Thursday, May 30, 2019

The 2018 Movies I Didn't See

I write these posts every year to sort out my feelings toward some of the more prominent movies I've made a conscious decision to skip watching.  I'm working through the last handful of 2018 films on my "To Watch" list, mostly foreign films with later domestic releases. However, as my Top Ten list has mostly solidified, and the queue of 2019 films is only getting longer, it's time to make some decisions.    

Below are eight movies that didn't make the cut this year.  I reserve the right to revisit and reverse my viewing choices in the future.   However, I still haven't watched anything from last year's list.

Love, Simon -  It's the first mainstream young adult romance featuring an LGBT lead character!  That's great! This is the kind of movie that needs support! Except that I'm not a fan of studio produced romance films in general, especially not the young adult stuff.  And the reviews, while kind, have pointed to this being perfectly average as a film. In short, it's potential airplane viewing. Not something I'm going to make time for.

On the Basis of Sex - I'm not averse to a good biopic about a legal giant now and again.  But it's directed by Mimi Leder? Felicity Jones is played Ruth Bader Ginsburg? I don't know what it is about Felicity Jones, but her screen presence immediately puts me on guard.  I wrestled with this for a while before ultimately deciding that I could skip it. There's been little awards attention, reviews are middling, and I've already seen the "RBG" documentary.

The Front Runner - Oh, boy.  This is another prestige pic that never generated much interest despite its timely subject matter and cast of familiar names.  Still, it had decent critical notices and Jason Reitman did a good job with "Tully" earlier in the year. I could go in fresh, not really knowing much about the Gary Hart scandal.  On the other hand, the awards heaped on the awful "Vice"this season have soured me on political films for a while.

Mowgli - A darker "Jungle Book" feature might be more true to the original book, but I was never honestly much of a fan of any version of the story to begin with.  From the beginning I've thought of this movie as an odd passion project of Andy Serkis's, and found the behind the scenes drama of its production and distribution woes far more interesting than anything to do with the actual film.  Like the "Grinch" remake, I can't give this a fair shake.

The Happytime Murders - Well, Brian Henson finally got his R-rated puppet noir.  As much as I love the Muppets and many of the creatives involved in the project, I have no interest in actually sitting through this thing.  The trailer satisfied any kind of curiosity I had about how the film ultimately came out. I fully support the Jim Henson folks in their quest to appeal to modern theatergoing audiences, but this was clearly a bg swing and a miss.

Let the Sunshine In - I am putting my foot down.  I have watched too many European female midlife crisis movies recently and I haven't enjoyed any of them.  I'm sorry Claire Denis, and I'm sorry Juliette Binoche, but I do not have the patience to go through another round of this aggravation.  You're just going to have to wait another decade or two until I'm old enough to relate to your angst better. This clearly isn't the right time to get acquainted.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot - I still don't trust Gus van Sant.  It's been a few years since the low that was "We Bought a Zoo," but I can't help having lingering doubts about where his head is.  The plot is also one of those oddities that I'm not really sold on - Joaquin Phoenix plays a paralyzed man who copes with depression by drawing off-color cartoons.  The fact that I haven't heard a word about this at awards time doesn't help either.

Assassination Nation - I was intrigued by the promises of violence and social justice satire, but responses to the movie have been mixed, and it bombed at the box office in September.   It's not a good sign when a film selling itself as being provocative doesn't manage to elicit any sort of response from the wider media. I'm also very wary of writer/director Sam Levinson, whose debut feature was my pick for the worst film of 2011.


Sunday, May 26, 2019

"Avengers: Endgame" (With Spoilers)

All the spoilers ahead.  ALL OF THEM.

This is not the movie that I was expecting, but that is a good thing in just about every respect.  Going into "Endgame," I expected the film would be all about reversing the clock and undoing the events of "Infinity War."  I'm so glad that the filmmakers elected not to do this, instead allowing everyone to move on, or try to, thereby putting them in different positions with different motivations when the time comes to regroup.  I love how they really hammer home the theme of failure (pun intended), and show how it affects everyone in different ways. I don't think characters like Black Widow and Hulk have ever gotten so much character development.  Thor's transformation is hilarious, but also poignant.

Some of my favorite moments in the entire run of the MCU involve the Avengers having some downtime here.  Sure, all the fights and the big "Time Heist" are fun, but seeing all these different personalities interacting and having the time to really enjoy their camaraderie is what I love.  So Thor's rambling retelling of the events of "Thor: The Dark World," and Hulk replacing Ant-man's taco, and Tony Stark embracing being a dad, mean just as much to me as Thanos finally getting his much deserved smackdown.  As sad as it would have been, I'm disappointed that we didn't get to see Tony and Pepper's wedding. And the film is so much better for allowing the characters their space to fumble and grieve and say goodbye.

Yes, Iron Man and Black Widow died, and Captain America retired.  The important part, though, is that the movie did its best to make those meaningful ends.  I don't think they quite succeeded with Black Widow, but they did a great job of wrapping up Tony Stark as a character, letting him grow and better himself.  And Steve Rogers got his happy ending in a way that conveniently also took him off the board. And unexpectedly, there was so much time spent giving Nebula an arc - I don't know that it was necessary, and it may have meant less time for more important characters, but they did it right.  Nebula is a fascinating figure, and it was great to see her get her due. And this was the best appearance by Ant-man, who I enjoy so much better as a second banana. And Professor Hulk is bizarre, and I don't know about this choice in the long term, but it works for "Endgame."

The plotting is entirely too convenient.  None of the time travel makes sense to me, but it was such fun and absolutely shameless fanservice to send everybody "Back to the Future II" style, back to the older movies to muck around with our expectations.  The meta humor and all the little callbacks and cameos are great. "Thor: The Dark World" may not have been anyone's favorite, but it did have Renee Russo's Frigga in it, which was exactly what the "Endgame" version of Thor needed.  Fat Thor felt awfully gratuitous for the first half of the movie, but I like that everyone committed to the bit and he didn't magically slim down again in the end. I hope we get to see more of him with the Guardians in a few years.

Good grief, I haven't even talked about the performances yet.  Robert Downey Jr. has always been the MCU's MVP, and he went out on such a great note.  Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans are at their series bests. Chris Hemsworth is clearly having a blast.  Paul Rudd is still a great fanboy stand-in. Karen Gillan is still hard to take your eyes off of. And Josh Brolin ensures that Thanos will hold the title of best Marvel supervillain for a long time to come.  And while I generally find too many cameos off-putting, all thee ones here felt earned. It was great to see so many old faces again - even if quite a few of them have been digitally manipulated to de-age them.  

Well, this post has devolved into a lot of fangirling, and I don't think I've written anything remotely critical, but so what?  "Endgame" is so unabashedly for the fans, and I'm one of them. I can't help responding to it by geeking out, as that's exactly the response it's designed to elicit.  Every time I try to talk about bits I didn't like, or that didn't work, like Hawkeye going vigilante, I end up remembering two or three other things that I loved. There's just so much crammed into the movie that I enjoyed.  It's astonishing that the Russos and the writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, made it all feel as coherent and beautifully paced as it did.

This is one satisfied Marvel fangirl signing off.  Happy watching!


Friday, May 24, 2019

"Avengers: Endgame" (Without Spoilers)

Since it's difficult to actually talk about the particulars of the latest "Avengers" without getting into the details of what it does well and not so well, I'll be spending a good chunk of this post talking about meta - what the movie means for the Marvel franchise and a bit about the wider cultural impact too.  The spoiler post will go up in a day or two with more in-depth musings about all the plotty stuff.

However, first things first.  I liked "Endgame" just fine. I liked that it served as a solid endpoint to several of the ongoing stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that it gave several of the actors a chance to do things they haven't really had a chance to do in these movies.  There are too many characters, and some inevitably got the short end of the stick, but the ones the movie chose to focus on got their due. "Endgame" rewards the most ardent franchise fans, full of callbacks and in-jokes to nearly every other film in the MCU.  It's a lot funnier than the advertising makes it look. On the other hand, it's also the most effective at melodrama, since this is one of the few times in the franchise where there are actual, meaningful stakes and consequences for the characters.

I'm not surprised that the response to "Endgame" has been so much more positive than "Infinity War," since "Endgame" has all the resolution and the payoff that "Infinity War" set up.  As more than one critic has noted, the MCU movies really function as more of a serial these days than standalone films. "Endgame" can't be watched without the context provided by the other installments - it leans very heavily on previous character introductions, explanations of comic-book lore, and years of prior history.  If you don't know how Thor's hammer operates, or who Hank Pym is, you should still be able to follow along, but not very well. The humor and the cameos in particular need some familiarity with the universe.

And if we do treat "Endgame" like only the latest episode in a serial, should we overlook how badly the MCU functions as a serial?  So many of the most consequential relationships and events unfold offscreen entirely, the storytelling is often clunky and repetitive, and some of the best characters are never developed properly.  I've sat through all the other MCU movies, and occasionally I still feel like I've missed important backstory somewhere. The sheer scale of the spectacle is very impressive, and the larger-than-life nature of the comic book narrative helps to smooth over some of the rough edges, but those rough edges are very apparent.  Especially when you put all the installments up next to one another, there are so many opportunities that weren't taken, so many places where the creators played it too safe.

On the other hand, this style of serialized moviemaking is a new beast, or at least one we haven't seen in the popular consciousness in a couple of decades.  Some of the bumpiness is only natural. The only comparable hybrid I can think of is the most recent series of "Game of Thrones," which began as a typical television series and has slowly been morphing into a grouping of connected event movies, which happened to premiere during "Endgame's" first weeks of theatrical release.  With both of these franchises, you can see how the nature of their storytelling changed as their end goals did. "Game of Thrones" has given up more and more intimacy and verisimilitude as it has embraced bigger and bigger feats of spectacle.

As for "Endgame," it took the opposite approach, and reaped the benefits. This feels like the installment where the MCU finally decided to take full advantage of its long history, and use it for dramatic potential.  Sure, there's plenty of mindless brawling if that's to your taste, but what distinguishes "Endgame" is that many of the characters feel more human here than they have in any other outing. They grapple with loss, with failure, with frustration, and all the other fallout of "Infinity War."  They change in ways that are more fundamental than a costume upgrade or a new haircut. And for a few of them, their stories end, capping off not just one movie, but appearances stretching back all the way to the beginning. And room is provided, at last, for the emotional moments to match the spectacle.   

Wherever the MCU goes from here, it'll be hard to top "Endgame."  The amount of narrative momentum generated by over twenty sequential films, plus the novelty of the format, plus the cultural positioning of the superhero genre have all contributed to an instance of true event cinema.  Whatever else can be said about it, there's no denying that it's one of a kind.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

On "Love, Death, & Robots," Part II - The Rankings

Following up on the previous post, this is where I'm going to individually discuss the eighteen shorts that make up "Love, Death, & Robots."  It didn't feel right leaving any of these out, but I didn't have a lot to say about some installments, so some of the write-ups will be noticeably shorter than others.  Here we go, from best to worst:

"Zima Blue" - This is probably the headiest story of the set, exploring artificial intelligence, atavism, and art.  Directed by Robert Valley, it also has the best marriage of striking visuals with science-fiction concepts. I love the abstracted forms and the thoughtful use of color throughout.  This is my favorite kind of science-fiction, the kind that uses genre elements as a way to explore very human impulses and questions. The journey and final fate of Zima may feature little explicit content, but they are adult in the best way.  

"Good Hunting" - A good short all around, with a moving story, truly sympathetic characters, and lots of unpredictable twists and turns. The pacing and the unhurried development of the characters is done so well that it feels like we've spent more time in this world than we have.  I think that this one also makes the best case for its use of adult elements, since the violation and reclamation of the heroine's body parallels the anti-colonialist themes of the story. And those steampunk visuals are to die for.

"Three Robots" - My favorite of the funny installments, for its pitch black humor and its absurdity.  The three robots are so smartly individualized, and their commentary on human folly is so much fun. Somehow, it's very comforting to think that human snarkiness (and cats) will end up outliving the human race.  And if the rumors are true that Netflix is considering turning some of these shorts into series, "Three Robots" is the one that has the most potential to spin off on its own. I'd love to see the trio continue sightseeing in other corners of the apocalypse.    

"Lucky 13" - The only reason I can imagine why this short isn't getting more praise for its motion-capture animation is that it's so good, it doesn't look like animation.  Created by Sony Pictures Imageworks, the action sequences look like something straight out of a recent live-action blockbuster. Meanwhile, Samira Wiley's performance completely sells the conceit of a pilot developing a bond with a ship with a bad history.   

"Beyond the Aquila Rift" - Lovecraftian horror has always been a favorite of mine, and while "Aquila Rift" technically isn't in this category, it's close enough.  I do wish the animators would have used more restraint depicting the female lead Greta, who is overtly sexualized to such a degree that it's hard to take anything coming out of her mouth seriously.  Still, the horror was so beautifully deployed, I didn't mind too much that we had to detour through a little photorealistic digital cheesecake to get there.

"Suits" and "Blindspot" - These are both appealing little one-shot adventure stories with great worldbuilding.  They do a good job of being very distinctive visually, with bright colors, strong character designs, and their own spins on some familiar iconography.  As an anime fan, I prefer "Blindspot" with its Megaman-esque main character and ensemble of common shonen series types. "Suits" is in potentially more problematic territory, being based on a pile of farming and redneck cliches, but the execution is great.  I'd like to see the further adventures of both sets of characters, which isn't something I can say about most of these shorts.

"Sonnie's Edge" and " Sucker of Souls" - These might seem strange to be discussing together, but they both have the same major problem.  The dialogue is terrible. I mean, it's terrible to the degree that it's kind of funny. Every character in "Sonnie's Edge" sounds like a grimdark teenager trying to sound edgier than thou, which undercuts a  lot of the pulpy pleasures of watching monster v. monster deathmatches and the terrible humans who exploit them. "Soul Sucker," meanwhile, decides that its very old school European 2D animation is best paired with obnoxious dirty jokes and pop culture references.  The underlying horror story about unearthing Dracula is actually pretty fun, but the tin-ear quipping really puts a damper on things. Fortunately, both shorts do enough things right that they're pretty watchable.

"Helping Hand" - Passable is the descriptor I keep coming back to here.  The animation isn't great but it's good enough. The writing is so-so and the premise is based on bad science, but it's also engaging and generates a lot of nice tension in the moment.  So it feels appropriate to stick it right in the middle of the rankings.

"The Witness" - I wrestled over the placement of this one, but ultimately I can't bring myself to put it higher than this.  "The Witness" is easily one of the most gorgeous shorts, with eye-catching animation from Alberto Mieglo that's similar to what we saw in "Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse."  The trouble is the story, which is extremely thin, and has the most egregious examples of gratuitous nudity in the entire series. The protagonist has an entire chase scene topless.  And turns out to be an exotic dancer at a BDSM club. And her co-workers are literally walking fetish objects. I spent the entire short alternating between impressed by the visuals and rolling my eyes at the ham handed shoehorning of adult elements into the mix.  

"When The Yogurt Took Over" and "Alternate Histories" - These are both very brief, humorous pieces based on John Scalzi stories.  And they both work way better on the page than as animated shorts. The upside is some good, irreverent gags and some cool, exaggerated animation styles.  The downside is that both run out of material very quickly and feel a few jokes too short.

"Fish Night" and "Ice Age" - a lot of fun visually, but there's not just much there in the end.  The concepts aren't really developed and both shorts just sort of stop once they reach a certain point.  Better writing would have helped both. "Fish Night" gets a few extra points for the hallucinatory neon sea life that made me go, "Ooooh, pretty!"

"Shape Shifters" and "The Secret War" - Pretty generic premises, which are not helped out at all by the animation choices.  Both shorts look like they were composed of video game cutscene footage, and feature really dull, uninteresting photorealistic designs and imagery.  I get that there are certain limitations that come with this aesthetic, but that doesn't excuse how bland these both look.

"The Dump" - Well, I like the idea of a sentient trash heap being friends with a greasy old codger, but nothing about the execution here really sells it.  Like many of these other shorts low on the list, you get a couple of good visuals that show off the animation studio's capabilities, but it's not satisfying as a narrative work.

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)