Home » Articles posted by Curiosity Inc.

Author Archive

Moxie

Posted April 5, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Better get comfy now, gentle readers, because you might not be comfortable for very long. We’ve got a lot to unpack with this one.

Moxie (produced and directed by Amy Poehler, of all people) is a coming-of-age story focused on Vivian, played by Hadley Robinson. She’s a socially withdrawn high school junior who’s struggling with her college application essay because she can’t really decide what she believes in or why. And one look at her high school perfectly shows why she’s having trouble with that.

The film’s portrayal of high school is perfectly summed up with a background sight gag in one of the classrooms. Depending on the orientation of the text, there’s a sign that could alternately be read as “You matter, don’t give up” or “You don’t matter, give up.” It’s exactly the kind of half-assed, half-hearted, almost willfully misguided attempt at perfunctory pep talk that the whole high school was built on.

For the students and faculty alike, high school is a thing to be endured. The students are only there to pick up their degree and go to college or a job somewhere else. The teachers are only there to pick up a paycheck and go home. Everyone wants nothing more than to keep their heads down and do the bare minimum without making waves. Oh, and because this particular high school has a pirate mascot, there’s an unspoken social contract that everyone has to pretend pirate puns are always the height of comedy.

[Side note: The film was shot in LA, but there’s a “PNW” sign clearly visible in Vivian’s room. I also caught flags for the state of Oregon and U of O in the background of some shots. It appears that the fictional setting of Rockport High School is supposed to be in one of the larger Oregon towns outside the Willamette Valley. Based on the location of a Rockport shopping mall, my best educated guess would be Lincoln City. Though a town like Medford or Ashland — closer to northern California — would be plausible.]

Into all this comes Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena) a new student and a young black woman who’s notably outspoken about her woke modern morality. In the other corner is Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger — yes, it’s his son), a jock who is naturally threatened by anything that challenges his social privilege as a handsome white man. Mitchell bullies Lucy, Lucy stands her ground, nobody on the faculty has the spine to do anything, and all Vivian can do is offer the same cliched claptrap about ignoring the bully so he can be someone else’s problem.

Right out the gate, this movie hits hard and fast with the portrayal of our white patriarchal paradigm as a broader systemic issue. The filmmakers are very clear in portraying a system that doesn’t even want to recognize any kind of abuse or inequality, for fear of damaging the shiny happy facade and dealing with the responsibility of actually doing something. Though to be entirely fair, this is such a hugely turbulent time and the rules are changing so constantly, even those acting in good faith can have a rough time figuring out how to be a better ally, with the very real risk of doing more harm than good in the process. How can we do anything when it seems like the only winning move is not to play?

And to be clear, when I say “patriarchy”, that doesn’t mean this is limited to the male authority figures. Yes, Ike Barinholtz is on hand to play a snarky disaffected jerk like only Barinholtz can do. But we’ve also got Marcia Gay Harden on hand to play the school’s principal, deliberately shrugging off harassment claims brought forward by a young black woman because she’d much rather give condescending lip service than actually go out of her way to do something. It’s really quite bold of the filmmakers to bring in a female principal — especially one played by an actor of Harden’s caliber — to drive home the point that ignorance, apathy, and misuse of power aren’t limited to any one gender. In a system built to protect and empower men (particularly white men), women are equally capable of dragging down themselves and other women by simply doing nothing.

Speaking of which, the filmmakers go out of their way to show us the “Best Principal Award” that proudly sits on the principal’s desk like a giant crystal phallus at all times. Seriously, as a director, Poehler has a killer knack for visual jokes. For that matter, Poehler shows a similarly uncanny flair for needle drops. Of course we have such self-explanatory songs as “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill, but that one is immediately followed up by a high school pep band arrangement of “Knock on Wood” by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. I looked up the lyrics to see if there might’ve been some hidden meaning as to why that particular song might’ve been chosen, and uh…

I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested.
I’d like to think that if I was I would pass.
Look at the tested, and think there but for the grace go I.
Might be a coward, I’m afraid of what I might find out.

…Whoo boy. Asked and answered.

Getting back to the point, even on an individual level, it’s easy to understand where the characters are coming from. In fact, it’s frankly terrifying how easy it is to understand how some characters are being actively harmful in subtle, almost imperceptible ways. Practically every scene is filled to the brim with everyday microaggressions that we might ignore or fail to recognize in the real world, though the filmmakers call out these offhand remarks for the racist sexist bullshit that they are. So yeah, the movie sets itself up early and often as a hardcore feminist work aimed directly at the white patriarchy.

Oh, and all of this is just within the first act. The plot hasn’t even really started yet.

Long story short (too late!), the sexist bullshit piles up until Vivian is finally moved to try something. Lucy is a vital catalyst, of course, but Vivian also draws inspiration from her mother (Lisa, played by Amy Poehler herself), who had a long history of revolutionary feminism back in her youth. Following her mother’s example, Vivian writes and publishes an anonymous zine — titled “Moxie” — printing out copies to spread all over her high school.

Obviously, this results in an equal and opposite reaction, with unexpected results.

On the one hand, it turns out that there were an unexpected number of students at Rockport High who were fed up with the status quo, and Vivan unwittingly gave them a voice. She even gave herself a voice in the process, discovering a new confidence and a connection with so many classmates she never socialized with before, Lucy among the rest.

On the other hand, of course Mitchell and his primeval ilk give no end of shit to the zine and its supporters. But what’s perhaps most surprising is the rift that it drives between Vivian and her childhood best friend (Claudia, played by Lauren Tsai). It turns out that when the chips are down, Claudia is the type who’s deathly afraid of getting into trouble or making herself a target. Claudia and Vivian had a friendship that was built on staying together and under everyone else’s radar, and it’s clear that Vivian outgrew that before Claudia did. Then again, Vivian grew up with a revolutionary feminist mother while Claudia’s mom is more the “tyrannical and overbearing” type. Even better, the film actively plays the race card — because Claudia is the daughter of immigrants who sacrificed so much to be in this country, she’s playing by a different set of rules than her white best friend. This is some legitimately great tension built on the individual growth of these two characters.

There’s also the tiny little detail that Vivian now has a massive secret that she’s keeping from everyone else. A secret that could literally compromise her safety if it ever got out. So of course she has to keep it from all her friends and classmates, which might prematurely fracture any friendships — new or old — that she might have.

Furthermore, Vivian (and all of our teenage characters, in point of fact) have to learn that the rules are different in high school. Nobody’s going to prison over violating the dress code. Nobody in the real world could give less of a shit about that one time some kid got sent home from school. All these petty bullshit rules are put in place for no reason except to make everyone feel comfortable, but putting these kids into such tight boxes only holds them back in the long run. Barring anything that’s an actual felony (and we do brush right up against that line in the back half), they’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain by asserting their independence, and there’s no doubt it will make them into more empowered and compassionate adults further down the line.

More importantly, Vivian and her fellow Moxie girls engage in various socially charged battles of political activism as the plot unfolds. When they win, it feels like they’re all-powerful. When they lose, it feels like the whole world was ending and it was all for nothing. And because these are teenagers we’re talking about, those mood swings are violent and extreme. Even so, these kids are learning the hard way — and at an early age — that in politics, the conflict never ends. You win some, you lose some, but you always get back up and keep fighting with the hope that that you might leave behind something worth a damn for the next generation to pick up.

Let’s see, am I missing anything? Oh right, the love interests.

The big one is Seth (Nico Haraga), who went through a massive growth spurt over the summer and finally became a halfway attractive skateboarder. This is Vivian’s new crush, who eventually becomes her new boyfriend. What’s more, Seth proves himself to be a model feminist, a genuinely nice guy who does everything he can to help the Moxie movement without ever making it about himself. In fact, Seth seemed so perpetually too good to be true that I went through the whole movie fearing the bait-and-switch that would turn him into a total asshole (see also: Bo Burnham in Promising Young Woman). But no, the film never pulls that. Instead, he’s one more good thing that came to Vivian through Moxie, and one more thing that she could potentially lose if it all goes wrong. Nicely done.

The other love interest of note is Clark Gregg in the role of John, a coworker who eventually becomes Lisa’s boyfriend. The character doesn’t get a whole lot of screentime, but it’s Clark Gregg — one look at this perfectly unassuming yet effortlessly charming guy tells you everything you need to know about him and why Vivian’s mom would start going out with him.

The John/Lisa romance starts picking up around the third act, which is of course exactly when Vivian is heading toward her lowest and darkest point. Suffice to say, her mom’s new boyfriend drives a sizable wedge between Vivian and her mother, and Vivian comes out looking all the worse because she’s lashing out in selfish anger at freaking Clark Gregg.

Poehler is delightful in her role and she has some fine banter with Robinson, but I simply couldn’t get a handle on the relationship between the characters. We often see them going out together for grocery shopping and going out for dinner, yet we also watch Vivian brush off her mom with so many snarky wisecracks. Vivian drew so much inspiration from her mother through this whole zine project, but there’s not an ounce of that same admiration or respect in their scenes together. Vivian will confide in her mom about the latest school gossip, but she won’t tell her mom the big secret about Moxie even though she has literally nothing to lose and everything to gain from doing so. Even with the understanding that we’re talking about the complicated and tempestuous relationship between a teenage girl and her mother, there’s no internal logic or consistency here.

But somewhere around the climax, I remembered that Vivian started out as a young woman who kept her head down, bottled up her emotions, and never let anything happen to her. And by the end of the film, a ton of shit happens to her and she’s got more emotions and beliefs than she ever knew what to do with at the start of the film. So I guess it makes a degree of sense that she’d lash out in all this misplaced anger and frustration and erratic behavior because she’s up to her neck in unfamiliar territory and freaking out about it.

Speaking of family, there’s also the matter of Claudia and her mother (played by Eon Song). We’re treated to this huge scene in which Claudia gets chewed out by her mother (it’s a long story), and it does a lot to help us understand who Claudia is and where she’s coming from. That being said, it sets up a huge confrontation in which Claudia finally stands up for herself, and we never get that moment. Bad follow-through.

Then there’s the matter of the school administration, and how their entire MO falls apart with the start of the second act. For instance, it’s been firmly established that the faculty of this school are interested in doing the absolute bare minimum and they don’t want to be bothered to actually do their jobs. But then we get a scene in which the principal — the freaking principal! — comes down from her office to interrupt an English class, just to single out a very specific girl for a minor dress code infraction. This is a level of intrusive micromanaging that is never seen before or afterwards, it’s wildly out of character for the principal, and it doesn’t follow the internal logic of the school. What the hell?!

Conversely, there’s the administration’s attitude toward Moxie itself. Aside from the odd petty and easily solved conflict, it seems like the administration is more or less okay with pretending that the zine doesn’t exist… right up until the zine takes direct aim at the principal herself. That’s finally what it takes to get anyone in charge up off their lazy asses. Gotta say, while I was expecting the hypocrisy angle to be a bigger factor so the administration could play a more prominent antagonist role, the self-serving angle the filmmakers went with isn’t bad at all. And it happens as a direct result of Vivian unwisely misusing her power of the press and lashing out in blind anger, which is a nice touch.

Moxie is a lot to take in. It took me several days to get through this one, mostly because it made me — a cis-gendered adult white male — deeply uncomfortable in all the right ways. I’m honestly grateful that I had this blog to help me work through my thoughts and feelings about every scene.

The movie is funny, it’s heartfelt, it’s incisive and whip-smart, deeply angry and defiantly hopeful in equal measure. While the film’s internal logic could’ve used a bit more polish and Vivian’s family life could’ve used some clarification, the film still succeeds beautifully as a powerful work of feminism that will hopefully enlighten and empower viewers of all ages and persuasions, but most especially teen girls. Oh, and did I mention that the cast is awesome?

This one comes STRONGLY recommended. Don’t miss it.

Godzilla vs. Kong

Posted April 3, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Part of me wonders what I’m even doing here.

I mean, this is Godzilla vs. Kong. You know exactly what you’re getting, it’s right there in the title. Either you’re on board with giant CGI monsters beating the shit out of each other or you’re not.

But on the other hand, it bears remembering that if we’re only ever happy with the same old mindless CGI destruction, there’s no incentive to demand better and no reason for the studios to give us better. Plus, it’s easy to lose sight of the human characters and their storylines — like it or not, they’ve been the underappreciated beating heart of kaiju films since their inception.

So let’s take a closer look at what we’ve got, shall we?

For those just tuning in, the monolithic Monarch corporation has more or less established itself as the global peacekeeping force self-appointed to the tasks of monitoring the kaiju (I still refuse to call them Titans, no matter what the characters say), keeping them in check, and managing the collateral damage. While Monarch is still very active in the background of this picture, the premise mostly concerns Apex Cybernetics, a new global conglomerate dedicated to the advancement of the human race into something bigger and better.

Team Apex is mostly comprised of company founder Walter Simmons and his daughter, Maya (respectively played by Demian Bichir and Eiza Gonzalez). Of course Bichir is more than comfortable playing a charismatic bastard — the guy is so deep into his wheelhouse, it’s almost like he’s sleepwalking. Likewise, Gonzalez is more than willing and able to play a duplicitous cold-hearted corporate snake. Oh, and there’s also Ren Serizawa (Shun Ogri), the head of tech R&D at Apex. One assumes that he’s supposed to be related to Dr. Ishiro Serizawa, who heroically sacrificed himself in the previous movie, but this is never even obliquely mentioned. Also, Serizawa Sr. was probably the biggest kaiju fanatic on the planet — what his son (or nephew or whatever) would be doing in such a high-ranking job for a company that vocally hates kaiju is anyone’s guess.

Moving on to Team Godzilla, our reigning champion gets the plot moving when he makes landfall and destroys a coastal town for no apparent reason. While all of humanity is understandably pissed, it’s worth noting that this is the first time Godzilla has ever attacked without provocation, and his efforts were pretty much entirely focused on the Apex USA headquarters in that city. Thus Madison Russell (a returning Millie Bobby Brown) takes it upon herself to find out what’s really going on and what Godzilla could possibly have against Apex.

Maddie enlists the help of Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry) an investigative journalist/conspiracy theorist nut who’s been working undercover at Apex for quite some time, digging up whatever corporate secrets he can load onto his podcast. Also on board is Josh (Julian Dennison), a delinquent classmate of Maddie’s. Kyle Chandler shows up, reprising the role of Maddie’s father, but hell if I know why he bothered. Maddie’s mom does more to move this plot forward, and she’s dead!

Yes, Bobby Brown is another actor playing well within her comfort zone and she does perfectly well as a plucky young lead who will get her way through sheer willpower. Also, Dennison and Tyree Henry are both proven comedic talents more than capable of delivering effective comic relief, and given how easy it is to deliver bad comic relief, that counts for a lot. Even so… well, we’ll come back to that point after we’ve talked about Team Kong.

It seems that for the past few years (possibly decades, the point is unclear), Monarch has been maintaining an outpost on Skull Island to contain and study Kong within an artificial habitat. This has the added bonus of keeping Kong off Godzilla’s radar, so the two of them don’t try to kill each other. And based on research suggesting an eons-long grudge between their two respective species, it’s a near-certainty that the two of them would try to kill each other.

So, Godzilla has apparently turned on the humans and we need Kong to defend us. Just point the giant ape at the giant lizard and we’ve got a movie, right? Christ, if only it was that simple.

See, Apex has been doing some research into the “Hollow Earth” theory briefly alluded to in the previous films. Long story short, it’s theorized that the planet has a giant hollow core that’s connected to the planet’s surface via networking tunnels. It’s the best explanation anyone has regarding where all these giant kaiju come from, how they can apparently disappear for such long stretches at a time, and how they can move around the planet so quickly.

Well, Apex recently used their satellite network to discover proof that the Hollow Earth exists, and they’ve developed vehicles specially designed to get there. What’s more, it’s theorized that the Hollow Earth has some kind of massively powerful energy needed to build a weapon that can…

Okay, look, I know it’s an open secret as to what this “secret weapon” is. If you know how notoriously leaky toy companies can be, you’ve known about this for months. God knows I was stoked to learn about the “secret weapon” — I’ve been vocally clamoring to see it ever since this whole “MonsterVerse” superfranchise started, and its execution in the climax was more or less as amazing as I had expected. Even so, it’s still technically a spoiler and this whole stupid plot is complicated enough as it is.

Bottom line: Apex wants to get to the Hollow World to strip mine it for their energy needs, and they need Kong to guide us there.

On Team Kong, we have Jia (Kaylee Hottle), apparently the last surviving Skull Island native. She’s a young deaf girl who communicates with Kong via sign language, so Kong seems to like and trust her more than any other human we know of. Sure, it’s a bit of a contrivance, but the “precocious child who shares an innate emotional bond with the monster” has been a well-worn genre trope for decades. (The entire Gamera franchise was built on it!) Plus, making this particular child the last surviving Skull Island native makes for a striking parallel with Kong, himself the last known one of his species. It’s hackneyed, but it works.

I might add that Hottle is a bright young talent, and I’m all in favor of another actor to represent the deaf community in our mainstream blockbuster cinema. Wonderful though Millicent Simmonds may be, she can’t carry that banner on her own and she certainly can’t do it forever.

We’ve also got Ilene Andrews on board (played by Rebecca Hall), a Monarch employee who’s basically the world’s foremost Kong expert and Jia’s adoptive mother. Of course Rebecca Hall is a solid talent, and it was wonderful to see her bring such heart to a movie in a franchise with a horrible track record regarding mother figures. Elsewhere, we’ve got Dr. Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard), the world’s foremost authority on Hollow Earth theory, whose brother died in an earlier attempt at reaching Hollow Earth. Much like Tom Hiddleston, Kyle Chandler, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson before him, Skarsgard is tasked with being a bland and unmemorable male lead just barely charismatic enough to get us from one scene to the next. With the uncanny ability to do whatever the scene demands, I might add.

On a final note regarding the cast, I was delighted to see Lance Reddick and Hakeem Kae-Kazim in the cast… only to see their talents utterly wasted in glorified background roles that could’ve been played just as well by literally anyone. Damn shame.

To recap: Team Kong is loaded with capable dramatic talents while Team Godzilla is loaded with comic relief. Team Kong gets to travel to the Hollow World and interact with Kong and do all this stuff that directly moves the plot forward, while Team Godzilla stumbles around Apex HQ so we can get all this exposition about our overarching antagonist. No doubt about it, this movie definitely has a balance problem.

Even so, the fights between Kong and Godzilla themselves are surprisingly well balanced, with the both of them playing beautifully to their respective strengths. Godzilla is of course an amphibious threat who holds a distinct advantage in the water, but Kong can leap around through the air like Godzilla certainly can’t. Godzilla is a creature of overwhelming muscle and unbridled power, but Kong is demonstrably smarter and better at thinking on his feet.

Granted, Kong is given a bit of an unfair advantage in that he has the humans and their military to help him out where necessary. The filmmakers also came up with a special axe built by Kong’s ancestors that was specifically built to fight Godzilla and his ilk. Even so, at least Kong is capable of inventing and using tools, which is a strategic advantage Godzilla doesn’t have. And even with all these handicaps, Godzilla is still powerful enough to fight Kong to a draw or an outright loss on more than one occasion.

Perhaps more importantly, the whole movie is loaded with extreme close-up shots of our monsters. Of course this does Kong a lot of favors — ever since the character’s inception, the giant ape’s unique ability to emote in a way that captures the audience’s sympathy has set him above and apart from most other giant cinematic monsters. But even with Godzilla, the filmmakers are surprisingly adept at twisting those craggy mountainous scales into something resembling emotion and getting us into the big lizard’s head. These extreme close-ups go a long way toward establishing Kong and Godzilla as developed characters who are fighting each other for their own long-running grudges, and not just CGI cartoon characters bashing each other for our amusement.

The unfortunate drawback to this approach is that we often have massive sprawling fight scenes shot through a tightly-focused lens. In particular, that first grudge match on the aircraft carriers is loaded with ill-conceived shots that might have sounded cool in theory, except that they actively work against the film by obscuring the action. Even during that second big fight in Hong Kong, there were a couple of times when I worried that the filmmakers simply weren’t capable of handling so much destruction on such a tremendous scale. But then we have that huge climactic fight set in Hong Kong after it’s already been pretty much leveled. Here we get a glorious grudge match and a symphony of destruction worthy of the title.

But as big as the fight scenes and the title characters are, the plot holes might be even bigger.

Likely in an effort to cut costs, this movie clocks in at 113 minutes. As a reminder, this is a movie all about a clash between the two most iconic giant monsters in cinema history. It’s also a movie tasked with establishing something as bonkers as the Hollow Earth, a pivotal concept that’s only been vaguely alluded to previously, a foundational concept for the entire superfranchise and probably any future sequels. All of this action, all of this spectacle, all of this world-building and exposition… and the filmmakers had to cram it all into less than two hours.

Seriously, did WB learn nothing from the theatrical cut of Justice League?!

Because so much has to get done in so little time, a lot of motivations get simplified and a lot of paper-thin contrivances are put in place to get everything where it needs to be. My personal favorite example concerns the Hollow Earth energy that Apex is after. The filmmakers needed some way for Apex to get that energy where it needed to go instantly. Their solution: Bring in a droid to study the energy and send the data wirelessly, using a signal that went completely unimpeded through several hundred thousand miles of earth and magma. And upon receiving the data, Apex was somehow capable of reverse-engineering this unknown and apparently limitless source of energy within seconds. What in the name of God, the Devil, and Walt Disney’s ghost did I just fucking watch?

Speaking of which, it’s anyone’s guess why Apex needs Kong to find the Hollow Earth when they’ve apparently been using these subterranean tunnels for their own high-speed network. No joke, for the purpose of getting Team Godzilla from Florida to Hong Kong within minutes, Apex built a high-speed tram that would’ve taken several decades and untold trillions of dollars to build. Even in a universe where so many kaiju like Godzilla and Kong are allowed to roam free, even in a universe where Monarch’s city-sized stealth plane is possible, Apex tech is so ridiculously improbable that it would’ve been laughed out of goddamn Wakanda!

Oh, and how could I forget Team Godzilla’s big contribution to the climactic fight, their crushing blow against the “secret weapon”. Spoilers prevent me from elaborating further, but you wouldn’t believe me even if I told you. It’s that pathetically stupid.

Look, Godzilla vs. Kong delivers on the promise of the title. If you want to see these two classic monsters in an all-out brawl with world-shaking collateral damage, you’re going to get it. If you want a filmmaker who doesn’t just move around Godzilla and Kong like overgrown action figures, but respects them as characters in their own right, Adam Wingard is your guy. If you like the Legendary Monsterverse’s established themes of humans struggling to coexist with huge sentient forces of nature that barely even seem to recognize our existence, much less all the great things we’ve done and built, you’ll be very happy with where this goes.

But goddammit, this movie needed more than two hours. There are too many characters who get short shrift, the plot had too many corners that had to be cut, and there’s too much world-building that falls flat because too many whys and wherefores go unexamined. In fact, there’s a very real possibility that Apex might have broken this entire superfranchise after they figured out how to make technology powered by plot convenience.

Though I will say that after a solid year in quarantine (and after getting fully vaccinated), it was a true delight to sit in an actual theater and watch a bona fide blockbuster disaster spectacle. If you’re able to do the same, and do it safely, this is a fine one to watch for your return to the big screen. And when the Universal theme parks inevitably make their “Journey to Hollow Earth” motion simulator ride, I’m sure that will be great fun as well.

The Last Airbender (revisited)

Posted March 28, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

In the summer of 2010, The Last Airbender was released. It came out at a time when the industry was still reeling from the world-conquering campaign of Avatar (in fact, The Last Airbender had to change its name, so the movie based on “Avatar: The Last Airbender” could have a chance to compete), so lavish 3D CGI spectacle was the order of the day.

At the time, I was still unfamiliar with the source material and the film was promptly eviscerated by critics, so I had no reason to see it for myself. My sister, however, was a huge fan of the show and she never really cared much for what film critics think, so she went to see the film and obligingly wrote a review in my stead.

(Side note: Thanks, Deb! I love you, sis!)

Cut to 2021. I’m now a decade older and wiser, with that much more experience in reviewing movies. Also, with the advent of COVID-19 and Netflix, I finally got the chance to catch up on the original run of “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. Plus, news recently came in that Nickelodeon built a whole new studio dedicated to building the Avatar world into its own multimedia superfranchise. So now I’ve got an itch to finally watch the film adaptation for myself and give it the proper Movie Curiosities treatment.

So grab your firearm of choice, gather around the barrel, and let’s shoot some well-deserved fish.

Right off the top, there are a few things we need to address before we even start the movie. First up, if you’re still unfamiliar with the franchise, I’ll direct you to the show’s opening. Seriously, for a basic introduction to the show’s premise and overall quality, nobody could possibly do better than those 45 seconds of finely-honed perfection. There’s a whole college thesis to be written about the selection and placement of every note of music, every frame of animation, every word of exposition. Remember that, we’ll come back to it later.

The second preface concerns the matter of race. The movie’s choice to race-swap so many characters was a massive controversy that’s hounded the movie since development and continues to this day. Though really, race has been a sore point for the franchise since the beginning.

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” was created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, two white guys who pulled extensively from Eastern folklore and mysticism in crafting their fantasy world. DiMartino and Konietzko were both among eight credited directors and 24 credited writers on the show, only ONE of whom (May Chan, credited writer on 14 episodes) was any kind of Asian. And that’s not even getting started on the cast — all three lead characters were portrayed as non-white, yet they were voiced by Zach Tyler, Mae Whitman, and Jack De Sena, all white. Likewise, while the supporting cast featured such talented performers of color as Dante Basco, the late Mako, and even George Takei himself in a brief yet prominent guest role, they’re drowned out by the likes of Michaela Jill Murphy, Grey Griffin, James Garrett, Jason Isaacs, Clancy Brown, Mark Hamill, and so many other white performers all playing characters of color. At one point, when Mako passed away, his replacement was a white guy named Greg Baldwin. Let that sink in.

With all of that being said, the Agrabah Principle totally applies here: It’s impossible to be racially or culturally insensitive toward a race or culture that doesn’t exist. All the cultures and tribes of the Avatar world are purely fictional, and absolutely nobody is pretending that anything about the franchise is supposed to be any kind of authentic representation of actual Eastern peoples, history, or folklore.

Everything about this franchise is solely the creation of the writers, directors, and producers, so they’re all perfectly free to make up whatever rules they want and cast the show as they see fit. Furthermore, in the specific case of writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (as with anyone else who sets out to adapt an existing property), he both needed and deserved the freedom to make whatever changes he saw fit for the purpose of making an adaptation that stood on its own and worked in the new medium.

Even so, there’s the matter of racial coding to consider. For example, while the Water Tribe is purely fictional — thus everything about their appearance, traditions, bylaws, etc. are the sole responsibility of the show’s creators — the Inuits are certainly not fictional. Yet (for better or worse) the show’s original creators very specifically utilized Native Alaskan imagery as a kind of cultural/visual shorthand, conveying a great deal of information about these people to the audience in virtually no time at all. Which is especially important in a half-hour show made for kids.

There is so much racial coding in the original show, and every single instance was done with great care and clear reason. In point of fact, the show was filled to the brim with sociopolitical allegories that only made sense because the characters and cultures were all coded in a particular way. This fictional show with its fictional characters had deeply thoughtful messages and intensely relatable characters, making a tangible real-world impact because they looked like people of color in the real world.

Moreover, so many characters in the original show became so iconic and beloved precisely because of all the care and attention put into every detail of their design. So when Shyamalan cast three white leading actors to go against an army played by people of color, that’s exactly the kind of careless and insensitive racial coding that directly undercuts all the hard work and good intentions that went into the original show. Plus, it shows a deep lack of respect for the original characters and the fans who love them.

Conclusion: Shyamalan had every right to race-swap the characters as he saw fit, but that doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do. And by the way, this is also how I feel about Shyamalan’s baffling choice to change the pronunciation of Aang’s name — sure, there’s technically no reason why he couldn’t do that, but there’s no conceivable good reason as to why he did.

Then we have the matter of runtime. This movie was tasked with adapting the first season of the show, cramming twenty half-hour episodes’ worth of story into a single film. The movie is 103 minutes long.

At the time of The Last Airbender‘s release, we had already seen six Harry Potter movies, each one in the ballpark of 150 minutes. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and its sequel were also roughly 150 minutes in length. The first three Twilight movies clocked in at roughly two hours apiece. And of course the three Lord of the Rings movies were famously three hours each. Avatar — the James Cameron movie that everyone was trying to imitate at the time — went on for roughly 160 minutes.

By the summer of 2010, it had been conclusively proven that the target demographic for this movie would not only tolerate an epic work of sweeping fantasy cinema that stretched on past two hours, but handsomely reward it. Yet the filmmakers apparently decided that it was not only possible but absolutely necessary to shoehorn six or seven hours’ worth of source material into just over an hour and a half. This right here was arguably the biggest and brightest red flag of them all.

But then we start the movie itself. It opens with a live-action re-enactment of the opening… but all of the visuals and choreography are either altered or omitted entirely. And the narration has changed. And the narration is now a text crawl. The filmmakers messed with perfection, and turned out an inferior product. This sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Things don’t get any better when we finally meet our leads. In the show, you see, Aang and Sokka were capable of immensely spirited comic relief. Granted, their exaggerated movements and heightened expressions are both much easier in animation than in live-action. Even so, these characters had a goofy and lovable charm that endeared them to the audience immediately. M. Night Shyamalan cannot do “goofy and lovable”. You could scan every last frame of his entire filmography — including and especially this movie — without ever scraping up a single frame of anything that made Aang and Sokka so funny in the cartoon.

When we first meet the live-action Katara and Sokka (here played by Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone), Katara accidentally drops a ton of freezing water directly on top of her brother’s head. If this had happened in the cartoon (and I’m sure it must have happened at some point), Sokka would have flown into a comical outburst. Here in the film, he just glares at his sister and gives her a half-hearted talking to. In the very next scene, Sokka fails to track an animal and I swear I could hear the character’s voice in my head, whining with heartbroken disappointment. But Rathbone’s line reading is deathly dull.

Doctor Shyamalan, the patient arrived with no heart and was pronounced dead on arrival. We’ll see you in court for malpractice.

It’d be one thing if this was just the younger and less experienced actors, but then we bring in Dev Patel as Zuko. On paper, this was a fantastic choice. Patel was in his prime, still hot off his huge breakthrough role in Slumdog Millionaire, and such a dynamic actor could’ve really sunk his teeth into such a prime role as Zuko. Likewise, Shaun Toub is a wonderful journeyman actor, not a bad choice at all to play the older and wiser Iroh. Alas, in practice, both of these legitimately talented actors are visibly straining against the godawful script.

Oh, and Aasif Mandvi is on hand to play Zhao. The conniving, power-hungry, ruthless military megalomaniac played by the Daily Show correspondent who fired Peter Parker at the start of Spider-Man 2. In what godforsaken universe could that possibly have made sense? They could’ve cast Jason Isaacs to reprise his role in live-action and the white man still would’ve been the better choice!

On the positive side, at least the filmmakers brought back Dee Bradley Baker to reprise the various animal noises for Appa and Momo. That was a nice touch.

The film shows us early and often why compressing so much story into so little runtime was a fatal mistake. The actors breathlessly go through so much exposition in so little time that none of their dialogue feels natural. Between the stilted dialogue and the incompetent direction, there’s no room for any soul, any humor, or any humanity at all. It really says something when the hand-drawn cartoon was less two-dimensional than this.

Oh, and the narration sucks. That should really go without saying for any movie so packed with so much bad exposition, but the narration is absolutely godawful from start to finish.

Then we have the visuals, which is clearly where the bulk of the money and effort went. And overall, it looks fine. The production design is good and the costumes are wonderful. Appa and Momo look great, Aang’s glider-staff is adapted nicely, and I genuinely love the intricate henna-like redesign on Aang’s tattoos. On the other hand, we’ve also got the infamous faux pas regarding Yue’s hair, and Zuko’s iconic facial burn looks pathetic. As for the camerawork, the film is loaded with way too many extreme close-up shots, which only call further attention to the terrible performances and the wretched dialogue. Even worse, the extreme close-ups render the fight scenes borderline unwatchable.

But then we have the CGI. While the effects themselves look (barely) passable, they are terribly, pitifully misused. In the cartoon, when a single earthbender stomps a foot, the ground literally shakes beneath them. In the movie, it takes six — count ’em, SIX — earthbenders stomping in perfect sync just to raise a fist-sized rock. In the cartoon, a team of that size could’ve brought down a fucking tank, but six earthbenders in the live-action film can only lift a small rock.

It’s like that through the entire film. The actors are all moving and reacting as if a bender is summoning a huge force of nature, but the CGI only produced some underwhelming display a tenth the size of what it clearly should be. It’s laughable and frankly insulting that this is where the filmmakers apparently decided to cut costs.

The Last Airbender was doomed from the outset. Yes, Shyamalan was completely and totally unfit to make this movie. Yes, the actors — with only one or two minor exceptions — were unfit to play their roles. Yes, it’s outrageous that the bending — the central defining spectacle of the entire franchise — was so terribly handled. But there were so many deeper problems here.

“Avatar: The Last Airbender” was a show that tackled huge issues of life in dark and politically turbulent times of war. Every single character, down to the last one-off bit part, was complex and multilayered, another facet in the show’s intricate and nuanced morality. Even the “filler” episodes were loaded with great messaging, character development, and world-building, with setups that often paid off in surprising ways later on. It was a show that directly addressed kids without ever once talking down to its audience. But this movie — with its aggressively truncated running time, its redundant exposition, and its tin-eared dialogue — was clearly made in a condescending manner by those who didn’t have nearly as much faith or respect in the audience.

While the show could get dark and heartfelt at times, the creators effectively balanced that with characters who could be funny and self-effacing to a heightened extent that simply isn’t possible with live-action actors. The show could dive into complex issues and develop complex relationships in a way that could only be done in a long-form medium. Mainstream blockbuster filmmaking is a medium overwhelmingly focused on CGI, and as my sister observed, no cartoon show ever got so much love from such a huge fanbase over such a long period of time because they cared about the goddamn visual effects.

Some movies were never meant to be made, and some properties were never meant to be adapted, but there are some lessons that have to be learned the hard way. The Last Airbender was indisputably a mistake, but it was a mistake that needed to be made. Now we all know better, and we can proceed with the knowledge that whatever Avatar Studios makes in the future, they’ll never be so stupid as to think that a live-action adaptation could possibly work. We tried that, it didn’t work, we’re moving on.

Nobody

Posted March 27, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

There are many reasons why Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is still my favorite movie. Among them was the realization that if freaking Michael Cera could hold his own through so many awesome fight scenes, the right filmmakers could make literally anyone into a plausible action star.

So here’s Nobody, an action vehicle for Bob Odenkirk. Seriously.

Of course Odenkirk is still primarily known as a comedian, but he’s made some incredibly savvy career moves over the past few years. He’s demonstrated such impressive dramatic chops and versatility that he’s proven himself one of the most underrated journeyman actors working today. Sure, it’s hard to picture him as a legit action star, but he’s working with the creators of the John Wick franchise and the director who brought us Hardcore Henry. Let’s do this.

Odenkirk plays Hutch Mansell, just a regular joe with a regular job. He’s your average white suburbanite slob. He likes football and porno and books about… well, not really, but you get the idea.

The opening of the movie firmly establishes that Hutch Mansell is living in suburbia with his wife (Becca, played by Connie Nielsen), his surly teenage son (Blake, played by Gage Munroe), and his adorable young daughter (Abby, played by Paisley Cadorath). Hutch works as a bookkeeper for a manufacturing plant owned and operated by his father-in-law (Eddie, played by Michael Ironside). His life is a monotonous grind, but it’s peaceful and prosperous all the same. Boringly good, you might say.

But then things go sideways when a couple of desperate young punks break into his house. The bad news is, the robbery goes sideways. But what’s really notable is that when Hutch had a golden opportunity to knock out one of the would-be robbers, he chose not to.

On the one hand, that might be a crucial reason why nobody got seriously hurt and the attempted robbers only got away with pocket change. On the other hand, it’s hard to shake Hutch’s personal feeling of responsibility, like he didn’t do enough to defend his home and family against violent intruders. It certainly doesn’t help that everyone else around Hutch (all men, of course) regale him with their power fantasies of killing any hostile intruder, shaming Hutch into not doing the same.

It’s a neat spin on toxic masculinity and the glorification of violence — like every man has to be the goddamn Punisher, and it’s not enough to provide a stable and loving home for his family. Is it really true that every man needs to have a gun just to get by in this world, and if so, is that really the world we want to live in? How fucked up is it that so many men out there actually fantasize about somebody breaking in to rob their house and threaten their families, just so they’ll have an excuse to murder someone and be called a hero for it?

So we’re all set up for your typical story in which a mild-mannered family man learns how to be a killing machine on the way to enacting vigilante justice. But that’s not exactly what we get. Instead, as the movie progresses, we slowly learn that there’s more to Hutch than meets the eye and there’s something else going on here. Long story short (and as spoiler-free as I can make it), Hutch retired from a long history of violence so he could live a long happy life of non-violence.

This took a while for me to get used to.

At first, I was disappointed because this new direction didn’t make very effective use of the established themes regarding masculine standards and our masturbatory, infantile definition of machismo. Moreover, while the basic trope of “everyman into superman” has been done to death, it felt like the writer/producer team behind John Wick were simply rehashing their old formula instead. However, while Hutch has more than a passing family resemblance to Baba Yaga, there are two crucial differences here.

First is that the John Wick franchise is far and away more preoccupied with world-building. With each passing sequel, the franchise devotes increasing screen time toward the laws and power structures that comprise the mercenary criminal underworld of the Continental. By contrast, the world of Hutch Mansell is much more stripped-down. While it’s certainly possible that there’s a greater world beyond some shadowy military division and the Russian mob bosses we encounter, we never spend any time exploring that world and there’s no indication that it’s anywhere near as sprawling or as intricate as the Continental. Because the film spends so little time on world-building, more of the 90-minute runtime can be spent on developing the characters and themes. It makes for a more personal story.

At its heart and core, this is a movie about a man who knows all too well what it’s like to be a badass who could take anyone in a fight. There’s a kind of power in that, and like any power, it can be addictive and destructive in equal measure. Our protagonist is a man who decided to turn away from that excitement and danger so he could chase after something safer and more fulfilling. The film portrays a different kind of masculine ideal, one who can be loving and nurturing, but capable of intense violence where necessary. A man with the wisdom to know when not to fight, who knows that those who glorify violence and talk a big game with a massive chip on their shoulder are actively working against their own self-interests. Those who go looking for trouble will often get it, and those who keep their head down will at least have the element of surprise.

All of these are of course cornerstone themes of the “John Wick” franchise (the first movie, anyway), but Nobody has a more personal angle that puts them into sharper relief.

The second big difference is that unlike John Wick, Hutch still has everything he wanted. His wife is alive and well. His home, his family, and his job are all intact. In other words, Hutch has something to lose. He’s got something to defend, and if it’s still an option at that point, he may want to go back to it when this is all over. Don’t get me wrong, grief for a dead wife and revenge for a dead dog are perfectly fine motivations, but there’s no chance that they’ll ever be saved. Hutch still has a shot at saving his family, so the stakes and motivations are much higher and more poignant.

The family element leads to another important point about the allure of the battlefield: The camaraderie between brothers in arms. There’s no substitute for the kind of shared history that comes with facing an army side by side, protecting each other and working together every step of the way. Also, there’s the process of decompressing after a huge battle and stitching up each other’s wounds, that can be a powerful bonding experience as well. By design, John Wick is a lone wolf who could never have explored this angle to such an extent, so it’s great that the filmmakers do it here.

Yet for all my talk about John Wick, I can hardly overstate the impact of the new guy. Getting Ilya Naishuller to direct a David Leitch production with a Derek Kolstad screenplay was a match made in Valhalla. There can be no doubt that all of them are cast-iron action filmmaking badasses, with a proven knack for giving us fight scenes that are stylish, inventive, and unrelentingly visceral. Yet Naishuller brings his own sensibilities that elevate the John Wick house style to a whole ‘nother level.

To start with, Naishuller cut his teeth directing badass music videos, so of course he has a uniquely awesome sense for integrating music into fight scenes. The first big fight scene is presented with absolutely no score or music, which makes it all the more harrowing to get our first taste of Hutch Mansell unleashed. When the score kicks in for round two, it sends the signal that we just kicked into a higher gear. From that point on, every stellar needle drop only adds to the giddy excitement of watching another great kill from another deadly surprise.

Of course, it certainly helps that Naishuller shows a sense of humor I’ve never seen in any of the John Wick entries. I don’t even think Leitch’s Deadpool 2 had such a fine-tuned flair for dropping visual comic relief gags in the middle of an action scene without breaking pace.

With all of that said, this is Bob Odenkirk’s show. This role needed someone who could deliver the most outrageous lines and the most heightened scenarios without ever losing that mundane blue-collar family man appeal, and Odenkirk delivers in spades. There’s one particular line that’s delivered with such terrible fury and hellfire, I almost didn’t notice how utterly ridiculous the line is. I’ve never seen anything like it outside of a Nicolas Cage performance. And yes, Odenkirk is such a phenomenal actor that he totally sells every action scene he’s in.

(Side note: Among those wretched and annoying promos that run before every movie, my theater ran a promo for this film. In an interview segment, costar RZA observed that it’s an unlikely pairing, putting Odenkirk in an action movie, but it’s like “the first guy who figured out you could put cheese and pickles together and it would make a burger taste good.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.)

Of course it certainly helps that Odenkirk is surrounded by no shortage of talent in the supporting cast. Connie Nielsen once again proves herself a seasoned pro, and Aleksey Serebryakov plays the main antagonist as a glorious hate sink. RZA doesn’t really show up until the end, but damned if he doesn’t make up for lost time in a big way. Michael Ironside is always a pleasure to see onscreen, though I was disappointed that the film didn’t make better use of his talent and charisma. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Colin Salmon — he only shows up for one scene, but he steals it.

Also, don’t fuck with Christopher Lloyd. I think this is something we all inherently knew already, but if you take away nothing else from this movie, DO NOT FUCK WITH CHRISTOPHER LLOYD.

Nobody is a movie made of, by, and for people who are way more badass than they appear on the surface. It doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, as far as action movies go, but Ilya Naishuller more than proves himself worthy to join the ranks of Team John Wick among the best action filmmakers in the business. But as great as the action scenes are, it’s the wonderful performances from this remarkable cast that make this into something memorable. In particular, this movie was tasked with proving that Odenkirk can handle literally anything that anyone could throw at him, and he knocked it out of the park.

It’s more than a little derivative of the John Wick films, but just different enough to forge its own identity. And anyway, if you love the John Wick films (as any right-minded action cinema fan would), then where’s the harm? Definitely check this one out.

Promising Young Woman

Posted March 22, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

I’m not happy with the Oscars this year. Granted, 2020 was a strange year in cinema for a variety of reasons, so of course awards season would be a little janky this time.

Yes, I’m still upset with the Academy for dignifying Green Book with a Best Picture win. And yes, I hate that the class of last year gave so many nominations to freaking Joker, even when the top prize ultimately went to the well-deserved Parasite. Speaking of which, I must give the Academy all due credit for nominating so many filmmakers who identify as female and/or people of color. A significant number of this year’s contenders were centered on stories and characters that were non-white and/or non-male, and that’s to be applauded.

That being said, the lion’s share of nominations this year went to freaking Mank, and Trial of the Chicago 7 got several prime nominations as well. Goddamn Glenn Close got a nomination for Hillbilly Elegy — a godawful performance in a wretched film — making her the third actor in history to get an Oscar nod and a Razzie nod for the same role. All of these movies and performances feel like shallow, cynical ploys that were designed by algorithm for the specific purpose of courting Oscar voters. And the Oscar voters responded by falling for the same old played-out tricks. It’s pathetic, and I can’t support it. I can see that changes are clearly being made, but more will have to change before I can bring myself to pretend that the Oscars are anything more than an archaic and solipsistic institution.

Also, for all the nominated films that represent people of color, Da 5 Bloods only got a token nomination for Best Original Score. Didn’t even get a nod for Delroy Lindo’s magnificent tour de force performance. What the fuck?

So here’s Promising Young Woman, which scored a whopping five nominations this year, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay. Exec Producer Carey Mulligan plays a woman who enacts vigilante justice on rapists and sleazy pick-up artists, it’s the feature writing/directing debut of Emerald Fennell… and this is somehow an Oscar contender. This one might’ve had my name written on it in mile-high neon letters.

This is the story of Cassie Thomas (Mulligan). By day, she’s a med school dropout who lives with her parents (played by Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) and works a barista job she clearly hates. By night, she goes bar-hopping to feign drunkenness until some idiot takes her back to his place for some too-intoxicated-to-consent sexual misdeeds. At the point of sexual assault, Cassie reveals her sobriety and forces her would-be assailants to confront the error of their ways.

Three things immediately jump out.

One, Cassie’s would-be predators are shockingly true-to-life. It strikes a nerve to hear these douchebags try to explain that they’re really “nice guys”, justifying their actions with all sorts of flimsy and sexist excuses we’ve all sadly gotten used to hearing by now. (Blaming the victim, slut-shaming, pleading ignorance, etc.)

Two, though the filmmakers initially make heavy implications to the contrary, Cassie doesn’t actually harm or kill any of her marks. She doesn’t even steal from any of them. She simply turns their own actions and excuses against them, shows them for the misogynist assholes they really are, then leaves them to stew in their own guilt.

Three, Cassie herself is completely broken. She has no social life, she has no career, and while she’s living with her parents, they barely seem to talk much. She had a great academic career and she threw it away. She clearly hates her job, she’s perfectly qualified for a better one, and she won’t go look for another career. Hell, her 30th birthday comes up at the end of the first act and she doesn’t even know it.

It seems like Cassie only really comes alive when she springs her bar grift. What does that say about her? Furthermore, when so much of her life is dominated by a bar grift that she can’t tell anyone about (for obvious reasons), how is any kind of social or romantic life even possible?

Cassie’s broken-ness becomes even more apparent with the introduction of her old classmate (Ryan Cooper, played by Bo Burnham), a surgeon who clearly never got over his old college crush. On the one hand, it’s Bo Burnham, who strikes such a perfect balance that he might be a genuinely sweet and awkward guy or he might be another rapist waiting to happen. On the other hand — if you’ll pardon the paraphrasing — Cass has been a hammer for so long that there’s a very real risk that every guy looks like a nail to her. And again, she only really seems to come alive when she’s tricking some douchebag into seeing the error of his ways.

Regardless of whether or not Ryan turns out to be the real deal, what does it say about Cassie that she seems to assume the worst about him, and about herself? Where is Cassie going, what would it take to make her happy, and does she want anything out of life except putting herself in great physical danger to make drunken womanizers squirm with guilt?

On the other hand, there’s the matter of Cassie’s parents, and also her boss (played by Laverne Cox). It’s obvious that these are people in Cassie’s life who genuinely care for her and want what’s best for her. But as the movie continues, the characters get to be increasingly pushy. Yes, Cassie is so stubbornly miserable that maybe she needs the extra push. But then again, maybe she doesn’t want the nuclear family with the white picket fence and the 2.5 kids. At some point, we have to wonder if these mentor figures really want what’s best for Cassie, or if they’re pressuring her to be what the modern patriarchal capitalist American society expects her to be.

But again, if that’s not what she wants to be, then what the hell does she want to be?

Anyway, Ryan inadvertently gets Cassie back in touch with old times, introducing Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) back into her life. See, Al committed a grievous sexual assault against Cassie’s childhood friend, and he got off scot free for it. In fact, Al is now a massively successful doctor who just got engaged to a bikini model. Meanwhile, Nina and Cassie dropped out of school and Nina’s mental/physical condition deteriorated until she finally passed away.

Thus Cassie goes on a revenge spree against Al and everyone who’s ever stood by him since the assault. And this right here, at the end of the first act, is where things start to unravel.

Yes, it’s fiendishly clever to watch Cass twist the enablers’ own excuses against them. But at the same time, she resorts to some truly fucked-up measures. I won’t dare spoil exactly what she does, but it’s terrifying to watch her slide further and further into actions that are genuinely harmful and criminal. Thus, as with any decent revenge story, we have to ask at what point Cass’ punishments are worse than the alleged crimes. And at what point her actions will come back to bite her.

And again, there’s the ongoing question of what — if anything — she is without this grief or the revenge mission to define her. Yes, it might be better for her own sake to move on, but she’d have to find a way to live with herself, knowing that her surrogate sister is dead while the man who destroyed her is living a happy and successful life.

But then the climax comes, and this is where things fly off the rails.

It bears repeating that as a revenge thriller, and also as a movie that deals with allegations of sexual assault, this is naturally a movie with a highly complex morality. But with the last fifteen minutes of the film, I completely lost the thematic thread. It’d be one thing if this movie was going to end in a cathartic way, on a hopeful note that shows the system can be overcome and justice can be served. It’d be another thing if Cass failed, showing that the patriarchy will always protect rich white men from any and all consequences of their actions, and no woman is stronger than the system.

Obviously, both options were untenable. So instead, the film tries to thread the needle in such a way that it attempts to accomplish both. I suppose an argument could be made that it succeeds in this regard, and the comeuppance is quite satisfying in a visceral gut-level way. But personally, I feel that the contradicting approaches undercut each other, mudding any kind of closing statement about sexual assault, believing the victim, toxic male privilege, and so on.

Perhaps more importantly, there’s the matter of Cass herself. There’s still the question of who or what she could possibly be without her obsession for revenge. When she’s completed her mission, when she’s moved on from the guilt, what could she be willing or able to do next? Without her pain, without her anger, what is she?

So much of this movie is dedicated to exploring the question of who Cass is, what she wants, and what she could potentially be. And the ending renders all of those questions, all of that screentime, completely moot. It’s like the filmmakers threw up their hands and simply made all those questions a non-issue because they couldn’t be bothered to think of an answer. That’s a fucking cop-out.

Still, there’s no doubt that Carey Mulligan gave this the performance of a lifetime. In point of fact, the whole cast is rock-solid. I’m no fan of Bo Burnham, but his chemistry with Mulligan was on point. We’ve also got stellar supporting turns from Alison Brie, Clancy Brown, Jennifer Coolidge, Clancy Brown, Alfred Molina, Adam Brody, and Connie Britton; we’ve got some more comedic turns from Laverne Cox, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Max Greenfield… the whole cast is an embarrassment of riches and there isn’t a single dud in the cast. Then again, when the actors are playing or acting against misogynist hate sinks, I suppose that gives them a lot of license to go as broad as possible.

I don’t know what to tell you, folks — Promising Young Woman had me, and then it lost me. It’s disappointing, because I respect the hell out of a film that goes this hard and this bold on such a difficult and necessary subject. The filmmakers perfectly strike a finely honed darkly comical balance, the cast is rock-solid from top to bottom, and I absolutely love how devilishly twisted and intricate the plot is.

Alas, I worry that with those last fifteen minutes, the filmmakers might’ve gotten a bit too clever for their own good. I just don’t get what the filmmakers were going for with that ending, and I don’t think it serves as a worthy payoff to what came before. Then again, it’s perfectly obvious that the film was made to be inflammatory, so it’s natural that not everyone will be on board with it. Still, it’s absolutely a film that everyone should see at least once, if only to form an opinion on it.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Posted March 20, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Well, folks, this is it. The epitaph of the DC Cinematic Universe. Everything the fans, the execs, the cast, the crew, and Zack Snyder ever wanted; all their hubris, their hopes, their ambitions, and their shattered dreams; everything that was promised, everything that came to be, and everything that never came to pass… all of it poured into this 240-minute behemoth, to be paraded through HBO Max so we may all finally lay the DCEU to rest and find the closure to move on. Zack Snyder’s Justice League isn’t a movie, it’s a funeral.

To be clear, I say that with the utmost respect for the very real death that’s cast a pall over this project since the gut-wrenching news of March 12th, 2017. This director’s cut is dedicated to the memory of Autumn Snyder, and I hope with all my heart that its completion may bring some measure of solace and closure to the loved ones left in the wake of her tragic suicide. I might add that Zack Snyder and his legion of supporters have already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

There’s a very real possibility that this movie may have literally saved someone’s life. Zack Snyder publicly dedicated this movie to his late daughter, raising money and awareness to make sure that some family, some school, some community never has to suffer such traumatic loss as he did, and somebody at risk of suicidal depression might get the help that could’ve saved Autumn’s life. No matter how the film turns out or what happens next, that’s got to be worth some measure of gratitude and respect.

THAT BEING SAID…

The toxicity of the DC fanbase — most particularly with regard to the “Snyder cut” — has been very, VERY welldocumented. Snyder and DC/WB can talk all they want about how the trolls and bullies are only a small minority of fans, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the worst of the fanbase is somehow being rewarded for their rampant fuckery by getting the movie they demanded. There’s a very real possibility that this could set a dangerous precedent, an excuse for other entitled assholes in various other fandoms to break whatever they can until Hollywood finally caves.

Then again, maybe this is a calculated ploy by a company that’s billions of dollars in debt, stuck with an online streaming service that desperately needed a huge tentpole exclusive to drive up subscriptions and divert customers away from their other failed streaming service. Hell, maybe someone at DC/WB reached the same conclusion I did and figured this was a necessary step in closing the book on the DC Cinematic Universe before freshening up the superhero holdings into something more profitable. One thing’s for damn sure: Nobody at DC/WB/AT&T gives a rat’s ass about the fanbase, the characters, the Twitter feuds, or anything else except money. They finished the director’s cut because they figured it was worth a profit, nothing more and nothing less.

Oh, and did I mention Ray Fisher and all the various accusations of abuse that happened on the Justice League set? Because there’s that to deal with as well.

Anyway, I’ve long since taken the attitude that the proof is in the pudding. The hype, the promotions, whatever reputation any upcoming movie has, all of that ceases to matter once the film is released. After that, the film stands to be judged on its own merit and we all move on to obsessing over the next huge tentpole release. It was ever thus.

So, what have we got? Well, to start with, we’ve got a freaking four-hour movie. And believe it or not, the outrageous length of the film isn’t the problem. Indeed, four hours is exactly as long as the film needed to be to tell this story. That’s the problem.

When DC/WB structured this whole superfranchise, it was deliberately designed so that the Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg, and the rest of the DC Universe (outside the main Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman trinity, that is) would be introduced in this one massive movie before branching out into their respective franchises. I don’t know if anybody realized it at the time, but the drawback to this approach is that the “one massive movie” has to be this freaking massive. We have to spend so much time establishing these characters, their motivations, their powers, and that’s not even getting started on all the exposition necessary to explain their antagonist and the Apokaliptic threat we’re dealing with.

It’s like the execs wanted a movie on the scale of Avengers: Endgame, but without twenty other movies to develop the world and the characters. So instead, they crammed twenty movies’ worth of exposition and world-building into the one film. Put another way, it’s like all the problems of Iron Man 2, times a hundred.

(Side note: It occurs to me that Amazing Spider-Man 2 tried and failed at something similar. The filmmakers crammed in too many villains to try and spin them off into their own separate franchises, and all we got was an overstuffed failure of a movie, which in turn led to a hugely disastrous and shamefully unprofitable superfranchise.)

That said, it’s an old established rule (albeit a loose one) that the Marvel brand is about flawed and fallible people learning to accept and fully utilize their powers, while the DC brand is about godlike beings who struggle with life among mortals. Snyder shows a keen understanding of this. Early and often, Snyder leans HARD into the notion of the DC characters and lore as modern mythology. He goes for a grand operatic feel, clearly portraying the Atlanteans, Amazons, and all the various heroes as modern analogues to the deities and demigods of antiquity.

Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is the high-and-mighty rich white guy mocked with derision by everyone in a lower tax bracket. Diana Prince (Gal Godot) has no friends, she keeps her coworkers at a civil yet professional distance, and her people might as well be on another planet. Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) is zooming all over the place, struggling to hold down multiple jobs to pay for his college tuition, and all his powers are unable to get his falsely-convicted father out of prison. And of course that’s not even getting started on Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), who’s got basically zero chance of living a normal life since he was brought back to “life” as a Space-Age Frankenstein.

The movie is crystal clear in showing how these larger-than-life personalities are visibly, painfully struggling to live among people who don’t have their gifts, and know nothing about their costumed identities. Yet the film also shows how we mere mortals can be lifted up by their example, looking to them for hope and justice and inspiration. All of this is done in such a way that it clearly shows a great love and respect for what makes the DC Universe so iconic.

The unfortunate downside is that we get a movie loaded with pathos, filled to the brim with mourning for Superman, Aquaman’s rebellious attitude, Batman’s single-minded focus on averting Apokalips, Cyborg’s all-consuming angst, and so on. It certainly doesn’t help that the whole film is so dark and void of color that it looks like someone smeared shit over every camera lens. Yes, we do have Alfred (Henry Irons) to bring an ounce of humanity, Wonder Woman provides a bit of heart, and Flash is on hand as our comic relief, but that’s still not enough. It’s too much of an uphill battle to make this four-hour epic into anything genuinely fun to sit through.

The epilogue only further proves this point. The end of the movie (before the credits, I mean — there is no stinger here) expands on the “Knightmare timeline” glimpsed in BvS, casting a bit more light on what exactly happened to make that post-apocalyptic future materialize. Without getting into spoilers, that epilogue makes me overwhelmingly grateful that this film series never went any further. If this is where Snyder wanted to go with the world and the characters — particularly Superman, Batman, and Jared Leto’s wretched take on Joker — count me the fuck out.

But how does the movie stack up against the theatrical cut? Well, the Snyder cut is certainly better in that it was very clearly the end result of one man’s artistic vision, and not something mutilated by committee in an effort to try and force the thing to be something it was never designed for. That said, if anyone was given the fool’s errand to try and pare this story down to two hours, I’d say Joss Whedon did the best job that anyone could’ve asked for.

Yes, it absolutely sucks that Cyborg’s best material got cut from the theatrical release, and the Snyder cut is far better for bringing it back. That said, the Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman trinity had been firmly established as the foundation of this movie, Aquaman had to be established for his own upcoming film, and God knows we needed the Flash around for comic relief. Somebody had to take the brunt of all the cuts to get this down to two hours, and process of elimination meant it had to be Cyborg. It sucks, but it was the least awful of all the options in this no-win scenario.

Getting back to the point, everything that was wrong with the plot for the theatrical cut of Justice League is still wrong here. The plot is still a thin and contrived MacGuffin hunt. The MacGuffins in question are still the Mother Boxes, which are still magical all-purpose plot devices instead of massively powerful sentient supercomputers. (Imagine if God had a smartphone. That’s basically what a comic book Mother Box is like.) The method of reviving Superman is exactly the same and it’s still just as stupid. The main villain (Steppenwolf, voiced by Ciaran Hinds) is still hopelessly generic and unmemorable.

That’s really what it comes down to here: The Zack Snyder cut is more or less the exact same movie, there’s just twice as much of it. And yes, while a lot of the surplus helps support a few of the story beats and adds depth to the characters, it’s still not enough to hide the fact that this is a pathetically thin plot and it’s not enough to elevate the movie into anything that could be considered “good”.

Superman is still a character more defined by his absence than his presence. Ben Affleck still looks like he’s already sick to death of this role. Batman, Aquaman, and Cyborg are still three characters defined by their brooding angst more than anything else. Flash is still nerfed by all manner of contrived and idiotic means.

That said, there are a lot of noteworthy changes when the climax finally comes. Barry suddenly remembers that he can heal super-fast, which only calls attention to how stupid it is that he got shot or tripped up and taken out of commission so many other times. Also, it’s made explicitly clear that the climax takes place in a radioactive wasteland that’s been abandoned for years, so no civilians to rescue this time.

And yes, the 4:3 aspect ratio takes a bit of getting used to. Then again, if you stream movies with subtitles (like I do), that extra black space at the bottom comes in handy.

Then there’s the matter of the score. I honestly didn’t want to see a Joss Whedon film scored by Junkie XL, and I don’t want to see a Zack Snyder film scored by Danny Elfman. I’m no fan of Junkie XL, but he was absolutely the man for this particular job. He’s far better suited for using the musical themes established in these movies, and it helps a great deal that he actually composed music for Batman instead of bashing his head against the keyboard. (DUUUN DUN-DUN-DUN DUUUN DUUUN!)

Zack Snyder’s Justice League belongs exactly where it is. If this had been a major theatrical release, with tickets selling at upwards of $15 a pop so the studio could shoot for a billion-dollar gross, it would have made DC/WB into a fiscally insolvent laughingstock. If this was supposed to be the new DC cinematic canon, the template for all DC superhero films going forward, it would have destroyed the brand’s future in cinema, making it radioactive for years or even generations to come. Instead, for better or worse, the Justice League theatrical cut was released, and WB only floundered until AT&T agreed to bail them out. DC in film may have been undeniably broken, but at least there’s enough for a slow and gradual phase-out into whatever comes next.

This director’s cut will never be released in theaters, it will never be accepted canon, and it cannot do any damage beyond what’s already been done. Anyone with an HBO Max subscription is free to watch it at their own pace, and with no additional charge beyond the monthly subscription already paid. The film now only exists as a relic of a past age, the residual effects of an ambitious failed experiment. It’s a curiosity, a window into what might have been and what the filmmakers might have been thinking. On those merits, under these terms, the film is at least worth a look.

This director’s cut shows exactly how wrong-headed and ass-backwards the entire DCEU experiment was. This particular cut shows that Zack Snyder could’ve had everything he needed — a sky-high budget, a phenomenal cast, absolute creative control — and this whole superfranchise still would’ve been destined to fail because of the decision made so early on to put the cart before the horse. The minute DC/WB decided to introduce so many characters and such a massive world in one crossover film — rather than giving each character their own franchise first, as Marvel had done — the film was doomed to be an overcrowded mess. No script rewrites or film re-edits could’ve saved it.

As for Zack Snyder himself, the film proves once again why he should never have taken the Man of Steel gig. I get why the decision made sense at the time, and he clearly understands the DC brand on a macro scale. But from MoS to BvS all the way up through this director’s cut, Snyder has consistently gotten so bogged down in the brooding pathos of the characters that he didn’t leave room for much of any fun to be had with them. And I’m sorry, but the very minute Snyder (or whomever) suggested that Knightmare post-apocalyptic scenario as the endpoint for the whole superfranchise should’ve been fired on the spot.

What matters now is that we move forward. We must accept that the DC Cinematic Universe is no more, it was destined to fail, and we’re all better off now that it’s gone. If it takes seeing the film for yourself to find that closure, then go for it.

Incidentally, news recently broke that J.J. Abrams and Ta-Nehisi Coates have signed on to reboot Superman, though no star or director have been named of yet. Of course Abrams already proved — by way of his endeavors in Star Trek and Star Wars — that he’s more than comfortable with inspirational big-budget blockbusters, and Coates is a widely celebrated author with a noted and respectable history in comic books (including a stint writing for Captain America). It’s early days yet (and we still have to see how things shake out with Matt Reeves and James Gunn), but the future for DC is looking brighter already.

The United States vs. Billie Holliday

Posted March 15, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

What the hell happened to Lee Daniels?

He made Precious back in 2009 and it kicked ass. It was searing, it was heartbreaking, it was stylish, it was deeply personal. That movie took the world by storm, complete with two Oscar wins (for supporting actress Mo’Nique and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher) out of six nominations (including Best Picture and Best Director).

But then he made Lee Daniels’ The Butler in 2013. It was an overstuffed mess, cramming five decades’ worth of plot and themes into 130 minutes. It’s like the filmmakers had no idea what they wanted to make except for Oscar-bait, so it all evened out into a couple of solid performances in a pile of otherwise featureless glop.

Nearly a decade later, Lee Daniels has returned with The United States vs. Billie Holliday, which is basically more of the same.

We open with a title card, helpfully reminding us that the U.S. Senate never even considered an anti-lynching law until 1937, and it didn’t pass. In response, Billie Holliday performed the song “Strange Fruit“, written by a Jewish communist named Abel Meeropol. Naturally, the song’s background — to say nothing of its graphic portrayal of lynchings — made it a rallying cry for activists in the nascent Civil Rights Movement. This despite — or perhaps because of — efforts from the government to try and shut the song down.

Billie Holliday’s big claim to infamy is a song about black people getting lynched. And she continues to sing that song, knowing full well that black people have been lynched for far less. There’s a noble kind of irony in that.

(Side note: Another title card at the end reminds us that the “Emmett Till Antilynching Act” was introduced last year. It passed the House in February of 2020, but Sen. Rand Paul [R-KY] blocked the bill from going to the Senate. Over 150 years since the end of the goddamn Civil War and we still don’t have a federal anti-lynching law in the books.)

Cut to 1947, and Holliday (here played by newcomer Andra Day) has been singing “Strange Fruit” for the past ten years or so, in spite of her manager, her husband, and various government agents all pressuring her not to. This is where we meet our main antagonist: Harry Anslinger (played by Garrett Hedlund), founding commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. No joke, this guy started the War on Drugs a good 50 years before Reagan came along, and his reasons for cracking down on drugs were openly racist.

(Side note: The movie goes a step further, speculating that Anslinger was also doing this out of pride, after Prohibition failed while Anslinger was assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Prohibition. I might add that the real Harry Anslinger was in his fifties during the events of the film, and he’s being played here by Garrett Hedlund at age 37.)

Anyway, Anslinger has been tasked by J. Edgar Hoover himself with shutting down Billie Holliday and her un-American jazz music. But of course Holliday can’t be arrested for being black or singing a song. She can, however, be arrested for doing drugs. Indeed, Holliday was a prolific heroin junkie, which likely contributed to her death of cirrhosis complications at the age of 44.

The filmmakers go into deep and explicit detail regarding Holliday’s on-again-off-again drug use, her turbulent love life through three joyless marriages, and her traumatic childhood living in a brothel with her prostitute mother. Basically put, Billie Holliday is a wreck, and the filmmakers are determined to make a huge thematic point about every single possible reason why she’s a wreck.

To be clear, the filmmakers do a good job of connecting all the disparate topics, showing how they all feed into each other to create a huge sprawling system, empowering people to uphold the racist status quo by virtue of “doing the right thing” even as they subjugate black people. It’s such a seductive and all-encompassing system that self-professed allies can be coaxed into upholding it. Even black people can be made to turn on each other, doing “the right thing” by way of the white man’s agenda, willfully pretending that the white man won’t grind them into powder the very second they become an inconvenience.

Of course I always appreciate a film about racial trauma that treats racism as a deep-seated systemic issue and not just a few bad apples who are mean to people of color for no reason. Bonus points for showing how oppressed minorities can be made to act against their own people and their own self-interest — that’s genuinely fascinating to me. The problem is that when anyone puts any kind of good-faith effort into exploring the various interconnected ways that racism has been hard-wired into every facet of American life… there’s no end to that rabbit hole. Even a five-part documentary series could only skim the surface. With a movie that only runs for just over two hours, it at once feels like the filmmakers are doing too much and not enough.

As if that wasn’t enough, we also have a secondary protagonist/romantic lead in Jimmy Fletcher, here played by Trevante Rhodes. Fletcher is one of several black men working as undercover law enforcement agents, exploring avenues closed off to white people. Fletcher’s arc is that he got into law enforcement because he deeply hated the lethal effect of drugs on the African-American community, only to discover that the War on Drugs is just the white man’s excuse to wage war on people of color. So Fletcher is kind of a double agent, especially as he gets more romantically and sexually involved with the woman he was assigned with putting away for good.

I might add that while it’s a matter of historical record that Fletcher deeply regretted his role in Billie Holliday’s legal difficulties, there’s no documented evidence that the two of them were romantically or sexually involved. This whole romantic subplot and Fletcher’s huge development arc — both of which further complicate a movie that’s already overstuffed — were inventions of the filmmakers.

While Trevante Rhodes is a powerhouse actor, and Fletcher makes for a compelling character, his arc derails the film to an extent that can’t be overstated. Really, the filmmakers had a hard enough time focusing on Billie Holliday and her mountain of problems, letting her be our guide through all the issues the filmmakers wanted to talk about. That said, it helps that Andra Day’s performance is so utterly captivating that she dominates the screen at every turn. This is a daring, dynamic, utterly devastating performance that positively demands attention. Seriously, if the entire film lived up to the quality of her “Strange Fruit” song break 80 minutes in, this would be a very different review.

It’s no surprise that Garrett Hedlund is the weak link in the cast — even if he’s perfectly suited to play a pasty-white hate sink, the role so obviously needed an older man. As for the rest of the supporting cast, they do well enough. It’s clear that everyone else is only there to hold up Day and Rhodes, which is fine by me.

The problem with The United States vs. Billie Holliday is unquestionably Lee Daniels. In her closing years, Billie Holliday dealt with a number of compelling and duplicitous characters, to say nothing of her struggles with drug addiction, her unstable love life, her history as a whore’s daughter, her persecution at the hands of white racists in every level of American society, and her legacy as an entertainer. Any one of these subjects would’ve made for a fascinating picture, but Daniels just had to try and tackle all of them. He proved himself too easily distracted, using Billie Holliday to make a dozen social commentaries (all necessary and timely, don’t get me wrong), rather than using the social themes to strengthen Billie Holliday’s story. I’m sure a more seasoned filmmaker could’ve done a more elegant job of dovetailing the various themes together (Just look at F. Gary Gray’s work and artistic choices, paring down the vast history and roster of N.W.A. for Straight Outta Compton.), but this is one Oscar-nominated director who wasn’t equal to the task.

Andra Day took her place among the stars as Lee Daniels flew too close to the sun. It’s still worth seeing once, but only if you already have a Hulu account and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom isn’t an option for whatever reason.

Earwig and the Witch

Posted March 12, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

Well, it finally happened. As the rest of the world moved on, it was sadly inevitable that Studio Ghibli — the last great bastion of 2D hand-drawn animation — finally moved into the 21st century and made a CGI feature. And I’ve got to be honest, I don’t hate it.

Even though Earwig and the Witch was clearly made with CGI animation, the filmmakers were good enough to avoid anything approaching photorealism. Indeed, the characters all look exactly like someone took a Miyazaki portfolio and rendered the drawings in Unreal 3. As a direct result, the crudely animated characters almost look more like sculpted figures — there’s something about it that maintains the same kind of spirit as the crudely hand-made yet lovingly detailed aesthetic that Ghibli is so beloved for.

But what’s crazier is that the poses, the expressions, the mouth movements, the gestures… there are so many little quirks that are immediately recognizable as part of the Ghibli canon, except that they move a lot smoother. Imagine if Miyazaki-san made his earlier 2D animated works at a higher framerate, that’s pretty much what the effect is like.

So no, I honestly don’t hate this new approach for Studio Ghibli. The movie looks just fine. But the story… whoo boy.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Earwig (voiced in the English dub by newcomer Taylor Henderson) is unknowingly the daughter of a witch (voiced by Kacey Musgraves), who left young Earwig at the door of an orphanage when she was only an infant. So our young protagonist spends her first few years in the orphanage until she’s finally adopted by the witch Bella Yaga (Vanessa Marshall) and the vaguely demonic Mandrake (Richard E. Grant). Though Earwig is resistant to move out (*coughRefusalOfTheCallcough*), she moves into the enchanted house of her new foster parents. Earwig is then forced to work like a slave, gathering and preparing various potion ingredients while she begs to learn magic from Bella Yaga.

(Side note: Yes, Earwig’s unusual name does get an explanation. No, I’m not getting into that here.)

Yeah, this is a straightforward, no-frills, boilerplate fantasy Monomyth that’s been done to death a million times over. And that might not necessarily be a bad thing, except that the filmmakers bungle it beyond repair.

First of all, the pacing is hopelessly out of whack. It’s an 82-minute movie that needed at least 100 minutes to properly tell the story. I could swear I got whiplash from how quickly the filmmakers rushed through the last five minutes of the film, resolving every last plot thread all nice and tidy by any means necessary.

And what really sucks about the ending is that this was the payoff for all the setup. The part where Earwig and her adoptive parents learn how to be a healthy foster family, the part where Earwig learns how to live in this new magical world, the part where she learns about her heritage, the part where Bella Yaga and The Mandrake learn how to live and act as semi-functional people… all of that stuff is barely even glossed over as it all gets crunched into the last five minutes. It’s the whole point of the plot, what the first and second acts were all building up to, and the filmmakers barely even address it. FAIL.

The entire plot is structured in such a way that Earwig goes through most of the film as a put-upon slave, subject to inhumane working conditions and constant verbal abuse at the cruel whim of Bella Yaga. Earwig suffers all the hardship, she fights her way through it, and we don’t get to share in her reward. As a direct result, the film is robbed of its wonder.

To repeat that: There’s no sense of wonder here. In a Studio Ghibli film. Think about that.

Yes, this is a film with a weak narrative. Studio Ghibli has made films with weak narratives before. I’m sorry, but Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, and The Secret World of Arrietty did not have exceptionally strong or intricate plotlines, but at least every single one of them imparted an awe-inspiring sense of fantasy. Even goddamn The Wind Rises had those magnificent dream sequences. Even From Up on Poppy Hill… actually, no, fuck that godawful melodrama.

The point being that aside from that last one, even the weakest Studio Ghibli film (that I’ve ever seen) was able to give the audience a taste of some immersive magical world to live and breathe in. And when Studio Ghibli is at its absolute best — as with Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke (still my choice for the greatest animated film of all time) — they’ve given us thriving magical worlds with intricate plots, nuanced moral themes, and highly developed characters.

By contrast, there’s nowhere near enough time or effort given to nurture the characters up to Ghibli’s usual standard. Because the character development arcs are so heavily truncated, it’s hard to get a handle on what (if anything) the characters have learned, thus any extant themes are half-baked at best. Even the Ghibli standard theme of environmentalism is nowhere to be found here!

And as for the magical setting, magic is only ever established as an arduous, time-intensive, disgusting pastime. Yes, we’re told that the finished potions smell like various flowers, but that doesn’t count for much in a medium devoid of smell. All we ever see is a mud-soaked workshop filled with various thorny plants and slimy animal carcasses. To say nothing of the extended sequences in which Earwig works herself to the bone, clearly not having any fun at all.

Either Earwig is working herself to exhaustion under the orders of Bella Yaga, or she’s hiding in fear from the destructive power of The Mandrake and his demonic minions. Either way, there’s no sense of affection, fun, or even reverence toward anything magical in this picture. And to repeat, that’s a huge goddamn oversight in a Studio Ghibli film.

Though at least we do get Thomas (Dan Stevens), a black cat who serves admirably as comic relief. And of course we get that awesome rock soundtrack, though — to my disappointment — the poster is a lie and Earwig herself never joins in any band. What a shame.

I’m glad they’re trying new things and getting some new blood, because God knows things have been growing stale at Studio Ghibli for too long. But they need to do better than Earwig and the Witch. Yes, the CGI animation is a wonderful bridge between the charming Ghibli style of old and modern standards of animation, but they need to get more comfortable with the medium so we can have longer movies with enough space to tell a proper story. Perhaps more importantly, we need stories any hint of novelty, characters with properly developed arcs, and settings worth spending any amount of time in.

Of course, this is very clearly a time of huge transition for Studio Ghibli, and it makes sense that there would be a rough patch while they’re changing the guard. (Remember the tough spot Disney was in, between Walt’s death in 1966 and the ’90s renaissance?) Let’s hope that this lesser entry is just a bit of trial and error before the company’s next masterpiece.

Science Boy’s High School Reunion

Posted March 11, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

This is not the first time I’ve been asked to review someone’s self-funded indie movie, trying to build up momentum so the filmmakers might get a distribution deal going. It’s an uncommon (albeit flattering) occurrence, to be sure, but not unheard of. In this case, the film was submitted by star/writer/producer/co-director Alex DeCourville, a Twitter follower whom I’ve never met in person. I might add that DeCourville shot the film in Ohio, well over a thousand miles from my typical Portland stomping grounds. (So there’s my disclosure out of the way.)

But when DeCourville sent me the trailer, that’s when I really knew that reviewing this one would be a unique challenge.

Reportedly, the film was made on a budget of $8,000. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that cost so little to make. I don’t even think I’ve seen a live theatre play that cost so little to make. (Shakespeare in the park, maybe?) Hell, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen YouTube videos that cost more to produce.

Still, it speaks to the passion and work ethic of the cast and crew that they were able to make a feature-length anything out of so little. (The runtime is 83 minutes, which barely counts, but still.) I’d say that’s enough to earn the end result its day in court, even if I’m apparently the only one willing and able to serve as judge. Though to be perfectly honest, I have doubts as to whether I can even serve as a capable judge here — from the trailer alone, I could immediately tell that this movie would fall so far short of my typical standards that the usual rules can’t apply.

A very unique challenge indeed. Let’s begin.

DeCourville stars as Jason Stone — also the masked crimefighter “Science Boy” — a geek stereotype who wears thick glasses that have no lenses in them. In the prologue, Science Boy is introduced stopping a robbery in progress by inducing a heart attack. He never does this again at any point in the film.

In the next scene, Jason Stone is introduced bombing an audition for a play. How does “science nerd stereotype” translate into “aspiring actor”? Your guess is as good as mine. Seriously, the crux of this character is that he’s great at science, yet he doesn’t have a career or any hobbies related to science, and the contradiction is never once addressed.

Anyway, as the title implies, the plot kicks off when Science Boy is invited to a high school reunion. We then flash back to 2009, when Jason was still in high school. And the characters are all talking about biology class, though their classroom looks more equipped for wood shop. What’s worse, these are supposed to be teenagers of the late ’00s, and they’re all written for dated and threadbare stereotypes from the ’80s and ’90s. And that’s before Jason’s crush (Jackie Albright, later known as Evil Woman, played by Kayleigh Williams) is introduced in a slo-mo shot, covered in angelic light as her hair swirls in the breeze.

Not even ten minutes into the movie, and this is where I knew I was in trouble.

(Side note: Once again, I feel compelled to point to Anna and the Apocalypse and say “That’s the way to do it.” Hell, I could point to Detention, Booksmart, Love Simon, and at least half a dozen other coming-of-age dramedies in recent memory that did a better job of playing into teenage stereotypes while maintaining a 21st-century sensibility and giving the characters some depth.)

First off, the movie looks cheap as hell. I’m sorry, I hate to harp on about this, but the camerawork, the lighting, the costumes, the sets, the sound design… it’s impossible to ignore how cheaply this movie was made. It also doesn’t help that these actors were called upon to play adults and high school seniors in two different time periods ten years apart. I’ve seen full-fledged Hollywood productions — with world-class actors, top-tier makeup artists, and cutting-edge CGI at their disposal — try something similar and fail. This cast and crew never had a prayer of pulling it off.

More importantly, it’s established early and often that this is a story about characters who never really grew past high school. At the very least, it’s perfectly clear that Jason never got over the shame and the failures of his awkward teenage years. It makes sense that Jason would develop a superpowered crime-fighting alter ego as a power fantasy to help him escape from his teenage angst and make the world a safer place in the bargain. From Billy Batson to Peter Parker all the way up to Kamala Khan, it’s a classic tried-and-true superhero premise, and the notion of someone continuing it on through adulthood might theoretically make for a decent superhero satire.

Trouble is, nobody likes the person who never grew past high school. Nobody wants to be that person. It’s bad enough to hear from the person who peaked in high school and won’t shut up about the winning touchdown they scored ten or twenty years ago. No grown adult wants to hear about how much high school sucked for someone else, as if high school didn’t suck for a lot of people. Sure, this might have worked if Jason was someone we weren’t necessarily supposed to sympathize with — an antihero, for lack of a better label — but as an inspirational hero we’re supposed to root for, it doesn’t work.

Then again, the movie is predicated on the notion that Jason hasn’t really succeeded at anything with his life since high school. His big dreams have gone completely unfulfilled, and the outside world wasn’t anything like what he was promised. That’s a perfectly sympathetic place to be in, and it’s sadly all too relatable for anyone who graduated into a post-9/11 world.

This brings me to the main villain (Killjoy, played by Joseph Pleger). His superpower is that he can induce powerful waves of depression, even to the point of driving others to suicide. For a satire about the juvenile nature of the superhero power fantasy, that could work. For a dramedy about a man overcome with existential angst because of how little he’s accomplished in his adult years, it would be an amazing fit. But for an outright comedy in which everything and every character is played for the broadest possible laughs, it doesn’t make any sense.

Seriously, a supervillain that induces suicidal depression is in a movie with a perverted idiotic supporting character (namely John Mchoff, played by B.J. Halsall) whose EVERY SINGLE LINE is a gleeful masturbation “joke”. Make that make sense.

The movie never earns even the slightest degree of pathos. The characters are all so paper-thin and they’re all played so broadly that none of them register as actual human beings. It’s hard for me to care about their thoughts or their feelings when they’re all more or less treated as walking one-note punchlines. The other big problem is that where Jason is concerned, I don’t believe for a minute that he couldn’t have amounted to anything after high school.

Jason is clearly established as intelligent and hard-working, even before he got his superpowers. Yes, we’re told that he got denied a scholarship, but there’s no plausible reason as to why he got turned down. For that matter, there are any number of scholarships he could’ve been eligible for, and any number of colleges that would’ve accepted him. And again, why the hell did he pursue a career in acting when his passion and talent are so clearly in the fields of science?!

What might be worst of all, there’s an extended sequence at the half-hour mark in which Science Boy is pressed to list his accomplishments and he comes up empty. Even as a superhero, he’s utterly useless. As a comedic bit, the joke lost its flavor somewhere around Mystery Men twenty years ago. And of course it breaks the “escapist power fantasy” angle into a million pieces.

Basically put, the themes for this movie are all built on a foundation that makes no sense whatsoever.

So now I’m wondering if this could maybe work on the merits of “so bad it’s good”. Honestly, I don’t even think it works on those merits either. The thing about most “so bad it’s good” movies — Plan 9 from Outer Space, Manos The Hands of Fate, Birdemic, The Room, etc. — is that the comedy of those movies is unintentional. Every single one of those films was seriously made to be a deep and dramatic work of cinema. Even freaking Leonard: Part 6 tried to take itself halfway seriously as an espionage caper.

By comparison, it’s obvious that this film is trying to go for comedy. More than that, the filmmakers are clearly trying to make the comedy as broad as they possibly can. The actors are trying so hard to be funny, but the jokes and the characters are so played-out and lame, and the presentation so lackluster that every joke falls flat. Of course your mileage may vary (assuming you’re not the type of shithead who likes to heckle stand-up comedians), but I’d feel genuinely bad about myself for making fun of such earnest comedians who are bombing this hard.

It certainly doesn’t help that with a lot of the exchanges — most especially where the put-upon and socially clumsy Jason Stone is concerned — the point of the joke is that the conversation is awkward. It’s exceedingly difficult to make an awkward conversation that’s genuinely funny, as opposed to uncomfortable and tedious. The likes of Paul Feig and Judd Apatow have made whole careers out of this, and even they fail at it more often than they get it right. Again, these filmmakers had simply no hope of getting it right.

Could Science Boy’s High School Reunion have worked with a bigger budget? Well, I’m sure more money couldn’t have hurt, but the movie is fundamentally broken in so many ways that no crowdfunding campaign could’ve saved it. Yes, the basic notion of a social outcast dressing up as a superhero to escape his own existential angst, facing off against a supervillain who can inflict suicidal depression, is potentially a fantastic premise. Trouble is, it demands characters who are deep enough and relatable enough that they’re worth any degree of pathos.

More importantly, the premise and themes demanded a film far darker than the cast and crew were willing or able to go. From start to finish, it’s perfectly clear that everyone involved with this was at their most comfortable making a broad and brainless self-aware comedy. If they had played to their strengths and leaned into their limits, I’m sure this highly dedicated cast and crew could’ve made something fun and raunchy and irreverent. (For instance, if they tried making a college comedy in the vein of Animal House or Van Wilder, I’m sure it’d be great.) But they took on a premise far too ambitious for what they had, with mature themes they were not remotely equipped to tackle.

I’m sorry to say that I don’t see any way forward for this one. It could be a webseries on YouTube, maybe, but as a film or a DVD or an online stream worth actual money to see? No way.

Still, I have to commend DeCourville et al. for showing what they can put together with next to nothing. With this proof of concept and a better script, I’m sure they’ll have a much easier time coaxing money out of investors and crowdfunders. Better luck next time, guys.

Raya and the Last Dragon

Posted March 6, 2021 By Curiosity Inc.

One more time, for the record: No movie is worth a goddamn $30 premium charge — in addition to a monthly subscription fee! — just to rent. Yes, the math might work out if you’re seeing the movie as a family or in a massive group, but even that’s a bit of a stretch. Plus, I don’t know who that $30 is going to, but it sure as hell isn’t anyone working at your local movie theater.

That said, it is equally true that no movie is worth risking your own health and safety, much less that of anyone else. Even now, going to a movie theater or any other indoor gathering space full of total strangers is a dicey proposition.

HOWEVER. I am very lucky in that I got my second COVID vaccine shot over a month ago. Though I am still at some risk of carrying the virus to spread to others (at significantly less risk with proper masking, hand-washing, and social distancing protocols), my own risk of hospitalization and death is minimal. As such, I feel not only capable but obligated to support my local businesses, and at a fraction of the cost I would’ve had to pay for streaming.

So if you’re in a position to go see this movie in a local theater, if you’re able to visit a theater without compromising your own safety or that of others, please do so. Wear a mask, maintain social distancing, and tip generously. Otherwise, wait until this summer, when Raya and the Last Dragon will stream with no upcharge.

Raya and the Last Dragon opens in the magical world of Kumandra. Once upon a time, the world was beset by the Druun, evil sprits that turned every living thing they touched into stone. The dragons rose up to fight them, but pretty much all of the dragons were turned to stone as well. Finally, the last few dragons pooled their magic into a crystal ball that drove off the Druun and restored everyone to life. Except the dragons, who remain as stone statues for some reason.

Without the dragons or the Druun, the remaining humans were left alone with the magic crystal ball, convinced that its magic caused the land nearby to flourish. Thus the humans splintered into five tribes — dubbed Tail, Spine, Talon, Fang, and Heart — and spent the next 500 years fighting each other for possession of the crystal. At present, the crystal is in possession of the Heart tribe, lorded over by Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) and his young daughter, Princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran).

One day, Chief Benja invites the other four tribes to a massive peace conference. It appears to be a tenuous success at first, especially as Raya makes friends with Namaari (Gemma Chan), princess of the rival Fang clan. Alas, Namaari betrays her new friend in an attempt to steal the crystal for the Fang clan.

Peace talks break down further and the crystal ball is accidentally shattered into five shards — each clan quickly grabs one. The Druun come back and Raya barely manages to escape before her father is turned to stone. The Druun proceed to spend the next six years on a reign of terror, turning pretty much the entire world into a wasteland populated with stone statues.

So it’s a post-apocalyptic Disney animated film. I’m pretty sure that’s a first.

Anyway, Raya has spent the past six years chasing after rumors and fairy tales that speak of one remaining dragon that may still be in hiding. Sure enough, Raya’s very last lead pays off and she successfully summons Sisu (Awkwafina), a water dragon and the very last of her kind. Trouble is, she needs the rest of the magic crystal ball to have any chance at reconstructing it and restoring the world once again. And we’re off to the races.

To start with the elephant in the room, of course a lot of ink has already been spilled with regards to the racial aspect of the movie’s development and production. Specifically, journalists have pointed out that although the film was distinctly made with a Southeast Asian motif, the cast itself is a hodgepodge of nationalities hailing from south of the Great Wall.

Of course I’m nowhere near educated enough to comment on this issue directly. Furthermore, if anyone is offended by the casting choices (or anything else in the production), I have absolutely no right to say that they shouldn’t be offended. But with all due respect, I have to invoke the Agrabah Principle on this one.

Kumandra is not Thailand or anyplace else in Southeast Asia. In fact, there is no such place as Kumandra. There has never been any such place as Kumandra. None of the settings, characters, or story elements (to the best of my knowledge) were even pulled from existing folklore or mythology, they were solely invented by the filmmakers. And I’m sorry, but I’m not going to spend any more time or effort worrying about the cultural accuracy or portrayal of a culture that doesn’t exist.

When you get right down to it, the important thing is that this is a movie filled with characters of different skin tones for the audience to watch and identify with. It’s a cast full of non-white actors given lucrative work in a blockbuster tentpole movie, in an industry that’s still dominated by white men. It’s a movie with a setting pulled from influences outside the Medieval European fantasy aesthetic that’s been done to death. Can’t we be happy with that, at least for a little while until we’re ready to take the next step forward?

And anyway, there’s so much more to unpack here, it’s unbelievable.

First of all, Raya is single-mindedly focused on restoring the crystal ball so her dad will be brought back to life. But she hasn’t really thought it through. It’s never occurred to her that if her dad comes back, then all the other statues will come back as well. All the humans of all the tribes will start their petty squabbles again like nothing happened and we’ll be right back where we started. In fact, some of the tribes might be worse off — nobody’s likely to forget (much less forgive) what role the Heart and Fang royalty had in cracking the crystal and starting this whole mess up again to begin with.

Which brings us to Raya and Namaari. The two of them have been bitter rivals for the past six years, as Raya never forgave Namaari’s betrayal and Namaari… uh… yeah, her motivation for chasing Raya all over the world is sadly left unclear. We don’t really learn how Namaari’s betrayal affected Namaari herself, but it’s made abundantly clear that Raya was made fundamentally incapable of trusting anyone else ever again.

By contrast, Sisu has been stuck in hibernation for the past 500 years. This is the first she’s seen of Kumandra, its people, and what the past few centuries of warfare have done to them. And yet, Sisu is herself no stranger to loss or grief, as she’s the last of her kind. Sisu is visibly saddened by the memory of her fallen siblings, and determined to make sure that their sacrifice wasn’t in vain.

Specifically, Sisu was entrusted with great power by her last remaining siblings, that trust is what allowed the world to survive, and she’s determined to show humanity that same lesson. Sisu is relentlessly optimistic — to the point of naivete, really — that human beings are good and trustworthy on the whole. Naturally, this makes for an extreme contrast against Raya’s jaded viewpoint.

Raya’s relationship with Sisu is all about the general theory that trust across borders and forgiveness for past transgressions is not only possible, but necessary for the sake of peace and survival. Raya’s relationship with Namaari is about testing that theory under the most extreme stress and seeing if there’s any chance it could ever be put into process. Quite a neat little setup, really.

Of course the animation is wonderful on the whole, though I’m sorry to say that the characters looked a bit plastic at times, especially during the close-up shots in the first act. Yikes.

The action sequences are phenomenal. They’re mostly kept between Raya and Namaari, perfectly illustrating the fierce conflict and shared angst between them. The fluid animation helps a lot, and it also helps that Raya’s introduction establishes her as a shrewd and observant woman with a knack for using her surroundings to her advantage. Plus, Raya’s chain sword (her father’s, actually) makes for an awesomely versatile weapon.

Raya makes for a worthy addition to the Disney Princess lineup, Namaari proves herself a capable foil in every meaningful way, and their relationship arc is far more deeply satisfying than any love interest the filmmakers could’ve thrown at Raya. I also loved Sisu, a perfectly balanced comic relief character who was inept in some ways yet powerful in others, naive yet wise, funny with an undercurrent of pathos.

Beyond that, this is where the supporting cast starts to break down.

We need Raya, Sisu, and Namaari because they’re all central to the premise and themes. Fine. Raya needs an animal sidekick (Tuk Tuk, voiced by Alan Tudyk) because she needs transportation to the next Plot Coupon. Fair enough.

But then we bring on Boun (Izaac Wang), a self-absorbed kid, because he’s got a boat and the characters need some conveyance to get to the next jewel shard. Except that we already had Tuk Tuk for that purpose, and the animal sidekick wasn’t nearly as annoying. Whatever.

And then we get to Little Noi, an orphan infant, and her team of three miniature monkeys. The four of them go on heists together, pulling off elaborate con jobs and acrobatic chase sequences. They join the team and now we’ve really gone off the deep end.

And then we meet Tong (Benedict Wong), a hulking warrior chieftain of the Spine clan, and he comes along on the journey as well. He contributes nothing but a few lame jokes. What is this I don’t even.

I get what the filmmakers were going for. It was good of them to make sure that all five clans were represented, so that all of them could illustrate the widespread death and desolation that’s impacted all five clans and separated families all over the world. And of course it makes sense that they should all travel and work together, to demonstrate how the five tribes can cooperate.

The problem is that none of these characters — not Boun, not Tong, certainly not Noi and her team — were ever more or equally interesting than our three principal leads. Right up until the climax, they only registered as unnecessary comic relief. Even worse, they take away time that could’ve gone toward further developing Namaari, whose motivation sadly wasn’t as developed as that of the other two leads.

Then again, maybe the film needed that comic relief, because it gets pretty freaking dark in the third act. Seriously, I was amazed at some of the bold moves taken in the last half-hour or so. Though that does make it all the stranger to see everything wrapped up so inexplicably neat and tidy.

Overally, I’d say that Raya and the Last Dragon suffers for trying to do too much, but it absolutely succeeds where it needs to. The whole film looks amazing, the whole voice cast is aces, the action is fun, the setting is engaging, the protagonist is delightful, and none of the comic relief characters overstay their welcome (though some toe the line closer than others). More than anything else, I appreciate the timely message of friendship and cooperation across political boundaries, delivered in a nuanced and intricately layered way.

If you can see this movie safely in theaters, it’ll be worth the ticket price. If you have to wait until June 4th to stream it on Disney+, it’ll be worth the wait.

But is it worth the $30 premium charge? HELL NO! No movie’s worth that!