French Canadian filmmaker that had put together an impressive resume in the 2010’s.  After a string of critically acclaimed thrillers such as Enemy (2013), Prisoners (2014), and Sicario (2015), Denis made an even bigger impression moving into science fiction.  His film Arrival (2016) earned him his first recognition from the Academy Awards with nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and that in turn led to a high profile gig of creating the long awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 (2017), his highest budgeted film to date.  While Blade Runner 2049 was not a box office success, it still won a lot of acclaim for Denis for his remarkable handling of the film’s epic scale.  But all of these films seemed like warm-ups for what had always been Denis’ dream project; Dune.  With his proposal winning over the rights holders at Legendary Pictures, Denis was set to get his wish granted with a grand scale adaptation of this iconic novel for the big screen.  To do justice to Herbert’s narrative, Denis Villeneuve determined that the story would need to be split into two films.  However, to convince the financers of the project, Warner Brothers, that this was the right course of action, he would have to make Parts One and Two separately, with approval for the latter contingent on the success of the former.  It was a gamble, but it guaranteed at least one film for Villeneuve.  Unfortunately, the ability to turn Part One into a success hit a major roadblock with the Covid-19 pandemic.  Originally slated for an October 2020 premiere, the film ended up being delayed a full year.  And then, when it did finally make it to theaters, the effects of the pandemic were still in play with audiences not fully back.  Plus, Warner Brothers foolishly decided to release their entire 2021 slate day and date on streaming in addition to theaters, cutting back any potential box office profits.  This boded poorly for Dune: Part One, and yet, the film managed to find it’s audience, managing to be one of the few WB projects that year to cross the $100 million mark and it picked up a total of 6 Oscars for it’s technical achievements, and even earned a Best Picture nom.  Needless to say, despite the odds, Warner Brothers was convinced to fulfill their promise and allowed Denis Villeneuve to complete his epic adaptation.  The question is, though, did Denis Villeneuve stick the landing with Dune: Part Two.

The movie picks up right where the previous film ended.   In the distant future year of 10191, on the desert planet Arrakis, the high House of Atreides has been destroyed after a bloody coup perpetrated by the rival House Harkonnen, with the knowing consent of the Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken).  Although the Baron Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgard) and his brutal nephew Rabban (Dave Bautista) believe that they have wiped out the entire Atreides household, far out in the desert plains of Arrakis, two survivors remain.  The son of slain Duke Leto, Paul Atreides (Timothee Chalamet) and his mother Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) both survived their assassination attempts and are exiled far from home.  To survive in the harsh, worm infested desert, Paul and Jessica have formed an alliance with the native Fremen people who seek refuge in underground settlements.   Their leader, Stilgar (Javier Bardem) believes that Paul is a prophesized spiritual savior that could unite the Fremen people and help them reclaim their home world from the Imperium once and for all.  Stilagar’s daughter Chani (Zendaya) is far more skeptical of the prophesy, but over time she warms up to Paul’s presence within their tribe and over time, a budding romance emerges.  Paul and the Fremen engage in guerilla warfare against the spice trade that the Harkonnens run on Arrakis, weakening the Baron’s status amongst the high households.  The Baron seeks help from the Emperor and his daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh), both of whom suggest that the Baron elevates his youngest nephew to commander of the Harkonnen forces.  That nephew is the psychotic warrior Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), who has no qualms about achieving success by any means necessary; even in harming the most innocent.  With a new threat coming to Arrakis, Paul Atreides must decide if he should embrace his position as the prophesized savior, the Kwisatz Haderach, in order to unite all the Fremen tribes, or abandon it and disappear out of fear of the thing that he may turn into if he fully accepts his destiny, igniting a much bloodier holy war across the known universe.

When Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part One (2021) first premiered, it was heralded by long time fans of the books and causal viewers alike.  Dune has often been described as the Lord of the Rings or science fiction, and that distinction carries over with it’s cinematic adaptation as well.  Just as with Peter Jackson’s beloved adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic fantasy trilogy, many believe Villeneuve’s Dune to be the definitive adaptation of the novel for the big screen.  But getting to this point almost didn’t happen because of some short sighted moves on Warner Brothers part.  Unlike The Lord of the Rings which had the luxury of filming all the films in one single multi-year shoot, the completion of Dune was split up and could have ended abruptly had things not gone well.  The ill-fated “Project Popcorn” initiative of 2021 also gave ill tidings for the completion of Villenueve’s vision.  It could have been very possible that we would have only had the first half of the book on screen and nothing more; which would have been double insulting given that Dune: Part One ends so abruptly.  Thankfully, despite the hurdles, the movie was a success and Dune: Part Two is here, giving us the full breadth of Frank Herbert’s original novel.  And thankfully, despite all the drama and the long wait, Denis has managed to stick the landing.  There is no drop in quality at all between Parts One and Two, and it really does feel like the continuation of the first film.  Of course one big difference is that Warner Brothers feels less cautious this time around and has gone full force giving their full confidence to Denis.  Part One in many ways was Denis setting the pieces on the board, and Part Two is where the game really begins.  Everything is bigger, grander, and the stakes are even higher.  It definitely feels that this is the dream part of the project that Denis Villeneuve was always itching to get to, and thankfully the stars aligned to make it happen, even amidst the wort resistance.

There are a lot of things to be impressed with in Dune: Part Two and it does feel like the mightier film in the series.  But, I wouldn’t say that it does everything better than Part One.  The one thing that is a nitpick for me with the movie is that I think the pacing is not as strong, or should I say consistent as it was with Part OnePart One was a masterfully paced film that never let off the gas from beginning to end.  While the pacing is still overall good in Part Two, I do feel there are some hiccups along the way that stall an otherwise spectacular experience.  And it’s not just scenes that pad out the run time; there are moments as well that I feel don’t fully take advantage of some of the big moments in the movie.  The ending in particular seems a bit rushed, as big moments toward the finale don’t quite carry the weight they should.  The film already has a epic sized 166 minute run time (which alongside Part One‘s run time takes the full experience to 5 hours of storytelling) but I feel it could have made the experience even stronger if it let the finale breath a bit more to let the pivotal moments feel even grander.  It’s a rare instance where I’d say an already long movie should have been just a little longer; possibly even rounding out to the full 3 hours.  Even still, all of the classic moments from the book are here, and they are still impactful.  Where the movie actually feels well paced though are in some of the moments that Frank Herbert more often glosses over.  The development of Paul Atreides earning his place within the Fremen society is given more development here than any past adaptation, as is his romance with Chani, which becomes a crucial backbone for the movie overall.   One other thing that the movie sadly lacks apart from Part One is the novelty.  Dune: Part One was such a revelation when it first premiered; a welcome return of a prestige blockbuster in a time when popcorn entertainment in the form of comic book movies still dominated the landscape.  Dune: Part Two doesn’t really stand out as much; it’s just the same movie, but more.  I feel like the two movies are intended to be viewed as a whole, but it unfortunately takes away from the individual merit of the movie itself.  Again these are nitpicks for what otherwise is an impressively mounted film on any other measure.

One of the things that Denis Villeneuve really ups the ante with in this film is the scale of the action scenes.  Part One had some impressive action moments, but most of the best action scenes were contained on a intimate one to one scale.  Here, Villeneuve takes things to a more biblical level, with armies numbering in the thousands clashing on vast battlefields.  This is a movie that definitely demands to be seen on the largest screens possible, which thankfully now in a post-pandemic environment are more widely accessible than they were back when Part One was in theaters.  I caught this movie in 70mm IMAX, and let me tell you that is the ideal way to watch the movie.  Villeneuve took the cue from fellow grand epic director, Christopher Nolan, and specifically shot most of the movie with IMAX cameras with this presentation being the intended showcase.  There are some moments in this movie that will take your breath away with how immersive they are.  Arrakis is it’s own character in the movie, and Villeneuve really showcases the beauty of the familiar yet alien landscape that the planet has.  Even the surreal sunsets with the two moons of Arrakis eclipsing the sun create a kind of eerie crescent unlike anything we’ve seen before.  And then of course, there are the worms.  The colossal titans of the desert are a marvel meant to be appreciated on a vast movie screen, and the visual effects team did a remarkable job making them feel as grandiose as possible.  The scene where Paul Atreides takes his first solo ride aboard the back of a worm is a particular highlight of the movie, with all departments of cinematography, sound, computer animation, and practical effects all working together to create a truly epic moment on screen.  Also, the legendary Hans Zimmer delivers yet another heart-pounding musical score that certainly was rattling the rib cages of everyone in my theater with that mighty IMAX speaker system.

Giving the movie another air of high quality is the incredibly strong all star cast.  Part One had a very impressive cast to begin with, and Part Two managed to maintain all of the holdovers from that cast without losing any of the performance in between films.  Everyone whose character made it out of Part One alive picks right up where they left off and continues to deliver pitch perfect performances in Part Two.  Timothee Chalamet continues to impress in the role of Paul Atreides, a character that was always going to be a challenge to get right especially in this second half of the book, and he rises to the challenge with some impressively commanding moments.  The Fremen characters that only come into the story late in Part One are thankfully expanded upon here, and the actors do a masterful job with their roles.  Javier Bardem’s Stilgar is one of the few characters allowed to be a little more loose and comical compared to the stoic others in the movie, and Bardem gets some well earned laughs in the movie without it feeling out of place.  Zendaya, whose Chani barely factored in the first movie, is the biggest standout in Part Two, as you see her character go through some substantial growth in the story.  Zendaya really captures the passionate fervor that drives Chani as a character, and given all the craziness that goes on, she really helps to ground the movie with her cynical eye towards the myths and lies that have shaped the world around her.  Of the brand new characters, the real stand out is Austin Butler as Feyd-Rautha.  It’s hard to imagine that this is the same actor who played Elvis Presley in the Baz Luhrrman directed biopic just a couple year ago.  He is transformed in this role, and he leaves an eerie impression.  His coliseum fight on the Harkonnen home world may be one of the best villain introductions I’ve seen in a long while.  And while they don’t have a whole lot of screen time, the characters of Princess Irulan and Emperor Shaddam IV do make the most of their presence and that’s largely due to the talents of their actors.  Florence Pugh carries a captivating sense of intelligence in her performance.  And of course Christopher Walken’s casting as the Emperor brings a great deal of gravitas to the minor role and it’s a real coup on the part of the movie to get an actor as legendary as him to be a part of this.

I don’t know what Warner Brothers was thinking by not planning ahead and having both parts of Dune filmed simultaneously.  It was probably an economic choice, but if it didn’t work out, you would have left a beloved story cut unceremoniously short with a nagging open-ended finale that connects to nothing.  Thankfully, Dune: Part Two has become a reality and the full story of Frank Herbert’s original novel can now be appreciated cinematically for all time as a complete whole.  Of course, this isn’t quite the end just yet.  Dune was only the first of many books that Frank Herbert wrote about the desert planet Arrakis and the legacy of Paul Atreides.  Denis Villeneuve has already said that he intends to return to adapt the second book in the series, Dune Messiah, which has a far better chance of getting green lit with the expected huge box office that Dune: Part Two is expected to generate.  In the end, it all worked out for Denis Villenueve, and he may have made it possible for their to be an epic movie franchise that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.  As a movie on it’s own, Dune: Part Two is an impressively mounted movie, though I think it works best as a companion to the first film and vice versa.  Denis Villenueve intended for the two parts of Dune to be a complete whole rather than two individual films with their own unique identities.  While I do appreciate the incredible achievement that this movie is, I do wish it had resonated just a bit more as it’s own film.  It might also be possible that I may warm up to the movie more with repeat viewings, and that I just need to give the film time to fully marinate in my mind.  It happened with Oppenheimer (2023) last year, where it took me two more viewings to fully appreciate that film as a genuine masterpiece.  I feel like Dune: Part Two will stick with me in the same way.  It is an overwhelming experience the first time, and that can be a good thing.  I was sitting pretty close to the colossal IMAX screen at my theater (one of the largest in America) so some distance may help me in the future.  For now, I highly recommend seeing this on the big screen and ideally in IMAX if available in your area.  Few movies are made with this kind of spectacle in mind, and like great epics of the past like The Lord of the Rings, Denis Villenueve has taken a beloved work of literature and brought out it’s full potential as big screen spectacle.  Capturing every detail, from the tiniest grains of spice to the enormity of the mighty sand worms, this movie does Frank Herbert’s vision proud.

Rating: 8.5/10

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