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Toy Story 4 / Child’s Play (2019)

Posted June 23, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Yes, I saw these two movies back-to-back. As one correspondent observed, it was like “going from ‘All my toys are precious and deserve love,’ to ‘Maybe we lock them all in the closet tonight.'” It’s weird enough that these two movies came out in the same weekend, and it certainly didn’t help that the producers of Child’s Play (2019) insisted on connecting the two films by way of a tasteless, grotesque ad campaign.

I’m a little disappointed that Pixar never clapped back, but maybe that would have been giving the ad campaign more attention than it deserved. Also, I expect that the execs at Disney and Pixar are smart enough to weigh “punching up” against “punching down”. I digress.

Here we have two movies that nobody really asked for. The Toy Story trilogy ended on a beautifully perfect note, with each individual film worthy to be listed among the greatest animated films of all time. Why mess with perfection, and why focus on Andy’s toys without Andy?

Elsewhere, the Orion Pictures imprint was revived by MGM in 2014, and they’ve been desperate for a tentpole franchise ever since. Thus they turned to the first Child’s Play movie — the only one in the series they actually own — and set to developing a cinematic reboot. This despite the fact that the original franchise was releasing new (DTV) movies as recently as 2017, and series creator Don Mancini is currently developing a TV series with the participation of recurring franchise star Brad Dourif. Little wonder that Mancini and Dourif have both been very explicit in withholding their blessing from the cinematic reboot.

Yet both movies still had reason to hope. In the case of Toy Story 4… well, it’s been quite some time since The Good Dinosaur. Pixar has been on an upswing lately, so why make a desperation move like this? Pixar and Disney — to say nothing of the cast, the crew, and those who grew up with these movies — have always been supremely protective of the franchise, so why would they take a risk like this unless it was for a story worth telling?

As for Child’s Play (2019), I had two reasons to go see this one. The first, of course, was Mark Hamill. Who better to take over Brad Dourif’s signature role than such an iconic voice actor as Mark Hamill? Plus, it’s a homicidal doll being voiced by the definitive voice of The Joker — you’re goddamn right I’m there for it.

The second big reason was Bear McCreary. He’s been my favorite composer since “Battlestar Galactica”, and now I have the perfect movie soundtrack to show why. McCreary has always shown a quirky and inventive sensibility like no other composer could produce, and it’s on full display here. McCreary devised a soundtrack comprised of toy pianos, otomatones, tiny xylophones… basically, you know how Jimmy Fallon will occasionally play cover versions of songs with grade school instruments? Imagine if somebody made that into a horror soundtrack. It seems like such a blindingly obvious way to go for this movie, but there’s nobody else who could make it work like Bear McCreary did here.

Speaking of which, Randy Newman returned to provide the music for Toy Story 4. Of course the soundtrack is drenched in nostalgia, with liberal use of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” to get us in the proper childhood mindset. Even so, I hope the score gets all due credit for making us cry when the characters are crying. Pixar knows how to frame every shot for maximum emotional impact, the score is a huge part of that, and this movie is no exception.

Anyway, Toy Story 4 picks up when Bonnie (the girl at the end of the third movie, voiced by Madeleine McGraw) is just about to start kindergarten. Alone in a new environment, without her toys to keep her company, she makes a new toy out of a plastic spork and random bits of crafting supplies. Improbably, Forky (voiced by Tony Hale) comes to life as a toy just like Woody and company, but considerably more confused. Because Forky was made specifically to be a disposable eating utensil, he needs to be taught all about what it means to be a toy and why he means so much to Bonnie.

If you’re wondering what Woody has to do with all of this… well, that’s part of the point. Woody has fallen out of favor since he and his friends were handed off to Bonnie, and he’s no longer the alpha of the playroom. He can’t be there for Bonnie like he could with Andy, and he doesn’t mean nearly as much to her, but Woody will still go to hell and back for Bonnie’s happiness because he doesn’t have much of anything else.

Elsewhere (don’t ask how, it’s a long story), Woody reconnects with Bo Peep (voiced once again by Annie Potts). After getting shuttled around from one hand to another, Bo Peep wound up as a kind of lost toy, jumping from one playground to another so she can look after other vagrant toys and play with all manner of passing children. As opposed to Woody, who’s only ever connected himself to one kid at a time.

Then we have Gabby Gabby, voiced by Christina Hendricks. An antique doll roughly as old as Woody himself, she’s in desperate need to be there for a child like Woody has always been. And for that, she needs a replacement voice box exactly like Woody has. Yeah, she’s the de facto villain of the piece. We’ll come back to that.

Speaking of creepy villainous dolls, Chucky is considerably different in the reboot. No longer the product of appropriated fugazi voodoo magic (and thank God for that), Chucky is now a creepy AI-controlled doll. More specifically, Chucky was produced by a disgruntled sweatshop worker who disabled all the security measures on this particular doll before killing himself.

It’s immediately obvious out of the box that Chucky is a broken doll. In fact, Chucky chooses his own name in one of many contrived efforts at beating the reboot into line with the source material. Still, it’s just as obvious that Chucky only wants what’s best for his owner (Andy, played by Gabriel Bateman, late of Annabelle and Lights Out). Chucky desperately wants to make Andy happy, though that means sifting through the wild mood swings and hyperbolic statements of a 13-year-old boy. So when Andy grouses about his irate cat or his mother’s asshole boyfriend (the mother is played by Aubrey Plaza and the asshole boyfriend is played by David Lewis), Chucky doesn’t have the programming to parse out certain nuances and the, uh… perceived problems are removed with extreme prejudice.

At their heart and core, both movies are about toys and children. More than that, it’s about how kids at such a confused and vulnerable time need friends and companions to grow and make new memories. Even if the friend is only cloth and plastic, that’s still an improvement over the screens that are typically raising kids nowadays. And of course, these toys were made for the specific purpose of being there for children, thus both movies are set up for certain existentialist themes with regards to life, death, the purpose of both, and so on.

All of this is standard material for the Toy Story franchise, and a huge part of why those movies are so timeless. That said, Bonnie is starting kindergarten. It’s a prominent threshold, sure, and a stressful time for any kid who hasn’t really figured out how to make friends quickly. Even so, she still appears to be a remarkably healthy and normal kid raised by two happily married parents. For that matter, Andy before her appeared to be a perfectly well-adjusted kid in a loving family. Sure, Andy and his sister were apparently raised by a single mom, but that never seemed to be a problem. Judging from the size and state of Andy’s house, they seemed to be getting by just fine.

Wait a minute, did WoodChuck — I mean, did Woody and Chucky both have kids named Andy? That’s a little creepy to be a coincidence.

Anyway, Chucky’s Andy has to wear a hearing aid because he’s partially deaf. He just moved into a crappy run-down apartment, he doesn’t know any local kids his age, and his dad ran out on him and his mom, so now his mother is dating the latest in a long line of drunken abusive assholes while she’s working double-shifts at a crappy customer service job. With all due respect, I’m a lot more emotionally invested in the kid who’s dealing with so many legitimate problems — God knows he could really use a friend.

Because Andy is partially deaf and Chucky has a habit of glitching (in benign ways, at first), the both of them are defective in their own ways and they see that in each other. Compare that to the Bonnie/Forky attachment, in which Bonnie is single-mindedly attached to this one homemade toy (and refuses to make another one) for no adequately explained reason while Forky spends half the movie actively trying to abandon her and get thrown out with the garbage. Obviously, the former relationship is going to be more potent because it’s built on a more solid and tangible foundation.

Even so, the Bonnie/Forky relationship is built on the toy/human dynamic that’s been established over three other movies and almost 25 years. Plus, Forky is a much deeper character, explored with a level of pathos and wit that Chucky never even aspires to. Of course, it also helps that the concept of Forky is something diabolically clever that nobody outside of Pixar ever could have dreamed of, while “rogue killer AI” has been seen in hundreds of other sci-fi movies to date. (One character even lampshades this.)

Incidentally, the horror slasher is way more effective as a slasher than a horror. While there are a few halfway decent gore effects to be found here, the kills were sadly uninspired and the horror was heavily reliant on jump scares. Perhaps more importantly, this is a movie that tries to present cartoonishly wretched cannon fodder for Chucky to kill off, even as the filmmakers try to make Andy and his mother into authentic and plausible people for the sake of earnest and intellectual discussion about the proliferation of AI. I get that the filmmakers are chafing against the campy source material, but trying to balance that with the more heady sci-fi approach simply isn’t working.

What’s interesting is that there’s a crucial, highly relevant question here: If autonomous AI is broken, corrupted, defective, or (in this case) tampered with, and then that AI kills someone, who’s responsible? The consumer who bought the machine? Whomever is operating the defective machine at the time? The manufacturer? The machine itself? Whomever tampered with the machine? It’s a surprisingly thorny question, and of course the filmmakers don’t have time to do anything more than skirt around the issue.

That said, it’s fascinating how the filmmakers present Chucky as an innocent in all of this. He’s not inherently a monster, simply corrupted and mistreated by the world around him, made into a demon by his own good intentions. Gabby Gabby of Toy Story 4 has the inverse problem.

It’s frustrating how Gabby is framed as the villain of the movie. Yes, she’s seductive in a way and manipulative as all hell, but as the film unfolds, we can plainly see she’s nowhere near as ruthless as she first appears. It’s entirely possible for Gabby to get what she wants without anyone getting terribly hurt, and she’s happy to use those methods. And lest we forget, all she really wants is to be some child’s toy. She deeply and sincerely wants to play with some kid and help create happy memories with them.

In her own way, Gabby is made from all the same stuff that Woody is. Moreover, if you sit down and write out all the things that Gabby actually does in the film, none of her actions are really all that villainous on paper. Yet the film needed an antagonist to drive up the stakes and power us through the second act, so here we are.

In fact, both movies have kind of a “supporting character” problem. Toy Story 4 has Ducky and Bunny, two annoying and worthless plush dolls redeemed only by the well-oiled comedic interplay between Key and Peele. We’ve also got Duke Caboom, a Canadian stuntman toy who’s more effective as a plot device than a character. It doesn’t help that he’s voiced by Keanu Reeves — I love the guy, don’t get me wrong, but his voice was never his strongest feature as an actor.

While Woody, Forky, and Bo Peep are all wonderful characters making strong and memorable appearances here, the other denizens of the Andy/Bonnie toy collection don’t fare nearly as well. Even Buzz gets stuck with a cloying “listen to your conscience” schtick that would’ve completely broken the character if Pixar and Tim Allen weren’t so incredibly great at what they do. As for Jessie, Rex, Slinky, Ham, the Potato Heads, and all the rest, they never even leave the RV where most of this takes place. Aside from a bit of RV sabotage in the third act, the toys spend most of the movie wringing their hands and contributing absolutely nothing.

Of course, I’m sure it doesn’t help that so many of the voice actors are getting on in years. Joan Cusack sounds 20 years too old to be voicing Jessie, Mr. Potato Head only gets something like two lines (both archival recordings from the late Don Rickles), and the filmmakers have rightly been very hesitant in using Slinky since Jim Varney passed on.

Meanwhile, Child’s Play barely features any memorable supporting characters at all. I’ve already commented a bit on David Lewis and Trent Redekop, both playing such cartoonishly godawful scumbags that they primarily exist to be slain for our amusement. We’ve also got Beatrice Kitsos and Ty Consiglio as a couple of neighborhood kids who become Andy’s new friends and eventual comrades-in-arms. The filmmakers were clearly going for a kind of Amblin-esque vibe that might have worked if the characters had been given enough screen time and development to really stick. As it is, they’re just barely passable comic relief. Rounding out the supporting cast are Brian Tyree Henry as a neighborhood cop and Tim Matheson as the voice of Chucky’s corporate overlords, both of whom look like they just wanted to get through the shoot and cash in their checks.

But then we have Gabriel Bateman, who completely and totally sells every moment as the heart and soul of this movie. Aubrey Plaza admittedly looks out of place, but that actually kinda works here — it helps to sell the notion that this young woman is in way over her head and she doesn’t really know how to be the parent that her son needs. And of course Mark Hamill is phenomenal.

Then we have the plot issues. Toy Story 4 has some issues with predictability, as it’s blindingly and painfully obvious where the film is going and you’ll know how it all ends by the hour-mark. That doesn’t make it any more heartbreaking when it happens, of course, but still. As for Child’s Play, it’s a slasher movie remake centered around the billionth rogue AI in cinematic history — predictability was always a given. Even so, I was disappointed with all the plot holes and improbabilities that the filmmakers resorted to. Ridiculous.

On a couple of miscellaneous notes, I was disappointed to find that Pixar didn’t attach an animated short to Toy Story 4, so I guess the “Best Animated Short Film” category is wide open this year. Also, Child’s Play included a cute little shout-out to a certain other Orion Pictures property from the late ’80s. Your mileage may vary, but I thought it was sweet.

Ultimately, Toy Story 4 is a perfectly worthy epilogue to the Toy Story franchise. The trilogy certainly wouldn’t have been worse without it, but the movie expands on so many timeless franchise themes in profound ways. Plus, it’s got all the laughs, heartbreak, phenomenal animation, and rock-solid voice acting you’d expect from a Pixar movie. Definitely check it out.

As for Child’s Play (2019), it’s genuinely frustrating how the movie came so close. We’ve got Gabriel Bateman, Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Bear McCreary, and first-time director Lars Klevberg (no, I’m not counting Polaroid and we’re not gonna go there) all giving this project way more effort than it probably deserved. That counts for a great deal, but it’s still not enough.

The supporting turns are weak, the filmmakers don’t bring enough for a fresh take on the “rogue AI” angle, and the movie needed at least another 15 minutes of runtime or so to get the plot and character development where they needed to be. Still, the leading performances and the gore effects (especially in that bloodbath climax) are strong enough that I can give this a home video recommendation.

MIB International

Posted June 17, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

I’ve already said my piece quite a few times about the Men in Black franchise. In summary, this was my generation’s Ghostbusters: A legitimately great movie powered by a miraculous once-in-a-generation confluence of factors that never could be replicated, but that hasn’t stopped the filmmakers from trying and repeatedly failing. (Though both franchises had kickass cartoon adaptations that probably did more to expand their respective worlds and fanbases than any of the movies.)

Mercifully, the PTB apparently realized that the lead trio of Sonnenfeld/Jones/Smith had been long since played out, though the basic premise remains perfectly viable. Thus F. Gary Gray (the white-hot director who made his name on Straight Outta Compton before Fast and Furious picked him up) was brought on to take the franchise in a new direction. Even better, our two leads would now be played by Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, who previously showed such a great working rapport in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame. And hell, why not open up this intergalactic premise to a setting greater than New York City?

On paper, MIB International had everything this franchise needed for a fresh start. All it needed was a better script.

Tessa Thompson plays a young woman whose family had a run-in with extraterrestrials when she was a child, and MIB missed her when they came through with the neuralyzer. Thus she spent twenty years training for every government agency in the nation and even hacking into the goddamn Hubble telescope until she could finally locate MIB headquarters in New York City. Thus the newly inducted Agent M arrives just in time for a possible crisis in London.

Liam Neeson plays High T (ha ha ha), head of MIB’s London branch and mentor to Agent H (Chris Hemsworth). The two of them gained instant fame throughout MIB when they went to Paris some time ago and singlehandedly fought off an invasion from a malicious race of shapeshifters called The Hive. To make a VERY long story short, The Hive have apparently returned to Earth. It’s not immediately clear what they’re up to, but their arrival immediately results in collateral damage and at least one alien royal dead, so it can’t be good.

The twist here is that because our antagonists are a race of shapeshifters, there’s no telling whom if anyone is trustworthy. There’s even a distinct possibility that MIB has been compromised, especially given that High T and H have both been acting strangely since Paris, and there’s also a bureaucratic asshole (C, played by Rafe Spall) causing headaches for everyone. In fact, pretty much the only one guaranteed to be on the level is the woman who just arrived, thus M has a chance to prove herself worthy.

The cast also features Kumail Nanjiani mouthing off in a flimsy comic relief role as the last survivor of a species wiped out by The Hive. Rebecca Ferguson makes a welcome appearance as an alien arms dealer, though I honestly wish she had done a more thorough job of chewing scenery — that at least might have been something memorable. Emma Thompson sleepwalks her way to another paycheck while also technically serving as a bridge to the previous trilogy. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois, a pair of identical twin dancers here making their imposing film debut as foot soldiers for The Hive.

Liam Neeson and Rafe Spall are both in awkward positions, as their characters can only work if they’re presented as possible traitors. Thus the filmmakers go out of their way to keep the characters ambiguous, with the end result that we don’t really learn much of anything constant about them until the film is practically over and it doesn’t work.

This brings me to a huge problem with the film: It’s way too convoluted for its own good. What we’ve really got here is a straightforward MacGuffin hunt buried beneath so many story threads winding all over the world, and the filmmakers tie themselves into knots trying to justify it all. This isn’t helped by the filmmakers’ efforts to keep the underlying espionage threat working, by way of so many hamfisted red herrings and revelations that leave a net positive in plot holes. Though the premise does mean a few action sequences in which MIB are presented as untrustworthy adversaries, quite a fascinating conceit if you think about it.

But here’s the big problem: It seems like with every new entry in the franchise, the filmmakers keep getting further away from the themes that made the original so iconic.

In the original film, Jay was freaking out because he wasn’t quite so jaded to all the freaky shit that the MIB deal with on a daily basis. Jay saw some freaky alien pile of sentient ooze, while Kay saw a tourist cranky over a layover. Jay hadn’t reached the point yet where an alien race threatens to blow up the planet, reacting with a shrug and a “Sucks, doesn’t it?” Kay himself at one point says “There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet.”

That attitude is noticeably missing from this movie. I get that the filmmakers have to sell the stakes and the enormity of scale, but that’s what we have the newbie for. With MIB (as with Ghostbusters), the whole franchise is built on approaching the fantastic with a mundane sensibility. That deadpan contrast is where the best comedy, satire, and world-building in this franchise comes from.

At least, that’s how the first movie worked. The sequels, not so much. In later entries, the filmmakers try to impart a sense of wonder in all the aliens and technology on display, but without that conflicting reaction. But that conflicting reaction is the whole point, so it doesn’t work and the movies suck.

Even worse, all the filmmakers’ attempts at wonder land with a wet thud because the effects are simply not up to par. The first movie had Grandmaster Rick Baker conjuring a seamless blend of practical and visual effects, while everything in this movie is clearly and painfully CGI. Thus we have VFX that somehow look even less convincing than the effects from twenty fuckmothering years ago! This premise can never work unless we see the aliens as living breathing creatures, and this movie only shows us cartoon characters. Pathetic.

Getting back to my earlier point, the MIB are supposed to be jaded because they understand just how tiny humanity is in the grand scheme of things. Everything that made the original movie work — from Jay’s development arc to the central MacGuffin to the villain’s massive inferiority complex — stems from the basic notion that the universe is so much bigger than anyone can understand. Even in spite of all our accomplishments and discoveries and everything we think we know, we don’t really have the first clue about what’s going on.

That’s a profound theme for blockbuster cinema, especially in how the first movie explored it with such subtlety and wit. And every subsequent movie has gotten further and further removed from that. Sure, M starts out with the ambition to know everything about how the universe works, but it never amounts to anything more than quarter-assed lip service to the basic theme. It’s every bit as hollow and disappointing as the rest of the climax.

Oh, and what of our two leads? Well, Tessa Thompson is a solid leading lady and Chris Hemsworth is clearly having a lot of fun, and I’m sure the both of them would’ve had solid chemistry if they could both agree on what movie they’re in. I understand that this is supposed to be a kind of “buddy cop” dynamic, but when Thompson is going for sincerity while Hemsworth is playing an over-the-top jackass, it doesn’t really work. Also, when the newbie is the one taking everything seriously and the seasoned veteran is the goofball, that leaves our newbie spinning her wheels for want of decent help.

On a final miscellaneous note, I have a protip for any aspiring writers out there. While I’m limited by spoilers, I think I can say with confidence that if you have a MacGuffin capable of instantly and easily solving the main conflict and removing all obstacles in a single shot… well, first of all, don’t do that. But if you really must, be sure to keep it away from the leads for as long as possible. Seriously, that should be common sense.

MIB International was clearly a product of too many cooks in the kitchen, not a one of whom sufficiently understood what made the original movie great to begin with. The script makes a convoluted mess out of a simple plot, and the actors are left floundering for want of anything consistent or remarkable about their characters. The aliens don’t work because the CGI is flat terrible, the action doesn’t work because the sequences are just plain uninspired, the comedy doesn’t work because the deadpan bureaucratic sensibility is never present, and the espionage thriller element doesn’t work because it never goes anywhere interesting.

Granted, there’s nothing so badly damaged that it couldn’t be fixed in later sequels. But at this point, why bother? If these producers still can’t get it right after everything they’ve tried, maybe the time has come to hang it up.

Fighting With My Family

Posted June 15, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Fighting With My Family was a critical and commercial sleeper hit from earlier this year, stuck in a godawful February release date. I’m sincerely glad I caught it on DVD in time for consideration for my year-end lists.

This is the true-life story of Saraya-Jade Bevis, aka Paige (here immortalized by Florence Pugh), the youngest Divas Champion in the history of the WWE. A British girl from Norwich, she made her debut in the World Association of Wrestling promotion run by her parents (played here by Nick Frost and Lena Headey), former wrestlers themselves. Paige got her start in the ring opposite her brother (Zak, played by Jack Lowden) and she’s been wrestling ever since.

Long story short, Paige and Zak get called in to try out for the WWE. Paige gets signed and flies out to Florida to keep on training for the big leagues. Zak has to stay behind and figure out how to move on after his life’s dream has been crushed. Of course he’s still proud of his sister, and Zak just got a girl pregnant so he has a new baby to live for, but he doesn’t know how to do anything else except wrestle, and what is he even doing that for if the big leagues are forever closed off to him?

Meanwhile, Paige is a goth-looking young woman with a lifetime of professional wrestling experience, training and competing against bleach-blonde models and cheerleaders. She doesn’t fit in, she doesn’t have a thing in common with any of her fellow trainees, and it’s entirely possible that she’s not whatever the big leagues are looking for. And anyway, if she’d be happier going back home and wrestling with her family, why doesn’t she go back and do that?

Oh, right — because if she throws away her shot, she’ll regret it for the rest of her life. To say nothing of her family, who gave everything to get Saraya where she is and they’d give everything twice over to be where she is. Then again, Zak and their parents are still doing wonderful work running a business, raising a family, and training local kids who don’t have anything else. As Paige herself so eloquently puts it at one point, doing something good doesn’t matter any less just because millions of people aren’t cheering at it.

Getting back to Paige, this is in many ways the story of Saraya learning to carve out a place for herself and find her family. She thinks at first that she could never find a place in the WWE with all these plastic-looking women she doesn’t have a thing in common with. What she doesn’t even stop to consider (maybe because she’s too focused on not dying) is that these women have families too. They may not be actual wrestlers, but they’re still training and sacrificing so much to get this shot at fortune and fame just like Paige is. So maybe they have more in common than they realize and competition doesn’t necessarily mean being uncivil.

Oh, and of course Paige — still a teenage girl, remember — has to piece together her onstage persona as a metaphor for figuring out who she really is and what she really wants. (see also: Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, etc.)

This is a tough movie for me to review for quite a few reasons, in part because… well, I don’t have much in the way of nitpicks. Seriously. Yes, the British accents are thick enough that I had to turn on the subtitles. Yes, the WWE is branded here as a fantasy factory, which is more than a bit problematic.

Even so, the movie doesn’t sugar-coat how insanely tough it is to get into the WWE. Millions of applicants train their whole lives for a shot, devoting themselves so completely to the possibility of getting in that they’ve got nothing left if they don’t make it; and even those who get in could still end up washing out after they’ve broken themselves in training or in the ring. And that’s not just lip-service — all of that is a huge part of the plot. Plus, the filmmakers take every opportunity to point out how important the fans are in all of this, with their power to make or break careers, and that was a nice touch.

And anyway, it should really speak volumes about the movie, that I had to dig so hard for such small potatoes.

Florence Pugh is a bona fide powerhouse leading lady, Nick Frost and Lena Headey are pitch-perfect, and Jack Lowden brings a tour de force performance. Vince Vaughn plays the coach — functionally the face and voice of the WWE, clearly a fictional amalgam of so many real-life players in Paige’s career — delivering a perfectly balanced performance atop more razor-thin lines than I could catalogue here. Even exec producer Dwayne Johnson stops by for a couple of scenes, providing a bit of uplifting comic relief without stealing the whole show.

The casting is perfect across the board, writer/director Stephen Merchant (also a bit comedic player here) is on fire, the comedy works, the family interplay is spellbinding, the wrestling scenes and training montages are dynamite… Everything about this movie fires on all cylinders. It’s astounding.

And yet I still have a hard time praising this movie, because it’s not the sort of film that lends itself to overhyping. This isn’t some massively epic mind-blowing blockbuster, nor is it some innovative genre-blending masterpiece to change the medium of cinema as we know it. And it was never built to succeed on that level. This movie was only ever meant to be an intimate family drama that humanizes a real-life subject, dramatizing her rise to fame while giving us characters and relationships we can emotionally invest in. That’s what it set out to do, and it succeeds perfectly.

Yet this film is far more than a mediocrity that simply goes through the motions, and it’s for another reason why I have such a hard time reviewing this. The movie primarily succeeds because of something I can’t adequately convey through writing and something you could never properly experience through a written review: HEART.

Every joke, every shouting match, every wrestling match, every shot, every cut, everything from start to finish, down to the last wrinkle on an actor’s face is bursting with passion. Down to the last extra, everyone in this cast and crew seriously believed in this rags-to-riches story about a social outcast from Norwich who fought to earn her place on the world stage. And even for those back home who didn’t make it, every one of them seen as a freak and a loser by mainstream society, the filmmakers treat them with no less dignity and respect.

Fighting With My Family is must-see material, but not because it’s a huge leap forward for the medium or the next big thing. (Though Florence Pugh has more than proven herself to be worthy of A-list status at this point.) It’s a deeply heartfelt movie powered by a staggering family dynamic, with plenty of great laughs and some killer montages. It’s nothing more or less than an exquisitely made film with a fantastic script and a phenomenal cast.

I absolutely loved this movie and I hope you’ll love it to. And at just over 100 minutes, it’s not even all that much time spent. Definitely check this one out at your earliest convenience.

The Dead Don’t Die

Posted June 15, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

It’s been a while since we had a proper zombie flick. It seems like only yesterday, we were in the time between Shaun of the Dead and World War Z, when “The Walking Dead” was at peak popularity and there were no shortage of coattail-riders. But oversaturation sank in and the pendulum swung the other way as modern horror became The House That Blum Built, founded on horror films too cheap even for zombie makeup.

But Zombieland is finally getting a sequel in a few months, so maybe the genre is due for a comeback.

First, however, we have The Dead Don’t Die, a Romero riff written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, of all people. Oh, and Jarmusch also composed the score through his rock band, SQURL. Even more bizarre, he’s put together a cast of such eclectic talents as Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Selena Gomez, Iggy Pop, Carol Kane, Steve Buscemi, RZA, Tom Waits, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones… there’s probably a partridge in a pear tree somewhere in there as well.

Funny enough, it’s perhaps worth remembering that Jarmusch previously wrote/directed an undead movie with the vampire-centric Only Lovers Left Alive. Of course that movie didn’t even hold a third of the star power. More importantly, it was more of a brooding and introspective film without much emphasis on overt comedy or a cohesive plot. Looking at the trailer and the cast involved, I did not think this would be more of the same.

While the movies turned out to be wildly different in very crucial ways, there turned out to be a lot more connective tissue than I had expected.

To start with, there’s only the barest semblance of a plot. All the actors and characters are off doing their own thing, some intersect more often than others, some get more screen time than others, and there’s really no way of knowing who will end up getting the short end of the stick. The good news is, this lends the movie a factor of unpredictability, which means in turn that we don’t know who’s going to get killed off or when. It helps the horror very nicely.

That said, the comedy is far and away more unpredictable than the horror. Within the first ten minutes, it’s established that this movie is set in the sleepy backwoods town of “Centerville, USA”, there’s a farmer (Buscemi) wearing a bright red baseball cap that says “Keep America White Again”, and a character states point-blank that the song on the radio (“The Dead Don’t Die”, by Sturgill Simpson) sounds familiar because it’s the theme song that played over the opening credits not even three minutes ago.

So, yeah. We’re going full-on meta for this one.

It’s established early and often that the movie is self-aware, and that manifests in a bone-dry sense of humor that would’ve been right at home in a Mel Brooks picture. When one character makes a Star Wars reference directly to Adam Driver’s face, there’s no doubt whatsoever that the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing. But what’s impressive above all else is in the running gags. Repeating jokes are extremely high-risk/high-reward, but the filmmakers keep on juggling so many of them that there’s no telling when or where the next one will come up, and they’re all delivered with pitch-perfect timing.

That said, it’s important to remember that this is hardly the first film to poke self-aware fun at George Romero’s filmography and all its ilk. Shaun of the Dead is of course a prominent example — quite possibly the definitive example, in fact. And Shaun is still the champion here.

Both movies portray ordinary people and zombies as indistinguishable from one another, thus playing into the anti-consumerist sociopolitical themes so iconic to the genre. The difference is that Shaun made satirical statements for visual humor about zombie horror tropes, while Dead makes satirical statements to talk about climate change and ignorant rednecks. Edgar Wright presented these themes to make a zombie movie, while Jarmusch is making a zombie movie to talk about these themes.

When Shaun showed us the zombie apocalypse, the implicit question was “How could you tell?” When The Dead Don’t Die shows us the zombie apocalypse, the very explicit statement is “We’ve got this coming.” Circling back around to Only Lovers Left Alive, the vampires in that movie thought of humans as zombies, often calling them as such — it’s a sentiment that Jarmusch keeps alive and well here.

Moreover, the humor in Shaun was much sharper. Because the filmmakers had a far clearer statement of intent (ie: Making a comical love letter to the works of George Romero) and the plot was limited to a small core group of characters, the movie could be more focused in its character development and comedy. You don’t get that with a zombie film that casts RZA as a delivery man for “Wu-PS” for all of one scene.

Another drawback of the film’s random plot is that it leads to several awkward cuts and storylines that go nowhere. There’s one particular scene in a hardware store, in which the camera cuts to close-ups of random objects for no other reason than because some part of the conversation clearly got cut. There’s at least two or three storylines that could’ve been cut entirely with virtually nothing lost, and one storyline that doesn’t even get an ending!

Then the climax comes and we get the piece de resistance — a moment that has nothing at all to do with zombies, and happens for absolutely no reason. It arrives out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly, all with no explanation of any kind and affects the plot in no way whatsoever. It’s funny, sure, but it’s also practically daring us to try and make any sense of it.

Every single actor in this picture looks like they’re having a blast, but the cast as a whole is sadly uneven. The core trio of Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny probably get the best of it; respectively playing Bill Murray, a deadpan pessimist, and a career law enforcement officer pushed past her breaking point. Tom Waits is perfectly situated as the crazy old forest hermit observing and narrating from afar. Jarmusch apparently let Tilda Swinton off her leash, which is every bit as bizarre and entertaining as you’d imagine.

Steve Buscemi plays a total asshole who’s easy enough to hate, but it’s nothing on the level of Mr. Pink. Carol Kane is always a pleasure, so it’s all the more shameful she’s got pretty much nothing to do here. At least she leaves a stronger impression than Selena Gomez, who apparently showed up just to be an impossibly hot 20-something girl with no personality to speak of. (Then again, I saw Spring Breakers — it’s for the best nobody asked her to act.)

Calvin (as in “Calvin and Hobbes”) once observed that “the problem with being avant garde is knowing who’s putting on who.” That pretty well sums up where I’m at with The Dead Don’t Die. It’s a movie made by whip-smart filmmakers, all gifted with a powerful sense of humor and devastating comedic timing, and if it wasn’t for that level of talent and intelligence, the movie would’ve disappeared up its own ass. It’s an uproarious razor-sharp comedy that’s beautifully made (in spite of some painfully obvious edits), but it’s hard to classify as “good” or “bad”, because the movie defiantly exists on its own bizarro terms.

I do recommend checking this out, but you probably won’t be missing much if you wait for a rental. In any event, I strongly recommend against seeing this movie alone. This movie needs to be seen in a crowded theatre, or at least with friends and family; the better to help each other catch references, share in the jokes, and ask one another “Are you seeing this shit?!”

Rocketman

Posted June 10, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Rocketman is a biopic of executive producer Elton John, here portrayed by Taron Egerton. It is so much better than Bohemian Rhapsody that comparing the two feels unfair, and yet it’s sadly inevitable. After all, the film was directed by Dexter Fletcher, the same man who finished Rhapsody after Bryan Singer got fired from the project mid-production and ultimately got all the credit anyway. More than that…

  • Both films chronicle the lives of rock icons who were active through the ’70s and ’80s.
  • Both subjects enjoy a meteoric rise to stardom as they nearly kill themselves fucking everything that moves and ingesting every drug known to man.
  • Both films have gay protagonists, struggling to grow into their sexuality in a homophobic time.
  • Both subjects fall in love with seductive assholes who take over as managers, abusing that love and trust so they can leech off the fame and fortune of our star.
  • Both films revolve heavily around the platonic fraternal relationship between their subjects and their straight collaborators.
  • More specifically, both protagonists drive away their closest friends and colleagues due to vanity and greed before they ultimately reconcile.
  • Both subjects rebelled against disapproving fathers, changed their names, reinvented themselves through flashy costumes, and eventually have to reckon with the open question of who they really are.

So with all of this common (and for biopics, frankly boilerplate) ground, what makes Rocketman such a vastly superior film? Well, to start with, the performances are in a totally different league. Rami Malek’s lead performance may have been Oscar-worthy, but Taron Egerton’s starring turn is several magnitudes better. He’s dynamic, transformative, compelling, spellbinding, heartbreaking, destructive… I can throw out superlatives all day, but you get the idea. He’s really that impossibly good, an instant awards contender. We’ve also got Kit Connor and Matthew Illesley playing younger versions of Elton, both of whom are extraordinary musical talents for their ages.

Further kudos are due to Jamie Bell, here playing John’s longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin. It’s easily the best performance of his career since Billy Elliot at least.

(Side note: While Elton John wrote the music for the stage adaptation of Billy Elliot, I can’t find any sign that he was involved with the original film. Though Elton John did work with original screenwriter Lee Hall, who returned to write the book and lyrics for the Billy Elliot Broadway show before signing on to write the screenplay here. I presume Elton John met Bell through Hall.)

Hell, I was even impressed with Richard Madden in the role of John Reid, the manager and love interest who ruthlessly breaks our lead character’s heart. It really is impressive how Madden plays a heartless and seductive snake, edging right up to the top without ever going over it.

Alas, while the rest of the supporting cast is hardly awful, none of them reach those same heights. For example, while Bryce Dallas Howard is perfectly sweet in the role of Elton’s mother, casting her to play a Brit was maybe not the best idea. We’ve also got Charlie Rowe, Tate Donovan, Jason Pennycooke, and Celinde Schoenmaker, all of whom leave such a strong impression that I dearly wish they had been given more screen time. Hell, Schoenmaker and Egerton generate a whole movie’s worth of drama in only two scenes, and with barely a line traded between them!

Oh, and getting back to the Bohemian Rhapsody parallels, we’ve got Stephen Graham on hand as a pompous cigar-chomping music mogul. Your mileage may vary with regards to which one you prefer, but I found him to be less buffoonish and slightly more human than Mike Myers’ take on the same.

Last but not least, there’s Steven Mackintosh on hand as Elton’s father. While it’s implied that the man may have been emotionally broken by his time away in military service, it’s clear that he is somehow and for some reason incapable of showing affection for his family. While Mackintosh deserves no shortage of credit for his portrayal of a terrible father who isn’t a monster but simply a broken man, a lot of that is also due to the film’s ingenious use of “I Want Love” to show the dysfunction of Elton’s family.

Which brings me to this movie’s greatest strength, and what makes it probably the greatest biopic in recent memory: The presentation.

The movie opens in 1990, when Elton John — still in full costume! — ditches a concert to go into rehab. He introduces himself as an alcoholic, a drug addict, a sex addict, a shopaholic, he’s got anger management issues, and so on and so forth. Thus the plot flashes back and Elton John takes us through his life story.

There is so much going on here.

First of all, it’s funny to note that every single time we cut back to Elton John in the rehab meeting, he’s lost more and more of his costume. It’s a clever and poignant way to show the artifice of Elton John breaking down, showing more and more of who he is beneath the flashy persona.

Moreover, introducing the character in this way sends the crystal clear message that we are seeing this story through Elton John’s perspective. While most biopics have a more implicit bias in favor of their subjects, this one is right up front in admitting bias. Even better, because we’re seeing Elton John’s life through his own memories and imagination — with the open acknowledgment that he’s an unreliable narrator — we get an intimate, honest, in-depth look at the inner workings of Elton John’s head. Thus the movie shows us the world through his eyes to a successful degree that precious few other biopics have.

Elton John and his husband reportedly put two decades into getting this movie produced, allegedly because they were insistent on an R-rated picture that didn’t compromise the sex and drugs that were a constant of his backstage life. I know there’s a faction that thought Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t do enough to portray Freddie Mercury’s life as a homosexual, and I sure as hell hope they’ll be satisfied with this one. Elton John’s sexuality is brought up early and often, complete with an explicit sex scene between Elton John and John Reid.

As for the drugs… whoo boy. It’s really quite impressive how the movie successfully conveys all the euphoric highs without glamorizing Elton John’s drug use, while also conveying the catastrophic lows without getting too repulsive or bleak. Our lead very nearly kills himself, and the filmmakers portray that in graphic detail without making any excuses, but without going full Requiem for a Dream on us.

The film makes ingenious use of choreography, music, and imagery. It all blends together into these Julie Taymor-esque song breaks that convey the emotional core of each scene and sequence in efficient and spellbinding ways. What’s even better is that the song breaks — coupled with the framing device in which Elton John skips over huge chunks of his life — help to paper over time jumps in such a way that the storytelling seems natural and nothing feels terribly rushed. It’s an inspired solution to a ubiquitous biopic problem.

A jaw-dropping 22 songs are included in the soundtrack, pulled from everywhere in Elton John’s long and prolific career, and that’s not even getting started on the Easter Eggs tucked away here and there. (The nod to “Candle in the Wind” is probably my favorite.) The framing device allows for song breaks to be peppered in all over the place (not just for concerts and recording sessions, as with Rhapsody), and every single one is creatively used in such a way that the songs and the characters bolster each other perfectly. Of course, it helps that none of our actors sing with Elton John’s characteristic mumble, and Bernie Taupin’s lyrics positively soar when we can actually hear them. Put it all together, and Elton John’s music is brought to vivid life like never before.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if they didn’t mention the resplendent costume design. Elton John was always iconic for his flamboyant costumes, and every single performance costume in this picture is utterly magnificent. I don’t even know what else to say about the costumes, they all speak so loudly for themselves. Major kudos and all of the awards for Julian Day, who previously did the costumes for… wait for it… wait for it… you know it’s coming… Bohemian Rhapsody.

So are there any nitpicks? Well, there were a couple of montages that grated on my nerves. Honest to God, there’s a montage in which we see headlines and newspaper clippings flashing across the screen in quick succession. And there’s another montage in which our main character gets high and he flashes back to various people and lectures at various points throughout his life. In such an otherwise inventive movie, with some of the most creative and entertaining time jumps I’ve ever seen in any movie, I was disappointed to see the filmmakers fall back on such threadbare cliches.

Rocketman is everything you could want a musical biopic to be. It’s fun and uplifting, gorgeous and creative, honest and in-depth. The actors are only mediocre at worst and mind-blowingly transcendent at best, featuring career-best performances from Taron Egerton and Jamie Bell. Even when the plot gets rote and the filmmakers go over subjects worn bare by so many other biopics that came before, the phenomenal presentation and overpowering heart makes it all come alive again like new. Even after so many years of hearing Elton John’s greatest hits, the filmmakers presented these songs with such ingenuity and aplomb that I learned to love them like I never had before.

Forget Bohemian Rhapsody — this movie is everything that other one only promised to deliver. Don’t miss it.

Dark Phoenix

Posted June 8, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

The X-Men franchise is the longest-running continuous (read: not rebooted) superhero series in film history. A lofty distinction, undercut by the metanarrative clusterfuck behind it.

Yes, X-Men (2000) was a watershed accomplishment in superhero cinema and Hollywood filmmaking as a whole. The movie and its direct sequel are routinely listed among the best and greatest superhero films of all time. Yet they were still the product of that awkward era in between Batman and Robin and Batman Begins, when nobody had quite figured out how silly to get with comic book adaptations. The first X-Men movie was an indispensable first step in building the modern superhero genre, but it’s a step we’ve ultimately outgrown.

To wit: There’s a reason why bright and colorful costumes have never been replaced by black leather outfits in the past ten years, and never will be again.

Back to the point, the franchise has never been rebooted because nobody at Fox had any idea what to do with it. The franchise could’ve easily wiped the slate clean with X-Men: First Class, starting over with a new cast and crew and new ideas, without any of the dated baggage of the previous iteration. It could’ve been the Holy Grail of blockbuster cinema: A superfranchise to rival the MCU.

But NOOO, Fox just couldn’t commit to that. They couldn’t let go of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and what successes the previous trilogy earned. So the filmmakers had to scrabble together some Frankenstein continuity, too far removed from the original movies to be connected and yet not removed enough to be its own thing. Sure, the filmmakers promised that all of this would be rectified in Days of Future Past, and it easily could’ve been. But then the movie came out and the timeline somehow got even more convoluted. Compounded by the ten-year time jump between each of the most recent entries, though all of the characters age like nothing’s happened, and the franchise timeline is now thoroughly fucked beyond any hope of repair.

Though to be fair, of course anything will have its ups and downs when it’s been running for so long. Which brings me to my next point.

The franchise has been running for two decades for no better reason than because Fox had to keep churning out movies and maintaining hold of the rights. Indeed, there were times when it seemed like the filmmakers were more concerned with making a release date (X-Men: The Last Stand) and sometimes they were making a film just out of spite (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Yes, the franchise had its fans, mostly because they responded to the passion of Bryan Singer, Hugh Jackman, and others who’ve long since moved on. And with the exception of Ryan Reynolds (off doing his own thing with Deadpool), there’s nobody left in the cast or crew so iconic and loyal to the franchise.

While the films continue to make money, it bears asking how many franchise fans are simply hoping that the next film will bring back the glory days of those first two movies. Moreover, I guarantee you that at least half of those fans would’ve traded the past decade of X-Men films if it meant getting the rights back to Marvel.

Yet here we are, with 20th Century Fox gone bankrupt and sold to Disney, finally reuniting the X-Men and the Fantastic Four with Marvel for good and all.

(Side note: If Fox needed the money that badly, couldn’t they have sold the Marvel rights back for a couple billion bucks? I wonder if anyone had ever considered that. Then again, it probably would’ve ended up another sticky shared-rights mess like with Spider-Man, and nobody wants that. Additionally, I expect that Fox and Marvel are both so spiteful towards one another by now that any offer between them would’ve likely been refused.)

The pre-acquisition period was naturally an awkward time of maybe-transition in the X-Men franchise, not helped by the public and humiliating downfall of Bryan Singer. We’ve got Once Upon a Deadpool, thought to be a trial run for Disney’s benefit to see how a PG-13 Deadpool would fly. We’ve also got New Mutants, which is finally set to come out next year after shooting was completed in freaking September of 2017.

And now here we are with Dark Phoenix, the directing debut of longtime X-Men screenwriter/producer Simon Kinberg. After X-Men: The Last Stand shunted the classic Dark Phoenix comic storyline into a crappy subplot, this film was made and marketed as a proper adaptation of Jean Grey’s cataclysmic rise and fall. And after an additional year of reshoots and post-production work (the film was originally set for release in March 2018), we had been led to believe that this would be a worthy send-off for the franchise.

And what we got was a beautiful, ambitious, hot maudlin mess.

After the obligatory prologue in which a young Jean Grey (played as a kid by Summer Fontana, and by Sophie Turner as a teenager) demonstrates her terrifying psychic abilities and gets taken in by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy again), we cut to the ’90s. Not that anyone could tell, since there’s no trace of ’90s nostalgia anywhere and the setting is bland enough to have taken place anywhere in the past three decades, but it’s the ’90s.

In the years after X-Men: Apocalypse, it appears that the X-Men have grown into everything Xavier could have wanted. They’re a bona fide superhero team, called in to help human governments with extraordinary problems. On the one hand, this means that a bunch of teenagers go out putting their necks on the line while Xavier — the guy in the chair who never even leaves the mansion — gets magazine covers, medals from the president, and all the rest of the credit. On the other hand, the X-Men have clearly been a net positive for the global mutant population, as their superheroic good deeds have quieted down a lot of bigoted anti-mutant legislation and rhetoric.
So when the X-Men are called upon to save more lives from increasingly dangerous scenarios, are they doing it for the greater good or for Xavier’s ego? Maybe both?

Getting back to the premise, the X-Men are called upon to rescue a crew of astronauts on board a malfunctioning space shuttle. I should add that the Blackbird has only just been modified and its ability to fly into orbit is purely theoretical. Also, the Blackbird has been outfitted with a special cannon powered by Cyclops’ laser vision, so that’s kind of stupidly awesome.

Long story short (Too late!), the space shuttle is being set upon by some cloud of cosmic energy. The astronauts are hit by the energy, so one of the pilots turns into a rock thing while the other bursts into flame, and a scientist on board turns invisible… I’m kidding, of course. No, the cloud of energy is absorbed into Jean Grey’s body, elevating her psychic abilities to bona fide godlike status while wreaking havoc on her psyche. Which means discovering and undoing a lot of psychological tampering that Xavier had done over the years.

Yes, it appears that Xavier had been manipulating Jean Grey since childhood, lying to her and blocking out all sorts of mental trauma. This greatly benefitted Jean’s mental health while also keeping her abilities from accidentally going haywire. On the other hand, it doesn’t make Jean any happier, more trusting, or more stable when she finally finds out. And it sure as hell doesn’t give Xavier the moral high ground when he’s been doing something so ethically unsound for so many years.

What’s potentially even worse, Jean has now grown too powerful for anyone to control. Her powers have grown to such an unprecedented level that there’s nobody who can possibly teach her how to use them wisely, and no place where she truly feels safe. The X-Mansion is no longer an option, and even Magneto (Michael Fassbender again) wants nothing to do with her.

Basically put, you know how Homo sapiens reacted when Homo superior showed up? Well, that’s how Homo superior is reacting to Jean. And you can imagine how freaked out Homo sapiens is by all of this.

Even worse — as the trailers have already spoiled — Jean kills Mystique early on. Which is probably the reason why Jennifer Lawrence is finally acting like she gives a shit for the first time since First Class, but I digress. The point is, Jean has done this terrible awful thing and nobody knows who’s to blame. Is it Jean’s fault, or is it the weird cosmic entity that took over her body? And what of Charles Xavier, twisting around Jean’s mind and pushing these kids into life-threatening situations, how is he culpable?

That said, it bears mentioning that Mystique’s death has an outsized effect on the male characters and serves primarily to give them motivation going forward. I’m not happy with Mystique getting fridged like that, but the way her character was mishandled in the previous films made that kind of inevitable. While casting Jennifer Lawrence in the role certainly looked good on paper, casting an A-list actor to play a supporting character, and then elevating the character to a prominence she was never built for to capitalize on the lead actor’s fame, was arguably the biggest mistake this franchise ever made. (Second only to making Wolverine the protagonist of the first three movies, but we’ll come back to that.)

Sophie Turner turns in extraordinary work here, and Michael Fassbender continues to play Magneto as a straight-up stone-cold badass motherfucker. That said, I think the MVP here is James McAvoy. With all respect to the inestimable Sir Patrick Stewart, I much prefer McAvoy’s take on Xavier because — as he is in the comics — this Xavier was never a saint. He’s a pacifist and a great man, he can see the best in people and he knows how to bring it out of them. And yet precisely because he is such an incredibly powerful genius, he knows how to talk himself into making terrible, awful, catastrophic mistakes. That makes for compelling character drama, and McAvoy works it beautifully.

That said, while I appreciate pathos and thematic development as much as the next guy, there’s just so damn much of it here. The characters keep debating and retreading the same philosophical arguments, grieving for those who’ve been killed or injured, and it’s just not any fun.

Remember that? Fun? You know, the main reason why we have big-budget blockbusters like these?

For a movie with global stakes, superpowered beings, cosmic forces, and space aliens (more on them later), the action sequences feel terribly small. There are two fight scenes limited to a street corner apiece, and the climax takes place on a fucking train. All of the action sequences are kept within very limited quarters, and even the opening space rescue feels claustrophobic. How in the nine hells do you make goddamn outer space feel small?!

That said, I’m happy to report that this isn’t like Apocalypse, in which the characters solve everything by throwing different-colored light beams at each other. The action scenes — most especially the climax — are built around the characters expertly using their powers, complementing, countering, and counter-countering each other in new and unexpected ways. That’s all I ever asked of a superpowered fight sequence and this movie beautifully delivers.

If only the characters themselves had been better handled. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is basically a non-entity outside of two action sequences, and he disappears from the film entirely about halfway through. That’s not even getting started on Selene, played by Kota Eberhardt. In the comics, Selene was an immortal, quite possibly the oldest mutant on record and one of the most powerful. Here, she’s a disposable foot soldier who barely gets a name. Disgraceful.

I’m happy to report that we do get Dazzler (Halston Sage) in a prominent cameo appearance. Major bonus points for that. Bonus points that I have to take right back for totally wasting Olivia Munn as fan-favorite Psylocke in the previous movie, left as a great big glaring loose end that’s never even mentioned here.

The X-Men themselves get it far worse, I’m sorry to say. Alexandra Shipp and Kodi Smit-McPhee are both clearly giving their all, but they’ve got nothing to work with. Nicholas Hoult fares marginally better, but all the characters’ pathos still doesn’t work because whatever chemistry he had with Jennifer Lawrence was never enough to make the Beast/Mystique romance a good idea. Likewise, Tye Sheridan’s trying as hard as he can to sell his character’s anguish, and it might have worked if the franchise hadn’t so thoroughly rushed the Cyclops/Jean Grey romance and mishandled Cyclops in general.

(Side note: As my friend and X-Men fanfic co-writer Joseph Sheldahl recently observed, imagine if The Avengers had focused entirely on Hawkeye and didn’t even remember to mention Captain America until the climax. That’s how badly Cyclops got fucked over in X-Men to the benefit of Wolverine, and how much damage it’s done to the franchise ever since.)

In the third act, Jean Grey tries to invoke the theme of family, and it flat doesn’t work. It probably would have worked if the franchise had been designed as an ensemble piece like the comics property always was, but that’s not how the film franchise was ever built. From Day One, the filmmakers have always placed an outsized importance on Wolverine, Xavier, Mystique, or whomever. The emphasis has only ever been on one or two characters at a time, and there hasn’t been any real attempt at a group dynamic before or since First Class!

Moreover, pretty much all of the group that Jean is referring to was only introduced in the chaos of Apocalypse, and the X-Men as we know them didn’t come together until the very end of that movie. Which means that most of the bonding between them happened offscreen, in that goddamn ten-year time jump between movies. And that’s supposed to be enough for us to emotionally invest in this surrogate family and Jean’s place in it? Yeah, right.

Now we come at last to our antagonists: A near-extinct alien race of shapeshifters come to take the cosmic energy so they can use it to destroy all life on Earth and repopulate their species. Which means that mutants — historically a metaphor for persecuted minorities, and have also represented endangered species at various times in the comics’ history — are now killing the last of an endangered species. That’s a lot to unpack and of course the movie doesn’t have time. Anyways, the whole thing was so badly rushed and disconnected from the rest of the film, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it was shoehorned in during reshoots.

Their leader (played by Jessica Chastain), befriends Jean, trying to coerce Jean into serving her own agenda and possibly handing over the cosmic energy itself wholesale. Basically, she’s playing the devil on Jean’s shoulder, providing Jean with friendship and encouragement when she has literally nowhere else to go. Not a bad angle. Unfortunately, Chastain was apparently directed to play the character as blank and monotone as possible, an appalling and frankly outrageous waste of a powerhouse actor. And again, it doesn’t help that the villain has a slapdash motivation cobbled together in post.

Oh, and the climax throws in a line right out of nowhere, in which Chastain’s character states that Jean’s emotions make her weak. It’s a quarter-assed attempt at riding the coattails of Captain Marvel, and it has nothing to do with anything at all.

(Side note: Given recent comments from the filmmakers — stating that the whole climax had to be completely thrown out and replaced with something that didn’t resemble the climax of an unnamed other superhero film — it sounds like a pretty safe bet that the original climax coincidentally resembled that of Captain Marvel and the line is an artifact from that sequence.)

Then we have the matter of the ending. Any halfway decent adaptation of the Dark Phoenix Saga absolutely has to end with Jean Grey sacrificing herself to atone for the damage she’s done, save the world and her loved ones, and end her own pain all on one swoop. Alas (without getting into spoilers), the movie is elusive as to what really happens to Jean at the end. I find this frustrating, but let’s be real — how many times has Jean Grey died and come back in the comics? For all I know, the next movie could’ve brought back Sophie Turner as Madelyne Pryor or some shit.

Which brings us, at long last, to the elephant in the room. Because of the Fox/Disney merger, this is destined to be the last movie in the primary X-Men film franchise as we know it. And the wide-open ending clearly shows it was not made as such. Given that the deal was officially closed on March 20th of 2019, of course nobody behind the scenes had time to shoot a revised ending, much less figure out where the X-Men will fit into the MCU.

The filmmakers clearly set out to craft a game-changer, something that would take the next few movies in a totally different direction. This was a necessary step, and the ending takes bold actions toward that end. Unfortunately, because no further sequels will be made, this is all rendered moot. It’s not fair to judge the movie on this, as the filmmakers could’ve have known about this or planned for it, but here we are.

Dark Phoenix isn’t the ending that this franchise needs, but it’s probably the ending that this franchise deserves. It’s well-intentioned and messy, ambitious and rushed. The previous films’ failings — most especially the chronic lack of long-term planning and the misguided focus on individual characters rather than the ensemble — come back to bite this movie in a big way. Then again, there are so many fascinating themes and debates in here, all of which expand on the premise of the franchise in fascinating ways that I’m sure the fans will love. Alas, between the characters’ constant moping, the limited action sequences, and the pitifully weak antagonists, this movie just isn’t a lot of fun to sit through. Though at least the action sequences were inventive, that counts for a lot.

I have so many mixed feelings about this movie that I have a hard time recommending this one way or another, and I have a hard time calling this an outright bad movie. That said, the film was made to set up a sequel that’s never going to come, and that’s a huge mark against it. Even discounting that (because the filmmakers couldn’t have known), I’ve got to ask — after pushing back the release date for over a year, allowing for more reshoots and post work, and given a reported budget of $200 million, is this really the best these filmmakers could do?

Tolkien

Posted June 1, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and weary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned – with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” –J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course Tolkien was a man of his time, and accordingly wrote what he knew. It probably isn’t a coincidence that he wrote the good and celestial elves as tall and thin and beautifully white, while the evil orcs were described by Tolkien himself as “…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.”

While that sounds awful, it’s also the application of race theory to literature written well before race theory was a thing. Moreover, as attested by the above quotation, Tolkien was extremely vocal in denying that he had written anything to make any kind of sociopolitical point and there was no 1:1 relation between anything he had written and anything outside his books. Allegory is not the same as coding, after all.

Yet here we are with Tolkien, a biopic that claims to dramatize the life of J.R.R. Tolkien (played by Harry Gilby as a young boy and Nicholas Hoult as a young man), and the events that inspired Middle-earth. Yet Tolkien’s own estate explicitly refused to endorse the movie. Even John Garth — Tolkien’s own biographer — cautioned against artistic liberties inevitably taken by the filmmakers.

“Biopics typically take considerable licence with the facts, and this one is no exception. Endorsement by the Tolkien family would lend credibility to any divergences and distortions. That would be a disservice to history,” [said Garth]. “As a biographer, I expect I’ll be busy correcting new misconceptions arising from the movie. I hope that anyone who enjoys the film and is interested in Tolkien’s formative years will pick up a reliable biography.”

So really, it appears that the filmmakers were trying to craft a love letter to Tolkien and his work. And they ended up crafting a humdrum biopic.

The plot begins just before the death of Tolkien’s mother (played by Laura Donnelly) and ends when Tolkien first puts pen to paper on “The Hobbit”. That would place it roughly between 1900 and 1930. Thirty years in the space of 110 minutes. You know where this is going.

It’s the classic biopic problem of trying to cover too much ground in too little screentime. Characters are underdeveloped, scenes and plotlines are rushed, shortcuts are abused, and themes go unexplored. The plot goes sprawling in so many directions that it’s hard to tell precisely what story the filmmakers were trying to tell, and whatever message they’re trying to convey gets lost in all the chaos.

On the one hand, the filmmakers wanted to tell the true-life fairy tale romance of J.R.R. Tolkien and Edith Bratt (played as a child by Mimi Keene, and as a young adult by Lily Collins). But the filmmakers also wanted to tell the story of Tolkien and his lifelong friends (the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, or TCBS), drawing direct parallels between them and the four hobbits of the Fellowship. Obviously, Tolkien’s courtship and marriage were a crucial part of his life story, and the TCBS could have been a fine means of exploring the themes and motifs that make Tolkien’s work so timeless. Trouble is, the two plotlines are presented in such a way that they distract from each other instead of meshing together.

Then of course we have the war scenes, in which Tolkien struggles to survive the Somme. The filmmakers try to use it as a framing device, but it only serves to stop the pacing dead in its tracks every time. It certainly doesn’t help that the wartime scenes aren’t epic or immersive enough, and all the battle shots are presented with an orange/blue contrast as ugly as it is uninspired.

Saving Private Ryan, this ain’t. Then again, the filmmakers challenged themselves with blending the TCBS friendship with the wartime scenes, presenting it with fantasy visual metaphors, making it huge enough and immersive enough to be worthy as a climactic portrayal of the Battle of the Somme, and having it be tonally compatible with the rest of the movie. The filmmakers were not equal to this monumental task.

Nicholas Hoult is clearly giving this his best shot, but he’s got nothing to work with. Ditto for Lily Collins, I’m sorry to say. They do at least have delightful chemistry, which is pretty much the only reason why their whole romance subplot works at all. Case in point: There’s a fantastic scene in which the two are courting each other to Wagner, then the two of them kiss… and the camera pulls back. For something like thirty seconds. For no reason. Which actually makes the scene less intimate. Stupid.

The only other noteworthy actor in this cast is Derek Jacobi, who leaves an instant and fantastic impression as the esteemed philology professor who becomes Tolkien’s mentor. The whole movie comes to vivid life when Professor Wright takes Tolkien under his wing… an hour into the movie. And then he vanishes ten minutes later, never to be seen or heard from again. Dammit.

Tolkien was directed by Dome Karukoski, who’s apparently considered a superstar filmmaker in his native Finland. I sincerely hope that this poorly paced and uninspired movie (with the most obnoxious use of orange/blue contrast I’ve ever seen since the SciFi Channel miniseries adaptation of “Dune”) is not the best he can do. This is a by-the-numbers biopic that tries to cram way too much into too little screentime, without anywhere near the talent or ingenuity to juggle all the themes and plotlines in play.

It’s not a bad movie, just a mediocre one. Which is still nowhere near what the subject deserves. Not recommended.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Posted May 31, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

A while back (because I didn’t want to sit through or write about The Curse of La Llorona), I wrote a blog entry ruminating about the current state of cinematic superfranchises. Of course there’s Marvel with its sprawling stable of interconnected cinematic franchises all running at once, releasing two or three high-profile and high-budget blockbusters a year. Plenty of other cinematic superfranchises have tried and failed to do something similar, yet The Conjuring improbably spawned a shared universe of quickly-made films produced at a rapid-fire pace, cheap enough to turn a hefty profit with even the flimsiest box-office returns.

Where everyone else was trying to beat Marvel by thinking bigger, Peter Safran and James Wan improbably succeeded by thinking smaller. And funny enough, so did the Monsterverse at Legendary Pictures.

It might seem funny to say that the Monsterverse is “thinking smaller” when these are still hugely epic movies with reported budgets well over $150 million apiece. Even so, consider that to date, Marvel has released 22 movies (not counting Spider-Man: Far From Home) in 11 years, while we’ve gotten six Conjuring movies (with a seventh due next month) in six years. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is only the third Monsterverse movie in five years.

In fact, if the hallmark of a superfranchise is a franchise made from smaller franchises, does the Monsterverse even really count? Because from where I’m sitting, it looks like all four movies in the series (both released and in development) sit on the exact same straight line. The whole continuity could probably be summed up in a straightforward and coherent Word document, while the MCU would need at least three corkboards and miles of differently-colored strings. Even the Conjuring Universe would need its own pins-and-yarn board to diagram. (But really, would it be worth the effort?)

I’m not seeing any sequels on the horizon for Kong: Skull Island, unless you count the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong. For that matter, I don’t see any developing standalone movies or series for any other monsters aside from Godzilla or Kong — can you imagine a series based on Gamera or Mechagodzilla based in this continuity?

(Side note: But seriously, Legendary, please please please give us a Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla fight already.)

On the other hand, do we really need or want all this massive convoluted inter-franchise mythology to keep track of? Does anyone care about Monarch or any of the backstory details tying all of this together? Quick, without looking it up online: Tell me three things apiece about Ford Brody and Preston Packard, if you even know off the top of your head which actors played them in which movie.

No, you know perfectly damn well what we come to see in these movies. The filmmakers sure do — the opening studio cards have barely faded from the screen when Godzilla: King of the Monsters first treats us to Godzilla’s iconic roar. The film opens in the climactic battle of San Francisco at the end of Godzilla (2014), dropping us right in the middle of monster mayhem with the very first frame!

This is where we meet Mark and Emma Russell, respectively played by Kyle Chandler and Vera Farmiga, whose young son was killed in the Godzilla/MUTO melee. This tragic loss drives the two of them in completely opposite directions — Emma has gone to work for Monarch while Mark goes to study and photograph feral wolves. While Mark hates the kaiju — most especially Godzilla — with a fiery passion, Emma has given over her life and career toward studying and preserving the kaiju.

(Side note: It bears mentioning that the giant monsters are never actually called “kaiju” in the film. I presume Legendary was sensitive to overlap with their other big kaiju franchise. Fuck it, I’m calling them kaiju anyway.)

Serving as the reluctant moderator between them is their surviving child, Madison, played by Millie Bobby Brown. She’s living with her mom when Emma finally perfects her invention, dubbed “Orca”. So named because it was initially designed to direct whales away from certain areas, the machine has been retrofitted to… well, it’s basically a dog whistle for kaiju. Seriously.

Backing up a bit, Monarch has taken the world stage as a private paramilitary organization self-appointed as the keeper of the kaiju. They’ve got their own air force, complete with what looks like a city-sized stealth bomber and not at all like a Helicarrier. They’ve got compounds set up all over the world to monitor no less than 17 kaiju in various phases of hibernation. Their central location — the one specifically set up to keep tabs on Godzilla — is out in the middle of the ocean and it’s named “Castle Bravo”. You heard me.

Yes, Monarch is our SHIELD stand-in here, and the movie even pulls from Civil War (as Batman v Superman did before them). The governments of the world are of course loathe to let all these giant monsters run free, with only one opaque heavily-armed and privately-funded organization possessing any knowledge about or access to them. What’s more, there are growing calls (especially from those who survived San Francisco — see Mark Russell, above) to destroy the kaiju completely and restore humanity’s place at the top of the food chain.

Monarch counters that… well, to start with, how is it even possible to destroy them when they’ve already shrugged off our most destructive weapons? More importantly, it’s been established that the most effective weapon against a kaiju is another kaiju. Some giant monsters have proven more benevolent than others, and so friendly fire is an issue. Monarch goes one step further, bringing up recurring ancient imagery through the ages to submit that maybe the kaiju are literal gods, or were at least worshipped as such millennia ago.

Then we have an ecoterrorist syndicate led by rogue British Army Colonel Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). In the past few years, they’ve made a fortune on the black market stealing and selling kaiju DNA. Their long-term goal is using the kaiju as *ahem* population control to scale back humanity and the damage it’s caused. Their plan hinges on two crucial weapons: One is Emma Russell and her Orca device; the other is “Monster Zero”, the golden three-headed King Ghidorah kept by Monarch in Antarctic ice.

Ghidorah is awakened and establishes himself as the alpha of the world’s kaiju, Godzilla steps up to challenge the throne, and we’re off to the races.

To recap, we’ve got a massive, sprawling tale of armies and monsters driven forward by a small and intimate family drama. We’ve got a central conflict of Godzilla versus Ghidorah, backed by Mothra and Rodan, and over a dozen other kaiju (some of them original to this film!) destroying the background. We’ve got the allegory of mankind’s place in nature, with the kaiju serving as natural disasters and predatory animals writ large. We’ve got the Orca serving as our allegory for atomic bombs and weapons of mass destruction, plus the addition of a certain weapon pulled from the original franchise. That in addition to the Castle Bravo shout-out, plus certain other story details I can’t get into here, play into the “nuclear weapons” allegory in subtle yet effective ways that pay sweet tribute to the source material.

No, the script won’t be winning any awards. Yes, the plot is contrived and stupid in places. But if you’re looking for a screenplay that establishes the ridiculous setting and premise within suspension of disbelief while also fitting in the thematic allegories emblematic of the franchise while also finding time for all the giant monster battles, WHILE ALSO keeping the runtime under two and a half hours, this is probably as good as anyone could’ve hoped for.

This brings us to the main attraction: The giant monsters. The movie opens with a tantalizing glimpse of Godzilla, goes from there to a scene of newly-hatched Larva Mothra lashing out against hapless human scientists, and then we’ve got a Jaws-like scene in which Godzilla plays a terrifying presence even though he’s barely onscreen. The action scenes are beautifully paced, each one elegantly building on top of each other until we get to the impossibly, beautifully bonkers climax.

Basically, picture everything that worked in Godzilla (2014), take away everything that didn’t, and now make that even a hundred times better.

It helps that the family drama this time is adequately sold by the cast. Emma is a morally slippery character, but Vera Farmiga is more than talented enough to keep the character sympathetic and consistent. Kyle Chandler was ready-made to play a father broken by grief, and Mark’s years of studying predatory behavior gives him a convenient way to make himself a useful, active protagonist. Millie Bobbie Brown steals the show as a plucky young girl who refuses to be sidelined, and never once does she ever grate on a single nerve. Probably because Madison is constantly surrounded by adults who deserve all the scorn they get.

Elsewhere, we have Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins making welcome return appearances as top Monarch brass. Bradley Whitford and Thomas Middleditch play effective comic relief, expertly riding the line between “too much” and “not enough”. I was also very fond of Zhang Ziyi, here playing a Monarch analyst. And then of course we have Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Anthony Ramos, and Elizabeth Ludlow, all admirably holding down the military side of things. The weakest supporting players are easily Charles Dance and a returning David Straitharn, both of whom sleepwalk their way to another paycheck.

To be clear, it’s not like any of these characters are interesting or iconic enough to be worth remembering after the credits. As we’ve already established, that’s par for the course with this series.

If it sounds like I’m talking about everything except the monster battles… Well, what is there to say? It’s giant monsters beating the shit out of each other for two-thirds of the movie. Giant monsters killing each other, killing humans, destroying cities and landmarks in a glorious clusterfuck of VFX brilliance. While the filmmakers are careful to find ways of keeping the humans involved, this movie is all about the monsters and much better for it. Granted, the geography was occasionally unclear, and I would sometimes lose track of which person was where. I didn’t even know for sure that one character was dead until an onscreen graphic helpfully confirmed it later.

On a final miscellaneous note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the score from one of my favorite composers, Bear McCreary. His score is suitably huge, incorporating classic franchise themes and even the Blue Oyster Cult song with his unique flair. While it’s not uncommon for film scores to use a choir for a more epic feel, McCreary’s use of Japanese chanting feels inspired here. It really is a wonderful score, when you can hear it over all the other chaos going on.

If monster mayhem is what you’re after, Godzilla: King of the Monsters delivers. The kaiju are awesome, the fights between them are mind-blowing, and it’s loud glorious heart-pounding spectacle. Sure, the human cast is solid overall, and the allegories about nuclear weapons and mankind’s place in nature is nicely developed, all of which will be extra seasoning for Godzilla fans and won’t be nearly enough for those who want more than cities getting flattened by giant electric dragons.

For better or worse, this was very clearly a movie made by, of, and for people who grew up making whooshing noises as they banged together their Godzilla toys. If you don’t love this movie, you don’t deserve it.

Aladdin (2019)

Posted May 27, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Richard Williams was an animator at Disney, probably best known as the animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. His other best-known work is The Thief and the Cobbler, a wildly ambitious magnum opus that Williams started in 1964 and never officially completed. (Various rushed hack jobs were released from 1993 onward, but that’s another story and we’re already getting ahead of ourselves.)

Williams turned down an offer to direct Beauty and the Beast so that he could go and work on his colorfully magical story of a street rat and a princess versus an evil vizier in the mystical Middle East. So it was that Jeffrey Katzenberg — the notoriously petty and spiteful head of Walt Disney Studios at the time — decided to release his own “Arabian Nights”-themed fantasy animated picture and beat the long-in-development Thief and the Cobbler to the punch.

So it was that Disney adapted Aladdin, a tale commonly attributed to The Book of One Thousand and One Nights… except that it’s nowhere to be found in the original text. The story of Aladdin was added in the 18th-century French translation by Antoine Galland, who (allegedly) picked up the tale from Syrian storyteller Hanna Diyab. Further complicating matters, the original tale explicitly takes place in China, yet contains many cartoonish stereotypes common to portrayals of the Middle East. Then Disney went and muddied the waters even further by plopping a great big Taj Mahal knockoff right in the middle of their city full of outdated Middle Eastern stereotypes.

Long before Disney did what they do best (ie. liberally adapt an existing tale to fit their established brand and market the shit out of it, thus firmly establishing their take as the primary definitive version known and loved through mainstream culture), the story of Aladdin was a patchwork of fallacies and stereotypes that could never fly in today’s more culturally sensitive times. Especially in these post-9/11 times when we’ve been bombing the Middle East for the past 18 years, but let’s not even go there.

To Disney’s credit, they did a fine job of populating Aladdin (2019) with a live-action cast loaded with POC talent. However, we’ve still got the African-American Will Smith in this Arabian-themed movie, alongside the Egyptian-born Mena Massoud, the British-Indian Naomi Scott, and the Dutch-Tunisian Marwan Kenzari, plus Navid Negahban and Nasim Pedrad of Iran. So the cast is still quite a hodgepodge.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Billy Magnussen, playing a royal suitor from a faraway land. He’s an annoying comic relief punching bag who gets maybe two minutes of screen time in total. Trust me, people of color, you’re better off letting the white boy take this one.

Yes, this is all a great improvement over the day nine years ago when this exact same studio put a spray tan on Jake Gyllenhaal and called him the goddamn Prince of Persia. (Yes, that really happened. Look it up.) Yet enough ink has already been spilled on the subject that I’m sure it won’t be enough for the activists demanding more authentic and inclusive portrayal of non-WASP social groups. Hell, given the messed-up origins of the whole Aladdin story, I don’t know if any adaptation of this particular source material would be enough for the more discerning among 21st-century moviegoers.

But here’s a thought: Maybe — just maybe — none this matters because the setting of Agrabah DOESN’T FUCKING EXIST!

The culture, location, and people of Agrabah are all invented by the filmmakers, probably with a minimum of effort because none of that is important to the story. For all intents and purposes, Agrabah is a faraway fantasy land like Narnia, Middle Earth, Westeros, Azeroth, etc. Those were all based on some ridiculously heightened portrayal of medieval Europe — why can’t Agrabah be likewise based on some absurdly romanticized portrayal of “Arabia”? In any case, while I’m all in favor of greater diversity in Hollywood and I sympathize with those who so badly need and deserve better representation in mass media, I’m not inclined to care all that much about the portrayal of a fictional culture.

Especially when the mish-mash of old and new Disney is a far greater problem where this movie is concerned.

Guy Ritchie was tapped to direct this live-action update, and I came into this movie ready to tear Ritchie a new one. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was rightly trashed as one of the most humiliating critical and commercial flops of its year, ditto for The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and that’s not even getting started on how Ritchie fucked up a perfectly good Sherlock Holmes franchise. But then again, it’s patently obvious that this was a studio picture. Every last detail of every last frame has been micromanaged to such an absurd degree that anyone could have been in the director’s chair, and every last trace of their personality would have been scrubbed away beneath endless layers of CGI.

To be entirely fair, this movie does make some changes for the better. The filmmakers introduce the theme of greed as a monster that can’t be fed, warning that no amount of money or power could ever be enough for those who’d wish for it. Making that a more explicit theme works beautifully with the source material, and it dovetails surprisingly well with Aladdin’s development as he learns how to find his own place in the world without any need for a princely facade. Nicely done.

On a similar note, the filmmakers build some extra connective tissue between Aladdin and Jafar (respectively played by Mena Massoud and Marwan Kenzari). In this iteration, Jafar grew up as a thieving street rat just like Aladdin did. The difference is that while Aladdin steals to live, Jafar lives to steal. Jafar is a man who used every earthly and unholy means at his disposal to gain his place at the right hand of the Sultan (played by Navid Negahban), yet he’ll keep on gunning for the throne and pushing to invade other countries, all for no reason at all except that too much will never be enough for his colossal ego.

Meanwhile, Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is still a princess in a gilded cage, this time because her mommy died and Daddy got all overprotective. Far more importantly, Jasmine is a young woman who was literally born and raised to be Sultan, yet a woman taking charge is simply unthinkable and goes against years of tradition. So instead, she has to watch mediocre dicks run the show while hoping to at least marry a viable heir to the throne.

Let’s recap. Back in 1992, Jafar was a two-dimensional villain with no greater motivation than “pure evil”, and Jasmine wanted nothing more than the independence to marry whomever she loved. In 2019, Jafar is a greedy self-serving politician while Jasmine is a progressive liberal who falls in love with and marries a street urchin she met three days prior. The improvement still isn’t quite enough to make them fully three-dimensional characters, but it’s enough to match where the bar has moved over the past 20 years.

(EDIT: Upon reflection, there’s a cross-fade sequence at the end that muddies the timeline a bit. So strictly speaking, there’s no telling how long it took for Jasmine and Aladdin to finally get married.)

Oh, and then there’s the Sultan. Jafar’s mind-control staff is still in place to make sure the character is woefully ineffectual, but at least he’s not the babbling simpleton of the animated film.

Next up is Jasmine’s handmaiden and confidante (Dalia, played by Nasim Pedrad). This character is new to the film, because Jasmine is so much more complex and politically motivated that she needed a sounding board. Otherwise, Dalia contributes nothing. Jasmine could’ve spent the whole time monologuing to Rajah and it would’ve done as much good. Granted, seeing Jasmine being open and relaxed with a girlfriend does show a new side to the character, but I don’t know if that was worth introducing a whole new character who otherwise holds the film back more than elevates it.

Oh, and Dalia has a romance subplot with the Genie. It sucks, and for obvious reasons.

Iago makes a return, now voiced by Alan Tudyk. While the character is still a talking parrot, he’s far from the wisecracking villainous sidekick voiced by Gilbert Gottfried. In terms of intelligence and vocabulary, he’s not quite up to human levels, but still ranks higher than most other birds. Nicely done.

Abu, Rajah, and the Cave of Wonders all make return appearances, and all with their original voice actor, Grandmaster Frank Welker. Otherwise, the character who’s least changed is easily Aladdin himself. Mena Massoud was a fantastic choice for the role, with the good looks and charisma to perfectly sell himself as a live-action stand-in for the animated protagonist. In fact, Massoud only really falls short when he’s called upon to sell jokes and character beats that weren’t in the original animated film.

Will Smith has the opposite problem.

When it comes to serving as Aladdin’s life coach, boosting our protagonist’s self-worth and dishing out hard truths, I’d dare say that Smith does a better job than Robin Williams. All Smith has to do is play out a rerun of Hitch and he turns in something far more heartfelt and authentic than anything Robin Williams could have managed at that pre-Good Will Hunting point in his career. Moreover, Smith is still a phenomenal MC and he knows how to get the crowd pumped up. That’s really what powers the “Prince Ali” number, because it sure as hell isn’t the choreography or Smith’s singing voice.

Will Smith and the VFX team are clearly trying their best to recreate the hellzapoppin’ anything-goes style of the animated Genie (without the instantly-dated pop culture references, mercifully), and it was always destined to fail because all of it was so painstakingly custom tailored to Robin Williams. Likewise, “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” were built from the ground up for Williams’ voice. Having Will Smith sing those numbers makes about as much sense as Christopher Walken singing “I Wanna Be Like You.”

Someone at Disney needs to get the fucking message already that songs for musicals were written with specific parameters to be performed in very specific ways and staged in specific contexts. I don’t care how good Will Smith might otherwise be as Genie, he doesn’t sound a single goddamn thing like what his songs were written for, he couldn’t if he tried, and the songs fall apart as the inevitable result. On a similar note, these filmmakers inserted Jasmine into the “One Jump Ahead” number, thus changing the context far beyond anything the song was written for, and it falls apart.

And yes, all the Bollywood touches with the massive choreography and the colorful costumes might have been a fantastic idea for portraying the story in a live-action medium. If only they didn’t clash with the songs that weren’t fucking written for that!

Easily the best musical number in the whole movie is the one that was written exclusively for this update: “Speechless”, written by Pasek and Paul (they of La La Land and The Greatest Showman) as an empowerment anthem for Jasmine. In fact, this was the scene — at roughly the 100-minute mark — that proved Naomi Scott a bona fide superstar. She can act, she can sing, she can dance, she’s gorgeous, and she can carry a visibly inferior male lead through the entire running time. Anything you could want in The Next Big Thing, she’s got it.

Back to the point, this refusal to commit is a recurring problem with Disney’s live-action remakes. I get that Disney wants to keep what works and update what doesn’t, but they can’t have it both ways. Of course they want to keep the songs and characters that are marketable, but it shouldn’t take a genius to know that the songs and characters don’t stop being marketable just because of a reboot. If the 1960s Batman TV show, the original Star Trek series, and the first two seasons of Power Rangers can still be iconic and profitable after so many iterations of their respective franchises have come and gone, how the red hot and holy hell is it so impossible to have two different versions of Aladdin making money at the same time?

Aladdin (2019) is frustrating in so many ways because the filmmakers were so clearly willing and able to make their own wonderful take on this story. If the filmmakers had let Will Smith play to his strengths, let Pasek and Paul write a whole album’s worth of new songs, and go full throttle with the Bollywood dance numbers and the more nuanced characters, this could have been something truly special. But because Disney continues to insist on keeping the old iconic songs and story beats, even when they don’t fit with the new contexts and cast choices, their live-action updates will continue to exist in the shadows of their predecessors, doomed to look like a watered-down and pale knockoff by comparison.

Then again, this same studio already gave Tim Burton free artistic license to make his own totally different take on Dumbo, and the studio already tried to make an entirely new take on a classic fairy tale with The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Both were critical and domestic box-office flops. I don’t know what Disney is doing or who’s running it, but something has to change.

Brightburn

Posted May 26, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

It’s common knowledge that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster introduced the world to Superman with Action Comics #1 in April of 1938. What’s considerably less known is that Siegel and Shuster had spent the previous five years trying to earn their big break, and their iconic creation had gone through all manner of revisions and iterations in that time. The earliest was “The Reign of the Superman”, a short story published in January 1933, in which hapless vagrant Bill Dunn is given psychic abilities by a mad scientist and goes on to become a supervillain until the superpowers wear off.

Siegel and Shuster made the character a superhero in later revisions, as comic strips with heroic protagonists tended to sell better. They figured out early on that people want and need superheroes, not only to serve as power fantasies but to teach us about power and the responsibility to use it well. Yet even before that, Siegel and Shuster apparently figured out that while superheroes are more satisfying, supervillains make more narrative sense. Anyone can fight crime if they’re invincible, but an antagonist with powers that no one could defeat without considerable effort makes for a far more compelling conflict.

However, that comes with a huge drawback: The possibility that the villain may be so overpowered that there’s no viable path to victory without some deus ex machina (like the superpowers simply wearing off, as in the initial “Reign of the Supermen” example).

Speaking of which, it perhaps bears mentioning that The Ultra-Humanite — the very first supervillain in Superman’s history — didn’t appear until June of 1939. Lex Luthor didn’t make his debut until April of 1940. Which means that it took Siegel and Shuster over a year (or six, depending on how you count) to figure out that supervillains and superheroes need each other. You can’t have a truly entertaining conflict worthy of such larger-than-life figures without the both of them to balance each other out.

Of course, Siegel and Shuster were more or less inventing the modern superhero, so it would’ve taken some trial and error for them to figure these things out. After eighty years, what excuse could Brightburn have?

Brightburn is set in the eponymous backwoods Kansas town and wastes no time in establishing itself as a riff on the classic Superman origin story. You’ve got the crashed alien vessel carrying what appears to be an infant boy, you’ve got the loving and devoted parents (Tori and Kyle Breyer, respectively played by Elizabeth Banks and David Denman), and you’ve got the preteen boy (Brandon Breyer, played by Jackson Dunn) who suddenly manifests a familiar set of superpowers.

In the Superman tale, this is where the boy would choose to live as a beacon of hope, using his powers to help humanity and inspire them to be more than they are. In this case, however, it’s heavily implied that Brandon was sent by an alien race for the purpose of wiping out humanity and colonizing the planet. But mostly, Brandon lashes out in typical pubescent temper tantrums, with fatal and catastrophic results.

Because the movie doesn’t have the “superhero messiah” angle to provide any kind of emotional or thematic hook, the filmmakers shift the focus to Brendan’s parents. It’s hard enough to raise a child, much less an adopted child. How do you discipline a kid, love a kid, teach him right from wrong, or have the standard “Your body will be going through some changes soon.” talk when the kid is an entirely different species?

Far more importantly, against everyone’s best efforts at denial, it becomes increasingly obvious that something is very seriously wrong with Brandon. All the warning signs are there that he’s entirely capable of cold-blooded murder, he’s probably done it before, and he could very well do it again. So how much of this is just standard adolescent hormonal bullshit and how much of this is homicidal psychopathic mania? At what point do the cops and/or psychiatrists have to get involved?

Most painful of all, what do you do when faced with the knowledge that your child is a monster? After so many years of treating a child with loving care, giving him everything and teaching him right, what can you do when he does something so horrific that he’s not even recognizable as a human being anymore? How do you turn your back on your child, even when the kid is indisputably beyond salvation? How can you cope with the knowledge that worse than anything else you could’ve possibly ever failed at, you’ve failed as a parent?

Put simply, what we’ve got here is We Need to Talk About Kevin, but with superpowers. Not a bad idea. It’s a timely and powerful subject, with a lot of material for deeply moving drama. Heaven knows Elizabeth Banks makes a meal out of it. And the superhero twist could have augmented the whole movie in a huge way, if only the filmmakers had thought it through for more than ten minutes.

First of all, the movie opens with close-up shots of books about infertility and pregnancy while Tori and Kyle are in the background, trying to conceive. The movie closes with “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish playing over the end credits. The camerawork is loaded with excessive handheld shaky-cam. The first few shots of the Breyer farm could have been lifted directly from Man of Steel, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the production team actually used the exact same shooting location. And everything — the props, costumes, set design, EVERYTHING — in this movie is colored blue, so that Brandon’s distinct red hue pops brightly enough to be seen from goddamn outer space. From literally the very first frame to the last, it’s made abundantly clear that subtlety is neither wanted nor needed here. If the debut director didn’t have to live every day with a name like “David Yarovesky”, I’d doubt that he could even spell “nuance”.

(Side note: No, I’m not counting The Hive. That movie got a couple of festival screenings and a one-night-only Fathom Events screening, that’s it. To call that Yarovesky’s debut would be a disservice to the man.)

More importantly, this is a movie about a supervillain in which there are no superheroes. This is a Superman riff in which… well, there is technically a kryptonite equivalent, but it’s so trivial and ineffectual that it doesn’t really count. So basically, if Brandon wants someone gone, they’re gone. If he wants someone dead, they’re dead. There is nothing anyone could possibly do to stop him, and no reason why he would ever stop. As a direct result, the conflict is pathetically one-sided. There’s no horror, no tension, no suspense, no reason to get invested in the conflict of the story when there’s only ever one way this could possibly end.

To be fair, that doesn’t make the parents and their predicament any less sympathetic. Indeed, the inevitability makes their story all the more tragic. And anyway, this whole movie is ultimately an origin story, which means that by definition, this movie cannot be an end in itself. It’s right there in the label: This is an origin story, built to be the beginning of something, so of course the ending is a foregone conclusion and the entire movie serves primarily to set up the next story (even if we never get to see the next story).

But here we run into another problem, because Brandon is actually a rather weak antagonist. Peel away the unsettling mask, the creepy VFX, and Jackson Dunn’s disturbing performance, and what you’re left with is a villain motivated pretty much entirely by teenage angst. Oh, and let’s not forget that he might be a kind of drone, programmed and sent by some alien race to wipe out humanity and colonize Earth. Whichever one you go with, that’s not a very strong motivation. Especially after Brandon’s entire town inevitably gets wiped off the map, and then who will he have a grudge to enact his petty vengeance on?

The entire thematic and emotional hook for this movie, pretty much the only reason this movie could ever possibly have for existing, is in the allegory for troubled kids who go on to become violent psychopaths at an early age. The problem is that (while I’m admittedly no expert) most of the troubled kids that make the news get arrested and/or killed. Indeed, that’s kind of the point for many such cases. So many teenaged and college-aged mass shooters are fed up with living for whatever reason, so they want to die like “soldiers”, slaughtering people in the hope that they’ll go out in a hail of gunfire, heroes and martyrs for some backwards-thinking cause. And indeed, many of them are.

That’s a rather crucial aspect of the discussion here, and it becomes a moot point in a movie about a kid who literally cannot be killed or arrested. As a direct result, this movie asks the bold question of what to do when your kid turns out to be a headline-worthy homicidal psychopath, and has jack shit to offer in terms of answers. I’m not saying the answers have to be easy, but this is a very real problem that very real parents have to deal with, and there are very real lives on the line here. Bringing up such a dynamite issue without suggesting any solutions or even the hope that solutions may be forthcoming seems lazy at best and irresponsible at worst.

(Side note: Consider the aforementioned We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which it’s shown early on that the eponymous Kevin has been locked up and the rest of the story is told in flashback. The implicit message being, “Be thankful that the problem child has been locked up, then find a way to live with this new emotional baggage as you pick up the pieces and get on with your life.” That may not be much of an answer and it’s certainly not an easy one, but it’s more than this movie can offer.)

Oh, and on a final note, I should mention that Michael Rooker appears in a mid-credits stinger. (James Gunn produced this, so of course Rooker had to show up somewhere.) Rooker’s purpose here is to hint at other superpowered beings who may or may not exist in this continuity. Right now, I don’t give a shit. If this is some attempt at sequel-baiting, or hinting at whatever this movie is supposed to be an origin story for, this half-assed attempt doesn’t come anywhere close to good enough.

Brightburn tries to blend family drama, body horror, and superhero satire into something harrowing and heartbreaking, but it’s all undone by the filmmakers’ unrepentant lack of subtlety. While Elizabeth Banks and Jackson Dunn were both able to turn in solid performances, nobody else had any idea what to do with this premise. The filmmakers certainly didn’t know how to make a coherent message or a compelling central conflict out of it.

Points for creativity and ambition. Plus, even if the movie fell apart in a big way, it still worked better than the basic “Superman origin story, but he’s evil” pitch should have. Even so, the follow-through on this one was so terribly botched that I can’t recommend it. Even for a home viewing, there are a hundred Blumhouse horror pictures I would recommend over this one. Hell, I think I would rather give Man of Steel a rewatch before sitting through this one again.