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.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Catch Up, Part 1: The Horror of it All

When I became a father, there wasn't really time to go to the movies anymore. Not the end of the world, but I missed both the experience and sharing my thoughts - turns out this review stuff is addictive. I kept watching movies, mind you, but they weren't new movies, so I figured no one would really care all that much. Still, I kept some notes, because I like having a record of what I thought.

Then civilization ground to a halt, and now no one can go to the movies. So... I guess there's no reason not to post this stuff. These certainly won't be as in-depth as my usual reviews - just some brief thoughts.

First up, let's talk horror. This really isn't my usual go-to genre, but to be honest I've seen so many animated series and kid's movies recently (thanks, Disney+) that I've been craving something a little darker as a chaser.

I'm skipping over anything I saw in time to include on my end-of-year wrap up, as well as anything set at Christmas (you know where you'll find those). As usual, I'll try and keep spoilers to a minimum.

Look, I know this is all outdated, so if any of you want to skip this series, I'll understand. Of course, this is a one-time deal: normally, all Middle Room articles are mandatory reading for anyone on the internet, but for now I'll make an exception.

Mandy (2018)
This might have instantly become my favorite Nicholas Cage movie.

First things first. If you like any of the following, you should track this down without reading any more, because the fewer spoilers you have going into this, the better: Nicholas Cage, horror, revenge flicks, heavily stylized film making, genre tinged with the 1970s (that goes for horror, science fiction, or fantasy genres, incidentally).

God, even that list is a spoiler. Not as much of a spoiler as if I'd alluded to Heavy Metal comics or heavy metal album covers, but still more than you should know before watching.

The movie is bizarre and surreal, outright taunting you with the line between what's real and imaginary. It's a revenge fantasy where the main character seems more driven by a fear of having to confront his loss than by anger. It's one part dream, one part nightmare, and seventeen million parts acid trip. Supernatural beings show up and are treated as if they're barely worth mentioning. Or maybe it's all a hallucination: the movie makes a point of not answering any questions. It doesn't even treat them as important.

As an experience, it's at times quirky, disturbing, funny, touching, sickening, and confusing. It's a piece of art that wants to be felt without being understood. I recommend it to anyone willing to take it on its own terms.

Overlord (2019)
I'd heard good things about this mostly overlooked action/sf/horror WWII war flick. Honestly, I'd have tracked it down sooner, but I expected it was going to be more unpleasant based on some blurbs. But while there's definitely some gore and body horror, I didn't find any of it hard to watch, at least not on the small screen. Maybe I'd have felt differently in the theater, or maybe I'm just building up a thicker skin - either way, I wasn't grossed out.

All in all, I enjoyed this as a fun, weird genre flick, but I felt like it needed something more. I know this is heresy, but I kind of wish it had been part of some shared universe or another - the elements were interesting, but I felt a little cheated by the sense that's all there was to the story. I know there was a time this was potentially going to tie into Cloverfield, and I might be alone in wishing it had.

But it was still fun as a (let's be honest) unofficial Wolfenstein adaptation. I'm glad I watched it, but I don't feel like I missed anything by skipping it in the theaters.

Us (2019)
I'm going to start by saying I really enjoyed this. As an exercise in creating a sense of unease, it's phenomenal. It's terrifying and beautiful at the same time. It's an extremely well-directed, well-written, and well-edited film. In other words, it's a really good movie.

Then there's the third act, which...

Okay. Side note: I'm rewriting this for maybe the third or fourth time because I'm constantly reassessing, second-guessing, and completely changing my opinions about what the movie means, whether the symbolism and structure work, and whether any of that really matters.

Frankly, there's an argument to be made that all a piece of entertainment needs to do is entertain, and the straightforward genre elements of Us are a home run. But you also get the feeling this doesn't just want to be entertainment. It wants to be about something and mean something. It wants to be profound.

And maybe it is? There are several ways to interpret the film: as a commentary on class structure, as a meditation on the nature of unity and fascism, as a statement on the politics of the 1980s, today, or both...

And some of these interpretations lead you to some really interesting places and ideas, while others just kind of get confusing. At first, I fixated on class implications and felt the movie was unintentionally insinuating that poor people are remorseless killers (some of those earlier write-ups were less favorable). But the more I thought about the movie and read other interpretations, the more I drifted away from that reading.

I still think the movie's themes interfere with its story rather than enhance it, and I do think that's an issue. However, while those themes may occasionally detract from the film, they never derail it, unlike some other movies I could name. Us may be trying to be a little too intelligent for its own good, but that doesn't prevent the movie from being good. And while I'm not 100% sold that the ideas come together, there's no denying they're intriguing enough to stay with you.

The Mummy (2017)
I liked it? I know. I'm surprised, too.

I don't want to oversell this: it absolutely had some major pacing and editing issues. The movie is dumb, and not just in the ways it's intentionally being dumb. But at the end of the day, this is a campy, absurd, comedy-adventure that feels way closer to the Brendan Fraser installments than I expected. I had fun watching it.

I realize most people (particularly critics) did not. I think a big part of the disconnect was in the visual style: the Fraser movies (well, the first two - let's just pretend the third doesn't exist) resemble Indiana Jones, while this looks like, well... basically like every bleak, CG-heavy grimdark exercise in melodrama Hollywood's produced over the last decade.

And, yes, it's bad the movie looks like that. Add that to The Mummy's faults. But if you can ignore that for a moment, the nonsense is actually funny. Not funny in a "so-bad-it's-good" sense, either: this was supposed to be comedic. Sure, some of its best jokes are stolen from An American Werewolf in London, but... hey, thieves steal from mansions for a reason.

More than that, the world this sets up is really neat. If you were familiar with Vampire: The Masquerade and the World of Darkness back in the '90s, you probably have an idea where this was headed. I honestly would have liked to see that play out. Russell Crowe's Jekyll/Hyde was particularly entertaining. Did he feel like he'd been superimposed on a movie he didn't belong in? Definitely. Would I watch another dozen films with him as an unnecessary supporting character? In a heartbeat.

This is a weird, fun movie with a lot of faults. The movie opens with a brief shot of a knight being buried with a MacGuffin that comes up later but feels laughably (in the bad way this time) random and meaningless, and the editing doesn't get much better from there. And, yes, there's a big super-powered CG fight at the end that's boring and pointless even compared to other boring, pointless super-powered CG fights.

But for all its faults, it was an enjoyable, pulpy flick. Think of this more as an improved version of the Underworld movies and less as a failed blockbuster, and you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Movie Review: Onward

By rights, if there was ever a movie I should have loved, this would be it. In a sense, it was made for me: a Pixar production rooted in Dungeons & Dragons lore starring a pair of Marvel veterans... it's like they're checking off my favorite things.

But I didn't love it. Frankly, I'd rank it near the bottom of the Pixar catalog, alongside Monsters University and The Good Dinosaur. Keep in mind, that's still decent company. Hell, I even mostly enjoyed Cars 2, and that's easily the worst Pixar release to date. But don't expect top-tier Pixar quality, because you're not getting it.

Before I go on, I want to specify I watched this on Disney+, not in a theater. Hell, I haven't seen ANYTHING in a theater since King of the Monsters (it's been a crazy year). For what it's worth, Onward is exceptionally good for what wound up being a direct-to-streaming feature for most people. Yeah, technically it was in theaters for a week or two before getting shifted to the internet, but it didn't have a real run - it might as well be a Disney+ original, and it's ridiculously good in that context. If you've got an account, by all means push Onward to the top of your queue immediately.

But even though it sort of wound up as a Disney+ release, it was intended to be a major motion picture, and that's the way I'm going to review it. And in that context, Onward was ultimately unsatisfying. Again, that's coming from someone whose interests align perfectly with the movie's premise.

Let's start with the animation. Onward looks good, the way all Pixar movies look good. It's colorful and stylish, with the typical Pixar production value. But while it's good, there's nothing particularly eye-catching or memorable. Visually, this is more "cartoonish" than the typical Pixar film, which certainly isn't a bad thing. But it makes Onward feel almost more like a Dreamworks production. Again, that's not necessarily a bad thing, but it contributed to the feeling you're not really getting a Pixar experience out of this.

The writing - particularly the humor - is solid but well below what I've come to expect from the studio. It's mainly an issue because, despite the usual injection of drama, this is fundamentally a comedy. It's a road trip adventure with a zany premise and a constantly expanding cast of wacky side characters, and the jokes just don't land as well as I want them to. That's not to say there aren't exceptions, but on average I wanted more.

Speaking of wanting more, there's a B-plot where the main characters' mother teams up with another supporting character, and they go on a mini-quest of their own. This is easily the best part of the movie - had this been given more time or payoff, I suspect I'd be speaking of the film in more favorable terms overall. Instead, they were relegated to a side-story that felt like someone at Pixar was acknowledging the studio still has a problem giving female characters enough to do, yet still failing to adequately address the issue. On a similar note, the movie offers the first official example of a lesbian character in Pixar's filmography in a role that's better than nothing, but isn't really cutting it in 2020.

Now, let's talk casting, because if there's one astonishingly blatant unforced error, it's here.

Onward's two leads are ostensibly Tom Holland and Chris Pratt. I say "ostensibly" because - and I really can't stress this enough - this movie stars Spider-Man and Star Lord. The accent Tom Holland uses is the one he developed for Peter Parker, rather than his own. If you're less familiar with the MCU, it might not bother you, but I found it oddly jarring. Even more so because Pratt was there, equally recognizable. I found it distracting from the start, but towards the end of the movie...

Okay. I'm going to try and talk around this, because Onward is basically still "new" and I don't want to delve too deeply into spoiler territory, but there's a last-minute reveal about Pratt's character wedged into the third act where it becomes extremely relevant that this actor is playing this character. Like, AU fanfic levels of relevant, to the point I stared bewildered at the screen trying to figure out if this was an intentional callback to Guardians of the Galaxy, an odd coincidence, or the result of a dozen or so rewrites. I've rarely if ever been pulled out of a movie this completely, and - just so we're clear - this isn't a trivial moment. It's an emotional beat that's essential for selling the upcoming resolution to the movie.

Again, maybe this will bother you and maybe it won't. In my case, it shattered any sense of immersion I had and left me chuckling at what should have been a heartfelt moment. And it could have been fixed either by casting a different actor (I don't think Pratt was the best choice for the role, anyway) or by rewriting a couple lines to change the scenario slightly. I honestly don't know what they were thinking.

Despite all that, the movie was enjoyable on the small screen. There were a couple moments and ideas I loved. The van was great, several fantasy elements were intriguing, and I already mentioned the mother's B-plot - this certainly isn't a failure. But I imagine I'd have felt cheated if I'd paid to see this in a theater rather than checking it out on Disney+.