Thursday, December 31, 2020

2020 Retrospective (Just the Movies, I Promise)

So, every year I do one of these "least-to-most-favorite" movie lists, usually using "theatrical release" as a litmus test for inclusion, though I've been slowly relaxing that rule for a while now. But seeing as theaters aren't really a thing right now, I'm going to drop it entirely.

That said, I'm still being somewhat selective in what I include here. I'm trying to maintain some sort of line between "feature film" and "TV movie," even when it's not entirely logical or consistent. I can't rationally defend some of these inclusions when I leave off Phineas and Ferb: Candace Against the Universe, but it feels right. Like these are all "real movies" while that's an extended episode. That's not a statement of quality - Candace Against the Universe would absolutely have landed above some of these - but it feels different.

Likewise, I'm not including documentaries. This mainly just means I'm not ranking Spaceship Earth, which I loved. Again, this is a subjective call - I just don't feel like it makes sense.

Also, in case there's any confusion, this list is entirely based on preference, not quality. 

The designs in Jingle Jangle alone are almost enough to bump this up a spot or two, but not quite. I can forgive the weak story and the dull characters, but the abysmal pacing and massive structural problems are just too egregious. It's a situation where the component pieces are really impressive but the sum total is, well, kind of awful.

I really wanted this to be good, and it just wasn't. 

While this is dead last on this list, I do want to acknowledge that's as much because its production values were enough to give it a place. I saw at least four other holiday movies I'm not including that would have gone behind this, but it felt unfair to include them at all.

19. Over the Moon
The hardest thing about Over the Moon is it's incredibly impressive as a visual showcase. This really does look at times like a Pixar movie, and that's no small accomplishment. But the problem with looking like a Pixar movie is it's going to make me want to be watching a Pixar movie, and the script for Over the Moon just isn't up to the job.

About a third of this movie is actually pretty good, but the other two-thirds are just a mess. Honestly, I considered leaving this all the way at the bottom of the list until I remembered the raccoon and bumped it up a few spots.

17. Timmy Failure: Mistakes were Made
It's weird looking back at movies released to Disney+ that were actually intended to be released that way. Timmy Failure is an example of a movie that's enjoyable to watch but doesn't really go anywhere. It's got some good characters and a great setting, but it could really have used a story.

16. Enola Holmes
This was fine. Like Timmy Failure, the production values were solid enough and the casting was inspired. But also like Timmy Failure, the plotting was unstructured, and it left me feeling unsatisfied.

15. Mulan
So, it's 8PM on New Year's Eve, this retrospective has been live for a few hours, and I just finished watching... this. I guess... maybe it goes here? Damned if I know.

I can forgive the stupidity, the awful dialogue, and the baffling premise... But most of this movie is just so boring. That said, there's some cool fight scenes, a bunch of ninja, and a couple warrior witches, so it's not a total loss. And for what it's worth, it's far from the worst of the Disney live-action remakes. Plus, I never actually liked the original, so it's not like I care a phoenix crapped on its legacy (was the phoenix actually there, or... never mind - forget I asked).

This was a bad movie, but unless you were dumb enough to pay Disney thirty bucks for the privilege of seeing it early, it's fine as a diversion they tossed on their streaming service.

14. The Willoughbys
I think this may have the rare distinction of being the only movie where I wish the baby had more screen time. I have to give The Willoughbys credit for putting in the effort. The movie throws a lot at you - a lot of B-plots, a lot of weird designs, strange details, story twists...

After a while it starts feeling like they're just tossing ideas at the screen in the hopes you'll like enough to keep watching. I'd say about a third worked for me, but then again I watched to the end, so... mission accomplished?

It was good enough, particularly for streaming, but I wish it had been better.

13. The Old Guard
The "not my boyfriend" monologue almost pushes this up a few spaces, but overall I found too much of this movie boring to sit through. While I like the idea of telling a story about a two-thousand year-old warrior's midlife crisis, the execution didn't work for me. Whenever they relaxed the drama, that changed, but the balance was off. This needed to be more fun and less self-important.

So... if the pandemic hadn't happened... they were going to release this to theaters? It's probably for the best this was streamed - I think the small screen experience probably helped, to be honest. I watched this with the lights out and without pausing, but - honestly - I think even that was a mistake. This might play better broken into chunks - say, a third at a time.

I respect the movie's decision to shift the tone closer to the 70's show and the Donner Superman series, and I really respect their decision to have Diana adopt a "no killing" rule. I'm less keen on the creative decision to make this a bad movie.

The structure and pace are a mess, the love story feels rehashed, Diana's arc feels forced... For me, though, I think the larger issue was the villains. They just weren't compelling, but the movie gave each of them a substantial story arc.

That said, there were some standout moments, like the invisible jet flying through fireworks or Minerva beating that guy to death. But as a whole, this movie was a disappointment.

11. Palm Springs
While I enjoyed Palm Springs, the ending left me a little underwhelmed. After subverting the genre for the first two-thirds, the movie changed gears and fell into typical romantic comedy tropes and patterns.

That said, I love how wholeheartedly it embraced its SF elements, exploring a more complex version of time travel than we typically seen on film. Ultimately, this was a good movie, but I wanted more.

10. Onward
This was a solid animated offering, but something felt a little off. Actually, make that "some things" - this movie had quite a few elements that didn't connect with me, starting with the baffling decision to cast two instantly recognizable Marvel stars in the lead roles. And don't get me started on recycling Star Lord's last moments with his mom. I'm still shocked that made it into the movie.

But it was still mostly fun and occasionally touching. Not to mention Guinevere's last ride: that moment was amazing.

This was ultimately a flawed film that was well served by events forcing the studio to move it directly from theaters to streaming, where it belongs.

This would be higher if it had stuck the landing. Even with underwhelming finale, the movie was still a fun, engaging adventure. Given that it was (I'm assuming) made on a shoestring budget, that's pretty impressive.

8. We Bare Bears: The Movie
This is a made-for-streaming movie wrapping up the fantastic animated series, We Bare Bears. I expected something good, but I'm not sure I was ready for something this brave. The movie explores xenophobia, racism, family separation, and the use of excessive force - pretty heavy subject matter for a kid's movie.

It's still funny, sweet, and ultimately optimistic, but the path to the happy ending goes through some dark territory. I'm not sure the impact would hit as hard if you haven't seen the series first, so that's one of the two reasons I'm suggesting you hold off on the movie until you've watched through the rest.

The other reason is that the show, like the movie, is damn good. Check them both out.

7. Soul
I'm having a hard time ranking this, because... well... it's damn near perfect. And I suspect it's not higher because I'm so used to Pixar churning out damn near perfect films (Onward notwithstanding) that this didn't hit harder.

But I think it's more than that. Soul is almost perfect for its premise, but that premise doesn't leave quite as much room for emotional highs and lows as we're used to from the company. I realize that sounds odd, considering it's fairly somber subject matter, but the story and themes are constructed in such a way the movie feels light and breezy. It's a feature, not a bug, that a movie about life, death, and purpose seems to have some of the lowest stakes we've encountered from the company, but it does mean the movie lacked the typical highs and lows. Again, not a problem, but it's the highs and lows that hit hardest and make a movie truly memorable.

The artistry in Soul is incredible, and the movie is an accomplishment... but it doesn't quite make it to the top of this list.

6. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
This is probably benefiting from low expectations, but that's how it works sometimes. From the limited marketing, I was expecting a one-joke vehicle for Will Ferrell to make fun of the Eurovision Song Contest. Instead, I got a loving tribute celebrating the joy of singing and camp. The movie was a pleasure to watch.

5. Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
I won't pretend I wasn't bothered by the movie reinventing characters who maybe shouldn't be reinvented (I really want a comic accurate Cass Cain, in particular, and this moves us further away from getting that). Likewise, I'm not going to sit here and claim the last half didn't lose some energy.

But... wow. Just wow. The action, the style, the humor, the visuals... this was a hell of a movie, and I'm having a hard time thinking of anything to compare it to. This was an entertaining, engaging, and most of all unique film. I have a handful of quibbles, but I was glued to the screen. I loved it.

Favorite Films of the Year

I'm not going to cheat with a four-way tie, but know I seriously considered it. Everything left is a movie I seriously considered for the top spot.

4. Hamilton
I haven't written anything about Hamilton until now, not even a short blurb in any of my "catch-up" posts. You can probably guess why - the play has been around for a while, and the version released this year is literally just the play with a couple swears cut out. Everything everyone's said about the play is true of the recorded version, with the caveat that seeing these live always has more of an impact.

In other words, the only thing I have to say about Hamilton is that everyone's right - this thing is awesome.

By rights, I shouldn't be including this on a list of movies. It's at a massive disadvantage, since it's being plucked out of its medium. It has to make do with the limitations of a real set, an audience, live performances, and so on and so forth). It shouldn't be expected to compete "as a movie" with actual movies.

But here we are. Because despite those setbacks, and despite absurdly high expectations, it was that [expletive removed by Disney's censors] good.

3. Blow the Man Down
Okay, I... I think this counts as 2020? When I stuck it in one of my "Catch Up" posts, I listed it as 2019, because that's when it technically came out. But that was just a festival premiere: the movie wasn't available to a wide audience until last March, when it started streaming on Amazon. If this had gone from festival to theatrical, I'd use the theatrical release date, so I think it counts.

And damned if it doesn't matter, because this was one of my favorite movies I saw last year. Honestly, depending on when you ask me, it might even slide up another spot.

Some of that might be because I grew up in Maine. This doesn't get the accents right (no one ever does), but it captures something more important. I captures the sense of existing in a place built for an age that's past, the feeling of living in a ghost town that never realized it was dead.

The movie builds a sense of the supernatural without ever so much as touching that barrier. I have no idea how this will play to people who didn't grow up in the Northeast (though I suspect it'll still be a really enjoyable film), but for me... it was magic. Dark magic, to be sure, but still magic nonetheless.

Speaking of magic, Cartoon Saloon created a beautiful, haunting, incredible film inspired by Irish lore. Again, I mean. They've done that twice already, and this is a third.

Stylistically, the movie is gorgeous. Auditorily, it is gorgeous. Olfactorily, it is... okay, I can't actually smell the movie, but it does manage to depict smell visually really well, so I'm assuming that's gorgeous, too.

Officially, this wraps up Tomm Moore's trilogy, but I really hope he just says screw it and makes like a dozen more of these.

Back in the golden age of cinema, some of Hollywood's best movies were romantic comedies. That didn't last - really, by the 60's or 70's, they'd faded, and the 80's and 90's mostly offered pale imitations. The romcoms I grew up watching were mostly campy, poorly, conceived dreck. There were a handful of exceptions, the most notable being When Harry Met Sally, but overall, the genre seemed to be dying. Then it seemed to be dead.

I'm not surprised it's making a comeback. The rise of streaming platforms has opened the door for mid-budget productions that no longer made sense on the big screen. I've been expecting them to start showing up again. I'm not even surprised to see some good or great ones.

But if you told me a year ago a Christmas romantic comedy would come out that was on par with the ones from Hollywood's golden age, I'd have told you that you were crazy. But here we are.

Look, I say it every year - this isn't a 'best of' list. This is based entirely on personal preferences, and I'm a guy who likes giant monsters, superheroes, wizards, spaceships, and all that. Do you have any idea how good a romantic comedy has to be to show up here? To not just impress me but outright win me over?

Yeah. This good.

I understand this movie is controversial in some circles. A lot of fans (or would-be fans) wanted something less complicated, less nuanced. They wanted a simple story about simple characters with simple problems - basically a generic romantic comedy where the leads are both women.

And those fans absolutely deserve that movie. They deserve ten of that movie and ten where both leads are men. This genre has been dominated by heteronormative depictions of love for far too long (see also every other genre, but it's even more egregious when the genre in question is defined by romance).

But that's not an issue with Happiest Season - it's an issue with Hollywood. Taken on its own terms, this movie is incredible, and I sincerely hope it gets the accolades it deserves, preferably sooner rather than later.

Movie Review: Wolfwalkers

Cartoon Saloon has kind of been flying under the radar, but if you ignore a handful of TV shows and low budget co-productions and just focus on their four feature films, Saloon's batting average looks a lot like what we saw from Studio Ghibli, Laika, or early Pixar. Their first three films - Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and The Breadwinner - were masterpieces.

Scratch that. Their first four films are masterpieces: Wolfwalkers keeps the run going.

Visually, the movie is incredible. Some stylistic elements from Kells and Sea reappear, but this almost has the feel of an old picture book come to life. Sketch lines highlight the forms of living beings, color disappears at the edge of the screen, and distant locations are depicted as if existing in a world without perspective. The movie's story is as much set in its media as its historical location.

Think Disney's Winnie the Pooh, but less far silly. Or, if you'd prefer, apply some of the lessons of Spider-Verse to a storybook. I'm not sure if these were points of inspiration, nor does it matter. However they got to this style, it's enchanting.

And speaking of enchanting, if Disney would kindly instruct their animators to study Cartoon Saloon's depictions of magic, that'd be swell. I'm not naming names, but I can think of several recent Disney flicks which sided with spectacle over substance in ways that neither told a story nor enhanced the tone. Cartoon Saloon adds depth and wonder with magic: everyone else should be taking notes.

The movie's story goes in directions American animation companies wouldn't dare. Like The Secret of Kells, Wolfwalkers's themes include the relationship between paganism and Christianity in Irish history and myth. Unlike Kells, Wolfwalkers is more than happy to lay blame. On a side note, have religious groups started boycotting this yet?

I joked after watching that it was based on the ancient Irish myth, "Princess Mononoke," but while there are definitely some similarities, they're ultimately superficial. Wolfwalkers starts with a vaguely similar premise and crosses over a few similar plot points, but the path it takes is its own. The movie is more concerned with character and theme than plot, anyway.

Like its predecessors, Wolfwalkers leans heavily on music to build tone. Both Kells and Song of the Sea included evocative lullabies which add a great deal of texture to their respective films. The centerpiece in Wolfwalkers is quite different: they went with a sort of pop-folk song reminiscent of America's music from The Last Unicorn. It's a good song, though I'd be lying if I said it hit me as hard as the songs from the other two films (but then again I'd list at least one of those on my top five favorite musical numbers in all cinema, so maybe that's an unreasonably high bar). At any rate, the score for this is really, really good - Cartoon Saloon knows not to cut corners.

While I obviously haven't seen every animated film released this year, Wolfwalkers is easily my favorite for 2020. That's not meant as a slight against Soul, which was also excellent, but I found this one a little more effective.

For the time being, this is available through Apple TV+, which offers free 1-week trials. I'm not saying you should sign up, watch this, then cancel, but... no, wait. I am absolutely saying that. You can watch this right now for free: what are you waiting for?

Movie Review: Soul

Soul is a nearly perfect film, though that perfection comes with a caveat. I was engrossed in this movie start to finish, but when it ended, I found it hadn't hit me as hard as most Pixar movies do. In other words, it's more an experience than a journey. Despite its premise, there aren't a lot of twists and turns, and the emotional rollercoaster employed in every Pixar production is a relatively smooth ride. I'd describe the experience as akin to listening to a really good concert, which is what they were going for, anyway.

I want to stress that I believe this was largely a choice. The movie opted to keep the anxiety to a minimum, possibly to avoid traumatizing young viewers or maybe just to contrast the macabre subject matter. It presents the cycle of life and death in a surprisingly relaxed manner: the stakes here feel lower than any other Pixar movie I can think of, despite quite literally being a matter of life and death. The only antagonist is basically just a slightly overzealous bureaucrat presented as doing his job. He's not even that bad of a guy.

None of this is necessarily a complaint, mind you. It's kind of nice to watch one of these without being reduced to tears. Still, it left me without as strong an impression as I had after, say, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Inside Out... I could honestly go on to list about two-thirds of Pixar's catalog, including several titles nowhere near as good as Soul.

Visually (and auditorily) the movie is a sensory delight. Every second is awesome to behold. The design for the universal beings is phenomenal, as is the visual representation of spaces without space. Everything is evocative and beautiful.

While the movie is almost perfect, I do have one complaint. The ending felt a bit underwhelming to me. I think they kind of wrote themselves into a corner thematically, and for understandable reasons went with the happiest resolution they could think of. I appreciate why they went that way, but I feel like it might have carried a bit more of a punch if they'd been willing to not grant the main character a mulligan. I'm not lobbying for a tragic ending, mind you, just one where he accepts his fate and moves on, satisfied with his experiences.

This is at most a minor criticism; it might just be personal preference. Ultimately, Soul is another phenomenal achievement from Pixar.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Catch Up, Part 5: Kid's Stuff

Welcome to the 5th installment of my lazily thrown together collection of mini-reviews of recentish movies I saw in quarantine. Today, I'm looking at kid's movies. Also, I'll be mangling the definition of "kid's movie" to the point I'm including an R-rated film. But, hey, teenagers are still technically kids, and... look, just be glad you're getting something.

Over the Moon (2020)

I had high hopes for this one, too. The animation looked like a solid facsimile of Pixar, which isn't easy to pull off. Overall, this movie looked great. Better than a lot of theatrically released CG movies, in fact.

The problem is they were less successful duplicating Pixar's formula when writing the script, though it wasn't for lack of trying. The movie opens by establishing then quickly offing the main character's mother, a classic Disney/Pixar move. We soon transition to a colorful fantasy world that... let's be nice and say it feels "inspired" by Coco's.

But if you're going to copy Pixar, you kind of need to get it right. You better make sure your characters are compelling, their flaws are relatable, the story is interesting, and the dialogue is fun. Otherwise, you're going to end up making a movie like Over the Moon.

The premise had merit. It's a story about a girl who's lost her mother learning to open herself to loving others while going on a fantasy journey to the moon, where she becomes entwined with a moon goddess who's pined for a lost love for millennia. This could have been good.

But the movie lacks any subtlety or nuance, the metaphors are clunky and obnoxious, major characters and plot twists are entirely superfluous, and I was left bored and annoyed. As a showcase for an animation studio, its successful. As an actual movie with a memorable story and interesting characters, it isn't.

The Willoughby's (2020)

Let this be a lesson in the importance of endings: I'd say less than a third of this movie worked for me overall, but I liked the ending so I'm giving it a pass. I'm not sure the ending was good, mind you, but it hit a handful of notes that work for me thematically.

Also, I'm racking my brain trying to come up with a single example of another animated kid's movie that was willing to portray the protagonist's biological parents as objectively awful human beings, and I'm drawing a blank (I guess Matilda counts, if you drop the "animated" qualifier). This is first and foremost a movie about abused and neglected children learning to trust and love: the world could probably use more stories like that.

The issue is... God, there are a lot of issues. The animation style didn't work for me - I respect the drive to duplicate the look and feel of stop motion in CG, but I found it distracting when it starts looking like stop-motion characters wandering through an animated world. Maybe it's just a problem with me, but the disconnect kept pulling me out of the movie.

Likewise, the narrator bugged me. This isn't the first time I've seen a kid's movie fail to mine humor from a narrator constantly explaining the same jokes we just saw, only sarcastically. Hell, it's not even the first I've seen do that with a feline narrator. I actually liked this narrator as a character when he interacted with the story, but the running commentary... not a fan.

Structurally, the movie was all over the place, but that didn't bother me. That said, the actual sequences were too hit-or-miss. Some gags worked, others fell flat. Like I said at the start, the stuff that didn't work outnumbered the stuff that did.

But I'm a sucker for a touch of magic dropped in at the right moment, and I was relieved when the movie didn't betray its message at the last minute (seriously: nice fake out - you had me for a few seconds there). So while this wasn't in any way a rousing success, it was a solid B.

We Bare Bears: The Movie (2020)

Let's start with a disclaimer: this is best seen after watching the series it concludes. It'll probably still make sense on its own, and it'll probably still be enjoyable, but...

Look, I don't want to go off on a huge tangent, but We Bare Bears is a really special show. It's a quirky, funny, and heartfelt exploration of finding family and community when you don't fit in. It goes in surprising directions, explores complex subjects, and, well... it's just a whole stack of fun. Watch it.

And when you're done, put on the movie, because... wow. This took themes that were touched on in the series and expanded them in ways I wasn't expecting. Like the series, it's sweet and funny, but if you're old enough to understand the ideas being addressed, it's also kind of heartbreaking.

After finishing the series, I went in expecting a lot out of this. My expectations were exceeded.

Booksmart (2019)

This is going to be one of those times I sing a movie’s praises despite the fact I didn’t love it. I enjoyed this well enough as an original spin on the R-rated teen-comedy formula, but - despite being a really original take – I’m still not overly fond of the genre.

But while this didn’t entirely connect with me, it was crystal clear why it connected with as many people as it did. I know it’s become unfashionable to throw around the term “objective” when talking about movie criticism, but (sorry) this was objectively a great film.

I watched this knowing the leads were girls – what I hadn’t realized was that was among the more minor of the movie’s subversions. The premise, that a pair of graduating seniors try to cram four years of missed teenage adventure into one night, is more a launching point to explore topics usually ignored or (at best) touched on superficially.

What’s even more impressive is Booksmart manages all this without it feeling forced. It helps that the script doesn’t treat its premise as revolutionary. It honestly could have gotten away with patting itself on the back or highlighting the novelty of gender-flipping the typical “horny teenage boys” premise, but instead it acts like all this is normal. It’s a revolutionary movie that doesn’t feel revolutionary: it’s almost like this fell into our universe from one where entirely different (and - let’s be honest – better) comedic conventions evolved.

The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)
With one exception, my opinion of the LEGO franchise has a been slightly abnormal. While I really liked the first installment, I didn't find it as effective as most critics. My opinion of LEGO Batman, a movie many consider their favorite, is harsher. I still mostly enjoyed the humor, but the premise didn't work for me. My experience with Ninjago is far more mainstream: like most people, I never actually saw it.

I was late to the party for The Second Part, too - I skipped it in theaters due to lukewarm reactions. But now that I've seen it...

I love it. It's easily my favorite in the franchise.

Yeah, I was surprised, too. I expected to be writing the LEGO movies off as a franchise of diminishing returns; instead, I got something innovative and intelligent. I love that this is more Wyldstyle's movie than Emmet's. They share about equal screen time (at least that was my impression - I didn't time it), but the actual plot and resolution belong to her. What starts out looking like Emmet's big adventure to save her and the world gets subverted: she's the hero this time.

Likewise, I like that the movie doesn't pretend the audience is oblivious to the twist at the end of the original. It's pretty obvious what's going on in the "real world" from the beginning, which allows the movie to have some fun with the situation.

On top of that, the songs in this are hilarious. Not to slight the soundtrack to the first LEGO Movie, but I think the music in the sequel is better. All in all, this movie was a really pleasant surprise.

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2019)
I probably could have just reviewed this - it was released to Netflix in the US, and it hasn't actually been out that long. Honestly, the main reason I'm not writing this up in more depth is I don't have much to say beyond, "It's delightful."

That shouldn't be much of a surprise. Aardman is one of the most consistent studios out there, and the first Shaun the Sheep movie was fantastic. At least, I think it was fantastic. I definitely saw it, and I remember really liking it, but...

See, here's why I don't have more to say. These movies are a wonderful homage to an era before dialogue. They're fantastic examples of visual storytelling as an art form, no question.

But that does leave them less memorable than most modern movies. I honestly do remember loving the first Shaun the Sheep movie. I even remember how it made me feel - warm, happy, and entertained. But damned if I can remember the plot.

Having just watched Farmageddon, I of course have a better recollection of the characters and events. But I don't expect that to last, because - while there's definitely a story and characters - it's all sort of built around pumping you full of positive emotions and making you chuckle.

I'm honestly not trying to pose this as a negative - if anything, it makes this even better than it would otherwise be as a kids' movie: you could probably watch this a few dozen times without getting overly sick of it.

Like I said: it's delightful, and that's more or less all I've got to say.

Phineas and Ferb the Movie: Candace Against the Universe (2020)
If you've yet to be converted to the glory that is Phineas and Ferb, do yourself a favor and watch through the series as soon as possible. It's deceptively complex, refreshingly kind-spirited, and hilariously funny. I don't care how old you are: it's a delightful show.

Candace Against the Universe is the second made-for-TV movie. The first, Across the 2nd Dimension, came out nine years ago, around the midpoint of the series. Both movies, the show, and a handful of specials are streaming on Disney+, and it's worth subscribing for a few months if you haven't already done so.

For better or worse, Candace Against the Universe feels like an extended episode of the series. This is in contrast to Across the 2nd Dimension, which went out of its way to explore situations and tones the show couldn't really delve into. I have a feeling I'm an outlier among fans of the show, but I really like Across the 2nd Dimension. Candace Against the Universe...

It was fine. Better than fine, compared against most children's media - it's funny and sweet, as always - but I don't think it matched the quality of the series, let alone some of the specials (the Star Wars crossover was more or less a movie in its own right, and that was way better; same goes for "Night of the Living Pharmacists").

Candace Against the Universe had a solid premise, but I almost think it would be better for casual fans. If you've seen every episode, you've seen most of these ideas explored and you're more likely to be bothered by some continuity glitches. I know it's bad form to nitpick minor continuity issues in long-running shows, but that kind of thing still bugs me. Suffice to say, a few characters have now met each other for the first time more than once.

But all that aside, this is an enjoyable movie. Phineas and Ferb was one of the best animated shows in recent history, and it's always nice to spend a little more time with its characters.

Enola Holmes (2020)
There are a lot of good things about Enola Holmes, starting with the casting. Millie Bobby Brown is, as always, fantastic, and Henry Cavill's take on Sherlock was inspired (though it does make me wonder if playing a superhero is now a prerequisite for the role). Throw in some clever spins on the source material and a nice pulpy tone, and you've got a solid start.

Pity that this review doesn't end there, huh? While there are some wonderful elements, the movie as a whole is a goddamn mess. The pacing is off, the plot is overcomplicated, and there's far too much time spent setting up future installments. To put things in perspective, the premise, which fuels most of the characters' motivations, has nothing to do with the plot.

This would have worked far better as a series, and I'd honestly be surprised if it wasn't initially being developed as one. The movie meanders the way you'd expect from a season of a show, spending odd amounts of time on side plots and incidental characters. Maybe it just stuck too closely to the source material - you can get away with that in a book.

If you allow yourself to forget this is technically a movie, it's not bad as a piece of entertainment, but until there's a little more payoff in the form of future installments, I'm not sure it's worth the time.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019)
I feel like any discussion around the quality of the live-action Dora reboot needs to start with a discussion about expectations. If you're comparing this to most theatrical releases, you're going to be unimpressed with the cartoonish CG, obvious sets, and simplistic story. Hell, most of this feels low-budget compared to TV movies these days.

But with all that being said, taken on its own terms, Dora is pretty enjoyable, especially for the first half. The movie embraces the weirdness of its premise and runs with it. Dora, as a character, is fascinating, particularly whenever the filmmakers suppress the voice in their heads saying she shouldn't be a superhero. Watching Dora navigate danger without breaking a sweat is surprisingly satisfying. Likewise, it's great seeing a teenage girl portrayed with a Holmes-level intellect.

The problem is this isn't consistent. The movie embraces a "friends matter" theme, which necessitates demonstrating the value of other human beings. In other words, three other teenagers tag along, and they all have to get moments to shine. Structurally, I understand this, since the alternative would be nothing more than a power fantasy about a preschool kid explorer who'd grown into a teenage adventurer.

It's just... damn it all, the power fantasy is more fun, mostly because there aren't anywhere enough centered around female characters, let alone teenage girls. The movie is great when it just embraces that and has fun with it. I wish it hadn't tried so hard to mix yet another lesson about friendship (or at the very least pared it back to one friend instead of three).

I should probably also mention the movie's portrayal of Aztec culture is... er... let's go with "problematic." It's not as problematic as it could have been, but it still wedges in some tired clich├ęs and bad choices.

Oh, and if you're bothered by completely illogical twists, the sudden introduction of a talking anthropomorphic CG fox that no one seems all that surprised by might be a deal breaker. I was mostly fine with it.

[Side note: I saw this (and wrote the review) before watching Enola Holmes. Enola has way better production values, but Dora does a better job reimagining Sherlock Holmes as a teenage girl. Not sure how that happened.]

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Movie Review: Wonder Woman 1984

I watched Wonder Woman 1984 in the most cinematic environment my living room would allow. Lights off, volume up, phone away, didn't pause once from start to finish... And as the end credits rolled, I realized I'd made a huge mistake.

Weird as it'll sound, I think this would have been better if I'd stopped the movie every thirty minutes or so to get a snack. Or if I'd watched the first half one day then picked it up the next to see the finale. Hell, I think the experience would have been better if I'd paid less attention. Maybe checked Twitter every now and then: you get the idea.

Because, here's the thing - this wasn't really a movie. Or at least it didn't feel like one. It was more like a miniseries with an absurdly high budget stitched together. It never really coalesced into a compelling whole, so trying to watch it that way made matters worse. I honestly think sitting and watching it in a dark theater would have been even more of a letdown. This just didn't feel cinematic.

It's difficult to pinpoint where things went wrong. The pace is the easiest target, but I'd have been more forgiving there if the characters had worked. And the more I think about the characters, the more I think they might have worked if the movie had a different tone. Meanwhile, the tone might have felt really cool if it weren't for the pacing... and so it cycles.

I think that's the actual issue: the choices made for tone, character, and pacing all clash, culminating in a movie that just doesn't work. The film opts for a tone unlike its predecessor, instead serving as a campy homage to the Lynda Carter series and Richard Donner Superman film. I don't think that's an inherently bad choice, but it really calls for a snappy, exciting pace. Aquaman was working off of similar inspiration, but it moved at a fast clip, leaping between fantasy locations, to avoid overstaying its welcome.

The other thing Aquaman did well was make its characters compelling. The first Wonder Woman movie did this as well - we liked these people and their relationships. But I couldn't connect with anyone in 1984. Diana felt uncharacteristically mopey (I'd believe that she'll always love Steve, but the "I'll never love again" angle doesn't jibe with any version of this character I've seen... including the one in the last movie). Likewise, the villains - both of whom were given complete character arcs complete with redemptions - were never all that believable or interesting.

We were left with a character-driven story about characters we neither believed in nor cared about, playing out in an absurdist, campy cartoon world.

The action scenes were decent and at times fun, but mostly lacked real gravitas or impact. To be fair, there were a handful of standout effects moments - the invisible jet, for example - but they were few and far between. If it wasn't going to give us a stronger narrative, we needed more of a "wow" factor to gloss over the movie's shortcomings. There was a little here and there, but not nearly enough.

The movie was also hamstrung by existing continuity, which it should simply have ignored. Wonder Woman isn't a subtle character, and having her constantly shush or wink or outright ask side characters for discretion was just confusing. 

And speaking of trivial details that bugged me, I was also underwhelmed by the gold armor, which felt completely tacked on (and I really, really like its comic counterpart).

This is obviously a long way from the worst movie in the DC Expanded Universe (looking at you, BvS), but it's still a hell of a letdown after the astonishingly good first installment, to say nothing of the string of successes we've seen recently (Aquaman, Shazam, and Birds of Prey were all great).

If you've got HBO Max, by all means put it on, but keep your expectations in check and don't try to make it through in one sitting.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Movie Review: Vampires vs. The Bronx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Catch Up, Part 4: Dead Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still, this was a solid horror/comedy hybrid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just watch the damn movie - it's great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 29, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 4, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of which...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 24, 2020

Catch Up, Part 3: Capes

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

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

At any rate, let's get started.

Joker (2019)
Eh. It's fine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 13, 2020

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

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

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

I kind of loved it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Catch Up, Part 2: Disney+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powerful drama, this is not.

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

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

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

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

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