Sunday, May 19, 2019

On "Love, Death, & Robots," Part I

I love animated anthologies, and I've watched quite a few, from the "Fantasia" movies to "The Prophet."  Cult classic "Heavy Metal," alas, was never one of my favorites, so I was nervous when I kept hearing the new Netflix anthology, "Love, Death, & Robots," being compared to it.  Created by "Deadpool" director Tim Miller, the major selling point of "Love, Death, & Robots" is that it's unapologetically adult-oriented, and features lots of sex, nudity, violence, and other adult content.  I've learned from experience that the more that projects like this lean on those adult elements, thinking that they'll make up for any deficits in creativity and innovation, the worse they tend to come out.

And boy are there some prime examples of that fallacy here.  "Love, Death, & Robots" is comprised of eighteen animated shorts, all under twenty minutes.  They're a nice mix of different tones, genres, and animation styles, most of them based on previously published science-fiction short stories.  Not all of them involve robots. In the mix are a trio of humorous tales based on John Scalzi's work, two contemplative ones based on Alastair Reynolds' pieces, and a great steampunk short based on a Ken Liu story.  As you might expect, the installments vary wildly in quality. Unfortunately, there's a major exploitative streak apparent throughout that I didn't care for. Naked and topless women keep appearing, for no apparent reason other than titillation, and there's some distasteful reliance on rape and revenge tropes, casual vulgarities, and gore aplenty.

These are common criticisms of adult-oriented science-fiction and fantasy fiction in general, of course.  "Love, Death, & Robots" also feels weirdly retrograde at at times because so much of the content is directly aimed at a young male audience.  There's some welcome diversification of the protagonists, including a fun military adventure story starring Samira Wiley, but it's very apparent that with the over-the-top fighting, gratuitous sex, and proliferation of edgy badass characters, there's a lot of pandering here to the fantasies of thirteen year-old boys.  There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but the approach is a little stifling. I found the series less interesting on the whole than similar anthologies like "The Animatrix" and "Robot Carnival." There's not much depth to most of the scripting, and only a handful are truly worth watching for their stories, which is a shame.

However, as an animation fan, there's a lot here to love.   "Love, Death, & Robots" features the work of more than a dozen different smaller studios, with Tim Miller's Blur Studio as the primary one with credits on five of the shorts.  It was especially fascinating to see how far photorealistic CGI has come in the last few years, to the point where it's almost indistinguishable from live-action in some cases.  However, I didn't find these nearly as much fun as the super-stylized CGI shorts, or the ones featuring traditional 2D animation. Designer Robert Valley directs one of the most striking ones, "Zima Blue," and Tim Miller directs the live-action/animation hybrid "Ice Age," but most of the other shorts are helmed by relative unknowns.  I don't know what the budget for this series was, but all the visuals are top-notch and boast feature-quality work.

It's rare to see adult oriented animation of any stripe, especially done at this level.  While I may have my gripes, it is so good to see Netflix giving these shorts such a big platform and widening the scope of what commercial Western animation can look like.  They're not really doing anything new - twenty years ago, we had the even trippier "Aeon Flux" and "Liquid Television" - but they are continuing a noble tradition of subversive experimental and indie animation that has always needed all the help it can get.

I've decided that since the shorts are so different from each other, it would be more fair to discuss them individually.  However, eighteen shorts is a tall order and there's not much to discuss with some of them. Shorts like "Fish Night," "Ice Age," and "The Dump," for instance, feel like little more than proof-of-concept demonstrations of the animation software being used.  The next post will take the form of a "Rank 'Em" list, and but some shorts will be getting more attention than others.

Friday, May 17, 2019

"The Kid Who Would Be King" and "The Lego Movie 2"

Still easing into the 2019 releases.  Let's look at some recent kids' films today.

Joe Cornish hasn't properly directed a movie since his debut, "Attack the Block," back in 2011.  So it's very satisfying to see that his sophomore effort is just as good as his first, and does some wonderful things with bits of genre cinema I thought were getting a little stale.  For one thing, this is a King Arthur movie, and nobody's figured out how to do one of those well in a while. And for another thing, this is one of those live-action kids' adventure movies that were so common in the '80s and '90s but have been pretty scarce since the tentpole blockbusters took over.

The plot is your standard "chosen one" story with Arthurian trappings.  British schoolboy Alex (Louis Serkis) stumbles upon Excalibur one day, draws the sword from the stone, and is charged by Merlin (Angus Imrie as a tenager, Patrick Stewart as an adult), with using it to fight the sorceress Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson), and save the world.  This involves rallying his allies, including timid best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), and the school bullies Lance (Tom Taylor) and Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). The four of them go on a quest, learn to fight and follow the rules of chivalry, and raise an army against the forces of evil.

It's familiar stuff, but the execution is great, and the cast is a lot of fun.  Angus Imrie steals every scene he's in by playing young Merlin as a genial weirdo who casts spells via intense hand-jiving.  There's not nearly enough of Ferguson or Stewart, but the few appearances they do have are stellar. The movie belongs to the kids, however, who banter and bicker and generally behave like kids.  They sell the big fight scenes, the big emotional moments, and all the excitement of going on a big adventure together. There's the usual effects scenes and cheesy monsters, but also plenty of genuine whiz-bang ingenuity on display too.

What I most appreciate the movie for, however, is that Cornish's script makes the Arthurian legends both accessible for kids and also relevant for them.  A tweaked version of the chivalric code plays a big part in the story, and Alex actively models his behavior on King Arthur's example. While never being too specific about real world circumstances, Alex's lives in troubled times, and the movie is all about acknowledging this and pushing the notion that the kids have the power to overcome these challenges.  And that's a much needed message for 2019.

Now on to the "LEGO Movie" sequel, which has done poorly enough in theaters that it looks like it may be the last "LEGO Movie" sequel for a while.  Emmet (Chris Pratt), Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), LEGO Batman (Will Arnett), and the rest of their friends are back in a new adventure. Picking up right where the previous movie left off, the heroes weather an invasion from the rival DUPLO of the Systar System, and their world slowly devolves into a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  As you might have guessed, where the first movie was about a father and son learning to get along, this one is all about sibling rivalry.

Phil Lord and Chris Miller are back as writers and producers, though directing duties have been passed to "Trolls" director Mike Mitchell.  There's every indication that they poured all the same thoughtfulness and energy that was on display in the first movie into this installment, but unfortunately it never manages to achieve anywhere near the same level of off-the-wall creativity and fun.  We get new settings and new characters, like the DUPLO leader, Queen Whatevra (Tiffany Haddish), and Emmet's new friend Rex Dangervest (also Pratt), but few real surprises.

Instead there's a lot of retreading of familiar ground.  There's a catchy new song to replace "Everything is Awesome."  There's more journeying into different LEGO and DUPLO based fantasy worlds.  There's more shameless celebrity cameos, including Jason Momoa as LEGO Aquaman, and Richard Ayoade as an ice cream cone.  There's more pop-culture references, though noticeably fewer than last time. And there's more emphasis on everyone of different playing styles getting along - only it's much more obvious this time around with edgy versus cutesy aesthetics vying for our attention.

"The LEGO Movie 2" commits no obvious sins, and it's hard to imagine anyone having a real beef with it.  However, it offers much less of everything that made the first film great. The messages are blunter and less nuanced, the scale of the production is noticeably smaller, and that great rush of discovery from the first adventure couldn't be duplicated.  It's also hard to escape the feeling that the movie only exists because the studio staked out a release date for it some time ago. I still think this franchise has plenty of potential, but I wouldn't mind them taking a break from the big screen for a while.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Rank 'Em: The "Alien" Movies

While future plans for the franchise are in limbo, it's a good time to look back at the "Alien" series, with installments made by an eclectic bunch of famous directors.  This list does not include either of the "Alien vs. Predator" movies because I haven't seen them and have no interest in seeing them. Frankly, there's more than enough to talk about with the six films that make up the "Alien" series proper.  

Aliens (1986) - This movie was my white whale for many years, because I'd seen bits and pieces of it when I was young, but not the full enchilada until college.  I prefer the theatrical version to the extended cut, because it makes for a more streamlined adventure. I think this was really the movie that established Ripley as the iconic female badass, and really tied the "Alien" series to her story.  It also expanded the threat of the Xenomorphs in very enjoyable ways and gave us Paul Reiser as the weaselliest of corporate weasels.

Alien (1979) - The original "Alien" directed by Ridley Scott presents such a coldly bleak future compared to the later films.  The visuals are all grungy, blue collar, and industrial. It's very appropriate for a horror picture that distinguishes itself largely through inventive creature effects and a few strong action scenes.  And in the grand tradition of horror films, I like that it's not immediately apparent that Sigourney Weaver's Ripley is our lead heroine, or what the nature of the alien menace is. The effectiveness of the Xenomorph has been so diluted over the years, it's nice to go back to a film when its first appearance was really an occasion to scream.     

Prometheus (2012) - It says something about the series that a film as flawed as "Prometheus" is in the top half of the rankings.  There are certain plot developments here that are totally ludicrous, but on the other hand I enjoy Michael Fassbender's sinister David, the standout sequence with the medical pod, and a lot of those sepulchral bits of set design.  Moreover, this is a film bursting with interesting ideas, not all of them handled well, or allowed to pay off in a satisfying way, but interesting nonetheless. I appreciated all of its worldbuilding and the way that it set up future storylines - that sadly never paid off the way I hoped they would.  

Alien Resurrection (1997) - This is a weird one.  Mostly scripted by Joss Whedon and haphazardly directed by Hollywood newcomer Jean-Pierre Jeunet, this is the one with the dark comedic tone that none of the other "Alien" movies have, some unmistakable echoes of "Firefly," and Dominique Pinon as a paraplegic mechanic.  It's not nearly as scary as it needs to be, and the plotting is kind of a mess, but it's still pretty enjoyable as a kind of wacky space adventure. I like the crew of the Betty and wouldn't be opposed to seeing more of their adventures. But this series is ultimately about the aliens, so the reboot was inevitable, I suppose.    

Alien 3 (1992) - This was David Fincher's directorial debut!  This! It was an impossible situation, a film trying to follow up a smash hit, with battling scripts and no shortage of production troubles.  Fincher later disowned it, though he saved it from being as bad as it could have been. The movie suffers from an excess of grimy mundanity and mindless violence.  Sure, the aliens still look impressive and the action still works, but the story is essentially nothing, the new characters are all paper-thin, and Ripley spends most of the running time nursing a death wish.  The "Alien" movies were never exactly fun, but it's difficult to enjoy much of this.

Alien: Covenant (2017) - And finally, there's "Covenant," which barely feels like an "Alien" movie.  Most of the trouble comes from focusing so heavily on the android characters while the humans feel like little more than afterthoughts.  You can see Ridley Scott going through the motions of the old haunted house formula, but his heart's not really in it anymore. Fassbender's dual performance is pretty good, but it's not enough to sustain the whole enterprise.  

And where the series goes from here is anyone's guess.


Sunday, May 12, 2019

My Top Ten Films of 1978

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog.  And this is a particularly meaningful installment for me, because my woeful lack of knowledge about the films from this year specific year is what prompted me to start the whole project in the first place.

The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs - Painstakingly recreates and immerses the audience in the lives of a tenant farmer family in Italy at the turn of the century.  As we watch characters follow familiar patterns with the changing seasons, and encounter early stirrings of revolutionary sentiment, I thought I had the film all figured out.  I was wrong, and the way the story tragically plays out has haunted me ever since. With its use of non-actors, social commentary, and unwavering look at the poorest strata of society, this is rightly described as a neo-realist classic that just happened to be made in 1978.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin - Of all the '70s kung-fu films I've watched, this one is my favorite by far.  It's one of the best versions of the classical wuxia story where a promising young man suffers a terrible injustice, and has to go through many trials to turn himself into a great martial artist.  It also delves heavily into the mystical side of kung-fu, as our hero's training comes from the Shaolin Temple and its monks. Gordon Liu is great as our mighty hero, the training sequences are inventive, and the writing is unusually sharp.  Yes, it's all very familiar, but seeing it done so well is a treat.

Magic - I'm still impressed at the daring of everyone involved with the making of this movie.  Directed by Richard Attenborough, written by William Goldman based on his novel, and starring Anthony Hopkins in one of his lesser known performances, this battle of wills between a faltering magician and his terrifying alter-ego, the ventriloquist's dummy Fats, is wonderfully effective as psychological horror.  Hopkins' performance is uncanny stuff, as both the man and the dummy, making a potentially risible premise hit home in the best way. This is a film that should be far better known than it is.

Straight Time - A cynical look at the experiences of a newly released felon, played by Dustin Hoffman during the height of his career.  The first half of the film is especially candid and clear-eyed, as our protagonist attempts to stay on the straight and narrow, but has to tangle with the a sadistic parole office, played by M. Emmett Walsh, and weather the injustices of the correctional system.  A good counterpart to the flashier crime films of this period, "Straight Time" avoids sensationalism. It feels so true to life, I couldn't predict how the story would turn out from one moment to the next.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers - This is my favorite version of the invasion of cinema's most infamous the pod people.  It's a major step up from the original film, since it embraces the full horror of the premise, depicts events on a much larger scale, and takes advantage of improvements in effects and makeup techniques.  It also benefits from an excellent cast, including Donald Sutherland, Veronica Cartwright, and Jeff Goldblum. The influence of the film's excellent visual and sound design can still be seen in films to this day, and the twist ending it still one of my favorites of any horror films.  

Days of Heaven - This was the film that firmly cemented the style and reputation of Terrence Malick as a director.  The simple storyline, sparse dialogue, and immersive cinematography of the natural world are common hallmarks of many of his works.  However, "Days of Heaven" stands apart from the rest, possibly because of the way it was shot using natural light at only certain times of the day, possibly because of its deliberate evocation of silent film and various landscape painters.  The locust swarm sequence in particular is still a stunning piece of work, both technically and artistically.

Autumn Sonata - Ingrid Bergman's final screen performance was in this stark little late-era Ingmar Bergman (no relation) film, about a mother and daughter hashing out their troubled relationship during a rare visit.  Liv Ullmann plays the long-suffering daughter to Bergman's coldly perfectionist mother, and it's a real treat to watch these acting titans go at each other. This isn't one of Ingmar Bergman's better efforts, very visually limited and stagy, but the performances make it an essential watch.

The Deer Hunter - Perhaps the greatest Vietnam War film, and certainly one of the most influential.  It feels like several different films at times - a harrowing war film, a portrait of a mentally afflicted veteran trying to cope, and occasionally something far more tragic and existential.  It was the first film to really plumb the depths of the mental and spiritual pain inflicted by the war, and would open the doors to so many similar and related Vietnam War narratives over the next decade - and beyond.       

Gates of Heaven - Famously championed by Roger Ebert, "Gates of Heaven" was the film that brought documentarian Errol Morris to wider acclaim, and forced Werner Herzog to eat his own shoe.  This curious look at the history and operation of a Northern California pet cemetery has very little to do with the animals. Rather, it is the people who own and operate and make use of the cemetery - in all their magnificent eccentricity and inexplicability - who are Morris's primary focus.   

Superman - Finally, after all this time, my favorite superhero film is still the original Richard Donner "Superman."  It was the first time a superhero became a truly cinematic icon, rather than just a character from the comic books put on film.  The effects work, the wonderful performances, and the gorgeous production design all helped to sell this fantasy of a man who was truly larger than life and worthy of a little innocent awe and hero-worship.

Honorable Mention:

In a Year of 13 Moons


Friday, May 10, 2019

"Wildlife" and "Vox Lux"

I'm finishing up a couple of last year's late releases.  These two titles from new-ish directors were interesting enough that I want to get some thoughts down.

First we have "Wildlife," a memoir about a young man watching his parents' marriage fall apart.  Paul Dano directs a screenplay that he and Zoe Kazan co-wrote, their first since 2012's "Ruby Sparks."  Ed Oxenbould stars as Joe Brinson, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan as his parents, Jerry and Jeannette.  It's the early 1960s, and the Brinsons have recently moved to Great Falls, Montana. Jerry loses his job almost immediately, forcing Jeannette to  go back to work. Her resentment grows as Joe's pride keeps hm unemployed, until he decided to take on dangerous work as a fire-fighter battling the local spate of forest fires.

This is an old fashioned kind of melodrama, with only a few characters, very simple conflicts, and the filmmaking is largely built around showcasing the performances.  And Carey Mulligan's performance is absolutely worth showcasing. We watch her transform from a worried, but supportive housewife, to an angry, frustrated woman who seeks out troubling avenues to express her unhappiness.  Crucially, the film makes no judgments as to whether she and Jerry are in the wrong. We see the situation through Joe's eyes, and he clearly loves and sympathizes with both of his parents.

Joe, unfortunately, is also the film's biggest weakness.  He's largely a blank slate, and Oxenbould's performance is pretty bland.  Next to Mulligan and Gyllenhaal, it's easy to forget that he's even there half the time.  Otherwise, the film is pretty solid, if unspectacular melodrama. There's a nice spareness and exactness to the filmmaking, and I like all the subtle period touches that help set a very specific tone and atmosphere.  The film feels modern in its inclinations, but never imposes modern values on its characters the way some other films of this kind have.

And then we have "Vox Lux," which is an audacious, showy, flaming wreck of a film.  Director Brady Corbet starts out on okay footing, showing us a school shooting playing out, and how this inadvertently launches the pop star career of one of its survivors, a girl named Celeste (Raffey Cassidy).  Then we jump ahead several years to when Celeste is in her thirties, and is played by Natalie Portman. She has her own teenage daughter, Albertine (Cassidy), who is being raised by Celeste's long-suffering sister Ellie (Stacy Martin).  While preparing for the launch of a major concert, Celeste also has to deal with the media storm around a recent terrorist shooting linking itself to her, and the consequences of living a rock star lifestyle. Jude Law and Jennifer Ehle are on hand as her manager and publicist respectively.

"Vox Lux" is full of little gimmicks that are trying to be clever and insightful.  Or maybe they're trying to be provocative and unexpected. It's hard to say. So we watch the full end credits roll run during the opening sequence.  So we get chapter dividers with Willem Dafoe's narrator talking about the state of America and the state of Celeste's career. So the whole movie builds up to an extended concert sequence that just keeps going and going, until the movie ends.  In interviews, Corbet has expressed his belief that that the films is about Celeste literally making a deal with the devil in exchange for fame. Only two lines of dialogue in a 110 minute film directly address this notion.
And maybe I could have given all of that nonsense a pass if the core of the movie were stronger.  Most of it comes down to Natalie Portman's performance as the older, substance-abusing, terribly damaged Celeste.  She certainly looks the part, but between her exaggerated accent and her awful behavior, Celeste is a caricature. And with huge chunks of the run time given over to the musical finale and the earlier segments with the young celeste, there's not enough time to build anything more substantive.  We can't fault Brady Corbet for ambition, but his experiments with the narrative prove disastrous to any kind of point he's trying to make about the destructive nature of fame. If that is the point.

There may not actually be a point.  It's hard to say.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

"Aquaman" and "Bumblebee"

Aquaman is a silly character.  He talks to fish. He's the product of a chance encounter between a lighthouse keeper and a member of an underwater race of super-people who fight with shiny tridents.  I thought it was a good move to cast Jason Momoa as our hero, who goes by Arthur Curry on dry land, since Momoa is very visually distinct and has a big personality. He could ground some of the inevitable campiness of Aquaman having to fight for the throne of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis against a bitter half-brother, Orm (Patrick Wilson), while wooing a watery warrior woman, Mera (Amber Heard).  Oh, but camp doesn't even begin to describe what's in store here.

I mentioned in my "Justice League" review that I wasn't sure how the filmmakers were going to be able to build an entire feature around Aquaman when they hadn't figured out how to make underwater fighting look good yet.  And they never really did. Instead, quite a bit of the hand-to-hand fighting takes place in submersibles and air pockets, while the big battle sequences just obscure things with explosions. There is, however, a big duel between Arthur and Orm that takes place underwater and looks totally goofy.  However, it works because it leans into and embraces the goofiness wholeheartedly. And the rest of the movie is the same way. This is a movie that offers such delightfully bonkers images as Willem Dafoe riding a hammerhead shark, a human mercenary named Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) with a glowing bug head helmet, giant sentient battle crabs, and Atlanteans dressed in supersaturated bright colors straight out of the comics.  Oh, and sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads! Yes, really!

The movie has no shame whatsoever about looking like a Saturday morning cartoon with plastic action figure characters, similar to  the recent "G.I. Joe" reboots. However, director James Wan is skillful enough that the action is exciting, the characters are emotionally plausible (if occasionally overdoing the scenery chewing), and the simple story is well-paced and easy to follow.  Momoa is an awful lot of fun as Aquaman, a big, charming lug who never seems phased by any of the absurdity. As for everyone else, well, keeping a straight face was surely half the battle. I give "Aquaman" a passing grade, but I have no doubt that this will be an instant favorite among certain twelve-year-old boys.  And it does make me a little bit nostalgic for the equally pulpy "Conan the Barbarian" movies that I loved when I was that age.

Now on to "Bumblebee," a prequel and soft reboot of the "Transformers" series.  Travis Knight of the Laika movies has taken over from Michael Bay, for a much more small scale adventure set during the 1980s.  The alien robot Bumblebee comes to Earth, and is hiding out as a yellow VW Beetle when he crosses paths with a troubled teenager named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who never really got over the death of her father.   "Bumblebee" fixes just about every single problem I've had with the Transformers movie franchise since the 2007 "Transformers." Gone are the crass humor, the often incomprehensible violence, and the endless ogling of the female leads. Instead, "Bumblebee" is very kid friendly, with a big heart, and there's never a question that the movie is about Bumblebee first and foremost.  

The plot is familiar - essentially a retread of "E.T." with Hailee Steinfeld playing a sweeter, grease monkey version of her character from "Edge of Seventeen."  It all works well enough, with Steinfeld doing an impressive amount of the heavy lifting. No doubt, the director's animation background helped give the robot characters more expressiveness and personality, so Bumblebee and Charlie manage to have a good amount of believable screen rapport.  And in what I choose to believe is a further rebuke to Michael Bay's sensibilities, John Cena is is the biggest recognizable star in the movie, playing a rah-rah army lieutenant who turn out to be the movie's secondary bad guy. The primary baddies are a pair of Decepticons, Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux), who have followed Bumblebee to Earth and threaten to summon the rest of their army.

"Bumblebee" is not a great movie by any measure, but it's good enough.  And it is such a relief to see the franchise on much surer footing now, with people in charge who clearly understand the appeal of the Transformers characters and concept.  "Bumblebee" has enough story elements in common with that first "Transformers" movie that I can't help wondering what could have been if Knight and his collaborators had been in charge of this franchise in the first place.   


Monday, May 6, 2019

About That Mary Poppins Movie

Disney's remakes of their older classics have tended to fall into two broad categories.  First you have the ones like "Beauty and the Beast," which copy the original film beat for beat, with a few variations to update them a bit.  Then you have looser adaptations like "Maleficent" and "Alice in Wonderland," which can be more subversive, and usually tend to warp the original narratives into modernized empowerment fantasies.  

I'm sad to say that "Mary Poppins Returns" is of the former variety, even though it takes place about twenty years after the original when Jane and Michael Banks (Emily Mortimer, Ben Whishaw) have grown up.  Michael has his own children, John, Annabel, and Georgie (Nathanael Saleh, Pixie Davies, and Joel Dawson). Due to money troubles and the recent death of his wife, Michael's life is in shambles, and he's on the verge of losing the family home.  Fortunately, Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) returns during this crucial time, ready to take up her position as the indispensable nanny once more.

The particulars of the story are much more serious this time around, with the looming threat of homelessness, and a proper villain in the form of a corrupt banker, Wilkins (Colin Firth).  Otherwise, "Mary Poppins Returns" sticks to the structure and formula of the first movie with few exceptions. Most of the changes are literal one-to-one substitutions, such as Dick van Dyke's Bert being replaced with Lin-Manuel Miranda's lamplighter, Jack, and we're down from two domestics to just one, the housekeeper Ellen (Julie Walters).  The film often seems determined to reference or revive every single thing anyone might have enjoyed in the 1964 "Mary Poppins," from the bottomless handbag to the nutty mariner, Admiral Boom (David Warner), shooting off cannons at the end of the lane.

This is the most obvious with the songs and fantasy sequences.  Instead of a jolly holiday in a chalk drawing singing "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," this time Mary Poppins takes the children into an animated sequence in a piece of painted crockery and sings "The Cover is Not the Book."  Instead of a nocturnal adventure with the chimney sweeps singing "Step In Time," this time it's with Jack's fellow lamplighters, or "leeries," singing "Trip a Little Light Fantastic." Remember the tea party on the ceiling with Ed Wynn's Uncle Albert singing "I Love to Laugh"?  Now it's Meryl Streep as Cousin Topsy, singing "Turning Turtle," as her repair shop turns upside-down. And it doesn't help that the score is constantly quoting the original music. I caught snatches of "Spoonful of Sugar," "Let's Go Fly a Kite" and even "Fidelity Fiduciary Bank."

All of this is very raucous and energetic, but it's only the rare moment that matches up to anything in the first movie.  Marc Shaiman does his best, but clearly isn't on the level of the Sherman brothers. The effects work is fantastic, but rarely do we see anything inventive or novel.  I thought there were two fantasy sequences that were really impressive - the trip into the porcelain bowl where the live-action actors interact with 2D animated characters in a way that we haven't seen from Disney in ages, and the finale where kites are swapped for balloons.  The rest tend to feel like echoes of the superior originals. I tried my best to consider "Mary Poppins Returns" separate and apart from the 1964 film, but it's all impossible considering how determined the filmmakers are to remind viewers of the first "Mary Poppins" at every turn.  

Emily Blunt successfully steps into the title role, by being just different enough of a "practically perfect" nanny that her performance can be taken on its own terms.  Her Mary is a little softer and more prone to smiling. However, the rest of the characters are far less successful. Lin-Manuel Miranda is pleasant enough, but pretty bland.  Emily Mortimer gets very little to do. Ben Whishaw is sympathetic, but uninteresting. I also found it an odd choice that the children are unrealistically mature and well-behaved for their circumstances, clearly not needing a nanny.  The point is that Mary Poppins is really there for Michael, but the children hardly even behave like children, which undercuts a lot of the smaller moments of magic and wonder.
It has been a very, very long time since I've seen the original "Mary Poppins" with Julie Andrews, but not long enough that I don't remember how and why it worked so well.  That was a movie about the fantastic intruding upon the lives of ordinary people living ordinary lives. There's nothing ordinary about anything in "Mary Poppins Returns." The family is in a terrible crisis and recovering from tragedy.  Thus all the quieter little character-building moments showing the Banks interacting in their day-to-day lives have been supplanted by plotty business with missing bank shares and an excess of emotional turmoil. There's a terribly rushed feeling to the film, where everything builds up to a big, exciting action conclusion that feels wholly unnecessary.  

I have no doubt that everyone involved in "Mary Poppins Returns" loved and wanted to do right by "Mary Poppins."  There are little tributes everywhere, including an opening title sequence based on the work of beloved Disney artist Peter Ellenshaw, who gets a big shout-out in the credits.  However, this is a prime example of a film that seems to exist solely to capitalize off of the nostalgia of an older classic. And it does so with ruthless efficiency, and not nearly enough magic.

Friday, May 3, 2019

"Shoplifters" Tugs the Heartstrings

In one way or another, Hirokazu Koreeda's films have mostly been about families and their relationships.  He's examined happy families, broken families, families in crisis, and families that are in denial about being families.  And now we come to "Shoplifters," about one of the most curious cinema families of all.

We first encounter a little boy named Shota (Kairi Jō) and his father Osamu (Lily Franky) shoplifting at a local grocery store.  They bring home their spoils to their family, consisting of grandmother Hatsue (Kirin Kiki), Osamu's wife Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), and the college-aged Aki (Mayu Matsuoka).  One night, they also bring home Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a timid little girl they find outside in the cold, clearly from an abusive family. They only intend to let her stay the night, but soon find themselves with a new little sister to take care of.

Ever socially conscious, at first it seems that Koreeda is primarily interested in examining the struggles of a poor, socially disadvantaged set of characters.  Osamu is a laborer, but sidelined by a bad injury, Nobuyo does menial work in a laundry, and Aki is in adult entertainment. Shota does the bulk of the shoplifting, and doesn't go to school.  All of them run other little grifts and scams to supplement their income. The house belongs to Hatsue, who has to pretend she's living alone every time social workers come by. There's also the plight of poor Yuri, which echoes several recent cases of child abuse in Japan that have caused controversy.

However, it soon becomes clear that Koreeda is more interested in the relationships of the family itself.  In spite of their poverty and criminal habits, the characters are loving and protective of each other. They readily accept Yuri and show her real affection and care.  They maintain a happy, lively household, even though there always seems to be one calamity or another threatening their survival. At the same time, it's clear that there's something fundamentally not quite right about the situation.  This is reflected in Shota's reluctance to involve Yuri in their schemes, and his gradual realization that the family's dishonesty extends to matters involving the family itself.

The prior Koreeda film that "Shoplifters" most closely resembles is "Nobody Knows," which is also about a secretive little family unit that creates their own private world.  In that film, it was also the preteen older brother who had to come to terms with the fragility of his family and the limits of his responsibility for them. The two films share very similar visual language, full of cozy scenes of day-to-day life, with a special emphasis on the children's point of view.  The world of "Shoplifters" is larger, though, occasionally following the grown-ups into shady clubs and dingy factories. Also, the most important relationships are the ones between the adults and the children, namely the complicated one between Shota and Osamu.

It's the inviting intimacy that makes the film work so well, the close-ups on faces and hands, the unhurried private moments and casual conversations.  None of the performances stand out, but they all share this lovely warmth and openness. Lily Franky and Sakura Ando in particular are wonderfully sympathetic as the busy parents, sneaking private time during a rainstorm, and each dealing with their own personal heartache when the family starts to unravel.  My only real complaint with "Shoplifters" is that I wish the film had the time to give more shadings to Aki and Hatsue, who are very much supporting characters here, and it's hinted that there's quite a lot more to their stories.
Koreeda has often been compared to Yasujiro Ozu, because of his his films being leisurely paced, often with bittersweet endings, and focusing on family relationships in modern Japan.  However, the more I've seen from Koreeda, the more I think that the better comparison would be Satyajit Ray, who explored similar territory, but became more and more concerned with social issues over the course of his career, and often examined how they affected his protagonists.  In "Shoplifters," Koreeda is far more confrontational with his characters, and more critical of Japanese social ills than I've ever seen, and I think it's to the film's benefit.


Wednesday, May 1, 2019

My favorite Sergei Eisenstein Film

I haven't written as much as I should have about the silent film directors, because they're so influential that they can be intimidating to approach.  What insights could an amateur blogger possibly have about the work of a man who is often credited as the pioneering creative force behind montage, literally one of the essential building blocks of narrative film as we know it?  I don't think they let you graduate from film school anywhere without seeing the Odessa steps sequence from "Battleship Potempkin" at least a few times.

Eisenstein's early films are of unquestionable historical importance both for their innovations and for their content, capturing the revolutionary impulse of the Soviets in the 1920s, and displaying film techniques that were considered experimental at the time.  However, I don't find them very watchable as features. The one Eisenstein film that I feel still holds up is his historical adventure picture, "Alexander Nevsky," which came in the later part of his career, after years of stalled and cancelled projects and personal upheaval.  It tells the story of the famed Russian prince who rallied the commoners of the city of Novgorod to fight off an invasion of Teutonic knights in the 13th century.

The movie is essentially a piece of Stalinist propaganda, meant to glorify the Russian people and further iconize one of their national heroes.  Eisenstein's earlier films had similar themes, but after years away from Russia and a changed political climate, he was given considerably less free reign over this production.  A co-screenwriter was assigned to the project to ensure that Eisenstein didn't stray into arty "Formalist" territory. Some of the footage mysteriously disappeared after Stalin saw an early cut.  Still, the movie emerged as a solid piece of filmmaking on its own terms, in spite of all the scrutiny.

What sets "Alexander Nevsky" apart from Eisenstein's other films for me is that there's a real sense of humor about it.  The narrative is less didactic, and embraces being a crowd-pleasing adventure story first and foremost. There's a fun subplot with two of Nevsky's commanders jovially fighting over the affections of a fair maiden, the dialogue is full of good-natured warrior's banter, and the prince himself would clearly rather be fishing than fighting another war.  The spectacle is stirring, and there's a huge battle sequence on a frozen lake that is still very impressive to this day, but it makes a big difference to have the lighter tone and more identifiable, sympathetic characters to follow through the story.

Eisenstein's visuals are impeccable here.  The production design is a treat, full of sweeping, fantastical landscapes and showy costumes emblazoned with meaningful symbols.  The Teutonic invaders sport giant horned helmets, and the women have massive braided hairdos. This is wonderful for Eisenstein's shot compositions, full of bold action and stylized figures.  Foreground and background elements are often contrasted against each other, emphasizing size and scale. The rows and rows of armored extras on the march are impossibly uniform and well-polished, emphasizing their might and solidarity.  Audiences of the time would have had no trouble distinguishing the larger-than-life heroes from the villainous hordes at a glance.

This was also Eisenstein's first sound film, and notable for an excellent score by Sergei Prokofiev that was created with an unusual degree of collaboration with the filmmakers.  Prokofiev scored directly to images from the film, and Eisenstein edited segments with the score in mind. The choral music directly comments on the action, and the battle sequences are boosted considerably by the stirring orchestral themes.  Prokofiev would later arrange selections as a cantata, and this is one of the rare cases where music composed for a film has become a repertory piece and part of the classical canon.

Despite its popular success at the time of release, the film was perceived to have anti-German sentiments, and when Stalin allied with the Nazis, "Alexander Nevsky" was pulled from distribution until the end of WWII.  However, it quickly became influential both in the Soviet Union and in the west, and remains one of the most well known Soviet films of its era. Many cinematic battle sequences contain echoes of the climax of "Alexander Nevsky," and others have taken cues from its use of iconography and music.

As for Eisenstein, "Alexander Nevsky" was his last major success.  He would go on to make the first two parts of "Ivan the Terrible," as commissioned by Stalin, but died before the third could be completed.

What I've seen - Sergei Eisenstein

Strike (1924)
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928)
Alexander Nevsky (1938)
Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II (1944-46)
Que Viva Mexico! (1979)


Monday, April 29, 2019

"High Flying Bird" and "Triple Frontier"

What have we been watching on Netflix lately?  Well, let's see…

"High Flying Bird" is Stephen Soderbergh's latest, about a sports agent named Ray Burke (André Holland) trying to steer his latest client, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), through an NBA lockdown.  Other figures in Ray's orbit include his clueless boss (Zachary Quinto), a labor negotiator, Myra (Sonja Sohn), Ray's ambitious assistant, Sam (Zazie Beetz), Erick's rival, Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), Jamero's intimidating mother/manager, Emera (Jeryl Prescott), and Bill Duke as Spencer, the elderly coach who serves as a pillar of the local basketball community.  

With a predominantly African-American cast and a sensational script by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, "High Flying Bird" offers a rare, insightful critique of the way professional basketball operates and the cut-throat culture that it encourages.  Though billed in some quarters as a sports movie, there's hardly any basketball played onscreen. Rather, this is a sports economics movie, keen to dig into all the politics and pitfalls around professional basketball, criticizing the way the system has been set up to the disadvantage of the players.  The movie is built around these wonderful conversations and negotiations between different characters, as they struggle to come out ahead. Soderbergh includes Interviews with real professional players interspersed throughout the film, little reminders that the issues being discussed in the story are all very real.

Soderbergh shot the film largely with an iPhone, the same way he shot "Unsane."  He follows Ray and Erick around New York, meeting with all these different people and trying to get on top of a bad situation.  I didn't find the end results all that interesting visually, but it does add a certain verisimilitude to the interactions, and immediately imbues the characters with a sense of place and culture.  Holland is especially entertaining to watch as this epitome of the smooth operator, who may seem to be in over his head at times, but always has another trump card in reserve to play at a crucial moment.  The entire ensemble is excellent, including an ornery Bill Dukes still holding his own effortlessly in every scene.

Now on to "Triple Frontier," the long-simmering action thriller scripted by Mark Boal that went through countless cast and creative changes before finally landing J.C. Chandor as director and an all-star cast lead by Ben Affleck and Oscar Isaac.  I'd assumed this was a war film based on some of the earlier reporting, but it turns out that "Triple Frontier" is a heist movie of sorts, but one with a much closer resemblance to "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" than "Ocean's 11." Isaac takes point as "Pope" Garcia, battling Colombia's drug cartels as a military consultant.  One day he receives a tip from an informant, Yovanna (Adria Arjona), about an infamous drug lord's jungle safehouse full of ill-gotten funds. Garcia recruits his old Special Forces pals to help him pull off a heist, including Tom "Redfly" Davis (Ben Affleck), now a realtor, Ben and William Miller (Garrett Hedlund, Charlie Hunnam), and pilot Catfish Morales (Pedro Pascal).    

The "triple frontier" of the title refers to the area where the borders of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil converge in the Amazon rainforest.  This is where the heist goes down, and is the source of some of the film's best visuals. There's also a lengthy section of the story that takes place in the stark Andes mountains, where surviving the wilderness becomes a major concern.  However, the scenery can only contribute so much, and this is sadly one of those cases where the story could have used more help. Now as an action film, there's little to complain about. The set-pieces are well staged and the tension is terrific.  Chandor makes good use of the South American settings, and the various twists and turns of the heist and its aftermath are deployed well.

The trouble comes when the film tries to incorporate anything more substantive.  And I don't mean anything related to the region's drug wars and culture of corruption and exploitation, but just the basic character interactions whenever the pace slows down.  It's all very generic and surface level. Despite the stacked cast, there's no getting away from how thin these characters are. The script does a decent job of setting them up as a troupe of ex-military badasses who didn't transition well to civilian life, but on an individual level, there is very little to work with.  Ben Affleck's character is the only one who seems to come to the situation with any stakes, and the others are barely distinguished from each other. This drastically undercuts the impact of the later parts of the film.

So, as an action film this is a decent film.  But as drama, especially one that flirts with the same themes of greed and desperation that have featured in some of the greatest films of all time, it's a miss.  I don't expect this to be "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" or Kubrick's "The Killing," but it's very disheartening to see such a talented group of filmmakers deliver such glib treatment of similar subject matter.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

The "Dumbo" Edit

The News: According to The Hollywood Reporter a few days ago, the new Disney+ service will not be offering the controversial "Song of the South."  Worse, however, is that while the 1940 animated "Dumbo" will be available, the crows and their song number will be cut.

First thought: This is a travesty.  "Dumbo" is a classic of animation and one of my favorite films.  Boo. Hiss.

Second thought: Clearly the crows are a touchy topic and there are some legitimate worries about continuing to keep a film with this kind of content in circulation.  Just because I have no issue with the crows doesn't mean its not right to be sensitive to the concerns of others. The Tim Burton live action remake left them out. This is a socially responsible decision, even if it's an artistically compromised one.

Third: It sets a horrid precedent though. Does this mean we're losing the ""What Made the Red Man Red?" number from "Peter Pan"?  The Siamese cats from "Lady and the Tramp"? Heck, "Dumbo" itself has the arguably more problematic "Roustabout Song" and Dumbo's drunken escapades leading into "Pink Elephants."  The feature is barely an hour to begin with. How much will be left if all the mildly objectionable content is eventually tossed?

Fourth: This edited version of the film is specifically for the new Disney+ service.  So this is essentially like"Dumbo" being edited for television, not a full excision of the material from Disney history like Sunflower being removed from "Fantasia."  I expect you should still be able to buy the full version on official home media.

Fifth: This is also a business decision.  Disney+ is being billed as family friendly, which none of the other streaming services has really pulled off yet.  Sure, Netflix and Amazon and the rest have kids' programming, but a whole service dedicated to family entertainment is fairly novel.  The curation will allow parents to set their kids free on the service the way they can't on something like Youtube. That's going to be a selling point.  

Sixth: This introduction of more stringent content standards on a major streaming service feels like another step in online streaming's gradual replacement of broadcast and cable television.  Other services are sure to follow suit, as streaming services keep looking more and more like cable channels. Apple's streaming service, if it ever gets off the ground, is also looking to be family oriented.  

Seventh: However, the dynamic is going to be different from television, where the carefully curated, mainstream-oriented broadcast networks have largely been the default option.  With the all-inclusive Netflix having so much market share, it's the default in the streaming world. I expect that family friendly options like Disney+ will be treated as more specialized since it's aimed at a narrower segment of the audience.  I don't think this bodes well for Disney+ being a real Netflix challenger.

Eighth: This also tempers my expectations a bit for Disney+ content.  While we'll be getting a lot of content from the hallowed Disney vault, it's not likely to be nearly as much as I was hoping for, and it's going to be limited to family friendly material.  Disney means kid-safe. That means we're not likely to see all those Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures movies, or similar content from the Fox library. Ralph Bakshi will be spared the indignity of seeing his films put under the Disney banner in any context.  But where will this content end up online, if at all? Hulu?

Ninth: I expect that we'll come across more examples of content restrictions on Disney+ when it launches in November - broadcast friendly versions of movies, missing episodes of certain series that have problematic content, and so on.  This was standard operating procedure for Disney cable channels like the Disney Channel and Toon Disney for ages. Just because Disney is trying to compete with Netflix doesn't mean it's going to behave like Netflix.

Tenth: Since I own "Dumbo" in multiple formats, I'll be showing my kids the original version anyway.  And I'll be holding on to my collection of physical media a little tighter.

Eleventh: I'll also still be subscribing to Disney+ in November just to get a look what they're doing with it.  Whether I'll keep it around is another matter.


Friday, April 26, 2019

The Startling "Shirkers"

It's very rare that a movie feels like it's speaking directly to me, that really hits me on a fundamental level.  "Shirkers," however, fits the bill. It's a documentary made in extraordinary circumstances about a lost film, also titled "Shirkers."  Netflix released it with little fanfare last year, about a week before they released Orson Welles' "The Other Side of the Wind." Unlike that film, alas, the original "Shirkers" is doomed to remain unfinished.

Once upon time in the summer of 1992, a trio of college-aged Singaporean film-lovers, Sandi Tan, Jasmine Ng, and Sophia Siddique, decided to follow their dreams and make an indie road movie together.  At the end of the film shoot, their unstable teacher and mentor George Cardona, made off with all the footage and was never to be heard from again. Roughly twenty years later, the materials were recovered after Cardona died.  Sandi Tan, who scripted and starred in the film, decided to resurrect "Shirkers" as a documentary about what happened in 1992, and the impact it had on her life and the lives of her friends.

Could there be anything more emblematic of the struggles of female filmmakers and minority filmmakers, than a film where a white male con-artist literally steals the work and money of the Asian female creative team, sabotaging what could have been several very promising filmmaking careers?  Hollywood loves films about scrappy young filmmakers, and we've seen several of them over the years. There have also been the stories of filmmaking attempts gone wrong, or gone sideways, like 2017's "The Disaster Artist." However, I've rarely seen one like this, a painful example of a film project destroyed through an act of unimaginable malice.

However, the film isn't really about the crime.  While Tan does spend some time picking apart Georges Cardona's psyche and his sad little history of grifts and betrayals, I'm glad that for the most part "Shirkers" is about Sandi Tan.  She uses most of the film to tell her own story of being a film enthusiast and burgeoning filmmaker in a country that barely had a filmmaking community to speak of in the 1990s. And then, twenty-odd years later, about her journey to reclaim her work and finally put the old ghosts to rest.  I identified with her passion something fierce. And it's so satisfying to see Tan cement her status as a filmmaker in the end, even if it's not with the film she started out making in 1992.

Most of the documentary's effectiveness comes from the way it's been pieced together, using nostalgic archival materials, interviews, and copious amounts of the unfinished "Shirkers."  The more I saw of the colorful, absurdist film that Tan and her friends were trying to make, the more I wanted to see the finished product. Sadly, it's eventually revealed that too many elements are missing, including the entire original audio track, for this to be possible.  Still, Tan's use of various clips creates this wonderfully appealing mirage of the film that could have been.

Ultimately, "Shirkers" is celebratory of creativity and perseverance and the joys of moviemaking in a way that I found tremendously appealing.  Even though the film wasn't finished, the experience of making it touched the lives of everyone involved, and Tan's repurposing of the surviving footage ensures that their efforts are finally being seen and appreciated.  I love that the final moments of the documentary are turned over to the man who composed the music for "Shirkers," which was never recovered. He gets to recreate a few minutes of it for audiences to hear at last, as the credits roll by.        

Finally, on a personal note, I remarked a few months ago that in 2018 I felt like I was finally the target audience, thanks to multiple films and shows suddenly coming out lead by Asian women over thirty.  We can add "Shirkers" to the list, one that may be the most relevant to me of all, because it features Asian women who love film as much as I do, who share the same kind of creative impulses and geeky worldview.  It's a comforting feeling to know that I'm not as rare a bird as I thought I was.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Rank 'Em: The Muppet Movies

Despite the recent revival, I think the age of the theatrical Muppet movie is behind us for the time being.  However, eight installments over thirty-five years is nothing to sneeze at. Kermit and friends have given me a lot of laughs and a lot of good times over the years, and I think they're due for a little more attention on this blog.  So below, are the Muppet movies ranked from greatest to not-so great.

The Muppet Movie (1979) - The Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher songs are magic, the cameos are priceless, and the whole sunny, positive philosophy of the Muppets couldn't have been better presented.  There are a lot of fun bits of technical wizardry, like Kermit on a bicycle and the giant Animal, but I always loved the film for being so unabashedly heartfelt and sentimental. Kermit with his banjo, Gonzo with his balloons, and everyone at the grand finale with the rainbow - it's pure movie magic.  

The Great Muppet Caper (1981) - The sequel did what most sequels do, which was to become more conventional and formulaic.  However, there's a lot of good material here, with some of the Muppets' best running gags and jokes. Miss Piggy gets more of the spotlight, giving Esther Williams a run for her money and riding that motorcycle to glory in the big action climax.  The human actors are especially well used here, with Diana Rigg and Charles Grodin turning in a pair of very memorable performances.

The Muppet Treasure Island (1996) - I don't really know why this movie became one of my go-to guilty pleasures, but I've seen it at least twenty times and know all the songs by heart.  It's ridiculous on every level, many of the jokes are groan-worthy, and the plotting is kind of a mess. However, Tim Curry is perfectly cast as Long John Silver, and there's a subplot with Sam the Eagle that never fails to make me giggle.  If pressed, I would have to admit this is not a good movie, but for me it is an essential one.

The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984) - The last of the original run of Muppet movies made when Jim Henson was still with us.  Frankly, I never much liked the storyline with Kermit getting amnesia, but Rizzo and the rats were a great addition to the Muppet universe, and who doesn't love a big wedding?  This was actually the first Muppet film I encountered as a kid, specifically in audiobook form. It wasn't a great one to start with, as all the references and Muppet history were completely lost on me.    

Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) - Michael Caine is a great Scrooge, but having already been exposed to so many other Scrooges in so many other versions of "A Christmas Carol," he was never going to be one of my favorites.  While there are some delightful moments here, what surprised me about the film was how faithful it was to the original Dickens story - to the point where it's really much longer than it should be. This was a good direction for the Muppets, but I found the results more mixed than merry.

Muppets Most Wanted (2014) - I wasn't a fan of Jason Segel and Walter taking up so much of the time and attention in "The Muppets" revival, so the sequel having less of them was a big plus for me.  So yes, there are way too many cameos and everything feels very slapdash, but the fundamentals are pretty solid here. I like Kermit's evil double Constantine, and a couple of the songs are catchy. This is a minor effort for the Muppets, but it's still diverting enough that I don't have bad feelings toward the movie.  

The Muppets (2011) - I know they tried.  I know everyone's intentions were good. Unfortunately, "The Muppets" rarely worked for me.  Bret McKenzie's songs are mostly good, and the sight of Chris Cooper as the evil rapping oilman is an image I will long cherish. However, there's so much of the movie that feels weirdly forced, and it completely failed to get me to care about the new characters.  It was nice to see Kermit and the gang again, but there wasn't enough of them onscreen.

Muppets from Space (1999) - I actually saw this in theaters, and knew there was something very wrong almost instantly.  Sure, the idea of Gonzo finally finding his place in the world was great, but the execution is a mess. There are no original songs, the cameos are terrible, and everything feels very compromised and derivative.  Seriously, how did they make "Muppets in Space" without even once referencing "Pigs in SPAAAAAACE"?

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Amazing "Spider-verse"

Some minor spoilers ahead.

A few years ago, when Sony was making plans for a cinematic universe based on Spider-man characters, I was skeptical.  Was there really enough material to support films based around characters like Aunt May and the Sinister Six? However, my knowledge of Spider-lore was mostly limited to the 1990s and earlier.  I had no idea about the various new Spider-characters that had been created in the last decade, many of them in an effort to diversify the universe a bit. These are the heroes of the animated "Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse," and they may be the key to Sony finally getting what they want.

As we all know, Peter Parker (Chris Pine) is New York's friendly neighborhood superhero, Spider-man, who got his superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider.  However, he's not the only one who got bitten. We're also introduced to teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who lives in Brooklyn with his African-American father Jefferson (Brian Tyree Henry), a cop, and his Puerto Rican mother Rio (Luna Lauren Velez), a nurse.  A gifted student, Miles is struggling to adapt to a new school, and lets off steam by sneaking off to visit his uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) and painting graffiti. This is how he encounters the fateful spider, and what leads him to stumble into the middle of a dangerous scheme by The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) to access parallel dimensions.

One thing leads to another, and Miles meets other Spider-men and Spider-women characters while learning to master his own developing powers.  These include an older, down-on-his-luck version of Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), and a teenage Spider-woman version of Peter's gal-pal Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld).  So we have an origin story told alongside several other stories about very different kinds of Spider-folks. There are also several other familiar characters in the mix, both friends and foes, but discovering where and how they're used in "Spider-verse" is part of the fun.  The story continually drives the message home that anybody can be behind the Spider-man mask, and thus anyone can be a superhero.

"Into the Spider-verse" doesn't just diversify its heroes, but creates a wonderfully distinctive visual world for them that doesn't look quite like anything else we've seen in mainstream animation.  3D rendered characters and environments have 2D linework animated over them, giving them a look that evokes traditional comic books. Also, comic book visual language is used throughout, including speech bubbles, sound effects, and even the old halftone dot patterns on closeups of some of the characters.   Occasionally some of these visuals don't mesh right, especially when you've got photorealistic elements like cars and trains in the same frame with flatter, cartoony elements. Still, the overall the effect is wonderfully dynamic and fresh.

We've seen Spider-man and friends animated many times before, but this is the first animated Spidey film, and clearly there were significant efforts made to ensure that the "Spider-verse" characters offered something new. The characters designs feature exaggerated shapes and movements that could only work in animation.  Kingpin, for instance, has never looked so massive and impenetrable, sometimes filling the entire frame There are several sequences of Spider-man swinging through the city, but this time around it's a city that is abstracted or stylized in various ways, creating some fantastic, unique images. And supporting the visuals are a vibrant, hip-hop heavy soundtrack, strong vocal performances, and a gorgeous score.

Parents should be aware that this isn't a feature meant for the youngest Spider-man fans.  The content gets pretty dark at times, and there are some potentially upsetting deaths. Moreover, the plotting is complicated enough that kids under the age of eight or so likely aren't going to be able to follow what's going on. Many of the most clever gags and in-jokes are aimed at older fans, or are remixing elements that the creators expect viewers are already familiar with.  No one stops to explain who Aunt May and the Green Goblin are. At the same time, the humor and the energy of the film are so strong, newcomers won't be bored.

As for me, I've never been a big Spider-man booster, but these last couple of features aimed at a younger generation of fans have been wonderful to see.  If Sony and Marvel keep focusing on the more recent comics spinoffs, with their more eclectic sensibilities and inclusive worldview, then I'll happily look forward to more Spider-man (and Spider-woman) movies.