What We Learned This Week: September 10-16

LESSON #1: DARREN ARONOFSKY IS AS AUDACIOUS AS THEY COME— Love or hate his films (and there is a lot there for both emotions), but Darren Aronofsky has cajones, talent, and personal integrity to make bold films his way and for his own artistic expression.  mother! is the latest chapter of a brazen filmography of NoahBlack SwanThe Wrestler, Fountain, Requiem for a Dream, and Pi.  The guy is operating at another level and uses a different elevator of crazy.  Recognize the skill through any love or hate you harbor to his films.

LESSON #2: GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S THE SHAPE OF WATER IS YOUR FIRST OSCAR CONTENDER— The master of creature creation’s romantic fantasy film won the prestigious Golden Lion award as the top film of the Venice Film Festival.  Put it at the top of the standings while it also competes at the ongoing Toronto International Film Festival.  If The Shape of Water were to win at TIFF, hot damn, you can switch the word from “contender” to “frontrunner.”  In other categories, Venice awarded its acting prizes to Kamel El Basha for The Insult and Charlotte Rampling for Hannah, its screenplay award to Martin McDonagh for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, and the best director prize to Xavier Legrand for Custody.  Within the next week or two, I will report the TIFF winners in this very column.

LESSON #3: “WHITE PRIVILEGE” WILL BE THE MOST POLARIZING SUBJECT MATTER AND NARRATIVE THIS AWARDS SEASON— I screened and reviewed the Ben Stiller vehicle Brad’s Status this week and if I had to retitle the film, it would be White Privilege: The Wake-Up Call.  The movie has a strong introspective quality about it, but its message is going to fall on so many deaf ears to any demographic that’s not a middle-aged white male.  Consider that a crutch and a hindrance, even if the film was good.  I fear the same thing will happen to an even higher profile film this awards season, namely George Clooney’s Coen brothers collaboration Suburbicon.  Clooney was stumping for the film and Venice and found himself answering the sticky white privilege labels and questions.  To his great credit, he’s sticking to his guns about the purposeful satire and commentary of this film.  The film may work, but does that mean it will play that way to general or even voting audiences?  I’m betting the white privilege labels aren’t far behind for Alexander Payne’s Downsizing and even mother! too.

LESSON #4: PATTY JENKINS DESERVES THE SUCCESS COMING HER WAY— Warner Bros. made it official this week signing Patty Jenkins to return as the director of the Wonder Woman sequel.  The first film’s runaway success netted her a $7-9 million payday, the highest ever for a woman director, and a little percentage of the back-end profits for good measure.   Slowly but surely, the pay gap can and should close.  Patty Jenkins deserves this reward and I’m glad she’s one of the leaders for equal professional standards.  Kudos!

LESSON #5: THE IMPORTANT THING IS TO GET A FILM DONE RIGHT— I’ve talked in this column over the summer about the many news items of production ups-and-downs.  Instances include when Justice League called on Joss Whedon to step in for extensive reshoots or the dismissals of two different Star Wars directors.  This week, all signs point to J.J. Abrams returning to the director’s chair for Episode IX and delaying the film an additional seven months to reshuffle the deck.  On the smaller side, ace composer Johann Johannsson is leaving Blade Runner 2049 less than a month before its release.  We take those breaking stories as signs of trouble and possible evidence of a lemon to come.  We’ve been doing it in the internet age since Titanic was delayed from a July 4th weekend opening to Christmas in 1997.  Sometimes those fears become justified.  Maybe, just maybe though, the delays are the right moves to ensure a proper finished product.  Maybe a little more patience and extra time used to fine tune a film can finally win in the age of instant gratification, manic buzz, and “what have you done for me lately.”  We are a voracious audience sometimes, myself included, but maybe we can soften our Chicken Little-level overreactions.  Call this an early New Year’s resolution for this writer.

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.

What We Learned This Week: September 3-9

LESSON #1: HOW MANY COOKS WITH HUBRIS APRONS ARE IN THE DISNEY KITCHEN?— My guess is too many and it’s time to wonder who’s running the show and why they can’t keep talent around.  The dismissal this week of director Colin Trevorrow from Star Wars: Episode IX comes less than three months after a similar parting-of-ways between the Mouse House and the directing team of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord on Han Solo (coupled with acting coach rumors needed for its star Alden Ehrenreich and the swift hire of Ron Howard to finish the film).  Dig back farther and the storied Tony Gilroy-led reshoots of Rogue One now ring a louder alarm.  Across the office, plenty of directors (Edgar Wright, Joss Whedon, Jon Favreau) have also butted heads with the Marvel end of the Disney empire on the grounds of creative differences.  To use an NFL analogy in honor of the opening week of the new season, this reeks of Jerry Jones/Al Davis-style meddling from the front office that prevents the coaches, executives, and players underneath them from doing their job.  Treverrow haters (and there are many after Jurassic World and The Book of Henry) celebrated the axing and formed bandwagons for desirable replacements (#bringbackJJ), but somewhere up the ladder, someone is power-tripping at Disney enough to make dedicated and non-hack people walk, and, unlike the past, it’s not George Lucas’ hubris messing things up.  Keep an eye on all this.

LESSON #2: CASTING FOR DIVERSITY IS MORE THAN JUST LEADS— Opportunity is everything in the moviemaking business and too many of those doors have been locked or lost for too many minorities.  It’s wonderful to see more awareness on the topic, especially self-awareness as was the case with the outcry/applause in Ed Skrein’s recent departure from the Hellboy reboot.  Every step counts as progress.  Prolific reviewer/writer extraordinaire (and a peer of mine) Nick Clement earned a rousing by-line from Variety recently in a dynamite piece talking with casting directors about filling roles with diversity deeper than the only the principal leads, especially if those roles break racial and ethnic stereotypes.  It’s a great read and spot on to truly heavy lifting of those doors.  It starts at the bottom more than only at the top.

LESSON #3: WHAT IS THE PROPER PLACE FOR STORY-EXTENDED SHORT FILMS?— Two Ridley Scott-connected films, Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049, have employed short film vignettes via YouTube as a prequel-like means of catching audiences up on time and providing background information for a coming full feature.  I, for one, don’t know how I feel about them.  I’m all for expanding the medium of short films and adding context, but do these extended scenes (like this one of an upcoming three for Blade Runner 2049) play like spoilers?  Shouldn’t a feature film be edited and tuned enough to stand on its own with the extras?  Should these kinds of scenes be saved for home media special features?  I’m undecided.  What are your thoughts?  Add a comment below.

LESSON #4: LOOK TO TORONTO AS THE OSCAR SEASON TAKES ANOTHER STEP— The prestigious Venice Film Festival will be naming their Golden Lion and other winners on September 9th, but, two days before, the spotlight shifts to the Toronto International Film Festival.  TIFF has arguably usurped Cannes as the most elite film festival in the business.  The must-see list of Oscar contenders coming from TIFF 2017 includes Mother, Molly’s Game, The Florida Project, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, MN, The Shape of Water, Darkest Hour, The Current War, Downsizing, Bodied, Surburbicon, Hostiles, Battle of the Sexes, Mary Shelley, Lean on Pete, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Brawl in Cell Block 99, The Death of Stalin, and The Disaster Artist.  Eight of the last ten TIFF People’s Choice Award winners have gone on to Best Picture Academy Award nominations, including two eventual winners (The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave).

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.

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.