What We Learned This Week: June 10-16

LESSON #1: STATISTICS DON’T LIE, SO WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT— Riding the wave of examination and expansion for equality in the film industry, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative from USC revealed the results of a very telling data study that examined the demographics of movie critics.  To no surprise to anyone paying attention, 78% of the reviews written on Rotten Tomatoes were done by white males.  The news of that data ignited plenty of torches and hushed excuses. At an awards show, Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson spoke wonderfully on those statistics, how they do not reflect the movie-going population, how critical exposure matters (just ask Colin Trevorrow or the notion further expanded by this strong piece in The Lily by Monica Castillo), and how some films are made for certain audiences beyond white males and that fair and matching reviews are needed.  She wasn’t a bit wrong, and I say that as a white male movie critic myself. There is room for more and room for better. The questions become what steps can be made to create a better balance.  One encouraging example is seeing both the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals designate 20% of their press credential assignments to minorities. We can’t grow film critics on trees, but we can look deeper into the forest and grant more opportunities in that way.  That said, this is still a competitive field and talent still wins. If a minority critic can earn those gets and those publishing spots, more power to them. Competition raises everyone’s game.

LESSON #2: WHETHER WE LIKE IT OR NOT, MOVIES ARE A BUSINESS FIRST AND AN ART EXPOSITION SECOND— First Reformed star and upcoming Blaze director Ethan Hawke appeared and spoke at the Seattle International Film Festival accepting their annual Outstanding Achievement in Cinema award.  The buzziest outcome of that was his quote that movies are “an art form that’s completely eaten by business.”  I know this sparked a lively discussion in the Feelin’ Film Discussion Group on Facebook this week.  This longing for the art to shine over the monetary success comes up often and the wording of my lesson title is my usual reply to that topic or question.  From the day they started charging for tickets to see these things called movies, it was always from then on going to be about the business.  Once people made livings and livelihoods out of participating in this art form, those roots were going nowhere and now they’ve inflated to the millions and billions of dollars pumping through movies.  I know I’ve reached a point as both a mature movie fan and also an experienced consumer (make no mistake, we are all both) where I’ve become more selective with what I’m going to spend my money on and also more appreciative when I encounter something that stands out as the art form underneath the profit potential.  If we, as a collective movie-going public, ever needed to rebel against the business end to demand better from the art standpoint, the only way to do that is hit the industry in the wallet where it counts.  Don’t give garbage your money and every dollar given to a deserving piece of cinematic art supports their cause and future careers.  Indulge in this entertainment with that mindfulness and you’ll be a better viewer.

LESSON #3: DISNEY/STAR WARS WHINERS, BE THANKFUL YOU DIDN’T GET THE FULL GEORGE LUCAS— Likely still rolling in a Scrooge McDuck-level money pit filled with the billions of dollars he made selling off his properties, a George Lucas book quote made news this week because it shared what his post-Return of the Jedi sequels would have been based on.  Take a gander at his premise based on “a microbiotic world” and silly-sounding “Whills.”  Flawed as Episodes VII and VIII may be, if that stuff from Lucas sounds better than the compelling chapters of closure for old favorite characters competing with elevation of new characters from J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson, then I’m sorry.  You can’t be helped and your inflexibility ruins it for everyone (see last week’s WWLTW because now you sound like those a-holes that bully on social media).

LESSON #4: GET ONE THING RIGHT BEFORE STARTING ANOTHER— I don’t think anyone at Warner Bros. knows what they are doing or how to properly make up their mind, including new DC Films President Walter Hamada replacing comic-connected favorite Geoff Johns.  They now have two Joker-centered films coming down the assembly line, a Jared Leto standalone extending the current DCEU and a low-budget 1980s-set origin story take coming from The Hangover trilogy director Todd Phillips, producer Martin Scorsese, and starring Joaquin Phoenix.  Combine that with the reports that the upcoming Matt Reeves-directed The Batman will be a younger Batman likely eliminating Ben Affleck and you have to ask the WTF questions.  What’s going on here? Are we pushing forward post-Justice League or are we rebooting and trying again?  Both can’t exist credibly. Which one matters more?  Warner Bros. needs to pick a lane and stick with it.

LESSON #5: COMEDY IS THE MOST SUBJECTIVE FILM GENRE, PERIOD— An esteemed panel of film critics (including Scott Tobias, Bilge Ebiri, Brian Tallerico, and Amy Nicholson) collaborated for a list of the “50 Greatest Comedies of the 21st Century” for Rolling Stone magazine.  The results, topped by Christopher Guest’s Best in Show, could not be more all over the place between eclectic spirit and pretentious pandering.  The opening blurb of the article admits humor is a “seriously subjective topic.” Go right ahead and add the extreme hyperbole of “the most.”  This task was impossible without some criteria or metrics, which the list and article gleefully (and carelessly) neglect. The triggers for horror and even drama are so much more universal than the fickle tastes and randomness of comedy.  We may say laughs come easy sometimes but they don’t. Someone’s #1 film is going to be someone’s reviled trash of eye rolls or hate and everyone has an opinion.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson and also on Medium.com where he is one of the 50 “Top Writers” in the Movies category.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties on a podcast every now and then  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on FacebookTwitter, and Medium.

 

What We Learned This Week: August 20-26

 RETURNING FROM SUMMER VACATION: I take two weeks off and all hell breaks loose!

LESSON #1: “MANSPLAINING” IS NEVER ENDEARING OR RESPECTFUL— For a guy who has fostered one “Strong Female Character” after another, including two of the greatest in Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley, James Cameron sure missed the big picture of Wonder Woman.  In an interview with The Guardian (full context), the Titanic filmmaker stated “All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided” and adds “She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backwards.”  Well now, Mr. Pott.  What color is the kettle?  Mr. Cameron is entitled to his opinion and slant (the film is far from perfect), but the fun thing is we all get one too.  Don’t worry Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins dropped the mic on him with this commandingly brilliant tweet:

LESSON #2: MOVIEPASS MAY HAVE FINALLY FOUND AN ATTRACTIVE PRICE POINT— Mitch Lowe, the co-founder of Netflix, made tsunami waves recently with a ballsy new business model for the mildly-received MoviePass program.  Reducing the $15-50 per-month rate with plenty of fine print and red tape for a tidy $9.95 fee with new fine print and red tape looks like a steal.  However, will customers buy-in and, more importantly, will theaters play ball at taking a possible haircut?  The AMC Theatres chain (more on them later) immediately pushed back threatening legal action and downright banning MoviePass customers.  You have to love that $10 price point, but how useful is it if the theater companies in your area don’t take it?  Compromise is needed.

LESSON #3: ALONG THE SAME LINES, THE VIDEO ON-DEMAND MARKET IS STILL TRYING TO FIND THEIR PRICE POINT— Some of you might remember that six years ago Universal Studios initially planned to release their tentpole Tower Heist on premium VOD for $59.99 three weeks after its theatrical release with the goal of putting more money in their pockets instead of splitting it with movie theaters.  The notion was met with instant boycott and dismissal (much like the film itself) and the studio backed off.  Here in 2017, media giants Comcast (parent company of Universal), Amazon, and Apple are all developing a new VOD delivery system that will put top-shelf movies out for rental 30-45 days after their theatrical debuts at a $30 price level.  Even with $30 being substantial savings compared to hauling an average family of four to the cinema, that price point still doesn’t work if the digital download and Blu-ray/DVD release windows of $20 permanent ownership (not a temporary rental) keep dramatically shrinking like they have been for a few years.  What used to be an industry-standard of six months or more between silver screen and small screen has been cut in half.  May theatrical releases like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 have arrived on August store shelves.  Why wait a month for a single high-priced rental when you can wait three and buy it for keeps for a lesser price?  I don’t see the viable premium VOD marketplace for average tight-budgeted blue collar consumers out there (and that’s not even taking into account the piracy market looming over anything VOD related).

LESSON #4: SURPRISE, SURPRISE!  DISNEY IS OUT TO MAKE ITS OWN MONEY WITHOUT PARTNERS— When you make billions hand over fist, you get to call the shots or, better yet, go out make your own game.  The Walt Disney Company will pull its lucrative movies off Netflix and launch its own branded streaming subscription platform in 2019.  They don’t need Netflix when they have the clout and fanbase to create their own exclusivity and keep all the money.  I can’t say I blame them and I stand by my prognostication from earlier in the summer for the day Disney/Marvel pulls out of San Diego’s Comic-Con and lets their own D23 be the one-way fan access point to that frenzy.

LESSON #5: NETFLIX IS NOT INVINCIBLE— From the outside looking in, casual observers (and this very column) have been exceedingly impressed by Netflix’s huge push in creating their own original television and film content.  They have thrown tremendous resources with the aim of attracting more customers and now have the $20 billion of debt to prove it.  Subscriptions are up an astounding 25% since last year, so the gamble is working, but how long can a company like that sustain those spending habits on top of Disney pulling out?  Expect an investment bubble to burst in some area (licensing fees with the studios) and, naturally, a raise in subscription rates passed onto us very soon to recoup that debt.

LESSON #6: HAS THE SLOW DEATH OF THE MULTIPLEX BEGUN?— Options like MoviePass, VOD, and Netflix have not come close to creating a new entertainment access monopoly large enough to overtake the big screen marketplace.  That said, even with price point challenges and debt issues, have the little dents and pin pricks started to add up to true damage?  I, for one, am beginning to at least wonder.   Blockbuster fatigue, thanks to poor performing duds like The Mummy, have taken their toll on consumer spending and confidence.  Multiple business outlets broke the news that AMC Theatres took a dramatic second quarter loss (and is staring at a third quarter one coming) that caused shares to fall 40% since the beginning of August.  The overall American box office is down a scant 4.4% from last year.  If that’s all it takes to financially wound one theatre chain, how are the other ones doing?  How are they sustaining 20+ screen multiplexes hawking bargain attempts and hokey incentives only to still sit empty on weeknights against growing operating costs?  I bet they’re not doing much better than AMC.  I have to think some form of internal, yet dramatic, contraction is coming.  Movies survived the invention of television.  They will survive digital and device shifts, but not without a shift or two of their own.

LESSON #7: I DON’T KNOW WHAT WARNER BROS. IS DOING WITH THE DC CHARACTER FILMS AND I DON’T THINK THEY KNOW EITHER— Spinning off of Wonder Woman‘s success as the #1 earner of the summer, Warner Bros. has the ambitious DC Extended Universe schedule of Justice LeagueAquaman, ShazamWonder Woman 2Cyborg, and Green Lantern Corps locked on the calendar through 2020.  It’s the slate after that has created a flurry of questions this week.  Matt Reeves made it known that his The Batman will be a standalone film outside of the DCEU and spread gasoline-dipped rumors of Ben Affleck being out at the Caped Crusader.  The WB brass then added the dreamy Martin Scorsese/Todd Phillips team-up announcement of a spin-off Joker solo origin story film without Jared Leto and on its own.  Confounding us even more a day later, the studio reveals they are concurrently planning a Joker/Harley Quinn film starring Leto and Margot Robbie that will be within the DCEU.  What is all this?!  Is Warner Bros. admitting defeat at building a Marvel-like universe and course-correcting to make focused films or are we watching greedy, hubris, and befuddlement? If so, why carry both? This DCEU timeline is going to start looking a clue board spider-webbed with red yarn from a police procedural or a Charlie Day meme.

LESSON #8: EWAN MCGREGOR OR NO ONE— I’ll bring the first fanboy torch and pitchfork to Disney’s announcement of an Obi-wan Kenobi solo anthology film coming in the near future.  Cast Ewan McGregor or no one at all.  After the flop of Alden Ehrenreich requiring an acting coach for Han Solo, cast some damn proven talent.  Call it stability as much as you call it justified fan service.

LESSON #9: LOOK TO ITALY AS THE OSCAR SEASON STARTS NOW— The prime third quarter film festival season kicks off with the prestigious Venice Film Festival beginning on August 30th and the top-shelf Toronto International Film Festival starting on September 7th.  The lineup in Venice includes first looks at Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, George Clooney’s Suburbicon, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of WaterJudi Dench’s crown in Victoria and Abdul, and the Redford/Fonda reunion Our Souls at Night.  I’ll share the killer TIFF lineup next week.  Get your coffee mugs ready to receive a pouring of Oscar buzz!


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson.  He is also one of the founders and the current directors of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Creators Media.

MOVIE REVIEW: Wonder Woman

In the opening minutes of Wonder Woman, young Princess Diana (played by the precocious Lilly Aspell), bounds about the island of Themyscira with such a tireless enthusiasm, imitating lady warriors in training, channeling the energy of Wall Street’s Fearless Girl, defiant of rules and stereotypes.  Even as her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielson), tries to subdue her daughter’s eagerness to place herself in precarious circumstances, we can tell that Diana is cut from a different cloth. This is an origin story untold on the big screen before now, and in a cinematic society weary of such redundancies, the coming of age of the would be Amazonian princess is welcome, and in so many ways, necessary.

For the past decade, Marvel Studios has coasted along on the coattails of a genuinely decent cinematic universe, wherein rival DC has limped along with luke warm to abysmal attempts post-Nolan at keeping up with the Jonses. Rabid fandom aside, DC has mostly earned the reputation of being the VH1 to Marvel’s MTV.  But credit where credit is due, DC is the first studio to test the theory that a female centered superhero film can stand alongside the glut of “fill in the blank”-man movies that have strong armed the studio’s purse strings for far to long.  Giving the reigns to a passionate, visionary filmmaker like Patty Jenkins was also the right thing to do. There is an undercurrent of authenticity to this film, as if it knows it carries an extra burden.  Fair or not, Wonder Woman needed to be more than entertaining.  

Wonder Woman needs to be examined on multiple fronts. As a superhero film, it’s decent, much in the way most of these genre films are.  There will be things that work and things that will not, but generally you will feel a sense of satisfaction when the credits start rolling.  And yet, Twitter trolls will spew nonsense, and fanboys will gather to defend. If you can block out that noise, you can expect an above average slice of blockbuster pie that isn’t without its flaws.

Comparisons can be made to Captain America: The First Avenger in both style and structure.  The pacing isn’t always a strength, and it does feel the full weight of the 141 minute run time as a result.  The film ultimately falls into familiar genre trappings, where CGI assumes command of a final battle between super-beings in a dark cacophony of sight and sound.  But enough good will has been earned by that point for me to forgive most of that.  It isn’t terrible, just familiar.  

As maligned as Producer Zack Snyder is with a lot of his creative choices, casting Gal Gadot is purely inspired.  She is perfect, and with no disrespect to Linda Carter, she is the Wonder Woman for all going forward.  Gadot brings so many layers of Diana Prince to life, portraying her with a fearless intensity that smacks of both strength and vulnerability. There is a grace and beauty to Diana, and yet her fierce sense of duty never wavers.  Between Gadot’s talent and Jenkins’ direction, Wonder Woman never strays down a path that could have cheapened it.

To that end, props to Chris Pine (as Captain Steve Trevor), who never oversells himself.  He seems to understand there is something bigger going on here, and his portrayal of Trevor never impedes on Gadot.  Pine shows range with the character- sometimes frustrated, confused, or downright angry- but he’s always respectful of Diana’s role within this world.  

All of the plot devices and technicalities of filmmaking aside, the success of Wonder Woman, at least for me, lies squarely on its ability to serve as a beacon for gender equality.  And I’m of the opinion (admittedly the opinion of one white bred, middle aged dude), that this film succeeds on that front.  Every time I started to get concerned the line might get crossed- when the male hero might be called upon to save the day- Jenkins and Gadot sidestep, making sure the focus stays on Diana as hero, keeping the male characters involved but at a respectable distance that never feels unnatural. 

To that end, we male critics can comment on the basics of storytelling, or on technical merit, or character development, but I don’t feel as if we have the right to pass judgement on this film based on our experience outside of those particular contexts. It isn’t our film, guys.  We can love it or hate, but what matters is the way it lands with women who find inspiration from the main character.  What matters are the women who have felt the brunt of misaligned gender politics and look to a simple film as a step in the right direction.  What matters are women who find courage and strength in a world that doesn’t often allow them to express those traits.  What matters are the multitudes of little girls who don the warrior princess’ outfit and walk away empowered, seeing themselves as equals, seeing themselves in the same context as their male peers who sport Iron Man and Captain America gear on Halloween.  It’s really the only thing that matters here, and it’s long overdue.

Episode 061: Wonder Woman

We go for the team-up this week by calling in Andrew Dyce for this special episode on DC’s newest entry into their comic book film universe. Wonder Woman let into theaters shouldering an enormous weight as the first female-directed and led superhero movie. Not only has it garnered incredible financial success in its first weekend, but it has received overwhelming praise as something fresh, new, and necessary. We dig into the film and have a great conversation about its themes and importance to the future.

What We’ve Been Up To – 0:01:52

(Aaron – You’re Next)
(Patrick – The Last of Us)
(Andrew – American Gods/Twin Peaks: The Return)

Wonder Woman Review – 0:21:14

The Connecting Point – 1:40:04

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Intro/Outro Music – “Air Hockey Saloon” by Chris Zabriskie

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