December Movie Preview

December is one of the biggest months for movies outside of the summer blockbuster season. Awards hopefuls continue to get wide releases and Disney releases its final two blockbusters. There’s plenty to see for everyone, so here’s what I’m most excited about this month.

Jumanji: The Next Level (Dec. 13)

Rating: PG-13
Starring: Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas

Four friends and two unlucky grandfathers get sucked back into the Jumanji video game where they must complete a new quest to escape once again.

Why I’m excited: The 2017 sequel to the original Jumanji was a surprise hit and turned out to be a pretty entertaining movie. The main cast was a lot of fun as the avatars for four teenagers. Hopefully they can strike twice with this new sequel.

See this if you liked: Jumanji, Zathura, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Bombshell (Dec. 13)

Rating: PG-13
Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie

Three women who work at Fox News set out to expose the network’s CEO for sexual harassment allegations.

Why I’m excited: In what I’m sure will not be a controversial movie at all, Bombshell will certainly be interesting. I won’t be shocked if this is the beginning of a series of #MeToo movies that are made over the next few years. But with a leading cast of Theron, Kidman and Robbie, this looks ready to come out swinging. And Charlize Theron’s transformation into Megyn Kelly is frighteningly accurate.

See this if you liked: All the President’s Men, The Post, Spotlight

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Dec. 20)

Rating: PG-13
Starring: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels

The Resistance and the First Order, as well as the Jedi and the Sith, face off in climactic battles.

Why I’m excited: I’ve loved Star Wars since I was seven years old. The Rise of Skywalker has the not-at-all daunting task of wrapping up a 42-year-long story. The sequel trilogy has been one of the hottest topics in Hollywood over the past five years, so it will be fascinating to see how J.J. Abrams decides to bring the saga to a close.  

See this if you liked: Any Star Wars movie

Cats (Dec. 20)

Rating: PG
Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, James Corden, Jason Derulo, Rebel Wilson

On one special night, the Jellicle cats must decide who will ascend to the Heaviside Layer.

Why I’m excited: Cats has repeatedly been called one of the weirdest musicals of all time, but it’s also one of the most successful. The character names are weird, the plot is weird, and nothing seems to make sense. The movie is already making waves for the absolutely insane effects of merging human beings with cats and it just all looks so bizarre that I’m here for it.  

See this if you liked: Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Chicago

Little Women (Dec. 25)

Rating: PG-13
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Timothee Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep

Based on the book by Louisa May Alcott, Little Women explores the lives of the four March sisters in post-Civil War New England.

Why I’m excited: Director Greta Gerwig and stars Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet were all part of 2017’s incredible Lady Bird, so bringing this team back together and adding Emma Watson, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep is a dream.

See this if you liked: Lady Bird, Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility

Is Disney too big?

How many movies have you seen this year? If I listed the 10 highest grossing movies of the year, there’s a 50% chance you saw a Disney movie. The average American usually sees 5-6 movies in theaters each year and Disney is becoming an increasingly large portion of those movies. A big question the movie industry has been considering this year is whether or not Disney has gotten too big.

Now, I’m a total Disney fanboy. Disney movies were some of the first movies I ever saw growing up, and I sold my soul to Marvel right around the time the first Avengers came out in 2012. But I think it’s important to be able to be critical of things you love, when necessary.

Disney has dominated the box office in the past few years, but in 2019 it reached a new level with the acquisition of 20th Century Fox. Disney movies make up around 40% of tickets sold in the US. Through the first half of 2019, Disney made more than $2 billion at the box office. The next highest gross was Warner Brothers with $858 million. That’s a pretty massive jump. And as of October 2019, Disney holds five of the 10 highest grossing movies of the year (and co-produced a sixth) – all of which have made more than $1 billion. And that’s WITHOUT Frozen II and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

From (as of 11/21/19)

The fear is that the domination of Disney and mega-blockbusters will drown out smaller, riskier and more experimental movies. When certain kinds of movies continue to flop, studios will stop making them. Plus, expensive blockbusters demand more screens so more people will see them. That doesn’t leave much room for those other movies to be seen.

So, you may ask, why don’t other movies open on non-Disney weekends? Well, that’s getting harder to do. Disney has carved out the best opening weekends for its biggest properties for the next few years. Beginning in 2021, Marvel alone will release four movies a year. Marvel fans may be foaming at the mouth at that idea, but when those movies stay at the top of the box office and on thousands of screens for two or three weeks after opening, that becomes eight or twelve weekends dominated by Marvel. Then throw Pixar, Star Wars, Fox and proper Disney movies in the mix and there’s very little room for much else.

But why does it matter if Disney keeps making great movies?

Well…are they? Let’s look at Disney’s billion-dollar movies this year:

  • Marvel continues to be a critical darling. While not everyone loves these movies, there’s no denying that Endgame was a generation-defining movie and an incredibly satisfying ending to the first phase of the MCU. Captain Marvel was a solid new entry for the franchise, even if it’s not one of Marvel’s best solo films. Spider-Man: Far From Home (co-produced with Sony) had decent reviews and probably benefitted from a post-Endgame boost.
  • Toy Story 4 was a surprisingly solid entry to Pixar’s flagship franchise. After Toy Story 3, most people didn’t think 4 would be necessary, but it justified its existence and told a compelling story.
  • And then there’s the two live-action remakes: Aladdin and The Lion King. Did we need these? Absolutely not. Aladdin is by far the better of the two, developing Jasmine’s character and an acceptable performance by Will Smith as the Genie. But Jafar’s characterization was disappointing and giving Genie a love interest was a bizarre choice. At least it made some new choices though. The Lion King stuck so closely to the original story that it was almost an identical cut. The visuals in the remake were incredible, but by going all-in on the realism of the animals, we lost all emotion and expression in their characters.

So how are all these movies dominating the box office if not all of them are great?

Nostalgia (especially for the 80s and 90s) is king right now in Hollywood, and all five of these movies using it to their advantage. Aladdin and Lion King are remakes of two of the most beloved Disney movies of all time. Disney knew audiences would run to the theater to relive these stories and hear those iconic songs again.  

Toy Story 4 drew on nostalgia from the 25-year history of its franchise, even bringing back Bo Peep, a character that hadn’t been seen since 1999. The original Toy Story was groundbreaking in both storytelling and technology and the series is one of a few where each installment is critically acclaimed.

Even Marvel drew on its own nostalgia. Endgame was marketed as the culmination of an 11-year-old, 22-movie franchise and a lot of the marketing for both Endgame and Infinity War called back to the early days of the MCU. Interestingly, Captain Marvel also drew on 90s nostalgia this year with a story set in 1995.

The Disney train isn’t slowing down either. Disney has 84 release dates on the calendar through 2023, including 13 Marvel movies, two Avatar sequels, six Pixar movies, more Star Wars, and a host of live-action remakes and originals. 

So is this actually a bad thing?

Maybe? Disney is not leaving a lot of room for other kinds of movies to get the breathing room they need. But other studios have to step up their game and make good content people actually want to see. 2019 has had its fair share of box office bombs, and many of those have been big-name franchises.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix ended the franchise that kicked off the modern superhero movie craze with a pathetic whimper. Audiences and critics alike hated it. Dark Phoenix is just the beginning, too. Terminator: Dark Fate, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Men in Black: International, Hellboy, The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep and Charlie’s Angels are all reboots or sequels to formerly beloved franchises that have flopped or underperformed in 2019.

There is some good news outside of Disney, though. Joker made headlines around the world and made a billion dollars for Warner Bros. It: Chapter Two, while not as successful as its predecessor, was a win for the horror genre. Zombieland: Double Tap and the final installment of the How to Train Your Dragon franchise were also welcomed for both audiences and critics.

And it’s even harder for original stories. Some, like Quentin Tarantino’s latest Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, performed well and others surprised us, like Hustlers. Expectations are different for smaller movies as well. Us or Booksmart didn’t have to make a billion dollars to be considered successes.  

Does any of this matter?

If you love Disney, then you probably don’t care that much. As long as they keep making Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar movies, you’ll be happy. And I would be too. But there has to be a balance between nostalgia and new stories.

Next year will be interesting for Disney. They’ll kick off the next phase of the MCU – a soft reboot without Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr., and will have to figure out the future of Star Wars too.

The cinematic landscape is changing. One of the reasons I think the streaming wars have become so heated is because of audiences’ changing interests in movies. Netflix is now premiering movies that are in the running for Best Picture at the Oscars. Streaming offers more availability for more stories to be created and theaters will still offer an experience no home surround sound can match. I’ll continue to be an advocate for going to see movies in theaters, but the most important thing is that you watch, no matter where that may be.

Disney still makes great movies and has a strong brand identity that audiences can trust. But I challenge everyone to get out of your comfort zones every now and then and see a movie you don’t know much about. Go see The Rise of Skywalker in theaters, but then go watch Booksmart one night at home. It’s on Hulu. There’s so much out there to satisfy whatever cravings you have, and there’s plenty of room at the table.

All-time Top 10: Jurassic Park

I was a HUGE dinosaur kid. Some of the first movies I remember watching were the early Land Before Time movies. My cousin and I loved them so much we would pretend to be Little Foot and Cera when we would swim in our grandparents’ pool. And before I discovered Harry Potter, my favorite book series was Dinotopia, a fantasy world where dinosaurs lived on a hidden island and learned to speak. I could tell you at a very young age that the Triceratops was my favorite dinosaur and pronounce dinosaur names I had no business knowing. I. Loved. Dinosaurs.

So it’s strange that I don’t remember when I saw Jurassic Park for the first time. It was released in 1993 and being three I was a little too young to see it in theaters, but by the time my dinosaur obsession kicked in, it should have been at the top of my list. I think I may have even seen the second or third movie before I saw the original. So before Jurassic World came out in 2015, I went back and watched the original trilogy.

Jurassic Park is a masterpiece. In a lot of ways, it marked the dawn of the modern blockbuster, especially due to its groundbreaking visual effects and engaging action scenes. The main characters are outstanding and entertaining to watch and gave us some of the most iconic moments in cinematic history.

Based on the best-selling novel by Michael Crichton and directed by Stephen Spielberg, Jurassic Park follows a team of paleontologists and scientists as they visit a remote island where an eccentric, wealthy businessman has figured out how to bring dinosaurs back to life. I’m sure most of you know the story, but shockingly, all hell breaks loose.

Let’s start with the visual effects. It is shocking how well the CGI in this movie holds up. There are plenty of featurettes and behind-the-scenes videos explaining how they invented the technology needed to create the dinosaurs, but a combination of real animatronics and computer-generated models literally brought dinosaurs back from extinction. There’s a reason why the movie won the Best Visual Effects Oscar that year.

The combination of these two effects are perfectly displayed in the movie’s most iconic sequence: the T-rex attack. It’s one of the greatest action sequences in cinematic history. From the moment the water ripples on the dashboard, we known something big is about to go down. The life-sized animatronic monster is terrifying and both it and the CGI version are expertly used so neither looks out of place.

The second most iconic scene uses visual effects in the same way. When Tim and Lex are on the run from a group of velociraptors, they’re followed into the resort’s kitchen. Again, Spielberg knew just how much CGI he could use and where the practical raptors would be better. And the sick triceratops? 100% real. These scenes are still just as tense and exciting today as they were 25 years ago because of the direction and the talent behind the dinosaurs.

Of course, the look of the dinosaurs could only do so much on their own. The characters’ reactions are crucial in selling the story. And what a cast Spielberg assembled. Sam Neill is delightful in his transformation from gruff scientist who hates kids to risking his life for Tim and Lex. Laura Dern is an icon and gets probably my favorite line of the whole movie: “Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.” And has Jeff Goldblum ever had a more iconic role? Dr. Ian Malcolm is so weird and awkward and cocky, but that Goldblum charm radiates through his entire performance. Richard Attenborough rounds out the main cast as the goofy and over-sure John Hammond.

A Spielberg movie isn’t complete with a John Williams score. In terms of iconic movie themes, no one will ever beat John Williams, and Jurassic Park is one of his best. The main theme has a beautiful sense of awe and almost a religious respect to it. I’ve always assumed it’s the music you hear when the gates of heaven open after you die. Outside of the main theme, Williams captures the mood of every scene expertly – be it joy, fear, or anything in between.

For me, all these parts – the effects, the cast and the score – all come together to create cinematic magic in the scene where Alan, Ellie and Ian see the dinosaurs for the first time. Neill and Dern give the greatest performances of shock and awe looking at an amazingly lifelike brachiosaurus while Williams’ score swells into that iconic theme.

Jurassic Park asks some big questions that are still just as relevant today as they were in the early 1990s. Corporate greed, capitalism, limitations of scientific advancement, and the ethics of what humanity can do are all present in the movie. The entire thesis of the movie can be summed up in Dr. Malcolm’s line: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” In today’s world, technology advances at such a rate that we can barely keep up. Maybe we all need to sit back and think of whether we should do something just because we can.

Whether you’re seven or 97, Jurassic Park is great at any age. It’s exciting, funny, suspenseful and has a lot of heart. For a former dinosaur kid, it will always be one of my all-time top 10.

The NASA Cinematic Universe

Cinematic universes are all the rage in Hollywood these days. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) kicked off the current craze in 2008 and truly changed the game when The Avengers broke all the records in 2012. Since then, most major studies have tried to kickstart their own shared universe, to varying results.

Most cinematic universes have been spectacular failures. The DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has sputtered so many times and now they don’t seem focused on connecting their movies. Universal’s Dark Universe was dead on arrival with the dismal reception to The Mummy in 2017. Sony has tried a few times to create a Sony-verse with their Spider-Man characters. Into the Spider-Verse was a revelation last year so an animated universe has solid ground, but it remains to be seen if they’re able to make a live-action one stick following Venom last year.

The Legendary MonsterVerse has been fairly successful with audiences, if not critically. Only The Fast and the Furious franchise seems to gain momentum with each entry, and this summer’s Hobbs and Shaw was a successful extension of their universe.

All these shared universes attempt to share characters and tell overarching stories like the MCU and they’ve all attempted to launch since The Avengers. But did you know that there’s been a cinematic universe building since the 1980s?

The NASA Early Space Program Cinematic Universe (NESPCU) has slowly created a shared universe covering the space race of the 1950s and 1960s. It doesn’t share the same actors in every installment, and it’s released out of order, but over the course of four movies, we’ve witnessed the birth of the space program and the struggles that characters endured in order to reach the ultimate success of landing on the moon. Welcome to the NASA Early Space Program Cinematic Universe.

The universe kicked off in 1983 with The Right Stuff, which chronicled the origin of the US space program, beginning with the first man to break the sound barrier. It introduces the Mercury 7 – the first Americans to fly in space. The movie follows Alan Shepherd, John Glenn, Deke Slayton, Gus Grissom, and the other first astronauts as they train for space flight and shows their lives change dramatically as they become national heroes.

The story continues with Hidden Figures (2016), which tells the story of the African American women who worked as computers that helped calculate the trajectories of the Mercury astronauts. Hidden Figures works as a parallel story to fill out the universe established in The Right Stuff and provides a different perspective of the world we already know, functioning much like how Lion King 1 ½ tells the story from the original Lion King from Timon and Pumbaa’s point of view. John Glenn and the other Mercury astronauts make an appearance in Hidden Figures, and the movie shows the important role Katherine Johnson played particularly in Glenn’s Mercury space flight.  

The Mercury program was followed by the Gemini and Apollo programs as NASA set its sights on the moon. The race to the moon is depicted in First Man (2018). Deke Slayton, one of the Mercury 7, was now responsible for assigning flight crews and welcoming new astronauts, including the entire Apollo 11 crew, Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell and others. First Man focuses on Neil Armstrong’s journey through the astronaut program, including his command of Gemini 8 and Apollo 11. The Apollo program also suffered a critical failure that cost the lives of three astronauts, including original Mercury 7 astronaut Gus Grissom, when a fire broke out during the Apollo 1 test sequence.

First Man includes the climax of the NASA cinematic universe – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming the first humans to step foot on the moon. Their journey is beautifully displayed in the movie and the pinnacle of human achievement is felt throughout the program.

Apollo 13 (1995) closes out the NESPCU, opening with a recap of the major moments from First Man – the Apollo 1 fire and the moon landing. Jim Lovell, a background character from First Man, now takes center stage as he commands Apollo 13 and sets his sights on becoming part of an elite group of men who walked on the moon. During Apollo 13’s journey, an oxygen tank failed causing the mission to be aborted. Instead of landing on the moon, the team circled the moon and was able to come back to Earth safely, thanks to the ingenuity of the crew and those at mission control. During the suspenseful reentry, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are shown visiting Lovell’s house to comfort his wife and mother.

Apollo 13 represents closure and continuation of the NESPCU. Four more Apollo flights launched after Apollo 13, but the movie provides a catharsis and conclusion for the series. Although the Apollo 13 mission failed, NASA still has the skill and knowledge to do great things.

While the NESPCU may not be a traditional cinematic universe with the same actors showing up in each movie, these four movies together tell a remarkable story. The space race of the late 1950s and 1960s was some of the most ambitious feats ever attempted by mankind. Throughout the NESPCU, you can track NASA’s birth, rise, struggles and victories. The space program literally opened the universe to thousands of new possibilities. Space truly is the final frontier, and these movies remind us just how hard we worked to get there and how much further we can go.

Shout out to this Patrick Willems video for the inspiration of this post.