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Civil War: A Cowardly Film

I was shocked by Civil War. I wasn’t shocked by a riveting story about a once-powerful nation torn asunder by internal strife that escalated into mass violence. I wasn’t shocked by a portrayal of a broken political system that led a once-content population to violently rise up and kill its leaders. I wasn’t shocked by the proposition of white supremacist militias gaining military power from foreign actors to turn our country into a real-life version of The Handmaid’s Tale.

I was shocked at how underwhelming this film was.

Director and screenwriter Alex Garland did an interesting and (somewhat) understandable thing. He removed a political point of view from the story. This is understandable because the current state of the country meant that if he portrayed one ideological side or the other as being responsible for starting a civil war, he would lose half the audience before anyone even saw it.

While I understand the reasoning, I personally feel like that’s a cowardly way to make a film.

It’s also no way to tell a story because there are no stakes. While there are hints as to why there’s an uprising against the government, we’re never given clear reasoning. We don’t know what the motivation was for the insurrection. We don’t know what they want or how they will govern when and if they take over. That leaves the audience with no side to root for and no drama or tension in any battle scene. On top of that, the main instigators of the war are an alliance between California and Texas, which, for reasons that should be obvious, is one of the most unrealistic premises I’ve ever come across.

All that leads to a straightforward question: Who cares?

The main thrust of the plot has us following Lee (Kirsten Dunst), a grizzled veteran war photographer who has photographed some of the most heinous atrocities in some of the most violent confrontations of the recent past, and her correspondent partner Joel (Wagner Moura), who want to get from New York City to Washington, D.C. so they can interview the president (Nick Offerman) before the insurrectionists take Washington, D.C. and kill him. Before leaving, Lee’s mentor Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and super fan and aspiring photographer Jessie (Cailee Spaeny) hitch a ride along with them. Along the way, they encounter advancing rebel forces, military atrocities, and people who want to pretend this isn’t happening before arriving in Washington, D.C., for the climactic battle outside and inside the White House.

Aside from the second act basically turning this into a road movie (click here to read why I’m not a fan of road movies), their goal is superficial and contrived. They hint at trying to get some important information out of him in the questions that Joel would ask the president, but those questions don’t provide any insight as to how we got here or where we could be going. Not only that, but it seems like they cut a significant scene along the way because things happen in the third act that either don’t make sense or don’t provide any emotional punch. We are given a surface-level telling of this story with no depth, drama, or actual conflict.

By the time we get to Washington, D.C., I’m asking the same question. Who cares?

This film required a brave director who could courageously make this film. A stance needed to be taken, and Garland, whether in his direction or his screenplay, needed to tell the story unapologetically from that point of view. If you think the current state of our government is leading us to a real civil war, make that case. If you believe there are specific leaders whose policies will accelerate that process, put it in the story. Would that have kept some people away from the theater? Probably. Would it have made the movie better and more compelling? Definitely.

A clear and definite point of view would have at least allowed the audience to care about what happened one way or the other. This film could portray a victory for some, and for others, it would be a tragedy. It should be a tragedy for everyone, but there needs to be emotional engagement for it to be a tragedy. Unfortunately, Civil War failed the one test it’s asking us all to pass.

It showed cowardice when it should have shown bravery.


Monkey Man: Too Much Thrown Against the Wall and Not Enough Stuck

In his feature directorial debut, Dev Patel gave us an action-packed feature with a lot of ultra-violence that also tried to delve into some contemporary social issues. Patel, who also penned the screenplay, created a film that felt like a mashup of his breakout film, the uber-dramatic Slumdog Millionaire, along with action films like Kill Bill, The Raid: Redemption, Rocky, and a splash of Hard to Kill.

The first thing that I will say is that I liked Monkey Man. It was wildly entertaining, it had a ton of action, some well-placed humor, and it also had some heart. It was trying to be more than an action film, but with that attempt came some mixed results. Sometimes action films just have to own what they are. If they’re two hours of escapism where you can watch death-defying stunt work, fight sequences that are choreographed as beautifully as any dance sequence, and indiscriminate killing of faceless lackeys who are only in the movie to increase the body count, and you own that and that’s all you try to do and are successful at it, I totally respect that and I will be on board watching your movie. Chances are, I’ll walk out of the theater satisfied and fully entertained.

However, if you’re an action film with all those elements and motifs, and you try to add a compelling story that has deep thematic elements and attempts to bring an emotional component to the film, you’d better nail it. Because if you miss, you’re left with nothing. The action won’t be entertaining enough to carry the plot, and the plot won’t be compelling enough to carry the action. Both components will feel out of place, and that is essentially what we have with Monkey Man.

Director Dev Patel gave us the kind of violent action we got in movies like The Raid: Redemption and Kill Bill. The violence was unapologetic, graphic at times, and often gratuitous, but more often than that; it was integral to the telling of the story. Screenwriter Patel also attempted to provide drama and thematic components similar to that of Slumdog Millionaire, but this is where the film fell flat. These elements felt tacked on like they didn’t belong in the movie. What’s worse is that Director Patel didn’t seem like he could decide what kind of movie he wanted to make, so he threw everything he could against the wall to see what would stick. Because the movie lacked focus, things that needed more explanation were neglected, and things that were less important got more screen time.

That said, Patel deserves a ton of credit for this film. Pulling his best Bradley Cooper impersonation, Patel starred in it and handled the directing and screenwriting. He also co-produced it, so this clearly had his fingerprints all over it. I hope that this is the first of many Dev Patel films where he directs and writes the screenplay, as I believe there was a lot of potential in this script and in the filmmaking.

The movie didn’t deliver the depth that it attempted to deliver, but it did deliver the action and entertainment value. It will be fascinating to see where Patel’s career goes from here.

Wicked Little Letters Shows Us How to Break the Rules

And yet, it still follows them.

Wicked Little Letters was released this past weekend, and if you haven’t seen it—and judging by the box office numbers—you haven’t—it’s definitely worth your time. That’s especially true if you’re a fan of British humor. This movie feels like it’s got elements of Guy Richie, Edgar Wright, and Monty Python all rolled into a tight, offbeat whodunit that will make you think just as much as it makes you laugh.

Can we all agree that Olivia Coleman is one of the great actors of this generation? After spending most of her career plying her trade on the other side of the Atlantic, she had a breakthrough over here a few years starting opposite Emma Stone in The Favourite. That was the first time I can remember seeing her in anything, and all she’s done since is deliver one powerhouse performance after another. The reason this one is so striking to me is that it’s essentially an absurd comedy. That isn’t to say that you don’t get good acting in those kinds of films. There is often excellent acting in comedies. However, the depth of Coleman’s performance as Edith, the victim of these harassing letters who also lives as a spinster under the oppressive thumb of her abusive father, was so filled with pathos, emotion, and insanity that it stands out mightily in a crowd. Her various facial expressions, the tone of her voice, and the use of body language all create a character who is believable, relatable, and yet still emotional enough to pull you in so you can marvel at the fantastical nature of her personality. It’s stunning stuff.

As stunning as Coleman’s performance was, there was no shortage of fine acting from the rest of the cast. Jessie Buckley plays Rose Gooding, the hot-tempered, foul-mouthed, day-drinking, carousing Irish immigrant who draws everyone’s suspicions as being responsible for the letters due to a previous falling out she had with Edith. What’s great about her performance is that her outer mask of aggressiveness hides the inner vulnerability of a woman who is terrified of losing custody of her young daughter. The duality in the role required superb acting, and Buckley delivered.

Anja Vasan plays Woman Police Officer Gladys Moss. She’s the only one who suspects Rose is innocent, but due to her gender, age, and probably her race, no one, especially her superiors and peers on the police force, believes her. Her dogged determination and her ability to look beyond the emotional aspects of the case and focus on the facts make her the truest story of a hero. Vasan brings an understated quality to the role that somehow adds to that heroism.

Finally, Timothy Spall, as Edith’s abusive father, Edward, who drives the case against Rose, is an over-the-top yet aggressive and angry character who also has a vulnerability in that he doesn’t want his daughter to be a victim. He wants her to take the fight to the oppressor and unwittingly brings out the worst in Edith. It’s another remarkable performance in a film that is full of remarkable performances.

But what about this movie that broke the rules?

Director Thea Sharrock and screenwriter Jonny Sweet crafted a story that was not one that came close to fitting into the traditional idea of a dramatic 3-act structure. The film had an exceptionally long first act that made the story take a long time to get going. Even so, it never felt like it was dragging. Once the story did get going, the pacing picked up markedly, but the pacing never felt unbalanced. The screenplay did ultimately have all of the correct beats, but they didn’t follow the standard time frame as far as what pages they happened on. Normally, that would mean that the story would suffer, but they somehow made that quirk in the screenplay turn into a strength for the film.

The screenplay ended up being dramatic, funny, and irreverent. The screenwriting effectively added thematic components that brought depth to the script, along with the comedy that was more surface-level. All of that combines to create a film that the audience will be able to emotionally engage in as well as laugh at. The screenwriting and the direction took an offbeat route to create a complete film that hits all of the beats it needs to hit.

If you are an aspiring screenwriter or director, Wicked Little Letters is a good example of a screenplay and a movie that breaks the rules but weirdly still follows them.

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire – A Failed Stewardship

Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is a film that held great promise. It was coming off a successful reboot of a beloved franchise. It reunited everyone who made the first one so successful, and it followed a similar structure of Ghostbusters 2, which made me feel like we should be getting, if not a great movie, at least a fun one. Instead, what we were given was a boring movie that felt like it was lazily made and lacked any emotional connections or any reason to care about what was happening. That’s not even the worst of it. The worst thing about Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire is that it’s a comedy that is not funny.

Even though I wasn’t a part of making this film, the fingerprints of a studio movie by committee are all over the final version of it. I don’t know how much power director Gil Kenan had on set. He was one of the screenwriters, and he also wrote the screenplay for Ghostbusters: Afterlife. I don’t know how much control (or demands) the studio had on the project, but the lack of focus, the lack of direction, and the lack of humor only suggest that it was a lot.

I don’t really want to get into a rehashing of the mess that this movie was. I walked out of the theater after it was over just feeling kind of “meh” about it. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t love it. My first impulse was to give it a C-rating. But then my daughter and I recorded our podcast about it, which incidentally drops on Tuesday at 8 am Pacific. Click here if you want to check it out. As we discussed the film and I thought about it more, I began to get kind of angry. Ghostbusters, while not the greatest franchise of all time, is still a beloved franchise from the 80s. I was a teenager when the first Ghostbusters movie came out, and the original and its sequel were staples of my early movie-watching fandom.  The reboot from two years ago put the franchise on the verge of finding a new audience with this generation and presented itself with the rare opportunity to have a literal passing of the torch from the previous generation’s cast to the new generation’s cast.

And they utterly botched it.

The current stewards of the franchise derailed any momentum that was generated from the first movie by clinging to the nostalgia that helped propel Afterlife to being a hit. I can only guess that the test audiences who watched the film gave the highest scores to the scenes that brought back the surviving original cast members Dan Akroyd, Bill Murray, and Ernie Hudson. So instead of handing the reigns to current superstar Paul Rudd and up-and-coming stars Finn Wolfhard and McKenna Grace, they force-fed us more Akroyd, Murray, and Hudson, along with adding some Annie Potts and William Atherton. To be kind, they all look tired.

There were many frustrating things about this movie. They wasted Wolfhard’s Trevor. He literally has nothing to do in the movie, and the subplot of him trying to prove that he’s man enough to take care of himself goes nowhere. Paul Rudd’s Gary is equally impotent as a man trying to fill in as the father for the teenage children of his new wife. The filmmakers did nothing but bring surface-level attention to it. You can tell that Rudd is trying to give a good performance but knows he has little to nothing to work with. McKenna Grace gives what can best be described as a bored performance. She is a terrific young actress who must have been directed to bring no emotion to this performance because that appears to be what she gave.

This was a film in which the filmmakers threw a bunch of crap against the wall to see what would stick, and nothing did. As stewards of this beloved franchise, they have failed. They have taken what was a promising start and completely derailed it by not letting filmmakers make a good film.

This was a bungled mess and fans of this franchise deserved better.

Corporations That Own Hollywood Studios are Killing the Golden Goose

We all know how challenging the year 2023 was in the entertainment industry. We don’t need to rehash the double strikes, the layoffs, the mass exodus out of town, or the lives and careers that were either stalled or completely snuffed out. As challenging as the spring and summer were, optimism abounded in the autumn as both strikes ended within weeks of each other, and thousands of people were poised and ready to return to work.

But that isn’t what happened.

Very few people actually returned to work, and the winter brought with it the coldness of uncertainty. When would projects start gearing up again? When would the entertainment business go back to being in business? Well, with two more strikes looming in 2024, the answer is, who knows? One would think that the studios would be smart and use the experience of last year to their advantage. One would think that they would want to be proactive and get through negotiations with IATSE and the Teamsters now so that there won’t be two more strikes this year. Instead, for reasons unknown, the corporations that run the studios seem content to sit on their money and play the waiting game… again.

One thing that is clear is that the corporate executives currently in charge of the entertainment industry seem hell-bent on killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.

Corporations have owned movie studios for a long time. Once the studio system was scuttled in the 1960s, large corporations added movie and television studios to their various portfolios, but left people in charge of those entities through the 70s, 80s, and 90s who knew what they were doing and were passionate about movie making and storytelling.

We obviously live in a different world than we did thirty, forty, and fifty years ago, but the paradigm shift that has occurred in Hollywood threatens its very existence. Hollywood has often been a risk-averse place. Executives want to cast stars they know will draw audiences to star in movies they think people want to see. There was a time when movie moguls made those decisions, but now they’re being made in board rooms.

That’s not to say that men like Walt Disney, Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, and the rest of the movie moguls of Hollywood’s Golden Age were infallible. Walt Disney fired animators who went on strike and only hired them back when ordered to by the courts. He then made many of their lives so miserable at the studio that they ended up quitting anyway. Jack Warner ruled his studio with an iron fist, holding actors to iron-clad contracts and refusing to let them out of them, and he ended up screwing over his own brother to gain complete control of the studio. Louis B. Mayer’s temper was legendary, and he liked to meddle in the lives of his actors.

Clearly, these men weren’t saints. But they were movie men. They loved making movies they were creative people by nature. They knew what their audiences wanted, and they knew how to deliver that. Not every movie was a blockbuster, but their studios were, for the most part, profitable and very often prosperous. Also, the movie studios these men ran were their entire business. They weren’t pieces of multinational, multi-billion-dollar entities. Disney, Warner, Mayer, and others were the heads of companies, not corporations. These companies produced movies and, eventually, television, but not much else.

Today, The Walt Disney Company owns multiple studios and properties. Warner Bros. has been bought and sold so many times it’s impossible to keep track. Paramount, once the largest studio in town, is owned by Viacom. The MGM lot is now Sony. Comcast owns Universal. The movie studios now are but smaller pieces of the giant portfolios that these corporations oversee. That is likely why there is no urgency for them to negotiate with IATSE and the Teamsters. Still, they don’t want to throw a bunch of money at a project that has a 12-week schedule only to have to shutter it after 10 weeks when IATSE and/or the Teamsters go on strike for God knows how long.

At the beginning of the writers’ strike, the studios allowed the thoughts of one executive to leak when the strategy of letting writers lose their homes and then having them crawl back to the table for better studio terms became public. When people realized some of those homes would also be the domiciles of wives and children, the “let them eat cake,” mustache-twisting villains we all thought the studios were became a reality.

If these executives care about movies, it’s only so they can say that they’re rubbing elbows with the stars and get to go to all the awards shows in February and March, along with the red carpet premiers at the Chinese Theater or wherever else they happen to be. Otherwise, movies are being made by boardroom decisions. That’s the only explanation for what the movie business has become over the past decade and a half.

Is there hope for change?

I think there is. The cynic in me says that these executives are so blind that they will continue to do what they’ve been doing. The idealist in me says that they must see the change that needs to be made. The Marvel and DC universes are dying. But movie franchises like Avatar and Dune have shown that they can be successful when a single director is allowed to express his vision without too much meddling from a studio. Movies like Anyone But You showed that audiences will go see smaller movies. Perhaps not in droves like the big tentpole franchises, but that movie was profitable. You can say what you want about how good it was, or it wasn’t, but it made over $80 million on a $20 million budget. Someone in the accounting office must notice that.

When Cord Jefferson gave his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards for winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for American Fiction, a film that made over $20 million on a budget of under $10 million, he implored Hollywood to change its business model. “Instead of making one $200 million dollar movie,” he said, “make ten $20 million dollar movies.”

Will they take his advice? Only time will tell. Partly, it’s up to audiences to speak up with their wallets because, ultimately, it’s the money that listens. If another $20 million-dollar RomCom comes out in the next couple of months, and it makes another $80 million or $100 million, they’ll have to take notice. Someone has to convince the members of the boardroom that not every movie has to be a blockbuster. Having a profitable business that employs a lot of people, provides entertainment to millions of others, and brings more eyes to their other brands can be just as valuable.

The money listens. Will the corporations?

2023 Winner for Best Picture: Oppenheimer

In what was one of the more anticlimactic Oscar nights in recent memory, Oppenheimer surprised absolutely no one by taking home the Academy’s most prestigious award, along with six others to cap off what was a dominant awards season. The Christopher Nolan blockbuster also took home the awards for Best Director (Nolan), Best Actor (Cillian Murphy), and Best Supporting Actor (Robert Downey, Jr.), making it the first film since Ben-Hur (1959) and only the fourth film over all (Going My Way from 1944 & The Best Years of Our Lives from 1946) to win all four of those awards.

Concluding one of the most tumultuous and torturous years of in the history of Hollywood, a year that was marred by two major strikes that threatened to derail the entire industry, Oppenheimer was one of the films that saved the summer season, Barbie being the other, and both of the Barbenheimer movies were rewarded by receiving multiple Oscar nominations, including both getting nominations for Best Picture. And while Barbie dominated the box office, pulling in nearly $1.5 billion compared to almost $960 million for Oppenheimer, the latter dominated awards season from the Golden Globes through the Oscars.

What was it about Oppenheimer that made it such a runaway winner in a year that (IMHO) should have been wide open? The last time a “science” movie like this won was A Beautiful Mind in 2001. But it didn’t have the traditional underdog thematic components of that film. It was also the first true blockbuster to win since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003, and it was the first Best Picture winner to surpass $100 million at the box office since 2012’s Argo. But as mentioned. Barbie outdid Oppenheimer at the box office by more than half a billion dollars.

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea why Oppenheimer struck the chord that it did. It was an excellent film, but there were several films that were nominated that I liked better. It had high entertainment value, but I thought there were other films that were more entertaining. It had a very good screenplay, but there were several movies with screenplays that were at least as good. The production design was outstanding, as were the lighting, editing, and cinematography, but there was very little in Oppenheimer that was groundbreaking despite its Oscar wins for cinematography and editing. Again, I thought there were films this year that outdid Oppenheimer in all of those categories.

Ultimately, what likely got Oppenheimer the win, in my opinion, was the totality of the production. Early in the Academy’s history, the Best Picture category was called “Best Production.” If one was to look at the award in that context, Oppenheimer was clearly the best production. It was the film that took all of the elements of filmmaking, from direction to screenwriting, to editing, and all of the stages in between, and in its totality, was the strongest production.

This was an exceptionally made film that also had a compelling story and characters that the audience could engage with, whether they were rooting for them or against them. Nolan, who also penned the Oscar-nominated screenplay, did an outstanding job of weaving the complexity of who Oppenheimer, the man, was. Nolan also effectively showed all of the people who were trying to destroy him, and how he really was a modern-day Prometheus in ways both literal and figurative. He provided the human race with a new kind of fire, and both he and the human race will be punished for it forever.

All of the acting in this film was also superb. Murphy and Downey, Jr. won Oscars in their respective categories and Emily Blunt was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She didn’t win, but her performance was gritty and hard-edged as Oppenheimer’s alcoholic wife, Kitty, who was the only one who tried to make him stand up for himself when the entire weight of the United States government was trying to destroy him for being a communist. Kitty may have had the most depth of any character. She broke up his initial marriage by getting pregnant by him, then didn’t want to take care of the baby. She struggled with alcohol and was not a very good mother to their children. However, her loyalty to Oppenheimer was unflappable and she stood by him to the end.

I think the reason this film didn’t quite hit the mark for me as far as being the best movie of the year was the emotional component or at least the lack thereof. Christopher Nolan is a clinical filmmaker. I wouldn’t say his films are devoid of emotion. Certainly, there have been deeply emotional moments across many of his films. But that’s just it. They’re moments. Just as there are emotional moments in Oppenheimer, it is not an emotional film. I didn’t get the emotional punch from Oppenheimer that I did with some of the other films from 2023. While the characters were engaging, most of the relationships were not. While Oppenheimer was a technically proficient film, it was not an emotional one. I liked it, but I didn’t care about what happened as much as I did in the other nominees.

Did the Academy get it right?

This was a very interesting year. I actually liked all of the films nominated for Best Picture, and that is a rarity, especially since the Academy increased the number of nominees to ten. I honestly wouldn’t have been disappointed with any of this year’s nominees winning. That said, I would not have voted for Oppenheimer. My favorite film of the year was The Holdovers for the reasons I mentioned above about the emotional component. I was far more engaged in The Holdovers and I cared immensely about the characters and what they were going through and I found the film to be much more satisfying. I also liked Maestro, American Fiction, Barbie, Anatomy of a Fall, Poor Things, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Past Lives better than Oppenheimer. That’s no shade towards Oppenheimer. I liked it a lot. You could even say that I loved it. What it does say is that 2023 was a very competitive year and ten outstanding films were nominated for Best Picture. I feel like if any of these films were made in the last three years, they would have been the favorite over almost anything that was nominated in any of those years. So while Oppenheimer wasn’t the film I would have voted for, I would still say that the Academy did not get it wrong, even if I’m unwilling to say that they got it right.

Should you see it?

Yes you should. If you’re interested in quality filmmaking, excellent screenwriting, terrific acting, and compelling storytelling, then this is a film you should actually see. I don’t know how historically accurate it is, but it certainly humanizes one of history’s most complex and complicated personalities, and certainly one the most important people of the twentieth century, if not all time. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that. This is a film fan’s film, and if you haven’t seen it already, it’s worth the three hours you’ll spend watching it.