Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Movie Review: Coco

Coco is the sort of beautiful, engrossing movie that reminds audiences why Pixar is the absolute best there is in computer animation. The characters' emotions are relatable, the setting is vivid, and story flows organically. And let's not lose sight of the fact it offers some welcome cultural representation.

And, if this weren't 2017, if their record of featuring women as the central lead was better than three out of nineteen, if John Lasseter's name hadn't been plastered across the screen on the same day he stepped down over vague harassment issues... if any of those weren't the case, I suspect the rest of this review would just be an expansion of that first paragraph. It's a Pixar movie, with everything positive that implies.

But things being what they are, I feel like I need to address the misogyny permeating this otherwise wonderful movie.

I spent quite a bit of time weighing whether that's the right word, but I really think it is. The movie features three female characters in predominant roles. One, the title character, is basically a hundred year-old variation on the sexy lamp test - in a real sense, she's a device that the male characters care for and want to adjust, but she has no character or agency herself. I'm making her role sound a little worse than it is - in context, it makes sense, and if the movie had more female characters, it wouldn't be worth bringing up at all.

Let's talk about the other two women. Actually, calling them two separate characters might be generous - they're functionally reflections of each other. That's by design - one is the deceased grandmother of the other, who's filling her ancestor's shoes (quite literally). Think the Wizard of Oz (which is pretty clearly the inspiration for Coco's story); the family matriarch exists in both worlds the way the Lion, Woodsman, and Scarecrow were double-cast.

They're not exactly the movie's antagonists, but they are its primary obstacles. I'll spell it out: due to something that happened generations earlier, the family has outlawed music of any form in their home. Don't get too bogged down in the Footloose aspects - the movie sells this better than you'd think, and it's not the main problem. The issue is that the power and will behind this ultimatum lies fully with these two matriarchs, both of whom are irrational and headstrong to the point of being cruel. This is the stereotypical cold spinster - a classic sexist trope. Hell, one is actually a woman scorned: that's her motivation.

And that's the sum total of women in significant roles. There are a few bit parts, some of which come off a touch more sympathetic. The main character's mom seemed fine in her brief seconds on screen, and there were a few other small roles, but nothing adding up to much. Unless I'm forgetting a throwaway scene (and I don't think I am), this doesn't come close to passing the Bechdel Test.

There is redemption for the women by the end, including some pretty great moments for the original matriarch, but it doesn't entirely address the root problem. Over the course of the movie, the two male leads go on a journey, both literal and spiritual, and learn a lesson. The two female characters, on the other hand, are taught a lesson by the men: that's not the same thing.

This was less an issue with this movie than a pervasive problem at Pixar. If it weren't for the confluence of events I mentioned at the start, I don't think I'd have devoted more than a sentence or two to the movie's depiction of women. But while Pixar has given us some of the best animated movies ever made, the company has a bad history with women. They made twelve movies centered around men before they made one with a woman. For a brief period, it seemed like they might have addressed the issue - we got Brave, Inside-Out, and Finding Dory in a relatively short span of time (all great movies).

But it seems like we've taken a step back, and that's a shame. In part, because this is a really good movie. I found it moving, funny, and both visually and aurally spectacular. But every time one of the two main women did something horribly cruel or irrational for the point of giving the men something to overcome, I was reminded that there's something rotten on Pixar's head. And I found myself wondering whether removing the infection for six months was really going to be enough time for the company to heal.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Movie Review: Justice League

How do you make a sequel to what's almost certainly the worst movie of its genre? Hell, Batman V Superman might be the worst movie of any genre, at least in terms of missed opportunities and bad decisions (incidentally, if you haven't seen the first part of this YouTube miniseries, you're missing out).

Warner Bros' solution seems to have been to throw two directors, a stack of studio notes cribbed from every negative review, and - if rumors are to be believed - three hundred million dollars at the screen, in the hopes of getting something remotely watchable.

And... honestly... they kind of succeeded.

I know, I'm as surprised as you are. But while I wouldn't call the movie good, the vast majority is absurdist fun in the form of an unabashed love letter to the DC Universe and its history.

But what's the movie like? That part's easy - this is camp to the core. Aside from an extremely dull thirty or forty minute chunk of the film that tried to wring out some drops of drama, this feels more like a big-screen version of Superfriends, Adam West, or Batman: Brave and the Bold than a continuation of the franchise. The movie that made it to screen is basically an extended self-aware joke, for better or worse.

Granted, it's a movie fraying at the seams. Remember that scene in BvS where Flash traveled in time and appeared briefly in the Batcave? It's pretty clear how that was going to tie in with the resurrection of Superman, but the entire subplot was abandoned in favor of a streamlined story. The resurrection story that's left is hilariously idiotic, lacking any real tension or payoff, but - again - that's probably better than the alternative. Superman's return to the land of the living here is as emotionally hollow as his death, but at least Justice League has some fun with it.

And - credit where credit's due - the Superman who appears in this movie is damn near pitch-perfect. Henry Cavill finally gets to demonstrate he was a good choice for the part all along - he just needed a film where he was allowed to smile. Plus, it's hard to overstate how effective a few seconds of the Donner Superman and Burton Batman themes are.

But remember those stories about Cavill's digitally-removed mustache? You will be able to tell, and it will be jarring. You've been warned.

And while I'm issuing warnings, this seems like a good a time to tell you that whoever directed the sequence with the Amazons was a piss-poor substitute for Patty Jenkins. There's an extended fight on Paradise Island that feels like it belongs on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Also, if you've seen any cut scenes from the Injustice games, expect flashbacks during the final battle at the end of the movie. Visual effects were not this movie's strong suit.

And... for the love of God... Batman either needs to be recast or Affleck needs to lay off the gym. He's way too bulky for the role - he looks ridiculous.

But if you can stand all that, you'll be rewarded with some solid interpretations of these characters and some good moments. This might not have been the movie where Warner Bros figured out how to tell a good superhero story, but at least they stopped being embarrassed by the genre and had fun. The critics tearing this to shreds aren't wrong - the flaws in Justice League are legion - but I still enjoyed the experience. And I think those of you who are into the comics or any of the animated incarnations of the team will be at least entertained if you check it out.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok has a great deal in common with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Both are comedic, nostalgia driven 80's superhero movies set in the cosmos that lean heavily on music to carry their tone. But while I certainly enjoyed Ragnarok, I didn't love it the same way I loved Guardians. In fact, Ragnarok is currently my least favorite live-action American superhero movie of 2017, which means it's nothing more than a wholly enjoyable comedy/adventure movie that corrects numerous flaws with its predecessors while opening exciting possibilities for the franchise's future.

And here I'd hoped for so much more.

Okay, so obviously the bar's been set pretty high. Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Guardians 2, and Logan were all excellent - we've been spoiled. Fortunately, Justice League is right around the corner, and it's almost guaranteed to correct the curve. But until then, the competition is steep, and - for me, at least - this one didn't quite measure up.

I say that despite finding it consistently funny and entertaining, with great characters and some phenomenal fight sequences. There are numerous fantastic moments and pieces in this. But with one exception, I just didn't feel those parts coalesce into anything more. There wasn't much to the larger story, and the tone - while fun - never gripped me or pulled me in.

Doctor Strange's role (that shouldn't be a spoiler unless you missed the stinger at the end of his solo movie) is a perfect example. It was a great scene that allowed Strange to feel as bizarre as he does in the comics - I'm glad it was in the movie. But that doesn't mean it needed to be there - you could cut him entirely, without it impacting the story. The scene doesn't integrate or build off the themes in a meaningful way.

Strange isn't alone - most of the movie unfolds as a series of mini-adventures. The Hulk/Thor gladiator fight is wonderful, but there's not really much logic behind it. Hulk is funny, and they do offer some intriguing exploration of his childlike mentality and emotional problems, but there's not much in the way of development. Likewise, Valkyrie is a wonderful addition to the team and universe, but her turnabout on whether she'll help Thor feels far more dependent on the movie deciding to move on than on her personal story.

To the movie's credit, all that is reminiscent of comics. Ragnarok, perhaps more so than any Marvel movie before it, recreates the experience of tearing through a small pile of issues. I just wish those issues had been a tad more substantive.

I promised one exception - that's Odin and his relationship with Thor and (to a lesser extent) Loki. The scenes built around the Allfather come closer than anything else to tying the movie together. There's something enticing here - I wish it permeated the rest of the movie a little deeper.

Ragnarok felt more like a big-screen version of Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes than an installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Keep in mind, Earth's Mightiest Heroes was the good Avengers animated series, so that's not exactly a bad thing. This is light, ridiculous fare; popcorn entertainment. There's nothing wrong with that: I just found myself wishing there was something more. Either something more developed structurally, more artistically satisfying, more emotionally impacting... take your pick.

Your mileage will likely vary. This one was better received than Guardians 2 (or pretty much anything else). And it deserves to be praised - it is really, really good. But, in my opinion at least, it doesn't quite live up to Marvel's other offerings this year.