When I think of Disney, I think of Miami Vice (2006) villain Jose Yero. Or, rather, I think of a fence’s description of Jose Yero and his gang of Colombian drug dealers.
“You know who they are?” Nicholas (Eddie Marsan) asks Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) about the crew they’re looking to take down. “They are vertically integrated. . . . They farm, process, produce, export. . . . It gives them attitude. A player negotiates too hard and you never hear from him again, ’cause these guys kill everything!”
When Disney announced on Tuesday that Mulan is coming to premium video on demand (PVOD) in territories where Disney+ is available, for $30, and only on Disney+, it felt like . . . attitude. An attitude born of vertical integration. Writing at the Telegraph, Robbie Collin suggests this is a “these guys kill everything” sort of move, one aimed right at the heart of theaters in territories like Britain, where screens are opening up:
Not only does this rob families of their last remaining hope of a summer trip to the pictures, after the season’s other child-friendly offerings (Peter Rabbit 2, Pixar’s Soul) all scattered for the end of the year, or 2021, months ago. It lobs a nuclear banana skin onto the cinema sector’s already hellishly slippery route back to operational health.
I don’t think this is quite the death knell for theaters—that would involve Disney pulling a Mulan on Black Widow—but it is a marked escalation in the streaming wars. Not because of the price point or the scale of the movie, but because of the mode of distribution. Disney’s putting up a paywall to access another, much-larger paywall and assuming they can get away with it because they farm, process, produce, and export the #content you and your wee ones are addicted to.
It would be one thing if Disney were treating Mulan like a typical PVOD release, making it available for rental via Amazon and Apple and Hulu and OnDemand and the rest of the VOD services. In the age of COVID-19, that’s a thing studios have had and will continue to have to do, with varying degrees of success. With domestic theaters shuttered, amusement parks either closed or operating at a fraction of their capacity, and cruise lines stuck in port, Disney needs cash.
I contend it is an entirely different thing to release this only on Disney+ as a sort of long-term rental. Because that’s all this is: Disney+ is offering people the chance to pay $30 to watch Mulan several months ahead of when they’d normally be able to watch it on Disney+. It’s a bit like Netflix saying to their subscribers “OK, we’ve got a new season of Stranger Things coming, but if you want to watch it now, you gotta throw us an extra Jackson. Or you can wait a couple of months to watch it for as part of your normal subscription.” The whole promise of a streaming service like Disney+ is access to a smorgasbord. Not access to an a la carte menu.
People understand that some movies are worth paying a premium for, especially in the short term as the business has unexpectedly shifted from theatrical to home viewing. But I wonder if people will chafe at the double requirement, the demand to not only pay $30 to see this new movie but also subscribe to a service for the privilege of doing so. I can’t help but think that a not-insignificant portion of customers will resent the requirement and skip renting the movie until it hits the service they’re already paying for anyway.
New Podcast Alert!
Please check out my new podcast, The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood. Each week I hope to interview someone with some insights into the movie business and how it’s changing; up this week is Richard Rushfield, whose great newsletter The Ankler you should be reading. Richard and I discussed the Mulan news, as well as the overall state of the streaming wars and the state of theatrical presentation. Give it a listen!
Review: The Tax Collector
Full disclosure: I’m a total sucker for writer-director David Ayer’s movies and their particular brand of hard-boiled, masculine dialogue. It’s a blend of faux-no-bullshit back-and-forth that also serves as an explainer for power structures, be they the secrets laws of the streets (Harsh Times, End of Watch) or how one most effectively wages war (Fury). Ayer wrote Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning turn in Training Day (“King Kong ain’t got shit on me!”) and directed the deeply under-appreciated Street Kings, a movie that first revealed the rapper Common would be a credible villain in B-action movies for years to come. (Sample Common dialogue: “Who are we, detective? We straight nightmares. We the walking, talking, exigent circumstances.”)
The Tax Collector is at its best when working in this vein. David (Bobby Soto) and Creeper (Shia LaBeouf) collect tribute for the Wizard, a Hispanic gang leader locked away in prison. They take 30 percent off the top of every drug sold and every woman pimped on these streets, keeping a tacit peace with the black gangs so commerce can continue. David’s a family man, worried about keeping his wife and kids safe in the dangerous game they’re playing; Creeper’s a nihilist prophet, a psycho just as happy talking about his keto diet as he is talking about bodies being nothing more than meat.
It’s that violence Creeper is so casually capable of that makes him and David dangerous, that creates fear on the street and ensures that the counts from each and every corner are clean each and every week. Because if they’re not clean? If they’re short? Creeper—crisply dressed in a three-piece suit with a gold tie clip with big black shades blotting out his eyes and a devilish goatee hiding his face—will cut off the delinquent’s arms and legs just to watch them roll around “like a seal pup” before they die.
Trouble emerges when a Creeper-level crazy by the name of Conejo (Jose Conejo Martin) comes up from south of the border to displace the Wizard. Is the family man prepared for this level of violence? Can his boy Creeper keep them all safe?
As a piece of moody existentialism, The Tax Collector largely works; there are no easy outs or happy endings here, and violence is less a tool than a way of life. The tax paid our protagonists ends up being steeper than any cash sum could be. LaBeouf is icily compelling as a well-dressed gangbanger, almost unbalancing the picture with the gravity of his performance. As a piece of storytelling, The Tax Collector is an odd duck, with a shift two-thirds of the way through its 90-or-so minute runtime that suggests we’re watching an altogether different type of picture than we thought we were watching. Indeed, The Tax Collector’s final 30 minutes almost feel like a backdoor pilot of sorts, one that creates a whole new world of problems and promise for our protagonist and his family.
Ayer’s comfort with violence and the damage it does is refreshing in its vitality and fidelity. Folks sometimes use the phrase “dragged across concrete” to suggest something bad has happened; Ayer shows us what that means in this movie. (Spoiler: exposed skull is involved.) There’s a slo-mo firefight in the late going that’s beautifully rendered; it’s always nice to see a director break out real, blood-ejecting squibs rather than after-the-fact CGI. One can only imagine how long it took to set up the twenty-second-or-so shot, but the clarity and realism are worth it.
Occasionally disjointed but nevertheless entertaining in its brusque brutishness, The Tax Collector is well worth a trip to your preferred VOD purveyor.
Assigned Viewing: Death Becomes Her (HBOMax)
After David Ayer’s exploration of men at their most raw, perhaps Robert Zemeckis’s exploration of women at their most raw will serve as a nice palate cleanser?
Since I’m a misogynist, however, the thing that struck me most on a recent re-watching wasn’t the struggle between Madeline (Meryl Streep) and Helen (Goldie Hawn). It was Bruce Willis’s turn as the put-upon Dr. Ernest Menville, an amazing plastic surgeon whose skills go into decline after he becomes a pawn in the mad power struggle between these two vixens. It was a jolt to see Willis actually putting some effort into a role—deftly mixing immaculate comic timing with a little bit of simping and the occasional flash of malevolence.
Clocking in at a very tight 104 minutes, Zemeckis keeps things zipping along, moving from scene to scene. And it’s one of these pictures where special effects aren’t just razzle dazzle for the rubes: They’re necessary to tell the story, the women’s FX-enhanced decaying flesh reflecting the rot at the soul of Madeline and Helen both.