Blockbusters To Watch Out For This Winter

Josip Knezevic 

America has entered blockbuster season, and that means some of the year’s biggest budget films will soon be hitting our cinemas. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, it’s likely you’ve heard something about these upcoming films. There’s some familiar franchises headed our way, as well as some fresh blood that may just upset the established order of things.

When you say “blockbuster” it’s hard not to immediately think of Transformers. Yes, for some reason, Michael Bay is continuing his nonsensical spout of robot violence… well, that reason is probably the $1 billion USD Transformers: Age of Extinction made at the box office, but I digress.

The latest entry, Transformers: The Last Knight, aims to shatter the franchise mythology established by its many predecessors. Humans and Transformers will be pitted against each other, with no Optimus Price around to act as a peacemaker. Fans of the series will no doubt flock to their local cinema to see this latest installment, and even I have to admit that there are some amazing special effects on display in the trailer. Here’s hoping the same can be said for the story… but it’s hard to even suggest that with a straight face.

This week we’ve seen Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales sail into cinemas. Filmed off the coast of Australia, we revisit our favourite “worst pirate”, Captain Jack Sparrow, now under threat from old nemesis (yes, another one) Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem). Captain Jack’s only hope lies in finding the Trident of Poseidon, which grants its possessor total control of the seas. Could this be the revival the series needs after the questionable On Stranger Tides? Perhaps if Jason Momoa was thrown in as a fill in for Poseidon we might be getting somewhere…

Speaking of Aquaman and comic book films, we have origin films Wonder Woman and Spider-man: Homecoming coming very soon. After getting a taste of these characters in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War respectively, it’s hard to anticipate which film will be more successful. Interest in both films has grown exponentially on the back of each trailer. Personally, I’m less concerned with yet another re-boot of the Spider-Man series, so I hope Wonder Woman takes the win at the box office, but we shall see.

And finally, we’ve got the return of The Mummy, only this time, our beloved Brendan Fraser isn’t here to reprise his role. Instead, we’ve got Tom Cruise. Perhaps I’m blinded by my affection for Fraser, but Cruise seems to be a questionable choice. Nevertheless, The Mummy promises to once again tackle an ancient spirit who has accidentally risen from the dead to wreak havoc.

So, there you have it. If these films don’t get your heart pumping, fear not! As we draw nearer to Christmas time, another influx of blockbusters will be hitting our screens. Films like Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, The Dark Tower, Justice League, Thor: Ragnarok and Star Wars: The Last Jedi will be coming to a screen near you!

 

Image courtesy of Roadshoew Films 

Still Kicking – Aging Actors

With so many incredible talents now hitting their twilight years, it’s no wonder there’s more films offering roles to mature aged actors… but is that the only reason for the rise in films centred around older characters?

Josip Knezevic

Last Vegas, Dirty Grandpa, Grudge Match

These films are a clear reminder that Robert De Niro will happily do any script put in front of him, regardless of how terrible. At this point, it’s safe to say he probably doesn’t even have an agent anymore, because how could someone allow him to make so many questionable choices?

Nevertheless, De Niro isn’t the only veteran actor still churning out films these days. Actors such as Morgan Freeman, Alan Arkin, Michael Caine and the ever-magical Maggie Smith don’t seem to be slowing down any time soon thanks to a rise in films centred around, well… old characters. But why is that? Is it purely to appeal to an older demographic? Or do these actors feel the need to keep continually adding to their already extensive filmographies? The answer is more complicated than you’d think.

Inevitably, it comes down to the film in question. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel boasts an ensemble cast featuring the likes of Judi Dench, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson, who are all over the age of 60 and are esteemed actors in their own right. The film follows a group of pensioners moving to a retirement hotel in India… and that’s it. No really, that’s it. Clearly this isn’t going to attract your average millennial, but baby boomers can relate to not only the actors, but also the situations they experience.

A more recent addition is the Zach Braff directed remake Going in Style, starring Freeman, Arkin and Caine. The film is centred around this trio of retirees who plan to rob a bank after their pensions are cancelled. Unlike Marigold Hotel, this film has a much wider scope. By playing on the well-known heist format and the action comedy genre, it’s able to appeal to a broader audience. It’s obviously not going to win any Academy Awards, but it’s a crowd-pleasing film that’s a good excuse for these actors to keep working.

Speaking of which, there’s also an increased number of award-winning films, or at least very well-crafted ones, offering up meaty roles for older actors. Nebraska and Blade Runner 2049 immediately spring to mind, featuring Bruce Dern and Harrison Ford respectively. While Blade Runner 2049 is set for release near the end of the year, Dern’s performance in Nebraska earned him an Oscar nomination. Though it’s unlikely Ford will be offered the same honour, this big budget blockbuster still has the potential to reach the heights of the classic prequel.

At the end of the day, the movie making business is only concerned with entertainment and profitability. In many cases, only the latter is considered. It seems veteran actors are less fixated on the box office takings of their films because there’s no need for them to be concerned anymore. When you’ve had an impressive career spanning decades, nothing can erase your legacy, no matter how many horrendous pieces of shit you make (looking at you De Niro…). For these more experienced actors, making films is about working in an industry they’ve loved their entire life and not slowing down while they still have energy in their legs. Sometimes these films work out. Sometimes they don’t.

Image courtesy of Going In Style, Roadshow Films

Films About Race That Don’t Involve Slavery

Corey Hogan

It’s been over a year now since the Academy Awards copped flak for apparently ignoring black films and filmmakers. But truth be told, most films tackling race that earn the Academy’s attention all involve slavery (12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Lincoln etc.) – which almost feels like a self-congratulating, forced apology for the same issue over and over. When thinking of films involving racism and racial issues, the slavery-based are often the first to come to mind, but there are many excellent pieces of cinema that cover a massive range of other race concerns, both current and historical. We’ve been treated to several this year alone with great range to them – uplifting (Hidden Figures), modest (Loving) and creative (Get Out). There’s so many great films out there that tackle race in different ways –  here’s just a few of them!

Do the Right Thing (1989)

05 May - Race Do The Right Thing
Just about all of Spike Lee’s films centre around racial issues in some shape or form, but none made as big of a splash as his breakthrough Do the Right Thing, a film that pulls absolutely zero stops in picking apart racial profiling. Set in a massively diverse Brooklyn neighbourhood, racial tension is slowly building between the African-American and Italian-American members, with Chinese families, white cops and a mentally disabled man dragged into the brewing storm. Young black man Mookie (Spike Lee) works at the Italian Sal’s (Danny Aiello) pizza shop. Things are civil until one of Mookie’s friends demands a black celebrity be included on Sal’s all-white Wall of Fame. Sal refuses, causing an outrage in the community that explodes in violence on the hottest day of the summer.

Lee opens a dialogue about whether or not violence is truly the right response to injustices – particularly those started by violence themselves – and invites the audience to decide what exactly “doing the right thing” is. He’s unafraid to show just how racist anyone can be either, no matter their own skin colour. The montage in which each race brutally impersonates the other is gold.

Racist stereotypes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLYTObRhcSY


American History X (1998)

05 May - Race American X

Edward Norton has probably never been better than his ferocious portrayal of a skinhead coming to his senses in Tony Kaye’s shockingly unflinching American History X. Teenager Danny Vinyard (Edward Furlong) writes a paper for his history class on his older brother Derek (Norton), a former Neo-Nazi and white supremacist gang leader who, after a three-year prison sentence for brutally murdering two black men, realises the error of his ways. Once released, he becomes determined to prevent Danny from following in his footsteps.

Kaye’s success is in his refusal to be preachy. He lays out the raw hatred of the skinhead in all its gory glory, while also boldly humanising them. Effectively switching from black and white in Derek’s homicidal days to colour in his reformed state, Kaye suggests the importance of learning from the actions and consequences of leading a hate-filled life, and that redemption is always an option within grasping range.

Derek gets violent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOzR5Jnd6bU


Mississippi Burning (1988)

05 May - Race Mississippi Burning
The most significant cultural leap in racial equality since the abolition of slavery was the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s; a massive operation to end segregation and create legal security for black people across America. Mississippi Burning explores the backlash and protest this movement faced, and how the mindset of many can remain unchanged as society progresses around them. When three civil rights activists go missing in Jessup County, Mississippi, two FBI agents (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) are sent in to investigate, but find themselves very unwelcome as the town residents, police and the Ku Klux Klan retaliate.

The post-slavery geographical divide remaining through America is evident, though director Alan Parker finds a moral conscience in the few honest and unprejudiced townspeople, black and white, who suffer horrific fates for speaking out. The complications, grief and torment faced by everyone involved in the movement on either side of the coin are streamlined to give an idea of what was faced by people of all perspectives throughout the era.

The burning cross: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AbXTl0WX4RE


District 9 (2009)

05 May - Race District 9
No, seriously. While it might feature illegal aliens in the most literal sense, Neill Blomkamp’s ingenious metaphor for the apartheid – South Africa’s institutionalised racial segregation system throughout the latter half of the 20th century – couldn’t be more authentic. An extra-terrestrial race that appeared over Johannesburg a few decades ago is now confined to a refugee camp, and forcibly evicted and relocated by a military company hired by the government. Wikus (Sharlto Copley), a bureaucrat, is exposed to technology designed to return the species to their home planet, causing war between the emigrants and government.

Though the latter half evolves into traditional science-fiction, much of the set up cleverly analyses real racial concerns through this alien species. They’re treated inhumanely, forced to live in barely-sustainable conditions, given a derogatory eponym (“prawns”), and meet remorselessly violent ends if not cooperating with their regime. It’s a thrilling take on what human refugees undertook in South Africa’s toughest times.

Prawns get evicted: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXHzOkAY9qo


Get Out image (c) 2017 Universal Pictures
Additional i
mages courtesy of United International Pictures, Roadshow Films, Village Roadshow Corporation & Sony Pictures 

Ridley Scott – from xenomorphs to Maximus Meridius

Rhys Graeme-Drury

Over a 40-year career, Ridley Scott has crafted a reputation as a versatile master of the screen. A filmmaker with a deft understanding of the power in subtle yet impactful visual effects, Scott originally concerned himself with working behind the camera on television commercials, the most notable of which is Apple’s iconic 1984 advert for the Macintosh computer. This experience shaped his approach to film and informed his ability to convey a lot through very little, like any good commercial should be able to do.

And although he may not possess the same name recognition as a Spielberg, a Scorsese or a Cameron, Scott’s best work almost certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence. Films like Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down and The Martian are just a sample of Scott’s immensely varied filmography and illustrate his surprising ability to adapt to different styles and genres.

In fact, Scott’s versatility is as evident in his failures as much as it is in his successes. On top of a notching up a handful of bonafide classics, Scott has enjoyed his fair share of flunks over the years. Inconsistent yet eclectic in tone and never uninteresting, Scott’s filmography has seen peaks and troughs aplenty; for every Exodus, we’ve also been treated to a Gladiator. For every Robin Hood, we’ve witnessed a Kingdom of Heaven.

That Scott can so perfectly pivot to suit the needs of each project speaks volumes about his depth as a filmmaker. Horror, sci-fi, fantasy, history, drama, comedy, romance – his back catalogue covers it all. What other director working today could take an act as inherently tacky and tasteless as Cameron Diaz humping the windshield of a Ferrari and turn it into something oddly compelling as Scott did with The Counsellor – a film totally deserving of its growing cult status, might I add.

On more than one occasion, Scott can claim to have breathed new life into a struggling subgenre. With Gladiator, he revived the sword-and-sandals epic and a string of pale imitations flooded cinemas in its wake, from Wolfgang Petersen‘s Troy to Oliver Stone‘s Alexander. In Blade Runner, Scott presented audiences with a bold and grimy cyberpunk future dripping in neon and smoke. The future noir aesthetic it helped establish is still replicated today in films like Ghost in the Shell and Dredd.

Scott’s filmography can also be characterised by his leanings towards strong female protagonists, from the titular characters in Thelma and Louise to GI Jane to (of course) Ripley from the Alien series. That trend is set to continue in Alien: Covenant, with Katherine Waterston taking up the mantle of chief badass.

His work often concerns itself with introspective examinations of what it means to be human, especially in the realm of science fiction with Blade Runner, Alien and more recently with Prometheus, a film which also contained particularly pungent religious leanings. This spiritual angle bleeds into his work on Exodus and Kingdom of Heaven, amongst others.

Interestingly, one of Scott’s greatest flaws as a filmmaker precipitates one of his greatest strengths. Throughout his career, Scott has wrangled with studio interference, with a number of projects suffering at the hand of  studio-mandated cuts.

Often finding himself wading through complex narratives and lengthy runtimes, Scott’s insistence to return to a project after the initial theatrical edition has paved the way for a number of markedly improved director’s cuts, most notably Kingdom of Heaven and Blade Runner, which were both elevated to straight-up masterpieces once Scott was able to tell the story he wanted to tell.

This approach has given him a reputation for being methodical, no-nonsense and workmanlike, as he routinely pumps out a film every 12-18 months. And at 79-years-old, Scott shows no signs of slowing down; he recently signed on to direct a WWII epic about the Battle of Britain and has repeatedly spoken about his desire to keep churning out Alien sequels for years to come. “If you really want a franchise, I can keep cranking it for another six,” he recently said during an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald.

An extraordinary craftsman, Scott’s moments in the sun far outweigh his less revered and patchy periods. Anyone with Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator and The Martian on their resume has earned their place amongst the pantheon of cinema’s greatest filmmakers in my book, and I hope that he gets the chance to notch up a couple more classics before putting his feet up.

Image courtesy of Gage Skidmore, 2012 WonderCon Anaheim, California 

Salute, mi familia – Deconstructing the Popularity of the Fast and Furious Films

Like a torpedo fired from a Russian nuclear submarine, The Fate of the Furious has gone off like a rocket at the box office. But what factors have gone into transforming this series from humble beginnings to the titanic takings its currently enjoying?

Rhys Graeme-Drury

If someone slipped into a coma back in 2001 and only just woke up this week, there would be a lot of stuff that would feel alien to them. Since then, real estate mogul Donald Trump has transformed himself into a reality TV star before becoming the leader of the free world, Star Wars has both concluded and been revived, and the Apple iPod has gone from a radical and expensive concept to essentially redundant.

But perhaps the strangest development in the world of pop culture and cinematic trends is the emergence of the Fast and Furious franchise from niche Point Break rip-off to the gargantuan box office behemoth that it is today. Since first zooming onto cinema screens back in June 2001, The Fast and the Furious has spawned a string of sequels that currently total eight and may surpass 10 by the time Universal has squeezed every last drop of milk from its increasingly lucrative udder, not to mention the proposed buddy cop spin-off with Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham.

In its first weekend in cinemas, The Fate of the Furious blew past even the most generous industry expectations to notch up the largest international opening weekend ever, with a total of US$532.5 million (AU$702 million) in just four days, positively racing past the previous record set by Star Wars: The Force Awakens (US$529 million) in 2015.

How has this happened? How did the series go from a relatively straight-forward first film about street racing through Los Angeles to the most recent entry, The Fate of the Furious, which sees a sprawling ensemble cast that includes two Academy Award winners enact vehicular mayhem through Havana, New York, Berlin and a Russian nuclear submarine base?

There are a multitude of factors working in tandem to get us to this point, the first and potentially most important of which is the wholehearted and natural inclination towards inclusivity and diversity.

You only need to take a cursory glance at the cast list of the Fast and Furious franchise to see that a lot of work has gone into shaping a culturally and racially diverse ensemble. Aside from Paul Walker‘s heartland America blonde hair and blue eyes, the cast has recruited the likes of Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Gal Gadot and Sung Kang, not to mention that fact that Diesel himself comes from a mixed race family. It’s the same story behind the camera, with Justin Lin, James Wan, John Singleton and F. Gary Gray on directorial duties.

According to Box Office Mojo, American viewers on opening weekend were 41 per cent Caucasian, 26 per cent Hispanic, 19 per cent African American and 11 per cent Asian. Audiences were skewed in favour of men, but the crossover appeal generated by The Rock’s biceps was evident, with 42 per cent of the audiences being female. The cast is reflecting the diversity of its audience back at themselves and finding success in the process – an aspect that should cause studio execs to sit up and take notice.

The next strand is the explosive action with which the series is synonymous. The great thing about action is that you don’t need a translator or subtitles to understand or enjoy what is unfolding up there on the big screen. Understanding and appreciating action is universal, and since hitting it big with the transformative fifth entry Fast Five, the Fast and Furious series has only gotten more imaginative and outlandish in how it stages and executes said action.

You could also argue that the series has gradually begun to adopt a soap opera style of narrative storytelling, another element that is easily relatable and recogniseable for international audiences in Latin America, Japan or Korea who live and breathe telenovelas, dorama or K-drama series’ respectively.

Whether it’s characters like Letty (Rodriguez) returning from the dead with amnesia, villains like Deckard Shaw (Statham) undoing past misdeeds by switching sides or previous lovers like Elena (Elsa Pataky) resurfacing with a baby that turns out to be Dom’s, the Fast and Furious franchise thrives on soap opera plot twists and reversals that are easy to digest, owing to their familiarity to the same long-form storytelling in primetime television. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was revealed that Dom was separated from his evil twin brother at birth in the next movie.

Unlike Star Wars and to a lesser extent Marvel, Fast and Furious isn’t steeped in lore or encumbered by deep mythology that spans 50 years. There is depth to be found when viewed in its entirety, but the series can also accommodate newcomers, even in its eighth installment. The characters are broad enough that they don’t require backstory; the plot is action-packed enough that the tech jargon, to a certain degree, doesn’t matter.

Lastly, the series is built on a bedrock of values and themes that translate easily to audiences who speak English as a second language. The number of times someone says the word ‘family’ in these films is something of a cheesy running joke to some, but to international audiences it’s something to latch onto and identify with. Family comes first; supporting them is sacred; always respect your rivals, and so on and so forth.

As the Fast and Furious juggernaut rolls inexorably onward, it becomes increasingly evident this series is pitching itself as the encapsulation of what modern blockbuster cinema should be, for better or for worse. It’s diverse, broad, high-octane and vastly appealing to wide range of demographics across the globe.

It’s the ultimate 21st century film series in every sense of the phrase. Love them or hate them, the Fast and Furious films have built themselves up as the go-to mainstream blockbuster films for a range of audiences across the globe, almost certainly readjusting the compasses belonging to many a Hollywood studio in the process.

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2017

Fading Stars: Why A-List Status Counts For Nothing

The archetypical Hollywood movie star is dead. We live in a post-movie star world where A-listers mean next to nothing in the grand scheme of what floats and what sinks.

Rhys Graeme-Drury

Twenty years ago, people flocked to see a certain film based on whose name was splashed across the poster in the cinema foyer. Think Arnold Schwarzenegger movies like True Lies, End of Days or Total Recall, all of which were sold with merely a name and a face. Come see this movie, the poster screamed – it has Arnie in it. At the time, that was all some people needed to know. The same could be said for stars like Tom Cruise, Will Smith or Tom Hanks, who could all carry a movie on name and name alone.

Cut to 2017 and we’re faced with a very different situation. Who can honestly say they have the same pulling power nowadays? If box office results are anything to go by, hardly anyone does. Instead it’s all about franchises and adaptations.

In the last month alone, we’ve seen two major blockbusters hit cinemas that aren’t major properties; Daniel Espinosa‘s space horror/thriller Life and Rupert Sanders‘ anime adaptation Ghost in the Shell. Both movies have struggled to generate excitement in terms of ticket sales during their limited cinema run; three weeks ago, Life debuted at fourth on the US box office chart, behind Beauty and the Beast, Power Rangers and Kong: Skull Island. Not too shabby, but look at what sits ahead on the list; known properties that have been rebaked and repackaged.

Something like Life, riding a wave of critical praise and a wall-to-wall world press tour, would have made a killing at the movies 20-25 years ago. Headlined by two hugely popular, respected and dare I say attractive male co-leads (Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal), it ticks all the right boxes for success.

Now, let’s talk about Ghost in the Shell. It’s only been in theatres for a matter of days and sites like Polygon are already calling it one of the biggest flops of the year. And admittedly, the signs don’t look good. In its opening week, Ghost in the Shell made just $19 million in the US. Against a reported budget of $110 million, that’s not a good start. It’s barely enough to cover ScarJo’s paycheck.

It might seem like these two examples are just isolated instances pulled from a couple of fairly hefty months at the movies. But they’re not – it’s an emerging trend that has seen a lot of major studio releases simply squashed even if they have a major A-lister among their ranks.

In the last 12 months, movies like Passengers, The Great Wall, Live by Night and The Accountant all failed to illicit more than a shrug at the box office despite each being headlined by major actors like Jennifer Lawrence, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

Like this list, Ghost in the Shell had its hopes and dreams pinned to a major star (in this case, ScarJo) as its headline actress. Sure, one could argue that the original anime is in itself a known property with an built-in audience, but I would wager Mr Average Joe on the street isn’t readily acquainted with relatively niche Japanese anime. It therefore follows that the studio and those working on the film are banking on one thing – audiences showing up because they want to see ScarJo kick butt as an emotionless cyborg.

What we’re seeing more and more nowadays is a lack of interest in the movie star. Scarlett Johannson or Matt Damon or Jake Gyllenhaal aren’t enough to sell a movie just by themselves any more. You need to start with an existing idea and then introduce a name actor to the equation to build hype.

Look at it this way; did people turn out in droves to see Beauty and the Beast because of Emma Watson or because they love the original? The box office receipts for Noah and The Bling Ring a few years ago would argue the latter. Is Ryan Reynolds the reason that Deadpool went gangbusters or was it an odd synergy of actor and character coming together? Other recent flicks starring Reynolds suggest the latter; literally no-one remembers Mississippi GrindSelf/Less and Criminal.

Similarly, did audiences flock to see Logan because it stars Wolverine or Hugh Jackman? People want to see Jackman as Wolverine; they want to see Reynolds as Deadpool. The highest paid actor right now, Robert Downey Jnr, faces the same problem. Audiences will only to pay to see a movie where he plays Tony Stark; the most recent film he tried to headline (2014’s The Judge) fell flat and he doesn’t have anything else that isn’t Marvel on his plate until 2019.

Of course, there is always going to be the odd outlier that defies all logic; the best recent example would be Jordan Peele‘s smash hit horror Get Out, which is due to hit Australian cinemas next month. It’s an original idea that Peele wrote and directed himself and stars zero A-list actors. 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and $140 million at the US box office are practically unprecedented and quite literally record-breaking.

But for every success story, there is another five or six that reveal the harsher truth – hiring a big star to spearhead your potential blockbuster doesn’t count for much unless they’re playing something or someone pre-existing. Ghost in the Shell and Life aren’t the first, and won’t be the last – but right now they’re the two major casualties tumbling down the order in a box office landscape increasingly uninterested in original ideas starring attractive people.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Batman’s Enduring Cinematic Legacy

Rhys Graeme-Drury

Since swooping onto the scene in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, Batman (or the Bat-Man as he was originally known) has appeared in countless graphic novels, radio and television serials, animated series and blockbuster movies.

Aside from possibly Sherlock Holmes, Batman eclipses pretty much any other literary character under the sun for sheer flexibility. Across nearly eight decades in our collective cultural zeitgeist, the Caped Crusader has shown himself to display immense aesthetic, tonal, narrative and thematic malleability, from the original black-and-white TV serials starring Robert Lowery right up to the present day iterations such as Christian Bale and Ben Affleck.

More so than other superheroes like Superman, I would argue that it’s Batman who displays the greatest variance with regards to appearance, form and overall approach, all whilst staying true to the core iconography and values that define and underscore the character. Even on the most extreme ends of the spectrum, like Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin or the more recent animated The LEGO Batman Movie voiced by Will Arnett, Batman is still instantly recognisable as Batman.

Unlike Spider-man (teen drama) or Captain America (spirited wartime patriotism), you never really know what you’re going to get with Batman. One moment he’s leading Christopher Nolan’s grounded Dark Knight trilogy, and the next he’s a kid-friendly blockhead in The Lego Movie. On one end of the scale you have a punchy, brooding Batman who prowls the streets of a drab, sprawling urban jungle. On the other hand is a colourful, zippy Batman who is quick-witted, immature and maybe just a little bit sassy when the mood takes him.

Filmmakers the likes of Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher and Zach Snyder have also had the chance to imprint their own idea of what the Dark Knight should look and sound like. With Burton, Batman became an imposing exaggeration of comic book peculiarity and Expressionist inspired tech; in the hands of Schumacher, Batman was a commercialised action figure garnished in garish neon; presently with Snyder, Batman is a hyper-masculine gym junkie crossed with a mass murderer who hungers for torture and destruction.

The differences don’t begin and end in the realm of cinema; in just the past few years we’ve seen a multitude of different versions of Batman in video games, kid’s animation and even network TV. Even when Batman is thrust into a totally different era in comic books like Gotham by Gaslight or Batman Beyond, the hallmarks are all there. It’s a never-ending deluge of Batman that covers pretty much every age bracket and taste, all whilst remaining instantly recognisable and understandable.

Unlike Superman who comes from outer space or Spider-man who is lucky enough for a magic spider to nibble his neck, Bruce Wayne doesn’t have superpowers. Other than being crazy rich, Batman has endured with readers of all ages across the last 75 years because it’s easy to see ourselves in his selfless quest. Through training, discipline and bravery, we too could be like Batman – if only we also had a spare fortune lying around that is.

No need for a magic ring or lasso; just grim determination and the will to succeed and survive at all costs. Bruce Wayne takes tragedy (the death of his parents) and turns it into his motivation to be something better, stronger and greater. It’s a desire that transcends borders or race.

Despite the ups and downs of storytelling quality, Batman remains popular because he remains a hero we can imagine ourselves as, irrespective of that fact that he might be made of Lego or have ridiculous nipples on the outside of his suit. A symbol in both fiction and real-life, his enduring cinematic legacy is one ironclad iconography, and those identifiers remain universal, even when everything else about the character is subject to change and trends.

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Top 5 Male Disney Characters

Zachary Cruz-Tan

I love my Disney just as much as the next girl. Okay, maybe that’s generalising, but I can’t bring to mind a single man I know who has Disney Princess posters tacked to his wall. I don’t either, but I make up for it by singing along to “Under the Sea” while driving my macho Ford Fiesta. So is Disney really the domain of women? That, I think, is a question for another time. For now, I’ll make do with talking about five of Disney’s men (and animals), because they need to get their own posters too.

Aladdin
Film: Aladdin (1992)

04 April - Top 5 Disney Aladdin
“I steal only what I can’t afford. That’s everything!” So exclaims Aladdin as he’s bouncing around rooftops, evading the cops for having stolen a loaf of bread. Here’s probably the poorest guy in the world, just trying to survive, singing in tune while running for his life, and when he finally has a chance to bite into his catch, what does he do? Give his share to a couple of starving kids. That’s a hero, folks.

It’s also part of what makes Aladdin such a fine gentleman of the Disney empire. His heart is in the right place from beginning to end. You couldn’t say the same for Mowgli, Pan, or even Beast. Aladdin churns out goodness from within; every decision he makes is subject to the laws of his heart. He helps Jasmine. He sacrifices himself. He frees the Genie. All with little self-benefit. When it comes to a memorable, funny, chivalrous guy, with nothing to lose, you can do no better than Aladdin.


Baloo
Film: The Jungle Book (1967)

04 April - Top 5 Disney Baloo

The Jungle Book’s got a great catalogue of outstanding male characters, from the absolutely vicious Shere Khan to the Vulture Beatles who just wanna be our friends. Even King Louie and Bagheera are worthy candidates. But of them all, only Baloo has managed to forget about his worry and his strife, which has granted him the permission to do just about whatever he pleases in the jungle.

The ultimate layabout, Baloo thrives on a strict policy of no-interference and complete relaxation. He lives off the land and not much else. Unlike Aladdin the choir boy, his heart is not always in balance, but he values his friends and is fully aware of his lines in the sand. Cross them, and he’ll swipe your face off. After all, he is a bear.


Dumbo
Film: Dumbo (1941)

04 April - Top 5 Disney Dumbo
Yes, yes, Bambi’s mother was shot and it was tragic, but Bambi didn’t have big floppy ears and no one to talk to. Dumbo, on the other hand, witnesses his dear sweet mother being taken away and practically institutionalised, is left to fend for himself, is ridiculed by just about everyone who meets him, and surely hits rock bottom without letting us know about it.

But it’s a Disney movie, so he’s awarded one friend who helps him regain his pride (and get drunk). It’s one of the all-time great comeback stories, partially because Dumbo actually flies, partially because Disney decided not to let him speak (his silence somehow makes him more pathetic, more sympathetic). You just wanna care for the little guy, which is why his eventual triumph resonates so profoundly.


Kronk
Film: The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)

04 April - Top 5 Disney Kronk

The Emperor’s New Groove is essentially the Kuzco and Pacha story, but there’s so much melodrama between them they could make a cameo in The Bold and the Beautiful and no one would notice. Yzma and Kronk – that’s where the movie’s at. And of the two, Kronk is the bigger bundle of joy.

There isn’t a single moment Kronk’s on screen that he’s not doing something ludicrously hilarious, from communicating with – or believing he can communicate with – squirrels, to taking over as head chef of a restaurant in the middle of a daring mission. He is, basically, a child trapped in a super muscular body, with no intelligence to speak of but with a great understanding of right and wrong (his debates with tiny angel and devil Kronk are gold). It’s no mystery as to why he’s the one with his own sequel – one movie’s not enough to capture his personality. I’d also gladly patronise the restaurant I’m hoping he’ll open.


Simba
Film: The Lion King (1994)

04 April - Top 5 Disney Simba

No Disney movie is darker than The Lion King (save, perhaps, The Hunchback of Notre Dame). The witches in the early movies were mean SOBs. Bambi dealt with tragic murder. Beauty and the Beast was grim and gothic. But The Lion King journeys deeper into the realm of guilt and fear, dealing with themes of betrayal and redemption. Has there been a more bone-chilling Disney scene than the infamous stampede?

In the middle of it all is Simba, the young lion cub who has to deal early on with the responsibility of causing his father’s death. The guilt drives him into exile, where he effectively erases his identity and assumes the personality of Baloo (I’ve always wanted to see Baloo sing “Hakuna Matata”). It’s the age-old “You’re the Chosen One” angle, but it’s very dark – darker than anything Neo’s had to go through – and gets darker still when you realise Simba’s just a little baby lion; it’s a weighty burden to bear, not just for Simba, but for the kids in the crowd, and quite possibly their parents.


Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures 

All Grown Up: The Child Star

Zachary Cruz-Tan

When I was in film school I was taught never to work with animals or children. One excels at following commands but not necessarily acting cues; the other does just about whatever it pleases. And yet both are usually essential to the craft. Without animals, Hachi: A Dog’s Tale would’ve been two hours of Richard Gere sitting on a train. Without children, Lord of the Flies would’ve been a resort commercial for castaways. Let’s face it, as finicky as it can be to direct kids, they’re needed. And when you finally discover one that can actually act, it’s the filmmaking equivalent of buying a Porsche.

But kids didn’t have a prominent role in the movies till about the 1980s. Up until that point the most famous child stars were probably Judy Garland and Shirley Temple, both of whom had stopped being children for about thirty-five years. Temple wasn’t even considered a serious actor, lending her pudgy cuteness to cloying roles instead of dramatic ones. Garland, of course, was renowned for her musicals and rapidly lost control of her life as superstardom began to cave in (she reportedly needed a psychiatrist at the age of eighteen). It wasn’t till Jodie Foster in 1976 that children began to adopt more rounded, developed characters in an attempt to legitimise their profession.

And then the ‘80s hit, and E.T. was made, and suddenly children weren’t just sidekicks, but heroes. Movies could revolve around them. Elevate them. Understand them. It made stars of Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore, and, if just for that moment, propped them on top of the world. What happened to their careers after that was nobody’s concern.

Indeed, child actors either sink or swim. The problem is that most of them perform at an age where they’re unable to make their own decisions. Many of them realise in hindsight that they only acted because their parents got giddy at the thought of all the millions they’d make, and eventually dropped out. Mr. Anakin Skywalker himself, Jake Lloyd, vanished. Haley Joel Osment faded away. Macaulay Culkin generously let his brother take over, while Dakota Fanning made way for her sister. It’s like a kid learning the violin because his dad loves Classical music, but what he really wants to do is play in the World Cup.

That’s all changed now, though. With the advent of networks like Nickelodeon and Disney, kids are learning at a young age to embrace superstardom. Teenagers and fame walk together now like an old senile couple. It’s no longer icky to be in the news; the news has become the curriculum. For if Hannah Montana can deal with fame, why can’t I?

Then there’s the ubiquitous Young Adult crowd; the pool of teenage talent thrust prematurely into adulthood so that everyone can kiss, fight, shoot weapons, and look sexy doing it. Genres like this have reinforced the idea that to be young is to be cool, and to be cool is to not crack under pressure, which is why there are more and more young actors gaining popularity through film (and fewer requiring therapy), just look at Emma Watson and her development from baby witch to singing beauty. It’s a step forward, I’ll admit. Where are we to uncover the next generation of performers if not from our youth? But too much of a good thing can be bad. And too much of a mediocre thing can be worse.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Top 4 Disney Songs

Let it Go (ElsaFrozen) and How Far I’ll Go (MoanaMoana) can both go jump: the best Disney songs come from the classic 2D animated films. Here’s our top 4! In no particular order…

Poor Unfortunate Souls
Ursula, The Little Mermaid (1989) 

03 March - Disney Poor Unfortunate Souls
Cody Fullbrook

Like other songs from Disney movies, especially Under The Sea (Sebastian, The Little Mermaid) and Part Of Your World (ArielThe Little Mermaid), Poor Unfortunate Souls has many parts that are the same note played over and over again.  But, more so than any others, Ursula’s devious number utilises these simplistic note arrangements perfectly, since the entire song is actually quite conversational.

Pat Carroll is glorious as the scheming Ursula, keeping the song harmonious while giving each word weight and purpose, at least when compared to songs like Be Prepared (Scar, The Lion King) or Friend Like Me (The Genie, Aladdin) where the singers simply talk melodiously through the lyrics. Even the titular phrase, “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a deceptively specific choice of words, encapsulating Ursula’s phoney compassion and verbal cadences.

It’s easy to grasp the structure of songs like I Can Go The Distance (Hercules, Hercules) and You’re Welcome (Maui, Moana), both having clear AABA and ABABCBB forms, respectively, but Poor Unfortunate Souls is trickier to figure out.  It begins with ABC, followed by a talking break and repeating AB with C morphing into a fast paced climax continuing to malevolent chanting and Ariel’s ascent to the surface.

The differing melodies effortlessly blend together, enhancing the intimate nature of the entire piece. Not that it doesn’t have a bombastic and triumphant ending, especially when looking at the Broadway version which uses Poor Unfortunate Souls to end act 1, clearly showing its capabilities as a literal showstopper.

Poor Unfortunate Souls: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gi58pN8W3hY


The Circle of Life
The Lion King (1994)

03 March - Disney Circle of Life
Zachary Cruz-Tan

One of a handful of Disney songs capable of making my eyes leak, Circle of Life  is the encapsulation of all that The Lion King strives to be. Here is an animated movie for children that has to be about a flawed but worthy hero; it has to deliver an environmental message; it has to pay homage to the customs of Africa; and it has to be an entertainment rousing enough to coddle parents. On all accounts it succeeds with pride, and remains one of the greatest Disney films.

Its first – and best – move was to begin with a dialogue-less scene that explains, through song, the harmonious relationship between every living thing on Earth. It is a bravado opening, plunging us all into the world of hippos, rhinos, zebras and lions, and the sacred bond they all share with each other.

Not only is it a moving sequence, it’s also one of the most succinctly entertaining nature lessons in history. The camera swoops and dives over rivers and grasslands, providing the scope of the film to come. It’s the majesty of this opening number that sets the stage. It’s arguably my favourite Disney song of all time.

The Circle of Life: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GibiNy4d4gc


Friends On The Other Side
Dr Facilier, The Princess and the Frog (2009)

03 March - Disney Friends On The Other Side
Cody Fullbrook

While not as successful as anyone would have liked, The Princess And The Frog brought us a breakout villain song, Friends On The Other Side.  Villain songs, like the villains themselves, are usually the most engaging thing in a musical, if only because they are usually what initiates the story. Dr Facilier’s bouncy number is not only the liveliest moment in the entire movie, but one of the most animated (metaphorically) moments in any Disney installment.

Keith David as the deceitful, yet desperate doctor portrays his fake friendliness so convincingly he almost comes off as a nice guy, being intentionally vague about his “friends” and never coming off as irredeemably evil.  Compare that to Ursula literally saying “You belong to me” to Ariel.

The music itself is appropriately difficult to get a beat on, literally, and not just because of the talking segment in the middle, which, thankfully maintains a melodic tone instead of just being a boring line of Ghost Notes.  No two parts of the song seem to repeat.  Even the first AA segment has some pauses, keeping the song constantly and suitably “off”.

The animation is bendy and colourful, with spooky masks surrounding the characters, and cards and shadows flipping and flying around Dr Facilier’s lanky form.  It’s a song you need to watch a few times to catch everything and one you gladly will.

Friends On The Other Side: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g00kEcGh4j8


Pink Elephants on Parade
Dumbo, 1941

03 March - Disney Pink Elephants
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Up until 1941, the most horrifying thing Disney put out was the sound Snow White made when she sang. Bambi’s mother hadn’t died. Scar hadn’t tossed his brother into a stampede. Computer animation had yet to suck the life out of all that is kind and good. Bliss was to be found. And then Dumbo sounded his lonely trumpet, and it all went tits up. He’s separated from his mother. He’s tricked into joining the circus. He’s bullied from every corner. His only respite comes during one of the most bizarre and inexplicable musical numbers of any Disney film: the psychedelic Pink Elephants on Parade.

I swear this is the song The Beatles wished they had made Yellow Submarine about. It begins with a seductive horn intro before dissolving into a chorus of spooky vocals that leads rather unexpectedly into an idyllic interlude. But it’s not just the soundtrack that’s subversive; the visuals accompanying the song include elephants of all shapes and sizes performing all sorts of mind-boggling feats, from marching along the frame of the screen, to decapitating themselves and using their severed heads to form one giant elephant from hell. It’s nasty stuff, but creatively inspired and boundary-pushing.

Kids younger than five will simply find all the bright colours amusing, but I’m not so sure about everyone else. This is a musical number, mind you, that only happens because the cute little prepubescent elephant who imagines it is drunk on champagne.

Pink Elephants on Parade: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJv2Mugm2RI


Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures