Sunday, July 2, 2023

Movie Review: Nimona

This is going to be more a rant than a review, because... well, frankly my thoughts on the artistic aspects of this movie are less complicated than my thoughts about the business end. Note I said less complicated, not less intense. But if you follow me on any of 6 social media platforms (unfortunately I'm not exaggerating - for the love of God, can something just replace Twitter already?), you already know I love the hell out of this movie.

So let's get a little of that out of the way. This is good. Strike that - great. Strike that, too - this is metal. The comedy isn't just hilarious, it's hilarious in ways family and kids movies never are, because Hollywood executives don't have the guts to follow through. This movie is what every "edgy" kids movie for the last 20 years has been cosplaying as, but this time the tone is coming from a real place of anger, and everything from the style to the writing to the voice acting convey that in every frame. This is the best animated feature I've seen in a long time. It's funny, emotionally resonant, and the titular character is the stuff of legends. It features meaningful representation that's interwoven into the themes and premise. It's a phenomenal film, and the only reason it's not a 10/10 is because the dial goes up to 11. In case it's not clear, I am recommending you head over to Netflix right now to watch this, and if anyone tries to stop you from doing so, you should knock them unconscious and shove their unconscious body in the trunk of a stolen car.

So if it's that good, why am I pissed off? Well, there are two reasons. First, Nimona kind of primes you to want to break something, but more importantly because....

We almost didn't get to see this. See, this movie was made by Blue Sky, which is another way of saying it was made by Fox. And that of course means it was passed off to Disney as part of the acquisition, and Disney's leadership took one look at the mostly completed film and decided they were better off shelving it. As far as I can tell, this came a hair's breadth from being written off the way Warner Bros./Discovery wrote off Batgirl.

(Side-note: fuck David Zaslav).

Sorry. Where were we?

Oh, yes. Disney was ready to throw out the nearly finished animated film, because they thought it made more sense than completing and releasing it. The main rumor for this seems centered on the movie's queer content. It's worth noting these decisions would have been made prior to Disney winding up the target of right-wing grifters going after the corporation.

Let that be a lesson to businesses - you can't placate bigots. If anything, they're more likely to come after you if they think you care what they think. Relative to other companies, Disney's a decade behind the times when it comes to lgbt+ representation in kids' media, but you don't see the right openly trying to weaponize government in retaliation against, say, Cartoon Network or Netflix (both of which have been far more progressive in this respect). If you reach out to bigots angry that gay or trans people exist, they take it as a sign of weakness and double their efforts.

Fortunately, enough people who believed in the project (i.e.: people with some goddamn clue what this movie actually was) convinced the right parties at Netflix and Disney there was a mutually beneficial solution, and a deal was struck. Like countless films before it, Nimona was sold, completed by Netflix, and released on that platform following a one-week limited release (almost certainly to qualify it for awards).

And, to be clear, I'm elated it was finished and released at all, which is more than I can say for several films caught in the Discovery-Warner Bros. merger (again, fuck David Zaslav). But, to be clear, it's infuriating it came close to not seeing the light. This movie is artistically valuable, will be deeply meaningful to a generation of kids who grow up with it, and - with apologies for belaboring the point - is rad as hell. It's virtually guaranteed a Best Animated Picture nomination.

Let that sink in for a second: a nearly-completed Oscar-caliber movie almost got trashed, because an executive thought it wouldn't be convenient to release it. What the hell is wrong with this industry?

But there's one silver lining of all this, for me at least: I don't own stock in Disney. Because if I did, I'd really be furious right now. So far, I've been focusing on the artistic and cultural aspects, but considered from a business context the decision is even more idiotic.

I'm pretty certain Disney just pissed away billions of dollars.

That's not an exaggeration. I think this movie, coupled with the right marketing campaign and (ironically) Disney's branding, could have been huge. Like, Frozen huge.

The title character in Nimona is basically a better version of Deadpool with a (sometimes literal) axe to grind against an uptight society that's essentially a blend of the default Disney fairytale kingdom, present day, and a touch of sci-fi. She's more transgressive than Shrek, and in ways that feel authentic rather than manufactured (because, again, the emotion that drove the creation of this character was authentic). As a result, the movie feels - and actually is - subversive. Oh, and she's a child, meaning she functions as a POV power fantasy for the key demographic.

Kids would have eaten this up with a spoon soaked in the milky blood of a cereal-breathing dragon. I'm sure the ones who find it on Netflix still will, and I have no doubt this will be a success for Netflix. But Netflix isn't built to capitalize on movies like this the way the House of Mouse is. If Disney had released it in the theaters with ads showcasing Nimona's gleeful bloodthirsty lines while playing up the fact she was going after a kingdom superficially resembling classic Disney (i.e.: actually delivering on that thing they've been half-assing in every other Disney movie of the past twenty years), they'd be dragging their parents to the theaters to see it an eighth time. They'd be selling a fifth talking Nimona doll asking who they wanted to kill to replace the fourth one confiscated by the school principal. Add in sequels and television shows, and my earlier estimate in the billions starts sounding conservative.

Disney pissed away good money (at a time they actually need it, for a change), because they were afraid they might offend the worst people in the country, and - because reality seems to have a sense of humor - those same people spent the last year fixated on destroying them anyway.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Movie Review: Peter Pan & Wendy

I'm not entirely sure whether calling David Lowery's divisive new take on Peter Pan a remake is entirely accurate. Scenes and aspects are inspired by the 1953 animated film - they mimicked some of the flying sequences, for example - but setting aside superficial similarities, this is no closer to the story in that movie than it is to most of the other scores of live-action Pan films. The plot and characters have been overhauled, the source material revisited, and the result really is its own creation.

On its own, this isn't entirely surprising. The Disney "remakes" all exist on a spectrum between straight forward recreations and complete reimaginings. Or, to put it another way, you've got Beauty and the Beast and Lion King on one end and, Maleficent and Cruella on the other. Neither philosophy necessarily results in good or bad movies, though I tend to find the more extreme reworkings more interesting, regardless of quality. But while Dumbo and Jungle Book are both new stories, one is far, far better than the other (I trust I don't need to specify which is which).

So the real question you're probably asking is where this falls on that spectrum: is it good or not? And the answer you'll get there depends on who you ask. I dropped the adjective "divisive" in the opening sentence for a reason - Peter Pan & Wendy seems to be eliciting a wide range of opinions.

For what it's worth, I loved it, for a host of reasons I'll get to in a moment. That said, this is also a case where I understand where the other side's coming from. At times, Peter Pan & Wendy feels like a movie that made simultaneously by a fantastic director and a committee of executives, with the former managing character moments and the latter ensuring a quota of reference shots and generic kid's fantasy adventure sequences made it into the finished product.

I have no idea whether that's what occurred here, but it wouldn't at all surprise me. There's a notable shift in tone and quality between, say, the generic London flight sequence lazily failing to recreate the feel of the animated film, and complex relationships and themes explored throughout. I found it pretty easy to ignore the former in this case and enjoy the latter on its own terms, but I can absolutely imagine having a different reaction. Particularly because a great deal of my affection for this traces back to the source material.

Not the animated movie - honestly, Peter Pan ranks pretty close to my least favorite of the Disney classics. And not the 1904 play, either: according to the credits, this was instead inspired by Peter and Wendy, J.M. Barrie's 1911 novelization of that play. And I've got some strong feelings about that book, in no small part because it was hugely influential on me while writing my first novel.

While there are no shortage of live-action adaptations that play with dark ideas, most frame Peter heroically and use either the antagonists or setting to push things darker. But that's not at all how the book works (or the original play, if memory serves, though good luck finding a staging that doesn't water it down for young audiences). While we're of course encouraged to root for the boy who never grows up, he's ultimately as much a monster as Hook, if not more so. To a degree, all the kids are, which is ultimately the point. Children can be exceedingly cruel, so the primal manifestation of childhood would be unimaginably so.

The brilliance of the novel is how differently it will be interpreted by kids and adults. To a young audience, the adventure shines through, while the darkness plays as comedy. But as a grown-up you'll relate to the Darling parents and - to a limited degree - even with Hook.

David Lowery's adaptation doesn't go this far, of course. Barrie was willing to pen an epilogue in which Peter effectively abandons Wendy as she ages and has forgotten the long dead Tinker Bell, but no one is going to make a big-budget kid's movie with that kind of ending, least of all Disney. Instead, Lowery draws inspiration from this version of Pan, as well as a few lines making Hook into more than a generic villain. James Hook is a pitiful, aging man, alone and desperate for emotional connection.

From that, Lowery builds a new story seemingly aware of its state as one of an endless number of adaptations. The fourth wall isn't broken, but it's certainly prodded on more than one occasion, such as when the audience is all but dared to object to the (wise) decision to include girls among the lost boys' ranks. Likewise, the story consistently tries to invert sexist and racist elements within Barrie's work. I'm not at all qualified to state whether these attempts are sufficient, but I can say from a story and thematic standpoint, I found them satisfying. 

But the real payoff here is within the character relationships. I don't love the choice to revamp Hook's origin here, but I found the payoffs effective, and I do love the way this plays into some of the aforementioned aspects of Pan's character from the book. This isn't that Pan, and his arc certainly isn't the same, but I think the ideas are rooted in the source material enough to make for a compelling direction for an adaptation.

Again, this is far from a perfect film. The effects are hit-or-miss (though the pirate ship sequence at the end looked great), the color palette is far too dark, and we really didn't need that last shot (God forbid one of these ends on even a hint of tragedy, I suppose). But despite the flaws, this one really worked for me. The characters had depth, the story recontextualized the origin in fascinating ways, and the performances were all fantastic. The casting on the kids was particularly good.

For the record, that's enough to cement this as my favorite movie adaptation of Peter Pan. Honestly, that's not the highest bar to clear - again, I don't think much of the Disney classic, and I really haven't liked the other two big-budget live-action attempts - but I really did enjoy this. Just know your mileage may vary.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Finale Frontier Extravaganza!

This week brought us three season finales for three separate space-related series in genre franchises comprising the past, present, and future. I don't generally chime in for TV these days, mainly because the bulk of television I consume isn't new, or at least not "new enough" to warrant a review. But, as you may have guessed, this is an exception to that rule: all three of these are shows I was following, and all strike me as worthy of reflection for different reasons.

The Mandalorian: Season 3

My relationship with this show has grown a tad complicated over the past few years. Back in season one, it felt like a breath of fresh air. The production values were light-years ahead of its contemporaries, and the episodic format delivered weekly was a nice change of pace from the Netflix model which had become almost ubiquitous in streaming.

But by the second season, it felt like something had shifted. The focus moved from self-contained weekly stories to a larger narrative. To be fair, episodes in the first season had always been connected, and most of the individual chapters in season 2 continued to function as relatively complete stories, but the emphasis was now on a bigger picture. On its own, this isn't inherently bad, provided the larger arc is written well. But of course that was the rub: the writing in The Mandalorian was never the show's strong suit, so the whole thing became frustrating.

That issue carried through The Book of Boba Fett, which... we all understand that was the actual third season of The Mandalorian in all but name, right? Hell, I'm convinced it was supposed to be season three in name as well, at one point, with the implication being that the titular Mandalorian wasn't any specific character, but rather an ideal. They actually came out and announced this pertaining to Bo Katan's growing significance in season 3, but if it ever seemed weird they put their most popular show on hold for a year to make another show with a guy dressed basically the same way, then had their main characters from the previous show appear in the third act to resolve a lingering cliffhanger... yeah. Change "Book of Boba Fett" to a subtitle on season 2.5 of The Mandalorian, and it all makes a lot more sense, doesn't it?

Regardless, the issue persisted - and in my opinion escalated - in The Mandalorian season 3. The storyline felt like it was running in place, to the point the last two episodes could essentially be moved right after Fett, with only minor corrections to fix a few obstacles introduced at the end of season 2. The plot of season 3 largely felt contrived to pad out the episode count and set up future spin-offs. Meanwhile, as the amount of screen time given to characters compulsively wearing helmets increased, issues around the lack of facial expression did as well. I was mostly okay with the main character's face being hidden for almost the entire series, but there were episodes this season where that was the case with almost everyone. I know it was an artistic choice, but - in my opinion, at least - it was a bad one in a live-action visual medium. Sequences that should have been harrowing or tense felt silly.

However... there's a twist: this isn't a negative review. For all my issues with the season, several things redeemed the experience. First, the visual elements of the show continue to impress me. Every episode includes breathtaking sequences and creatures. At the risk of showing my age, when I was young I'd go see genre movies that couldn't match what this show delivers weekly in terms of design and execution. And, if I'm being honest, most of those movies weren't any better written. It's astonishing to me shows with these kinds of production values exist and are seldom discussed in this context.

In addition, the sixth episode (that's the one with Jack Black, Lizzo, and Christopher Lloyd) felt like a return to the episodic fun the show had been lacking. It was a huge improvement over the trajectory of the season and a reminder that Star Wars is at its best when it's weird, unexpected, and unconstrained by genre conventions.

In fact, my least favorite episode, the one spent chasing down a side story on Coruscant, deserves props for experimenting. I wish the outcome had been more interesting, but I do appreciate they tried. For all my problems with this installment, I kind of wish more episodes had operated under a similar philosophy (just preferably with characters we actually care about).

But all of that's appetizer, because the real reason I'm finishing season three with a positive impression comes down to that finale. Because... uh... it was awesome?

I don't have a lot of additional depth to add to that. It's not that the script brought everything full circle or anything. It's just the pacing of what amounted to an extended battle sequence delivered something energetic and immensely satisfying. It was a big, action-packed conclusion with some really sweet moments between Din Djarin and Grogu. I loved it.

I have no idea what the future holds for these characters. I'm hoping the show gets more room to play without having to worry about connecting dots and setting up spin-offs, but the truth is I'd stick around for the visuals and vibes alone. For better or worse, this franchise grabbed hold of me when I was five and never really let go. I'd love to see the writing improve closer to what we got in Andor and Kenobi, but even if it doesn't, I'll keep watching.

After all, even the frustrating stuff is still fun.

Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Season 1

What concerns me about this show is that, due to its release strategy, subject matter, and young target demographic, it seems like the bulk of the population may not be aware that it's a goddamn masterpiece.

That's not hyperbole - this show is funny, emotional, and artistic, with catchy musical numbers and fantastic characters. It draws from the best animated works for inspiration - it's not hard to catch ideas and design elements reminiscent of Spider-Verse, Powerpuff Girls, and a host of other works - but they're all combined and remixed in ways that feel fresh and new. The series isn't afraid to alter its tone from episode to episode, either, with some feeling silly and light and others packing a punch.

On top of all that, this fits in some surprising guest stars from the MCU, to the point I find myself wondering (hoping, really) if it's secretly officially part of that world. How great would it be if Moon Girl and friends showed up in Secret War or something?

Regardless, this is a really exciting show combining music, animation, and great writing into something genuinely fantastic. It's one of the best new animated shows I've seen in ages and is absolutely worth checking out.

Star Trek: Picard: Season 3

I'm going to cut to the chase - this season of Picard is the best Star Trek I've seen since at least the original series, and that includes movies. This isn't merely good; it's phenomenally good. Inexplicably good. Weirdly good.

Weirdly, in part, because the first two seasons were nowhere near this level of quality. I say that as someone who enjoyed the first season of Picard quite a bit, too. Hell, I even mostly liked the second, despite it being a bit of a fiasco. But this is on a whole other level.

To put this in a little more context, I'm not actually a huge fan of The Next Generation. I've got some nostalgia for the characters, but when I rewatched the series about a decade ago, I thought it was fairly mediocre overall, with maybe a half-dozen great episodes spread out over the series. This wasn't going to be an automatic slam dunk with me.

But God, did this deliver. The show is broken into three arcs: two four-episodes long, then a 2-part finale. The first of these is the strongest, delivering what amounts to a movie-length adventure that incorporates the best aspects of the first two original series Trek movies. It lampshades its references, too - at times it feels like it's remaking those films with Next Gen characters, an idea that probably shouldn't work, and yet....

There are a couple reasons they get away with it. First, this looks and feels fantastic. Particularly the first four episodes are, start to finish, movie quality. Everything looks polished and planned out, the editing is on point, and the music choices are constantly inspired. The pace and tone deliver tension and suspense you rarely get from TV.

But all that can only take you so far. You also need writing, and that might be the season's strongest asset. I might quibble with some structural choices in the story, but the dialogue is pitch perfect. Every line feels like it's being written by people who spent decades obsessing over these characters. This isn't simply rehashing old relationships and character beats, either - we're exploring new facets of the bridge crew that emerged later in life. We're seeing aspects that have changed and curtains that have peeled away. And it's cathartic, funny, and touching. Early on, the show introduces a beat that any other series would have treated as a generic twist with a run-of-the-mill reveal. But instead, we're not treated like we're stupid, and neither are the characters. Rather than building to a cliché conversation, the key moment is handled with a silent exchange of expressions. And in no small part because these actors are fantastic, we're treated to something truly special. The twist is it's not a twist, but instead a touching moment of humanity and growth.

The second arc can't quite maintain the force of the first, but it's still fantastic. It's still tense, exciting, and funny, but you start occasionally remembering you're watching TV rather than a movie. The last two episodes swap out the new villain introduced for the season in favor of a returning nemesis, which is both a bit of a letdown and a testament to just how good this season is. When the return of a fan-favorite villain is less interesting than a new one... that's pretty high praise for the writing, acting, and directing that went into that new villain right?

But, yes, the last few episodes feel like the end of most big budget movie trilogies: technically well executed with great character moments, but a little light on emotional depth. Again, still good - very good, in fact - but best moments in the season aren't found there.

I also feel like I should mention the last couple episodes hinge on a potentially unfortunate plot device that could - and I suspect will - be read as an endorsement of right-wing politics. I don't think that was the intention, but it's far too easy to see the story as a sort of literal "woke" mind virus controlling the youth. While I think this was just an unintended side-effect of trying to write around the realities of the characters' ages and the story, it works way too well as a metaphor working against everything Star Trek stands for.

But I can't fault them too much for this misstep. The season, in its entirety, is the sort of achievement that raises the bar for the franchise and its competitors. It delivers everything fans of the characters could dream of, along with production values beyond anything I'd expected. This is absolutely fantastic stuff.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Catch-Up, Part 12: The Oscary Edition

I did something like this last year, so I figured I'd gather together my thoughts on as many of the big awards movies I'd seen but hadn't already reviewed elsewhere. This year, that's going to mean movies nominated for either Best Picture or Best Animated Picture. I've now seen all five of the animation nominees, along with seven of the ten Best Picture contenders. I'm also throwing in a couple reviews for last year's Best Picture Nominees I missed at the time. 

To avoid repeating myself, I'm not going to rehash my thoughts on movies I've already reviewed or written up. For the most part, this year that means movies I talked about in my end-of-year retrospective, where I discussed Everything Everywhere All at Once, The Banshees of Inisherin, Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, and Turning Red (I also reviewed Turning Red on its own back when it came out). I also just posted some thoughts about Elvis over at Mainlining Christmas, so you can read about that there.

I'm going to refrain from ranking, but my current picks are Turning Red for Animated and Everything Everywhere All at Once for Best Picture. That said, I consider both categories extremely competitive this year. The animated, in particular, is incredibly close, with Marcel the Shell With Shoes On so close, I'm still second guessing myself. I didn't like Pinocchio quite as much as some people, but I can absolutely see why they like it. Frankly, all three deserve to win.

On the Best Picture front, I'm definitely in the Everything Everywhere All At Once camp, though to be honest it's less because I think it's the best of the nominees than I think it winning would be the most interesting outcome and would age the best. I have a hard time seriously comparing it against Women Talking, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Banshees of Inisherin in terms of quality: they're all amazing films in very different styles. Any would be deserving of the prize, frankly. The others I've seen feel are close behind. I might roll my eyes a bit if the prize unexpectedly goes to Elvis or Top Gun Maverick, but I certainly won't be angry.


Belfast (2021)

My thoughts on this movie are going to be a little sparse, because frankly I think the basics are pretty obvious. It's good. It's very good. It does interesting things with shot composition, use of black & white (and even occasional color), and perspective. It's a good movie that delves into difficult subject matter in a novel way.

I enjoyed it.

Do I think it was robbed of the Academy Award? Well, I actually haven't seen Coda yet (it's the only one of the bunch I haven't gotten to, mostly because it's tucked behind an inconvenient paywall), so I can't say for certain. I didn't really think this was appreciably better than the other nominees I watched (excluding Don't Look Up, but being better than that is a low bar to clear), but it wasn't necessarily worse, either. This would have been a fine pick, but then so would have Dune, King Richard, The Power of the Dog, Drive My Car, and (my favorite so far) West Side Story. All really good movies; none so much better than the rest to make a different outcome egregious in my mind. Nightmare Alley strikes me as maybe a hair below (still really good, just not quite on par with the others), and Don't Look Up isn't in the same league as any of them.

I wish I had something worthwhile to say about Belfast, but part of being late to a party like this is knowing when it's best to sit quietly in the corner. I like how the movies and plays the characters watch feel more real than the world they inhabit. I'm almost tempted to argue the holiday segment qualifies this as a Christmas film and write it up for Mainlining Christmas, but I don't actually believe that. It's a cool movie, but I haven't got much to say beyond that.

Licorice Pizza (2022) 

While I enjoyed Licorice Pizza, the truth is I found myself a little lost, and some assumptions I made about the film turned out to be incorrect. I certainly hadn't realized the lead was based on a real person, for example, and that alone makes me reconsider the overall premise. Within that context, the somewhat disjointed structure takes on the feeling of a series of secondhand stories being reassembled into a rough narrative. You're left with something closer to a fairytale than a memory, which is likely the point. The movie's about a time, place, and life that seems fantastical.

Because it's Paul Thomas Anderson, it's all very beautiful and evocative, full of extended takes and gorgeous color. Which is good, because the content, perhaps by design, is less engaging than what we're seeing. I don't want to dismiss this as style over substance, because there's real substance to the style. But for better or worse I wasn't particularly invested in the main characters or their relationship, and I found the humor more charming than funny. Whether any of that's an issue comes down to what you want out of the experience: again, this pulls you into a fascinating world I can best describe as the filmmaker's interpretation of anecdotes told to him by an aging movie producer. While it's technically a romantic comedy, it actively works against ever feeling like one in ways I don't think I've ever seen before. On that level, it's a fascinating experiment.

Is a great film? Maybe. I found it interesting enough to agree the nomination it picked up was deserved, but I'd probably be raising an eyebrow if it had actually won. I haven't seen as many of Anderson's films as I'd like, but I don't think this is at the level of There Will Be Blood or Phantom Thread, though it wouldn't surprise me if viewers with a different perspective on the '70s disagreed. 


Marcel the Shell With Shoes On (2022)

This is one of those times I find myself watching a movie I've heard a thousand people insist is delightful then, as the end credits roll, find myself with the piping hot take of, "that was delightful." So, yeah, if you've heard anyone talk about the fantastically charming "Marcel the Shell With Shoes On" before, you can probably skip my write up, because I'm not challenging the consensus here. It's actually that good. 

I'll offer a few observations that surprised me. First, for some reason I thought this was going to be a road trip movie, which it absolutely wasn't. I think I'm used to movies with similar starting points turning into archetypal Odysseys, so I assumed this would follow suit. Instead, it's a much more intimate exploration of emotion and existentialism. Not at all what you'd expect from a family-friendly expansion of a web series from more than a decade ago, but damned if it doesn't work.

A big part of why it works is the movie's faith in the inherent comedy of talking shells with feet (or at least shoes) openly discussing their fears and hopes. You could actually do a version of this story with all human characters (assuming you replaced the scale and shell specific jokes), but the dialogue would be cloyingly melodramatic. But because they're shells, the movie's able to leverage the audience's already suspended disbelief to explore very big ideas openly and honestly. You're left with the sensation you're seeing something profound. It's a moving and beautiful demonstration of how powerful a silly idea can be in the right hands.

The cinematography here is likewise fantastic. The movie treats its primary location - a small, rundown house - as if it's a vast environment. The use of light and focus give the setting depth and complexity despite its size.

I'm not sure whether I'm rooting for this or Turning Red right now, but it's a hell of a movie. I should also note it's been a good year for Jenny Slate, who co-created, co-wrote, and voices the title character. And on top of all that, she also plays the dog lady in Everything Everywhere All At Once, so either she's doing a hell of a job picking A24 projects or they should start casting her in every movie they make.

The Sea Beast (2022)

This had been on my radar for a while, but kind of fell off after failing to make much of an impact (that's right - impact, not splash: I don't invoke puns lightly). The Oscar nomination bumped it up on the queue, so I gave it a watch. I enjoyed it - particularly the first half - immensely, though I was ultimately left thinking it was better an experience than a movie. And, somewhat awkwardly, it's The Sea Beast's strongest aspects that prevent it from fully working as a film.

To be clear, there was never a point in which I didn't expect this to pivot from "dark fantasy adventure" to "How to Train Your Dragon with sea serpents." Even if it hadn't been clear from the trailer, it was obvious from the start there was a twist coming. And, from an ethical point of view, it did need to be there. You can't make a kids movie where the moral is, "Hate and destroy things that are different, and believe authority without question." When I say I wanted the whole movie to continue with the tone and narrative of the first half, I'm speaking in terms of my emotional reaction and engagement, rather than any kind of serious critique.

That said, there's a reason I felt that way, and it brings us to the catch-22 that is The Sea Beast: they made the first half too good. And, so we're clear, I think that's actually a problem with the movie, at least from a structural point-of-view.

Here's the thing: the stuff about privateers on a fantasy world enlisted to hunt massive sea monsters is handled amazingly well. It draws you into their world and mindset, selling you on the nobility of their profession and romance of their lives. And, on one level, it's supposed to! It's supposed to set up the twist where we learn (surprise, surprise) that the "monsters" aren't evil; they're mostly just defending themselves. It's a good idea on paper, but - again - they did too good a job. So when the inevitable turn comes, you just want to go back to the visceral, grounded adventure that's been taken away.

And, to be frank, the mostly by-the-numbers misunderstood monsters story isn't managed well enough to make up the difference. On top of that, because this is as long as it is, it feels less like a second half and more like the film resets halfway through.

To be fair, there's some good stuff in that second half, including funny sequences, some cool action sequences (including what can only be described as an animated kaiju battle), and an ending with more thematic teeth than I expected (though I worry some of it could be misread as anti-science, rather than anti-hate and anti-capitalism).

But the second half just isn't anywhere near as good as the first, which almost makes you feel like you're on the ship (the visuals are great, but don't overlook the role sound has in creating that illusion). The closest comparison I can think of is Wall-E, which elicited a similar response from viewers, but I think there's a crucial difference. The disconnect between Wall-E's two halves didn't undermine the thematic core of the movie and prevent the story from fully connecting; here, I think it does. The movie as a whole would have been stronger if the first half hadn't been as well executed.

That said, I'm glad it was, because I just loved every second spent on that ship. They sacrificed the whole for the parts, but the first half was so good, I found it worth it for the experience.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022)

It's a catch-22 - I'd never have bothered seeing a Puss in Boots sequel if I hadn't heard it was amazing, but by the time I watched it, it was never really going to live up to the hype. To be fair, it comes close: The Last Wish does a phenomenal job building compelling emotional journeys for its main characters. And there are more main characters than you'd expect - there's a case to be made this movie belongs as much to a new character (at least I think she's new) who steals the show, just as the titular one did in Shrek 2, the last installment in the Shrek-verse I actually watched.

Which for those of you uncertain when these films came out, means I've never seen the first Puss in Boots movie. That may have been a mistake. Regardless how good or bad it might be, it would have been useful having some background on Kitty Softpaws. I don't feel like it's essential, but it would have been nice to know upfront whether she was a returning character or just being retroactively added into the backstory. It's a situation where I understood and appreciated the arc, but suspect it would be stronger if there's a sense of resonance around her presence.

The plot in The Last Wish meanders a bit and would probably have benefited from a bit of streamlining in the first act (was the cat lady sequence really the best way they could think of to introduce a few characters and conveying Puss's despair?), but on a whole it's nice to see one of these concerned more with an inner journey than saving the world (though technically I suppose there's a bit of that, as well).

Moving on to the animation, we're clearly in the post-Spider-Verse era of the medium. This borrows stylistic elements from that and Mitchells vs. the Machines, though it doesn't use them as effectively. This is using framerate mismatches, 2D shading, hand drawn flourishes, and stylized backgrounds, but it's not as clear what they're going for. I guess it looks like kids books I've seen from the early 2000s - maybe that's the reference? It looks good, but I'm not sure it's actually a better choice for this story than just updating the look of earlier installments.

Ultimately, I don't think this is on par with the top three animated movies of last year. Still, this is a well-written, well-directed exploration of character, which is a hell of a thing to be writing about the sixth theatrical movie in the Shrek franchise. It's absolutely worth seeing, and it may very well play even better to those with more of an investment in this property.


All Quiet on the Western Front (2022)

I assumed from its Best Picture nomination that this adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front would be good, but I wasn't expecting it to be quite this beautiful. I generally expect war movies (or at least antiwar movies) to be intentionally ugly. But the vast majority of the movie was instead hauntingly gorgeous. We're treated to long shots of wintery landscapes, and mountains with mist rolling off. Even the battlefields look colorful and almost magic at times.

You'd think that would undermine the message; instead it highlights the absurdity of war and the senselessness of slaughter in the face of such beauty. The war is an utterly pointless one, and the movie lays the blame at the feet of those who command it be waged in the name of honor. But the movie demonstrates again and again that real honor lies only in compassion, even when compassion is impotent to stem the loss of life.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

My thoughts on Maverick are admittedly a bit simplistic. I think I've seen the original once, and that was more than twenty years ago. I recall thinking it was fine, but it didn't leave a lasting impression on me the way it did for some of my generation.

My feelings for the follow-up are somewhat similar: I thought this was pretty good, as far as legacy sequels go, but I wasn't floored by the experience. That said, it's worth acknowledging my experience with Maverick wasn't what the filmmakers intended - I watched this on a television, not a movie screen. And given how much of the movie's appeal is based on the fact the actual actors are filmed in actual fighter jets (with Cruise even flying his), this is obviously going to feel very different on the small screen.

That said, I don't think this would have completely wowed me even if I'd gone to the theater. That's not an indictment of the film, mind you: it's more a "me" thing. I don't have a great deal of context for what real footage taken from inside a fighter jet looks like, so - honestly - it's kind of academic. I know intellectually this was the real deal, but it doesn't actually strike me as more "realistic" than, say, some of the better Star Wars dogfights from the sequel trilogy.

Incidentally, I've had similar reactions to some of the stunts in the recent Mission Impossible movies - I think it's cool that Cruise was strapped to an airplane, but I don't think it made my experience better than if they'd used visual effects. I love the Mission Impossible movies because of tone, pacing, plotting, and genre, not the choice to use practical over visual effects. Hell, I think the HALO jump in Fallout looked kind of cheesy (still a great movie, though).

I realize this isn't a common reaction among action fans, and I truly don't mean to dismiss the incredible accomplishment of pulling some of these stunts off. I understand and respect why Maverick tops so many best-of lists from last year. And, again, I still liked it quite a bit. Just not as much as fans who waited decades or are in awe they managed to film so much of the flying for real.

Tár (2022)

Fair or not, the movie Tár most reminds me of is Joker. Both are impressively shot character studies of anti-heroes centered on phenomenal lead performances, both were nominated for Best Picture, and the narratives in both jump around a lot. Hell, they're even both focused on music.

For the record, I think Tár is the better of the two, though I have a similar issue with the film. My biggest problem with Joker was that it approached an important issue and failed to really say anything. While I certainly don't believe every movie needs to offer a thesis or political stance, I do think there are subjects that really require more than asking questions if you're centering a movie around them. I thought Joker's decision to invoke the health crisis around mental illness then sort of abandon the idea was in questionable taste. I think the same is true of Tár's choice to tell a story where a lesbian abuses her power to take advantage of impressionable young women.

I spent most of the film thinking it was going somewhere. There's a through line implying Tár emulates the old, straight men who dominated her field historically, to the point she sees herself as one of them: I expected the movie to follow through on this idea and perhaps explore the idea that patriarchal systems will produce patriarchal oppressors, even if the person being transformed is a woman. Or perhaps ask whether it's possible for anyone other than an abuser to ascend into power in a system built around abusers. There are fascinating ideas posed by the movie, but they're largely abandoned in the last act. Some viewers may be satisfied with the decision to pose the question: I'd have liked the film to take a stance.

The movie's still very good, mind you. Blanchett's fantastic, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the sound design is evocative. In the interest of full disclosure, I will note that, had this not already been nominated for Best Picture, I'd most likely have a more favorable view of it. Hell, if it had been overlooked entirely, I might be fawning over how good this looked and sounded, and of course how amazing Blanchett is in the role. So take my lukewarm endorsement with a grain of salt: I think this one falls short of what I want from Best Picture winners, but it's still a pretty great film.

Women Talking (2022)

I'm almost more impressed that Women Talking winds up feeling like a movie at all than the fact it's a fantastic one. The script is really closer to a philosophical dialogue than a narrative story, at least for the first two-thirds. It is, quite literally, about a group of women debating ethical, religious, and philosophical issues to determine the best course for them to take in response to a lifetime of trauma and injustice. The inciting incident is over by the time the movie starts, and - while there are individual character arcs - it's less about the individuals than the collective.

Before going on I want to clarify that looking at this as a philosophical dialogue, I'm of the opinion is very good one. Characters represent various evolving viewpoints, they begin with only simple foundational principles, then use reason to construct a compelling philosophical system bringing them to an inevitable conclusion. Frankly, the script would be good addition to college classrooms teaching classical philosophical texts (at least in states where it's still legal to teach such things). This is a great script, but I'm not sure it was a script to a movie.

But it turns out Sarah Polley's as good a director as a philosopher, because she manages to make this feel like a film. She's not alone in deserving praise here - the cinematography, editing, and performances all go a long way to giving a movie where nothing really happens the gravitas of an epic - but she brings this together in a way that's stunning to behold. Women Talking is gorgeous to watch, emotionally engaging, and viscerally powerful: pulling that out of an extended philosophical debate is one hell of a magic trick. Frankly, it's a crime Polley wasn't nominated for Best Director.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Catch-Up, Part 11: Sequels, Prequels, Reboots, and Spin-Offs

For those just joining us, this series is where I catch up on all the movies I'm not reviewing as they're released for various reasons. Everything here is mostly recent, but not so recent I could justify an actual review.

Today's theme is franchises. All the movies I'm looking at are part of established franchises. The vast majority are superheroes, but I'm also including a number of other genre films that fit the broader definition.

Before I get to those, I actually want to back up and talk a little about a movie I reviewed a while ago that would have qualified under this topic. I recently rewatched Black Widow and discovered I liked it significantly more than on my initial viewing. I more or less stand by my critiques, but not so much the weight given to them or their effect on the whole. On rewatch, I found the themes worked better and the story was more impactful. I still wouldn't list this among my favorite MCU movies, but I expect I'd rank it in the top half - maybe even top third. It's not uncommon for me to respond to movies differently after seeing them a few times, but it's rare for my opinion to shift this much (and even rarer in this direction). And who knows: maybe I'll watch it again a year from now and find it's climbed even higher.

Now then. Let's get to the new reviews.

Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins (2021)

First, I need to partially retract something I've said a few times in the past. While discussing recent Fast and Furious movies, I've repeated variations of the idea that franchise was a better approximation of GI Joe cartoons than the actual GI Joe franchise could ever hope be in live-action. While I still think F&F offers a delightfully updated spin on one aspect of GI Joe, it certainly doesn't reflect the whole experience.

Neither does Snake Eyes, to be honest, but that's at least partly by design. This isn't a particularly tech heavy story, and as such we're not treated to all the silly toy vehicles that form a major component of Joe. But you know what this does have? Magic rocks and mystical snakes. That's right: this has the ridiculous fantasy aspect covered.

Also, we get ninja with inexplicably superhuman abilities, including the titular character. Where did he get these abilities? We never find out, nor should we care. This is a movie about cartoonish characters with cartoonish abilities doing cartoonish things. It's a dumb, campy, cheesy adventure... and it is so damn refreshing.

I hate that this bombed at the box office. I blame the marketing, which made it look mostly grounded. I suppose critics deserve a little more credit, as this is the highest rated film in the series on Rotten Tomatoes: it's at 35%.

I'm guessing they'll reboot again rather than continue this iteration of the franchise, which is a shame. This feels like the start to a version of GI Joe that would eventually get to Serpentor and do the character justice. It's pure, unapologetic Saturday morning fun that's willing to be stupid in order to be entertaining. Precisely 0% of this movie is boring, and I can't think of a better compliment to anything in this franchise.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

It's kind of fascinating seeing a Ryan Coogler movie that has fundamental structural flaws, in part because it has the counterintuitive effect of highlighting just how good a director he is. Wakanda Forever is the first film from Coogler that doesn't feel like an instant classic. There are characters and subplots that should have been cut, sequences that are out of place, and moments that feel contrived. And yet, the stuff that does work - character moments, emotional beats, and beautifully framed sequences - still feels like it's been crafted by a master. Usually when comic book movies don't work, everything feels slapdash: here, you can see the care and love poured into the story. And, frankly, the majority of the movie's pretty great.

Having Shuri's arc mirror that of her brother in Civil War was clever, and I love the scenes between her and her mother, as well as her interactions with Namor. And speaking of Namor, the MCU's first actual anti-hero is incredible here. I'm not sure any other comics character has pulled off this radical of a reimagining while still capturing everything significant about the source material. This is simultaneously completely new and a perfect adaptation of one of Marvel's first characters: that's a hell of an accomplishment.

I'm not sure how the scene in the Ancestral Plane didn't get spoiled for me, but I'm thrilled it wasn't: that was incredible, both from a conceptual standpoint and as an experience. It was exciting and unnerving at once: I absolutely loved it.

But for all its merits, the movie is definitely a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts, mostly because some of those parts don't work with the larger narrative. Specifically, the three American characters - Riri Williams, Everett Ross, and Valentina - feel like distractions rather than additions. For what it's worth, I love all these characters, but they just didn't fit in this movie. Ironheart, in particular, feels like she's been wedged in: her motives keep changing from scene to scene and never really make sense in context. My guess is she's here to set up her Disney+ series (which, to be fair, I am excited about). But the subplot to chase her down just draws attention away from Shuri, Queen Ramonda, and Namor, who are really the core of the movie. And they were already competing for screen time with Okoye and Nakia.

Sorry, quick side note. I think this movie has issues, but it's cool as hell to see a superhero team-up where all the principal protagonists are women of color. 

Now back to those issues. I think Okoye and Nakia's stories would have worked better if they'd removed the subplot in America. Both characters are still fun as it is, but this never quite comes together the way the first one did. The first Black Panther managed to juggle a huge number of characters and plot threads, but because everything came back to the central theme and plot, Coogler made it work. That wasn't really the case here: Ironheart, Nakia, Okoye, and Ross all have their own mini-arcs, but connections to the central story feel forced. Pulling out the American characters wouldn't entirely have fixed this, but it would have made it much less noticeable.

There were also a handful of times compositing fell short of the otherwise beautiful effects, though this is both an ongoing issue with Marvel and with movies completed during the pandemic in general. It's not a huge issue, but considering how much of Wakanda Forever was jaw-dropping, the occasional sequence where an actor was superimposed into a scene where they clearly weren't present became annoyingly obvious.

Overall, this one was mixed, though the good stuff in the mix was better than we generally get from genre movies that aren't obvious homeruns. I wish there'd been less focus on setting up future installments (assuming that's what happened here), but overall the good definitely outweighed the bad.  

No Time to Die (2021)

I grew up watching the Bond movies with my father (we were particularly fond of the Connery era). I wouldn't say it was ever my favorite franchise, but this series will always have a place in my heart. My wife is a fan of the books - I've read a handful myself. We also own every movie in the franchise, with the exception of Spectre (which, despite what I write below, I intend to rectify).

I love Casino Royale and even had a generally positive reaction to Quantum of Solace (though I last saw it in the theater). I like Skyfall despite some major reservations about the script. As for Spectre, I consider it one of the five worst films in the franchise (the others being Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, Moonraker, and Octopussy). Spectre took the series' most interesting antagonist and reimagined him in the least interesting way possible. Everything about the movie was uninspired, and the film as a whole was astonishingly boring.

One thing I'll say about No Time to Die is I never found it boring. Frankly, there was always more than enough going to hold my attention and keep me emotionally engaged throughout. The problem is the emotion I had wasn't what they were going for. I spent the entirety of No Time to Die on the verge of bursting out laughing.

In theory, this was supposed to be a somber, serious film about legacy and sacrifice. It's a mirror image of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, a fact it broadcasts loudly and clearly in a myriad different ways. It wants to be powerful and have a lasting impact. And it is hilariously, comically, unbelievably clumsy in its attempt.

For the record, that's far preferable to boring. But it approaches Her Majesty's Secret Service the way Star Trek Into Darkness does Wrath of Khan, only Into Darkness managed basic elements of filmmaking, such as shot-to-shot continuity and character motivation. No Time to Die is just an incoherent mess that left me surprised there were only seven credited writers. 

I'm not kidding when I say I had fun watching this. It didn't take long for me to realize what kind of movie I was seeing, and then I just sat back and enjoyed the ridiculous absurdity of the script, coupled with some legitimately great action sequences. It's between $250 and $300 million dollars spent to conclude a franchise (or at least this iteration of that franchise) in something best described as "so bad it's good."

But, hey, at least we didn't get another Spectre.

Hellboy (2019)

This benefits from comically low expectations, but overall... I didn't hate this. It's a long way from good, mind you. Structurally, it's a mess of sequences, characters, and ideas tossed together in a halfhearted attempt to touch on as many "greatest hits" from the comics as possible, regardless of whether any of them actually belonged in this story. It's more or less a by-the-numbers remake of the first del Toro film, minus the competency.

And yet there's still a lot of good stuff tossed in. The effects may be inconsistent, but when they're good (which usually equates to when they're practical), they're really quite ingenious. The short bits, considered out of context, hit as often as they miss.

If this had delivered a halfway decent ending, I think I'd actually defend it as a pretty solid entry in its genre. It... didn't do that, opting instead to mimic the 2004 ending with a few minor, dumb alterations, resulting in an almost comically inane conclusion. But, again, this isn't a "greater than the sum of its parts" kind of movie.

This isn't good, but as a throwback to the early 00's hastily thrown-together genre flicks, it's diverting enough to be better than it's 18% on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest. Not much better, mind you, but maybe a hair (or, if you're feeling generous, maybe even a horn).

Glass (2019)

I know I'm in the minority here, but I loved this. Honestly, I think it's one of may favorite Shyamalan films, right up there with Signs. I like it more than Unbreakable and far more than Split.

It's not perfect, of course: Shyamalan movies never are. Some of the dialogue feels unnatural, and Anya Taylor-Joy's arc was in questionable taste. But the movie as a whole just worked for me. I loved the twist, despite suspecting it early on. As a fan of superhero movies, I found the three main characters fascinating. And the ending felt right for this series. I understand why some fans were upset, but I really enjoyed it.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

It's fine. Parts are better than fine: the mini-marshmallow men sequence was great. I also liked the gag with Sigourney at the end. And Phoebe's great - I liked her character a lot. I also thought this did a good job recreating the flavor of the original.

But, God, the pacing drags. There are extraneous plot lines and characters who only seem to be present so the Ghostbusters count can add up to four. The brother should have been cut entirely.

Overall, it's fun enough as a throwback, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. This could have and definitely should have been better.

I find it astonishing anyone ranks this above the 2016 reboot, which took the franchise in new directions. I didn't hate this, but it's nowhere near the same league. It's closer to Ghostbusters 2, and even then falls a little short.

The Craft Legacy (2020)

Something went terribly, terribly wrong here.

At least that's my guess, because when I actually take a step back, the underlying framework to this seems like a solid starting point. You've got a plot that appears to be mirroring that of the original with a big twist at the end of the second act. You've got a protagonist secretly connected to said original in an interesting (albeit kind of played out) way. You've got a completely different source of conflict...

But not only does none of that add up to a satisfying film, the way it's presented undercuts the individual elements so completely, you have to deconstruct it to realize there was ever something good here at all.

Let's take another step back and talk about what this is. That's... kind of hard, actually, because "what it is" is watered down to the point it's barely anything. It's not horror. It's not comedy. It's not drama. I suppose it's technically fantasy, but just barely.

If anything, I'd describe the experience as analogous to watching an overlong CW pilot. Compare that to the original, which...

Okay, honestly, the original also kind of feels like a CW pilot, but it's got a bit of an edge to it. So, maybe a better CW pilot? Legacy just doesn't work as a movie. The finale is laughably cheap - I'm not exaggerating when I say it would have felt cheap for television in the 90's.

I'm astonished this was released in its current form. The Craft franchise isn't exactly the most valuable one out there, but it deserves better than this. Whether this got kneecapped by the studio (looking at you, Black Christmas) or the director made some serious miscalculations, the end result is a movie that neither works as a satisfying continuation or as a standalone picture reimagined for a new generation.

Simply put, this is a bad movie.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021)

I think it's kind of good?

It's honestly difficult to gauge. The movie is leaning into the absurd contradictions of 1990's comics. For all the dark, brooding, violent appearance, most comics from that era were silly, campy things. They were childish stories pretending to be what kids thought "grown-up" stuff was.

Let There Be Carnage seems to understand this and embraces the flavor of the time. It's completely absurd, and intentionally stupid. And, largely because it's not putting on airs of anything else, it's a great deal of cartoonish fun.

In some ways, it feels like a good version of the comic book movies that came out in droves in the early 2000's: think Ghost Rider, Daredevil, Catwoman, or Green Lantern... only better. I'm not a big fan of that era (though I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the first Ghost Rider), but that's mainly because it grated on me that the source material was complicated and nuanced, while studios at the time seemed embarrassed to be adapting them.

Venom doesn't really have that issue. The concept was always silly - a more serious approach wouldn't suit it.

Let There Be Carnage is basically a comedy (and a romantic comedy, at that), and on that level it absolutely works. I almost wish they'd just skipped Carnage altogether and made this entirely about the relationship between Eddie and the symbiote. Not that Carnage doesn't have his moments, too.

You almost get the impression they set out to make the most fun bad movie they could, and mostly succeeded. Does that add up to a good film? Why get bogged down with semantics - the movie's enjoyable as an intentionally juvenile comedy adventure, and I recommend it on that level.

Eternals (2021)

Well, I guess I'm in the minority, because I kind of love this. Tonally, it's very different than where the bulk of MCU movies fall, but I have no issue with that. Frankly, the Marvel movies have gotten a bit monotone recently, at least for my tastes. It's nice to get something a bit more operatic.

This definitely felt more like what we've come to associate with DC than Marvel, though that's more a case of the movie franchises doubling down on certain styles and tones than anything inherent in the source material. Regardless, I've seen this described as more or less similar to a Zack Snyder film (I believe the director even cited Man of Steel as an influence). And I definitely see it: Chloe Zhao approaches superheroes in a similar way.

Only - and I say this as someone who will still defend Man of Steel - she's so much better at this than he is. For one thing, Zack Snyder gravitates towards edgy content, while Zhao goes for drama and emotion. If Eternals is a DC movie in disguise, it's DC circa 2010, while Zack Snyder's stuck in the 90's. Also, for my money the aesthetics in this are far better than what we got in The Snyder Cut (though I'll carve out an exception for The Flash - I thought Zack Snyder did some extremely cool things with that power set).

There were aspects of this I'd have liked changed, sure. A few scenes were unnecessary, some elements and ideas didn't entirely make sense, and some of the non-effects sequences looked off to me, but overall... I just really enjoyed this. I'm not sure whether they're actually going to deliver on their promise these characters will return given the movie's lackluster reception, but if they can justify a sequel, I'll gladly watch it.

Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)

Remember when people used to believe superhero movies couldn't work if they featured more than two villains? Proud to say I never bought that hypothesis: if you get the script right, you can fit almost any number of significant characters - heroes or villains - and deliver a good product. That doesn't mean you're not making it harder on yourself, but the people behind the MCU Spider-Man movies have never been afraid of a challenge.

This is an impressive movie, particularly if we're focusing on the script. It juggles a lot of characters, relationships, and ideas, and it does so surprisingly well. That's not to say it never fumbles - there are certainly moments it chooses fan service over a satisfying emotional arc - but it works far more often than not.

I will say some of the effects fall short of the writing. You can see where the limitations of shooting during a pandemic results in a product less polished than the material deserves. For what amounts to an Endgame-level event for the Spider-franchise, some key sequences really feel a generation behind in terms of production value.

But at the end of the day, the writing and acting pulls it through. It's really a fantastically made homage to the character's onscreen history, as well as an exploration of what makes Peter Parker compelling as a hero.

On a personal note, I have some reservations about the resolution, particularly as it pertains to relationships from past MCU installments. I understand and respect the choices made here, but I question whether the added flexibility for future solo Spider-Man movies counterbalances the lost connections and unanswered questions for the MCU as a whole.

That's all nerdy conjecture, though, and it doesn't really pertain to this movie on its own. No Way Home is an effective, funny, emotional Spider-Man story that wraps up a number of loose ends most of us wrote off years ago. It's a great movie despite some compositing mishaps and effects limitations. Overall, I enjoyed this.

Teen Titans Go! & DC Super Hero Girls: Mayhem in the Multiverse (2022)

The first and most surprising thing about this crossover team-up is it's not really a crossover or a superhero team-up. I mean, technically there's a crossover in it, and the two groups do briefly team-up, but the significance and screen time given to the Titans is grossly overstated. This is a Super Hero Girls movie with what's best described as an extended cameo from the Titans. Honestly, I suspect there was an earlier draft that didn't include them at all.

If so, I kind of wish they'd make that version. The Titans bits are funny, but they clash with the tone and focus of the movie. Aside from the Titans stuff, this is an unusually serious Super Hero Girls story. Granted, that's speaking relatively: the Super Hero Girls only get so serious, but this does walk up to that line. It's clearly intended as an extension of the series building on established character arcs and plot threads.

Each of the six heroines (actually, make that seven, due to... never mind: that'd be spoiling) has a story arc here, and they're all good. In contrast, none of the Titans do (at least not really), though Raven is given a good moment. 

One thing worth noting is that you should really catch up with the series before tracking down the movie. I'm a season behind, and it actually did matter a bit. There were developments I wasn't aware of, though it wasn't hard to catch up.

Regardless, it's a strong movie with some great moments and jokes. I just think it would have hit a lot harder without the occasional cutaways to the Titans' antics, most of which felt tacked on and unnecessary.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Ten Recent-ish Movies You Need to See but Haven't

This is sort of an installment in my "Catch-Up" series of short reviews, but rather than filtering by genre, I'm highlighting some of the best movies of the past five or six years I suspect slipped under your radar. That means, I'm intentionally leaving off anything that did remotely well in theaters - to be eligible a movie basically needs to either have bombed, been released to a hilariously small number of screens, or gone right to streaming. And if it's the latter, it better not have been a major cultural milestone (e.g., Happiest Season isn't on this list, because everyone knows about it and most everyone's seen it). Likewise, no movies that already won dozens of major awards or franchise installments appear below. The point of this is to gather up the stuff I suspect you either haven't heard of or skipped and forgot about.

A few of these are movies I've discussed here in the past. They're not in any particular order - they're not ranked or anything - but all are worth checking out.

Vesper (2022)

Technically, Vesper is a Lithuanian science-fiction film from last year, but it's difficult to convey how little that actually communicates about the experience of watching this fascinating, unique film. Imagine a live-action Miyazaki movie, fused with Terry Gilliam, centered around something from Grimm's Fairy Tales, and set in post-apocalyptic medieval Europe. Now picture that getting shipped into Area X from Annihilation. Vesper is basically the movie you'd expect to emerge a few weeks later.

Sounds pretty damn good, right? Yeah, well, it is.

Throw in some innovative visual effects (mostly practical) that are evocative, creepy, and hauntingly beautiful, and you've got something extraordinary. The setting and tone are so good, I barely even cared that the story was effective, the theme timely, the cast really good, and the characters all interesting: that stuff felt like icing. I'd be recommending this even if it weren't smart and well constructed, but as a nice bonus, it's both those things.

I should mention there's some disturbing imagery in here. Nothing too bad; just be aware there's some gnarly R-rated stuff in this that might make you squirm. And, for what it's worth, it belongs here. The freaky stuff enhances the world, and is eerily beautiful, like everything else in this film.

I didn't watch and review this in time to make my 2022 ranking, but if I had it would be in either the 2nd or 1st place. I really love this one, and strongly encourage fans of science-fiction or fantasy to check it out. It's truly special.

Cyrano (2022)

I never know whether to date these by technical release dates or US openings. If you prefer the former, than this was 2021, not 2022. But - despite being an absolutely fantastic musical reimagining of the classic story - Cyrano's release didn't really make much of a dent in either year. Pity. I really like this one.

I hardly know what to highlight. Everything from the costumes to the cinematography to the cast (Dinklage, in particular) is fantastic. But maybe the most memorable aspect is the music: I'd listen to these songs on their own. Stylistically, they lean towards pop/rock, and they're well written, well sung, and cleverly shot in ways blending the period of the setting with musical videos from eras being referenced. Think MTV meets Shakespeare in Love: it's a blast to watch and hear.

The closest thing I have to a criticism is the movie feels like it's being held back by the simplicity of the story it's telling. The psychology just doesn't hit as hard as the music, acting, or directing. But if the biggest problem I have with your adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac is that it's still "just" Cyrano de Bergerac... well... that's not actually a shortcoming.

This is absolutely worth seeing if you haven't already. I wish a few of these fantastic musicals would make money - we're living through a renaissance in the genre, but it seems unlikely to last if these keep bombing at the box office. 

The Little Hours (2017)

I watched this having no idea what it was, when it took place, or what the tone was going to be. If you, too, don't know what "The Little Hours" is, go to Amazon (it's playing on Prime) and start watching (assuming there are no young children around). Do it now. Don't read the rest of this review, don't look at the synopsis, and FOR THE LOVE OF GOD do not watch the trailer.

Seriously. Avoid the trailer like the plague until you see the movie. Feel free to check it out after - it works well as a fun recap - but the real joy of The Little Hours comes from experiencing its surprises as they're offered. There are moments in the movie that had me howling with laughter in absolute delight - they wouldn't have had anywhere near the same impact if I'd been anticipating them. And the trailer gives them all away.

I'm going to avoid spoiling as much as possible, but - again - I highly recommend you watch this knowing as little as possible. I already feel bad revealing it's a comedy: the movie is built out of surprises, and that extends to the genre.

A big part of what makes this work for me is the style. It's a comedy, but it isn't at all filmed like one. Everything in this, from the color palette to the lettering in the credits, evokes period dramas made in the 1960s and 70s, and - despite a cast of legendary comedians - this doesn't really wink or acknowledge that. It's shot very seriously and edited with straightforward music choices, and all of that highlights the absolute joyful absurdity of the film itself.

Only in some ways that description isn't doing the movie justice. The movie's comical approach hides the fact that, at least on occasion, it's absurd recreation of the past is likely more historically accurate than many of the self-serious dramas out there. One scene in particular (again, I'm really trying not to give anything away) had me in awe at how much more believable the characters' behavior was than perhaps any other movie I've seen set in a similar time.

I hope you stopped reading this a paragraph or two in and rushed to check it out. The Little Hours slipped under the radar in 2017 and seems to have largely disappeared since, and that's a tragedy. I'd easily rank this within the top 5 best comedies of the past decade I've seen, at least in terms of the overall joy I experienced watching it. Please, do yourself a favor and give this a chance.

The House (2022)

Further eroding the line between movies and miniseries, I suspect Netflix's release, The House, was conceived as the latter but presented as the former. But the sake of simplicity, this was released as a single, movie-length anthology, so I'm going to take it as such. 

Complicating issues around classification, this is officially a "dark comedy," but I don't see that at all. The first two stories are horror, while the third is sort of a surreal post-apocalyptic yarn. Sure, there are some comedic moments tossed in, but no more than you'd expect from the average horror flick (quite a bit less, in my opinion). I'm assuming this got labeled as comedy because two of the three parts feature anthropomorphic animals. But that's a feature of style, not of genre, and in this case it's liable to be misleading.

I should also note this one isn't for kids. The stories are actually kind of scary, and - while it pulls a few punches - things don't end particularly well for most of the main characters. Also, if you give a fuck about naughty words, this has a few. If you're looking to calibrate, I'd say you'd want to wait a few years for this after your kid's old enough to watch something like Coraline without nightmares. It's creepy, disturbing, and more mature than most people are used to seeing in this medium.

Whatever this is, it's absolutely breathtaking, a gorgeously animated stop-motion production exploring some very dark concepts. This explores the dangers of materialism, capitalism, and obsession. But at the same time, it's beautiful. Each of the three stories looks and feels unique. The first features characters and objects made of felt, similar to what Robin Robin used but to quite literally the opposite effect. The second looks the most like something Laika might do if they wanted to traumatize their younger viewers (more than usual, I mean). And the third almost feels like it's channeling Wes Anderson via The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

I loved them all. The artistry on display is really incredible, and the tone is a good reminder that stop motion has applications beyond "kid's stuff." For those of you familiar with the 1988 Czech film, Něco z Alenky (you might know this as the adaptation of Alice in Wonderland with stop-motion taxidermy), this has a similar vibe. I'm really happy to see something this weird and pretty popping up on Netflix. What a treat.

See You Yesterday (2019)

While it could have used a bit more money, time, and maybe an additional draft to punch up a few key scenes, See You Yesterday is still a fascinating entry in the time-travel subgenre. It uses the concept of fate vs. will as a metaphor that's both effective and original, which is alone enough of a reason to check this out on Netflix. On top of that, it's well made and engaging as a genre flick, even setting aside the larger questions it's asking.

It's worth noting this is a bit deceptive. The movie begins as a sort of silly adventure, before ultimately veering into darker, heavier territory. I don't think this is a problem, but I suspect the tonal shift will be off-putting to audiences looking for easy answers and happy endings.

Which brings us into spoiler territory, because I don't think any discussion of See You Yesterday can proceed without touching on the resolution. Or perhaps lack thereof? I go back and forth on whether the last shot is tragic, optimistic, or ambiguous, which is likely the point. This is a movie about the sense of vertigo communities feel reliving what must feel like the same tragedies again and again. Structurally, the movie tells us Claudette's refusal to accept this is a tragic flaw. One interpretation of the ending is that she'll inevitably destroy herself trying to stop inevitable tragedy. In a sense, this is the easiest interpretation, as it adheres to traditional tropes and character archetypes. In a "normal" time travel story, a character who behaves as the protagonist does and ignores the warnings she refuses to accept is typically doomed.

But this isn't just a time travel story, and the thing Claudette trying to change isn't trivial or selfishly motivated. If anything, it feels like the movie is setting up the idea that fate should be accepted in order to dare us to confront the ramifications of apathy. In context, Claudette's response is the noble one, despite going against the conventional moral of the genre.

But the movie doesn't ultimately reward this with a happy ending. Instead, it closes with her continuing her mission, very possibly indefinitely or until it destroys her. Or, perhaps, until her refusal to accept the world as is overcomes the forces of inertia opposing her. In a sense, the movie is asking us which will win in the end: is the will to change greater than the cycle of loss?

And I wish I could say I found that ending uplifting. Perhaps it was supposed to be, but watching this four years later, I feel like the intervening time provided an answer. It's heartbreaking in retrospect, whether that was intended or not.

Barb and Star go to Vista del Mar (2021)

I was completely unprepared for this movie.

I'm not sure where I got the idea that this was a light comedy with some drama, but that's what I was expecting: a conventional comedy. A simple movie built on tone. Nothing too extreme.

Imagine my surprise three minutes in when the supervillain showed up. This is a completely absurd, over-the-top farce. Imagine a middle-aged women's answer to Harold and Kumar, Bill and Ted, or... whatever the names of the characters were in Dude, Where's My Car.

Only those comparisons aren't exact. All of those movies are centered around young men and have fairly similar tones. Barb and Star are in their forties. That alone is game-changing, but this also looks and feels completely different. It's cartoonishly bright, with elaborate musical numbers. There are sequences that almost look like Wes Anderson with the saturation turned up. 

All of which is to say that while this feels like a spiritual cousin to the films listed above, it's not really in the same genre. If those are essentially stoner comedies, maybe this is a mimosa farce. Call it whatever you want, it feels fresh and new, which is extraordinarily rare. On its own, that's already enough a reason to recommend it.

But also... it's completely hilarious. Just a riot, start to finish. I loved it.

The one caveat I might offer is that it's a lot to take in. I ended up watching this in two parts, which was a good way to experience it: at almost two hours, it's a bit overwhelming without a break. I wouldn't call that a flaw - the movie never stops being funny - but I'm glad I saw this at home rather than in a theater.

To be clear, if the biggest issue with your comedy is it's too much fun for one sitting... that's a pretty good sign. Definitely check this one out.

Pig (2021)

It's admittedly a stretch including this here, as it picked up a fair number of awards and has been widely promoted by movie fans online. But it was snubbed at the Oscars, and it made virtually nothing in theaters (though, to be fair, it cost almost nothing to make, too).

And it is really fantastic. If you haven't seen it and know nothing about it, just stop reading now. The less you know, the better: this plays with your expectations and subverts your genre expectations in ways I never imagined.

Even aside from that, it's fantastic. This is one of Nicholas Cage's best performances, right up with Mandy (side note: I'm assuming you've all seen Mandy - otherwise, consider that an eleventh row on this list). Pig is an emotionally complex, philosophically moving film everyone should see.  

Petite Maman (2021)

I'm going to stagger how I describe this in the hopes anyone reading this review will stop as soon as possible then watch the movie before I even touch on the premise or genre. Let's start with the three pieces of information that convinced me to watch this the same day I heard it existed. First, it's written and directed by Céline Sciamma, the visionary who made Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which if you somehow haven't seen it... go watch that now, because it raises the bar for how good movies can look and be. Second, it's 72 minutes long, so it's not going to eat up your evening. Third, it's streaming on Kanopy, a service you most likely have free access to if you have a library card in your wallet.

If that's enough, great, we're done here, at least until you've seen it, which - again - will only take an hour and change. It's not so much that I think knowing details about the movie will spoil it (this isn't that kind of movie), but there's no reason to rob yourself of the enjoyment of allowing the story to unfold in its own time. Because pacing and tone are major components in what makes this special. But you probably already figured that out from the "written and directed by Céline Sciamma" part.

I'll also add, for those still around, this one's appropriate for kids, provided they're old enough to manage the subtitles. Actually, a more accurate description would be "appropriate for adults," because (surprise) this is a kid's movie. As in, told from a child's point of view in ways that will resonate with a child and doesn't include objectionable material. Petite Maman is more or less G-rated.

But it's a kid's movie with depth, sincerity, and nuance. Think Prancer, as a reference point, or just go with the movies the director herself cited as inspiration: the works of Miyazaki.

Okay, see, now we're drifting dangerously close to revealing the genre, because this isn't just a beautifully told drama about a young girl coping with a difficult time and struggling to understand her mother. I mean, it's also that, and that'd be enough in the hands of a director like Sciamma, but...

It's also a time-travel story. Tonally, more fantasy time-travel than science-fiction, in that it doesn't care how or why it's occurring, doesn't contend with the usual tropes, and is instead only interested in the way the kids react to the magic around them. Which in this case can more or less be summed up as quiet amusement. She understands what's happening, appreciates the opportunity, and eventually discusses it with her mother's younger self, but neither express amazement or wonder at what's going on. It's just another thing they don't really understand in a world that's already more complicated than adults admit. So they do what kids do: they become friends, play, and talk.

Of course there are themes of growing up, of exploring the past, of coming to understand your parents as changing beings... and all that's really great. But what I found the most refreshing was a live-action movie with a realistic tone where kids just kind of casually explore a classic genre trope as if it's just another interesting path in the woods.

Blow the Man Down (2020)

This does for my home state of Maine what I imagine the Coen Brothers did for the Midwest: remind me why I left.

Okay, that's at least half a joke (I still love you, Maine), but this captures something about my home state in the months tourists stay away. It's a Maine of old buildings and towns built around industries that have been gone a generation. It's a ghost story where the ghost is the entire setting, where the people inhabit a spirit rather than the other way around.

This one came and went without garnering much attention, but it stayed with me.

Shadow in the Cloud (2020)

Yeah, I'm recommending this again. Probably not for the last time, either: I just love the hell out of this movie. It's weird and fascinating in ways horror and action movies never are. It pivots between genres brilliantly, exploiting a change in tone to enhance its story rather than break it. And the entire last act is just perfection, culminating in a final fight that breaks every rule in every book, delivering something that surprised and delighted me.

Be aware the credited writer is a horrible human being, but don't hold this against the movie. Based on some interviews I've read, it sounds like Director Roseanne Liang more or less rewrote the entire thing anyway.

Please, track this down. It's amazing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Movie Review: Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical

The thing that kept running through my head at a crucial yet objectively silly moment in the middle of this objectively silly story is there must have been a point when this was being planned and various members of the cast and crew were meeting with the director to ask how he wanted to handle the sequence in question. The design of the movie is fundamentally whimsical with flourishes of expressionism, it's all of course based on a children's book, and - I really can't stress this enough - the crux of the story hinges on the sort of ridiculous, bizarre revelation that defines Dahl's writing. And all I can imagine watching the finished film is director Matthew Warchus must have thought about for a moment and said something along the lines of, "Fuck it. Act like it's Shakespeare."

Because as silly as the premise, backstory, and designs are, as absurd as some of the cartoon physics and musical numbers get, the heart of this adaptation keeps returning to emotionally rich sequences built on honest depictions of trauma, hope, and pain. It's the kind of gambit directors rarely make in these kinds of movies, because when they don't work, the result is a mess of conflicting tones and melodrama. But in the rare circumstances it does work, you end up with the sort of bizarre, operatic masterpieces generations remember for the rest of their lives. The Last Unicorn, The Secret of N.I.M.H., Watership Down, Coraline... and now Roald Dahl's Matilda: the Musical.

I'm honestly not sure whether or not this will obtain the kind of cultural saturation to leave that kind of legacy behind, given the transitory nature of Netflix's business model. They don't really do much to promote their films, so this could end up buried in a week or two under the weight of their next eighty additions. But the kids who see this now are going to remember it. This is the right blend of nightmare fuel, honest emotion, and weird visuals that can set up shop inside a kid's head and lead them into a life of art.

Or maybe turn them into revolutionaries, because the politics of this thing aren't subtle. The movie shrugs off the adage "two wrongs can't make a right," then responds with a feature-length metaphor about how all methods of resistance are justified in the fight against fascism. Lies, subterfuge, violence, psychological warfare... whatever it takes. I haven't read the book this is based on since... I don't know... third grade maybe? So I honestly don't know how much of that subtext appeared in the original. My guess is it was there, but for a variety of reasons, it most likely wasn't obvious. Here, it's barely subtext. Kids probably won't entirely understand the message at first, but it could very well stick with them (fingers crossed).

There are several reasons this works, beyond the fact it's directed well. The cast deserves a great deal of credit here, particularly Alisha Weir and Lashana Lynch, who play Matilda and Miss Honey. Together, they form the emotional center of the movie, and this would have failed if either hadn't been able to convey real depth at several key moments. Emma Thompson should also be celebrated, as she delivers a phenomenally over-the-top villainous performance in a mech suit's worth of Oscar-caliber prosthetics and makeup. The movie could probably still have worked without her, but it wouldn't have been as much fun. The whole ensemble is good, really, including a small army of children who sell some elaborate song and dance scenes.

Speaking of, the songs are good. I realize that's a carryover from the play, but that doesn't change the fact it's enjoyable to listen to. More importantly, the music manages to enhance tone, develop themes, and add depth to the characters' emotional journeys: you know, all that stuff songs are supposed to do in musicals.

I should note my wife, who has an actual background in theater, detected artifacts where songs were likely cut down or references were omitted. She still liked the movie, but wasn't quite as impressed as I was.

I should also mention some minor characters felt underutilized. Matilda's classmates, in particular, felt more like references to the book than characters in their own right. I don't consider this a major flaw, but it's one area where the movie could have used more time. Fingers crossed for an extended cut, I suppose.

Regardless, this is a fantastic movie. I really hope kids discover it: this is the kind of movie a generation could watch when they're seven and find themselves discussing in college.