Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Movie Review: Vampires vs. The Bronx

The weirdest aspect of Vampires vs. The Bronx might be that it's essentially a throwback '80s comedy/horror/adventure flick that doesn't appear to be rooted in '80s nostalgia. The underlying structure is there - it's a story about a group of kids facing a supernatural threat no one else believes in, so it's up to them to face their fears and save their home. Tonally, it's reminiscent of movies like Monster Squad and Gremlins: it gets dark at times, but this is still ultimately kid-friendly (at least for older kids).

But despite essentially being an updated spin on Lost Boys, its references skew more towards '90s horror. The movie directly references Blade (very directly - it's a plot point and recurring gag), and the monster designs seem to be primarily based on Buffy. On top of that, I couldn't shake the feeling this probably wouldn't have been greenlit without the success of Stranger Things.

In other words, Vampires vs. The Bronx is essentially 3rd or 4th generation '80s nostalgia, which I suppose is appropriate since the '80s movies in question were themselves based in nostalgia for monster movies of the '50s and '60s, which in turn...

I know none of that tells you anything about the quality of the movie, but I haven't got a lot to say in that regard, other than assuring you this movie is, in fact, good.

Okay, I probably should have opened with that. Vampires vs. The Bronx is a funny, clever movie that's mildly scary in a PG sort of way. The protagonists are likeable, the villains are interesting, and it actually offers a unique spin on the underlying mythology. Vampires have always represented old money and customs - incorporating that into a story about gentrification is a natural evolution.

The movie's one main flaw is its budget isn't quite sufficient for the story they want to tell. This is one of those movies where it feels like there are only forty or so residents in what's supposed to be a large community. Likewise, without giving too much away, the ending really wanted to be bigger. There's a significant moment towards the end of the movie where the focus shifts from the protagonists to the entire neighborhood, and it really would have helped if there were a few dozen more vampires and another few minutes of fighting.

This isn't just a spectacle thing - thematically, we really needed some minor characters to get hero moments instead of just... being there.

Even with an underwhelming finale, the movie was still a ton of fun and well worth your time. Still, I wish the investors had been willing to pump a little more cash into this project, because it wouldn't have taken much to nudge this from "really good genre flick" to "shortlist for one of the best installments in this sub-genre ever made." The script and acting were there - it just needed a little extra cash. 

If you've got a Netflix subscription, you can see for yourself - it's streaming now.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Catch Up, Part 4: Dead Things

Welcome to the fourth installment of my series on movies I didn't watch until recently, a premise which is both stupid and undermined by the fact I actually saw some of these more than six months ago and just held off posting until I had enough "thematically connected" to justify grouping them together.

And speaking of themes, this one's a hell of a stretch. It's fall, and I already burned off most of the horror movies I've seen over the last year (though there are a couple that make it in here). So... yeah. Bodies. Scary. Or something.


Blow the Man Down (2019)
This is probably the most obscure movie on this list, but it's also my favorite. Blow the Man Down is an independent production bought by Amazon and tossed up on Prime. It's a crime thriller about two sisters in a coastal village in Maine.

I just... I don't know where to start, other than the following two points:

  1. Whatever you're imagining based on that description is wrong.
  2. If you have Prime, you should really just stop reading and go watch it now.

The closest comparison is probably Fargo. The two movies strike similar tones at times, and both make use of their settings' winter imagery through long shots that build tension. So, if you like Fargo (i.e.: if you have a pulse), go watch this.

I also want to call out the fact this movie captured something about the state of Maine I don't ever recall seeing on film before. There's a sense of history here, in the buildings and in the faces. You feel like the characters are surrounded by ghosts, despite there being nothing explicitly supernatural on screen.

My one nitpick is that the accents sounded a little more Massachusetts than Maine to my ear, but that's a minor quibble. I absolutely loved this movie.


The Old Guard (2020)
I found myself frustrated by this movie. The cast was fantastic, and it includes some amazing moments. There are awesome action sequences and - more importantly - a moment that ranks favorably with the best romantic scenes in genre movies of all time. I'm talking up there with Han's "I know," in Empire. THAT GOOD.

The problem is the movie, as a whole, just isn't as good as the sum of its parts. The script leans too heavily on introspective, existential questions I found boring in context. To put that in perspective, I concentrated in philosophy in college - I'm not inherently adverse to musings about the meaning of life and time when they're interesting.

But here... they're just not. Too much of the movie is devoted to characters moping and acting depressed. That sort of thing that could have been salvaged with interesting stylistic choices and tones. Unfortunately, the movie mostly looks and feels like every other generic action flick out there, which transforms what should be an interesting premise into something bland and often tedious.

Yes, the action is really good. And that scene - trust me, you'll know it - is incredible. Several others are, as well - The Old Guard delivers some really good moments. Whether that's enough for you will likely hinge on how personally those moments hit for you versus how much of a slog you find the overall story.


Ready or Not (2019)
I've said it before, and I'll say it again - horror isn't one of my go-to genres. I don't enjoy being scared or grossed out, so that eliminates a lot of the appeal. However, horror tends to incorporate elements and conventions from related genres I love. Fantasy and science fiction are the two obvious examples, but it's also one of the few areas you can still find comedy used in innovative and effective ways.

And that brings us to Ready or Not, a horror flick that evokes Heathers in some ways. It's a weird, funny, dark film that's more funny than scary, but doesn't shy away from the blood. There are some clever thematic beats around class and misogyny, and I like the amount of time put into the antagonists, who are portrayed as rounded, comedic characters rather than generic bad guys.

All that said, I found the resolution a bit underwhelming. Without giving too much away, the movie had a couple directions it could have gone in, and - at least in my opinion - it took the less interesting path.

Still, this was a solid horror/comedy hybrid.


Doctor Sleep (2019)
I completely understand why this wasn't more successful, but I absolutely loved this weird, flawed movie.

It's a horror film that's almost entirely devoid of anything scary. The movie murders its tension by having the "helpless child" utterly kick the main monster's ass twice in the middle of the movie. Structurally, this is an utter mess, featuring TWO time jumps in the first act and huge POV issues. You're allowed to change the central protagonist in a movie, but it's hard to argue that it's a good idea to change from one character to another a third of the way through then shift back for the last third.

I've never read the book this is based on (hell, I've never even read The Shining), but this feels like a situation where they adapted the source material a little too closely. You can get away with a far looser structure in a novel than you can on screen.

In short, I get why this wasn't better received by critics and horror fans. Hell, it's less a horror movie than a drama set in a world where monsters, ghosts, and psychic superheroes exist. Then again, doesn't that more or less describe most Steven King novels?

This movie is chock-full of world-building, explaining and expanding on the events introduced in The Shining, along with a healthy number of allusions to The Dark Tower. It features some fascinating uses of psychic powers, particularly those employed by Abra. The villains are fascinating characters in their own right. For once, the monsters have real personalities, quirks, and emotions.

If that and the fact it's a sequel to The Shining aren't enough to pull you in... I get it. But something about the world and characters clicked with me. Doctor Sleep was a movie with almost unlimited flaws, but they felt more like technicalities to me. I enjoyed the film immensely, flaws and all.


Knives Out (2019)
Despite trying to avoid spoilers, I went into Knives Out knowing who the killer was. Fortunately, this didn't matter much, because that detail doesn't make the top ten list of most interesting aspects about Knives Out. This is largely because...

I can't even begin to do this without spoilers. I'm not going to touch the plot or resolution, but I am going to need to discuss what the movie is, what it isn't, and what's really surprising about all that. So if you haven't seen Knives Out, stop reading and go see it if you like any of the following: comedies, mysteries, movies, acting, puppies, chocolate, literally anything, etc.

Just watch the damn movie - it's great.

So, spoilers here on out. The thing about Knives Out is I watched it expecting a mystery, only to discover that only encompasses half the film. Probably a little less, honestly. The detective, the mystery, the interviews with the suspects... all of that's really the B-plot. The A-plot follows Ana de Armas's character, and from her perspective this is more a Hitchcockian suspense than a mystery.

And even that's just scratching the surface. Knives Out is also a rather compelling metaphor for our society. More importantly, it accomplishes all this without sacrificing its humor: it's a pleasure to watch.

This instantly became my favorite film by Rian Johnson. I have no idea what the announced sequel will be like, but it should be fascinating to find out.


I Lost My Body (2019)
This was a weird, quirky French animated movie about a severed hand crawling around Paris as it attempts to locate the body it was cut from. It was nominated for Best Animated Picture, and I was rooting for it (I think I just dated how long this one's been in the queue).

The movie shifts from drama to adventure to outright horror. The hand's fight with some hungry rats on subway tracks was one of the tensest action sequences I've seen in years.

Ultimately, this is magical realism doing what that genre does best: exploring weird premises and just soaking in tone and theme. It's bizarre, dark, beautiful, gross, sad, and unsettling - do NOT make the mistake of watching this with kids. But if you enjoy animation as an art form, this is absolutely worth seeing.


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Well. That was awesome. I knew almost nothing about this going in, not even that it was an anthology. I'm not sure there's a wrong way to watch this, but just in case: if you haven't seen this and are a fan of the Coen Brothers, westerns, and/or good film making in general, maybe stop reading and head over to Netflix now.

I'm not sure where to begin. This was weird and off-kilter in the best way. It's sort of an existential look at American history and mythology through the prism of dark comedy. It's funny but unsettling: the component pieces are arranged so you feel as though something's off. That something, of course, is our own past. The stories in this movie are fictional and mostly ridiculous, but the core of this movie - that our nation's expansion brought a wave of death in its wake - is all too true.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Movie Review: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga


Over the years I've come to think everyone has a movie where their opinion of Will Ferrell softens, where they go from disliking him to appreciating him. It's not necessarily a case of liking him in the role or even liking every role he's been in; more a boundary is crossed between being unable to comprehend how anyone could stand watching him in anything to appreciating him.

For me - for a lot of people, in fact - that movie was Elf. I absolutely love Elf - it's one of my all-time favorite Christmas comedies (and, uh... remember who's saying that). Before Elf, I disliked Will Ferrell: I didn't find him funny, I didn't think he worked as a lead, I hated his approach... But after Elf, something changed. Something clicked, and suddenly I just kind of liked him.

But you know who didn't like Elf? My wife. For reasons I'm not going to go into here, the movie didn't click with her, nor did any subsequent Ferrell roles she saw. She went on disliking him for years, and I began to doubt the theory.

Then we sat down to watch The Story of Fire Saga together. This is, of course, a Netflix-released musical comedy that's received lukewarm critical reviews at best. It's rated fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, but just barely. It was getting mixed reactions, so I wasn't expecting much. Honestly, I mostly put it on to kill some time.

I loved it, by the way. I feel like I should mention that, at least as an aside. For a number of reasons, I loved almost every minute of this movie. I loved its humor, its use of music, its tone, and shockingly, its heart. I'll get into the details in a moment, but all that's somewhat incidental.

Because as much as I loved it, my wife loved it more. It was mostly the music that got her - she has a background in singing, and she felt The Story of Fire Saga captured the sheer joy of people singing together. But she also liked the characters, the jokes, and the movie as a whole. And for the first time ever, she saw a Will Ferrell movie without minding Ferrell. This was her Elf.

I'm relaying this story in the hopes of encouraging others who haven't come around on Will Ferrell to give Fire Saga a chance. Unless, of course, you consider your dislike of Ferrell an integral part of your identity, in which case you should probably skip it entirely (2020 has been hectic enough without having to undergo an existential crisis). But I'd encourage everyone else to check it out. Despite the absurdity of the premise, the movie is a loving homage to its source material, not a mockery. There's a massive musical number halfway through that does an amazingly effective job conveying the campy fun of the Eurovision competition. It's a moment that could have been played wholly for laughs, but instead feels joyous and celebratory.

That also describes the movie as a whole. This is funny, intentionally stupid, but ultimately sweet. The characters (particularly Ferrell's Lars) occasionally approach the edge of losing sympathy, but they always manage to win it back.

Let's take a moment to discuss the cast. I'm hardly the first to say Rachel McAdams is phenomenal in this. While Ferrell seems to be dominating the marketing, they're co-leads, each receiving equal points of view in the narrative.

Dan Stevens and Pierce Brosnan are also hilarious. As for Ferrell, I was more mixed. He's a little out of place tonally in this movie - everyone is having fun with the material, but he's the only one who's not reining it in a bit. I'm not sure I'd call this a flaw: it's more like you're watching a great comedy overlaid with a Will Ferrell vehicle. I feel like this should have been distracting, but it honestly didn't bother me. Maybe it's a technical flaw that still worked for me?

Regardless, that's about as close to a complaint as I can find. Overall, this is a fun, well-constructed comedy with a medium budget and an impressive cast. They used to make things like this all the time in the '80s and '90s, but the genre was mostly killed off after a string of mean-spirited spoofs. It's genuinely refreshing to see it done well again.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Movie Review: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn



I was originally going to include this in one of those "catching up" posts, but when I finished I looked at what I'd written, and realized it was basically a full-length review. On top of that, this hasn't really been out that long, and what even is is a "new movie" anymore? So, in the off chance anyone's curious, here are my thoughts on Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.

I'm going to need to look at this movie from a number of different points of view. First and most importantly, as a movie in its own right, divorced from its source material, this thing is pretty damn awesome. Or at least the first half is - around the halfway point, it loses some momentum and becomes merely awesome. I know that's harsh, but I've got to be honest here.

To be clear, I'm approaching this as an action/comedy hybrid, and in that context, "pretty damn awesome" doesn't even cover it. The fight scenes in Birds of Prey and the Fant.... The fight scenes in Birds of Prey are some of the best we've seen in years. Forget Deadpool: as much as I love those movies, neither installment has a single fight sequence that can hold a candle to what's in Birds of Prey. This is inventive and energetic in a way that's reminiscent of Steven Chow or Edgar Wright. Cathy Yan knocks it out of the park, and she does so with an over-sized mallet.

The comedy is solid, even when the kicking stops, and the movie's over-the-top characters are engaging. Like I said before, the movie loses steam around the point it coalesces into a coherent narrative and rushes to a climax, but it's still entertaining. It's also worth noting some character details feel tacked on - Black Canary's powers being a prime example. The nerd in me likes that they come up, but if we're looking at this as a self-contained work, they feel wedged in and unearned.

Speaking of which...

I said at the start I'd need to look at this from more than one perspective. So let's lose the facade of objectivity and talk nerd stuff. How is this as an adaptation?

Okay, I'm going to have to subdivide further because as a comic book movie, this is amazing. The use of color combined with the gorgeously stylized action make this one of the most intriguing translations of the comic book genre we've ever gotten. So... I guess that's another point for Birds of Prey.

Here's a third: as a Harley Quinn movie, this is all kinds of awesome. Margot Robbie was already great in Suicide Squad, which is pretty remarkable given how bad that movie was (I liked it, but I'm not delusional). Here, in the hands of a talented creative team, she's really able to shine, and she does so in ways that honor the character's history.

But - and we're finally at the but - this is also ostensibly a Birds of Prey movie, and...

I'm sorry, but it really isn't. The characters in this movie are good, but they're not the Birds of Prey, nor are they given anywhere near enough screen time to feel like anything more than sidekicks. Given how good the comics are, that's a bit of a let-down. Using the names "Cassandra Cain" or "Black Canary" without really using the characters bugs me. They turned one of the most bad-ass martial artists in the DC Universe into a pick-pocket, when they could have just made up a new character or... hell, the DCU isn't short on pick-pockets. This is one of those cases where the people who get the reference are the least likely to appreciate it, so why use the name?

Yeah, there is a part of me that agrees with the detractors, at least on that point. I don't feel as bad dinging this movie over dorky trivia, because the movie kind of asks for it by treating the Canary Cry as a twist, then doesn't even explain it to the non-nerds. You don't need to make a comic-accurate film, but the way this cherry-picks which lore to use and which to drop is distracting, whether you're a geek or not. It's the one aspect of the finished product I'd call sloppy.

Otherwise, this thing's great. The style is a world apart from anything that's been done recently, and it's a joy to experience. Sure, I wish they'd stayed a little more faithful to the source material, and I wish the last half had been given space to breathe, but make no mistake: this is easily one of the best movies in the franchise, along with Wonder Woman and Shazam. And more importantly, there's really nothing else like this.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Catch Up, Part 3: Capes


So, there was a time I caught more or less every superhero flick that came out opening day. That time was before I became a father. Now, I'm batting* less than 500 on catching them opening year, and that was when going to the movies was still possible. Hell, I barely saw Spider-Man: Far From Home on blu-ray in time to make my end-of-year rankings.

Today I'm looking at a bunch of movies I didn't see on time. Well, really I'm looking at two I didn't see in the theaters and one that's a modified reissue of a movie I did see and review. But now it's got scenes with Fred Savage, so I'm going to talk about it again.

At any rate, let's get started.


Joker (2019)
Eh. It's fine.

Okay, I'm going to level with you: I'm pretty sure I'd have liked this quite a bit more if it hadn't made a billion dollars and been nominated for Best Picture. I'm pretty sure I'd still have had reservations, but I'd probably be shoving those aside and focusing on how the good the movie looked, how impressive Phoenix's performance was, and... I don't know, how bizarrely random it is that a hyper-serious, R-rated standalone Joker movie exists in the first place.

But we don't live in a parallel universe where this was a middling success: we're in the one where it's one of the most profitable movies ever made, and... ugh. What the hell, audiences?

This movie was good as an exercise, but it was missing one big, obvious thing. And, no, I'm not talking about Batman, because...

Okay, it was missing TWO big obvious things, because the Joker really needs his nemesis, even if you're telling the story from his perspective. But assuming you really, really wanted to tell a Joker story that maybe does or maybe doesn't double as a Batman origin depending on what was real and what was being imagined...

This movie still needed a point. Because - at least as far as I can tell - it doesn't have one. It sort of implies a few possible points around class warfare, mental illness, and the like, but nothing it has to say really goes anywhere or feels justified.

Again, I realize the irony. If this had flopped, I'd be saying it doesn't need a point, that the fact it was well made and engaging was enough. But this got a ton of cash and accolades I don't think it deserved, so - fair or not - I'm going to heap a little criticism on that pile, as well.


Dark Phoenix (2019)
Watching this eight months after its release was a bizarre experience. At this point, critics and audiences have ripped the movie to shreds, so it wasn't like I had high expectations.

Was it really that bad? Honestly, I think the answer is, "No, but it was nowhere near good enough, either."

It's weird they tried this at all. At the end of the day, it really is a remake of X-Men: The Last Stand, a film some consider the worst in the series (they're wrong: that honor will always belong to X-Men Origins: Wolverine). The thing I find hard to wrap my mind around is this plays out more like a retread of that movie than a more faithful adaptation of the comics. Sure, there are a handful of details tossed in connecting to the source material (there's a group of aliens who are sort of a hybrid of the Hellfire Club, the Shiar, and Skrulls), but they wind up sort of indistinguishable from the army of generic mutants at the end of Last Stand.

At the end of the day, this incorporates a ton of elements created for that film. Jean's backstory isn't exactly the same, but it's pretty close, right down to Xavier having suppressed memories. There are sequences designed to evoke moments from The Last Stand, presumably in an attempt to make the audience wonder if they'll play out the same way. I guess we're supposed to be relieved when Jean doesn't disintegrate Xavier in this version?

Honestly, this could have used some of The Last Stand's camp. This thing takes itself way too seriously, probably in an attempt to address that criticism of The Last Stand and X-Men: Apocalypse. It ends up feeling like a weird amalgamation of tones from 90's action movies and from modern superhero flicks. Captain Marvel mostly managed to walk that line; this does not.

That said, I appreciate this occasionally tries to deliver a little of the superhero excitement missing from the series. Both the space shuttle rescue and the New York mutant vs. mutant fight were - at least in theory - closer to the comics that we've gotten from most of FoX-Men movies.

But while I appreciate the attempt, the execution left a lot to be desired. The fights were underwhelming, and the rescue felt small. Still, this is a step in the right direction. Or it would have been if it weren't the final step into oblivion.

Ultimately, this was a movie that should never have been made. In some ways, it was better than I expected, but - as is too often the case - that raised it to the level of dull mediocrity. I'm not sure how you make "alien super villains" boring, but this pulls it off.


Once Upon a Deadpool (2018)
Should I even bother? I mean, it's an edited-for-content version of Deadpool 2, along with a new frame story featuring Fred Savage. Is there any point in rehashing a movie I've already reviewed?

Maybe. Because this was trimmed down to PG-13, it offers a hint of what an MCU-friendly version of the character might be look like, should Disney decide to go that way. And, personally...

I've always secretly wanted Deadpool PG-13. I know that's not a popular opinion, and I don't mean to dismiss what they accomplished (particularly in the first movie), but I actually prefer comedy/adventure to be less gory and scatological. So, in that regard, I appreciate that this demonstrates the character still works toned down.

That said, I'm not sure the movie quite works. I mean, it works fine if you've seen Deadpool 2 before, but without context, I suspect some of this would be hard to follow. Also, quite a bit of the action becomes unsatisfying. That's not because action and violence can't be satisfying in PG-13 when that was how it was originally shot, but the fact this was originally filmed and edited for R means you lose a lot of payoffs.

Fortunately, the scenes with Deadpool interacting with Savage are hilarious and go a long way towards justifying this experiment. I wish we'd gotten even more time with the two of them, or possibly some additional content.

Beyond that, my feelings about the movie haven't changed. I found it funny but wish it had adhered a little closer to the original's premise of Deadpool being an absurd character in an otherwise relatively grounded superhero world, as opposed to the setting being inherently comedic. I also still wish they'd been a little more conservative around civilian casualties: it's kind of hard to reconcile the idea that saving one life matters when the "good guys" are getting countless others killed randomly.

I know, I know: I'm not supposed to take this seriously. It's all probably making a statement on the excessive violence permeating '90s media and all that, but it still pulls me out, and I'd still like to see them dial back the civilian casualties in future incarnations.

And I really hope there are more movies with these characters. Outside of Mangold's Wolverine movies, this is far and above the best version of the X-Men we've seen on the big screen. I'd love to see this Deadpool, Negasonic Teenage Warhead, Colossus, Cable, and Domino show up in the MCU.





*batting, in this context, should be read as a reference to Batman and not to any kind of sporting event -ed.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker


Let's start with a spoiler warning, because if I'm actually reviewing a movie from last year as it's hitting blu-ray, I'm going to talk about content. Also let's throw in a "what hell am I reading?" warning, because - like Rise of Skywalker - this "review" is going to meander around its subject matter and discuss a lot more than the movie itself. This is, after all, the capstone to the "Skywalker Saga," the nine films that are retroactively being framed as one continuous story.

But let's start with Rise of Skywalker, a movie that failed to meet audience, critical, or studio expectations. A movie with serious editing issues and some baffling writing choices. A movie that inexplicably abandons the established rules of its series, altogether dropping the pretense of science fiction and replacing it with the most ridiculous epic fantasy tropes imaginable...

I kind of loved it.

Okay, I'm going to need to elaborate, because I definitely didn't love everything about this movie. I spent most of the first half staring in confusion, trying to imagine the logic driving the endless series of unnecessary plot complications and meaningless twists that seemed to draw out the run time. This movie has an over-complicated backstory to justify an elaborate hunt for a McGuffin whose ultimate purpose is to act as a map to ANOTHER McGuffin, which is also a map. I didn't check the time, but I'd estimate around an hour was spent on these two objects. Meanwhile, we never get clear answers as to how Palpatine is alive (he basically returned off screen between movies), or how Rey being his granddaughter makes a damn bit of sense.

To be fair, you can piece together some explanations reading between the lines and digging up lore from other sources. I'm going to break with most reviewers (and audiences) and say I'm actually okay with this. It's perfectly reasonable to be upset with the movie for these choices, but it just doesn't bother me. I enjoy expanded universes and lore, and I'm more forgiving than most around omitted details.

Personally, I was more bothered with that editing. Again, I'm mainly talking about the first half of the movie here - everything gets significantly better around the halfway mark. But until then, everything feels choppy and disconnected. This isn't just an issue pertaining to the story - the individual action beats don't flow together, which makes it borderline impossible to be pulled into scenes. There's a desert chase sequence that attempts to mashup the Jabba's palace and Endor speeder bike scenes from Return of the Jedi, but nothing quite clicks together. It all looks gorgeous, but the geography, physics, and timing feel staged. It's not uncommon for a movie's pacing to feel like it's impacted by reshoots, but the first half of Rise of Skywalker feels like it's comprised of nothing but reshoots. It's dizzying.

Fortunately, the second half is a major improvement. The editing and writing are still hit or miss, but the issues become less omnipresent. There are definitely some sequences towards the end that don't work, but there are a lot more that do, including a jaw-dropping lightsaber duel in the midst of a raging ocean. The resolution and final battle with Palpatine get a little too silly even for me, but it could have been a lot worse. If the choices for beating the emperor were melodramatic fantasy nonsense or a CG-heavy lightsaber fight a la Yoda vs. Dooku, I'll happily take the nonsense.

But the movie's real saving grace came from where I least expected to find it: the emotional journeys of Rey and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo actually worked. I want to pause to state for the record that Abrams made a huge mistake going this way. The Last Jedi offered a more satisfying origin for Rey and put Kylo Ren on a more interesting path. Her parents should have remained unnamed nobodies, and Ren should have been the one true villain of this movie.

For whatever reason, Abrams wanted to tell this story instead, and - to his credit - he made it work. I found Rey's journey compelling through this film. For the first time in the series, I actually believed a Jedi might give into anger despite their training, because (unlike Luke and Anakin) she understood that she might be drawn to the dark side and didn't care. I bought that there was a voice in the back of her head telling her to "remember her training," and that she was constantly telling it to shut up.

Likewise, Ren's redemption was surprisingly effective, in part because it occurred quite a bit sooner than I expected. They didn't just photocopy Vader's turn in the throne room - they set it earlier and made it (mostly) work as a culmination of his story. It also helped that it was capped off with one of the movie's best decisions: leaving it ambiguous whether Han was appearing to his son as a ghost or a hallucination.

In short, I liked this installment. It embraced the space opera side of Star Wars and delivered a weird, interesting experience. Yes, it went a bit too far at times (Palpatine draining the force from Rey and Ben to regenerate then shoot cosmic-force-lightning was astonishingly silly), but it seems a little late to be overly critical of Star Wars being absurd.

On top of all that, I should address the invisible space-elephant in the room. It's easy to understate the importance of visuals to genre, but that's a large part of the appeal. And, frankly, this is among the best-looking installments in the series. I'll admit that aspect is undercut by the editing (it's harder to be pulled into imaginative worlds when the movie fails to uphold continuity of action and spacial geometry) but even at its worst this is magnificent to look at. Same goes for the score, but at this point that feels like stating the obvious.

If this were any other movie, this would more or less be where the review wraps up with me encouraging you to set reasonable expectations and track this down if you skipped it in theaters (or if you were unable to get to the theater due to a seemingly endless barrage of baby-related illnesses). Of course, if this were any other movie, this review wouldn't exist at all, save perhaps as a couple paragraphs in a wrap-up post.

But as I said at the start, this is ostensibly the last chapter of a saga that began in 1977 and defined the format and tone of modern fantasy and science fiction films. And as such, it's part of something bigger, and I've got thoughts outside the scope of this singular chapter.

Of course, I'm not alone. If you spent any time on Twitter in December and January, you most likely already know quite a few people have chimed in with their thoughts on the Disney era of Star Wars, which a vocal handful of fans have already decried as the worst of the three trilogies.

I'll pause to give you time to throw your head back in laughter.

The idea centers on the claim that Disney failed to make a blueprint for these films before starting, and that this lack of planning is to blame for whatever failings the movies might have. And while that may sound like a reasonable argument, you should know the Venn diagram between people making that argument and people using misogynist labels for Rey has quite a bit of overlap.

I'm not saying these movies are beyond reproach or even that Disney couldn't have done a better job producing them, but I do question the motives of people blaming Kathleen Kennedy for the shortcomings of three movies directed by men.

I also think it's worth noting that this trilogy adhered closer to a blueprint of sorts than the original did (in case you forgot the Emperor was barely mentioned in A New Hope). Even the decision to make a trilogy instead of an ongoing series seems to have been a relatively late change - there was a time Boba Fett was envisioned as the main antagonist of the film that turned into Return of the Jedi, with the idea being that a final Luke/Vader showdown wouldn't occur until later.

A lot of decisions in the Disney trilogy were made by the individual directors, but it's worth noting they envisioned this as three movies where the first focused on Han, the second on Luke, and the third on Leia. Despite losing Carrie Fisher, they basically stuck to that plan, with Leia remaining the spirit of this installment. To be frank, that's more structure than the original trilogy had in 1977.

I give the original trilogy a lot of credit for having grown into a sort of shared cultural mythology, but it's important to recognize this elevated status makes it all too easy to delude ourselves into perceiving structure, planning, and intent in places where it doesn't really exist. If you go back and watch the three movies as independent works, it becomes clear they had wildly different tones, used different genre conventions, and were trying to exist as pieces of very different stories. A New Hope is essentially a serial, Empire is a more mature space romance, and Jedi is basically a cartoon. None of that's intended critically - I love all three films - but the idea they represent a single, unbroken story with fundamentally consistent elements is absurd.

Structurally, I'd argue the Disney Star Wars movies follow that blueprint (or lack thereof) relatively faithfully. Only the prequel trilogy followed any sort of plan for the meta-plot, and even then, there were massive course corrections and changes. It's also worth noting that the prequels were by far the worst of the series.

I know there are a handful of people out there who argue Rise of Skywalker is worse, and...

Okay, Skywalker probably has the worst editing and structural writing of the franchise. But even setting aside the far superior artistic design, I don't think there's a scene in the entire prequel trilogy that's half as good as Rey and Kylo's battle in the skeletal remnants of the Death Star. Or, hell, the moment when Rey defers to C-3PO on their odds of success and he realizes that everything will be for nothing if they can't get at the data in his head. Rise of Skywalker has a lot of dumb moments, but it's also got several that really connect emotionally. I don't think you can say the same for the prequels. If the editing and structure issues are a deal-breaker for you, or if that's the bulk of your good-bad spectrum for movies, I can't really argue with you dismissing Rise of Skywalker. But personally, I think the good outweighs the bad.

I'm certainly not suggesting the prequels were bad because they adhered to a plan, nor am I suggesting the originals were good because they didn't. In writing, outlines and blueprints are best understood as a tool, as are instincts. The quality of a story or movie or series doesn't hinge on which tools you use but on how well you use them. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, in my opinion, used them very well. The Rise of Skywalker was clearly more hit-or-miss, but that's due to the filmmakers fumbling elements of this installment. Hell, the elements that most deviated from the last movie - Rey's lineage and Ren's redemption - were among the movie's most successful elements. The worst elements revolved around unnecessary side-stories and Sith artifacts that could have been excised without impacting any of the rest.

Assuming you agree with that assessment, you most likely agree it's not essential for these to work as an uninterrupted story. And that's good news for Rise of Skywalker, because the bulk of this movie feels like it materializes out of thin air. The Last Jedi took a lot of flack for going rogue, but I honestly think that's overblown. While it introduced new themes and made tweaks to the setting similar to the ones Empire made to New Hope's, it actually works relatively well as a direct continuation, certainly compared to the other non-prequel installments. Rise of Skywalker, on the other hand, basically throws out the majority of Last Jedi's changes. Maybe that's to be expected, given Abrams was returning, but I was a bit surprised this wasn't really tethered to The Force Awakens, either. Instead, Skywalker is essentially centered on an entirely new premise that has very little to do with either of its predecessors.

Again, this wasn't really a problem for me. Rey and Kylo's stories still feel like continuations from the last two movies, so it's not like there's no connective tissue at all. And while I don't think the ending of Skywalker knocks it out of the space ballpark, I think their resolution is satisfying enough to deliver something of an ending to the trilogy.

As for the crazy metaphysical revelations and twists around Palpatine, the Sith, and the Jedi... honestly, it's growing on me. I mostly disliked it while I was watching, but as a bombastic finale to a space opera, it's probably as good a tone as any to end on. Yeah, it's sillier than I'd like, but I'd rather spend some time trying to sort out what all that nonsense meant than mourn an ending that felt small and reductive. I'll take magic-space-pillar-lightning from a regenerating mega-Sith over a return to midichlorians any day.

At the start of this review (or article or whatever this is) I insinuated that the "Skywalker Saga" is itself a ridiculous idea, and I'll stand by that. This whole "9-film arc" is more marketing than reality, even before you start questioning whether it actually makes sense to consider these separately from Rogue One, Solo, The Clone Wars, Rebels, The Mandalorian, and everything else in the franchise. But if we're really playing along, I'd argue this is a fine finale. It would have been nice to end on a great movie, but even with all the issues (and there are many), I'm already eager to give it another viewing.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Catch Up, Part 2: Disney+


For those of you who missed the last installment...

I'm pumping out a bunch of mini-reviews for movies that aren't really new but also aren't all that old. These are basically all the big movies from the last few years I missed in the theaters, didn't watch in time to include in my end-of-year wrap up, but are still recent enough I was able to delude myself into thinking someone might care what I thought.

Today's is a BIG installment: I'm covering all the junk I've seen on Disney+ over the last few months. Well, all the junk that fits that criteria, anyway.


The Lion King (2019)
The Lion King remake presents its viewers with a choice: enjoy it or hate it. I suppose you could do both, but that feels like a lot of work, so you might as well pick a side.

To be fair, it offers compelling arguments for both options. Visually, this is one of the most incredible accomplishments ever put on film, a photo-realistic animated film. On the other hand, it's nearly a shot-for-shot remake that doesn't bother marrying the new style with the story, songs, or themes it's rehashing.

So it's an awesome, inspiring, cynical cash-grab. A gorgeous exploration of new techniques fueled by money and bereft of new ideas. Everything exciting and boring about Hollywood, all rolled together.

In the end, I chose to enjoy this for its merits. The effect was simply too impressive to ignore, and that won me over. Sure, the animal faces were too realistic to sell human emotion (particularly in the songs), but we give puppetry a pass for that constantly. Why not this?

It goes without saying I'd have preferred a new story (particularly one without racist subtext around the lion/hyena premise), but if Disney absolutely had to bank another 1.6 billion on a recycled script, I'm glad we got something pretty to look at out of the deal.


Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)
[edit: I actually watched this elsewhere but figured it was easier grouping it here since it's obviously on Disney+ anyway, right? Turns out it's NOT, so apologies to anyone who immediately signed up for Disney+ after reading my middling review only to be disappointed].

Wow. And I thought the first Maleficent movie had tonal issues.

Approximately a third of the sequel is an utterly absurd comedy about Maleficent trying to be Aurora’s mother, while the other two-thirds is a surprisingly dark epic fantasy about a race of magical beings on the verge of extinction torn between philosophies of peace and war.

The comedy’s the good part. Honestly, the comedy sequences are fun enough to make the rest worth sitting through. Until things took a turn for the grimdark, I was thinking this might be one of my favorite films of 2019.

But then things get serious (or at least try to), and the movie starts feeling rote. If you’ve ever seen a fantasy movie before, you’ll be able to guess where things are headed well in advance. To be fair, you might not expect them to kill [redacted] with chemical weapons, but the plot is definitely on auto-pilot until it inexplicably turns back into a kids' movie at the end.

Other than the joys of seeing Maleficent attend an awkward dinner party, the movie also offers some gorgeous visuals. Like the tone, this is hit-or-miss, but when the designs work, they’re stunning.

Overall, this is a deeply flawed film that manages to get enough right to make it worth a viewing. That’s more or less how I remember the first installment, so credit for consistency.

Oh, and I assume this goes without saying, but Jolie is once again phenomenal in the role. Pity there probably won’t be a part three.


Kim Possible (2019)
I have fond memories of watching the animated series a few decades ago and was curious whether the live-action adaptation managed to capture any of the original’s charm. I was pleasantly surprised to find it (mostly) did.

Let’s not set unreasonable expectations, though – this was a made-for-TV movie, and it shows. If you’re expecting the production values of a theatrically-released action movie, you’re going to be disappointed. Just not as disappointed as you’d think. The action sequences are quite a bit better than I expected. The opening sequence in particular does a good job recreating the spirit of the cartoon.

On top of that, there's some good casting, particularly around the three generations of Possible women. Likewise, Patton Oswalt's only around briefly, but he's clearly having the time of his life.

All that being said, this was anything but perfect. They took Ron’s dorky side a little too far, and the result was cringe-worthy at times. Likewise, the movie’s plot was a bit overly dramatic – I’d have preferred more fun and less character growth.

But considering how bad of an idea rebooting this as a low-budget, live-action franchise should have been, I was impressed with the result.


Aladdin (2019)
I’m having a hard time summarizing my thoughts on this into a narrative. It’s at once indicative of the best and worst aspects of the live-action remakes, depending on which parts you focus on and which you ignore. Take the design, for example. The costumes and sets draw from Bollywood, which allows those elements to stand out from the original. But then the Genie shows up and they reuse a bunch of old ideas.

The movie’s equal parts intriguing and frustrating, which seems to be a running theme with these remakes. It takes some characters in innovative directions but doesn’t adjust the overall story to compensate. As a result, the movie kind of falls apart but leaves enough interesting pieces to offer a decent experience.

This is, in short, fine. It’s not a train wreck like Dumbo or a home run like Jungle Book. It’s not a pointless rehash like Beauty and the Beast, but it’s not an entirely new spin like Maleficent.
It’s a weird film, all around. I certainly wouldn’t consider it essential viewing, but it’s not something I’d warn against, either. It’s fine, occasionally disappointing, but rarely boring. Sort of the platonic ideal of the “two-and-a-half star movie,” if you still believe in ranking films by fractured celestial bodies.


Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made (2020)
I was curious about this direct-to-streaming live-action Disney+ movie because the trailer was intriguing and the premise was weird. A somewhat delusional kid detective with a (probably) imaginary polar bear sidekick? I figured I'd give it a chance.

Having seen it, I'm torn. On one hand, it actually does do some fun, interesting stuff with that premise. And, speaking as someone who's been living in the Pacific Northwest for a while now, it captures the surrealism of Portland beautifully. I think this movie does a good job delivering a unique point-of-view, showing you the world as it exists through the eyes and in the mind of its protagonist.

But the script suffers from having very little structure or story. I'm assuming a lot of this was due to this being an adaptation: you've got significantly more freedom in a book to follow numerous side plots and introduce peripheral characters. Usually, this kind of stuff gets streamlined, but it felt like that step got skipped.

You're left with a lot of great moments that feel unconnected and unfulfilling. The character drama at the core doesn't have much of an arc, and the little that is there feels like it's following a formula.

Overall, it's not a bad kids' movie. It manages to create a fascinating tone in the vein of Millions. But unlike Millions, it doesn't really feel like it's got much to say. At the end of the day, this gets props for style but not so much for substance.


Toy Story 4 (2019)
First off, I want to take a moment and acknowledge how refreshing it is to see a film franchise that still titles its sequels sequentially. Why is this going out of fashion? It's so useful.

At any rate, the movie is, like its predecessors, fantastic. It's less flashy than the first three installments (it doesn't create a new medium like the first, transform our understanding of sequels like the second, or challenge us to face our own mortality like part three), but it might be the most thematically complex entry in the series. It takes a deceptively simple starting point and uses that to explore branching themes and questions of identity and responsibility.

This is a movie about an aging man realizing his time as the center of attention is over, and he needs to stop fighting the inevitable shift in power dynamics around him. Woody literally allows a female character - one who was coded as the villain up to that point - to take his voice so she can effectively rise in his place. And this was the right choice, both because it allowed her to achieve her potential and because it freed him. And that's just one way to look at this film.

There are so many ways to spin the metaphors built into the characters' relationships I get dizzy. You could focus on Woody and Forky's father-son relationship. You could explore how the movie effectively treats Woody as a soldier who's done his duty but is having trouble reintegrating and finding a new purpose. You could look at the entire movie as being about retirement...

And I think any of these hold up. This thing's got layers to spare.

In the interest of being complete, it's also got characters to spare. As in, they probably could have trimmed the Key and Peele roles, as well as the Keanu guest spot. These were fun, but they felt superfluous and a bit distracting. And, yes, continuity with prior installments is getting a bit fast and loose (what even are the rules now?). But all that's minor nitpicking. Toy Story 4 once again demonstrates that, even when it seems like this series should have ended, Pixar's able to justify another chapter.


Frozen II (2019)
A decent enough movie but a poor excuse for a musical. That's not because the music is bad - on its own, it's fine - but in a musical (at least, in a good musical) the songs should really mean something, and here... not so much.

On paper, I'm sure this works. The songs all ostensibly reflect what each character is feeling at various points in the movie and serve to illustrate why they make various decisions. The problem is most of what they feel is vague indifference. Elsa's big breakout number is about her sort of, kind of wanting to stick around with her sister but also feeling like she might want to go somewhere for some unspecified reason.

Powerful drama, this is not.

The movie challenges character relationships in ways that are, well, minor and tedious. Like, Elsa and Anna are working out some issues around trust and being open with each other. So pretty insignificant compared against ice castles with frozen guardians and shards of magic lodged in the heart.

This tries to fill that gap with new stakes built around their nation's past and the princesses' relationships with their late parents, but all that feels tacked on. These characters were created around their relationship with each other, not Arendelle, and the movie never succeeds in convincing us otherwise.

All that being said, the last act features some effective plot twists and iconography that salvages the experience. Everything involving Elsa and the water horse is awesome to see, and the cave scene with Anna and Olaf was surprisingly effective despite the fact the resolution was obvious from the start.

You can add some solid humor to the list of pros, as well (though, come on... you're really going to skip the punchline of having Anna propose after you spent the entire movie setting it up?). All in all, it mostly works as entertainment, but it doesn't feel like the event I was expecting.

It's hard to watch this without wondering if this was the end result of a long negotiation with the studio over Elsa's story line and (one assumes) sexual orientation. This absolutely feels like the movie someone would make after executives strictly forbid them from making a more impactful one.